Easy Coconut Cream

Every time I’m whipping up a dessert, my husband hopefully asks, “is it parve“? Parve essentially means a dish that contains neither meat nor dairy. Since Orthodox Jews must wait six hours after consuming meat or chicken before they can eat dairy, it’s no wonder most people try to make their desserts parve. Unless they are vegetarians, in which case it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, in many cases this leads people to use unhealthy ingredients such as margarine or fake cream with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the desserts they make – and a whole lot of sugar to make the entire thing more palatable. For me, parve dessert has usually meant fruit salad or, in season, chilled melon or watermelon… that is, until recently I discovered the wonders of coconut cream.

Coconut cream contains natural, stable, healthy fat (in particular containing large amounts of lauric acid, which is renowned for its antibacterial, antiviral properties) and, when chilled, has the perfect consistency for whipping – in fact, it acts almost exactly like normal cream.

coconutcream

Whipped coconut cream. Doesn’t it look just like the real thing?

So here’s how you do it: pick  a can of coconut cream containing at least 17%-18% fat and chill overnight. A hard fatty layer will form on top; skim it off carefully with a spoon and add a little of the liquid at the bottom (use the rest of the liquid in baking or smoothies). The cream can be whipped and combined with all sorts of flavorings to create a variety of desserts. Yesterday I made delicious halva mousse by whipping up the coconut cream with raw tahini and some honey. I imagine it would go equally nice with chocolate… yum! I imagine it can also be frozen to make natural, dairy-free ice cream.

Personally, I love coconut, but the taste of it is very mild in the cream, so even those who aren’t coconut-crazy can enjoy this.

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I also wanted to let everybody know that the work on Your Own Hands, the new simple living book, is going well and at this point I have most of the first draft complete. I also put some improvements and formatting changes into The Practical Homemaker’s Companion, which is now 122 pages long. I left the Payhip price at 4$, less than the print and Kindle version, as I really prefer people to download from Payhip because it only takes a small commission compared to Amazon and payments are instantly transferred to our Paypal.

Preserving and processing hot peppers

Above: dried hot peppers

As we are still harvesting an abundance of hot peppers, we must think of ways to use up all this bounty before it spoils – or else preserve it for future use.

The easiest way by far to preserve hot peppers is drying them. This can be done in an oven, in a food dehydrator or outside in sunny weather. I don’t have a food dehydrator, so sun-drying and oven-drying are the two options I use.

To dry a batch of hot peppers, first cut them lengthwise and remove the seeds. Careful – wear gloves while handling, because those little capsicums can be treacherous. Place the peppers on a cookie sheet lined with baking paper.

If drying outside, cover the cookie sheet with metal wire, cloth mesh or anything else that will keep birds and insects away but still let sunlight get to the peppers. Place in direct sunlight and turn peppers over every few hours. This process may take several days, depending on the amount of light, degree of heat and humidity.

For oven-drying, place the cookie sheet with the peppers in the oven and turn it on a very low heat. Remember, you don’t want them to be roasted – you just want all the moisture to evaporate. Keep the peppers in the oven, turning from time to time, until they are quite dry and brittle.

At this point, your dry pepper slices can be stored in a tightly sealed jar, where they will keep for a long time. You can also pulverize them in a food processor and make your own hot pepper powder, which you can likewise store in a jar. This powder can be used for seasoning various dishes as is, or made into hot paste or sauce with some salt, fresh or dry herbs and olive oil.

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As this will probably be my last post before Rosh Ha-Shana, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish all my Jewish readers a very happy start of this new year.

The perils of peppers

This season we were blessed with a large quantity of hot peppers (all from only four thriving plants), so I’ve been busy making hot sauce inspired by the Yemenite hot pepper spread/dip called Zhug. I don’t really have a recipe; just throw a bunch of de-seeded hot peppers, a head of peeled garlic cloves, a bell pepper, some tomatoes, a generous splash of olive oil and salt to taste into a food processor and whip it all up. It makes a fabulous sauce\paste to add to stews, meat and fish dishes, soups, etc.

Unfortunately, it has been a while since I used fresh hot peppers, so I was careless and didn’t use protective gloves. The deception was in the delay: I didn’t feel any burning in my fingers until I was done cutting up the peppers. Then it hit with a vengeance.

Even more unfortunately, my kids, who like to get into anything that goes on in the kitchen, grabbed some peppers too – and touched their faces without even washing their hands. Ouch. It was a disaster – for the next hour, I was dealing with crying, hurting kids. My eldest sincerely advised me to throw the whole bunch of peppers away (“because nobody wants to eat something like this!”).

I’ve tried some of these remedies for stopping hot pepper burn, but nothing really helped us. The kids felt better pretty quickly. I had to endure several very unpleasant hours of burning sensation in my fingers, hands and any part that was exposed to the capsaicin in the hot peppers.

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Hot peppers: beautiful but deadly (well, almost)

Lesson learned: next time I work with hot peppers, I’m going to wear gloves and warn my children to stay away.

By the way, I wanted to let you know that The Practical Homemaker’s Companion is now available in a new, extended edition of 90 pages, with added content and photos – for the same price. Those of you who have already bought a copy and are sorry to miss the new edition, don’t worry – simply email me using the contact form, and I’ll send you the updated version. Also available in print. Disclaimer: as the printed version is in black and white, I can’t vouch for its photograph quality. Opting for color print would have made the book too  expensive, so I compromised in favor of price.

Making carob powder

The pods of the carob tree are rich in minerals and vitamins, and can be utilized to make tasty, naturally sweet powder that is often used as a cocoa/chocolate substitute. Now, I personally can always tell the difference between carob and chocolate, but I still like the taste very much and think it’s great in brownies and other baked goods. As a bonus, unlike cocoa, carob is naturally sweet, so when using it I can cut back on added sugar.

Carob trees grow all over Israel (and in other similar climates) and the dark brown pods can be picked in the summer, for free, if you know where to look. They make a tasty, chewy snack right off the tree – only beware of the little hard seeds. They also keep extremely well, so you can pick a big bunch and then process it in parts at your convenience.

Make sure the pods you pick are ripe. They are supposed to look and feel dry and to come off easily from the tree. To make sure, break one in half and taste it. Pick the biggest, shiniest, healthiest-looking pods.

Wash the pods and boil them for around 30 minutes to soften them. This way they will be easier to de-seed. Cut them lengthwise with a sharp knife, remove the seeds, break into pieces and place on a cookie sheet. Dry in the oven on low heat – really low, as you don’t want to burn them (it will give the powder a bitter tinge), or in the sun. The pod pieces should be really crisp.

roasted carob

Throw your dried carob pieces into the food processor. Once you have mostly powder, sift to remove any chunks that are left, then return them into the food processor and repeat. I know my end product isn’t really like commercial carob powder – I could have used a finer sieve, but I didn’t bother. I know it will be quite good enough in my brownies.

powdered carob

Once the powder is ready, it can be stored in a tightly closed glass jar for a long time.

Processing prickly pears

Prickly pear season is here, and my husband got a big bunch very cheaply, from someone who picked them off the hedge on his property. When he came home with the loot, I foolishly forgot that the prickly pear is – well, prickly – and carelessly grabbed one. I had a quick, painful reminder of the fact that the prickly pear, actually the fruit of the opuntia cactus, is full of tiny fiberglass-like spines called glochids, which very easily get embedded in the skin and are very difficult to dislodge. Soaking my hand in warm water helped get most of them out, though, and I carefully proceeded to look for a pain-free way of utilizing this unusual fruit.

Rule number one: don’t touch the skin of the prickly pear with your bare hands. Wear thick gloves or, as I did, use tongs. 

pricklypeartongs

While holding the prickly pear down with tongs, use a knife to cut off the edges (“top” and “bottom”) of the fruit. Then cut several slits, length-wise, in the skin and pry it off with the tip of the knife. It’s a little tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Briefly wash your peeled prickly pear under a running tap, to make sure any glochids that might have stuck to the fruit are washed away. You don’t want them in your tongue!

At this point you can eat the prickly pears fresh, or juice them. To make juice, I first mashed the fruit with a potato masher, then strained the whole mess. The juice is great as part of cold beverages, and can also be made into syrup or jelly. The remaining seeds, mash and peels make a great treat for chickens (or, if you don’t have chickens, they can be composted).

mashpricklypears

Mashing the prickly pears

I do have to say, though, that the whole process is somewhat labor-intensive: a whole lot of fruit gives comparatively little juice. Since the season of the prickly pear is short, it’s alright as a once-a-year project, but I wouldn’t do it on a regular basis.

pricklypearjuice

Above: prickly pear juice, for a refreshing cold drink or for making syrup or jelly. I love its bright orange color. 

The work that is never done

I believe the thing about housework that makes many wives so stressed out over it, is the fact that it never ends. The same things must be done over and over again, such as:

* Dishes to be washed

* Laundry to be washed, hung up, sorted, folded and put away

* Ironing for items that need it

* Floors to be swept and mopped

* Dusting shelves and other surfaces

* Meal planning and shopping (better in this order than the other way around)

* Food to be cooked and meals to be served

* Garden upkeep, if you have a garden

* Taking care of your animals, if you have any

* Making up the beds and changing the bedding

And of course, in addition to these and other tasks which must be done daily or weekly, there are countless other missions, seasonal or annual, such as re-arranging the closets and pantry shelves, getting rid of clutter, major planting or harvesting done in the garden, etc.

If you’ve ever woken up to the thoughts of everything that must be done and felt overwhelmed, I’m with you. That’s the main difference between office work and housework: in your home, you can never be really “done”. You can’t even walk away from the things that aren’t undone, because your home is also your working space (and your living room table, perhaps, serves for dinnertime, school, sewing, ironing and your husband’s computer business).

So what can we do? We can fret over everything that hasn’t been accomplished yet and turn our life into a pressure cooker, or we can ease up a little, slow down, and do what must be done with a smile, not forgetting to seize the moment for small joys of life – a particularly fine morning on which we choose to head out to a picnic at the park, delicious meals served at a table which perhaps still has computer parts piled at its end, and evenings of relaxing in the garden while sharing ice-cold watermelon for a summer dessert.

And accept the fact that neither today, nor tomorrow, nor next year there will be a moment when we are “done” with housework.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m not saying all this as an elaborate excuse to do nothing. Orderliness and cleanliness are the cornerstones of a peaceful home, and I’m all for scheduling and planning, cooking and baking, cleaning and scrubbing and getting to all those nooks and crannies once in a while – only it isn’t really possible to have it all together in one day, and even if it is, some things might be more important. Better split a large project in several days than become impatient and brush your whole family aside.

There are of course also those things where your work can be simplified and/or reduced, especially during the busier periods of your life. For example, since Tehilla was born, I haven’t done much ironing. I also deliberately choose to buy clothes which do not require ironing. In your garden, you can choose plants which are easier to care for; meals can be a simple affair. Around here, during the week I usually serve simple one-course meals such as soup, crustless quiche or pasta, or bread and an array of cold salads on those days which are so hot that you can hardly bear to cook.

Cooking simply

I have come to the conclusion that cooking isn’t really very challenging – unless you specifically aim at gourmet recipes, of course – if you can almost always be assured of almost all ingredients, or at least, if it’s only a question of putting something on your next shopping list.

 

It isn’t very difficult to make a good dinner if you always have a chicken or a good part of beef.  Salmon steaks are pretty hard to ruin, too. And your baked goodies, soups and pasta will almost always turn out well with plenty of butter, cream and cheese. And it’s really easy to make fancy desserts with copious amounts of whipped cream and chocolate.

 

It’s a lot more of a challenge to create a variety of healthy, tasty, satisfying meals from the simplest, most economical ingredients. If you use vegetables and fruit in their season, when they are best (and cheapest), things become even more interesting.

 

My mother-in-law cooks, and has always cooked, soup almost every day – mostly meatless, sometimes enriched with the bony parts of chicken or turkey. Her lentil soup and split pea soup are especially beloved. A bowl of such thick, savory soup is a meal in itself. I don’t cook soup nearly as often, but nevertheless we hardly eat meat during the week – or if we do, it makes for a supplementary part of the meal, such as bits of chicken breast with stir-fry veggies, served over noodles or rice.

 

Much of the meat I cook these days is made in the form of a stew with a lot of rich sauce that can be spooned on rice or pasta or soaked up with bread. For example, last Thursday I made beef stew. On Thursday evening, we ate couscous with some of the liquid part of the stew. On Friday night and Saturday we ate the beef. On Sunday I took what was left of the stew – mostly liquid and little chunks of meat that fell apart – and cooked it with some leftover rice for a few minutes. This made an excellent lunch, and a total of four days’ worth of meals – not too bad.

 

There was a time when bell peppers were so cheap that my husband brought home great full bags of them, and I made stuffed peppers almost every week. Then came a time when peppers got so expensive we did without any for maybe two months in a row. Nowadays I have just enough for fresh salads. Having any vegetables at my disposal at any time would be more convenient, no doubt, but there is also something nice in not having something, and looking forward to a time when you can have it again, and enjoy it all the more.