Friday, November 29, 2013

The Kombucha Files

David Gilbert introduced me to kombucha a while back. It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea - and importantly to introduce it to Madame. It is a somewhat bizarre drink made from fermented black or green tea. It uses a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) to do its thing.
Now SCOBYs look gross.

and they work on sweetened tea. How appetizing sounding - and they produce this slightly fizzy, somewhat sharp tasting drink that is the color of weak iced tea. So far not a single redeeming feature. I needed to work on my sales skills apparently.
So I bought some commercial kombucha, invited madame to try it. To my delight she liked it. Then I sprang the kicker - its price. In the store it is at least $2.50 and usually more for a 12oz bottle. So we clearly weren't going to be drinking a lot of it. That's more than I pay for a halfway decent beer.
 I set up a clandestine meeting with "Jennifer" and offered to buy a SCOBY from her in return for lunch. She acquiesced, and the deal went down in a North Dallas Thai restaurant. I was so excited by the deal that I forgot to pick up my credit card, so had to return the next day to retrieve it. But that is another story.
I   was now the proud owner of a beautiful SCOBY. I snuck it home under cover of darkness, plied Madame with Champagne and broke the news. "We have another pet...." Even the Champagne didn't calm the situation as much as it might have done. So, anyhow I got the process underway before leaving town the next day for a weekend in San Antonio.

The Basics

To make the basic kombucha itself, I used a 2 gallon glass drink container with a spigot at the bottom. This was to be fermented for 10 days or so - until all traces of actual tea taste were gone. I cleaned out the container and then rinsed with white vinegar. I made 2 gallons of black tea, sweetened with 1 1/2 cups plain white sugar. Cooled the mixture to about 75F and pured it into the drink vessel. Added the SCOBY and covered with a sheet of parchment paper that I had perforated with about a dozen holes using a wooden skewer.
The SCOBY sat there looking for all the world like a jellyfish. Although to my surprise it moved around a bit. It started all curled up, but then unfurled itself and floated.
I left town the next day, as planned. The pet just sat there all weekend - in the kitchen doing its thing.
After examining it daily for 10 days, I noticed a slight cloudiness and a definite lightning of color. I figured something was happening. I drew off a teaspoon of the liquid, and to my surprise it actually tasted like kombucha! Definitely onto something here. But that was just the beginning.
I was planning to use a continuous process - make a couple of gallons initially, then draw off a gallon or so and replenish the jar with some new sweet tea. Initially though, I just drew off 3 US pints to experiment with. After that I went to the continuous process and it is working very well. Every three or so days I am getting a gallon of kombucha. So the next question - how to flavor it?
Most of the kombuchas that I have had are flavored somehow. Some fruity, some just sharp and sour. So time to become an alchemist. Turning a thin, sharp, brown liquid to a delectable drink.

First Batch


3 US pints of kombucha (above) 
1/2 Cup frozen blueberries
1/4 cup sugar
2" piece of fresh ginger - grated
3T tamarind
6 pieces of candied ginger diced finely
1 cup water


Into a small pan put all ingredients except the kombucha. Bring to a simmer - and allow to reduce. Strain the flavorings into 3 1 pint plastic bottles - divided evenly. Add the kombucha, seal the bottles. Leave to ferment for a second time - around 3 days. It tasted really good!

Second Batch

For the second batch, I figured that it was time to experiment. So I made some banana/lime, tamarind/kaffir lime/ginger, ginger beer, tangerine juice/clove and hot chili.

The basic method is the same for each. I used 2t sugar for each pint made. To get the tamarind to behave, you need to break off a chunk of the paste and boil in water. Strain out the solids. 
The banana/lime was simply 1 mashed banana and the juice of 1 key lime divided between 2 12 oz bottles.
The ginger beer was 4t powdered ginger into a 1 pint bottle.
The chili was a single cayenne (with required sugar) into a 12oz bottle
The tangerine/clove juice was the juice of 2 tangerines (with required sugar) and 1 clove into a 12oz bottle

These flavors are all good. Of course very different from each other. The banana was interesting - it was a litte sweeter than the others, but with a very pronounced banana flavor.

I will keep experimenting and playing with flavors - since it looks like we will have a galon or so every 3-4 days!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Seasoning meat

This is really just a technique post. It has always bothered me that we season (and occasionally spice) the meat that we are going to put in a braise. Most recipes read, "pat the meat dry, season with salt and pepper, rub with oil and brown on all sides..."
This can lead to bunt pepper and other burnt flavors (eg if using cayenne, paprika, garlic powder, etc.).
So I got to thinking - What would happen if I didn't season the meat before browning (heresy!) Instead, I prepared the seasining and spicing mix in a separate bowl (making sure there is enough kosher or sea salt). Dry the meat thoroughly, coat with oil as before and then brown thoroughly at a good high temperature to get maximal browning.
Once the meat is browned, toss it into the seasonings bowl and make sure the seasonings coat the meat. As the meat cools, the seasonings dissolve into the surface and then penetrate to a decent depth.
Of course if the spices you are planning to use need to be bloomed before use, I bloom them prior to putting the meat into the pan. Then when the spices are bloomed, I add them to the seasoning bowl.
Once the meat is removed from the pan, then I use the same pan to cook the aromatics. The liquid released, especially from onions effectively deglazes the pan. The aromatics are then combined with the seasoned/spiced meat before moving on to the stewing or braising step.
What about the results? The meat browned more thoroughly because there was no opportunity for the salt to draw out more liquid. The flavors were deep. So all in all a success.
This is now my go to method of seasoning meats for stews and braises.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mac and Cheese

This Macaroni and Cheese dish was made for Madame's faculty party and the students working the TV station. It seemed to go down quite well, so I was asked for the recipe. It is a pretty standard M&C in that it uses a Bechamel sauce as the base. The quantities were substantial, however. There is absolutely nothing low-fat, healthy, low-carb, gluten free about it. I make no warranty if you don't use butter, if you don't use whole milk, and if you don't use lots of full fat cheese.


1 medium yellow onion, peeled, left whole and studded with a dozen cloves
3/4t freshly grated nutmeg
6oz (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
6 oz (1 1/4 - 1 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
6 pints (US pints, 4 3/4 Imperial pints) whole milk
2 lbs sharp cheddar, shredded
1 1/2 lbs Monterrey Jack, shredded
2 lbs elbow macaroni
1 lb Parmesan cheese grated
2 lbs bacon cut into 1/2 " strips
Salt/Pepper to taste


Place the milk in a large pan and add the onion (studded with cloves) and the nutmeg. Warm through until about 180F. Leave to stand for about 30 minutes to infuse. Discard the onion.
Meanwhile make a roux by melting the butter until it stops foaming. Add the flour all at once and stir over medium heat for about 5 minutes - until it is a pale straw color. You are cooking out the raw flavor of the flour.
Bring a large pot of salted water (I used about a gallon) to the boil. This will be used to cook the macaroni.
Once the roux is cooked, add the warm milk, whisking in the roux until it is smooth. Bring to the boil and leave bubbling for about a minute. Allow to cool for about 15 min. When cooled add the Cheddar and Jack cheeses stirring thoroughly.
Cook the bacon gently in a skillet. You don't want it crispy.
Cook the macaroni for the amount of time specified. Once the macaroni is cooked, add it to the cheese mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Layer the macaroni and cheese mixture in low pans to a depth of about an inch. Sprinkle cooked bacon on the surface and cover with more macaroni and cheese mixture.
On the very top of each pan, sprinkle with the parmesan. 
Either bake the pans in a 350 oven covered for 30 minutes, uncover and cook for 10 more. Or microwave on 50% power for about 20 minutes (depends on the microwave) until heated through.