The Vegetable Lady of Centerville Cuts the Cheese with Kitchen Chemistry

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I have been blessed to be surrounded by the most wonderful neighbors.    My neighbors are great people and were of immense help and support to my husband and I during these last few years when I have been battling the cancer–multiple myeloma.

Most of us have known each other for over twenty years, have seen our children grow up together and now see grandchildren come to visit. I hope that we are a little wiser than during our early years together, and that we have set good examples for our children and provided them with a few fond memories.

Memories like the lady on our street who for generations had a magic leprechaun tree in her back yard.  The children would sneak back to that tree and leave the leprechauns notes and gifts by hanging them on the hook on the back of the tiny red door to the little people’s magic kingdom.

The leprechaun lady was never caught responding to all of those precious notes the children shared with their invisible tiny friends. Many times she would have to sneak out after dark to return the appropriate answer from leprechaun Rosie, Milo or Alex. A teacher by trade, she could not resist correcting  grammar, while encouraging further letter writing.

Or of the woman on our street who for many years was a stay-at-home mom and would meet the neighborhood children as they got off of the school bus with warm freshly baked cookies. I have been told that her cookies are the things that legends are made from.

Then, there is the old gal who has a more extensive library of books on history in her basement than our local high school or public library.  Many times she would be seen sitting on her front steps with a big thick hard-covered book in her lap as she monitored her children at play.  When the neighborhood children grew to an age when they needed sources for school reports, she would always let them use her books for their school work. She never cared if she got her books back, as she just wanted to encourage children to read non-fiction now and again.

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But most importantly our street is home to the “Vegetable Lady from Centerville.”  Over thirty years ago this gal was a volunteer at our local elementary school.  One day when she was at school helping, a young gentleman from our neighborhood, who she was very fond of and was a close friend of her son, who was up to tricks.  So she told him if he did not straighten up and fly right, he would be getting vegetables at her house for Halloween.

Well, the very next Halloween when he came to her door, he asked her “Where are my vegetables!”  She laughed and went and got the lad, who had great sense of humor for one so young, some carrots.  For the rest of that night the children ringing her door bell were all asking for their vegetables.  That rascally little scamp had told all of his friends that they could get carrots from the vegetable lady.

carrots

The next year the Vegetable Lady from Centerville was ready with celery.  The following year it was string beans, snap peas, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, green onions and so on.   For many years, children on Halloween would come looking for “Vegetables first, then candy.”

One year she gave out small potatoes, then spent the entire night laying wide awake worrying about those hard tubers becoming a potato rampage and used to break windows. She decided that in the future only vegetables that met strict anti-vandalism criteria would be distributed.

This woman gave out vegetables all of the years that her children and those in her neighborhood were growing up.  Then, she learned that a teacher at the local elementary school used her Halloween vegetable giving as a voting lesson. His students had to vote on which veggie they thought the vegetable lady would choose that year.  She could not have been prouder as she is a very pro-voting type of patriot.

This holiday vegetable distribution became such a popular expectation that the year the vegetable lady became empty-nested one of her neighbors offered to buy the vegetables so her young children could grow up enjoying this neighborhood tradition.

Many of the children who came for vegetables on those Halloween nights of long ago, now bring their little ones to her door, year after year.  Rumor has it that the vegetable this year is carrots and so the cycle begins again.

Yes, we have had a fun neighborhood and our children have all turned out to pretty great adults.  However, the fun with our neighbors did not stop when the kids left home.  We still help one another, laugh together and swap recipes with each other.

This recipe for homemade mozzarella cheese is from my neighbor Don.  He encouraged me all last week to make it from scratch. So, I did. I am pleased to report that the process was fun, I felt a bit like a mad scientist, and the product delicious.  The whole effort took less than 30 minutes.

Making mozzarella cheese would be a great rainy day kitchen chemistry lesson to do with children. It would require adult supervision as you are working with hot substances. However, as the mother of two chemists who do medical research, I highly endorse all efforts to engage children in kitchen chemistry, excellent reading, research and grammar skills, eating home-baked cookies and asking for vegetables before candy!

Mozzarella Cheese

IMPORTANT:  You must use salt that does NOT contain any iodine.  The iodine will kill the chemical process that makes the cheese curds.  You will also need an instant read food thermometer. 

Dissolve 1-1/2 teaspoons of citric acid in 1 cup of cold water in a small bowl.  Set aside.

In a separate dish, dissolve 1/4 tablet of Rennet in 1/4 cup cold water and set aside.

In a large stainless steel pot, slowly heat a gallon of whole milk to 85 degrees, add citric acid and stir for 20 seconds.  The milk will not feel very warm.

Next, heat milk to 100 degrees and add the Rennet. Stir for 30 seconds.

After the Rennet has been added, heat the milk to 105 degrees and cover and remove from heat. Let stand, perfectly still and covered, for 15 minutes.

With a long thin knife or metal spatula.  Gently cut the curd into 1-inch squares.  Remove curds from pot using a slotted spoon and place in colander.  Gently press to remove the whey.  (Whey is the watery stuff left over after the cheese curds have formed.  You can use whey for bread making. I just poured mine down the drain.)

Put the cheese curds into a microwave safe bowl and microwave on high for 30 seconds. When just cool enough to handle, knead and stretch and fold over on self.

Add 1-1/2 teaspoons of  un-iodized kosher or sea salt.

Return to the microwave and heat for another 30 seconds. Remove cheese, and again knead and stretch.  Repeat this microwaving process until the cheese is shiny, or reaches your desired texture.

I had to heat the cheese four times in the microwave before it got stretchy and shiny.

Delicious when eaten immediately while till warm! 

 

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