garden cleanup, cheesemaking, and more, with alana chernila
COLDER WEATHER plus shorter days are the ingredients in two things right now at my house: garden cleanup, and also nonstop cooking. Author Alana Chernila just widened my palette on the latter–including how to make all those greens of harvested carrots into pesto, and even on to making crème fraiche and basic cheeses.
“If you know the basic science and a few techniques with home dairy,” says Alana, author of “The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making” [affiliate link], “the whole world opens up and you can make a zillion different things.”
That first book has been lavished with praise from food stars including Mollie Katzen, and Alana just delivered the manuscript for “The Homemade Kitchen,” due out in fall 2015. She’s a keen gardener whose grow-your-own passion and cookbook writing both began in 2008 with a job selling vegetables in our local farmer’s market–one of the oldest in the nation.
In September, Alana and I kicked off a duet: a yearlong series of daylong garden-to-table workshops at my place. Classes on cheesemaking and other home-dairy projects are slated for November and December (learn more, or order a ticket).
She joined me on my weekly public-radio show and podcast (listen in now, or read along, or both) to talk about what’s going on in her kitchen, and garden, as autumn progresses. Our chat began with matters of garden cleanup:
my q&a with alana chernila
Q. Where are you at in your garden cleanup, and what’s still standing? (Don’t worry; this is not a test, Alana.) [Laughter.]
A. I always do the same thing every fall: All the beautiful days happen, and I get out there and do a little bit of the cleanup…and then I take walks, and say, “I’ll get out there next week.” And then of course it’s 40 degrees and raining. Now the garden really needs me: I’ve got my overgrown jungle of Jerusalem artichokes, for instance.
Q. So what do you do with them—with our native tuberous perennial sunflower, Helianthus tuberosus?
A. I was instructed to put them at the edge of my yard, and I am glad I was, because they really take over. They are beautiful, huge, with a really nice flower at the beginning of the fall. And they create enough food for as many people who are willing to eat them—which in my house is not that many. I love the flavor; I just have to convince the rest of my family.
Q. I like them, too, actually—roasted and such.
A. I love them, though they are a little hard on the system. You have to be creative, and I’ve found that if I boil them first and then roast them, they’re great. I love to make fries from them, and they are great in any blended soup.
Q. Do you overwinter anything edible outdoors?
A. I’ll let the Jerusalem artichokes overwinter right in the ground, and even in the middle of winter, if I can get into the ground, I’ll dig some. Last year I actually layered them in a garden pot with soil, and put it right outside the door, so I could access them anytime.
Q. That was your root cellar, that pot on the porch.
A. Yes, my fancy, high-tech root cellar. [Laughter.]
Q. Improvisation like that is the name of garden success! What about cabbage—you grew them, yes?
A. I grew a lot this year, and because I don’t have a lot of storage, I’ve been leaving them out there. I grew a new variety called ‘Tendersweet,’ that’s sort of flat, like a UFO, and it’s so delicious. I just like to braise it with a little knob of butter and some water for maybe 15 minutes, and I can eat a whole head myself. I just chop it roughly first, add the butter and maybe an inch of water, cover it and let it cook. It’s so good.
Q. Do you use any row cover or coldframes or anything to protect things?
A. I’m not so good with that—it’s one of the things on my list to get better at in my life. Row covers, coldframes…
Q. I’m a lot older than you, and I had a fabulous coldframe for many years. And you know: One year, it collapsed—it was 15 or 20 years old—and maybe that was the best day of my life. It let me off the hook of going on and on with the garden. Enough is enough sometimes; I like the respite in winter.
You’re very waste not want not, Alana, I know. But did you really use the carrot tops for pesto?
A. I have friends, Pat and Jen Salinetti, who have a farm in Tyringham, Massachusetts, called Woven Roots. They grow the most delicious carrots I have ever had, the only ones my picky daughter will eat. Jen just this year started making carrot-top pesto. I had to try it.
Q. What’s in it?
A. It’s just garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. [The recipe.]
Q. In the early fall, you and I taught our first workshop together, on tomatoes and garlic, garden to table (and freezer, and pantry). Have you planted your garlic yet?
A. Not yet; this week.
Q. Me, too.
So speaking of workshops: I know you’ve taught a lot of cheesemaking classes, which is what we’re doing November 15 and December 6. You mention how learning “the basic science and a few techniques” opens up a whole world—so where does that begin?
A. It’s what really got me started thinking about food, and experimenting with food—home dairy is really where my heart is. I love teaching it.
Once you get a few of these really simple concepts, all the other foods are just variations. So you can play, and figure things out, and once the science makes sense, you can troubleshoot yourself. What seems to be mysterious loses its mystery, and you can just keep experimenting.
I started with yogurt.
Q. Me, too. I don’t have a yogurt maker, but have tried it in a crockpot and in a pot on the stovetop (then putting it overnight in the oven with the light on).
So what is the science and the “aha” behind dairy recipes?
A. It’s so simple, it’s amazing to me that we all buy all these dairy products. [Laughter.] All we have to do is start out with milk or cream; sometimes bring it to a temperature that will support some sort of culture; add a living culture; keep it warm; and let it sit. That’s it.
Q. So the temperature, the nature of the culture and the time we leave it, and whether we started with milk or cream–those are the variables?
A. Yes. Buttermilk, yogurt, crème fraiche, or cream cheese—all of those products are made in the same way. You talked about making yogurt and experimenting with different equipment. You can use your oven, or heat it in a crockpot, which is my favorite way now, or whatever way works best in your kitchen to make the science work; however you want to heat the dairy, add the culture, and keep it warm; that’s it.
Q. So how is crème fraiche made—it’s not something I buy because frankly it’s not cheap, so I have never written it into my grocery-shopping list.
A. It’s really fancy sour cream; that’s what it is. But it’s $5 for a tiny little tub, and most people don’t know what to do with it.
I find it is an amazing replacement in both sweet and savory dishes for creamy things. I love to sweeten a little of it with maple syrup and add it to baked apples, or apple crisp, or apple pie. It makes an incredible ice cream. It’s essentially a nice thick whipped cream with culture to it, so it has a great tang, and all those cultures that we love about yogurt.
It’s also great in salad dressings, and on tacos. It has entirely replaced sour cream in my kitchen.
Q. You make it yourself?
A. Yes, and I always have it in my kitchen. Tonight we’re having burritos, and I have it ready to go on them.
Q. The recipe?
A. Just start with a jar—a clean jar. Add a pint of heavy cream, and then stir in your culture: either a little packet of crème fraiche culture that you can order online (I order all mine from cheesemaking dot com out of Ashfield, Massachusetts); or you can use 3 Tablespoons of buttermilk, or 3 Tablespoons of yogurt, or 3 Tablespoons of your last batch of crème fraiche, if you’re already making it at home.
Add your choice of culture, stir it in, then lightly cover it—put cheesecloth over it, or place the lid on but do not close it (so you let a little air in there). Then you let it sit on your counter for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. In the summer it will culture quickly; in the winter it will need more time. When it seems pretty firm, you put it in the refrigerator.
Q. So a pint of cream and a little culture turns into what would cost $5-plus.
A. And it’s even easier than making yogurt, because we don’t even heat the cream.
A. Once you’ve got the process, you can make cream cheese, for instance. Heat the milk and cream, add some culture (which can be powdered—which I find more predictable for making cream cheese), and let it sit and keep it warm. Then the difference is that once it cultures and looks like a very firm pot of yogurt, you let it drain, to drain that whey out of what you’ve created.
You can use the whey in bread and soups and even smoothies, but what you have left is a super-creamy cheese that’s cultured—your cream cheese.
Q. So the percentage of moisture is another one of the factors–another variable in the difference between cheeses.
A. Yes, and if you kept the cream cheese and let it continue to drain, and actually pressed it—it would become a firm cheese.
Q. Well, of course you’re right, with what you said at the start: With a little knowledge, a whole world of possibilities opens up. Thanks, Alana.
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ALANA CHERNILA was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The October 27, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
(Photos courtesy of Alana Chernila.)