garden cleanup, cheesemaking, and more, with alana chernila

cheese class with alanaCOLDER 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” (Amazon affiliate link), “the whole world opens up and you can make a zillion different things.”

the-homemade-pantryThat 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.

One recent autumn, Alana and I kicked off a duet: a yearlong series of daylong garden-to-table workshops at my place, so I know first-hand how great a teacher she is.

She joined me in October 2014 on my weekly public-radio show and podcast (transcript below) 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.]

alana walking in woodsA. 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?

carrot top pesto from alana chernilaA. 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.

DSC_0003Q. You’ve gone even farther than that, and made simple cheeses at home, too.

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.

more from alana chernila

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos courtesy of Alana Chernila.)

  1. Susan PD says:

    I love Alana’s book and have made many things from it already! For my yogurt, I have found that re-using one of those styrofoam containers that well-meaning relatives send food gifts in works perfectly. I fill it half full of warm water, set the jars in it, cover it with a towel and the next morning I have yogurt. Works perfectly every time. I’m sure any sort of cooler works but now I resent the square styrofoam things a little less.

  2. Minnie says:

    Well, now I must have Alana’s book. Soon a friend will be staying with us while recuperating from surgery. He is a chef who just sold his restaurant and will suffer withdrawal if he can’t get into the kitchen. We’ve already located a source of organic ewe’s’and goats’ milk and plan to make feta, and this book offers many more possibilities.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog, which I comment on little but read thoroughly.

  3. Kate S. says:

    My husband got me Alana’s book when it came out, so this was a nice surprise post! I make tons of her hamburger buns at a time then freeze them. They thaw easily and wonderfully and are far superior to store-bought buns.

  4. Alice Woody says:

    Will the creme fraiche work with ultra pasteurized cream? Years ago, I made it just as Alana does, but now that all available cream is “ultra” pasteurized, I have had nothing but failures, so I stopped trying.

  5. Marie~ says:

    I’ve made pesto with everything from artichokes to zucchini, but I never thought of carrot tops. What a great and thrifty idea. Maybe you could have an alternative basil cook-off at one of your future workshops. I would gladly volunteer to be a judge. ;)

  6. Let’s see, my first memory of bringing home milk from pastured dairy cows was when I was 4 so that is 65 years experience. Currently I buy a gallon of pastured raw milk every 2 weeks. It is usually less than 12 hours old some times right after milking which is good because I don’t have to reheat it. I heat the milk to 101 degrees [cow temperature] then add my starter culture. My culturing place is the 4 corners of my waterbed; seems to be just the right temperature for my favorite culture. after 8 to 12 hours I refrigerate it. Each jar I open the top is crème fraiche. Therefore I try to have a desert ready for each jar opening.

    Would you like to have my recipe for jeatoast cottage cheese?

  7. Lin says:

    I always made yogurt when my kids were young; and found using lowfat milk gave the creamiest results….I need to start again after reading this great blog.

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