Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A bit older and a whole lot of spoiled.

"Don't make plans!", Paul says each year around my birthday. In our relationship, I am the one who tends to plan things for us, so it has taken some getting used to over the years to let go of that role. But, at this time of year, Paul takes charge and he does an amazing job of it. Each year I tell him that it is ok to celebrate modestly and each year he assures me he celebrates it how he wants to. And, boy, he does not do it modestly!

To us, birthdays are the holiday most worth celebrating. Honoring the day you were born is a way of honoring your existence. Last year, I wrote about my mixed feelings on how much Paul spoils me on my birthday. I think I am getting better at letting go of that baggage and basking in the awesomeness of whatever that day brings for me. Between Paul, my family and friends, it is definitely a time of the year where I feel the love that surrounds me. It is a wonderful feeling.

So, on to the story of the day/s of my 33rd birthday:

My morning started by when I awoke and went downstairs to find a breakfast in progress, a bouquet of flowers and a lovely letter about Paul's plan for the day. He had planned a day around celebrating aspects of me and the things I love. Of course, that included a lot of food related things!

We started by baking cookies together. He knows how much I like to swap food and with the MPLS Swappers swaps on hold, I haven't had a chance to swap in a while. He had found a vegan cookie swap and signed us up. He had also picked a vegan cookie recipe and had bought the ingredients so we could bake them together. Later in the day, we took our cookies to a vegan boutique and swapped cookie for cookie. I can't say that I love vegan cookies, but the experience of baking with Paul and knowing that he really pays attention to what gives me joy was a wonderful thing.

After baking cookies, we set out for the Science Museum of Minnesota. I haven't been to the museum since I was a kid, which means I hadn't seen their new building. It is a beautiful space, with tons of exhibits to explore. We were there to check out the Identity exhibit. In keeping with the theme of the day, we learned about what shapes a person.

The museum would like for you to know that you are so smart!

I took many, many pictures of plates of food throughout the day, but chose not to post them. I never know if others like to look at pictures of plates of food as much as I do! Regardless, you should be assured that I ate amazingly well that day. We had lunch at Cafe Ena before the cookie swap.

After a stop home to meet up with my Dad, take care of the dogs and get dressed up, we fought the downtown sports and holiday parade traffic in order to get to Cosmos for dinner. In advance of my birthday, Paul had sent me a list of entree choices he had pulled from a few restaurants he was considering. I got to pick my entree without knowing the restaurant. I think we chose well! Cosmos was beautiful and we both had delicious meals that were just the right amount of filling.

Notice that I have a million wine glasses! I ordered one glass, but asked a few questions before making my selection. Our waiter took it upon himself to bring me tastes of a few other wines just to make sure I was happy with my choice. He had me tasting different wines with different parts of my meal. For someone who typically has had no more than a few sips of alcohol here and there for quite a few months, the wine had quite an impact!

Paul enjoyed his food, too. I shared some of my wine with him, which is how I think I shared my cold with him, too. Oops. That is not a very nice appreciation gift from me!

All of the stuff above took place over the weekend, with my actual birthday being a few days later. On my actual birthday, he made a wonderful curry dinner at home and gave me my gifts. His gifts were immensely generous and extravagant this year! I received an ereader mostly prompted by its usefulness on our upcoming international vacation. Paul and I are also taking an intensive cooking class together next month. And.....the gift that made my jaw drop....a VITAMIX! There have been many wonderful smoothies coming out of that blender.

Once again, Paul demonstrated that he listens when I talk about the things that make me excited. He notices the activities that I enjoy and figures out a way to tap into them. I am looking forward to learning and cooking and traveling with him this year. My partner is a keeper!

Friday, December 9, 2011

At long last: The Kefir Post

Well! It is about time! Kefir has become an omnipotent part of my life for the past 6 months so it about time I give it some space here.

I obtained a kefir grain from fellow MPLS Swapper and (now) friend, Holly, after the June swap. It quickly made itself at home and starting growing and growing and growing. For the uninitiated, kefir is a form of fermented milk. It is fermented using something called a grain, which looks and feels a bit more like squishy/rubbery cauliflower.

Here is what I have been doing to make my kefir: I place the grain in a canning jar along with my milk of choice. I have tried cow (various percentages of fat) and goat milk. I then loosely screw on the plastic canning jar lid. I found the metal rings weren't holding up well against the fermenting kefir, so I switched to the plastic lids that are made for canning jars.

After the loosely covered jar sits out for a day or two, depending on the temperature, I pour it into my ceramic strainer. I have heard it is better to avoid contact with metal when you are handling fermented foods, so I use my ceramic berry bowl strainer.

Sometimes the kefir is bubbly! The fermentation is also said to produce a tiny amount of alcohol.

Depending on what I am planning to do with the kefir and my desired consistency, I can use it as is or strain some of the whey off.

But, no matter what, the grains need to be put back into another batch of milk right away. Sometimes I rinse them between batches and sometimes I don't. The grains grow a bit bigger with each batch, which adds up quickly when each batch only takes 24-48 hours. This means that my kefir grain has grown to over 10 times the size it was when I first got it! The bigger the grains, the more milk they process, too! As my grains have separated, I have given some away to others and plan to give some more away soon. Fortunately, I have figured out how to "rest" it in the fridge for a break. I have definitely needed the break on more than a few occasions.

Kefir Cheese in straining (jelly) bag

Being able to control the consistency of the kefir by straining off whey has made it such a versatile ingredient. Leave it as is and you have a buttermilk substitute. Strain a little whey off and it behaves like plain yogurt. Strain a little more off and you have a mayo replacement. A little more than that and it can be used like sour cream. Keep going and it is a spreadable, tart tasting cheese. Plus, straining the whey off means you also have whey you can use!

Using whey is a new thing for me. I have greatly enjoyed the lacto-fermented carrots I made recently. Paul and I are both looking forward to making lacto-fermented pickles with our next cucumber crop. I have been poking around for other ideas, but I have to confess, most of the whey has gone into our compost pile. I am not sure how to use it in large quantities, so any suggestions you have are welcome!

The kefir-as-buttermilk substitute has opened a door to so many lovey baked goods. The yogurt consistency mixed with a little vanilla extract and maple syrup poured over granola has become a common breakfast. In the past month or two, I have made many modified versions of this baked oatmeal to use up kefir. The baked oatmeal makes for delicious leftovers. Sometimes I even reheat it and then pour some kefir over it. All of this kefir has been a delicious curse.

Here is a round-up of some recipes I know I have followed with kefir subbing in for the dairy products:

Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes (We have made this many times. They are great as cold leftovers with jam.)
Banana Blueberry Buttermilk Bread (I used frozen raspberries instead of blueberries and I didn't mash the bananas very thoroughly. Yum.)
Cranberry Buttermilk Loaf (I made multiple batches over Thanksgiving. This was delicious with frozen or fresh cranberries.)
Whole Wheat Apple Muffins (Made with apples my dad grew!)
Baked Oatmeal (Mentioned above. Play with the combination of fruit and definitely add in minced candied ginger.)

In the warmer months, I blended the kefir with all sorts of things to be eaten as smoothies or frozen into popsicles. I also tried mixing it with fruit and turning it into fruit leather in the dehydrator. That received mixed reviews.

I am looking forward to continued experimentation with this ingredient. In addition to the versatility and the tangy taste, kefir is purported to be full of great health benefits. A quick google search for "kefir" and "health benefits" brings up a ton of positive claims including that it helps boost your immune system and, in many cases, is easily digested by people with lactose intolerance.

Last but not least, if you are local to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and this kefir thing piques your interest, feel free to get in touch with me by email or through the comments. I would be happy to pass on a grain to you! Be warned, though, when I give a grain I call NO BACKS! Updated 3/30/15 - I no longer have any kefir grains to share.  Sorry!
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