Life in Philly
It was a short yet eventful month. The Eagles won the Superbowl, which was exciting for the city yet fairly disruptive. We ended up getting the day off work for the parade, since public transportation had all but stopped running except for getting people to and from the parade. Not being fans of crowds, we did not partake in the festivities. I used the day off to pack for my upcoming travel. We enjoyed a few warm spring-like days, but then it went back to being cool and rainy. Overall I’m really grateful for my new job. My travel reimbursement was all electronic and was processed in record time. The workplace has lived up to my expectations in terms of lively, civil discourse among staff, as well as robust and respectful services for students; for the most part, it’s a place I can stand behind. We went to see Black Panther, which was great, and we were super excited by the return of Star Wars Rebels, which is wrapping up its final season. Rebels S4E10 “Jedi Night” and S4E11 “Dume” were SO emotional!
In other news, I’m pleased that I feel like I’m making some progress on my finances. I transferred an IRA from my credit union to the banking service I use for my other investments. Since my credit union was still in the dark ages and didn’t provide online access to my retirement accounts, I hadn’t contributed in years. Now that I’ve moved it over, I’ll be much better able to start contributing to it again, since I can transfer funds to it electronically. Toward the end of the month, I got my tax refund, and I adjusted my withholdings so I can take a little bit home more per month but still hopefully be in good shape for next year. My speedy reimbursement from work for my travel helped me from taking too big a hit on my credit cards, and hopefully I’ll continue to make good progress paying those off (still hoping to do this by age 50). I was a little concerned when I noticed that my new take-home pay was not THAT much more than at my previous job, despite the raise. After doing some comparisons, I saw the main difference is I’m putting a lot more into my retirement contributions than I was before, which is actually a good thing, so I shouldn’t complain.
I took two back-to-back trips for work this month, first to Denver, and then to Washington, DC, totaling 8 consecutive days. By the last few days, I was pretty fried. The biggest drag was the weather difference between the two places, meaning I had to pack both bulky winter clothes as well as somewhat lighter winter clothes. I thought my poor bag was going to burst from being overpacked, but it somehow survived the trip.
Denver was pretty good. It snowed one day, but was otherwise pleasant. I absolutely loved the dry atmosphere, though many of my colleagues suffered from altitude sickness. I like downtown Denver overall, what with the pedestrian mall, the free bus, and it’s just overall so freaking clean and easy to get around. I did not care for the dudebro atmosphere at times, especially now that everyone seems high 24×7. I didn’t have time to really seek out anything special in terms of food or drink, but I did eat a lot of Mexican food and green chile, and I had pretty decent beer, but terrible wine. The conference was great – I wish I could have stayed another day.
I was glad to get to DC, where I was joined by Tom. We stayed in the Woodley Park / Adams Morgan area, which I was not previously familiar with, but I ended up liking quite a bit. The absolute best part was The Gin Joint, a bar that has like 100+ kinds of gin, which was right across from our hotel. We also had some enjoyable dinners at some nearby restaurants, including the Afghan Grill and the Lebanese Taverna. The conference was pretty good, too; the highlight was the reception at The Library of Congress. I had been to LoC once when I was 15 but don’t remember anything about it other than getting lost and separated from my parents on the tour. This time was excellent, as we had a special after hours experience. Such a fantastic building!
I tried a new wine club, Firstleaf. In my introductory shipment, I got three white wines, all of which were a bit on the fruity side, but fine. Nothing was outstanding. You can rate your wines to inform future shipments, but unfortunately it’s just thumbs-up or thumbs-down, no way to express “meh” or more nuanced opinions. I’m not super confident that the mechanisms are in place to refine this shipment to my palate, but I’ll give it a few months and see what happens.
|This was the only remarkable wine from my Firstleaf shipment.|
This was my second month with The Tasting Room by Lot 18, and this time I switched to an all-white case, which included two rosés. This club continues to be spot-on in terms of my taste, so I am very pleased. There was only one wine I thought was only OK because it was too oaky. I am overall loving this club, but my one complaint is I’d like to be able to do a mixed club that was more white than red rather than the other way around. I loved the red wines they sent me in my first shipment, but I can’t do 8 reds + 4 whites, as I barely drink 2 bottles of red wine per month.
At long last I FINALLY got my first shipment from Plonk. I was really down on this because I prepaid for 3 months on the 4th of January, but it took until mid February to see any wine. Unlike the other clubs, Plonk doesn’t have much in the way of account management on their website, so if you want to make any changes in your subscription, you have to do it on the phone or email. WUT. NO. Also, when my wine finally shipped, it was via slow-ass ground shipping that inched its way across the country, taking over a week. Anyway, once I got the wine, all was forgiven. These were some of the best wines I’ve had in ages. One was a Sardinian white grape I’d never heard of (Nuragus), and the other was a super minerally Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Barbara. Despite the shitty business model, I’ll probably stick with this since the wines are so good.
Last but not least (no actually, this is least), the State Store wine club had a stupid theme, “Wines to Love,” for Valentine’s Day. The wines were actually OK – a Chablis and a California North Coast Rhone Blend. Both were totally decent, but the clock is ticking on this wine club.
I think we did pretty well this month in terms of trying to use more recipes from cookbooks:
- I made a few more recipes from the Zahav cookbook: Moroccan carrots, and kale & apple walnut salad.
- From the Dinner cookbook, I made cod with mushrooms
- From New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, we made spaghetti squash with mushroom ragout.
- From Jersualem, I made a delightful dish of chard & wheat berries
- From Preserving Italy, we made spaghetti al limone
- From Night + Market, I made a version of green papaya salad with green apples rather than green papaya. This was a really well balanced dish that I look forward to making again.
For internet recipes, we made
In other cooking news, I bought a mini-food processor last month, and it’s working out well. Its capacity is very limited, but it does help for small quantity pastes and stuff.
We didn’t go out much this month, but I think most of it was memorable.
We tried to give Keen another chance – we had wanted to go to SouthGate after the Eagles parade, but it was packed, so we had little choice but to go to Keen. We would love for this restaurant to be successful, but sadly, our experiences have been much like Craig Laban’s zero-bell review.
We had a lot of fun for Tom’s birthday. The weekend before, we went to Victor Cafe for dinner and drinks, as is somewhat of a tradition now. On the actual night of his birthday, we went to Almaz Cafe for Ethiopian food, which was fantastic. Afterwards, we had some delightful drinks at Rex 1516, thanks to Paco.
- I started a batch of lemon garlic pickles from Indian Family Kitchen – it’s different from preserved lemons I’ve made before, in that it uses water in the brine rather than packing them tight for the lemon juice. I’ll be interested to see how they turn out next month.
- I made citrus salt from Preserving Italy – I liked that this just involved air drying, not oven drying, as I had bad luck with trying to make flavored salts last year (forgetting it was in the oven and burning it).
- I started a garlic paste from Fermented Vegetables – it was my first time trying the bag weight method. I was also trying out new kind of salt (Redmond sea salt). The garlic turned bright blue immediately! But the book says this can happen and there is nothing wrong with it.
- I made ginger preserved in gin and turmeric preserved in rum from Food in Jars. I’ll be interested to see how well this works for keeping the ginger fresh – the alcohol is supposed to burn off when you cook it, so I’ll see how it works in stir fries.
- Finally, I canned some apples in calvados syrup from Saving the Season. Even though we can get apples most of the year, I figure it doesn’t hurt to have some put away for snackies, especially given how much we’ve been enjoying having canned peaches around.
Past projects we opened:
- peaches with bourbon tea syrup – we preferred the cold pack we opened last month (peaches with grappa syrup) over this one, which was a hot pack. The flavor was still really good, and I knew going in that the white peaches were going to discolor, so it was just a reinforcement to 1) use yellow peaches and 2) cold pack in the future.
- passata, heirloom tomato sauce, and roasted tomato sauce – we do like these more reduced sauces better than the regular tomato sauce recipe, but we would also prefer that it be seasoned with garlic before canning. I should try making some spicy versions of sauce, too.
- orange crushed tomatoes – I noticed from this time and last time that the citric acid is really noticeable in crushed tomatoes. I’m seeing the downside of water bath canning tomatoes, which requires added acid, as opposed to pressure canning.
- blueberry gin jam! I had given some away at Christmas and was glad to finally try it myself. It had good blueberry flavor, not too sweet, but I wish more gin flavor came out.
- green tomato pickles – we had these with sausage. Meh, they’re all right. A little too savory and pickley for my taste.
- chile jam – we had this as a glaze for chicken. For some reason it doesn’t seem as spicy as I remember.
- salsa verde – we opened another batch of this to have with scallops. I am pleased that this is Tom’s favorite salsa and am glad that I made so much of it! It’s also fun that each batch is slightly different, based on what kind of peppers were available at the time.
- I finished Deadhouse Gates (print)- I cried when Duiker died, which goes to show this book continues to have an emotional impact even though I’ve read it lots of times.
- Every Heart a Doorway (Kindle via the library)- I really enjoyed the faerie kind of concept, even if the murder-mystery part was pretty predictable. I’ll probably read the other books in this series, but I’m in no rush.
- The Guest Cat (print via the library)- I read this book because it was part of a book club at my work. I was really moved by the cat – it was a simple, beautiful story. I enjoy when poets write prose.
- Homegoing (Kindle via the library)- holy crap this was amazing – it was my favorite book in a long time. I read it all in one setting, as I just couldn’t put it down. I look forward to reading it again, especially now that Tom bought it in print.
- Ten Thousand Skies Above You (Kindle via the library)- this is the second book in Claudia Gray’s Firebird series. I questioned the star-crossed lovers narrative that it started with, but it got more interesting by the end. It ended on a cliffhanger, but the 3rd book isn’t on FLP Overdrive! So I’m not sure when I’ll finish the series.
- Jerusalem (Kindle, got on sale) – though there was some overlap in recipes, this cookbook was a nice contrast to Zahav because it reflects the broader cooking traditions of many cultures in the city, not just Jewish cooking.
- Night + Market (Kindle, got on sale)- a very fun Thai cookbook. I love the wine pairings, practical advice, and bold flavors.
- Thrawn (Kindle, got on sale) – the writing is actually pretty good for a Star Wars novel. I found it to be a really interesting look inside Thrawn’s head, making him a more sympathetic character. Now I’m very curious to see where he’ll be at the end of Rebels
- I started Memories of Ice (print) as the next book in my Malazan re-read
- I started New Vegetarian Cooking (Kindle, got on sale).
Last Month’s Update
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.