Sunday, January 27, 2008

Egg Drop Soup

The reason I went through the trouble of posting about chicken stock just now was so I could write about the incredible egg drop soup I just made. Warm, comforting, energizing, just spicy enough.

I've always loved egg drop soup, or, more accurately, what I always thought egg drop soup ought to be. Unfortunately, it seems to have gotten worse over the years. I order it with high hopes with Chinese food, but it arrives as a useless chemical concoction of flavorings and cornstarch thickening. With a perfectly nice egg, cooked to a lovely lacyness, wasted in this sea of fabricated foodstuff.

Today I experimented with the homemade chicken stock we made yesterday. When I pulled it from the refrigerator it was thick with natural gelatin, almost as solid as Jell-O. The color was a deep tan. I wanted to make a simple chicken soup with it, but I had no chicken on hand. I'm doing an ultra-low-carb thing right now, so noodles were out of the picture, too. Then I thought of egg drop soup.

Before you heat it and add the seasoning, the stock will taste like greasy nothing. That's OK. With heat and salt, the texture will become velvety and good and the taste will fairly burst from the spoon.

Before you add the egg, the soup will taste as if you've seasoned and salted it too aggressively. That's OK. Egg takes up seasoning and salt.

If you use commercial stock, you'll need to reduce the salt you add to make up for what's already in it.

Don't keep boiling after the egg is cooked, or it'll become tough, and its delicate flavor will be lost.

If you're serving more than one, make separate servings in succession.

Egg Drop Soup

1 cup homemade chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon salt
grindings of pepper
light shake of red pepper flakes
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 egg, beaten to combine yolk and white

In a narrow, deep saucepan, combine all ingredients except the egg. Simmer for about five minutes, to combine flavors.

Turn heat to the highest and bring to a rapid boil. Stir the soup rapidly, so that it whirls and ideally dips like a funnel in the center.

Pour the egg in a thin stream into the soup, allowing it to whirl around. It will cook as it enters the water.

Immediately transfer the soup to a bowl and enjoy.

Chicken Stock

Make stock. It's one of the cheapest and easiest things you can do to make your cooking better. How cheap? Free. That is, unless you figure in the energy cost of running low heat on a stovetop burner for several hours and storing it in the freezer. How easy? About as easy as filling a pot with water and turning on the heat.

Homemade stock adds depth and richness of flavor to foods that just can't be matched by canned versions or, heaven forbid, by powdered or cubed facsimiles. It's loaded with wholesome goodness. When I make up a batch of this, I'm always astounded by how much delectable nutrition just as easily could have ended up in the garbage.

Use in any recipe calling for any kind of stock or broth. Substitute for water anywhere you'd like more taste and nutrition. For instance, we cook rice in homemade stock instead of water.

Most recipes I've found for homemade stock call for various seasonings and aromatics -- celery, onions, salt, pepper, carrots. Our theory is, why bother? You're going to be seasoning whatever you're cooking the way you want it anyway. Keep the stock just stock.

Also, most recipes I've found call for using a whole chicken or two, that you throw out after cooking the stock. Our theory is, why buy a chicken just to throw it out? Why waste the wonderful meat by rendering it unpalatable through hours of boiling? Why buy a chicken for stock when you probably already are buying the ideal ingredients -- the bones that come inside whatever chicken you buy -- and then throwing them away?

To take the conversation to another level, I believe taking the life of a living creature for food is a serious, profound business. I believe that using everything possible is one way to respect that life. That's why, for instance, we never throw a scrap of meat leftovers or cuttings away; we give them to the animals outside. It's one reason that we strain and save bacon drippings in a jar for later use. And it's a reason for saving bones for stock, a reason that for me goes far beyond its astonishingly rich, velvety goodness. Somehow the wonderfulness of the stock and the rightness of the act are facets of a whole to me. It ties in with my belief that the best food tastes the best -- flavor and eating experience is inseparable from how good it is for you and how good it is for the rest of the world and its beings.

Of course, starting with a backyard chicken would be better for all that. I have no doubt it would taste better, also.

Chicken Stock

Two zip-top gallon bags stuffed with chicken bones

Stockpot (see notes below)

About 24 cups (1.5 gallons) stock. These are more concentrated than canned stock. Each cup is equivalent to about two cups commercial stock. When using in a recipe, add more water to make up for that. (Like when you add a can of water to a can of condensed soup.) Generally speaking, the precise amount of stock you use isn't as critical as getting the liquid content of the recipe to add up.

I. Collect bones
Whenever you have chicken, don't throw out the bones. Keep a gallon-sized zip-top bag in the freezer and add the bones to it after your meal. Skin, cartilage, necks -- everything just goes in there. Not organs, though -- they would make the stock bitter.

When you have two of these bags filled up, you're ready. You can use fried, roasted, rotisserie chicken -- just about anything. The only bones I don't use are those from a slow-braised dish that cooked for hours. I figure the goodness of the bones has already stewed out into the original dish.

II. Make stock
Place the bones into a stockpot. Fill with water to a couple of inches from the top of the pot. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for several hours. Establish the lowest, slowest bubbling you can.

I start as early in the morning as possible, so I can simmer for at least ten hours. I turn off the flame two hours before I plan to go to bed. It takes at least an hour and a half for it to cool enough to handle easily.

The simmering requires virtually no maintenance. You can even leave the house, if you trust your stove flame to not blow out. If you use an electric stove, walking away from it is about as safe as leaving a crockpot going while you're at work. If you're going out for only an hour or so, and you're nervous about leaving the stove on, just turn it off when you leave and turn it back on when you return.

We use a Lincoln Wear-Ever 9-quart stockpot made of thick, restaurant-grade aluminum. It's light for its size and it only cost about 40 bucks, including the lid. We got it from a local restaurant-supply store.

III. Put away
Strain the stock into a large, metal mixing bowl, letting the bones collect in the strainer. You can do this in stages if you don't have a bowl big enough to receive all the stock.

Ladle your stock into small plastic containers. We use one-cup yogurt containers from the days when yogurt (a) came in 8 ounce servings instead of 6-ounce servings and (b) came with replaceable plastic lids instead of foil-only tops. However, 1-cup containers are easy enough to find at the supermarket.

Remember that water expands as it freezes; don't fill your containers to the rim. Leave about 3/4 inch from the top. Place lids on.

Carefully line up the filled containers in your freezer. We arrange ours on trays that we stack into makeshift shelves in the freezer.

Discard the bones. We put them in the backyard where animals come and get them. There are never bones or debris left in the yard a day or two later. Don't worry about choking any critters. The bones are so soft by this point, you can bend and tear them as easily as cardboard.

IV. Use
Move stock cups from freezer to fridge a day or two before you plan to use them. Or, as we do most often, grab one from the freezer and run it under a hot tap until you can unmold the contents into a saucepan for thawing on the stovetop.

You can leave some stock in the refrigerator so you don't need to deal with thawing it before use. As much as you anticipate using over the next ten days or so.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mayonnaise recipe

Another one of those things that's ridiculously easy to make at home. Maybe it is or isn't cheaper than what you can find at the store. But you control what is in it. And you won't find it fresher or more delicious anywhere else.

1-2 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice (adjust to your taste near the end)
1/4 teaspoon salt
dash cayenne or other red pepper
light grinding of black pepper
1 egg
1 cup oil

In the pitcher of a blender, mixing bowl or food processor, mix together everything except 3/4 cup of the oil. Process for several seconds.

With the motor running, pour the oil in a thin stream through the opening of the lid (or into the mixer bowl). Continue until you've added all the oil. Go slowly enough that this takes about a minute.

Now you have mayonnaise.

Added paragraph 7/19/08: Taste and adjust salt, pepper, vinegar and lemon juice until the flavor balance is to your liking. You may like a more assertive mayo. You can get out your favorite commercial mayonnaise and do side-by-side testing until you have the seasoning tweaked just as you like it. Then write it down so you remake it just the way you like it ever after.

Put it in an old mayonnaise jar and refrigerate for up to a month. (Edited 7/19/08. I used to guess at two weeks, but I've since kept mayo for over a month just fine.)

A note on what just happened.
To "emulsify" means to mix together two liquids that don't like to be mixed together. Through the rapid beating and slow addition of the oil, the oil and egg have become emulsified. They're now beaten together into tiny little bubbles that reflect the light -- that's why the two transparent substances are now white and opaque.

A note on oil.
My understanding is that mayonnaise is classically made with extra-virgin olive oil. I don't like the heavy flavor when it's made this way; I'm used to clean, neutral tastes in mayonnaise. I use part olive oil and part neutral-tasting oil. I'm still searching for the most naturally made oil for this application. The one I made today was half olive and half corn. Peanut would also be a candidate.

Added paragraph 7/19/08: I tried a half peanut oil, half coconut oil mayonnaise. It's very coconutty. If you want a tropical effect from your mayonnaise, it works great. If you want a neutral spread, coconut is not the way to go..

A note on egg.
Harold McGee has a system for "safe" mayonnaise that involves using the microwave to sort of pasteurize the egg. You might be able to find it with an Internet search. It's also included in Mark Bittman's wonderful "How To Cook Everything," from which I got the basis of this mayonnaise recipe. But for myself, I'm not concerned about egg safety. We get all our eggs from free-range, healthy hens. Those horrible diseases occur in animals that are treatly horribly.

A note on acid.
Bittman says lemon is the perfect liquid for mayonnaise. I disagree. The mayonnaise I made following his recipe exactly (2 tablespoons lemon, 1 cup olive oil) tasted exactly like cod liver oil. It really was uncanny. I've been trying to use it up in tuna salad and fish cookery, because it turns everything milder into a strange fishy thing.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How to make ghee

Ghee is butter with the milk solids and water removed. Pure dairy fat! Just heat butter gently, and the components will separate. Then strain. A more detailed explanation of method follows below.

Ghee has a higher smoke point than butter -- meaning you can cook and saute hotter in it without burning. It's stable at room temperature. You can keep it in a jar by the stove and scoop into it whenever you would customarily run to fridge for a pat of butter for the pan. No refrigeration necessary.

We use an old-fashioned "grease jar," which every self-respecting household use to keep handy for bacon drippings, before they learned how horrible and disgusting a practice that was. Now everyone knows you should throw away that natural nutrient and spend additional money to obtain the fabricated nutrient that the food industry kindly provides at a nominal cost to you. Thank goodness modern technology has devised methods of wrenching the nearly digestable oils from all kinds of items that humans never had the option to eat before. And that modern marketing has managed to convince people that good health is impossible without them! Gee, just think what the human race was missing all these millions of years.

But I digress. This post is about ghee, not gee! Much of traditional Indian cookery uses this. The flavor is similar to butter, but the profile is somewhat different because of the absence of milk solids. The "milky" flavors are gone. That, and a slightly grainy texture, makes it less suited than butter for buttering bread tableside.

In ghee, the nutty buttery qualities are closer to the fore. With a little extra cooking time, a pleasant toasty quality develops, also.


  • Butter

One pound is a good amount to work with. We use European butter with the super-high fat content. No matter what kind of butter you start out with, the fat is all that will be left when you're done. You might as well buy something that contains more of what you'll be keeping in the first place. That is, the regular butter has more of what you're getting rid of by making ghee. Whatever isn't fat is water and milk solids. If there's less of that in the butter you buy, it should take less time to boil it out, logically, and you'll wind up with more finished product.

Essentially, place the butter in a small, sturdy saucepan over the lowest heat, wait and strain

First the butter will melt. The milk solids will gradually rise to the top. No need to skim as you go. Some recipes instruct you to skim. This is more work, and wastes a lot of butter. It's just not necessary.

The water in the butter will begin to boil out. Water boils; oil/fat doesn't.

Eventually, all bubbling will cease. That means the water has left. There's a window of time between the moment the water is all gone, when the remaining ghee begins to toast pleasantly, and the moment when the ghee becomes brown and yucky and burnt. This all happens very quickly, because when the water is gone, the temperature is suddenly able to rise much higher That's because water only gets to boiling temperature. Then it evaporates and rises into the air (which is what "boiling" is). Oil can get hundreds of degrees hotter.

So, it's better to err on the early side, at least while you're still getting familiar with this process and product. Pour through a mesh strainer lined with a coffee filter or paper towel. Remember that at this stage it's super hot, much hotter than boiling water. Pour it into something that is heat resistant, like Pyrex or metal.

The dairy solids will stay behind in the strainer. Eat them warm. They are unspeakably delicious! Those who eat crackers or toast can spread them on that. Others can nibble them off a spoon.

Tasting the solids -- they'll look like soft, toasted breadcrumbs -- is instructive. It will show you, beyond what any words can convey, what the components of butter's flavor are. There's a fresh-milk flavor in them. It's a great demonstration of what does and doesn't taste like this or that.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Home-cultured sour cream recipe

For the creamiest, freshest-tasting sour cream you've ever had, just follow this simple method.

  • 1 tablespoon home-cultured buttermilk (see my recipe in a separate post)
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Pour the buttermilk into a heat-resistant glass jar. Add the cream.

Place the lid on the jar. Place the jar into a bowl or pot of warm tap water for several minutes, until the jar of buttermilk-to-be seems to be around room temperature. Remove the jar from the water and leave it on your kitchen counter. Every now and again, pick it up and give it a good shake-a-shake. The frequency of shaking is unimportant. It's fine to leave this unattended for many hours, like during sleep or if you go off to work.

After about 6–12 hours, you'll have sour cream. Refrigerate. This gets thicker and tastier over the course of the next couple of days.

After about a week, the flavor will begin to deteriorate. So don't let your lovely sour cream go to waste! Use this everywhere you might use commercial sour cream, or yogurt, whipped cream, mayonnaise, cottage cheese or (gag) Cool-Whip.

You can use store-bought buttermilk, also. It won't taste as good. But it's still a fun experiment!

As with all food, the better your ingredients, the better your results. Look for the best, freshest cream with the least amount of additive gunk. Organic and local if at all possible.

I just got this hint from a low-carb forum where I like to hang out: Organic Valley uses the seaweed-derived thickener carageenan in their ultra-pasteurized heavy cream, but not in their (non-ultra-)pasteurized heavy cream. I have nothing against carageenan itself. However, they make their darn cream too thick! I look forward to trying out their pasteurized cream (if I can find it) and seeing if that really is better. Pasteurized is better for you than ultra-p (more vitality remains), anyway.

Home-cultured buttermilk recipe

This is a smooth, refreshing drink that’s really good for you, with lots of live, active culture. It’s also the basis of sour cream and quark, a soft cottage-cheese-like cheese popular in Germany. I'll post instructions for those separately.

Meantime, forgot any associations you might have with the nasty, salty, thin, tart taste of the storebought stuff. And get ready for a wholesome, luscious treat.

We started our buttermilk with powdered culture that we bought from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company ( The package specified that the buttermilk produced from the powder could not be used to keep the buttermilk going batch after batch, but we've had ours going since 2006! It just keeps getting better and better.

You can also get your buttermilk started with a carton of ordinary supermarket buttermilk. We've recently experimented with it. It didn't taste nearly as good. But it's a start!


  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 2 quarts whole milk

Combine in a jar. Glass is best. Let set at room temperature for 6-12 hours, until clabbered. Refrigerate. Use within (I guess) two or three weeks.

Do not use more buttermilk than the above ratio. If you use more than 1/4 cup, the texture becomes grainy. If you use more than 1/2 cup, the flavor becomes harsh and sour.

To shave a couple of hours off the waiting time: set the jar of milk upright a sink full of hot water until the milk has come to about room temperature. This should take ten minutes or so.

To find out when the buttermilk is ready to refrigerate, shake the jar. A few minutes later, check to see if stripes have formed running down the glass. If so, it’s clabbered. It doesn’t have to be thick at this stage. It’ll thicken later, in the refrigerator.

Be sure to save 1/4 cup of buttermilk so you can keep the culture going!