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Jar Storage Tip: Rotate Your Grains

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For my entire life, my mom has kept an array of grains, seeds and nuts in a mix-and-match assortment of jars that had once held marinara sauce, peanut butter and fruit juices. One of the most useful things she taught me about storing dry goods in jars (other than always make sure your jar is 100% dry before filling) is to rotate the contents.

This means that when you bring a fresh bag of popcorn home from the bulk section, take the time to pour what remains in the jar out into a bowl, so that the freshest product ends up at the bottom of the jar and the oldest is at the top. This way it gets used in order of age. Here are a few pictures to show you exactly what I’m talking about.

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Empty the remaining contents of your popcorn jar into a bowl for temporary storage.

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Then empty the fresh popcorn into the jar. You might notice that it’s appearing that I have more popcorn than is going to fit in this half gallon jar.

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Top the jar off with the old popcorn. A wide-mouth funnel is a real help here, as it keeps your popcorn contained (unpopped kernels escape so easily).

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The popcorn jar is filled. But what’s that? There’s still some corn left in the bowl.

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That ends up in an overflow jar. I’ll make a point of using this one up first, since it holds entirely older popping corn.

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See, I even label it as such, to ensure that I remember that it’s the one that should be finished off first. Sharpies are so handy for jar labeling, as they write on the glass smoothly and erase with a bit of rubbing alcohol (I learned that trick in 12th grade biology).

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Gift in a Jar: Homemade Crackers

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Last Saturday, Scott and I did a cooking demo at Foster’s Homewares in Old City Philadelphia. We’ve been doing these for nearly two full years now, a live version of Fork You, our online cooking show. We made a small array of nibbly little appetizers, things that would be perfect to serve at a holiday party or to bring with you to some seasonal potluck. They were also all virtuously cheap.

On the menu was a caramelized onion and thyme jam (served on some baguette toasts), a warm cranberry-orange compote that I poured over a log of goat cheese and some homemade crackers that we used to eat the cranberries and cheese. The results were delicious and those that had braved the snow happily ate up all that we made.

baked crackers

As I was planning out those recipes, I kept thinking that bringing the homemade cracker recipe to this blog wasn’t an entirely bad idea. You see, as delicious as it is to give someone a jar of homemade jam or chutney for the holidays, sometimes you want to bring balance to the offering with a nice, easy vehicle for your handmade spread. If you’re really feeling generous, you can also include a nice round or wedge of cheese that will pair nicely with the jam (feel free to copy me and get yourself a log of nice, mild chevre. It goes with just about any sweet preserve).

The other thing about homemade crackers is that they impress people to no end. Give them jam and they’re happy, but tell them you made the crackers and their jaws just drop. I took a platter of these crackers to a party on Saturday night and when I told people that they were a product of my kitchen, they were floored. It was as if I had demonstrated an ability to fly that simply required some speedy arm flapping.

pint of crackers

If you have enough spares, feel free to package the crackers in jars for gifting. A wide mouth quart jar of crackers (perhaps with the recipe tucked inside, so that they can replenish the stash when they’re all gone) paired with a jar of homemade spread would be such a treat.

If your holiday gift fund doesn’t stretch to cover another dozen jars, another nice way to package the crackers is to put them in a zip top bag that you then tuck into a small-ish brown paper bag. The plastic bag keeps the air out and the paper one maintains the rustic, homemade look. If you have kids, you can give them the project of decorating the paper bags (prior to putting the crackers in them), so that they’re all colorful and unique.

The recipe for the crackers is after the jump. Enjoy!

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Dark Days: All-local soup

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One of the things that tipped me off to the fact that Scott was the right man for me was when I discovered his nearly endless capacity for consuming leftovers (a couple of weeks ago, when I was down with a cold and wasn’t up for cooking, he ate from the pot of chili I’d made over the weekend for five nights in a row). I know many an individual who can’t stomach the same item two nights in a row and so big braises, soups and stews are out in their households, as it’s nearly impossible to make those items on a scale small enough to satisfy the one-night rule.

I grew up eating leftovers and so never knew that there was another option (my mother was a big fan of making one cooking session last for at least two nights). When I moved out on my own, I’d often make a large-ish batch of a grain salad or bean soup, to eat for at least one meal a day, all week long. It made life easier and kept food costs controlled (I found that a pint jar of soup with an apple or a few Ak-mak crackers makes the perfect workday lunch).

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During the cooler months, I have one soup that I make nearly every other week. Around here we call it ground beef soup, although the vegetables are the stars, not the meat. It can be made in huge quantities (tonight, I filled my seven quart pot), keeps well and Scott and I both happily eats it meal after meal after meal. And this time of the year, all the ingredients are available locally.

The vegetables shift a little depending on what’s in the kitchen, but I always include onions (Fair Food), celery (a chinese variety, from the farmers market), carrots (Fair Food), potatoes (from the farmers market several weeks ago) and tomatoes (home canned in September). In addition, tonight I also used two tiny cabbages (shredded) and a black turnip (both of which were part of my final CSA box), a celeriac bulb (Fair Food), some rosemary from a friend’s community garden plot and a few cloves of garlic (from Seattle, purchased as an edible souvenir and hand-carried home when I was there in August).

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To make this soup, I chop the vegetables (starting with the onions and then moving through the celery, carrots, celeriac, turnip and cabbage) into approximately equal sized cubes, adding them to the pot to saute in a bit of olive oil. Then I add the tomatoes (tonight I used one quart and one pint because I was making such a huge batch), some water (enough to entirely cover the veggies) and the potatoes. Then the rosemary and garlic. Lid on and let it simmer (when I’m not concerned with keeping it entirely local, I will also add some frozen peas at this point. Tonight, in the interest of adhering to the challenge of Dark Days, I skipped them) until the potatoes are tender.

At this point, I have a pot of deeply flavored, totally vegan soup (don’t forget to add salt and pepper to taste prior to serving). In the past, I’ve made this for parties and stopped right here so that all guests can eat. In that case, I’ll create a garnish bar that will include some cheese, browned ground beef or sausage, croutons and toasted nuts (for the vegans who still need protein). However, when I’m making it for the two of us, I brown the ground beef (grass fed from Meadow Run Farms) in a skillet and use a slotted spoon to transfer it from the skillet to the soup pot (to minimize grease transfer). It’s a great way to make a pound of meat stretch to cover nearly a week of meals.

One of the most satisfying things about this soup? Whenever I make it, Scott always turns to me once his bowl is empty, smiles and says, “Mmm! Such delicious soup!”

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Gifts in Jars, Elsewhere

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I have a bad habit of leaving my computer on for days and days at a stretch (although since my two-year-old MacBook stopped going to sleep, I do shut it down more than I once did). Part of the reason that my computer rarely powers down is that I collect canning recipes in the tabs along the top of my browser, sometimes having as many at 15 or 20 open. Right at the moment, I’ve reached critical mass and need to clear out some of those tabs, so I thought I’d share some of the recipes that have recently caught my eye. All would make excellent gifts in jars.

And, two recipes for baked goods that utilize jam (if, like me, you happen to have something of a glut).

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Some Canning Questions/Answers

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More than three weeks ago, I asked for your burning canning questions. I intended to be a good canning blogger/teacher and respond right away to those queries, but then life intervened and I’m only now finally circling back around to get you some answers. So here we go…

Jewel asks: I have a few sauce, chutney, and jam recipes that are not specifically meant to be canned, but that I would love to put up. In most cases I believe that the sugar content is high enough for water bath canning, but I want to be safe. Is there a way to tell if a recipe is appropriate for canning? Can you point me in the right direction?

Answer: The best way to determine if your recipes are safe to canning is to look for comparable recipes that have been designed to be canned and determine from there whether the proportions of fruit, sugar and vinegar (in the case of chutneys) are similar to your recipes. I know I always mention it, but my favorite volume for this type of comparison research is So Easy to Preserve.

If you can’t find a similar recipe but are determined to water bath process your recipes, Steve Dowdney includes instructions in his book Putting Up that can walk you through the steps of checking the pH level in your product, in order to determine whether they’ll be safe for water bath processing.

Deb asks: I made applesauce recently. All the jars sealed very well, in a couple the applesauce came up and out of the jar a bit before sealing. I imagine there is applesauce caught in the lid seal area. I can pick the jars up by the lid edge, so they are very tight, but are they really ok?

Answer: It is totally normal to have some siphoning (the technical canning word for when some of the contents of the jars seeps out during processing) with applesauce. However, as long as the jars seal post-processing, they are still safe and shelf-stable. When filling the jars, make sure that you leave 1/2 to 3/4 an inch of headspace, as it will help prevent the siphoning, but rest assured that your applesauce will be perfectly safe for storage in your pantry (or, in my case, the back of my coat closet).

Tracy asks: Tiny bubbles appeared in my applesauce a day or so after canning. Is this normal?

Answer: Yep, totally. I also find that I get tiny bubbles in my processed sauerkraut and in less juicy whole tomatoes.

More q&a after the jump…

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Gift in a Jar: Vanilla Syrup

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A couple of years ago, I uncovered a secret that completely changed the way I cooked and baked. I discovered that it was possible to order bulk lots of vanilla beans on eBay for cheap. I went from treating the vanilla bean as a precious item to using them freely. And this time of year, they can become an easy path to a sweet, homemade holiday gift. Homemade vanilla syrup can sweeten coffee, is delicious in plain yogurt and is wonderful drizzled as a quick glaze over top of any number of simple baked goods.

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To make, combine one cup of water with two cups of sugar and add three to four vanilla beans, split lengthwise and scraped. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and pour into half pint jars (when I made this tonight, I filled two half pints and one quarter pint). Include a piece or two of vanilla bean in the jar to keep infusing.

Because this is an unacidified product, it can’t be processed for shelf stability. However, it will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Gift this with some pancake mix, freshly baked scones or a pound of coffee.

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