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Herbs in Jars

jars of herbs

Today was opening day for the Headhouse Square Farmers Market. During the season, it is one of the highlights of my week. Sunday mornings, my friend Shay and I meet up there right around opening at 10 am to do our grocery shopping, walking on the same bricks that shoppers strolled 200 years ago. Last year, we made friends with several of the vendors, including Mark the egg man (his hens lay the most beautiful, multi-colored eggs that have vividly orange yolks) and Tom from Culton Organics, who wears a jaunty red kerchief around his neck when the weather is hot. We’re hoping to get to know even more farmers and vendors this year, as it makes the shopping experience even more satisfying.

Once we’ve exhausted our budgets, we get a drink, find a spot of curb and hang out for a bit to chat and people-watch. Unfortunately, today it wasn’t possible to pull up a chunk of curbstone, as Philly was treated to a day-long soaking rain. The drizzle didn’t seem to keep people away from the market though, the space under the Shambles was packed and everyone seemed delighted to be there, rubbing elbows once again with their favorite farmers.

One of the best things about this market is that the farmers put a great deal of energy into making their products look as lovely as possible. The displays include antique crates, bentwood baskets and natural slabs of slates upon which they write names and prices. One set-up that particularly caught my eye was the one you see above, of neatly bundled herbs, tucked into jars. This is something you could do in your own home, to extend the life of your cut herbs. The one addition I’d make would be to drape a plastic bag with a few holes cut out over the herbs. They last an amazingly long time that way, and look quite nice, to boot.

If you want to see more of my pictures from the market today, I’ve added them to my Headhouse set from last year and the year before, which you can find here.

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Buying Used Jars

Testing Edge

Over the weekend, my friend Shay and I took a little road trip out to Mount Joy, PA, the Lancaster County town where she grew up. We left Philly early, as we had a busy schedule of shopping, lunch at The Tilted Kilt and seeing her parents. Included in our shopping stops were visits to The Country Store (an amazing place, with inexpensive organic flours, grains and spices as well as lots of hard-to-find-in-the-city canning supplies), Weis (they have really good prices on canning jars and liquid pectin) and the Mount Joy Gift and Thrift.

I love visiting thrift stores in less urban areas, because they are almost always an amazing source of cheap canning jars. This latest trip to the Gift and Thrift yielded a bounty of perfectly good, used canning jars, all priced between $.10 and $.35 a piece.

Here’s the thing about buying used canning jars. Sometimes, it’s the best deal ever. However, if you’re not careful, you actually end up spending more than you will on a dozen new jars. Old jars typically will be sold as-is, without rings. A box of new rings and lids runs around $4, so if you spend more than $.50 a jar, adding in the cost of lids and rings brings your dozen ready-to-can jars upwards of $10. In grocery stores, you can typically get a dozen ready-to-use jars for between $7-8 (prices do vary).

The other thing about buying used jars is that you need to take a careful look at them prior to making your purchase. Give them a visual once-over and then run your finger over the rim to make sure there aren’t any chips or imperfections. You won’t be able to get a good seal on a jar if the rim is uneven.

However, there’s also a lot to be said for buying used jars. They are often more unique and charming than the basic jars you get new (check out this fun Bicentennial jar I picked up). It’s a more environmentally sound choice. And your jar dollars go into the coffers of charity shops and individual sellers instead of large corporations.

Go forth and buy jars!

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Pickled Asparagus

Asparagus Tops

Oh asparagus! How I avoided pickling you. I kept you waiting in the fridge for over a week, as you anticipated your spicy vinegar bath. And yet, already you’ve given me so much! After just two days of pickling, you are the perfect balance of crisp and pucker. You make the perfect sidecar to just about any meal. I am enamored.

Blanched Asparagus

That’s right kids, the pickled asparagus has turned out to be a riotous success, despite the fact that I used asparagus that was a tiny bit past its prime (life, why much you always throw distractions into my canning schedule?) and forgot to include the peppercorns in the brine.

Pickling brine

I based my recipe on one from a really terrific book about Southern-style canning called Putting Up. It’s by Stephen Palmer Dowdney, who ran a successful canning business in Charleston, SC for many years (although I’m far more impressed by the fact that he was a college classmate of Pat Conroy, who is one of my favorite authors).

If you’re looking to expand your food preservation reference library (I make it sound so official, don’t I), this is definitely a volume to consider. I like how it’s organized by month, as well as the fact that it has really excellent details on the basics of canning.

Packing jars

Before we get into the recipe, I want to take a moment to encourage all of you to consider pickling something. Possibly even this week. The reason? It is so very simple. You can prep just a single jar at a time, which makes it the perfect first canning project.

Honestly, you don’t even need to do the hot water bath if you’re just making a jar or two for yourself, you can just stash your pickles in the fridge. Making pickles will build your canning confidence and get you excited for more ambitious projects. I’m certainly chomping at the bit for my next pickling project (onions and then okra). If I’ve got you sufficiently excited, my favorite refrigerator pickle recipe is right here.

I’m not going to be giving a jar of these pickles away, since this whole pickling thing is new to me, I want to wait and make sure they continue to be good for the weeks to come before I start handing them out, all willy nilly. However, do not despair. I’ve got another giveaway up my sleeve that will be coming soon.

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Millet in Jars and Muffins

Millet Muffins

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that one person’s staple grain can be totally exotic, foreign or just plain unnecessary to the next person. For instance, my mom always has some Cream of Wheat in her pantry rotation. That’s one I skip, preferring steel cut oats or hull-less barley for breakfast (although lightly buttered and salted Cream of Wheat with a poached egg on top is one of my beloved childhood comfort foods).

In the last few years, millet has crept into my grain rotation and is now a very definite canning jar staple (along with short grain brown rice and quinoa) in my kitchen. The thing I love about millet is that it has a multitude of applications. When it’s steamed, it become light and fluffy, a cross between polenta and broken rice. When toasted, it becomes a nutty addition to pancakes, waffles, muffins and scones.

Millet in a jar

It was the Metropolitan Bakery (Fork You toured their factory last summer, here’s the video from that day) that opened my eyes to toasted millet and the ways in which can add the perfect gentle crunch to baked goods. They make an amazing millet muffins, and it was those muffins that inspired me to add toasted millet to anything that would stand still.

Toasting millet is really easy. Most of the time, I do it in small batches in the toaster oven, cooking it at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes on a dry baking sheet. The only thing to remember is that to get the best crunch from your millet, you need to make sure you toast at least half an hour prior to stirring the millet into the batter, so that it has time to cool and firm up. Also, don’t worry if it looks like it’s smoking, it’s actually steam that occurs as the moisture inside the millet dries and escapes (of course, if it’s starting to look blackened, then it is smoke. Use your judgment).

If millet is one of your staple grains, how do you like to use it? For those of you for whom it’s new, do you have any questions?

My adaptation of Metropolitan Bakery’s millet muffin recipe is after the jump…

These muffins are particularly good with a dab of Honey Lemon Marmalade.

Just sayin’.

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Tip: Labeling Storage Jars

cane-sugar-picture

When I was as senior in high school, I took advanced biology. I can’t say that I’ve retained much from that class, particularly since once I got to college, I eschewed the sciences in order to focus almost entirely on literature, sociology and politics. However, there is one thing that sticks with me from that class, and it’s a tip that’s entirely useful when you use glass jars to store dry goods.

The tip is this: Sharpie ink will write on glass smoothly and easily, but then erases completely with a single alcohol swab. We used that trick in that science class to label test tubes and beakers, and I’ve continued to use permanent markers to clearly mark my jars full of food. I find that it’s particularly useful to mark jars with the date as well as with the contents, so that you know just how long it’s been around the pantry. I’ll even mark on the jar things like “use this first” or “millet, cook or toast” to remind myself of usage. I also like this method better than putting sticky labels on the jars, because it keeps them free of residue.

How do you guys store and label your dry goods?

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Loving jars

tea-in-a-ball-jar

I love jars. Now, when I say that to most people, they cock their heads and look at me as if I’ve got a couple of loose marbles upstairs, as jars aren’t something most people spend a whole lot of time thinking about. However, it’s an entirely true statement. I use canning jars to store leftovers and carry my lunchtime soup to work. I stash grains, teas, candies and condiments in them. I often turn to a wide mouth 16 ouncer when my water bottle is stinky and in the summer I carry that same size in case an iced coffee craving hits me (I hate using disposable containers, I can’t help but imagine them lasting forever in the landfill). There’s also something so satisfying and solid about drinking out of a jar as opposed to a flimsy paper cup.

My favorite jar in the world is the discontinued wide mouth 20 ounce glass freezer jar. I haven’t been able to track down when Ball stopped producing these babies, but they are a rare and precious commodity. About six months ago, I bought a dozen of them on eBay so as to bolster my stash. I gave several to my mother for Christmas. She was delighted to have them, as she was the one who originally turned me on to that particular size and understands just how hard they are to find.

I trace my minor jar obsession straight back to my mom. When I was in college, she slowly began ridding the house of the Rubbermaid and Tupperware containers that we’d used for food storage since I was born. She hated that they always became stained and liked to retain particularly stinky scents. Each time I came home for long weekends or holiday breaks, there were more food-filled jars in the fridge and fewer plastic containers. These days, save for a few ancient plastic containers that she’s had since the seventies, my parents’ house is a jar-only zone.

These days, my jar collection outstriped my ability to house it. I spend the summer making jams and pickles, and so throughout the winter, tuck the empties into closets and under beds until their time in a water bath comes again. Living in Center City Philadelphia makes finding jars a bit difficult, but I live just a short hour from Lancaster County, which is the self-proclaimed home canning capital of the world (those Amish sure to make a good homemade ketchup). And there’s always eBay.

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