A Kwik Lesson on Kontinuous-Brew Kombucha

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You’ve probably heard of kombucha, which is essentially a fermented sweetened tea. Our farmer’s market sells small, locally made bottles, and natural foods stores like Whole Foods and Fresh Market generally have single-serving bottles, usually costing about $4 to $5. Kombucha is definitely an acquired taste, but Sylvia and I have acquired a taste for it, and I’m now making it at home for about $1 a gallon. It takes probably ten minutes of hands-on time to get that gallon. The live cultures in kombucha, like in yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other living fermented foods carry beneficial bacteria that your body needs and that many of us don’t get in our ultra-pasturized, antibacterial world. Intrigued? Let’s brew some kombucha!

A few basics. Just like you can’t make soap without lye, you can’t make kombucha without a scoby, also referred to as a kombucha mushroom. Scoby is short for Symbiotic Culture of Bacterial and Yeast (I had to look that up), and it’s a little funky looking. Let’s get that out of the way: It’s funky looking. To start making kombucha, you need some kombucha and a scoby, which is where having a kombucha-brewing friend comes in, because every batch of kombucha produces a new scoby, so anyone who has been brewing this for a bit is likely drowning in scobys.

Truthfully, while I’m a kombucha-brewing fool now, it took me three tries to get this down. First, I started with a dehydrated scoby and followed the instructions for rehydrating and brewing a first batch. The first batch was fine, but the scoby never really took. Then a friend gave me a scoby and some starter tea, and this never took either; in fact, it grew mold, which is incredibly rare and necessitates throwing out the whole thing. The third time, I ordered a hydrated scoby, packed with starter tea, from here, and it worked like a charm.

I keep a big glass gallon container of brewing kombucha on my kitchen counter all the time. When a batch of kombucha is ready, I bottle most of the brewed kombucha, leaving some for the next batch, and add more sweetened tea to the container. That’s it. Here’s how.

First, I make the sweetened tea that will become kombucha. For my gallon container, I use two half-gallon jars. I add 1/2 cup sugar to each jar.

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Then I add about six cups of boiling water to each jar and stir until the sugar dissolves. The sugar is necessary for the yeast to eat; you can’t make kombucha without a scoby and sugar.

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After that, I add four tea bags to each jar. Sometimes I use green tea (jasmine green when I’m feeling extra fancy), sometimes just black. You can use pretty cheap tea here; no need to pull out the Yorkshire Gold. Lightly cover the containers — I use upside-down coffee filters — and let the tea steep in the boiling water until it comes to room temperature. I typically make this in the morning and let it cool all day, or make it in the evening and let it cool overnight. You never want to add hot tea to the scoby or it could lose its magical powers.

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When the tea is cooled, remove (compost!) the tea bags. Now you’re going to bottle the last batch of kombucha; it’s ready for drinking.

Here’s something that’s pretty nifty about kombucha: Every time you make it, the batch makes another scoby. And the scoby grows to the circumference of the container. So here’s what the top of the container looked like when took off the cloth napkin that was covering it:

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If I’d only started with one scoby, I’d have this new scoby and the original scoby. So I could compost or give a friend the extra. In this case, I offered some scobys to friends, so I have a ton of them in my kurrent kombucha, but they have friends’ names written on them. (Scoby shout-out to Lindsay, Stephanie, Johnna, and Tracy!)

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So I remove this pile of scobys from the container and remove and bottle about 3/4 of the kombucha, leaving the remaining 1/4 to start the next batch. Because I’m holding these scobys for friends, I kept all of them for the kombucha. At other times, I’ve composted all but one or two.

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I bottle my kombucha in screw-top wine bottles (Simple Life Pinot Noir is currently my favorite, in case you’re curious), refrigerate it, and Sylvia and I drink it until the next batch is ready.

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To finish the new batch of kombucha, I pour the tea I’d brewed and cooled into the container, add back the scobys, put a covering back on, and forget about it for a week or two. Regarding the covering, you don’t want your kombucha airtight, but you do want it covered to keep out bugs and such. So I cover it with a cloth napkin held on with a rubber band.

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A kouple of other kombucha tips to pass on:

  • The kombucha contains live bacteria and yeast cultures. In fact, if you left a bottle of brewed kombucha at room temperature, it would grow a scoby from these cultures. This means that there are little… I don’t know… threads in the brewed kombucha, and these get more pronounced the longer you keep the bottled kombucha. I let these settle as much as possible before I pour a glass of kombucha, but drinking them certainly won’t hurt you.
  • I know people who are very comfortable with fermented foods, but kombucha scares the bejeezus out of them. To each his own. Just know that if you have a good kombucha go bad, it isn’t going to be subtle about it. Here are some examples of moldy scobys. See? Not subtle.
  • I like my kombucha plain, but Sylvia prefers hers with some fruit juice. We usually go about three or four parts kombucha to one part juice.
  • I read about a neat way to make fizzy, fruity kombucha on this post at Nourishing Days. I haven’t tried it yet, but plan to.
  • During this gardening fruit-flypalooza season, I’ve been making eco-friendly fruit fly traps by filling a bowl half with water, half with kombucha, and adding a couple of drops of dishwashing liquid (to trap those buggers when they go for a drink of kombucha). I took a picture of a bowl with a zillion fruit flies drowned in it after a day or so, but thought better about posting. Just know it’s effective.
  • If you have any kombucha kuestions, KombuchaKamp.com is an amazing, enthusiastic resource for all things kombucha.

Bottoms up!

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Universal Frittata Recipe

So I was gone for four days knitting and relaxing with friends. Why did I volunteer to make risotto for dinner last night before I checked to be sure we actually, you know, had enough aborio rice to make risotto? I do not know. I picked up mushrooms and a bottle of white wine on the way home, knowing we had neither ingredient. And then I got home, set out my ingredients, rolled up my sleeves, and went to the pantry to find we didn’t have aborio rice.

I made the kids some food from cans (they were thrilled), and Phil and I ate a little after them, making a large dent in what has become a mounting pile of eggs.

Frittatas are so easy because you can pretty much make them any way you want with what you have on hand or need to use up in the fridge. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Cook the ingredients going into the frittata. If you’re including things like onions, garlic, or greens, you want them cooked down so that they don’t taste raw in the frittata; cooking the ingredients in the eggs will get ingredients hot, but won’t be enough time to, say, make crunchy vegetables like peppers soft. So pre-cook.
  2. Put the filling ingredients in the pan if they aren’t there already, and then pour on the eggs (about 6 – 8) mixed with about half a cup of some kind of shredded cheese, a bit of milk or cream, and seasonings.
  3. Cook the frittata over medium to medium-high heat for a minute or so. When the egg filling is a bit cooked, sprinkle a half of cup of cheese (more cheese!) on top. You can also top it with things like chopped scallion greens.
  4. Lower the heat to medium-low and cover the pot. Cook for about 7 minutes — until the frittata is relatively firm (but not dry).
  5. Uncover and put in the oven, broiling the frittata to brown the cheese a bit. This takes 1 or 2 minutes.
  6. Enjoy tonight’s dinner, and dream about tomorrow night’s risotto.

Here’s, specifically, what we did last night.

Potatoes and Chard Frittata

A large of bunch of chard (about six large stalks), leaves stripped off the stems
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 small potatoes (the end of the summer potatoes!), sliced thinly
8 duck eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shredded white cheddar cheese

Rip the chard greens into pieces. In a small frying pan, wilt the greens in a bit of water; I washed them first and didn’t dry them, so they had plenty of water for wilting. When they’re wilted, put them aside for a bit.

In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, pour in the potatoes and cook, browning both sides but not burning.

Combine the eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and Parmesan in a bowl and whisk together. Put the chard over the browned potatoes in the skillet, making sure it stretches across the entire skillet. (In other words, don’t put a big lump in the middle, or the frittata will have chardless edges.) Pour the egg mixture over the chard and cook, uncovered, for a couple of minutes to loosely set up the eggs. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese over top, turn the head to medium-low, and cook for about 7 minutes. Once the eggs are set but still glistening, put the skillet in the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes to brown the top.

Bon appetit!

Shaking Up Friday Night Pizza Night: Slow-Cooker Pork Tacos

So this Friday we got crazy and took a turn from our long-standing pizza night tradition: Phil made pork tacos, a request from Max. Not only did we break with our end-of-the-workweek tradition, but Phil fooled around with the recipe. We have been using this recipe for Citrus Pulled Pork Tacos for a while, even pulling it out when friends are over because it’s so delicious and super-simple. But Phil shook things up by adding orange juice and cumin, and it was even better than usual.

And, not to get too insane, but I tried something I’d read about recently: Using raw collard leaves as a wrap. I planted collard when some of the summer vegetables were finished, and the plants are at a nice size now. I loved the collard instead of traditional taco shells; I doubt I’ll go back.

Here’s Phil’s amended recipe. (Be sure to make the slaw on the link above; it’s fabulous on the tacos or on the side.)

Pork Tacos

2-3 pound boneless pork roast
3 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. granulated garlic
1 Tbsp. onion powder
1 Tbsp. cumin (or more)
The zest of 2 lines
2 or so tablespoons olive oil
1 – 2 cups orange juice
Taco shells of your choice — or collard leaves!

Combine the dry ingredients and zest to make a rub. Rub this on the pork roast; you might not use all the rub. Sear the pork roast in a saute pan lightly covered in olive oil; brown all sides. Once the meat is browned, put it in the slow cooker and pour on the orange juice and any remaining rub. Add enough water to cover the roast completely. Cook on high for about six hours in the slow cooker; the meat will tear apart easily with two forks when it’s ready.

Serve the shredded meat with taco shells (or collard leaves!) and whatever toppings you like on tacos: shredded cheese, sour cream, hot sauce, lettuce, diced tomatoes, black beans — you name it.

Try shaking up your own traditions this week!

Thoughts on the Dinner Hour

Most nights we eat dinner, together, as a family. We didn’t always.

Dinner together pre-kids happened maybe three or four times a week. After we had Max, we found it easier to throw something at him that he’d eat and eat ourselves later, often scrounging what we could find. Sometimes taking the time to prepare something really good. Too often ordering in. When Tommy came along, we would find ourselves buying the boys fast food a couple of nights a week and filling in with easy meals for them, often ourselves eating later or grabbing bites, standing up, while shoveling food into a toddler’s mouth.

At some point, I realized dinner needed to change. It needed to stop being the utilitarian execution of food and become the central time of the day when everyone gathered. By the time Sylvia came along, we’d established at least the intention to eat home-cooked meals. Phil and I still would often find ourselves at 5:00, finishing work, and neither of us with a plan for dinner. There was too much fast food and too many meals out, but we were making progress.

When Phil became a stay-at-home dad, I do admit for a while I assumed I’d come home from work to a Phil-styled version of June Cleaver, who would have the table set, flowers overflowing from vases, and dinner about to be served.

But while no one is vacuuming the house in pearls or serving fish preserved in aspic, we have finally fallen into a good dinner routine. We expect of ourselves that one of us will be making dinner, and that the kids will sit down with us, for even a short period, to eat and talk and tell us about their days before bolting out the door to see friends before the sun sets. On weekends we’re more casual, as we often have extra kids or are short some of ours, and Friday night pizza does sometimes mean feeding five kids on outdoor plates while Phil and I eat inside.

During the summer, Phil had the kids at swim lessons every day, so I would come home from work, pour a glass of wine, and make dinner. I usually knew by early morning what I’d be making that night. I had a moment of quiet to myself doing something I love, cooking (and drinking wine!), and the kids could come home from their lessons with food about to be served.

Now that the boys are back in school and lessons are over, Phil is responsible for dinner. Today we talked at around 3:00 and he said he didn’t have a dinner plan, so I suggested a simple night of quesadillas and salad left from last night. He added a topping of sauteed onion, black beans, and leftover grilled chicken (last night’s dinner was more of a production), plus garden tomatoes and an avocado. All simple, pulled together, but important.

And with our humble, pantry-pulled-together meal, we feasted. As a family.

Fast Recipe: Homemade Hash Browns

Phil made these for himself a week ago, and after he gave Max a taste, and then had to make Max his own, Max has been begging for them every day. I got the impression they are super-laborious from the way Phil wasn’t quite up for making them again, but it turns out they’re not. (It’s been hot. –Ed.) I’ve never had hash browns that didn’t come from a bag or a waitress, so I’m loving that a few potatoes and some bacon fat (you heard me) can produce so much deliciousness. We use an eight-inch omelet pan that is not non-stick. Let the bacon grease keep this from sticking.

Homemade Hash Browns

For an eight-inch omelet pan, shred three small potatoes, skin and all, with a cheese grater. Pour or (when it’s not 104 degrees outside) scoop a generous amount of bacon grease, saved from Saturday morning bacon, into the pan and let it heat up over medium heat. The hot grease is important, so give it a good three minutes, then spread the shredded potatoes in the pan, pushing down slightly. Salt and pepper if you like. Now wait, periodically lifting the bottom to check for golden brownness. Patience is the key; pour another cup of coffee, scan the headlines–you’ve got a few minutes. When you have golden brownness, use a metal spatula to loosen the whole thing and then flip it like a big pancake. Let the other side brown, and then cut it into two or four wedges. (If you prefer having smaller patties to flip, you can divide them with the spatula when you first put them in the pan.)

I probably shouldn’t wonder why obesity is on the rise in America.

Nora Ephron’s Vinaigrette

Nora Ephron - P 2012

It was such sad news yesterday to hear that Nora Ephron had died at 71. She’s probably best know for her film scripts like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and more recently Julie & Julia. I’m completely indebted to her for Heartburn.

The novel (later a film — but not as good as the novel) tells the story of food writer Rachel Samstat and her short marriage to a philandering political writer. The story carries some remarkable similarities to Nora Ephron’s short marriage to Watergate whistle-blower Carl Bernstein and her discovery of his cheating while she was in the late stages of pregnancy with their second child. The book is peppered with Rachel’s recipes for things like Potatoes Anna and Peach Pie. The topper, however, is her Vinaigrette, a much-touted recipe she doesn’t share until the end of the story.

As a fresh-out-of-college technical writer who was largely only familiar with salad dressing that came from bottles with the words “Thousand” and “Island” on them, I was intrigued. I showed the recipe to my much-better-cook co-technical writer, but rolled my eyes at the fancypants ingredients called for.

“Red wine vinegar? Olive oil? Grey Poupon? Who keeps this stuff around?” I’d asked.

“Um, me,” he’d replied.

So I took a trip to the local market, got myself some fancypants ingredients that are now pantry staples, and made Rachel’s vinaigrette. More than 20 years later, it, or a variation, is still about the only dressing I use. Here’s how Rachel says to make it:

Mix two tablespoons Grey Poupon mustard with two tablespoons good red wine vinegar. Then, whisking constantly with a fork, slowly add six tablespoons olive oil, until the vinaigrette is thick and creamy; this makes a very strong vinaigrette that’s perfect for salad greens like arugula and watercress and endive.

Rest in peace, Nora Ephron. And thank you.

Five Things I Do with Leftover Coffee

(Besides pouring it down the drain.)

Compost It. If you compost — and seriously, why wouldn’t you? — just pour the coffee on the compost pile, which needs moisture in order to turn your kitchen scraps to rich garden soil. I also sometimes, lazily, pour the coffee straight into garden beds, like our starter blueberries, which need more acidic soil. But don’t tell any real gardeners. (And if you compost, throw the coffee grounds, filter and all, in the compost.)

Make Coffee Ice Cubes. Oldest trick in the book, but just freeze leftover coffee in an ice-cube tray. These are great when an occasional recipe calls for coffee, and also great in iced coffee because they won’t dilute the drink. Which leads me to…

Make Iced Coffee. Just put the leftover coffee in a pitcher in the fridge and drink it later. Preferably sitting outside with a book, mingling with the ducks.

Marinate Meat. My favorite pot roast recipe is browning a 3-pound roast in a dutch oven, then putting a sliced onion under it and a sliced onion above it, and pouring on a marinade of 1 cup coffee, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 2 crumbled bay leaves, 1 minced garlic clove, and 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano. Bake this, covered, in a preheated 300-degree oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. The coffee helps open up and tenderize the meat while it cooks, and that simple marinade makes it super-delicious.

Bake with It. I often substitute a tablespoon or two of coffee for liquids in brownies or chocolate cake. It adds a rich flavor without being overwhelming. A coffee ice cube, by the way, is typically 2 tablespoons of liquid, so you can just throw one of those in with the liquid.

One more coffee-related tip I found on Pinterest, my new favorite time-suck: You can make your own vanilla coffee creamer, without all the unpronounceable ingredients, by heating up in a small saucepan 1 can of sweetened condensed milk and 1-1/2 cups half and half, then whisking in 1 teaspoon vanilla creamer, and, if you want, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. When it cools, just store it in a jar in the fridge and use it, smugly, like you would Cremora.