In the Kitchen: Preserving the Harvest

The torrential rains we’ve had on the East coast this August ruined my garden. My tomato plants were toppled and the fruits lay rotting on the sodden soil before I could rescue them from eager insects. Squash Vine Borers feasted on my zucchini and yellow crook neck squash. My cucumber seedlings were drowned in the deluge. Few things seem so disappointing as the end of the summer growing season and rain that has come too much too late.

Canning is something I learned on a whim from a woman I knew via a Scrabble group through my local food co-op. I am a terrible Scrabble player, but this woman was more than happy to teach me to make and can jam. She sent me home with an extra, old granite ware pot she had and a canning rack and I pretty much taught myself from there. In addition to the canning bible, The Ball Blue Book of Preserving, I consult the website for the National Center for Home Food Preservation, Putting Food By, and So Easy to Preserve for tried and true tips and recipes.

I gathered up my dozen or so green tomatoes that hadn’t yet fallen prey to rot and made green tomato pickle – something I’ve been wanting to try for a while. I followed the recipe in Putting Up: A Year-Round Guide to Canning in the Southern Tradition by Stephen Palmer Dowdney. The recipe was relatively easy to follow but I would have appreciated more specific direction on how much headspace to leave in the jars and how long to process them in the water bath after filling. I think this book focuses way too much on testing the pH of your recipes. Yes, it IS important to avoid spoilage and botulism, but it’s terribly tedious to keep having to break out the litmus paper. Not to mention that my litmus paper starts at 4.5 and the author often wants a pH of 4.2 for acidic foods. Several of the other recipes in the book state that they can be halved or doubled. This one didn’t have any such note and I was left wondering if that meant that I should attempt neither halving nor doubling for this recipe. I also had to make two extra batches of the vinegar solution to fill all of the jars. I’m not sure how the author expected 2 cups of vinegar to fill 6 pints. Needles to say, I felt more than a little anxiety about how my tomatoes would turn out. All but one of the jars sealed and now I’m just hoping for the best.

 

 

After I got over my disappointment with the green tomato pickle recipe, I ordered Canning For A New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors For the Modern Pantry by Liana Krissoff. I LOVE this book. The recipes are well-written and address every step of the canning process. She also dispenses with all the fussing over pH and encourages you to rely more on your own intuition. Obviously, our ancestors weren’t testing their recipes with litmus paper! Nor could many a housewife afford to throw out an entire batch of canned food if the pH of a recipe seemed a hair off! I love that the author weaves her own story into her book and gives the reader an appreciation for the flavors captured beneath those metal rings.

I found myself with 2 pounds of green beans thanks to the soaking rains and, with a hurricane due to arrive tomorrow, needed to do something with them before we inevitably lose power and a fridge full of food. Dilly Beans were the first thing that popped into my mind as I love all this pickle-y. These beans are a popular, Southern tradition and can be eaten straight from the jar as a snack or heaped upon beans, rice, salad, etc for a bit of tang and crunch. Krissoff’s recipe was clear, easy, and took me no more than an hour in the kitchen! All of my jars sealed and I’m confident that they will taste delicious once opened.

 

  

 

Canning, something I might have learned from my grandmothers had they not passed before I could know them, is a way for me to feel connected to the generations of women before me – those women who nourished their families through slavery, Jim Crow, the Great Depression, and seasons of bounty from their kitchen gardens. I’ve found it so pleasing to be able to have a taste of summer on those dark days in February knowing that my harvest has lasted me long past August. It’s also the best way to enjoy those out-of-season foods while not contributing to the less-than-wholesome practices of agri-business.

With this hurricane a-comin’, I’ll be toting some peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches to the hospital with me as I wait out the storm caring for patients.

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The Main Course

:: Carrot Cake with Maple Cream Frosting ::

 

 

 

Carrot cake is one of those desserts that people seem to either love or hate. In my case, there is deep, deep love and it seemed like the perfect dessert for my summer potluck given the abundance of fresh, organic carrots this season.

I used the recipe for Carrot Cake with Maple Cream Frosting from Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite food blogs. She makes cupcakes in her recipe but, as she writes, it works perfectly well for two 9-inch cake pans and there is more than enough frosting! I agree that grating the carrots by hand is key to a smooth, moist batter even if it is a royal pain in the behind. The maple cream frosting is just the right amount of sweet to compliment the notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger in the cake. If my guests didn’t love carrot cake before, I have certainly won them over with this version!

 

As an Anthropology major at Barnard College, I spent a lot of time reading about the important role that food plays in cultures throughout the globe. No matter what corner of the world you visit, food will always be a central part of human relationships, custom, and culture.

I grew up with parents who frequently brought to light the social importance of sharing food – inviting friends, students, and colleagues to share meals ranging from the casual barbeque to Christmas dinner to multi-course affairs, held late into the evening, that my small, pajama-ed self was not allowed to attend.

When I was in grammar school, my mother spent several years preparing “teacher gifts” that consisted of baskets brimming with homemade wonders – bottled vinegars and oils, peanut brittle and truffles, small baked breads and other treats. They were always received with the utmost delight and appreciation.

Food literally brings people to the table. It smooths over all that has gone wrong in a day. We are encouraged to create and renew bonds over new flavors, smells, textures. Recipes are passed from generation to generation and family identity is forged out of the dishes created in ovens and on stovetops.

I started hosting potlucks when I began nursing school. I wanted to create an environment in which I could get to know my new friends better. And, for those who were far from home, I wanted them to remember the comforts that can be provided by a warm meal, the laughter of those you love, and conversation long into the evening. The guests that come to the big, Cherry wood dining table in my childhood home always seem to change, but the meaning behind the meal never does. I am always excited to see what others bring, how their creativity is made manifest in the most delicious of concoctions.

…quinoa with sweet corn

…hand-rolled sushi

…cheesy lasagna

…crisp cookies

…cassoulet

We gather, we share, we eat. For an evening, no matter where we have come from or where we are going, we can be family.

 

The Main Course

A beginning of a photo-blog series of humbly homemade dishes…

 

:: Walnut Pesto with Fusilli Pasta ::

 

Mom is growing basil on the deck and her plant, like many basil plants, is quite full with sweetly spicy leaves. So much so that there have been numerous sprigs bathing in vases of water above our sink as a not-so-subtle reminder that pesto needed to be made. Needed to be made by me. At some point I, unknowingly, inherited all of the cooking duties in the household. Apparently, if you’ve prepared family meals for 24 or so years, you get to retire and pass the spatula.

We were out of pine nuts and they are rather expensive to buy in bulk, so I opted for walnuts in the hopes of achieving a slightly different taste and texture.

I followed this recipe from Kiss My Spatula – one of my new culinary blog obsessions – to get the ratio of cheese to oil to nuts correct. The walnuts make a thicker, crunchier pesto than pine nuts which, in my opinion, create a more creamy pasta topping. I tripled the recipe because of the plethora of basil leaves on hand, but would probably reduce the amount of garlic by half (three cloves is a bit excessive, no?) should I make repeat batches. I prefer a subtle hint of garlic rather than the smack in the taste buds that others prefer.

I spooned the pesto over tender fusili pasta and ate it with a side of heirloom tomatoes doused in balsamic vinegar (my favorite way to eat tomatoes thanks to my dad). A cold Duchesse de Bourgogne sour ale rounded things out – quick, simple, and satisfying on a rainy night. I’m gauging my true success with tonight’s meal by the fact that my brother ate an entire bowl-full with nary a complaint. I’ll be freezing the remainder of the pesto for winter when we’re all longing for the pungent smell of fresh herbs.

Tumbling

It has been a long time since I have been in this space. I forgot how quickly the forward momentum of life can catch us up into a great whirlwind of activity. Often, I find myself thinking “I hope life won’t be like this forever. I need to slow down”. I don’t want to be always attempting to accomplish ten things at once and simultaneously chiding myself for not being able to do more. When I am doing one thing, I am always thinking about how I am not doing another.

There are still pounds of berries and cherries in the freezer waiting to become jam.

A pile of laundry seems to always be accumulating on my bedroom floor.

What should I make for dinner?

I need to get to the garden to harvest.

Should I plant a fall crop of pole beans or just put my green thumb to rest until another summer season?

That quilt still needs batting and backing.

Only a few more rows on the baby sweater.

Order the pathology text book for that class in September.

Don’t forget the doctor appointments and meetings and the research for women’s health initiatives that needs to be presented.

Any time to do some physical activity?

I think it is rhythm I am looking for as opposed to this free-falling feeling.

Once I’ve gotten up this mountain of a “to-do” list, I am hoping that there is a quiet place at the top. A place in an old farmhouse or converted barn with a sunny room for sewing, an open kitchen for bread baking and jam making, land for a big garden and a bit for chickens too, a grassy hill for children to roll down, a good man who will build me a potting shed, and a community that needs a nurse practitioner who will come, even in the middle of the night, when someone needs mending.