That’s so cheese-y!

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelery and gefilte fish. Eli is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. An expanded version of this article first appeared the Detroit Jewish News and it is reprinted with permission. (Part of the article dealt with making kosher cheese—a whole other dimension—and so the article bore the creative title “Jews for Cheeses.”)

Where does cheese come from?

The supermarket, obviously. It comes in neat plastic-wrapped packages.

David Barth of Oak Park, Mich. says he has “long had an interest in how people used to do things for themselves, things that we buy in a store. Once upon a time, people made them at home for themselves.”

When he retired after serving as in-house counsel for Consumers Energy for 33 years, he finally had the time to indulge that interest.

“My brother bought me a book of one-hour cheese recipes,”he says. “They all looked doable. I just followed the recipes and, with one exception, got what I wanted.

“The exception: I bought some goat’s milk for one recipe and then noticed that it was ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk. The chemistry is fascinating. You need the natural bacteria to help curdle the milk, as the experts warn, and ultra-pasteurized milk has no live bacteria.”

Ready in almost an hour!

Barth says that “one hour” in the book’s title amounts to a bit of gimmickry. Many of the recipes take a bit longer, but they are worth the effort. Guided by the book, Claudia Lucero’s One-Hour Cheese, Barth produced:

  • A very successful mozzarella. “I use it in all Italian recipes, like lasagna and pizza.”
  • A cheddar. “Not a true cheddar because it is not aged, but it tasted pretty much like cheddar you could buy in the store.”
  • A halloumi. “This was the one that did not turn out exactly right. I made it half from the ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk and half from cow’s milk. It was pretty good, but it did not have the texture of a halloumi.

  • A farmer cheese. “I recommend that anyone who wants to start with cheese-making start with farmer cheese. It is extremely easy; it takes 15 minutes and it’s perfect, crumbly and with just the right taste.”

Soft cheeses are easy

You make these soft cheeses by adding coagulating agents to milk. Add vinegar, lemon juice or the sap of fig trees, and the milk solids (curds) promptly separate from the liquid (whey). That, according to Barth, constitutes the most exciting moment in cheese making.

“Seeing it happen…seeing the liquid milk, and adding a coagulating agent, and watching it turn solid has an ‘Oh, look at that!’ factor. You might feel like this is produce you pay money for in the store. It needs an expert to make it. Seeing that you can do this at home is thrilling.”

(Note: This recipe features farmer cheese. It’s similar to cottage cheese but drier and denser. If you don’t want to make your own and can’t find it, you can substitute small-curd cottage cheese, but drain it first; wrap it in cheesecloth and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. If you do want to make it, here’s a recipe adapted from one I found online:  Pour a gallon of milk into a large pot, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it boils, turn off the heat and stir in the juice of one lemon. The milk will curdle within 5 to 10 minutes. Line a sieve or colander with a cheesecloth and pour the milk through the cloth. Gather the cloth around the curds and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. What remains in the cloth is farmer cheese. Wrap in plastic or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)


Stalking the ordinary celery

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: This week’s blog is by guest author Louis Finkelman (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. It originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

I found a cookbook that describes a classical French combination, mirepoix, as a finely-diced mixture of onions, carrots and celery, simmered or sautéed. The writer explains what each ingredient adds to the mixture. According to this sophisticated expert, the celery adds texture, but does not add much in the way of flavor, since celery basically has very little flavor.

Go to the supermarket and you can find celery that proves his point. In fact, you cannot find any other kind of celery in the supermarket. The thick, heavy stalks of celery, with their creamy color, just barely green, gently whisper the secret information about their flavor, “we taste of celery.” The green leaves have a strong, bitter flavor, but who uses the leaves of celery?

Visiting my son and his family in Israel, some years ago, I made the trip to his local Shufrasol supermarket. The celery there did not look like American celery. It had little, thin stalks, all a deep dark bright green. When we got home and used the celery in recipes, it did not taste like American supermarket celery either: rather than whispering, it shouted. It yelled, “I AM CELERY! HEAR ME ROAR!” In a soup, in a stew, in a casserole, a few snips of celery sufficed to make a bold statement.

My growing affinity for celery

I started growing celery at home, in my little backyard vegetable garden. My garden celery comes up much more like its assertive Israeli relations than the kind in American supermarkets. It comes up small, but powerful. It has an attitude.

This year, during my annual trip to the farm supply store to pick up my vegetables, I got a quick lesson in why we have such different versions of celery. The manager of the store directed me to find “ordinary celery.” I commented that “it does not seem ordinary to me. It does not taste like supermarket celery.”

American commercial growers (according to the manager of the farm supply store) irrigate their celery heavily to get those big, bland stalks. I read somewhere that growers even put shades on parts of the celery plant so that it does not develop too much flavor.

I thought about that quest for celery without too much flavor. That goes along with preferring white bread to rye or whole wheat. It goes along with cutting off the crust of sandwiches. It resonates with preferring white meat to dark. Turkeys raised for meat usually have been bred for so much white meat that they move about awkwardly. Their huge breasts so limit their motion that they need artificial insemination. All this happens in the search for less intense flavor. It all goes together. It rhymes.

Appearance over substance

In a way, that quest for less intensive flavor matches the quest for perfect appearance. No doubt, the big, creamy, thick celery has a certain visual appeal that the small, thin, dark green stuff cannot match. The huge red strawberries in the market all look beautiful; sometimes they taste like strawberries, too. The only apples available in the supermarket look like wax models of apples: big, flawless, shiny. They come in bright red or bright green. Though growers have identified hundreds or thousands of different varieties of apple, our selection at the market usually gets restricted to the three or four prettiest. I will not even mention tomatoes. Some of us do not share the preference for bland and pretty. Those who seek intense, complex flavors have to look for produce at ethnic shops, or farmers’ markets or just grow our own.

When it comes to people, too — do I have to spell this out? — we might make an effort to overcome our resistance and put up with people who have too much flavor and too imperfect an appearance. We might find our best companions, our wisest guides and our most promising students. They might make our lives more interesting.

Editor’s note:  A mirepoix is a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrot and one part celery, roughly chopped and cooked slowly in a bit of oil until the onion is translucent. This recipe, from a contributor named Gordon on the website, uses a mirepoix with braised chicken breasts. You can cook up mirepoix ahead of time and use it to add to soups or stews. The photo with the recipe is by naples34102, another Allrecipes contributor. 

What I Learned from the Yeasts

A Note from Your Host, Bobbie Lewis: Today’s post is by guest blogger Louis “Eli” Finkelman, a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer in the Detroit area. He is also a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home. He previously wrote about his father’s rumtopf and making pickles.

I wanted a recipe that includes white wine vinegar to go with this story. The recipe for Crispy Cauliflower with White Wine Vinaigrette comes from a fairly new cookbook, Balaboosta, by Einat Admony. Balaboosta is Yiddish for housewife, but it has the connotation of a woman who keeps an immaculate home and is an excellent cook. To call someone “a real balaboosta” is high praise! The author called it “Cauliflower Everyone Will Love,” and she spoke the truth! I don’t love cauliflower, but this recipe was a hit at a company dinner where the guests included four children; in fact it was the only one of many dishes that was devoured completely.


Late in the summer of 2010, I happened to gain possession of a few ounces of not-very-appetizing grape juice.  Give me a while to get around to telling you how that happened.  For the moment, let it suffice that it took some effort to get the juice.

I had a bit more than I needed, and I did not feel like just throwing that extra juice out. So I kept it in a Mason jar. Someday, I thought, I might think of what to do with this; until then, I can keep it someplace in my closet, where it won’t get in my wife’s way.

A few weeks later, I had another few ounces of fresh grape juice, and nothing to do with it. By now, however, I had a plan. I added it to the juice in the Mason jar in my closet, where no one would notice a bit more juice.

Yeasts at work

A few weeks later, I remembered to loosen the cover of the Mason jar. Grape juice ferments, even if you do not add yeast. Wild yeast will grow in grape juice, and, as the juice ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide. If I had not remembered to release the pressure, the Mason jar in my closet might have exploded. A few weeks later, I tightened the cover. Yeasts do not need oxygen to work. Who knows, I thought, maybe the grape juice would turn into wine.

I must have gone though this cycle of loosening the cover and tightening the cover a few times. Eventually, I forgot all about the jar of grape juice in my closet. During the next three years, the jar just sat in my dark closet, undisturbed and unloved. It waited there.

This might be the right time to tell the story of how I got the juice in the first place.

Recreating medieval recipes

My wife likes to reconstruct medieval recipes from Europe and the Middle East. Many of these recipes call for the juice of unripe grapes, called verjus, and we had no supply of verjus. That summer, our neighbor offered us the grapes that grow in her yard, but said, “do not plan to pick them just yet; they’re not quite ripe.”

With our neighbor’s permission, we dashed over and picked a load of unripe grapes.

Pressing unripe grapes takes more effort than pressing ripe grapes because they are not as juicy.  When we had pressed the grapes, we felt tired of the whole project, but we had a pitcher of verjus. We poured it into little freezer containers, ready for the next medieval reconstruction recipe.

The green verjus in the top of the pitcher looked somewhat clear and attractive; it had a sharp, sour taste, just as the medieval cooks said it would.

Using the dregs

When we had filled all the containers, a few ounces of muddy-looking unripe grape juice from the bottom of the pitcher remained. I did want to throw that out, but it looked too ugly to use. So I put it in my Mason jar.

A few months later, when local grapes ripened, my wife and I picked enough grapes to put up a year’s supply of wine in our fermenter. After we had filled our fermenter, we still had a few cups of grape juice, the muddiest grape juice from near the bottom of the pail. I could have thrown that out, but I did not want to. Instead, it went into the Mason jar in my closet.

And it stayed there, more or less undisturbed, for three years.

I finally paid attention to the Mason jar again this summer. The bottom of the jar held a layer of repulsive brown opaque stuff, and the top had a few fragments of whatever, but in between was a perfectly clear, yellow liquid; it looked like a delicate white wine. I had a wine bottle ready to store that middle liquid.

I loosened the cover of the Mason jar, and smelled the heady aroma. I thought I recognized that bouquet. Then, bravely, I sipped a bit of the liquid.

No doubt about it.

An unanticipated treasure

It was vinegar.  I had a wine bottle filled with delicious, delicate, lovely, white wine vinegar.

When my wife had a chance to smell it, she agreed. A few days later, when we had emptied a vinegar bottle and relabeled it as homemade wine vinegar, we filled it with the new wine vinegar.

That gave me an idea. I threw out the muddy dregs from the bottom of the Mason jar, and put just a few ounces of the clear wine vinegar back into the jar. Then, after an evening of celebration, the last few ounces from a nearly empty wine bottle went into the Mason jar.

When I bottled this year’s wine, at the bottom of the fermenter I found a few ounces of imperfectly clarified white wine. That went straight into the Mason jar, too. If all goes well, I should have more homemade vinegar one of these weeks.  I may have learned how to make vinegar at home.

The moral of this story

So what else have I learned from this experience?  Only this: While I was not paying attention, unseen forces were busy at work, patiently turning my muddy remnants of grape juice into clear, delicious vinegar.

I did not need to direct the project.  I did not need a recipe. I did not need the illusion that I could control the process. I just needed to set up conditions where the unseen forces could work their magic, and then, patiently, let them be.

We had the word “yeast” long before Louis Pasteur discovered that yeasts are little living creatures, hard at work turning sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Yeast” meant the froth on top of the fermenter. Vintners, brewers and bakers knew that the froth helped the invisible forces ferment their wine and beer and raise their bread.

Vintners, brewers and bakers knew how to treat these unseen forces to let them work. Pasteur discovered why we cannot see them–because the living creatures are so tiny.

The invisible forces that turn wine into vinegar also have a name, a wonderful  one: “mother of vinegar.” Like yeast, “mother of vinegar” turns out to be a different bunch of Pasteur’s little creatures, hard at work making a product that we value, so long as we let them be.

Here’s the moral of the story:  If I pretend that I have control, and can get to a certain goal directly, I often fail. If I let the right conditions obtain, and have patience to let them be, sometimes humble tiny unseen forces, undisturbed and diligent, bring about the change I desire.

Sometimes the change they bring is not the wine we expect, but vinegar we can use–if we have the courage to taste it and the wisdom to recognize it when it appears.