July 29, 2014


With college starting in less than a month, I decided I needed to get into the Wisconsin spirit. One of my favorite ways to explore new places is to try the food, but after my visit to Madison and eating at quite a few amazing restaurants, I wanted to try making some midwestern food myself. Given that Wisconsin is America's dairyland (there's a cheese chalet minutes from the airport if that puts it into context), I wanted to try my hand at cheesemaking. Mozzarella is one of the easiest cheeses to make, and all you need to do is order some special ingredients (citric acid powder, double strength liquid rennet, and calcium chloride); I got mine online from Standing Stone Farms.

There are only a few ingredients in homemade mozzarella, but it's important to use the correct ones (read: absolutely no substitutions) and precisely the amount instructed. The main ingredient is whole milk. I often substitute low-fat milk in a lot of my recipes, but UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES do so here, and DO NOT EVER EVER EVER use skim milk. Did I get my point across? Don't shy away from the fat; that's what makes the cheese so good. I've heard that cheesemakers only use non-pasteurized or non-homogenized or some other special type of milk, but I just use regular old whole milk from the supermarket and it turns out just fine. A gallon might seem like a lot, but you'll be surprised how little of it will turn into cheese. The milk separates into curds, which are the solids that become the cheese after stretching and cooking (I'll get to that later), and whey, which is a protein-packed, mostly clear liquid. I've been trying to find ways to cook with the whey since you end up with so much of it, and one of my favorite uses is cooking oats and grains in it.

The purpose of the citric acid is to help separate the milk solids from the whey and allow the rennet to serve its purpose. Just two teaspoons of citric acid in a gallon of milk will make the milk start to clump. You won't see big chunks yet, but you should see some tiny little particles on your whisk as you stir it in. The calcium chloride helps the cheese firm up so you aren't left with mushy curds. You only need a little bit, and I dilute it in water so that it is more evenly dispersed. I also dilute the rennet, which makes milk proteins insoluble, causing them to separate from the liquid (whey) and form curds.

Now to actually make the cheese. The specifics of the cooking process are just as important as the specifics of the ingredients. I start by combining the milk and the citric acid in my biggest pot over medium-low heat. You should see small specks of solids, but there shouldn't be clumps yet. I whisk it often but not constantly, and I stir gently to avoid sloshing.

It has to reach exactly 88F before you can add the calcium chloride and rennet solutions. You should see clumping almost immediately, and within a minute or so you should get large curds and a nearly clear whey.

You need to keep cooking the mixture until it reaches 104F; once it hits 104, you can skim the curds out using a slotted spoon or small strainer and transfer them to a large heatproof bowl.

While the milk was heating up and separating, I also had a medium pot of heavily salted water on the stove. You want it to be extremely salty because that's how the cheese gets a lot of its flavor. By the time the curds hit 104F, I like the water to be just warm to the touch, about 100-110F. I pour some of the water over the curds and leave the rest on the stove to continue heating. Using disposable gloves, I start working and pulling the curds; they should be pretty clumpy and not too stretchy.

After about two minutes, I pour out half the water and replace it with some new water from the pot, which should be hot but just bearable to work with, about 140-150F. I continue working and stretching the cheese for another few minutes. At this point, you should start to see some strings, and the cheese should be more stretchy.

Again, I pour out about half the water and replace it with new water, which should be almost boiling. Since it's too hot to work with, I find that using a big metal spoon helps stretch the cheese without burning your fingers. I keep working the cheese until it's shiny and smooth.

The gradual heating of the water may seem tedious. It is. But it's worth it because otherwise you end up cooking the outside and not the inside. If you already spend this much time making the cheese, you don't want to ruin it by cutting corners here. After the curds are finally shiny and stretchy and done, they are pretty easy to roll into balls. I tend to make two spheres, but you can make a bunch of mini bocconcini, a braid, or even a giant mozzarella ball. To keep whatever shape you choose, leave the cheese in a cool bowl of water for 10-15 minutes to set. The cheese will stay for a few days; I store mine in pure water, lightly salted water, and/or whey.

If eating plain cheese isn't for you, I have a few recommendations that I'll be publishing over the next few weeks. However, I know how hard it is to wait to eat something as amazing as this, so I included one of my favorite recipes: mozzarella sticks. We've all had them in restaurants; they have a tendency to be greasy and bland, but use fresh mozzarella and you'll be eating these for every meal.

Wisconsin might be in the middle of the tundra (well, maybe not, but it certainly seems like it to a southern girl like me), but they make some darn good comfort food. I had some of the best food I've ever eaten, including burgers, cheese curds, and even Russian dumplings (see my foodie travel guide for more information). It inspired me to try and start cooking it before I left because who knows what kind of kitchen I'll be in for the next year or so. I feel like I'm in Wisconsin already, only with my own kitchen and 90 degree heat. Cheesemaking does seem daunting, but the finished product is delicious, impressive, and worth the effort. If you can't make it up to Wisconsin, it's the next best thing!

1 Gallon Whole Milk
2 tsp Citric Acid Powder
1 tsp Calcium Chloride
⅛ tsp Double-Strength Liquid Rennet
Non-Iodized Salt

Whisk the calcium chloride into ¼ cup water. Whisk the rennet into ¼ cup water.

Place a pot of heavily salted water on medium heat.

In a large pot, combine the milk and citric acid. Heat over medium-low until it reaches 88ºF, stirring often. Gently stir in the calcium chloride and rennet solutions. Heat over medium-low, stirring gently and often, until it reaches 104ºF; remove from heat.

Skim the curds from the whey and transfer to a large heatproof bowl. Add some of the salted water (it should be warm, about 100-110ºF) and begin working and pulling with gloved hands for about two minutes. Drain off half the water and replace with some of the hotter salted water (it should be hot, about 140-150ºF). Continue working and pulling for about two more minutes; it should start to look a little stringy. Drain off half the water and replace with some of the hotter salted water (it should be almost boiling); continue working and pulling until the cheese is shiny and smooth throughout. 

Roll the cheese into balls and transfer to a bowl of cool salted water. Let sit for 15 minutes, then remove and store in a container of water and/or whey.

For mozzarella sticks, heat a deep fryer or a few inches of oil in a large pot to 350F. Cut the mozzarella into sticks and/or nuggets. Season some flour with salt and Italian herbs, if desired. Whisk an egg with 1/4 cup milk. Season some panko crumbs with salt and Italian herbs, if desired. Dip the mozzarella in the flour, then the egg wash, then the panko, shaking off the excess between steps. Fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Mozzarella Recipe Adapted from Standing Stone Farms

July 24, 2014

Eggplant Rollatini

One of the restaurants I'll miss most in Atlanta is Ippolito's. They have the best garlic rolls ever, and I have yet to find a stromboli anywhere near as good. Although I do realize that it's highly unlikely I'll be able to make either of those dishes at home (or at least as well as they do), there are some things on the menu I think I make pretty well. For example, my eggplant rollatini might not come out in a blazing-hot dish the size of a small child filled with a cow's worth of cheese, but it's pretty darn good.

Eggplant can be finicky. Its irregular shape is fairly annoying for culinary purposes like this one, and it always has the potential to overpower the recipe with bitterness. My mom taught me a trick, though. Sprinkling the slices of eggplant with salt, spreading them on paper towels, and pressing cutting boards down on top (I use books on top for weight if the cutting boards aren't heavy enough) for about half an hour magically removes the bitterness.

Even though you have to spend a while letting your eggplant de-bitter, there's still more prep. You might want to peel the eggplant before slicing to improve the texture of the rollatini, but I find that you sacrifice some of the structural integrity of the dish. In other words, you won't have eggplant skin, but your rolls might not hold as well. You also have to bake the eggplant to soften it or else you won't be able to roll them up. 8 minutes is about enough time to brown the eggplant a little and make it pliable enough to roll but avoid mushy or crispy slices.

Now for the stuffing, which uses one of the best ingredients of all time: cheese. Two types, to be exact. I use mozzarella for the goo factor and ricotta for creaminess and spreadability. I season the mixture with various Italian herbs; fresh is always better but dried is perfectly ok too. A drizzle of olive oil makes the texture even better and helps cut the richness of the cheese.

Assembling the rollatini is surprisingly simple. I take a slice of the baked eggplant, top it with a slice or two of prosciutto (it adds a wonderfully salty flavor and the fat melts into the cheese for even more richness but if you are cooking for vegetarians you can omit it), spread some of the cheese mixture on there (just a spoonful; it doesn't look like much but is actually a lot), and roll it up. After spreading some of your favorite marinara sauce on the bottom of the baking dish to prevent burning and sticking, place the rolls seam side down. You don't need to worry about toothpicks or other ways to hold them together if you roll them tightly, use the right size dish so that they all press together, and leave the seam on the bottom.

Once you roll up all the eggplant, douse it with the leftover sauce and cover it with the extra mozzarella. The sauce keeps the rollatini moist and prevents it from burning, and the mozzarella is just because more cheese is always a good thing. I bake mine for 15 or 20 minutes or until the cheese is golden and everything is all hot and bubbly. This is actually a good dish to make ahead for any meal or event because you can do everything but bake it ahead of time and then pop it in the oven whenever you need it. This dish is also perfect because it's the perfect mix of messy comfort food and classy Italian cooking, though I suppose not if you serve it in massive crocks overflowing with even more cheese.

2 Eggplants, Peeled
1 Cup Ricotta
1 Cup Shredded Mozzarella
¼ Cup Shredded Parmesan
¼ Cup Olive Oil
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
¼ tsp Basil
¼ tsp Oregano
¼ tsp Thyme
¼ tsp Garlic Powder
¼ tsp Onion Powder
¼ lb Thinly Sliced Prosciutto
2 Cups Marinara

Cut the eggplant into about 12 ¼" thick slices. Sprinkle with salt and let sit for 30 minutes. Rinse.

Heat oven to 400ºF.

Spread the eggplant onto baking sheets. Brush with 2T olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 8 minutes or until just golden and pliable.

Combine the ricotta, ½ cup mozzarella, remaining olive oil, garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, and onion powder.

Lower oven to 350ºF. Spread ¼ cup marinara sauce onto the bottom of an 11x7" glass baking dish.

Place a slice or two of prosciutto onto a slice of eggplant. Spread a spoonful of the cheese mixture on top and roll the eggplant tightly. Place seam-side down in the baking dish and repeat with the remaining eggplant, prosciutto, and cheese mixture. Cover with the remaining marinara and remaining mozzarella and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden and bubbly.

Serves 4-6

July 18, 2014

Portobello Sliders

I think everyone knows (or has read about) a pushy vegan. There's so many jokes about finding the vegan on an online post or at a dinner party. Anyone who has hosted a dinner party has probably been asked if there will be a vegetarian option or if there's space on the grill that won't touch meat or if it's ok if the vegetarian guest can bring their own food and so on. No offense to vegetarians, but if I'm cooking for myself and a dozen other hungry omnivores, your dietary preferences won't dictate my meal plan. I understand your point of view, but I'm still not converting.

However, I do have a few vegetarian and vegan recipes in my repertoire, and they satisfy meat eaters and vegetarians alike. These portobello sliders make a wonderful appetizer for just about anyone since you really won't miss the meat. But if you want to top them with a pile of crispy, salty bacon, that's totally ok too.

What makes these sliders so perfect is the fact that mushrooms can take on a meaty flavor without actually being meat. Something about the combination of thick mushrooms and barbecue sauce all caramelized over a hot grill gives the "patty" a more savory flavor and a chewy texture reminiscent of an actual burger. You can use your favorite barbecue sauce; homemade or bottled both work, but I'm not sure my peach barbecue sauce would pair so well. All you have to do is slather it all over the mushrooms (I use medium-sized portobellos that matched the size of my rolls; you can also get the big portobellos and trim them down to fit) and let them sit for about half an hour before grilling.

Now for the fun part: the toppings. I love a good cheeseburger, so I put slices of American cheese on each slider. You can use whatever type of cheese you want (or none at all), including non-dairy cheese if you have vegan guests. I also added tomatoes, sliced red onions, roasted jalapenos, and roasted garlic. Whatever your favorite toppings are for burgers would be just as good on these sliders, so experiment with different cheeses, bacon, vegetables, and spreads.

The roasted jalapenos are so easy to make; I stuck whole jalapenos under a broiler, turning every few minutes, until they were black and charred on each side. I then transferred them to a plastic bag, sealed it, and let them sit and steam for about 10 minutes. That makes it much easier to peel off the charred skin, leaving just tender, not-so-spicy jalapenos that I removed the seeds from and sliced. The only thing easier to make was the roasted garlic. I sliced the tops off of a few heads, peeled most of the outer papery skins off, drizzled them with olive oil, wrapped them in foil, and cooked them at 325F for about an hour until the cloves were golden brown and caramelized.

To save on prep time, you can turn this into a slider bar. Just grill the mushrooms and serve everything separately on platters so your guests can assemble their own. This makes it especially easy if you have vegetarian guests but you're a bacon addict like I am; you can steal all the bacon for yourself and leave everyone else some delicious, healthy mushroom sliders.

8 Portobello Mushrooms
8 Slider Buns/Dinner Rolls
1 Cup Barbecue Sauce
Toppings: Cheese, Bacon, Tomatoes, Onion, Lettuce, Roasted Garlic, Roasted Jalapenos, etc.

Trim the mushrooms to fit the buns, if necessary. Toss with half the barbecue sauce, making sure to coat the top and the bottom. Let sit for 30 minutes.

Heat a grill or grill pan. Grill the mushrooms for 5 minutes on each side, seasoning with salt and pepper, or until the mushrooms are tender and the barbecue sauce is caramelized.

Assemble the sliders by placing a mushroom on each roll, spreading the remaining barbecue sauce on top, and adding whatever toppings you prefer.

Makes 8
Recipe Adapted from Love and Lemons

July 10, 2014

Peach & Bourbon Roasted Pork

With my time in the south coming to a close, I decided to make the most southern thing I could think of. While this is one of the few times I'm not using buttermilk, this dish is full of southern goodness: peaches, bourbon, pork, and hot sauce. Peaches in a savory dish might sound a bit odd, but they add a unique sweetness to the barbecue sauce, which I marinate the pork in and drizzle on top. Although I chose to roast a pork tenderloin, you can use the barbecue sauce on anything you want (I think chicken would pair well with it in particular).

If you've visited my travel guide, you know I have a soft spot for Kansas City barbecue, specifically the sweet tomato-based sauce. Since this barbecue sauce has peaches and bourbon, it doesn't exactly adhere to a specific region. It's not North Carolina vinegar-based or Alabama white sauce. It's a unique sauce with a tomato base, some sweetness, some vinegary tartness, and a hearty punch of bourbon.

The sauce, like most barbecue sauces, is pretty easy to make. I saute some garlic and onions (in butter; more southern influence), then I add a full pound of peaches, usually about two large ones. Even though you could probably use frozen peaches, I wouldn't recommend it. I spend a few minutes peeling them for a smoother texture, but that's not entirely necessary if you don't mind some bits of skin. After the peaches soften a bit, I add the liquid ingredients: ketchup, vinegar (cider vinegar is best here), some honey and molasses, some mustard, some worcestershire, and hot sauce to taste. I add some brown sugar for extra sweetness--you can adjust the amount based on how sweet your peaches are--and also the bourbon (of course). After that simmers together for a while, just puree it with an immersion blender, regular blender, or food processor.

I use a little less than half the sauce to marinate a 1.5 to 2 pound pork tenderloin. The longer you let it marinate the better, but I find that 3-4 hours is enough to flavor the pork without taking all day. Once it finishes marinating, I sear it in a big skillet to start caramelizing the outside. The pork develops a wonderful crust because of all the natural sugars from the peaches in the sauce/marinade, but you do have to keep an eye on it because it will burn fairly quickly.

Unless you use small medallions of pork or other pieces of meat that will cook quickly, you're going to need to finish the pork in the oven. Searing alone won't cook a whole roast all the way through, and you really don't want to eat raw pork. I transfer mine to a baking dish instead of sticking the whole skillet into the oven because the sauce/marinade/drippings will burn and give the whole dish a bitter taste. It only takes about half an hour to cook at 425, so this definitely isn't one of those all-day roast dishes (though maybe it is if you count sauce-cooking and meat-marinating time).

Once the pork is out of the oven and has rested for a few minutes (yes, you should try to wait a bit before digging in; the meat will be much juicier and I promise it won't get cold that quickly), I slice it with a sharp knife or one of those electronic carving knives and serve it with the leftover barbecue sauce.

I also made a small salad to serve on the side. You can make potatoes, asparagus, or whatever your favorite vegetable is, but I had some extra produce and decided to toss it all together. I combined sliced peaches, sliced red onion, diced bell pepper, and minced jalapeno. The peaches in the salad highlighted the peaches in the sauce, and the red onion added a nice sharpness that cut the richness. The bell pepper was mainly for crunch, and the jalapeno added an extra kick that complimented the heat in the sauce. It seems like an odd combination, but I wanted to bring out the flavors of the pork.

This is a great dish to make for a crowd since the preparation is the same for any size (although you might want to marinate it and definitely cook it longer). I think that peaches and pork are a great combination, and if you don't believe me you should try this recipe just to check.

1 T Butter
1 Small Sweet Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 lb Peaches, Peeled & Diced
⅓ Cup Brown Sugar
¾ Cup Ketchup
½ Cup Bourbon
⅓ Cup Cider Vinegar
2 T Honey
2 T Molasses
2 T Mustard
2 T Worcestershire
Hot Sauce
1 1.5-2 lb Pork Tenderloin

Heat the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 4 minutes or until translucent and tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes. Stir in the peaches and brown sugar and cook for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the ketchup, bourbon, vinegar, honey, molasses, mustard, and worcestershire. Add hot sauce and cayenne to taste.

Simmer for 15-20 minutes or until thickened, stirring often. Puree with an immersion blender or food processor.

When cool, pour half the sauce into a bowl or large ziploc bag. Add the pork, toss to coat, and chill for 3-4 hours.

Heat oven to 425F.

Heat some oil in a skillet. Wipe the excess marinade off the pork and place in the skillet. Sear on all sides until browned, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the pork to a baking dish and roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes or until cooked through. Serve with the reserved barbecue sauce.

Serves 4-6
Sauce Recipe Adapted from Serious Eats

July 2, 2014


Since it's my birthday, I wanted to treat myself. I don't usually have big, elaborate breakfasts (especially on a Wednesday), but I do love breakfast food. Whether it's pancakes, bacon, bagels, hash browns, muffins, scones, waffles, or all of the above, I'm happy to indulge in the most important meal of the day.

On this special occasion, I decided on waffles. My mom got a waffle iron a few years ago, and I'll admit it hasn't been used often since then. However, ever since I perfected this waffle recipe, I've been making them almost every week. They are light, fluffy, and subtly sweet, which lets you pile on berries, whipped cream, chocolate chips, or any other toppings without going into a sugar coma.

As with many of my recipes, my secret ingredient is buttermilk. I'm still not sure exactly why it makes everything so good, but I'll keep cooking with it until I figure it out. Like pancake batter, you whisk the buttermilk together with the wet ingredients and then pour it into your sifted dry ingredients. I use oil instead of butter (which is probably a big no-no if you ask your local waffle expert), but I've found that if you use butter to grease your waffle iron you don't notice the difference. The oil just improves the consistency of the waffle, and why mess with a good recipe? Other than that, it's a pretty standard recipe. Just scoop it into your waffle iron--remember, it will spread a lot, so go easy on the batter--and cook until golden brown. One of my family secrets is waiting until it stops steaming; it's usually the perfect color, and that way you don't have to check it every 30 seconds.

Here in the south, it's tough to compete with Waffle House waffles, especially since they're cheap and require no cleanup. And have you tried their hash browns? Still, these waffles are amazing and totally worth the mess, though not if you decide to put blueberries in your batter. I learned the hard way that blueberries and waffle irons are a bad combination; the blueberries burn and stick and ruin your remaining waffles. Instead, just sprinkle them on top when your waffle is done. Better yet, set up a build your own waffle station with stacks of hot waffles and all the toppings you can think of. Personally, I plan on eating piles of chocolate chip waffles smothered in powdered sugar in whipped cream.

2 Eggs
1 ¾ Cups Buttermilk
½ Cup Oil
¾ tsp Vanilla
2 Cups Flour
3 T Sugar
4 tsp Baking Powder
¼ tsp Salt

Heat a waffle iron.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together. Whisk the eggs until foamy. Add the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla, then gently fold into the flour mixture.

Grease the waffle iron. Add a few spoonfuls of batter, close, and cook until golden brown.

Makes 6-8
Recipe Adapted from