Thursday, December 20, 2012

Apple Canning Recap - with Pictures!

I'm finally getting the last of my apples put up. Thank goodness apples keep so well! I must say, I'm very pleased with the yield I've gotten from only 1.5 bushels. Soon after finishing the apple butter, my lovely local apple source had a bushel of less-than-perfect apples for only $14! These apples were just old enough to not enjoy fresh, but they were perfect for canning. I used half the bushel for sliced apples in light syrup and the other half for applesauce.

Then, I discovered a recipe for apple peel jelly, made from all those peels and cores. You know I made it. I hate throwing something away if it has potential value, no matter how many jars of jelly are currently chillin' in my basement. I have to say, I was surprised how much apple flavor was in those peels. It was a delicious, complex, almost floral kind of fruity flavor. Certainly worth making for an everyday jelly. I still have about 3 cups of apple peel juice left, and I'm thinking of making it into a cordial. Or I'll just drink it.

And so, in the interest of remembering all of this a year from now, here's the breakdown of my apple canning extravaganza!

Apple Butter
Used: 1/2 bushel plus some. Maybe closer to 3/4 bushel.
Yield: 21 half-pints
Left skins on, added cinnamon, cloves ginger, allspice, SMALL amount of cardamom.
NOTES: Very good, very easy.  Will see how well I use it up, but will likely make again.

Apples in Extra Light Syrup
Used: 1/2 bushel, less maybe 3-4lbs
Yield: 11 pints
Apples were overripe and cooked up a bit too mushy for pies.
Used extra-light syrup and followed Ball Book instructions. Good level of sweet.
1 batch of syrup filled all jars, added cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, and a bit of vanilla extract.
Lots of siphoning. Perhaps too little head space or poorly packed. Lost majority of syrup.

All but one sealed properly.
Preferred heating slices in syrup just until they started to shrink but not cooked through.
 (Notice top row in picture. Left three were par-cooked, right two were fully cooked.)
NOTES: We'll see how I use the jars, but this was a pain to make for such mediocre results. May not make again.

Used: 1/2 bushel (slightly less. some went bad)
Yield: 4 quarts
Added 1c brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, ginger
Also 4 small Meyer lemons
Left texture quite chunky.
All sealed.
NOTES: Delicious, will make again! Almost too tart for me, but Hubby loves it. Ran out of brown sugar or I might have added more. I certainly see this getting used regularly. It's delicious hot; good enough for dessert! Only problem is, to last a year I would have to make at least 12 quarts, preferably twice as much.

Jelly isn't nearly this orange. More a rosy peach/pink.

Apple Peel Jelly
Used: 1 bushel (ish) peels and cores
Water Used: 7 + 10 = 17 (made in two batches)
Juice Yield: 15 cups
Added very modest amounts cinnamon, cloves ginger, allspice while simmering peel.
Squeezed as much liquid out of peels as possible. Juice is cloudy but I don't care.
Used low sugar SureJell. 6c juice to 3c sugar. Not sure it's going to fully set up. Time will tell.
Update: It seems to be jelling just barely enough. Next year I'm trying Pomona's.
Very sweet. Almost overpowers delicate apple flavor.
All sealed!
12c juice yielded 12 half-pints. I must have boiled it down too much. It took forever to boil.
NOTES: While this isn't a smack-yo-mama jelly like my blueberry jam, it's still very good. Would certainly make a good everyday jelly, if I can ever wean AC off his strawberry bias. Color of peels determined color of juice.

This brings my total jar count to:
  • 21 jars apple butter
  • 11 pints apples slices
  • 4 quarts applesauce
  • 12 jars apple jelly

Phew! I think that's enough apple for one year! Just a few more projects on my list, and I think I can finally put down my ladle until next spring. I look forward to recapping everything I've made and making a plan for next year. Someone has offered to let me borrow their pressure canner, so my plans already include a few garden rows of beets and green beans. Finally, I'll be able to put up something that isn't sweet or pickled! Sad how excited I am about that.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Apple Butter, a.k.a. the easiest stuff to can, EVER!

Ah, fall! The leaves have long since left our trees, but there are still oodles of autumn produce to be had. I have been buying apples by the half bushel from a sweet gal who sold at the farmer's market over the summer. She joined up with my awesome grassfed meat source, and now they both deliver bi-weekly a few miles from my house. You really can't top the convenience, especially this time of year! These apples are good eatin'! They are grown locally with a minimum of pesticides, and you can taste the difference right on the skin. Store bought apples have such a bitterness to their skins, but my farm apples aren't bitter in the least.

Now, a half bushel is a huge amount of apples, especially when a lot of them are on the smaller side. I couldn't refrigerate them if I wanted to. At first this wasn't a problem. My boys go through apples like crazy. They could polish off a 3lb bag of apples in three or four days, tops. Bulk was not only more convenient, but cheaper! Is it just me, or have there not been any major apple sales this year? I don't recall pears going on sale when they were in season, either. Stupid inflation.

Where was I? Oh yeah, bulk apples. (count yourself lucky, I almost went on a political/economic rant right there) The first half bushel of apples, my boys were in heaven. I left the box on my kitchen floor and they were able to help themselves throughout the day. Two weeks later, they had just about finished the box when I picked up the next half bushel. This time, they slowed way down. I think they're suffering from apple burnout. After a week, the apples began to bruise, which dramatically increased the rejection rate. AC does not dig blemishes on fruit. At all. If his banana has the slightest brown on it, I have to hand it to him strategically so he can't see the spot before he eats it. Parenting is all about strategy and outwitting the other side. Or is that in battle? Eh, same thing.

That's right, I said bedtime.
What is a gal to do with half a box of bruised apples? Well, can them, of course! I immediately hopped on pinterest (better than google in my world) and started searching for different ideas. BAM, it hit me. Apple butter. But not just apple butter, apple butter made in the CROCK POT! I absolutely LOVE apple butter, but the store bought stuff is guaranteed to be laced with high fructose corn syrup. Where's the fun in that?

Let me tell you, apple butter in the crockpot is so rediculously easy, and so dadgum DELICIOUS, that I immediately had to make more. I promptly ordered another half bushel, and even told them they could include imperfect and bruised apples. It really doesn't matter with apple butter, and I figured it helped them unload produce they might have been stuck with otherwise.

I'm writing down what I did mostly to remind myself for next year. If you want a more formal recipe, this one at is really informative. This is a great project to start in the evening after kids go to sleep.

I started by slicing as many apples as would fit in two of my crockpots. (5qt and 7qt) The apples shrink a lot as they cook down, so I decided to cook down two crocks, then combine them when it came time to can them up. I left the skins on my apples, both for nutrition and bulk, but if you insist on a perfectly smooth apple butter, I'd recommend cutting them off. My stick blender couldn't get every last piece, although it is mostly smooth.

Then, I topped each crock with 1/4 cup sugar (next time I use brown sugar), cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, and a wee bit of cardamom. All spices were eyeballed, because I can't be bothered to measure them. I add the initial sugar to help draw out moisture from the apples. There is absolutely no need for additional liquids when I cook them like this. Fewer liquids = less simmering time. I opted for fresh ginger over dried, simply because I LOVE fresh ginger and I always have some on hand. I'll save the ground ginger for gingerbread. Oh, gingerbread... now I'm hungry.

Stay on target, Maria, stay on target.

I am now envisioning myself flying across the surface of the Death Star.

I think I'm off target.

GINGER. I was talking about ginger. Be forewarned, if you use fresh ginger, it will not break down while cooking and the stick blender won't catch it. I happen to love bits of fresh ginger. Others (Hubby included) don't. Your call. Unless I'm doing the cooking, then it's my call. Sorry, Hubby.

Once all the spices were in, I threw the lid on, set it to low, and went about my evening. Every few hours, I took a peek to see if the apples had shrunk down. If there was room, I diced up another half dozen apples and stirred them in. I continued adding until I had used up the entire half bushel. As soon as all your apples are added, you can ignore the sucka for the rest of the night.

In the morning, my kitchen smelled like apple magic and happiness. For real. The apples were super soft and ready for the stick blender. If you don't have a stick blender, I have heard of people using hand held mixers. At this point I suggest tasting it, and adding sugar and spices to suit your tastes. Immediately after I finished canning my batch, I happened upon a recipe that included vanilla extract. WHY didn't I think of that? I'm totally doing that next year.

The next step kinda depends on your crock pot. You want to get your puree up to a simmer. One of my crocks was simmering on low, while the other one had to be cranked up to high. Once it's simmering, you can take the lid off and let it cook down over the course of the day. Stir it every once in a while, or whenever you can't resist leaning over the pot to sniff the goodness. As soon as it is as thick as you like, you're done. Hot foods are always more runny than room temp or refrigerated, so it might help to scoop some on a plate and chill it. You can do this whenever you're curious. Or hungry.

I started simmering my apple butter about 9:00am and it was done about 4:00 in the afternoon. To make life easy, I decided to combine everything into my 7qt crock (it BARELY fit) and leave it be until the kids went to bed at 8:00. Next step: canning!

The link I incuded above gives very thorough canning instructions, so I will send you there for the details. Below are just my notes.

  • A half bushel of apples netted me 21 half-pint jars of apple butter, or approximately 5 1/2 quarts. I'm hoping this will last us a year!
  • From start to finish, the canning part of things took me about 4 hours, but I know I could pare that down quite a bit.
  •  I have two water bath canners, and when you're doing big batches like this it is AWESOME! It cut my processing time in half, although I think my poor stove wept for joy when I was done. Canners are huge!
  • I always forget how long it takes to bring the water to a boil initially. It must have taken close to 2 hours between the two of them. Factor that in if you want to start canning as soon as kids are asleep. You can have the water heating during the bedtime routine.
  • One HUGE canning tip I learned this time around, is to add a splash of vinegar to your canning water. Canners, especially the racks, will rust. Guaranteed.  Adding vinegar to the water works some mojo and not only prevents but REMOVES rust from the pot and rack! Be forewarned, if your rack is super rusty and you soak it in vinegar water, you will get all sorts of nasty floaty bits in the water. Better to give bad rust a soak before you use it to can.
I am REALLY impressed with how easy this was. I essentially spent two evenings on it, with a little stirring in between. The first evening was chopping apples, a job that can be done in front of the TV (or radio, if you're feeling old-timey). The second evening was the canning, but considering it was only four hours (and most of that waiting for water to boil), there was very little work involved. Very few actual hours invested, and I now have a year's worth of sweet apple butter. I'd love to try it in baking, but for that I may have to make another batch. These jars are going to be as closely guarded as my spiced blueberry jam!

(I know, it's cruel to do an apple butter post without showing apple butter. But since I can't find my camera I'm going to post this now and update with a few beauty shots later.)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Garden Recap 2012

Not my 'maters. Image Credit
This year I managed to clear a little 4'x8' patch in the backyard, and in it I crammed four Roma tomatoes, three jalapenos, three sweet frying peppers, and four cabbages. Yes, they all somehow fit. The cabbage ended up a bust, because I planted them late and they were devoured by some little buggy.

Only parts of it managed to get 6-7 hours of full sun, but somehow my little patch of tomatoes and peppers did phenomenal! That is, until they got walloped by a nasty combo of septoria leaf spot and late blight. I didn't notice it until it had gotten a strong foothold, and I was reluctant to spray heavy pesticides on them. It's a shame, too, because my Romas were absolutely covered in tomatoes! Once the blight got to them, it was over. Unripe tomatoes were falling off the vine daily, and whatever managed to hang on was covered in blight spots. I did get enough good fruit to try several batches of fermented salsa. That was interesting. I'm still getting the hang of fermenting. Most of my attempts have worked out well, but many of them are too salty for me to enjoy. The salsa wasn't too bad though, and I think I'd try it again if I had the chance. It was far less effort than canning!

My peppers fared better than the tomatoes against the spot/blight combo. To my surprise, the blight didn't cross over until very late in the season. There was very little effect on production, thank goodness, but I had no idea how many jalapenos I could get from three plants! WOW! I only wish I had been more prepared for the harvest, because most of it ended up sitting in my kitchen until it went bad.  I did make a small batch of candied jalapenos (also called cowboy candy!) and those turned out really good! It's horribly full of refined sugar, but the syrup is my favorite part. Sweet and hot, it's awesome on burgers or even salads! I definitely want to try that again next year! Assuming I get my butt organized in time...

I think my plants did well in their plot for two main reasons:
1) I fertilized them weekly for the first half of the season (non organic. sorry), and kept them reasonably well watered despite a very dry, hot first half of the summer.
2) The full sun lasted until early afternoon, effectively shading the plants during the hottest part of the day. Normally that would be a problem, and I think it was part of my blight problem during the wet second half of the season, but for our unusually hot, dry early summer it was exactly what they needed.

The worst part of all this, is thanks to the intense leaf spot and blight, I will not be able to plant tomatoes or peppers in my plot for at least three years. To add insult to injury, a few scraggly pepper plants that I had planted out front also came down with blight, so I have no place to plant tomatoes in-ground without digging up a new plot. Nuts.

So what have I learned this past year? First, if I'm going to grow something, I had better be prepared with half a dozen different ways to use up the harvest, and at LEAST one that requires little or no effort. Wasting produce is to have wasted every minute and every dollar spent on gardening. Second, I need to make sure I inspect my plants regularly. If I had kept a closer eye on my tomatoes I might have caught and eliminated the blight before it wrecked my plants and poisoned my soil.

I have already thought a lot about the past year and how I want to improve, but that will have to wait until my next post. Yep, I'm already planning next year's garden. What can I say, I'm a committed planner!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cauliflower Beef Soup

I'm going mad with soup making right now. As fast as I can whip up a batch of broth it disappears into a flavorful soup. This one is fairly understated, but I left it that way on purpose. I could have easily used more onion or rosemary, but this version has just enough to taste good and leave the hearty beef front and center. Feel free to add stuff to your heart's content!

Speaking of rosemary, I think everyone should grow it! My head explodes with happy every time I run my hands through the branches and inhale the intoxicating aroma. Think I'm exaggerating? Sneak into my yard and try it yourself. (just kidding, go away. I'm probably still in jammies) It is such an easygoing plant, and so far has tolerated hot, dry conditions as well as wet, humid conditions. The real test is to see if I can get it to live through the winter. Mine is in a pot and will have to be brought inside. I don't water plants so well... If it dies I can always strip the dried leaves off the branches and still have oodles of beautiful rosemary to grace my cooking.

Mmmmm, so good!

CAULIFLOWER BEEF SOUP     Yield: Approx. 3-4quarts

2 large cauliflower heads, woody stems removed and florets broken into large chunks
1/2 red onion, roughly chopped
1 4-inch branch of fresh rosemary
Dash of black pepper
1 - 1.5 quarts beef broth (this won't cover the florets but it will cook fine)
1 lb ground beef (I used grassfed beef from my friendly local farmers at Spring Valley Farms. Love those guys!)

Simmer everything until the florets begin to break down as you stir. Using a stick blender or a regular blender, blend everything until smooth. Some florets will mock you and refuse to be pureed. Don't fight it. Give them the stink eye and move on. The beef will add enough texture that you won't be bothered by the occasional cauliflower chunk. If the soup is thicker than you like, now is the time to add more broth. Place the pot back on the stove. Drop little balls of ground beef in the soup and bring everything to a simmer. Do not stir until the meatballs are cooked through! They could break apart and ruin the coolness. This freezes fabulously!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Laundry Soap is Dope

Here is another overdue project from my Personal Challenge 2011. Better late than never!

Homemade laundry soap is pretty stinkin’ popular anymore, with half of people saying it works as well as Tide, and the other half saying it’s a waste of time. I used a pretty standard recipe:
1 cup Borax
1 cup washing soda
2 cups soap shavings*

I just grate up the soap, stir in the Borax and soda, and call it a day. Easiest stuff ever. Lots of people swear by the liquid version, but I just can’t be bothered. Plus, from what I’ve read, it’s a bit trickier to get the proper consistency. With the powdered stuff I just toss about 2 Tablespoons to a large load of laundry. I also keep a 50/50 mix of borax and washing soda on hand for really grimy loads. I like to put the soap in first, run some hot water on it for a few seconds to speed up the dissolving process, and then after I load the washer with clothes I switch back to cold water. Seems to be working fine for me! Can’t say that it works worse than any other brand I’ve used, and I’ve found I don’t really miss all the fragrances (ok, sometimes).

So far I’ve used Fels Naptha laundry bar soap, Zote laundry bar soap, and Kirk’s Castile bar soap. I think they all work about the same, but I don’t care for the ingredients or smell of the Fels Naptha or Zote. Both knock me on my ass when I'm grating them up, and I don't care to stand too close to the container when I scoop it out, either. (The scent is extremely faint in the clean clothes, thankfully) Kirk’s is about as close to old-fashioned lye soap as I have been able to find in stores, but I suspect it would leave a residue on the clothes over the long term.The two laundry bars are meant to wash away cleanly, while body soap is typically designed to leave a fine layer of glycerin or other skin softening substance behind. Sometime this winter I want to try making my own laundry soap from lard and lye, just for the comparison. I really can't settle on which I prefer, so for now I just bounce back and forth.

Action shot! WEEEE!

Oh, and I rock a Downy ball full of white vinegar as my "fabric softener." It normalizes the ph of the clothes after all that washing soda, and adds to the disinfecting power. I have never smelled the vinegar on the clothes when doing it this way, and my towels are reasonably soft.

*A note on measuring soap shavings. This has to be the most confusing part of all the laundry soap recipes floating around the internet. Many recipes only specify "1 bar," however the popularly used soaps vary quite a bit in size! The gold standard, Fels Naptha, is 7oz, while Kirk's is 5oz, and Zote is a whopping 14oz! Ivory, another popular choice, is 4 or 5 ounces. BUT, there's an additional problem to just the bar size. Some of them contain a lot more water than others. In my experience, Zote is a REALLY soft soap. It can be a mess to try and grate. Out of curiosity, I grated up a bar and let the shavings dry out for a month. (or two... I forgot it was there!) The difference in weight was amazing. A completely dried out bar of Zote was close to 10oz! The volume of shavings also dropped A LOT!  That would make a big difference when measuring soap by the bar or cup! It's really no wonder the results can be so varied with the same recipe. What we need is a way to make this predictable with every batch.

That little red line marks how much soap I started with. Crazy, right?

In the future, I plan on grating and drying out a new bar of soap long before I need it, and then measuring equal amounts soap, borax, and washing soda by volume. If your shavings are large, you may have to put the soap and some of the washing soda in a food processor to break it down further. This helps to keep everything evenly distributed. I recommend throwing a hand towel over the machine, as there will be a small cloud of soap dust and it will make you want to gag.

Having said all that, I must admit that I don’t use homemade stuff for all my laundry. I used Ecos free and clear for cloth diapers (although I no longer CD, thanks to ammonia issues). My musty summer towels and nasty kitchen washcloths never got fully clean with Ecos. The smell would cling, or reappear with a vengeance as soon as the washcloth got wet. After one wash with double strength homemade soap, the smell was GONE! I am impressed. I need to re-test the hubby's workout clothes to make a final decision. I used to keep a small bottle of original Tide handy for big cleaning jobs, but not anymore. I'm too cheap. Man-smell is almost impossible to kill without the enzymes in Tide, so workout clothes will be my ultimate test.

Anyone else use homemade laundry soap? What kinds of bar soap have you used and which do you like best? I really can't decide and it's driving me nuts!

UPDATE 2013: I pretty much stick with Fels Naptha for convenience. I let the bar air dry for at least a month before grating. This will give you nice, fine shavings that will stay evenly distributed throughout the mix. I no longer bother running hot water on the soap before loading clothes, it doesn't seem to make a difference. My current "recipe" is equal parts dried soap shavings, borax, and washing soda; occasionally I will add Oxyclean (usually generic) if I have it on hand, same proportions as the rest. I still use 2Tbsp per load. Try it, you'll like it!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Butternut Ginger Soup

No, I don't retouch my photos.

OK, so this is going to be a quickie recipe share. I whipped up a batch of this thick, creamy soup from broth I had made the day before. I really wish I had made twice as much! I have a horrible habit of not measuring when I cook, but this is one of those soups you really don't need to be specific with. I plan on freezing this and will update if it holds up well!

BUTTERNUT GINGER SOUP            Yield: approximately 3 quarts

1 large butternut or other winter squash. I think I used a 3.5 lb squash.
3 large garlic cloves, smashed
1.5 Tablespoons (give or take) minced fresh ginger. mmmmm...
Dash or two of ground cloves (I think I used maybe 1/4tsp total)
Dash or two of ground cinnamon (maybe 1/2 tsp? I really hate measuring spices.)
Enough beef or chicken broth to cover everything. I used about a quart of broth initialy.

Toss everything in your pot and simmer until the squash is cooked and starting to fall apart as you stir. Using either a stick blender or a regular blender (be careful with the hot liquid!) blend until smooth. Add more broth if needed to reach your desired consistency. At this point, you can taste to see if you want more salt or seasonings. My broth was just salty enough that I didn't add a thing.

I somehow managed to have the right amount of everything where the ginger and spices were just strong enough to compliment, but not overpower the squash. Hopefully I can duplicate the perfection when I make it again. I'm not one for pureed soups, but this will become an autumn staple for sure!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Balsamic Pickled Asparagus

I know, this is rather late in the season for asparagus, but think of it as being prepared for next spring! I made these on the same day that I canned all my marmalades, but for some reason I never got around to posting about it.

Asparagus seems to be one of those "love it or hate it" veggies. For some people, its more of a "love it now, hate it later" veg. Don't ask why. It's awkward. Me, I'm a "love it now, pretend I don't mind later" gal. True to my current (but slightly less fervent, thanks to impatience) commitment to preserving foods in season, I decided to see if there was a way to preserve asparagus during the brief time that it enters the "reasonably affordable" stage. Asparagus out of season is crazy expensive!

Since asparagus is a low-acid food and I don't have a pressure canner, the only way I was going to be able to can them is by making pickles or jelly. Asparagus jelly doesn't sound particularly appealing. Pickles it is!

Whilst perusing the interwebz, I found this recipe from My Pantry Shelf. A pickled asparagus recipe that calls for lemons? How convenient! I just happened to be inundated with lemons! Plus, the jars looked gorgeous with the bright green asparagus and perky yellow lemons. This I gotta try!

Right about now, you might be wondering why my pictures look nothing like those for the original recipe. I'll tell ya why. I did a no-no. I changed a canning recipe. This is Cardinal Rule #1 in canning land. You're supposed to ONLY use USDA approved recipes, and NEVER alter them. Don't get me wrong, there is a real science to preserving food to make it safe, especially when using the water bath canning method. BUT, we're talking pickles right now. Pickles rely on large quantities of vinegar to acidify the recipe, making it impossible for botulism spores to grow.

The only change I made to the recipe was to sub some balsamic vinegar for the white vinegar. I did this because I'm not actually a big fan of pickles. Oh I like them every once in a while, but most homemade pickles have disinterested me. I decided that if I was going to go through the trouble of canning up asparagus, I needed to make it something I would actually eat (not to mention something worth using asparagus instead of cukes). Balsamic vinegar goes fabulously with asparagus. It also happens to be my favorite cooking vinegar, and you'll (hopefully) be seeing several other recipes on here that feature it.

Why do I feel the alteration was safe? Because Rule #1 in pickling is do NOT monkey with the acidity level. My white vinegar has a 5% acidity level. According to my bottle of balsamic, it has an acidity level of 6%. Instead of lowering the acidity, the switch would actually INCREASE it. So that's why I didn't feel bad about changing the recipe. I've eaten 2.5 of the jars (by myself, thankyouverymuch) in the two months since I made them, and so far there are no signs of spoilage or off-flavors.

The one down side, of course, is the dark balsamic ruins the beautiful lemon-asparagus look of the jars. I don't mind too much. I'd rather have ugly food that tastes amazing, than have a shelf full of pretty doorstops.

Ok, on to the recipe! Since my modification is so minor, I'm only going to give you my ingredient list and then send you back to the original post for canning instructions. That, and I'm too lazy to type it all up. I need to do something about that.

Balsamic Pickled Asparagus

3lbs asparagus
1 1/2c distilled white vinegar
1c balsamic vinegar (make sure it's at least 5% acidity)
2 1/2c water
2 1/2 tsp pickling salt (I used kosher sea salt)
3 tsp mustard seed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 lemon, sliced

See My Pantry Shelf for canning instructions. I had plenty of extra pickling liquid after filling up the jars of spear tips, so for kicks I filled a jar with the trimmed asparagus ends. Not the woody parts, although I plan to try them out too, but the fresh bits that were sacrificed so the tips would fit. I have to say, they were every bit as good as the tips, if not as pretty. I'll definitely do that again, as wasting good asparagus is just plan wrong.

 I recommend letting these sit for at least two weeks to mellow. The first jar I opened was kick-your-rear strong in the vinegar department. Two months later they are nice and gently tangy. These would be great on a crudite tray, or wrapped in salami as an appetizer. Or, y'know, eaten straight from the jar, as I like 'em.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Spring Preserving, Part 2: Preserved Lemons

After canning the marmalades, I was still drowning in lemons and grapefruits. I realized I was going to have to get creative, and quick!

Other than marmalade, the only other recipe that I came across featuring lemons was called (drumroll please...) Preserved Lemons! I know, clever. It's essentially lemons preserved in gobs of salt, and is a mainstay of Moroccan cuisine. I danced around the idea for quite a while before giving it a try. After all, what do I do with salty lemons? I don't have any interest in Moroccan food. But, with a huge bowl of lemons calling to me, I figured what the heck.

There's no rocket science to this. Many recipes have you keep the lemons whole, but I sliced them into 6 sections. The rind is primarily used, so I figured I would be more likely to use it if it was easier to cut up, and in smaller portions. Once your lemons are all sliced, dump a lot of salt into a jar. Then add a layer of lemons. Then add another gob of salt. Then lemons, then salt, etc., ending with salt. When you get to the top of the jar, press down hard on the lemons until they start releasing their juice. You want to make sure the lemons are completely covered by the salty liquid. (Once again, you don't want to do this if you have any cuts on your hands. Unless you're a kitchen badass. Or just a masochist.) If your lemons don't release enough juice to cover them completely, add the juice of another lemon (or the bottled stuff, no shame in it) until you have enough. Now cap your jar and let it sit at room temperature for up to a week before moving it to the fridge.

When I made these, I followed the typically prescribed method of giving the jar a shake every now and again while it sat out. Thanks to my dependable forgetfulness, my jar sat out way longer than a week. After the first week, I tasted the rind and was surprised by how much I liked it! While it is a bit salty, the fresh lemon taste is completely preserved. I added a finely diced rind to a salad and loved the burst of flavor. I decided this was definitely a condiment I wanted chillin' in my fridge for spontaneous cooking experiments.

Unfortunately, after what was probably more than two weeks at room temp, my jar went from a bright lemon scent to... not so bright. Perhaps my lemons weren't well scrubbed before brining, or perhaps the fork I used to remove a rind was not clean enough, or some other variable I can't think of. Given the sheer quantity of salt I added, it's a miracle anything managed to grow in there!

[Um, Maria, if you look at your own picture, your lemons are CLEARLY not covered in lemon juice. Maybe THAT was your problem, Genius! And why the heck didn't you put them in the fridge after tasting them the FIRST time? You're not the brightest crayon in the box, are you?]

I hate when I yell at me, it's so degrading.

Either way, these went from yum to yuck and I had to dump the whole jar. Swallow sadness. I want to try this again, but next time make sure everything is sterile. Also, instead of shaking the jar regularly, which shouldn't be necessary if everything's well covered by juice, I may try adding a layer of olive oil to the top. That ought to seal out air pretty well. I'm trying to brine the lemons, not ferment them, after all! I read this tip on the blog and it's worth a try!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Six Dollar Succulents

My dear friend had her bridal shower on Cinco de Mayo, and in honor of all things enchilada, we were given these adorable succulents in tomato sauce cans. Aren't they CUTE?! My friend has a pretty clever sister. After the shower there were quite a few extra plants. I have no shame in admitting that I snagged as many of those bad boys as I could without looking too crazy. It's ok though, I gave the bride waffles.

After getting them home, I did a little research on succulents. God bless Google. How did our parents learn anything back in the Dark Ages before internet searches? It seems succulents are pretty laid back plants, so long as you cover a few basic needs.
  1. The soil needs to be very light and drain easily, and the pot MUST have drainage holes. Wet roots for too long will kill the plant dead.
  2. Let the soil dry out between waterings. Like, completely dry, if you want. Heh, this is how I've been watering my ivy plant for years. The fat leaves on succulents store water, so as long as the leaves feel firm it shouldn't need to be watered. (EDIT: This is LIES! Smaller leaved plants can't store as much water as the big boys, so if you mix sizes in a planting, you have to cater to the little guys. I learned this the hard way and lost two out of the four plants. Just water once a week or so and they'll be fine, but soft leaves are bad. Letting your one year old re-pot them while you're not looking is also bad. That's how I lost a third. I'm down to just the sturdy guy on the far left of the picture.)
  3. Any plant that looks this awesome needs to be in an equally awesome pot. Yes, this is an official rule. That I made up. I have that kind of power.
Now, as much as I love the look of the tomato sauce cans, I didn't think I could leave the plants in there for very long.  The soil was regular potting soil, which hangs on to water like a sponge. I was also concerned about the can rusting on my window sill. Since I have various pots and whatnot all over my house, I decided to use something I already had on hand. No point in buying ONE MORE POT when I have at least a dozen empty pots floating around.

The first thing to catch my eye was this. Know what it is?

That's right! NOT a planter! All the pots I have, and I pounce on this thing. It's a clear plastic thingy that you're supposed to put over the square tissue boxes. Turn it upside down, and you have a clear planter with a ginormous drainage hole! I was given this at my bridal shower almost 4 years ago and never used it. Don't ask me why I kept it. I keep everything.

In order to make it into a planter for the succulents I was going to need to block up the hole enough that soil wouldn't wash out. I also needed an appropriate soil mix for the plants to grow in. I could have bought the "cactus mix" potting soil at my local wally world, but my Googling skillz informed me that it was pretty much regular, peat-based potting soil mixed with sand and perlite. I already have the potting soil and sand, so I decided to just buy a bag of perlite. Same price as the bag of cactus mix, but now I can make special soil mixes in the future. My soil mix was:
  • 1 part potting soil
  • 1 part perlite
  • 1 part sand
A note on sand: I got my sand a while ago from Lowe's for $4. It was labeled 'leveling sand" and was way heavier than it looked. Don't be the chump that thinks they can pick up a bag of sand. Let the muscly guys do that for you and save your dignity. Make sure your bag doesn't contain anything other than sand (some may contain concrete. you'll regret that one quick). Also, watch out for sand that contains a lot of salt. Salt will burn the roots and kill the plant dead. DEAD, I tell ya.

How can you tell if the sand is salty? Take some salt in you hand, check to see if anyone is looking, and lick it. Do it. I double dog dare ya. Ok, ok, it's kinda gross, but I couldn't think of a better way to check. Unfortunately, I didn't think about salty sand until after I finished the project. I'm going to try flushing the pot well with plain water, and then again with water and a touch of vinegar, just to be on the safe side. (see THIS article for more detail)

Now that I have my soil, I need to prep my pot. Whilst perusing my beloved Dollar Tree, I found a roll of fiberglass mesh tape, the kind used to patch drywall. Genius! On the way out I also snagged a bag of decorative river rocks. Because I have no self control in this store. Everything is actually a DOLLAR, for crying out loud! I love this place! (I even worked there one holiday season, but that's a different story)  I used the mesh tape in strips, overlapping them and staggering them slightly to make the holes even smaller. We're trying to hold back sand, after all.

I covered the hole with probably a dozen strips, leaving plenty of hangover to help hold it in place. Because of the size and location of the hole, the tape is supporting quite a bit of weight. I could have used more tape than I did.

I used a little over half the river rock in the bottom of my new "pot." Then I filled it with soil and planted my little succulents into their new home. I sprinkled the remaining rocks around the top and stepped back to admire my awesomeness.

So that was $4 for the perlite, $1 for the rocks, and $1 for the mesh tape. I now have a trendy little succulent arraignment for $6! AND, I don't have to look at a stupid, useless tissue box thingy and wonder why I still have it! The happiness could kill me DEAD!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Spring Preserving, Part 1: Marmalade!

Way back in February I mentioned that citrus was in season and on sale. I also happened to mention that I was obsessed with the thought of preserving in-season foods. What I didn't mention was what I planned to do with it. That's because I had no clue what to do with it! Other than eating grapefruit for breakfast (and still being hungry) and juicing or zesting the lemons for cooking, I had very little experience with citrus fruits. See, that's the funny part about preserving foods. Unless you know how to use the stuff in your everyday meals, you could end up with entire basements of pretty jars that serve you no purpose. I try to come up with several ways to use a given end product before deciding to go through the effort and expense of making it, and even then I only make a small batch to see how I like it. I can always make a bigger batch next year, when I will be fully prepared for the season's bounty.

It was really tough to settle on a recipe for the citrus. The vast majority of preserves were in the form of marmalade, which I have never eaten and heard mixed opinions of. Marmalade is like a jam except that it is usually made with sour citrus and often contains the bits of zest and pulp. After an exhaustive search, I finally decided to throw caution to the wind and make two different kinds of marmalade. (I did end up making two other recipes with the citrus, which I'll talk about in Part 2!)

The first recipe I tried was Pink Grapefruit & Cranberry Marmalade from (you can find the recipe HERE). During the holidays I had compulsively purchased a bag of fresh cranberries without a single idea on what to do with them. This recipe ended up being the perfect way to clean out the freezer! The recipe calls for 5 cups of fresh cranberries, but my little bag only contained about 3. I wish I had made notes, because I can't remember if I halved the recipe or not. I'm pretty sure I did. I do remember that it was WAY too tart for me, and I added an extra cup of sugar. After tasting the final product I wish I had added even more sugar. One of the benefits to this recipe is that it didn't require any pectin to set up into a firm jam consistency. Cranberries have oodles of natural pectin, and the long boiling puts nature to work for you. A tip on prepping the grapefruit: it's incredibly easy to zest them with a vegetable peeler and then dice the large strips into fine pieces. They don't break down while cooking, so the smaller/thinner the better! Be sure to dice the grapefruit flesh small because it also doesn't break down. I almost considered fishing out all the grapefruit chunks and dicing them smaller, but by then I was tired and ready to be done!

I had some extra marmalade that didn't fill a canning jar, so I poured it into an old jelly jar and popped it in the fridge. The final verdict? Not bad! It's still way too tart for me to enjoy it as a sweet condiment, but I could see myself using this as a filling in a chocolate layer cake or on pork. I have a much-loved recipe for Cranberry Mustard Pork Chops that I will have to try with the marmalade. All said, I'm not sure I'll make it again. It will all depend on how I use this batch through the year.

Also, when chopping up buckets of citrus, for the love of all that's good and holy, do NOT cut your finger or get a paper cut. Trust me. It's just bad.

Next up was Honey Lemon Marmalade, from (you can find the recipe HERE). I followed the recipe exactly, except that I zested the lemons and removed most of the white pith, in the same way I did the grapefruit. I used Ball brand liquid pectin because it was significantly cheaper than Certo, but it caused about 48 hours of misery and worry because I thought it wasn't going to set up. After a few days though, it set up nice and firm. This stuff tastes AMAZING. I was most exited to try this recipe, and it did not disappoint! It would be incredible over a dessert, a morning scone, or even pancakes. Very bright and lemony, with the soft taste of honey in the background. When I make it again, I think I'm going to try straining a batch right before adding the pectin. I think this would be fabulous in a cup of tea, but the bits of rind and pulp would annoy me. A smooth jelly would be divine for tea!

This was also my first try at canning food. Everything went surprisingly well, but I have to admit to being absolutely terrified to open my jars and taste them. This is very weird for me. I am generally a laid back, germs-are-good-for-ya kinda gal, but the threat of botulism keeps scaring me away. I can't shake the nagging concern that I might have overlooked something. I have tasted my canned asparagus that I made the same day, but for some reason I'm afraid of my marmalade! Ah well, I still have plenty of both flavors in my fridge. Maybe by time those are gone I will have conquered my fear.

Stay tuned for Spring Preserving Part 2!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


No, but now that you mention it, I did make homemade deodorant!

Before I can get to that, there is a little matter that I need to address. I started this blog with grand intentions, but finding the time to write about my escapades has been harder than the projects themselves. While I have all sorts of fun stuff to share with you, I feel I owe you a bit more regarding my overly-hyped Personal Challenge 2011.

When I decided to do this challenge, I failed to take into account just how much (little) I clean. I would mix up a 2 cup batch of window cleaner, clean all the glass in my house, and then find myself with 1 ¾ cups of a cleaner I really didn’t care for. Fast forward about two (ok, four) weeks and I finally get around to cleaning the glass again. Clearly, I don’t go through a lot of cleaner! I considered dumping the inferior stuff down the drain and starting over, but I just can’t bring myself to do it! After all, my whole goal was to reduce waste and cost (and boredom)! I suppose I could just clean more often.

Oh man, I just laughed so hard…

So far I have experimented with 4 out of the 9 items on my original list. To be honest, I’ve yet to come across a cleaner that blew me away. Normally, when (if) I clean, I use little more than a damp/soapy washcloth, or Windex and a paper towel. That includes sticky, greasy messes in the kitchen. This method requires more elbow grease than commercial cleaners, but I‘ve become accustomed to it. With my homemade cleaners, it seemed that I still had to scrub as much as before.  I definitely have more experimenting ahead of me. I’m determined to formulate a good cleaner!

In the meantime, here are the results of one of my attempts:

Homemade Deodorant
6-8 Tbsp coconut oil
¼ cup baking soda
¼ cup cornstarch/arrowroot powder
3-5 drops Tea tree essential oil, or any other essential oil you like

Combine baking soda and cornstarch. Work in coconut oil by hand until it is roughly the same consistency as commercial deodorant. Mix in essential oils. You can pack this into an old deodorant container or use a shallow lidded container.

I found my recipe at Passionate Homemaking, and it really couldn’t be much simpler. I’ll tell ya what, this stuff works pretty dang well! The first week I wore this, I kept sniffin’ my pitts. For quality control purposes, of course (not). Not once did I smell bad! To be fair, I don’t do a lot of strenuous activity, but I do still tend to sweat and stink after a while. (sorry, TMI)

Apparently, many people can get a rash from this recipe, either from a corn allergy or from the baking soda. I have yet to get a rash myself though. I’m wondering if some of the people who reacted to the baking soda were actually reacting to the lack of acidity on the skin. The surface of the skin is naturally acidic, and baking soda is extremely alkaline. Remember the vinegar and baking soda volcanoes in grade school? That’s the acid and alkaline neutralizing each other.  With that in mind, I wonder if a cotton ball of (diluted?) vinegar at the end of the day would restore the skin’s balance. I’ll have to try this sometime.

What surprised me most with this experiment was how much more aware I was of what commercial deodorant did to my underarms. I’ve always hated the odd feel of my underarm skin, but didn’t think I could change it. Just a weird, plastic feel that seemed to repel water and didn’t let me get a close shave. A week of homemade deodorant changed that. I think the grit from the baking soda and the motion of my arm gradually scrubbed away the dead skin and the old deodorant residue. I kept finding bits of gunk that I thought were clumps of baking soda, but after two weeks I no longer see clumps and my skin is in incredible condition.

I had suspected that commercial deodorant was the cause of the plasticy feel, but when I went to clean out an old deodorant container I was convinced it was the culprit. I had NO IDEA it would be so difficult to clean out! I went through a TON of dish soap and the deodorant just laughed at it. Seriously, it didn’t affect it at all. Finally I boiled some water in my tea kettle and poured that in the container. I let it sit a minute, then dumped it (carefully!) and refilled it with the boiling water. HALLELUIA! Hot, hot, HOT water turned out to be the key. The heat softened the greasy deodorant enough that I was able to pour most of it down the drain (with my luck it’s still stuck to the pipes somewhere).  In the end, it took several hot water soaks and a final scrub with dish soap to get that baby squeaky clean.

Fill the base, chill it, then gradually pack in the rest. 

Wanna know the funny part? A few weeks later the container broke.

In retrospect, the container would have benefitted from a thin layer of the original deodorant. This would have allowed the solid mass to slide up and down more easily. I broke the container because the clicky base wasn't strong enough to push up the solid, refrigerated deodorant. When I remade this a few weeks ago, I completely forgot about this little tip. I just moved the container to the fridge for the summer, so we'll see if I run into the same problem.

A final note on homemade deodorant, be mindful of the room temperature. Coconut oil is liquid below 76 degrees F, so you may want to keep your mix in the fridge during the warmer months. Cold deodorant will definitely wake you up, but it’s also quite refreshing in the dead of summer. Or I’m just weird.

I have several other posts lined up, but I won't be able to get the pictures off my camera for a few more days. Stay tuned, there's some fun stuff in store for the next few weeks!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gardening, Lemons, and This Year's Project

Like my cans? One's bigger than the other, but I still love 'em.

I have been in a gardening frame of mind for weeks now. This wimpy excuse for a winter has left me wet, dreary, and ready for summer. The only problem is, I have almost no space for a garden! The only part of my yard that gets decent sunlight is my small front yard, and I'm thinking our landlord would be less than appreciative if I dug the whole thing up. He mows our lawn. I'm staying on his good side.

Instead, for the last two summers, I have resigned myself to a few pots on my porch. It just doesn't cut the mustard. Potting soil is so irritatingly expensive that it isn't cost effective to have more than a few pots stuffed with just enough vegetables to satisfy my itch. This year, Mama's not satisfied. My measly container garden never fully calms my craving for dirty fingernails, the miracle of new life, and providing nourishment for my family. I'm in the process of convincing my mom (who wasn't too interested in a garden as of last month) to team up with me for a little (hehe) gardening. Unbeknownst to her, but very beknownst to me, I have a rather extensive scheme in mind... but we'll see how it goes.

My traditional way of dealing with something I really, really, really want to do, but can't, is to research the subject to death. I have been reading about everything and anything garden related, making notes and printing pages for things I want to do someday. If I can't do, then I can always learn! The only downside is, the more I read, the more I whip myself into a frenzy wanting to DO IT ALL RIGHT NOW! My mom in particular has become rather jaded to my fits of passion, and will usually just nod and smile until I finally give up or get distracted. This is making it rather difficult to get her on board with a garden (on her property, with her tools, and likely with her watering the majority of the time...), but gardening is something she has always loved in quieter years. I'm wearing her down, little by little!

The approximate number of books I've read on gardening and preserving. I rounded up.

Researching about gardening has naturally led me to researching on how to preserve the bountiful harvest I imagine in my mind. I was deep into reading about canning, drying, and fermenting, when I happened to look up and see that organic lemons are on sale this week. Now, I never used to be an organic produce kinda gal, but the more I have studied nutrition, the more I have started to lean away from the standard supermarket fare. Anything closer to natural is where I want to go! But how do I make the most of in-season, pesticide-free lemons? EUREKA! Here is my chance to practice my preserving skills!

The more I think about it, the more I love this idea. Here is an opportunity to develop my preserving skills with a small batch of in-season produce. I couldn't possibly stop at lemons though. There are so many more fruits and vegetables that will be coming into season soon, and so many different methods of preserving them all. I decided that one of my projects this year will be to learn how to preserve everything I can get my hands on, one season at a time.

I started a folder to hold all my collected recipes and tips, but I have no doubt I will eventually have to move it all to a three-ring binder. I'm thinking I will organize it by season or month, instead of by preserving method. After all, you start by deciding what to preserve, before deciding how!

I love making labels, and this is a nifty little label I made for my folder. I printed mine on a label sheet that I have lying around from another failed project. Feel free to right-click and steal this baby, she's free to a good home!

Stay tuned for my lemon preserving fiesta!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chilly February Fun

After the complete lack of wintery weather this year, we finally got some decent snowfall yesterday. It snowed all day long, in those big, fluffly flakes. Just looking out the window brightened my day! Today, by some miracle, the weather stayed cool enough to keep most of the snow on the ground. In our part of the Ohio Valley, the temps typically bounce around so much that any snowfall either disappears or turns to mush within 24 hours. A winter wonderland is a rare treat some years.

If I was an awesome mama I would have bundled up the boys and taken them out for some sledding and snowman building. But I'm not an awesome mama. I'm a mama that hates to be cold. Instead of taking the boys outside, we had some fun with the snow that had piled up on the kitchen windowsill.

This little guy was made with toothpicks and a food marker. Why the food marker? Well because it was right next to the window when I got this silly idea. I think he turned out pretty cute, in fact he's still chillin' like a Batman villain on the windowsill. Maybe we'll make him a buddy tomorrow, once I figure out how to make a cape and cowl out of garlic cloves and parchment paper. Because that's what I have next to my kitchen window.