Every year around this time, Anchor Brewing puts out their Christmas Ale. It’s a little different every year, but always delicious. The perfect treat for a winter day.
When I took this photo, I realized that I usually think Instagram’s ‘Sierra’ filter looks best. I wonder if I’m influenced by living in the Sierras, or if the filter was designed to work well in the Sierras. Maybe my brain is just trying to find patterns where none exist.
We cut our Christmas tree at a local farm. It has the usual recursive tree topper, which I never seem to get tired of.
When I think of apple cider vinegar…
I think of the mother, and then I think of Danzig.
One of my all-time favorite breakfasts is greens and eggs. Lucky for me, our garden is producing a lot of greens this winter! Lately, I’ve been really into the mizuna.
Mizuna is a mildly spicy Japanese green that you eat raw (like a lettuce). I like my mizuna topped with a simple homemade mustard vinaigrette, and I always cook my eggs the same way: over hard with a sprinkle of pepper and Old Bay seasoning. Today, I added a scoop of green olive tapanade from Trader Joe’s, which some friends gave us. So yummy!
(Adapted from my all-time favorite cookbook, Lorna Sass’s Complete Vegetarian Kitchen.)
1/3 c. oil
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1 T. maple syrup
2 T. brown mustard
Combine all ingredients in a small jar and shake vigorously. Keeps about a week in the fridge.
I make pecan pies a few times a year, and everyone raves about them. I use the recipe from Cook’s Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe Cookbook, only I increase the quantities to fit my 10-inch pie pans. My big (and only) secret? I use brandy instead of vanilla. It’s delicious.
A couple of days ago, John and I were talking about the recipe, and he asked why I don’t use both vanilla and brandy. Coincidentally, my friend Wendy had given me a copy of Mary Janes Farm Magazine, and darned if there wasn’t a recipe in it for making your own vanilla. You just stick vanilla beans in liquor. One of the recommended liquors was brandy, and I immediately thought, “Aha! I’ll make vanilla brandy and use it in my pecan pies this year!” I’ll sample it first to make sure it’s tasty, of course.
1 cup brandy
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise
Place the vanilla beans in a half-pint jar. Pour in the brandy and screw the lid on tightly. Shake daily until ready to use. Mary Janes recommends letting it go for a month, but I’m sure I’ll use it in a few weeks for Thanksgiving!
I love the idea of making my own infused liqueurs. I think they would make great gifts. I’ve made limoncello, and my aunt and uncle make delicious cherry liqueur using brandy, which they call “Cherry Wizniak.” I’d love to hear any family recipes or suggestions you might have!
I do a lot of baking around the holidays, for a few reasons:
1. I don’t like to participate in the consumer culture surrounding Christmas.
2. I like to give people gifts they can use up and enjoy.
3. I like cooking, eating, and sharing tasty baked goods.
I do give Christmas presents to all of my family and also several close friends, and I need to plan ahead to get everything accomplished without driving myself insane. Here’s my current “do ahead” list to prepare for my holiday baking frenzy:
1. Make homemade pumpkin puree from our giant garden pumpkin to use in pies.
2. Make homemade candied lemon and orange peels. The ones I can find in the stores are heavily preserved, which I don’t like.
3. Start checking prices on butter during my regular grocery shopping trips, and stock up when the brands I like get below $2.50 per pound. These all go straight into the freezer.
4. Toast and skin hazelnuts to use in biscotti. These will get stored in the freezer.
5. Check all my spices and staples, and stock up as needed so I can avoid the stores during big holiday rushes.
6. Start thinking about how to package my baked goods this year. I tend to stick within my kraft paper/twine/homemade tags œuvre, but some type of more airtight wrapping is required to keep things fresh. I’m thinking about ordering a big roll of food-grade cellophane this year.
7. Do a few test cases – a pumpkin pie to test how the homemade puree cooks up, mini versions of my two standard biscotti recipes, maybe a new sugar cookie recipe (I seem to try a new one every year, but I just can’t find one that I really like).
I’m sure more things will be added to that list, but I’ll start working on these things a bit at a time. Hopefully, by the time the big Christmas gift baking session rolls around, I’ll be totally prepared!
I finally canned something! Years ago, I remember canning jam with my aunt and my grandmother, but I’ve always been intimidated to try it on my own. I finally worked up the nerve to can apple butter this weekend, and it worked out just fine. We had some apples left over from a recent trip with friends to Apple Hill, so I decided to try the apple butter recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. When I had questions, I referred to the USDA Canning Guide. Here are my canning utensils, ready to go:
The only things I purchased for canning were the funnel, the “jar grabber,” and the jars/lids/rings. Everything else was stuff I already had – we even improvised the canner from thrift store finds! We used a huge pot I found at Goodwill for $9, a pasta insert I found for $3, and some coiled aluminum foil to keep the pasta insert off the bottom of the pot. John easily removed the handles from the pasta insert so it would fit all the way into the pot, and we were good to go.
It worked like a charm. The pot has a tight-fitting lid, so it didn’t lose much water at all during processing. I was surprised to find that we needed to add five minutes to the processing time, since we’re more than 1,000 feet above sea level.
I used the “jar grabber” to safely remove the processed jars from the hot water. I think this is one special canning tool that really is necessary. It’s technically called a “canning jar lifter,” but I think “jar grabber” is much more accurate.
It was so exciting to hear the cans make a “pop” noise as they sealed while they were cooling. My Mom told me this was one of the best parts of the canning process, and I totally agree!
The real reward for all the hard work is the satisfaction of enjoying my homemade apple butter on toast. The bread is homemade, too. I’ve been trying to perfect a multi-grain recipe. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m still eating and enjoying my test loaves!
This experience taught me that canning is not as difficult as it seems. There are a lot of steps that were hard for me to understand until I thought about the big picture of the canning process. It’s pretty much just sterilizing, filling the jars, and processing. I get confused when I look at the 20-step canning directions, but if I think of those three main steps on their own, it all makes sense. You don’t need very much special equipment for canning fruit jams, butters, and jellies. Don’t believe the hype! Just use what works, whether it’s the “right” equipment or not. That’s pretty much my attitude about most things, actually.
Add “spray paint the car” to the list of things I never thought I’d do, but have now done. The factory clear coat on my 7-year-old Honda has held up very well. Unfortunately, I was rear-ended a few years ago, and the aftermarket clear coat the body shop used is definitely worse for the wear – it’s peeled off completely in some areas.
I don’t care what my car looks like, and I definitely didn’t want to pay for these areas to be repainted. Nevertheless, I was starting to get a little worried that, without the protection from the clear coat, the paint would deteriorate and the metal would eventually be exposed, making it vulnerable to rust. I plan on keeping this car as long as possible, and rusted panels are not part of that plan. I decided that it was worth trying some DIY body work to make sure things don’t get worse. I’ve never tackled a project like this before, and I was a little embarrassed when I went to the local O’Reilly Auto Parts and asked about clear coat spray paint! I knew that there was no way I would get great results by spray-painting my car, but that wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to make sure the metal body panels were protected. If it was a total failure, I’d pretty much be back where I started – needing to get those areas repainted. I came home with Dupli-Color Protective Clear Coat Finish and some 2000-grit wet/dry sandpaper.
I used the sandpaper with water to remove as much of the chipped areas of the factor clear coat as possible, and to smooth the rough edge where the clear coat had flaked off. The sanding also helped rough up the existing paint and clear coat so the new spray-on clear coat would adhere better. The transition was quite a bit smoother when I was done sanding. On the right side of this photo you can see that the paint has deteriorated some and exposed the primer underneath.
I thoroughly rinsed everything with water to remove any sanding residue, then let the car air dry. Then I masked off the areas that I was going to spray with the clear coat. I decided to spray the entire section above the rear window, but only parts of the panel below it. Most of the clear coat on that panel was in good shape, and I didn’t want to spray the undamaged sections. I masked off these areas with about 1 to 1.5 inches of undamaged clear coating around them, so the new clear coat would totally cover the flaking edge area.
Before I started spraying, I wiped down the areas to be painted with mineral spirits to remove any residue, then with water, then let it dry again. Then I got to spraying. The Dupli-Color paint sprayed really evenly until it was nearly empty. I made sure to start spraying off to the side, then used a slow, even motion to apply thin coats. I sprayed my first coat on one of the sections too heavily and it started to slump. Fortunately, I was able to quickly wipe it off with mineral spirits and start over, but I learned my lesson – use thin coats to start!
I ended up spraying four thin coats and two moderately thick coats. I found that as the coating built up, I could apply a thicker layer without getting any slumping. I was very careful to try to keep the can moving constantly and steadily while I was spraying, so the coating would be as even as possible. I think that applying multiple thin coats to start helped create an even base. Once everything was dry, I removed the masking.
There was a clear line where I had masked off the sections on the panel below the rear window. Not too surprising. The paint can said that any transition lines could be softened by using polishing compound after letting the clear coat cure for 48 hours. I waited the recommended time, then wet-sanded again, then used the polishing compound. I finished by applying a couple of coats of carnauba wax to protect the new clear coat. Here’s the before and after of the panel above the window:
And the panel below the window:
You can still see the line from the new clear coat, but it doesn’t bother me. Even though aesthetic improvement wasn’t one of my goals for this project, I do think the “after” looks a lot better! The total cost of this project, including 2 cans of spray-on clear coat, one package of 2000-grit wet/dry sandpaper, polishing compound and carnauba wax, was $32.
This project wasn’t quick, but it was easy. The prep work was time-consuming (but not difficult), and I think it was essential to achieving good results. I also think it’s important to let everything dry thoroughly and not rush into re-sanding and polishing. All-in-all, I think this was $32 well-spent to keep my car protected so it will continue to serve me well for years to come!
I’ve been really into taking photos lately, mainly because we’ve been having awesome sunsets and lots of houseguests, which has led to many fun nights out on the deck enjoying the sunset. I have so much to learn, but I’m really motivated by the small progress I’ve made. I just took this photo and I’m so excited because it actually looks almost exactly like what I saw with my own two eyes. (Click to enlarge and appreciate the details. )
What I love about this photo is that it shows the clouds, the sunset and the lights in the valley, but you can still barely see the tree trunks. I took another one where the pine needles were crisper, but the colors weren’t as nice. I definitely have a lot to learn!
I’ve decided that I’m not into editing photos aside from cropping and resizing. I’ve color-corrected a few photos, and I kind of feel like I’m cheating. I want to take photos that are accurate depictions of what I’m really seeing at that moment. I realize that there’s some wiggle room with editing, because even unedited photos aren’t always accurate. But sometimes I see really amazing landscape photos online, and for a minute I think, “Wow, that is unbelievably beautiful…I’ve never seen colors that vivid.” Then I think, “I’ve never seen colors that vivid because they don’t exist in nature!” That realization makes me feel kind of sad and jaded. I mean, aren’t the actual colors in nature enough…do they really require enhancement?
Ever since we’ve had our patio table, we’ve been using this DIY umbrella stand to hold our patio umbrella. I thought I would share how we made it so you could DIY it too!
Kidding! That’s the original DIY umbrella stand that John made with a leftover plant container and a sack of post concrete. He put the bottom of our umbrella pole into a 3-mil contractor’s trash bag, wrapped the excess with tape, stuck it in the center of the plant container, and filled it with cement. Once it cured, the umbrella pole and bag came out easily. This thing was cheap and very sturdy, but I wanted something nicer for our deck seating area. After considering different paint options, I finally decided to try covering the umbrella stand in rope, like an old buoy. Here’s the finished product:
I wouldn’t say that this process was exactly “quick and easy” (it took several hours over a few days and was a little fiddly), but it only cost about $35 total and I am super happy with the way it turned out! I bought 100 feet of manilla rope (two 50-foot packages), a big tube of Liquid Nails, and a can of spray paint that matched the rope. I also ended up using some cork, wood glue, and spar urethane that we already had on hand. The estimated cost of $35 is for all the materials, including the concrete and the stuff we had on hand.
I cut off the plant container with a utility knife and spray-painted the concrete to match the rope. I figured that was a good precaution to make it less noticeable if my rope-wrapping wasn’t perfect. Then I started gluing the rope in place. I decided to start at the narrowest end (the bottom of the plant container), which would become the top of the finished umbrella stand. I wiped off as much of the excess glue as I could after snapping this photo.
After gluing the top down, I weighted it with a 4×4 and let it dry so it wouldn’t uncoil (even though Liquid Nails is pretty sticky, I still had to sort of hold the rope in place while I glued it to the top). Once the glue holding the top coil of rope down was dry, I continued wrapping and gluing the rope down the stand. Once I got near the end of the first 50-foot length of rope, I taped everything in place with masking tape and let it dry. I left about the last 8 inches unglued so I could move it around when I glued the next section of rope in place.
Once the glue was dry on the first rope section, I flipped the umbrella stand over so the bottom was facing up, then I continued gluing and wrapping the rope around the rest of the stand, taped it again, and let it dry fully. I should probably mention that I did the second half of this on John’s pottery wheel, which made it waaaaaay easier, since I could rotate it while I glued, instead of having to walk around in circles!
I glued some cork to the bottom of the stand so it wouldn’t scratch our deck, then let that dry.
Once everything was dry, I flipped it over and checked my work. It looked pretty good!
Unfortunately, after I finished high-fiving John, I took a closer look and saw that some of the Liquid Nails had oozed out between the ropes and left unsightly white marks.
I tried touching it up with spray paint. I just sprayed the paint into a puddle on a scrap of cardboard, then used a foam brush to carefully dab paint over the dried Liquid Nails. Since the paint was a good match for the manilla rope, it worked great! I seriously can hardly tell where I did the touch-up painting!
After the paint was dry, John and I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to give the finished umbrella stand a good coat of spar urethane to protect it from the elements. I applied the spar urethane liberally with a brush. I didn’t photograph this step because it made absolutely no difference in how the stand looked. In fact, the only way I could tell where I had applied it was to tap with my fingers to see which areas were tacky (from the spar urethane)! Once I let the stand dry a final time, we put our new DIY rope umbrella stand in place under our patio table.
Big upgrade! I love how the natural color and texture of the manilla rope blends in with the wooden deck table and chairs, and with our Trex deck. I totally recommend this as a DIY project that is affordable, pretty easily accomplished, and looks way fancier and more expensive than it is. Now I want to make more improvements to our deck seating area! I’m thinking that a nice candle and some colorful pillows would look good. I’m also trying to decide what to do with the laminate table top, which looks okay in photos but isn’t great in real life (although John thinks it’s fine). Please let me know if you have any suggestions or other good DIY ideas!
Let me just start by saying that we’ve learned our lesson, and next year we will be planting fewer cherry tomatoes and more “regular” tomatoes (we have three cherry tomato plants this year). John and I both love cherry tomatoes when they’re fresh off the vine, because they are so sweet and don’t require any prep (besides rinsing) before you can use them in salads. But they’re more difficult to preserve because they are almost impossible to efficiently peel, even using my favorite lazy method. And like I’ve said before, I’m just not ready to tackle the tomato-canning process. The only solution I’ve come up with to preserve cherry tomatoes is to make – and then freeze – cherry tomato sauce. The good news is that sauce made from cherry tomatoes is incredibly sweet and flavorful, so it’s totally worth the effort. I make a very basic sauce, because we often add extra ingredients when we use it later on, so I want this sauce to be adaptable. Here’s my basic recipe:
Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)
Makes about 5 pints, depending on how much you reduce the sauce.
1 c. olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
about 5 quarts cherry tomatoes, rinsed
2 bay leaves
1. Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. I use a lot of olive oil in my tomato sauce because I think it helps maintain the flavor of the sauce when it freezes. It’s also really tasty!
2. Add the onions and carrot and saute briefly.
3. Add the cherry tomatoes and stir occasionally until they start to pop and form a very watery sauce. Add the bay leaves and salt to taste (remember it will cook down, so go easy on the salt to start with).
4. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce seems more “saucy” than “watery,” then gradually reduce the heat as needed to keep the sauce from sputtering. Simmer for a couple of hours, until the sauce is a little thinner than you want it to be. Taste and add more salt if needed.
5. Puree the sauce in a blender, being careful not to put too much in at once. Make sure to let the steam vent out of the blender as you go.
6. Strain the sauce to remove the peels and seeds. I just pour the sauce through a plastic strainer, and use a silicone spatula to stir it around until I’m left with just peels and seeds (see photo below).
7. Pour the sauce into clean pint-sized freezer-safe jars, making sure to leave a generous 1/2-inch head space to allow for expansion when the sauce freezes. If you decide to use quart-sized jars, I recommend leaving 1 inch of head space.
8. Let cool to about room temperature (30-45 minutes), then screw on the lids, label and freeze.
If the process sounds involved, let me assure you it’s really not. The prep work is minimal, and you basically just let it do its thing for a few hours. The only part that requires any real effort is the blending and straining, and you can avoid that if you have a food mill (I don’t). Unfortunately, there’s no way around picking all those dang cherry tomatoes. Next year…