Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Canning Update, Mid-Summer

Canning season is in full swing around here.  Did you see my new canning tally list over there to your right?  I'm tracking our canning progress from here on out.  I have spotty records for broth and pickles so far, hence the vague terms.  But I'll be on top of it all things going forward.

We had a busy weekend.  We canned 7 quarts of Whole Tomatoes in their own juice (Ball Book recipe) and 5.5 pints Balsamic Tomato and Onion Conserve. For the record, the conserve was a-freaking-mazing.  And I'm proud to say the tomatoes were from our garden.

I also made (and will freeze, sans goat cheese) 4 quarts of Smitten Kitchen's Roasted Eggplant Soup.  And you know what's awesome (not)?  When your landlord drops by unannounced in the middle of tomato canning and cooking.  I'm not sure if I've ever felt more like poor white trash than I did at that moment.  My child was not even wearing pants.  Ah, good times.

Today is Farmer's Market Day in my neighborhood.  I still have yet to can tomato paste, ketchup, roasted balsamic tomato sauce, and 30 more quarts of whole tomatoes, so it's safe to say that it's going to be a bulk tomato day.  I'm also waiting on red peppers and beets.  It's gonna get all crazy up in here, I tell you.

I'm feeling generally good about my canning progress so far this year.  In fact, I'm about to venture into pressure canning territory this week, canning vegetable broth, chicken broth and beans.  The one canning bleak spot this year is that I haven't done nearly enough jam.  We have our standard quantities of strawberry and blueberry jam.  And we'll be doing a big cranberry jam burst in November, but peaches (our best, cheapest jam, ususally) were a bust around here this year.

Peaches have been tricky business around here.  You may recall that in March, it was 80 in Illinois.  The peach trees thought, "Sweet.  Let's bloom."  Then you may also recall the subsequent hard frosts that killed those optimistic peach blossoms and tender fruit.  In a usual year, low-spray peaches at my farmers market are $9 for 25 lbs.  This year, it's $5 a quart or more.  Ouch.  That's a pricey pint for sure.  Even though it's sad and disappointing, it's a good lesson in local eating.  Despite what the American Supermarket has to say, you can't have everything all of the time.

If you're a detail person, you'll have noticed the Canning Tally shows 21 pints of Tomato Sauce, all unblogged.  Keep your eyes on this space for the full story.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


I've written about embroidery with kids before.  This week we had some friends over and embroidered en masse with ages ranging from 2 to 9.

Ellis documented the finished products.  I was pretty impressed with his stitching and his photography.

The kids first drew pictures onto the cloth and then used embroidery floss and regular needles to stitch.  Veida and McKenna stitched along the lines they'd drawn.

Quintana and Julia stitched a new drawing on top of their pencil lines for a layered look.

I'm a strong advocate of kids using real supplies in their art instead of kid-i-fied versions.  They can handle almost as much as we give them, although I did thread all of the needles in advance.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Pickle Primer, Part Two

In the previous post, I gave my recipe for Refrigerator Pickles.  Here are some other tips and secrets.

Start with good pickling cucumbers.  The fresher, the better.  When they are in season here, I get them from the farmers market.  Otherwise, I get them from my local fruit and vegetable market.  I'm sure the market pickles aren't ideal in terms of being organic and sustainable, but the market itself is a local business that sports solar panels for its energy.  I feel okay about that.  I have fantasies of growing my own cukes.  This year I even bought seeds, but ultimately, I have been unsuccessful.  In any case, wash your cukes thoroughly and then cut the ends off.  Slice into coins OR into spears, depending on your preference.  I usually get around 5 pounds at a time, which is about what a produce bag will hold.  Generally, the faster you process your pickles after purchasing them, the crispier they will be.  Full disclosure: the ones I made yesterday sat for 3 days.  They are not as delicious as I would like.

Make a brine.  I do a 2:1 white vinegar:water solution (although sometimes I prefer 3:1).  I usually do 4 cups vinegar, 2 cups water, and 1/2 cup kosher salt.  This is about enough for the aforementioned 5 pounds of cukes.  Most recipes will have you cook the brine on the stove.  I don't do this, partially because I am lazy and partially because I think my pickles are crispier with a "raw" brine.  Most recipes will also include sugar.  Sugar acts as a preservative and adds sweetness, but we eat our pickles so quickly and aren't into added sugar, so we skip it.  If you're a sugar kind of family, go ahead and add it.  You can also adjust salt and vinegar levels to your liking.

Prep your garlic.  I peel whole cloves, cut off the hard edge (which I save for broth) and cut the clove in half.  You can leave the cloves whole, which will be prettier in your jar but you'll need more cloves to impart the garlic flavor to your pickles.  Or you can slice your garlic, which is more work but will maximize your garlic flavor.  I go in between: the least amount of work and still pretty enough.

Gather your herbs and spices.  Which herbs and spices you use is a matter of taste, but I'll go over your choices.

Dill: For a traditional pickle flavor, I think dill is a must.  You can use fresh dill or dried dill seeds.  My first year, with all the fervor of a convert, I used only fresh dill.  The green feathery parts.  Then the farmers market had the seed heads and I realized that their flavor was far superior and they were gorgeous in the jars.  Then I couldn't get fresh one time and used dill seeds.  All are good.  All have pros and cons.  Dill seed is the cheapest and easiest to keep on hand, and this summer, it's been my choice.  I do love the look of fresh dill in the jars, though.

Celery Seed:  Love it, but I don't miss it when it's not there.  If you're not familiar with it, it's what adds that extra zesty something in a bloody mary.

Peppercorns: I use black peppercorns that I buy in bulk from Frontier.  I love their complex flavor.  You can skip them if you don't have them, but you'll be glad you used them!

Brown Mustard Seeds: This is my favorite non-essential edition.  Their flavor is subtle but I think it's what gives my pickles that certain Je ne sais quois.   Also, I really enjoy the look of them in the jars.

Prepared Pickling Spice:  Prepared pickling mixes are widely available and can be used in lieu of your own combination.  There are all kinds of these in the world and they are definitely a matter of taste.  Ellis likes the Frontier Pickling Spice.  It contains cloves and fennel and other things.  I don't love it, but it has a sweet tanginess that kids seem to enjoy.  There are other prepared mixes out there.  You can shop around to see what works best for your family.

Spice it up!  If you prefer a spicier pickles, add crushed red pepper, cayenne, or dried peppers.  I've never tried it, but I'll bet sweet onions would also be delish.

Other options:  Basically, you can put anything into fridge pickles.  Do you have a taste for curry?  Swap it out for dill.  Cilantro is awesome in anything, and pickles are no exception.  You can also use apple cider vinegar or any other vinegar you choose.  Improvise.  See what works for you.

Assemble your jars.  For canning, I always use approved canning jars.  But the beauty of refrigerator pickles is that you can use any old jar you have around.  I recycle many of our glass jars into the pickle brigade.  I prefer peanut butter jars, which have a wide mouth and aren't too deep.  

Fill each jar with cucumbers.  If you're using slices, stop about half way to add 2-3 pieces of garlic.  Add 2-3 more pieces of garlic on top, or more to taste.  Add herbs and spices.  Fill with brine.  Cover and shake it up to distribute the herbs and spices.

Refrigerate for at least a day before eating.  Frankly, I can't usually wait that long.  I've been known to slice the cukes extra thin so that they'll be ready faster.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Pickle Primer, Part One

It's Cucumber Pickle Season!

There's something so particular and delicious about the smell of vinegar and garlic hanging in the air.  I feel all nostalgic, which doesn't exactly make sense considering my mom didn't make pickles or even do any sort of canning.  It must be hard-wired into me, possibly a component of my love of summer.

I started making pickles 3 years ago.  First, a teeny bit of background. When Ellis was about six months old, I joined this awesome hippie mama collective filled with amazing women.  We'd hang out wearing our babies in their cloth diapers (or no diapers) and talk about the pros and cons of this or that form of composting or whatever.  We'd drink wine and knit and dream of a hippie farm with all of the benefits of city life.

Here's where pickles enter the story.  We were having a big park play date picnics with kids and crazy and yummy food.  One friend, we'll call her Vanessa M, brought a mason jar of pickles.  Pickles she had made herself.  What?!?  Who ever heard of such a thing?  They were fabulous.  I'm sure I ate half the jar all on my own.  My family did not go in for pickling or preserving, and despite my hippie tendencies, I had not yet run into the cult of food preservation and canning.  That jar of pickles changed everything.  It was a whole new world.

Vanessa gave me her pickle "recipe".  It was the sort of recipe that was right up my alley.  It was more a general roadmap of refrigerator pickles, an idea of what it was to make them.  So I started with her recipe and changed it and tried new things.  I made a boat load of pickles. What a revelation.

Even better, I gave my pickles to friends and they loved them.  I was so proud.  Over the years, I've changed and refined my recipe.  It's still sort of vague and requires some finnesse on the part of the pickler.  But I'll spill my secrets here.  (Please note:  These instructions are for refrigerator pickles only.  For canning, please use a road-tested, USDA approved recipe.  Otherwise, you're taking a big risk.)

Here's my basic recipe.  The spice amounts are the least I'd use.  Feel free to bump it up as seems appropriate to your family.

Jen's Garlic Dill Fridge Pickles

5-ish lbs. pickling cucumbers, sliced, ends discarded
4 cups white vinegar, preferably Heinz or better
2 cups water
1/2 cup kosher or pickling salt
lots of cloves of garlic, peeled
6-ish tsp. dill seeds or 1 big sprig fresh dill
6-ish tsp. whole peppercorns
6-ish tsp. celery seed
1 tsp. brown mustard seed
optional:  crushed red pepper, whole dried peppers, other spices that you like

Wash cucumbers and cut off the end.  Slice into coins or spears.
Mix vinegar, water and salt into a large bowl or jar.
Fill 6 or so pint or quart jars with cucumbers and 3-6 cloves garlic, to taste.
Per quart jar, put 1 tsp. dill seeds, whole peppercorns, celery seed, and mustard seed.  If using pint jars, use 3/4 tsp. of each.
If using optional spices, add to taste.
Fill jars with brine, leaving 1/4 inch head space.
Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours before eating, if you can wait that long.
Will last 3-6 weeks in the fridge.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Getting Into The Swing

Yeah, still getting back into the post-Winnie swing of things.   We'll just do a big overview of what we've been up to and call it a day.

1.  Ellis and Sarah took apart an answering machine.  It was cool.

2.  It's summer, which means yummy tomatoes.

3.  Our new dog is cute, despite not being our old dog.

4.  I worked on some embroidery pieces in waiting.

5.  Blueberry Basil jam!

6.  Ellis played a lot.

7.  I made Moroccan Chick Pea Tagine.

So, we're getting it figured out.  I have a whole week-end of projects planned.  I can't wait.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Last Monday, we said good-bye to our best friend and the greatest dog in the world, Winnie.  We miss her so much.

Thanks to the awesome staff at Uptown Animal Hospital for helping us through this.

Friday, August 3, 2012


Quilting and patchwork produce some truly beautiful scraps.

I love the way these little bits look together.  For the hoarder in me, they are hard to toss.  I tend to save them.

Since I was at a pause in my new quilt project (turns out I need a bit more linen yardage and haven't been able to get to the thrift store yet), I satisfied my patchwork obsession and my stash busting mission by piecing with scraps.

I was sort of amazed at how quickly a pile of nothing turned into lovely cloth, suitable for all kinds of things.  It was sort of like magic.  I do have some plans brewing for these pieces and some of the other, more elaborate scraps I have hanging around.

Josie is pretty excited about it.  She just loves scraps.