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52 Things I Learned In One Year – Part 3 of 3

Cinnamon Dunkers - the most evil of all temptations.

Repeat after me – I am not a quitter – I am not a quitter. Well I guess “life” happened since my last blog post, as I have blissfully ignored the fact I haven’t yet completed my list of lessons. It’s not because I’m hard pressed to produce some cleaver or pithy responses. I’ve just been busy living through a summer with more time for work, projects and leisure, constantly tempted by the convenience foods that surround me. And I mean constantly.

And so, without any more excuses, I bring you my final list of conclusions.

26 – While you can save a bit of money by baking your own bread from scratch, the true cost-savings can be found when making your own corn tortillas. Packaged corn tortillas can cost up to ten times as much as the ones made from scratch. And they are the easiest thing in the world to make – just watch!

25 – I’ve made my own ranch dressing now quite a number of times. In fact I’ve yet to purchase any bottled dressing since I ended my challenge. What I love about this recipe is that if you really strain the yogurt until it’s super thick, you can use this recipe as a ranch dip, not just a salad dressing.

24 – Making your own tortilla chips – totally not worth it. Unless of course you’re going to deep fry the little suckers, maybe then you can get a nice thin chip that is full of flavor.

23 – Modern day small appliance manufacturers will try to convince you that you need their products in order to successfully produce something like yogurt (aka yogurt maker). But you don’t. Use a slow cooker and some bath towels to keep it warm. What about a $69 pasta roller? I made it through the year without one by purchasing a good $10 wooden roller.

22 – On the other hand, there are some kitchen products I couldn’t live without. If you’re baking any kind of hearth bread, pita bread, bagels – you need a baking stone. I bought mine at a restaurant supply store for about $50. It gives the best crust on all of those breads, as well as a crispy pizza.

21 – While I’m still on the topic of small kitchen appliances, I would have never survived the year with any amount of sanity if I didn’t have a food processor. I’ve had some people tell me they use their blender for everything and that a food processor is unnecessary. From my experience they just don’t give you the same results.

20 – Leftover food is priceless. When every eaten has to come from scratch you eventually learn to make enough to have extra food that can be frozen, or eaten again for lunch the following day. Duh!

19 – Okay I’m finally in the teens on the countdown. Keep a list of frozen meals on your refrigerator, lest you leave them frozen for too long and you lose either all that great flavor or texture to freezer burn.

18 – While I know I reduced the amount of packaging I would have produced in a typical year of buying convenient foods, I did use a lot of plastic bags, and I purchased a number of additional plastic storage containers for the freezer. Some of the bags I could wash out and reuse, while others didn’t hold up so well. Overall, my carbon footprint was probably smaller than what is typical.

17 – Blogging takes a bit of time. If you’re a blog reader versus a blog writer – maybe you spend as much time reading as those that are writing. But it’s not just the writing – it’s the editing, the photography, the tagging, and the subject matter. I was going to buy a better camera during the year and never quite got around to that.

16 – Okay I need a new camera. Food photography when you’re the one both cooking and taking photographs, means your camera ends up getting caked in egg, flour, grease, honey, etc. And you need a tripod, which I didn’t use, which means many of my photos were way too blurry.

15 – Freeze chicken stock in 8-oz bags or containers, then simply thaw for one minute in the microwave. Talk about economical!

14 – Ancho chili powder – where have you been all of my life? It has a smokier mild flavor that can be used in Mexican cooking, as well as in something like a dry rub for ribs. Oh, I have to post that recipe someday too.

13 – I spent a good part of the year watching cooking shows on the Food Network. One might think I’d want to escape all of the cooking, but I was really inspired by the amount of creativity you can put into food, and it gave me the confidence to try some new things along the way.

12 – Lisa, my partner, was a really great sport this past year. Thank you Lisa!

11 – In the year of inconvenience, I inconveniently gained weight. Damn.

10 – If at first you don’t like a recipe, try adding your own twist. I like making a recipe for the first time as it’s written, then changing it up to how I like it the second time. If a recipe has good structure don’t give up on it just because the flavor wasn’t right.

9 – Oh boy, single digits. This is hard work people! And that was lesson number nine…next.

8 – People have stopped me, mostly strangers when out in public, asking me if I’m still growing or canning all of my own food. Point made.

7 – Have I mentioned I really missed cold breakfast cereal?

6 – While I started the year cooking from a pantry full of cookbooks, by the end of the year I was getting most of my ideas and inspiration from other blogs or websites. Times have changed – and the iphone isn’t just for making phone calls.

5 – I regret not learning how to can this past year. Freezing yes, canning no.

4 – Blog stats can be addicting. I’ve been amazed at the number of followers of the blog, where they are coming from (I believe they represent four continents), what posts draw the most interest, and the incredible power of social media.

3 – Never would I have imagined at the beginning of this journey, that I would have written more than 60 posts, which have produced more than 38,000 views of my blog. Never.

2 – I spent a lot of time cooking last year. I mean a serious amount of time. While most of those chores became routine after some time, I didn’t realize how much time I spent in the kitchen until the past three months this summer when I wasn’t spending that time in the kitchen. I’ve spent more time with friends, with my gardens, with a good book, and… well working as well.

1 – At the beginning of this challenge what I wanted to learn most from it all was a true appreciation of food. Whether I grew it myself, made it from scratch, or tried to only buy it locally, I really wanted to connect to the energy it took to get that food on the table. And I did. I feel good about seeing it all the way through and not giving up when things got really stressful. And I still love to cook, in spite of my recent foray back to a frozen pizza and cheesy puffs. When all is said and done, this was truly and adventure of a lifetime. Thanks so much my fellow readers, for your inspiration and support!

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52 Things I Learned In One Year – Part 2 of 3

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Ah, what was I thinking when I came up with the notion of writing about 52 lessons learned? One lesson per week of my challenge – that should be a piece of cake. Okay then maybe I just have a bad old case of writers block. I’ve challenged myself to write up my second list of 15-20 lessons over the past three weeks and I’ve come up dry. Getting out of the routine of cooking and blogging was not at all difficult to do. Even though I’m not filling my time with meal preparation like I was this time last year, my time is plenty full with large work projects, summer gardening, and all the great weather activities I feel I may have missed last year.

But when push came to shove, there really were more lessons there than I originally may have imagined. So on with the countdown…

37 – Planning meals around seasonal ingredients is a great way to be a bit more creative with what goes on the dinner table. While we had many a meal composed of the typical “protein, starch, and vegetable” – there were some terrific moments of creativity using seasonal vegetables. Check out the spring asparagus salad (if it’s not too late in your region) or plan for this corn salsa.

36 – Processing your own tomatoes into something like sauce can be economical. I learned that while it takes a heck of a lot of tomatoes to get to the end product, the end product was generally a better value than the price I would pay off the shelf. By the way, I used 52 pounds last year to yield 144 ounces of diced tomatoes, 96 ounces of tomato sauce, 80 ounces of pizza sauce, 54 ounces of pasta sauce, and 28 ounces of roasted tomatoes. Check out the post, 52 weeks by the numbers.

35 – Roma tomatoes make the best sauce and give the best yield. I was a bit fooled by the notion that any tomato is a good tomato to process. I was wrong. The Roma’s make all the difference in the world.

34 – I won’t again be fooled into thinking I can “thicken” a pasta sauce by blending up the tomatoes with an immersion blender. Good sauce takes time on the stove. Plan for long cooking time, 4-6 hours not only helps thicken the sauce but it really brings out the flavor.

33 – I swore that after this year, I would never again purchase granola. It’s been eleven weeks since I ended my year, and I have made about six pounds of granola during that time. Keeping true to this lesson, it’s so easy to do yourself and the benefits are that I control the flavor, the sweetness, and the amount of pecans I want in every bite! I will start a batch at 6:30 in the morning, and it’s ready to eat by 7:15.

32 – Homemade bagels are not all that easy to make, they take a bit of time to make, and the flavor is, well OUTSTANDING! Don’t be scared by the bagel is the lesson learned. Also eat them quickly, they really are the best the day you make ‘em.

31 – I figured out my slow cooker isn’t just for dinner. We made “Crock Pot oatmeal” which fills the house with a wonderful aroma, not to mention is ready when you get out of bed. And then there is Crock Pot yogurt, which is not only so simple it’s also a great value. Strain some yogurt in cheesecloth to make Greek yogurt, and you’ve saved even more money.

30 – Bison is better than beef. Don’t get me wrong, I l-o-v-e beef of many cuts and eat it often. However when I want to cut down on the fat and calories without losing any flavor, then bison is a surprisingly great choice.

29 – One can make cinnamon rolls without yeast. While they taste a bit more “biscuity” than yeasty, once you pour on the glaze it hardly makes a difference.

28 – I won’t go back to eating frozen pizza. Okay, I did break that promise this week as we were leaving our friend’s house after helping her move and it was already 7:30 pm and we hadn’t had dinner. A frozen pizza was easy, and quite honestly pretty tasteless by comparison. I won’t go back to eating frozen pizza!

27 – I now understand what little Miss Muffet was thinking, don’t discard the whey! I still regret making the first batch of cheese and tossing all of that whey goodness down the drain. Now I use it in place of milk when baking and it really does add some great flavor.

There you have it, and I have only 27 more lessons learned to write!

52+ Weeks of Recipes

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Breads, Pastry, Pasta

Bagels

Cinnamon Raisin English Muffin Bread

Cornmeal Crackers

Corn Tortillas

Croutons

Egg Noodles

Eggless Pasta

Flax Crackers

Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Pie Crust (Curried Chicken Pot Pie)

Pizza Crust

Multi-Grain Sandwich Bread

Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas

Sweets & Breakfast Treats

Christmas Stollen

Chocolate Graham Crackers

Cinnamon Rolls Quick & Easy

Granola Number Five

Granola Bars

Whole Grain Pancakes

Beef

Bison Chili

Bison Stroganoff

chipotle meatloaf

Corned Beef & Cabbage

Lasagna

Pork

Frijoles Borrachos

Pork Carnitas

Posole

Tomatillo Pork Stew

Chicken or Turkey

Curried Chicken Pot Pie

Curried Turkey (or lamb) With Autumn Vegetables

Mediterranean Chicken with Potatoes

Tomatillo Chicken Dia de los Muertos

Vegetarian & Vegetables

Anasazi Bean Burgers

Corn Salsa

Rainbow Chard With White Beans

Refrigerator Kimchi

Roasted Tomatoes (oven dried)

Spring Asparagus Salad

Sushi

Super Lentil Dal

Sauces, Dressings & Condiments

Bechamel Sauce

Balsamic Salad Dressing

Buttermilk Ranch Salad Dressing

Coffee Bourbon BBQ Sauce

Marinara Sauce

Mustard

Pizza Sauce

Tomato Sauce

Tomatillo Salsa

Vita’s Pasta Sauce

Make It With Milk

Crock Pot Yogurt

Meyer Lemon Cheese

Week 42 – Saving Money And Some Time

If you’ve been a follower of my blog over the past 41 weeks, you’ve seen my vintage garlic-keeper mascot in many of the photos.

He unfortunately passed away this morning, the result of what I expect was some kind of disagreement…

… over his place in the pantry and with this “innocent” creature named Olive.

RIP Garlic Man, I’m very sad to see you go.

 

When I first began this year of inconvenience it was springtime and I was filled with ambition and the spirit of adventure. That bubble was adequately “popped” a few weeks later as I struggled to figure out how to make the time I needed to get the food I loved on my table, and more importantly, into my freezer. Local tomatoes were not in season and I didn’t have a hint of anything that resembled tomato sauce, pasta sauce, chicken stock, soup, or tortillas in my freezer. To make these things for myself I was spending the majority of both weekend days cooking, which meant my “free time” was limited and the whole situation was making me (and someone else in my house) a little crabby.

So here I am now with those 42 weeks behind me and only 10 more weeks to finish the year. My freezer is pretty well stocked and I have my regular routine of bread or cracker or granola baking planned out so I’m no longer in any panic for food essentials. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good about managing my time around food preparation, other than totally forgetting I had a bread rising in the warm bathroom last night – things are mostly under control.

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with my readers, a time and cost comparison of the foods I hope to continue to make from scratch even in week 53. That’s the question I’m being asked now by a number of people, “when this is all over, what are you going to continue to make from scratch?” Besides a few more of my new favorites, these items are topping off the list.

Food Hands On Time Additional Cooking or Baking Time Cost Comparison
Corn Tortillas 35 minutes from mixing to pressing to cooking 8 tortillas None Holy cost savings – tortillas are the best value around! Only      3 ½¢ per ounce or 28¢ for 8 ounces compared to 89¢ for 12 ounces at the grocery store (7¢ an ounce)
English Muffin Bread 20 minutes to gather the ingredients and mix the batter 60-90 minutes rising time, 20 additional minutes baking time Organic cinnamon raisin bread costs me $2.77 to make a 16 oz loaf. The same size package of organic English muffins are $4.99at my co-op.
Pizza (crust and toppings) 65 minutes total, for crust and toppings (using frozen sauce I made) Crust rises for 30 minutes while prepping cheese and veggies. Bake for 15 minutes I obviously don’t know how much cheese is on the frozen pizza, I used 1/3 of a pound on my own. Cost is about 19¢ per ounce for homemade and 26¢ per ounce on the frozen as a cheese only pizza comparison.
Chicken Stock 10 minutes throwing everything into a large stockpot with water You need a slow simmer for at least 4 hours to get a rich tasting stock I use celery, carrot, onion, fresh thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns with my chicken carcass. I included the cost of the carcass when buying the whole chicken. No surprises here, at 3¢ per ounce homemade, 12¢ per ounce for Pacific brand.
Yogurt 20 minutes to bring milk up to temp, 20 minutes to let it cool down, add culture, wrap up in towel 8 hours or overnight unattended I didn’t think there would be much of a savings because the starter costs $1.16 a packet. However, using organic milk and starter, my homemade cost is only 8¢ per ounce compared to 11¢ per ounce of my favorite local brand, Sugar River.

I’m sure it’s not much of a surprise that things like chicken stock or homemade bread is so much more economical. What surprised me was that these things don’t take that much time and I can come home from work at 6:30 and still get a fresh-made, better than anything frozen, pizza on the table in just about one hour. I do believe I am becoming a convert of inconvenience. Except for beans… and pasta… and the occasional canned tomato imported from Italy that makes the best sauce ever. That is, until someone else can convince me otherwise.

Week 40 – It’s in the Dairy Air

The Green Bay Packers just beat the Chicago Bears and are heading for the Super-duper Bowl. It’s getting pretty exciting here in Wisconsin. Oh yea, and I made some cheese and yogurt. Talk about excitement!

I have to say I’ve been way excited all week, long before this football craze came along. I’ve been hoping to try my hand at a few other types of cheese besides the mozzarella I made a week or so ago, perhaps something quicker and easier to build up my confidence a bit. And yogurt – well I really never considered making it at home since it’s a product well within the limits of my rules – however everyone was saying it’s just so darn easy and economical – so I had to try my hand at it.

When I was in college back in… well it doesn’t matter what year it was… when I was in college I had a yogurt maker. Making yogurt was one of my first ventures into natural foods and hey, everyone was doing it. All I knew of making yogurt were the instructions that came with the yogurt maker. Heat some milk, add some plain yogurt as the culture, pour into the small glass jars and snap on the lids, then turn on the machine. There it sat quietly on the counter of my apartment, doing its yogurt magic overnight while I slept snugly in the next room. The following morning I would find something in those jars that was perhaps slightly runny, but pretty much looked and tasted like yogurt.

Fast forward to this past week. I no longer have that yogurt maker of my college days, and while a friend offered to lend one to me I had already been reading enough online about making yogurt in a Crockpot, and decided that would be my yogurt maker of choice. Okay I’m really trying to curb my enthusiasm here. Making yogurt in a Crockpot is totally awesome! In fact I’m trying my best to eat what I made quickly enough so I can make another batch this week. What’s so great about this method is that I know a lot more about food than I did when I was 20, and understanding what it takes to get the consistency I wanted takes nothing more than a bowl, a colander and some cheesecloth. I now have yogurt, Greek yogurt, and something that resembles sour cream in my refrigerator – all from one batch of Crockpot yogurt.

Before I get to the yogurt recipe I also made some cheese this week in preparation for a photo shoot and video that’s happening this coming Tuesday. Oh, I didn’t mention that earlier? Yea, it’s funny what happens when your communications director at work sends out a press release on your blog project. Seems like I got myself involved in an upcoming story and online video for our local paper, as well as a spot on a morning show this coming Friday. I’m excited and a bit nervous. And yeah, I’ve been cooking and cleaning all weekend in preparation. So the cheese recipe, “queso blanco”, will complete the meal I’m making, which is my pork carnitas on homemade corn tortillas, topped off with some homemade queso blanco and homemade yogurt “sour cream.”

Okay, here are the really easy steps to making Crockpot yogurt. My Crockpot, which I’m guessing is about 20 years old, didn’t quite get the milk to temp in the time the recipe said it would, so I think I have a shortcut for the next time I make it that I’ll include in the steps to follow. I honestly don’t believe you really need a Crockpot, and I’m going to try it without the next time I make it.

What you’ll need to make the yogurt is:

½ gallon of milk

2 packets of yogurt starter, or 2 tablespoons plain yogurt

1 Crockpot or slow cooker of your choice

1 kitchen thermometer (this is science baby, make sure you have one and use it)

1 large and warm bath towel (yes, for making yogurt)

So first, you need to get your milk up to temperature. All signs point to using milk that isn’t ultra pasteurized, just like in making cheese. I used skim milk and it didn’t affect the texture or taste of the yogurt, at least not to the point I expected it would.

The recipe I used said to set your Crockpot on low for 2 ½ hours to get the milk between 180 – 190° mainly for the purpose of creating a sterile environment for inoculating the milk with yogurt culture. My 20-year old Crockpot took 4 hours, so next time I’m just going to bring it to temp in a pot on the stove.

Next, once it reaches 180° you need to let the milk cool down to 110° which is the magic temperature for inoculating the milk. It took about 2 hours for the milk to cool down to that temperature so don’t wander off too far, you’ll want to keep checking.

Once the milk is at 110° you’ll notice it has formed a skin on the top while cooling. Remove the skin and discard. Take about 1 cup of milk out of the pot and using a whisk, mix it with the yogurt culture. Now add that back to the pot of milk and whisk that mixture.

Grab your bath towel and take your Crockpot of inoculated milk to a warm part of the house. With the cover on the Crockpot, wrap the whole baby up in the bath towel and let it sit in that warm spot for about 8 hours. That’s right, 8 hours. You need to plan your day out around yogurt, both the heating and cooling, as well as allowing yourself the full 8 hours for it to create yogurt magic.

After 8 hours you have yogurt. You can put your Crockpot insert into the refrigerator if it’s time for bed, or portion out the yogurt into glass or plastic containers. I lined a colander with cheesecloth, set the colander over a bowl, and took some of the yogurt out, putting it into the cheesecloth to make ‘sour cream’. I covered the colander with plastic wrap and set it in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning I had a very thick yogurt I’m going to use as sour cream –  to top off the pork carnitas!

The next day I also took some more of the yogurt and placed it into the cheesecloth lined colander to thicken it up a bit to the consistency of Greek yogurt. That took about 3 hours in the refrigerator.

So it’s true, I’m a yogurt-making convert and this house is going to be filled with the dairy air for at least the next 12 weeks to come. I only have twelve weeks left in my year – I can hardly believe it.