One of the most amazing but frustrating things about moving all the time is that I am constantly re-learning local produce. While most of the produce itself has remained the same from city to city and state to state, the timing has shifted a month or two or even three in different climates. But tree fruit. Tree fruit has been the one genre of produce that has just been completely unpredictable as I’ve moved from place to place. DC’s tree fruit scene was insanely awesome. Durham, on the other hand, not so much (though GOD I miss the blueberries.) Columbus had great apples and decent peaches, but not really any cherries or plums to speak of.
Moving back to Colorado, I knew I would return to a land of great, high-altitude peaches from Palisade and other farming communities on the Western Slope. But I did not expect the cherries.
Oh em gee the cherries!
Colorado has had rather a bumper crop this year, and I’m obsessed. For weeks now, I’ve been eating them faster than I can buy them. In fact I COMPLETELY missed strawberry season because I was so distracted by these round little rubies. Which, actually, is fine with me because the cherry is my new number one.
I eat rather a lot of pasta. When I started writing this post, I had to go back to see what stories I’ve already told you about my lifelong noodle-y obsession, just to make sure I wasn’t repeating something.
I’ve already mentioned that as a kid, I loved spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese above all other things, and in fact I rarely tolerated the annoying hindrance of spaghetti sauce. It was sloppy, acidic, and mostly just not my thing. I still remember the first time I actually enjoyed a smear of red sauce atop a mound of pasta. Bizarrely, it was on a camping trip. In our open-air kitchen of two camp stoves and a picnic table, Dad carefully cooked a pot of pasta in one pot and in another, he combined a can of basic tomato sauce with a seasoning mix. I don’t know why I opted to try the sauce that time, but I suddenly realized this red sauce thing wasn’t necessarily so bad after all. To this day, however, I’m still pretty picky about my red sauces and rarely order them at a restaurant as a result.
There are a few brands and varieties I’ve discovered at the grocery over the years that I like rather well, but once I began canning my own basic tomato sauce, I felt it was time to finally find the homemade version I was seeking.
Since there are approximately one gazillion recipes for spaghetti sauce out there, each one claiming to be better than the last, it was a bit intimidating to know where to begin. Some swore by the addition of carrots and peppers, others piled on the sugar, and still others demanded the tomatoes be practically raw to achieve pure spaghetti sauce bliss. Fresh herbs, dried herbs, lots of spice, none at all – there really are so many ways to do this. How was I to know what I liked the most?
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.
On our brief trip to California a couple weeks ago, I had a few goals: relax, spend a day in Disneyland, and visit a local farmers market to buy come citrus. I am pleased to say that I achieved all of the above. The following weekend I spent the majority of my time in the kitchen getting to know citrus in way I never really have before. Aside from acidifying canned goods, or zesting the occasional lemon cookie, I’ve never really thought about citrus as an ingredient before. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of lemonade, orange juice, and grapefruit halves, but when I found myself pondering the best way to use five pounds of lemons, I had no idea where to start.
It only took a few minutes of consulting my favorite cookbooks and cookblogs to see the overwhelming consensus: lemon curd seemed to be square one for entry into the lemon-y baking world.
And to be honest, I had NO idea what lemon curd was. I couldn’t recall tasting it, though in hindsight I now realize that almost every lemon-y dessert I’d had probably used lemon curd as a base. Lemon curd, it turns out, is the happy marriage of lemons, sugar, butter, and eggs. Somewhere between the consistency of a jam and a pudding, curd can be made with any combination of citrus, though lemon seems to be the most popular.
Obviously a delicious dip, for veggies, chicken wings, chips, crackers, french fries, pizza (?)… but ranch is also a tasty mix in for mashed potatoes or even pasta, an excellent salad dressing, and of course, a pizza topping. I have no idea if its popularity extends to other continents, but in the USA, ranch dressing is king.
Now I know that most people probably have a favorite brand (or brands) of ranch. For many of us, this might be the one we had in elementary school but don’t know the name to. There’s a gazillion varieties in the grocery store. I have on occasion, in an effort to expand my ranch dressing horizons, tried branching out and away from the Kraft and Hidden Valley I grew up with. Sometimes, these are successful ventures, and sometimes, they are gross.
This week I ventured VERY far and tried my hand at homemade ranch. I’ve always been curious about doing so, but honestly, it’s difficult to justify buying a quart of buttermilk when all I need is half a cup. This weekend, however, I had the fateful alignment of both buttermilk AND sour cream in my fridge for other projects, and with fresh parsley and chives in season, the time was ripe.
Ginger has never really been something I’ve thought about very much. Occasionally, my dad would add some ground ginger to stir fry, or I’d use some in fall desserts. But the farmers near Durham have been showcasing mounds of baby ginger at their tables for the last few weeks, and my curiosity about this knobby little root grew with each table I passed.
And with fortuitous timing, I came across this recipe for ginger apple chutney. Combined with apples & onions, also plentiful at local markets, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to buy a chunk of ginger. The recipe wasn’t written as one for canning, but I suspected the acid content would be high enough for canning and checked with a deft canning blogger to be sure.
But this is my first post in, oh, almost two weeks.
I’d love to say that I’ve been off somewhere exotic, tropical, and completely cut off from the internet to offer an excuse. But the truth is that I’ve been right here in good old North Carolina, I’ve just been working immense amounts of overtime. Which is great! It just means that the few hours I do have to myself, all I really feel like doing is collapsing into bed for a couple chapters of my book before I fall asleep.
I am really looking forward to this three day weekend not to relax, but to get caught up on cooking, editing photos, planting the next phase of my two little gardens, and on general maintenance of my life outside the office.
Some gardening, though, cannot be stopped. The basil continues its seemingly unending life, and while I know that I could just cut down all the plants to nip this in the bud, I’m now sorta curious to see how long they can last. But that decision means that I must find things to do with basil besides making pesto or layering it onto sandwiches. And voila! I stumbled across this recipe and decided immediately to try it out.