bad culture

I have been making my own yogurt on a regular basis for about two months, with only a couple of breaks.

Today, though, was the first time I had a batch turn out badly. It was sort of curdled, runny, and just had the faintest off smell, and I ended up dumping it rather than eating it.

I don’t know exactly what happened. I was using the second half of a half-gallon of milk. It was still before the sell-by date, and the milk didn’t smell bad, but it had been sitting in the fridge a few days since I’d opened it and used the first half. It had been longer than normal since the last batch of yogurt (which I made with the first half of that milk). My starter culture might also just have gotten weak, which is not uncommon.

I’ll make a new batch in another day or two, and start afresh with an envelope of freeze-dried starter culture and some milk straight from the store.

Today’s mishap aside, I really do like making my own yogurt. It tastes good, it’s less expensive than buying yogurt, and it doesn’t have artificial thickeners or stabilizers.

chili recap

For the past few years, I served as a judge at both the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon chili cookoffs held each July in Shelbyville. I always dreamed of entering, but it’s actually a pretty complicated and expensive process. This year, though, I took the plunge.

As you know if you followed my Facebook posts, it didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. I wasn’t happy with my entry and thus wasn’t surprised when I didn’t place last night, and when I got the chance to see my judges’ comments today there were some negative comments – at least one of which seemed to be the exact opposite of what I thought was wrong with the chili.

Anyway, I had a good time, at least before seeing those judges’ comments this morning, but I was also dog tired. Going into the process, my original plan had been to only cook on Friday, and then – if I happened to get lucky Friday – I might choose to cook on Saturday. During the evening yesterday, I considered coming back and cooking today even if I didn’t place, just because I was enjoying it. But I was frustrated with my final result, and, as I say, dog tired. Even before the final results were announced, I packed up the canopy tent I had been loaned rather than leaving it on-site (they had told us we could leave tents overnight and there would be security). I knew I wouldn’t be cooking the next day.

I laid down on the couch as soon as I got home and fell asleep until 12:30. Then I went up and got into bed. At 1:30, I started thinking about the leftover propane cans still in my car. What if I slept late in the morning? How hot would my car get? Would the propane tanks explode, destroying my car right in the apartment parking lot? I got up, went downstairs and brought the propane inside.

Anyway, here are some random observations.

* Chili cookoffs are expensive. For an International Chili Society-sanctioned cookoff, you have to join ICS, over and above the entry fee of the cookoff. Of course, you’ve also got ingredients – not only for the batch you prepare at the cookoff but for all of the ones you prepare in your kitchen getting ready. I ordered most of my herbs and spices from my favorite mail-order house (although I’ve got quite a bit left for use in regular cooking, so that’s some benefit). I was able to borrow a Coleman stove and a canopy tent, but I ended up buying a cooler (which I needed anyway) and a little folding table (which I thought would be a good thing to have).

The ICS membership is annual, so if I compete next year I’ll have to renew about that time. It would be nice if I could find another cookoff to compete in between now and then, to leverage a little bit of my membership fee. There aren’t any too close by, unfortunately.

* The atmosphere at the cookoff was wonderful. Yes, there was serious competition going on. Some of the cooks who came to Shelbyville from as far away as Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Mississippi were trying to place so that they could qualify for the ICS World Championship in Reno, Nevada, in October. They were serious about their cooking, but that didn’t keep them from being friendly, helpful and encouraging.

* Wes Carlson of Illinois, who was the ICS world champion for green chili in 2004, came back again this year to serve as head judge and work with local organizer Calvin Cannon in putting on the event. I had worked with Wes as a judge last year. When I raised my hand to identify myself as a rookie at the cook’s meeting last night. Several people yelled at me about salt. I honestly thought at the time that they were joking – that maybe it was some sort of tradition to try to trick first-timers into over-salting their chili. I do like salty foods – too much for my own good – but last year, one of the batches I tasted as a judge was so salty even I didn’t care for it. I had decided prior to the cookoff that I would have enough salt, but not too much.

But when Wes stopped by to check on me later, he actually mentioned salt again – and I could tell that he was serious. Even so, I thought I had it covered, and told him so.

Anyway, one of the judges’ comments I got: “not enough salt.” That may have also figured in to the judge who called my chili “bland.” I did not think it was bland; if anything, I though I’d gone overboard with a couple of added flavors. I added a little lime juice right at the very end of cooking just to wake things up, for example, and thought it might have been too much. I wasn’t happy with my entry, but I didn’t think it was bland by any stretch of the imagination.

* Another judges’ comment: “too thick.” This one, I’ll own up to. Part of the problem is that I was only entered in one category – red chili. I should have waited longer than I did to start my chili, and for a while I could not get the flame on the Coleman stove as low as I really wanted it without it going out. I eventually compensated by putting the dutch oven off-center rather than directly over the burner. I added water to the chili at several points to thin it out, but apparently not enough – and perhaps I should have added a little less masa flour at the end.

By the way, one of the other competitors saw me adding the masa and said she’d switched to rice flour as a thickener because it was flavorless. But to me, the taste of masa is actually a part of what I expect in chili.

* Back when I envisioned cooking in a chili cookoff, I thought I might try to recruit one of my nephews or a kid from church to be a second pair of hands. I really wish I had done that. I had to make about five trips from my car to my site unloading, carrying heavy items like the canopy tent and the cooler, and the same thing loading up at the end of the evening. Also, at one point Wes invited me to be a judge for the green chili category (which I had not entered), but I didn’t want to leave my chili unattended. Most of the other competitors had some sort of help – spouses, kids, friends, or so on. If I cook next year, I’m going to try to recruit a helper.

* This morning, I stopped by to get a few photos for the paper and also to check on those judges’ comments. But I was still kind of tired, and really didn’t feel like hanging around. I wish I had gotten the chance, with my new perspective, to maybe talk to a few of the other teams, and I probably would have been roped into judging had I been there this afternoon. (I particularly missed judging the salsa category this year.)

* In years past, I would be involved in the Nashville Symphony concert, Relay For Life and Mountain T.O.P. trips, all within a six- or eight-week period, all of them high points of my year, and then I’d feel kind of let down afterward. Well, the symphony concert is no more, and I didn’t go to Mountain T.O.P. this year. This year, I went from “The Foreigner” to Relay For Life to the Lake Junaluska trip to the chili cookoff. But the letdown is the same, and I think it’s started, especially since I feel like the chili cookoff didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I’ve been feeling cranky and out-of-sorts today. The one good part is that I can start looking forward to my Sierra Leone trip in November.

chili, interrupted

Well, I joined the International Chili Society earlier this week, so I guess that means I’m committed – I’m going to enter my first-ever sanctioned chili cookoff next month in Shelbyville.

Some special spices I had ordered last week arrived on Monday, and today, our local Piggly Wiggly store started a special “truckload sale” on meat, including the cut of meat which one of our local competitive chili experts had advised me to use. Even though it hasn’t exactly been chili weather, I was itching to make my first test batch, fine-tuning a combination of various recipes and techniques I’ve stumbled across over the years. I stopped by Piggly Wiggly on the way home and bought the roast.

The chili had been on the stove for maybe half an hour, 45 minutes when the power went out – for an hour and 15 minutes. I have resumed cooking. I don’t think it will affect the flavor that much – it might affect the way the meat cooks, but who knows?

At some point, probably after I get back from my trip with the youth next weekend, I will go ahead and borrow the Coleman stove that I will be using at the cookoff and make another test batch that way (incorporating any changes in the recipe that I decide on after tonight).

I don’t know what my chances are, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I hope this isn’t an omen.

getting me some culture

Ivy Hogan was entertaining me on Facebook a few weeks ago with her adventures in homemade yogurt. Ivy uses a multi-cooker, one of those programmable jobs that performs a variety of different functions – rice cooker, slow cooker and in some cases pressure cooker. Her multi-cooker has a setting for incubating yogurt.

At the time I had my original conversation with Ivy on Facebook, I told her that Alton Brown has a method that uses an electric blanket to hold the proper 110-degree temperature while the yogurt incubates. I thought about borrowing an electric blanket and trying that method, but I’ve been busy with the play and haven’t had much time for culinary experimentation.

I got a couple different Amazon gift cards for my birthday, and I was trying to think of a fun way to use one of them. I happened to think of a multi-cooker, thinking I could replace my current rice cooker. But the multi-cookers, if you use them to make rice, make a lot more than I would eat by myself! And the price range is so broad that I was suspicious the cheapest units – the ones I could afford with my gift card – might be sub-par. (The cheaper multi-cookers do not have the pressure-cooker function, either. Someday I’ll get one of the nice multi-cookers which does include a pressure-cooker function.)

So I did something that TV chef Alton Brown would deplore and looked at a “unitasker” – a dedicated yogurt-maker. And I found several low-priced models. Most were the type that allow you to make individual jars or plastic cups of yogurt, six or seven at a time. But I liked this one, which lets you make a quart in bulk and then parcel it out however you like.

I know, it’s a gadget. But I’ve actually had good success with kitchen gadgets. And Alton Brown doesn’t have to know about it.

To make the yogurt, you heat milk on the stove, then let it cool down slightly and add some sort of culture – you can buy freeze-dried culture online, but the simplest thing to do is to use a little bit of plain yogurt (provided it’s the kind with live and active cultures) as a starter. Then you put the inoculated milk into the yogurt maker (or a multi-cooker, or a bucket lined with an electric blanket, or whatever) and hold it at 110 degrees for a period of 4-8 hours or more. Shorter times result in milder, looser yogurt; longer times result in tangier, thicker yogurt. If you like something with the even-thicker consistency of Greek yogurt, you wait until after it’s fully cultured and you put it in cheesecloth in a colander (in the fridge) to let some of the whey drain out. You can let it drain even longer to produce yogurt cheese, a good cream cheese substitute. (Try draining your favorite full-fat store-bought yogurt this way some time. Low-fat or non-fat varieties may not work as well because of the artificial thickeners.)

I am very anxious to try this and see how it works. The machine should arrive by the end of the week. Next weekend will be another busy one, but maybe I’ll have time to try a batch next Sunday.

Hum if you don’t know the words

Not a sponsored post.

WP_20160503_14_10_54_ProI enjoy store-bought hummus and have also enjoyed making my own. It’s quite simple — canned garbanzo beans (a/k/a chickpeas) are just fine. You drain them and throw them into the food processor with other ingredients, the traditional base being olive oil, lemon juice and an expensive and hard-to-find sesame paste called tahini. I don’t believe I’ve ever had tahini as an ingredient. Sometimes, I’ve just made the hummus without that component, but then I discovered TV chef Nigella Lawson’s tip: you can substitute peanut butter. Don’t laugh; it works just fine.

I was just commenting on this tip a day or two ago. Then, today, I found out about another way to make hummus. Knoxville-based Bush beans, famous for their baked beans, also cans garbanzo beans. Now, they’ve introduced Hummus Made Easy, a line of liquid hummus flavorings in pouches. You just drain one can of beans as you would normally, throw them into the food processor, add one pouch of Hummus Made Easy, and then process to hummus consistency.

They have three flavors: Traditional, Roasted Red Pepper, and Southwest Black Bean, which (as the name implies) is meant to be used with a can of black beans instead of a can of garbanzos. I found all three at Kroger just now and have purchased a pouch of Roasted Red Pepper, which I’ll play with tonight.

Happily, the ingredient list is promising: the only thing even remotely artificial-sounding is citric acid. There’s water, tahini, olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice, sugar, garlic, paprika, onion powder, citric acid and garlic powder.

If you go to the website you can download a coupon for $1 off the combination of one pouch plus one can of Bush’s beans. (You can get store brand beans for almost 50 cents less than Bush’s, and that might be the way to go on your next purchase, but even so the coupon still saves you 50 cents this time around.)

A good Thai was had by all

I don’t eat out at full-service restaurants too terribly often, but I had to try out Shelbyville’s first Thai restaurant, Yummy Thai, last week. I decided it was cliché to order pad thai on my first visit, and so I had a red curry, which was wonderful.

But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try the pad thai. This evening, I am going straight from covering a finance committee meeting to the first rehearsal for “The Foreigner,” and I’m not sure I’ll get to grab a bite in between, which means I may not get supper until after 8. So it seemed like a good day to eat a hearty lunch. I went back to Yummy Thai.

I’m glad I did. I’d had pad thai once before, many years ago, at a restaurant in Murfreesboro, but I think this was better. As you may or may not know, Thai food can be spicy but doesn’t have to be. If it’s prepared to order, as is the case here, you usually get to tell your server how hot you want it. They will add (or not add) Thai peppers based on this. Yummy Thai has a fairly typical one-to-five scale. 1 is mild, 2 is medium, 3 is hot, 4 is very hot and 5 is “Thai hot.” I stayed on the safe side and ordered my pad thai with #3 heat today. I think that was about right. It was mildly hot as you were eating, but the heat hung around for a while and I could still barely feel it on my tongue as I was driving back to the newspaper.

I might try #4 sometime, but only if I don’t have to be anywhere urgent for the next 24 hours.

Anyway, the pad thai had a great flavor to it, and I will definitely try it again.

The service is unfailingly friendly and personable, although they’re still advertising for help and seem just slightly understaffed. I was in no hurry, so it didn’t affect me that much.

They have a wide variety of dishes, including some from other Asian cuisines. I want to try the pho, a Vietnamese soup, some time. I had it once before, when my sister-in-law took me to a Vietnamese restaurant in Orange County, Calif., back when she and Michael were living there.

Yummy Thai has what looks like a sushi bar, and they feature sushi in one of their Facebook profile images, but there’s no mention of it in the menu yet, so it may be something they’ll add to the operation in a few weeks.

Anyway, based on my two visits I’d definitely recommend it.

john i. corned beef

Months ago, through the good graces of a couple of different family members, I got two huuuge corned beefs. I cooked one of them at the time – the first time I’d ever made corned beef – parceled it out for the freezer, and ate for weeks. The other one has been in the freezer uncooked since that time.

My original plan was to cook that second corned beef Wednesday night so that I could enjoy some tonight for St. Paddy’s Day. But that didn’t work out, so I’m having chicken tonight and the corned beef will be cooking all evening for use going forward.

I am, however, enjoying another (and perhaps more authentic) Irish treat. I’m not really a beer drinker, but after reading the excellent The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World by Steven Mansfield, I now buy a four-pack of Guinness Stout in cans each year about St. Patrick’s Day, and enjoy a pint on the day itself. I drink or cook with the other cans over the next week or two.

This is a really wonderful book. It’s a history of Arthur Guinness, the company he founded, and his descendants – some of whom followed him into the brewing business, some of whom went into banking, and some of whom went into the ministry.

Arthur Guinness himself was a devout Protestant, an admirer of his contemporary John Wesley, and was responsible for bringing Sunday School to Ireland for the first time. A devout beer-maker? At the time, of course, there were no soft drinks or readily-available juices, and in overcrowded Dublin, without the benefit of modern septic systems, the ground water was disease-ridden. Brewers of beer felt, justifiably, that they were providing a healthful and reasonable alternative to hard liquor. You sometimes hear overstated claims that Guinness thought his beer-making was a divine calling; Mansfield walks that back a bit, but portrays Guinness and his successors through the 1800s as good men who saw no conflict between their vocation and their faith.

And, in fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is that, during the 1800s, Guinness was one of the most socially-responsible companies of its day, in its treatment of its own employees and in the money it spent to address poverty and horrific living conditions in Dublin. One of the company’s heirs even took  his new bride and moved into the slums.

Some of the benefits Guinness provided its workers in the 1800s were far, far ahead of their time. The company not only gave its employees vacations but even covered modest trip expenses into the Irish countryside so they could enjoy themselves.

Anyway, it’s a good book. And so, with a pint of Guinness in hand, and pounds of corned beef on the stove, I wish you all a merry (but safe) St. Patrick’s Day.

cheaper than cheap

When I first started living on my own, back in the 1980s, I remember store brand cola being all but undrinkable. It had weird flavors and tasted nothing like Coke or Pepsi. Yeah, it was cheap, but nobody wanted it.

It was Walmart, as best I recall, that stepped up the store-brand cola game. Sam’s Choice, now known just as Sam’s, was the first store brand cola I can remember that tasted good, and pretty soon all of the grocery store chains had to step up to compete. Now, while some store brand colas are better than others, all are drinkable.

I don’t know what part he played in the cola, but I do know the late Sam Walton took a personal interest in Walmart’s grape soda. Grapette had been an independent brand of grape soda when Sam Walton was a child, and it had been his favorite. But the company had fallen on hard times, and had sold off various assets; the name “Grapette” was owned by one company, while the actual recipe for the product was owned by another. Walton wanted Grapette at Walmart, so he first bought the formula and started making Walmart-branded grape soda, then eventually bought the names “Grapette” and “Orangette” as well.

I had to go to Walmart this morning, and one of the things I wanted to buy was a 24-pack of diet cola. But they were out of the 24-packs except for caffeine-free diet cola. Two 12-packs wouldn’t be quite as cheap, but I figured that was the way I would have to go. I grabbed a 12-pack of Sam’s Diet Cola … and then I noticed a 12-pack of “DIET COLA.” No brand name, just completely generic: “DIET COLA.” So I grabbed one of each.cola

I have no idea how “DIET COLA” is going to taste. The 12-pack of Sam’s was $2.68, while the “DIET COLA” was just $2. I hope I haven’t wasted the $2 on something that tastes like the Bad Old Days. It’s in the fridge chilling now; I still have a few cans of Save-A-Lot diet cola to use up before I get to it.