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How to Build a Summertime Cheese Board

Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is here to share her tips for building a cheeseboard for the summer season! Looks delicious! – Marisa

It’s ironic that the farmers’ markets are bursting with the widest variety of ingredients during the season that it’s often — in my apartment, anyway — too hot to cook.

But there are still delicious meals to be made in the head of summer. In July and August, I find myself gravitating to salads made with greens, soft-boiled eggs, and other easy-to-prep veggies, or grilled cheese sandwiches made with thick slabs of tomato and basil leaves stuffed inside.

Of course, there’s always the grill — but struggling to get the coals lit while fighting off mosquitoes and (still) sweating make outdoor cooking a special occasion thing for me.

How else to pull together a quick and delicious meal with minimal cooking that’s adaptable to the season’s bounty? Build a beautiful, easy, no-cook cheese board.

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June Mastery Challenge: Foraged Berry Jam

Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is back to share the tale of a tiny batch of jam made from fruit grown right in her West Philly neighborhood. I do love a good forage! – Marisa

When it comes to gardening and foraging, I do my best to hit enough planting milestones in early spring so that I’m not missing out on a particularly delicious spring or summer crop. And I keep an eye on ripening berries and fruits in my neighborhood so I can forage goodies to enjoy and preserve, too.

This spring was a little different. It was my first working as a freelancer, and any hope that I’d have extra time and flexibility to spend on these pursuits quickly vanished — I felt busier and less in touch with what was growing around me than I had been when I was employed full time.

For example, I missed planting peas this year. On the other hand, I got in two good harvests of elderflower during a particularly busy May, a first for me. And yet, I just missed the height of my West Philly neighborhood’s flush of juneberries, mulberries, and sour cherries, which hit a little earlier than usual this month.

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How to Make Elderflower Cordial

Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones has stopped by (on her birthday! Happy day, Alex!) to show us how to make elderflower cordial with fresh, foraged elderflower blossoms. Read on to see how easy it is to make your own batch! – Marisa

Freshly picked elderflowers for elderflower cordial

As an apartment-dweller who loves plants, I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood rich in community garden spaces. I can count a dozen community gardens less than a mile from my home in West Philly; I currently tend plots in three of them.

The garden I’ve been with the longest is one of the oldest in the neighborhood, built on the site of a demolished apartment building down the block from where I live. It’s been around for a few decades, and the common spaces have been planted with perennial fruit trees and shrubs that have had lots of time to establish.

While the peaches, plums, and figs never seem to ripen, our sour cherry tree, gooseberry bush, and kiwi berry vines are prolific. We also boast a specimen of one of the most exciting (to me) perennial fruits: An elderberry bush.

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Mastery Challenge: Rhubarb Pickles

When I see the first harvests of rhubarb hitting farmers’ market tables among still-puny bunches of kale and last season’s root crops, I feel a surge of hope: spring is really, actually happening.

I also think of my maternal grandmother, an almost-nun turned feminist firebrand and mother of 11 who kept a huge vegetable garden — including a big patch of rhubarb — at her house in Quebec when I was a kid. Granny is the reason I turn my nose up at strawberry-rhubarb anything: her lip-puckering, sweet-tart treatment of the ingredient served straight up in pie, cobbler, and roly-poly became my standard and favorite for fruity baked goods.

As an adult, I’ve tried to do more with rhubarb than dessert, but no recipe I’ve come across that didn’t involve sweet, buttery dough has ever really seemed like it would be worth the trouble to try. So when this month’s Mastery Challenge came around during rhubarb season, I decided to give it the cold-pack pickle treatment.

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How to Make Homemade Grassfed Ghee

Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones checks in today to show us all how to make gorgeous, homemade grassfed ghee. Looking at these pictures, I can almost smell the nuttiness of the melting butter! -Marisa

Butter melting into homemade grassfed ghee

During my years as a local foods buyer for the CSA at Greensgrow Farm and Fair Food Farmstand here in Philly, I brought home my share of produce that was still delicious but no longer sellable. Those leftover, cosmetically damaged, or too ripe to sell fruits and vegetables kept my fridge full. My proximity to occasional stashes of “seconds” even spurred me to learn how to preserve those goodies for later use.

I’m no longer bringing home flats of half-moldy strawberries to pick over or sacks of so-ripe-they-burst figs on a regular basis. But my work with local farms and food makers still yields the occasional bounty of perishable product that can be turned into something delicious and shelf-stable.

The most recent foodstuff in need of a little TLC came from my friend Stefanie, cheesemaker and owner of Valley Milkhouse and one of the two area cheesemakers (along with Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm) with whom I run the CSA-style cheese subscription Collective Creamery.

I’dd gone up to Stef’s farmhouse in the Oley Valley, about 90 minutes northwest of Philly, for an evening meeting and spent the following day helping out in the cheese room. When I was ready to head back to the city, she sent me on my way with a very special treat: a half-full five-gallon bucket of cultured butter that was a little past its prime — but the only ingredient I’d need to make a big batch of homemade grassfed ghee.

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Mastery Challenge: Quick Pickled Mushrooms

Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is here today with her contribution for the April Mastery Challenge. This month, she quick pickles some gorgeous local mushrooms from Primordia Farm! Take it away, Alex!

Just about every Saturday, I wake up early and walk a few blocks from my West Philly apartment to Clark Park, where I’ll meet a truck laden with cheese and mushrooms from Berks County. We’ll set up folding tables and tents on the sidewalk along with organic vegetable growers, kraut makers, fishermen, orchardists, urban farmers, and bakers who are there to vend at the farmers’ market.

On one side of our stand, I sell grass fed artisan cheese, yogurt, and cultured butter for Valley Milkhouse, a microdairy located less than 90 minutes from Philly that’s run by my friend Stefanie Angstadt. On the other side, my neighbor Bianca sells wild foraged and organically grown mushrooms for the other Berks-based business, Lenhartsville’s Primordia Farm. In addition to providing an efficient logistics partnership for the two farms, we and our farmers’ market customers find that our products go really well together.

The proximity to Primordia’s offerings has given me the chance to experiment with the kind of fungi that never used to cross my radar. I get to bring home feathery maitake mushrooms to roast up crisp and toasty, king trumpets to slice into planks and saute until golden brown, and—when they’re in season—black trumpets, chanterelles, and morels to flavor creamy pasta sauces and risottos or simply cook gently in a good amount of butter.

If you’ve got a good source for fresh, organically grown mushrooms in your area but haven’t tried cooking with them yet, I highly recommend it. Varieties like these and others, like furry-looking lion’s mane, delicate golden oyster, and tiny, compact enoki, are sometimes labeled “exotic” or “wild” and can come with eyebrow-raising price tags, ranging anywhere from $10 to $40 (for morels in season) per pound.

But mushrooms are very light, and the amount you need to make even a mushroom-centric dish or preserve is probably much less than you think. The mushrooms for this recipe cost around $8. By bringing some home from the farmers’ market, you’ll also be supporting a small, sustainable business like Primordia and adding something nutritious and delicious to your diet.

(The specimens in the top photo sat bagged in my crisper for nearly a week before I could process them, hence a few dings and broken pieces, but trust that Primordia’s and any good grower’s mushrooms will be immaculate at purchase.)

As much as I’ve come to love mushrooms, I’d never pickled them after a tendency to be disappointed by the marinated buttons on most antipasti platters. Quick-pickling some beautiful mushrooms would be perfect subject for April’s Mastery Challenge.

After a little Internet research, I decided on this Andrew Zimmern recipe, modeled on Russian pickled mushrooms, as a guide. Along with the garlic, red pepper, dill, and thyme that he recommends, I swapped in star anise for cloves and black pepper.

And while Zimmern makes the impossible (at least where I live) recommendation to combine spring morels and summertime chanterelles in his recipe, neither were available locally—so I grabbed a mix of shapely king trumpet, velvety pioppino, and gray oyster.

The pickling process is a simple one. Check mushrooms for soil or debris—Primordia’s are so clean that you don’t have to wash them—and trim off any substrate, typically a nutrient-rich mix of straw or sawdust, coffee grounds, and mycelium out of which the fruiting bodies emerge.

Separate mushrooms like pioppino and oyster into smaller pieces and cut large, fleshy king trumpets into manageable sticks or planks.

Next, measure out water, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and pickling salt and put it in a pot to boil. Since this is a quick pickle that will be refrigerated, and I’m not a fan of overly sweet pickles, I cut the sugar down from ⅓ cup to one tablespoon, the same as the amount of salt called for in the recipe.

While you’re waiting for the brine to boil, get your jars ready by dividing the herbs, spices, and garlic between two wide-mouth pint jars.

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