Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Learning to Can Safely

Like a lot of people who’ve taken up canning in the past several years, I first learned to can with my mother. She put up hundreds of jars of applesauce, green beans, peaches, pears, and tomatoes each summer. We picked blackberries every August, filling pots and pans and giant mixing bowls with our bounty, which then got cooked into jam that we slathered on peanut butter sandwiches. We canned in those days because we needed to feed ourselves good food at less cost. It saw us through some lean times well.

Now I can because it’s a way to ensure my food is as honest and clean as possible. I know what goes into those jars; there’s no high fructose corn syrup, no preservatives, no ridiculous amount of salt. I also get a say in where my food comes from. Sometimes it’s from my backyard, sometimes a local farm. I’ve also discovered that once people know you’re a canner they show up with bags and boxes full of fruit. (There are currently 28 pounds of plums in my freezer that need to be turned into jam. Soon.) And, really, canning is fun. I'm in love with those jewel-toned jars.

Ever since I started canning six years ago I’ve been looking for classes to help fill the gaps in my knowledge. What’s considered safe canning practice has changed over the past decade or so. Canning the way our grandmothers and mothers did may give a good seal, but that’s not enough. Food scientists know more about food borne illness now; we have new, stronger strains of bacteria that require us to be more careful in processing those beautiful jars. Just because it’s sealed doesn’t mean it’s safe.

When my search for a good, comprehensive class came up empty (my local extension office has no interest in offering classes) I turned to UC Davis and was referred to University of Idaho. That’s a long way from where I live. The good news is that they have an online course that’s open to anyone with any level of canning experience. Preserve @ Home is six weeks long, interactive with videos and weekly chats, and covers all aspects of food preservation. It’s not only the “how” of preserving, but the “why”. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. And it’s a bargain at $35.00.

If you’re interested in this class leave a comment and shoot me an email at jamandcookies at yahoo dot com and I’ll send you the registration form and syllabus. (Please don't leave your email address in your comment. In an effort to preserve your email address privacy I've deleted several comments that included that information.)It’s a special offering of the class and we need 15 people to make this happen; another class is scheduled for next year, so if this October doesn’t work for you there will be other opportunities.

Happy Canning!

Update: It looks like this class is going to fill quickly. The maximum enrollment is 20. Carol Hampton is offering to keep a waiting list for the next class, which is scheduled for January 2013. It might be wise to email her at to make sure there's room left in this session before you send your check. Please email me directly for the registration form and syllabus.

October 3, 2012 Update: The class is now full. If you're interested in a future class please contact Carol Hampton at the email address above.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

August Moon

The end of summer is here, a steady slide into autumn, that glorious blast of bright skies and warm days to remind us that the earth is stunningly beautiful. Every kid I know is back at school by now, their backpacks jammed with heavy books and clothes layered on for chilly mornings and shed during hot afternoons. It will be years before they can really see the beauty of this month.

I love this time of year. August, with its naked ladies in full bloom, ripe blackberries hanging just beyond my reach, the first tomatoes of the season, dandelion seeds floating on wispy breezes.

We’ve been watching a caterpillar in the herb bed for two days. It’s beautiful, all green, red, and orange, perched at the end of a parsley sprig. Neither of us has the heart to move it. If this creature needs my parsley to fuel its transition to butterfly I’m willing to leave it alone and hope that, with a bit of luck, we might see what emerges from the cocoon later.

August leaves me grateful and sad and in awe. It’s the month of my sister’s birth, a date I set aside every year to quietly celebrate the 42 years we had with her. I wish the sunshine on her face and the sweet taste of wild blackberry jam in her mouth. I wish long conversations and sharing dreams with her. August was her month, bright and full of ripening harvest. And over far too soon.

When you hear a tale
Of the August moon
Indulge your senses,
Call Wisdom.
Discover one simple dream.
Honor truth.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Irish Soda Bread - Part 2 (finally)

It seems my blogging intentions have been waylaid by an insistent desire to be lazy about writing. There it is; I’ve been apathetic about writing for so long that thinking about it feels like yet another chore waiting to be done, but a quick look through past posts reminds me that I need to follow up on a few things that got pushed all the way to the back of the cupboard. Time to dig out and finish what I started.

Way back in March I wrote about baking Irish Soda Bread. It was good, but not great. So I experimented and researched and left my mother’s recipe behind. That recipe called for a lot more flour than any other I’ve seen, and instead of buttermilk she used regular milk. That got me a hot brick. The next time I used less flour, but still regular milk. Not quite so dense, but not what I wanted either. Finally, after learning why buttermilk is so important to Soda Bread I made another loaf using vinegar and milk (I didn’t want to buy a quart of buttermilk and have to throw most of it out because, umm, yuck). The bread was delicious and had the right texture and density.

This is what I learned:
  • The acidity of buttermilk is necessary to activate the baking soda. Not adding that acidity will leave the bread dense.
  • You can fake buttermilk by adding one teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar to room temperature milk and letting it sit for 15 minutes
  • Fresh, hot bread is the perfect vehicle for loads of fresh, homemade butter.
  • My jeans fit better if I don’t bake bread too often.

Okay, one follow-up post completed. Let’s see how well I do with the next one.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A New Day

Yesterday was a rotten day. There's no other word that fits. But today is going to be better. Look at where I read the newspaper and had my tea this morning. The air smells like summer, a spicy, earthy, warm scent that promises something wonderful.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Sunday morning in the garden: more herbs planted in the perennial herb bed, tomato cages in place, everything watered, an abandoned bird nest admired, all while three dragonflies flew in circles above us. Perfect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Red Tape - An Adventure

It’s 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, late enough in the Spring to feel like afternoon instead of the evening almost-night of the same time in Winter. In about an hour I’ll have dinner just about ready – leftovers -  and not long after that will settle in for the slow decline of day before heading off to bed at a reasonable time so I can get up in the morning and go make a living. My weekend is over and for the first time in ages I feel accomplished and rested. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that out loud; it might be tempting fate or the sandman. It might reek of bragging.)

The house is cleaned, laundry finished, business bookkeeping and errands are caught up, the garden is holding its own. I even stretched out on the couch with a book and drifted into a twilight kind of sleep for a half hour or so. It was lovely. And now, from that place of feeling a deep breath in my soul, I’m writing. It’s time to catch up on this blog.

For a while, a couple months, I managed to post a few times a week. A little rhythm developed, take some pictures, write a few paragraphs, polish it up a bit, post. Then things went a little sideways.

Here’s the short version of what happened: Last autumn my husband had knee surgery. Nothing major, a little repair that should have corrected the problem and had him back on his feet better than new in six to eight weeks. Piece of cake. But that’s not what happened. Instead we discovered what a bureaucratic nightmare the Worker’s Compensation system can be. We learned about the ways a person can fall through the cracks of a medical system that doesn’t listen to the patient and that the insurance program intended to protect injured employees requires constant monitoring and advocacy. When it was long past obvious that his knee wasn’t healing properly the system failed. Our dining room table has been strewn with papers for months, a trail of events and notices, requests for information and confirmation, copies of letters we’ve sent, and notes to help us keep track of it all. My husband’s supervisors delayed filing paperwork, resulting in a tangle of over-payments and crossed wires, leading to demands for re-payment and proof that a doctor’s report should have amply answered. And the part that frustrates us the most? My husband’s knee is no better than before surgery.

We looked for an attorney, only to learn that there are only four lawyers in the state who will take on this worker’s comp insurance. It’s a big, bad, mother of a federal system. And we’ve been going head-to-head with it.

In the end it’s most likely going to be just fine. My husband’s knee is finally getting stronger, he’s returned to work, and we’re gradually getting our feet back under us again. We took a deep breath on Sunday morning and had a delightful day.

And this blog? Sheesh, it needs some serious attention. Bear with me while I figure out how to bring it back to life and re-establish a writing and photography routine. There are amazing things in this world, even in dark times, and I plan to string together words to describe them. Red tape be damned.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Chicken in Every Yard

We think we're so clever, discovering that chickens keep well in backyards. And that we're somehow side-stepping the government. Hah!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spice Dyed Easter Eggs

Sunday morning I got up early to dye Easter Eggs using spices, herbs, teas, vegetables, and assorted juices. I've always been hesitant to use commercial egg dyes since getting sick after eating an Easter Egg when I was a kid, therefore I was delighted to learn actual food could be used to color eggs. The results were mixed, with some dyes barely tinting the eggs and others giving a soft color. The basic recipe uses one cup of hot water in which to dissolve the spices and a tablespoon of vinegar. The eggs soaked for 60-90 minutes. I used one teaspoon of ground spice per cup - not quite enough, but a good start. Next time I'll use more spice. A light rub with olive oil after they dried gave the eggs a nice sheen.

Here's the list and results:
Fresh spinach (a good handful boiled for a long while) - not much color change and really icky, slimy spinach to strain out
Celery Seed - no color change
Mexican Saffron - very pretty light orange
Chili Powder - light orange
Curry Powder - pretty yellow
Ground Sage - nice greenish brown
Paprika - pale beige orange
Beet Juice - pale pink
Cherries in Wine (canned last summer) - purplish grey
Raspberry Tea - soft grey
Black Tea (Barry's) - varied browns
Dried Hibiscus Flowers - mottled grey

 Setting up for egg dyeing with spices and teas.

My favorites turned out to be the oranges and yellows: Mexican saffron, chili powder, curry powder, and paprika.

While I took the natural route, my brother and nephew used pens for a different take.

Eggs to warm a rocker's heart. 

Oh, and a Storm Trooper too.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Weekend's Worth of Pictures, Sort Of...

The only thing these pictures have in common is that I took them over this weekend with my phone.

A Curious Bird...
 Dessert at a Disco-themed 50th birthday party.

The drive home on a rainy night.

Friday, March 23, 2012

An Encyclopedia of Cooking

Last year on a summer afternoon we wandered up the block to a moving sale. It was an elderly couple getting ready to downsize and move closer to their kids. My vintage antennae were twitching and I convinced my husband to come along. I’ve learned it’s wise to take him with me on these expeditions, otherwise we’d have a house full of things we don’t need, don’t have room for, but I just couldn’t pass up. He gets a subtle look I’ve learned to read as, “Are you kidding??!!!”.

There were lots of old cookbooks, boxes of them tucked in a corner of the garage. I picked out a couple for a grand total of $2.50 and headed home to flip through them. The first, and biggest, book is The Encyclopedia of Cooking, by Mary Margaret McBride, first published in 1959. It’s full of recipes from another era, some that I’ll try, others, um, not. The other book is hilarious and worthy of an entire post of its own next week. (How’s that for a stay-tuned tease?)

The Encyclopedia of Cooking is over 1,500 pages long, a hefty book of recipes straight from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The recipes range from cookies that look good even in black & white, to gelatin salads (yuck), to frankfurter casseroles I don’t even want to imagine. There’s even a canning section that, though out-dated, is fun to read through.  I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of this book, and a bit more.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Irish Bread - Part One

Over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend I decided to try baking Irish Soda Bread. It’s something my mother made often when I was growing up, but she never wrote down the recipe. It was all in the look and feel of the dough, a little more flour, a little less milk, a dash of something else. And always lots of raisins. Traditional soda bread doesn’t have raisins in it, but we all loved those sweet raisins, tradition be damned.

I didn’t know what were eating was soda bread until a few years ago; we always called it “Irish bread” not knowing what made it any more Irish than other types of bread. A little research this morning answered that question and a few others.

I didn't have any buttermilk in the house; I used milk instead, not realizing that baking soda needs acidity to activate properly. My soda bread was a little too dense, a tiny bit doughy, but tasty anyway. Lots of butter on warm bread is a good thing.

In a week or two I'll make another loaf using proper ingredients and will report back how that turns out.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A hundred bottles of....

Lately I’ve been wondering just how many canning jars I have stashed away in my house. This afternoon, with notebook and pen, I went looking and counted all of them. Pints, half pints, quarts, little four ounce jam jars, tall twelve ounce jars, and old, blue jars. I counted jars filled, empty, and hidden in the back of the fridge. (Some of those need to be emptied; the contents are questionable. Yuck.) A few of the oldest jars with their zinc and glass lids are displayed in my kitchen, too precious to put through a water bath or pressure canner.

After a while I lost track of which jars I’d already counted, and I’m sure some were missed in the shuffle of glass, but it’s safe to say I’ve got over 300 canning jars of assorted sizes. At least three dozen of them are vintage, ranging from 40 or 50 years to possibly 80 years old. In the past couple weeks I’ve given away another two dozen vintage jars, because really, how many old jars could I ever use? I’m curious to see how many of them I get filled this summer and fall.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Water, Water Everywhere

This afternoon it’s rainy and a little chilly outside, not unusual for March by any means. In fact, I’m glad to see the rain because we’ve had so little of it this season. Back in the mid-70’s we had a drought here in Northern California and learned how to ration our water use. Lawns died, cars got dirty, we were encouraged to shower with a friend, and to flush only when completely necessary. It’s shaping up to be a drought year again, starting now, even with all this rain.

A couple years ago, after much searching, we installed a gadget on our shower that allows a momentary water shut-off for soaping up without having to readjust the temperature every time. All winter I forget it’s there and, honestly, I’m not going to turn off that lovely warm water when it’s chilly in the house. But come summer, I’ll put that valve to use. It’s a gallon or two saved, a good start, but not enough.

What I’d really like to install is a grey water system. Watching the amount of water that runs down the drain makes me think there’s got to be a better way to use this expensive resource. We talk about it when the water bill comes in, or when we’re at the local farm supply store looking at giant water tanks, which makes me also wonder about capturing run-off from the roof during the rainy season.  I think about that every time I hear water pouring through the downspouts.

We live in a modern, suburban house with a concrete pad foundation; moving and rearranging pipes isn’t an option. And our neighbors probably wouldn’t be happy to see a storage tank of any size adorning our yard. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen someday. We’ll need to be creative about it, possibly setting up several small barrels to catch both grey and rain water and tucking them into the landscaping plan.

These days my incentive for turning off the tap and taking shorter showers is more complex than hearing my father yell about it. It’s my pocket the water bill gets paid out of, and a greater awareness of resource management propels creative and thoughtful use of household utilities. Drought or not, it’s worth considering alternatives.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sunday Breakfast With a Side of Ethics

Sunday is the one day of the week we're able to decide whether to get out of the house early or stay home in our jammies with the newspaper and pot after pot of tea. It’s that second option I like best on wintery days. I want to laze away the morning in slow motion. Sometimes we watch Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood, other times I go back to bed with the newspaper and stay there until I’ve read the entire thing.

Although Sunday breakfast should be special, it often isn’t any different than my quick workday bite just before I dash out the door. Actually cooking and lingering is part of what made yesterday’s breakfast so especially amazing.

We’ve been buying pastured eggs from a friend whose hens live a grand life. They get good food and stretch their wings in sunshine, scratching and pecking on green grass. Their eggs have bright orange yolks that stand tall and round in the pan and a taste that’s richer than anything produced by hens kept in small, artificially lit cages.

In addition to those delicious eggs we had locally raised, nitrite-free bacon and fresh, homemade (not by me) bread. The bread was light and hearty, full of whole grains and perfectly toasted. I topped my slice with a good dollop of Satsuma Mandarin Marmalade from this winter’s backyard harvest. It doesn’t get any more local than twenty feet from your own door.

The bacon we ate yesterday was thoughtfully and ethically raised. Knowing this, and that it was humanely slaughtered, makes me feel a sense of honor for the animal I don’t get with a package from the store. It wasn’t as salty as commercial bacon, was more thickly cut, and had a mellower flavor. It crisped exactly the way we both like.

I’m done buying eggs and bacon at the grocery store. For the small amount of bacon we actually eat (I could honestly have it every day if my cholesterol level would allow), I don’t mind paying a little more for this kind of quality. And isn’t that what Sunday morning should be about? Quality, ethics, honor, delicious food. My kind of day.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why I Can

The response I get most often when people hear I’m a canner is that it sounds like an awful lot of work. And it’s true, but its work in the same way cooking dinner is, making a piece of art, or planting a garden. The fact is that most things in life are work. It’s only unpleasant if you dislike the process or the outcome. When it comes to canning I adore both. Not enough to do it every day, or even weekly, but often and intensely enough to satisfy a creative need.

I make a lot of jam, partially because I really like good jam (Smuckers anyone? I don’t think so) and because of the process itself. Anyone who’s ever stood over a pot of bubbling jam knows what I’m talking about here. From choosing fruit - if you’re really lucky, harvesting your own - through labeling and storing your jars, there isn’t a step that doesn’t involve the senses and require mindfulness. You can’t rush any step along the way. Jam gels at a certain temperature and not a moment before. Hurrying through filling jars just makes a mess; there’s enough clean up to do while the water bath is boiling your jars without having to wipe up sticky jam from the counter too.

It’s been almost six years since I started canning. I’d made freezer jam a few times, but was a daunted by actual canning. It seemed complicated and kind of scary. Then I read a blog post about dilly beans and something clicked. I could do this. One thing led to another and my pantry is now full of jam, dill pickles, tomatoes, peaches, brandied cherries, applesauce, pickled beets, conserves, and my beloved dilly beans. I’ve moved on to pressure canning; that was a big investment and I had to step up my game.

I like putting food on the table that I can trace back to my garden or the farm around the corner. Some produce comes from the 130 year old farm stand in town that tempts me to spend way too much money on far too much fruit. It’s important to know not only what’s in those jars, but also what isn’t. There’s not a hint of preservative, high fructose corn syrup, or food coloring. My hands were on every piece of produce, washing and checking for blemishes and ripeness. But the end product is only part of the reason I can. It’s the process I love most.
I love the meditative quality of canning. Everything in order and in its time. The smell and color of cooking fruit. The absolute sense of accomplishment when I pull the last jar from the water bath. The beauty of jewel-toned jars cooling on the table.

Yes, it’s work, but aren’t some things worth working for?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Prepping the Garden Beds

It’s time to prepare the garden beds for spring planting. We’ve poured bags of compost into the beds, turned the soil and covered it with sheets of newspaper again. It’s not pretty, all that newspaper weighted down against the wind with rocks and tree limbs, but it works. The weeds don’t get a chance to take root and the neighborhood cats won’t do their business where they can’t dig. And it’s cheap. When it’s time to transplant our seedlings I’ll peel back enough paper to plant, letting the remaining newspaper stay in place to continue keeping weeds and cats out of the bed.

The tomato seeds went into seed trays yesterday and the basil this morning. Our green bean seedlings have grown startlingly fast. It’s the first time I’ve started seeds indoors and I’m surprised at how quickly they germinated and grew. There’s a forest of green beans in my kitchen and by the time the last frost is past and the soil warm enough to plant they’ll be sturdy beanstalks.

We dug up last season’s parsley (that wouldn’t grow then, but looks healthy now) as well as a large clump of sage and moved them from wine barrels to beds. Lemon balm that wanted to escape its box is now confined to a planter on the patio.

(Here's a potato we found in a barrel when we dug out the sage.)

By the middle of next month the garden will be in full swing and my hands will be full of dirt. I can barely wait.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Retro, Vintage, Old

Vintage is the new buzzword for old. It’s true that everything old is new again, especially if it has a certain retro or vintage vibe to it. The stuff our parents threw away because it was ugly, or no good, or didn’t fit in anywhere…what I wouldn’t give to have some of those things now.

Over the weekend I was gifted with vintage canning jars; four dozen jars that had been in storage for decades, packed carefully between layers of yellowed, crisp newspaper. The jars are Ball and Kerr, mostly pre-1960, some from the 1970's, as far as I can tell. Some are in excellent condition, others have a few nicks and scratches, not enough to warrant tossing them, but they won’t be up to a hot water bath again. Those jars, the ones likely to break in the pot, are still perfect for dry storage. A pantry full of jars is much prettier, and more efficient, than one filled with rubber-banded plastic bags and boxes that won’t stay shut. I can see exactly how much rice is left and if there are enough split peas for soup.

Of course, the decorating and other storage options are endless too: flower vases, candle holders, buttons, marbles, pens. Some people use them for drinking glasses, but I prefer my wine glass with a little less heft.

Not all of these jars will make it to my pantry. Even fewer will end up in the canning pot. I’m finding homes for some of them with canners as crazy about old glass as I am. I’m glad they didn’t get thrown away.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bay Rum Aftershave

Grand ideas sometimes come out of nowhere. Or maybe it just seems like it, when actually they’ve been hovering just over our shoulder, nagging for attention. This week I stopped in my tracks to listen and good things happened.

In the past week I’ve made a batch of soap, a dozen or more herb filled microwave heating pads, worked on some mixed media projects, and started two batches of Bay Rum Aftershave. Each project is worth a post of its own, but today’s is about the aftershave. My husband likes the refreshing feel and scent, and especially that he doesn’t feel perfumed. I love the way it, and he, smells.

I first learned about Bay Rum probably thirty years ago when I took a class given by Rosemary Gladstar, but didn’t get around to making it until last year. Turns out it’s simple to make and requires only ingredients most of us have in our kitchens already. The hardest part is being patient while it steeps long enough for the fragrance to develop.

After poking around the internet for recipes, I found most of them to be the same. The one I chose was repeated most often; I like a stronger bay scent, so I added more bay leaves and let it steep for much longer.

Here’s the basic formula:

Bay Rum Aftershave

½ cup Vodka

2 Tbs. Jamaican Rum

2 dried bay leaves

¼ tsp. whole allspice

1 cinnamon stick

Zest of one small orange

Put all ingredients in a jar, close the lid and place it in a dark place for at least two weeks. Strain through cheesecloth and pour into a clean bottle. Give it to a man you love.