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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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Gift in a Jar: Homemade Crackers

crackers on a shelf

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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Raspberry Jam Winner + Frozen Basil

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Three cheers for Whitney, who’s number came up in the Raspberry Jam giveaway last night. She’s a lucky girl, as it’s very, very good stuff.

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Last Friday, I had the day off from work, and so my friend Shay and I took a drive out to Lancaster, to look for jars for my wedding (we’re planting tiny herb plants in a variety of jars as gifts for our guests) and visit her parents. I found an amazing cache of jelly jars (the ones that you can’t really use anymore, as they were designed to be sealed with wax) for $.15 each at the thrift store in Mount Joy, which got me much closer to the needed 60 jars. I also returned home with a 2 1/2 gallon ziptop bag, stuffed absolutely full of basil from Shay’s mom Ty’s garden.

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Ty hasn’t had the greatest tomato year because of all the rain we’ve gotten, but it’s been a stellar year for basil production. Her herb garden is absolutely bursting with fragrant, vividly green basil. No matter how much I cut, it was nearly impossible to make a visible dent. So Friday night, I made an improvised pesto. I used lots of garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese, but skipped the nuts (I didn’t have any pine nuts, and determined that I wanted this basil sauce of mine to be as flexible as possible). I ran my food processor for nearly half an hour and came away with more than four pints of pesto (that’s a hell of a lot). I packed it into 4- and 8-ounce jars (leaving plenty of headspace) and tucked it into the freezer.

I’m so looking forward to adding it to pastas, soups and eating it spread on bread all winter long.

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Quick-drying fresh herbs

drying oregano

The house I was born into was a tiny little thing. Built in the early 1900s, it was just shy of 1,000 square feet. However, what it lacked in indoor space, it made up for in an amazing yard. The backyard was particularly roomy, starting with the brick back patio and rising in several tiers up to a two-story garage and back alley. We had several plums trees, as well as a vegetable garden and a long planter overgrown with Italian oregano.

The yard was often more than my parents could handle, especially with two little kids, a dog and a music production/distribution business rapidly expanding in the basement (offices) and garage (shipping department). However, they did what they could to keep nature from totally reclaiming the space, focusing the bulk of their efforts on the garden spaces closest to the house. The oregano was a particularly enthusiastic grower and had to be regularly trimmed (otherwise it would tumble out of it’s planter and take over).

destemmed oregano

Instead of tossing the oregano trimmings onto the compost pile (which was an action that could have been forgiven, given how much oregano was back there), my mom would spread it out on cookie sheets and put them in the oven to dry. The kitchen in that house had an big old white enamel gas stove, with a pancake griddle in between the burners. Left overnight, the heat from the pilot light was enough to gently dry out the oregano. The next day, she’d carefully pull the leaves from the stems and store the dried oregano in airtight containers.

These days, I don’t have a highly productive oregano patch at my disposal. However, I do have a membership in a CSA which includes at least one bundle of fresh herbs each week. And when a recent box contained a rubber-banded bunch of oregano (the scent of which took me flying straight back to childhood) I knew I was destined to dry it.

oregano in canister

In the past, I’ve hung herbs to slowly dry in my kitchen, but often found that in my tiny galley, they get bumped and banged, leaving crunchy bits all over the floor. I also worry that in the course of their hang, they get dusty and splattered with the scents and particles of daily cooking. For all those reasons, I much prefer the quick oven dry.

To do it, you simply spread a bunch of fresh herbs out on a cookie sheet (no need to destem at this point). I put them in the oven, set to the very lowest temperature and leave them for one hour. After the first hour is up, I turn the oven off, but leave the herbs in overnight. The next day, I destem them and pack the now-dried herbs away in jars. If you have a gas stove, you could follow my mom’s method and just use the heat of the pilot light. Sadly, my electric oven precludes that practice.

This method works wonderfully for leafy herbs like oregano, thyme, mint and even basil. Rosemary doesn’t fair as well and dill gets crispy too fast (that’s one that I still hang to dry, I just do it in a closet instead of my kitchen).

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Israeli salt from my sister

Israeli salt

Back in January, my younger sister Raina went off on one of those birthright trips to Israel. Before she left, she asked if there was anything she could bring back for me. Never having been to Israel and uncertain about the specialties of the country, I asked for the first thing that popped into my head. Salt. I’m not exactly sure why I thought Israel was a destination for good salt, but off she flew, determined to bring me back some salt.

Raina’s been on tour lately and pulled into Philly late Saturday night, with another musician named Rebecca, a car full of dirty laundry and a plastic take-out container filled with salt, tied up in a small plastic grocery bag. As she handed it over, she apologized, explaining that she didn’t think it was particularly good salt, but it was the best she had been able to find. On one of the last days of the trip, they had gone to an open air market. One man had a table, set with various containers of spices, herbs and finally, salt. The merchant hadn’t spoken any English, but a couple standing next to her helped with the bargaining and she ended up spending the equivalent of $3 American for the squat tub of salt.

israeli-market

Even before I opened it, I told her that more than anything, I appreciated the simple fact that she had kept me in mind while traveling and had added weight to her suitcase with my request. Then I pulled the lid off the container and encountered the most gorgeous, moist, perfect grey salt. I ran to the kitchen and pulled down the jar where I’ve kept my stash of precious grey salt, purchased in a 12 ounce bag for a ridiculous sum. Showing them to her side-by-side, I explained just how well she had done by her foodie sister. She grinned and gave me a hug. I love both my sister and my new supply of Israeli grey salt.

side-by-side-salts

I’ve done some internet searching, and haven’t been able to find out much about salt production in Israel. For all I know, this is French grey salt, imported to the Middle East and then repackaged for sale. If anyone knows more, I’d be happy to be informed!

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