Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Milk Tree

Milk, a vital part of everyone’s diet. At least for the first few months of our lives anyway. But most of us go on drinking the stuff, long after we are weaned from mother’s breast. Are human beings and cats the only adult animals that drink milk? Not sure about that.

Except, and here’s the sting. The majority of human beings have some level of allergy or intolerance to drinking milk. Exactly how many people are affected like this is hard to ascertain. Researching for this article turned up some widely varying ‘expert’ opinions. But a figure of 75% of the adult human population having some level of intolerance to cows milk is a statistic I found quoted in several sources. At least one article I read stated that cows milk intolerance is ‘extremely rare’ in white people. Well all I can say to that is that I’m white and I have a milk intolerance, so does my daughter, my wife….. and I know whole load of other people too.

In my case it’s not a life threatening thing. I’ll happily enjoy a spoonful of cream on a dessert, or the froth on a cappuccino from time to time. And eating yoghurt or cheese are no problem. But if I pour milk (cow’s, goat’s or sheep) on my cornflakes for a few days in succession I start to feel the effects.

I guess I could cure that easily enough. Trouble is, I like my cornflakes in the morning.

Non dairy alternatives? I’ve tried Soya milk a few times and whilst I acknowledge that I have enjoyed some brands, I have also tasted some that I thought were simply horrible. I’ve enjoyed Rice milk; I just can’t get it here on the island and (please correct me if I’m wrong here) I’ve read in many places that Rice milk has negligible nutritional value until they add it as an extra in the factory.

Actually, all I really ask is that the milk tastes good and doesn’t do me any harm. A friend suggested Almond Milk. Where do I buy that? Certainly not on this island. ‘It’s so easy to make.’ said my friend. I checked it out and, Hey! It really is easy to make.

Not only that it tastes good too. Creamy and only very slightly nutty in flavour.

I’ve been using Almond Milk for about three years now. It really is easy to make at home, nutritious and versatile. I use it in cooking in most situations that call for milk; it works well in Bechamel sauce for example. I’ve also served it to friends as a drink or in their coffee and never once has anybody sent it back or asked what was wrong with the milk.

Nutritionally, Almond Milk is comparable to Semi Skimmed Cows milk. Less calories, sugar and (of course) the fat is not saturated fat. The calcium content is not so easy to get to. I have two so called ‘authoritative’ articles on my desktop as I write this. One gives the Calcium content of Almond milk as negligible, whilst the other states that the Calcium content that is ‘comparable to 2 percent reduced fat milk’.

Take your choice. I drink it because it tastes good on my cornflakes!

The picture shows an Almond tree in blossom near my house. A familiar winter sight in Greece

Almond Milk

Use Whole Almonds (Nuts with the brown skins intact).

Soak one cup of almonds in fresh cold water for about six hours, wash and drain them and put them in the blender.

Add one cup of cold water and blend for about thirty seconds. The quality of the water can affect the taste and shelf life of the milk. I use bottled spring water; maybe your mains supply is better than mine.

Stop the blender, add two more cups of water and blend together for about a minute. I always think it’s wonderful to see those nut brown kernels almost exploding in the water to become a flask of white liquid milk.

Once the blending is finished, you need to strain the milk. I use a muslin cloth draped across a large jug. Pour in the contents, gather the corners, being careful not to let any liquid escape over the edge and then squeeze the contents gently through the cloth.

The whole process from putting the nuts in the blender to putting the milk in the bottle shouldn’t take much above 5 minutes. And…. If you’re making it use on your breakfast, make it the night before so it has a chance to chill in the fridge before use.

Quantity. I’m not into accurate weights and measures, but the large coffee cup 9not mug) of Almonds that I use each time makes about 700 ml of milk.

Storage. I keep milk in a glass bottle in the fridge and it’s fine for three to five days. Things that can affect the storage life are : the quality of the nuts, the quality of the water and … the cleanliness of the storage bottle. The milk will tend to separate out overnight in the fridge; just give the bottle a shake before using it.

Quality. You may find an occasional batch tastes different to normal. It’s all down to the quality of the nuts. Making such a small quantity of milk, you can find that just a single, slightly ’off’ nut can taint the milk. It’s not always a change for the worse (the change can be really good sometimes) but be prepared for this.

Variations. I read that some people like to add a squeeze of lemon juice or even a fresh date at the blending stage to flavour of sweeten the milk. My take? Tried it and I really don't think it needs it, but don't let me stop you trying your own variations.

Commercial Brands of Almond Milk. To be honest, I have never tasted a commercially produced brand of Almond Milk. I know they tend to be fortified with extra vitamins and so on…. If you have it available locally, try it. It might be just wonderful

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Food from Garbage?

A friend came by today and told me that they had just seen a branch laden with chilli peppers lying by the garbage bins at the end of the street. 

On the whole, people in this part of Greece don’t go for hot and spicy food that much. An extra twist on the pepper grinder may already be too much for many people I know!

You can often see chilli plants growing in gardens though. Why? Because they’re colourful and attractive! The owners wouldn’t dream of actually eating the fruit.

This branch turned out to be an entire plant that had lost it’s leaves and (I guess) was no longer regarded as attractive enough to warrant it’s place in the garden. At least the gardener here had put the plant, roots and all beside the bins rather than actually in one of them (I might have drawn the line at that).

Anyway, seizing the moment, I retrieved the branch and now I have a supply of hot red chilli peppers in the cupboard that should last until... well, a long time anyway.

Like everywhere else in life. You have to take the opportunities when they present themselves.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Magic of Mushrooms

Every winter you will find local people here on my Greek island out in the forest; shooting at wild birds and rabbits, picking wild herbs and gathering χόρτα (horta in English) which can be any one of a whole variety of green plants that grow wild here and are cooked to eat or make drinks with.

I pick the wild mushrooms that grow here and I get treated with a great deal of suspicion! Even friends who have seen me picking these regularly for more than 10 years now will sometimes tell me where they have seen them growing... but then recoil in horror at the thought of actually eating one. ‘But it might be poisonous. How can you know?’  I always thought that country folk knew these things. Not so it turns out. At least not on this small island populated by seafarers.

How do I know? Research! Trial and error is not advised in selecting wild mushrooms to eat. A famous old adage runs....  There are old mushroom eaters, and there are bold mushroom eaters, but there are no old, bold mushroom eaters.’

Now to be honest there are very few deadly poisonous varieties about although there are quite a few that might give you an uncomfortable night in the bathroom. But deadly means exactly that…. This is not a mistake you can change your mind about, so be careful. Most wild mushrooms are not worth the effort of picking because they taste bad, they taste of nothing or they’re too tough to get your teeth through.

Research. Find out what you are doing. A long time ago I armed myself with a copy of ‘Mushrooms’ by Roger Phillips. There are plenty of other books about on the subject, but personally I find Phillips’ work to be the most comprehensive and accessible book around.

Early on I adopted the policy of ‘throw it out if there’s any doubt’. Even with a good book, sorting out exactly which variety have in your hand is not always straight forward. They just don’t grow conveniently looking exactly like the photos in the book! For example, there is a large white mushroom that grows locally in the autumn. In my more ignorant days I once picked some thinking them to be very edible St Georges Mushrooms.  A check in the book quickly put me right…. Nearly. They turned out to be 90% certainly ‘Amanita Solitaria’…. But that missing 10%? Well, they could be ‘Amanita Virosa’. The first one is edible and the second one is better known as The Destroying Angel and is deadly poisonous. Many gamblers might bet on odds like that. I don’t…. not for those stakes anyway.

What do I find? A limited range given the poor soil and almost exclusive pine forest habitat here. Nevertheless, from late October until early February, I can find occasional Wood Mushrooms and Parasol Mushrooms which are all delicious. More common are two varieties of Boletus which look like Ceps but aren’t as good. Personally I don’t much like their texture, but they dry well for use in stock and soup etc. And then we get Amethyst Deceivers, and several other varieties which are all eminently edible but sometime best enjoyed as part of a sauce or soup rather than as dish on their own.

And now and then I come home with a basket of Saffron Milk Caps. It took me a while to find out how to cook these properly. They’re very hard and need more cooking than normal shop mushrooms…. But well worth the effort.

Saffron Milk Caps with Cream
Here’s a recipe I adapted from a couple of sources on the web…
Important: Never eat wild mushrooms whole. Many little grubs and maggots like to eat them too…. You might be eating more than you bargained for. Milk Caps are usually, but not always free of maggots…. But a knife through the middle will quickly tell you whether they’re for the pan or the garbage.
225g   Saffron Milk Caps (you'll never find exactly that amount.... adapt!)
2tbsp  Vegetable Oil
1          Garlic Clove
6tbsp  Double Cream or Cream Cheese with milk (see recipe)
2tbsp  Parsley
Salt and Black Pepper to taste

Blanch the mushrooms for two or three minutes in boiling water then put them to dry.  This is generally good policy with the harder mushroom varieties and helps to tenderize them for cooking. These Milk Caps will turn green when you blanch them… this is perfectly normal.
Cut up into small pieces then gently heat them in a frying pan until any liquid has evaporated. Add the oil, garlic, parsley and seasoning and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.

Add the cream and cook for a further 15 minutes. I use a cheese/milk mix here; double cream is often a non-existent supermarket item on my island. A spoonful of cream cheese thinned with a little milk to the consistency of double cream works perfectly well.
Serve…. this goes really well with pasta such as Penne. Just drizzle some olive oil over the dish and maybe garnish with a little more fresh parsley.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

An Artist in the Kitchen

An artist in the kitchen? Well, that’s my profession. I am a writer and painter and I happen to do most of the cooking in our household.

I live with my wife, Christiane on a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea and lovely as that is (I could write pages about all the things wrong here. But would you believe me? After all, when all’s said and done, we choose to remain here)… yes,, lovely as that is, it does present a would be chef with it’s own set of limitations.  

For example: the recipe calls for fresh Coriander? Forget it! Fresh Parsley or fresh Dill are no problem. But Coriander? Comes as a powder in a small jar or, because I remember to buy the stuff in Athens, as whole seeds to grind at home. Forget anything that calls for fresh leaf Coriander…. Or improvise! And on the whole, that’s what I do.

Neither of us are vegetarian although I rarely cook meat at home. So you will find mostly Vegetarian and maybe even Raw Food thoughts in this blog. Repertoire? Pretty cosmopolitan really, although variations on traditional Greek, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes tend to be at the forefront.

Anyway, I’ll start this going with something sweet and a twist on a traditional Greek favourite. I have never got into the habit of writing recipes down in the past…. but I put  this together some time ago for a friend who just wanted to know how…..

You can find dishes called Halva in all sorts of variations anywhere from the Balkan countries (Greece, Albania, Romania etc) right across the Eastern world to South East Asia. This is my twist on what we call ‘Country Halva’ in Greece…….

Chocolate Halvas.
  • 200gm Butter
  • 1 cup: peeled and chopped Almonds
  • 2 cups: Brown Sugar or Honey. I’ve seen recipes that suggest using more than twice this amount of sugar. Believe me, the quantity I use will satisfy most peoples sweet tooth.
  • 5 cups: Water (A little less if you add the brandy or rum)
  • 5 heaped teaspoons: Cocoa Powder (experiment!)
  • 500gm coarse or fine Semolina (either will work, depending on your preference)
  • Option: Soak a handful of Raisins overnight in Brandy (or Rum)

Put the butter in large saucepan and melt over moderate heat. If you wish you can add the almonds to the melted butter and fry them a little at this stage. Add the semolina and heat with the butter; it is important to monitor this and keep stirring it regularly so it doesn’t burn. 

Whilst the semolina is heating prepare the other ingredients. Mix the cocoa, sugar, almonds (if not already added) and raisins/brandy (if using them) in one bowl and measure out the water in another.

The semolina takes about 12 – 15 minutes to cook. It will turn light golden brown and become pleasantly aromatic. Keep stirring and do not let it catch on the bottom of the pan. Add the sugar, cocoa mix and stir so that it is thoroughly mixed in. Then…

Add the water steadily with one hand, stirring constantly with the other. The mixture will bubble and froth at first…. keep stirring! Once all the water is added continue to stir the mixture on the heat. It will start to thicken quite quickly. Then, as it is thickening but is still reasonably stirrable remove the pan from the heat and pour the mix into a mould. Shake the mould a little to make sure it gets into all the corners.

Leave to stand and cool. Once the halva is reasonable firmly set turn it out onto a serving plate.

Allow to cool – at least to a comfortable temperature before succumbing to the temptation to try it! It will keep (if allowed) for quite a while.