Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How to Label and Pack Canned Food for Shipping

Ooof. Too many things to do and not enough time to do them, right? I should have posted this post yesterday, but well, you know. This past Sunday was my annual “Great Cookie Bake Off”. Every year I bake dozens of cookies and package them up with some of my hits from the canning season and mail them off. This is truly a labor of love, as I average anywhere from 10 to 20 boxes to send out.

At this point in my friend’s and family’s lives, more stuff is not necessarily more. We all have everything we need. Cookies and home canned goodies with the occasional gift card are more appreciated and welcomed.  But how do you wrap up those jeweled jars to send to loved ones safely?

Well, I’m glad you asked!

I’ve been sending canned goodies to loved ones for almost 10 years and have not had a jar break or spill yet (knock on wood). It’s a little tedious, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Okay, here we go…

1. Labels, Bands, and String:

You know how I feel about peel-and-stick labels stuck to jars. They’re a complete pain to get off if you want to use the jars again, so I use round Avery labels on the lids and I make a hanging tag to include the jar’s ingredients. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in about every way possible to make cute, functional hanging tags and this method is the one I’m sticking with.

First, be sure to put bands on your jars. I prefer to use new or my “non-processing” bands so the jars can look as pretty and presentable as possible. Nobody wants a gifted jar of canned food that looks like it might give them tetanus!  You don’t need to wrench down the band, but a little tighter than “finger tight”.
Second, you will need some cotton string (not nylon) or even yarn. Ribbons work too, but not the satin ones or any that have a slippery material. Basically, you want the material to be able to “grab” onto itself. I cut off about an 18” piece and wrap it around the jar itself just under the band. I’ve tried wrapping the string around the band itself, but it slips off the top.
Next, tie what I call a “chef’s knot” in the string. I use this knot when I’m trussing poultry or roasts. It’s basically a double over-hand (or under-hand) knot that keeps the knot from slipping (think of the first knot you do when you tie your shoe). Tie with this knot tightly to the jar; it should stay in place.

Third, slip both ends of the string through your tag. I made my own tags with scrapbook paper and printed ingredient’s lists, but you can use store-bought tags or whatever floats your boat. Have a single hole punch on hand in case you need one.

Fourth, tie a simple bow (like tying your shoe). And last, tie that bow in a double knot (another over/under-hand). This keeps the tag from sliding off the string and it also keeps the string from coming untied. This method also ensures your tag will hang straight and not twist around sideways.

2. Bags for Protection: 

Okay, now that we have all our jars labeled and cute, it’s time to get them ready for shipping.
I always, always, always put my jars inside either a quart-sized (pints) or gallon (quarts) Ziplock bag.  Again, I’ve never had a jar break or lose a seal, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. If a seal should break, the bag will hopefully keep it contained and not damage the rest of the box’s contents.  I also try to push as much air out the bag before closing.

3. Bubble Wrap and Boxes:

Next, I use bubble wrap (the perforated type) to completely wrap around the now bagged jar and use packing tape to hold it in place. If there is a lot of air in the Ziplock bag, the jar will kind of jiggle around inside an air pocket and the bubble wrap won’t be as effective. You want the bubble wrap to have as much solid contact with the jar/bag as possible. Tight packing equals less potential damage.

Whew! After all that, I get my boxes ready by first putting a layer or two of bubble wrap on the bottom of each box. I usually lay my jars sideways as the bubble wrap make them unstable.  I put bubble wrap or crumpled newspaper between the jars and the walls of the boxes. Depending on how many jars I’m sending, I usually just lay the jars next to each other side-by-side and put more bubble wrap or crumpled newspaper on top before sealing the box. When I close up the box, I make sure the box is packed tight and there are no air-pockets for things to shift around and get damaged.
Looks like we’re moving, huh? Like I said, this is a labor of love. Each one of these boxes have anywhere from 2-6 jars of canned goods and a box of cookies.  Now I am going to take a nap! 

4. Shipping Them Out:

As far as how to send them out, I use UPS. I have found through painful experience how expensive shipping through the United States Postal Service can be. I have also found that some UPS shipping locations are a little unpredictable on what they say is "allowable" for shipping. Sometimes I tell them the boxes have jelly and jams in them and they are okay, others not, so now I just tell them they are "Christmas gifts". I know that's a little sneaky, but there's nothing more frustrating than to go to one UPS location to have them say "Yes" and another location say "No". Ain't nobody got time for that! 

Thursday, November 07, 2013

How to Use a Pressure Cooker: Mashed Potatoes in 10 Minutes!

Whoa! How is it November already?? It seems like this fall has flown by like nobody’s business. Well, since we’re here and it’s only THREE WEEKS AWAY (!!!), let’s start talking turkey…specifically the holiest of all holy days for foodies: Thanksgiving.

And what is one of the number one side dishes for any Thanksgiving Day feast?

Mashed potatoes.

White potatoes, sweet potatoes, either way they have to be cooked first. This post really isn't about a recipe, per say, than it is procedure.  I love using my pressure cooker for making mashed potatoes, and I can have them ready from raw-to-gravied in 10 minutes flat! From scratch! Let’s face it, stove and oven real estate on Thanksgiving Day are very valuable, so anything that can help me free up time and stove top space is a win-win for me.

If you are not comfortable using a pressure cooker, mashed potatoes are probably one of the easiest things to practice on. Be sure to follow the cooking directions for your particular pressure cooker and you’ll be fine.  So, let’s get to mashin’!

First, start out with raw, peeled, and cut Russet potatoes. You can use other types of potatoes, but Russets (or Idaho) potatoes have a higher starch content and less moisture, which then give you a fluffier mashed potato. I cut mine up rather large, as smaller pieces absorb more water, plus it’s easier.  I do not fill up my pressure cooker more than ½ - ¾ full, as per my cooker’s instructions.

Next, I add about 1 cup of water to the pot. I don’t remember what my cooker’s instructions say for water amount, but 1 cup seems to ring a bell (check your cooker’s instructions). When you pressure cook, the little bit of water at the bottom of the pot turns to steam, which is really the cooking agent behind pressure cooking.  If you ‘d like more information regarding the physics and engineering behind pressure cooking, check out Miss Vickie’s site.

I then lock the lid on my pressure cooker, set the burner to med-high, and let the cooker come to pressure. Once the pressure indicator pops up on my pressure cooker (yellow button), I turn the burner heat down to med-low and start timing. After 10 minutes, I do what’s called a “quick release” to vent the steam.

The quick release method is great for dishes that don’t have to depressurize naturally, unlike my Lima Bean Soup. There are many dishes that call for the quick release method, which really makes using a pressure cooker a time-saver.

After the steam has vented and the pressure indicator drops down, I unlock and open the lid AWAY from me. I give the potatoes a poke or two with a fork to make sure they are done (if not, bring back up to pressure and cook a few more minutes). If they are done, I prop the lid back on the cooker allowing for a gap to drain the water and drain. After draining, the potatoes are ready for mashing in whatever way you are used to.

I’m old school and use a hand held masher, leaving a few lumps. Add some butter, cream/milk, salt and pepper, and I’m ready to eat in less than half the time it would have taken me to boil/steam the potatoes to old fashioned way.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Black Onion Jam

Sorry about the changes going on with the layout of my blog. I'm fiddling around with some things, so for now this is what it will look like.

AnyWHO, I want to tell you about this FABULOUS onion jam that I made a couple of weeks ago. I stumbled across it at Gina's blog, Lindsey's Luscious, earlier this year and it really peaked my interest. It originally came from The Fabulous Beekman Brother's, which currently have a show on the cooking channel on Sundays. I used to love watching them when it was just them trying to make a living on a farm (HGTV?), but now they are famous and have their own cooking show.

So, I checked out their jam and the ingredients and snooped a little on the internet to see if anyone was canning it. I saw a few places where people mentioned canning this jam, but no one had actually jumped the gun (I would soon to find out why). It certainly had enough vinegar to be safe to can, so I thought, "Why not?"

I made a trial batch by doubling the original recipe thinking that I would at least get a handful of half-pints. Afterwards, I barely had enough to make 1 whole pint and this gave me a big clue as to why no one had bothered making more. This recipe takes A LOT of onions and it's A LOT of work to make enough worthwhile for canning. I went into a 3-day ordeal to make 6 1/2 pints of this jam and I wouldn't do it again...I'll explain why later.

The trial batch I made was sublime. I cannot explain how delicious this jam is with a good sharp cheddar on a cracker. Some people have been using this jam on gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and just the thought of it makes my mouth water. I just got a panini press, so this is definitely happening soon. My husband and I put it on a grilled hamburger with some crumbled Stilton blue cheese; we called it a Black and Blue Burger.

Sooo, if you're gutsy enough, have 3 days to kill, and about $70 to blow, you can make a larger version of this recipe for canning. I ended up using 42 cups of onions, which took over 12 hours to caramelize. Then, I added 13 cups of balsamic vinegar ($$), which took another 6 hours to reduce down, and then added 3 cups of maple syrup ($$), which took more time to reduce down...well, you get the point. This gave me 6 1/2 pints.

On top of that, I don't think the bigger batch came out nearly as good as the small, trial batch (I think the onions overcooked). So, do yourself and your wallet a favor and make a  batch to keep in your refrigerator.  The end result will be tastier and a little of this jam goes a long way.

Black Onion Jam 
Recipe Source: The Fabulous Beekman Brothers
Note: My recipe is doubled from the original
Makes 1 pint

6 cups of sweet onions, roughly chopped
2 T butter
2 cups balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Melt butter in a medium-sized stockpot over medium heat; add onions and slowly caramelize them till they are golden and sweet. Add balsamic vinegar to onions and reduce down until syrupy (about 1 hour). Add maple syrup, thyme, salt and pepper and cook another hour until thick and jammy. Spoon into a pint jar and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature.

Here are some other ways to use the jam:

An appetizer:

  • Slice some thin slices of a baguette and toast until golden brown
  • Top a baguette slice with goat cheese
  • Top with a couple of pear slices
  • Top with a dollop of onion jam (not too much – it’s intense)

  • Use a puff pastry – take 1 sheet and brush with olive oil
  • Sprinkle with your favorite herbs (I use rosemary and thyme)
  • Spread with onion jam
  • Top with chunks of soft goat cheese
  • Top with other sheet of puff pastry 
  • Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with more herbs and coarse salt
  • Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes (until golden brown)

Use with pork, in a stew, on a burger or a sandwich (great with turkey and melted cheese)

A companion to a salad (or an appetizer). Try in an omelet – farm fresh eggs, goat cheese, tomato, spinach and onion jam.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Great Pumpkin Beer Taste Off - 2013 (Round 2)

Okay, round two of the Pumpkin Beer Taste Off took place last weekend. This round was much more interesting than last time…

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale – Smuttynose Brewing , Portsmith, NH
We were hopeful for this pumpkin beer, as the brewing company is in New Hampshire, which is a great state to be in for all things fall. This beer had a nice, gold pilsner color, but no spice aroma at all. It smelled and tasted very hoppy without any spice/pumpkin anywhere. As a general pilsner or pale ale, this was a good beer, but it didn’t do anything for us for our pumpkin beer quest.

Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat – Shock Top Brewing, St. Lois, MO
Of all the beers we lined up for this round, I expected this beer to be the least “pumpkiny,” but we were very pleasantly surprised. The color was a little darker than a pilsner and there was no spice/pumpkin in the nose, but the taste knocked our socks off! This beer was VERY smooth, with very little hops and had a very, very slight pumpkin spice profile. We found this beer to be a very good and easy to drink. I would serve this beer at a fall BBQ or backyard pumpkin carving picnic in a heartbeat.

Pumpkick, New Belgium – New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
We took a little break between these last two beers and the first two, as we wanted our taste buds to have a little break. This beer made us suspicious, as it not only had specific instructions on how to pour the beer, it also stated that it was brewed with “pumpkin juice and cranberry juice”. Hmmmm…

The pouring “instructions” said to pour ¾ of the beer into a chilled, slanted beer glass, and then swirl the last 2 inches of the beer in the bottle to distribute the spices evenly before pouring the rest.  I have to admit I was curious how this would turn out.

The color was a gold pilsner and there was no spice nose to it, but the taste was WTH?? Imagine beer mixed with cranberries and lemongrass…ugh. This might be a good, summer beer, but definitely not a fall-themed pumpkin beer…there’s too much citrus going on and they totally missed the mark on this one.

Alewerks Pumpkin Ale – Alewerks Brewing Co., Williamsburg, VA
Back to our homies in Virginia, we had high hopes for this beer and we weren’t disappointed! This beer had a nice, amber lager color with a very slight hint of pumpkin/spice. The taste was a very nice honey and spice profile, although it tasted like it had a higher-than-average alcohol content (not always a bad thing!). It was a very rich beer and of all the pumpkin beers we’ve tried, this one came the closest to our beloved Shipyard. This one will be close for a final contender.

Okay, so that’s it for this round. Like I said earlier, this one was much more interesting than the last one; we found some good ones! Stay tuned till next time!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Annie's Salsa

I know tomato season is over for most, but some of you are just getting started. When I lived in Florida, we had two tomato growing seasons, spring and fall. So, I had two opportunities to put up as much of this salsa as I could.

If you’ve ever hung out for a while on my beloved Harvest Forum or any well-administered canning forum, you will know that Annie’s Salsa is a legend in its own right. Hundreds, and I mean hundreds of posts have been dedicated to this delicious salsa. I can honestly say you will not find a more delicious salsa recipe in any canning book out there.

Annie is a farmer in Michigan who has been canning since before I was even able to walk. The story goes that she was trying to find a recipe similar to the salsas you find in the store and she tried several variations before she came up with this one. She sent her recipe to her local extension agent to have it tested and ensure it was safe to process and can from home. From what I understood, this was not an easy process and it took a long time (and $$) to get a green light for home canning.

Since then, it’s become a rock star in the canning communities. If you don’t believe me, just Google “Annie’s Salsa” and see what comes up!

The best compliment I ever received for this salsa was from my tree removal company. Since we have moved to the country, we’ve had probably 30+ trees removed from our property. Every time they come out, I give them jars of canned goods as thank you tokens and they ask for this salsa EVERY TIME. And these gentlemen are good ol’ boys from the country whose families have been canning for generations. They’ve tasted it all and they ask for and love this salsa.

I have made 5 cases of this salsa this year! As a comparison, this salsa tastes very much like the Pace's brand sold in the store.

*One note to understand for this salsa is that it has been safely tested to can for pints and half pints ONLY.  Processing for quarts is not recommended by the extension agents for safety reasons. Pints are the limit and quarts are unsafe to process due to their density.

Annie's Salsa
Makes 6 – 7 pints 

8 cups tomatoes, peeled, chopped and drained
2-1/2 cups onion, chopped
1-1/2 cups green pepper, chopped
3 - 5 jalapenos, chopped
6 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/8 cup canning salt
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup 5% apple cider vinegar
2 cups (16 oz.) tomato sauce
2 cups (16 oz.) tomato paste

Mix all ingredients, bring to a boil and boil for 10 minutes. Pour into hot pint jars, seal and process in a boiling water canning bath for 15 minutes. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Great Pumpkin Beer Taste Off - 2013 (Round 1)

It’s that time again! Our annual pumpkin beer taste-off is in full swing. We’ve had other taste-offs over the years, but for whatever reason, I didn’t blog about all of them.

This year, we have 17 (!!!!) beers to try, so we’re breaking this down into rounds or else we’d be too drunk to even spell “pumpkin beer”.

(Pictured above from front to back: Ichabod Pumpkin Ale, Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, Wolavers Pumpkin Ale, and Schlafly Pumpkin Ale) 

What Are We Looking For?
We are looking for a beer that has a nice spice/flavor profile and isn’t too hoppy or floral. I want to drink a pumpkin ale and think, “This beer makes me want to rake leaves, play football, cook beef stew, and carve pumpkins.” I want a pumpkin beer that makes me think of fall.

To date, our standing champion has been Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead Ale. Every year this beer has been our favorite for pumpkin beer and nothing else has even come close. Let’s see if it has some competition this year!

Schlafly Pumkin Ale – St. Louis Brewery, Inc., Missouri
This is the first beer we tasted. It didn’t have a noticeable spice/pumpkin nose like you would expect from a spiced beer; however, it did have a subtle, pumpkin spice flavor up front, followed by a smooth ale finish. It was a nice, friendly beer that I would serve at a fall cookout. It didn’t bowl me over in the flavor profile, but it was “nice”.

Wolavers Pumpkin Ale (Organic) – Otter Creek Brewing, Vermont
This beer had a light, pilsner color with a floral, herbal, almost “dill-like” nose. Unfortunately, this beer didn’t taste like a pumpkin beer at all; there was no spice/pumpkin profile and it had a strange floral aftertaste. It was; however, a crisp, “grassy” beer that would be a good pilsner stand-in if it weren’t for that aftertaste.

Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale – Sam Adams Brewing, Boston, MA
This beer had potential in its nose and color. It had dark, almost amber/lager color and a nice spicy pumpkin, hoppy scent. Everything went to hell in a hand basket when we tasted it though. BLEH! This beer tasted like burnt caramel and plastic! It was so bad we dumped out the rest. What a waste. Does Sam Adams not have people in their research department test this stuff before it’s bottled?? Yuck!

Ichabod Pumpkin Ale – New Holland Brewing, Holland, MI
This was the last beer we tasted in this round and unfortunately didn’t “wow” is in either nose or taste. It had a slight, hoppy/green scent with no hint of spice or pumpkin, and the flavor tasted just like any regular, ol’ ale. Disappointing.

So, that's it for this round. Out of this bunch, I would have to say the round winner is the Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale, but it wasn't even close to our favorite Shipyard Pumpkinhead. Stay tuned for our next round!

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Ugly Furniture Series: Sexy New Chair

After I had my ugly Duncan Phyfe couch reupholstered last year, I was hooked. Since then, I'm managed to snag a few other ugly, sad pieces of furniture that were in desparate need of some magic. For example, I grabbed this sad, faded, brown mid-century chair a few months ago for $89 at an antique mall.

Yes, he's ugly, but MAN look at those lines! Very masculine, no?

So, I took him down to my favorite reupholsterer and NOW look at him.


Yes, that's an animal print fabric you are seeing. Snake-skin to be exact. Could this previously ugly, sad chair be any more sexier?

The fabric itself has a khaki-colored background, so I had a khaki contrast welting/cording sewn into the sides and cushion. In fashion, animal prints are used as a neutral, so this was my line of thinking. I think the pattern gives the chair interest, definitely plays into the masculine lines of the chair, and it's neutral enough to be used with other furnishings. The teak legs got a polish with some English Leather, and now they glow.

Even my husband, who normally doesn't give a rat's behind about my interior design adventures, liked it! I had a lot of fun doing this and when I saw it for the first time, it was like the feeling you got as a kid when you opened a present on Christmas for something you really, really wanted, but didn't expect to get. To say I was thrilled is an understatement. It made me think that maybe I should be doing more things in my life that bring me as much joy as redesigning this chair did.

It cost a couple of hundred to have done, but definitely cheaper than a very high-end designer chair you would buy from a designer. I spent less than $700 total.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Make Me Swoon

Oh Ryan, you sure do know how to make a girl blush.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thai Basil Pepper Jelly (with pics)

As promised, I'm posting some pictures of my delicious Thai Basil Pepper Jelly. This year I made quite a bit, so a lot of my friends and family will be getting some of this yummy jelly for the holidays.

But first, I want to show you how easy it is to make the Thai Basil infused vinegar. All it takes is some Thai Basil, vinegar, and time. Just chop it up (about 2 cups per quart) and add regular distilled white vinegar. Let the jars sit in a dark, cool spot on your kitchen counter for two weeks, then strain the Thai Basil out of the vinegar.

Follow the recipe to make the jelly and this is what you end up with. Isn't it beautiful? My husband and I agree that it looks like a piece of amber. It looks like Christmas in a jar.

This jelly is especially good with a creamy Chevre or even cream cheese on toast or crackers.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Whoa, Mama!

This Saturday, hubby and I went to a small, local farm to pick raspberries and left with over a bushel of tomatoes, peppers, garlic, lettuce, and even a few tiger melons!

The farmer had all this produce wasting away and he didn't want it to go bad so he gave it to us for FREE! He only wanted payment for the raspberries, but we paid him more of course!

The tomatoes alone weighed in at over 60 lbs. All of this loverliness was turned into 7 quarts of tomato juice, 9 pints of salsa, and 5 quarts of pickled hot peppers.

The tiger melons were the most interesting (they're in the bin on top of the tomatoes by the lettuce). I had entertained the thought of growing them this season, but after some research, I read that they didn't have much flavor. Even the farmer who gave us these said they didn't have much flavor. But after sitting on our kitchen counter ripening for 3 days, they were the perfect blend between cantalope and papaya/mango. Exotic and beautiful, just like me! :-)

Busy, busy, busy! Seems like all I am doing this summer is canning, and it feels like it. But whoa, mama!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rosemary Port Fig Preserves

A little while ago, I made a batch of Rosemary Port Fig Jam that has now become an annual favorite. I didn't have a photo to post when I last made it, but it's gorgeous and sophisticated and so incredibly delicious. I've decided to call this a preserve versus a jam as the end result is more chunky than crushed.

I went to a picnic this past weekend and brought a jar of this preserve with some goat cheese and toasted bruschetta. The jar was almost gone at the end of the day!

Figs are starting to come into season, so be sure to grab a couple of pints to make this amazing preserve. If you don't have time, simply freeze the figs whole and save them for when you feel up to it. I do this almost every year without any problems or compromise in flavor.

Kathy's Rosemary and Port Fig Preserves
- recipe adapted from Food and Wine Magazine
- Method adapted from Christine Ferber
- Makes 6, 1/2 pints

4 pounds green or purple figs, stemmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 cups sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 cup white port wine (or any really sweet, white wine)
1 4-inch sprig of rosemary

Place chopped figs, sugar, lemon juice, port, and rosemary in a nonreactive jam pot and let ingredients marinate for 30 min (till sugar is mostly dissolved and figs are juicy). Bring ingredients to a simmer over med-high heat, stirring occasionally, and then set aside off heat. Cool and cover jam pot; place in the refrigerator over night to macerate.

The next day, simmer the fig preserves over moderate/high heat, stirring occasionally, until reaching gel stage. Remove rosemary and discard.

Spoon the preserves into 6, 1/2-pint prepared jars, leaving 1/4 inch of space at the top. Process in a BWB for 10 minutes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How To Quickly Peel Tomatoes

After 10 years of canning, it never fails to amaze me when I learn or stumble on something new. Last week, I went to the farmer’s market and picked up a ½ bushel of Roma tomatoes for $10. This is my favorite (and most exhausting) time of year; all the produce is coming in like gangbusters and it’s all I can do to keep up till October.

Tomatoes are starting to come in, and despite all the wet weather we’ve had, the prices at the farmer’s market haven’t budged. I promptly snatched that ½ bushel right up and had intentions to try Local Kitchen's Fire Roasted Tomatoes and a batch or two of my favorite Chunky Basil Pasta Sauce. So, as I was prepping the tomatoes for peeling, it dawned on me to use the same roasting method called for in Local Kitchen’s recipe to remove the skins for all my tomatoes.

Now in the past, I’ve always used the boil/blanch method for peeling my tomatoes. I hate it…standing there over a boiling caldron of water, fishing out steaming hot tomatoes, and then dunking them in ice water to stop the cooking process. In the end, it takes forever, the kitchen gets heated and messed up, and there’s water spills everywhere.

I was able to roast and peel that whole ½ bushel of tomatoes in UNDER AN HOUR! While one batch was roasting, I was prepping another sheet. No mess, no babysitting bobbing tomatoes, no steamy sauna…AND my tomatoes had the extra flavor bonus of being roasted.

Why did it take me so long to figure this out???

How to Quickly Peel Tomatoes

1. Preheat oven broiler to high; set oven rack 6 inches away from broiler. Prepare rinsed/clean tomatoes by cutting out the woody core and slicing in half. Place sliced tomatoes skin side up on a large cookie sheet. Place cookie sheet in the oven under the broiler and broil until skins are dark and charred (rotate cookie sheet halfway through).

2. Remove cookie sheet from oven and lay a dish towel over the roasted tomatoes on the cookie sheet. This lets the tomatoes cool and steam for easy peeling. After about 10 minutes, while the tomatoes are still warm, remove the dish towel and simply pull the skins right off with your fingers or a pair of tongs. Throw away skins (or if you’re my husband…EAT THEM….BLECH!!!).

3. While one batch of tomatoes are cooling, slide another cookie sheet full into the oven and cut up more tomatoes for the next batch.

Do a happy dance around the kitchen.


Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Why Do I Can and Preserve?

Why do I can and preserve?

I often get asked if it’s really worth the time and money savings to can and preserve your own food. In fact, this discussion is often passionately discussed on my beloved Harvest Forum.

The answer is: It depends.

Initially, it’s expensive. You have to buy all the equipment and jars, and if you don’t grow your own food, you have to buy some, if not all of that as well. It takes a lot of time to pick, peel, pit, cut, cook, and eventually process home-canned food, so there’s that. Eventually, you build up a stash of jars and lids and all you really need to do is buy or grow the food, but even then it’s questionable if there truly is savings. Sure, there can be a small amount of savings if you regularly buy the high-quality, organic canned items in the store, but not much when you factor in the time and effort. Time = money and all that.

So, why do I do it?

In truth, there really isn’t that much savings in canning and preserving my own food on an average to small scale. I can and preserve for my husband and myself, plus a few family members and friends as gifts. We have a very small, soon to be prosperous garden, but definitely not enough to feed us completely. We both work full time 40-plus hours a week, so neither one of us have the time to devote to full-time, self-sufficient food preservation.

The answer is: Quality.

I can and preserve because I know EXACTLY what is going in my food and can truly guarantee its ingredients and preparation. I can and preserve because it’s healthy. I can and preserve because I know that what I make tastes a gazillion times better than what I can buy in the store. I can and preserve because I know that the food I’m using didn’t travel 1,200 miles to get to me. I can and preserve because nothing beats the feeling of satisfaction I get from looking at all those pretty jars of yumminess lined up on my shelf…yumminess that I made for my family and the people I love and care about.

That pretty much sums it up for me.

What about you?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Pickle Quest 2013: The Dill Pickle

Pickle season is upon us and it’s time for me to venture into the world of dill pickles. I’m pretty sure I have Bread and Butter pickles down cold, but the dills have eluded me like a Paula Deen interview on the Today Show.

It’s really a balancing act and if you don’t get it right, you’re left with flabby, overly salty pickles until next year when pickling cukes are in season. I’ve fermented them, hot kettle canned them, tried different vinegars, whatever, and it’s been a true hit-and-miss for the past 7 or 8 years. This year, I’m super excited to be canning my VERY OWN, home grown pickling cukes. I planted Boston Pickling cucumber seedlings in April and they’ve given me enough cukes so far to make 8 quarts of pickles!

This year, I’m sticking to the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) mind set and used the Joy of Pickling Really Quick Dill recipe. What do I have to lose?

Really Quick Dill Pickles
Recipe Source: Joy of Pickling
Makes 6 pints or 3 quarts

4 pounds 4-inch pickling cucumbers, blossom ends removed
24 whole black peppercorns
1 garlic head, cloves separated, peeled and chopped
6 small dried hot peppers (I used dried pepper flakes, about ½ tsp per jar)
6 dill heads, with sprigs (I used dried dill, about 1 tsp per jar)
2 3⁄4 cups cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, or distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
1⁄4 cup pickling salt

I usually double the pickling brine recipe, as I’ve almost always need more brine than the recipe calls for.

Second Note: I also use food grade Calcium Cholride (a.k.a Pickle Crisp) in each jar to prevent flabby pickles. I use 1 1/2 tsps per quart jar, but be sure to use the recommended amount.

1. Halve or quarter the cucumbers lengthwise, if you like, or leave them whole. Divide the peppercorns, garlic, and hot peppers (if you’re using them) among 6 pint or 3 quart mason jars. Pack a portion of the cucumbers into each jar along with some dill.

2. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Pour the hot liquid over the cucumbers, leaving ½ inch headspace. Close the jars with two-piece caps. In a BWB, process pint jars for 10 minutes, quart jars for 15 minutes. Or pasteurize the jars for 30 minutes by immersing them in water heated to 180° to 185°F.

3. Store the pickles for at least 1 month in a cool, dry place before eating them. After opening a jar, store it in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sour Cherry Picking

Last weekend, hubby and I went and did our annual sour cherry picking expedition and picnic. Sour cherries are only available for a very, very short time up here in Virginia (less than 2 weeks), so we make sure to make time to go picking. I’ve rarely seen sour cherries available at the farmer’s markets and if they are there, they cost a fortune, so it’s worth going out of our way. They are also a very delicate fruit, so you will never see them in the grocery store outside a can or freezer case. The orchard we go to charges a dollar a pound, which is a total bargain as far as I’m concerned.

Before last year, I had never even SEEN a cherry tree, much less pick cherries. I was again amazed at picking such wonderful and exotic fruit (to me) that wasn’t citrus. I get the same feeling about apples, pears, and peaches, as I didn’t grew up around these kinds of fruit trees in Florida. Sour cherries are THE ultimate pie and canning cherry to use, as the sour flavor is tamed by all the sugar used in both recipes. To me, the epitome of cherry flavor comes from sour cherries and it’s one of my most favorite fruits.

The orchard was packed and it was a perfect day for cherry picking. Hubby and I initially staked out a tree, and then moved around the orchard to find the “perfect” tree. Some trees had smaller cherries and some bigger, some riper, some greener. We made our way around, occasionally popping one of the darker, riper, less sour cherries in our mouths. In the quieter part of the orchard, we’d pick in silence while eavesdropping in other people’s conversations. I loved hearing what people were going to do with the cherries when they got home. Were they going to make a pie, ice cream, jam? Surprisingly to me, there was an unusually large amount of Middle Easterners in the orchard; I remembered that from last year too. My guess is that sour cherries are very prized in their culture for desserts. My favorite part was watching new comers taste the cherries for the first time then scrunch up their faces and spit them out. I guess they didn’t know they weren’t sweet! We’ve had so much rain this spring that sweet cherries weren’t even available, but that’s perfectly fine by me.

After picking just shy of 30 lbs, we put up a small picnic spot in the shade of one of the trees and enjoyed a bottle of wine while watching young and old sour cherry enthusiasts busy themselves in the orchard. Later, when we got home, we pitted our entire haul and divided it into quart-sized freezer bags for the freezer. This will last us all year for pies, jams, sauces, and whatnot. Raspberries are next!

Monday, June 10, 2013

How To Grill Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts Without Drying Them Out

Grilled chicken really is the little black dress of your meal planning repertoire. You can eat it on its own, make salads with it, chop it up and throw it in some cooked pasta, soups, fajitas, wraps, sandwiches, appetizers, even breakfast burritos. The only dish I haven’t been able to fit grilled chicken into is dessert, but I’m sure it’s been done SOMEWHERE.

But the problem with grilled chicken, especially boneless and skinless breasts is that it is often over cooked. The end result is tough and dry and not worth doing much more with than chopping up and smothering with mayonnaise for chicken salad. Poor boneless and skinless chicken breasts; they removed all your fat and bones to make you healthier and easier to cook, but left you an outdoor grilling pariah. My litmus test for any really good BBQ joint is how well they can do their chicken; it’s a bitch to get right.

But the fix to this is so easy you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing it all along. I know I did. The solution to leathery, dry grilled chicken breasts (or any grilled chicken) is brining. Here’s how:

1. BRINE: Take two tablespoons of kosher salt (not table salt) and add to about a quart of warm water in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Stir to dissolve the salt. Add whatever flavoring you would like your chicken to have to the brine (just make sure it’s salt free). I am using an Italian Herbs blend from Penzeys. You could add fresh herbs, lemon zest, a little white wine, whatever floats your boat.

Add your chicken breasts to the brine, making sure they are all submerged, cover the bowl with Saran Wrap, and place the bowl in the refrigerator. Chill for ONE hour. Be sure to note the time because you do not want your chicken breasts to become too salty by being left in the brine too long.

2. GRILL: After an hour, remove the chicken from the brine and discard brine. Do not rinse chicken, but simply allow them to drip dry over the bowl as you pull them out then place them on a platter. Preheat ONE HALF of your grill on high and leave the other half off. When at temperature (about 400 degrees), place your chicken breasts on the hot side of the grill and allow to sear for approximately 4-5 minutes. Flip breasts over and sear the other side for the same time. After searing, move the chicken to the unheated side of the grill, close the lid, and allow the chicken to cook from the residual heat for another 5-15 minutes. Total time should be around 20-25 minutes. Test for doneness by taking a quick peek inside one of the breasts with a knife, or use a thermometer (160 degrees).

3. REST: Take chicken off the grill, place on clean plate/platter, and cover with tin foil to allow to REST for about 10 minutes. This is important! This allows all the juices in the meat to redistribute and not run out if you immediately cut into the meat. I like to cook up a whole package of breasts at a time and graze off them all week and they are juicy and flavorful all week long. I leave them whole until I’m ready to use them for whatever.

After I’ve started doing this, I will never, ever grill chicken the same again. Even if you are grilling bone-in, skin-on breasts, give them a little time in a brine, they’ll thank you for it and so will your friends and family!

Thursday, May 09, 2013

How to Gift Home Canned Foods

Years ago when I first started canning, not very many people were doing it and it hadn’t received the “in thing to do” popularity that home canning has today. So, I have learned some things along the way about giving my precious home canned food as gifts to friends and family. The purpose of this post is to ensure that your canned goods are going to be well received and eaten, which makes everyone happy!

If you would like some tips on how to pack and ship home canned goods for the holidays, check out my other post here:

How to Pack Label and Pack Canned Food for Shipping

But if you're wondering WHO and WHAT you should give, here’s a few of my suggestions:

Are They Worthy?

When I first started out, I was SO proud to share what I had made with everyone I knew. I remember one year I gave every single person in my office a jar of homemade jam for Christmas. Later, I found out that most of what I gave away was tossed in the garbage because my jars didn’t have a familiar food label on them. When I would share a jar of jam, salsa, pickles, whatever, many people would look at me like I just picked a booger and offered it to them on the end of a stick.

Again, this was BEFORE the recent “Canvolution” took off and many people viewed home canning as something that hillbillies or hippies did. They had no idea that what I was offering was by far better quality, better tasting, and healthier than anything they could purchase in a store. So, much of what I had worked so hard on was tossed away and not appreciated.

Today, more people are receptive to receiving home canned goods, as the craft has received a lot of attention lately; however, I have learned to regularly give my precious and delicious canned goods to people who I think are worthy to receive them. You’ll know who these people are, as they will tell you how much they loved what you gave them last. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get the empty jar back too, which is canning lingo for “Thank you; please refill!” I still share canned goods with people I don’t know that well, usually as “thank you” gifts, but I have learned to be picky about whom I give my canned goods.

Please don’t interpret this as sharing with people who only give me positive feedback. I know the act of sharing is to give without any expectation, and I often do. It’s just that when you spend so much time, money and effort to pick, skin, pit, chop, cook, and can what your making, not to mention if you went further back and grew or raised that food, you learn to be more discriminating and choose to regularly give to people who appreciate what went into what your giving. Now that I live in Virginia, I have found more “jar worthy” people up here as home canning is pretty common, which is wonderful!

Selection and Size

Now, I know you feel that your home-fermented Wild Juniper Sauerkraut is the BEST thing since sliced bread, but your “jar worthy” friends might not feel the same. When giving home canned goods to people you don’t know that well, it’s best to stick to common foods that are less exotic. Usually, this is limited to jams, jellies, and pickles. Relishes are good too, but not too exotic. Once you learn what your friends and family like and they are more open to trying new things, feel free to share that quart of Wild Juniper Sauerkraut! Also, think about presentation. That jar of beef stew may be the bomb, but I bet it looks like a scary science project to someone who is not familiar with how food “really” looks outside of a tin can.

Which brings me to size…

Start with giving pints or half pints as gifts. A big quart of sauerkraut or pie filling can be intimidating to the uninitiated, which may lead to your food not being eaten. Start them slow and small.


Another thing I’ve learned about giving canned food as gifts is that people want to know what they’re eating. Not only does this help people identify ingredients they may not like or have allergies to, but in general, people will be more receptive to eating home canned food if they know what’s in it. When making canning labels, be sure to list the name of the item and the ingredients (if they will fit on the label). If an ingredient’s list won’t fit on the label, make a tag and tie it to the jar.

And speaking of labels, for the love of baby Jesus please don’t use the adhesive labels that are meant to be stuck to the sides of the jar! If you have any hope in getting your jars back or don’t want to spend hours scrubbing off adhesive glue, use round labels that are stuck to the lid (which are disposed after the jar is empty). I’ll even admit that I would rather throw an empty jar away (recycle) than spend the time it takes to soak and scrub the label and glue off.

Avery makes round labels that are easy to design and print. If you can swing it, use a laser printer to print your labels so the ink won’t run from condensation in the refrigerator. Labels made with ink jet printers will run.

Quantity and Variety

I’ve been guilty of giving people 7 types of jam all at one time. Unless they have a horrible sugar addiction, a very large family, or a bed and breakfast, most people will take a long time to finish a single jar of jam or jelly. Over the years, I’ve learned to give my regular “jar worthy” friends and family a variety of canned food and not bombard them with 6 quarts of pickles at one time. I’ve also learned to make in quantity of what people like. My salsa, apple butter, B&B pickles and pepper jellies will disappear before the jars are barely cool enough to handle; however, my pickled asparagus, fig preserves, and sauerkraut won’t get second requests (no matter how much I love them, so I make them for me!).

So, there you have it. These are some of my suggestions for successfully gifting home canned goods. With luck, your friends and family will rave and beg for more, but if not, that’s okay too.

Do you have any suggestions for gifting home canned foods?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Talk Dirty To Me

Oh Ryan Gosling, you sure do know how to get a girl all worked up!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Strawberry Jam Oatmeal Bars

So, about this time of year, I'm busy clearing out the deep freezer and canning larder to make room for the onslaught of produce that's just around the corner. I always have a few extra jars of jam tucked away, or I'm making jam with the frozen fruit from last year to make room in the freezer. Either way, I'm never without jam.

This recipe is a WONDERFUL way to use up any stray jars of jam you may have, not to mention it is super easy and scrumptious. It's a Pioneer Woman recipe and was on my wish list of canning and cooking recipes to try this year.

And feel free to use any flavor jam you want. I made these with some fig preserves a while ago and the bars came out like nubby, yummy fig newtons!

Strawberry Jam Oatmeal Bars

1 & 3/4 sticks Cold Butter, Cut Into Pieces
1 1/2 cups All-purpose Flour
1 &1/2 cups Oats (quick or regular)
1 cup Packed Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt
1 jar (10 To 12 Ounce) Strawberry Preserves (or any flavor you wish)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 or 8 x 10 baking dish.

Mix together the flour, oats, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter until it resembles coarse crumbs (I just use my fingers). Sprinkle half the mixture into the pan and pat lightly to pack it a little tight.

If your preserves or jam have an especially firm set, take the band and lid off your jam jar and heat your jam in the jar in the microwave for about 30-45 seconds, or until the jam can be stirred easily with a spoon. Spoon strawberry preserves evenly over the surface, then use a dinner knife to carefully spread it around. Sprinkle the other half of the oat mixture over the top and pat lightly again.

Bake until light golden brown on top, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in pan. When cool, cut into squares and serve. Yum!

Friday, May 03, 2013

Don't Make Fun of My Rice Cooker

I have this commercial sized rice cooket that I use for parties and social events. It can make like 60 cups of rice....hey when you need it, you need it! When I bring this into work for pot lucks, I always get teased.



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