Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Make Labneh Cheese

So this morning I decided to finish up a cheese-making project I have been working on. It is a cheese made from drained yogurt called labneh usually found in Mediterranean cuisines. A few weeks back, I found a deal where I could get full-fat Bulgarian yogurt for fifty cents a pint and so creating an opportunity for this experiment. Making yogurt cheese is not new to me but taking it further than a creamy spread is.

After draining the yogurt in the refrigerator for three days, I let it dry out for almost another week. Draining is simply a matter of placing a coffee filter in a steel strainer and then placing the strainer over a collection bowl before dumping in the yogurt. After draining, I wrapped the mass in wax paper until I was ready to form cheese balls. This morning seemed a perfect time since yesterday I purchased a gallon of good Italian olive oil.  I picked a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme to add an interesting flavor to the creamy but tart flavor of the cheese. I also added dried onion and peppercorns to another batch as you can see in the picture.

Now all I have to do is keep it in the refrigerator for the next couple of weeks to continue the ripening process. The labneh should be ready to serve with some spiced flatbreads just in time for the holidays. I am happy with the results and look forward to see how the flavor changes from the herbs!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How to Dehydrate Marigold Petals

Some time ago, I found out that marigold petals are the poor man's alternative to saffron. I can make a rich broth to cook rice in, but that beautiful orangy color is hard to come by with normal spices. Since I grow marigolds in my garden and at this time of the year, there are hundreds of blooms, I decided to collect some. Sure I can go out a pick a few now for tonight's dinner, but in the middle of winter my garden will be empty. Solution? Dry some now to add to my stash of dried herbs.

Pick your blooms in the morning after the sun has had a chance to dry off the dew. Of course, you can only use flowers that are grown without any insecticides. I just use my fingers and give them a slight twist. In just a few minutes you will have a good basketful of gorgeous brightly colored flowers.

Now the seed part of the flower is bitter and needs to be removed. I found that using a pair of scissors made the job easy to separate the petals from the seeds.

Sort the petals from the seeds by placing them in different containers. Keep the petals in a clean container as you don't want to contaminate them.

By the time you are done with the basket, you will have a nice fluffy pile of marigold petals and a pile of seed pods. I gave the seeds to our chickens but you could also add them to your compost pile.

To dry the petals, you need to place them on a tray lined with a paper towel to help absorb the moisture. Don't make the layer too thick or you will run the risk of mold developing between the petals.

Place the tray in a warm oven of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Every couple of hours, give them a little stir with your fingers to make sure the heat is circulating between the petals.

When they have shrunk considerably in volume and feel dry to the touch, turn off the oven and let them cool down to room temperature.

Pour them into a dry sealable container and store in a cool and dark cupboard. Now you are ready to experiment with using marigold flowers in your cooking.

They look beautiful in a fried rice dish and add a rich color to soup broths.

Why not use marigolds? They are full of carotenoids, antioxidants and so easy to grow and have a pleasant almost citrusy flavor.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Making Apple Wine Without Added Sulfur Products

This is October and I am busier than ever. Not only do I have massive projects going on, like painting all my cabinets and furniture one piece at a time, but cold weather is slowing moving into the area. I have apples I bought for ten cents a pound bubbling away in a bucket, herbs drying, birthday cards to write, a story to finish and the holidays to plan for - but don't get me wrong, I love it!

This morning, I will explain how you can make a beautiful wine from apples. I use bruised whole apples and save the good ones for eating.

Toss your whole apples into a large stock pot with just about an inch of water at the bottom. This will prevent the apples from scorching until they heat up enough to release their own juice. Cover the pot and heat it up on medium for about 20 minutes or until the apples are starting to split open and soften.

The boiling will kill off most of any unwanted bacteria or yeast spores that might grow during the fermentation process. Stir the apples with a large spoon and crush them so that the heat permeates through to the inside of the apples. They will turn into a soft mush and smell delicious. Turn off the heat.

Now I take the pot and dump the contents into a five gallon fermenter bucket. Add enough cool tap water to cover the apples by about an inch and stir well. Pour in enough cane sugar to bring the specific gravity up to about 1.075. Since I am using a bread yeast, I don't want to make it too sweet or the yeast will stop growing. I believe wine yeast can handle a little more sugar, but you can do a little research to see just what your yeast can handle. The whole point of using the yeast is for it to convert the sugars in the apple into alcohol. Now, I realize that some folks might not know how to measure specific gravity. You have to buy a hydrometer from an online site such as Amazon or your local beer and wine making store. Expect to pay anywhere from 6 to 20 dollars, depending on the quality and size. Follow the directions or try to remember back to chemistry days in school when you probably had opportunity to play with one. Once you get a reading, write it down so that later on, you can see how much sugar the alcohol has used up. By the time the wine is done fermenting, you can compare the specific gravity measurements and know just what the alcohol content is.

Check the temperature of the mash and wait for it to come down below 100 degrees Fahrenheit before you add your yeast. A candy thermometer works well here. For this recipe, I am using a yeast that I have growing in my refrigerator for making bread when I need to. It grows on flour and water so I will now have a little wheat flour in the mash but I don't think it will matter. As you can tell, I am not a purist but rather an experimenter. I like to throw in a black tea bag to add a little tannin into the mixture. And that's it for now.

I marked the date that I started the wine, noted the specific gravity and then installed the airlock into the cover of the bucket. Slide the bucket into a corner of your kitchen and let the yeast go to work.

After about twelve hours, I opened the lid and was pleased to see a nice fermentation going on. Each day I will stir the mash to break up the 'cap' of fruit that rises to the surface.

I didn't mention it before, but always keep everything super clean when you are working with fermenting foods. I prefer using boiling water to clean any utensils that come in contact with the fruit, but there are a number of commercial products that will also kill any bacteria or fungi spores that might be around.

I will come back in about a week and let you know how this is progressing...

Day 3: This morning, I opened the bucket to find a cap of apple mash as you can see here,

I stirred it up gently and as you can see there is a good bit of foam, showing me the yeast is working.

 I took a sample of the liquid and measured the specific gravity and it looks like it has dropped a little. However, although I am sure the yeast is working and there is a bit of alcohol in this, there are too many solids suspended in the liquid for me to get a real reading.

As far as the taste - it is sweet, foamy and appley. Stay tuned...

I forgot but I looked to see how warm my house is as that will also affect how quickly the fermentation happens and I guess it is a little cooler than I thought at 62 degrees Fahrenheit. That's okay, though. This will be a gentle fermentation.

Week 1: After letting the apple must ferment away in my cool kitchen for a week, I decided to filter out the juices and let the fermentation continue. To do this, I did NOT stir the mixture as I had been every morning. Placing the bucket on the counter, I lifted off the bucket cover and set it under one corner to cause the contents to tilt to one side.

 I set my gallon jug on the floor so I could use gravity to siphon off the liquid. You can see I placed a wire sieve on top of the funnel to catch any large bits of apple that might make its way down the tubing.

Of course, never forget to use spotlessly clean equipment in each of these stages.

Now slowly slide one end of a piece of flexible tubing down past the cap of fruit mash in the bucket until it hits the bottom. Give a gentle blow into the other end of the tube to blow out any apple that may have lodge during the tube placement. Now hold the bucket end of the tubing steady as you gently suck the juice from the bucket until you see it reach about halfway down the tube.

Quickly place your thumb over the opening and drop the free end of the tube to drain into your glass jug. You will see as you do this that the juice will only flow if you are putting one end of the tube lower than the position of the end in the bucket. Just let the juice drain until the apple mash clogs the tube. Dump the leftover mash into a sieve over a large bowl to collect a little more fluid and add to the gallon.

Take another reading of the specific gravity. Mine has dropped a little more to 1.065. Cap off the bottle with an air lock and set aside to continue fermenting.

 A little extra bonus. Instead of tossing the leftover fermented apple mash, I put it through my food mill to remove the seeds, peels and stems. The apple puree leftover I then boiled down to half its volume to make apple butter. It was plenty sweet for my taste and only needed a sprinkle of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and clove.

The chickens enjoyed the apple peels, seeds and stems...

7/8/2015 Update: Yesterday, I racked all my wines and found that the apple wine made with bread yeast was still very sweet and smelled yeasty. So I did a little research and learned that I should never have used bread yeast as it will only ferment to a tolerance point of 8% alcohol and wine needs to ferment until almost to 14% alcohol is reached. So now I have ordered some good wine yeast to restart the fermentation. Stay tuned....

Friday, September 19, 2014

How to Paint 1950's Solid Wood Dining Room Chairs

Now you might think this is a strange place for me to write about refinishing my dining room chairs, but why not? I am writing about what I do. I took a bunch of pictures and now someone else who wants to update their old dark furniture can have directions.

About twenty years ago, Eric and I bought a gorgeous dining room set of solid wood furniture made by the  White Furniture Company out of North Carolina. Our youngest of four children was just going on two and we needed something for our growing family. A older neighbor posted in the newspaper that his children had bought him a new set of furniture and he was looking for a home for their old furniture. We were thrilled to get the massive set for somewhere around $300 (my husband and I can't quite agree on that figure) and set about moving it into our then French Colonial style home with a separate formal dining room.

The years went by, our children grew up, we moved several times and that heavy furniture stayed with us. Fast forward and now those children are coming back home with their significant others and all of a sudden we need a big seating area for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

At first, we toyed with the idea of selling the set and purchasing new modern stuff but realized two things; no one wanted the old set and the new furniture that we could afford was not near the quality of what we had. So I took on the challenge of putting a new finish on the old wood, almost against my better judgment (just because I love wood surfaces).
Step 1 - Locate the screws holding the seat
Remove the screws
I pulled the first chair into the kitchen and flipped it over to remove the screws holding the seat in place.

Then I removed the old flathead screws that held the seat cushion in place.
Remove seat
The seat came off easily, revealing twenty years of crumbs and dirt sandwiched between the frame and the seat.

Now I knew I had to clean off some of the grime left from little fingers, especially along the top rail. According to my research, before you redo cabinets, the professionals recommend you clean them with a solution of TSP to clean off the grime. I figured it was basically the same application and bought some inexpensively at my local Lowes.

Scrub the chair with TSP

I made a solution according to their directions, put on some rubber gloves to save my skin cells and scrubbed away with a cotton rag.

Don't forget the gloves

Sand the dried chair

The dirt came off rather easily once I wiped the chair down with the solution and then went back over it a little more vigorously. I rinsed the surface of the chair with a clean rag and clean water.

After letting the chair dry out again, I went over all the surfaces with 150 grit sandpaper to get the wood ready for the paint and to remove any leftover bits of dried crud.

Now I was ready for painting. I chose a flat latex white paint and mixed equal parts of Plaster of Paris and water into it along with a leveling agent called Floetrol. You can find the recipe for the chalk paint from Lowes online here. I was looking for an almost antique look but not distressed.

Prevents brush marks
After I applied the first coat, I was a little skeptical since the chair didn't look very good. I did more research and found that many sites mentioned using several thin coats to get a uniform finish. In case you were wondering why I didn't save myself a lot of work and use a sprayer, it's because the addition of the Plaster of Paris would have clogged the sprayer.

I wasn't too impressed at first

The first coat took about an hour to dry and I gave it a light sanding with my block sander. I used my fingers to look for rough spots and smoothed them out. A microfiber cloth worked well to remove the dust.
Sand lightly between coats of paint

I tried to just enjoy the project and took my time to paint, wait for the full drying time, sand lightly, wipe down, repaint and repeat. Each chair needed four coats of paint. The first chair was my test and so it took me a couple of days. Once I understood the process, I worked on two chairs at a time so that by the end of the week, all six chairs were finished.

Once the painting was finished, the chairs had a very flat, chalky finish and I made sure that we didn't touch them with dirty fingers. I applied a very thin coat of paste wax with a brush. There is a nice round brush you can get for applying paste wax, but I just used a clean old brush I had that I didn't mind sacrificing to only waxing.

Simple paste wax worked well

A brush attachment for the drill
I followed the directions for waxing, letting it dry for at least 30 minutes before buffing out. A second coat finished off the surface beautifully. I purchased a brush I could attach to an electric drill to save myself a little effort on the polishing end. The surface was so nice to touch and the wax added a slight touch of orange over the paint, giving it the antique but clean look.

The finished surface was so smooth 

After the chair was finished, I tackled the seat. Originally, I thought I would reupholster the chairs but after looking at the quality of work, I decided to try cleaning them first, using the attachment on my carpet cleaning machine. It worked after three or four passes and lots of scrubbing. A day for drying and they were ready to be screwed back together.

My chairs were beautiful!

I set the chairs aside to cure for at least a week before we used them

Check out the difference!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hiding in Front of You

So here is another one of my stories, Hiding in Front of You. It is published and available on Amazon. It took me too long to finish it, but I think it is a fun read.

Here is a short excerpt: 

I sat motionless in the back of the closet, curled up and hugging my knees as tightly as I could. My ears were filled with the blood rushing from my frantically beating heart; I strained to hear anything while I forced myself to breathe more slowly.
My breathing almost stopped. His voice crackled with irritation.
“Maria!” This time he yelled a little louder but I knew he was standing at the bottom of the stairs and not coming towards me. “Where is that Chinese food from Tuesday? I wanted to take it to work for lunch.”
“I don’t know. Did you look in the refrigerator?” she called back.
“It’s not here, dammit! Why can’t you just leave my stuff alone?”
“Paul, please! I didn’t touch your Chinese food.”
I heard the front door slam shut and then the sound of his sports car starting up. I’m not sure which I hated more, their fighting or my hiding in the closet. My leg was cramping up so I straightened it out, confident that Maria would not hear my simple movement. Her bedroom was at the other end of the hallway and her bathroom was still farther through a small hallway beyond that. 
My cell phone showed that it was seven-thirty in the morning and that meant that Maria only had a couple more minutes before her departure at seven-forty if she followed yesterday’s schedule. I looked around the mostly dark closet and was grateful for my little hideaway. Since Eric’s death last year, my world had slowly disintegrated. My job as a newspaper writer was not nearly enough to cover the mortgage and with the recession, no one was interested in buying our house. I let it go and didn’t care that maybe I could have done something to save our investment. Nothing mattered. My life as I knew it was over and I did not want anyone to bother me in my sorrow. I played the game well, convincing my mother that I was fine and living with a friend, but I wasn’t. My boss had cut my assignments down to one or two a week as the newspaper found its readership dwindling to a fraction of what they needed to survive.
The clank of a pot and the slam of the cupboard door signaled that Maria was in the kitchen. As she left, the force of her pulling the front door shut shook the walls throughout the house. 

Off Main Street, North East, MD

At the close of my last post, I left you at Paradise Grille at the end of Main Street. However, that does not mean that I covered all the places in North East. Not in the least. I am going to try to mention another dozen places almost all within three miles of the center of town. Even after covering these attractions, there are still plenty more places that I have never visited and cannot review honestly, so don’t feel slighted if you are one of the unmentioned. 

Nauti Goose
Today’s narrative is for a car or bike ride, not for walking, so if you parked in in the northern part of town, you might have to retrieve your vehicle of choice before continuing here. Head south on 272 (the only direction you can go when you leave Paradise Grille) you will see signs on the right for NautiGoose pointing towards Cherry Street. It is a quiet road with a couple of speed bumps (that the signs call humps) to deter those with a lead foot from bothering the neighborhood. Almost at the end, which is only about a quarter of a mile, you will see some short pilings wrapped with ropes marking the parking lot of the Nauti Goose. This is the undisputed best waterfront view from a restaurant in North East. Check the website for their hours and menu as it is subject to change.

Upper Bay Museum
Before you get back in your car, look to the right of the restaurant and notice a walkway that meanders along the waterfront. This is the North East Town Park, partially funded by Program Open Space of the State of Maryland. Fishing here along the rocks and on the docks is free and no one needs a license. An elliptical walking trail winds through the park in front of the water, down around picnic pavilions, the Upper Bay Museum and the Boat Builders School, along a parking lot and then aside the road that leads into the park. Plenty of events are held here each year including the annual Cecil County WineFest, Salute to Veterans, car shows, charity fundraisers, marathons, and so on. It is a great place to bring the family for a picnic in front of the water of the top of the Chesapeake. If you have a kayak or canoe, you can launch it from the park and explore the waterways along the Northeast Creek.

Captain Chris' Crab Shack
Once back in your car, head south again down 272 (Now called Turkey Point Road) and watch for a small place on the right about two miles down called Captain Chris’ Crab Shack. If you like Maryland crab, a visit to this stop is well worth your time. Sit out under umbrellas on picnic tables with your feet in the sand and enjoy all you can eat crabs with corn on the cob and buckets of beer. I would recommend checking on their Facebook page as he does sell out when business is hopping or when the crab harvest is slow. An interesting note is that folks have been telling me that they love the clam strips here – but I have never tried them yet. Maybe next time I go…

Our last stop on Turkey Point Road lies just another two miles down on the right and is a well-known place in religious circles, Sandy Cove. Here people come by the busloads for weekend retreats, church banquets, family reunions, etc. The property is impressive with its position overlooking the water of the top of the Chesapeake Bay. Their website has plenty to offer all year around and from what I hear, the visitors love the chance to enjoy the place and get away from it all.
Sandy Cove Aerial Shot
From the intersection of Sandy Cove Road and Turkey Point Road, you might as well head south and check out the rest of the peninsula. After a couple of miles the road narrows and makes a sharp turn to the right. Slow down and watch on the right for a unique church called Harts United Methodist Church with outdoor seating overlooking the rolling fields and eventually the waters of the Upper Chesapeake Bay. I know they have festivals and special events but for their schedule you would have to watch the North East Sign Board at the entrance to town.

As you continue towards Turkey Point – the end of 272, you will pass signs for Boy Scouts, Sandy Hill Retreat, and North Bay Adventure Camp. These are private organizations with beautiful properties that serve the public in various forms. Elk Neck State Park starts on the left with a boat ramp and then has various entrances with plenty of signs pointing you in the direction for each of the entrances. 

 Elk Neck State Park
Elk Neck State Park 
Finally, you will meander through a small community called Chesapeake Isles and into the last park entrance to the Turkey Point Light Station. The road runs along the top of the cliffs on the Northeast River side. Park your car and walk the trail out to the lighthouse. It is only about a mile and an easy walk or bike ride. Watch for eagles and osprey that soar on the updrafts from the cliffs. The lighthouse is very striking as you near the end of the trail and if you timed it right, you can climb up into the tower now that it is totally revamped. Continue past the lighthouse and walk to the edge of the cliffs. Here is a good spot to drop a blanket and watch the water down below. Ocean going ships make their way up the Chesapeake Bay into the Elk River and pass into the C and D Canal. Sailboats dance over the waves on windy days and fishing boats are always to be found. We come here several times a year to enjoy the park in the various seasons. There are pleasant trails that wind through the park and one takes you down along the water’s edge but there is a bit of a hike to get back up to the parking lot. I am not sure how long the trails along the top of the cliffs will stay open to the public as they are eroding fast from all the foot traffic and normal weather. I do enjoy this park and highly recommend it to anyone in the area who wants to get outside and enjoy a magnificent view of the top of the Chesapeake Bay.

Chesapeake Bay Golf Club
Turkey Point Lighthouse
Now that you have a little exercise under your feet, you can enjoy the drive back towards North East. At just about 11 miles, you will notice a sign on the right for Chesapeake Bay Golf Club. Turn in and follow the signs up through the development of pretty homes to the parking lot. Although I don’t play golf, this is a beautifully maintained property with rolling hills and just a beautiful backdrop. The restaurant on the property, the Blue Heron Grill overlooks the greens and is a great place to eat. I have gone a couple of times and enjoyed their salads and sandwiches, but they have plenty more on the menu.

Tome School
Drive again towards town, slowing down to the posted 25 mph as you head into the corporate limits and make a right onto Thomas Ave, a block before the fire station. You will drive past the Tome School on the right. This is a private school started in 1869. Here is a direct quote from their website, “The Tome School’s roots lie in the vision of Jacob Tome (1810-1898), a merchant, banker, and philanthropist who lived most of his life in Cecil County, Maryland, and desired a means to give back to the community. He set out to create a school that would offer the finest of education to students willing to undergo its regimen, regardless of their families’ ability to pay the cost. His commitment to this vision was so passionate that he donated much of his considerable wealth to the creation of Tome.” I can personally vouch for this school and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be sure their child gets a good education and is prepared for success in college.

Weaver's Liquors
So now you can continue on after that bit of history and follow the road out to Route 7. Make a quick left and then a right onto Mechanics Valley Road. Follow it up to Route 40 and make a right but get over into the left turning lane as soon as you can. Watch on the left for a bright yellow sign saying, Weaver’s Discount Liquors. Here you will find what their sign says is the largest Discount Liquor Store in Maryland. Check out their “boat” of wines for extra special prices while you are there. They stock just about everything you could want and if they don’t, just ask one of the friendly guys in their purple shirts and they will order it for you. I love coming here for the friendly conversation as well as the good deals.

Milburn Stone Theater
If we step away from food for a minute, there is an interesting venue in the northern stretch of North East at the Cecil College that deserves a mention in this post. The Milburn Stone Theater brings cultural entertainment to our community with nine to ten interesting plays each year performed in their plush auditorium. Parking is free and simple, unlike the popular theaters in Baltimore and Philadelphia where you end up spending unholy amounts of time looking for a way to park your car and then have to pay almost as much as your theater ticket. Milburn has a busy schedule so be sure to check their calendar. It’s fun to plan a fun evening of theater and then eating out in North East; you will not be disappointed.

UnWined Restaurant Bar and Wine Shop
Heading back south towards downtown North East, you will pass through the big box retail area, over route 40. Watch on the left for a small strip of stores just opposite the entrance to Lowes and West Marine. UnWined is a family run restaurant that serves a surprising variety of wines, fun cocktails and a hefty beer selection. Their chef prepares local ingredients daily, including fresh bread. My favorite part of UnWined is their menu of mouthwatering small plates like Bacon and Leek Tart or Crab Napoleon or Bacon wrapped Scallops… Who needs to order an entrĂ©e when you can enjoy these delicacies? The Methvane family has worked tirelessly to bring their restaurant to the forefront of eating in North East by also offering full wine tasting events every few weeks. Do yourself a favor and stop in on any afternoon or evening except Monday.

Bella Pizza Ristorante
So, I bring this narrative to a close by bringing you back into North East where you will inevitably have to stop at the light in front of the Black Pearl. Turn your head away from the almost naked mermaid and look to your right down Route 7 west and notice Bella Pizza. This is for all you Italian food lovers who want hand tossed pizza, cheesy lasagna or eggplant parmesan, hand-cut French fries or calzones among other classic offerings. This is the North East classic pizzeria Italiana and they are open seven days a week. If you want a break from the chain stores, come in here and first smell and then taste their freshly made old-style pizzas. Their calzone is big enough for two and comes with a tomato sauce that contrasts perfectly with the cheesy goodness.

I hope I leave you satisfied at least temporarily as I will be back to describe more places nearby that I enjoy here in North East Maryland.