Thursday, May 20, 2010

Of Poison and Delight...

There's just something about rhubarb that is delightfully forbidden. After all, the oxalic acid in the leaves is toxic (and to some extent,also found in minute quantities in the stalks).

That said, I love the stuff. My brother and I used to dip raw stalks in sugar and crunch on them like celery sticks. Most people mix rhubarb with strawberries and hide the whole lot inside of a pie.

Not me. Rhubarb is for jam. Open some of the stuff in the dead of winter, close your eyes, and you can feel spring creeping in. I generally don't like traditional rhubarb jam recipes because they all have an abundance of strawberries in them.. or... heaven forbid--Jell-O.

Jell-O does NOT belong in jam, in my opinion.

I do throw a few strawberries in to give the jam some depth of flavor and a hint of sweet fruit... but for the most part, this jam is *pow!* sweet-tart delicious goodness.

If you've never grown rhubarb before, I would highly suggest dropping $6 or so at your local garden center for a gallon-sized potted plant. Hide it in the corner of a garden, and you'll be rewarded with an abundance of the first fruit to ripen in the next spring (okay, it's a stalk, but I'm calling it a fruit.) You should divide it every 3-5 years or so, and relocate the entire plant every 6 years. Always cut it before it sends up a seed stalk (if it does, do not harvest).

Rhubarb Jam
10 cups rhubarb cut into 1 inch pieces

5 1/2 cups granulated sugar

zest of one navel orange (a small one)

juice of above orange

1 1/4 cup strawberries, chopped into small pieces (about 10 large strawberries)

one envelope of liquid pectin (such as Certo brand)

Combine rhubarb, sugar, orange zest and juice in a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set inside refrigerator for 12 hours.
Start water bath and add canning jars, lids, and rings to boiling water to sterlize. Strain the rhubarb mixture into a heavy stockpot, pressing on the rhubarb to extract all of the liquids. Set rhubarb aside. If any sugar remains in the bowl, scrape it out with a rubber spatula and add to the liquid in the pan. Over medium heat, bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, and allow to reduce in volume by half, making sure that the mixture does not burn. Add strawberries and reserved rhubarb. Cook until rhubarb is tender and breaking down; about 10 minutes. In the meanwhile, put a small ceramic plate into the freezer. Add Certo to the jam pot, bring mixture back to a boil, and stir for one minute. Turn heat off. Take plate from freezer and drop about a tablespoon of jam onto it. Wait 30 seconds and tilt the plate then run a finger through the jam, it should leave a clean trail. The jam should not be liquid enough to fill the space where your finger went through. If it is not done, boil for another minute. It does thicken and set when it is completely cooled, but in the case that your finished product is too liquid, it makes a great topping for waffles, pancakes, and ice cream. Fill sterilized jars with jam, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe off the rims of the jars using a cloth dipped in hot water. Place lids on the jars, and screw rings onto the jars, but do not tighten completely (you want them on firmly, but not so that air cannot escape from the jars when you process them). Return filled and sealed jars to the hot water bath and boil (process) for 10 minutes. Remove from water and allow to cool completely overnight. Yield: 8-10 half pint jars.

Any remaining jam should be refrigerated if it lasts that long.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ricotta Cheese in the Microwave.

I made my own ricotta cheese tonight, and let me tell you, it was so simple that I cannot believe that I haven't been making it all along. If you have a microwave-safe bowl that can fit about a quart of liquid, either some cheesecloth (which you can find in larger grocery stores in whatever isle they're hiding "gadgets" and the like) or a fine sieve, you can make it too.

How to go about it:

1 large microwave safe bowl. I use a Pyrex 3 quart glass bowl.
several layers of cheesecloth set into a colander OR a fine-mesh sieve
1 quart of whole milk
1 fresh lemon (bottled lemon juice is not going to work in this), juiced.
1/4 tsp salt (or 3/4 tsp salt, for ricotta salata, which follows)

Pour milk into bowl.
Put the bowl into a microwave. I tested my time on a 1000-watt microwave, so your time may be more or less depending on the power of yours. Set time for 3 and a half minutes. When time is up, stir milk. Microwave for another minute. Stir. Microwave for 45 seconds. Test the temperature. The milk should NOT be boiling or simmering. It should just be hot with steam rising off of the surface. Remove bowl from microwave carefully.
Stir salt into the milk.
Stir 2 Tbsp lemon juice into the milk, stir gently for a moment, then let the mixture sit undisturbed for 30 minutes.

The curds should separate from the whey... this generally looks like little white chunks (curds) in a clearish yellow liquid (that's whey). Strain the mixture into the sieve or cheesecloth until all of the liquid is drained out. If you're using cheesecloth, you can gather up the ends and give the cheese a gentle squeeze to drain it.**

Put your cheese into an airtight container and use it within the week. Yield: about 1 cup of cheese.

**If you want to make ricotta salata... which is salted ricotta that has a firm texture, the cheesecloth method will be the best method for this. Follow all of the above steps, but gather the ends of the cheesecloth and gather them over the cheese. Place the colander into a larger bowl. Top the cheeseclothed cheese with a plate, then weigh it down with some cans. Place in the refrigerator for 2 days. Serve cheese with crusty bread and sliced fresh fruit (figs are amazing with this).