Sunday, January 04, 2015

Adventures in cheese-making

Tonight I embarked on the latest DIY-Mex experiment here in Melbourne: making my own cotija cheese. I love cotija, and use it in all my favorite dishes, from sopes to enchiladas to tortilla soup. The absence of cotija in Australia is one I keenly feel, and substituting feta--though I do it--does not help.

So, a few months ago when I found a recipe online for making cotija at home, I placed an order with Cheeselinks for some calcium chloride, vegetarian rennet, type C cheese starter, cheese salt, and a gouda-shaped cheese mold. It took some time to figure out what kind of milk would be truly good milk for cheese-making, and not just the Coles/Woollies price-war sugar-milk; I finally landed on Jonesy's (full-fat milk; they pasteurize at low heat, which apparently matters a lot), though I hear Saint David is also good.

I've relied on several instructional websites to walk me through this first test round. New England Cheesemaking has a great beginner FAQ/instruction page as well as providing the cotija recipe itself; the site Curd-Nerd has lots of helpful info.

Still, I hardly felt prepared. Unexpected issues arose immediately: Sterilization. I had to sterilize all the instruments to be used throughout the process, and I chose the boiling-water method. But could I just leave plastic spoons to boil in a pot for 15 minutes? I didn't do so--hopefully the cheese won't kill us. My type C starter was freeze-dried crystals in a foil pouch, stored in the freezer. The pouch and scissors had to be sterilized with alcohol before opening, and the crystals put into a sterilized jar. But sterilizing the jar meant making it boiling hot, and the crystals have to stay cold--what to do?? (I cooled the sterilized jar in the fridge for a few minutes before pouring in the crystals, and just hoped I wasn't ruining everything.)

The crystals themselves were supposed to be sufficient for 250L of milk in cheesemaking. I was using 2L, so that should mean I needed 1/125 of the crystals. Try eyeballing that.
Very tough to keep the temp here!

Other things were equally vexing. Keeping water at a constant 100 degrees F turns out to be quite a challenge. I followed NE Cheesemaking's advice to use a water bath in the kitchen sink to control temperature (that's on the beginner FAQ linked above). This took a lot of work, initially, to achieve. It was incredibly difficult to nail 100, though finally I managed to stay between about 99.5 and 100.5 for the 20 minutes of constant whisking. Once the milk-calcium-starter-rennet mixture was through the stirring phase, it had to sit and cool for "45-90 minutes" before having to be cut into even 1" cubes (which--it's in a round pot and the mix was more than 1" deep, so had to be cut on a horizontal plane). Then the test for whether it's "ready" for cutting--and apparently timing is really really important here--is to stick your finger in it at an angle and see if it breaks "cleanly."

I'm sure this is all stuff that repeated experience will help me know, but jeez.
Something between milk and cheese--the sitting phase.

Finally, after the cut curds have sweated out all the whey they can (and mine didn't sweat much), they get strained through cheesecloth on their way to the press. Unless you squeeze your cheesecloth too hard, as I did, and send your curds pooping out through the top right into your bowl of collected whey, destroying their shape/integrity and forcing a re-strain.

Good thing I knew this was likely to fail before I started! Otherwise, I might be stressed!

Real cheese mold, left. Improv version, right.
Anyway, there was more material than my small-sized gouda-shaped mold could handle (and this with only 2L of milk rather than the standard gallon. Looks like I'll need some larger molds). I poked some holes in a plastic container from our plasticware drawer and improvised a top for it using a small corningware bowl. A Trader Joe's tin full of refrigerator magnets made a decent weight. Now we see how things look at noon tomorrow, when these wheels go into their brine. It kinda looked like cheese when I flipped the little wheels, as directed, after the first half-hour of pressing. We shall see...!

Monday, December 29, 2014


We visited the Prahran market on Christmas Eve, and the first thing I spotted was a tray of tomatillos, fresh and glorious in their papery husks. The guy sold them for about $5/pound, though he was just throwing out a number. He said they would typically be 50¢ each...yikes!

In any case, they've been nestled in the crisper for a few days, but today they finally got turned into a lovely tomatillo sauce. Extra spicy this time...I threw in some Birdseye peppers, bring short on jalapeños. 

Who knows when I'll find them again...the seller said it had been 18 months since his last batch, and these were from "someone's backyard." Well, three of my seedlings are hanging in there and getting stronger. Hopefully soon I'll be the one with more tomatillos than I know what to do with!

Friday, December 05, 2014

We have seedlings!

As of yesterday, a pepper seed has sprouted.

The tomatillos came up in just about 4 days and two of them are already potted on into larger containers. A third is ready for that, too, and two are growing more slowly.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Recent adventures in Mexican food

We've been doing our best to enjoy Mexican food, both at home and out in the world. Our recent visit to the US was a good excuse to eat as much Mexican food as possible, in LA, San Fran, New York, and even Honolulu.

Here in Melbourne, we visited the Mexican Independence Day celebration at Federation Square. There, we discovered huaraches, at the Los Amates stall--and they were so good that not only did we go back for more, but then we sought out Los Amates' restaurant. It's in Fitzroy (or is it North Carlton at that point?), and conveniently right across the street from Casa Iberica, one of my favorite Mexi-Latino markets here.

We've also gone twice to Radio Mexico, in St. Kilda. In Winter, they had a great happy hour, with a taco and a Mexican beer (I gave mine to Noah) for just $10. They don't have this special anymore now, but they do still have good crab tostaditas and a yummy shrimp-poblano dish.

At this point, my ranking of Melbourne Mexican restaurants is:
1. Los Amates
2. Radio Mexico
3. La Tortilleria (Kensington)
4. Blue Corn (St. Kilda)
5. Bay City Burritos (St. Kilda)
6. Mamasita (CBD; and yep, no higher than this)
7. Zambrero (Port Melbourne)

Finally, here are some of the favorite new recipes I've been using in home cooking. They've worked out REALLY well.
Elotes (off the cob)
Requeson Revuelto

Moving is really disruptive's been a while. During the last few months, we've found and moved into our "permanent" house (more on that some time); I've taught my first three courses in Australia; I got dreadfully sick for three full weeks and then mildly sick for three more; we took our first trip back to the US, with stops in Hawaii and New Zealand on the way back; and we did a whole lot of shopping.

Speaking of which, we were prepared for Australia to be expensive. We did our research, checked Expatistan and Numbeo, looked at websites, even walked through stores with a list and a calculator during one of our visits. But we were utterly unprepared for just how expensive Australia actually is. It's kind of insane. We can't figure out how people live on "average" salaries. I may write more about this in the future. But if anyone ever reads this who is considering a move...on our visit back last month, we visited several of the most expensive cities in the US--LA, San Francisco, New York, Honolulu--and kept exclaiming over how cheap everything was, without exception. It is hard to understand how much more it is here, until you're here.

Meanwhile, here's an update on my growing progress. I posted my germination set-up way back in May, then nothing. Why? Because absolutely nothing happened. Here's what my set-up looked like weeks and months after my previous post:

The big problem, I think, was that I didn't understand how to manage watering of the little peat pods. At first, I was worried about their being too waterlogged. But very quickly, they dried out, and I probably never watered them properly afterward.

I'm about to try again. This time I won't bother with jalapeños, which are readily available here in Melbourne. I can find poblanos with some frequency at the Coles on Bay Street in Port Melbourne, and recently at the South Melbourne Market as well; but they're not regular enough, so I've planted another 5 seeds. If they don't work this time, when I'm pretty sure I know how to water, I'll blame my hand-harvested seeds (I just cut open poblanos from Coles), then I'll order seeds from a garden center.

I did also order tomatillo seeds from Beautanicals, and I've planted 5 of those along with my 5 poblano seeds. Come on, hot weather!! (First...come on, germination!)

Finally, I also ordered some supplies to make cotija cheese, following instructions I found here and here, from Cheeselinks. That project has to wait until I figure out where to buy a high-quality milk for cheese-making. More soon, I hope! 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Step 1: Growing chiles

During our pre-move visits to Melbourne, my husband Noah and I stopped several times at grocery stores and big markets to check out the resources for Mexican cooking. I was rather concerned about the chile situation: Though there were jalapeños and many, many Asian chilies, I did not see any of my Mexican standbys, such as Poblanos and Hatch chiles. Among the dried chiles available at local markets such as El Cielo, I can find Ancho, Pasilla, and Guajillo, but not Chiles Negros (though I must admit, I'm wondering whether the local Rancho Market in Salt Lake City actually sold real Chilhuacles, or some Pasilla-oriented substitute?). And though I've seen chiles that look much like Anaheims, I've read that these Australian versions don't have the correct flavor profile.

Imagine my joy when, after we moved, I discovered that the local Port Melbourne Cole's grocery story carries poblanos! But the friendly produce guy warned that they don't always have them and can't predict when they will and won't.

What to do? Well, obviously, to grow our own!

I started by buying some poblanos and jalapeños at Coles. When I cooked with them, instead of throwing away the scraped-out seeds, I saved them, drying them between layers of paper towel in a shallow plastic tray. (Note that I've started this project while still living in our small, temporary post-move apartment with very inadequate kitchen facilities. Note too that it's mid-winter.) After 5 days of drying, the seeds looked ready for the next stage. I'll save space here by saying that I followed the directions in this YouTube video as precisely as possible. I soaked and planted (in peat pellets) 6 poblano and 6 jalapeño seeds, and put them into a heated propagator that I found at Bunnings, along with a propagation thermometer.

Because this is my first time propagating from seed, let alone growing chiles (which I gather are tough to grow), I relied on a couple of other sites for tips, as well. But that UK YouTube video was my main tutor.

It's now just day 2 of germination and there's not much to see.
Just trying to keep the temperature steady between 20 and 30C, and to figure out the proper level of moisture. The video guy said to water with a pipette every day, but the pellets look too wet to me so I am not watering today. Perhaps I'll mist tomorrow. Anyway, I'll update as new things occur!

Of course, just as I start this new blog project, my teaching term at the university is about to begin, and that may slow me down--the priority will be keeping these chiles alive over posting. ;-) Plus, we move into our new "permanent" house in just a week, and that will certainly mean some upheaval. Stay tuned.

Site reboot! Why this is becoming a Mexican food blog!

This post represents a new era for this blog. After 7 years (!!) of inactivity, it's being rebooted as a place for me to document my new Ordinary Life adventures in my new home: Australia. Some day I may tell the story of how this came to be, but right now I want to cut to the chase of this new blog era. Australia is awesome (if expensive) in so many ways, but it has one major deficiency: a lack of the kind of Texas-Arizona-California Mexican food that we love so much. Sure, there are Mexican restaurants, but they are a higher-end niche serving more delicate and refined items than we know from home. There are only a few markets selling Mexican items, and those are heavy on the canned goods (and sometimes, thankfully, good corn tortillas) and very light on fresh produce, cheeses, and other staples.

So, a new hobby is born. I'll be spending a fair amount of my leisure time in Melbourne on gardening, cheesemaking, and cooking--all in an effort to keep good, hearty, Southwestern-Mex meals abundant at our house. Stay tuned for updates and let me know if you are a local reader with any suggestions or tips!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Two poems

I just think these are funny. They are not particularly meaningful but I can't figure out where to file the photocopies I have, so I thought I'd post them here.

Cinderella's Diary

I miss my stepmother. What a thing to say
but it's true. The prince is so boring: four
hours to dress and then the cheering throngs.
Again. The page who holds the door is cute
enough to eat. Where is he once Mr. Charming
kisses my forehead goodnight?

Every morning I gaze out a casement window
at the hunters, dark men with blood on their
boots who joke and mount, their black trousers
straining, rough beards, callused hands, selfish,

Oh, dear diary! I am lost in ever after:
Those insufferable birds, someone in every
room with a lute, the queen calling me to look
at another painting of her son, this time
holding the transparent slipper I wish
I'd never seen.

-Ron Koertge, from Fever


Lois liked to see the bullets bounce
off Superman's chest, and of course
she was proud when he leaned into
a locomotive and saved the crippled
orphan who had fallen on the tracks.

Yet on those long nights when he was
readjusting longitude or destroying
a meteor headed right for some nun,
Lois considered carrying just a smidgen
of kryptonite in her purse or at least
making a tincture to dab behind her ears.

She pictured his knees giving way,
the color draining from his cheeks.
He'd lie on the couch like a guy with
the flu, too weak to paint the front
porch or take out the garbage. She
could peek down his tights or draw
on his cheek with a ball point. She
might even muss his hair and slap
him around.

"Hey, what'd I do?" he'd croak just
like a regular boyfriend. At last.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

I'm not my brother's keeper, but they are

(Wow--it's been a while since I've posted here!)

The last few days have seen a media build-up to the 5th anniversary of September 11, and I've noted a recurring theme. Whether on Larry Mantle's interview show on the local NPR affiliate, in letters to Time magazine, or in just about any other medium covering the anniversary, some Americans are indignant that American Muslims don't seem to be sufficiently penitent about terrorism committed by their coreligionists.

On Larry Mantle's show, an angry and strident caller kept insisting that American Muslims never express any disavowal of any terrorist act that occurs. In Time, a widow of a 9/11 victim says that American Muslims "maintain a deafening silence in the face of atrocities." One of Mantle's Muslim guests pointed out that, in fact, every major Muslim organization (and many minor ones) certainly do disavow and condemn all attacks, but the media do not cover their statements. She urged the caller to check the organizations' websites--condemnations would be found there. But he kept insisting that, if the media didn't convey the disavowals, then they'd never been made. He hung up as angry as when he called.

Somehow I don't recall hearing how American Christians rushed to condemn the terrorist attack by Timothy McVeigh as Christians. I don't recall hearing the major churches or famous Christian leaders disavow what the Serbs did in Kosovo. And when the IRA conducted bombings in Britain, did the local archdiocese issue a statement? Of course, then we didn't have the proper perspective. Now that we hear how important it is for Muslims to apologize for everything another Muslim does, I look forward to the rush of Christian apologies for Christian acts (raping and murdering a 14-year-old in Iraq, anyone??) that will inevitably ensue.

I thought I'd personally offer my apology for atrocities committed by my co-religionists, but there are not a lot of atheist/Buddhist committers out there. I'll have to settle for this: I personally condemn and disavow the terrible acts committed by Lenin, Stalin, and the Marquis de Sade, and wish to state that in no way does my own practice of atheism/Buddhism accommodate or justify such acts.