October 26, 2010

Ratatouille Lasagna with Celery Root Crème – Enjoying Local Produce

Most people associate the warm weather and the laid-back life style of San Diego and California in general as one of the main perks to live here. There is no doubt that before we moved to San Diego we mainly associated these attributes with California and are still enjoying them daily. But over the years we also more and more savor the sheer abundance of outstanding local produce. The climate of California allows farmers to grow many different types of produce year-round, and San Diego itself is one of the best places to live for outstanding local produce. According to the San Diego County Farm Bureau San Diego had in 2009 more than 6680(!) farms with most of them between just 1-9 acres which is more than any other county in the US. San Diego County is also the largest community of organic growers in the nation with 374 organic farms. Some of the well known farms have also gained a high reputation outside of San Diego, like Be Wise Ranch, Suzie’s Farms and most prominently Chino Farms.

Many restaurants started to use more and more local ingredients and to cook seasonally. Over the last few years this whole movement took off, and now pretty much every relevant restaurant claims to follow this locavore trend of using local and sustainable ingredients. When we cook at home we try to use fresh produce as much as possible but it’s not always easy to also use local ingredients. We often don’t have the time to go to one of the farmer’s markets which are the best option for local produce. Fortunately some of the local markets like WholeFoods started to include a section dedicated to local produce. On a recent visit the selection included fresh local produce from places like Be Wise Ranch, Sun Grown Organics, Aviara Farms, Stehly Farms, Suzie’s Farms and Sage Mountain Farms. Seeing this great variety of local produce we decided to use it in one dish– Ratatouille Lasagna with Celery Root Crème. Besides the pasta and Parmesan cheese all ingredients were local or at least came from somewhere in California.

Ratatouille Lasagna with Celery Root Crème

Cooking with local produce

Ratatouille is always a good choice to showcase outstanding fresh produce but since it is mainly used as a side dish we wanted to make it more substantial by including it into a lasagna dish. What really made this dish special was the béchamel sauce which was based on celery root. Celery root is one of these vegetables which are underappreciated and most people only know it, if at all, raw in a salad. But celery root is a versatile ingredient which is can also be used in soups, purees, casseroles or sauces. Its taste reminds of celery but has a more subtle, round flavor which stays more in the background. We served the lasagna with a salad of local heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers.

Clean celery root, peel and cut in small pieces. Steam for 15 minutes, cool and dice.

Heat butter at medium heat and cook onions for two minutes. Add flour and cook for two minutes with continuous stirring.

Slowly add milk and cream and cook for 15 minutes at medium heat.

Add diced celery root and puree with immersion blender until creamy. Season to taste with lemon juice and salt.

Cook lasagna sheets al dente, rinse with cold water and drain the pasta.

Heat oil at medium heat, add shallots and garlic and cook for two minutes. Add zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper and chili and cook for 4 minutes until vegetables start to soften. Season with salt and pepper and remove vegetables from pot.

Add diced tomatoes with juices to empty pot and thicken by cooking for 6 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and some sugar and mix with vegetables.

Coat the bottom of an oiled casserole with celery root crème, cover with a layer of lasagna sheets, add some celery root creme and add half of the vegetables.

Repeat everything starting with the second layer of lasagna sheets and finish with some celery root crème. Bake in a preheated oven at 200C/400F for 25 minutes.

Mix parmesan with lime zest and sprinkle over lasagna. Bake lasagna for 10 minutes until golden yellow.

Recipe adapted from “Essen & Trinken”

Serves 4-6

250 g (9 oz) celery root
1 small onion
2 tbsp butter
30 g (1 oz) fluor
300 ml (1.25 cups) milk
150 ml (2/3 cups) whipping cream
2 tbsp lemon juice
8 lasagna sheets
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
300 g (11 oz) zucchini, diced
300 g (11 oz) eggplants, diced
1 red and 1 yellow bell pepper, diced
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 red chili, minced
6 stems basil, minced
4 tbsp olive oil
30 g (1 oz) Parmesan, freshly grated
Lime zest, from 2 limes

October 5, 2010

Homemade Quark - A Staple in German Cuisine

When people ask is if there is any specific type of food that we miss from Germany by living in the States we usually tell them that we can get almost everything here in California. And even a lot more as we love the variety of different ethnic food markets and also the abundance of local fruits and vegetables. But there is one staple in German cuisine that is hard to find here, and even when found in specialty stores and now even at Whole Foods, its quality is lacking and it is sold way overpriced: a soft cheese called “Quark”.

Quark is similar to other soft cheeses such as Fromage Blanc in that it is a white, unripened cheese. It is made without rennet and can have a variety of consistencies ranging from yogurt to dry ricotta, depending on how long the curds are allowed to drain during its preparation. Similar to Fromage Blanc, plain Quark has a much lower fat content than cream cheeses. In Germany, Quark can be bought in three different varieties: Magerquark (low fat Quark) is prepared from low fat milk, Quark is made with whole milk, and Sahnequark (cream Quark) is Quark mixed with heavy cream (4 to 1 ratio). Quark is commonly used as a breakfast spread (Quark topped with jam on a fresh oven-baked roll is a breakfast classic), for baking (e.g. in doughs or cheesecakes), and in a large variety of Quark desserts, mostly with fresh fruits.

Since we have recently started to venture into cheesemaking at home, we were highly motivated to try making our first Homemade Quark.

Before you get started, one reminder about cheesemaking: make sure to sterilize all your equipment before use, we typically rinse everything with hot water.

Pour whole milk into large cooking pot equipped with a thermometer. Slowly heat milk to 32 °C (88 °F). Remove pot from cooking stove and add 1 packet of direct set buttermilk starter. Gently mix in the starter with a cooking ladle in an up and down motion. Then cover the pot and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours.

Sterilize butter muslin in boiling water for 5 minutes, then place it into a colander on top of another pot for draining the curds.

Cut curds with a cheese knife into large cubicles, this will help with better draining.

Transfer curds into the butter-muslin lined colander. Tie ends of butter muslin into a knot and let the curds drain for 12-24 hours, depending on the desired consistency. We have found that it works very well for us if we cover the pot again and place it into a refrigerator to allow draining for 24 hours. This way we can also prepare Quark during weekdays when we are not home during the day.

After draining you can adjust the consistency of your Quark by adding back in some of the whey, or by adding some heavy cream for a creamier taste.

Transfer quark into smaller containers for storage. We have found that it will be good for at least a week. We were very happy how our first homemade Quark turned out – although the complete process takes about two days, the actual work amount is rather minimal – and we were delighted that its taste was up to par, and probably better due to its freshness, than Quark we could buy back in Germany.

Recipe adapted from “Home Cheesemaking” by Ricki Carroll

3.8 L (1 Gallon) pasteurized milk
1 packet direct-set buttermilk starter (New England Cheesemaking Supply Company)
Heavy cream

Makes about 1.2 kg (2.6 pounds) of Quark