Friday, August 23, 2013

Cream of Tomato Soup for Miserly Health Freaks

Being thrifty makes my heart sing.  So does being able to make healthy meals fairly quickly out of things that I can always find around my kitchen.

The days are increasingly autumnal, and I am craving standard comfort food. And today I wanted cream of tomato soup.

But there were obstacles.

Obstacle #1: I do not buy canned soup.  It is loaded with unpronounceable ingredients as well as LOADS of sugar and salt, it may expose me and my loved ones to BPA, and, if you break down the cost by serving, it is ridiculously expensive when compared to homemade soup, which tastes better anyway!

Obstacle #2: Because of that  pesky BPA, I also try not to buy canned tomatoes, even though they are so handy to have around. Instead, I buy high-quality pasta sauce in glass jars, which I substitute for tomatoes in a pinch, and sometimes I buy the Pomi boxed tomatoes, though they are pricey.

Obstacle #3: I do not regularly stock cream.  I love cream, but I do not love ultra-pasteurized dairy products, and I'd have to make a 160-mile round trip to buy cream that is not ultra-pasteurized.  So I do not regularly buy cream.

Obstacle #4: Milk can be used instead of cream if stabilized as a white sauce, but milk prices are high (routinely over $4 a gallon here), and I am using my milk for kefir, so I do not want to use loads of milk for cooking, as that would cause my frugal heart some pain.

So I made cream of tomato soup anyway.

My favorite recipe is from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.  I cross referenced it with a version in good ole Joy of Cooking, which uses a béchamel sauce in lieu of cream.  Then I made this version, which makes six generous portions:


  • 1 stick of butter (I always used unsalted. Salted butter has shitloads of salt in it.)
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 50 - 70 ounces chopped tomatoes (fresh, boxed, jarred, whatever)
  • some basil (fresh if you have it; dried if not. You may not need it if some of your tomatoes are from a glass jar of tomato-based pasta sauce)
  • pinch of sugar (you will not need this if you are using any tomato-based pasta sauce)
  • 4 cups chicken stock*
  • a tiny bit of allspice
  • 3 tablespoons of flour
  • one cup of powdered milk
  • 2 cups of water
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • dash of nutmeg

1. Melt 1/2 the stick of butter in a soup pot and add the onions, carrots, and garlic.  Cook on medium until softened, about 10 minutes.

2. Add tomatoes, basil, sugar.  ( I used one box of Pomi and a partially full jar of Muir Glen pasta sauce that I had to use up anyway.  So, because I used the pasta sauce, I didn't add extra basil or sugar.)

3. Cook another five minutes, then add chicken stock. (I just added the frozen cubes of homemade stock that I had in the freezer and let the cubes melt into the simmering veggies. Thawing isn't really necessary.)

4. Simmer for 45-50 minutes.

5. While the tomato base is simmering away, make what I like to call "cheater's cheap-ass béchamel:"
melt 1/2 stick of butter on medium low, add the flour, and stir your roux for 2-3 minutes.  Measure our your powered milk, top it with water to make 2-3 cups of powered milk, and whisk it with your roux.  Continue to heat and stir until thickened.  It will get thick like Alfredo sauce.  Add salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. Turn off heat.
6. When the tomato base is all cooked and yummy, transfer it to a blender and blend.  You'll need to work in batches, and you'll need to be careful because it is hot.  I blended it in three batches, starting with a very low speed and turning it higher once it got going.

7. Put all the blended base back into the soup pot, and add the cheater's béchamel.  You may need to add a little more salt: taste it and see.

You now have a big batch of comfort food!

*Every time I roast a chicken (and I always buy whole chickens, not parts; more bang for your buck), all uneaten skin and bones and other bits as well as trimmings of the to-be-roasted vegetables (especially the leek tops!) get boiled several hours in a large quantity of water, are allowed to cool, and then draining through a colander for a nice, clear broth.  I then freeze this in usable portions for when I make soups and sauces.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Celebrating Sour Milk: About Kefir

I've read that our modern, pasteurized, homogenized milk does not sour; it spoils.  Spoiled milk is of no value and is not good to consume.

Soured milk, on the other hand, is good for us.  Also called "cultured" or "clabbered," it introduces beneficial yeasts and bacteria into our digestive systems. You sour milk by introducing the right kinds of bacteria to it. This is how we get buttermilk, yogurt, cheeses, and kefir.

I have tried the make-your-own yogurt thing.  Like all soured milk products, you need a starter culture.  But with yogurt, you need to renew your starter fairly frequently by buying  more. New starter can be high quality store-bought yogurt.  But if I have to buy store-bought yogurt to make homemade yogurt, I don't really see the point.

Kefir is different.  Kefir starter continues to grow as you make more kefir.  It is like the mythical wine cup that refills itself.  It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Kefir is made from "grains," which you can buy online or get from someone else who makes kefir.  I got mine from a friend who got hers from a friend who got hers from a friend.  She gave me a tablespoon about two weeks ago.  Now I have about two tablespoons.

my kefir starter
My kefir grains look like cottage cheese. Some say theirs look like cauliflower.  They are not really grains; they are clusters of yeasts and bacteria that culture (lactoferment) milk or other liquids.

William Lee, author of The Friendly Bacteriasays that kefir grains are called "'grains of the Prophet Mohammed,' the Prophet having been credited with their introduction."  Other sources say that kefir originates from Russia.

To make kefir, you put the grains into a clean glass jar.  You pour milk over the grains and cap the jar. Then you let it sit, shaking occasionally, unrefrigerated, for about a day.  If you refrigerate, it takes a lot longer to produce kefir, so if you want a slower process, pop it in the cold storage.

When you want to use the kefir, strain it through a sieve. The tart, slightly thick liquid that comes out is your usable kefir.  The solids in the sieve are your starter.  Yo can refrigerate your strained kefir until you are ready to use it.

You need to feed your starter (by pouring fresh milk on it) once you have strained the kefir off it.  This keeps it alive.  If you aren't going to use your kefir, you still need to strain it and give it new milk.

The Internet is full of mixed advice about whether or not to rinse your grains and your glass jar.  Rinsing slows the growth of the starter and produces a more mild kefir.  Unrinsed grains produce a more robust starter and a stronger tasting product.  I do not rinse my grains.  (I want ALL that beneficial bacteria!).

Sally Fallon, in Nourishing Traditions, says that you can freeze the starter grains for several months if you are not using them, but if you freeze too long, they will lose their ability to culture.

Since the starter grows, you will be able to share your starter with others fairly quickly.  You can also use grains to make other fermented things.  Full Moon Feast, by Jessica Prentice, has recipes for low-alcohol herbal ales made with kefir grains.  I haven't tried those yet, but they are on my list!

kefir shake, coming up!
What do I do with my kefir?  I make a breakfast shake, using

a small handful of almonds
1/4 cup hemp protein powder
a piece of fruit (I especially like fresh mango)
a cap-full of flax seed oil

It is tart and satisfying, and I know I am getting a pretty good dose of probiotics!

Update: just found some very delicious-sounding recipes for more smoothies.  Must try!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

More Recycling: what to do with piles and piles and piles of . . .

Staying with the theme of turning the worthless into the worthy, I have a stash of material that seems too good to throw out.  

Mio marito collects stamps, specifically stamps from southern African countries.  He has just sorted through a few pounds of stamps (and that's A LOT of stamps) and has a lot of extras that he does not need.  

He tipped them into the bin.

"Nooooooo," I scream.  

Surely, there is something we can do with these pretty little babies?  Necklaces?  Earrings?  Brooches? Fun things with scrabble tiles and epoxy? Fun things with Mod Podge?

Help! Please send ideas and tutorials my way!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vermiculture Evangelista

In a previous post, I wrote about my passion for compost, which makes the worthless into something worthy.

But then there were bears.

I tried four different outdoor composting systems, including a solar-oriented, cone-like thing the bulk of which I buried about four feet underground. The bears enthusiastically destroyed them all.

So I started to read about vermiculture, which is an indoor composting system.  I started my own vermiculture set-up in 2010, and I am now a true believer.

It isn't just for those of us who need bear-free composting options.

It is for anyone looking for an easy and efficient way to compost.  It is especially good for those who live in cold climates, because indoor composting happens year around.  And the product just can't be beat: it produces the best soil amendment ever.

I do it right in my dining room, and most people do not even know it is there.  No smell.  No flies.

Here is what most people see:

What is behind the magic screen?

the shredded paper can make a mess...hence the magic screen!

And what does it do? It turns kitchen scraps, junk mail, and cardboard into totally digested, soil-scented worm castings for the garden.

shredded junk mail

household cardboard waste
Decomposing kitchen scraps, it turns out, are just too gross and dark to photograph, so I invite you to mentally include plenty of tea bags, banana peels, onion skins, carrot peelings, lettuce rinds, etc. in the emerging scenario.

All of the above results in:

thoroughly composted material
Amazing, yes?

I bought the composter online, and I even bought the worms online.  It was super easy to set up.

I started with the three-tray composter, but I have added two additional trays (which can be purchased separately) to make a five-tray composter.  We needed all five to keep up with our output of waste.

Here are some important tips I have gleaned from three and a half years of worm farming:
  • Use no meat, grease, citric fruit, or coffee grounds.  The meat and grease result in a bad smell, and the other things are too acidic for the worms.
  • Egg shell is the one organic material that does not break down.  So I know longer use eggshells in the composter.
  • Use A LOT of shredded paper and cardboard.  Every time you add food scraps, add a good inch of paper or cardboard on top.  This is how I achieved no smell and no flies.  Plus, I got to compost all of our paper waste!  I bought a little desktop shredder for the junk mail, and I hand-shred the cardboard.
  • Keep the drainage spigot open and let it drain 24/7 into a bowl that you set under the spigot.  The resulting "compost tea" can get poured directly onto your houseplants as an organic fertilizer.  Check the bowl about once per week or whenever you are adding material to the composter.  it is amazing how much water decomposing fruits and veggies generate!
  • I use blunt edged, plastic salad tongs to move the compost around when I am adding new material to a tray.  I do not like to touch the squirmy worms, and the blunt tongs do not seem to hurt them.  I have dedicated the tongs to this purpose and use them for nothing else.  So you do not have to be afraid to eat salad at my house.

I'm back!

I started this blog in January 2007 and abandoned it, heartbroken, in July 2007.

I was working at a high school, the students found me out, and there was some rather targeted cruelty aimed at me because of my blog.

It still hurts a little.

BUT I no longer work at that school, and I have time to try again. I hope to pick up where I left off, write about some of my passions, and post some things that might be interesting or useful.

Here we go!