Pedal Mill

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I don’t remember when I bought the Schwinn Exerciser at a garage sale. Two years ago, maybe. I remember strapping it onto the back of the Xtracycle and carrying it home. It cost $2, and the folks selling it seemed delighted to be rid of it. I bought it intending to convert it to power our Country Living Grain Mill, which is kind of a bear to crank by hand. I thought it might take a few weekends to convert.

Well, it did take a few weekends. I just spread them out across two years. Looking at the timestamps on the photos I have of the cog/pulley hub being glued together, I started working on this almost exactly a year ago. I modified the exercycle flywheel and built the cog/pulley hub then, and did the rest last weekend and this weekend.

The idea’s pretty simple: pedaling the exercycle turns the flywheel, which has a second cog attached to the non-drive side. That cog turns a chain attached to the cog/pulley hub in front. The pulley of the cog/pulley hub drives a belt, which turns the flywheel of the grain mill.

In practice, nothing lines up quite right. My first attempt at mounting the cog/pulley hub placed it exactly 1/2 a chain link wrong. I tried adding a chain tensioner, but because of the very short chainline, it was just pulling the chain out of gear. A friend suggested cutting out a channel in the angle iron at the top of the frame, so the whole thing could move back and forth to tension the chain. That probably would have worked too, but I ended up making a sliding mount for the dropouts themselves.

The whole assembly is made of angle iron with pre-cut holes, held together with 1″ bolts, nuts and split washers. It’s like having a huge erector set to play with, one which requires power tools and has sharp edges. (I only cut my knuckle once, and remembered to wear eye protection when cutting metal after the first chip hit me near the eye.) It’s fairly stable in all directions, and while it’s very front-heavy, that’s only a problem when you’re moving it.

There’s a bit of mechanical advantage in the system — one revolution of the pedals turns the mill’s wheel about .9 revolutions. Since the mill operates best at 60RPM, that makes for a nice easy cadence when pedaling. We might add a little cycle computer later to show us how much we’ve used it. So far it’s only been tested on rice, which is pretty easy to grind. I’m curious to see how easy it is to pedal on hard wheat.

I uploaded a bunch of photos to Flickr, and annotated some of them. It should be fairly clear what’s going on, but if you’d like a close-up or explanation of how any particular part or attachment works, let me know.

Greg Nog’s tofu, more or less

A few years ago there was a thread on Ask Metafilter about tofu in which Greg Nog posted a recipe for baked tofu. Every time I want to make baked tofu I dig up that thread.

Greg Nog’s Tofu, More Or Less
(half recipe)

1 lb package of extra-firm tofu, frozen and thawed
1-2 cloves garlic, put through a garlic press
1 1/2 tablespoons of peanut butter
2 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 1/2 tablespoons of soy sauce
cayenne or whatever you like for heat
pinch of dry ginger
black pepper

First, get your oven going to 350. Now squeeze as much liquid out of the thawed block of tofu as you can, then cut it into strips and squeeze each strip carefully. You want to get it as dry as you can so it’ll soak up lots of the marinade that you’re about to make. If you cut the block into seven or eight slabs and cut each slab in half lengthwise, it’ll fit well in a 9×13″ pan.

Mix up your marinade. Add the oils first, then emulsify with the soy sauce. This amount will just cover your tofu, so you might want to be pretty liberal in your measurements. I’m fond of Mama Lil’s hot peppers in oil and am always wondering what to do with the extra flavored oil; about half a tablespoon of it in the vegetable oil mix is good. A little sesame oil is good too. For the bulk of the oil, I prefer peanut oil. When you’ve mixed it all up, taste it for balance.

Cover your tofu with the marinade and bake at 350 for an hour, turning the tofu over half-way through.

Pork Potstickers

This recipe is a combination of Mama Yang’s dumplings and the USENET Cookbook’s Potstickers. I made it today to use up a pound of ground pork from Skagit River Ranch that’s been sitting in the chest freezer for about a year.

Finely chop half of a large napa cabbage and mix it in a large bowl with a fair amount of salt. Let’s say a tablespoon. Mix the salt in well, and let it sit for an hour or two. When you come back, the cabbage will have shrunk. Drain off as much water as you can, and then scoop the cabbage out into a clean dish towel. Mound the cabbage up in the center, then pull the edges of the towel up around it and twist until you have a ball of cabbage twisted up in the towel. Now crank down on that sucker, squeezing as much water as you can out. Really go for it — I got over a cup of liquid out.

Empty the cabbage back into your mixing bowl and give it a stir to break it back up a bit; it’ll be compressed.

Add to the bowl: one bunch of scallions, finely chopped; twenty or thirty grinds of pepper; four finely minced or pressed large cloves of garlic; one teaspoon of sugar; one tablespoon of dark sesame oil; a large mound of grated ginger, maybe the size of a ping-pong ball; one pound of ground pork; four ounces of chopped shrimp meat.

Now give your hands a good wash, then dive in and mix that all up with your hands and fingers. Really give it a good kneading and squeezing, letting the mixture squoosh out between your fingers. You want to mash it up really well, and get all the ingredients nice and distributed. When it’s all mixed in, wash your hands again, because eww.

For the wrappers, I always cheat and use store-bought gyoza wrappers. You’ll need two packages. If you want to make your own wrappers, there are instructions at the original recipes, linked above.

Now get a baking sheet and clear out enough space in your freezer that you’ll be able to fit the sheet in the freezer and close the door. Cut a sheet of parchment paper the size of the bottom of the baking sheet, and lay it down in there.

To fill the wrappers, use a spoon in your dominant hand and scoop out around a tablespoon of filling into the middle of a wrapper laid across the fingers of your non-dominant hand. Getting the right amount of filling can be tricky, but you’ll get the hang of it — you’ll be doing this 60 or 70 times, and practice makes perfect. If you’re using store-bought wrappers, dip your finger into a cup of water and moisten the inner edges of the wrapper (so that they’ll stick when you fold it) and either fold the wrapper in half, forming a semicircle, or gather it up as demonstrated in this video:

As you finish each dumpling, put it on your baking sheet, not touching any other dumpling, but packed as tightly as possible otherwise. When the baking sheet is full, put it in the freezer, put the bowl of filling into the fridge, and take a half hour break. After half an hour, transfer the now-frozen potstickers to a gallon sized ziplock bag and store them in the freezer. Fill the rest of your wrappers and freeze them, too. How many the recipe makes depends on how much filling you put in each one. I made around six dozen today, but some of those were using square wrappers because I couldn’t find any more round ones at the store.

To cook, get a large nonstick pan and add enough oil just to coat the bottom. Heat until the oil shimmers, and carefully place frozen potstickers in the pan, not crowding the pan too much. Ideally, don’t let the potstickers touch each other, because as they cook, they’ll adhere to each other if they’re touching. Let the pan come back up to heat again until you can tell the bottoms are getting a little crisp, and carefully pour in some water, maybe half a cup to a cup, depending on how large your pan is. If you want your finished potstickers to come out darker and a little saltier, add a tablespoon or two of soy sauce. Now cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for five minutes.

Once the five minutes are up, remove the lid and let the water boil off, leaving the oil to finish crisping and browning the bottoms of the potstickers. Give them another minute or two in the pan, then check the bottoms using a thin spatula. If they’ve got a nice brown crust, transfer them to a plate and serve with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and hot chili oil or sesame oil. If you had any ginger left over when you made the filling, you can add it to the dipping sauce before you start making the dumplings and let it infuse.

These will store in the freezer for a while, where they’ll probably get stuck together. If you end up with clumps that you can’t break apart without tearing them, they’re good in soup.

Pantry pumpkin soup

Yesterday I made pumpkin soup.

1 red onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
some sort of oil (I used a lightly-flavored olive oil)
1 medium-sized cooking pumpkin, peeled and seeded and chunked
1-2 tsp “better than bouillon” (vegetable) dissolved in a little water
1 tsp tamarind concentrate
~2 tsp hot pepper flakes or to taste

Saute the onion in oil until almost translucent, then add the garlic and saute a little longer. Add the pumpkin, bouillon, and enough water to cover (or use that much good vegetable broth), and simmer until the pumpkin is soft. Puree everything and return it to the pot. Take 1/4 cup or so and mix it in a measuring up with the tamarind paste, then add that back to the pot in batches, stirring it in and tasting as you go. Add hot pepper and simmer until the flavors blend.

This’d be nice with some coconut milk. I might try a little star anise in it, maybe some basil if I had any.

Baked oatmeal

I have a gig this week that has me waking up in the cold, dark winter morning hours. I’m too groggy and rushed to make a good hot breakfast from scratch, but I really want something warm on these mornings. And hot instant cereal? I guess that’s not terrible, but… bleh.

I bake a big batch of steel-cut oats early in the week and then keep on scooping ’em out and reheating them. The basic idea comes from Giver’s Log, courtesy of somebody on Metafilter.

It’s almost not a recipe: take a rounded cup of steel-cut oats and put it in a big oven-safe pot with three cups of water, one cup of milk, and a pinch of salt. Bake at 300, uncovered, for 1.5 hours, then cover it for the last half hour or so. You’ll wing it a little bit with covering and uncovering, baking it for more or less time, depending on how saucy you like your oatmeal.

This makes 3 or 4 days’ worth of oatmeal at once, and it can chill in the fridge for about a week. To reheat, I plop a chunk of it into a small saucepan with a little boiling water (leftover from coffee-making) and break it up with a fork. It’ll take a few minutes to warm up and become creamy.

I like it with ground flax seed, chopped dried peaches, and brown sugar. If I’m feeling fancy — by which I mean “awake” — I might grate a little nutmeg in there.

Vegetarian Grinder

This is from Grand Central Bakery‘s lunch menu:

  • Grand Central Seeded Baguette or Essential Baking Parisian Baguette
  • Sliced avocado
  • Red or sweet onion, sliced extremely thinly
  • Mama Lil’s hot pickled goathorn peppers (mildly spicy will do if you can’t find hot)
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Provolone
  • Romaine lettuce

This sandwich really requires a good flavorful bread. Grand Central’s seeded baguette and Essential Baking Company’s Parisian baguette are both good.

Cut the bread like Subway used to do, with a V-shaped chunk taken out of the top. This helps keep the avocado in while you’re eating it. If you’re careful, you can cut from the base of the V out towards the sides, turning the top of the bread into a kind of hinged filling-keeping system. (Be vigilant anyway; those avocados are slippery.) Sprinkle one half of the bread with balsamic vinegar. You let it pour out, didn’t you? Well, try to get some of the runoff onto the other sandwich you’re making. You want a fair amount, but not sopping.

On the other half of the bread, sprinkle some of the oil from the pickled peppers. Layer the other components onto the bread. I think the avocado stays in place best if it’s directly next to the bread and not in contact with the cheese, but it may just be a lost cause. You’ll need to adjust the amounts of each ingredient to taste—I like more onion than Cam does, for example, and I think Cam could do without the cheese entirely while I think it’s a necessary component.

Whole Foods’ house brand balsamic vinegar is surprisingly good, incidentally.

The original recipe calls for mayonnaise, but it doesn’t need it at all. You can get about three sandwiches out of one baguette, but I recommend just cutting it in half and making two.

Kale gratin

With a busy January bearing down on us, my domestic impulses have been running high as I try to get as much cooking done beforehand as I can. I’ve been fieldstripping beets and shredding cabbage for borscht, putting up jars of frozen peanut-tomato soup base, making roux for gumbo, portioning out pulled pork for Josh’s lunch, freezing a batch of vegan black bean burger patties, and generally being a kitchen terror.

Tonight’s dinner was the sort of cook-and-freeze-half thing I’ve always meant to be organized enough to actually pull off. It’s a kale gratin based on Kurt Beecher Dammeier’s recipe in Pure Flavor. You could mess around with this quite a bit. I think a little quinoa or barley wouldn’t go amiss, and/or a touch of parmesan cheese.

The “Better Than Bouillon” is a tip from Jerry the Got Soup guy. He’s right; it’s pretty good, and a lot better than the packaged vegetable broths I’ve tried. Not that I’m surprised — Jerry the Got Soup guy wouldn’t steer me wrong.

Kale gratin

a scant two cups of leftover cooked long-grain brown rice
30 leaves of lacinato kale
a sploosh of olive oil
1 smallish onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup water with 1/2 tsp “Better Than Bouillon” veggie base
1 cup milk
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
a little nutmeg
2 large eggs
5 1/2 ounces of semihard cheese such as Cheddar, shredded
1/4 cup of homemade bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 and get out a couple of 6-cup pyrex baking dishes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While it’s heating up, wash the kale, strip the stems out, and cut the leaves into strips no more than an inch wide. Blanch the kale for a couple of minutes, drain it, and rinse it to cool. Gently squeeze out the excess water.

In a large bowl, mix the kale, rice, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. It’s convenient to mix this with your hands.

In a large, wide saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium-high. Add the onion and cook until it starts to brown. Add your broth and boil for a couple of minutes until it’s reduced by half. Take the heat down to medium-low and stir in the milk along with the kale mixture. Then remove it from the heat entirely and stir in the eggs and all but 1/4 cup of the cheese.

Divide the mixture between the two baking dishes and top with the rest of the cheese and the bread crumbs. Bake uncovered for forty minutes. Let rest on the counter for about five minutes.

You can freeze one of the gratins for up to three months. Reheat, covered, in a 350-degree oven for 30 – 40 minutes.

Holiday peppermint marshmallows

Every year we make marshmallows, and every year we scramble to find that one issue of the Martha Stewart magazine that has the marshmallow recipe in it.

By the way, one of these years I’d like to try making gelatin-free marshmallows, but I’ve read that vegetarian gelatin substitutes can be tricky. I’d welcome any advice about vegetarian marshmallow-makery.

Peppermint Marshmallows
adapted from: Martha Stewart Living Dec 2004

Vegetable-oil cooking spray or butter
4 (1/4-ounce) packages unflavored gelatin
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 large egg whites
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
Confectioners’ sugar, sifted, for coating

1. Coat a 9×13″ pan and the blade of a large spatula with cooking spray. (Or butter them or oil them or whatever.) Put sugar, corn syrup, and 3/4 cup of water into a medium saucepan and cook over medium, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. (The saucepan will seem ridiculously large. This is on purpose.) Stop stirring and let the mixture come to a boil. Raise heat to medium high and cook until it’s come to 260F on a candy thermometer. Marvel, as usual, about the heating curve of the sugar.

2. Meanwhile, sprinkle gelatin into 3/4 cup of water in a heatproof measuring cup; let stand 5 minutes to soften. Set the measuring cup in a small saucepan full of gently simmering water and whisk constantly until the gelatin is dissolved. Take it off the heat and stir in the extract, then set it aside.

3. Beat the egg whites in a stand mixer until stiff but not dry peaks form. That means that the surface of the whites should still be glossy, but the peaks stay completely upright without their tips flopping over. In reality, we look at each other and say, “Does this look right to you?” “I dunno. Does it look right to you?” One year they got a little overbeaten; the marshmallows were a little less lofty but I don’t think anybody cared. Ideally the egg whites are not sitting around deflating while you heat up the sugar syrup; starting them when the syrup is coming up on about 250F works well.

4. Whisk gelatin mixture into the sugar mixture. The mixture will foam up significantly, making you glad you used such a big saucepan. With the mixer running on low, gradually add the hot sugar-gelatin mixture, in a thin stream, to the egg whites. Then crank the mixer’s speed to maximum. (Whoosh! Steam! Very dramatic!) Keep it running on high speed until it’s a very thick mixture, which takes about 12-15 minutes. Put the saucepan in the sink to soak.

5. Pour the mixture into a lined pan. Let it set up until firm, at least 3 hours. Cut the marshmallow mass into generous cubes and roll them in confectioner’s sugar. Cutting the marshmallows can be awkward – scissors have worked best for us.

Lip balm experiment

I thought I might try making lip balm from our soapmaking leftovers. It turns out to be easy as long as your standards aren’t all that high. Really, it’s no harder than melt-and-pour soap.

My first trial batch was this:

16g olive oil
10g coconut oil
8g beeswax
6g palm oil

Melt it. Put it in a container. Let it firm up. Tah-dah. If you really want a lip balm stick, I’m pretty sure you can get the appropriate containers from Zenith Supplies, but it’s not like there aren’t plenty of perfectly great lip balms that come in little pots.

I wanted to fuss with it a bit, so I remelted it and infused it with cocoa nibs for about twenty-five minutes, adding a touch more beeswax. Then I added a few drops of clementine oil. I can’t say that the nibs added the kind of chocolateyness I was hoping for, but they did add a subtle scent and an interesting color.

I’m reasonably pleased with this as a lip balm, but it’s a tad on the oily side for my tastes. I’d like to try cocoa and shea butters in this, and knock down the liquid oil component a bit. What this batch seems great for, though, is heavy-duty skin moisturization. It’d be a good cuticle cream or a base for a homemade Badger Balm.

Cast iron waffles

For my birthday, Cam got me (among other things) a cast iron waffle maker. It has long been a source of grar here at House of Cranks that seemingly every consumer-level electric waffle maker on the market has terrible flaws which could lead to inadvertent branding or just doesn’t work very well. Either that, or it’s a Belgian waffle maker, which is not what I want. (Next month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated has a review of one electric waffle maker for which I couldn’t find any reviews which said something like “the cheap spring clips fell off and the heated plates fell off, killing my cat”. I therefore expect that model to be discontinued before the issue hits newsstands.) Anyway, Cam found this cast iron stovetop waffle maker which makes decent sized, regular-grid waffles. I tried it for the first time tonight.

The first couple waffles (and I use that word loosely) were a disaster. After the first one, I had to run the plates under hot water and scrub them with a nylon-bristle brush to get all the stuck-on bits off. By the third waffle, though, things had come together, mainly because I read this cast iron waffle making advice written by folks who, like me, like to use an infrared thermometer in the kitchen. Possibly the problem was just that the first few waffles out of a newly-seasoned iron are going to stick, but more likely was the fact that I was heating it about 75 degrees too low.

When cooked at the right temperature, waffles out of this cast iron waffle maker are better than any I’ve ever made at home before. Crispy on the outside, cooked just right on the inside–heaven. The batter recipe I adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book:

In a medium bowl, combine 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda, and 8 tbsp buttermilk powder. In another medium bowl, whisk two egg yolks, then add 2 cups of water and 1/2 cup of cooking oil. Beat the whites from the two eggs until stiff peaks form. Add the liquid to the dry bowl, and mix until the batter’s a bit lumpy. It’ll be pretty liquid still, but don’t worry. Fold in the beaten egg whites, and don’t over-mix.

While you’ve been making the batter, the iron should have been heating over a medium flame. Flip it every now and again to get both sides warmed up. When it’s around 400-425 degrees, you’re ready to go. Brush some cooking oil over both sides of the iron and pour in around 3/4 cup of batter. You want to fill the whole iron, but not cause batter to flow out the sides. Close the iron and flip it over, so the side that’s been over the flame most recently is now facing up. Cook for 3 minutes on each side, then carefully open the iron and peel the waffle out, using a fork to unstick bits of it if necessary.

Either eat immediately or put on a wire rack in a 250F oven to keep warm until you’re ready to eat. Om nom. Makes around 7 waffles in this particular iron. I have a couple left over that I’m going to try freezing. Or maybe just eat now.