Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eleven Jars of Tomatoes and One Delicious Dinner

It’s prime tomato season now and that means we need to save the flavor of the season. Andy purchased so many tomatoes last year from one farmer at the Murfreesboro Farmers Market that he remembered Andy. This year Andy got a good deal on tomatoes and was even able to gather some “ugly” ones for free. Since he planned on making sauce the beauty of the tomatoes didn’t matter. They may not have been pretty but the scent of the tomatoes was heavenly, like the smell of summer sunshine captured for one sweet, brief moment.

Summer used to be one of my favorite holidays. Minnesota had such fleeting good weather that you had to be out in it all the time to try and soak it all in before it disappeared. My most favorite thing about summer was (and is) the tomatoes. My parents had a vegetable garden where they grew green beans, peppers, chives, pumpkins and most importantly- tomatoes. I’d like to say that I helped with the vegetable garden; but honestly I mostly supervised via the hammock down the hill. There was only one thing that concerned me in the vegetable garden: tomatoes. The point in summer when red globes of tomatoes adorned the tall vining plants was like Christmas in July. I relished the hunt, peering through the branches for that special red ball at just the right time. At some point during summer days you could find me sitting somewhere with a salt shaker in one hand, a tomato in the other and juice running down my face.

Now summers are a bit less dreamy, mostly due to this oppressive southern heat and the lack of summer vacation. To preserve this tomato harvest for the non-summer times Andy took the sauce making duties upon himself. My role was to help fill jars and then make dinner. The process for making tomato sauce is fairly straightforward. You first chop up the tomatoes and cut out the stem end. Andy cooked them for a little bit to soften them up for the food mill. The food mill is a great investment for making tomato sauce (and applesauce too!), it takes the skins and the stem bits and (as Andy says) “poops” them out one end and keeps the juicy pulpy goodness pure. Then the tomato juice is put back into the stock pot to boil for a good long while to reduce and concentrate the flavors.

This looks like a bit of a process but it's not that complicated. The slightly cooked tomatoes are in the big stock pot. They're ladled into the top of the food mill attached to the mixer. The mill "juices" the tomatoes and squirts all the seeds and skins out front. The pulp and juice comes out the middle where you can see the bowl catching it.

Once you feel good about where your sauce it at (and you’ve prepared your jars) it’s time to fill jars and process. Prior to filling, add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each jar. Then leave ½ inch head space, add your lid and screw band to finger tip tight and then process for 30 minutes. Let sit for 5 minutes in the water and then pull the jars out and wait for the delightful “pop!” sound of the seals being formed.

In our canner there was only enough room for 10 jars of sauce at a time, so we made one extra jar to use within the week and I cooked dinner with the sauce leftover from that. It smelled so good and was probably one of the freshest sauces I’ve ever had. I love making pasta sauce because you can readily improvise and use what you have on hand. There’s something satisfying with using up ingredients in the fridge.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Birthday Cake! (and cookies)

Yesterday was my birthday! I love birthdays. I’m incredibly bad at remembering other’s birthdays and getting gifts to them on time, so I feel kind of selfish in that respect. But when it comes to celebrating the fact that someone is here for another year, birthdays are great. As I’ve gotten older I realize I don’t need a big party or mounds of gifts. But I do need cake. Preferably chocolate.

Not too long ago I finished the previously mentioned book A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. The final chapter was about her wedding cake, dubbed the “Winning Hearts and Mind” cake. I’ve been trying to find appropriate times to make this cake and nothing was working out right. Finally I gave in and just had to make it for my birthday. It seemed a bit odd to make a cake for myself, but I like the logic of it. After all, it’s my birthday and no one else should feel pressured to make or buy me a cake to celebrate. I should be feeding others so they have a reason to be happy that I’m around. So I made the winning hearts and minds cake for Andy and I, and delightful Toffee Chocolate Snicker doodles for work buddies.

The nice thing about birthdays is that they help you reminisce about birthdays past. A great birthday isn’t about the gifts, it’s more about the friends and family around you. And, if we’re going to be honest, it’s also about the cake. As a kid I had a birthday that was flower themed and a lot of fun to put together with my mom. It came complete with a cake that looked like a garden, with Oreo crumble dirt and gummy worms peaking out of the soil. There was the memorable birthday I had in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I actually received two cakes, one of which was involved in a food fight (that I later helped clean up). Then there was the year when my mom took a business trip to Florida and invited me along because I had nothing better to do and it was my birthday. We upgraded to first class for the occasion and went out to dinner with her coworkers. One got a little too tipsy and explained to me the wonders of asparagus pee, a delight I had yet to enjoy. After dinner we ate cake from Publix, which I thought sounded like a wonderful, for-the-people kind of grocery, and this birthday with strangers was a delightful one.

There were some, shall we say, not so great birthdays too. Such as the one in Indiana where my brother got a pair of Rollerblades for my birthday, thereby stealing my “this day is all about me” thunder. And by the time my brother’s birthday rolled around my family conveniently forgot that we now gave siblings gifts on birthdays too. Once I had to run the mile during weight training class. There was the year I had to go to band practice after getting a tamagotchi and had to keep feeding the damn thing when I should have been crashing cymbals. One year I had to clean the bathrooms of our house, which was probably more my fault for putting it off than my mother being mean. The worst of all birthdays was the year my Grandma Summerville died. We were leaving for Indiana shortly after the celebration to visit her in the hospital. Opening gifts that year didn’t have much joy and she passed away a couple days after my birthday.

Despite what it may seem, that’s what I like about birthdays. They help me to remember the good and bad, and the not actually-bad-but-rather-kind-of-funny-now-that-I-think-about-it times. It gets me to thinking about other people’s birthdays and the things I’ve done for them, the people I spent time with, and how the years keep rolling by, no matter what you do. I love birthdays and celebrating life.

Did I mention cake? I’m sorry to entice you with pictures and then blather on and on about memories. You’re probably interested in some cake. Andy graciously offered to make me Special K bars I declined. Mostly because I need actual cake on my birthday, but actually more because I’ve been dying to make the Winning Hearts and Minds cake. It only has FIVE ingredients! Five! That’s so easy. Andy doesn’t like cake much and requests brownies frequently for his birthday celebrations. When I answered his question as to what was in this cake he responded with, “So it’s like a brownie cake?” Yes. And he loved it. He said he wanted it for his birthday. And I’m more than happy to oblige. It has a delightfully crunchy crust and a soft, ooey center.
The only advice I have to give is to get high quality ingredients. This cake would cost you around $30 if you were to purchase a similar one from a particular Scandinavian bakery that I used to work at (in 2007 dollars). The one I made cost me roughly $10. Next time I would up the ante with a little Olive and Sinclair chocolate and hope to score some free range eggs from Andy’s coworker. Here’s the recipe that you can also find on Orangette.

7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 ¾ sticks (7 oz) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon unbleached, all purpose flour
5 large eggs

(Whipped cream for serving)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and butter an 8 inch round cake pan (I used a 9 inch one and it turned out just fine). Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper (craft time!) and grease the paper.

Melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave or a double boiler. When the mixture is smooth stir in the sugar and then set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Then add the eggs one by one (be sure not to lose count!), stirring well after each addition. Add the flour and stir well. The batter should be dark and silky.

Pour the batter into your pan and bake for 25 minutes, or until the top is lightly crackled, the edges are puffed and the center of the cake looks set. It’s best to set the timer early and check on the cake every couple of minutes by jiggling the pan. It’s done when the center only jiggles slightly, if at all.

Cook the cake for about 15 minutes in the pan. Turn it out of the pan and flip it back onto a plate (or better yet, a cake stand!). Be careful with this, as I turned my cake out onto the edge of my dish and broke the edge. Cool completely before serving with a dollop of whipped cream (best if you whip it yourself).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Preserving Summer

It’s high black berry season here in Tennessee and that means our second annual trip to Beechgrove, TN for some wild black berry picking. If you recall from last year I ran into some trouble with chiggers and was embarrassed to wear shorts for roughly a month. After much anecdotal research Andy and I learned that the best way to avoid chiggers while berry picking is to either wear kerosene soak rags around your ankles or use bug spray. Despite my grandpa’s logic we settled on the latter and geared up for berry picking.

These wild blackberries grow at the farm of one of Andy’s coworkers, he just lets people show up at his house whenever and pick to their hearts delight. Another lesson we learned from last year is to go early, because the heat will knock you out quicker than the chiggers or flying beetles. So we roused ourselves early this morning, doused ourselves in bug spray, tucked our pants into our socks and we were on our way. Before the heat got to us we managed to pick enough berries for one batch of preserves (which is like jam, but without mushing the fruit).

Our blackberry hosts last year let me know that a good way to clean the berries was to soak them in water. All the leaves and unwanted stuff will float to the top (last year this included an inch worm) and can be simply swept off the top.

Making preserves is quite easy. All you need is half the amount of sugar as fruit. For us that was 8 cups black berries and 4 cups sugar. Stir it all together and let it macerate for about 10 minutes. This lets the juice from the fruit seep out and it becomes the cooking liquid. While that’s going on you prepare the canner and jars, we had about 5 half pint jars. Once the maceration has happened stir the fruit up and boil hard for about 10 to 15 minutes until you reach gel stage. Then take your preserves off the heat, skim off the foam and pack into hot jars. Process for 15 minutes, let rest for 5 and you’ve got a delicious treat!

Andy is currently making biscuits for us to try out our newest batch of canning delights and I can’t wait to taste it in action. So far neither Andy or I show evidence of chigger bites (knock on wood). I hope that means when we go white water rafting later this summer I won’t have to explain away the rash on my legs like I had to last summer. I’ve learned that it’s not a good way to make a first impression by first saying, “Don’t worry, it’s not contagious.”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

These are Ugly Slippers

I’m not being too critical when I say that these are ugly slippers. My husband disagrees with me, he thinks they’re “awesome.” But he’s being nice, and I’m not being hard on myself. They’re pretty ugly. I might even say damn ugly slippers. First off, they don’t match. One has a sort of square toe, the other a rounded toe. Gracefully the strap made it to roughly the same place on my foot, despite my best efforts to move it closer to my ankle on the second slipper (the one on the right). If I fold one in half it doesn’t even match itself.

Second, the construction is really shoddy. Truthfully, I did make these myself. This isn’t the half-hearted creation of a 6th grade art project, despite what it may seem. I think it comes down to making sure my yarn is in the right spot when I change sides. And also maybe not be so stubborn when it comes to looking up YouTube videos on how to complete a stitch. It’d be great to have someone by constantly as I knit to ask them questions. I’ve knitted with friends before and they’ve been helpful, but I feel like a pest asking questions all the time.

Cotton says, "These slippers are ugly, but I'm cute."

You might think that if I thought these were so ugly that I should just remake them. I did. More than once. After awhile I just got tired of working on them. And I lost one of my pages of instruction and kind of made up how to finish the slipper (hence one round toe). The instructions (in rather poor English, which could have been a problem) tell me that I could finish my slippers by “making crochet” around the edges. That would cover up some of my mistakes and make the slippers look actually cute. However, I don’t know how to make crochet and if I learned on these slippers they would probably turn out worse.

At least I’ve made cute things before and I can take solace in this picture. Maybe the socks I’ll make for Andy will turn out more like my last knitting project.