Mornay Sauce for Seafood or Pasta

In my general browsing of recipes online, I found myself encountering the term “Mornay,” especially in seafood dishes, such as Crab Mornay or Salmon Mornay. Further research shows that it is — perhaps unsurprisingly — French in origin, a culinary outgrowth of Bechamel sauce, a basic white sauce (butter, flour, milk) that is a core element of French cooking, and that surfaces more widely in recipes of broader Continental origin.

Apparently Mornay is just Bechamel with cheese. The types of cheese used in recipes vary, but the one I seem most commonly is Swiss. I’ve seen it included in recipes to be poured over fish filets, seafood croquettes or crab cakes, even seafood crepes. It doesn’t seem to be used, traditionally, as a sauce for pasta, but its consistency as a cheesy sauce, it seems to me, invites the correlation that Swiss is to Mornay, as Parmesan is to Alfredo, as Cheddar is to Mac & Cheese, etc. Having tried it over pasta, I’m sold! My favorite way to make it, and preserve its longstanding connection to seafood, is to add faux crab and green onions:

DSC01892SARAH’S “CRAB” MORNAY

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon white flour
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
2 cups half & half or cream
8 oz Swiss cheese (Gruyere is most traditional)
2-3 green onions, snipped or sliced
8 oz to 1 lb. faux crab, chunk style, or other seafood
salt & pepper to taste
pasta or bread
parsley

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. When it is just melted, add the flour and stir until all lumps are broken up. If you’re going to add some wine, make sure it is a light-bodied white so as not to compete with the subtle flavors of the swiss cheese. Heat the wine through and then add the cream and the cheese. I have gathered from looking at several recipes that Gruyere is the variety of Swiss cheese that is considered most traditional, but it can be pretty expensive. Any type of Swiss — or a combination of Swiss cheeses — will do. I use just plain ol’ low-brow brick o’ grocery store Swiss, but don’t rule out a Gruyere or an Emmenthaler or a Jarlsberg as a higher-brow option.

Heat the cream & cheese mixture on medium-low fire in order to soften the cheese. Meanwhile, snip the onions into a bowl and set aside. When the cheese is visibly melting, puree the sauce with an immersion blender to smooth out all the lumps. After the sauce is pureed, add your fish, if you’re using shellfish or faux crab. If you’re making this sauce to top a fish filet, crab cake or seafood croquette, then prepare the fish separately.

Once the sauce is thickened and heated through, add most of the snipped green onions (reserve some for garnish, if you like), salt and pepper. Serve tossed with pasta, over prepared fish and/or with crusty bread. Garnish with parsley.

To be honest, having read a lot of Crab Mornay recipes, I’m not sure what to make of their serving suggestions. Nobody but me seems to have had the idea to serve over pasta. Fair enough. I’ve done pasta but I have also used it (sans faux crab) as a sauce for salmon croquettes. Some of the recipes I’ve read involve serving it over seafood crepes, sometimes with mushrooms added to the crepes or the sauce. Again, seems logical. However, a majority of recipes suggest serving with “crusty bread” or in “a bread bowl.” Are people eating their Crab Mornay like a soup? Or, perhaps, making it thicker for use as a dip (I don’t add as much flour as some recipes because of carbs, but also so it will be pour-able enough to work as a pasta sauce)? I suppose it would be tasty as a fondue, though having larger fish chunks in a fondue seems cumbersome, unless they are also reserved and served on the side for dipping.

The mystery of Mornay will persist, but I’m advocating here and now that we add it to the canon of classic pasta sauces! This simple sauce is quite delicious; cheese lovers rejoice!

Hummus Mastery

I’ve blogged basic hummus recipes before, and while I was never displeased with my hummus creations, I never stopped experimenting with this fundamental recipe. My primary goal in working on this recipe was to create a smoother hummus. Word on the street was that using dried garbanzos, as opposed to canned, would yield a smooth result. I did not find this to be true, but I did find that getting the proportions right with dried beans and balancing it all with the rehydration process was just not worth the trouble. The results I got weren’t especially smooth and the quality was spotty. I eventually scrapped the notion of using dried beans.

All this trial and error resulted in much extra hummus being produced, so I ended up bringing my experiments to work to unload on my co-workers. One of my co-workers at the time, Scott, is a vegan, but also a former employee at Aladdin’s Eatery, a Middle Eastern chain restaurant in our area. As chains go it is actually quite good due to their emphasis on natural foods and ingredients, and I have long admired their hummus and baba. What Scott revealed to me about the way they make hummus was positively shocking… they don’t use garlic. He told me that garlic is in fact not a standard ingredient in traditional hummus. Every recipe for hummus I have seem in my life uses garlic; how garlic weaseled its way into the standard ingredient list, I do not know. It’s not that hummus is bad with garlic. It can be quite tasty. But what I discovered following Scott’s revelation is that hummus can be even better without!

healthy-hummus-recipesSARAH’S MASTERFUL HUMMUS

1 (15oz) can of Trader Joe’s Garbanzo Beans, rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons sesame tahini
1/3 cup olive oil
juice of one or two large lemons
1/2 teaspoon salt
dash of cumin
water

Combine the garbanzos, tahini and oil in the food processor. Juice the lemons, making sure to strain out the seeds. Add lemon juice, salt and cumin to the processor. Add water one tablespoon at a time while processing to get your desired consistency. Some people like their hummus a little thicker or thinner. Adding more liquid will also enable the food processor to make the hummus smoother. Serve with chips or pita bread, garnish with paprika and drizzled olive oil.

I have tweaked this recipe many times, and have done side-by-side comparisons with Aladdin’s hummus (I make a batch for comparison whenever I get Aladdin’s take-out). Over this past weekend I did the same, and it’s finally gotten to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable. Any subtle difference in flavor is probably due to differing source ingredients (I’m sure I don’t use the exact same tahini brand as they do, for example), but the general balance of flavors is the same.

If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby, you can, of course, use another brand of garbanzos, but I would recommend using them if you have a TJ in town. I discovered that Trader Joe’s garbanzos are significantly better tasting than other brands of canned beans after using them in my Garbanzo Salad. They are the only garbanzos I will use, now, for the salad, and they make a big flavor difference in the hummus, too.

One final note about the lemons: I usually double this recipe and use three lemons, so technically, I use one and a half lemons for a recipe of this size, but the flexibility to go up or down in lemon flavor is up to you!

Pad Thai Noodles

I’ve made a couple attempts at Pad Thai with different recipes I’ve encountered online. I can’t say previous attempts were failures, but while enjoyable enough, they just didn’t turn out quite right. This time around, I compared and contrasted a few recipes (including the one I had used the last time), and put together a list of ingredients based on what had worked and what hadn’t during my last attempts. I was quite pleased with the result:

DSC01870SARAH’S PAD THAI

8 oz rice noodles
1/2 cup crushed peanuts (or more, to taste)
2 tablespoons oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
3-5 green onions, snipped or sliced
8 oz or 1 lb. of shellfish, meat, faux crab, tofu, etc.
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
1 tablespoon sriracha sauce
4-6 eggs
1-2 limes
cilantro

Soak the rice noodles in warm water for about 30 minutes, then drain and rinse in cold water. Set aside.

At the same time, in a small non-stick skillet, toast the crushed peanuts dry on a low heat, stirring every so often.

DSC01867In a large skillet, heat the oil. Snip the roots off the white ends of the green onions. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs (most recently my recipe for African Peanut Soup), I like to use kitchen scissors for snipping herbs and spring onions. Using scissors will make it very easy to separate the whites from the greens in this recipe. Just snip the onions, starting at the white end, into the saucepan. When you get to the green part of the onions, simply move to a bowl and snip the remainder of the onion to reserve the greens for later.

Saute the white snips of the onion with the minced garlic for a minute or two. Add your meat, fish, etc. and saute until cooked. I used an 8oz package of faux crab, chunk style (I don’t like how the flake style falls apart), and so did not have to cook it long, just to heat through.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the ingredients for the sauce: lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar, tamarind and sriracha. Mix until brown sugar is dissolved. Add the drained noodles to the pan; stir fry for a minute or two, then add the sauce. Reduce heat to low.

DSC01868Mix about half of the toasted peanuts in with the noodles. Reserve the other half in a small bowl and set aside. Use the small skillet to fry the eggs (no need to wash first). I like to mix the eggs with a little extra fish sauce before scrambling. I used 6 eggs because I only used 8 oz of fish, but you can use fewer eggs if you’re using a larger amount of meat or fish. I also added a touch of additional vegetable oil to the pan before scrambling. Stir the eggs in with the noodles once they are scrambled.

Once your stir-fry is heated through, garnish with the reserved peanuts and green onions, and fresh cilantro if you have some on hand (I didn’t this last time and it was perfectly tasty without). Quarter your limes and serve with lime wedges to be squeezed over the noodles before eating.

I didn’t have terribly high hopes for this recipe since it is quite a complex dish and it comes from a cuisine tradition that I have otherwise found difficult to reproduce with great authenticity.

I must say, however, I was quite surprised with how this recipe turned out. It looked like Pad Thai I’ve had in restaurants, and it was extremely tasty. I found myself going back for more time and again throughout the day, eating much more of it than I had intended (sorry, diet!). Pad Thai itself varies from restaurant to restaurant, and I haven’t had a restaurant version terribly recently for comparison, but I found this recipe so delicious that I frankly did not care how close it was in authenticity to my favorite restaurants. I suspect I will be making this dish again very soon!

Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

This cream sauce may very well be the most delicious pasta sauce I’ve ever had in my life. Move over alfredo! If you like cheeses with a stronger flavor, this gorgonzola sauce will be right up your alley.

Sarah’s Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

gorgonzola2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/3 cup white wine (optional)
8 oz grumbled gorgonzola (or more to taste)
1 cup half n’ half or cream
ground pepper

Melt the butter in a medium/small saucepan. Add the garlic and saute briefly. This might seem like an exceedingly small amount of garlic, but with the gorgonzola cheese, it can very easily become overpowering and add an unpleasant and unintended saltiness to the flavor of the sauce. After a minute or so, add the white wine. Simmer another minute or so, then add the cream and gorgonzola crumbles. Season with pepper. Heat over low fire to melt the gorgonzola. I like to use my immersion blender to help the melting process along and produce a very smooth sauce, but you can also let the cheese melt only partially if you want a more textured sauce with a few gorgonzola lumps remaining. Serve over pasta al dente.

Two Vindaloos

Of all the Indian curry dishes I have tried, Vindaloo seems to manifest with the most different permutations across Indian restaurants. Other curries that are equally widespread seem to be more standardized. If you order Tikka Masala or Korma or Saag (aka Palak), chances are you will get a curry that looks the way you expect, even if the specific recipe of spices differ from one establishment to the next. With Vindaloo, you don’t know what color it will be, whether it will be creamy or dairy-free… the only constant is the sourness of the vinegar, which of course is what the dish is named for. Recipes I have encountered online and in cookbooks vary just as much, leaving me torn and uncertain about which route to take toward Vindaloo greatness!

I recently tried two very different recipes, both with good results:

Vindaloo #1: A more complex vindaloo

1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground hot pepper
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 small onion, chopped
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed (or equivalent amount pork, beef, lamb, etc)
2 tablespoons fresh parsley

images (3)Combine all ingredients in a saucepan or crock pot (use half the water for crock pot). Before adding the the meat, I like to process with my immersion blender to puree, but that’s up to you. The onion and garlic don’t strictly have to be pureed into the sauce, and whole mustard seeds add a nice texture — they won’t be completely pulverized by an immersion blender anyhow. Cook covered on low fire until meat is desired tenderness. If using a crock pot, 4 hours on high or 8 on low should do it. Serve with rice, garnish with parsley.

This Vindaloo turned out quite tasty. In fact, I loved the flavor of this spice combination and can say absolutely nothing against the way it turned out in terms of taste. However, I was less than thrilled with the color. It happens sometimes with recipes that feature the darker spices (cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, etc.) as their dominant characteristic that the color of the curry is affected (e.g. chettinad curry), and such was the case here. This curry ended up a very drab brown color. Most Vindaloo I’ve ever had before is some manner of red or orange color, sometimes a little brighter sometimes a little darker, but usually has a bit of zest to its color. This recipe had none and I was disappointed in that result. Call me crazy, but given the choice, I’d rather have a colorful and flavorful dish!

I remembered a Vindaloo recipe I tried many years ago when I was first experimenting with Indian cuisine. It was a much simpler recipe, but I recalled that it had turned out a nice stark orange. I dug up the recipe last week and gave it a try:

Vindaloo #2: a simpler recipe

DSC018661 medium onion, chopped
1 tsp minced garlic
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper or paprika
1lb. chicken, beef or lamb cubes
1/2 cup to 1 cup water
cilantro leaves, optional

Combine onion, ginger, garlic, vinegar, and spices in a saucepan or crock pot. Process with an immersion blender, adding water until the sauce is the consistency of a thick gravy. Stew the meat for a few hours on low heat until desired doneness, or slow cook for 4 hours on high, 8 on low. Serve with rice, garnish with cilantro.

This recipe is much simpler. The flavor is very good; the larger amount vinegar gives added tanginess. The color is it nice bright orange! However, I missed the more complex flavors of the first recipe.

For now, I am posting both of these recipes for preservation; they are both worthwhile and make for a great meal. I have not, however, given up on discovering or formulating a recipe that represents the best of both worlds.

African Peanut Soup

This is one of my very favorite soup recipes. It can be made mild or spicy. It is creamy (due to the peanut butter) and yet also completely dairy free. All in all, a wonderful combination of flavors; a delicious pureed vegetable soup!

702ccf7619929e989ed9e0c44246ad62SARAH’S AFRICAN PEANUT SOUP

1-2 tablespoons oil
1 onion chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
1 cup water or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 (29oz) can sweet potatoes, drained and rinsed
2 carrots, chopped
1-2 bell peppers, red, yellow or orange
1 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne, or more paprika
1 (6oz) can tomato paste
1 (8oz) can tomato sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter
crushed peanuts and chopped green onions

Heat the oil in the bottom of a large saucepan. Saute the onion and garlic for a couple minutes until softened. Add the water (or broth), the ginger, potatoes, carrots and bell pepper. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Add remaining ingredients. Use cayenne pepper only if you want to make a spicy version of this soup. Process with an immersion blender until smooth, or process in batches in your food processor. Heat through. Serve garnished with crushed peanuts and/or chopped green onions.


Not only is this soup very tasty, but it is also absurdly easy if you have the right equipment. Every home chef who finds him- or herself with a need to puree — even on an infrequent basis — has absolutely no reason at all not to invest in an immersion blender. Food processors are great, and they are necessary for certain tasks; I still use my food processor for thicker or tackier recipes like dips and spreads (e.g. hummus, salmon spread, artichoke dip, etc.), noodle or bread dough, and curries or curry pastes with whole spices that need to be well-pulverized. But any recipe project a bit more liquid in consistency is made so much easier with an immersion blender.

It has, however, recently come to my attention that all immersion blenders are not created equal. One of my students was telling me about a carrot soup she planned to prepare for a holiday meal. She bemoaned the annoyance of pureeing the soup in batches using a food processor. I, of course, extolled the virtues of the immersion blender, but she told me the last time she’d used an immersion blender it was disappointing and ineffective. I could hardly imagine what went wrong; perhaps some blenders are just not very good quality, or don’t have very sharp blades, perhaps she had been using a blender intended for lighter jobs like mixing powder additives into smoothies. Either way, I recommended my blender, a Cuisinart. She came back the next week and reported that she had purchased a Cuisinart and it had worked like a charm! So, if you’ve had disappointing experiences with immersion blenders in the past, don’t despair! The Cuisinart is designed for heavier-duty food processing, and I highly recommend it.


The other kitchen item that will help you immensely with this, and similar, kitchen projects, is a good pair of kitchen scissors. Most people keep scissors in their kitchen the sake of opening packages, but many have never considered using them for food preparation. In this recipe, for instance, kitchen scissors make the job of slicing green onions a snap. Why drag out the cutting board and slice when you can simply hold the onions and snip? Kitchen scissors are excellent for all sorts of herbs and small greenery. You might not think to use them for cutting larger vegetables, but in a recipe like this where the veggies end up pureed anyway, I like to use the kitchen scissors to open up my bell pepper. Again, it saves breaking out (and washing later) the cutting board and knife. I cut the pepper open, or in half, wash out the seeds under the faucet, and then put the flesh in whole. It will just soften up and get pureed anyway, so why go to all the trouble of slicing or dicing? Kitchen scissors are also very useful in trimming the fat off meat and shredding cabbage or lettuce (just roll the leaf and cut slim ribbons). Once you get a pair, you will find more and more uses for it in your kitchen.

Wine Log: All the Grape, but none of the Glory

I’ve been making wine kits for about a year now, and I have been very pleased with the result… and yet, I find them creatively unfulfilling as a hobbyist.

The only kits I have used so far are the Reserve du Chateau 17.5 lbs. kits, which, as far as I can tell, are an Amazon.com proprietary or exclusive brand. Thus far, I have tried the Sangiovese, the Cabernet Merlot and the Cabernet Shiraz. The great thing about these kits is the price. At roughly $45 to $55 a kit (like all Amazon items, the price mysteriously fluctuates day-to-day), these kits give me real wine grape concentrate for about the same price per gallon (i.e. $8-$9) as making the 4 Canister Concord Red, the only truly red wine I’ve been able to make without a kit. To be honest, I didn’t really like the Concord Red I made (one recently-opened bottle that didn’t clear well has become dedicated to cooking), and so I’d be crazy to continue making it when these kits are the same cost AND include additives and corks (in fact, I may never have to buy corks again!).

One downside of these kits, however, is that they are apparently so popular, they keep going out of stock. I jumped on three kits last month when they came briefly back into stock, and I’m glad I did, because there’s nothing to be found in that price range right now. There are other wine kits, of course, but the price of those kits are $70+, and at that point, the benefits start to wane. Sure, they may be higher quality juice or whatnot, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not looking to recreate Napa in my apartment here. One major motivating factor in making my own wine is to end up with a product that represents significant savings over what I could purchase at the local state store. I can get a nice Carlo Rossi Cabernet in the 5L box for $17. At that point, the cost/benefit of expensive kits that provide only a few dollars savings per gallon… doesn’t seem worth it.

As a cost-conscious wine consumer these Reserve du Chateau kits provide a good-tasting wine at an advantageous price point. As a wine-making hobbyist, however, I find them ridiculously easy. What’s wrong with easy? Well, nothing fundamentally. Certainly, there is enough labor in the over-arching wine-making process (especially at the end with siphoning, cleaning, bottling, etc.) that I wouldn’t beg for the process to be more complex. It’s just that whenever I hear accolades from people about my kit wine, I sort of feel like I can’t really take credit. One of my students, for instance, has followed my wine-making progress over the years, and upon trying my kit Sangiovese, he effused praise over the vast improvement since the last wine of mine he had tried… but I didn’t feel like I could truly take the compliment, as I hadn’t done much of anything to affect the wine quality during my end of production.

Perhaps if I had done a wine kit as my inaugural project, before I had attempted any other homemade recipes, I would feel greater satisfaction with the end product, having learned the craft of wine-making along the way. But I’m actually quite glad I did not. The directions for the wine kit are full of a lot of unnecessary hullabaloo that I can confidently wave off, having honed my process on other batches. Perhaps for people who make as big a production out of the process as the directions indicate, using a kit fills them with a glow of creative satisfaction, but I know better.

The grape juice concentrate comes in a bag (think like the inner bladder/bag of a boxed wine); all the necessary sugar water is already in the bag, too. The Reserve du Chateau kits have some manner of yellow spigot/opener on this bag; I have yet to figure out how to open it. On my first kit, I gave up after several tries and simply cut a small corner off the bag with my kitchen scissors to create a small hole from which to pour the sugar and concentrate into my carboy (I use a large funnel to ease the process of adding all ingredients to my carboy). Since then, I never bother with the opener, I just cut the hole and pour it in. I hydrate my yeast (as described in my Getting Started entry), which the directions, oddly enough, do not suggest. Sometimes I use the yeast that comes with the kit, sometimes I use Red Star’s Pasteur Red; haven’t noticed much difference in using one or the other. I add the packet of bentonite that comes with the kit. I also add a tablespoon of yeast energizer to speed the process. I DON’T include any other of my standard additives like pectic enzyme or acid blend. Just the included concentrate, hydrated yeast, bentonite, water to fill. Balloon airlock on top (also described in Getting Started). Haul it over the the hall closet and wait for it to ferment completely.


I honestly don’t know what would be the advantage in making this process more complex. Using a fermenter bucket is unnecessary because it’s just juice and not fruit. Thus, there is no need to start the wine in a primary fermenter, siphon to a secondary fermenter a few weeks later, etc. The directions also make a big ordeal about degassing the wine, but I’ve never had an issue with leftover carbon dioxide in my red wine, perhaps because agitating the carboy in order to “read” the stage of fermentation with the balloon airlock is such an important part of my process, that perhaps degassing happens automatically? Just another reason to use balloons and not airlocks, as far as I’m concerned. Some people seem to like using a hydrometer, and the directions call for one. It seems unnecessarily fussy to me because using a balloon tells me all the information I need to know about where I am in the fermentation process (also described in Getting Started). If you use an airlock it may be helpful, but I don’t soooo… Shrug? Why make the process more involved? It’s still just four basic ingredients, no matter how much you fuss over it.

The only revision I have made to my process of making wine with kits is investing in a 6.5 gallon carboy. Making it concentrated to a 5 gallon carboy (all the kits are 6 gallon), I could never get it as dry as I wanted. When I reconstituted it into six one-gallon jugs, it always had a lingering sweetness. My wine-making mentor at the studio described my first batch of kit wine as “semi-dry.” Semi didn’t cut it for me; I wanted it truly dry. I bought a 6.5 gallon carboy just for making the kits because I only intend to make red kits (my fruit wine pursuits satisfy my taste for whites), and red tend to foam up more vigorously at first fermentation, so having an extra .5 gallon of airspace keeps the yeast from foaming up into the balloon.

As I mentioned above, even with the kits, I use a balloon airlock. The balloon will stretch to fit the carboy opening. It also helps me immensely in determining when fermentation is actually complete, which is vitally important for getting the wine kits truly dry. Whenever a balloon flops on any batch, I always stir up the jug or carboy by grabbing the neck and swirling it around to agitate the contents. Most of the time the balloon will inflate again. One of my daily to-do items around the house is checking on my in-progress batches and agitating all the ones with floppy or wrinkly balloons. Sometimes, if I’ve been agitating the same batch for a couple weeks and the balloon still fills up, I might make the call to finish the batch despite its having a little life left in it. When I’m making a sparkling wine, for example, it can even be advantageous to siphon the batch while the original yeast is still active because it will help the process of in-bottle carbonation. Sometimes, I’ll just siphon the batch out of impatience, in part because I know it won’t make that big of a difference. If a batch of apple wine, for instance, isn’t completely and utterly dry, it’s not so noticeable. The kits, however, have a higher quality and higher flavor complexity juice (not trying to oversell them, just saying so in contrast to apple juice from the freezer aisle). They also have a built-in flavor association with store-bought dry red wines we’ve known and loved. A little bit of sweetness makes a big difference when our palates are expecting a classic dry red.

When I make a kit, I push the fermentation as far as it will go. First off, let me make a public service announcement — anyone attempting these kits should be well aware that the promise of a 4- or 6- week wine kit is completely and utterly false. Fermentation takes as long as it takes. Lots of factors are at play, and if you wait a certain number of weeks, rather than using some other measure (e.g. balloon airlock, hydrometer, etc.), you are probably going to get an incomplete wine. Not so terrible for lovers of sweet wine, I suppose… but really, why are you buying a Cabernet kit if you want sweet wine? They have plenty of “Arbor Mist” style fruit wine kits, Sangria kits, Moscato kits, etc.

DSC01863I’ve had a kit of Cabernet Shiraz going since January 31, 2015. When the balloon began to flop, I agitated the carboy every day, and every day it filled back up. It wasn’t until last night (April 22nd) that, even after vigorous agitation, the balloon would not fill. This morning, I discovered that the carboy had even formed a vacuum, pulling the balloon inversely into the carboy, which is always a good sign that fermentation is probably done. Still, I did a good 30 seconds of vigorous agitation just to be sure, and the balloon did not fill or even change. See the included photo of what my balloon looked like even after those 30 seconds of agitation.

Next in the process, after letting the sediment in the carboy settle for a few days, I will clean and sanitize six one (1) gallon jugs. Some people would siphon into a second carboy at this point, but I have tons of gallon jugs from a compatriot who is a generous drinker. Using gallon jugs for the next stage has other advantages, too. After cleaning, I put a single campden tablet into each jug and fill them from the carboy with my siphon one by one. It is worth noting that I do NOT use the clearing additives included in every kit, chitosan and kieselsol, because I’ve never found that one of the kit wines needed them; all the kits I’ve done have come out quite clear in the end. I save the additives for unrelated batches that have trouble clearing.

A few of the six jugs will be allocated for longer term bulk aging, while the remainder will be bottled as needed. Whenever I bottle a gallon batch (which produces five standard 750ml bottles), I always do a mix of corks and caps. One or two will be a screw-top bottle or a T-cork (i.e. tasting cork, which is synthetic and reusable) for sooner consumption, and the rest will have regular corks with the intention of aging the wine in bottle a while. I usually try to age all of my corked bottles at least a year (post-it notes on each bottle with the month/year of production help me keep track). I’m pleased to report that the kit wines are actually pretty good even just after fermentation is done. I’ve only been making them for about a year now, so I haven’t tried the longer-term bottlings yet, but my hope is that the inherent character of the grapes will come out more the longer they age.

Despite feeling I can’t take much credit for the production of the kit wines, I have no plan to stop using the kits anytime soon. They have, however, inspired me to pursue a more challenging path to creating red wines — my Cabernet and Zinfandel vines went in the ground last week. When they start fruiting, new wine-making adventures will surely follow.

Thai-style Peanut Sauce

This recipe is amazingly delicious and versatile. It works as a sauce for noodles (hot or cold), a marinade for meat or fish, a slow-cooker sauce or as a base for vegetables and meat in a thai-style curry over rice.

SARAH’S THAI-STYLE PEANUT SAUCE

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 (14oz) can coconut milk
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
dash of cayenne pepper (or to taste)

images_Coconut_Lime_Ver_4bc68778a6e3d1Combine the above ingredients in a bowl or saucepan or crock pot. I like to use an immersion blender to integrate the peanut butter and puree the garlic. Use cold as a sauce for noodles, for dipping or as a marinade. Add meat and/or vegetables to the sauce for slow cooking or heat in a pan for curry or noodles. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

I’ve used this sauce many times before with meat (usually chicken) and vegetables as a curry over rice. This past weekend, I decided to combine it with some faux crab meat (chunk style), put it over noodles and garnish with some green onions.

I ran into a bit of a roadblock with the noodles, however. Having been to two different Thai restaurants in the last few weeks, I noticed that the menus included noodle dishes containing Thai egg noodles. However, when I was out and about at grocery stores this week, I could only find Thai rice noodles. The Thai egg noodles I’ve had in the past — and thus the ones I had in mind — have been relatively wide and flat, not unlike fettuccine. Browsing other types of Asian noodles at these grocery stores, I found nothing to replicate that memory of Thai egg noodles. I couldn’t even find any on Amazon.

I realized, of course, that I could very well make my own noodles. Flour, eggs and a pasta maker were already in my kitchen. I’m always reluctant to make my own noodles, however, because of the cleanup. Making dough, be it water- or egg-based, is always easy in the food processor, but the extra flour required to ease the dough’s path through the pasta maker gets EVERYWHERE. It’s one thing to clean up my workspace, but to have to clean the floors and every stray little item nearby with a light dusting from clouds of flour doesn’t seem worth the effort.

thai-peanut-noodles-11900012rca-ssAfter hitting my last dead-end with the search for something that could pass as a Thai egg noodle, I promised myself that if I felt ambitious enough the next day, I would make my own noodles, but if not, I would simply use the angel-hair-like Chinese egg noodles already in my cupboard.

I was up early the next day without much else to do, so I decided to attempt the noodles. The idea struck me that if I could make the dough just dry enough, I might not need to add extra flour and make a mess. I started with a cup of flour, added a couple eggs, added a bit more flour, etc. until I got a food processor full of fine, powdery dough that formed a somewhat tacky ball when I grabbed a handful and worked it with my hands.

Here is the recipe/method I came up with:

SARAH’S EASY EGG NOODLE DOUGH

2 cups flour (plus at least 1/4 cup in reserve)
3 eggs

Combine the flour and eggs in the food processor. If your eggs are large, you may want to start with two, and reserve the third. The result should be a mealy or powdery substance that will form a ball of dry-ish dough when kneaded in batches. If the dough does not hold together when you try to form a ball, or if it stays somewhat together but cracks, then it is too dry. If the dough won’t even hold together, add your third egg; if it holds together but is too dry to knead without it cracking, try adding a tablespoon of water. If it is too sticky to go through the pasta maker (the pasta maker rollers should be dry without any sticky dough residual after the dough goes through), return the dough to the food processor and add a tablespoon or two of flour. Depending on how large your eggs are, you may need to add more or less flour. Just keep adding it a tablespoon at a time until you get your desired result.

I was able to make a dough with about 2 cups, plus one tablespoon flour, and 3 medium eggs that needed no additional flour for the pasta maker. The process created a few dough crumbles, but they were much easier to clean from my workspace, counter and floor, than a ubiquitous dusting of flour.

Eggplant Lasagna (i.e. Noodle-less Lasagna)

There are a lot of recipes for low-carb lasagna out there. Most of them involve doing something labor-intensive to slices of eggplant or zucchini. Sure, a breaded and fried eggplant parm can be a wonderful thing, but I’m just looking for a low-carb alternative to lasagna noodles. Armed with a new mandolin slicer, I decided to make a direct substitution of eggplant slices for noodles.

Building from my regular lasagna recipe, I endeavored to make a low carb alternative. Because I was also making meatballs to accompany this dish, I did not put meat in the lasagna. Adding meat to this dish would be as easy as browning a pound of ground meat and mixing it in with the sauce before layering. Also, I didn’t have ricotta on hand, so I substituted goat cheese.

DSC01814SARAH’S EGGPLANT LASAGNA

1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3-4 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 (6oz) can of tomato paste
6 oz of beer or red wine
salt and pepper, to taste
cayenne pepper, to taste
fresh basil and parsley, to taste
4 oz. goat cheese or ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup sour cream
one medium to large eggplant
1-2 cups shredded mozzerella or Italian cheese blend

Preheat oven to 300. Saute the onions and garlic in the melted butter in a medium saucepan until onions are softened. Add chopped tomatoes, paste, booze, salt, pepper. Cook until tomatoes break down. Add fresh herbs and cook until wilted in the sauce. Process with an immersion blender or in a food processor. Cook the sauce down so it’s thicker than an ordinary pasta sauce. A thicker sauce (i.e. less liquid) is necessary in this recipe to offset the liquid that the eggplant will release as it bakes.

If you want to add one pound ground meat, do so now. I recommend browning the meat first in a separate skillet before adding to the red sauce.

Meanwhile, combine the goat cheese (or ricotta), the egg, the parmesan and the sour cream in a separate bowl. If using goat cheese, a fork or whisk will help break up the cheese. Beat or whisk until as smooth as possible.

Quarter the eggplant lengthwise. Slice thin with a mandolin slicer. Spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of a 9×9 square pan. Put down the first layer of eggplant slices. Spread with a layer of cheese mixture and then another layer of sauce. Repeat layering: eggplant (I like to alternate each layer crosswise), cheese, sauce. Finish with a layer of eggplant and sauce.

Bake at 300 for one hour. Add shredded cheese and bake for another 45 minutes. The long and slow baking time helps to get rid of excess liquid without burning the contents of your casserole. If your oven runs hot, you may even want to try 250.

This recipe turned out quite tasty, indeed. The eggplant was soft, but sturdy, like a noodle, and the layers held together quite well. The goat cheese as ricotta substitute worked out quite well and makes me think I’d like to try it in a regular lasagna as well. This recipe also makes me curious to try other vegetables as noodle substitutes, perhaps zucchini or some kind of squash or sweet potato.

Invisalign: After the Aligners

10294513_10152040029595952_5248877868177228697_nI’ve been functionally done with treatment for almost a year now now. All told, the actual treatment took about a year longer than the original projection… but that’s okay. The refinements stage is the easiest stage; after 40-some trays of initial treatment, 20-some trays of the first stage of refinements, the prospect of 15 more for a second round was no sweat. Refinement aligners are only worn for one week each — who cares if they get stained? That’s more often than I change my disposable contacts! Refinement trays also represent a smaller and more subtle tooth movement each time; any pain or discomfort is really negligible. By that point I was so accustomed to wearing the aligners, and very personally invested in getting the most out of my treatment — besides getting my $5K money’s worth, going through this process made me more interested in my teeth. I made the primarily-cosmetic decision to fix my teeth as an adult, and I became invested in the process. With all the initial worries of treatment behind me, continuing until my orthodontist said we had reached the end was a natural one.

There was only one surprise along the way. Between Refinements #1 and Refinements #2, Invisalign switched to a new primary aligner material, Smarttrack. I did notice that the first aligner of my new refinement set seemed an easier fit when they first put it in at my orthodontist’s, but I didn’t suspect anything was truly different until about an hour later, strolling through our open market, the Strip District, when a rough spot suddenly appeared on my aligner over my center bottom teeth. Was my aligner cracked? Already? Cracked aligners had happened to me once or twice. No problem. With the refinements being so subtle, I would just pop the second aligner in early and wear it for two weeks, rather than one. By the time I got back home, a corresponding rough spot had emerged on the corresponding tooth on my top aligner. I switched to my second set… and two hours later, a rough spot emerged in exactly the same place. I compared aligner envelopes from last round, and sure enough, the new round said “Smarttrack” in the same place the old round said “EX30.”

DSC01718 copySuffice to say, I was a bit miffed. I left a message at my orthodontist’s office and did some online research. Other people had indeed experienced the same trouble with the Smarttrack aligners, but usually toward the end of their required time for wearing the aligners. When my orthodontist’s office got back to me, they explained that the Smarttrack material requires a “comfort liner” and that shredding is possible but rare. Indeed, upon closer look, I saw that the rough spots on my aligners were places where the thin liner had broken, as if a small hole had formed in a layer of Saran wrap and was peeling off.

The problem, it appeared, was that the quite indestructible nature of the EX30 aligners had turned me into something of an “aligner grinder.” I don’t grind my teeth when the aligner, or now retainer, are out, but when they’re in, I gnaw away. My orthodontist gave my permanent retainer extra thickness to handle it and made it in-house out of a different material. This turn of events is perhaps not surprising. I have always been something of a mouth-fidgeter. One of the great things about having straight teeth now is that I used to worry at the crooks in my crowded bottom teeth with my tongue when I got stressed. Now there are no crooks to mess with. During the Invisalign process, this tendency must have converted to grinding.

All I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t get Smarttrack until the last stage of refinements. I don’t know if I could have made it through the original course of treatment wearing 42 aligners for two weeks each. With an iron will I did my best to retrain myself not to grind my teeth (I do it when awake and not while sleeping). It worked to a certain extent, but by the last day or two of each Smarttrack aligner, there was usually at least one small bloom of shredded plastic, though mostly on my molars which made it easier to ignore than on my front teeth. I did successfully stop grinding in the front of my mouth.

DSC01714 copyTo the credit of the Smarttrack, I can attest that they certainly are more comfortable. They are very elastic, and I can only imagine that makes them easier to wear during the first stages of treatment. I’m betting they virtually eliminate the problem of aligners being so tight at first it’s hard to pop them out. Being more elastic makes them, not only easier to get on and off, but better able to hold their shape. I could tell that my aligners were nudging my teeth more gradually into place throughout the entire week, rather than shoving them all at once into place on the first night, and then keeping them there for the rest of the wearing period. Also, in the interest of complete fairness, I have a friend who was also going through Invisalign at the time I was wearing the Smarttrack, and he didn’t seem bothered by the little bit of shredding he noticed — in fact, he hadn’t even noticed the change in material until I asked him about it.

All of these good qualities will give people who are worried about or sensitive to tooth pain a great advantage in using Invisalign. This treatment was already gentler than braces, but with the Smarttrack, I can’t imagine a kinder and softer way to move your teeth. Also, if the other claims of Smarttrack are to be believed, the process may even happen faster, since the new material moves teeth more efficiently and effectively.

Grinders beware. Where people who grind their teeth actually did better with the EX30 than their non-grinding counterparts… Smarttrack is a whole new ballgame. I’m not sure if they will even make a set of EX30, but if you grind your teeth, I would advise asking your orthodontist if the old aligner material is still available for your treatment.

DSC01713 copyOtherwise, I’m settling well into post-aligner life. I got my permanent retainer in December 2013. It is indeed much thicker than the aligners. When I first put it in at the orthodontist’s office, it almost made me gag, but I’ve gotten used to it. In fact, I sometimes wear it out on errands in the morning or over the weekends. I couldn’t wear it to work — the way it effects my speech is more noticeable than the aligners, but not so noticeable that small transactions and interactions at stores would draw anyone’s attention. Despite the thickness of the retainer, my powerful grind was enough break my top tray after six months of wear. My orthodontist made me a new one at the time, but it looks like I will definitely be needing to replace my retainers on a regular basis as time goes on in order to continue good retention.

Overall, I’m very happy with the result of my treatment. My advice to anyone researching Invisalign is to go ahead and do it… with the caveat that you use an Elite Provider. My doctor in the Pittsburgh area is King Orthodontics. If you are a Pittsburgher, make them your first and last call. Anywhere else, go to an Elite provider, even if it involves a little inconvenience to get there. Experience and customer service make the biggest difference in this process. I am very glad I opted for Elite over even the Premier Preferred providers I looked into. Please, if you’re considering Invisalign, do the research, don’t go to a dentist, and don’t go to someone who specializes in metal braces. Elite providers specialize in Invisalign –go there!