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Recipes From Outside the Box: Two Simple Homemade Cheeses September 9, 2009

Let’s be honest: cheese is delicious.  It’s creamy, saltiness can go with almost any dish, sweet or savory.  Today’s dairy and food processing industries have, unfortunately, made most cheese available in stores unfit for regular consumption.  The antibiotics and pesticide residues in dairy cattle feed is fat soluble, meaning it is concentrated in food products that contain high percentages of milkfat – including cheeses.  Artificially colored, preserved, and packaged to boot, these “cheese products” are hardly what cheese is meant to be.  Lucky for us, two economically simple solutions exist: homemade ricotta and paneer (a mild, solid Indian cheese).

For the recipes below, you can use either goat’s milk or cow’s milk, as long as it is unhomogenized.  If the milk has been homogenized, it will not separate readily into the curds and whey, which is what has to happen if you’re going to make cheese.  As always, I strongly recommend you find a local milk source that allows their cows to munch on grass rather than antibiotics or artificial hormones.  I have made these recipes both from milking goats at Homestead Ranch and from the cow’s milk available from Iwig Dairy.



1 gallon whole milk

1/3 c. vinegar or lemon juice

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. butter (optional)

candy thermometer (optional, but recommended)

cheesecloth or fine grained tea cloth (for straining)



Pour the milk in a pot and stir in 1/4 tsp. salt.  Warm gently, over medium heat, until the milk is just about to boil (between 185 – 195 degrees F on a candy thermometer), the milk will begin forming bubbles and a foamy top.  Remove the milk from the heat, and immediately add the vinegar (I like to add it one tablespoon at a time, until the curds begin to visibly separate). Add the remainder of the salt, stir briefly, and then allow to sit for at least ten minutes up to several hours covered with a clean cloth, giving the curds enough time to pull out of the whey.  The curds will gather, leaving a clearish liquid (the whey), the longer it is allowed to sit the more curds you will get, although the process can be done in a rush and still return a good result.  Ladle or pour the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined colander. (I set the colander over a bowl and catch the whey, which is great for adding to soaking beans, grains, or for various fermentation projects!)

Homemade Ricotta

Homemade Ricotta

Ricotta: Let it drain for a few minutes or up to an hour, depending on how dry or creamy you would like your cheese to be.  It is also optional to stir in a couple tablespoons of melted butter to make a richer end product, especially if using fresh goat’s milk.

Paneer: Let it drain for several minutes, until the visible liquid is gone.  Wrap

the cheese up in the cheesecloth, and press it into an oval shape.  Place the cheese onto a rimmed plate, and weigh it down to press out the remaining moisture, for twenty to thirty minutes.  (I place another small plate on top of the cheese with a couple cans of beans on top to evenly distribute the weight across the cheese’s surface).  Remove the cheese from the cloth, and cut into 1/2 – 1″ squares, which may be eaten as they are or fried until golden (that’s right – fried cheese…yummy!).


Recipes From a Box: Cheesy Tetraziney

Processed Sliced Cheese (Credit: www.answers.com)

Processed Sliced Cheese (Credit: http://www.answers.com)

When I was a younger, if you had told me cheese wasn’t supposed to be orange or yellow, I would have told you you were crazy.  All the cheese I knew – the kind that comes out of a long rectangle encased in foil, the kind that you open in single sheets between two thin layers of plastic, and the kind that comes powdered that you mix with milk to put on noodles – all of the cheese I knew was yellowish orange.  I’m sure I even refused to eat cheesy dishes that didn’t have the appropriate color, except of course that white parmesan powder I ate on my “puh-sgetti”.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that ooey-gooey layer in my grilled cheese “sammiches” didn’t always have the glow of an orange crayon.  Although food coloring has been done for centuries, now that food scientists in labs have isolated the compounds in plants, dirt, and even insects, artificial reproductions of natural coloring compounds are abundant in the food system.  The recipe below, for that plastic-wrapped American “cheese product” populating lunchboxes across the nation, includes three separate coloring agents to make a simple white cheese a more edible yellowy hue:

INGREDIENTS: [cheddar cheese, [milk]], whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, calcium phosphate, sodium citrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, apocarotenal (color),annatto (color), enzymes, vitamin D3, cheese culture,yellow dye.


1. It all starts with cultured milk. Most milk in processed products are the result of the conventional dairy industry, complete with antibiotics, feedlots, and artificial growth hormones.  This milk is cultured using a specific bacteria blend, to create any variety of cheese.  Today, American cheese no longer meets the FDA’s definition of a real cheese, and is therefore labeled as a “cheese product”.

2. Color me happy. Way back when nearly all farms were mixed grain and animal operations, farmers used to sell their excess milk and eggs alongside their wheat and corn.  Since their animals were all free range and grass-fed, the cow’s milk would look more golden during the summer months when they were munching on more fresh grass – which contain carotenes, like the beta carotene that makes carrots orange.  Most of this color would be skimmed off in the butter making process – as, like harsh chemicals and pesticides today, it is most concentrated in the milkfat – thus, savvy consumers would avoid a “skimmed”, and also whiter, cheese.  Farmers used a variety of natural plant dyes to make the cheese they sold retain a more goldeny color – so even from the start the dyes were used to deceive: today they are used to make product look fresher, play with our psychological tendency towards oranges and reds as food sources, and meet a consumer standard that was created by cheese marketers in recent decades.

Artificial Food Dyes (Credit: www.science-news.org)

Artificial Food Dyes (Credit: http://www.science-news.org)

3. A little more. Many of the dyes used in food products come from natural sources.  Annatto – an extract from the seeds of the Bixa Orella tree – was used by Native Americans to dye foods and clothing, and is now used to help color American cheese slices.  Similarly, apocarotenal is a member of the carotene family (again, think carrots), and has a natural source.  However, the compounds responsible for the color in these “natural” pigments has been isolated, replicated, and patented – on sale at a lab (or dairy aisle) near you.

4. And a little more. Of even more concern is the seemingly benign (and at least recognizable) ingredient “yellow food dye”.  The outbreak of inexplicable allergic reactions to a wide variety of foods – and even increases in behavioral disorders such as ADHD – led researchers to begin thinking about food additives as a source.  Sure enough, a link was found between artificial food colorings – especially a yellow dye (AKA: Tetrazine) – and increased food allergies, especially among young children.

5. Wrap it up. These rubbery, orange sheets are pressed between two layers of plastic, then wrapped in a colored plastic container, and shipped to stores around the globe.  If the preservatives won’t keep the cheese fresh long enough, the artificial colors will keep anyone from being able to tell.

EAT OUTSIDE THE BOX: Using one same simple start, learn how to make creamy homemade ricotta and a solid Indian paneer.


Recipes from Outside the Box: Multi-Colored Heirloom Gazpacho September 3, 2009

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom Tomatoes

A complete smorgasbord of fruits and vegetables are available year-round in the grocery stores’ produce departments, but the negative effects of such a global food system on the environment and our health don’t seem worth the watery, flavorless results. As anyone who loves tomatoes knows: there is no better advertisement for the carbon-cutting benefits of choosing local produce over the vegetables that have been trucked hundreds of miles to the grocery store than a thick, juicy slice of a ripe tomato.

The height of August – when we would normally start dripping sweat just by looking outside – makes up for its miserably thick humidity by providing us the perfect conditions to grow a whole heckuvalot of tomatoes.  While you can pick up the standard slicers and red cherry tomatoes year-round in the produce aisle of the grocery store, the taste of a fresh, local tomato is truly unbeatable (and is guaranteed to make you turn up your nose at the ones sitting on the store shelves in December).  Plus something more unique awaits frequenters of the local farmers’ market stands: a full rainbow of unique heirloom varieties, from the rich pinks of Brandywines, to the dark Cherokee Purples, to the sunny Hearty Golds and Jean-Flamés.

One of my favorite ways to incorporate these tasty multi-colored fruits into my week’s meal plan is to add them to a simple gazpacho recipe.  By first puréeing fresh red tomatoes with onions, cucumbers, and peppers, you can create a bright pink soup base to add coarsely chopped heirloom tomatoes of several colors for an edible artist’s palette of ‘matery goodness.  Add a bunch of minced parsley, and you have the makings of a delightful summer dinner.

Multi-Colored Heirloom Gazpacho

Multi-Colored Heirloom Gazpacho



4-5 medium red tomatoes, chopped

1 medium cucumber, seeded, peeled and chopped

2 bell peppers, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 jalapeño, chopped (can remove seeds to lower heat)

1 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp red or white wine vinegar

1 tbsp honey (or other sweetener)

1 bunch of parsley, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Place all ingredients for the soup base into a blender or food processor until smooth and liquid, about thirty seconds to a minute tops.  You can also reserve ½ – 1 cup of the chopped vegetables to add with the heirloom tomatoes if you prefer a chunky gazpacho.  Pour soup base into a large bowl.

ADD: 3-4 coarsely chopped heirloom tomatoes in a variety of colors.  I especially like to use one each of a yellow, green, and purple type.  Cover, and let the gazpacho rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour, but this soup’s flavor only improves the longer it sits.  It will be good to eat for several days, if you can make it last that long!


Recipes from a Box: Long-Distance ‘Maters September 2, 2009

As you walk into the grocery store, the vegetables and fruits from across the globe are waxed and shined to greet your shopping cart.  With apples from Fuji and tomatoes from Chile, the produce department can remain unchanged regardless of the season – time, temperature, and weather only determine the country of origin.

This food system is completely dependant on petroleum: it fertilizes and protects the produce from pests and weeds as it grows, it fuels the trucks, planes, and boats that bring the produce from all reaches of the globe to our tables, it refrigerates the produce as it is transported and as it sits on the shelves of the store until we set it in our baskets, and it likely is how we drive the food to our homes once we leave the store.  The long distances traversed by the produce we buy has its downsides – for the environment, for our health, and for our tastebuds.

One of the most obvious flavor and quality differences can be found in a simple red tomato.  Watery and tasteless, grocery store tomatoes are no match for the juicy, colorful tomatoes for sale at a local farmers’ market.  The following is the recipe for a standard grocery store tomato, bought in the winter off-season.

INGREDIENTS: Tomatoes, Methyl Bromide, Chloropicrin, Ethylene Gas.


1. Grow massive fields of tomatoes. Tomatoes love heat, sun, and water – which, unfortunately, so do many pests and weeds.  In order to combat these less desirable competitors, a whole host of toxic fumigants are used to grow conventional tomatoes, including methyl bromide and chloropicrin.   These chemicals pollute nearby waterways and spread into the air, damaging the workers, neighboring communities, wildlife, and depleting the ozone.

Ripening Rooms

Ripening Rooms

2. Pick ‘em green – but not for frying. In order to make the long trek from the field to the store, tomatoes are picked well before they are ripe.  Tomatoes are treated with ethylene gas to mimic the natural ripening process, saving time and money but costing flavor and quality in the process.  One of the typical ripening rooms is shown to the left.

3. Sort and Package. Machines and conveyor belts – which cut the human labor costs of tomato production significantly – sort, box, wrap, and label the tomatoes.  They are packed into trucks, airplanes, and boats and sent around the world.

4. Bon Voyage! Trucks pull out from the distribution warehouses and travel around the country, leaving boxes of chemically-ripened tomatoes at the grocery stores as they go: the average tomato – and most food in general – travels around 1500 miles from the farm before it reaches a dinner table.

5. Take them home for a (watery) treat. Customers pick up the tomatoes at the grocery story, looking for a juicy

Tomato Sorter

Tomato Sorter

tomato with it’s high count of Vitamin C and the powerful antioxidant lycopene.  Unfortunately, these well-traveled tomatoes are likely not as nutrient-rich as the ones available from a local farmstand.

Eat outside the box!  Shop your local farmers’ market to find some unique heirloom tomato varieties not available in stores to make a Multi-Colored Heirloom Gazpacho soup!


Recipes From a Box: Hypertension Noodle Soup August 29, 2009

Don’t we all just love to cozy up on a cold winter’s day – or a crazy cool late August day here in Northeast Kansas (!) – with a warm bowl of soup?  Nothing else really hits the spot the way a bowl of chicken and noodles or cream and tomatoes can.  Even a sweet, televised snowman can’t resist the wafting fragrance, slurping down a warm bowl of broth to his own peril. Nowadays, canned soups make for a quick, light meal – and a dish in a microwave for 2 1/2 minutes won’t provide that wafting aroma that attracts melty, suicidal balls of walking snow to your doorstep.

Before you eagerly head out to grab a can of soup, you should consider one tiny little mineral that makes a big difference to your heart’s health: salt.  In the United States, processed foods account for three-quarters of our daily sodium intake, and often puts us well over our daily recommended amount.  Canned soup – and if you are using canned broths for recipes – often means that in a single serving, you are slurping down nearly 50% of your maximum salt allotment for an entire day.

Following is a recipe for a sodium-laden canned chicken broth, with salt ranking third on the ingredient list directly behind “chicken flavor”:

swanson brothINGREDIENTS: Chicken Stock, Chicken Flavor (Maltodextrin, Water, Dextrose, Salt, Chicken Flavor [Chicken Stock, Salt, Enzymes]Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Onion Powder, Chicken Fat, Modified Food Starch, Ascorbic Acid, Sugar, Rosemary Extract)Salt, Dextrose, Spice Extract, Carrots, Celery, Flavoring, Onions. Water, Sugar, Sodium Phosphate, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Soy Lecithin, Citric Acid.


1. Raise, slaughter, and process millions of chickens without letting them see the sun once. The horrors of the modern, conventional chicken industry are too many to cover in this blog (but fear not, it will be discussed shortly!).  To make a long, gruesome story short (and PG), chickens these days are raised in long, sunless houses where they are packed so tightly they can hardly move.  Their short lives are spent eating grain (and nothing else, like tasty bugs or greens) and becoming morbidly obese before they are killed in a factory, processed into their parts, and packaged for sale across the country.  The creation of chicken stock is, never fear, a highly scientific process, where studies have been done to see what leftover parts of the chicken – after the more valuable pieces have been removed and processed – make a broth decent enough to sell.  In other words, the broth sold in cans is nothing more than a by-product that has been scientifically reduced in quality to the lowest tolerable point.

2. Add water and fake chicken flavor. This liquid by-product is then thinned with water to remain a cost-effective by-product, if not a tasty one.  The flavor of the broth really comes from the “chicken flavor” (which I thought chicken broth was supposed to be, by definition, but who am I to say?) which is primarily salt, sugar, and an assortment of artificial extracts that mimic the real chicken flavor the broth itself does not contain.

3. Add salt to cover up the fakeness. The third, and arguably most important, ingredient in this recipe is the salt.  Salt brings out flavors, and since this broth contains so few of them, it is imperative that a high level of sodium be maintained to keep the missing tastes of real chicken and vegetables from being noticed.  So important is salt to the processed food industry, the Salt Institute was created to lobby on behalf of the salt and processed food industries.  This group has played an important role in creating a so-called fog of confusion around the true health links between sodium intake, blood pressure levels, and risk of atherosclerosis.  A quick perusal of the Salt Institute’s website will make you feel as if eating more salt is the same as finding the Fountain of Youth.

4. Preserve the freshness of the fakeness. Salt is a natural preservative – and this broth contains a high enough concentration of sodium to be considered more of a brine than a broth – yet the standard list of corn and petroleum-based preservatives are added just to be safe…. for approximately twenty-odd years or so.

5.  Can it, label it, ship it, sell it. Canned soups have become a staple in many pantries, and canned broths can greatly reduce the amount of cooking time required for a (salty) gravy.  Plus, no one really has the natural fats from roasting a whole chicken to make gravy anymore – so instead the boneless white chicken breasts are baked and the by-product from their deboning is heated to create the sauce to put over them.  Mmm-mmm good.

EAT OUTSIDE THE BOX! Make your own homemade stock from leftover veggies and bones – the ultimate way to reduce your waste and you risk for heart disease with one easy recipe!


    Recipes From Outside the Box: Waste Not, Want (Tasty Soup) Not August 28, 2009

    I know, it’s the end of August and the idea of heating up the house to make soup sounds totally unfun.  But wait – it’s cloudy outside today, and the high is only in the seventies, so what the heck?   The first step to making a truly delicious, box free soup is to make your own soup stock.  Besides the impeccable flavor, homemade stock is a great way to turn food waste into new food – that tastes unique each time.  Plus – canned broth can be loaded with sodium, artificial flavorings, and make a simple soup cost a lot more than if you use leftover veggies in your fridge or freezer.

    Brewing Stock: Smoked Turkey and Frozen Veggie Remains

    Brewing Stock: Smoked Turkey and Frozen Veggie Remains

    The simplest version: vegetable stock.  Each time you cut up vegetables for a meal – especially celery, carrots, onions, parsley, and garlic – save the parts you normally throw out (or compost) in a freezer bag.  The white rooty part of the celery that no one wants to dip in peanut butter, the end of the carrot, the (rinsed) skins of those onions and garlic cloves you chop up – all of that food you thought was trashable is absolutely freezable and stockable. Some of my favorite additions are the beet skins from boiled and peeled beets, and the stalks of any leafy green (like kale and chard).  Once you have a large freezer bag or two full (just keep adding to the bag as you cook), you have the makings of a basic veggie stock that will be stock-full (pun intended) of all the vegetable goodness you just couldn’t fit into earlier meals. This is a also great way to use the leftover bones and parts of a whole chicken or turkey, bones from barbequed ribs, or even the bones from a whole fish to add some good solid fats and proteins to the stock – not to mention another level of flavor.

    A basic  stock recipe (adapted from Alice Waters’s amazing cookbook, The Art of Simple Food):


    The carcass or meaty bones from a previous meaty meal (i.e. the remains of a whole chicken or turkey)

    Frozen vegetable remains, defrosted if time allows (the more veggies, the richer the flavor)

    1 or 2 bay leaves

    1/2 tsp. black peppercorns

    depending of veggies used, you can add any of the following:

    1 head of garlic, cut in half

    1 onion, peeled and halved

    1 celery stalk

    1 carrot, peeled

    1 1/2 gallons cold water


    If making a meaty broth, begin by placing the carcass into a large stock pot, and pouring the cold water over the bones.  Place over high heat, bring to a full rolling boil, then turn the heat down, maintaining a gentle simmer.  The foam that rises and collects at the top should be skimmed off with a ladle and discarded, but be careful to leave as much fat as possible (which makes the flavor so tasty and imparts important minerals to the stock).  After you have skimmed off the foam, add the vegetables.  This way, they will not get in the way of the skimming process (as they like to float on the surface).  If not using any meat, place the vegetables and water in a stock pot and heat to a rolling boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer.

    Once the stock is at a simmer, add the bay leaves, and herbs (such as a bouquet of parsley and/or thyme), and peppercorns.  (It is possible to add salt at this juncture, but I wait until I’m making the soup later on, to ensure I don’t end up with an oversalty end product).  Let the broth simmer for 3 – 5 hours, depending on how strong you want the flavors to be.  Once it is done, use a slotted spoon to remove the larger vegetable chunks and animal carcass, then pour the remaining broth through a strainer (lined with a cheesecloth for a clearer, “thin” broth) into a nonreactive container.

    If you use the broth immediately, skim the fat off the top.  If not, allow the broth to cool completely, then refrigerate it

    "Thick" Broth

    "Thick" Broth

    with the layer of fat on top.  The fat will help seal in the flavors, and help preserve the broth longer in the refrigerator and is easily removed once cooled.  Do not cover the broth until it is totally cool, it can end up staying warm too long and spoiling otherwise.  I store the broth in two-pint containers in the refrigerator for a week or so, but it can also be frozen for a few months.  Be sure to defrost the stock before using it if you do decide to freeze it.


    Recipes from Outside the Box: Homemade Granola Bars August 20, 2009

    Homemade Granola Bars

    Homemade Granola Bars

    The staggering amount of waste linked to food production in the United States, generated to create products like granola bars, is overwhelming to say the least.  Fortunately, there is another way (cue the triumphant horns: da-da-daah!)

    Granola bars are a perfect example of how to turn an overly packaged food (those individually wrapped chewy gooeys

    Containers of foods bought in bulk

    Containers of foods bought in bulk

    are quite the waste generators) into a bulk buying – and super fun baking – experience.  At many self-proclaimed health food stores, you can find a bulk department to stock up on the ingredients you will need for the following recipe.  Don’t forget to bring your own reusable bags or containers to put your oats, flour, nuts, and dried fruits into, along with a bag to put all those bags and containers in.  Some stores even offer places to refill oils and sweeteners, but if not, consider buying the bigger containers – typically a better deal for both the wallet and the planet.

    Another option is to search out – or start your own! – a bulk buying club.  The ingredients used below, except the whole wheat flour from the local Gasper Family Farm, all came from the New Boston buying club.  This is the ultimate bulk buying experience – where most of the food is available in grandiose sizes – like 50 lb. bags of flour – that can be split among the group’s members to significantly cut costs and packaging waste.  In the pictured finished bars, I used sunflower seeds and almonds as the nuts/seeds portion, raisins as the dried fruit portion, coconut oil as the oil portion, agave nectar as the sweetener, and cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla as the flavorings of choice.

    The Pantry of Bulk

    The Pantry of Bulk

    Homemade Granola Bars


    4 c. rolled oats

    1 c. whole wheat flour

    2 c. seeds or chopped nuts

    1  – 1 1/2 c. chopped dried fruit (raisins, shredded coconut, cranberries, apples, etc.,)

    1/2 c. oil (butter, coconut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil)

    1/3 c. water

    1/2 c. sweetener (honey, maple syrup, agave nectar)

    pinch of salt plus other spices or flavorings you like


    Mix oats, flour, nuts/seeds and dried fruit together in a bowl.  Warm oil, sweetener, water, salt and other flavorings on stovetop until all melted together.  Add the “gooey glue” to the dry ingredients, and mix until well combined.  Don’t be afraid to use your hands and get messy – it’s super fun, plus helps the water bind the flour to create a stickiness that holds the bars together (think of it is a tasty paper maiche project).  Press the mixture into a greased 9 x 13 baking dish – preferably glass – and set in the oven at 325 degrees F for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from

    Weighing down the bars

    Weighing down the bars

    oven, cover with a clean dish towel, and top with weights to help the bars cool and hold together solidly.  (This morning, I used some jars of rice and oats on top of two big cookbooks to evenly distribute the weight across the bars).  Let cool, remove weights and towel, and cut into 20 or so bars.  Will keep in an air-tight container for a week or so, but they can be refrigerated to extend their lifespans.  Additionally, if you like your bars sweeter or are having trouble getting everything to stick together, additional oils and sweeteners, or even melting some peanut butter into the “glue” ingredients can help hold it all in place – almost as good as spandex.