Wednesday, September 29, 2010


There are these magic little colonies of micro-orginisims called kefir grains. They are literally teaming with life, and have the ability to transform milk into a thick yogurt-like substance, chock full of probiotics. I have always enjoyed the tart quality of kefir, but only until recently did I consider making it in house.
Somehow in passing, I learned that my friend Paul was quietly becoming a master of kefir making. He graciously offered to show me how it's done, and send me home with some of his grains. I was amazed how easy the process is. After our short lesson, and sampling a few different batches, I went away with a little bag filled with about two tablespoons of "grains." The grains are actually a combination of bacteria and yeasts suspended in lipids, proteins, and sugars. They look like fresh cheese curds and pack a serious punch when given food (milk).
After adding them to a jar of slightly warmed raw goat milk, and placing them in a draft free, dark space for 24 hours, I had my first batch. Perfectly tart and refreshing. I blended some with a handful of frozen blueberries and left the rest to enjoy plain.
There are a few very exciting things about kefir. One: it contains a highly impressive list of microflora, essential for maintaining a healthy ecosystem in the digestive tract. Second: the beverage has linage leading it back to the early shepherds of the Caucasus mountains. Traditionally, milk containing kefir grains was placed in a skin bag and hung in a doorway to be knocked by through traffic, keeping the grains properly mixed. Lastly: the grains do all the work, it's easy.
As I have discussed before on my kraut making post, fermented foods were once a common and integral part of most all culture's culinary history. From kimchi and miso to sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles and yogurt, the cultivation of friendly bacteria has long since kept large populations thriving.
If you are like me, and consider high-quality, traditional foods the best form of health insurance, think of fermented foods as keystone players in this science based philosophy. Their balancing ability may be unseen by the naked eye, but like so many other friendly microscopic organisms, keep our world breaking down, rebuilding, and harmonious.

Kefir- (Recommended reading prior to making):
*3 cups raw goat milk or jersey milk
*about 2 Tbsp. active kefir grains
*frozen berries for flavoring (optional)

Place fresh raw milk in a glass bowl. Fill a larger glass bowl with hot water. Submerge the smaller bowl in the larger, creating a water bath, and allow milk to warm to room temp.
Place the kefir grains in a glass pitcher or ball jar. Pour in the milk. Cover mouth of vessel with cheese cloth secured with a rubber band.
Place in a draft free, dark place for about 24 hours. Occasionally swirl liquid to keep grains well distributed.
When kefir is ripe, strain and enjoy. Reserve strained grains for next batch. Blend kefir with frozen or fresh fruit, and sweeten with a touch of honey if you like. Or, enjoy plain.
A toast to your health!

Kefir grains

*List of live kefir microflora: From the Encyclopedia of Food Science and the official kefir making website:


Lactobacillus acidophilus
Lb. brevis [Possibly now Lb. kefiri]
Lb. casei subsp. casei
Lb. casei subsp. rhamnosus
Lb. paracasei subsp. paracasei
Lb. fermentum
Lb. cellobiosus
Lb. delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus
Lb. delbrueckii subsp. lactis
Lb. fructivorans
Lb. helveticus subsp. lactis
Lb. hilgardii
Lb. helveticus
Lb. kefiri
Lb. kefiranofaciens subsp. kefirgranum
Lb. kefiranofaciens subsp. kefiranofaciens
Lb. parakefiri
Lb. plantarum


Streptococcus thermophilus
St. paracitrovorus
Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis
Lc. lactis subsp. lactis biovar. diacetylactis
Lc. lactis subsp. cremoris
Enterococcus durans
Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris
Leuc. mesenteroides subsp. mesenteroides
Leuc. dextranicum


Dekkera anomala / Brettanomyces anomalus
Kluyveromyces marxianus
/ Candida kefyr
Pichia fermentans / C. firmetaria
Yarrowia lipolytica
/ C. lipolytica
Debaryomyces hansenii / C. famata
Deb. [Schwanniomyces] occidentalis
Issatchenkia orientalis / C. krusei
Galactomyces geotrichum / Geotrichum candidum
C. friedrichii
C. rancens
C. tenuis
C. humilis
C. inconspicua
C. maris
Cryptococcus humicolus
Kluyveromyces lactis var. lactis
Kluyv. bulgaricus
Kluyv. lodderae
Sacc. subsp. torulopsis holmii
Sacc. pastorianus
Sacc. humaticus
Sacc. unisporus
Sacc. exiguus
Sacc. turicensis sp. nov
Torulaspora delbrueckii
Zygosaccharomyces rouxii


Acetobacter aceti
Acetobacter rasens

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fresh Figs and Local Chevre

Our little fig tree is finally bearing fruit. A tiny harvest, adorned with local Spinning Spider chevre and sourwood honey seemed nearly timeless as I sorted through some recently inherited table linens and lace. I live for the moments when I am not entirely sure of what century this is.

*Tidbits and Nutritional Notes:
Though commonly referred to as a fruit, figs are actually the flower of the fig tree, which grow in tandem with the seeds as one entity. One of the first plants cultivated by humans, it's specialized pollinator, the fig wasp, must enter the fig by way of a very narrow passageway (the ostiole) to pollinate the tiny flower which grows within.
Figs are one of the highest plant sources of fiber and calcium. High in flavonoids, antioxidants, and polyphenols, figs make for a great choice in baking, sweetening and nibbling.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fall Equinox

Welcome to Autumn. . .

Dahlia bloom

Paw Paws

First sampling of the garden butternuts

Final okra harvest

Sweet potato harvest

Cardoon seeds

Saturday, September 18, 2010


It is no surprise honey is used as a term of endearment. In my opinion, there is nothing better than to be associated with one of the most ancient and divine examples of sweetness. I am amazed how bee's labor day in and day out collecting nectar from the stamens of full blooms, bring it back to the hive, and somehow come up with this sticky, syrupy, heavenly substance to sustain themselves and their queen. I know of no other being that can do this; turn flowers into even more of a pleasurable sensory experience than they already are. Needless to say, honey goes beyond eating. The ancient Egyptians and Middle Easterners once used honey to embalm the dead. Bees store the collected nectar in wax combs and fan their wings to evaporate excess water which raises sugar concentration. Because of this, the end result is a highly stable substance that will not ferment, perhaps suitable as an alternative to formaldehyde.

Mayans considered the honey bee sacred and used honey in much of their cooking. During the Roman Empire honey may have even been used in place of gold to pay taxes, and has been widely recognised throughout history as medicinal. Honey has its place in religion as well. Hinduism regards honey as one of the five elixirs of immorality, and as mentioned in the Book of Exodus, the Promised Land is described as a "land flowing with milk and honey."

In other words, honey seems to represent a mysterious spiritual connection between us and nature, while universally symbolizing abundance and prosperity. It is no wonder a post classical Greek tradition involved a new bride dipping her fingers in honey and using it to make a cross above the threshold of her new home before entering.
I enjoy sampling many kinds of honey from the Western North Carolina region. Haw Creek is one of the best known honey distributors, and all of their varieties are very good, particularly the blackberry variety. I favor picking up a jar whenever I see one at random farmer's market stalls. Earlier this season, I bought wild mountain honey from an older couple at our local market, and returned later to try their freshly harvested sourwood variety. Then I saw Frank offering rows of the amber filled jars from his hives at "Let It Grow Gardens". As I handed him some cash and held the tiny vessel in my hands, he said, "In that jar is a bouquet of all of the flowers on the farm."
Enough said.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Paw Paw Milkshake

My friend Dana spent the wee hours of the morning in the paw paw patch. This is her late- summer tradition. She also happens to be overly generous with her special harvest. Last year she gave me enough to eat my fill and make a batch of paw paw bread.
Today I ate one immediately on the spot and brought a few home to chat about on my beloved blog. Dana told me about one of her favorite ways to enjoy the sweet fruit, blended with raw milk in the form of a shake. That's that. I had to do it. But I am out of milk, so I opened a can of coconut milk and went that route. A touch of honey from a farm nearby, and I was in luscious, paw paw heaven.

A little background:
Paw paw trees are native to North America, and bear the most substantially sized edible fruit indigenous to the continent. The name is thought to come from the Spanish word papaya, perhaps due to the similarity between the fruit. Beetles, carrion flies and fruit flies are the tree's pollinators, attracted to the faint scent of the flower. Rotting meat and fruit help attract these pollinators to the flowers.
Chilled paw paw fruit was recorded as a favorite dessert of George Washington, and sustained Lewis and Clark during times of meager rations. Interestingly, the paw paw seeds are insecticidal, once used dried and powered by some Native American tribes to treat lice.
Known nutritionally to offer substantial quantities of vitamin A and C, the paw paw fruit aids in digestion due to the presence of papain which helps break down proteins. The ripe fruits are available only for a short time in the late summer and early fall. A brief and memorable seasonal treat!

Paw Paw Shake: Serves 2
*2 paw paws, skins and seeds removed
*2/3 cup coconut milk
*2/3 cup water
*2 tsp. raw honey
*4-5 ice cubes

or for those of you with access to fresh, raw milk...

*2 paw paws, skins and seeds removed
*1 1/2 cups raw milk
*2 tsp raw honey
*4-5 ice cubes

Whip all ingredients together in a blender. Pour into glasses and garnish with unsweetened flaked coconut.
Toast to your friends who go out of their way to shake the right tree!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Creamed Sweet Potato Greens

My grandfather's timing couldn't have been more fitting. He is a knowledgeable man, devoted to science based reading as a preferred past time. Gardening is a close second. As a young girl (before the apron), he introduced me to the gastronomic pleasures of tender greenbrier shoots and steamed day lilly greens.
Occasionally I will receive a piece of mail from him with a newspaper cut out, or an article excerpt on topics from gardening to health and nutrition. This most recent piece was a feature on sweet potatoes. Given that we had planned to harvest our sweet potato crop this weekend, I was very interested to learn about the leaves being compared to spinach. I had no idea. The article points to sweet potatoes as not only highly palatable and thrifty, but unsurpassed in their ability add nutritional diversity to the diet.
In 1920, the average American consumed about 30 pounds of sweet potatoes per year. Today, most of us average about 4 pounds per person. This is too bad, because, as the article goes on to point out, the health benefits of eating sweet potatoes are almost endless. They contain over three times the dietary fiber as cooked oats and white potatoes, high levels of potassium, B6, vitamin C, and most importantly, when discussing the benefits of eating the leafy sweet potato greens, a carotenoid called lutein. The greens are one of "the richest sources of dietary lutein, which helps protect against age-related macular degeneration."
The plants themselves also help attract pollinators and double as weed protection as the substantial vines sprawl throughout the garden.

The harvest was a grand success. Some of the tubers were close to football size. We roasted a few last night, and thoroughly enjoyed the greens creamed alongside our favorite local bratwurst.

I only wish the leaves were more agreeable in storing, but they do not like the cold of the fridge, and succumb to wilt as soon as they are tugged from the soil. The key is to run out to the garden and grab a fresh armful right before sounding the dinner bell.

Creamed Sweet Potato Greens:
*2-3 cups sweet potato leaves, rinsed
*1 small onion, chopped
*2 Tbsp unsalted butter
*1 Tbsp AP flour
*1/2 cup raw cream, or 1/4 cup cream & 1/4 cup raw whole milk
*sea salt and pepper
*a squeeze of fresh lemon

Rinse and chop sweet potato greens. Place butter in a medium saucepan over med/low heat. Add onions and saute until golden. Add the flour and whisk with a fork for 1 minute. Add the chopped greens. Stir. Pour in the cream and stir until thickened, about 1 minute. Add a splash of water if need be. Season with salt, pepper and squeeze of lemon. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shepherd's Pie

For the record, I have never ordered this dish out. American Irish pub food must be selected carefully, and generally, when patronizing an Irish pub, I ignore this menu option. I think it's because of the grizzly ground beef base layer often used in place of traditional mutton. Since elementary school, I've been skeptical of commercial grade-F ground meat, and this dish is no exception.
Anyway, I like the idea of a savory casserole with a whipped potato feature. So, here is a shepherd's pie closer to a version a real shepherd would have eaten using local lamb, garden carrots, market mushrooms, and freshly harvested potatoes. Makes me want to pull up a barstool at the nearest tavern and settle in with a pint of Guinness. Great for a rainy afternoon.

Shepherds Pie:
*2 lbs potatoes
*4 Tbsp unsalted butter
*1/2 cup raw milk or plain whole yogurt
*sea salt and pepper

*1 pound local, pastured ground lamb
*1 sweet onion, chopped
*3 cloves garlic, minced
*2 garden carrots, chopped
*3/4 cup oyster or shitake mushrooms, sliced
*splash dry white wine
*2 Tbsp. butter
*1 1/2 Tbsp flour
*1 1/2 cups chicken stock
*1 cup fresh or frozen shelled green peas
*handful of fresh chopped basil or parsley, or both

Bring a large pot with water to rolling boil. Add potatoes and boil until tender when pierced with a fork. Strain. Whip with the butter and a 1/2 cup raw milk or plain whole yogurt. May need to add additional milk or yogurt. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350.
While potatoes boil, brown the lamb in a large skillet over medium heat. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a small bowl. Add the onion, garlic, and carrots to the pan, and saute in lamb juices. Add the mushrooms, and splash of wine. Season with sea salt and black pepper.
Reduce heat to med/low.
Return lamb to pan. Make a well in the center of the skillet and add 2 Tbsp butter. Once melted, add the flour and whisk into a paste. Cook for one minute before pouring in the stock. Incorporate into contents of pan, stirring often until liquid thickens. Remove from heat.

Transfer lamb mixture to a 9x13 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with the shelled peas and basil or parsley.
Top with whipped potatoes and bake until golden and bubbly, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


For as long as I can remember, concord grapes have felt special. Maybe it's because they just are, and always have been, even before I wise enough to know why.
The grapes most of us are all too familiar with these days, are the commercial varieties bred for shipping durability, not for sweetness and pure eating pleasure. The taste of a ripe concord makes me feel a bit religious. This may be due to growing up Presbyterian, where the thimble-like communion glasses were filled with concord grape juice instead of sweet wine. Sermons seemed to always make me hungry while perched quietly (for what seemed an eternity) on the hard wooden pews. Monthly communion was a welcome treat. When the silver trays passed my way, I would select a little cup with the most amount of juice, and savor while I sipped.
These days, when I get the chance to nibble on a concord, I am stuck with the bittersweet reminder of summer's special indulgences coming to pass. I end up eating with my eyes closed, silently promising to remind myself of these moments during months to come, when I am huddled by the wood stove, gazing at freshly fallen snow.

*Additional reasons to love them:

Concord grapes, like other purple, blue and red foods, help lower the risk of metabolic syndrome, (lowering the factors that contribute to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes).
They are high in calcium, phosphorus, dietary fiber, and beneficial antioxidants (mainly resveratrol) associated with protection against cancer, viral infections, degenerative nerve disease, Alzheimer's, and aging. Resveratrol is also antifungal in addition to being shown to modulate metabolism of lipids. A choice cultivar for wine making, jam, and juice.

*Nutritional info based on eating the whole grape, seeds and skins included.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Vintage Food Images

A few pleasing food images from centuries past, taken from a vintage cookbook find, "Old Cook Books: An Illustrated History." *Original captions with photos.

How to carve a peacock. An Illustration from II Trinciate, 1593, by Vincenzo Cervio, a famous sixteenth century Italian cook book.

Death claims the cook. An engraving by Matthieu Merian for the 1744 edition of The Dance of Death.

A plate from The Young Woman's Companion; or Frugal Housewife, 1811, showing the most economical way to carve.

An after dinner treat. Grandvill's satire on master and servant in his Les Metamorphoses du Jour, 1828.

The joints of Beef. A typical full-page illustration from a late-ninteenth-century cook book.