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By Sarah in Entrees, Italian Cuisine, Recipes, Vegetarian Cuisine

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.

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By Sarah in Invisalign

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!
 
 
 

By Sarah in Wine Making

red-wine1From the beginning of my wine-making adventures I always prided myself in the fact that all of my wines, for better or worse, were my own homemade, from-scratch recipes. I started using only juice concentrate. I moved into making small batches with fruit, sometimes on its own, sometimes in combination with juice concentrate. I had many successful whites and many successful blushes, and even successful meades.

The trouble was red. I’m an equal opportunity wine drinker, but when given the choice, I opt for red nine times out of ten. Naturally, when faced with a choice of juice concentrates for my first attempt at a gallon batch, I picked red grape juice. It was a good batch, but it turned out blush. Great! I was happy enough for a dry and drinkable first batch. When I took another attempt at red, I went for two cans of concentrate, aiming for a red.

Well… it wasn’t red. It wasn’t exactly a traditional blush, either. The color was more of a fuschia. Okay then… surely three cans of concentrate would do it. Properly constituted, three cans of concentrate is MORE than a gallon of juice. But alas, still not red! I made a few three canister gallons with a couple different types of dark juice, and all of them turned out to be a deep ruby color, but not red. I even tried adding raisins to my batches when a wine connoisseur advised me that grape skins add important tannins and flavor profiles during fermentation. Clear ruby again! Tasty… in fact one turned out to taste just like cream sherry… but still not red.

b801228h-300-FOR-TRIDION_tcm18-129146I suppose one should consider that the definition of a “red wine” is not fixed. What makes a red wine a red wine and not a blush wine? Where do we draw the exact line between red and blush? My own colloquial reckoning of red vs. blush is that blush, no matter how deep in color, is easy to see through. A red wine, if held up to the light, may have refractions of light shining through it, but also has a somewhat inky, light-blocking quality. It is a continuum, of course. A pinot noir is going to be the most see-through of the reds. Cabernets or dark chiantis, less light refraction. But ultimately, I know a red to see it and none of my attempts fit my definition.

I took to the internet and googled. A lot of people use store-bought kits to make red wines at home, but I wasn’t ready to concede defeat — or to purchase a $70-$80 kit. I found one recipe by a home wine-maker who made a gallon of red with 4 cans of Welch’s Grape Juice Concentrate. FOUR! That’s the equivalent of two gallons of juice condensed into one.

In one last ditch attempt I tried the four cans in one gallon. At long last! A red wine that truly turned out red! Here is my basic recipe for Concord Red, honed over the course of several ensuing batches. Please ready my Getting Started blog before actually attempting any of my recipes. All recipes assume previous at least some knowledge of my general process:

SARAH’S CONCORD RED WINE

4 cans of concord grape concentrate
zero additional sugar
1 cup of strong black tea
1/2 teaspoon yeast energizer
1/2 teaspoon of bentonite
1/2 teaspoon pectic enzyme
red wine yeast

Hydrate your yeast and brew a cup of tea. Heat the juice concentrate in a large saucepan, if you like, to sterilize it, but do NOT add any further sugar (the small amount of sugar used in hydrating the yeast is fine). There is more than enough sugar already present in the 4 cans of concentrate. The first time I tried this recipe and added my usual 2 cups of sugar, I could not get the batch to ferment to dry, despite a few separate attempts to restart fermentation.

Sangiovese-Sorelle-09-12-copyPrepare a clean gallon jug. Add the yeast energizer and pectic enzyme. Bentonite isn’t strictly necessary, but I’ve found it’s a safe bet for darker wines, as they are more prone to clearing problems (more about bentonite below). The other significant omission here is acid blend. Almost all my blush and white recipes include acid blend, but it will make your reds too crisp (another lesson learned from making kits… more below).

Combine the concentrate and tea with your additives already in the jug. If the mixture is still hot to touch, wait before adding the yeast. Once yeast is added, fill jug most of the way full, but maybe an inch or two below the neck. Darker and denser wines ferment vigorously at first. If you fill the jug too high, it will froth up into your balloon or airlock. Skimp on the extra liquid now, and top it off later when you rack it into a second jug with the campden tablet at the end of fermentation.

So, my concord red recipe is now honed… but it’s sort of limiting. I tried making a quadruple concentrate recipe with other types of red juice, Wild Berry and Blueberry Pomegranate, but both of these turned out dark ruby blush. The 4 cans of concord is the only way I’ve been able to make a “real red” using store bought juice. I can get a little creative by adding fruit (or preserves) to this recipe. I’ve done blackberry, blueberry and strawberry reds this way. But I still felt my red repertoire was lacking.

Thus my temptation kicked in to try a kit. I asked our wine-makers at the studio and they reported having tried a wine kit with success, but little creative gratification, saying that it felt more like putting together a chemistry set than making a wine of their own.

But, there are worse ways to obtain six gallons of red wine, right?

My resolve was sealed upon further research. Amazon offers wine kits in the $45 to $55 range (depending on if you use their Subscribe & Save option to order it) with free shipping. When I crunched the numbers, I realized I was paying basically the same price, per gallon, for the juice alone to make the 4 canister recipe above… and let’s face it, even the best concord wine is still concord wine. The complexity of a real varietal wine grape at roughly the same price is no contest for concord. It would be worth the price for the juice alone, but these kits also come with corks and additives and yeast and sugar already added to the juice. The kits also come with labels and shrink caps for 30 bottles, but my thought is… I go to enough trouble getting these things OFF the wine bottles I intend to reuse, why on earth would I then put them back on?

Intrigued by the promise of varietal wine grape juice at the same cost as concord, my only concern was how much control I would have over the process? What if I wanted to use my own additives? My own yeast? Etc., etc… I figured the yeast would have to be packaged separately, but would the initial additives already be dissolved in the juice? The sugar is, but not the additives. Essentially, I am free to use whatever additives I please and prepare the juice according to my own recipe, if I wish.

But upon reading the directions provided with the wine kit, I made a few key discoveries. First, the kit did not include any sort of acid or acid blend as an additive, while it was listed as one of the possible ingredients on the box’s master list covering bases for all the varieties in its wine kit line. It did, however, include bentonite, which I had never used before. I was vaguely familiar with this additive as a clearing agent, and so I was curious to read that the directions called for it to be added before fermentation, rather than upon finishing.


I took to the internet to do some research into bentonite. Apparently, it can be added before or after fermentation to aid in clearing, but it is more effective when added at the beginning. The bentonite attaches to certain particles and then drags them down to the sediment layer as it settles. Adding before fermentation means that the bentonite will keep getting kicked up, keeping it circulating throughout grabbing more particles. I added it to my kit and ordered my own supply online right away. It has helped some stubborn old batches to clear, but has done the most wonders for newly started recipes that I’ve had trouble clearing in the past.

I finished up my first wine kit this week, an Italian Sangiovese. It’s difficult to say at this point how it will be. I tried some just to make sure it was dry enough to finish off, which it was, and to make the decision whether to keep it concentrated (it was a 6 gallon kit, but I have only a five gallon fermenter), which I also did. I use my five gallon carboys only for fermentation, and never for clearing/aging. I have only two of these large fermenters, and I have a ton of gallon jugs. To finish off the Sangiovese, and convert it to six gallons, I took 6 one gallon jugs, crushed a campden tablet into each, and then added 3 cups of filtered water to each one before racking the wine into them.

The other decision I made, fairly early on, was that I would not add the chemicals included in the kit to clear the wine at the end, chitosan and kieselsol. I’ve never needed such clearing agents before, and I would rather get away with using fewer additives whenever possible. If the Sangiovese becomes a challenge to clear, perhaps I will try these additives in the Chilean Cabernet Merlot kit that is currently in fermentation. Then again, its balloon is already deflating, after only two weeks! I’m guessing it’s because I added a tablespoon of my own yeast energizer to the batch, which I did not do with the Sangiovese… also, it’s been warm this week. I don’t plan to rack the Cabernet/Merlot anytime too soon, though. A quick stir easily fills the balloon back up, and after racking the Sangiovese into jugs, I’m kinda low on jugs. Yikes! Guess I have to get bottling, especially because I’m looking to increase production of Apple. There will be some serious jug shortages this summer, I fear.

Also this week…

Started a batch of double concentrate Apple with 3 times the acid blend and Montrachet yeast in search of that elusive tart cider flavor.

Replaced the Sangiovese in one of my large carboys with a five gallon batch of single concentrate Apple with double acid (i.e. 2 teaspoons per gallon) and champagne yeast.

Racked that annoying Cranberry Apple batch that has been fermenting since October into a finishing jug for aging, along with a 1 1/2 Apple with 2 times acid.

Started a new recipe for my popular Raspberry & Pear wine using Welch’s White Grape Raspberry and two pounds of pears.

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By Sarah in Wine Making

After a year and a half of wine-making, I’ve gotten to the point where I have hundreds of gallon batches (and a few 5 gallons) under my belt, cupboards stocked full of corked and aging bottles, and a solid base of knowledge for growth and experimentation.

Apple WineWith spring temperatures (finally!) becoming the norm, it’s the perfect time to step up production. I’ve been through two winters, now, as a home wine-maker, and one of the most frustrating things about the cold weather is that fermentation slows to a crawl. This winter in particular has prompted me to start dating each batch with start of fermentation, just out of curiosity. I have at least one gallon batch (cranberry apple) that has been fermenting since October (learn more about my process here), and while it is slowing down, its staying power is persistent.

The promise of faster fermenting provides the perfect opportunity to stock up on one of the staples of my repertoire: Apple Wine. After the long winter, I’ve found myself in a “wine, wine everywhere and not a drop to drink” situation. Many of my summer batches bottled last year have only just reached the 6 month mark, and while that is an important aging milestone for significant improvement of taste, I find myself reluctant to delve into a well-aged bottle a) unless it’s a special occasion and/or I’m sharing with friends, or b) because if I can hold out just a little longer, the one year mark promises an even bigger improvement.

Apple Wine is one of my staples because it is cheap to make (as little as $3, give or take, per gallon), easy to clear, and pretty drinkable even without significant aging. Moreover, the cheaper and easier it is to make, the less I’m concerned with letting it age to full potential. I might set one bottle per batch aside for aging, but the rest gets used up pretty quickly. Some gets made into Sparkling Apple Wine (a fan favorite among my regular group of tasters), some gets consumed as a light, crisp, everyday white, and good bit gets used for cooking. The light, and relatively neutral flavor makes it ideal for recipes when other flavors present a culinary head-scratcher (“Would mango wine taste okay in this risotto?”).

It is also neutral enough to serve as a base for other fruits and flavors, including various spices, citrus and/or vegetables. White grape juice serves a similar function in this regard, but white grape juice is more expensive, clocking in at around $2.50 for a single canister of concentrate (i.e. 2 quarts), where I can get the same amount of apple for 99 cents. The price tag of apple inspires greater risk taking in recipe experimentation.

Let’s start with a basic recipe for Apple Wine:

apple basketBASIC APPLE WINE

2-3 cups of sugar
Champagne yeast
1 or 2 canisters frozen apple juice concentrate
1/2 teaspoon yeast energizer
1/2 teaspoon pectic enzyme
1 or 2 teaspoons acid blend

If you haven’t already, please read my general instructions first, as this and all my recipes will assume previous knowledge of the process of wine making and the equipment necessary.

Start by making a sugar syrup and hydrating your yeast. When I’m using frozen concentrate, I like to thaw it and mix it in with the sugar syrup as it heats in order to sterilize the juice — I started doing this after one batch of apple went bad. You just never know if frozen concentrate has been accidently semi-thawed during transit.

For a one gallon recipe, I use a dusting of yeast, rather than a whole packet. I used to use an entire packet, but I find that a small amount of yeast (say, an 1/8 to a 1/4 of a teaspoon — I don’t measure), if it’s well hydrated ahead of time, will do just fine since yeast multiplies as needed during fermentation.

Measure your additives into a clean and sterile gallon jug using a large funnel. Add the sugar solution and juice when slightly cooled. Fill about 3/4 of the way with water (I use a Brita faucet mount to filter my tap water for wine-making). Feel the side of the jug. If it is still hot to touch, don’t add the yeast. Let it cool to the point where it is only as warm as hand-comfortable tap water.

Add yeast to the cooled-down jug. Fill to about the neck with water. Cover the mouth of the jug with your balloon airlock and secure with a rubberband. At this point I like to label my jug with a large post-it note indicating the type of wine and the start date.

balloonwineFermentation should be in full swing within two days. You know that it is fermenting well when the balloon inflates to the point where it can stand up on its own.

During the warmer weather, my apple wine tends to finish fermentation within a couple weeks, depending on the precise ingredients. Using 3 cups of sugar makes the wine stronger and fermentation takes longer. I found 3 cups a bit too strong for an everyday table wine, so I reduced my regular recipe to 2 cups.

Using one cannister of concentrate produces a very light wine, and some of my tasters have found it a bit too light-bodied for their liking. I’ve also made batches with 2 canisters per gallon; they are certainly more flavorful, but they also come out of fermentation with some harsher notes, requiring a longer aging period to smooth out the flavor profile. The single-canister batches are much more drinkable, even with only a week or so of aging. I’ve also been experimenting with 1.5 canisters per gallon (for which I usually start 2 gallons at a time, dividing three canisters equally among them), hoping for a happy medium.

I’ve also experimented with a number of spices. I’ve done Apple Ginger, Apple Cinnamon, Spiced Apple (with a mulled cider type of spice mix), Apple Cardamom and even Apple Ginger & Cinnamon. In search of a flavor more tartly cider-like, I’ve increased the acid content either by using double my normal amount, or by adding limes and lime juice. I juice the limes (2-3 per gallon) into the jug and then simmer the rinds in with my sugar syrup and juice. I’ve made Apple Lime, Apple Ginger Lime and Apple Cardamom Lime. I was once told that my Apple Lime tastes like a fine Sauvignon Blanc… though, consider that the taster was drunk at the time. My co-worker refers to my Apple Lime as “Corona Wine.”


The newest wrinkle on my apple wine experimentation is to try using a different strain of yeast. When I started wine-making, I used Champagne Yeast for everything. I invested in a supply of Pasteur Red when I pushed my recipes toward deeper blushes and reds. Recently, while browsing wine supplies online, I happened upon a good deal for Montrachet Wine Yeast. According to the description, this yeast aids in developing aroma complexity and aids in producing full-bodied reds OR whites. I decided to try using the montrachet in my latest 5 gallon batch of Apple Wine. The single-canister-per-gallon apple is far from full-bodied, but I was curious if the Montrachet would bring out more flavor. This past weekend I did an initial bottling of this batch. Three gallons went into 15 bottles of Apple Sparkling, while two gallons went into jugs for clearing.

As with many apple batches in the past, these two batches cleared very quickly, and I bottled them only a few days later (in part, anticipating a batch of fondue this weekend for which I’d need some wine, and in part because I’m trying to keep gallons open for when my five gallon Sangiovese kit is done). I’ve sampled a bit already, and I find it… well, so far not that different. Certainly still very light, perhaps a bit cleaner in initial flavor. Aging will likely tell a better tale but, how do I compare it to apple wines that have been aging a longer time or shorter time? It occurs to me that if I truly want to put different yeast strains to the test, I’ll have to start two otherwise identical batches simultaneously to see how they fare side-by-side as they age.

Tough job, somebody’s got to do it…

Also this week…

I started my second wine kit, a 5 gallon batch of Chilean Cabernet Merlot. I added a tablespoon of my own yeast energizer, and fermentation has been vigorous! Perhaps too vigorous… I hate when the fermentation foam froths up so high it leaks out of the pinholes in the balloon.

I bottled a gallon of Mango Guava and a gallon of Apple Ginger Cinnamon as five bottles each of sparkling wine.

My Mango with Montrachet yeast has been transferred to a second jug for clearing.

I started a gallon of Berry Burst Blush with the intention of making it the second entry in Sabrina’s Pink Sparkly Wine Challenge. Also, I am experimenting with a new formulation of a wine I like to call “Strawberry Julius,” the process of making it much improved by the discovery of bentonite! And finally, I am starting a batch of concord red with no acid.
 
 
 

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Fresh Salsa

September 23, 2013
By Sarah in Appetizers, Mexican Cuisine, Recipes, Vegetarian Cuisine

My dad suggested a few weeks ago that we try to make salsa from the vegetables in his garden. I easily got on board with this idea, but had to break it to him that we would need more than his garden offers. Luckily, though, his plentiful tomatoes offered an excellent base for a fundamental salsa recipe.

SalsaI had never made fresh salsa, per se, but I did have some starting expertise from two sources. First, I’ve made a good bit of guacamole in my day, and the ingredients are similar (sans avocado, of course). Second, my friend and chef mentor of yesteryear, Lisa, used to make salsa and advised me on the key to her approach–namely, that vegetables should be diced small in a careful and deliberate way, not pulverized in a food processor. I never attempted salsa back in my college days, but I remembered her advice and remembered the very particular and positive effect it had on her salsa recipe.

SARAH’S FRESH SALSA

4-5 medium tomatoes, just ripe (flesh should be firm, not grainy)
1 large onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1-2 jalapenos, or other hot pepper to taste
1 lime
cilantro, several sprigs
salt and pepper, to taste

Quarter the tomatoes, seed them, rinse clean and then place on a paper towels to dry a bit.

Meanwhile, dice the vegetables. All vegetables should be chopped into small pieces, but not so small that they lose their shape (as would happen in pulverized in a food processor). This process isn’t as labor intensive as you might think. Onions can be sliced first to create rings, and the cut into tiny cubes against the grain of its natural layers. Slice peppers in half length-wise, seed them, and then cut long, slender strips. Make slender cuts in the other direction, now, to make small pieces. Once tomatoes have dried a bit, do the same.

Combine diced onion, minced garlic, chopped jalapenos, and chopped tomatoes in a medium bowl. Juice the lime over the bowl. Snip the cilantro into the mix, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let stand in the refrigerator at least a half hour. I usually try to make it a day ahead of time to let the flavors meld together. Serve with chips or tacos or any dish to which salsa is a good compliment.

Quiche

September 16, 2013
By Sarah in Entrees, Recipes, Side Dishes, Vegetarian Cuisine

DSC01469Over the weekend, I found myself planning a brunch menu, and so could not help but be reminded of an old favorite recipe–quiche! Perfect for brunch and very customizable. Of course, a traditional quiche uses a pie crust, but in my experience, the pie crust adds a pretty big extra inconvenience. Not only must it be made and baked first, but the exposed crust must be guarded against getting burnt while the middle of the pie is left uncovered. Unless you have a special pie crust guard, an unwieldy make-shift tin foil guard is necessary. If you’re so intent on a classic pie crust that you’re willing to deal with the annoyance, go right ahead–I recommend buying a pre-made pie shell at the store and preparing it according to package directions. But given my family’s preference toward low carb, I have every reason to eschew the inconvenience of the pie crust and make a crust-less quiche.

My favorite sort of quiche to make is with bacon, but over the weekend I made a vegetarian quiche with spinach. In the past I have combined bacon and spinach, and truly, any combination of vegetables and/or protein would work in this recipe.

SARAH’S QUICHE

butter & almond meal
4 eggs beaten
1 cup light cream or half n half
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper
dash of nutmeg
1/3 lb chopped crisp bacon, or 10oz spinach, or other meat, fish or vegetable
1 1/2 cup shredded swiss or other cheese
1 tablespoon flour

DSC01464Pre-heat oven to 325. Prepare a 9 to 10-inch shallow casserole pan by greasing it with butter and then coat with the almond meal. In the absence of almond meal, flour could be used, but that would predictably make the dish a bit higher in carbs.

In a medium bowl combine eggs, cream, onions and spices. Add meat and/or vegetables. In a small bowl or plastic bag, toss the flour with the shredded cheese. Add to the rest of the quiche ingredients.

Pour the quiche contents into the prepared pan. Bake at 325 for at least 45 minutes. Test done-ness by inserting a butter knife in the center. If it comes out clean, it’s done. Otherwise bake for longer, and test every 5 minutes or so.

Risotto

September 13, 2013
By Sarah in Entrees, Italian Cuisine, Recipes, Side Dishes, Vegetarian Cuisine

Until maybe a year ago, I didn’t know much about risotto. I remember as a kid and young adult, people on TV seemed to order it a lot in restaurant scenes, but then I hadn’t heard much about it until watching one of these chef competition shows where the contestants were challenged to make the perfect risotto–a task that is somewhat tricky, in large part because timing and temperature issues come into place. The rice must be cooked slowly and at a constant temperature, and so the broth used cooking it must be kept hot in a separate saucepan.

I did some online research and began experimentation. I don’t know if my risotto could stack up against the chefs on the competition show, but I’ve found that produces what is essentially a “rice alfredo” with the option for much customization; vegetables, mushrooms, fish & meat, and even nuts and lemon provide great options for dressing up the dish. I’ve found that risotto has become of my favorite dishes to cook, in large part because it is just fussy enough, requiring time and attention, but not so much that I can’t be working on other dishes at the same time.

Roasted Pepper RisottoSARAH’S RISOTTO

3 cups broth (chicken is standard, but I’ve made and used fish broth for salmon risotto)
1/4 cup butter
1 small onion chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup medium grain rice (arborio rice is traditional)
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream or sour cream
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
add-ins, such as spinach, roasted peppers, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, salmon, almonds, pesto, wild mushrooms etc.

Heat the broth in a small saucepan and keep over constant low heat. Meanwhile melt the butter in a large non-stick frying pan. Saute the onion and garlic until softened.

Add the rice to the onions and garlic. Fry for about 3 to 5 minutes. Add wine and cook until wine is absorbed.

Add broth gradually to rice, keeping it hot in its saucepan in the meantime. You should aim for there to be a thin veil of broth over the rice at all times during cooking.

Once broth is used up, add the cream, cheese, seasonings and add-ins and heat through. Serve and enjoy!

Blue Mushroom Soup

August 27, 2013
By Sarah in Appetizers, Recipes, Side Dishes

Sabrina, Ted and I recently attended the 2013 Taste of Ellicottville festival, and after sampling many delights, one of our favorites was the Blue Mushroom soup. Here is my attempt to recreate it:

SARAH’S BLUE MUSHROOM SOUP

1/3 pound of bacon chopped
1 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 white wine
2 cups broth (beef, chicken or vegetable)
salt and pepper to taste
8 oz wild mushrooms (i.e. crimini, portabella, etc), sliced
2 cups cream or sour cream
5-8 oz blue cheese

Fry the bacon in the bottom of a large saucepan until crisp. Add the onions and garlic, fry until softened. Add the butter, stir until melted. Add the flour and stir until combined. Add the wine, broth and heat through. At the seasoning and mushrooms, and simmer over low heat about ten minutes, until mushrooms are tender. Add cream and blue cheese and heat through, or until cheese is melted, keeping at a low temperature so that the cream does not boil.

Serve and enjoy!

By Sarah in Appetizers, Entrees, Italian Cuisine, Recipes, Vegetarian Cuisine

To say that I was a picky eater growing up is a vast understatement. Ask my parents, and they will easily bemoan the days when they struggled to get anything substantially more nutritious than macaroni and cheese past my lips. In those days, I didn’t enjoy food so much as tolerate it because Neilbert and Saundra told me that I needed it to live (medical science and insistent hunger substantiate said claims). Now, food is my foremost hobby and my palate so adventurous that my parents are afraid of the majority of my favorite cuisines.

But back in those days, when dairy-covered starch was the only cuisine I could claim to “like,” imagine my parents’ astonishment when I encountered fried zucchini out at a restaurant and loved it! Pleased and in awe that I raved about eating a vegetable, Saundra naturally hoped to replicate this experience at home. My mother has always favored baking over cooking, but she stepped outside of her culinary wheelhouse to make me fried zucchini.

Alas, it just wasn’t the same. At the time, it proved to be a dead-end conundrum. She had, after all, taken zucchini, breaded it and fried it. What else was there possibly to be done?

As I grew older, and my palate more adventurous, my creative nature logically ventured into the kitchen. I stayed away from breading and frying for most of my adult life because, well, conventional wisdom at the time was to avoid fat in one’s diet as much as possible (oh the 90′s!). Then, two things happened more or less around the same time to change that philosophy.

Saundra was diagnosed with type II diabetes, and as a family we experienced the revelation that fat was not our enemy, but in fact, an ally against carbohydrates. Switching to a low carb diet helped Saundra control her blood sugar, and cutting down on carbs virtually eliminated in me a tendency toward fainting that has plagued both Saundra and myself for most of our lives.

Around this same time, my then-S.O. and present–though far-flung–friend Geoff introduced me to his family recipe for wiener schnitzel. He and his mother fundamentally taught me how to bread and fry, and I have expanded these skills to chicken parmesan, breaded cauliflower, etc. This is the type of breading that Italian American chefs have described to me as “FEB”: dredge in flour, then in eggs, and finally in breadcrumbs. Besides the FEB breading, I also ventured into pakora-style appetizers using a simple garbanzo-flour breading. Tasty, great, fried foods are the new health food.

But, I still had never encountered the solution to my zucchini mystery. Even in building my own aptitude with breading, the fabled fried zucchini of my youth remained a mystery.

About two years ago, I dated a guy who didn’t eat pork for reasons of heritage, and consequently, habit. Otherwise, he was an enthusiastic meat eater, and so I mused over the concept of making wiener schnitzel with beef instead of pork. After all, I knew it could be done with chicken, and most traditionally with veal… but I’m poor, and veal is mean, and if it would work with beef, all the better. The train of thought, and train of internet searching, that led me to consider frying beef inevitably produced recipes for country fried steak. Further searches revealed that country fried steak was connected to the very fundaments of country fried chicken. What was this “country fried” phenomenon? And how did it differ from the FEB breading that had become commonplace in my kitchen?

According to the recipes I consulted, “country-fried” breading simply eliminates the breadcrumbs. It is, essentially, “FEF,” if you will. Dredge in flour, dredge in eggs, and finish off with more flour. The flour can also be augmented with herbs and spices… take a page from KFC, right?

Eventually time and ambition inspired me to try this concept on chicken (I remain dubious about the concept of breading and frying steak… eating beef that is anything but rare or over-stewed to the point of falling apart makes me uncomfortable). When the chicken hit the flour a second time, I had a revelation. The eggs and the flour and the clumping… this what the zucchini breading! This was the fluffy batter that the fabled zucchini had all those years ago!

Country-fried chicken has become a staple of my diet, now. I even prefer it to FEB-style chicken in Italian meals. It’s great in tacos, and even pretty awesome with spicy dipping sauces like sweet & hot mustard or thai peanut satay. It is essentially the all-purpose chicken tenderloin! And there is nothing to it, just to bread the chicken in flour, then eggs (beaten with a bit of milk or cream), then flour. I usually do a double breading, so flour, eggs, flour, eggs and finally flour.

With my country-fried chicken mastered, I picked up a zucchini and put my FEF to the ultimate test. The result was the fried zucchini of legend that I ate one random time as a child. Couldn’t be easier. Here’s how to do it.

SARAH’S LEGENDARY FRIED ZUCCHINI

You will need:

zucchini
flour
eggs
milk or cream
salt
Parmesan and marinara sauce (optional

Using a mandolin-style slicer, cut the zucchini into thin planks. In the alternative, use a french fry cutter to make zucchini fries. Prepare the breading: mix a little salt in with the flour, set out on a plate. Beat the eggs with a little milk or cream, as well as some salt, set out in a wide bowl. Dredge zucchini slices or fries in the flour, then the egg mixture, back in the flour, back in the egg, and finally finish with flour. Heat oil in a non-stick saucepan. Fry the zucchini strips until lightly golden. Serve with parmesan and marinara sauce, if desired.

By Sarah in Invisalign

This past December, I finished my initial course of Invisalign treatment. Overall, I am very pleased with the results so far, it’s just that the initial course of treatment didn’t get my teeth all the way to straight.

But that’s okay. I knew it was likely I would need refinements because I did lots of research before deciding to do Invisalign, and my orthodontist kept me informed of that possibility all along the way. I’ve come this far, after all, and I didn’t want to stop short of my teeth getting as straight as possible. And why would I? As I’ve blogged before, Invisalign has become such a regular and unobtrusive part of my lifestyle that I honestly don’t care how long it takes. I’ve invested this much time and money into my teeth, why wouldn’t I want to keep going?

After 24 Refinement TraysFor this reason, I advise anyone undergoing Invisalign to make sure that refinements are included in your originally quoted price. My orthodontist is an Elite Invisalign provider, and I suspect such is the norm among Elite providers, but I did read in my original research that some doctors charge extra for refinements. Ask about refinements during your initial consultation, and if your doctor charges for them, go someplace else. Chances are you’ll need them and you don’t want to get this far and get stuck paying additional fees to complete your treatment.

Refinements are fundamentally a new course of treatment. When I went in for my December appointment, they removed my attachments and took new impressions of my teeth as they were so far. I actually sort of complained that they were removing my attachments, but my doctor explained that I might need a different scheme of attachments for the next round.

And boy did I! Apparently it’s all the rage to have double attachments, now. Maybe it was all along, and I just didn’t get them the first time. The reasoning behind the double attachments is supposedly that two smaller attachments can move the teeth more effectively while being less visible.

Before InvisalignGood thing, because when I showed up for my new attachments and first set of refinements, I discovered that I would have two teeth with double attachments, one of them being my right front tooth! Aside from the fact that they were initially pitched too far inward, my front teeth have always been my straightest teeth, as far as I can tell. Add to that, I DID NOT end up with attachments on my lateral incisors (the teeth on either side of the front teeth), which were the very teeth that were most misbehaved during my original treatment!

Since I’ve been happy with my treatment so far, I decided to go with it and accept the attachments the way they were (also, my mouth was already propped open with dental gear and my teeth prepped when the doctor walked in to put on my attachments). I did ask, once the attachments were on, why I didn’t get any on the lateral incisors, and he said that apparently the Invisalign computer thought my teeth would move well enough without them… an answer that didn’t exactly make me feel like he was really taking charge of my treatment… but then said if the incisors weren’t moving properly, we’d re-order refinements with attachments there.

Six Months Into TreatmentWhatever… as I said, I’m in this for as long as it takes, and I was anxious to get started on my new course of refinements. At first, the lateral incisors were fitting snug in the new aligners, and then inevitably they fell behind, but not by much. There were stages in my initial course of treatment when the laterals were so far behind that I could feel the air trying to force through the gaps in my aligners when I spoke loudly in busy group classes.

Overall, I like the refinement stage better than the initial course. My orthodontist had me changing the aligners once a week for refinements instead of every two weeks and the changes were so incremental that any pain or discomfort was negligible. Changing every week somehow makes me feel like I’m making more efficient progress!

I continue to go about my life with Invisalign just like I did before. When people ask me about what it’s like to wear them, I often describe the experience of wearing Invisalign to the experience of wearing shoes. When you’re going about your day in a comfortable pair of shoes, you don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that you have shoes on or consciously aware of the fact that you have shoes on, but when you stop and think about about it, you can feel your shoes. Now if they’re uncomfortable, new and not-yet-broken in, you are thinking about them and irritated by them (like a new set of aligners with rough edges you haven’t had a chance to file down yet), but a comfortable pair of shoes isn’t going to register in the front of your brain as you wear them, likewise your aligners won’t either.

One Year Into TreatmentFor the most part, I go about my days not thinking about the Invisalign and with people not noticing them. My work environment is one where most of my colleagues and regular students already know about my Invisalign, but we do get a steady stream of new folks in the door. Rarely someone will notice them, but I just explain that I have Invisalign, and it doesn’t bother me at all for them to know it. So what if I have braces? The main drawback of people “knowing” you have braces is the sophomoric or nerdy “metal mouth” look. I have the braces of the future; it’s like Star Trek, right? Some people who have known me and worked with me this whole time are surprised when they only just find out. I happened to mention it to one of my students, and it turned out he had had Invisalign himself, and that he had even been an Invisalign pioneer, one of the first people to get them back in the late nineties. I still can’t figure out if he never noticed them, or was just too polite to comment (he’s that sort, the kind who says “excuse my language” when he exclaims “bloody!”).

We had a professional dance champion and dancing coach in the studio a couple months ago who also is undergoing Invisalign. She outed me immediately (not that I cared about being outed) to my first student of the day. He noticed them for the first time and was surprised he hadn’t noticed them sooner. He spent at least one lesson kind of staring at my braces, but since then he only occasionally comments on them, sometimes to ask if I even have them on because he can’t see them. It was interesting working with the coach that day because I got to hear some of her experiences with having Invisalign. She says to my one student, referring to her and me, “We have Invisalign, that’s why we lisp.” I blinked and didn’t say anything, but frankly I don’t think I lisp at all. Maybe I’m living in a fantasy world, but I honestly can’t sense a lisp on any words I say, except maybe the word “lisp”! Occasionally when I’m tired or a little inebriated, I sense a greater tendency to mess up my words when the aligners are in, but when I’m enunciating as normal and not speaking lazy, I don’t think I have any sort of lisp. Friends, feel free to disabuse me of this notion. The coach also asked me about my aligners and whether they get stained by the end of the time I have them in. I told her it depends on how much coffee I drink. With the refinement stage, honestly, I care about stains not at all. With the aligners in and out in one week, it’s not an issue at all.

Two Years Into TreatmentThe coach also wondered if I get dry mouth while I’m teaching. I wasn’t able to answer her fully because my next students just walked in, but the answer is no… and due an apparently peculiar phenomenon that it doesn’t appear she has experienced. Over the course of time I’ve been wearing my Invisalign, my mouth has come to produce excess saliva. As a result, I don’t notice a difference when the aligners are in, but I definitely notice when they are out. I assume my mouth will go back to normal once treatment is over, but for now, I have saliva to spare.

Another thing I experienced for the first time this round was a set of over-correction aligners. The last three sets were marked as over-correction. My orthodontist didn’t really explain over-correction in detail, only to say that I didn’t really have to wear them, but gave them to me anyhow. I looked it up online, out of curiosity and found that over-correction is much as it sounds… the aligners actually target your more troublesome teeth to move them further than perfect. Rotate them a little more than ideal with the knowledge that once the attachments are off and treatment is done, these teeth will revert at least a little. This strategy makes perfect sense to me, and I’m actually comforted by the thought that Invisalign has built in this protection against tooth reversion, but perhaps unsurprisingly, many folks online are FREAKED OUT by the prospect of over-correction and very upset when their orthodontists tell them about it. Now, I have to admit that the over-correction aligners were harder to get in. I had to put them in after wearing my old set for at least a half hour (I usually put a new set in after I eat dinner), and then it did take some pushing of the new set into place, and sometimes much chewing of Aligner Chewies to get them settled to the point where they wouldn’t pop out on one side or the other. The over-correction did hurt more than the rest of the refinement aligners, but no more than the average aligner in the initial treatment. Once again, internet Invisalign patients seem to be freaking out for nothing.

My refinement course of treatment was 24 aligners, and I just finished last week. While I continue to be happy with my results, they aren’t perfect just yet. My orthodontist offered that if time were an issue we could fix them up within a few weeks with clear traditional braces, but what’s another six months or so? One of our students who has done Invisalign in the past, got talked into six weeks of clear traditional braces by her doctor and hated them. I told him just not to be stingy with the attachments (I actually said please put some on my laterals!) and he resolved to make the next round of refinements, however long they take, finish the job. At this point they look great with my aligners in, and they just need a few more tweaks to look just as great with the aligners out. If I had known when I started that it would take at least a year longer than the orthodontist first quoted me, I might have been concerned, but now that I’m in the midst of it, time is no issue. It’s hard to imagine my life without Invisalign.

On to the next round!