Fresh cheese in ten minutes.

When I taught elementary school in the States, I used to make butter with my students once a year. It’s fairly easy: buy heaving whipping cream, put it in a tiny container with a tight-fitting lid, and shake, shake, shake. First you’ll have whipped cream, and then – right around the time your arm feels like it’s about to fall off – the milk solids will miraculously separate and cohere and wow, you have butter. My kids used to love it; we’d spread it on pieces of bread and talk about liquids and solids while we munched.

There’s not much point to making your own butter in Japan, as heavy whipping cream is probably more expensive than the already ridiculously pricey Hokkaido butter itself, but there’s a principle at work here: there was a time, not long ago, when everyone worth his or her salt knew how to turn milk into butter, cheese, or yogurt. It sounds daunting, but I’ve made all three, and of all of them, fresh farmer’s cheese is by far the quickest and simplest.

I saw a teeny-tiny container of “cottage cheese” at the store the other day for ¥398. Against my better judgement, I bought some – and found out it was actually much closer to a ricotta consistency. Four dollars for 200g of cottage cheese? とんでもない。Tondemo nai. (Don’t be ridiculous). Why don’t you make the same amount for the price of a liter of milk? Superior in freshness, flavor, and price?

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A worthwhile Sunday breakfast: green onion, mushroom, and chile pepper omelet with freshly made farmer’s cheese. Are you convinced yet?

Here’s how to do it.

Fresh Cheese

Ingredients and Materials:

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Again, taking advantage of the leftover kyushoku milk that piles up in my school’s fridge!

1 liter whole milk (please make sure it is 3.5% fat or above 牛乳)

2 tablespoons lemon juice or rice vinegar

Heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Finely woven white cloth (a cloth napkin will work)

Strainer

Large bowl to contain the strainer.

Directions:

1. Pour the milk in the saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring gently every now and then to keep the bottom from burning.

2. You’re going to “scald the milk,” meaning you’ll heat it until it’s just about to boil. It will begin to froth and smell like the warm milk your mom used to make your when you were a kid.

3. At this point, add the lemon juice, stirring in slowly and gently. Don’t stir too much – just enough to mix the lemon juice in. Immediately you will see the milk beginning to coagulate and curds beginning to separate.

4. Turn the heat off allow the mixture to fully curdle a few moments.

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Curds have formed. Don’t stir after this – they’ll be much plumper if you let them sit.

5. Stir in salt and pepper or whatever seasonings you prefer with your cheese.IMG_0647

6. Prepare the strainer by setting it over the bowl and lining it with the cloth napkin. Slowly pour the cheese curds and whey through the strainer. Lift up the strainer and pour the whey off into another container for future use (or, if you hate whey and don’t want to deal with it, you can pour it down the drain).

7. Replace the strainer and lightly wrap the cheese curds into a bundle with the cloth. If you want a drier, more crumbly curd, manually squeeze the bundle a bit until the cheese forms a compact ball. Leave this way and allow to drain a few more minutes before removing the cheese from the cloth.

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Whoa! Take a moment to revel in the fact that you just made cheese! It’s like some Little House on the Inaka Prairie ish up in heah! Show your neighbors in your jutaku! They’re all gonna be so jealous right?

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Whey in a jar.

This is a fresh cheese, which means it will only keep for 3 or 4 days. Use it in omelettes, pasta, on salad, or spread on toast. I like it with sliced tomatoes, spinach, and balsamic vinegar.

As for the whey, you could put it in soup or stir fry, or drink it plain if you’re weird like I am. Apparently, fresh whey was a common drink in British public houses in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s nutritious and has been shown to help regulate blood sugar in Type II diabetics.

If you’re really starting to feel this whole homesteading thing, as I am (Dane might be getting a little worried, but he’s humoring me so long as I continue to supply him with homemade peanut butter), I highly recommend Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, from which I’ve drawn many of these recipes.

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Azuki bean and sesame dip

Couldn’t decide whether to call this a “dip” or a “puree.” One reeks of Superbowl parties and Midwestern soccer moms, and the other sounds like a French chef with a nosebleed charging €10 for what is essentially baby food swirled onto a white plate. Dip – for now.

I miss hummus. Sometimes I order chickpeas from the Foreign Buyers’ Club and make it, but that’s not very practical. So I have an alternative for you: behold, the azuki (小豆) bean. When my friend Natalie mentioned making a sort of hummus from mung beans, I knew I had to try to make a bean dip with the cheaper, more accessible Japanese beans. And it just so happened I had a container of freshly cooked azuki in my fridge. Hence, the azuki-sesame dip was born.

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It’s a dip, so you probably won’t eat it with a fork. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .

Oh, but first – a little background. You, my chubby sweets-lovin’ gaijin reader, are probably most familiar with azuki in their mashed, sweetened form, when they’re called anko (never confuse with unko) and injected into everything from mochi to bread rolls. But azuki doesn’t have to be sweet! I’ve found it to be an incredibly versatile bean – soft and velvety when cooked, easily added to stir fries, brown rice, or blended into smoothies for protein. You can buy a dry 500g bag for a little under ¥300, which when cooked becomes an entire pot of beans capable of taking you 3-4 days through the week. Compare that to the paltry 120g cooked pouches on sale for ¥200. That’s 278% more per gram! Absurdity! Who are these cooked-bean racketeers and why do we allow them to make a mockery of us?

Don’t be hesitant to make dried beans – I know I was at first, especially after a split pea project that involved me simmering dried lentils for 2 days until they were finally soft enough to eat (turns out the beans were really, really old). Preparing dried beans requires a little forethought (thrift beats laziness in this situation):

1. At least 8 hours (morning of) but no more than 24 hours (previous night) before you want to cook them, put the beans in a pot and cover with water. I learned the hard way why you can’t leave beans to soak too long – they will begin to sprout!

2. Put the lid on to keep dust and foreign elements out.

3. Go live life and come back. Drain the water from the beans and replace with new water. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are soft enough when bitten but not mushy – about 45 minutes.

If you want to add salt, do so during the last 10 minutes of cooking; adding any beforehand will toughen your beans (FYI: this is true with corn on the cob, too).

Ingredients

So you have the beans – now what? Well, here’s what you need – all of it can be found at your local super:

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Mise en place, dudes: lemon juice, azuki beans, garlic, olive oil, white sesame paste, and paprika.

Lemon juice, fresh is best but whatever, you already made beans, have a glass of wine instead.

Azuki, once soaked, will increase in size.

Shirogoma white sesame paste (known as tahini elsewhere in the world) is sold at most larger supermarkets. It can seem a bit expensive, but you only need a small amount for each batch of hummus you make.

Olive oil. I find this to be one of the most crucial factors in a hummus-like dip, but you could theoretically use a different type of oil.

Garlic. Raw garlic is strong. Use only one clove or even a half clove if you’re sensitive to the taste.

Salt and paprika. These are the basics of a hummus-style bean dip – from here you can get creative and add different spices, herbs, spinach, or even washoku it up with a few drops of soy sauce, rice vinegar, or nama miso. The world of bean dip is yours to mash.

Directions

Speaking of mashing, that’s really all you need to do.

1. Pour a half cup of beans in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, a teaspoon or two of white sesame paste, and a teaspoon of lemon juice.

2. Add chopped, pulverized garlic and seasonings to taste.

3. Then take the back of a fork and mash, mash, mash until the mixture starts to look uniformly flecked. Don’t be worried if there are still a few chunks – without a food processor or blender, it’s unlikely you’ll reach a smooth consistency unless you’re willing to put your back into it for an hour. This is how I usually make guacamole, since every time I try with a food processor, the consistency becomes so smooth it feels like it came from a factory.

By the way, if you DO have a food processor – and I highly, highly recommend investing the ¥4000 yen in one – throw everything in, pulse, and you’re done.

You can put a dollop on salad, scoop it up with rice crackers, or eat it my favorite way – with vegetables. Cut a few daikon, carrots, and cucumbers into sticks and use them to scoop up the dip. If you run out of veggie sticks, and you’re by yourself, eat the rest with a spoon and then finally your fingers while hunched over the sink,  the softly humming green fluorescent light as your only witness.