Apple Brie soup from @halfbakedharvest cookbook

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January 2018: The Month in Tom and Holly

Life in Philly

Um, this month pretty much sucked. As December ended with a death in the family, January began with the aftermath, with freezing temperatures and snow to top it off. Though I hate snow, I was glad for the two snow days off work, though we didn’t do anything fun, because bereavement. We spent a few days in the Northeast for the funeral, before and after, and started the long, sad process of trying to clean up the house. A week later, I did take a personal day, which we used to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi again, which was fun.

Sunrise in Fox Chase, the day of the funeral
Winter in Philly is pretty much gross

Farmers’ Markets

The first few weeks of January, farmers’ markets were canceled, first due to the holidays and then due to the weather. We were very glad mid-month when the markets were back on schedule, though sadly we did not take any pictures. We haven’t been feeling too bogged down with winter foods yet – on a typical week we get a squash (spaghetti or butternut), broccoli, kale and/or spinach, fresh herbs, mushrooms, onions & scallions, garlic & ginger, coffee, chicken, and fish. We are still seeing occasional peppers, which is nice, and if necessary we’ll supplement with some out-of-season zucchini, green beans, or cucumber from the produce market. Opening jars of last year’s summer preserves has certainly helped supplement as well.

Wine

Inspired by a post in Billy Penn, I decided to try out a few additional wine clubs. Currently I just have Tablas Creek and the ridiculous state store wine club. I’ve been waiting for some of my favorite California wineries to get PA shipping licenses but it just hasn’t panned out. Ideally I’d rather just be able to order retail from my beloved hometown wine store or from a proper wine store in Jersey, or from wherever I damn well please, but since the state of PA won’t let me, I have few options. So I figure, might as well take advantage of what I can, especially if I can try new wines, and save myself a trip to the stupid state store.

Anyhoo, I signed up for The Tasting Room by Lot 18, and Plonk.

So far, I am pretty thrilled with The Tasting Room. One of the things that attracted me to this club above the others is that they send you a wine sampler before you commit to the club in order to best determine your tastes. Many of these sites make you take some dumb online quiz to supposedly determine your wine preferences (do you take your coffee black? do you prefer dark or milk chocolate? the smell of sea spray or tropical forest?). While The Tasting Room did have such a quiz, I’m glad that it was followed up with ACTUAL WINE, in 6 oz mini bottles to avert waste and expense. Of the 6 samples they sent, we loved 5 and hated 1, so it was already off to a pretty good start, but we got the opportunity to make sure that we staved off any future oaky chardonnay shipments before they came. For the first shipment of full bottles, we liked everything, though some more than others. Being able to rate each wine helps curate our future experience. So, it’s like the StitchFix of wine.

I’m already a bit annoyed with Plonk since after a full month I have yet to get a shipment, but they only process them at the beginning of the month. I’m also a bit annoyed that it’s not personalized, but this is not unlike most winery wine clubs so it’s not that big a deal. Better luck next month, and I’ll have something to report!

I’ve been thinking about canceling the state store wine club for awhile, but have just been going month-to-month. This month’s theme was Spain, and both wines were quite good, so this membership survives another month.

Dining In

For Christmas, I got Tom the Half Baked Harvest cookbook, and from it he’s made a few wonderful recipes so far, including sesame fish, veggie burgers, and apple & brie soup.

sesame tuna
apple brie soup

Tom got me the Zahav cookbook, and I’ve made a few things, including tahini green beans, Israeli salad with pickled persimmons, and red pepper salad, along with the hummus recipe I’ve been making all along. Tom also made delicious pita to go with these tasty treats.

In addition to our cookbooks, we made a few decent Pinterest recipes, including garlic rosemary cranberry chicken,  scallop saganaki, and spicy-ginger-lemon chicken.

Dining Out

We’ve started making a habit of brunch at SouthGate, which is most welcome. On our day off, we tried out some sandwiches at Stockyard, which were very tasty, and we also had more beers and snacks at Second District Brewing. At the end of the month, we had an impromptu Sunday Supper at Russet, which was delightful.

local Ploughman cider at SouthGate
whole pig banh mi at Stockyard. Photo by Tom Ipri

DIY

I figured this would be a slow month for projects, but a few managed to materialize.

My dad sent me some unsolicited citrus from Arizona, which I had a hard time using up. I didn’t want to make marmalade again, so instead I ended up making canned tangerine slices with orange blossom water and vodka, using a cold pack recipe from Saving the Season. I look forward to seeing how they turn out.

Last month, I tried a Zahav-inspired cabbage ferment, but it was a complete fail. It probably would have worked better as a quick pickle.

Also last month, I forgot to mention that I made lemon-infused olive oil using a recipe from Preserving Italy. It turned out great and is excellent for salads.

I had leftover white and red wines we didn’t want to drink, which I finally decided to consciously turn into wine vinegar. It will take awhile, but we’ll see if they end up usable. If not, better to try than to just dump the wines down the drain.

This month, I made more wine-soaked carrots from Preserving Italy, which has turned out to be a staple.

For  a fish recipe this month, I made a quick pickled ginger, which turned out delightful. It really tasted just like something from a restaurant, so I was very pleased.

Thumbing through Saving the Season, a recipe for negroni jelly caught my eye. Jellies were something from last year that I feel like I didn’t get enough practice with, and um, we love negronis. This recipe was designed to be a byproduct of  a blood orange marmalade recipe. So, I decided to make both the blood orange marmalade and the negroni jelly byproduct, despite the fact that I really didn’t want  a bunch of jelly in my  life. I made both at the same time, and due to the multitasking, I think I actually screwed up the jelly, as it had the chance to cool down and got too thick. As for the marmalade, I’m not sure yet, I only know there is TOO MUCH of it. I am glad I finally bought a jelly bag, though – it really would have come in handy when I was trying to filter bitters a few years ago.

January 2018 preserves

We opened some previous months’ preserves:

  • salt-preserved green tomatoes: yikes, these were way too salty! I would not make these again.
  • spicy pepper relish – very tasty, though it could be spicier
  • fennel relish – very good, a pleasant, mild relish
  • zucchini relish – interesting! the celery seed really comes through, and the red wine adds to the earthiness
  • yellow crushed tomatoes – not bad, and I do like the novelty of different colored crushed tomatoes
  • smoked paprika tomato jam – we had this as a glaze on fish and it was pretty good
  • peaches in grappa syrup –  awesome! They were not too sweet, the peaches had a great firm texture, you could definitely taste the grappa flavor but it was not too boozy, and likewise there was plenty of vanilla but it was not overpowering. These were the best canned peaches of all time, and I can’t wait to make them again this summer.
  • I gave up on the cornichons and tossed them out. The gherkins were too porous and overall recipe was too tarragon-y

Books

  • Another Brooklyn – another excellent work by Jacqueline Woodson. I just love her writing style.
  • Zahav -Tom got me this cookbook for Christmas, and I enjoyed reading it all the way through. I learned a lot about what makes Israeli cooking distinctive, and I got a lot of good ideas. I made several recipes this month and will continue to do so.
  • Dinner – this was on sale on Kindle for $1.99 and I had heard such good things about it, I decided to try it out. It is really jam packed full of recipes you could put together on a weeknight that are not too elaborate but are still really interesting. I look forward to trying some of these out, and I can see buying the book in paper form so that it would be easier to navigate.
  • Killing Moon – I enjoyed reading N.K. Jemisin’s work in another fantasy world – it was a really well imagined setting and a captivating story. I will look forward to reading the sequel.
  • A Thousand Pieces of You – this was my first non-Star Wars Claudia Gray book and I really liked it. It’s a very interesting inter-dimensional travel story with a bit of mystery and a bit of romance.
  • I started re-reading Deadhouse Gates as part of my Malazan re-read, but did not finish by the end of the month. Sadly it was quite difficult to get used to reading a big heavy hardback after getting spoiled with the Kindle, but I didn’t give up, and eventually my eyes adjusted. It would be nice to own the whole series on Kindle, but that would be quite an expensive investment, so I’ll stick with my hardcover collection for now.


Last Month’s Update

Food In Jars Mastery Challenge 2017

While I didn’t necessarily intend to at the beginning of the year, I ended up participating in the 2017 Food in Jars Mastery Challenge, in which a different food preservation skill was highlighted each month. Going into the challenge, I was familiar with fermentation and some salt preserving, but I had never water bath canned before. Over the 2016 holidays, though, I had bought myself some minimal canning equipment, plus Tom had bought me a preservation book, Preserving Italy, so the challenge was a good opportunity to try these things out.

January: Marmalade

For this challenge, I made the Bitter Citrus Marmalade from Preserving Italy. The timing was good since, although we do not have local citrus in Philadelphia, my dad had just mailed me a bunch of oranges from his backyard in Arizona.

At the time I was pleased with the marmalade, but in retrospect, it…was not that great. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now say I let it cook too long. Once it hit 220º I should have stopped, but I stressed too much about the set point. I have since learned to just trust the thermometer rather than looking for visual cues. Other mistakes I made included not zesting the citrus thinly enough (I had big chunks of peel, which I did on purpose because I thought it would be cool, but it was not cool) and using pint jars rather than smaller jars. To be fair, the recipe called for pint jars, so that wasn’t a mistake per se, but I can’t honestly imagine who could possibly eat enough jam, jelly, or marmalade to justify an entire pint.

The recipe itself was tasty (vanilla bean, mmm), but it was horrifying to me how much sugar was in it (turns out marmalades and jellies have a 1:1 sugar ratio, as opposed to jam which is more like 2:1). I had an open jar in the fridge, and over time, it was just unusable since it was so thick and the sugar had started to crystallize. I ended up tossing the rest of my processed jars (I had given 1 jar to my mother, which I’m now terribly embarrassed about).

Verdict: Even knowing what I could improve in the future, I’m not very interested in making marmalade again, unless there’s a really compelling recipe I’d like to try, and/or if there’s a recipe in Naturally Sweet Food in Jars that contains an alternative to all that sugar. I’m also a bit less likely to enjoy store-bought marmalade now, knowing how much sugar it must contain.

bitter citrus marmalade

February: Salt Preserving

I had previously made saeurkraut, kimchi, and preserved citrus, so I felt comfortable with this skill going in. In February, I tried a few new-to-me recipes, including New World Rye Kraut and Pumpkin Spice Kimchi from Ferment Your Vegetables. The Rye Kraut is fantastic – it’s basically a simple sauerkraut with caraway seeds. We love it to eat it with sausage. I don’t eat a whole lot of kraut on a regular basis, so it’s still in my fridge, but it’s still just as tasty. The Pumpkin Spice Kimchi was made with butternut squash. Interestingly, I had fermented some butternut squash for a different project the month before, so I wasn’t worried that it would be weird or anything, but… I just don’t think it worked that well in a kimchi context. I ended up tossing it.

Later in the year, I came back to this skill and made salt-preserved green tomatoes with a recipe from Preserving Italy. These came out way too salty, so I don’t think I’d try this one again.

In December I made a fresh batch of kimchi using the Everyday Baechu Kimchi recipe from Ferment Your Vegetables, which turned out great.

The one thing I didn’t do for this challenge was make flavored salt. There are several recipes in Preserving Italy that I’d like to try, so maybe I’ll come back to this in 2018 in the boring winter months when I need a project.

Verdict: I think this is a very important skill, and I was glad to get more practice with it this year. In the future I would like to branch out to salt-preserving meats, such as bacon.

Pumpkin spice kimchi

March: Jelly OR Shrubs

I confess I was not very interested in this challenge in March, partly because it was too early in the year for fresh seasonal fruit to make either jelly or shrubs. I did see a few non-fruit jellies that looked interesting (including wine jelly, beer jelly, and herb jelly) but not compelling enough to make.

I came back to this in May when we finally had some fresh strawberries and made a strawberry black pepper shrub. It was fine, I tried to drink it a few times with sparkling water or in a cocktail, but I still find shrubs way too sweet for me. In June I tried again with a lemon coriander shrub, thinking that lemon would be less cloying than strawberry, but no such luck.

In June I made my first and only jelly, the four pepper jelly from Saveur. This actually came out great, but due to the suspended pepper pieces, it is very reminiscent of a marmalade. Still very sweet, but in this case I could forgive the sweetness due to the heat of the peppers. This happens to be the only recipe I made all year that required commercial pectin. In the future, I’d prefer to stick to recipes that only use naturally occurring pectin (from apples, lemon seeds, etc.) rather than using any commercial additive. There is a hot pepper jelly in Saving the Season that I would try in the future; most of the jelly recipes in that book start with apple pectin as a base, which I find appealing.

Verdict: Much like marmalade, I’m glad I made jelly once, but now that I know how much sugar is required, I’m unlikely to do it again, unless there’s a really amazing sounding recipe. I confess that I have yet to invest in a proper jelly bag, so for the sake of learning, I really should do that. As for shrubs, I’m glad I tried, and now that I know the technique, I feel confident I could improvise any number of flavors; the problem is, I just don’t like drinking them (not because of the vinegar, but because of the sugar).

strawberry black pepper shrub

April: Quick Pickles

Having lost my enthusiasm in March, and likewise due to a very late spring in which we STILL weren’t seeing spring fruits or vegetables at the farmers’ market in April, I also didn’t do this challenge in the month it was assigned.

However, in June, I made a quick pickled egg using some leftover brine from fermented escabeche, and it came out great. In August, I made some Chinese pickled cucumbers as well as the cornichons recipe from Saving the Season, using gherkins from the farmers’ market. The gherkins didn’t taste enough like real cornichons (oh well), but the Chinese cucumbers came out nicely.

Verdict: I often don’t give this skill enough credit, but it is a good one to have. Sometimes a quick pickle is just what you need to get a good pickled flavor but still maintain the crispness of your vegetables and have everything taste really fresh. Toward the end of the year I tried to make an elaborate ferment and it turned out all it really needed was a quick pickle. I could definitely use more practice with making this judgment call.

Chinese pickled cucumbers

May: Cold Pack Preserving

At this point in the challenge I was in truly unfamiliar territory, as I had no idea what cold pack preserving even was. I didn’t actually get to this one until June, due to the aforementioned late spring. When I did, I made spicy pickled green beans, using fennel seeds instead of dill seeds (we deemed these “pizza beans” since they evoke a pepperoni flavor). We liked these so much, I made a second batch.

Once I knew what they were, I continued to do cold packs throughout the rest of the year. In July, I made pickled melons, as well as peaches in grappa syrup, both from Preserving Italy. In August, I made cocktail onions from Saving the Season, and in September, I made canned whole tomatoes and canned green tomatoes, also from Saving the Season. In October I made pickled green beans from Saving the Season. Of what I’ve opened so far, the melons and cocktail onions were just OK, but the peaches in grappa syrup were amazing!

Verdict: I’m very glad to have learned this skill and the difference between cold and hot pack preserving. As I gained experienced I learned some of the pitfalls and strategies to avoid them, like making sure you really pack everything tight to try to avoid floaters, and leaving jars in the canner an extra 5 minutes to try to minimize loss of liquid. I think this is a perfect technique for things like green beans so they stay nice and firm, and I’m looking forward to the result with the jars I haven’t opened yet. Next year I want to try this with asparagus and cherries.

spicy pickled green beans

June: Jam

I had made jams before, but prior to this challenge I had always put them straight into the fridge rather than processing them. I am not a big jam eater, so I consciously tried to keep my jam making to a minimum, even though there are so many delicious looking recipes out there. In June, I made David Lebovitz’s black currant jam, mostly because I just couldn’t resist buying some fresh currants in the brief window in which they were in season (also, because David Lebovitz’s recipes are so consistently wonderful). We enjoyed this later in the year paired with some scones at an English tea-themed party.

In July, I made blueberry gin jam from Saving the Season (because gin! I simply love the way so many recipes in this book use alcohol as an acidifying ingredient), and tomato jam from Sean Brock’s Heritage. I have yet to try the blueberry gin jam, though I gave some away for Christmas and heard good things. The tomato jam was absolutely fantastic – I didn’t process it, as I wasn’t sure it was safe for water bath canning, so we just enjoyed it in the fridge.

In September, I tried a few more tomato jam recipes, since we loved the first one so much (spiced tomato jam from Preserving Italy and smoked paprika tomato jam from Saving the Season), as well as a peach champagne jam from Saving the Season, fig jam from Preserving Italy, and chile jam from The Indian Family Kitchen. I love hot spicy jams, and the chile jam was delish. I liked both of the tomato jams, but I preferred the more ketchup-like texture of the Sean Brock recipe.

Verdict: You can’t go wrong with mastering this skill. As I mentioned above, once I learned to just trust my thermometer, I never had a problem achieving set.

chile jam

July: Hot Pack Preserving

Along with Cold Pack Preserving, this was another big learning experience for me. As mentioned previously, at the beginning of the year I certainly wasn’t familiar with the terminology or what cold vs. hot pack even meant. At this point in the year, I had unknowingly already done a few hot packs: spiced pickled mushrooms, wine-spiked carrots, and fennel-carrot agrodolce from Preserving Italy.

In July, once I was more conscious of the skill, I added peach marsala almond compote, crushed tomatoes, bread & butter pickles, Asian plum sauce, peaches in tea & bourbon syrup, and peach chutney to my collection. Through the course of the month, much like with cold pack preserving, I learned a few tips & tricks, including making sure I was de-bubbling with a chopstick, as well as paying extra close attention to headspace. There were certainly times in which a recipe produced less volume than I expected, and I was left with the choice of extra head space or re-housing in smaller jars. As I got more experienced, I learned to anticipate this and do the latter, prepping a variety of different sized jars just in case.

After July, I continued to use this skill for the remainder of the year, especially in August and September in the height of summer produce. In August I made: pickled peppers, tomato sauce, pickled zucchini, tomatillo salsa, corn relish, passata, zucchini relish, roasted pepper relish, tomato salsa, Canadian ketchup, and fire-roasted tomatoes. In September I made BBQ sauce, roasted tomato sauce, spicy pepper relish, heirloom tomato sauce, chunky tomato salsa, candied jalapeno, and tomatillo ketchup.

In October I wrapped this up by making green tomato preserves, green tomato chutney, and hot pepper escabeche.

Verdict: This is quite possibly the most important skill of the year, not only because it includes almost all the tomato canning, but also technically all the jams as well. I’m very glad to have gotten lots of practice with it, and I feel quite comfortable with it now.

July preserving (photo by Tom Ipri)

August: Low Temperature Pasteurization OR Steam Canning

This was one of those months where an alternative challenge was provided in case equipment was a barrier, but in all honesty both techniques needed special equipment. I didn’t even consider steam canning. Low-temperature pasteurization is technically possible without an immersion circulator, but a pain in the ass. As most of the low-temp recipes shared on FIJ were for cucumber pickles (which I don’t actually like to eat), I had no interest, so I decided to skip it.

BUT then in September, I had planned to do some pickled peppers from Saving the Season, and I didn’t realize until I read the fine print of the recipe that it was actually a low-temp pasteurization recipe. I toiled over my stupid glass electric stovetop with my 4th burner canner, trying to keep the temperature between 180 and 185. I probably spent 2 hours before I even added a jar, just trying to regulate the temperature. Of course once I thought I figured it out and added a jar, it fluctuated further. I kept a container of cold water nearby in case the temperature got too high, but then tried also to keep it from going too low. I finally managed to keep a pint of pickled peppers between 180-185 for half an hour, and it sealed, so there is that.

Verdict: In the future, I would totally invest in an immersion circulator, since it would help with low temperature pasteurization but also multi task for sous vide meat and eggs. I do think having whole pickled peppers around in winter will be a good thing, especially since low-temp pasteurization helps preserve crispness, so I am interested in pursuing this further next year. I’m still not interested in steam canning.

LTP pickled peppers

September: Fruit Butter

This was one of the easier challenges of the year. I was actually pretty excited about it because I grew up with fruit butter (both homemade by my mom as well as purchased from local apple orchards), but I had never made it myself. I relied heavily on an older FIJ post, as well as a few recipes in Saving the Season. I am super glad that I had invested in a food mill at this point; it would have been fully possible to just rely on my stick immersion blender, but I think a food mill made for better results. From the basic technique post, I tried both the stovetop version as well as the oven roasted version. I feel like the stovetop version produced the best results, but was the most work. The oven roasted version was easier to leave alone, but not as precise. I would have liked to have tried the slow cooker version, but I don’t have the type of slow cooker that would make it possible to prop it open with a chopstick. Ultimately I made several batches each of apple, peach, and pear butter, and all turned out great.

Verdict: For sure, this was very useful and I’m so glad I finally tried it. As mentioned above, this was a lifetime in coming since I’ve had apple butter in my life since I was a little girl. To finally, 40 some years later, make my own, was pretty powerful. Also this translates well to a few subsidiary skills, including fruit pastes (December) and fruit leather. I LOVE that these don’t require any added sugar, so they’re guilt free to snack on and to give away.

September preserving, with apple butter on the right (photo by Tom Ipri)

October: Drying and Dehydration OR Pressure Canning

As with August, this was another month in which two options were provided for the challenge, in case equipment was a barrier. I didn’t for a second consider buying a pressure canner, though there are plenty of low-acid foods I would eventually like to pressure can. But after examining my options for drying and dehydration, I found that most of the dehydration projects I’d be interested in would require a proper dehydrator. Yes, I can dry small quantities of herbs by just leaving them out, but that didn’t really feel like a skill. And oven dehydrating generally needs to be done at a lower temperature than what my current oven is capable of. I know my mom made fruit leather in the oven when I was young, but I don’t know how low that oven went or if she left the door propped open; my mom definitely did have a dehydrator, though, and that’s where most of our dried fruit came from when I was growing up.

Earlier in the year I dehydrated some cherries for sour cherries in boozy syrup from Preserving Italy. This was tough not only due to the temperature of the oven but also in this case because I didn’t have the right kind of drying rack. In August, I tried drying some grapes to make raisins in the oven, but they got overcooked. In December, I gave this one last try for dehydrating celery, knowing that my oven only went down to 170 but that proper dehydrating needed to go below 150; unsurprisingly, these also got overcooked. My only pseudo-successes with this this year were just leaving herbs and citrus peels out on my counter to dry.

Verdict: I think dehydrating is an important skill, but after several failed attempts at oven drying, I do think a dehydrator is essential for doing this properly, except for things that can be left out at room temperature. For the record, although I did not try it, I also think pressure canning is very important since it is the only way to safely preserve low acid foods, especially meat. While my space constrictions do not allow for this presently, it is something I will think about in the future.

attempting to dry sour cherries

November: Fermentation

OK, so this is something I worked on actively last year, so I was definitely already comfortable with it come November, and in fact I had been fermenting all year by the time this challenge came around. I didn’t actually ferment very much in November, but did a lot between May and September. Nearly all of my (successful) ferments came from Ferment Your Vegetables, but I bought a few new fermentation books this year, including: DIY Fermentation and Fermented Vegetables.

Honestly the new books were more of a bust than not. The majority of things I tried from DIY Fermentation did not work out for one reason or another, whether it got moldy (soy sauce, miso) or just did not taste good (peach chutney, sprouted garbanzo bean hummus); however I was pleased with the fermented ketchup, cultured buttermilk, cultured butter, and fruit vinegar recipes. Despite some of the failures, I have to give that book credit for me branching out into a few non-wild cultures, such as buttermilk culture, as well as the koji culture I bought in my failed attempt to make soy sauce. I didn’t really care for the recipes that required whey as a starter, with the exception of the ketchup. The Fermented Vegetables book was more oriented toward large-batch crock fermenting, which is not my thing, but I do want to try the garlic paste and a few other small batch recipes from that book.

I think my fermentation highlights this year were things I made up myself, as I’m comfortable enough with the technique to improvise. My favorite was an escabeche pickle with carrots, garlic, onion, oregano, and jalapeño. I also really liked my version of pimenta moida made with a paste of fermented esplette peppers.  I am also glad I did a few simple one-ingredient ferments for really basic things to have around for a salad, like fermented shallots, jalapeños, and radishes. I did one ferment from Saving the Season, which was a delicious batch of fermented green beans – for this one, I let it ferment longer than I usually do with vegetables, and I was pleased with the extra sour and tangy result. I also stocked up on the very reliable salsas from Ferment Your Vegetables, and finally made a successful batch of fermented hot sauce.

Verdict: I loved fermentation before and still love it now. The challenge has certainly helped me think more about when fermentation is the most appropriate preservation technique and when it isn’t.

fermenting butternut squash

December: Fruit Pastes

I participated in this challenge a little early and made two pastes in November. I got lucky with my first batch, an apple-pear paste from Preserving Italy that came out perfect the first time. I made this as an alternative to quince paste and it’s just a lovely recipe (as with many recipes in this book, it is heavy with vanilla bean). For my second batch, I followed a more generic recipe to attempt cranberry paste. I baked it a few hours, but it wasn’t nearly enough, as it was still halfway between jam and paste when I gave up. This needs more practice, but it was still very tasty.

Verdict: This was slightly less useful than some of the other challenges, but it was a good extension to the fruit butter challenge. I’ll certainly try it again next year.

apple pear paste

Other

This was not part of the challenge, but the other preservation technique I tried this year was Preserving in Oil. This technique is not USDA approved, so it’s not surprising that this was not part of the challenge, but it does figure prominently in Preserving Italy. Preserving in Oil was something I hadn’t realized I was already doing, for things like my harissa paste where you have to re-cover it in oil each time you use it. I tried a number of oil preserves from Preserving Italy, but I have to say that I didn’t really like the result when it came to using this technique for preserving vegetables. The oil-preserved asparagus, for example, was too mushy, and I just don’t like the texture when the oil’s all congealed in the fridge and you’re trying to fish something out of it. However, I think the technique works great with pastes, particularly with peppers. In summer I made a fermented pimenta moida and topped it with oil, and that’s effectively helped preserve it in the fridge. In terms of flavor, this was also my favorite preservation method for roasted red peppers, even though they don’t last as long.

sweet and sour roasted peppers with capers

Freezing was not part of the challenge, but I think it’s relevant, even if it’s not terribly complicated. Certainly there is some small skill involved, if only to know when/how to blanch things before freezing, etc., as well as knowing when freezing is a better or more appropriate preservation method than canning. Maybe this could have been added to the April challenge (somewhat related to quick pickles) or August (as an alternative to LTP or steam canning, at a time of year when there are plenty of tomatoes to freeze), or October (similarly easy compared to dehydration).

Preserving in Alcohol is probably another thing that could have been added to the challenge as an alternative one month, though it’s certainly not for everyone. The sour cherries in boozy syrup I made would qualify for this, as well as limoncello and a variety of other alcohol infusions. On a related note, I found it completely eye-opening in Saving the Season to find that alcohol could be used instead of or in addition to vinegar or citrus as a way to acidify canning recipes.

Wrap-Up

Though especially toward the end, the FIJ blog did not provide as much in the way of instruction, I am still grateful to the challenge for providing some structure for me to learn and refine some of these preserving skills. Clearly I got a lot out of the books Saving the Season and Preserving Italy; while I could have gone through a lot of recipes in those books without the challenge, I’m not sure I would have picked up on specific skills and terminology like “hot pack” and “cold pack.” I also got a great deal out of the FIJ Facebook group, despite its propensity toward big-time Canning Drama (who knew); while the arguments over canning safety and non-approved preservation techniques grew tiresome (albeit entertaining at times, in a break out the popcorn to watch the train wreck sort of way), at least it did point me toward the National Center for Home Food Preservation in case of any safety questions. Certainly I do want to eventually own all of the Food In Jars books, but based on my experience with the challenge I think my top priorities would be Naturally Sweet Food in Jars (for alternates to sugar) and Preserving by the Pint (since a pint is my max canning size and I never want to produce more than 1-2 jars of any one recipe). Other people in the FB group joked about buying stock in sugar by the end of the year, but if there’s one thing I’d stock up on for the apocalypse, it’s salt.

In terms of equipment, I found that I really didn’t need much other than my 4th burner pot, wide mouth funnel, and a jar lifter. Halfway through the year I did buy a food mill, which I’m grateful for, as it really helped with tomatoes as well as with apples. My instant-read thermometer was a huge asset, as was my digital scale. I only started to appreciate my silicone spatula toward the end of the year, as well as my canning ladle; these were nice to have, but not necessary (though, as a bonus, they certainly come in handy in the kitchen for non-canning cooking needs). I rarely used the magnetic lid lifter thing, and I also never used the silicone trivet, so those were unnecessary purchases. I was a regular visitor to my local hardware store, where I picked up more jars and lids several times a week during the summer, which was more manageable and less wasteful than ordering flats of jars online. I think I mentioned above, in the future I’ll try to stick to smaller (1/4 and 1/2 pint) jars, as pints and larger are just a super unrealistic amount. Another purchase I found really useful for freezing and drying was restaurant-style plastic deli containers in various sizes. For fermenting, I continued to make regular use of my pickle pebbles and plastic lids, but other than that I don’t think any additional equipment is necessary.

In terms of favorite recipes for the year, the tomatillo salsa with green chiles and tequila from Saving the Season and the wine-soaked carrots from Preserving Italy stand out. Anything with tomatoes, peppers, or peaches was a big hit. The spicy green beans were a pleasant surprise, as were the green tomato preserves. Fruit butters reclaimed their space in my heart as my favorite fruit preserves, though my canned peaches are something else. Unsurprisingly, we are eating up all the savory preserves, but have a hard time using the sweeter things. I gave away a bunch of jam during the holidays and still have too much.

salsa verde, possibly my favorite recipe of the year

The Future

Now that I’ve completed the challenge, what’s in store for next year?

Well, I only started using the Saving the Season book in summer, so there are definitely some spring recipes from that book that I want to check out (especially for cherries, and I’m still not quite ready to give up on asparagus). Knowing that in winter, the things I crave the most are tomatoes and peppers, I definitely want to make more of those next year. There are some other fruits I would like to work more with, including apricots, plums, and berries. Certainly if I end up buying more preserving books, there will always be new recipes to try – in addition to the Food in Jars books, I have my eyes on a few others. Also, now that I gained a little experience fermenting with non-wild cultures, maybe I’ll finally get some rennet and get more into cheese making.

I would like to invest in a pH meter to get a better sense of when a certain recipe is safe for water bath canning if it does not otherwise specify – such as with Sean Brock’s tomato jam recipe. A pH meter would help with fermentation, too, and it’s not too expensive (right now I do have pH strips but they’re not very precise). There are definitely some recipes where I would have benefitted from a food processor rather than relying on my stick immersion blender. Although I was not enthused by jelly or marmalade during this year’s challenge, I really should invest in a jelly bag and give this skill more of a chance. To level up, I would like to someday get an immersion circulator to help with low temperature pasteurization as well as sous vide cooking. Certainly someday I would like to try pressure canning, for meat & beans especially, but not anytime soon. Likewise a dehydrator would be great, but I don’t have the space for it. While the 4th burner pot is very limiting in terms of quantity and volume, I’m not sure I see any need for a larger water bath canning setup anytime soon. After a year of accumulating jars, I definitely need a better storage solution in terms of shelving and/or jar containers.

One thing that only hit me during the very last challenge, which seems stupidly obvious now, is that these things really do take a lot of practice. There were certainly cases where I thought I had “mastered” a challenge when really, it was just beginner’s luck, and the next time I tried it, it didn’t go so well. Here’s where I think a focus on technique, as opposed to specific recipes, was really the brilliant part of the challenge. So in that spirit, I will certainly want to keep practicing, though true “mastery” will take more time.

2017 In Review

Photos

Here are my “best nine” photos from 2017 on Instagram (as with last year, only one photo is not of food):

Here are my favorite 2017 photos from Flickr:

Best of 2017

Life in Philly

This was my 6th year in Philly. At the end of the year, I finally succeeded in finding a different job, so that will change my experience in Philly going forward. At the end of the year we also lost Tom’s mother suddenly, which has meant not only a great deal of grieving but also potential changes in our routine as it comes to our relationship with the Northeast. I had oral surgery early in the year, which went OK. Thankfully it was just a benign cyst, but the surgery did result in permanent nerve damage; I still have sensation in the roof of my mouth, but it’s like having “pizza mouth” all the time. I had half-days on Fridays during the summer, which gave me some much needed time for some self care. And, though we have yet to use the grill, we have tried to take better advantage of our building’s patio, relaxing there with adult beverages and our Kindles when time allows. We did get out and about a little bit, including the frog exhibit at The Academy, as well as a Phillies-Dodgers game at Citizens Bank. Toward the end of the year, we took several Schuylkill River cruises (including visiting Bartram’s Garden for the first time), as well as a South Street walking tour led by our friend Marcus.

Philadelphia 2017

Staycation 2017

Travel

It didn’t seem like much, but we did get in a bit of travel this year.

In January, I went to Atlanta by myself for a work conference. While I was there, I visited my BFF Suzie and marched in the Atlanta March for Social Justice and Women.

ALA Midwinter 2017 (Atlanta, GA)

In early March, we were so very fortunate to go to California for my cousin Hallie’s wedding. This was my favorite weekend of the year by far. Not only did we get to stay in Carpinteria, one of our favorite places in the world, and not only was the wedding itself spectacular, but we also got to spend a day in Santa Ynez wine country and have dinner at The Hitching Post. And, to top things off, our flight back to Philly got canceled due to a storm, and we got to stay an extra day in LONG BEACH. Best canceled flight ever!

California 2017

In late March, we went to Baltimore so that Tom could attend a work conference, and I tagged along. We had a lovely time with our friend Dale and enjoyed exploring the Federal Hill neighborhood.

Baltimore 2017

In August, we traveled to Washington, DC while I attended a work conference. We really liked where we stayed and enjoyed exploring new stuff in Penn Quarter, which had changed quite a bit since the last time we stayed in that part of town.  I was also glad to go to Zaytinya for their mezze lunch (a much-needed do-over since the last time I was there).

USETDA 2017 (Washington, DC)

I made it to New York City for the first time since moving to Philadelphia six (!) years ago, not only once but twice. In late June we went up to NYC to meet up with Erika, David, and Ella to attend a Mets game and as a bonus, got to go to the Guggenheim Museum. Later in the year, now that I knew how to navigate MegaBus, I went back to meet up with my friends Heather and Melissa.

New York 2017

Dining In

For the first few months of the year, I was fortunate to do recipe testing for my friend’s new food blog, A Good Carrot. Not only was it all delicious, healthy food, but having to make all this food on a schedule got me much more in the practice of meal planning.

Throughout the year, we enjoyed trying new recipes from The Indian Family Kitchen, a cookbook I had received from my brother last Christmas. Part way through the year, we bought another influential cookbook, The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, which was on sale on Kindle at the time. We made just about all of our holiday recipes from this book and really enjoyed it.

I suppose it’s notable that I joined the State Store’s wine club. Eh, the last thing I want to do is give them more of my money. But I do like wine showing up at my door, and this way I try some more mid-priced bottles that I wouldn’t ordinarily find at my local store. It’s been hit or miss, but I’ll see it out over the course of a year and see how it goes.

I continued to keep a Google Calendar of all of our meals for the past year. However, this year I have no desire to analyze the data for any trends. Sorry.  Without looking too closely at the data, I would say we continued last year’s trend of eating in most of the time, eating out less than we had in previous years. I also think we continued last year’s trend of trying 1-2 new recipes per week. I can certainly say, we continued our trend of having about 1 chicken recipe per week, with plenty of new recipes tried in addition to repeated recipes. Really there was so much good cooking, it’s hard to pick anything that stands out – see my 2017 monthly blog posts and photos below:

Dining in 2017

Dining Out

Highlights for dining out this year included:

Dining Out 2017

DIY

Most of my projects this year were part of the Food in Jars Mastery Challenge, as I learned a lot about canning, and continued to experiment with fermentation. The bulk of my recipes came from

Not everything was successful. I tried sprouting, but didn’t really enjoy the results. I tried fermenting soy beans to make soy sauce and miso, both of which failed. I learned that I don’t really care for marmalade, jelly, or shrubs (too much sugar!)

Big winners were tomato jam, pimenta moida, salsa verde, wine-soaked carrots, spicy green beans, peach chutney, canned peaches, and BBQ sauce. I was also pleased with how my homemade buttermilk and quark turned out.

Photo by Tom Ipri

Tom did a great job making bread from the cookbook I got him lat year. Highlights included white bread, pita, biscuits, and corn muffins.

Books

My year in books was significantly affected by my purchase of a Kindle, coupled with my use of the Free Library’s Overdrive subscription. I went way above my Goodreads goal and read 75 books, which is probably the most I’ve read since I was a kid in the library summer reading program. Highlights of the year were Assassin’s Fate (the end of the Fitz & the Fool trilogy, *sob*), Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, Confederacy of Dunces, Binti and Binti Home, Strange the Dreamer (I love Laini Taylor!), Shades of Magic, Akata Warrior, and Deadhouse Landing. I’m continuing to enjoy Star Wars canon novels, especially Ahsoka and Bloodline. Sadly it’s kind of hard to read physical books now, once you get spoiled with being able to adjust the type size and being able to read in the dark.

Here is my GoodReads year in books: https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2017/131968

2017 Goals Redux

Getting a new job was more of a long term goal, but glad it was finally able to happen.

From last year’s goals, here’s what I DID do:

  • Continue to make things, try more canning – YES
  • Send birthday cards in the mail – YES
  • Continue trying to bring lunches to work – YES
  • Make more things from cookbooks, not just online recipes – YES
  • Invest in a Kindle and see if that helps me adjust to e-reading – YES
  • Keep up with meal planning and tracking – YES
  • Continue to make progress on paying off debt – YES

I think the cooking, canning, meal planning, and Kindle reading have been discussed already, so the main thing I’d like to focus on here is the birthday cards. I did this all 12 months of the year. I don’t regret it, but there are definitely some lessons learned. People are reluctant to give out their addresses these days, which I get, but it was depressing to be rebuffed. Some people also just don’t like mail, which I also found to be depressing. Then there are the male friends whose SOs feel threatened when I send them a bday card. ~sigh~ Bottom line is, despite some awkward interactions, this was mostly very positive, even if only a small handful of people really enjoyed getting a birthday card in the mail, as far as I know. In a very small few cases, it resulted in some continued email or snail mail correspondence, which I enjoyed. Overall it was very expensive, since good cards are not cheap, and I had to buy a lot of stamps (no regrets about that, though). I’d like to keep doing this, but perhaps scale back now that I know who actually appreciated it.

Here’s what I did kinda, but not really:

  • Call politicians – I did this a little, but not enough
  • Try to have more non-social-media interactions with people, whether that’s email, hand written letters, phone calls, etc. – Sort of, but I could do a lot more

Here’s what I didn’t do:

  • Get in the habit of using the work gym at least once a week – NO
  • Blog more on SuperPlus Eats – NO
  • Take more people pictures – NO

2018

It will be interesting to see what’s in store for this year. There is a lot to learn and adjust to with my new job. For work, I’ll be traveling to Denver and Washington, DC, but that’s all I know so far. For pleasure, we’ll be traveling to the SF bay area for a wedding, so I hope we can make a nice California trip out of that. It will be Tom’s 50th birthday this year – we won’t be taking a big trip, but we will be splurging on a nice dinner.  At the beginning of the year, I signed up for a few new wine clubs, so I look forward to seeing how those work out.

Here are my informal “ideas” for next year:

  • continue making things from cookbooks (physical or kindle). If stumped, look to past recipe success, as well as NYT and LA Times
  • continue canning/preserving, this time more focused on practical winter staples and improving techniques, in addition to experimenting
  • continue to make progress with debt
  • figure out a workout schedule – may need to wait until I’m working from home 1 day a week
  • invest more in “home office” though it won’t be tax deductible
  • do something about the furniture situation in apartment
  • continue to send cards, branch out into postcards & letters, maybe even phone calls.
  • continue reading
  • take more people pictures

December 2017: The Month in Tom and Holly

Life in Philly

This month was my first at my new job, which has meant getting to know a new campus, figuring out my new subway commute, trying new food trucks, etc. I might be slightly obsessed with the different colors and patterns of subway tiles on the Broad Street Line.

We got our first snow of the season, which thankfully didn’t stick around too long. I am not looking forward to winter. We enjoyed a few get-togethers with friends, including a birthday party held at a used bookstore, and a friend’s annual glühwein party. It got miserably cold and snowed again at the end of the month.

Day-after first snow at Temple U
Late-December snow in Fox Chase

We saw the new Star Wars movie and really loved it. Our expectations were low after The Force Awakens, and due to the fact that we’ve grown to like Rogue One and Rebels over the main storyline movies. Nonetheless we loved the new direction of The Last Jedi. The only downside was we didn’t care for the “Black Box” theater at the Prince Theater where we saw it the first time, so we hope to make up for that by seeing it in a proper theater next time around.

Unfortunately the month ended on a very sad note, as Tom’s mother was in the hospital and then passed away suddenly. We are all grieving and are grateful for the love and support of family and friends.

Farmers’ Markets

This month I tried getting cut flowers from the farmers’ market for the first time, in an effort to spruce up my new office. I’m not sure how well this is going to work. The first week, some of the flowers had shriveled up between Saturday when I bought them and Monday when I came to the office. The second week, the flowers had some kind of dry pods that made a huge mess. Still, I like the idea. We’ll see. Winter might not be the best time for this experiment.

We tried some special local oatmeal via Z Food Farm, which was enjoyable during our time off. We also got some great hard cider from Frecon Orchards, which we used both for our cooking adventures and for drinking.

Frecon Farms Wæs Hæl

Wine

There’s not too much to say about wine this month. I was on the verge of canceling the state store wine club, but this month they sent Italian wines, so I’ll keep it for now. The red wine was from Alto Adige, made from 94% Schiava and 6% Lagrein. The white was a sauvignon blanc from Friuli.

Birthday

My birthday was on a Sunday, so we celebrated all weekend. (Normally I would have also taken a day off work, but I couldn’t since I had just started a new job, and it turned out fine since my birthday was over the weekend anyway.)

On Saturday, we had a lovely brunch out at SouthGate. I am not into bloody mary cocktails, but I was intrigued by theirs and decided to try it. I couldn’t finish it, but it was very good and very savory, and it came with a delightful sidecar of spicy soju. I tried their shortrib moco loco for my entree, which was fantastic. We also shared some kimchi deviled eggs, and Tom got the Korean fried chicken with green tea waffles.

Brunch at SouthGate

For Saturday dinner, Tom cooked for me, and made a slow cooked tomato gravy and braciole, which we had over fresh pasta, and which was unsurprisingly delicious.

linguine with red sauce and braciole (photo by Tom Ipri)

For Sunday brunch, Tom made me chilaquiles divorciados, using some salsa I had canned in summer, one roasted tomatillo and one chunky tomato.

chilaquiles divorciados

For Sunday dinner, we went out to Friday Saturday Sunday. We have been to the bar many times, but it was our first time getting a table and eating in the dining room upstairs. As expected, it was excellent. We shared a bitter green salad (with nori caesar dressing – I love the idea of using seaweed rather than anchovies to flavor a caesar), grilled octopus, sweet potato agnolotti, and roasted chicken.

Friday Saturday Sunday

Christmas

For Christmas, we made this into a multi-day cooking affair. On the 23rd, Tom made some homemade bread, and for dinner we had orecchiette with tiny lamb meatballs.

homemade bread
orecchiette with tiny lamb meatballs

On the 24th, Tom made croque madame using the homemade bread from the day before. For dinner, we did our variation on the Feast of the Seven Fishes by making a seafood paella. We only have a 9 inch paella pan for two, so 3 “fishes” were plenty (scallops, clams, and shrimp), but I could see also trying to make room for maybe some octopus and crab meat. We cooked the seafood separately and added it to the top of the paella at the end, which isn’t traditional, but I think it worked better, since that way the scallops got a nice sear, and the shrimp were extra seasoned with smoked paprika and garlic.

croque madame
Paella

On the 25th, for breakfast I made a mushroom strata with the rest of the homemade bread, which was quite good. Despite the bacon and tallegio, it wasn’t as heavy as some stratas I’ve made. For dinner we had cider-braised pork with applejack and dates (recipe from The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, only we used applejack instead of Calvados and dates instead of prunes), and an apple-walnut radicchio salad.

strata
Pork with Applejack and Dates

We also made 3 batches of cookies:

peanut butter sriracha cookies

We enjoyed exchanging gifts with each other and a few family members. Highlights included author jersey t-shirts from our local used bookstore, Neighborhood Books – Heller 22 for me, Pynchon 47 for Tom – as well as some cookbooks (Zahav, Half Baked Harvest), ornaments, jewelry, glassware, knitted hats from my mom, hand-blended tea from my cousin Jenny, and a Chopper hat!

Chopper hat and Chopper shirt

For the 26th, we enjoyed a nice afternoon tea at The Dandelion, and for the 27th, we had a delicious meal of red sauce, meatballs & ravioli at Dennis’s, to round out the Christmas festivities.

The Dandelion

New Year’s

For New Year’s Eve, rather than going out for tamales as we usually do, instead we made a cornbread tamale pie. Tom made a batch of beer bread from the Half-Baked Harvest Cookbook, which turned out great. On New Year’s Day, we made cider-brined turkey legs with applejack gravy from The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, which turned out pretty well – I especially liked the gravy.

Dining In

We did a lot of cooking for the holidays, but other than that we didn’t try many new recipes this month. The standouts where spaghetti with spaghetti squash and tadka dhal from The Indian Family Kitchen. Also, for lunches, I enjoyed making the insalata di riso from Preserving Italy, which was a great way to use up various opened jars of pickled things in the fridge.

Otherwise, we looked for inspiration from past recipe success rather than trying new recipes. This included:

Dining Out

We didn’t go out too much this month, other than for my birthday. After my first day of work at my new job, we did go out for a special dinner at Southwark. It was nice to finally sit in the dining room and try the food rather than just sit at the bar.

Southwark – photo by Tom Ipri

In the neighborhood, we spent some additional time at SouthGate, Keen, Friday Saturday Sunday, Little Spoon, and Tio Flores. I really hope for more meals at SouthGate in my near future, I just really enjoy it there.

Mandu at SouthGate
chilaquiles con carne at Tio Flores

DIY

Now that canning season is over, it’s basically back to ferments. I made a batch of fermented radishes and a batch of fermented jalapeños, both to use as toppings/condiments, or for recipes that just call for a small amount. I had some leftover buttermilk from Thanskgiving, so I turned the rest of that into a delicious buttermilk ricotta, with the recipe from Preserving Italy. My pickled mustard greens from last month never quite turned as bright yellow as I hoped, but I went ahead and stopped the ferment once it seemed nothing new was happening. This time of year I can get napa cabbage from the farmers’ market in a reasonable quantity, which I much prefer to the giant heads at the grocery store, so I made kimchi (the “everyday” kimchi recipe from Ferment Your Vegetables). I still had a bit left of my last kimchi, which was still fine, so I mixed in the old with some of the new when it was finished. It was very bubbly, so I’m quite excited to see how this one ages. I also started a sauerkraut based on a pickle we had at Zahav. I was hoping when I got the Zahav cookbook that this recipe would be in it, but it wasn’t, so I improvised. It’s napa cabbage with red onion, sumac, mint, dill, za’atar, aleppo pepper, and clove. It won’t be ready until next month but I look forward to trying it.

We opened a few jars of things canned in summer: roasted tomatillo salsa and chunky tomato salsa, both of which we used in my birthday chilaquiles, and a jar of pickled peppers from Saving the Season. The chunky tomato salsa was very spicy, and I was quite pleased with it. The tomatillo salsa wasn’t spicy enough, but it was still tasty enough that I’d make it again. The canned pickled peppers are naturally more vinegary than the oil-preserved peppers we had just finished up, but I still like them.

I decided to finally give up on the homemade miso & soy sauce I started in June, which were supposed to ferment for a full year. Both had developed mold, which is a lesson learned both in terms of brine level as well as keeping more of a constant eye on things. It’s especially disappointing to have these not work out, since I injured my finger pretty bad when I was making them. Oh well, I still have plenty of soy beans if I decide to try again.

Books

I started the month by reading Vicious by V.E Schwab. I had enjoyed her Shades of Magic series and snagged this in a Kindle sale since the library doesn’t have it. I enjoyed it and will look forward to the sequel.

I was in a lull with my Overdrive hold queue at the library, where I didn’t want to place any more holds until my current holds came up, so I bought another book I had been looking forward to, Deadhouse Landing, the sequel to Dancer’s Lament. So, first I had to re-read Dancer’s Lament. Both were great, and I loved the way Deadhouse Landing expanded the story and introduced more familiar characters and settings. As soon as I finished, I wanted to be back in the Malazan world, so I re-read Gardens of the Moon. I would have kept going, but, some of my library holds came up, and I hit the dilemma where continuing with Malazan would have meant either going back to print (that font is small!) or having to buy things all over again in Kindle format.

After about 6 months I finally got my hold for The Stone Sky, the conclusion to N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series. Wow, what a fantastic ending to the series. This world was so rich, and I felt like there was just as much if not more world-building in the last book as there was in the first book – so much revealed and so much to learn. I highly recommend the whole trilogy.

In the meantime I also re-read Bloodline, in lieu of the new Star Wars movie. It fills in some important plot points relevant to the new trilogy that I wanted to be reminded of.

Last Month’s Update