Cherries

Cherries 1‘Tis cherry season in northwest Montana. Which at our house means eating cherries until we can’t stand them any more, then canning a bunch of them for winter when we get a cherry craving again.

Cherries 2What beautiful fruit, cherries.

Cherries 3 Cherries 4

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Rainbows for dinner

My rainbow and ruby red chard is really going to town (as is my romaine lettuce) even after repeated cuttings.

So much so that when I’ve been offered lettuce the last few weeks at the farms I volunteer at, I’ve turned them down. I’ve given away a lot of it, too. Must be doing something right out there.

In addition to making salads with the chard leaves and stems, my husband and I also enjoy sauteing it in a skillet with olive oil, just until it’s a vibrant green. We add some garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and pierogis (which we have to make ourselves since we can’t find them in groceries stores around here… it’s just mashed potato and onion in a dough shell… sort of like ravioli). It’s a delicious meal.

 

I hope your gardens are bountiful!

 

Why buy it when you can make it? Peach Chutney

Just as I’ve introduced a series about gardening (view the first post here), I’m going to introduce another series called “Why buy it when you can make it?” that will include information about making things at home. For example, a few months back I made a makeup bag instead of buying one, and I am SO glad I made it myself. This post is about making peach chutney, which is delicious on pork chops and chicken. This will also be an occasional series, but I hope readers find it inspiring. Isn’t it so true that we value that which we make ourselves over that which we buy?

So, I spent some time the past week canning peaches. Of course they’re not local peaches, since peaches don’t really grow where I live. But I think that sometimes it’s better to buy organically grown peaches from California while they are in season, can them, and then enjoy them in the winter, than to buy peaches out of season. I know I could buy them frozen, but they just don’t taste great. We so rarely buy food that we can get from right where we live, we consider things like peaches, bananas, and bell peppers a treat.

I’ve always loved peaches, ever since I was little kid. The first time I remember eating a peach is when I was probably five or six years old. We had spent the weekend at a cousin’s cabin in the mountains in Colorado and we were driving back to Denver. My mom handed me a peach. I remember watching the pine trees outside the window, the winding drive down mountain roads, and the fuzzy peach in my hands. I remember taking a bite of that luscious, succulent fruit, the juice spilling down my chin and onto my fingers. What a wonderful memory that is, that first peach.

So last week, my husband and I bought something like 10 pounds of peaches on a couple separate occasions. I canned some into peach preserves first. Then I made chutney. I could buy both peach preserves and chutney at my local grocery store for about $5 a jar. Or I could enjoy jars I canned myself, without all the weird unpronounceable preservatives! I’m going to go through the process of making chutney here.

First, wash and peel the peaches. Then slice into small chunks, like the photo shown:

The peach chunks toward the righthand side of the photo are obviously much riper than the other chunks. That’s OK. When you’re canning, the ripeness doesn’t matter as much. Less ripe is actually better. Some of the chunks will cook down, so that’s why it’s better to have small, inch-sized bits. They cook down faster.

The peaches go in a pot on the stove and simmer down some, mixed with brown sugar, raisins, chopped onion, a hot pepper (I used a Serrano and used the seeds too, which makes it even more spicy), mustard seed, ginger, salt, garlic, and vinegar. I use the Ball Blue Book for the recipe.

20 medium peaches
2 to 3 cups brown sugar (I used 2)
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped onion (I recommend a yellow onion – did you know red and yellow onions are higher in antioxidants than white onions?)
1/4 cup mustard seed
2 tablespoons ginger
2 tablespoons salt
1 clove garlic (or 1 teaspoon jarred minced)
1 hot red pepper, finely chopped
5 cups vinegar

I like the Blue Book because it is cheap, something of a canning authority (lots of information about methods and such), and easy to follow. I do have to note that many of the recipes I’ve tried often recommend the use of WAY more sugar than I use. When I canned peaches, I put in one and a half cups of sugar and the preserves were quite sweet. The book recommended SEVEN. So, sugar to taste is my recommendation.

Making chutney is actually pickling, did you know that? Anything you can in vinegar is pickling.

The above photo shows the consistency you’re striving for with the chutney. Lots of peach chunks left, but some cooked down into a syrup of sorts.

While you’ve been making the chutney (from starting to peel the peaches to when the chutney is ready to can took us about an hour to an hour and a half), start your water bath boiling. It will take quite a while to heat the water bath to a rolling boil, so make sure you get that going in advance. As the chutney is cooking, you will boil the lids and the jars (their openings face-down in the water) for 10 minutes or so in a skillet with about an inch or two of water in it. This heats the jars so they don’t explode when you put them in the water bath, and it also sanitizes the jars and lids (you should have washed the jars and lids already, though). Cleanliness is absolutely essential in canning. While there are only a few cases of botulism reported annually (MANY more people come down with food poisoning because of dirty food from factories) in the U.S., that’s not something you want to mess with because it will kill you! You suffocate. Nasty. Make sure your equipment and workspace is clean! It’s also a good idea to check the lips of the jars for cracks or chips because this will interfere with the seal.

Once the chutney has cooked to the point where you like the consistency, transfer it to the jars that have been boiling. You want to leave about 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe the rims down carefully with a clean washcloth dipped in the boiling water of the skillet. Be careful not to burn yourself! Make sure there is no residue on the rims or lips of the jar. Put the lid (Side note: the flat lids are the only piece of canning equipment you CANNOT reuse. One use only!) on, then tighten the screw top around the lid to as tight as you can with your hands.

Carefully lower the jars into the water bath with canning tongs. Boil for 10 minutes (I go for 15, but I always go past the recommended time just to be safe).

Here is the chutney as I pulling it out of the water bath. I used some pint-size jars and some of the smaller quilted glass jars as well. I like to give the quilted glass jars away as presents. Just as you appreciate something you made by hand more than something you bought, so others appreciate handmade gifts!

Set the VERY HOT jars on a towel. Listen for the pops of the jars as they seal. You know they’ve sealed when the raised bump in the center of the lid is no longer there. If you have a can that didn’t seal, it’s OK to eat, but you must refrigerate it from the get-go.

Once the jars are completely cool, remove the screw-tops. It is possible for bacteria to live in between the screw-tops and the jar. You don’t need the screw-tops when the jars are in storage if the jar is sealed. Once you open the jar to eat the chutney, you will obviously need the screw-tops. And you should always refrigerate canned goods once they are opened.

Canning supplies can be found at many grocery stores. If you find canning jars in your grandma’s cellar, make sure the jars don’t have any cracks or chips; if they’re intact, they’re OK to use! Once you’ve made the initial investment in purchasing jars, lids, screw-tops, a water bath vat, canning tongs, pectin, and a funnel, everything (except the lids) can be used again and again.

Canning is a fun way to preserve food. There’s nothing like peach chutney or applesauce in the depths of winter. And those jars always look so nice on the shelf!

A few more things to keep in mind:
• Canning is not the best way to preserve nutrients in your food. The boiling breaks down some of the nutrients. The absolute best way to preserve food to maximize nutrients is to freeze. However, canning doesn’t require refrigeration.
• The water bath method is only used for foods that have acid. Green beans, meat, fish, and the like must be canned using a pressure canner.
• Read all canning instructions before canning. Canning is easy, but you must follow directions and make sure everything is very clean! I am not responsible if you give yourself botulism. But you shouldn’t have to worry about that at all if you have a clean working environment. Canning is a safe way to preserve food, but you need to follow the directions!
• I have heard that ceramic/glass-top stoves do not get hot enough for canning. Not sure if this is true or not, but perhaps using a coil or gas stove is best.

Bagels for breakfast

Using one of our bread recipe books, my husband made homemade bagels for breakfast this morning. They are whole wheat with cinnamon sugar and raisins.

In the above photo are the bagels before they’ve been cooked.

To prepare the bagels, one first cooks them in simmering water for three minutes, flipping them after the first two minutes. Then the bagels are transferred to the oven onto a bread stone. A broiler pan with a cup of water is placed underneath the stone to use for steam cooking.

Oh, and they were mighty delicious. Don’t think we’ll be going back to the store-bought kind!

A thousand words

OK, this post is probably not quite that long. But as the saying goes, that’s what a picture’s worth. Just wanted to let everyone know to check out the Gallery tab (far right, below the banner that reads “The Morning District” on the top of this blog). I’ve finally added some photos (and plan to add more over time). Check them out at your leisure!

In other news, this is my 30th week of pregnancy, and I have another OB appointment later today. Hoping again for a clean bill of health for both baby and me. I have been experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions for a couple of weeks now, which I do plan to talk to the OB about, but hopefully that just means my uterus is just getting warmed up for the big event and will perform like a champion! I am planning on having a natural child birth (but if I have to have an epidural or an unplanned C-section because Baby C is in distress, well, so be it), so I’m trying to prepare myself. I’ve started doing special stretches a physical therapist at the childbirth class last weekend gave me to get my body open and supple. I’m also trying to find time each day to center myself and practice focusing. I’ve heard from other moms that being able to focus and concentrate through contractions and pushing is super important.

Speaking of the childbirth class Shawn and I took, I have to say that I’m really glad we did. It was six hours both Saturday and Sunday last week, but despite the length, we learned a lot. And I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with labor and delivery and breastfeeding following the class. There were probably eight other couples besides Shawn and me there, most of them due about a month ahead of me, though one lady isn’t due until the middle of February. It was interesting to see the range of bellies present! Mine wasn’t the biggest or the smallest, but right in the middle. Some ladies knew the genders of their babies, while others were waiting for the surprise. No twins in our class.

During the class, we learned about a wide range of topics. We did some physical therapy and were given a number of exercises to do, like I mentioned before. We learned about the different kinds of pain medication (still hoping that won’t apply to me!), about C-sections, about infant care in the first few weeks after birth. We watched a number of videos on the various topics. The dads got to diaper a “baby” (ours was a teddy bear… must’ve gotten mixed up in the nursery 😉 ), and learn to swaddle. We talked about breastfeeding versus formula. I learned all sorts of random little things too; for example, you’re not supposed to clip your baby’s fingernails for at least 10 days after birth because the nail hasn’t separated from the nail bed yet and you will cut their skin! We’ll need to pick up some baby mittens!

The most helpful part of the class for me was the breastfeeding information. I’ve been worrying about having trouble learning to breastfeed, and who knows, I may still struggle, but we went through ways to help the baby learn to nurse and nursing techniques. We even talked about proper breastfeeding posture! If anything, I’m more comfortable with everything now because I know a lot more than I did, even with reading books and chatting with moms. Plus the nurse who taught the class was a riot! She was so funny and made the class go by quickly. A definite talent!

The weekend before that, I got together with the ladies from my crafty club for some applesauce canning! It was a hoot! We canned about 40 pounds of apples, which came to about 40 jars of sauce. We divided the jars between us as well as the remaining apples (local Macintosh).

Here’s Camden showing those apples who’s boss! Camden and Sharie spent a long time chopping apples to toss in the pot to cook.

After the apples cooked down for a while, we transferred them to the chinois (a marvelous tool — pick one up!), where one of us ground them down with a pestle, which separates the skins and errant seeds from the sauce. Katie demonstrates below:

It’s messy but satisfying! To the sauce we added a little sugar (one or two cups, depending on the batch) and a some cinnamon. Then we filled mason jars with the applesauce and processed them in a boiling water bath for 15-20 minutes. We ate homemade pizza for dinner while listening to the pops of sealing jars. A great day spent with friends.

OK, according to my word counter thingie, this post is 797 words. See? Not quite 1,000.

Comfort food

There’s something supremely comforting to me about making banana bread. Maybe it’s the worn recipe card that’s waved in places from minor kitchen accidents like a little spilled milk or a dripping egg white. Maybe it’s that I barely need the recipe card anymore, checking it more to reassure myself of my memory for the ingredients than out of need. It might be in the too-sweet smell of the over-ripe bananas, their black-mottled peels paper-thin and easily pulled away from the fruit. Or maybe it’s the taste of the batter, tangy, or the color, a soft yellow in the blue German bowl.

Whatever it is, making banana bread, which I do quite frequently since the local grocery store sells over-ripe bananas at 39 cents a pound (thank goodness my husband doesn’t mind eating the sweet bread so often), grounds me. In these too-long days of an unemployed summer, finding productive activities has been difficult. It’s hot outside, it’s hot inside. I’ve started re-reading favorite books to pass the time. I should update this blog more, but editing down hundreds of photos feels daunting these days. Probably because in the face of nothing to do, I’ve wilted a little, unintentionally embracing the nothingness and getting nothing done. Surely this is why American homes have gotten larger and larger to the point of ridiculous: Give the housewives more cleaning to do so they don’t slit their wrists out of tedium.

Though friends and family urge me against it, I openly declare I can’t wait for the school year to start, to get on with the next chapter of my life. August 29 seems so impossibly far off with these dog days of summer stretching interminably before me. I’ve found a job working at a sandwich shop and coffee hut, though, which starts next weekend. My mother is coming for a visit tomorrow. There’s some county fairs I’m itching to attend. We’re moving in a few weeks (Move number 12 in the past three years. Yes, you read that correctly. 12.). So really, August 29 should be here before I know it, but I can’t help wishing the time away. Wishing for autumn, my favorite season. Reading favorite blogs, tending to my garden, weeding the flower bed and reading my books don’t take up much of the day. I’m ready to shed these beetle wings of a life full of stops and starts, ready for the next great adventure, the next career. Something to which I feel more suited (goodbye journalism, it’s been real).

So until the end of August, I find comfort in baking banana bread. Comfort in the familiar recipe (which I’ve made small changes to over the years, improving the resulting loaf), the swirl of the wooden spoon in the batter, clinking against the bowl. I am reminded of a quote from Julie & Julia, one of my favorite films: “Chocolate cream pie! You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when nothing is sure and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. You can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. That’s such a comfort.”