More Ways to Use Rhubarb

Rhubarb has been a staple in my life as a Fairbanksan. I grew up making rhubarb pie and rhubarb crisp, which are perfectly delicious ways to use rhubarb. Incidentally, one nickname for rhubarb is “pie plant.” Once established, rhubarb generally thrives with little attention in many Alaska locations. It is even thriving and volunteering on the edge of the trees in my yard with absolutely no care.

Not only is it prolific, the harvest period is also quite lengthy. As I’ve said before, I like to grow things that I can harvest all summer long. Although I certainly will not argue with rhubarb pie or crisp, let’s face it, there is a bit of a mush factor that accompanies these dishes. As my rhubarb plant has grown in productivity in the past few years, I’ve discovered a few new favorite ways to use rhubarb.

Rhubarb Pistachio Picnic Bars

This recipe for Rhubarb Picnic Bars comes from Smitten Kitchen and is a delicious way to use rhubarb in a dessert. I think it brings out the best of rhubarb, maintaining its beauty, taste and texture. It is one of those recipes that, after trying it, all of my friends and family ask me for. You can kiss the rhubarb mush goodbye in this recipe. Instead of almonds, I used pistachios as I’m not a huge fan of almonds.

rhubarb in chevron pattern with powdered sugar on top in picnic bar
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Growing Beets in Alaska

Beets are a versatile, tasty and nutritious root vegetable. Apparently, like cilantro, some people have a strong aversion to beets. You can eat both the root and greens of the beet. Beets are delicious steamed, roasted, pickled or fermented, and they also store well in a root cellar.

Heidi Rader shows off beets from the variety trials in Fairbanks. Photo by Glenna Gannon

Heidi Rader shows off beets from the variety trials in Fairbanks. Photo by Glenna Gannon.

In 2018 vegetable variety trials in Fairbanks, in descending order, Zeppo, Boro, Subeto, Pablo, Red Ace, Detroit Dark Red, Robin and Merlin yields were significantly higher than Falcon, Early Blood Turnip and Lutz Green Leaf. Zeppo was the highest-yielding variety at an average of 2.1 pounds/row feet. The higher-yielding varieties also had correspondingly high ratings in other areas, including plant vigor, bolting sensitivity and uniformity. The average size of Boro, Subeto and Zeppo beets (all hybrids) were over 5 ounces in 2018! Continue reading

Homemade Yogurt Offers Better Taste and Ample Savings

I like yogurt a lot. Not just any yogurt but yogurt that I have cultured. At any given time, I’ve had as many as four yogurt cultures going, plus kefir. They’re all plain and made with whole milk.

Yogurt sales in the U.S. approach nearly $10 billion a year. An aura of health surrounds yogurt, but to attract customers, yogurt companies are continually coming up with enticing new flavors like “coco loco”, “cinnamon roll” or “cookies and cream” that are loaded with sugar and artificial flavors and, in spite of yogurt’s healthy image, are actually closer to ice cream in terms of the sugar load.

Bowl of homemade blueberry yogurt.

This is tasty blueberry yogurt I made

The best-kept secret is how easy it is to make your own yogurt. It does take time to make but not a lot of hands-on time. Instead of adding sugar and artificial flavors, simply varying the inoculation culture, fermentation time, and type of milk or cream produces yogurt with noticeably different tastes and textures. For example, I usually ferment my yogurt for 24 hours. Store-bought yogurt might be fermented for as little as eight hours. The extra fermentation time results in extra sour yogurt, which I love. Those who usually avoid lactose might find that yogurt fermented longer is more easily digested

Another reason to make your own yogurt? To save money. Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations I made comparing the cost savings of yogurt made at home compared with buying it at the store.

Size of Yogurt Container Yogurt made at home with 1 gallon of $3 milk Yogurt made at home with 1 gallon of $6 organic milk Less expensive store-bought yogurt More expensive store-bought yogurt
6 oz. single serve 14 cents 28 cents 70 cents $2
Quart sized 75 cents $1.50 $3.60 $5

I should note that when you make unstrained yogurt, not much volume is lost, but making Greek yogurt, which requires that you strain the yogurt from the whey, does result in loss of volume, and that would influence these numbers. In addition to the cost benefits, making your own yogurt generates less plastic waste especially compared with single-serve yogurt.

So how do you actually make yogurt?

First, you need to understand a little bit about yogurt cultures. Heirloom cultures can be used repeatedly simply by saving a little yogurt from one batch and using it to make a new batch. This must be done fairly regularly to maintain the culture. But some cultures are sold for single-use. These cultures can’t be reused because they’re less diverse and stable. Commercially made yogurt is usually made with single-use cultures because they are more predictable. I only use heirloom cultures.  You can buy these online or at health food stores.

Another difference between yogurt cultures is the temperature at which they must be cultured – thermophilic cultures must be fermented at about 110-115 degrees F while mesophilic cultures can be fermented at room temperature. My favorite culture is Bulgarian and is thermophilic. I also use several mesophilic cultures that can simply be cultured at room temperature. These include Filmjölk, Viili, and Matsoni.

To make yogurt with a thermophilic culture, you could use a yogurt maker, an instant pot or simply a pre-heated cooler. If you use a cooler warmed with hot water, monitor it with a digital thermometer. Here’s how to make it (all temperatures are in Fahrenheit):

  1. Heat the milk to 180 degrees
  2. Cool the milk down to 110-115 degrees. Once cooled, mix in 1 tablespoon of culture per quart of milk.
  3. Keep the milk at  110-115 degrees for at least eight hours and up to 24 hours.

Mesophilic yogurt is much easier to make. Simply save about one or two tablespoons of the previous batch of yogurt and add it to more cream, milk or a combination of the two. Ferment at room temperature and in about a day or so it will be finished. One of the things I use the mesophilic cultures for is making crème fraîche. This works well because it wouldn’t make sense for me to make a whole gallon of  crème fraîche,  which is the capacity of my instant pot and it would take a lot more effort to use a thermophilic culture for a small amount of crème fraîche. Instead, I make small batches in pint jars.  

A pint-sized jar of homemade cream friach next to a quart-sized jar of yougurt.

I usually make smaller batches of creme fraiche, a naturally thickened cream that provides a tart, buttery flavor.

Kefir is also fermented at room temperatures, but kefir grains are added to inoculate the yogurt instead of simply a couple of tablespoons of kefir. Add one tablespoon of kefir grains to one quart of milk and let ferment until thickened. This usually takes at least 24 hours for my kefir. The grains are colonies of bacteria and yeast that continue to grow and multiply when you make kefir. If you let kefir ferment too long, your kefir might become a little bit alcoholic and fizzy because of the yeast. Single-use cultures are sold for making kefir, so, if you can, find the kefir grains if you want to make multiple batches of kefir.

Colony of fresh kefir up close.

Kefir is thinner than yogurt but has a similar creamy-but-tart taste. It is fermented at room temperature.

If you want to make thick, nonfat yogurt, try making Greek yogurt or add a thickener like powdered milk, gelatin, pectin or tapioca starch. Be aware that thickeners may limit your ability to reuse your culture. Heavy whipping cream can also be used to thicken yogurt.

Making your own yogurt is easy, tasty, healthy and will save you money so give it a try!

For additional instructions, check out UAF Extension’s publication on making yogurt at home.

Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner October 27, 2019.

Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls Surpass Canned or Yeasted Rolls by Far

Active dry yeast and I have never had a great relationship. Maybe the yeast I used was too old. Maybe the water I used to activate it was too cold or too hot. Maybe I didn’t wait long enough for the yeast to grow. Or maybe I used too much whole wheat or rye flour, producing what my family vividly (fondly?) refers to as “rye rocks.” Whatever the reason, I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded when baking with yeast.

Sourdough and I are a different story. Sourdough is more reliable and amenable to my baking style. Alaska “Sourdoughs” (early miners or old-timers in Alaska) also considered sourdough more reliable than yeast cakes even though it sometimes could not stand up to the extremes it was exposed to. They carried small pouches of sourdough on their persons to keep it from freezing. While the early miners likely baked without cookbooks, a renowned San Francisco baker named Chad Robertson took 27 pages in “Tartine Bread” to divulge his basic bread recipe. Here’s a pared-down version of the recipe.

A pan of freshly baked sourdough cinnamon rolls.

A pan of freshly baked sourdough cinnamon rolls.

The fact that Alaska sourdoughs and hip bakers in San Francisco can both successfully bake using sourdough is a testament to its flexibility. My methods fall somewhere in the middle between Robertson’s and the early miners’, assuming they were similar to the recipe described in Alaska Magazine’s Cabin Cookbook. I’ve developed a couple of my own tricks to minimize the mess and streamline the process. For instance, I simply make the sponge (leaven) in the same quart jar I keep the starter. Also, I let the dough do all of its rising in the same large glass bowl that I do the mixing. Continue reading