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.