I’m going to be ruthless with my garden this year. One of my biggest mistakes last year was hesitating to cut back and thin out a lot of what I planted. It felt so heartless to pluck out perfectly good little lettuces (they just want to live up to their full lettuce-y potential!) or hack off the better part of my basil plant. What I’m learning is that both thinning out and cutting back is better for my plants in the long run–the plants I leave get bigger, cutting them back encourages more growth.
All that is why that big bushy chive plant from three weeks ago got a major haircut and is now about 5 inches tall. It’s also why I have a jar of chive flower vinegar on my counter rapidly turning a spectacular shade of magenta and a double batch of chive biscuits in my freezer (more on those next week).
Vinegar will definitely be one of my go-tos for my extra herbs this summer. I’ve certainly planted enough, both in pots on my porch and in my garden, to keep pretty much everyone I know well stocked and still have enough left over to play with. I’ve got chives (of course), garlic chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint.
Infused vinegar is about as easy as it gets. Use white vinegar in the giant industrial bottle or go fancy with white wine or champagne vinegar. Light colored vinegars are my favorite purely for aesthetics, but you can infuse red wine, apple cider, or even balsamic vinegar (finally a use for the white balsamic I keep buying from Trader Joe’s and never, ever use). Use one herb or a combination; I’m interested in making infused vinegars with basil, lemon verbena, and the mints for some great vinaigrettes this summer.
Throw a few mashed berries, zest, or peppers in the mix (strawberry basil vinegar? cilantro, lime zest, and jalapeno infused vinegar added to salsa or guacamole?). The big trick is patience–you have to let it sit at least two weeks before the vinegar really well-flavored.
And when I still have more herbs to use (as I know I will), chopping them up, mixing with a little bit of olive oil and freezing in ice-cube trays will be an easy way to keep them handy all year. In the meantime, I’ll try not to keep holding this up to the window to see how pretty it looks.
Just over a week to Thanksgiving! It’s tied with the 4th of July as my favorite food/friends/family holiday. While I don’t have any turkey (or mashed potato or stuffing) recipes to suggest for anyone’s feast, I thought it would be fun to see what I could contribute to the Thanksgiving table.
Let’s start with dessert (as all meals should, really). Might I suggest something slightly different along side the apple and pumpkin pie? How about a plum pie spiced with orange, brandy, ginger, cinnamon and a crunchy, crumbly, nutty topping? Yum.
Cranberries? I have two options, both of which can be done in advance. Option one is equally good accompanying a perfect slice of turkey as it is stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold morning–a fantastic conserve of cranberries and oranges, nuts and apricots. You can water-bath process it if you feel like it, or just store in the fridge.
Option two is for the slightly more adventurous: pickled spiced cranberries. The berries themselves are delicious, sweet and tart and an excellent complement to the richness of a Thanksgiving meal, but the syrup is equally amazing mixed with some seltzer (…and possibly a little vodka or gin).
Need something to nibble on with said drink? These spiced candied nuts work nicely and conveniently are also delicious (with the pickled cranberries) on a post-Thanksgiving salad with leftover sweet potatoes and goat cheese.
And finally, since I feel no meal is complete without bread in some way, shape, or form, cornmeal biscuits with green onion and black pepper. If these are a bit too casual for your dinner table, they do make for a particularly delicious turkey sandwich.
What are you planning for your Thanksgiving meal (or the leftovers, which are obviously the second best part of the holiday)?
You’re Turning Violet, Violet!
That’s how I felt this weekend as I made a veritable vat of grape jam, my fingers, mouth, and shirt (I have at least three aprons, do I ever wear any of them? of course not) almost immediately stained various shades of purple. I didn’t make grape jam last year–I probably got too busy canning 8 million jars of tomatoes–but now that I have a food mill, it’s infinitely easier than trying to press the grapes through a strainer or pick out the seeds by hand. Hence, a vat of jam.
I made plain grape, grape-Damson plum (I had a few cups of un-canned jam in my fridge from my last jam-fest featuring my favorite plums), and a batch of the grape-plum batch flavored with a few pieces of orange zest and a sprig of rosemary from my garden. Next time I’ll let these infuse longer, the flavor is very subtle but I can tell it’s a nice combination.
I love grape jam in part because when it’s done, it looks like “real” jam–it sets and spreads like you think jam should. It doesn’t hurt that the color is gorgeous and my home still smells like grapes. This is the part of fall that I love.
Fearless Cooking at the Fearless Kitchen I mentioned a few weeks ago that the new space for the Peterson Garden Project, the Fearless Food Kitchen, is open (and gorgeous) and last week their classes started up. I’m really excited to see the offerings so far–canning, pickling, seasonal salads, South Indian cuisine–but the series I’m most interested in is the Taste Test series. These are classes taught by anyone in the community on a cooking topic of their choice, no teaching experience required, and they’re only $25.
There’s a class on making Vietnamese spring rolls, one of my favorite dishes ever (and not just because I end up eating the dipping sauce with a spoon), plus classes on cooking with kids, how to eat healthy, delicious meals when dealing with food restrictions–I expect the variety of these classes to be really interesting. If you’re looking for an inexpensive cooking class, check them out, they’re doing a “Buy one, bring a friend for free” discount right now on Facebook too; they’re also looking for volunteers to help with the classes (bonus–you get to take the class for free).
I’m hoping to figure out a topic and propose a class soon (maybe pie crust-making? too ambitious for my first time teaching anything food-related?). What kind of cooking class would you be interested in taking?
Leek Butter, aka The Best Thing Ever
If you find yourself with an overabundance of leeks this time of year, I beg you to try this: slice and rinse leeks to remove any dirt or grit. In a big pot over medium low heat, melt a good hunk of butter (I used about 1/2 a stick for four monster-sized leeks). Add leeks, stir to coat with the butter, and add a good pinch of salt. Cover and cook the leeks, stirring occasionally, until they’re very soft and let off much of their liquid. Uncover, turn the heat up slightly and continue stirring occasionally until all the liquid has cooked off and they are just starting to brown and stick to the bottom of the pot. Turn off the heat, cool, and store in the fridge or freezer.
I’ve been eating through this like it’s going out of style. I’ve been spreading it on egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, and can’t wait to stir it into soups, pasta, or just eat it with a spoon. It’s the simplest, most delicious thing I’ve eaten so far this fall and I can’t get enough.
Speaking of Grilled Cheese… I will never, ever get around to doing this but oh I would love fancy cheese that melts perfectly like good old American cheese in its plastic wrappers.
New Streamlined Canning Process
Most of canning season is over, with the exception of apples and cranberries, but it’s still worth noting that the guidelines have changed to make things a little easier and less intimidating. Here’s the detailed information about the change but the short version is that you don’t have to simmer the lids in water and you don’t have to pre-sterilize the jars as long as the recipe you’re making calls for at least 10 minutes of processing.
I think both of these things make sense, and honestly, I’ve been doing both since I got comfortable with the process. I wash my lids with soap and set them in a bowl of water I ladle out of my canning pot when it starts simmering (one less pot on my stove) and I put my jars in the pot while it heats up just so everything is close to the same temperature (less chance of shock and a cracked jar that way).
I have no pictures of any of the above, but this seems empty without a picture so enjoy this sunset from my porch earlier this summer.
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.
A 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.
Turns 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.
I’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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
Last weekend I found myself channeling my amazing Italian grandmother as I stood over 30 pounds of tomatoes I kind-of sort-of accidentally-on-purpose brought home. I’m sure this would have been nothing to my grandma in her canning prime (I remember what the cellar of my grandparents’ farmhouse looked like, and the shelf my dad tells me my grandpa built especially for her and her jars), but this was only the second year I’ve put up tomatoes. Go big(ish) or go home, right?
It turned out to be a pretty awesome success and I managed to put them all up in one perfect fall Sunday, even with occasional breaks to watch the Browns get their first win and the Bears beat the pants off the Steelers. By the end of the night, I had 22 jars of various sizes and only 2 tablespoons left in the pot. I call that a day well spent.
I had enough tomatoes to experiment with, so I wanted to try three different styles: whole, crushed, and sauced. I found that each style has its pros and cons, but it’s worth making a little of each. As for the type of tomato to use, I like Romas because they’re on the smaller side, which makes them easier to get into jars, and don’t have a ton of water that needs to cook out later, but you can use whatever tomatoes you like to cook with.
Since it didn’t occur to me to take in-progress pictures, I’ll try to add some after the few final jars I plan to put up this weekend (just one more basket of tomatoes, I swear!). Otherwise I see a whole lot of pasta sauce in my future, thankfully my dad also sent me his old pasta maker. Or chili. I have plans…
Pros: About as straight-forward as it gets. Whole tomatoes have the least amount of hands-on time (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the fastest or most fool-proof, see Cons). They can be transformed into crushed tomatoes or sauce depending on what you decide to make later.
Cons: While they’re faster to get into the jars, they take twice as long to process compared to sauce or crushed tomatoes. They also seem to have a higher chance of not sealing due to the air bubbles that inevitably get trapped in the tomatoes. It’s also hard to get whole tomatoes in anything smaller than a pint jar (very annoying if you’re left with just three and a half peeled tomatoes).
How to: Cut out the tomato stem, cut an X in the skin, quickly blanch in boiling water, and peel off the skins (reserve if you plan to make sauce).
To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint (a 1/2 teaspoon of salt per jar is optional). Press tomatoes into jars until the spaces between them fill with juice, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding tomatoes as needed (halve or quarter a tomato as needed). Process in a boiling water bath for 85 minutes.
Pros: After canning whole tomatoes exclusively last year, crushed tomatoes might be my new go-to. They’re forgiving in terms of the amount of tomatoes you have and the size of jars you want to use (anything from half pints to quarts will work), and you can used any remaining whole tomatoes (or jars that didn’t seal) to make crushed tomatoes. I also think it feels less rushed than the process for whole tomatoes.
Cons: Really all I can come up with is that it’s a bit messier than canning whole tomatoes.
How to: Cut out the tomato stem, blanch, and peel (save skins for sauce). Quarter enough tomatoes to measure about 2 cups. Transfer to a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Crush tomatoes to release juices.
Continue cooking at a simmer, stirring occasionally, while adding additional peeled, quartered tomatoes as you go. Continue until all tomatoes are added, then boil gently for 5 minutes.
To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint. Pack tomatoes into jars until the spaces between them fill with juice leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding tomatoes as needed. Process pints in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes.
Pros: Tomato sauce has the potential to use up almost the entire tomato (skins and all), producing the least amount of waste. It’s also easy to adjust the thickness of the sauce depending on how long you let the sauce cook down on the stove before canning, and using the skins also helps to make a thicker sauce. Finally, you don’t have to go through the process of blanching and peeling tomatoes (my least favorite part of the process)
Cons: If you don’t have a good food mill or don’t feel like pressing the sauce through a fine sieve, this is probably not going to be your favorite method.
How to: Wash tomatoes very well. Quarter 6 tomatoes and place in a large saucepan. Crush tomatoes and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to avoid scorching. Add more quartered tomatoes (and any leftover skins from making whole or crushed tomatoes), stirring and crushing as you go. When all tomatoes have been added, boil, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are soft and juicy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
Working in 2 cup batches, blend tomatoes, skins, and seeds until the sauce is as smooth as you can get it (it won’t be perfect). Press through a fine sieve or food mill to remove large bits of skins and seeds. Discard skins and seeds.
Return sauce to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil until volume is reduced by at least one-third for a thin sauce. For a thicker sauce, cook until reduced by half.
To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint. Pour sauce into jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace (note this is different than for whole or crushed tomatoes). Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding sauce as needed. Process pints in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes.
I feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time. When I first tried rhubarb last year, it was at the very end of its season and it’s hardly the most popular kid on the block when it comes to the freezer case at the grocery store. So now that rhubarb season has come around again–now closer to its end than beginning–I find myself buying it in bunches by the pound (more accurately, 5 pounds). I just can’t get enough of the color, its pretty red to pink to green stalks, or its flavor that reminds me of sour cherries.
Pie is of course a great way to use up a big bunch, but I don’t want to overload myself on pie before I even get to strawberries, blueberries, cherries, or peaches. Cake is good too, and I’ve simmered a good amount (4 cups chopped) with sugar and water (1 cup of each) and a vanilla bean (split) to make rhubarb syrup (cook for 20-30 minutes and strain) to add to seltzer or slightly more boozy libations that deserve neon bendy straws and a sunny day on the porch.
But how to keep a little taste of spring around longer than the last crumbs of baked goods or drops of syrup? Jam, of course. I picked up this cute little cookbook at Chicago’s Printers Row Book Fair last weekend and figured it was just the push I needed.
Ginger is a pretty common accompaniment to rhubarb’s tartness, and it’s easy to taste why. The prettiest rosey pink color of the jam looks like it would be overwhelmingly sweet but the tingle of ginger (in raw and candied forms) along with a little bit of sour from strips of lemon zest make this my new favorite thing.
I’m usually indifferent to jam stirred into yogurt, but this jam is perfect for that (and hey! pink yogurt! pretty!); I’ve also been spreading it on a slice of whole wheat bread with dried fruit baked in. It would be so perfect with scones or cream biscuits, and I can’t wait to use this in thumbprint cookies, or even some variation on a linzer tart or cookies.
…Excuse me, I need to go buy 5 more pounds of rhubarb before it’s all gone.
I’m not ashamed to admit it–this time of year, I will let out my inner five-year-old and happily high-kick my way through a pile of leaves as they crunch under my feet. Out of all four seasons, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of fall are my favorites. I’ve made it pretty clear that I love summer, but there is something about the way fall hits all of my senses at once that gets me every time.
The sound of dry leaves skipping down the street in the wind is so unique and only comes this time of year for a few short weeks. The colors make me want to climb a tree and live in the sun-bright yellow, pumpkin-orange, cranberry-red leaves clinging to nut-brown branches, which match the colors flooding the market during its last few weeks outdoors. The smells–burning leaf piles (not as much in the city, but something I remember distinctly growing up), the earthy scent of wet leaves as they start to decompose back into the soil, getting ready for spring–fill the air.
Late last fall, I bought some concord grapes and cobbled together two little jars of freezer grape jelly (or, more accurately, jam) from a recipe in my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. It was the most amazing grape jam I had ever tasted–not from anything special about the recipe, but just because it looked and tasted like…well, grape jam. And I made it. And when I pulled one of the jars out in February to make a PB&J, it tasted even better. So I told myself that this summer I would learn how to can.