Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Earthy ponderations: part three

I bet you thought I forgot that I said there were three parts, huh? You thought I was so wrapped up in maters that I forgot to finish pondering the earthy matters (part one and part two). Ha! Think again! What do you think I do while I chop and mince and blanch? I've got to do something with my brain to lift it out of the juicy mire. So, here we go...

Mom is still doing the talking. She has the ability to hold forth, let me tell you (or maybe you already noticed)—and just for the record, her father was a preacher. (I think that's relevant.)

***

Mom: Overwhelmingly so, with or without technology’s strides, vacationing happens at nature’s expense, not to mention the less arcane costs. The ad for the hybrid SUV, picturing a shadowy, moss-carpeted forest and smugly tooting, “Finally, a vehicle that can take you to the very places you’re helping to preserve,” is really promising that for the $60,000 sticker price, wow-ee, you can get there without having to fold your legs into pretzels, and in addition, you’ll be conscientiously stomping down the lichens and sedge. Gas-hog transported somewhere or not, either way, on a grander or lesser scale, we’re invading.

... Is the family sustaining anything beyond their bellies, by staying planted at home in the growing months, entrenched up to their ankles in their own blood and sweat and tears?

I have no scientific answer for that! Just, sweet and simple, in defense of dirt:

Number one, Hounding after nature a la vacationer style is probably a sham. Er, scam. Whatever.

Number two, Furthermore, fleeing doesn’t get the flee-er anywhere.

Number three, As compared to deifying nature, worshiping it to its ruin, loving nature means humbling ourselves in labor, even getting down on all fours. Tending the garden, mud squishing up between our toes, we can only laugh at ourselves—or cry.

Me: Sustainability is more than us doing something. It’s about listening. We spend so much time trying to conquer nature—shipping our processed food from all over the world, using absurd amounts of electricity so we can stay up way late and sleep way late, pouring concrete wherever we might venture so as not to soil our shoes, building fancy, gas-guzzling contraptions that allow us to trot the globe on a whim, keeping our homes’ temperatures so even that we never break a sweat or shiver—that we miss out on some valuable lessons in patience and grit, not to mention some built in respites for sanity’s sake.

That’s why working with our food supply, doing the gardening and cooking ourselves, is about the most down-to-earth a person can get. In this one small way we are forced to abide by the natural elements, heading the ebb and flow of the seasons, respecting the differences between night and day. We can’t go scampering off to visit far-away relatives when the beans are in season. The food can’t be put on hold; you have to act now.

***

Well, except for the fact that I am compiling this series of Earthy Ponderations while I am hiding out at Panera Bread (after going shopping for clothes, of all things), ignoring the tomatoes, nectarines, and apples that were waiting to be turned into sauce, salsa, jams, and dried snacky foods. So see, I guess I have the same elitist attitude as everyone else, trying to get the upper hand, not wanting to kow-tow to nature’s demands.

But right now, at this very moment—7:43 on Tuesday, August 18, 2009—I’ll take any excuse I can get: I’m tired. Let me fool myself a bit longer.

About One Year Ago: How to make butter.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The mater question

So I get this email from my girlfriend asking if I use the hot-water-bath method or the pressure canner method to can my tomatoes and I tell her that I use the hot water bath.

And then a couple days later I get another email from her, this time asking if I do them raw pack or stewed.


I haven’t a clue, to be honest, but I don’t tell her that. In fact, I don’t tell her anything at all, preferring instead to let her think the reason I haven’t gotten around to answering her email is because I’m too busy, rather than the cold, hard truth which is that I’m avoiding the question since I don’t have a quick answer. I’m a good friend like that—skipping out when the going gets tough.

But I will now redeem myself by commencing to give a fully complete, well-rounded, all-encompassing (go redundancy!) answer to the Mater Question, as my girlfriend calls it, in the form of an entire (short) post. Maybe I’m not such a bad friend after all?

One more thing to enhance the confusion factor: I call these tomatoes “stewed” but I don’t actually stew them before canning, so maybe they’re not stewed. Does that mean I’m lying when I call these “stewed tomatoes?”


In any case, I think it’s an easy-peasy way to put up tomatoes.

But then again, maybe the rest of you have easier-peasier ways? If so, please enlighten me (and my girlfriend).

Stewed Tomatoes, Canned

High-acid (red) tomatoes, such as Big Boy, Better Boy, Roma, etc.
Salt

1. Wash the tomatoes.


2. Blanch the tomatoes, which means:

Fill a large kettle with four inches of water and bring it to a boil. Drop enough tomatoes into the kettle to cover the bottom of the pan.


Wait for thirty to sixty seconds, or until you see the tomato skins starting to split. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes from the boiling water to a colander.


Repeat the process (bringing the water back up to a boil between batches) until all the tomatoes have been blanched.

3. Remove the skins, which means:

Once the tomatoes are cool enough to touch, cut off their tops and any bad parts (use your sniffer to make sure you sliced all the yuck out—if you slice off a bad spot, make sure to rinse your knife before moving on to another tomato) and slip off the skins.


4. Chop the skinned and scalped tomatoes into the desired size. Some people (like my mother) just chunk in the peeled tomatoes, but I prefer to chop mine up into smaller pieces because they are easier to use this way (just pop the top and dump) and less offensive to children.

5. Fill your jars. At this point you get to decide what juice-tomato ratio you would like to have—for a more tomato-packed jar, leave out much of the tomato juice, and for a more juicy tomato-y jar, add less chunks and more juice. (That was probably way too obvious, but I felt compelled to say it anyway.)

6. Add salt—one teaspoon per quart and one-half teaspoon per pint—wipe the lip of the jar, put the lids on, and screw on the rings.

7. Process the jars of tomatoes in a hot water bath—ten minutes at a gentle boil.

About One Year Ago: So why did I marry him? Thirteen years and counting!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

As they come in

A couple nights ago I went shopping, just for a little bit, and guess what I found? A tart pan, yes! Of course I had to break it in right away, so the next morning I quick whipped up a nectarine tart (it helped that I had two disks of butter pastry chilling in the fridge). Pretty, no?


It’s actually not exactly what I was looking for. I was wanting a springform tart pan, but I think that for now this will do quite well, especially seeing as it only cost five dollars.


It’s a good thing I had that dough chilling in the fridge because I don’t think I would’ve had a chance to make that tart otherwise—that same morning I needed to make salsa, and do it real quick ‘cause I was leaving in the afternoon for another one of Yo-Yo’s doctor appointments and would be gone for the rest of the day. But by getting up early and chopping veggies while the sky was still dark, I managed to get both the tart and two batches of salsa made in one morning. Whoo-hoo!


We go through a lot of salsa. Two years ago we all met at my parents’ house for a salsa-making party (I bulked up our paltry few tomatoes with some cases of Romas from a local farmer) and turned out a whopping 51 quarts of the bright red, sweet-and-mildly-spicy condiment. I didn’t need to make any salsa last year, but we’ve been out for a little while now and we’re missing it, so I want to make plenty this year.

The Salsa Party of 2007:
Mr. Handsome blanching the tomatoes. I chopped, I mean cropped, his head off since he had a slightly addled expression plastered all over his face...


My Balding Bro and The Happy Pappy dealing with the peppers...


My Tiny-Little Brother getting hatchet-happy with the onions...






It’s my style to go whole hog when undertaking a project (Four bushels of apples to turn into sauce? Okay, let’s do it ALL today and knock ourselves out—what fun!), but I have to put the tomatoes up as they come in, so it’s a little bit here and a little bit there. It wears on me, the tomatoes day in and day out, but it all adds up. I'm not complaining (too much).


Valerie's Salsa
This recipe comes from my—you guessed it!—Aunt Valerie.

Because the vegetables aren’t cooked prior to canning them, this is a very fresh-tasting salsa. Even after the hot water bath, the salsa is crunchy and light, mildly spicy with a touch of sweet. (If you prefer a hotter salsa, simply add more jalapenos or some cayenne pepper.)

One-half bushel of tomatoes is enough for a double recipe.

14 cups peeled (see note below) and chopped Roma tomatoes, or another paste tomato
3 cups diced onions
1 ½ cups diced green peppers
1/4 cup minced jalapenos (about three peppers)
1/4 cup minced garlic cloves
3/4 cup Therm Flo (or Clear Jel)
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
2 cups tomato sauce
4 teaspoons chili powder
1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder
1 ½ teaspoons cumin
3 tablespoons salt

Combine the tomatoes, onions, peppers, and garlic in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.


In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, stir together the sugar, Therm Flo, and spices. Add the vinegar and tomato sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. When it is very thick and bubbly, add it to the chopped veggies and stir to combine. Ladle the salsa into jars, wipe the rims, screw on the lids and process in a hot water bath—15 minutes for pints, and 18 minutes for quarts—at a gentle boil.

Yield: 5 quarts

Note on how to peel tomatoes:
Wash the tomatoes.

Fill a large kettle with four inches of water and bring it to a boil. Drop enough tomatoes into the kettle to cover the bottom of the pan. Wait for thirty to sixty seconds, until you see the tomato skins starting to split. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes from the boiling water to a colander. Repeat the process (bringing the water back to a boil between batches) until all the tomatoes have been blanched.

Once the tomatoes are cool enough to touch, cut off their tops and any bad parts (use your sniffer to make sure you sliced all the yuck out) and slip off the skins.

About One Year Ago: Cold Curried Corn Soup. The soiree is coming up in just several weeks (!); I wonder what perfectly doctored foods we'll get served this time around...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A more peachy peach

Peach season is over for me, but I feel obligated to tell you about the peach tarts that I've been making because while you may not get to make it this year, you’ll at least be able to have the recipe ready, butter crusts crimped and in the freezer (if you have room), right at the very start of next year’s peach season. You can thank me later, too.


I always thought that peaches were best eaten fresh and that baking them was rather futile and practically downright sinful, seeing as there was no way the lush fruits could be improved upon. But I was wrong. Baked peaches are incredible. They shrink a little, the cut edges firming up just enough to seal in the juices. If anything, the flavors are intensified, and when paired with a rich, crisp butter crust and topped with whipped cream, well, it really can’t get much better.


(Ooo, you wanna know something? Nectarines are almost just like peaches and they are in season right this very minute, so I guess it’s not too late to make this pie after all, lucky you.)


Peach Tart
Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

This tart is basically just peaches and crust, so it’s important to use a really rich, delicious crust, one that calls for people to lick clean their plates. Make your favorite, richest pie crust, or do what I’ve been doing and make Deb’s butter crust (recipe follows).

Because I don’t have a tart pan (I keep my eyes peeled when I go thrift shopping), I use a regular pie pan. Just go about half-way up the sides with the crust (you’ll have a little leftover pie dough), because the resulting ratio of crust to peaches will be too high if you make a full-blown pie crust (as you can see from the pictures, that’s what I did, and while it wasn’t any hardship eating all that crust, I think it would be best with a little less).

One of the “problems” I’ve had with this pie is that the peach juice doesn’t thicken and once you cut into the pie, the liquid runs off, and what doesn’t run off soaks into the bottom crust. I suppose I could toss the sugar with a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch, but I haven’t tried it yet because I like how absolutely simple and basic this tart is and I don’t want to go messing with that. As it is, the top part of the bottom crust gets soft and gooey, kind of how the dough gets on an apple dumpling, and the bottom part of the bottom crust stays crisp and buttery, so it’s not really a problem, if you ask me—I’m just telling you how it is so you know what to expect. However, the pie is best eaten as soon as it has cooled to room temperature, though I have eaten leftovers several days out and the pie still possessed the swoon factor.

Important: make sure the crust is darkly golden brown on the bottom and the sides. I bake my pie on a preheated baking stone, first for the fifteen minutes of pre-baking and then for the full fifty minutes that it takes to bake this pie. If you have trouble with the edges getting too dark, put a piece of foil with a hole cut out of the middle (so the center part of the pie will continue to darken) atop the pie.

Sometimes I turn the broiler on at the end of the baking time, just long enough to caramelize the tops of the peaches.

I’ve peeled my peaches, but I really don’t think you need to. I made another pie that called for un-peeled peaches and I hardly even noticed they were there, and when I did notice, I really liked it. If you use nectarines, definitely do not peel them.

One-half recipe butter crust (see recipe below), partially baked
About 3-5 peaches, pitted, peeled (optional) and cut into thick wedges (four to six slices per peach)
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, cut in small chunks
lightly sweetened whipped cream for garnish (optional)

Sprinkle three tablespoons sugar over the bottom of the partially baked crust. Arrange the peach wedges in the crust, peel sides down. Pack them in tightly, but don’t overlap them too much. Sprinkle the remaining sugar over the peaches. Dot with butter. Bake the pie at 375 degrees for 40-50 minutes, till the crust is golden brown (if the edges darken too quickly, cover them with foil) and the juices are bubbling. If you want the peaches to be caramelized and slightly blackened, briefly broil the pie at the end of the baking time, watching very, very closely.

Cool to room temperature before cutting and serve with the optional whipped cream.

Rich Butter Pastry
From Smitten Kitchen (to see Deb's instructions, click here)

I’ve started to make Deb’s crusts about two weeks ago, and since then, I’ve made the recipe three different times (that would be six pies). I like this recipe for three reasons: first, it’s delicious, second, the recipe is simple to make and can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator and/or freezer at different points in the process, and third, the proportions are a cinch to memorize so now I always have a pastry recipe that I can make without even thinking twice. Go ahead and try it. I think you’ll like it.

2 ½ cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (two sticks) butter
ice water, starting with 6 tablespoons

Stir together the flour, salt, and sugar. Using your fingers, crumble in the butter. Do not mix it in all the way—you should still have pea-sized chunks of un-mixed butter when you are finished. Stir in one-half cup of ice water. At this point my dough comes together just fine, but if you need a little more water, go ahead and add it, a teaspoon at a time. Do not over mix.

Divide the dough in two parts, form each part into a disk, and wrap each disk in plastic wrap. Chill the disks in the refrigerator (or bag them up tightly and freeze them).

When you are ready to shape your pie crust, allow the disk to sit at room temperature for about five minutes to soften just a little. Unwrap the dough, place another piece of plastic wrap on top, and roll out the dough. Put the rolled dough in the pie plate, fold over the edges and crimp. (If the dough gets too soft to crimp—mine always does—allow it to stiffen up in the freezer for five minutes before continuing.) Pierce the bottom and sides of the pastry with a fork, about thirty jabs.

Place the crimped crust in the freezer till it is rock solid—about thirty minutes—before baking. When you are ready to bake it, press a piece of tin foil down into the pie plate, pressing down hard all over the pie and all the way up the edges. (You may put some dried beans or pie weights in the pie, but I have neither right now, so I skip that part.)

Bake the pie at 400 degrees for ten minutes. Remove the pie from the oven. Carefully peel off the foil. Using the back of a spoon, press down any bubbles in the crust. Return the pie to the oven (reserve the foil for the next time you bake a pie pastry) and bake for another five minutes for a partially baked crust. If you want a fully baked crust, bake it longer, probably another 15 minutes or so (I haven’t done this, so I don’t know how long it would take).

One Year Ago: Thoughts on breastfeeding a large toddler/little boy. He's weaned now, in case you wondered, not that I have anything against nursing three (or four, or five?) year-old kiddies.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunday sauce

I don’t know what we’re going to do. Both our freezers—the upright and the chest—are packed to the gills. It is pure chaos in there, too, a veritable arctic jungle of different colored frozen blocks of vegetables and fruit. I cleaned the freezers out a couple months ago but since then we’ve added chickens, green beans, broccoli, corn, zucchini, chard, spinach, pesto, and pesto torte, and not in any particular order either. By the time I’m done putting up food, I usually can’t stand to be around it for one second longer so I just toss it into the freezer and slam the door. As a result, everything is tossed together and I have no idea what is underneath the top layer.

I’m not sure why the freezers are so full this year because we didn’t even freeze any applesauce or peaches, and at present there is no bread in the freezer (not counting one pack of hotdog buns and a couple mini loaves of zucchini bread). In fact, we’ve been flat out of bread and have been buying the chemical-laced-bags-of-puffed-air version (that Miss Becca Boo refuses to eat—I love that girl!), so I’ve started baking again, but then I ran into the freezer problem (I knew this would happen, but I proceeded as though I had all the freezer space in the world) so now the bread is sitting on the kitchen counter, all tidily bagged up, waiting for the other frozen foods to get either pulled and eaten, or else to magically disintegrate.

My refrigerator isn’t much better off. I have big tubs of tomatoes in there, zucchinis (still!), cucumbers (still!), and jars of refrigerator pickles. I wasn’t going to do any canning today, but then Mr. Handsome bought a gallon of milk on his way back from town (we all skipped church but he drove into town to go hang out at Dunkin’ Donuts where other guys from our church gather for a “Sunday school class” for men who don’t do Sunday school—the class was started by our previous pastor’s husband) and we had to make room for that, so I sighed deeply, marshaled my forces, and started in on a batch of Tomato and Red Wine Sauce.


I still feel like I’m having a day of rest, though. (When I think back to last Sunday when we skipped church—two times in a row now, heaven help us!—and did twenty-something dozen ears of corn, and that after doing corn on Thursday, peaches on Friday, applesauce on Saturday, and then finishing off the pickled beets on Sunday morning before dealing with the corn—when I think of all that then I feel almost lazy...almost, but not quite.) While Mr. Handsome ran off to town, I lounged on the sofa and read library books to the kids. Then we watched an hour-long video about Nepal (they showed one of those monks lifting weights with his obviously-otherwise-useless male member, and my kids were so impressed that I felt obligated to give my boys a little never-ever-ever-try-that-yourself speech), and then I read some of our chapter book to the older kids. When Mr. Handsome showed up at eleven with a box of donuts, we indulged in a donut sampling party, and then didn’t eat lunch till after one o’clock. Naps came next, and then Mr. Handsome joined me in the kitchen to help with the garlic and onion chopping. Now it’s almost seven and time for our family night movie—tonight, Heidi—during which I’ll have to get up numerous times to stir the sauce and then to finally can it. I hope to get everything done by nine o’clock so that I can go to bed early and wake up refreshed, ready to go pick more tomatoes.


Tomato and Red Wine Sauce

For a canned tomato sauce, this chunky sauce tastes amazingly fresh and light. I have made numerous different tomato sauces, but this is my favorite.

I use Roma tomatoes but any paste tomato will do.

If you don’t have fresh herbs, substitute dry (about a half cup, maybe), though without the flecks of green, the finished product won’t be quite as pretty.

Oil isn’t typically used in water-bath canning because it neutralizes the acids, thus the reason for the extra lemon juice. However, if you prefer, you can use citric acid in place of the lemon juice (that’s what I did this time), one-half teaspoon citric acid per quart of sauce.

8 quarts peeled and chopped Roma tomatoes
10 cups chopped onions
2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and minced
1 cup olive oil
1 bottle red wine
3 cups of chopped, fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary
2-3 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
3/4 cup lemon juice

In your largest soup pot, saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil. When the onions are translucent but not browned (about 15-20 minutes), add the chopped tomatoes and the bottle of wine. Simmer the sauce on medium-low heat, stirring every ten minutes, for about four hours, or until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Add the fresh (or dried) herbs, the salt and pepper, and the lemon juice and cook for another ten minutes. Ladle the sauce into jars. Obsessively wipe the rim of the jars to remove all traces of oil. Process the jars in a hot water bath—fifteen minutes at a gentle boil.

Yield: About six to eight quarts of sauce, depending on how long you cooked it down.


About One Year Ago: Vegetable Beef Soup, Mustard Eggs, and Russian Pancakes.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's time

Tomatoes are in season, and so is basil. You know what that means, don’t you? That means it’s time to make cheese. What? Not what you were thinking? Well, shoot. You better think again.


I realize that also in season are corn and beets and green beans and peaches and nectarines and apples and chard and raspberries, but let’s forget about those for the time being, okay? When tomatoes and basil are flourishing, no matter what else is flooding your kitchen and no matter how many hours you’ve been standing over a hot stove, the steam making your hair poof out to China and your feet so sore that you feel like your heels have become imbedded in your knee caps, you simply have to make cheese. It’s one of those laws, just like “an object in motion tends to stay in motion,” “for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” “company and fish are alike—after three days they start to stink,” and “when it rains it pours.” When you have tomatoes and basil you must make cheese. It’s a law. Do I make myself clear?


It’s really no big deal. I say that—“It’s really no big deal”—all the time and it makes Mr. Handsome cringe. For example, take this real-life incident: we’re supposed to be getting ready to turn four bushels of apples into applesauce and he comes out to the kitchen and finds me washing a pile of beets and he says, “Wha—?” and I say, “The beets needed to be done, so I thought now would be a fine time—it’s really not a big deal.” And then he hits the roof and jumps about and rants and raves while I go about finishing what I started and then we get on with the sauce, my “no big deal” project only setting us back about thirty minutes.

And that’s all that you’ll get set back when you make this cheese—a half an hour to make the cheese and about five more minutes to wash up all the kettles.

What are you waiting for? (If you don't look out the window at your garden, it's not there. That's another one of those laws, you know.)


(Back to that true-life example, I cooked the beets, but didn’t get around to pickling and canning them till the next day because if I had done that and 102 quarts of applesauce in one day, it might have become a big deal, and I certainly didn’t want to run the risk of not staying true to my word.)

Fresh Mozzarella
I first learned to make this cheese from Barbara Kingsolver’s must-read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but another good cheese making book that I have referred to with much frequency is Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll.

You can make this cheese from any kind of milk—skim, 2%, or whole (do not use ultra-pasteurized)—but I recommend starting out with whole milk as it makes a creamier, tastier cheese.

Also, you need a thermometer for this recipe, but once you make it several times you can abandon all scientific paraphernalia and go by feel.

Note: If you live in the area, I would be glad to sell you some of my rennet. Last spring when I was on a big cheesemaking kick I ordered an entire pint of the stuff from The New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. I don’t know what I was thinking.


1 gallon milk, preferably whole
1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet
1 ½ teaspoons citric acid
1 ½ teaspoons cheese salt, or another non-iodine flaky salt

Pour the gallon of milk in a large, thick-bottomed kettle, attach the thermometer to the side of the kettle, and heat the milk on medium-high heat.


While the milk is heating, dissolve the citric acid in 1/4 cup cool water. In another small bowl, dilute the rennet in another 1/4 cup of cool water. Set both bowls aside, taking care to remember which is which.

When the milk reaches 55 degrees, slowly stir in the dissolved citric acid, then leave the milk alone till it reaches 88 degrees (the milk should be curdling) at which point you can slowly stir in the diluted rennet. Put the stirring spoon down and watch the kettle closely. Within a couple minutes you will see the milk solidify—the curd pull away from the edges of the pot and a yellowish whey will form, surrounding the curd. It is like magic; gently touch the top of the silky smooth curd and give a little whoop of joy.


See the curd ringed by the whey?

When the temperature reaches 100 degrees (I move the thermometer around, alternating between inserting it in the center of the curd and then in the surrounding whey, since the kettle’s contents don’t all heat up at the same rate), take the kettle off the heat. Allow the curds and whey to sit undisturbed for another ten minutes.

Now comes the fun (and messy) part: getting all the whey out of the curd. Ladle the soft, jiggly curd into a large glass (microwave-safe) bowl.


Once you have all the curd in the bowl,


The bowl of wet curds and the kettle of whey

carefully tilt the bowl, using one hand to gently press on the curd while the whey trickles away (hey-hey).


Put the bowl of curd in the microwave and heat it on high for one minute. Using your hands (or a spoon, if your hands are sensitive to heat), press on the curd to release more whey. Repeat the heating, pressing, pouring-off process one more time.


Note my red hand, and yes, I scald it every time I make cheese. It makes the cheese taste better.
Just kidding (about the tasting-better part---the scalding part is absolute fact).


Is there still more whey? Then heat up the curd again, this time for only 30 seconds.


Once all the whey has been extracted, add the salt and begin to knead the cheese until it is smooth and shiny and elastic.


If it gets too hard, reheat it for 20 seconds at a time. Stretch the cheese into a rope to see if it has reached the proper stretch-ability-factor—once it can form a rope (one to two feet long) without breaking, the cheese is done.


Form the cheese into a ball and set it on a plate. Now you can slice it and eat it, cook with it, or wrap it in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator.

Yield: A ball of gorgeous mozzarella, weighing in at a little less than one pound.


About One Year Ago: Dehydrating Food.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In a pickle

Today I invented a new candy: Pickle Spice Taffy.


It was really quite simple. All I did was measure 2 quarts of vinegar, 16 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup of pickling spice, and 1/4 cup of salt, mix them all together in a large stainless steel pot, set the pot on the stove and turn the burner to high, and then go upstairs to put the children down for naps and totally, completely, positively forget about the pot of boiling sugar-vinegar for the next forty-five freakin’ minutes!

Yes, it was an accident. Yes, there is such a thing as vinegar candy (and yes, I’ve made it before), but that recipe does not call for pickling spice, of that I am sure.

I did sample my disaster (cooks are constitutionally unable to not taste things), and it wasn’t too bad (I did about lose a couple of teeth due to the extreme sticky factor), though certainly not a keeper. The compost pile ate that syrupy mess, and now I’m left with a severely bemired kettle.

I need to get cracking on that brine redo (this time no leaving the kitchen while the stove is on)—the cukes are patiently waiting for their sweet-and-sour soaking liquid.


***

Okay. Now that the brine is heating up (the computer resides in the kitchen, folks—I’m right here), I’ll tell you the correct way to make sweet pickles. I really do know how to make them; this is the second double batch of the season and the first batch proceeded without event (if you don’t count the fact that I used a different kind of cucumber and that after undergoing four days of hot water soaks, the cucumber centers disintegrated into a liquid that sloshed about inside the newly hollow cuke and reminded me of snozzcumbers; though I couldn’t slice them like I do normally and had to settle for a chopped sweet pickle, they tasted just fine).

Sweet Pickles
Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter

These are deliciously crisp. We put the slices on grilled cheese sandwiches, or I chop the pickles up and add them to egg, tuna, and chicken salads. The kids adore them.

These pickles take seven days to make, but as you can see from directions below, you are really only doing work on days one, four, and seven.

Sometimes I have trouble with my jars staying sealed for the long-haul, so I tried a trick that my Aunt Valerie shared with me—preheating the jars in a 200 degree oven before adding the hot pickles. We’ll see how it works.

A few notes about the ingredients:
*I usually use Straight Eight Cucumbers, though this year I also planted an heirloom variety called A & C Pickling Cucumber, which I think, considering their disintegrating insides, would make excellent dill pickle spears.
*I use apple cider vinegar.
*I buy pickling spice in bulk, but for those of you who are curious about that sort of thing, it is comprised of black pepper, allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon, and cloves.

7 pounds of pickling cucumbers
8 cups sugar
4 cups vinegar
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons pickling spice

Day One:
Wash the cucumbers. Put them in a container (I use a five-gallon bucket that we keep reserved for food projects) and pour boiling water over them till they are completely covered. Place a pie plate (or some such thing) on top of the cukes to help push them down in the water, and cover the container with a lid of some sort.


Day Two:
Drain the cucumbers and pour fresh boiling water over them.

Day Three:
Drain the cucumbers and pour fresh boiling water over them.

Day Four:
Drain the cucumbers. Cut them into 1/8th inch slices and put the slices back in the bucket from whence they came.

In a large, heavy kettle, combine the sugar, vinegar, salt, and pickling spice. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Do not leave the room.


When the brine has reached a full rolling boil, pour it over the cucumber slices. Cover the container.


Day Five:
Drain the pickles, reserving the brine. Boil the brine and pour it back over the pickle slices.

Day Six:
Drain pickles, boil brine, and re-cover the pickle slices. (I’m getting tired of repeating myself.)

Day Seven:
Wash your canning jars (half-pints, pints, quarts, whatever you want) and lay them on their sides in the oven. Turn the oven to 200 degrees. Assemble your lids and rings.


Drain the pickles. Bring the brine to a boil. Working in batches (because you don’t want to cook the pickles for too long), add some of the pickle slices.


When the brine has come back to a full boil, scoop the pickles into the jar, tamping them down with a fork. Once the jar is well-packed, ladle in enough brine to cover the pickles, jiggling the jar to release any air bubbles. Wipe the jar rim with a very clean, wet cloth, put the lid on top and screw the ring on tightly. Set the jar (careful—it’s hot!) on a corner of counter where it won’t be bothered for a day.


Repeat the process till you have used up all the pickles. Discard any leftover brine.

Yield: about eight pints.

About One Year Ago: Ups and Downs, including yet another kitchen flop.

Sick computer

My internet connection has the bipolar disease.

I know this is true because my internet connection (usually) starts out working well, loading page after page of internet reads, but then, after five minutes or forty-five minutes or an hour and forty-five minutes—bam!—it screeches to a quiet halt and starts flashing me the Page-Load-Error Yellow Card. Once that happens, I holler and yell and try to keep pushing my point (ie. jabbing at keys), all to no avail. The computer remains calmly omnipotent, steadily waving that nasty card in my face until I’m forced to call it quits and slink away to work on my WordPerfect documents. From experience, I know that it could be a couple hours before the internet ceases to spaz and that there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

(Lately twitter, on the other hand, has been one very hard cookie, consistently not functioning. I’ve been trying to publish the same tweet for the past several days, simply changing the verb tenses to keep it up-to-date. Some people might say I’m stubborn, but let me tell you, I can’t help but get a little ornery when my internet goes manic and decides to shut off my chatter valve.)

I feel a little better now. It turns out that getting up at five in the morning to read blogs only to get pushed around by my temperamental internet wasn’t a total waste of time after all—I got to vent my feelings in the sane, gentle world of word documents, bless their peaceful pages.

I’ll still have to wait awhile to publish this post, but so be it. I’m a subversive chick, able to manage a moody piece of hardware. And until I can find some lithium powder to sprinkle over the keypad, there’s no other way.

About One Year Ago: Orange-Mint Tea (lately I've been making this the lazy, cheap way, just squeezing in the juice from one lemon and using sugar in place of the honey, and it's still delicious).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lest I be disowned

I need to clarify something: my father didn’t hang up the phone on me. He did, however, laugh politely, and they didn’t come down any sooner than planned. But! But, but, but!

When they did arrive (exactly when they said they would), Mr. Handsome and I were flying around with our heads chopped off, attempting to cook all the corn before we had to leave for our meeting in town. When we did leave, the homestead looked like a tornado had passed through—supper halfway made, tubs of cooling ears of corn, and kids, clothes, and toys everywhere. By the time we came home, the dishes were washed, the bags of corn were chilling in the fridge, the kids were bathed, the tent was up, and they had drug the rocking chairs off the porch and were all sitting around a smokey campfire roasting marshmallows for s’mores and reading stories. (The remaining clean-up was a piece of cake with the children out from underfoot and happily entertained.) My parents slept in the tent with all the kids, and Mr. Handsome and I had the house to ourselves.


The following morning, Mom and Dad had a meeting (the real reason they came up), but when they returned my mom kept pointing out that the three bushels of peaches I had acquired from a local farm the morning before were ripe and needed to be done now. I was in the middles of canning my sweet pickles and brushed her off, telling her that I would start on them as soon as I could. That answer wasn’t good enough apparently, because soon my mom and dad had settled in to washing and peeling, and then my Tiny Little Brother, back in town for a friend's wedding, showed up and pitched in.


As soon as I finished with the pickles, I started slicing the peaches and packing them into jars. Their three-thirty projected departure time came and went and they were still sitting around the table with juice dripping off their elbows. Dad noted the floor was getting sticky so he washed it. Mom noted that The Baby Nickel was getting nixy, so she told him a story (while talking, she slowed down on the peaches a little because she had to wave her arms about and point my plastic coffee stir-stick at The Baby Nickel’s ears for illustration purposes). When they left, I still had my work cut out for me, but I was much, much, much farther ahead—like eight hours ahead—in the peach-canning game.


So see, there you have the whole truth. My parents don’t do exactly what I suggest they do—they do more, bless their gizzards! (That’s not a typo—we talk thataway.)

How To Can Peaches
I use Red Haven peaches because they are easy to pit and, when cut and exposed to air, they don’t brown as quickly as other peaches.

Wash the peaches, cut them in half, remove the pits, and peel them. At this point you can slither the halves into the clean quart jars, or you can first cut the halves into slices. I prefer to can peach slices for two reasons: first, they are easier to serve—simply scoop out some sliced peaches onto your bowl of cereal and eat—no extra prep work necessary; and second, you can fit more peaches in a jar and cut down on your time spent slaving over a hot canner.

Once the jars are full of peaches—while packing the jars, shake them every now and then to help the peaches settle and then use a fork to pack them down in even more—add the sugar. I think it is standard to add anywhere from 1/3 to ½ cup of sugar per quart jar, but I add a scant 1/3 cup to mine and think it plenty sweet. (Also, I started adding the sugar when my jars were three-quarters full of peaches because I sometimes had trouble with the sugar spilling over the edges when I added the water at the very end.)

Slowly add water to the jars, using a table knife to press the peaches to one side to create a space for the water to trickle down and to ferret out any pockets of air that are lurking in the bottom of the jars. Continue to fill the jars with water till it comes up to the bottom of the screw markings on the neck of the jar, or about ½ inch from the top.

Wet your fingers in a cereal bowl filled with clean water and swipe them over the lip of the jars till there are no longer any traces of stickiness. Put clean lids on top, followed by the rings, screwed tight. (Dirty little secret: I reuse my canning lids. I know, I know, totally taboo. But I check them good, making sure the seal is unmarred, and I wash them before using. I’ve used some lids as many as five times over!)

Process the jars of peaches in a hot water bath. Your canning manual will tell you to process the life out of them, probably to do something crazy like keep them at a rolling boil for twenty-five minutes, and my aunt Valerie will tell you they are done when you lift one of the jars out of the canner and see that the fruit has moved toward to the top, creating ½ inch or so of juice at the bottom—this happens after only about five minutes of boiling. I settle somewhere in the middle (after that peach canning fiasco) between the anal canners and my aunt Val, usually letting the jars boil for about fifteen minutes or so.

When they have finished boiling, set the jars on an old towel to cool, and don’t touch the lids till the jars are completely cool—I usually don’t even look at the lids till the following morning.

When the jars are totally cooled, remove the jar rings, wash the jars in warm soapy water to get rid of any remaining sweet peach goo (if you don’t, that invisible goo will mold and then it will become visible), label the jar lids (I scrawl a simple ‘09), and move them to storage. Wash the rings, stack them in a pretty pyramid and let them air dry before shipping them back to their storage box.

As for the jars that didn’t seal (out of our 46 quarts of peaches, three didn’t seal), store them in the fridge and eat them up over the course of the next couple weeks (or days).

About One Year Ago: Smashing Potatoes.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Quick, quick, quick

Taking a spare minute I don’t have to tell you why I don’t have a spare minute.

1. Three bushels of peaches.
2. A couple wagon-loads of sweet corn.
3. Four bushels of apples.


The first corn supper---thirty-six ears down the hatch

Other things in the works: Sweet pickles soaking, dill pickles to be made, lettuce to be washed, bacon to be fried, peach desserts to create and savor, beans to pick, lettuce seeds to be harvested and dried, beets, tomatoes...


The first tomatoes

Tonight: Two meetings and my parents are coming to spend the night (I called to tell them that if they were bored they could come early to do corn—my dad politely laughed and hung up the phone).


Cucumbers on their way to becoming sweet pickles

Checked off the list: yogurt, croutons, caesar dressing, baked oatmeal, lunch, one wagon-load of corn husked, coffee half-way drunk, piece of blueberry coffee cake inhaled.


Snapping beans---and the kids wonder why no one wants to come over and play with them...

Sincerely,
A victim of a garden tsunami

About One Year Ago: Quiche.