Thursday, August 30, 2012

What Became of the Grapes

Last week was the Week of the Grapes around here.  13 pounds of these beauties (and a few spiders and earwigs) were bestowed upon me.  I was mighty tempted to make grape jam.  Really tempted.  Tempted so much so that I marked up all sorts of grape options in my jam books.  Alas, I still have a lot of jam in the cellar from last year, so I went with the more sensible choice of grape juice.  I couldn't decide which method I wanted to use, so I tried them both!  

A big thank you to Paul for helping me wash, stem and sort.  Twice.

The first batch I made was a slightly sweetened juice.  We used 1/3 cup of cane sugar in each quart jar and somewhere between 1.5 to 2 cups of grapes. Both ingredients went into hot, sterilized jars.

We then poured in boiling water and tapped them a few times to work out the air bubbles.

These jars got their lids and rings and then took a hot water bath for 30 minutes followed by a 5 minute rest  in the canner.  Since I had the siphoning issue with my plums, I have been taking precautions to prevent siphoning.  This method is a slightly lazier version of the version my dad has used to make juice out of my grandma's grapes.  I was hoping to recreate that taste, but I didn't see any reason to make the simple syrup separately, as he does.  I was worried when these came out of the canner since the sugar hadn't dissolved and looked to be a solid layer on the bottom of the jar.  I was really glad when the sugar dissolved on its own throughout the next few days. Since finishing this batch, the water had turned purple.  After 2-3 months, the juice should be at its full flavor.

Round 2 was a much more time consuming method, but yielded a pure juice with no added sweetener.

We started with about 8 pounds of grapes.

They went into my jam pot and I mashed, mashed, mashed them.  When they were pretty well mashed, I added some filtered water.

I let them cook until the flesh was broken down and it was really juicy.

Then, to the strainers it went!  I had to get creative with straining scenarios since these needed to fit in the fridge.  I've got the grapes in strainers over bowls with 2 layers of cheesecloth. They strained for 2 days.

Supposedly you can "polish" the juice by straining it through a coffee filter before canning it.  Pfsht.  After giving it a try, I quickly determined it wasn't worth the effort and time.

I was careful to leave the big grains of sediment behind.  I read that this is what is used to make cream of tartar.  Neato.  This method was largely based on info from this extension site.  I processed this in a hot water bath in pint jars per the instructions on that site.

And, there it is!  The yield from 13 pounds of grapes and 5 days of labor.  The 2 labeled jars went to my grape supplier, of course.  I labeled the unsweetened jar as "Mouth Puckering Grape Juice" because it definitely is tart and strong enough to at once delight and pucker the mouth.  I look forward to seeing how the two versions differ.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Magic Hour at Fort Snelling State Park

Sometimes I find myself in a span of days that feel entirely too grown up.  They feel too full of work and to do lists and deadlines and making yourself do stuff you don't want to just because you should.  This was one of those weeks.  So, by the time I got home last night I was ready for a change of pace.  I was ready to be a carefree kid for a night.  So, that is just what I did.

Paul and I quickly threw some essentials (and a beer) in a bag, swung by a local cafe to pick up dinner and drove to Fort Snelling State Park.  Since I had to work late, by the time we did all of that and got to the park, we were approaching the Magic Hour.

The light was so warm and lovely.  There were a few families spread around the park, but it was definitely not crowded and we had plenty of space to ourselves.

I went for a swim, feeling thankful for an August evening that felt like the epitome of August evenings in Minnesota: hot and a wee bit humid.  The park is right up against the airport, so I floated on my back as the planes took off overhead.  The point that the planes cleared the trees was the exact same point where the sun was setting.  It was a beautiful, albeit noisy, show!

We enjoyed our picnic dinner and a little bit of time just laying on a blanket.

 I think the whole outing took less than 2 hours, but it did wonders for my soul!

Psst.  If you look closely, you can see a geocache site by the beach :)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tomato Tomato Tomato

Home grown, garden fresh tomatoes are a summer treat to cherish.  We have been having more than our fair share around here lately.  This year we devoted much of our garden space to growing tomatoes and the plants are doing well. I think that between the ones we have grown and the two batches we got from my dad (and a lot of sweat equity), we are going to have our tomato preserving wishlist covered this year.

I've done a batch of roasted small tomatoes with a hefty amount of olive oil, a wee bit of cane sugar and a wee bit of salt.  I freeze these in 1/2 pint jars and use them in a black bean salad during the winter.  It really hits the spot for me and has served as my potluck contribution on more than one occasion.

I realize that many of the things I am making this year are repeats from last year.  We must have found some winners last year!  Our stash of tomato jam was down to 2 jars, so another batch of that was in order.  I follow Marisa's recipe exactly.  There was a bit leftover from the batch so we used some on home fries and some on a cracker with smoked cheddar cheese.  Good stuff!  One of these jars is destined for my friend Becky in Utah.  She is going to be sending me a jar of her Peach Bourbon BBQ Sauce made from her own peaches!  I am excited for our long distance swap.

And, last but not least, having a stash of slow roasted romas in the freezer is a sure treat.  I tossed some thyme on top of this batch to see if it would impart some extra savory flavor into the batch.  I usually roast these and then freeze them on the tray before bagging them.  It helps to keep them separate, so I can use a few at a time.

In addition to what you see here, I've also done another batch of slow roasted romas, dehydrated a giant batch of the small tomatoes, put up 2 bags of whole frozen small tomatoes and pressure canned whole tomatoes in their own juice.

All of this preserving hasn't gotten in the way of us enjoying these short-lived fruit/veggies in the moment.  We have had numerous BLTs with giant slices of tomatoes (the hillbilly heirlooms are good for this use).  I bought a very large amount of fresh mozzarella and went a caprese salad binge at the start of the season.  Quick pasta dishes with tomatoes have saved the day more than once during the busy summer season. Paul has become a regular consumer of tomato-based veggies smoothies in our house.  And, of course, there have been many salads with tomatoes and even more instances of handfuls of the small tomatoes being eaten as quick snacks.

I haven't regretted the amount of garden space we devoted to tomatoes for one minute!  Also, speaking of the garden, super dooper thumbs up on the hay mulch!  I have had to do very little weeding this year and it seems to help with retaining moisture for the tomato plants.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Grapes Galore

I know I said the next post would be about tomatoes, however something new has come on the scene!

Thanks to the generosity of a coworker, I have 13 pounds of grapes to contend with.  I finished up some more tomato preserving and did a bit of regular kitchen tasks (granola, batches of dried beans, dinner) tonight.  I took care of this stuff so that tomorrow it can be all about the grapes.

My first priority is grape juice.  I am trying to decide if I want to go with a boiled-and-mashed version like this or a grapes-in-the-jar version like this.  Any opinions?  I'd like to keep the sugar down to an absolute minimum or leave it out all together, if possible.

I am thinking I will have enough to make a batch of grape jam or jelly, too.  Any suggestions for ways to funkify a regular jam or jelly recipe?  I know vanilla bean would go well.  What about herbs?  Oh, I'll bet cinnamon sticks would be good.

Share your 2 cents, if you'd like! I have 13 pounds to use!

What a great gift.  Thanks, Putt!

Monday, August 20, 2012

What Became of the Stone Fruit

When I last posted, I had a counter full of fruit awaiting my attention.  Since then, all of the stone fruit has taken on new forms.  The peaches primarily ended up being eaten out of hand (sometimes more than 1 a day!) and frozen in slices for future use in smoothies and winter baked goods.  All except for this one, which we grilled.

Oh my goodness.  If you have access to a good peach right now, DO THIS!  We grilled it on a sheet of foil with the cut side down until it was soft to the touch.  The cream topping was something I made up, inspired by this recipe.  I liked the idea of honey, nutmeg and ginger, but I didn't want to use Cool Whip and cream cheese, nor did I have either of them on hand.  What I did have was a fresh tub of sour cream.  So, I took two spoonfuls of sour cream, a tablespoon or so of honey, 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg and a 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger and I quickly stirred it together.  When the peach came off of the grill, we each took a dollop of the cream and plopped it on top. I grabbed a quick photo before we dug in.  

The grilled peach came about when Paul said, "The grill is hot, do you have anything you want to throw on it?"  I am so happy the answer that came to mind was, "YES!  A PEACH!" and that I was one peach shy of being out of them. This was so simple and so delicious.  There is a reason why peaches and cream are paired so often.  Then, when you throw in the honey, ginger and nutmeg, it really puts it over the top.  Subbing in sour cream worked so well as it gave all of the rich, sweetness a bit of a tangy edge.  It was so good that Paul, who isn't a sweet-loving person, facebooked it.  Seriously, make this ASAP.  I bought more peaches from the store today, so I can do it again before peach season is history.

Fueled by a delicious lunch, I set to the preserving tasks of the day.  The plums had indeed patiently waited, ripening in their brown bags, until Saturday, when I had time to process them.  I wanted to do something simple, so I opted for halving, pitting and processing them in a medium vanilla bean syrup.

This yielded a mixed bag as far as success goes.  The downside was the jars experienced some siphoning after coming out of the canner.  I am not sure what caused the siphoning, but if I do this again, I will let the jars sit in the hot water bath for a bit after they are done processing.  If you have any tips about preventing siphoning, I am all ears. The upside is, I am getting to see a snazzy, technicolor show as the plums let go of their color into the syrup.  It is wild looking!  All of the photos in this post are straight out of the camera.  The colors are really that vivid!

For immediate, plum-based gratification, I turned to Rustic Fruit Desserts' Stone Fruit Tea Cake (recipe available here).  This tea cake, in addition to being a delicious treat, was a test of sorts.  This is the 3rd recipe I have made from this book.  The first two were messes.  Literally messes.  The Upside-Down Pear Chocolate Cake leaked caramel all over my oven and then, when turned upside down, some of the caramel was soft and other parts were like pear candy.  I take the blame for that one as I used a spring form pan when I should have used a solid bottom pan.

So, I gave it a while and then I tried Grandma Freeman's Jam Cake.  This one was made in a bundt cake pan and had jam stirred into it.  My jam settled to the bottom of the pan as it baked, so when it came time to turn the cake out of the pan, it fell apart into a sticky, jammy mess.  I patched it back together and started to make the glaze.  The glaze ended up super thick and unpourable.  Since the cake was in shambles, I could taste it before deciding on my glaze strategy.  I am glad I did because the cake did not need any more sugar.  Holy cow, it was sweet.  I ditched the glaze entirely.

Both desserts tasted good and were well spiced.  Luckily for me, the pear cake was for my mom and the jam cake was for my dad, so I felt like I could still share them even though were wonky.  This book gets so many raves that I felt like maybe I was doing something wrong, so I gave it another try with the tea cake.

I baked the cake for the stated amount of time.  I took it out when the top was lightly browned and the cake was firm to the touch, as instructed.  I let it cool a bit and then cut into it.  It was mushy and raw underneath the baked exterior.  At this point, I had already moved on to roasted tomatoes in the oven.  I figured it couldn't get much worse than a raw cake, so I put it back in the oven (at a slightly lower temperature, since that is what the tomatoes needed) and I left it in there for a good long while.  I am thinking this cake ended up baking for somewhere around twice the amount of time the recipe stated.  Thankfully, in the end, it turned out delicious and perfectly baked.  The plums and peaches made for juicy bits in a slightly sweet cake with crispy turbinado sugar baked on top.  Still, I can't help but wonder: what the heck is up with this book?

I had hoped I would be able to make another run back to my foraging spot to get another round of plums as I took just about 4 pounds my first time.  I was thinking the fruit would benefit from a little bit longer on the tree.  Alas, these plums are it for me this year as someone else has gone through and taken every last one of them since I was there last.  There were around 9 trees in the spot I found, so somebody made off with an enormous haul.  I hope they don't let them go to waste!

Next up: tomatoes!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Waiting

I found these plums growing on city trees next to a bike path.  Score!

Our tomatoes have started coming in strong.  These are destined for Tomato Jam.

I bought 2 peaches on Saturday.  Had my first one for lunch on Monday and went back to the store to get 14 pounds that same night. Freestone, yahoo!

I have a lot of preserving to do really soon! Here's hoping the stone fruit can wait until the weekend.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Putzin' and Swappin'

That table in the background of this picture has been 3 years in the making.  Actual it was 24 hours in the making, but it took 3 years to get to the point of making.  Let me go back to the start of this story.  Our house came with a wonderful back deck.  Since we live on a busy street, our backyard is our place of semi-privacy and peace and it is also our place to hang with the dogs in the fresh air.  I came into the house with visions of meals, cups of tea and glasses of wine consumed at a table on our deck, preferably with friends and family.  As I would soon find out, Paul, who is not super particular about decorating, has really strong feeling about the aesthetics of outdoor furniture.  Commence 3 years of searching for a table that he would deem acceptable for our deck.

As you can tell from the photo, we found a winner! Here's the thing; the winner was a plan for a table, not an actual table.  We considered making it ourselves, but we lack the tools, the time and the energy for more projects at this point.  Plus, I was getting impatient after 3 years of table-seeking!  Luckily for us, we know Putzin' Bob.  Bob is a vendor at our local farmers' market and has made 3 custom pieces for the inside of our house.  Bob's prices are incredibly fair, partly due to the fact that his materials are reclaimed.  Bob took Ana White's Simple Outdoor Dining Table plan and made a few improvements on it for us.  We asked for a center hole for an umbrella and he strengthened the table legs.  Our table top is made from reclaimed redwood deck boards and the legs are reclaimed wood posts from a playground set.  And, the 24 hour part?  Putzin' Bob is a misnomer; we got the call letting us know it was finished less than 24 hours after confirming the order.

Since the arrival of the table, I have been enjoying it a lot.  The weather started to cool down in the evenings, which makes the deck a great place to relax at the end of the day.  My fingers are still crossed, though, as we have yet to identify an acceptable shade umbrella and set of chairs to complete the arrangement.

What about those herbs?  Those were destined for my friend Holly.  Holly and I met through swapping and even though the MPLS Swappers are not currently swapping, we are keeping the spirit alive.  Holly's house is a CSA drop site, which means when the drops aren't all picked up by the members, she is flush with veggies!  As a friend, neighbor and produce lover, I am sometimes the emergency recipient of an unclaimed CSA share.  My dad isn't coming and going from town this year, so I haven't been getting the usual overflow from his garden.  I have my own garden, so some things I have in abundance (herbs!).  However,  some things that I crave, I didn't plant (watermelon!).  When Holly passes on a share, I like to give a little something back.  This week it was an herb assortment.  What a lovely arrangement we have.  I am grateful!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mill City Farmers' Market (My Own State Fair)

I've decided.  I am not a state fair person.  That statement is approaching sacrilege here in Minnesota where state fair pride is strong, going back for generations in many families.  People here take the fair seriously; they take vacation days from work to attend.  All of the local news stations broadcast from and about the fair for the duration and there is even a Minnesota State Fair app. It is not unheard of to spend multiple days at the fair each season, which I am sure helps the fair to earn the highest annual attendance in the country.  

I've tried it and I just can't muster the necessary excitement.  People say the food is what the fair is about.  Others say the crafts are it.  Some go for the music.  Many people's fondness for the fair is based on the animal barns.  I like food, crafts, music and animals, so it is strange that I can't get excited about the fair.  

I realized last year that I like my food on the healthier (less stick-centric) side, my crafts in smaller quantities and my music without a grandstand.  So, I have started a new tradition: my own state fair inspired day at the Mill City Farmers' Market.  This weekend Paul and I celebrated the second annual occurrence of my alternate state fair experience.

We got to see a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes on display at this stall.
A neat aside, the stall was being run by Amish women.

The beets were a beauty to behold. 

Like the real state fair, the crowds were heavy.
The masses were snapping up the chocolate croissants from this booth like they were Sweet Martha's cookies.
We opted for a loaf of sourdough bread to be used for sandwiches featuring our garden tomatoes.

My breakfast consisted of a fantastic salad from the Chef Shack.  The salad had wild mushrooms, fresh corn and a side of roasted beets.  I added a few of their homemade condiments for good measure (pickled cauliflower, quick pickles and sauerkraut).  My salad paired nicely with Salty Tart's caramelized onion and cheese roll.  Paul thought it went well with his pulled pork hash, too.

For dessert (you can have dessert after breakfast on pretend State Fair day), I bought the sea salt chocolate nugget from the French Nugget Co.  I was tempted to pick the lavender but the sea salt version ultimately won me over.

And, to fully balance the meal, we also had some of these tiny grapes.  The scale doesn't translate well in these photos, but the grapes are half the size of the usual grocery store sized grapes.

The market had a variety of craft vendors, including this weaver who was hard at work.
We also enjoyed seeing the work of Guillermo Cuellar Pottery.  I very nearly bought a large lidded canister, but I am going to stew on it a bit longer.
Same goes for the lovely woodworking of Jim Benson.  He makes spoons that are a delight to hold and a pastry scraper that I was mightily tempted by.

Speaking of temptation, Paul and I were also tempted by the mushroom log kits at Cherry Tree House Mushrooms.  I am interested in giving the shitake kit a try at some point.  I think it is only a matter of time before one of these comes home with us.

The only state fair categories not covered yet are music and animals.  Well, rest assured, we covered those, too.  These young gentlemen provided  classy background music for our breakfast.  While we ate, we watched all of the cute doggies and their owners browse the market.  We even saw a long haired Weimaraner and a long haired Dachshund!  
I think part of the reason why people like the state fair so much is that the usual rules do not apply.  The general consensus is that when you are at the fair, you can eat whatever you want.  Plus, when you are at the fair, you are there to absorb all that it has to offer.  I am happy to have approached the market with the same mentality.  It feels a little like being on vacation for a morning!

Monday, August 6, 2012

20 pounds of cabbage

Whooeee!  Cutting up 20 pounds of cabbage as thinly as you can is tiring work for the wrists.  I wonder if my fatigue point could be lengthened with better technique.  Thankfully, Paul and I teamed up and each cut 10 pounds.  We now have a 3 gallon crock of sauerkraut fermenting.  Here's hoping the temperature in the basement is just right for some tasty kraut!

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Well folks, we have another Softball BBQ under our belts.  This year marks year 3 (year 1, year 2) at our house and involved a new twist: homebrew!  Paul and Mark brewed 2 batches of beer exclusively for this party.  They were a hit (punny!)!

This year I relished the company and focused on hostess duties instead of taking pictures.

However, Josue's fruit shark most definitely warranted a run inside for the camera.  His creation was fun from all angles with cherries for eyes and a watermelon fin.

At long last, the weather has made a return to normal!  We had perfect weather yesterday.  And today, we awoke to a chilly but sunny morning with cool breezes and beams of sunshine making their way through the bedroom window.  It was glorious to have a cup of tea in bed while chatting with Paul about the previous day's merriment.

Today's agenda is simple: relax and soak up the day at a slow pace.  It fits the bill.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Under Pressure

When the tomatoes are ready, you have to can them.  Even if it happens at an inconvenient time which makes you have to stay up past your bedtime waiting for the pressure to drop.  I'll thank myself later.
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