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Finding New Recipes

I think I’ve mentioned once or ten times that one of my goals has been to prepare more home cooked meals.  Some nights, many nights, I still fail at this.  Either we have too much going on to be able to have a family dinner, or frankly, sometimes I’m just too tired to cook.  Or to even think about cooking.

I saw a hilarious little meme recently that said something like “There’s no food in the house. Just lots of ingredients to make food.”  Hahaha!  I can totally relate to that.

Part of my problem is that I don’t have a large repertoire of tried and true recipes to pull from.  Nor do I have a freezer stocked with meals you just stick in the oven for an hour and you’re done.

I’ve been trying to remedy that by finding new ones to try.  If my family likes it, the recipe goes in the binder.  I just need to take the next step and make extras to freeze.

One of the blogs I follow is The Pioneer Woman.  Do you know her?  Until recently, I had no idea she had a show on The Food Network, too!  Duh.  I started recording it because she has a lot of good, basic, simple recipes that I can handle.  They’re by no means low cal, but I figure eating anything at home has got to beat how much we consume when we eat out.  Am I right?

One meal I tried recently that was a big success was her chicken parmesan.  I made it with my homemade tomato sauce that I canned using tomatoes I grew!  It was deeeeliccioussss!  And I was pretty proud of myself.  Except I had a nightmare that night that I gave everyone botulism.

BUT . . . I’m happy to report that everyone is fine and showed no ill effects from my sauce.

chickparm

Chicken Parm over past w/garlic bread.

I also made her PB cup cookies which didn’t even last long enough to cool down.  My husband was shoving them in so fast, burning his mouth in the process.  But they were so good, he didn’t care!

pbcupcookies

PB cup cookies, still gooey.

Now that Winter is Coming (see what I did there, GOT fans?), I need to get on the stick (did your parents use that expression?).  It would be so nice to just stick a pan of something or a casserole of something in the oven and not have to venture out when it gets super cold outside.  Or not have to think of something creative to have for dinner.  My brain doesn’t work very well in the winter.

If you have some good “tried and true” recipes that freeze well, let me know!

Apples!

Late summer/early fall is apple season!  We are obviously able to buy apples at the store year round, but nothing beats an apple picked right off the tree.  My favorites are the Ginger Gold, and they are everywhere right now.  In fact, my friend Po brought me an entire bushel for my birthday last week.  Yay!

Since I couldn’t get to them for several days, I made sure I checked the box regularly and removed any soft or spoiling apples.  There’s a definite truth to the saying “one bad apple spoils the bunch!”

apples

We ate many of them fresh throughout the week, and my extended family even took a handful or two when they stopped by.  Yet I still had quite a large box of apples that I needed to preserve before they went bad.

I opted for a combination of methods.  Since my family is not a big fan of applesauce, I decided to skip that in favor of baking and dehydrating.  I chopped up the ones that were starting to “turn” or had a bad spot or two on them and used the pieces in muffins and breads.  These items I can easily make in bulk and freeze for future consumption.

apple bread

Dehydrating is very easy, but it does take time – many hours per batch to fully dry.  The good thing is that it’s one of those set it and forget it kind of things.   While the dehydrator is running, you can move on to other chores, even leave the house.  Not too many cooking tasks I can say that about.

If you’ve never dehydrated anything before, apples are the perfect thing to start with.  I did!  You’ll need some equipment, obviously, and dehydrators aren’t cheap ($200+).  But they are SO versatile.  You can use them to dry fruits, veggies, herbs, meats, even sauces (making “leather” – think fruit roll up).  And the food that you dehydrate stores for a long, long time, especially if you use a food saver to do it.

A dehydrator is not a complicated machine.  It’s basically a big box w/mesh shelves and a fan that circulates hot air.  That’s it.  Mine has two knobs – (1) a temperature setting for how hot the air gets, and (2) a timer.  Easy peasy.

The first step is slicing your apples.  I use a handy little tool called – oddly enough – an apple peeler/corer/slicer.  Except in this case, I don’t peel them.  The skins are the best part!  Here is what it looks like with an apple loaded and ready to go.  It sticks to my counter via the suction cup at the bottom.

apple deh1

These tools normally cost around $20.  I think Pampered Chef sells one, but I’m guessing any cooking store does, too.  You can probably even find one at the thrift stores (if you knew what you were looking at!).  I actually found mine at the local grocery store.  They were on clearance, a STEAL at $5 each, so I bought six!  Talk about a back-up for your back-up.

In front of the apple is a small circular blade.  When you turn the handle, the apple gets pushed through and it slices and cores it at the same time (it would peel, too, if I hadn’t pulled back the peeler).  Be sure to have a bowl ready to catch the drippings and any pieces that fall off.  I also highly recommend paper towels (several) underneath.  Peeling apples is quite a sticky, messy process!

apple deh2

Here is what it looks like midway through:

apple deh3

And the finish product, pulled off its core:

apple deh4

Don’t worry if yours doesn’t come out like this.  Mine don’t always.  It depends on how soft the apple is and how fast I’m turning it.  Sometimes the pieces just FLY off onto the counter, lol.  That’s okay!  Just use them anyway.  If nice, firm uniform slices are important to you, the best apples to use are Granny Smith. They seem to come out perfect every time.

Then I just take a knife and cut the stack in half.

apple deh5

Place the pieces in a single layer on the dehydrator sheet:

apple deh6

Sprinkle with a little cinnamon (optional, but it definitely only needs a little), and put the shelf inside the machine.  Repeat until all shelves are filled.  It takes around 15 large apples to fill mine.  A full dehydrator makes four fully-packed quart jars (plus a few extra pieces I tossed to the dog).

Here is the dehydrator all loaded and ready to go:

apple deh8

Dehydrating time varies depending on what you are drying and how thick the pieces are.  These apples slices will take about 9 hours.  If I had timed it right, I could get another batch in before bedtime, but I think I’ll be too tired to cut up more apples and clean my kitchen again at 11pm tonight!  Oh well, there’s always tomorrow.  And there are always more apples!

Pickles

Right now, I have more cucumbers than I know what to do with.  I must have optimum cucumber growing conditions this year because they are HUGE and abundant.  Since I use heirloom seeds, I was unsure how many would germinate and/or thrive.  So this spring, I planted six cucumber seeds.  Of course, all six lived. 

For weeks, we’ve been eating them raw, sliced for salads or just for snacks with ranch dressing, and I still have a ton.  So I decided I would try my hand at garlic dill pickles.

As I’ve said before, I’m new to canning, so my goal was just to successfully process a batch – regardless of what they end up tasting like.  I can work on that after I’ve mastered everything else!

Since my cucumbers were so big, I decided to do “chunks” instead of whole or spears.  And since I had so many, I decided on quarts instead of pints.  I looked through several of the blogs I follow for pickle recipes and recommendations.  It seems everyone has their own way of canning pickles!

cucs

I decided on a method that involves using cold cucs so as to keep them more crisp.  I was nervous at first because you aren’t supposed to put cold food into hot jars – you risk breakage due to the rapid change in temperature.  I asked the blogger and was told that as long as I didn’t pack the jars too tightly (with the cold cucs pressing up against the hot glass), I should be fine.

So, with much trepidation (seriously, I fretted about this all day!), I set about packing and processing my cucs.

Well guess what?

I did seven quarts of pickles today in my stock pot, and I didn’t break a single jar!  And they all sealed!  I’m so excited, I think I’m getting the hang of this!  I have absolutely no idea what they will taste like, but I don’t care.  I did it!

pickles

I still have a ton of cucs leftover.  I think I may donate them to a neighbor or two . . . or six.

Mental note:  Plant only one or two cucumber plants next year!

Canning Lessons Learned

Sometimes a novice is the perfect person to offer advice on a subject because they don’t make assumptions or skip over important details that an experienced person might take for granted.  This thought kept running through my head as I was making my first solo attempt at canning today and screwing up royally.

Back in January when I was salivating over the seed catalogs, envisioning all the yummy things I could grow, I knew at some point I’d have to find a way to preserve all of that produce that I would (hopefully) harvest.  I don’t like to rely on freezing overmuch – (1) because some things just don’t freeze very well, and (2) if the power goes out for an extended period of time, you’re screwed.

Enter canning.

This term initially confused the bejesus out of me because I thought canning meant you put things in a CAN.  Nope.  (I guess “jarring” would be confusing in other ways.)  Canning involves packing foods into glass jars and boiling them for a specified amount of time, thereby sealing in the nutrients and flavor, and keeping out the bacteria.  Canning allows you to store foods on your pantry shelves, unrefrigerated, for months or even years without fear of spoilage (if you do it right).

There are two types of canning:  (1) water bath canning, and (2) pressure canning.  People generally start with water-bath canning, and once they’ve mastered that, move on to pressure canning.  Water-bath canning can only be used for foods that are highly acidic.  The natural acids in foods such as tomatoes and fruits, or foods that are “pickled” using vinegar brine, helps keep bacteria from growing inside your jars.  Non-acidic foods need to be subjected to temperatures higher than the 212°F boiling point, which can only be achieved inside the pressure canner (not a pressure cooker, they are different).

For more detailed information on different foods, as well as instructions on both types of canning, BALL is generally held as the gold standard.  This is the book I use.

Back in June, I had my first canning experience (that sounds kind of weird or dirty, but you know what I mean).  My friend Po, who is somewhat more experienced than I (which isn’t saying much), came to guide me.  With her help, I was able to “put up,” as we canners say, fourteen 1/2-pint jars of strawberry jam.  Mmmmm!

straw jam

Since then, I’ve done a lot more reading on the subject.  I’ve also purchased my own canning equipment (pot, jar lifter, magnetic lid wand, etc.).  So, feeling brave, today I spent some time water-bath canning a small batch of pickled banana peppers all by myself (I used this recipe).  Since, it was only my second time ever canning anything, and the FIRST time I did it by myself, let’s just say I was making mental notes right and left.  Here’s what I learned:

Glass cook tops suck for canning purposes.  I bought a dedicated canning pot w/a rack so that I wouldn’t have to use my stock pot anymore (like I did w/the jam).  Well guess what?  The canning pot is bigger than my largest burner.  And because so much heat is reflected back onto the stove surface, the burner periodically cuts off, even on HIGH, as a safety precaution.  Well guess what?  That keeps a giant pot of water from actually BOILING.  Kind of the whole point of canning.  Ugh!  So in the middle of sterilizing my jars, I had to swap pots back to my stock pot (it is slightly smaller and fits the burner).  Stupid canning pot.  And guess what?  It says right on the label “do not use on glass cooktops.”  Whoops.  (BTW, I found out glass cooktops are also incompatible with certain pressure canners, too, so beware if this applies to you!)

Have all of your produce prepared (cleaned, seeded, skinned, chopped . . . whatever) BEFORE you begin.  I was madly trying to finish seeding & slicing my peppers before the water and brine were boiling.  Too stressful.

Consider doing a “dry run” when you are packing jars with things like peppers (before the brine is added).  The recipe called for 6-7 banana peppers, or 1-lb., yielding 2 pints.  Yeah, I skipped the “or 1-lb.” part, not considering that size does matter (haha).  I had twice that many peppers, at least, so I figured I had enough for 3 pints.  Well guess what?  I only filled (or so I thought) two pints w/those peppers, but after I processed them, they were mostly brine and only half peppers.  Next time, I will take a cold jar (one I’m not using) and really pack it to see how much it should hold.  And if I need more, I’ll cut more.  BEFORE-hand.

Have more than enough brine ready.  Brine is the vinegar “broth” that’s used to pickle foods (vinegar raises acidity levels).  I filled one pint, then got halfway through the second pint and realized I didn’t have enough!  Ugh!  I had to quickly (before the jars cooled too much) boil some more for that second jar.  Well guess what?  If I’d had enough peppers in the jars, the brine probably wouldn’t have been an issue.  Oh well.  You can always save any leftover brine for another day.

Make sure you have enough support in the bottom of your pot.  Glass jars should not rest directly on the bottom of the pot because they can crack.  I bought a disc to put in the bottom of my canning pot, but alas, it was too big for the stock pot.  I had to resort to the fall-back that many canners use – placing lid rings in the bottom of the pan.  Since I was already in a time crunch because of my other issues enumerated above, I took the lazy way out and only grabbed a few rings to use – not enough to cover the entire bottom of the pan.  Well guess what?  When that water really gets boiling, it pushes the jars around.  And they WILL tip over if they come to the edge of their support.  Ugh.

Most important revelation – with all those pots of jars, water, and brine boiling away, it gets quite humid in your kitchen.  My hair looks like a shrubbery.

pick pepp

Even after all that, my jars gave a satisfying *POP* when I pulled them out to cool.  Such a wonderful sound!  One that will entice me to try again and again.

YAY for CSA!

Since I’m just starting to manage this whole garden thing, I knew I wouldn’t be able to grow enough fresh veggies (quantity & variety) to keep us in business all summer.  My friend Po suggested that we join our local CSA and take advantage of locally grown produce delivered right to our door.  I’m so glad I listened to her!

Every week we get a bin of fresh picked fruits and vegetables delivered to a predetermined drop-off point (in our case, Po’s house).  It’s filled with a variety of whatever is in season that particular week.  Here is my delivery bin this week (squash, cucs, patty pan, chard, beans, peaches, & a dill plant):

csa box

In addition to our delivery, we can go out to the farm and pick up and/or pick additional items (it changes weekly) for free!  Included in our membership!  So far this summer, I’ve personally picked sour cherries, blueberries, peas, and green beans.  I’ve picked up (harvested by farm personnel) lettuce, peas, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, beets, plums, apricots, and some other stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting.  It’s like a whole additional bin each week!  All you have to do is pick it up yourself.  What a deal!

Today, Po and I drove out to the farm and spent a very hot morning picking blueberries and green beans.  Look at all those beans!

csa beans

Membership is around $500 (depending on whether you get a delivery – and if it’s a single or group – or pick it up yourself) for a 5 month harvest period, June to October.  If you think about it, $100 a month for that much produce THAT YOU KNOW WHERE and HOW IT WAS GROWN is a great deal.  I mean, one cucumber at my local chain grocery store costs more than a dollar.  A pint of Roma tomatoes is $3.50!  Heck, fruit alone could cost me $100 a month the way my kids go through it.

Anything I can’t or won’t use immediately, I freeze or can or give to friends or family.  So guess what I’m doing this weekend?  Freezing green beans, of course.  Last month I made homemade strawberry jam – my first foray into the world of canning – and it was awesome!  I loved hearing the *snap* of the lids sealing in place.

I also have a quart of frozen blueberries, and two quarts of frozen sour cherries that I got from the CSA farm.  In the winter, when I’m ready to bake, I’ll have fresh, local fruit to use.  That makes me happy.

Anyway, if you have a CSA near you, I highly recommend checking them out!

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I love to learn new things.  In fact, I aspire to live up to the old adage “you learn something new every day.”  For 2013, I wanted to focus on becoming more self-sufficient, learning what I call the heirloom skills like baking from scratch, canning, and making lots of other things myself that I would normally buy from a store.

Sometimes you set out to learn one thing, and you end up learning lots of other things you never expected.

For instance, when a friend told me you could make your own vanilla extract for baking, I was intrigued.  I‘d never given much (any) thought to where vanilla extract comes from.  I just always bought my little bottle of McCormick’s at the store like any normal person.

Several things about making vanilla extract surprised me.  For instance, did you know that vanilla extract is simply vanilla beans soaked in alcohol (typically vodka)?!  I had no idea!  My first thought was why don’t you have to show ID to buy this stuff?  Seriously.  If word gets around, surely some enterprising young person will start patronizing the baking aisle to get a buzz.  I mean, if they figured out how to get high cooking Sudafed and huffing cleaning products, this can’t be far behind, can it?  And frankly, drinking vanilla extract sounds a lot more appealing to me (just sayin’).  Maybe that’s why most grocery stores only carry the airplane-bottle size?

Anywhoooo . . . moving on.

Next surprise – the beans.  Have you ever seen a vanilla bean?  I never had.  Maybe, like me, when you hear the term “vanilla bean,” you think of BEANS, as in pinto or lima.  Nope.  This is what vanilla beans looks like.

vanilla beans

Crazy, huh?  Each one is about six inches long, dark brown, and leathery.  If you’ve ever had real vanilla bean ice cream, you’ve probably eaten tiny little pieces of these beans.

To make vanilla extract, these beans are soaked in vodka for several months (yep) while they leech out their fabulous flavor and caramel color.

I’ve found that there are lots of different schools of thought on the details, but the gist of it is that you need three or four beans per 8 ounces of cheap vodka (the more beans, the stronger the vanilla).  People say it doesn’t matter if you use the good stuff or not, but I didn’t want to get 3-4 months down the road and find out that wasn’t true.  So I went with a brand of vodka that I knew to be decent (uh, someone told me about it once . . . ).  You can also add a touch of other liquors, like dark rum or bourbon, to the mix if you want to get funky.  I’m not sure my palate is that sophisticated, so I decided to just try it in one of my bottles and see.

You slice each bean lengthwise almost all the way through (so the end is still connected).  This allows the alcohol to work on the more tender insides of the beans, as well as more surface area.  I’ve seen some recipes that call for chopping the beans up, but you can end up with bits of beans in your cookies or whatever.  If that appeals to you, by all means, give it a go.  Don’t be afraid to adapt it to what works best for you and how you cook/bake/live.  Regardless, you may end up having to strain it once the beans start breaking down.

As for bottles, that’s another matter of personal preference.  I’ve seen some people stuff a bunch of beans inside a 750ml bottle of vodka, while others use cute little apothecary bottles w/corks to give as gifts.  Some say amber bottles are best (which makes sense since that’s how it comes in the grocery store).  I used 4-oz. amber glass bottles with screw-top lids and put two beans in each one.  I did it this way in case I decide to give them to friends during the holidays.  Next time, I’ll probably make a big batch by using quart canning jars (with about 20 beans each) and then just pour the vanilla off as I need it.

vanilla2

Whatever method you choose, set the bottles in a cool, dark place, and let them sit.  You should shake them maybe once a week to distribute the extract.  You can check the flavor in a few months (some let it go as long as 6) to see if it’s satisfactory.  Some people will even pour in more vodka as they use the vanilla and continue steeping the beans to make continuous batches.  Again, whatever works, though at some point the beans will be dissolved and you’ll have to buy more.

Where do you get vanilla beans?  Well, you can probably get them in the baking aisle of your grocery store, but I don’t recommend it.  They can be very expensive unless you buy in bulk.  I bought mine at a discount grocery store and they ended up being about 75¢ a piece.  Since then, I’ve seen that you can get them on-line for closer to 50¢ each (if you buy in larger quantities).  Live and learn.

You might be wondering WHY anyone would want to make their own vanilla.  Well, besides the obvious answer (you bake a lot and go through the stuff like water), it can be very satisfying to know how to make something with your own two hands.  Plus, it’s super easy, and now I never have to worry about being in the middle of baking and discovering I’m all out!

Another reason (for me) is that this kind of knowledge is dying out of existence in many parts of the country, and I’d like to help change that.  Maybe my grandmother knew how to make homemade vanilla extract, but sadly, I can no longer ask her.  My mother and sister didn’t know.  But now *I* do.  And so does my daughter.

And that makes me happy.  Which is the most important reason of all.

Shire Girl