A little sweet, a little sour

I know, strawberry season is a distant memory at this point. But I hope you’ve got a few stashed away in the freezer because, on my third summer of making jam, I’ve finally figured out a basic strawberry jam that I really, really love.

Little jar of jamA few months ago, I saw a demo by Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, the primary resource I’ve used to learn about canning. One of the best points she made was that when people want to learn to make preserves, the first things they try are strawberry jam and cucumber pickles–two of the hardest recipes to get right. I’m not a cucumber pickle fan (though I’m acquiring a taste for them), but I can attest that the strawberry jam I’ve made the past two years was more like strawberry sauce. Tasted good, but not quite what I wanted.

Another bowl o' berriesTurns out that since strawberries naturally are low in pectin, they either require more sugar or added pectin to get a real jammy texture. I don’t particularly like the idea of using essentially equal parts sugar and fruit, so I didn’t want to go that route. I don’t like dealing with pectin packets, but what about adding another fruit that’s really high in pectin? Here I took a cue from my favorite fall preserve, cranberry conserve, that sets amazingly well (in part because cranberries have a ton of pectin) and keeps its gorgeous red color. And how convenient, last fall I stuck a gallon bag of cranberries in the freezer.

Cooking
Molten strawberriesI’m not sure where I saw the initial idea to combine strawberries and cranberries, but let me tell you, while this takes a little forethought (either finding cranberries in summer or good strawberries in late fall), it is 100% worth it. The cranberries help set the texture of the jam, they contribute to the beautiful color, and they provide a little sour contrast to what can otherwise be a one-note preserve.

So while strawberry season may be over, I hope you’ll keep this in mind come fall when cranberries are everywhere. Use frozen strawberries to make this jam or freeze a few bags of cranberries  for next spring. (Tangent: this was the project I used to break in my new kitchen–can I just say how much I love having an island? Everyone should have one of these! This jam also made a great gift to introduce myself to my new neighbors. Tangent the second: a nice little profile from Paper/Plates on yours truly with some fun book and food questions.)

Thick and jammyJam and bread

Strawberry-Cranberry Jam Continue reading

Putting down roots

As my kitchen (really my entire apartment) is currently in a state of utter disarray, has been for the past few weeks, and will be for another few, my cooking of late has pretty much consisted of salad (and often take-out salad at that). I’ll explain in a minute, but for now, an update on the garden, which is so far blowing my expectations away. Here are a few highlights:

StrawberryBaby lettuce Tomatillo flower

As for the reason for the kitchen chaos? I’m moving! Today I’m officially a first-time homeowner in Chicago.

Keys

I did say I wanted a change and I think this counts. I wasn’t planning to leave the ranks of the apartment-dwelling when I started looking for a new place in April, but everything seemed fated to make this happen. I’ve never been one to take the view that renting is throwing money away, it definitely has its perks and benefits, but I’m really excited about this step–and my new porch! Kitchen! My own laundry! I can’t wait to start cooking and sharing projects from my new space soon.

One of the best parts about the new place though? It’s closer to my garden! Here are some more pictures, including my plot layout and how the view has changed since mid-May: Continue reading

In the garden

I have a garden! If you follow me on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, you probably know this already, but I’m so, so excited that this will be my first year growing more than a little pot of lettuce and some flowers on my porch.

Plant markers

I learned about Chicago’s Peterson Garden Project and their pop-up victory gardens last year, but finally joined after urging from a friend who’s gardened with them in the past. For $75, I get a 4×8 plot with organic soil that’s all mine from April through October. Most people with a garden this size use the square foot gardening method (I’ll share more about that in another post), so I’m following suit for now. It’s definitely different than what I remember from my dad’s garden growing up and its orderly rows of beans and carrots and lettuce and corn.

So far I’ve planted seeds for:

I also bought baby plants of:

Other plants I still need to buy are:

  • Cucumbers (I hope I can find a baby cucumber to use for making cornichons!)
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs: Genovese basil, parsley, thyme, chives/garlic chives, oregano, mint (only in a pot)
  • Hot pepper

Baby plants

The history of victory gardens goes back to World War II and, reassuringly, I learned that people back then knew about as much as I do about having a vegetable garden than I do (which is pretty much nil, but luckily I have plenty of green thumb-ed friends and family as guides)! The Peterson Garden Project is a lot more recent, but is doing great work in a lot of areas I’m passionate about: eating locally, making good food accessible to under-served communities, helping people (like me!) learn to grow their own food, putting neglected urban spaces to good use, and building strong communities around Chicago. They’re doing much more than that, which I’ll talk about in another post, but for now I’ll direct you to their website if you want to learn more.

I’m positively giddy to see how this experiment goes and how different this view looks come July!

My garden!

(P.S. I don’t have any association with PGP other than thinking what they do is worth sharing.)

Happy Pi(e) Day!

It’s no secret if you look through my recipe archives that pie is my favorite dessert. I didn’t even realize it myself until I started this blog! Pie has the best parts of any treat–flaky, crispy, delicious crust (perfectly good on its own sprinkled with cinnamon sugar); juicy, fruity filling (or chocolate or custard or chicken or vegetables or potatoes). Pie is totally healthy for you (see: fruit, vegetables) and perfectly acceptable as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

In case you’re looking for a pie treat today or this weekend, check these out:

Coconut Custard Pie Perfect right now, no fresh fruit needed, and super fast and easy to make.
Filled, baked, puffed

Apple Pie The classic, courtesy of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.
Perfection, if I say so myself

Plum Chutney Crumble Pie It’s like plum chutney and pie had the most delicious baby.
Plum crumble pie

Rhubarb Pie We’re so close to making this again! Melt, snow, melt!
Rhubarb pie

Sour Cherry Pie My all-time favorite. I need to make one this weekend with the cherries I canned.
Cherry pie, cheater's lattice

Sour Cherry Crostata Still one of my favorites, but my oh my, how my photography has improved in two years!
Sour cherry crostata

Pie crust Can’t make pie without it!
Butter-lard pie crust

And you can’t make my favorite pie crust without lard!
Rendered and cooled leaf lard

The light at the end of the tunnel

Do you know what I heard last week? Birds. More than one. Chirping. Making happy bird noises, the sweetest sound I’ve heard in months.

Pyramid of bars

I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of a treat to get me through right now, something to look forward to during a week (really, month) that just started and already feels forever long and speeding by at the same time. I can’t even talk about the weather anymore (forget Hoth, it’s like living on planet Winter, minus the androgynous natives–how’s that for an obscure literary reference?).

Instead, I’m thinking about good things on the horizon, the things I’m working on, towards, for that are requiring all my energy but will hopefully lead to even better things. Green things and the new little garden plot I just rented nearby (any suggestions of edibles to grow in a 4×8 raised bed are more than welcome, by the way). I’m eating carrots and oranges literally by the bag-ful; if I start to look like an Oompa Loompa, well, now you’ll know why. I’ve been making giant salads by the bowl with my newly acquired vinaigrette-making skills.

Bottom crust
JamCrumbled

I’m also working my way through/eating up/giving away my remaining jars of jam from last year (want some? I have more!) because, believe it or not, rhubarb and strawberries will be here not-soon-enough. I’ve been searching for an easy not-cookie baked-good-type use for jam for awhile and finally found this recipe months ago. Of course then I kept losing it before I had a chance to make it, finding it and losing it again. I wish I had made it the first time!

There they are!

This is a perfect all-purpose treat–it takes minimal effort to throw together, easy enough even to satisfy a craving after work on a weeknight. Use any type of jam (homemade or storebought that’s been languishing in your fridge since Christmas), any nuts (even some nut butter mixed into the dough), a mix of flours, any spices. The crust and crumble are deliciously cookie-like but sturdy enough to be a perfect counterpoint to the sticky, jammy center.

I’ve made it twice in two weeks, ending up with totally different treats each time (#1: all whole-wheat, orange zest, mace, toasted walnuts, blueberry-orange jam. #2: 2 parts whole wheat/1 part white flour, cinnamon, toasted almonds, raspberry-blackberry jam) and am excited to play with even more variations. Plum jam with cardamom and walnuts, maybe some rye flour? Strawberry or grape with peanuts and peanut butter in the dough? Peach or rhubarb with ginger?

Where'd they go?

So how are you doing, what’s getting you through? Am I the only one insanely excited about chirpy birds right now (please tell me I’m not)?

Jam and Nut Bars
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Have pie, be happy

I feel I’ve been remiss when it comes to pie. I’ve shared recipes for pie crust, sour cherry pie, coconut custard pie, and plum spice pie, but how can I talk so much about pie with mentioning the classic apple pie? Oh well, no better time than a week before Thanksgiving.

Apple pile Perfection, if I say so myself

Everyone  has “their” apple pie, made especially for holidays that rely on tradition. A particular type of apple from the family favorite farm stand that smells like wood smoke and cider, the crust made just-so by the hands of the trusted family pie-baker, the spices measured in pinches and shakes instead of teaspoons or ounces. For me, that pie is my dad’s apple pie, the top crust (my favorite part) poofing high over the apples and crackles and shatters when it’s cut (this is where I fall on the side of tradition versus doing it “right”–supposedly that puffed up crust isn’t ideal because it means the crust set before the apples had a chance to cook down. To that I say…well I don’t say anything because my mouth is full of delicious, delicious pie.)

Beautiful apples Nothing better than stealing a piece from this bowl Crust dust

This pie I’m sharing with you is not my dad’s apple pie. Or my mom’s, or my either of my grandmas’. It may become mine though, after a few years of nudging portions this way or that until I get it just so. I’m quite happy with this version for now though, the little tweaks and touches I’ve made to the original recipe  to make it my own.

Sprinkled and fluted

I mentioned recently that I picked up the Hoosier Mama Book of Pie cookbook and, having finally baked one of its recipes, I can’t say enough good things about it. All those questions you have about making really good pie? This book answers them. Obviously it has a great crust recipe that isn’t crazy complicated (and, I was pleased to note, was similar to the recipes from my grandmothers that I adapted to make my favorite crust). It has pies for each season, making my farmers market-loving heart ever so happy. It has small pies, big pies, sweet and savory, fruits and custards and pies I didn’t even know existed. There is a whole section on quiche (for any of my book club friends who might be reading–fair warning). It finally, finally showed me how to make pretty crimped edges that my awkward fingers could manage.

Ready to bakeBeautiful pie

Ultimately, it made the most spectacular looking pie that has ever come from my two hands–just look at this thing. I half expected a chorus of angels and the light of god to shine down when I pulled it out of the oven (and that’s not patting myself on the back, but acknowledging how good the instructions are in this book). Oh yeah, and it tasted pretty damn good too.

First slice of pie, crust crumbleThe missing piece

Essentially I love that this book treats pie with the respect it deserves. Yes, pie takes some practice. Yes, it takes a bit of time and attention. Pie has an incredibly rich history that I’m drawn to, a heritage full of generations modifying the basic recipe to fit what was available, what made sense at the time.

Pie is a dish that satisfies the soul, and is there any better time for soul-satisfying food than the end of November with loved ones gathered around a table to eat and share and be happy? I think not.

Have pie, be happy.

Perfect slice

Apple Pie
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Cheers!

With Thanksgiving, the holiday for all lovers of food, family, and friends just a few weeks away (I was apparently in denial when I wrote this–it’s next week), I wanted to talk about community for a second.

If you know me well, you know I’m generally happy, and quite good at, being the observer, the analyzer, the reporter. It takes me a while to warm up to people, being outgoing does not come naturally to me (there’s some irony that I’ve found myself writing in such a public way here and in my day job). Yes, I was that kid who sat at the lunch table at a new school with her nose buried in a book for a year listening to the conversations around me before figuring out where I fit. Thankfully I’ve gotten better at balancing my introvert/extrovert tendencies since then, but it’s still something that requires a conscious effort.

Attentive

That said, the best thing this blog has given me is a topic that I can’t help but want to talk about. It’s become a built-in conversation starter to meet and talk with fellow writers, cooks, bakers, photographers, and just people who love to eat and talk about food. Lately, between the Chicago Food Swap and Chicago Food Bloggers, I’ve been to some great events and met amazing new people equally passionate about food. It’s been beyond fun.

So festive!

Earlier this month, I got to attend my second Chicago Food Swap and found myself starting conversations about the beautiful food other folks brought, being greeted by name by more than a few people, making new friends, and just generally being excited about being in the same room with so many like-minded people. Plus I got some awesome treats!

My stash

(If you’ve never been to a swap, it’s kind of organized chaos with food–you bring a bunch of homemade goodies, spend the first hour checking out what everyone else brought and the second hour swapping. I brought about 8 containers each of muhammara, cranberry conserve, pickled cranberries, and “autumn in a jar” conserve, and came home with more than I even remember. I wish I had thought to ask for recipes for everything! And yes, I’m sharing the wealth. Yes, I’m getting back to exercising…soon. And next time I’m limiting myself to two sweets.)

Chicago Food Swap

This is what I came home with:

  • Ginger honey
  • Lingonberry donut holes (there was a real name for these but I forgot it)
  • Pecan maple butter
  • Kimchi
  • Bulgogi kimbap (Korean version of sushi with marinated and cooked beef)
  • Pork dumplings
  • Corn salsa
  • Apple jelly
  • Apple cranberry ginger chutney
  • Honey pickles
  • Curried apple chutney
  • Green tomato relish
  • Pumpkin caramel
  • Peanut butter chocolate fudge
  • Kombucha starter
  • Cookies
  • Two kinds of pumpkin cheesecake
  • Cranberry almond quickbread
  • Pumpkin chocolate quickbread
  • Hot chocolate mix (and a mug!)
  • Meringues
  • Orecchiette
  • Toffee
  • Fresh arugula
  • Wheatberry salad
  • Pumpkin spice syrup
  • Foccacia
  • Dried herbs

The same sentiment applies to the Chicago Food Bloggers meetup back in September. I mentioned it briefly, but there’s something special about a community of people who love food, love to talk about food, love to make food gathered together to learn, cook, eat. There too I found myself welcomed by name with open arms (though it always helps when you bring food to a foodie event) and nearly talking myself hoarse, wishing the event lasted longer. I can’t wait for the next one!

Chicago Food Bloggers

So cheers, a toast! A festive little drink in thanks for the people I’ve met, friends I’ve made, and the community I’ve found!

Cranberry gin cocktail

Thanks to Mike Kostyo for the pictures from the Chicago Food Bloggers event!

Cranberry Gin Cocktail Continue reading

Savoring the season

Out of any season, I love, love, love how fall smells the most. I love the cinnamon and warm baking apples, roasting nuts, crisp, bright citrus mingled with cloves, the smokey burning leaves. They are some of the most comforting scents, cozy and homey, and they permeate everything like the best aromatherapy you can imagine.

The two preserves I made recently represent two of the most popular profiles this time of year–warm and spiced, and tart and citrus-y–but each offers a slight twist on the traditional.

How could these flavors possibly be wrong?

Warm and spiced (and spiked with wine)?

Fall flavors, take 2

Or tart and citrus-y?

The first is a variation on a riff of a traditional Jewish Passover dish called charoset or charoses, normally an uncooked mixture of apples, honey, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. Conveniently this also happens to taste exactly like all the delicious, warm, spiced flavors of fall, no religious affiliation needed.

Wine-y apples Best applesauce ever? PossiblyFinishing touches

I’ve spread this on a piece of whole grain bread  instead of jam and stirred it into oatmeal, and imagine a beautiful jar and a bottle of wine would not be unwelcome as a hostess gift (do people still give those?).

On the other end of the spectrum of fall flavors, this cranberry conserve tastes like all the crispness of fall contained in a little jar (given my love of all things tart and sour, say cherries, rhubarb, and plums, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that cranberries are also a favorite).

Simmering orange segments Cranberry, orange, and apricot Boiling

In this conserve, oranges are used whole–that is, skin and all–for a slightly bitter note under the sweet and sour of simmered cranberries and a bit of texture with the crunch of nuts (any you like–walnuts, almonds, or pecans would be traditional, but pistachios would be colorful and tasty as well). It’s amazing as an accompaniment to any upcoming turkey dinners you might have planned, but also delicious on a cream scone or warmed slightly and spread on a ham sandwich.

Jammy Cranberries, conserved

Either of these can be canned, but they can also easily be refrigerated if you aren’t comfortable with the process, or just don’t want to spend the time. It is nice to pop open a jar of fall flavors come mid-January though!

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Plum crazy

I always want to love plums. Their colors are perfectly fall and all my favorites–royal purples, deep-sea blues, ruby reds, sunshine yellows–but their flavor is a gamble. One bite, sweet and juicy enough to rival a peak season peach, the next tart enough to pucker your lips and twist your face. I’m not one to take bets lightly, so I gave up on hitting the jackpot with plums.

More plums in a bowl Plum crumble pie

But there are two things I’ve learned in the past few years when it comes to cooking. First, the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store are so not representative of the variety that is actually available, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a great market or farmstand nearby. Second, if I don’t like something prepared one way, another method could just be the answer.

Plums Freestone plums Sliced Plums all sliced

Both of these lessons prove true when it comes to plums. The first in the discovery of Italian/Stanley/prune plums–beautiful hazy deep blue fruit, which also happens to be freestone (yes, plums, like peaches, have clingstone and freestone varieties) so they’re easy to eat out of hand or chop and use in cooking. The second learned last fall as watched my (regrettably small) batches of plum jam and plum chutney cook down to an unbelievable color, texture, and flavor.

Simmering Chutney Plum filling

It was love at first velvety bite, and that chutney is still one of my top 3 favorite preserves.

With these two lessons in mind–the type of plum matters, and cooking it makes it better–and a new love of plum chutney, it was no surprise that this pie had me positively tapping my foot with impatience for plums to make their appearance at the market.

Crimped Par-baked and filled Ready to bake!

This pie surprised me. Yes, anything baking smells good, but this made my apartment smell out-of-this-world amazing. The juicy plum filling bubbling up through the crumbles looks beautifully homey, like that sweater you love but only wear around the house on a blustery day. And it tasted like everything that makes me happy–spiced and tart and just a little sweet.

Drippy

The biggest surprise? That I am so smitten with a crumble-topped pie, as the top crust is usually my favorite part. The reason it works is two-fold: first, the crumble allows enough steam to escape that the plum filling gets even jammier than it would with a solid top crust; second, the top of double-crust pie is really only perfect the first day when it’s crisp and crackly, but the crumble-top pie is delicious for at least a second day (if you have pie for more than two days, you are doing something wrong and clearly need to invite me over sooner).

Beautiful

Finally, I can’t believe I’m even mentioning this, but if you’re looking for a pie for the holidays, this is it. As it’s baking, it just smells like the holidays exploded. It’s not overly sweet, and the tartness reminds me in some ways of my favorite sour cherry pie. It’s really, really spectacular.

Plum crumble pie

(Look, I know how intimidating pie can be, but you know what? If you really don’t want to deal with making a crust, this works well as a cobbler baked in a 9×9 baking dish for 45 minutes to an hour, or you can be super adorable and make cobblers in jars. Because I just need more things to put in jars.)

Spiced Plum Crumb Pie
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Summer stragglers

Before they’re gone for another eight months, I’ve been thinking about the signs of summer, especially at night.

Time for eating
Back then, it was “hoo hoo”s from the owls in the woods behind the house, the heck-heck bugs (as we called them) and crickets chirping their way through to morning, the occasional “whoosh” from a car speeding past the house way too late while I hid under my covers from the one mosquito that always seemed to find its way through my window screen. Summer was the slow red blink of “my” light, the beacon at the top of an electrical tower that I saw every night from my bedroom window.

Zesty Blackberries Sugared

Now summer sounds more like sirens from the nearby fire station and a more constant “whoosh” of city traffic, with the occasional note progression of wind chimes. It sounds like the hum of bugs that I thought for the longest time were the buzz of power lines. Summer looks like twinkly lights twisting around my porch railing through my screen door, and a block of sun inching its way across my porch in the evening.

Where all good things start Batter Covering Covered Somewhat smooth

I’ll take summer any way I can get it as long as it comes with peaches and berries and corn and blue skies and beaches and a cake or two. It looks like Chicago has one more day of 90′s left in it, which I will be enjoying to its fullest (an unrelated-to-food note: any Chicagoans looking for something to do this weekend, be sure to stop by the Renegade Craft Fair and check out my sister Erica’s booth for some amazing jewelry!)

I hope I’m not too late in sharing this with you. I hope you can find a half a peach and a few berry stragglers to make one more summer dessert.

Buttermilk Cake with Blackberries and Peaches Continue reading