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Salted and Spiced Peanut Butters

two jars

I like to keep a bag of peanuts in my car. I am one of those people who can go from being not at all hungry, to slightly dizzy with the need to eat. On days when I find myself running endless errands, knowing that I have something filling and restorative within reach stops me from zipping through drive-throughs or dashing into Wawa for a bag of chips.

peanuts

Last week, as I gathered supplies and ingredients for our holiday trek to Virginia, I picked up a new bag at Trader Joe’s last week (a three+ hour drive in holiday traffic demands a fresh supply of car snacks). It was during the height of the pre-Thanksgiving frenzy and in my hurry to get in and out of a packed store as quickly as possible, I grabbed a package of roasted and unsalted peanuts. As it turns out, it was a grim mistake, because as good and satisfying as a lightly salted peanut can be, an unsalted one is bland and decidedly unpleasant.

spices in food processor

Not wanting to waste the majority of a one-pound bag of roasted peanuts, I brought them up from the car when we unloaded, with the intention of making peanut butter (conveniently, I had just finished a jar). Then, the thing that happens so often in life occurred. The peanuts sat on top of the washing machine, exactly where Scott put them last week during our post-trip unpacking, until earlier today.

two peanut butters

Finally, entirely tired of looking at them, I made peanut butter this morning. And like so many other long-avoided tasks, it took a fraction of the time I anticipated and was better than I remembered homemade peanut butter to be.

A pound of nuts yields approximately two cups of butter, so once I had a consistency I was happy with, I pulled out about a cup (slightly less than, it turns out) of the butter to keep it plain, and then added cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves to the balance. As much as I love plain peanut butter, it’s also fun to have some that tastes fleetingly of pumpkin pie.

spiced peanut butter

I know that some of you have had issues with some of my nut butter recipes in the past. The secret to getting a good consistency is oil. I know that most of us are loath to add more oil to nuts (because they contain so much of it naturally), but truly, these butters need a little extra lubrication. And the amount varies depending on your nuts.

This batch took just two tablespoons of peanut oil to develop the right texture. However, I’ve had some similarly scaled batches of almond and sunflower butters that needed as much as 1/3 cup. Because the age and moisture content of nuts varies, there’s no one-size-fits-all amount of oil I can instruct you to add. You have to use your eyes, nose, and best judgment. And if you feel like your food processor motor is in danger, please stop and give it the chance to cool down.

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The DIY Pantry: Ground Allspice

allspice in the pantry

Last night, during my post-dinner clean-up, I threw away three pears. They were well past their prime and were threatening to stage a decomposition scene right there in the fruit bowl.

An hour or so later, I called my mom and we started talking holidays, baking and the many delicious things in the world. The topic of gingerbread came up and I floated the idea of a tender gingerbread cake with juicy bits of pear baked in. We determined that it was a genius idea and I jumped up to fish the thrown away pears out of the garbage can. It was last minute reprieve.

Earlier today, as I gathered my gingerbread ingredients, I realized I was missing a minor player. Ground allspice. Just as I was about to shrug and accept that I had to do without, I remembered that I had a large jar of whole allspice.

freshly ground allspice

I tumbled a few into an old bladed coffee grinder I keep around for spices and small amounts of nuts and went to town. When the bulk of the allspice berries were reduced to powder, I shook them through a sieve to separate out the hard, stubborn bits. I was left with approximately two ounces of gorgeously fragrant, freshly ground allspice. I measured the necessary 1/4 teaspoon for the gingerbread and tucked the rest into a jar for the spice rack.

I realize that for some of you, this is not big deal. You grind your spices fresh all the time. However, I’m one of those people who often gets stuck in patterns of behavior and one is the assumption that ground spices must be bought in their ground state. I sometimes forget how easy it can be to make a pantry staple like this on. And with holiday baking coming up, it’s nice to have a little jar of freshly ground allspice on hand.

The pear gingerbread turned out amazing well too. I’ll be posting the recipe, a riff on the one in Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, later tonight.

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Meyer Lemon Zest Sugar and Salt

meyer lemon zest sugar

Last Friday, in the process of testing four recipes for the cookbook, I found myself awash in Meyer lemon zest. Knowing that I needed to juice 20 Meyers, I made sure to zest each one beforehand so as not to waste a drop of those precious babies. Because I had no time to be fussy, I split the zest into two piles and made quick work of it.

I tossed the  first mound of fragrant, juicy zest with three cups of plain sugar. Spread between this jar and a smaller one, I’m currently entertaining fantasies of sprinkling some across the tops of scones just before they go into the oven or rimming cocktail glasses with it when the weather gets warmer.

And the other portion of zest? Layered in a jar with kosher salt, for serving with fish and boosting the flavor of salad dressings.

Here’s the thing. You don’t have to wait for those times when you’re wealthy in Meyer lemons to do something like this. Next time you go to juice a lemon, scrape the zest off with a microplane or even a vegetable peeler. In the beginning choose either salt or sugar and begin popping your unneeded zest into the jar each time you cook. Soon enough, you’ll have effortlessly made a jar or two of these flavor enhancers.

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April Can Jam: Herbs!

Wedding favors

T.S. Elliot wrote, “April is the cruellest month.” I believe him to be correct, particularly when it comes to seasonal fruits and vegetables. It’s the month in which we (particularly the more northerly ones of us) plant and hope, dreaming of asparagus, strawberries, peaches and corn, but without any measurable (or at least, edible) yield.

And so, as the Tigress and I considered our April Can Jam options, we settled on herbs as the month’s ingredient. They’re widely available even in this time of seasonal anticipation, work in both sweet and savory applications and will be particularly terrific for those of you in warmer climates who already have some lovely fruits and spring vegetables to play with.

Do remember that whatever you make has to be suitable for water bath processing. This means no infused oils or pestos, as they can’t be processed and have a fairly limited refrigerator life.

April posts must go live between Sunday, April 18th and midnight on Friday, April 23rd.

I can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

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Season to Taste

pickles waiting for processing

Earlier today, I got an email from a reader. After many months of anticipation, she had finally opened a jar of garlic dill pickles she made last summer, using the recipe I posted in August. Only they were far, far too spicy for her. She was afraid that she was going to have to throw out the entire batch.

Upon reading her email, I felt terrible. I never post a recipe that I haven’t tried, tested and truly appreciated. So to hear that someone has made something according to my instructions, only to find it inedible, deflates me. It also got me thinking about the way I approach the creation of the recipe. I write for my taste buds, using the ingredients I have in my kitchen. Thing is, no two palates are exactly alike, so there’s no absolute guarantee that what worked for me will be as delicious for another.

As we head into another canning season (I know so many of you are planning your gardens and signing up for CSA shares with your summer canning in mind), I’d like to encourage a bit more herb and spice exploration. This doesn’t mean that I endorse wild experimentation or grand recipe deviations, as we all know that to keep our canned goods safe, it’s important to keep our acid and sugar levels steady and adhere to the basics of the recipe.

But I do want you to know that it’s okay to gently tweak the spices. If you know that you can’t handle a great deal of heat in your food, please, please reduce the amount of chili or cayenne that the recipe calls for. If you’re a cinnamon fiend, feel free to increase the amount you include in your blueberry jam. Also, keep in mind that a small amount of spice can increase in flavor over time, so if you’re making something in July that you don’t plan on eating until February or March, adjust accordingly. Most of all, remember that you’re making those pickles or that chutney for you, and so the way it tastes should always, always please you.

Additionally, get to know your particular spice rack (they are all different). Sniff and taste your way through the bottles, making sure that you’re familiar with their potency. Toss the things that smell like dirt or nothing at all and replenish the stash before embarking on a big cooking project.

Going forward, I am going to try to write my recipes with this “season to taste” mindset. I will continue to tell you what I did, but I will also include notes at recipe points where variation and adjustments are okay. Because really and truly, my goal here is to show you all that canning is accessible and enjoyable. And if you end up with something you can’t eat, that defeats me.

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Gift in a Jar: Handmade Spice Blends

mixed pickling blend

Back in the summer, I went through a period during which I made approximately seven pints of dill pickles a night for at least a week (I now have a lot of pickles in my coat closet). While I worked my way through at least a bushel of pickling cukes, instead of opening up each individual container of spice for every batch, I’d mix up a spice blend and add a couple of teaspoons of the mix to each jar prior to packing the cucumbers in.

pickling blend in layers

During that pickling frenzy, I toyed with the idea of mixing up a extra-large batch of this spice blend and selling it in a little Etsy shop. While I never followed through with that thought, homemade spice blends do make excellent gifts for the right person. The following measurements fill a half-pint jar: 4 tablespoons dill seed, 2 tablespoons black peppercorns, 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes and 1 tablespoon mustard seeds. Two teaspoons of this blend can be substituted for the spices in this recipe (everything else stays the same).

bbq rub

If you’re not making gifts for canners (I realize that not everyone is as crazy for home preserving as I am), but you like the idea of a handmade spice blend, how about a barbecue rub? I mixed this one up for a 4th of July cookout last summer and used it on a nice, big brisket (that was a good food day!).

This rub comes from Elizabeth Karmel’s terrific book, Soaked, Slathered, and Seasoned: A Complete Guide to Flavoring Food for the Grill. It’s called the Barbecue Circuit Rub and the recipe is after the jump. However, if that one doesn’t look good to you, definitely check out her book, there are more than 20 rub recipes in there, so you’re sure to find the right one for your bbq lover.

Ty's spice blends

These spice blends were a most thoughtful wedding gift from Ty (my friend Shay’s mom). She makes all manner of these blends from the herbs she grows in her backyard (Ty was also the source of that 2-gallon bag of basil I got last summer). For those of you who like to think ahead, consider planting an expanded herb garden next summer and harvest the herbs for holiday giving.

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