The 117 Year old Piece of Cheese

If you didn’t think cheese can be a window into culture, family history and identity, then think again.

From this week’s  New Yorker:

SAY CHEESE

This is the story of a hundred-and-seventeen-year-old piece of cheese. The cheese has lived in an apartment in Brooklyn for the past year. Prior to that, it travelled the world, or more of the world than the average piece of cheese has travelled. The cheese is small—four inches long, one inch high—and it is an orangey-brown color. A person who comes in contact with it might not recognize it as cheese. Its shape more resembles that of a heart or a teardrop, or something that you would want to have a hazmat suit on to touch. Its owner, Clare Burson, a Tennessee-born singer-songwriter by night and a docent at the Tenement Museum by day, is aware that the cheese evokes visceral reactions. When she gives tours at the Tenement Museum, she sometimes cites the decades-old bagel that was discovered in the building when it was renovated, in the nineties, which disgusts people. “You think that’s something?” she then adds. “I have a hundred-and-seventeen-year-old piece of cheese!”

Burson, who is thirty-four, recounted the cheese’s history the other day at her apartment in Cobble Hill, where she lives with her husband, a criminal-defense attorney, and their cat, Kreplach. She carried the cheese carefully from her bedroom to a table in the living room—she is reluctant to travel any greater distance with the cheese. “I worry about it,” she said.

The cheese was a going-away present for Burson’s paternal great-grandfather Charles Wainman (née Yehezkel), upon his emigration from Lithuania, around 1893, to Johannesburg. For reasons lost to history, he never ate the cheese but kept it in a trunk that travelled with him while he worked as a trader among the Zulus, and then when he fought, on the Dutch side, in the Boer Wars. About 1904, the cheese travelled to Memphis, via Leeds, in England, and Galveston, in Texas. Wainman opened a grocery store, and then, after the Great Depression, was a security guard. He died in 1944. The cheese was stored away until 1971, when Burson’s mother discovered it in the old trunk.

Burson first learned of the cheese in 1999. She had just returned from Germany, where she was on a Fulbright, researching identity politics and the Holocaust. (Her maternal grandmother, born in Leipzig in 1919, escaped Germany on the morning of Kristallnacht, and ended up in Memphis.) When Burson returned home to Tennessee, her paternal grandmother, Jojo, presented her with some more history. “Apropos of nothing, Jojo brought out the cheese,” Burson recalled. “She said, ‘Have I ever shown you this? It’s a cheese!’ ”

At that time, the cheese was wrapped in tinfoil and stored in an unmarked envelope. “Every time I went to visit after that, I checked on the cheese,” Burson said.

In 2007, Burson went to Lithuania, hoping to learn more about the history of the cheese—her grandmother knew only that it came from a place she called Pushville. In Vilnius, looking at a pre-Holocaust map, Burson surmised that Pushville was Posvol, which is now Pasvalys. She discovered that no one there spoke English except for a guy at the local agricultural museum. He took her to see the site of the old synagogue, now a housewares store, and then mentioned that one of the town’s main industries is cheese. In a supermarket, she found cheese that looked a lot like her cheese, if it were a hundred and seventeen years younger: it had the same dolloplike shape. The cheese was a fat-fermented variety called Svalia, for the local river. According to a modern producer, it is “a tasteful component of sandwiches” and “goes very well with beer.” Burson bought a small chunk of it, but it did not make it to Tennessee for her family to taste. “I took it back to Riga, and I basically ate cheese and crackers in the hotel room for the next two days,” she said. “It was kind of nutty. It was good.”

When her grandmother died, in 2009, the cheese went to Burson. She flew down from New York to take possession. When she got to the house, the cheese was not in the box on the shelf in the closet where it usually resided—her aunt Linda had put it in the freezer. “I was a little freaked out about it,” she said. The cheese flew back on a Delta flight to LaGuardia. It breezed through security, probably because it smells only when it is close to your face. “It smells like old cheese, stinky feet, that sort of thing,” Burson said. Her husband was fully supportive. “He takes issue with me having a lot of stuff,” she said. “But I wouldn’t exactly call the cheese a tchotchke.”

Last summer, Burson took the cheese on a subway to Manhattan, where Tenement Museum employees helped her seal it in a jar. She feels the cheese is preserved now, which pleases her landlord. But Burson worries that it seems less like a relic and more like something in a lab. “I’m a little conflicted about it,” she said.

The Brooklyn Rooftop Garden

This year’s rooftop garden in Park Slope, Brooklyn is a major success.I can’t write the name of the street or the address because, strictly speaking, we’ve never been on the roof since it’s not allowed and the owners of the building probably don’t want us traipsing around up there.

But traipse we do, and we’ve managed to build quite the garden up there. We have tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, snap peas, snow peas, Serrano chiles, bell peppers, mint, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, dill and basil. For a look at other Brooklyn gardens, check out http://brooklynroofgarden.com

Just the other night, we ate two salads with all of the ingredients coming from our Brooklyn rooftop garden. The  first is a cucumber salad with dill and the second is cucumbers, tomatoes and basil with olive oil. Delish.

cucumber salad

tomato and cucumber salad

The best part of the garden is watching the plants grow and seeing the vegetables ripen.There’s nothing like eating your own, home grown vegetables. We water our garden by running a hose from the kitchen sink out into the hallway and up the ladder to the roof. I’d love to to a massive, roof -wide garden like the huge garden in Greenpoint brooklyn. Check out this Daily News Article for more on that.

I’d love to hear from others who have good “urban farming” experience.

Making Delicious “Mozz” at Home

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A lot of people who know about my proclivities for and activities related to cheese-making in my Brooklyn, NY apartment have asked me for an easy cheese they can try making at home.

Mozarella is by far the easiest and will give you the most instant gratification for your efforts. Before we dive into the recipe, let me digress for a moment about the history of Mozarella. It’s not clear how mozarella was invented, but like many of the best inventions, it was probably an accident. A cheese curd probably fell into a pot of boiling water, an Italian farmer fished it out and, voi la, mozarella.

We do know that the classic buffalo mozarella comes from Aversa near Naples:

Classic Buffalo Mozarella is made from the milk of water buffaloes. According to Wikipedia, “more than 33,000 tons of buffalo mozarella are produced per year in Italy and it is an industry worth more than $430 million.”

Unless you have access to water buffaloes, you will most likely make your mozarella from cow’s milk. Technically, mozarella made from the milk of cows is called Fior di latte .

OK, now for the good stuff. Here is an easy, “in-an-afternoon” cheese that anyone can make at home. If you need help with any supplies, I recommend Cheesemaking.com but you can also get all of the ingredients for Mozarella at Wholefoods or another health food store.

First, watch this video to get a visual (and aural – Spanish guitar music always helps) sense of how it looks to make Mozz and then see the recipes below for details:

Although it takes a little effort, once you’ve tasted your home-made Mozz, you’ll know it’s worth it.Most recipes for mozarella are similar so you can browse the internet for other variations. This recipe is from Instructables.com:

step 1 Equipment you will need:
Equipment: 1. At least an 8 quart pot either enameled or stainless steel. (Do not use aluminum, cast iron or other reactive pots) 2. Thermometer. (A candy thermometer will probably work but a good digital thermometer is much better for accuracy.) 3. A couple measuring cups or something to dissolve the Citric Acid and Rennet in. 4. A big strainer to strain the Curds fro…

step 2OK First things First
1. Pour 1 teaspoon Citric Acid into 1/4 cup unchlorinated water and stir. Crush the Rennet tablet and pour it into the other cup of unchlorinated water. The Citric Acid should be dissolved by the time you have to use it. Most of the Rennet will be dissolved but there will still be some residue left. 2. If you haven’t done so already, pour milk into your pot. Make sur…
step 3Pour in the Citric Acid.
1. Pour the dissolved Citric Acid in the milk and stir for 1 minute. 2. Sprinkle the other teaspoon of Citric Acid in the milk and sir for another minute. You will probably see the milk start to curdle very shortly.
step 4Heat milk to 88-90 degrees F. Stirring occasionally.
This is not an error. You are not trying to pasteurize the milk. If you get it too hot or too cold, the Rennet will not make curds. Use a low heat so it doesn’t go past the 88-90 degrees. It should take about 10-15 minutes.
step 5At 88-90 degrees turn off the heat and stir in the Rennet solution for 15-20 seconds.
Cover the pot with the lid and LEAVE IT SET UNDISTURBED FOR AT LEAST 15-20 MINUTES until you can get a clean break. I usually let mine set for 15-30 minutes. Time is not critical here as long as you get the clean break.
step 6Wait for a clean break.
This is what a clean break looks like. When you poke your finger into it and move for an inch or so and lift it out, the Curd and Whey should separate shortly. If it is still liquidy (Is that a real word?) and sticks to your finger let it set a while longer.
step 7Cut the Curd.
Cut the Curds into 1/2 inch cubes from top to bottom as shown. Then do the same thing at a 45 degree angle.
step 8Let the Curds set undisturbed for 5-10 minutes.
Just let them sit there.
step 9Apply low heat and heat to 108 degrees.
Apply low heat and stir the curds occasionally to keep them separated until they reach 108 degrees. This will take about 15 minutes. The Curds will shrink and start to sink as the Whey is expelled from them.
step 10Turn off the heat.
Turn off the heat and continue stirring every few minutes for an additional 20 minutes. The Curds will keep shrinking.
Once you’ve finished making your mozarella, you will have a pot full of whey left over. Now, for the bonus recipe:
this leftover whey is the key ingredient in making Ricotta cheese! Ricotta cheese is technically a whey cheese since it is made from re-heating and coagulating the left-over whey that results from making other cheeses. Check out the history of Ricotta here.
To make your Ricotta, follow this recipe from hobbyfarms.com.
Once you have your fresh Mozarella nd Ricotta, here are a few good “summer-y” recipes:

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Let The Great World Spin

The rooftop garden in Brooklyn is flourishing: spinach, zuchinis, cucumbers, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, snap peas, green beans and a whole bunch of herbs. To get to the roof there’s a ladder and then you open a hatch and out into the blinding light. It feels like leaving a spaceship and walking on a whitewashed moon.
We have a view of the statue of liberty and all of lower Manhattan.
We got sick of lugging bottles of water up for the plants and bought a hose. Now, we run the hose from the kitchen sink, out the door, down the hall, up the ladder and out the hatch. For a secret rooftop garden, we have a lot going on. Hopefully the landlords won’t catch on. We’ll probably end up like that children’s book and have tomatoes growing in our closets.
The plants love getting drenched. There aren’t enough bees in Brooklyn so Anya had to pollenate a lot of the plants using Q-Tips. Too bad city pigeons can’t be taught bee tricks so they can have a use. We’ve harvested the first tomatoes and snap peas- delicious. I’d like to grow sunflowers too. It would give the people on Flatbush Avenue something nice to look at.
On a side-note, I just read a beautiful book by Colum McCann, Let The Great World Spin. If you live in NYC, ever lived in NYC, or hell, live anywhere, it’s a good one. It captures a lot.

More cheesemaking soon….

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Avi Bars

Granola Mix

After being inspired by #3 from my office, I decided to try my hand at whipping up a batch of Chewy Peanut Butter Granola Bars. I love anything with peanut butter and I’ve never tried my own granola bars before, so what the hell.

It turns out, they’re SO easy to make. I reviewed a bunch of recipes on the internet until I settled for Emeril Lagasse’s recipe on The Food Network:

Recipe at:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/emeril-lagasse/peanut-butter-granola-bars-recipe/index.html

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped pecans
  • 1/4 cup hulled green pumpkin seeds
  • 1/4 cup unsalted sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter

Directions

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8 by 8-inch baking dish and set aside.

In a small saucepan melt butter with honey over low heat, stirring.

In a large bowl stir together oats, almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cinnamon and salt. Pour butter mixture over oat mixture and stir until combined well.

On a large baking sheet, spread the granola evenly in a thin layer. Bake, stirring every 5 minutes to keep from sticking or burning, until golden brown and crisp, about 20 minutes. (Do not overcook; the granola will crisp more when cooled.)

Cool the granola in the pan on top of the stove and stir in the raisins. When the granola is completely cooled, place in a large bowl.

Combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, and peanut butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is at a boil. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture over the granola, stirring to coat well. Cool slightly and press into the prepared baking dish and let cool completely and harden. Cut the mixture into ten 1 1/4 by 4-inch bars and serve at room temperature. (The bars may be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.)

Peanut Butter Granola Bars

The whole thing, from “soup to nuts” takes about 40 minutes total and you can do three other things while you are making these bars.

If you’ve ever found yourself getting by on Clif Bars or Lara bars or any other high-tech protein or energy bars, do yourself a favor and make some kind of bars on your own to see how easy it is. You can pack lots of nuts, fruits and energy together with any binding agent (peanut butter, corn syrup, agave nectar honey, etc. etc) and get a nutritious results.

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Urban Farming in NYC and Beyond

Fact – more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban environments. It’s estimated that by 2050, the number could be as high as 80%. If we think we’re disconnected from our food supply now, the future looks even more bleak.
This is just one reason that urban farming and urban agriculture projects are so important and interesting.

Urban farming projects range from re-claiming unused public land to school gardens to more innovative vertical farming schemes.

I love the Eagle Street Rooftop garden here in Brooklyn, NY. Ben Flanner and Annie Novak built and tend this rooftop garden. Check out this picture of the farm:

For the full story, check out the article on Serious Eats. Even if you don’t have roof-space like the Eagle street operation, you can grow food in much, much smaller spaces as well.

Another great project in New York City is Added Value, a community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn. According to their own website:

“Added Value is a non-profit organization promoting the sustainable development of Red Hook by nurturing a new generation of young leaders. We work towards this goal by creating opportunities for the youth of South Brooklyn to expand their knowledge base, develop new skills and positively engage with their community through the operation of a socially responsible urban farming enterprise.”

Added-Value took over a dilapidated, unused city lot and turned it into a functioning 2.75 acre farm. It’s an incredible project and they take volunteers on weekend. Go visit.

For a list of some large-scale NYC gardens check out this article.

A great organization to check out is Growing Power, a great organization founded by former NBA player and MacArthur Fellow Will Allen. Growing Power’s projects in Milwaukee and Chicago are teaching kids and adults alike the value and power of sustainable food production. Watch Allen’s youtube video to see what Growing Power is all about:

Please leave comments about other interesting urban farming/gardening projects.

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Preserved Lemons

At the Hazon Food Conference (see last few posts), I heard a talk by food writer Joan Nathan. Nathan is famous for her award winning cookbooks including the 2005 release The New American Cooking and the PBS series Jewish Cooking in America.

At the Hazon conference, Nathan gave a few different talks including one on foods of Israel. She claimed that Falafel is probably one of the oldest foods ever made (either the chic pea variety favored in Israel  or the fava bean variety favored in Egypt). I don’t have an opinion on the origin of falafel but I’ve  tasted some that could have been made by ancient Egyptians. See this article for a few falafel tidbits.

Nathan e also talked about a nice recipe for Preserved Lemons which I just finished making at home. If you like Moroccan food, the “secret ingredient” in a lot of the recipes is preserved lemons.

Nathan’s Preserved Lemon recipe from the NY Times is as follows:

“Classic Moroccan Method for Preserving Lemons

12 lemons
1/4 cup kosher salt (about)

1. Quarter 8 of the lemons lengthwise, leaving them connected at one end. You can also slice them thin.

2. With your fingers stuff about 2 tablespoons salt inside the lemons, close them and place in a sterilized wide-mouthed quart jar. Squeeze the juice of the remaining 4 lemons into the jar. Allow to stand, covered, at least one week on the counter, shaking the bottle each day. Then add more lemon juice to the bottle if necessary and if you like, olive oil to cover.

3. Close the jar and leave out on the counter for at least 3 weeks before using. When using the lemons, merely rinse with water, remove the seeds, and chop up for your recipes.

Yield: 8 preserved lemons

Note: For a flavorful variation, I sometimes add 4 crushed garlic cloves and 1 teaspoon of sweet paprika to the lemons. And for a short cut, freeze the lemons first, then defrost and proceed as above.”

Here’s a video explanation replete with funny Moroccan background music:

You can buy preserved lemons at specialty shops, but it took me all of 20 minutes to pack my jar full of lemons, salt and lemonjuice. Now, all I have to do is wait about a month for them to get preserved.

Here are a few Preserved Lemon recipes;

1.From Serious Eats: Preserved Lemon Citrus Chicken with Chervil Gremolata (There’s a good story by the recipe’s author on this page as well)

2. From The Food Network: Chicken Tagine with Green Olives and Preserved Lemon

3. From The Washington Post: Sauteed String Beans with Garlic and Preserved Lemon

4. From Recipe Zaar: Pine Nut and Preserved Lemon Couscous

Enjoy!

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