The November Cook it! 2012 Challenge: Seafood Terrine

When you write a food blog, there can be a pretty serious temptation to lie about the success rate of your cooking projects.  It could be an exaggeration, that a recipe is more amazing-delicious-mind-blowing-best-ever than it is in real life.  It might be a bigger lie than that, like me telling you that the recipe I made for the November Cook it! 2012 resolution turned out delicious and that we ate it all and that I’m going to make it ever day, always, because it was so good.

This month’s project was to make something charcuterie related.  Originally I’d planned on making sausages and salami, but a friend of mine promised me a whole wild boar during December, and so it seemed really ridiculous to buy any pork during November since we’re about to have a ridiculous bounty of it. Since I have a fair amount of fresh fish in my freezer right now, the project I settled on ended up being a seafood terrine, one of the projects that I never got around to making during last year’s Charcutepalooza.

So.  I made the terrine.  And?seafood terrine

It was disgusting.   It looked like cat food. It smelled worse.  I actually tried to feed it to the cat but even he kind of sniffed it and then walked away. Even after I’d gotten rid of the terrine, the lingering smell on the dishes and utensils that had touched it made me want to gag.

The temptation to lie here is huge.  This recipe should have been just fine, it should have tasted light and fresh, and it should have been a classy little appetizer to serve with a glass of wine or champagne at a holiday party.  Unfortunately, I managed to commit a fatal error that any professional cook and local food advocate should absolutely know better than to do.

I was buying a few staples at the grocery store (whiskey, butter, coffee, etc.), and walked by the seafood department, where my thriftiness got the best of me and I was lured in by the siren song of lump crab meat.  Dungennes crab is in season right now, so I figured it was probably caught somewhere near by, and it was on sale for super cheap, so I bought it.  I’m cringing as I type this, because any good cook knows never, ever, ever, even if you’re starving to death and it’s the last food on earth after the zombie apocalypse, buy discount seafood.  It will be gross and awful.  I don’t know what I was thinking (well, yes I do, I was thinking CRAB I LOVE CRAB AND LOOK IT’S ONLY FIVE DOLLARS LEMME GET SOME OF THAT RIGHT NOW OH YAH COME TO MAMA!).  Discount seafood is just a bad idea.  Period.

Sure enough, when I got home and was making my terrine, I opened the pack of crab meat and smelled that it had seen much fresher days.  I pretended it was fine and folded it into my fish mousseline (which smelled fresh and clean, and shouldn’t have been fiddled with) along with some blanched baby mustard greens. I crossed my fingers that it would taste okay once it was cooked and served properly.  It didn’t. It got much worse.  When I unmolded it the next day, the crab had clearly gone bad, despite the fact that the “sell by” date on the original package said it could have sat on the shelf at the grocery store for another day.  The moral of the story: big box grocery stores are only good for buying toilet paper, booze, butter and coffee beans.  I knew this already but sometimes we have to relearn life’s important lessons.

Seafood Terrine

This recipe would have worked just fine if I’d used actual good quality, fresh crab instead of half rotten garbage from the grocery store.    Since I’d really never made or tasted anything like this before, I kept the seasonings fairly basic, but next time I might infuse the cream with some horseradish root and add a splash of white wine.  Serve with bread or crackers and pickled vegetables for a light lunch or an elegant appetizer.

One other note: I’m still learning all the specifics of these different terms, but if I understand correctly, a “terrine” is basically the same as a “pâté,” meaning that meat and fat are blended together into a spread.  A “mousseline” is very similar, but instead of fat, the meat is blended with cream and egg whites.   My recipe here is a very basic fish mousseline with crab and fresh greens folded in to make the terrine.

Cook Time: 30 min. active plus overnight to chill

Special Equipment: an ovenproof container that you can use to mold the terrine. I used a very large mug and it worked just fine.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb. cod or other neutral flavored white fish
  • 1 egg white
  • 1/3 c. heavy cream
  • 1/3 lb. lump crab meat
  • 1/2 tsp lemon juice
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 c. baby braising greens
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley + 1 sprig

Bring a small pot of water to a boil.  Season the water with a pinch of salt. Blanch the greens for 3-4 minutes, then drain and pat dry.  Set aside. 

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine the cod and egg white in a food processor and puree until completely smooth.  While the food processor is still running, slowly pour in the cream and puree.  Transfer the fish mousseline to a bowl and season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.  (Since I used very fresh fish and eggs from my hens, I felt totally confident tasting this mixture to adjust the seasonings, even though it was still raw).  Gently fold in the parsley, crab, and blanched greens.

Moisten the inside of the terrine mold with a little bit of water.  Line it with a piece of saran wrap, pressing the plastic into the edges of the mold. Place a sprig or two of parsley in the bottom of the mold as a garnish.  Pack the seafood mixture into the mold, pressing down evenly.  Fold the saran wrap over the top.

Put the foil-covered terrine into a casserole dish and add hot tap water into the dish to come halfway up the side of the mold.  Bake until the center of the terrine reaches 140 degrees.

Remove the casserole dish and terrine from the oven.  Take the terrine mold out of the water bath and remove the tin foil.  Place a weight on top of the terrine (I used a full pint jar) and refrigerate overnight.

To serve, simply unwrap the saran wrap from the top of the mold, flip it upside down, and give a gently tug on the saran wrap. The terrine should pop out fairly easily.
PS. If you want to read about a Cook it! project that turned out delicious instead of disgusting, you must head over to Adventures of the Kitchen Ninja and read about Julianne’s first try at making duck prosciutto. 

Cook it! 2012 November Resolution

My schedule’s been a little crazy these last few weeks.  In case you’ve been paying attention, we kind of missed a month for the cook it! 2012 resolutions because  I stopped all my other projects and made the journey back to New Jersey for my grandma’s memorial service.  It felt good to stop everything I was doing and go be with my family.  I love them very much and am so so grateful to have these wonderful people in my life, and it made me think a lot about figuring out how to balance a career and a lifestyle that I really enjoy here at the farm with the freedom to do things like see my relatives more often. I haven’t figured out the answer yet. If you’ve figured it out, feel free to tell me.

I also saw fall for the first time in ten years, which was really nice. California is great and all, but the poison oak leaves changing color absolutely does not count as fall foliage. I was lucky, too, because the day after I left, Hurricane Sandy hit.  I can’t believe that my trip still was able to go on as planned and that I was able to get out of New Jersey just in time.  It’s kind of surreal to think that when I left, everything looked completely normal, like Normal Rockwell came in and threw up everywhere; the neighborhood was totally swarming with happy little kids setting out pumpkins and raking fall leaves.  It seems impossible that the pictures of devastation on the news are the same places where I just visited.  My thoughts are with all the people who still don’t have power and have so much to rebuild.

Now that I’m home, I want to catch up on some of the things I usually talk about with the cook it! projects.  First things first is to point you to the projects that Aimee and Julianne did last month when we were focusing on dehydrating fruit.

Julianne, from the Adventures of the Kitchen Ninja,  made these dehydrated watermelon slices that sound like candy and I’m definitely bookmarking for next summer.


Aimee from Homemade Trade made raisins, which I think is brilliant considering how prolific grapes are here in California and how many recipes call for raisins.
Over the past months, I’ve done pears, apples, peaches and tomatoes, and I’m totally sold on this method of food preservation.  I keep a jar of dried fruit out on the counter and find myself grabbing a few slices of apple throughout the day without thinking, which is great, since I can’t really think of many things that make a healthier snack.

This month’s project is going to be a little different than the ones we’ve done in the past, mostly because I haven’t done it yet.  (I’m going to put up my post at the same time as everyone else since I’m still behind on everything.)  I’m leaving the topic really open this month because there are so many different skill levels and I also don’t want people to have to purchase special equipment to cook along with us.

so. The plan is:  MEAT

The rules are:

1. Make a project that is somehow centered around meat.

2. It has to be awesome.

3. It has to be something you’ve never made before.

4. It doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive.

Things that might fit the bill would be a new charcuterie project like making bacon or sausage, learning how to make a fancy roast (ehem…. Thanksgiving), or maybe figuring how to make that chicken curry recipe that you always get from the takeout spot.   It’s up to you.

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To be included in the round-up post, send me an e-mail with the link to your blog post by December 1.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.

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I Like Pickles

Before all the summer vegetables are officially gone and we’ve all moved on to baking pumpkin pies and making apple butter,  I have a few pickle recipes from the August Cook it! 2012 project that I want to show you.

The first recipe that I have to rave about is this Rosemary-Sage quick pickle that technically wasn’t part of the august project at all, but is a pickle, so… that counts, right?

A customer at the Redwood Valley Farmers Market brought me a jar of these last Sunday and I proceeded to eat them all in the next hour.  Woah. I mean, who eats a whole jar of pickles in one sitting?

(Me, apparently.)

The reason they were so good, though, is that they weren’t overly briny, more like a cucumber salad, and they’re scented with rosemary and sage, which is so surprising in for a cucumber pickle.  The recipe is here, from The Herb Companion.  Go grab a cucumber and make them, quick!

The next exciting thing:

An epic pickle post from the Adventures of the Kitchen Ninja, where Julianne explains about all the different types of pickles in the universe and gives us her favorite recipes for each type (dilly beans! fermented dills! pickled radishes! and more).  I’m particularly excited for the gorgeous pickled gold beets that she made; I just planted some beets in the garden and I’m bookmarking this recipe for when they’re ready.

http://yankee-kitchen-ninja.blogspot.com/2012/09/how-to-make-all-kinds-of-pickles-or.html

Aimee from Homemade Trade made curry pickle slices, which makes me want one of these sandwiches she puts them on, right now, even though it’s 7:48 a.m. and that’s a really weird time for eating sandwiches and pickles.  (I definitely just walked over to the fridge, opened the door, stared at my jar of dill pickles for a couple seconds, trying to decide whether I would mess up my morning by eating pickles for breakfast.)
Get her recipe here: http://homemadetrade.blogspot.com/2012/09/make-pickles-cook-it-august-resolution.html

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and a reminder: The September project is to dry fruit.  If you’d like to be included in the round-up post, e-mail me a link to your post by October 15, 2012. My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.

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Cook it! 2012: September Resolution

I adore September.

Sometimes, as a farmer, summer can feel intimidating.  The good weather is wonderful, but those days right around the solstice are just such long marathons of work.  By September, the days have shortened to something a little bit more reasonable, the temperatures have lost some of their scalding hot edge, and, most importantly, we’re absolutely surrounded by the fruits of our labor.  In our own garden and at the farmers markets, the abundance is everywhere.  I put up food all year round, but the bulk of it is really in September, the time in my kitchen where the canner stays out 24/7.  There’s been a pot of something cooking down on the stove almost every day this week: heirloom tomato ketchup, a super sweet batch of cherry tomato-basil sauce, a batch of straight up, no-sugar added pear butter (my favorite choice for my fall pb&js).

For the September Cook it! 2012 Resolution, I wanted to pick something that would really celebrate the bounty of the harvest, emphasizing the pure, bright flavors of local fruit at its best. After much hemming and hawing, I finally settled on this project: DRY FRUIT. 

That seems anticlimactic, right?

How hard can it be to dry fruit? Does this even warrant my focus for this month?

The answer: Not hard at all, and yes, it does.

I came upon a huge amount of wonderfully sweet, juicy bartlett pears grown by one of my farmers market customers.  The pears here in Redwood Valley are truly delicious – something about them, I’m not quite sure – I think they might have slightly more acid than other pears I’ve tried, so they’re sweet, but not one-dimensional, with a little tang to them that many pears are lacking.  I really love working with them though, whether it’s canned in syrup, in jam, in a pie, in a tart, in savory fall salads, or, my latest discovery, dehydrated in the oven.

I don’t have a dehydrator because we’re off the grid and don’t have constant power, but I’ve experimented with oven-drying tomatoes in the past and loved the results.  I’m not sure why I never bothered trying it with fruit until now, but now that I’ve started doing it, it will certainly become a preserving tool that I use more often.

The exciting thing about this project is that if you’re lucky enough to run into some really great fruit, it concentrates and elevates the flavor into this perfect bite of chewy-sweet-gently-caramelized-goodness.  As wonderful as jam is, and as pretty as a jar of peaches looks on the shelf….. I really appreciate the fact that these dried pears have no added sugar.  Yes, I know you can preserve fruit in jars without any added sugar.  I would argue that dried fruit tastes much better, truer to the original fresh flavor. 

I was really excited about my oven-dried heirloom tomatoes because their flavor is so much better than any dried-tomato I’ve ever purchased at the store, and the same goes for this project.  These are the best dried pears I’ve ever had. I can’t stop eating them.  It makes sense; I’m sure the companies selling dried fruit aren’t picking out fruit that’s really this good.  Plus they treat it with weird stuff that I don’t feel like eating.

My favorite way to eat these is for breakfast, in homemade muesli.  I mix the chopped dried pears with rolled oats, toasted pecans and wheat bran, and then top with milk. It’s delicious and makes me feel like a rockstar.

Oven-Dried Pears

Cook Time: 20 minutes active, and then a super long time to wait for them to dehydrate, like 2 days long.

Makes: about 2 quarts of pears

Ingredients:

  • 20 lbs. pears
  • 16 ounces lemon juice (I use Santa Cruz Organics bottled lemon juice this time of year).

Wash the pears.  Fill a nonreactive pot with some water (about… 8 cups? I didn’t measure) and add the lemon juice.  Slice them in half and scoop out the cores with a spoon.  As you core each pear, put it into the pot with the lemon juice.  Once the pears are all prepped and treated in the lemon juice bath, lay them in rows on casserole dishes or cookie sheets, skin side down.  Put the pears in the oven on the lowest setting available (it varies from oven to oven).  Now wait.  It took almost 48 hours for mine to start looking like dried pears I’ve gotten at the store.   When the pears have first started in the oven, you can kind of put them in there and then just forget about them.  When they start getting drier, you’ll want to peek in the oven more often.  They may not all dry at once – I’ll start picking them off one by one if I see that a couple are getting dry before the rest.

I left a fair amount of moisture in my pears (you know how different brands of dried fruit will have different amounts of moisture? some brands seem a little bit juicier? I like the juicy ones.  I’m not sure how shelf-stable they are in the pantry, but I prefer the flavor).  So basically, dry them until you’re happy with the texture.  If they’re super dry, I’m certain you can just stick them in a jar in the pantry, unrefrigerated.  If you leave a little bit of moisture in them,  you may want to put the jar in the fridge to make sure it doesn’t eventually mold (or store them in the freezer and pull them out in small amounts).

I’m storing my pears at room temperature now, in glass mason jars in the pantry. I have no idea if they’re shelf-stable for the long term or not, but I’ll come back and update here.  So far I’ve been eating them every day and they’re fine (and it’s been about a week).

P.S.: Don’t be put off by the brownish color.  They taste amazing.

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To be included in the dried fruit round-up, send me an e-mail with the link to your post by October 15, 2012.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.  I’d love to hear how you use up your dried fruit, but also where the produce came from, since it’s such a big part of doing this project successfully.  Your local farmers market? The own tree? I wanna know.
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Fruit In Jars: Highlights from the July Cook it! 2012 Resolution

I’m so excited about these recipes from Julianne and Aimee, the rockstars who are still working hard on the Cook it! 2012 Resolutions with me, even during the busy summer months.

The July project was to preserve whole fruit in syrup.

Adventures of the Kitchen Ninja: Cherries in Wine: Julianne made these beautiful cherries canned in spiced red wine, which I am certain she’ll have no problem using up during the winter months.  Can you imagine the chocolate desserts you could make with these? They sound so good that even though I already pitted and canned about a trillion cherries this summer, I kind of want to go get some more…

Cherries in Wine, from Adventures of the Kitchen Ninja

Homemade Trade: Plums In Syrup with Rosemary: Aimee got her hands on some of these gorgeous plums and canned them whole, scented rosemary.

plums, from Homemade Trade

The plums on my trees here at the farm aren’t quite ripe yet, but I think next week I’ll be able to make this recipe.  I feel like once the temperature drops, I could definitely see some kind of roast venison or pork with a sauce made of the drippings, these rosemary canned plums, and a splash of cream.

(After weeks on end of 90-100 degree temperatures, I’ll admit that I’m fantasizing about cooler nights, shorter days, pumpkins and roasts.)

Beautiful recipes, as usual!

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Reminder: the August project is to make pickles. If you’ve got a great recipe you want to share, e-mail me the link to your blog post by September 20 and I’ll include it in the round-up.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.

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Cook it! 2012 August Resolution

My camera is broken. It’s super tragic.

Nothing is coming into focus.  I tried switching lenses. I tried switching from Autofocus to Manual and back again.  Nothing.  My iphone is cool and all, but I really had my heart set on a bunch of pretty macro pictures of mustard seeds and cucumber slices. Now I have to ship it to Canon to get fixed, right when my sunflowers are blooming and there’s all these good projects going on in the kitchen.

(……I guess that’s not all that bad for a cell phone pic…)

Oh well.  So I apologize for the delay in announcing this month’s Cook it! 2012 Resolution, which, as you may realize by now, is…

MAKE PICKLES

This was another month where I was tempted to tackle a more complicated project, but since the summer months are apparently really busy, I wanted to make sure that I stuck to the basics.  Specifically, finding time to get some cucumbers into jars.  I’ve made plenty of pickles, but somehow, last year it just never happened.  Which is crazy, since they’re so easy to make, and I think bread and butter pickles are so vital to being alive that I’ll gladly fork over $5.50 for a good jar at the Natural Food Store.

My cucumbers are awful this year, but I bartered some eggs with one of my friends and ended up with a garbage bag full of beautiful pickling cucumbers from his garden.  (When he said “I hope you’re prepared for this” to me on the phone, I answered with an emphatic “I can’t wait” but once I started packing the jars, I realized that we’re going to have pickles to last well into the apocalypse now.  I guess that’s a good thing, though).

Bread & Butter Pickles, adapted from the recipe in the Fannie Farmer cookbook

FYI: These pickles are cool because they’re sweetened with maple syrup.  

Cook Time: 3 1/2 hrs (including time for the cucumbers to sweat)

Makes: 4 pints

Ingredients:

  • 6 c. pickling cucumbers, sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 1/2 lbs. onions, sliced into 1″ squares
  • 1 red bell peppers, cored and cut into 1″ squares
  • 1/4 c. kosher salt

For the brine:

  • 2 1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
  • 2 1/4  c. maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp. tumeric
  • 1/4 tsp. whole cloves
  • 1 tbs. mustard seeds

Combine the cucumbers, onions, bell peppers in salt in a nonreactive container.  Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours.*  After the time is up, drain in a colander and rinse everything very thoroughly with cold water.

Bring boiling water canner to a boil.  Sterilize 4 clean pint jars.  Put the clean lids and rings into a small pot, cover with water, bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat.

Combine the ingredients for the brine in a pot on the stove.  Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 5 minutes.   Pack the prepared vegetables into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace.  Cover with hot brine (leaving 1/4″ headspace still).  Poke around the jars with a chopstick to remove air bubbles and then adjust the headspace with more brine if necessary.  Wipe rims clean and screw on lids.

Process for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude if necessary.

These pickles are good if you let them sit for atleast a couple days before you eat them, but even better if you let them sit for a couple weeks.

*This is not something that you can let sit for longer and have it be better.  The salt soaks into the cucumbers and then it’s impossible to rinse off.  And then they taste disgusting.

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To be included in the pickle round-up, e-mail me a link to your post by September 20, 2012.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.
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Jam Round-Up

I’m not even going to lie. I should be doing other work right now.  Have I ever told you how much I enjoy blogging as rationale for sitting around on the couch? It’s kind of like how you can get sucked into facebook and waste tons of time rotting your brain, but with this, if anyone mentions your lack of physical activity, you can be like…

oh….

but I’m busy writing right now.

I say, the perfect thing for a lazy Sunday afternoon is looking at a bunch of pretty jam jars and bookmarking a couple recipes to make… you know, sometime later… when standing up and walking around seems more realistic. 

The June Cook it! 2012 Resolution was to Make Jam.  I love how without any planning whatsoever, we kind of ended up with an exploration of the eternal challenge of making strawberry jam.  Yes, those innocent looking, sweet little berries are so low in pectin– they don’t really make life very easy, do they? I actually hate making strawberry jam.  I end up burning the strawberries/my favorite jam pots/the burners on my stove and then end really aggravated.  I only caved and made it this year because it’s my boyfriend’s absolute favorite, and if I didn’t hook up my honey with some jam, that would just be crazy.

Strawberry Freezer Jam, from My Pantry Shelf:  solution #1- don’t bother cooking it at all.  This post discusses the advantages of freezer jams, which don’t ever go near the stove.  That bright red jar of strawberry jam sure looks delicious, get me a spoon, please!

Strawberry Jam with Natural Fruit Pectin, from Three Clever Sisters: solution #2- another novel approach- as a first step, make a quick applesauce.  The apples add some natural pectin, helping the jam to thicken nicely, and have a neutral flavor that will hide behind the strawberries.

Strawberry Lemon Marmalade and Marmalade Muffins  from Adventures of the Kitchen Ninja: solution #3- pair them with another fruit and bypass plain strawberry jam altogether.  I’ve definitely noticed that jams and marmalades that pair citrus fruit with some other sweet fruit are almost always mind-blowingly delicious. (I was just working on apricot/blood orange this week…. it’s luscious…)  Plus, the color on those jars, it’s just gorgeous, like gemstones.

Summer Peach Jam with bonus recipes for Peach Syrup and Bourbon Peach Skin Butter from Homemade Trade: Aimee gives us the lowdown on peaches in this post, with clever ways to turn the skins into even more treats in jars.  The jam looks beautiful, but then the peach syrup, and the bourbon peach butter…. my goodness! (I could use some of that peach syrup right now, plus some ice cubes, selzter and vodka. Oh yah.)

 

Thanks again for sharing your projects- they’re stunning, like always.

And a reminder:

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To be included in the upcoming Canned Fruit in Syrup Round-Up, e-mail me a link to your post by August 15.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.

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Fermented Things

As you might remember, the May Cook It 2012 Project was to ferment something.  I made traditional napa cabbage kimchi, which was delicious and gone already (I need to fork over the big money for a crock, so I can make a huge batch!) So, before I post the recipe for these amazing canned brandied cherries that I can’t stop eating, I wanted to share these other projects from my fellow bloggers:

The Kitchen Ninja made these beautiful lacto-fermented dill pickles.  I’m so happy she made them since this is such a classic and delicious fermentation project.  The remoulade recipe included also looks pretty epic, and since I’m a fiend for a good po’boy I’m sure we’ll give this a try once the cucumbers come in.

There really is nothing quite as beautiful as a jar of pickles, right? (or a jar of canned apricots… or dilly beans.  Yes. Not only do I spend huge amounts of time photographing canned goods, I’m also actively aware of which canned goods I think are the most beautiful and interesting to photograph.)

Speaking of beautiful… that brings me to the lovely glowing bottles of fizzy homemade ginger beer from Homemade Trade. What a brilliant idea!

I basically read Aimee’s post and then ran to the store as fast as I could to buy a big huge piece of ginger so I could make the project myself.  Because, you know, one of the main things I’ve learned from the fermentation challenge was that it is so, so easy, so you might as well give it a try. There’s so little work involved, so few ingredients, and so little equipment.  Time is the only thing you really need…

(I really did go get ginger. My starter is just starting to fizz = so exciting I can barely deal with it)

Aimee and Ninj: always inspiring to read what you’re up to! such beautiful projects…

and to everyone else: Don’t forget, the June Cook it 2012 resolution is to make jam, so if you haven’t yet, go get yourself some fruit and get jamming.

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To be included in the jam round-up post, e-mail me a link to your post by July 15, 2012.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com

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June Cook it! 2012 Resolution

It’s time.

The Cook it! 2012 June Resolution is:

MAKE JAM

I’ve been absolutely slammed with work for the last few weeks. Yesterday, in the middle of all this, I found some ollalieberries, fresh from the farm.  Sweet and tart, dark and juicy, they’re the berries I’ve been waiting for all winter long.  What started out as a stressful day with too many things that needed to be done instantly turned into a happy afternoon of jam making.  (Yes, when I see ollalieberries, I buy all of them and drop everything I was doing to make a pie or some jam. I’m a fruit nerd, what can I say).

Whether you’re a complete beginner or you already have years of canning experience, there’s really nothing quite like the joy of making a really simple batch of jam with some really excellent fruit — fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun.

When I waste time on the internet, it seems like everyone has been canning forever now and it’s no big revelation. If I happen to buy jars or pectin at the grocery store, though, without fail someone will stop me and ask about it.  Sweet little old ladies have stopped me in the aisle to say that it’s nice seeing me buying all these jars, that no one knows how to make jam or can food anymore.  (I thank them for the nice words but assure them that it’s become all the rage again.) Then, of course, the people in the checkout line, who will glance at my cart and say:

what are you doing with all those jars?

making jam, i say.

… oh, i’ve always wanted to learn how to do that….

To the cashier who bought a canner and cookbook but it’s been sitting on the shelf for a year now: don’t wait any longer, it’s time! To the lady in line whose grandma used to make pickled watermelon rind, just like my grandma did: dig out that recipe and get yourself a watermelon! To the guy at the farmers market who said he wished he had a women around who knew how to make jam: man, you don’t need to be a girl to can, just grab some of those strawberries, a couple jars and get to it!

Consider this your personal invitation to join the party…

In honor of the june resolution, summer, and all the people who are making jam even though it has nothing to do with the Cook it! 2012 project we’ve been working on, I thought I’d share a couple of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

TIPS FOR TOTAL BEGINNERS:

This isn’t meant to be all-encompassing, more just some information that might help when used hand-in-hand with a good recipe.

  • There are lots of posts out there on the internet that can explain the basics.  Food In Jars has a whole section of Canning 101 posts that explains some important stuff.  My recipe for peach jam with vanilla bean jam has step-by-step instructions to show the whole process from beginning to end if you want to take a look there.
  • When you’re just starting, make sure to find a recipe from a trusted source.  The best canning cookbook I own is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.  The pectin box also counts as a trusted source.  The internet, especially if it’s just some really random looking website, does not necessarily count as a trusted source (I know, you’re reading this on the internet, right?)
  • There are, essentially, two different styles of jam making.  One uses commercial pectin (Ball, Clearjel, Pomona’s, etc.) to make the jam set.  This method is usually a pretty quick cooking time, and you just follow instructions included in the pectin box.  The other style uses the natural pectin in the fruit, which means that you combine the fruit, sugar and sometimes lemon juice, then cook it for awhile til it gels.  Usually you use a candy thermometer for this, since you really just have to cook it til 220 degrees).
  • Use a really big, thick-bottomed pot.  When jam boils over, it leaves awful burnt black crusty sugar all over your stove, which is virtually impossible to get off.
  • If you’re using commercial pectin: when they say “full rolling boil” they really mean “full rolling boil.”  The jam will boil up furiously and you’ll really know it when you see it.  A low simmer is not a boil.  If you only bring it to a low simmer for a minute, it won’t set right at all.
  • When they say “clean the rims of the jars,” they mean perfectly spotless, immaculate.  Not “basically clean” or “pretty much clean.”  I like to use a paper towel to do this.  If you leave any little bits of anything on those jar rims, the lids won’t seal later on.
  • A boiling water canner is really just a huge pot filled with water that has a rack on the bottom to set the jars on so they don’t clank around and break.  They’re cheap, often under $20.
  • Don’t touch the lids of the jars when they come out of the canner.  The need to sit and cool, which pulls down on the lid and makes it seal.  If you touch the lid, jostle the jar around, poke it and say “wow! I made jam!” you can potentially mess up the seal and ruin the batch.
  • In plain english, (hopefully to convince someone that hasn’t made jam before that it isn’t scary):  Canning jam is just cooking fruit with sugar and then putting it in clean jars.  You screw the lids on and basically just put it in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes* to sterilize the jar and make the whole thing shelf stable.  Once the lids seal after they’re out of the canner, they’re good for a year.
  • Know your farmer.  Fruit for awesome canned goods comes from right from the farms/farmers markets, not the grocery store. I don’t care how cheap the peaches are at the WalMart superstore, it’s not worth it.  Sure, any old mediocre peach with a bunch of sugar is going to taste kind of good, but it’s not going to be the life-changing kind of experience that fundamentally changes the way you eat food and feed your family.

TIPS FOR EXPERIENCED JAMMERS

  • If you can find a wholesale source for bulk bags of organic sugar, you’ll save a lot of time and money.  A lot of the time, local natural foods stores can add on an extra 50 lb. bag of sugar onto their order for you and you’ll get a better price.  Then you’ll be ready to go when the fruit shows up.
  • Lemon juice always ends up being an issue if you’re trying to stay local.  I try to freeze lots of local lemon juice during the winter, but I almost always run out.  Costco has ridiculously cheap organic lemon juice, and Santa Cruz Organics makes semi-cheap bottled organic lemon juice that you can usually find with the other juices in the store.
  • Remember, if you run into a screaming good deal on super ripe, beautiful fruit, but you don’t have time to make jam, you can always prepare the fruit and then leave it to macerate, tossed with sugar in the fridge.  You can also prepare the fruit and then freeze it to make jam later .
  • Don’t forget to stay in touch with farmer friends (you do have farmer friends, right?)  Tell them at the beginning of the summer that you want to make a lot of peach jam, write down your name and phone number for them, and have them call you when the peaches are in.  Farmers like it when there’s a person that wants to buy a lot of fruit, because they want to make money and you want to buy their products.  Tell them to call you when they’re totally swimming in peaches (or plums, or whatever…), when they have so many that they don’t know what to do and they’re going to start rotting.  That’s your cue to stop in, buy them all for cheap, and stock your pantry for the year.

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If you want to be included in the jam round-up post, send me a link to the url or your post (or, if you don’t have a blog, e-mail me a picture of what you made)by June 15, 2012.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.

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P.S. I didn’t include the ollalieberry jam recipe because I didn’t really use one.  I glanced at the Blue Chair Fruit cookbook to check it first.  Their cookbook is right next to my Ball Cookbook, and I recommend buying it as well.  It’s a more advanced cookbook and doesn’t use commercial pectin, which is nice, and the jams tend to be much lower sugar than the Ball Book.  Plus the Blue Chair Fruit cookbook has super pretty pictures which will make you feel all warm and fuzzy about the whole jam and fruit thing.

Get Me Some Crackers: The Cheese Roundup

Another month done, can you believe it?

The April Resolution was to make fresh cheese, and it sure was delicious.  I still can’t believe how simple it was to throw together a batch of ricotta, and now that I’ve done that I’m definitely hoping to start tackling some slightly more complicated cheeses.  I suppose that holds true for all of the challenges we’ve been doing– during February, I managed to make a successful loaf of bread, but I’m still working on it and just got the Tartine Bread cookbook in the mail.  My kitchen is cluttered with big bags of beautiful local durum wheat, barley and whole wheat flour that I’ve been experimenting with for a fresh pasta blend.  I’m still trying to find that local source of milk for butter, and it still hasn’t happened, but I’ll keep up my search.

I hope you guys are all learning as much as I am, and having fun eating the projects too….

anyway, without further adieu, I give you: cheese!

Farmers Cheese Four Ways, from Homemade Trade: Aimee, that chive cheese sounds right up my alley…  and your second batch does look an awful lot like paneer. Do you think you could fry it up in cubes, or was it too creamy still?

Fresh Cheese from Grow and Resist: in which Meg faces her fear of cooking milk and successfully pulls off a batch of fresh cheese.  (also: I can’t wait to hear about those rhubarb cocktails… )

Homemade Ricotta and a Super Secret Family Recipe for New York Cheesecake: This cheesecake looks absolutely divine. Seriously.  Let’s all meet at Julianne’s house for dessert, I’ll go fuel up the jet and come get you guys.

(Have you started fermenting things yet for this month’s challenge? The topic is so broad, I’m curious to see what everyone comes up with.  Remember, posts are due by June 15th, and anyone that’s new to the party is free to join at anytime.  Just e-mail me a link to the url of your post by the due date.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.)