Tagged: Condiments

Vinegars, mayos, sauces etc

Eleventh hour edible holiday gifts

(Copyrighted) Bill Watterson

Precocious Calvin and his wise toy tiger Hobbes. I’ve been obsessed with them for as long as I can remember. Apparently with good reason, since it looks like I’ve been applying Calvin’s philosophy covertly in some areas of my life without being aware of it. Last-minute panic is an intermittent state of being for me around the holidays. I find myself there in either the matter of holiday cards or holiday gifts. It is rather sad really to discover yourself in this position year after year, surprised to find it is December, even when it shows up without fail, right after November. As it turns out, last-minute panic also led me to realize I had not said a word about holidays on here so far.

All my good intentions pave my path to panic hell when I find my Christmas cards haven’t been bought, let alone mailed. Or we find ourselves with an invitation to a party and have no host gift handy. Then we show up with an apologetic bottle of wine, a default gift I have mixed feelings about, especially around the holidays. There are a couple of reasons for this.
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Our garden & chilli vinegar

I can remember the first thing I ever planted. I must have been nine. I planted a few mustard seeds in a handful of soil in a small used amrakhand carton. The seeds were from my mum’s spice box and the minimal labour involved was a school project. There are vague memories about it involving monocotyledons and dicotyledons. Much clearer is the remembrance of my being dubious of my mother’s and the science text book’s strong assertion that those tiny black spheres would amount to anything, let alone new plants; but I put the seeds in and smoothed the soil over, just as the textbook said I should. I poked at the mud with a toothpick for the first two days for signs of life. It was impossible to tell; the mustard blended in just perfectly with the soil. It may have been the first time any lesson in patience and faith was brought home to me with any sort of permanence or gravity.

Sure enough, just as they said, little mustard plants grew out of their containers, mud clinging to the dual leaf structure I was supposed to be observing. I was enthralled. There they were, tiny comma shaped flecks of green all woven through the brown soil, little bits of earth clinging to the frail green leaves as they pulled themselves up to face the sun. First there were two leaves, soon there were many more. I scribbled notes and drew hasty diagrams. I remember taking that little pot to school, the little seedlings standing up like so many valiant soldiers in a row. After that, I moved the seedlings to a bigger pot with my mom’s help. Unfortunately they didn’t survive the harsh May sun that year, but the fascination stuck. We hadn’t much room to grow things where I was growing up but my mom did her best with what room she had. I vowed to do the same one day.

Our first grown up apartment was a lunch box, but we still had a few tiny pots on a sliver of window sill. Amey shares my enthusiasm for growing things and has a true green thumb. We grew a few herbs and the chilli namesake of the blog. Our enthusiasm got the better of us with that chilli plant. We found peppers can’t be grown indoors in chilly San Francisco, but how we loved watching that plant grow from seeds and bear many flowers and some hot, meagre fruit. If you like to cook, there is no greater pleasure than snipping a few leaves of fresh rosemary or thyme from your own pot. All one needs to grow something is the desire to do so and the willingness to get their hands dirty from time to time. Or wear gloves if you don’t. I did. Plants require very little from us by way of help. Sunshine, a little water, an occasional smattering of fertilizer and they go out of their way to reward you with cheerful green. Herbs especially are so gosh darn easy to grow. Absolutely anyone with a tiny pot and a sunny ledge can do so.

  The green car at Flora Grubb

One of the features that sold us on our current apartment was ample back yardage. That first year, we started small, a few herbs, more chillies. As those plants thrived, we got bolder, planting flowers and vegetables. At this time, after having harvested onions, kale and peppers, I think we can safely call ourselves successful urban gardeners. It is no unattainable title given how easy it is to be one.

It is spring and the garden is all flowers and leaves. I am truly stoked about our motley pot collective this year. We have a grand fifty or so of them, with a variety of plants. Some, like the rosemary and thyme, have been with us since our old tiny North beach apartment but most others are new. We are growing at this point, what seems like every conceivable kind of herb. There are a few vegetables and some gorgeous flowers. I’m thrilled to share our growing garden with you.

The English pea plant. Its snaking tendrils, variegated leaves and bilaterally symmetrical white blooms remind me of the Alien movies for some odd reason. The plant is bursting with flowers right now and visions of pea pulao and pesto are already dancing in my head.
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Meyer Lemon-Lavender curd

It’s possible I’ve waited too long to tell you about this. Waited is not quite the mot juste here. There isn’t a single word that comprehensively covers how I’ve been dying to tell you all about it with nary a writing opportunity available. This lemon curd got made, gifted, photographed, eaten and thoroughly appreciated, in short, everything but captured in this space here. I’ve been very remiss.

Let’s rectify that right away. Even though chances are that the Meyer Lemon obtaining avenues are closing fast, unless you’re the lucky owner of a tree or you refrigerated your last precious batch. They last in the fridge a long time, these little globs of sunshine. They brought much needed cheer to many a cold winter’s day in my last three months. It’s important that I give this fragrant citrus the some much required props in my virtual home too.

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Chicken tacos & salsa

These were the experimental chicken tacos in mentioned in my last post. They turned out pretty good for what was essentially messing around with several ingredients, but frankly the next time I’m going to turn up the heat on them a bit more. Probably Mexican oregano would add another nuance of flavour too. Nevertheless, they work on their on or a a base for more flavour.

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Strawberry-Ollalieberry Jam

Having acquired the berries, there were still lingering questions in my mind. How does the complete novice start with making jam? It is a bit scary to think that tasks that women of the past easily performed now have to be assiduously read about on the Internet by the 21st century person. Accompanying all instructions to jam-making are dire warnings about canning and storage, hot water and cold plates. It is enough to scare off the most easy-going person. Well, I’m here to tell you that the whole process is absolutely as easy as reaching out and picking the berry off the tree. Put all those people screaming about contamination on mute. Also ignore anyone who tells you that you need tons of specialised equipment. All that you really need is a large stockpot, some very clean Bell jars, a pair of very clean and hefty tongs and a clean ladle. Make sure your hands are clean and that you don’t touch the clean stuff with messy hands, and you’re in business.

Since ollalies are not the most well-known of berries, it is hard to find a recipe with them. I read in several places that they can be used wherever blackberries are specified. However, it is even harder when you are looking for something coupling strawberries with them. So I decided to loosely follow this recipe for easy jam off the Food Network, from Ina Garten. This would be a bit of a trial and error since there is some science to the proportions of fruit, sugar and acid used to make jam. At worst I figured I’d end up with lots of fruit syrup. Not what I was looking for but given how good the berries tasted it would still taste good. When life gives you fruit, messing with its natural perfect state without knowing exactly what you’re doing must come with some punishment. So I steeled myself to possible failure and decided to forge ahead.

Amey found me some wide mouth Bell jars at the local Safeway. It really is a pity how in the city of San Francisco, they do not sell these individually. The size of the apartments here is hardly going to encourage bulk canning and storage. Yet the smallest amount of jars available are fifteen. But I had committed to serious jam making and if my math and understanding of the process was correct, at least three to four jars were required. Having gotten the jars home without mishap, we proceeded to wash them clean in soapy water. Then I boiled some water in my largest pot and placed the jars, lids and all in the boiling water for ten minutes. Taking them out, careful not to touch the mouth or inside of the jar, I placed them on a tray and put them in the oven to dry out.

That truly is the only possible aggravating portion of jam making. From there on, it’s all downhill. You cut wash the fruit and clean it. Hull the strawberries and clean out any leftover stems from the ollalieberries. Mix them altogether and then measure them out to see exactly how much fruit you have. Ina’s recipe had about 3 1/4 pints of fruit to 3 cups of sugar. I had about that much fruit, plus a few more cups. But three cups of sugar had already made me nervous. Chalk it up to the ingrained mass of worries we all become around sugar. So I didn’t increase the quantity of sugar. I put ollalieberries in whole, halved the strawberries, tossed in a cup of sugar and set the bowl aside so that all three could get to know each other a bit better.

This recipe instructs you to use half a green apple. This provides the pectin for the party, the natural sugar found in apples that allows for the jammifying of things. It’s one of the reasons I like the recipe. No futzing around with pectin powders in sachets allowing it to stay as basic as possible. So half an apple, duly peeled and sliced, joined the rest of the fruit. I squashed the fruit a bit with my hands (let me tell you it is strangely therapeutic squishing berries under your fingers, an instant calmer), but not too thoroughly, then poured the entire thing into a deep pan to boil away and become this magic deep red nectar of the gods.

Strawberry-Ollalieberry Jam
Adapted from an Ina Garten recipe off Food Network

Strawberries – 2 pints
Ollalieberries – 2 pints
Apple – 3/4, peeled and sliced (I used a Granny Smith)
Sugar – 3 cups
Orange Liqueur – 3 tsp
Lemon juice – 1/2 lemon

– Wash the fruit. Hull and cut the strawberries in half. Toss the ollalies in whole.
– Add one cups of sugar to the mixed berries in a large bowl. Set aside for ten minutes.
– Peel and finely slice the apple.
– Gently squeeze the berries to release the juices then place into a deep bottom pan at medium high. Add the rest of the sugar and orange liqueur
– When the mixture comes to a boil, add the apple and lemon juice. Stir the mixture often and keep it at a rolling boil.
– Skim and remove the foam that forms on the top as much as you can. Keep boiling the mixture until it thickens. This can take anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes.
– Once the mixture has thickened considerably, give it the frozen plate test. Place a few drops on a plate and place in the freezer for a minute. If the syrup on the frozen plate doesn’t run when you tilt the plate, you have the desired consistency.
– Move off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature before storing. This jam can then be canned per your jar manufacturers’ instructions or, it can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Cook’s notes:
My first jam-making experiment was a resounding success according to my very happy husband, who was thrilled to eat several crackers with the freshly made jam, making a crumby mess. It is almost as if the essential fruitiness of the berries multiplies exponentially as it conentrates and you reap this glorious nectar. The jam hits you with a sweetness immediately followed by tartness that lingers in your mouth and you immediately reach for another bite. There is a goodness in it that cannot be denied.

This quantity of fruit yielded two and half jars of jam. I proceeded with canning the almost full jars. You leave some room on top to allow for the expansion and cooling of air. Using a very clean ladle to dollop out quantities of jam into the prepped jars, I was careful to clean the few spill ups with fresh paper towels, never using the same one twice. Then placing the lids and tightly screwing on the rings, I used the tongs to place the full jars for a bath in a pot of boiling water for a scant five minutes. Fishing them out of the water (narrowly avoiding an accident that might have turned my kitchen into ending scenes from The Amityville Horror), I placed them on clean paper towels to cool. Everything was as sterilised as is possible in a kitchen environment.  As the jars cooled there were two faint pops. I have to say there is nothing as satisfying hearing that lid pop. It means all your mucking about with the jars was accurately done. I’m reasonably sure that these jars would have lasted to winter but had no opportunity of testing it with this batch. Between my co-workers and Amey, we have gone through two jars of jam. I wish I’d made more. I love to cook for people but there is nothing as gratifying as watching someone whose eyes light up when they taste jam that you made. That childhood bliss is written all over their face. I was struck by how many people told me only their grandparents actually made jam. Not only is it unbelievably easy to make, it is extremely economical when made in large quantities. Also, no store bought jam in the world tastes like the one you make at home. The aromatherapy of cooking jam is an unbeatable added benefit. At least two neighbours stopped by to ask what was cooking and I didn’t even know them (city dweller, so that’s no surprise), but I do now. I wish I’d made more to share but that is a mistake that can easily be remedied. I will certainly make more jam before the summer fruit season is over. If you are wondering about jam, I encourage you to try it. This is so easy that the idiom ‘easy as pie’ should really read ‘ easy as jam’.