‘Tis the Season

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

Taken with Instagram

I think of the mother, and then I think of Danzig.

Greens for Breakfast

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!

Mustard Vinaigrette
(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
pinch salt

Combine all ingredients in a small jar and shake vigorously. Keeps about a week in the fridge.

Vanilla Brandy

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. 🙂

Vanilla Brandy
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!

Holiday Baking Prep

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!

Improvised Canning

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. 🙂

Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)

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…

Freezing Tomatoes (The Lazy Way)

Over the holiday weekend, I was chatting with my friend J about different methods of preserving tomatoes. I knew that I was going to need to start processing some of our garden produce, and I’m never quite sure what to do with all of our tomatoes. I’ve frozen tomato sauce successfully, but we end up buying a lot of canned tomatoes during the winter. Canning tomatoes safely at home requires a very specific process that I’m just not ready to tackle. Most methods I’ve heard of for freezing tomatoes require you to blanch and peel them first. I’ve done that before, and it’s messy and time-consuming – enough so that I really, really didn’t want to do it. Still, one of my goals this season was to preserve more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our use of canned tomatoes.

I’ve mentioned before that J knows a lot about keeping foods fresh, and this weekend she shared a tip that was almost too good to be true. J said that her Mother-in-Law and Grandmother-in-Law both freeze tomatoes – without blanching and peeling them – using an incredibly simple method. They just lop the top off the tomatoes and toss them in a bag in the freezer. When you defrost the tomatoes, the peel comes right off! Naturally, I was really excited to try this method myself.

I started by picked the ripe garden tomatoes. I’ve read that you get the best results when you process fruits and veggies as soon as possible after picking.

We don’t use any funky chemicals in our garden, but this year we started to get blossom-end rot, so we sprayed a calcium solution on the plant leaves (which was totally effective, by the way). Although the foliar calcium treatment is organic, I still soaked the tomatoes in water to remove any over-spray residue. Then I just cut off the tops, along with any old bits of blossom-end rot and any cracked areas.

I put the tomatoes in plastic bags in the freezer. I pulled a couple out the next morning to see if the method really works. I put the frozen tomatoes in a bowl to defrost (you can also run them under warm water).

After the outside of the tomatoes defrosted, I tried peeling them. Just like J said, the peels slipped right off, and I was left with perfectly peeled garden tomatoes to use in place of purchased canned tomatoes!

I am so thrilled with this easy and effective method of freezing tomatoes! I feel really proud that I can easily put up more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our need to buy canned tomatoes during the winter. Now I’m starting to think that preserving produce can actually be really easy if you just find the right method…and this method is even easier than driving to the store to buy a can of tomatoes!

Thoughts on Consumption

I think a lot about consumption. Not the disease, but the act of consuming stuff. I’m not an ascetic by any means; I’m not even a minimalist. I just try to avoid buying things that I don’t “need,” which also means that I try to avoid wanting things that I don’t need. That’s challenging for me. I feel like our culture is so driven by consumption, the idea that you need something newer and better (or even just different) from what you already have. I find this problematic because of the insane amount of crap that gets made to feed our insatiable appetites for new stuff, and the corollary insane amount of crap that gets discarded in favor of the “newer/better/different” thing (CRT’s anyone?). Also, I don’t want to spend my time thinking about stuff, acquiring stuff, and being surrounded by stuff. I want to spend my time doing things I enjoy, things that are generally not stuff-related, unless that “stuff” is wine, books, or my camping gear. Or my sewing stuff. Or my coral lipstick and my new belt. Come to think of it, some new shoes would look great with that belt. Or my…

Yeah, I’m definitely not perfect, but I am working on it. I don’t have any solutions, but I think that contemplating my own feelings about consumption has helped me change my spending habits for the better. Mainly, I try to:

1. Buy fewer new things, and not buy things that won’t last.
2. Make the things I have last longer.
3. Not treat shopping as entertainment.
4. Avoid things (some magazines/TV/internet) that make me want to consume.

Anyhoo, on the non-consumption tip, we had a great time hanging out with some friends who came up to stay with us this weekend. I don’t have any photos of the garden adventures, gold panning, or train ogling, but I did grab a glamour shot of the oatmeal pancakes I made for breakfast one day.

I use the recipe from The New Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook, which I totally recommend. The only changes I make are to omit the oil from the batter and to use white flour instead of whole wheat. I add oil to the pan before I pour each pancake – it gives them a little crispy finish that is extra good.

1 1/4 c. milk
1 c. rolled oats
2 eggs, beaten
1 T. brown sugar
1/2 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt

Mix the milk and the oats together and let them sit for a few minutes until the oats soften up. Mix in the eggs and the brown sugar. Pour in the flour in one spot, then add the baking powder and salt on top of the flour. Using a dry fork, mix the baking powder and salt into the flour pile, then mix the whole batter together. Preheat a nonstick pan over medium heat. Add a nickel-sized puddle of oil, then pour 1/4 c. of batter right onto the oil. I do two pancakes at a time like this. Cook on the first side until the pancakes bubble up and the bubbles pop, and the edges start to look dry. Then flip them and cook until the second side is brown. I have to lower the heat a bit after the first few pancakes. You want to adjust the heat so the pancakes are simultaneously ready to flip and as brown as you like them. You’ll get it! I served these with maple syrup and some fresh nectarines. They were yummy.

I’m still thinking about consumption. 🙂

Marinated Summer Veggies (and Garden Developments)

I think I’ve mentioned before that it’s been a strange gardening year here in Northern California. Everything is ripening a lot later than normal because of the unusually cold, wet Spring. Well, we’re still in the midst of the zucchini onslaught, but some of our other veggies* are finally starting to ripen. We have our first ripe tomatoes!

In honor of this momentous occasion, I ate about half the cherry tomatoes off the plant. And ate the only bigger ripe tomato like an apple, right there in the garden. It was fantastic! Seriously, I felt like all of the work that went into our garden this year was worth it for just that moment.

I did manage to save the rest of the ripe tomatoes, and I decided to make some marinated veggies with zucchini, onions, and basil from our garden. I wanted the veggies to be raw and crunchy, but I decided that I’d sear the zucchini and onions to give them a little extra flavor and sweetness. I just cut them in half and grilled them like I described here, but just until they were seared, not until they were cooked through.

I diced everything up (chopped the basil) and tossed it all together with some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. I stuck it in the fridge for a while until we were ready to eat dinner, but it doesn’t really need to marinade – it’s good to eat right after you make it.

In other garden news, we have some soybeans! John, who is obsessed with commodity crops, is very happy.

This is the first year we’ve planted pumpkins, and they are getting huuuuuuge! I hope they stick around until October so we can have homegrown Jack-O-Lanterns!

*Fruit, bulbs, herbs, whatever…it’s all “veggies” to me. 🙂