Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tomato Jam

So I made a couple jars of tomato jam from my chocolate cherry tomatoes over the weekend. I'd been picking them as they ripen, using a few in salads, roasting some in olive oil to have over pasta, and holding onto the rest until I had enough to make a half batch of the recipe. It's got a spicy kick to it that I like, although if I make it again I'd like it a little more savory and a teeny bit less sweet. I already cut the sugar a bit, but I think I'd scale it back to 3/4 of a cup. I think I'd also cut down on the cinnamon and add some cumin to nudge it a little more into ketchup-ish territory, while still allowing it the kind of sweetness that works for meat glazes and on sandwiches. But overall I'm pretty pleased with it.

I spread some on a baguette with mozzarella cheese, and nuked it a bit in the microwave to melt the cheese, and it was really tasty. I also think the flavors will marry and age well over time. I was pretty excited about this, even though it only made 2 jars, with a little extra in a bowl in the fridge. It's the first time I've had a garden with enough yield in it to can anything.

I've always been a small batch canner because with a 2-person household there's not much reason to can massive amounts of product. I don't have many chances (or reasons) to buy 20 or more pounds of anything for canning, or to have a dozen jars of pickles or preserves of any one type in my pantry. I make just about enough for our uses, with a few extra to swap with other people for their canned product, or as little gifts.

I've got a lot of other tomatoes that are ripening (including a lot more of the cherry tomatoes). I'll probably make some of those into a salsa, and maybe a few jars of tomato sauce, depending on how much of them we want to eat fresh. I gotta say, just putting up a couple jars from the garden is motivation enough to get me planning in earnest for a cool weather fall garden, and to contemplate planting for the spring.

In the meantime I'm enjoying tending the plants I have, and watching our natural bug repellers do their work.

Monday, August 26, 2013

French Bread

One of my early childhood memories is sitting in the living room with my mom watching Julia Child. Her voice, her easygoing manner, and her “can-do” attitude powered my mom through a lot of her kitchen adventures, including yogurt-making, canning, and baking—not to mention making practically every dinner we ate, at least for the first 10 years or so of our lives. My dad got better at that as we were teenagers.

So when a couple of Julia collections came out on DVD we snatched ‘em up. Some of the recipes are a little mystifying. I have no desire to coat anything in aspic, and some of the veggie preparations seem a bit dated to me. But when it comes to French bread there’s no one who inspires confidence quite like Julia. The ingredients really couldn’t be simpler: AP flour, water, yeast, and salt. Time and Technique are the other two elements that turn those basic ingredients into French bread.

It was pretty humid out today, so the dough was particularly wet, no matter how much I kneaded it. That’s part of why the rolls came out rather amoeba-like. But they’re still crusty and tasty.

Mixing the dough:



Molding the rolls and letting ‘em rise:

I forgot to take pictures when I scored the rolls. Given how wet the dough was the scoring looked pretty messy.

After the baking was done:

I use Julia’s method pretty consistently to make sandwich rolls with a couple of changes: I let the rolls rise on parchment paper, covered by damp paper towels. If the towels have dried and stick to the rolls when rising I spray 'em with water (with a spray bottle bought for that purpose) and the moist towels life right off. I score the exposed side, I don't bother to turn the rolls as Julia does, and then I spray them before putting them in the oven.

This might seem like a lot of effort for a few sandwich rolls, but for me it's worth it. I love the crunchiness of a good crust for cheese and prosciutto sandwiches. Sometimes I’ll sauté chard and have it in a sandwich with goat cheese and tomatoes. This bread is pretty forgiving for all kinds of odd fillings, and is a great way of taking advantage of the bits and pieces in the garden and the fridge.

You can also do this partway, making the dough, kneading it, and letting either the first or second (or both) rises happen in the fridge, and then form the loaves, rise them and bake them off on another day. It also makes a great pizza crust.

Here’s the full episode. There’s some prime moments in here, my fave being when she visits a French bakery and the baking assistant is seen standing next to Julia, watching her skeptically with his hands on his hips and wearing dark sunglasses indoors. Mon dieu.

Garden Update

So things are going pretty good in the garden. The lettuce is in a couple different stages of "bolting" or flowering and going to seed.

The left hand picture is red leaf lettuce, and the right hand that looks like baby dandelions is romaine. I've harvested some of the seeds and replanted them already--I'm hoping to get 1-2 more crops of lettuce before winter hits hard.

I've also got about 2 pounds of chocolate cherry tomatoes off of our plant so far.

With a little luck I'll be able to make a half batch of this tomato jam to can tomorrow. It calls for 5 pounds of tomatoes, so hopefully I can cut in a little of our japanese black tomatoes to bump it to a full 2 1/2 pounds of tomato for the half batch. The Japanese black tomatoes are disappointing thus far. Pleasant enough, but not much of a robust flavor. I might have to sit tight and let them ripen longer even though some of them feel ripe enough and have a ripe texture when they're cut into.

And I've been able to harvest some chard and tomatoes for a pasta stir fry with garlic and chard--oven roasting the tomatoes separately & then folding them into the pasta.

It's a small yield, but I'm making it work.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dollars and Sense

So my husband Steve got a couple of t-shirts at Threadless recently. I’ve sometimes done the same, and when I saw Steve’s new shirts I thought “I want some new shirts too.” And then I remembered that I’d gone through my clothes recently, reorganizing them, and marveled at how many t-shirts I have already.

Bottom line, I really don’t need any new t-shirts. I have plenty of them. I’m good on clothes too. Any of the things I’m buying at this point are extras that expand my wardrobe and give me something to play with—they aren’t things I truly need. And that’s something I’ve noticed over the past few years out here—how much I can be coaxed into buying things I don’t really need. When we first moved to Seattle we were watching every penny we spent. I didn’t go shopping for new clothes at one point for a good year or so. I got out of the browsing habit, of coveting after novelties. When we did go into a store I was sometimes struck by how much extraneous stuff was being marketed to me. It’s so easy to be bombarded by images and messages of what we should buy and what we should want, sometimes almost fetishizing the experience of acquiring new things.

As is obvious, I like getting new things as much as the next person. I enjoy shopping, trying on stuff, enjoying new food, having new experiences. But I’m trying to be aware of when my desires are swayed by exterior messages, and not by what I truly want or need.

That being said, I am pretty hooked on browsing Seattle Goodwills on Mondays—when everything with a specific color tag is priced at $1.29. One week it’s a blue tag, the next week a pink tag, the next week a red tag. My guess is that they use a specific color of tag for almost all the items that come in for every few days or a week, and the longer that color is hanging from the racks, the closer it gets to its $1.29 day—it keeps the inventory rotating. This week it was everything with a green tag. I flipped through the aisles, looking for viable green tags, and also grabbed a few other things that were either pretty enough or weird enough to try on. The strangest was a “Western Boot Cut” pair of Levis corduroys.

The inseam swooped out at the cuff, the front and back pockets were pretty bizarre, and the waistline dipped just a bit at the front center.

They were only $5, (not a green tag) and I was tempted to get them just because they were so strange, but I had a hard time imagining wearing them much, so I put ‘em back.

I did love the zippers though.

I ended up buying one shirt…a linen knit t shirt from Zara.

Also not a green tag—it was also $5. But I liked the way it draped too much to resist. Oh well.

Fig Fail, Jam Prevail

There’s an enormous fig tree in the front of a house a few blocks away from me. I had my eye on it last summer, when I put a note into house’s mailbox, introducing myself, and saying that if they didn’t have plans for the fruit I’d be happy to pick it for jams and pay them in finished jars. I didn’t hear anything, so I figured they wanted the figs for themselves. Fair enough.

So last week when I passed by the same house I was excited to see a realtor’s sign posted. I peeked in the windows and saw that the house was empty. I called the realtor number on the sign and asked if I could pick the figs. She said yes. I was soooo excited. I ran over to the local hardware store, picked a “fruit picker” (a glorified claw on the end of a metal rod) and picked about 6 lbs of figs. The ones I figured were ripe were the ones that basically fell off the branch when I nudged them.

I was so psyched. I researched my recipes (a balsamic fig jam and a chipotle fig jam), got all the ingredients together, started sterilizing my jars. I pulled the bag of figs out of the fridge, washed off a few, and cut them open. The perfume was lovely.

And then I tasted one. It was tannic, slightly bitter, and unripe. A total disappointment.

I’ve had fresh figs before—that were the same color as these. These didn’t taste remotely like those tender, fragrant, delicious fruits I remembered. They definitely weren’t going to perform well in the recipes I’d pulled up, which really needed the vibrancy of a fresh, ripe, luscious fig.

Why didn’t I taste it sooner than moments before I was about to plunge them into the jam frenzy? I should have as soon as I picked the first one. It was stupid. But I’d never had this kind of issue with fruit before when picking it off the tree. I guess I figured they were ripe because they were literally rotting off the tree, and I was picking ones that practically fell into my hand.

So I turned to google. Apparently…having them fall from the tree without truly ripening was a common problem, especially in cooler climates like Seattle. Okay then. What should I do with these, if anything? I found a recipe for pickling them that required lye. Not appealing to me. Others were candied in syrup…but I read mixed reviews of the results. David Lebovitz suggested to a reader that unripe figs could possibly be jammed…but he warned that it was often impossible to get true fig flavor out of an unripe fig. He suggested cooking some in sugar and seeing what happened. So I chopped about 5 or 6, tossed in some sugar and lemon juice and cooked them down.

It was….okay. Not what I’d want to spend a couple hours working over and putting up multiple jars of. And with just a hint of the fig flavor I’d been looking forward to.

So…I tossed the figs, let my sterilized jars wait on the stove, and went to Magnusson to pick blackberries.

I picked 4 ½ pounds of blackberries in 2 hours. It was a gorgeous day.

And then I made jam with some and froze the rest.

I think I’ll make some blackberry lavender jam later this week, and maybe some blackberry ginger jam as well.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Novice Gardening

This was my first year trying to garden in our new house. I got started late—there were several things distracting me during the time I should have been planning a layout, choosing things to plant, and starting some seeds. So when the Seattle Tilth plant sale came around in May, I realized I was way past time getting some stuff in the ground.

These strawberries are from plants I bought last year. I kept ‘em in pots over the winter and they’ve regenerated pretty well. I think next year I’ll give them more room, but they’ve been giving forth some decent berries as well as making new plants:

I’m freezing most of them—I’ll probably make some strawberry rhubarb tarts with them, and maybe a jam.

I bought some tomato plants at the Seattle Tilth sale. They’ve grown really well, although they’re being a little slow in the ripening process. Or maybe I’m just impatient. I’ve got a green zebra (one of my faves), a Japanese black and a chocolate cherry.

A few of the chocolate cherries are starting to ripen—I ate a couple yesterday and they were really good—very herbal in flavor as well as having a rich tomato taste. Here’s my minor harvest from this morning—I’m trying to pick ‘em off as they ripen so that the bugs don’t get them.

Part of the point of this blog is to see how I can do all this stuff and save money. Given what a novice I am it’s not going to be a net gain this year on the gardening front. But another factor to consider is not only of cash spent, but quality of the yield for the money and time and effort expended. We’ve eaten a lot of lettuce from the garden, and it’s some of the tastiest salad you can get. It’s bolting now, so I’m waiting for it to go to seed, see if I can plant them and get another crop out of the plants before it gets too cold. The basil is doing well. It's been an added boost to our salads, and has made some great pesto for sandwiches and pasta. I’m hopeful about the tomatoes—but only time will tell.

And there’s always next year. This season has familiarized me to the sunnier and shadier parts of my yard, which will inform my next round of efforts for a fall/winter garden, and for spring planting starting in February or March.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Decent Canning 101

A friend Brian asked for a primer on canning. I'll put up some thoughts of my own on the subject, but Alton Brown does a great job of the basics of canning in this episode. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thrift Addiction

I love clothes. But I've always felt a bit of a tension between getting things I loved and being fearful of spending too much money on them. I've often been thrifty to the point of miserly, and sometimes that made me pass on things I should've bought, or buy certain things because they were both cheap and a "sure thing." Sometimes this tendency has kept me from taking too many fashion risks.

I've spent the bulk of my adulthood in New York City. It's a hub of American fashion and no mistake, but it also can be incredibly expensive, even when thrift shopping. The Goodwills and Salvation Armys I went to back then were okay, but nothing special. There was an amazing warehouse of a thrift shop in Williamsburg in the 90s called Domsey's Warehouse . I still remember the old school air pilot leather helmets with goggles that were on sale one day when I went that I passed up. Sigh. Domsey's vanished when the real estate got too expensive.

But for the most part the stuff I craved was at little house designers on East 7th St in the east village, or at consignment shops. As a rule I'd hit those when there was a sale, or when I had a big occasion to shop for. I still treasure the Mark Montano dress that my friend Rob urged me to try on and buy (alas, MM no longer designs clothes). I also hit Daffy's pretty frequently. Sadly Daffys too is no more.

During our first couple years of serious shoestring living in Seattle I took note of the city's particular style. Lots of girls in boots, everyone in beanies, & a lot of vintage clothing and a lot of flannel shirts 15 years after the height of the grunge era. I started trolling thrift shops more regularly, as much for entertainment as anything else. But for some reason the selection out here is a lot better. I've gotten a lot of good stuff in the last few months, and I'm starting to take more risks with the items I buy, veering toward slightly trendier things. At the same time, I'm 42 years old, and don't wanna look like I'm struggling to look like 25 when I obviously don't. But when thrift shopping out here I can take some risks without worrying too much about the expense.

Fit is also a factor. In the past I've often chosen clothes that are loose on me, because I didn't want them to be "too tight". In many cases I now realize that I was actually veering away from a true fit on my body. As I buy more clothes and play around with the sizing, I'm getting a better idea of what will work for my body type.

This is a perfect example of "fit discovery." I'm short-waisted as it is, and this skirt has a very high waist compared to what I'm used to.

But it does fit me properly. It flares over my hips at the right spot precisely because it has as high a waist as it does.

Plus it has pockets!

I'd usually never buy a suede skirt, but for $1.29 how could I say no? With the right sweaters in the fall I think it'll work out well.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Seattle has a lot of lovely trees on its neighborhood planting strips—that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. A lot of those trees are fruit trees—plum, cherry, apple, pear, quince, fig…it still amazes me how easily they grow out here, and how many of them there are. Last year I wrote out a few notes introducing myself, including an email address, and asking permission to pick the fruit off of those trees if they didn’t have plans for them. Some people responded, and I got a lot of fruit to try canning and drying.

Canning is definitely more my forte—the prunes I tried to make were lackluster at best. So when I reached out to a nice lady who has a very densely fruited shiro plum tree on her planting strip, she encouraged me to go right ahead again this year and pick the plums.

I got 17 pounds of plums this year, and it barely looked like I touched the tree. There is tons of fruit on this tree, it’s amazing. So far I’ve made a yellow plum sauce, which is nice n’zesty:

And a straight-up plum jam, just made with fruit and sugar in the proportions advocated by the lovely people at Under the Tuscan Gun:

I deliberated a bit on how much to cook the jam. I made the same jam last year from the same plums, and like a lot of my jam endeavors it came out with a very solid set, something that hovered around the consistency of a gumdrop. It was spreadable, but not as luscious as a softer jam would be. I also like mixing this with soy sauce to made a plum sauce for Asian dishes, and making that with a harder-set jam is a bit of a struggle. So I took it off the heat when it still looked too loose for my liking, grit my teeth, and canned it.

It is a bit softer than I would optimally like, but I made the soy/jam sauce last night for a friend’s mu shu pork dinner and it mixed together much more easily—and with a more vibrant plum flavor, I think. So overall it was a win.

Now I need to figure out what to do with the other 8 or so pounds of plums I still have. This is giving me some ideas:

Blackberry Syrup

Blackberries are poppin' all over the place right now. Unfortunately the wild ones that are the easiest to get are Himalayan blackberries, which are seedier than some of the cultivated varieties. But they're delicious in jams, and with the right sieve it's possible to get most or all of the seeds out.

I've done blackberry jam several times in the past, and might do another batch this summer, but I saw this recipe for blackberry syrup and thought I'd give that a try.

It was about as easy as can be, to be honest. I was psyched to try it in a drink a couple days later, and it was very fresh and tasty. This had gin, club soda, and syrup with some ice. Can't get much simpler than that. I might try it with tonic sometime soon though, add a bit of complexity.

Lovely Limoncello

I made this using the same ingredients shown in the video. The exact proportions can be found here:

I did it last year with 100 proof vodka and that was very good, but using grain alcohol makes a slightly more potent, have-to-sip-slowly, drier beverage that is a lovely way to end the evening. A true digestif, although I’ll also be trying to use it in cocktails.

Skirt score!

I had my eye on this skirt at Goodwill. I tried it on (God bless Goodwill for fitting rooms!) and it was just too big. For $4.99 I couldn’t conscience buying a skirt I’d have to alter. But I went back on a Monday when everything with a blue tag was $1.29. This had a blue tag, so I bought it. I put a few darts in the elastic waistband and now it fits just fine. It’s an Eddie Bauer, 100% cotton skirt with a 100% cotton lining. I really like it.