Saturday, October 11, 2014

So what's the deal with nitrates in your food?

I've been thinking about writing about nitrates for quite some time, and I am finally getting around to doing it. I'll do my best to stay off of my soapbox; it truly annoys me to read the scare-mongering idiocy when it comes to nitrates. OK, got that off my chest.

To begin with, what exactly are nitrates? In this post I will discuss only sodium nitrate; potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and sodium nitrite are different and deserve their own separate consideration, so this discussion will comprise two or three posts. Sodium nitrate is a salt compound. Read the Wikipedia page about sodium nitrate; lots to consider when thinking about whether you want to eat anything with nitrates added.

Nitrates have traditionally been used as an additive in cured meats such as ham and bacon. For me the relevant question is, what is the function of nitrates in this context? Why are they there, and are they really necessary?

Here is the bottom line: In cured meats, nitrates act as an anti-oxidant. What does this mean? Well, you know when you open a package of ground beef, and the outside of the meat looks a little brownish-gray, and the inside looks nice and pink (assuming it's remotely fresh, of course)? That's because the outside has been exposed to air and oxidizes, turning it brownish-gray. You see where I'm going here... the nitrates, acting as an anti-oxidant, are there to preserve the COLOR of the meat. That's right, the presence of sodium nitrate is the reason why your ham is that pretty pink color.

Wait, you say, I thought the nitrates had something to do with the curing of the meat! That's exactly what I used to think, before I met David and started learning about it. I assumed that, having a chemical-sounding name, it must be a necessary part of the curing process (not that I had any idea what curing even meant at the time). So I went ahead and bought that bacon and that sandwich meat, assuming that I had no choice.

Here's the thing: No matter what anyone says, it's the SALT that preserves the meat, not the nitrates or anything else. In Italy, for example, they still make prosciutto the same way they've been doing it for hundreds of years: they bury the pork leg in a box of salt and let it sit.

Guess what, you DO have a choice about using nitrates, if you want to cure your own ham or bacon. On a tip from the butcher at our local QFC when we still lived in Seattle, I picked up a copy of a book published in the 1960s by the USDA for meat-industry professionals. Among many other interesting things, I learned that an acceptable substitute for sodium nitrate in cured meats is ascorbic acid. That's right, Vitamin C. Aha! We all know that Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant, right? So this makes a lot of sense, although these days what is written in charcuterie books defaults to the "you must add sodium nitrate" position.

One thing that really irritates me lately is the ways that the meat industry finds of getting around the labeling regulations about nitrates. Case in point: My husband David absolutely does not want to eat anything with nitrates in it. So, he recently brought home a package of Hempler's "uncured" bacon. The label clearly says, "No nitrates added.* Ah yes, the pesky asterisk. I finally found the very tiny printing that explained the asterisk: "Except those [referring to nitrates] naturally occurring in celery juice."

Huh? Excuse me, but if it looks like a nitrate and quacks like a nitrate, it's a nitrate! So I have gone back to curing our own bacon, something I hadn't done in at least a couple of years since we stopped raising pigs. I have 3 legs of prosciutto that I cured using only salt and spices and white wine, and I promise you it's safe to eat.

There are definitely specific health concerns when it comes to sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite; again I refer you to the Wikipedia page. Now that you know that the nitrate is there simply to preserve the color, you are in a position to make a more informed decision about whether you want to use it or eat it.

More exciting details coming in the next post! Stay tuned,and let me know what you think in the meantime.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Making Montreal-style bagels at home

What is it about Montreal-style bagels? I love everything about them, including making them. They're quicker to make than regular bread, require no kneading, and are delicious for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, you name it.

Montreal bagels have some things in common with your classic bagel, but differ in some ways too. The cooking part is similar: After the dough rises and is shaped and rested, the bagels are dropped into simmering water briefly before being baked. The boiling pot for Montreal bagels includes malt powder and honey, which add an extra touch of sweetness and shine to the bagels.

The dough is different too. Montreal bagel dough is slightly sweetened with honey, and also has egg and malt powder. They are coated on both sides with sesame seeds after they come out of the boiling pot and before they go into the oven. Traditionally, they are baked in a wood-fired oven, although you will get good results from baking them on a baking stone in your home oven as well.

Montreal bagels have a slightly less chewy texture than other bagels, making them excellent for sandwiches. Toasting them brings out the slight sweetness of the honey and the nutty flavor of the sesame seeds. I love making sandwiches with these bagels; a simple cheese, onion and tomato combination is delicious, even without condiments. I usually toast the bagel first.

OK, ready to try making these bagels yourself? This recipe makes about 12 good-sized bagels. Don't be afraid to cut the recipe in half or double it; this dough stores well in the refrigerator so you can use a bit at a time if you want. If you do change the proportions, though, stick with the same quantities for the boiling pot.

Montreal-style bagels

Dough
1-1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon granulated yeast (1-1/2 packages)
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
5 tablespoons sugar (or less according to your taste)
1 egg, beaten slightly
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons malt powder
4-1/2 cups bread flour
Sesame seeds

Boiling pot
4 quarts water (it doesn't have to be exact, but try not to use a lot less than 4 quarts)
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons malt powder

1. Mix the dough.  Combine all the dough ingredients except for the sesame seeds in a large mixing bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon (or a dough hook on your mixer) until all the flour has been incorporated. The dough will be fairly sticky at this point.

Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let dough rest at room temperature for about two hours. The dough will rise and may collapse during this rest.



2. Shape the dough. Preheat oven to 400F. If you're using a baking stone, allow at least 45 minutes of preheating time so the stone is good and hot by the time you want to bake the bagels.

Dust a large cutting board with flour. Turn out the dough on the cutting board, dusting the dough with flour if you need to. Knead it very gently, just for a minute, until the dough less sticky. (If you are going to refrigerate some of the dough, at this point cut off what you want to use now and put the rest in a covered container in the fridge.) Cut the dough into pieces about the size of a small orange. Shape each piece into a smooth ball. This movement is kind of like pulling a cover over a baseball; stretch the dough as you turn the ball about a quarter turn at a time. It doesn't take long, just turn and pull until the surface of the dough is smooth.

Let the shaped dough rest for at least 20 minutes at room temperature. This is very important. I don't usually let it go much more than 30 minutes, but 20 minutes is the minimum.

3. While the dough is resting, prepare your boiling pot. (The oven is preheating, right?) Heat up the 4 quarts of water in a large saucepan. When it is close to boiling, add the honey and malt powder, stirring to dissolve. Turn down the heat a bit; you want the stuff to be simmering, not boiling hard, when you drop in the bagels.

4. Form the bagels and boil. Use your thumb to punch a hole in the middle of a ball of dough. Use both hands to gently stretch the dough to open up the hole a bit, turning as you go. if you rested the dough properly, it will be elastic but will form readily without shrinking back into a ball.

Have a timer ready. Drop the bagels into the simmering water; don't over-crowd them, they will increase in size in the pot. Simmer them for 1 minute on the first side, then turn with a large slotted spoon and cook for 30 seconds on the other side. Lift them out of the water, let drain briefly, then place the bagels on a wooden peel covered with parchment paper (if you're using a baking stone), or a baking sheet covered with parchment paper (if you're not using a stone).

Dust the top of the bagels with sesame seeds. You can then turn them and put more sesame seeds on the other side of you'd like; I tend to put them on one side only.



5. Bake. Slide the peel or baking sheet quickly into the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes; the bagels will puff up and become golden brown.



Cool on racks and serve either a little warm or completely cooled. While there are still wonderful homegrown tomatoes around, try David's favorite: Cream cheese and tomato on a warm bagel (above). Bagel sandwiches are great in sack lunches; they hold up better than a lot of commercial breads and are a perfect size for just about anyone.







Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mantling and Re-assembly: 1969 Karmann Ghia engine overhaul, part 3

Part of the fun of new experiences is that they can turn out quite differently from what you might have expected. When I posted Part 2 of this series, I thought I was going to take the cylinder heads and the crankcase from my Ghia to a local machine shop: The cylinder heads for a valve job, the crankcase to be examined for cylinder/piston wear. To make a short story shorter, that's not exactly what happened.

Remember I said that when I took off the clutch plate, I discovered the flywheel was loose? Well, it's not supposed to be loose, not even a little bit. The flywheel is attached to one end of the crankshaft, which is, you know, what makes your car go. What I found out was that, because the flywheel had been loose (and presumably getting steadily looser over time), the bearing that the crankshaft end goes through was no longer round. There was too much "play" because of the loose flywheel, beating up on the bearing to where it was, even to my untrained eye, slightly oval. At that point I wasn't surprised when the mechanic told me that the crankshaft itself, and the crankcase, were "probably toast". (I think he was trying to be diplomatic.)

So I asked him what my options were. The upshot was that he thought my best bet would be to shop for a good used engine. What would that cost? Well, he said, you could easily spend $1000 or more. He gave me a few tips on what to look for, and I sadly packed up my cylinder heads and went home.

Shopping was discouraging. The only used motors I could find that were a close enough match for my car were located out of state. Many were priced at over $2000. I put my own ad on Craigslist, saying I was looking for a motor for my Ghia.

The next day I was contacted my someone in Lake Stevens (not close but north of Seattle, not all that far away) who had a Volkswagen shop. He sold me a nice rebuilt longblock (the guts of the engine: crankcase, cylinders/pistons, heads and valves) for $400. The rest of the parts, distributor, carburetor, fan housing etc. from my old engine were still in good shape, so all I had to do was put it all back together.


New longblock with new crank pulley (center bottom) and oil cooler in place.

First I installed a new crank pulley. It's definitely an improvement on the old one, as this one has degree markings all the way around. When you adjust the valves or set the ignition timing, the engine is rotated half a turn at a time, so the marks make it easy to do this accurately. It is also made of aircraft-grade aluminum, which won't rust like the old steel one. This is better because a rusty pulley can eventually do bad things to your fan belt.

 Crank pulley showing timing marks.

Next I installed the generator, fuel pump, and generator stand. Then the heat exchangers. Piece by piece the engine shrouding went in. I had bought a new muffler as the old one had at least one noticeable rust hole. After the muffler came the intake manifold, with carburetor attached. Finally, the fan housing and generator slid into place over the oil cooler.

Re-assembled engine, just about ready to go back in!

Now all I need to do is install the fan belt (easier to do with the engine out of the car), double-check that spark plugs and all fasteners are tightened, hook up the new spark plug wires, and I'll be ready to put the engine back in the car. 

 The empty engine compartment.

 
New clutch throwout bearing in place; the doughnut-shaped thing in the middle.

The last thing I did was to replace the clutch throwout bearing (see photo above). I didn't even know (blush) that the clutch lived right at the junction of the engine and the transmission. Since I had the opportunity, I had replaced the clutch plate, which lives between the clutch pressure plate and the flywheel. 
Back of re-assembled engine: The round thing in the middle is the clutch pressure plate.

I've been pretty busy with other projects lately, like my first book, which is going to be published very soon now. So I have been taking my time with this project, sometimes not doing a thing on it while waiting for a new part to arrive. Still, I'm pleasantly surprised at how relatively quickly I took the thing apart and got it back together. In my next post, I'll list the time I spent, what I spent on parts, and hopefully, have some photos of my little car all put back together!



Thursday, June 27, 2013

Stripping and dismantling: 1969 Karmann Ghia engine overhaul, Part 2


Well, here it is: the engine is out of my Ghia. I am pleased to report that I was able to get this far on my own. (David did help me jack the car up, though.) The engine, with all the stuff still attached as shown here, weighs something over 200 pounds. First, I had a piano dolly blocked in place under the engine. Two scissors jacks on the dolly were then raised to where they were in contact with the oil pan, to support the engine once it came off the upper and lower mounting bolts, which hold the engine onto the transmission. With one hand on the fan housing (the curved black box at the top center of the photo) and the other on one of the tailpipes, I carefully wiggled the engine off the bolts until it was resting on the jacks. I then lowered the jacks so the engine could be rolled out from under the car.


Now the engine stripping begins! This photo shows the engine after I took off the fan belt, fan housing, intake manifold and carburetor. The tall black skyscraper-looking thing is the oil cooler. I had suspected the oil cooler was leaking, and sure enough, one of the two seals at its base was bad. Since the cooler lives inside the fan housing, when it leaks, the fan tends to fling oil all over the engine area, hence my suspicion.

After I took off the oil cooler, I removed the muffler (the rusty-looking thing at the bottom of this photo) and the two heat exchangers. The weight of the engine was now down to around 150 pounds, and I rolled it on its dolly into the shed so I could get it up onto the Workmate and be under cover as well. Between David and I we had no problems lifting it up onto the Workmate.
 

So here's the stripped-down engine, up at a good working height. What you're looking at in the middle of this photo is the clutch plate, which is attached to the flywheel. On either side are the cylinder heads with valve covers still in place. next job is to remove the clutch plate and the pressure plate under it, then the flywheel.


With the clutch removed, I used this nifty little flywheel lock to clamp the flywheel in place prior to removing the large gland nut that attaches the flywheel to the crankshaft. At this point I had a surprise: The 36mm gland nut, which is supposed to be torqued to 220 foot-pounds, was actually loose. I had expected to need a breaker bar and someone stronger and heavier than me to loosen the thing. Instead, after barely a quarter turn with the socket wrench, I was able to unscrew it the rest of the way by hand.

Aha, I thought. I bet the ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk noise I was hearing (thinking this was a thrown connecting rod) was coming from this loose flywheel. The good news is I took the thing apart before the flywheel came all the way off. The bad news is that, because of the way the thing was wobbling around in there, I'll almost for sure have to replace the crankshaft. No doubt I'll have a list of things to take to the machine shop.


In the meantime, I next removed the rocker arm assemblies and cylinder heads. The rocker arm is the pipe thing going from left to right, with four little arms attached. Here I've removed the two nuts holding it in place. Then it is simple to lift the assembly up and out.


After the rocker arms are out, the eight nuts holding the cylinder head in place are easy to reach and loosen. Here you can see I've taken off one of the cylinder heads (on the bench to the right). Toward the top center of the photo, the round black things are two of the four cylinders, with pistons inside. The only thing left to do before opening up the crankcase is to remove the cylinders and pistons.

I was fortunate to discover a shop in Port Angeles (about half an hour away) that specializes in air-cooled Volkswagen repair. I will be taking the cylinder heads there to have the valves done (something I do not have the specialized equipment to do). They will also check the flywheel for possible damage, since it was loose, along with the crankshaft. After that, I will be able to start putting it all back together!

The thing that has surprised me the most about this project is that I have only spent about seven hours so far. Considering I had never done anything like this before, I'm kind of amazed that it has seemed so relatively easy. I've been taking my time, too.

I'll have another update after the machine shop does its work. I'm starting to think I'll be driving my Ghia again before long! What a fascinating project.


Friday, June 7, 2013

1969 Karmann Ghia engine overhaul project, Part 1: I don't know I can't, therefore I can

 My 1969 Karmann Ghia, up on the ramps. Isn't she gorgeous?

A couple of weeks ago, my Karmann Ghia broke down while I was on my way to Portland. Fortunately it happened just as I was pulling up to the toll bridge on the west end of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, so I was able to get it out of traffic without much trouble. I happened to have one of my VW repair manuals with me, so I amused myself, during the 3-1/2 hour wait for the tow truck, by reading it and trying to figure out what had happened.

I'll skip over the troubleshooting process (you're welcome, gentle reader) and come right to the diagnosis: a thrown connecting rod. The oil cooler was leaking and definitely needs to be replaced as well, but the connecting rod is a bigger deal to repair. Not that I've ever done it myself, mind you, but I do realize that since the connecting rods (there are 4 of them in my Ghia) are inside the crankcase, it's going to take some work to get at the things to replace them. On the Ghia you can replace the oil cooler without pulling the engine out, but this is sadly not true if you are actually going to dismantle the engine.

A little background: I am not a "trained" mechanic, although I seem to have an aptitude for mechanical things. Virtually everything I know about working on cars I've learned by reading and practical experience. This is the second Karmann Ghia I've owned; the first was a 1970 coupe that I had for 11 years. I did a lot of work on that thing, including a complete re-wiring job. I also learned how to do things like adjust the valves and replace a muffler and heat exchangers.

I bought this 1969 specimen 5 years ago. It was in much better shape when I bought it than my 1970 Ghia was. Still, considering the car is almost as old as I am, naturally I don't expect it to never need work. On the other hand, in the 5+ years I've had it, it's only been in the shop once, for a leaking brake line, for which I spent about $125. I've been lucky enough to be able to deal with what few repairs it's needed, as well as the usual maintenance chores. This car has been super-reliable, it gets 31 mpg, and I just love her.

So, back to the current situation. While I was awaiting the arrival of the tow truck, I read through the entire procedure for removing, dismantling, mantling and re-installing the engine. At the end of it I thought, hey, why not? It would be a good time to learn, and who knows? It might even be fun!

At this point, I am just about ready to remove the engine. I've done all the electrical and mechanical disconnect stuff in the engine compartment. I've been under the car and disconnected the heater cables and fuel line, and removed the two lower engine mount nuts. Now I need to mount a piece of 2x4 with a couple of lengths of chain around the frame to support the transmission once the engine is detached. After that, all I need to do is take out the two upper mount nuts, and the engine should be ready to come out.

I gather the engine weighs around 200 pounds. I'm not going to be lifting it out of the engine compartment. Instead, I am going to block the car up a little higher than it is now on the ramps, and lower the engine with two scissors jacks onto a piano dolly. Then I can simply roll it out from under the car. (We put down a sheet of plywood under the back end of the car, so the dolly won't sink into the ground with that weight on it.)

Believe it or not, so far I have only spent about an hour and a half on this process. I can't help but think that if I can do this, anyone can. Yes, even women! I think it would be so great for women to be more actively involved in the maintenance and minor repairs of their cars; it's really not that scary. Actually I find it quite a confidence-builder. I'm a problem-solver kind of person, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of figuring things out and fixing them when I can.

Regarding the procedure for removing the engine, my Bentley VW manual says: "Some parts of this process may be difficult for a man working alone." Well, I guess it's a good thing that I'm not a man working alone, then.


My Ghia's license plate frame; words to live by, eh?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Update on distillery license process

In late January, while I was in the thick of finishing the first draft of my soon-to-be published book (Pure Poultry), I received an e-mail from an inspector at the WA State Liquor Control Board. The gist of the message was that the WSLCB is ready to grant me a Craft Distillery License, on one condition: That I submit a copy of my Federal Basic Permit.

Alas, I have not yet received this permit. Earlier in January, I received a packet of forms from the TTB (the Alcohol Tobbaco Tax & Trade Bureau, formerly the ATF). I had submitted a package of forms in December, thinking that I had completed all the forms needed for the Federal Basic Permit. I had dutifully downloaded and filled out every form that the TTB web site said was required for this permit. Still, according to the somewhat terse cover letter that came with this latest stack of forms, I apparently failed to provide quite a lot of stuff.

At the time, I really couldn't deal with it. David and I were both sick with a nasty flu, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to get my manuscript, the organic certification renewal, and my business taxes done by the end of January. So I put the whole packet aside and promised myself I wouldn't look at it again until I had turned in my book manuscript.

I turned in the manuscript on February 14. The same day, I finished my business taxes (the deadline was extended to the 15th because of a Dept. of Revenue mixup) and got that mailed. Then, and only then, did I turn my attention back to the government paperwork for my little distillery.

At this point, I am pretty sure I am done with all the required forms. Now I just have to make about a thousand copies of everything (some forms they want in duplicate, some in triplicate; I feel like sending them extra tax money this year so they can install their own copiers). They even want a photocopy of both David's and my driver's licenses. Oh, and a bond, believe it or not. Apparently someone has spent a lot of time figuring out ways to guarantee the government will still get its liquor tax money if my tiny, tiny distillery should go out of business.

That's about it for now. I will probably be using a week's worth of grocery money just to ship this massive package of forms, but I will do it. I am so close now to getting the license that I have been working toward since last November! More updates as they become available...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting in touch with my inner hillbilly

I suppose it was inevitable that we would be making whiskey. It couldn't possibly be coincidence that our property includes a large natural peat bog. Those of you who are partial to Scotch whisky will know what that means. The unique flavor of Scotch comes from two sources: the malted grain is dried over a peat fire, imbuing it with a slightly smoky aroma. Also, the peaty water from the bog is believed to add another layer of complexity to the flavor profile.

(If you've noticed two different spellings of "whiskey", give yourself a gold star! For reasons that remain unclear, this tipple is spelled "whiskey" when it comes from Ireland or the United States, and "whisky" when it's made in Scotland and Canada. So please resist the urge to e-mail me with your proofreading tips.)

So what, you may well ask, have we been waiting for? If we had started making whiskey the first year we were here, our first batch would be almost 7 years along by now. Actually, we talked about it from time to time, but for various reasons it didn't seem feasible. For instance, a few years back, the only license available in Washington State for distillers cost $2,000 per year. Now there are several options, depending on the size of the operation, whether the product would be sold wholesale or retail, etc. I recently applied for a Washington State "craft distillery" license, for which I paid $100. This license permits me to produce up to 60,000 GALLONS of liquor per year. As far as sales, I am allowed to sell only retail, the customer must purchase from the place of manufacture, and I can't sell more than 2 liters per customer per day. Oh, and I have to report sales monthly and collect and pay applicable taxes.

In case you weren't aware, there are actually two licenses required to legally distill liquor: The aforementioned State license, and the Federal Basic Permit. (Incidentally, if you think there is a lot of paperwork involved in organic certification, you'll be impressed by the Federal Basic Permit process.)

So far, so good. Actually at this point I have no serious thoughts about selling whatever booze we make. It's not as if I have full-time hours to put into this operation, and the still I'm building probably wouldn't produce 60,000 gallons a year if it was running 24/7. At the moment I'm fascinated by the actual distillation process (which involves a lot of science I never learned in high school), and certainly I'm motivated by the challenge of learning this craft.

Please note that I have no intention of producing moonshine. No self-respecting moonshiner would be caught with a license, for one thing. Also, my still is a high-separation fractionating type capable of producing vodka and gin; from all I hear, moonshiners traditionally prefer to take their chances with pot stills. These don't separate the components (some of which are poisonous) as well as fractionating stills. And frankly, I have not the least inclination to age my booze in Mason jars, tradition notwithstanding.

As my husband David says, when it all hits the fan, what everyone is going to want to know is, what are we drinking? (Those of you watching the Mayan calendar, keep in mind that there are only 26 shopping days until the end of the world on December 21.) Distilled liquor is high enough in alcohol to ensure that it will never go "bad." Homegrown food is all very well, but we're on the brink of raising the bar in our quest for greater self-sufficiency.

OK, now that you've read this far, I'll admit this was a little tongue in cheek. However, it is true that we will soon be running a licensed craft distillery. And since I recently started making my own tonic water, I figure if I can grow Key limes in my greenhouse, I'll be able to serve a truly homemade gin and tonic one of these days. So stay tuned for updates as we progress, plus photos and even a recipe or two. Cheers!