Autumn Nesting

Last night the temperature finally dropped to freezing. No frost this morning, but it is COLD out – damp and chill in that patently Pacific Northwest manner.

But I’m ready! This weekend was a flurry of nesting: a new, snuggly knitting project and lots of time in the kitchen.

The cooling weather and dark purple-grey skies have chased out the Puffs. Instead, I wanted something warm, bulky, and soft to knit. Enter Encompass, the perfect solution for a fast, fun autumn project. I’m using Plymouth Yarn’s Baby Alpaca Grande.

It’s shedding just a little, which I’m hoping will stop once it’s knitted and the fibers are trapped in the stitches.

I’ve been dehydrating several things, stocking them away in the pantry. I love to open my cupboards and see a row of colorful jars smiling back at me.

Autumn and spice always go together for me. Black tea blends are getting thrown over for Chai.

Murchie’s Traditional Chai (they used to call this blend “Autumn Chai”). Mmm. I love it. Cinnamon, cardamom, and just a tiny bit of sweetness – it is a perfect Chai, in my opinion. I’ve also been adding a little cinnamon to my coffee (in with the grounds as it brews).

Spices are all over my baking and cooking, too: Molasses spice cake, whole-wheat spoon bread, and perfect chocolate chip cookies (oh my goodness, are they EVER) have been rolling out of the oven one after another. Just a few weeks ago, dinner was grilled chicken and green salad. Now that seems too “cold” for these chilly days. Instead we’ve been warming ourselves with hearty, full-flavored dishes that have been on hiatus all summer: toasted-spice chili, tangy orange chicken stir fry, skillet lasagna (all of these recipes are from Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen). Even our meals out have been rich and spicy: italian flat breads and warm spinach salad, Indian curries, toasty sandwiches.

I’d love to hear about YOU – As the weather continues its journey towards winter, where are you seeing evidence of “nesting” in your own home and habits?

Lovin’ My Ovin

Ahem. Oven, that is.

Although we’re having a rather warm week here, the change in the season is definitely taking hold in the PNW. During the past week I’ve finally started using the oven again after a month or so of focusing on the grill and range so the house didn’t suffer from too much radiated heat.

First up was a little number I’m calling “Fiesta Scalloped”; russets, bell peppers, onions, and ham in a white sauce (livened up with a little cheese powder). I followed the general rules from Cook’s Illustrated for ‘weeknight scalloped potatoes’, where you parboil the potatoes on the stove in the sauce before you bake everything in the oven. I really like this method because I think it infuses the veg flavors better into the potatoes plus helps to alleviate that nasty raw-potato middle that can so easily happen with scalloped potatoes.

Here’s everything assembled and bubbling in the pot:

The Cook’s Illustrated recipe calls for a lot of heavy cream, and I didn’t have it and didn’t want to use that anyway. So instead I used a small amount of half and half, some 1% milk, and chicken broth. I also added the cheese power and some cornstarch. The flavor of this casserole was perfect. However, the sauce was thin. When it was done baking I let it sit for about 10 minutes before serving for dinner. In that time, the sauce was still very thin and didn’t stay with the potatoes, which was a big bummer. However, after fully cooling the sauce was perfect even upon reheating. I think the calorie trade-off was more than worth the runny hot-stage sauce, and I’ll make this again the same when I need a make-ahead meal or when I want to freeze some of this.

I also have a fridge full of partially filled jars of jelly and jam, a number that suddenly skyrocketed with the remainders from all my fruit canning of the past few months. We needed (I am wondering about that word choice now that I’ve typed it) some cookies for lunches &tc., and so I decided that some shortbread thumbprints would be just the thing.

Bottom is Compost Heap Jelly, middle is Strawberry Jam, top is Plum Jelly

I used this recipe, and hoping for a crisper cookie I added 1/3 cup of tapioca flour. I’ve used this substitution for pie crust in the past and have been happy with the results. Jury’s comments: Although they tasted good, this batch wasn’t great. Part of this is that I need to bake them for just a few minutes longer; they were done but didn’t taste toasty like I prefer my shortbread. Also, I think I need to use cornstarch not tapioca because the cookies were more cake-like than shortbread-like.

Will give this recipe another shot, and maybe sub some almond meal for a small amount of the flour, too.

A Real “Can” Do Attittude

“Can” do. Wah Wah Waaaaaahhhhhh!

Bad puns aside, the boiling water bath action around here has been pretty constant. There are a few more new things to add to the pantry list: Applesauce and Tomatillo salsa!

In case you’re wondering, this picture proceeded the peelings shot from yesterday’s post. (The strange perspective of this shot makes that peeler handle look long and scary. Let me assure you, it’s not dangerous to use.)

I am seriously considering getting a REALLY BIG stewpot. These are both 8 quarts and they just aren’t cuttin’ it anymore. I had to split the apples into two batches for the sauce, just to make ~5+ quarts of sauce. Lame.

In the end, though, it worked out nicely. I seasoned the two batches differently: one without anything but just a touch of sugar, the other with a whack of brown sugar and spices. The first batch (on the right in the pic below) tastes like tart green apples… which they were! The second batch (darker, on the right below) tastes like smoooooooth apple pie. Yeeeee-hum!

Have you ever cooked with tomatillos before? I’ve seen them forever at the grocery, and have been fascinated by their papery skins. They always make me think of the ‘ground cherries’ mentioned in one of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I forget which book it was in, but I have stuck in my memory her description of these ground cherries that were covered in a ‘papery skin’ that needed to be removed before they cooked them.

However, when I’ve investigated these little babies in the past, the stickiness of them made me put them right back in the bin.

But if you want real salsa verde, you must make sacrifices. Bring on the sticky.

Super easy to peel. I forgot to take a picture of these when cut. The interior looks a bit like a tomato – to which they are apparently NOT related (gooseberries, of all things) – but without the liquidity, and the flesh is a bit more foam-like when raw.

Oh these suckers are hot. But the colors are great:

The tomatillos release a huge amount of liquid when heated. This is the mix cooking down, with no added liquid. You can see how watery it got.

Tomatillos, yellow bell pepper, onion, cilantro, and a tiny amount of jalapeno.

Some vinegar and lime juice and salt go in, and some other things that I’m not remembering right at this moment.

Boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Result – mmmmmmmmmmmm!

I will definitely be making more of this! 2 lbs tomatillos + 1 onion (and other stuff) = 8 half-pints of salsa verde.

We had some last night with home-fried tortilla chips and taco salad. It was perfect. Great tart-tangy flavor and almost no heat. When we want to fire it up, we can just add a little fresh jalapeno.

Better Late than Never

Hmmm. I have a sinking feeling that I may have used this post title before. I am the first to admit that I’m in the running for World’s Worst Procrastinator, but today’s post is a victory – just because I don’t get to something right away doesn’t mean that I can’t close the deal. Well…. sometimes, anyway.

But enough of that. Here is the Big News: I am a cheesemaker! I have made cheese!

First, though, a little something that you may not believe…

Compost Heap Jelly (!!)

Seriously! It’s about time, wouldn’t you say?

In making apple-y things (a future post, I promise), I had a big bowl full of cores and peels.

What to do, what to do? Compost Heap Jelly, of course!

I scared up two ageing lemons that were hanging out on the counter, as well as some ancient dried orange peel I had in the spice drawer (once part of a mulled spice endeavor that did not end well). I zested the lemons and put those in the pot, as well as some generous shakes from the orange peel bottle. Then I juiced the lemons and set that aside for later.

Covering everything with water, I let it simmer gently for about an hour. Somewhere I’d read that if you boil too hard, you’ll break down the natural pectin in the apple. So, I tried to keep things pretty mellow in the pot. The steam smelled wonderful – fruity, with just a hint of bright lemon and a tiny note of low orange.

After letting that simmer, it was time to strain the juice for jelly. After last year’s decidedly make-shift methods of straining, I bought a ‘real’ jelly bag earlier this spring. When I took it out of the box, however, I realized it was t-i-n-y. So I decided to strain the pulp twice because there was so much volume; once through a mesh-net vegetable bag to get juice – let that one drip overnight.

Then I put that juice through the jelly bag to catch the sediment –  I let that one go for just over an hour.

Mmmm. Smelled delicious.

Next I added a full box-worth of pectin, but since I was using only half the sugar recommended in the no-pectin original recipe, I used half ‘low-sugar’ pectin and half regular pectin.

The flavor is wonderful. Very delicate and not too sweet. You can definitely taste the sweet-tart apples and just a hint of citrus. Like unsweetened apple cider mixed with marmalade.

CHEESE!

Holy cow the cheese kit things have been sitting in my fridge for nearly a year.

Tom and I wanted to make our favorite Prenzlow Pizza, and I really wanted to make fresh mozzarella for it.

A few days ago I bought a quart of beautiful, non-homogenized milk from PCC. I was SO ready to make cheese! Unfortunately, and more typical than I want to admit, when I sat down to refresh my memory on Ricki’s cheese-making methods, I realized I had: 1) 3/4 gallon too little milk, and 2) ultra-pasturized milk, which won’t form curd.

Great.

Therefore, all four Prenzlows piled into the 4Runner and drove back to PCC to get the right type of milk, and enough of it:

I ♥ Smith Brothers. I remember driving past their dairy in the Kent Valley when I was little. Local = Awesome.

Back home I had 1 gallon of awesome milk ready to become CHEESE.

I had the unusual forethought to weigh the milk before I got started. Nine pounds exactly. the recipe said that the yield would be ¾- to 1-lb of cheese. I wondered where the 8 pounds went during the process. (Note – foreshadowing)

I started out slowly heating the milk, to which I’d added citric acid (if I remember correctly – and I didn’t refresh my memory before getting started yesterday – this is to accelerate the souring process for sweet milk). The milk became very foamy on the surface at the start.

It seemed like I was stirring forever while the milk heated, but things progressed just as they should.

After the milk reached 90°, I added the rennet. I wasn’t sure if the rennet would still work after sitting in my fridge for a year. Thankfully, it did! After the prescribed amount of time, the curd had begun to form and was as solid as a very soft custard. The whey was mostly clear.

I let it percolate for a few more minutes to get a better ‘set’. Then I cut the curd.

More heat, and then a few minutes later, and voila! Recognizable cheese curds!

And a monster gallon of whey. There’s the 8 pounds I was wondering about…

In the method I was using, these get heated in the microwave a few times to help the whey continue to separate. Eventually you pull the mozzarella like taffy and end up with these lovelies:

After you form them, you drop them into ice water to immediately halt the cooking. Ohhhhh, I can’t convey to you how much I simply wanted to stuff one of these in my mouth.

And then there were four.

The texture was perfect – soft and not stringy. The flavor was good – very fresh, just a tiny hint of salt, and very creamy tasting. I think on the next batch I will use just a bit more salt and an additive mentioned in the book to strengthen the flavor.

We had to make pizza before we ate all that fresh cheese straight off the plate. Oh my, but my cheese performed perfectly! We cut slices and laid them on the top of the pizza; we let the heat of the oven be responsible for melting and distributing the gooey goodness.

Perfect!

I will definitely make mozzarella again, it was so easy. I wish I didn’t let myself get so worked up about how difficult things might be. Making cheese is EASY, and I can’t wait to make more and to try different types.

Squirrelling Away

It’s been a while since the last post here at CI – August was filled with sunshine, doggies, sailing, dune-ridin’, and lots of yardwork involving chainsaws and branch-shears.

This has been the scene at my desk for the last few months:

Note – that was a ‘clean’ day. The mess and the sunshine outside have made it pretty hard to want to sit at a computer for longer than 2 minutes, and even when I did there were distractions making it hard to focus:

But as Labor Day (at the Dunes!) arrived and passed, the seasons changed in my mind. Sitting in the cab of the truck with the Captain – a bullie on the bench seat between us and a lab dozing on the crew bench behind us – I voiced the urge that had been welling up in my heart for the past two weeks:

“I’m going to spend a bit of time canning this coming week.” …A simple statement for a lot of action.

It all started a few weeks ago when I procured this little beauty from a local restaurant supply grocery:

You know you’re not messing around when you have a 25-lb bag of sugar hogging all the counterspace in your kitchen.

Next up, a trip to the Yakima Fruit Market in Bothell to see what looked good. Perfect timing for one of my very favorite fruits to eat canned, Italian Prunes. A huge box of Granny Smith apples also found its way into my cart, as well as a pound or so of string beans.

“Candy” indeed. When I was growing up, our home had two Italian Prune trees. That’s when I first fell in love with this fruit. To me, few things smell as much like summer as the scent of sun-warmed and sun-ripened prunes. And when accompanied by the buzz of hornets munching up bruised fruit on the ground and the golden sun-dappled shade of this tree? Perfect.

So it’s not hard to understand why a 30-lb box made perfect sense. At the time.

Like I realized with asparagus, a whole box is just a whole lot.

That’s 7 quarts and 8 pints of whole fruit in light syrup, and who knows how many ½ pints of the most delicious plum syrup I’ve ever had. (That, of course, was supposed to be jam, but I don’t like adding as much sugar as Ball wants because when I do it, all I can taste is the sugar not the fruit. However, I haven’t gotten my pectin balancing figured out yet to compensate for the missing gel. I’m sure time and experience will fix this, but until then this stuff is still AWESOME!)

I also quartered a dehydrator-full of fruit and partially dried them on very low heat. I found when I did the apricots and nectarines earlier this summer, that drying at the recommended temperature for fruit as listed on the dehydrator itself actually cooked the fruit as well as dried it. The resulting flavor was a too carmelly for my preference – I want as much fresh, sweet-tart flavor of the raw fruit to remain as possible. This plan worked well, and now I have a pint bag full of raisiny-soft prunes in the freezer, ready for cakes, muffins, and cookies during this winter.

Prunes were first because they can spoil so quickly. With that monkey off my back, the beans were next on the list. I’d been waiting for a while to find beans on sale so I could get a nice amount without feeling guilty, since I was planning to use them to liven up my bean storage. Over the past few years I’ve been working on building up a bit of food storage for us, and that includes a small number of canned beans – but still more than the average pantry. Beans have never been a staple or go-to food for me, and so as the year wore on I found myself looking at 20 or so cans of kidney beans and a similar number of garbanzo beans every time I wandered down to the garage. What to do with all that?

Then I had an idea: Three Bean Salad! Yes!

I love Three Bean Salad, but we rarely have it because I don’t usually like store-bought flavors and I don’t typically plan ahead enough to let the beans marinate before eating. But I could make my own! And it could percolate down in storage and soak up all those wonderful flavors – just ready to eat whenever I wanted!

First step: Get beans

Second step: Can (cold pack, 15 min bwb)

Third step: EAT!

No picture for this yet, those babies have to soak!

Those apples are up next, on the docket for later this week. Plans are for applesauce, pie filling, and who knows what other yummy good things!

Have a wonderful week!

Rhuberries & Blueberries

The summer putting up season has begun!

Rhuberries:

I found some lovely young rhubarb at Yakima Farmer’s Market and bought a bagfull. It sat around in my fridge for a few days while I collected my canning mojo (which always seems to run off just before the start of the season) and got going Monday afternoon.

I started by cleaning and cutting up the rhubarb, which took a while. When I was finished, I had 12 cups of pieces. I decided to make some jam but to use most of the rhubarb for sauce.

The sauce recipe was from Putting Food By. It seemed super easy: for every quart of rhubarb, add 1/2c sugar. Let sit for several hours, bring to a boil over low heat, then process.

The jam recipe was from Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving. It uses equal parts rhubarb and strawberries, and about 1.5:1 sugar to fruit.

Easy-peasy, right? WRONG.

I got going on the sauce prep, no problem, but as I was measuring out the sugar, I realized I had only a few cups and not nearly enough to even fake it on the jam. So, since I needed to go to the store for sugar, I decided to get my strawberries out of the freezer so they could thaw. I realized I had only a few cups and not nearly enough to even fake it on the jam said screw it, I’m makin’ jam with what I’ve got! I found a pint of raspberries in the fridge, most of which were still good, and figured that would have to be enough.

I bundled Benny and myself into the truck and ran to PCC to get several pounds of their unbleached cane sugar, my favorite sugar for jam-making.

(After we got back, he went straight to his pillow and didn’t move unless he heard the splat of a bit of sauce dropping on the floor.)

When we returned, the sauce prep looked good. A bit of juice was starting to pool.

For the jam, I measured out 8 cups of the unbleached cane and 3/4cup of white sugar I that was left over from the sauce. That was all I used, though the recipe called for 11 cups. I find that the Ball recipes are far too sweet for my taste, and lose all the fruit flavor in the process. I also doubled the amount of lemon juice, both because we like sweet-tart things around here and because I wanted a good amount of acid in the jam since I wasn’t using all the sugar called for. Don’t know if that’s correct logic for preserves, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

The jam turned out PERFECTLY, with incredible rhubarb flavor. I love it.

Blueberries:

Today was the next batch of summer yummy: a preserve that looked to pretty to not try: Blueberries and Bay from the River Cottage Preserves (1) Book by Pam “The Jam” Corbin. It’s the cover photo, and I’ve been itching to make it since I first saw a picture of this wonderful book.

The recipe includes a few fresh bay leaves in each jar. I don’t have those so I used 2T Drambuie in the syrup instead. Oh, the sacrifices we have to make….

Pam is, shall we say, WAY less concerned about getting sued by people and getting shut down by the USDA than the “Putting Food By” ladies. She far more fun to read and follow as she advocates uses any old jar laying around, has a relaxed approach to sterilization, and generally doesn’t get in a twist about most things. For example, this particular recipe uses ‘the oven method’, where you sterilize the jars, cold pack the blueberries, pour over boiling syrup, and then put in the oven at 300º for 30 mins to kill the nasties. I think this worked great for the soft fruit of blueberries – they stayed whole and lovely:

However, it was generally a lot of screwing around, and I think I like water bath processing more overall.

All and Sundry:

The dehydrator has been working nights, with a batch of scallions and a batch of mixed nectarine and apricot slices. The scallions turned out perfectly, crisp and colorful.

The fruit dried well, but I think I just don’t like fully dehydrated fruit very much. But the apricot tastes lovely, and I’m thinking about making some apricot fruit leather soon.

Readying the Pantry

I have to admit that it just doesn’t feel like Summer around here yet. Yesterday didn’t get above 60 degrees, and it was 45 degrees when I woke this morning. It’s dark and cloudy and rainy. It seems more like April than mid-June, but so far this calendar year everything’s been moving forward at a snail’s pace.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that not all other parts of the state and West coast are experiencing the same thing – and especially the other half of the country where it is so crazy hot! But on Monday I finally pulled it together enough to realize that even if (that should be ‘when’) the weather changes and wonderful summer produce arrives, I wasn’t close to ready to put up. My kitchen has been a mess-and-a-half for the past 2 months, and my pantry showed a decided lack of attention. Canning jars were everywhere – kitchen, breakfast nook, laundry room, basement, car (don’t ask). Canning paraphernalia was distributed across an even broader range of the house, if you can believe that.

What I’ve found is that if I don’t have things front and center in my kitchen, I don’t use it. I am a true victim of ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ disease. So, Monday I cleared out my pantry, cleaned the shelves, threw out a bunch of junk, and re-organized:

This helped me get my brain ready for putting-up season. Sort of like warming up before a run.

Besides my new canning book, I picked up “Food Drying with an Attitude” at the library yesterday. I’d read about it on Penny’s blog, and wanted to check it out but kept forgetting. Finally I just reserved it online and now I have it in hand.

Mary Bell dries everything. It’s pretty fascinating to read what she does and why. The pictures are also great. I’m not a raw food enthusiast, but her book also includes a lot of tips for those who are. Reading this book yesterday lit a fire under my behind to get going on some things I had sitting in the fridge…

So, last night I spent over an hour adding mesh net to my dehydrator’s drying shelves. The holes on the shelves themselves are too large and I’ve had some issues last season with food dropping through them as they dry and shrink. So I pulled some netting out of my fabric stash and cut 9 pieces to size.

Yep. Boat canvas thread – points to you if you recognized the color. This was super-fussy work and took much longer than I’d anticipated. Puppy interruptions didn’t exactly speed the process.

Could you say no to this face?

Finally I finished tying the knots on the last tray and then sliced up 2.5 lbs of mushrooms I’d gotten at a great price. The 2.5lbs maxed out the dehydrator space. They dried overnight, and as of this morning, I’m back in business with dried ‘shrooms:

I love using these. They never really re-hydrate all the way, which makes them nice and meaty to my palate. I think they’re better than fresh in many types of sauces and stews, and the broth that results from soaking is loaded with mushroom flavor. I’m planning to make LOTS of these this year, every time I find them on sale.