Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Halloween, Everybody!

We had our Halloween party last night.  The kids had So Much Fun!  Sorry some of the pictures are pretty shoddy.  When it got dark, it was flash time...

Take one, beautiful Fall day.  Insert 2 months of planning, 3 extremely talented and creative friends (who buy a lot of Martha Stewart magazines), and 15 kids.  Stir it all up, and Voila!

 Our carnival area.  We had fishing, a bean bag toss game, and apple bobbing.

Our guests wore some great costumes!

Then we ate:

I didn't get a great picture of the food, but here's the menu:
Mummy fingers (pigs in blankets), chocolate brains (chocolate shortbread cookies), i-balls (meat balls), hot cider, fungus tart, broccoli salad, halloween pumpkin seeds, potato salad, homemade Cracker Jacks, gluten-free witch cupcakes, chocolate frogs, pumpkin mousse, olives, and an assortment of wines and hard ciders.

Fungus tart by Martha Stewart with my little alterations.

 These are my little toadie-frogs.  I was inspired by Fork and Beans to put a bunch of different fillings inside.  Some had marshmallow brains, others had caramel innards, or rice crispy bones, or all-natural  maraschino cherry blood!

  Aren't these the sweetest?!

 A scarecrow craft.
 On our walk in the woods, I'm afraid I didn't get many good pictures.  

 We had a talking pumpkin who told the kids that the fairies had woken her up and left them a treat!  They walked past a family of mice,

  up a sparkly trail (mica flakes work great for this!) to a... 

Donut Tree!!!
 The path was marked by fairies in orbs (aka body lights in helium-filled white balloons tied to fishing line.)

We ended up with story time and a pumpkin contest!  I was so pleased that all the kids dictated their own pumpkins!  We had some super cute ones!

Speaking of super cute punkins...


 Your hosts!  (I'm the witch in the purple...)

Throw-it-Together Apple Cider
Start after your guests have begun to arrive.
1 Gallon of good, unfiltered apple juice.  I used Cedardale Orchards (Jonamac blend).  Martinellis makes a great one, too but I couldn't find it in gallon size this year.
5 or 6 pods of cardamom
1 or 2 Tbs whole cloves
Look all around for whole cinnmon sticks, give up and use a generous shake of ground cinnamon

Put it all in a crock-pot and set it on low.  It only gets better as the night goes on!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Canning Primer...

One of the few cooking things I did with my Mom as a kid was help with canning.  I remember putting up jar after jar of tomatoes and I remember her putting up soup using the pressure canner.  I remember waiting for all the jars to "tink" so we knew they were sealed and I remember eating right away the ones that didn't.  At the time I didn't think much of it, but now it helps me feel connected to her and my grandmother and all the previous generations who saved food this way.  At one point in my "trying to get back into this cooking thing" phase I decided to make and can jam at a friend's house.  Not only did the jam not set, the jars wouldn't seal either.  I still don't know what happened to the jam, but the open jars may have had something to do with the way I tried to can them.  Neither of us had a canner and there was only going to be one jar made anyway so I got the bright idea to turn the jar upside down and try to melt the seal in a pan of boiling water! Yeah, that didn't work...   So my friend ended up with freezer syrup.  Hopefully the jar of this summer's jam I sent her made up for it!

There is an initial cost, but it does save money in the long run, especially if you are preserving food you have grown yourself.  I live in the darkest pit of the darkest part of Washington state.  I am grateful to get a few salad greens here and there, nothing to preserve, but I do get bulk orders at my farmer's market and it still works out cheaper than organic jam or canned tomatoes from the grocery store.

This may look like a long post, but rest assured it's not a complicated process at all.  I highly recommend you arm yourself with a good book on preserving (The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving is the standard by which all books on home preserving are measured in my opinion...)

And now, a look at the tools:

These here are jars:

The one in front is a half pint, behind it is a pint, and behind that is a quart.  They make much larger jars and some smaller or differently shaped ones, but these are the basic three jars I use.  I like the wide mouth jars as they are easier to fill.  There are smaller standard size lids, too.  Whichever size you choose, try to stick with one common size, so you only have to buy one style of lids for all your jars. 

These are the lids and the rings (sometimes called bands).  Rings, like jars, are reusable.  Lids should only be processed once.  You can use them for a while in the fridge after you open it, but you should never use them to can with again.  There are some re-usable lids, but I haven't used them.  I am intrigued though...
This is a standard set of canning tools.  There are two jar lifters, a funnel, and the little magnet on a steek there is for picking up hot lids.  (More on that later...)

Water bath canner.  Basically, a giant pot with a lid.  The big metal disk in the front is called a rack.  Racks come in all shapes and sizes.  You can even use a bunch of rings tied together.  You just need something to keep the bottom of the jars off the bottom of the pan to encourage circulation and keep the jars from breaking.  You don't need a water bath canner.  Any large pot with a lid will do.  Canners just tend to be larger so you can process more jars at once.

This is a pressure canner.  You can see the rack again.  Mine came with three weights for 5 pounds pressure, 10 pounds, and 15.  I think my Mom's model had one weight that you just turned so a different hole let out a different amount of steam.  You may see some with pressure gauges at the top.  This one is just a basic, inexpensive pressure canner.  In fact, I got it at Ross.  You can also see the steam valve at the top.  There is also a rubber or silicon seal in the lid.  Some also have additional valves which, should anything go wrong, will allow the steam to escape safely.  Most also come with safety latches that will not allow you to open the lid if the pressure is not completely gone.  They've basically made it idiot proof.  Which is good for me...  The main thing with pressure canners, or pressure cookers in general, is to make sure the valve is clean and the seal is in good shape (not cracked).  If the valve is dirty or clogged it will cause the pressure to build too much and you'll end up with stuff on your ceiling.  If the seal is cracked it won't form pressure properly which will result in an unsafe product. 

Is that as clear as mud to everybody?  OK?  OK!

Next, let's talk about preparing jars for canning.  I have read that if you're going to pressure can you don't have to do anything to prep the jars.  I don't do this, it just doesn't feel right to me.  And usually my jars are covered in dust anyway...  Basically all it means is getting the jars nice and clean and hot (read sanitized) so you're not introducing any bacteria into your product.  The most popular method these days (because it's dead simple) is to wash everything in your dishwasher.  The end.  Super simple.  Alternately, you can do it the old fashioned way and boil your jars.  Your lids need to be sanitized, too, but don't boil them.  They need to be nice and hot but if you boil them they may not set properly.  You don't need to sanitize your rings.  If you want to toss them in the dishwasher, that's fine, but I highly recommend you not boil them as you have to use your bare hands to put them on the jars.  I've learned this the hard way more times than I care to admit...

Now the scary stuff:
Botulism.  Caused by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum, it's odorless, tasteless, and it can make you very, very sick.  And if you haven't canned properly, you can get it from your canned goods.  The best way to make sure this doesn't happen is to make sure you use the proper canner for what you are canning.  Sweet things like jam, and applesauce, and very acidic things like tomatoes, and pickles can be safely canned using a water bath.  Savory things like soup, beans, and meat should be canned using a pressure canner.  Always follow the times and weights for the items you are canning.  Botulism cases are very rare, but very serious and most importantly, are preventable if you use proper methods.  To that end, most of what I can is directly from the Ball Book of Home Preserving.  All the times and acid levels have been properly researched, so I feel a little safer doing it their way.  With my mushroom stock, I followed their cook time for vegetable soup, which is different than that of chicken or beef soup.  With all that said, I know tons of people who can and I've never met anyone who got botulism. 

There now.  If I haven't scared the pants completely off you,
Let's get down to it:

Are you ready?  Get ready!

My friend Jennifer gave me some beautiful Asian pears off her tree last week so I thought I'd use them to show you the basic steps.  So step one, start with beautiful, fresh produce.

Prepare your produce.  This recipe called for the pears to be soaked in a lemon juice solution and packed raw in a syrup.  This step might include making the jam, applesauce, or whatever.  While you're preparing your food, you should also be sanitizing your jars and lids.  An easy way to do it (besides the dishwasher) is to put them in your canner and heat them in there.  That way, your water is already warm and close to boiling when it comes time to do the processing.
Back to the syrup.  I made my syrup using Sucanat, thus the dark color.  You can also use water or fruit juice.  Artificial sweeteners don't usually do very well in canning.  They tend to discolor or leave an off taste.  If you are canning applesauce or things that might stick to the side of the jar, run a butter knife down and around the side of the jar to release any bubbles.  These two jars are filled a little too full.  You need to leave space at the top of the jar, I usually stop at the bottom thread.  I was so excited to take these pictures, I wasn't thinking... Sorry... =(

Wipe the rim.  This is especially important when you're canning something with seeds (like jam).  One little seed can cause the jar not to seal properly.

Place the lid on the jar.

Screw on the ring until it's finger tight.

Place the jars in the canner and make sure the water is covering them by a good inch.  Process the jars by boiling them in a canner for the time prescribed in your recipe.  These pears required a water bath.  If you are using a pressure canner, let the canner vent for 10 minutes before putting the weight on.  Make sure you are using the correct amount of weight.  (I haven't found a recipe that called for anything other than 10 pounds, but that doesn't mean anything...)

 When the time is up using a pressure canner, turn off the heat and wait for the pressure to go down on its own (on my canner, the lid lock falls when the pressure is completely gone.)  Using a water bath canner, remove lid and wait a few minutes before removing jars.  I cool mine on a wire rack, but you can use a folded dish towel.  Listen for the "tinks."  If all your jars seal, Congratulations!  You did it!  Once it's cool, you can put a fancy label on it or use masking tape like Mom did.  You should date your cans just so you know how old it is.  If you have a jar that doesn't seal, check the lid and see if you can figure out why it didn't seal.  You can re-process the jar with a new lid or you can just eat that jar for dinner that night!  You don't need to leave the rings on the jar once everything has sealed.  I usually do just so I don't lose them.  If you do decide to leave them on, make sure you take them off and wipe them down before you store them.   Left-over water can cause them to rust.

There now... I hope I have inspired you and not completely scared you to death!

I've done a post about using reusable canning lids!  It's almost as easy as using metal lids without all that annoying BPA and if you do a lot of canning every year, they work out to be pretty economical!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What I Learned in Photography Class

Tripods are good.

Props are good.

Pretty food is good.

Light is good.

Apparently, Viaducts are Bad...

All those things together make this happen:

I had a great time and came away with a lot of insight as well as some serious prop envy.  Thank you, Clare Barboza!
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