Burning questions, answered.

A couple years ago, I bought some really good Crofters cherry conserve on clearance at a grocery store. At the time, I couldn’t find much info on the difference between a conserve and a jam. Or any other sweet, sticky, jarred confection, for that matter.

But last night, in classic fashion, Ms. Fisher once again came to my rescue (2 years tardy, but I can’t blame her since I didn’t start reading her book until last month — and really, for that crime, I should be punished). Since I know the question of jam vs. conserve vs. chutney has also been leaving you wracked with night sweats and insomnia, I’ll share her answer:

In other words, preserves are kept whole, and cooked gently in heavy syrup. A conserve, however, is made from cut-up fruit, sometimes of two or three kinds, with raisins and nuts in it: a more exotic mishmash, often served with meats, as would be a chutney made hotter with spices, garlic, chilies, and so on.

“Jams” are like preserves, except thicker, with one or occasionally more than one fruit in bits and pieces, and “honeys” are even thicker, and very smooth…

…”Jellies” are, of course, the clear juices strained from fruit, and they depend upon natural or added pectin, or a judicious dosing of fresh lemon juice if they are too bland in taste, to attain and keep a delicate stiffness.

The basic way that conserves and preserves differ from relishes and pickles [and perhaps chutneys?] is that the first must be made only with sugar and the second with varying amounts of sugar or salt, vinegar, and perhaps spices.

I, for one, am glad I can go into the weekend with this all cleared up. What I’m not happy about is the fact that I am now two pages from the last in With Bold Knife and Fork.

Next up might be The Art of Eating. I’m not quite ready to let Mary Frances, my newly-adopted grandmother, be absent from my nighttime reading.

How to throw a great party {hint: cook a little, buy a lot}.

As I mentioned last week, we decided to have a party.

The impetus behind this decision was a desire to appropriately thank a (relatively) large (and amazingly diverse) group of people who were instrumental in making our transition from the deep south to the midwest a good one. For our entire first year in Indianapolis, from the moment our cars pulled up to the city with all of our worldly belongings on a semi a day behind, we were the recipients of warmth, hospitality, generosity, helping hands, commiseration, and love. These people threw us parties, found us housing, gave us their houses, fed us, kept our kids, connected us to others, gave emergency medical care, took our kids to school, met us for blind dates, shared a love for good food, and called us when they knew we were hurting. At every turn, when in need and not, these lovely midwesterners were there to offer what they had to give. We knew that we’d stumbled on a fantastic group of first-friends, and wanted to adequately say thank-you.

But desire does not equal ability. I haven’t thrown a “grown-up” house party, ever. Not since our wedding, going on 10 years ago, have I planned an event on a scale larger than 8 to 10 people. I didn’t want to stress over details to the point where I ended up exhausted and sick (my kids took care of that part for me), so I attempted to keep a level head, lower my expectations, delegate responsibility, and have fun.

I was talking through my initial plans with my friend Kimberly. She gave me the best suggestion: pick out a few appetizer items that I knew I wanted to make, and buy high-quality prepared items for the rest. Even better, she suggested I get as many really good items as I could from cash-saving Trader Joe’s, and then splurge on a few of the truly artisanal items (high-end cheeses, olives and charcuterie) from our beloved Goose the Market. And that plan? It worked like a charm.

Especially since two of the appetizers on my menu were total flops. I tried a new recipe for savory madeleines — but got arrogant brave, and adapted the recipe to add a couple tablespoons of the amazingly sweet squash purée from some Butler Farm delicatas. They were a disaster. The recipe must’ve been printed wrong, because it called for enough salt to warrant a raised eyebrow in-process, and then tasted bad enough to confirm my suspicions. The texture was bad, the shape was lumpy, and the only place they were served was the trash can. Then, the day of my party (lesson to be learned: don’t try a new recipe the day of your party) I made a batch of zucchini mini-muffins from Food52, and they burned in my newly-aquired (cheap) dark-tin pan.

But my tried-and-true appetizers, like my beloved Tomato-Almond Spread, and a few new ones, like my pickled okra and some ricotta bruschetta, were total hits. From Trader Joe’s, I purchased several tubs of paté, baguettes, cornichons, entertainment crackers, pumpernickel pretzels, and St. André brie. A friend of mine brought a Tour from The Goose (see what I mean? It’s a party for her and she brings food to it?), and I purchased my very favorites from the promised land of cured meat: salmon pastrami, smoked duck breast, house-cured olives, salumi, and artisanal cheeses. It was a spread that I was proud to offer, and worthy of our guests of honor.

What do you offer to drink at a party for 35? Wanting to please all palates, but still being on a budget: for cocktails, we splurged on big, high-end (to us) bottles of gin and vodka from Costco, and offered limited but varied mixers, such as cranberry juice, tonic, and vermouth. Since good, local beer is relatively cheap to purchase here, we filled four growlers at Sun King, had one growler of home brew from a friend, and a case of Sierra Nevada Tumbler for bottle-drinkers. And for wine? It was cheap. I bought nine bottles from Trader Joe’s, the most expensive of which was $6. Since we still have six unopened bottles, I’ll take the hint that our friends prefer beer and cocktails, or they have higher wine standards than we give them credit for. For our non-partaking friends, I had Gerolsteiner and sparkling juices.

The ways I knew it was a good party (in my mind)? I was so content at the end of it all, I went to bed with the kitchen still a mess. And the next morning, my first thought was, that was a great party (but then my mood fell slightly when I remembered reason #1). The moral of the party-throwing story: if you can purchase enough high-quality prepared food, it won’t matter that two of your appetizer ideas fall flat. And, if you invite the kind of people who readily help newcomers, no one will even notice that your living room walls are only half-painted.

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{The best of a measly four pictures (hey — it was really dark, and my camera is without a stabilizing lens):}

Me and my crock pot.

Yesterday, as I needed to cook a MASSIVE quantity of soaked chickpeas for tonight’s smoky fried chickpeas, I happily dug out my slow-cooker. Knowing the beans needed to cook for quite a while, at a relatively low temperature, to reach a desired consistency; and knowing that my kitchen might get a tad bit warm since we hit a record-high temp of 95º yesterday — the crock pot was ideal. I was reminded, yet again, of how much I love it. I don’t use it very often, but when I do — it’s the perfect countertop appliance.

It inspired me to recycle a post I did a couple years ago when I first realized my feelings of adoration. Even now, two years later, my love is just as strong.

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I love my crock pot.

Before you get all “oh, and next your gonna tell me your favorite recipe uses a can of cream-of-mushroom soup” on me, let me qualify that statement:

  • If someone held a gun to my head and told me to choose either the crock pot or my Le Creuset dutch oven, I’d throw the crock pot by the cord into the nearest body of deep water, without blinking.
  • I’ve never made a dessert in it.
  • I don’t use it as a dumping ground for a variety of canned goods and then, eight hours later, call it dinner.

I first requested this appliance after hearing an interview on NPR with the author of a “gourmet” crock pot cookbook (my memory is fuzzy on where I heard that interview, so don’t go looking for it in the NPR archives). She described some quite useful ways of utilizing its convenience, including the fact that, in summer, you could cook a whole chicken without heating your entire house and by consuming the same amount of energy required to light a 60-watt bulb. These things appealed to me.

For example, I am making a dish tomorrow night that requires cooked, shredded chicken. About a half-hour ago, I pulled 3 pounds of bone-in chicken leg quarters out of their packages, rinsed and dried them, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and dropped them in the crock pot. Turned it on low, and that’s it. They’ll be done around 8 or 9 this evening, when I’ll take them out, let them cool on a plate for a short while, and stick them in the fridge. Tomorrow all I have to do is pull the meat off the bone. So easy, and so perspiration-free, I was inspired to write a post describing my devotion to a small kitchen appliance.

Before you continue to write it off, thinking in your Amish way, “yeah, but I don’t need cooked chicken that often, and if I do, I’ll just poach it on the stovetop, the old-fashioned way,” consider two more favorite uses (mainly utilized in winter, when it’s not the warmth of the kitchen that pains me, but the gas bill):

  • Stews. The crock pot is really wonderful for beef, chicken, and lamb stews. I prefer the boneless meats over bone-in chicken, because the extended cooking time can make chicken bones fall apart, which I find unappealing.
  • STOCK! STOCK! STOCK! This is the reason I can almost always use homemade chicken and vegetable stock in soups and sauces. There are a variety of ways to do it, explained quite nicely in a book called Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook(I’m not a fan of every recipe in the book, but overall it’s a good resource). No, you don’t end up with pristine, clear stock like you would if you watched it boil over the stove for 6 hours, skimming impurities until you were blind from the effort, but the end result makes canned broth seem like salt water. It makes all our winter soups taste, well, homemade.

Oh, and if aesthetics are an issue, they do make lovely stainlessones these days. I’m not quite cool enough for that yet, so mine has little flowers on it. You might argue that this is one foot inside the door of the “I Heart Country” club, but if it means a cooler kitchen, I just might be willing to pay the dues.

Apple granola muffins

We decided to throw a party. It’s probably my first party to organize (save children’s birthday parties, which I tend to put together at the last minute) in, I don’t know, a long-enough time for me to not remember ever actually throwing a party. But I know I’ve done it before, because I recognize this vague feeling of inadequacy.

Anyway, my kids must’ve sensed our plans, because two of them are now ill.

So, in light of the fact that on top of caring for two sickies, I’m scrambling to finalize the menu, start making food, and vacuum enough cheerios from the floor and other obscure places to make people think we don’t actually live in squalor all the time; and at risk of alienating my readers from an overuse of the word “apple” in recent posts: I will give you a recipe we came up with last weekend. It was a hit, with all but my most texture-averse family member.

These muffins are hearty, but don’t weigh you down. More like chunks of apple held together by a little dough than an airy muffin. The recipe makes an odd amount — about 16 or so — but you can half it with success. The spices and apples make them a true taste of autumn; and hey — if we keep making things with apples, maybe the weather will take a hint, get the memo that it’s officially fall, and the bizarre “Indian summer” temps in the 90s will fall by the wayside.

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Apple-Granola Muffins
adapted from a recipe in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook

(makes 16-20 muffins; halves well)

  • 3 1/2 cups cored, peeled, and diced apple
  • 1/2 cup sucanat (or sugar)
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 8 Tbsp (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups fresh whole-wheat flour (can use sprouted or alternative grain)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup granola (your favorite, preferably not too sweet)
  • 1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 325º, and grease muffin tins.

Get out 3 mixing bowls (ouch). In the largest, mix together the apples and sucanat (or sugar). In a second bowl, stir together the eggs, butter, and vanilla. In the third bowl, whisk together the next 7 ingredients (flour through salt).

Pour the egg mixture over the apples, and add the granola and raisins. Stir with a large rubber spatula. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the apples, and continue to stir with spatula until all flour is moistened. The batter will be thick and very chunky.

Using a spoon, fill muffin cups until they are almost full.

Bake for about 25 minutes, turning the muffin tins halfway through baking time. The muffins will not rise much; they are done when a toothpick inserted into the center muffins comes out clean.

Let cool slightly, and serve warm.

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Ugly apples

I wonder if this is what most apples used to look like. Back when all apples were wild, or if planted in one of Johnny’s orchards, unsprayed by chemicals that would conveniently kill the bugs and worms that leave their marks, providing our grocers with only unmarred, shiny, symmetrically-plump fruits.

I remember being a kid, and seeing drawings in books of an apple with a worm poking out its smiling green head. It was so horrifying and disgusting to me, and my thought was that it must be a really horrible thing, to bite into an apple and find a worm. But I also knew that it had never happened to me, and I also had never heard of it really happening to anyone I knew. I thought of that friendly worm as a freak, semi-fictional work of nature — good for the book illustrator, but not real.

Last summer, when I was first introduced to the apples at the market, I naively assumed that they weren’t sprayed. The farmer who sold them also sold other pesticide-free produce, and since so many of the vendors at the market advertise as organic, I thought surely these apples were the same. But when I finally asked, I was told that no, they spray them. That they have to — that you just can’t grow apples in Indiana and not spray them. I believe him, if for no other reason than the fact that he seems to have integrity in all other areas of his farming. And he knows what we (his customers) expect. We expect beautiful apples.

And I buy them, in great quantity. They are local, and the spraying occurs very early in the season, so they are a low-spray apple of sorts. And we eat them, skin and all, and they are delicious. But when it comes time for applesauce and apple butter, I peel them before I cook them, thinking that, since the skins won’t be a part of the final product, I might as well remove them to rid the sauce of as much pesticide residue as possible. I have no scientifically-based evidence that this is helpful for an apple sprayed in early-season, but it’s just a hunch. A hunch, and kind of a pain.

Last week, during my first apple-butter-canning adventure, I was reading some of the wonderful prose that precedes the recipes in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook (this cookbook is classic Kimball, friends — I love it):

Marie Briggs put up dozens of 1-quart Ball jars of apple butter every fall. Most of the apples were small wild apples with spots and not a few worms, but these were trimmed off or cut out before cooking. The apples were collected in large empty grain sacks, which were strong enough to hold more than one bushel at a time. When the bags got too heavy, the kids would drag them across the ground all the way to the side porch. We used to slather Marie’s apple butter on a thick slab of just-toasted anadama bread after a cold November afternoon spent grouse or deer hunting.

So this past Saturday, as I picked up my CSA box from the Homestead Growers stand at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market, my eyes landed on a few crates of apples that looked about like those Kimball described. The sign said they were certified organic, and the farmer said the trees were on their land, and they’d never thought about selling them before but thought they’d bring them to market to see how they’d do. I bought 10 pounds.

This week, for the first time, I’ll make applesauce without peeling (or even coring) the apples. Instead, I’ll chop them, looking closely for worms, cook them down with a little sugar and lemon juice, and run the whole sweet sloppy mess through a food mill, catching all the skins and seeds and tough spots. This will not only make my job a little easier, but will also give us our very first jars of homemade, certified-organic applesauce.

Sometimes, an ugly apple is a beautiful thing.

Apple butter, stunted starter, & predictability

Ok, class, let’s have a review:

Does anyone remember what typically happens to this blog when the seasons change?

Right, you in front? Yes, that is correct. The author of the blog tends to get whiny.

What else? Anyone?

Ok, back corner? Can you explain that further? Well, ok, that’s partially true. The writer of the blog does seem to delve into some sort of mild kitchen depression, but it’s hard to say for sure because we can’t see from her perspective.

Front row? Again? Well, you’ve certainly done your reading! You are right — twice a year, at the end of winter and summer, without fail, the writer draws a complete blank about what to write about. We know this because she tells us. Yes, I agree — it gets a little redundant. Yes, a broken record is a good metaphor.

Alright, students, don’t forget: Test on Monday!

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I don’t remember being quite this mentally paralyzed in early-autumns-past; certainly not last year, when I was so overwhelmed by the farmer’s market, the apples, some wine, and then more apples. But this is a bad year for apples.

Is it sad that my kitchen-EQ (that would be referring to ’emotional quotient’) is so directly effected by a lack of good apples? The other night, after a splurge purchase that day of a really beautiful fillet of wild Pacific salmon, I managed to ignore the timer while flipping zucchini fritters, letting the momentarily-tender fish overcook. As I cursed myself and basically acted like a child in the kitchen, I wondered aloud if I would ever be able to cook a decent meal again (can we say extreme?). My husband (looking a little frightened) gently reminded me that I do this (tantrum-throwing self-culinary-deprecation) at the end of each season.

Do they make a pill for that? Maybe I should find a way to get more good wine?

All I have to show for this week is a large crockpot-full of not-great apple butter, and some sourdough starter that I might be slowly killing. The apple butter was a first-time experience (fresh off the success of canning pickled okra, and lacking in tomatoes, I needed to can something else) — I tried to combine two recipes, one from my friend Jane in North Carolina, and one from Kimball’s The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook. Problem was, in my combining and adjusting, I mis-read Kimball’s call for “apple cider” as “apple cider vinegar.” And while the amount I added shouldn’t be enough to completely ruin the batch, it does have a slightly off-flavor. Which leaves me wondering if I should even bother canning it.

And then, my sourdough starter: it’s like having a hamster. If we had a small caged pet, tucked away in the kids’ room (because it would definitely not be in any other room in our house, save the basement), I would likely forget all about it, and it would die. The same with my sourdough starter. I haven’t actually made bread in a couple months; so I kept in my refrigerator, bringing it out every couple of weeks to feed it and keep it happy. And now that it’s getting cooler, I plan to start making bread again; but I can’t do that until my starter gets really happy, which would happen if I could just. Remember. To feed it.

So, I hate to repeat myself, but that’s all I’ve got. Give me a string of gorgeous 75º days, some gold in the trees, and I’ll once again start waxing the wonders of autumnal food, to the point where you might wish again for a good case of seasonal-(transitional)-affective-disorder.

A bad year for tomatoes

We lived in Georgia for seven years, and five of those were spent sitting out the worst drought in half a century. Since we’ve never been known for keeping an immaculate lawn (ahem… that’s a fairly gargantuan understatement, to the horror of almost any neighbor we’ve ever had who did care about lawn appearances) it didn’t effect us in any life-changing way. But as the north Georgia reservoirs began to dry up into glorified mud puddles, and the Urban Water Disaster also-known-as Atlanta began to war with neighboring states about water rights, and state lines, and anything else concerning the sustenance of a sprawling mass of water-consumers (upright, grass-loving citizens), we found ourselves in front-row seats of a great circus of Sea World proportions.

In short, we were forced to think a little more about water. We could only water our garden on certain days, during certain hours; landscaping companies could only water client gardens if they brought their own well-water; our local water utility began charging usage based on a tiered system. And, really? We thought these restrictions made a lot of sense, even during non-drought times. Fans of water conservation, we became.

So when we moved to Indiana at the end of last summer, it was a shock to the system to see unabashed irrigation happening at all hours of the day (even on days that called for rain — and yes, I witnessed many the automatic sprinkler watering a lawn while it was raining). After so many years of talking, thinking, and rethinking water use, it was like living in a new world — one we didn’t share with our old neighbors a few states south. This is not to blame our friends and neighbors in Indianapolis — there just hasn’t been a major drought in the past few years to force a change in habits. And as we know, if we (i.e., people) don’t have to think about something, we tend not to.

At the same time we watched all that watering, we were also experiencing the joys of Indiana produce. Last summer was a bounty, as far as I could tell. A year ago, I could go to the farmer’s market and buy a thirty-pound box of organic roma tomatoes for less than a dollar a pound. I was introduced to varieties of apples that I never knew existed, and bought new varieties every week. Our CSA box was always overflowing, and I purchased large quantities of peppers and beans at low prices to freeze for winter use.

So this year, I was ready to take even more advantage of those end-of-summer bounties. I was waiting for those romas to come up so I could buy a bushel or two and can sauce for the winter. I ran out of chopped frozen peppers too early last winter, so I wanted to be sure and get more when they were cheap. And then the first week I saw the apple guys with their bushel of Sweet Sixteens, I bought up 7 pounds, ready to eat them all myself.

But the romas never even showed up at the market. The Mennonite farmers finally had their $1 red peppers — and I bought all three of them. And the Sweet Sixteens? They were mushy, and lacking that magical and subtle flavor that had me giving a cold shoulder to the Honeycrisps this time last year.

So, what happened between last September and now? Well, for one, Indianapolis saw the driest August on record. That, after one of the wettest Junes on record. According to a local farmer, the wet June was bad for tomatoes by encouraging rot and worms; then the dry August just made everything stop. The tomatoes stopped growing, stopped ripening on the vine. And even when irrigation is possible (not often for a small urban CSA using garden plots all over downtown), it’s just not the same as rain. And the apples? The farmer said it just wasn’t a good year; he blamed a lack of good pollination, which means a lack of bee action. Could this also be effected by rain?

It’s left me thinking that, if you’re not a farmer, you never really feel the weight of the weather. Sure, I have realized that planting thirsty impatiens on my fence line is not something I’ll do again; and we’ve too felt the disappointment of having a garden-full of stagnant tomato plants. But I don’t have to wonder what we’ll eat this winter, which is something that all people had to think about, given a summer like the one we’ve had, less than a hundred years ago.

Right now, I’m thankful that I still have the option to buy canned tomatoes at the grocery store, and that I can probably still find a crisp-sweet eating apple of a different variety at the Farmer’s Market. We can turn lemons into lemonade, by canning apple butter instead of tomatoes. We can continue to financially and personally support the farmers who are having a rough time of it this year, by purchasing their goods even thought they aren’t as tasty or inexpensive as last year.

And we can long for the day again, in a September future, when it’s a good year for tomatoes and apples; and when our teeth sink into that perfectly crisp, sweet, spicy bite, we can be even more amazed by the blessing that is a good harvest.