The daily web

Not zucchini, as advertised, but still lovely.

Not zucchini, as advertised, but still lovely.

The garden is growing beautifully! We put a dripper irrigation system in the front flower bed, and I’ve made a batch of spiced tomato jam, two batches of watermelon rind pickles, some strawberry jam, and a batch of pickled asparagus since my last post… among other things. I know, I’m failing to remember to get the camera out for pictures and then posting about my kitchen adventures. I will try to do better in the future.

In the absence of posts of real substance, I’ve been throwing up a few links I come across during my strolls through the intarwebs. I started putting another one together, but then I thought it might be more interesting to share the half-dozen or so food and cooking places out in the ether that I check in on regularly. Some of these links are in the Pantry over there to the right.

These are the sites I check every day:

Food in Jars
Marisa McClellan’s down-to-earth style drew me in and got me started on the canning road. She put the final nail in the coffin of the idea that canning had to be done on a farmhouse preparing for winter blizzards scale. She has two fantastic canning books out now.

Flourish
Previously King Arthur Flour’s Baking Banter. This blog has really slicked up its look in the last year or so, but it’s still a great read and fantastic resource for not only baking cookies, cakes, and pies, but also whole meal ideas and community projects. KAF is a great company (entirely employee run) and has fantastic products. If you’re not buying KAF flour, you’re missing out.

Saveur.com
I absolutely love this magazine. When it shows up in the mail every other month, I immediately sit down and flip through it. The photography of both the food and the people is always gorgeous. I then spend the next week or so reading every single word in every single article. There’s not many magazines I can say that about. The website is wonderful as well. All the recipes from all the issues right at my fingertips! I love technologeez.

Joy of Cooking
This is NOT Irma Rombauer and Family’s iconic soup to nuts and all things inbetween cookbook and culinary encyclopedia in internet blog form. It is Joy’s 20th century online face put together by Irma’s great-grandson John and his wife Meg. John and Meg are too cute for words and the blog is lovely to look at and read. As a bonus, there is a lot of history about the Joy of Cooking books and the Rombauer/Becker family. The new iPad app looks fabulous! I almost want an iPad just for that.

Heritage Radio Network
I don’t always listen to broadcasts, but I check the schedule just about every day to see if there’s something that really peaks my interest. The network has an incredibly broad topic range, from fine dining to sustainable aquaculture.

These places I visit every once in awhile:

Robb Walsh – Texas Eats and Zen BBQ
Robb Walsh began as a restaurant critic for the Houston Chronicle. He’s published several books about Texan and Southern cooking cultures and origins, all of which I highly recommend. Robb doesn’t post nearly as much as I’d like, but when he does, it’s usually really interesting.

Foodways Texas
A relative newcomer, the organization was founded by chefs, journalists, restaurateurs, farmers, ranchers, and other citizens of the state of Texas for the purpose of preserving, promoting, and celebrating the many varied food cultures of Texas. Their yearly Barbecue Summer Camp is something I’d die to attend.

Cook’s Illustrated
Another magazine (though it’s not really a magazine) I get in the mail and devour immediately. The authors update the site when a new edition comes out, so this isn’t an everyday visit, but I do often look up recipes as starting points for a lot of kitchen projects.

Rosenthal Meat Center – Monthly Specials
Although I’ve never purchased more than a few bags of beef jerky (the BEST, bar none) and a small boneless smoked ham, I am determined to make use of this great resource for local, ethically raised, and humanely dispatched beef, pork, and lamb once I clear out the freezer. I love checking the specials every month and thinking about what I might do with it all.

Thug Kitchen
Don’t click the link before allowing me to warn you! If you are offended by f-bombs and generally thuggish language, you might want to pass this up. The message the blog authors offer, and all without being preachy like sooo many other similarly themed things, is a good one: Eat like you give a damn! (edited for language). Eat like you care about what you put in your body. The juxtaposition of healthy (and delicious looking) vegan recipes with language that would make a sailor blush makes me laugh.

The Fresh Loaf
I don’t visit this one very often, though it’s a great site. The level of general expertise demonstrated in the posts is somewhat intimidating, so I have to go away for awhile until I work up the courage to come back for a peek. I would like to be as accomplished as some of the contributors some day.

Welp… that’s about it. Those are the things I look at when I have a few spare minutes in the day. If you’ve got a great site to suggest, please do so in a comment! I’m always looking for new things.

Thanks for stopping by!

Garden season 2014: and so it begins

Lovely verbena that weathered the winter

Lovely verbena that weathered the winter

Finally! The garden is in! Cold weather, head colds, and rain stretched our prep and planting phase out over almost a month, and we were getting a little nervous there for a bit. We did it, though, and it feels wonderful. Here’s the rundown of how things have gone so far this year.

In January we started cleaning up things from the 2013 fall planting: harvesting the collard greens and pulling up the roots, pulling up expired tomato plants, and cutting back the lantana and anything else that froze (there would be other losses… it was a weird winter). In previous years, January was the time to cover everything with a layer of cardboard (for weed suppression and general organic matter boosting) and a layer of compost (because… well.. compost). After we discovered the glut of phosphorous in the soil from all the compost we’d layered on, we had to forgo the compost, which meant there wouldn’t be anything to keep the cardboard in place (crumbly bits are too light).

A side note on our phosphorous saga: I finally dug up the results from that first soil test. Our soil clocked in at 494. Normal levels are around 150. This year, that number went down to 388. An improvement, but still way over what is healthy for soil.

Waiting for spring

Waiting for spring

We also wimped out on putting the little greenhouse up, not for any real reason other than we just didn’t think to put it up. So, after getting old things pulled up, there wasn’t really anything else to do until time to turn the soil and plant. I suppose we could have started pulling up the winter rye that usually takes over, but by design it dies off once the weather starts getting warm, and it tills in easy if left alone, making for even more organic vegetable matter incorporated into the soil. All in all, we pretty much just took it easy between January and March. The weather was cold and wet for most of that time, so we didn’t mind much. Well… I didn’t mind; Michael hates the cold and wet.

Rows-2

Rows

Massive rows

The last frost date for our area was early this year… March 2. As he had the last couple of years, Michael took a week-long vacation during the second week of the month. He tilled the whole garden and relocated his day lilies. They really got cooked last summer, and he thought a bit more shade during the hot part of the day would do them some good. They are coming back strong, and we even have quite a few scapes coming up, which means there will be blooms in a few weeks. Michael also dug rows for the plants to sit up on. We (erm… he) decided last year that we didn’t need traditional rows. A heavy, fast rain in early May flooded the garden and the tomato plants just about drowned. It was touch and go for a couple of weeks, but they made it through. Michael was determined not to let that happen again, so he dug very deep trenches, all the way down to the clay base, and heaped up very tall rows. There was no way we were going to get caught with wet tomato feet this year!

With the rows dug, we were going to spend that weekend planting, but I caught my first (hopefully only) head cold and Michael was somewhat laid up with an abscess on his leg. By the middle of the following week, he had caught my cold, which plagued him through the next weekend. That was also the weekend with the late freeze, so it actually was a good thing that we didn’t plant anything. The NEXT weekend (we’re now at the last weekend of March), we were both healthy and ready to get things finished.

Landscape fabric and drip irrigation laid out

Landscape fabric and drip irrigation laid out

Saturday dawned cool and bright, perfect for gardening. One of the remaining tasks we set ourselves for the day was to mulch the rows. Mulch is important for several reasons. One is weed control, the other is moisture retention. In the very hot, dry part of our Texas summers, that extra bit of whatever that can keep some moisture in the soil can make the difference between life and death of a garden plant. The downside to the very tall, steep rows that Michael made was that the mulch we usually use (crumbly bits… a light-weight mixture of hardwood chips) would not stay on the mounds… they just slid right off and piled up in the furrows. We decided to try landscape fabric this time. It looks a little industrial, but I think it will be effective.

Newly planted tomatoes - March 30

Newly planted tomatoes – March 30

Day lilies in their new spot

Day lilies in their new spot

Once we had the landscape fabric down, I printed our garden plan and we went off to buy seedlings. We had planted some seeds in one of the Earthboxes in February, but without being in the greenhouse, the seedlings that came off froze off. No great loss, really. Seeds are cheap. It’s just always a little sad to see a little plant die after you’ve watched for it to sprout. (Anthropomorphize much, Shana?) We had some good results with the seedlings from the co-0p last year, so we went there first. It was a bit disappointing. What few choices they had looked wilted and sad and very uncared for. The variety wasn’t much to crow about either. We picked through things and got most of what we wanted. A stop at The Farm Patch supplied what we were missing. With trowels in one hand and a little container of blood meal in the other, we set about planting. Cut the landscape fabric, dig a hole, sprinkle blood meal in the bottom, and then in goes the seedling. Easy peasy. Planting took the rest of the afternoon, and by about 3:00, we were finished and ready to get cleaned up.

May tomatoes

My, how you’ve grown! – April 30

Cherry tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Purple Cherokee heirloom

Purple Cherokee heirloom

On Sunday morning, we finished up the last bit of weeding about the edges of the space and “dressed” the garden, meaning we spread crumbly bits over the unplanted areas. Not only does this add the necessary organic matter, which will break down over the season, and help keep weeding to a minimum in the places not seeing any use, it makes the whole garden look… well… on purpose. This is another concept that Michael’s artistic nature provided. Like the seating area, dressing the garden makes it that much more pleasant to look at and be in.

We were done… for the most part. Another couple of weekend mornings spent tweaking things… planting marigolds, some herbs, the left-over seedlings… and that was it. It’s only been a  month since we planted (yes… it’s taken me that long to get this thing written) and we’re already seeing tomatoes! I think that’s a record or something. When I compare the pictures of the plants at the end of March and the end of April, the amount of growth is pretty amazing. We’ve got one zucchini (although I suspect it’s not actually a zucchini… possibly a calabaza… but hey, squash is squash) and three or four struggling cucumbers. Something’s not right either with the soil or the plants. The pepper plants are going like gang busters and have a blossom on them here and there. All in all, everything is looking really really good.

One last offering. Michael put this nifty little video together. Because I’m too cheap to actually pay for WordPress, I can’t just have it load from here. The link will take you to Facebook.

Again my friends, thank you so much for stopping by. If you’re enjoying these little endeavors of mine a fraction of how much I’m enjoying putting them out there, then I’m very happy. Garden on!

Links: Jam usage (again), cocktails in film, and oldies but questionable goodies

Waiting for spring

Waiting for spring

Again I am resorting to  throwing up a list of links while I work on the next “real” post about getting the garden ready and planted for spring. In my last report on the garden, Michael was getting started on prepping things. He got the irrigation system pulled up and everything tilled and mounded (just wait until you see these rows… they’re HUGE!). He also moved his day lilies to a shadier spot. Last summer they really got cooked. Over the next few weekends we worked around our first colds of the season and some rain to get things planted. We still need to finish off the weeding and put some mulch down, but that’s the easy stuff. After that, it’s just sitting back and watching things grow. I’ll get a post up with lots of pictures as soon as that last bit of work is done.

Now… some links!

  • This last weekend I tried a new recipe for cinnamon coffee cake (I’ve been jonesing for one lately). This dense, rich, Bundt-y coffee cake really fit the bill. It’s definitely going on the family recipe site.
  • I’m still trying to weed out my jam shelf. These jelly-filled biscuits (minus the peanut butter, I think) sound really nice.
  • The Howdy Farm is getting into the swing of spring. They’ve partnered up with a really great new brew house/restaurant, Blackwater Draw, who’s using the farm’s local organic produce on their menu.
  • My recent amplification of cocktail curiosity led me to this fun bunch of infocharts. Specifically the lovely depiction of several cocktails featured in classic movies.
  • I’m trying to expand my pressure canner usage. I think pressure canning cooked ground beef might be my next project in that area.
  • In the “lest we forget” category, I ran across this collection of vintage recipes awhile back. Yes… it’s real stuff. I have some of the late ’60s/early ’70s Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks that were my mother’s from her newlywed days (Wienie-ladas, anyone? How about Spam Suprème?). They might just be the subject of their own post someday.

As ever, thanks for dropping by. I hope spring is happening for you, wherever you are!

Chicken stock: golden elixir of the gods

Lovely golden stock

Dreaming of noodles

Chicken noodle soup, gravy, jambalaya, rice pilaf, southern style cream peas… these are just a few of the things I would never want to make if I didn’t have homemade chicken stock on hand. Store-bought stock is fine; these days you can get some very good low-salt versions, but there’s just something about my own chicken stock that bumps everything I do with it up two or three levels. Other benefits to making your own stock is that you are in complete control of what goes in it, and it’s an industrious use for bits of chicken parts that might otherwise just get thrown out. I first started making stock on a regular basis when I was doing casseroles for the folks at work. About every six weeks or so King Ranch Chicken would rotate into service, which would require the cooked meat from a whole chicken. The easiest thing at the time was to buy a rotisserie chicken from Sam’s. At only about $5.00 a chicken, it beat out buying a chicken and cooking it myself. After picking off all the meat, I was left with a pile of bones that gave me a pang of guilt when I dumped it into the trash. One weekend I had to do three batches of KRC, and I just couldn’t bring myself to throw out the bones, so I popped them into a zip-top bag and put them in the freezer. When the next weekend rolled around, I pulled the bones out, threw them into my biggest pot along with some veg and herbs and set it to simmer for the rest of the day.Once I had the stock drained, I put it in plastic containers and put them in the freezer. I felt so accomplished!

All American Model 921 pressure canner

All American Model 921 pressure canner

When the garden came into being, I got to thinking of the things I wanted to do with the produce from it. Pickling is okay, if you like pickles (and I do), but a person can get tired of pickles. Freezing is an option, but that usually takes quite a bit of prep work to keep that evil freezer burn away. That left canning… specifically pressure canning. *PERK* That meant I’d need to research pressure canners, and evaluate styles of pressure canners, and compare prices of pressure canners, and gleefully agonize over whether or not I should spend money on a pressure canner… all general activities I actually love doing. After a couple of months of doing all the above, I settled on the All American Model 921 pressure canner. With a 21.5 quart capacity, the All American can handle up to 19 pint jars or 7 quart jars. One of the selling points was that it did not have a rubber gasket to worry about getting old and needing replacing. Plus, it just looks awesome! So awesome, in fact, that I was too intimidated to actually use it. It sat in the utility room, haughtily glaring at me for months before I bucked up, read the manual that came with it from front to back three times, and gave it a go. As with a lot of things, I was silly to have drug my feet. It worked like a charm. I proudly labeled my first 7 quarts of chicken stock and put them on the shelf. For that first batch, I made the stock in the “traditional” way: simmering for hours. Once I learned how easy it was to use pressure to can it, I turned to figuring out how to use pressure to cook the stock in the first place.

Pressure cookers are enjoying a kind of revival these days, and it’s easy to see why. They are fast. What can take four hours or more, say a pot roast, takes just a little over an hour in a pressure cooker. I found out that there is a difference between pressure cookers and pressure canners, if only one of size. A pressure canner is really just a large pressure cooker. You can pressure cook in a pressure canner, but you can’t pressure can in a pressure cooker because they are usually too small to fit any jars. So, a pressure canner is dual purpose, the downside only being that if you’re going to cook in it, it’ll have to be a fairly large amount of food. This is not a problem when you’re talking about almost two gallons of stock. After plenty of reading up on the subject, I settled on a process for using my pressure canner for both making the stock and canning it, and I’m going to share it with you!

Loaded up and ready to go

Loaded up and ready to go

First, the ingredients. I usually wait to make stock until I have at least three chicken carcasses, or the equivalent, in the freezer. This can be the bones from roasted chickens or chicken parts like backs, necks, or wing tips from cutting up a whole chicken. I’m lucky enough to get chicken feet from pastured free-range chickens from Yonder Way Farm, so I will throw a pound of those in for the extra gelatin and flavor. Be sure to include the skin on the parts as well; skin has fat and fat is flavor. You’ll take the fat off of the stock later anyway. For my stock I like to add the basics: onion, carrot, celery, garlic, black pepper corns, bay leaves, parsley, and thyme. As you can see, I don’t prep the vegetables much. The onion skins will give a great color, so I leave those on. I include the celery leaves, too. The carrots I do peel, though; sometimes unpeeled carrots can leave a bitter taste. I add water to cover everything, about 7 quarts. There’s not a lot, if any, evaporation with pressure cooking, so you want to add the same amount of water as you want to come out with stock, maybe a little more so that you have some stock to put in the refrigerator to use immediately.

Pressure gauge showing about 15 pounds of pressure

Pressure gauge showing about 15 pounds of pressure

Once everything is in, I turn on the heat and bring everything to a boil. Once it’s rolling, I secure the lid and set the pressure weight (the round metal gizmo on the left of the lid) to 15 pounds. The gauge on the right is really just to give an estimate of the pressure, to double check that the weight is doing its job. When the weight starts to jiggle, the correct pressure has been reached and I can set the timer for 45 minutes. Yep… that’s right… 45 minutes. What takes 10 hours the old way takes only 45 minutes under pressure. The secret to a really good stock is cooking the carcass enough to melt all the connective tissue and extract the maximum goodness from the bones. With the canner, I trade time for  pressure and higher heat and get even better results.

All has given up it's goodness

All has given up its goodness

Soft veg and spongy bone

Soft veg and spongy bone

After 45 minutes, I turn the heat off and let the pressure reduce on it’s own back to zero. I can now open the lid and gaze lovingly at what I have wrought. The vegetables are completely soft; the bones are totally bare and will crumble if you squeeze them. After I scoop out all the bones and vegetables, Tory likes to eat the carrots and celery, as does Rosie, the dog. I’ve often wondered if this stuff, wazzed up fine and minus the onions of course (not good for dogs), would make a good supplement to Rosie’s boring old kibble (I still get very small pangs when I toss it in the trash). The stock itself is a rich dark golden color. When I use rotisserie chickens with well-browned skin, it’s even darker. This is not a pale, subtle broth for pale subtle sauces; this is STOCK! This stuff gels solid when I refrigerate it.  This can stand up to stews and gravies. This will cure a cold faster than you can sneeze. Okay… that last bit may be a bit of hyperbole, but it does feel awful good going down a sore throat. I could wax on poetically, but I think  you get the gist.

Straining

The dreaded dregs!

Once I’ve got the big solid bits strained out, I pour the stock through a colander lined with a flour sack. You could use several layers of cheese cloth… same same; but I do stock often enough that it seems more practical to wash a bit of flour sack each time instead of using and discarding cheese cloth. Strainging the stock this way also helps remove some of the fat; a bit gets soaked up by the cloth and a bit more stays behind with the “dregs.” If I need to continue at a later time, at this point I can cover the stock and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, the fat has congealed on the top and can be scraped off. The stock is heated again to boiling before I fill the jars. If I’m going to go ahead and can it, I use several sheets of paper towel to kind of wick and blot as much fat as I can from the surface of the liquid. There’s always a little left, and that’s okay.

Ready to go under pressure

Ready to go under pressure

Leaving about an inch of headspace, I fill the quart jars and apply lids and bands as I would if I was processing the jars in a boiling water bath, except I tighten the bands just a bit more to reduce the chance of the stock boiling out during processing. One of the racks and about 2 inches of water goes into the canner. The jars are next. The lid goes on without the pressure weight at first. The water inside needs to come to a boil and the steam needs to vent for 10 minutes before putting the weight on. This lets any trapped air escape from the canner before sealing it.  Trapped air lowers the temperature for a given pressure, meaning that what you are processing might not reach the temperature needed to be safe for storage. This isn’t a problem when cooking the stock, but a big problem when processing it, especially if you aren’t a fan of botulism.

Nestled all snug in their... canner

Nestled all snug in their… canner

After venting, I can put the weight on the lid for 10 pounds of pressure. Once pressure is achieved, it’s a short 25 minutes until I can turn the heat off and wait for the pressure to come back down. I’ve often just left everything sitting overnight; the stock is still boiling in the sealed jars even after the pressure is at zero and could pop the lid off if the jar is jostled or bumped. Leaving  the jars in the canner overnight lets them cool very slowly. After the jars are completely cool, the bands can come off and the lids labeled with the date. We’re back to the first photo… 7 quarts of golden goodness just waiting to be savored and enjoyed.

I do beef stock in basically the same way. This year I want to try to pressure can marinara sauce and maybe some salsa, even if I have to buy tomatoes. *gasp!* I also want to try cooking corned beef in the canner. The manual that came with it has a lot of interesting recipes, although they seem to be for the smaller models. I guess I’ll just have to invite some friends over for dinner!

My friends, as always, thank you for your time!

Links: Food maps, jam usage, and homemade Irish cream

Ladybug

Hello, Ladybug!

The weather here has been unpredictable. Spring is inching towards us on damp, cold, hesitant toes. The seeds we planted at the beginning of the month froze off with that last bit of polar vortex–induced cold (we have one hearty zucchini seedling and one stalwart green bean seedling that survived), so we’ll have to go with buying all seedlings this year. This is not a bad thing, it’s just fun to try to start from seeds, especially seeds you’ve saved over from last year. Michael’s yearly week of spring vacation starts today. For the last couple of years he’s taken a week to get the ground tilled and prepped for spring planting. We got out there yesterday for a little bit to try to corral the last bit of spearmint. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… if you let mint “out into the wild,” be prepared for it to take over. I think we finally got it under control now. I saw the first ladybug of the year! The picture up there isn’t her, but perhaps a ancestor from last year.

On the blog front, I’ve been a bit lazy. I made and pressure canned chicken stock last weekend and dutifully took lots of pictures, so there will be a post on that soon. For today, I’m following the example of some of my favorite bloggers and posting a quick list of links to various gems I’ve found out there in the wild, wild, intarwebs.

  • From a new (to me) bread-baking forum I’m poking around in, brown butter financiers.
  • Maps of countries made out of those places’ most associated foods. My favorite is India.
  • Just when I think I know my own metaphorical back yard, I find something like Ronin Cooking. Full moon dinner parties? Yes, please!
  • As my own jamming projects start to coalesce, I have to find something to do with the last few jars of jammy goodness from last year. This BBQ sauce idea looks like a winner (I’m looking at you, peach preserves).
  • Be still my beating heart…. homemade Irish cream! Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.
  • This isn’t new, but still worth sharing. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is where we get most of our garden seeds. Excellent quality and mind-blowing variety.

One last thing. With the preface of assuring you that I am not (yet) addicted to blogging, I want to share with you my other blog project, From Absinthe to Zombie. It’s been an incredibly fun journey so far (I can’t imagine it ever ceasing to be fun), and I hope at least some of you will be interested in following along.

Thanks again, my friends! When the weather permits, get out there and plant something. You’ll be glad you did!

A whole new world…. of canning

Jars of goodness

Jams, pickles, and other goodies.

As I mentioned in a previous post (Grandaddy’s Garden – Part 2), I fell hard for canning in the summer of 2012. I had done a few little things a long time ago… pickled green beans, some tomatoes, peach butter… but hadn’t done so much as a refrigerator pickle since. I had got it into my head that I had to have bushels of vegetables out of my own garden or someone else’s in order to “put up.” I thought I had to process a dozen or more jars of something at one time. It was an epiphany to realize that it didn’t have to be like that. After some reading (that ol’ college student research instinct), I realized I could do it with a bag of store-bought Brussels sprouts or a couple of beets from the Farmer’s Market. And, I didn’t even have to actually “can” it, either; unless you’re wanting something to be shelf-stable for up to a year, just put a plastic lid on it and stick it in the refrigerator. Nor do you have to have a lot of specialized equipment; although, there are a couple of single-task tools that make canning life much nicer. With those preconceived notions off my shoulders, a vast landscape of pickling, jamming, canning, and preserving projects opened up.

Kerr wide-mouth half-pint jar

Kerr wide-mouth half-pint jar

As I’ve also mentioned, I have a genetic predisposition to collecting glass jars (thanks, Mom!). With canning, you HAVE to collect jars. Justification! I found that I prefer Kerr™ Mason jars to Ball™ Mason jars. Interestingly enough, both Kerr and Ball are made by the same company, Jarden Home Brands, and are pretty much the same jars, but Ball jars have a lot of stuff on the outside: measurement markings, decorations, the brand icon; there’s no smooth glass to put a label on securely. Kerr jars only have the Kerr logo on one side of the jars. Plus, my favorite jar, the wide-mouth half-pint, only comes under the Kerr brand. I also fell in love with Weck jars. These lovely bits of glass are made in Germany and have a very old-world feel to them. I was nervous about canning with them at first; the rubber gasket and steel clip system felt fiddly, but after a few tries I got the hang of it.

That first year, in the jam/jelly/marmalade category, I made apricot-pepper jelly, blueberry-orange marmalade, cranberry-orange marmalade, dewberry jam, peach and ginger preserves, peach honey (not really a jam or jelly, more like a thick peach-flavored syrup made from the skins and trimmings left over from the jams), peach jam with lavender (the farmers’ market had fantastic peaches that year, so I stocked up), orange marmalade with basil, lemon marmalade with ginger and mint, and grapefruit marmalade with vanilla (strangely enough, I didn’t really care for this one… surprised me!). In the pickle category there were asparagus, beets, Brussels sprouts, dilled green beans and carrots, jalapeño and serrano peppers, kosher dills, zucchini refrigerator pickles (my first pickling project… we really did have mountains of zucchini), Romanesco broccoli, and sauerkraut. If anyone’s interested, most of the recipes are here.

Everything that I tried that year was good, but a few things really stood out. Perhaps the most popular item that year (and since) was the apricot-pepper jelly. How to describe it? Sweet and sour with that distinctive, almost floral capsicum pepper flavor. The first batch didn’t have any heat to it at all. For the second go-round, I added a little juice from a jar of pickled jalapeños, which added just enough warmth to really set off the sweetness of the dried apricots. My family ate this stuff on just about everything, but I thought it really sparkled with a sharp cheddar and crackers.

First few pickling cukes of 2013

First few pickling cukes of 2013

Another pickling revelation that year was brine fermenting. Brine fermenting is an ancient preserving process in which food is either packed in salt or left to sit in a brine until certain types of good bacteria (the same types responsible for yogurt) make enough lactic acid to preserve the food from the depredations of harmful bacteria. Sauerkraut and kimchi are made with this type of fermentation. That first fall, we had a couple of smallish heads of cabbage that I decided would be good subjects for sauerkraut. The process is documented here. I was beyond amazed at how easy it was. Salt, cabbage, time… that’s it! The same process produces my favorite cucumber pickles in all the world… kosher dills. (NOTE: the pickles labeled “kosher dills” on the supermarket shelves are cooked pickles; the term “kosher” in this application means the addition of garlic. The refrigerated pickles usually found in the deli section of the supermarket are true kosher dills.) I had yearned for years for the grape leaf pickles that my Grandmother and her sisters made and always had out on the table during family meals (not pickled grape leaves… the leaves were added to the fermentation to help keep the cucumbers crisp, much like adding alum to cooked pickle recipes). Sometimes they were so salty you couldn’t eat more than a spear, but those pickles had a pleasant… I don’t know what to call it… funk to them that no other pickle had. Now I know that that funk is a result of lactic acid, not acetic acid that’s in the vinegar used to make cooked pickles. This last year I applied the process to Brussels sprouts. Yum!

I didn’t do nearly as many canning projects last year as I did that first year, partly because we didn’t get as much produce out of the garden last year. A couple of the outstanding new things was tomato jam with lemon (think very high-brow ketchup… second to the apricot-pepper jelly in Lewis Family popularity) and blackberry-sage jam. This coming season will hopefully bring more veg from the garden to play with as well as new finds at the farmers’ markets around town. I already made a lovely pear butter that I’m planning on sharing in a future post. Once I get the requisite pepper jelly and tomato jam on the shelf and out of the way, I’m thinking of trying pickled fruits and chutneys this year… mix it up a little!

Thanks again for  your time, and thank you very much for the positive feedback! Can on!

These are a few of my favorite things

Kitchen racks

Some kitchen stuff that wouldn’t fit in the cabinets

Ask anyone with a serious wood shop, sewing room, or art studio, and they’ll tell you that good tools make good things. They’ll also tell you that they have their favorite tools. Some may be multi-taskers or a specialized piece of equipment that does only one thing but does that one thing perfectly every time. I firmly believe that kitchens are no different. It is very true that a person can cook just about anything using one or more of… say… six pieces of kitchen equipment, but for me a large part of my enjoyment of cooking comes from having just the right tool at my fingertips. Okay… I will admit that I have some collection issues: Nordic Ware Bundt pans, Mason jars, ThermoWorks products (in purple!), to name the major ones (I come by this bent honestly; my mother is a connoisseur of collecting glassware and odd jars), but for the most part, my kitchen equipment, though vast in scope, is the best for what I love to do. I’m going to share some of my favorite pieces with you, my friends. In no particular order:

SaladMaster cookware: I don’t think many people know about this brand of cookware. That is probably because the company doesn’t advertise. They also don’t offer their product in any store… brick and mortar or online; it can only be purchased through an authorized dealer, preferably after hosting a dinner party at which said authorized dealer cooks a meal for your guests to show off the cookware. Kind of like a Tupperware party, but with stainless steel.  Mom had one of these dinner parties in 1976 and purchased a set. Thirty-eight years later, she’s still using it every day. I got my set in 1994.  This stuff is expensive, VERY expensive, but it really is THAT good. I’ll never buy another set of cookware, and I’ll likely pass it down to one of the kiddos… or maybe their grandchildren. Sturdy and good looking, the special vent in the lid lets you cook things under a slight amount of pressure, which means you can use a lower flame and less water. Vegetables come out perfect without having all their taste and nutrients washed out by water or nuked out by the microwave. The electric skillet in the set has an oil-filled core that allows the entire pan to heat up, making it kind of like a little oven with the lid on. I fry chicken thighs in it with no extra oil. Even without a breading or batter, the pieces come out crisp and tender with that signature fried chicken taste. 

DSC_1173KitchenAid stand mixer: I’m currently on my third KitchenAid mixer,  not because they burned out or broke or anything like that, but because I kept needing (wanting?) the next step up. My current model is the Pro-Line Series 7 qt. bowl-lift mixer in Candy Apple Red. With a 1.3 horse-power motor under the sleek red housing, there isn’t a cookie or bread dough it can’t handle, and it whips cream or egg whites in just a minute or two. Oh… and the attachments! The shredder/slicer goes through blocks of cheese or  veggies like butter, and there’s a meat grinder and fruit strainer (not used much, but they’re nice to have). Recent attachment purchases include an ice-cream maker and a pasta roller. Future purchases may include a grain mill… or maybe a pasta extruder (for things like macaroni or spaghetti). My mixer sits proudly on my countertop at all times. I still give it a loving stroke when I walk by.

Cuisinart food processor: I love my food processor. Initially, it was a whim purchase; I didn’t really think I NEEDED one, but lots of cooks in magazines and on TV raved about them, so why not? After some research (I’m big about researching kitchen equipment… I’ve learned that expensive does not always equal best and cheap is only inexpensive until you have to replace the item when it breaks on second use), I settled on the 14-cup bowl with stainless steel base. There are times when I prefer to cut or chop things by hand… the processor isn’t good at making pretty, perfect cubes of carrots or potatoes or… anything; but for lots of chopped things that can come out in irregularly shaped pieces, nothing beats it by a long shot. When I was selling casseroles to the folks at work, that little baby got a workout. It’s also great at chopping and mixing at the same time. Things like salsas and cheese spreads are a breeze, and it makes hummus in a snap. I’ve never done bread dough in it (I have Big Red for that), but dough for my Olive-Cheese Puffs is dangerously easy (dangerous in that it would be too easy to make these yummy things way too often). The shredding and slicing plates are very handy, as well.

12-inch cast iron skillet: In my opinion, a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is one of the six absolutely essential pieces of kitchen equipment. It does double-duty on both the stove-top and in the oven. Sautéing to pan frying to deep frying, searing a steak and finishing it in the oven, baking perfectly crunchy-crusted cornbread and even cakes… pancakes, bacon and eggs… you name it, this pan can do it. It’s heavy, yes, but that just makes for perfect heat retention. Clean up is a snap if you’ve treated it correctly. Worst case scenario is that you’d have to do a little scrubbing with a brush under hot water. The only caveat with these black beauties is that you have to watch out for acidic foods. I have a cast iron chicken fryer that was my Nanny’s (my maternal grandmother). She would cook spaghetti and meat sauce in it, and the acid in the tomatoes has pitted the inside so badly that it’s not usable anymore.

Half-sheet baking pans/racks: This was a relatively late addition to my list of favorite kitchen things, and one of the things I would classify as professional equipment. Made of heavy aluminum, these pans are 13″ x 18″ x 1″; think big jelly-roll pans. I use them for everything from baking cookies to roasting potatoes. With the racks fitted inside, they’re great as landing pads for fried foods or baking a pork roast. I also use them as trays to carry food out to the grill or to organize ingredients.

Crysanthamum (top) and Star (bottom) Bunt pans

Crysanthamum (top)
and Star (bottom) Bundt pans (discontinued)

Nordic Ware Bundt pans: As mentioned in the introduction, I have a bit of an addiction to these. We’ve all grown up with the standard, enticingly curved, somewhat zaftig traditional Bundt pan… the friend of boxed cake mixes and Jell-O salads alike. Nordic Ware (the original maker of the classic Bundt pan) began releasing fancier pans sometime in the early 1990s. I can’t remember if my first one was the Bavaria or Cathedral… I might have gotten them both at the same time… but since those first pans, I’ve been captivated by the beauty and variety the company has come up with. I have the Chrysanthemum, Star (sadly, both discontinued), Fleur de Lis, Holiday Tree (you can’t see it in the pictures, but circling the base is a toy train), and Heritage (newly acquired). I also have some “bundt-lette” pans… think Bundt-shaped muffins or cupcakes. Years after I began collecting these pans, I was thunderstruck to realize I didn’t have a classic Bundt pan! I fixed that in a hurry. Just yesterday, I was tossing a King Arthur Flour catalog in the trash and saw Nordic Ware’s newest fancy Bundt offering… the Jubilee! Why am I so crazy about Bundt pans, you ask? Partly for a lazy reason… right out of the pan, you don’t have to do much, if anything, to one of these lovely designs in order for the cake to be impressive.

Susi garlic press: I could not function in a kitchen without garlic. I love the stuff, but I do not like chopping it. It has to be peeled. It gets sticky and clings to the knife. It takes forever to get it broken down into small enough pieces. The aforementioned food processor does a fantastic job when you want to chop up a whole head of garlic, but when I want just a few cloves, I reach for my trusty garlic press. This particular model was part of the starter kit when I first began to sell The Pampered Chef products in 1994. What a handy tool! One of the big features is that you don’t have to peel the clove before putting it through the press. I’ve purchased a few garlic presses over the years, even a later model from The Pampered Chef, mainly as potential back-ups in case the Susi gives up the ghost, but I’ve never come across one that works quite as well as the old stand-by.

Chicken pot pie - 1

Chicken pot pie filling in the 3.5 quart round French oven

Le Creuset: Next to my Saladmaster (I mean like side by side, not after), Le Creuset enameled cast iron cookware is the best investment anyone can make. The 3½ quart round French oven (Dutch oven) is, yet again, one of those six essential pieces. I almost got into “collector mode” with these, but their bulk and weight combined with their cost meant I had to limit myself. As it is, I have more pieces than I really need, but they are a joy to have. Most often I use the 5½ quart round French oven and an apparently discontinued piece  (I just checked) that is like a round French oven, but shallower. Le Creuset also makes some excellent stoneware baking dishes. I love using the cookware because they are sturdy. The cast iron means they heat evenly and retain that heat, and the enameled coating means I can cook anything in them and not worry about pitting the iron, plus it makes clean-up very easy. With the regular black phenolic knobs on the lids, I can put them in the oven at temperatures up to 375°F. For higher temperatures (baking no-knead bread, for instance), I have a stainless steel knob. In addition to their practical attributes, they are beautiful to look at.

These things are probably the front runners in my favorite things. There are many more, though. Wüstoff knives, bamboo spoons, Microplane grater, the silicon trivets that I use as racks in the pot when I’m canning, my Caleca stoneware, the bread machine…. things that are practical and things that aren’t so practical (Moroccan tagine, I’m looking at you, my beautiful love). What are some of your favorite kitchen things? Let me know in the comments!

Thank you again for your time!