I realize that I’m a month or two late for the PUMPKIN-EVERYTHING craze that annually arrives in September, but I finally gathered the time, the initiative, and the pumpkins to try my hand at making my own pumpkin puree. I’ve always been a big fan of Libby’s, but I’m pretty pleased with both the results and the ease of making this myself. Right after Halloween, it’s easy to find pumpkins for just a couple dollars, so it’s a great time of year to stock up for all your coming holiday desserts, as it freezes wonderfully.
And it’s sooooo easy. I urge you to give it a try for your own pumpkin recipes this year! Here’s how it’s done:
1. Select 1-2 small-ish pumpkins, or as many as you want to make in one batch. You can definitely puree pumpkins of any size, but they flavor and texture will be better from smaller pumpkins. These are often sold as “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins”.
Two years ago, I wrote a rather desperate post about my first experience in bulk tomato canning. I scarcely realized the task I had undertaken, did not have pots quite large enough or a food mill worth its weight in feathers, and I had unwittingly committed to waaaaay to many products for a two-day stint. At the time, I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort, and there are least a few moments that tears dripped down my tomato-flecked face.
But over the course of that year, I grew quite fond of the sauces I had made and became rather dependent on them in my cooking. When tomato season rolled around again, I decided to tackle the project a second time with a few changes. I reduced the variety of products, but I also added about 25% more tomatoes since I had run out of many favorites in the weeks previous. However, the project still produced a vast amount of stress. I had to do my canning at a friend’s apartment (I didn’t have the right kind of stove to manage it), which meant packing up all my supplies and commandeering a kitchen that was not my own. More tomato-stained tears were had.
They say third time is the charm, and in this case I agree: I tackled my tomatoes this year with some MAJOR upgrades that turned this somewhat dreaded experience into an exciting one.
I know many of you are completely uninterested in large-scale canning. Even with upgraded equipment and a few years of experience, putting up 120 pounds of tomatoes (!!!) is a massive amount of work. However, if you are interested but have not approached the craft because it seems too daunting, I want to share with you a few of the things I’ve learned that I wish so much I had known the first time around.
I’ve always strongly associated oranges with summer. Their summery orange glow, bright flavors, and balmy geographic origins have all contributed to this perception. And yet I also remember that my dad always brought home the best grapefruits, even in thoroughly NOT balmy Colorado, in January and February. Occasionally, we’d receive boxes of citrus as Christmas gifts, and I even recall the local chapter of FFA selling them to neighbors as a fundraiser in the weeks preceding the holidays.
Citrus is cultivated year-round in many of the southern-most states of our continent, but it really shines in the winter. Not surprisingly, when I was driving back to North Carolina from a late-November trip to Florida with the fam, I simply couldn’t resist stopping at a roadside stand for a bag of this fruit so far outside my normal local fare.
I probably could have just eaten or juiced each and every one of these golden orbs, but I’ve been curious for some time about marmalades. I don’t remember growing up with marmalade in the house, though my mom confirms that she loved it when she was a child. Our spreadables tended to be homemade from the berries and stone fruits my grandma and grandpa grew in their garden, so perhaps that accounts for the marmalade vacuum of my youth. I’ve heard from some that marmalade is an acquired taste, that it’s a bitter product not suited for those who prefer sweet jams. I wanted to give it a shot, but wasn’t sure how I would feel about a bitter final product. I ran across this recipe, a blend of oranges and cranberries, and thought that it might be just the transitional product between sweet and bitter I was looking for.
Apple cider. It is,without question, my favorite thing to drink. I’m rather fond of apple cider cold and unpasteurized, straight from an orchard, but I also believe that apple cider is truly at its best served warm, in a cozy little mug, for a soothing drink on cool nights in the fall and winter. From early October to New Years Eve, I need only the tiniest hint of a social gathering to bust out the crock pot and a half gallon of cider and am forlorn when parties I attend elsewhere don’t feature this essential holiday beverage.
The singular challenge I face with my affection for spiced hot cider? Unless I am hosting a party, I simply need one mugful. I’ve tried various packets of instant cider mix, but I usually find them far too sweet and not apple-y enough for my tastes. And the Caramel Apple Spice from Starbucks? Tasty, but not good for the wallet. And again with the too sweet.
I spend a lot of time contemplating my groceries. And frankly, rather a lot of time getting them. The bulk of them come from the farmers market: stall by stall, I buy some eggs here, zucchini there, a pound of pecans or cheese when I’m feeling flush. But I am rarely able to get everything I need at this weekly market. Due to rather restrictive small dairy laws in North Carolina, it’s nearly impossible to get liquid dairy products (like milk or cream) from a small farm. Needless to say, my cart at the grocery store often suggests that I need a cow of my own. Milk, cream, yogurt, cream cheese, cottage cheese… I get a lot of funny looks from cashiers.
Well I can’t have a cow. I’m sure the neighbors below us wouldn’t appreciate it. But I CAN mark another dairy product off the list of things to buy. It turns out yogurt is really, really easy to make. No rennet, no citric acid, no stretching, no aging (well, 8 hours), no cheese wax: all you really need to start yogurt is milk. And, of course, a little bit of yogurt.
At the risk of sounding icky, it’s important to know what yogurt is to understand why this method works. Yogurt is essentially milk that has been fermented by bacteria, and in most yogurts, the bacteria remains active. Seen the phrases “pro-biotic” and “active” on your yogurt? That’s a nice way of saying it’s basically alive. But don’t be grossed out! These are happy yogurt bacteria. With smiling little bacteria faces.
After not only one but two majorly epic failures in the kitchen yesterday, I thought I’d start off today with an easy, food budget update. I started the year off posting monthly, but as winter slid into spring, spring into summer, things got busy, and I’d suddenly find myself half-way through the month and still didn’t have time to post about my edible expenses from the previous month. In fact even this month, I’m clearly not posting until halfway through, but since this too is an accumulation of three months, I tossed up my hands and decided to post anyway.
And, as I discovered when looking at my graphs this morning, I’m glad I did. June, July, and August have, for the last two years, been a very unusual time for me. Brad has been away on internships both summers, which leaves me living a life of full of single lady meals at home and, frankly, a lot of take-out. I also traveled rather a lot, grew a lot of food in the garden, and canned copious amounts of summer produce that I otherwise would not have purchased. In some ways, my graphs reflect a bit of back-sliding from the previous installment of the rather fortuitous months of March, April, and May. Here’s how things shook out:
I’m not sure when “pickles” came to indicate cucumbers that are pickled, and nothing else. You can buy pickled garlic, pickled eggs (eeeeeew), but the pickles section is predominantly composed of cukes. Oh sure, there’s variety: sweet pickles, bread & butter pickles, dill pickles, kosher dill pickles, zesty dilly pickles, pickle chips, and more. But they are all cucumbers!
It turns out this was not always so. Those of you who can have probably seen many kinds of pickles in your cookbooks. Pickled okra! Pickled beets! Pickled peaches!
And one of my personal favorites, pickled green beans!
Dilly beans start with a heap of fresh, brilliant green snap beans. They’re dirt cheap right now at my local farmers market, so it’s a great time to buy a bunch and pickle them.
It occurred to me today, while I was harvesting tiny cherry tomatoes and tufts of parsley, that I haven’t written a garden update in months. This is quite a change from the first few months I had my plots: I took photos of virtually every change: sprouts peeking through the soil, leaves unfurling, vines climbing. I celebrated each pea pod and jalapeno as though it was the first I’d ever seen. And why not? I’m growing some of my own food! A feat that would hardly be possible without my two little community garden plots.
I’ve always thought the idea of community gardens was a great one, but having now experienced one first-hand, I’m a total convert. I wish every neighborhood, subdivision, and city block could have one. Many of you probably don’t have a community garden easily accessible to you… but many of you might. And if you have any interest in learning to grow a little food, I highly recommend you join.
Need some convincing? Well. I can talk all day about why community gardens are great. But these, certainly, are the top ten perks.
It’s sort of interesting how some posts come about. Sometimes I very specifically know I want to try a recipe, I cook and photograph that recipe, edit the photos, write a little something, and post it to the world. Other times, something comes wildly out of left field and I MUST move it to top of my posting schedule (yes, I have one) because it will either lose relevance or because I’ve made some food I desperately want to share with you.
I had no intentions of writing about this, evidenced by the fact that I took not a single photo aside from before and after shots. This post arose out of a weekend in the kitchen what was, for lack of a better word, grueling. So grueling that it threatened to bring on a veritable identity crisis for this little food blogger.
Just in case you haven’t picked up on this, I care deeply about eating locally. I started this blog, in part, to chronicle my quest toward learning what that means and figuring out just how much of my diet I could change to local fare. This has involved shopping primarily at farmers markets, foregoing produce that isn’t seasonally available, avoiding chain restaurants, starting a garden, and learning the art and science of canning to capture produce when it’s plentiful so that I can eat locally all year long.
I’d say my experience with canning up to this weekend could be firmly classified in the “dabbling” realm. For a while I just made jam. There’s a reason that jam is widely considered an entry-level canning project. Couple together berries and sugar, boil the heck out of them, and you’re left with pretty little jars in brilliant shades of ruby and purple that taste delicious on everything from toast to ice cream. I’d graduated to making a few kinds of pickles, and I tried an inaugural batch of apple sauce last fall.
But none of those things are life-sustaining. They didn’t replace any staples that I was hitherto buying from the grocery store. I’d procured a water bath canner before my apple sauce project, and I knew I wanted to go further this summer. So this weekend, I took my first real crack at canning food that could potentially replace some store-bought staples with homemade ones.
Having selected eight recipes to try (if you’re gonna turn your kitchen upside down, you might as well get a lot done) I came home from the farmers market on Saturday morning well-stocked: two pounds of okra, five pounds of peaches, two quarts of figs, several onions and peppers, large handfuls both of parsley and basil, and, most importantly, nearly sixty pounds of tomatoes. I dug every every sizable pot and bowl from my cabinets and cheerfully set to work.
I don’t particularly care for them. I like a good roasted red pepper cream sauce sloshed over some pasta, I think they are super pretty cut into strips and fanned out on a tray of crudités, but I’m never one to actuallyeatthem from said tray.
I do, however, make an exception when for fajitas. Green bell peppers and red onions snuggle up in a tortilla so nicely with well-seasoned chicken, perhaps some cheese, and a healthy dollop of sour cream. I used to buy those little packets of fajita seasoning, but I found I never used it all in one go. Why accumulate half-used packets of seasoning in the pantry when I could just make my own?
Also, what better time to do a glitzy little photo shoot for my most recent kitchen obsession? THESE. My beautiful spice jars. I recently ordered an assortment of jars to make my spice and herb rack the prettiest little thing you’ve ever seen, and I still can’t fully express my delight. I know, I know: spices last longer if they are protected from the light. But my kitchen is a cave for 18 hours a day anyway. Plus, they are sooooo pretty!