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Pantry Management: Organizing Your Freezer for the Year Ahead

Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is back again, this time with a post about her goal to get a better handle on her freezer situation for 2017. It has inspired me to do an inventory of my own freezer compartment and I’m with her in resolving to be better about keeping that space in check!

I don’t usually make resolutions, but 2017 so far has definitely been about refining some parts of my life that overwhelmed me in 2016. For me, that’s looked like refocusing my freelance work, getting a better handle on healthy eating habits, setting financial and life goals with my partner, engaging in political activism, and taking time for regular self-care.

Another has been a newfound focus on maintaining my living space, the two-bedroom apartment in West Philly that my man and I have lived in for almost six years now. We’re both the kind of people who can spend days (or weeks) stepping over and working around clutter and messes when other responsibilities take precedence. But more and more, we realize what a positive effect a clean, organized, and uncluttered space has on mood and productivity in our home.

So far I’ve swept the clutter from my desk, deep-cleaned the bathroom, and KonMari-ed my clothes. Now, I’m focusing on the kitchen, and I’ll be sharing some of my cleaning and organizing projects with you over my next few posts.

First, I wanted to reckon with my freezers. I have a 5.3-cubic foot chest freezer in one corner of the big front room that serves as our living room, dining room, and kitchen, plus the freezer compartment of my fridge.

Over time, the contents had become the ice-crusted and mysterious, with plastic tubs of last year’s leftover soup jumbled with big bags of flour and tiny bags of roasted jalapeños. Finding ingredients I’d frozen months before while a hot pan was waiting on the stove had become more and more of a hassle. It was time to excavate and take stock.

If you’re particularly worried about the effects of a brief thaw on your food or have a hoard of delicate freezables like ice cream, you can prepare some coolers with ice packs in which to stash your items before you empty the freezer. I planned to work quickly, so I simply cleared the counter and the dining table and used those as my staging surfaces.

I sorted items by type as I pulled them out of the deep freeze. There weren’t too many surprises, but the biggest shock was seeing all that food set out in one place.

The three gallons of sour cherries I’d picked from neighborhood trees and then stemmed and pitted. The fresh-milled flour I purchased with the intent of starting up a weekly bread baking habit. The leek tops I always tuck away to add to my next stock pot. The expensive foraged mushrooms I’d dried to flavor a future batch of risotto. And so, so many tomatoes—frozen whole, roasted into wrinkles, peeled, stewed, sauced.

Once the chest freezer was empty, I chipped away at the ice buildup around the lid with a metal spoon and used a turner to scoop up the frost (and a few stray blueberries) at the bottom.

Then I stacked my gallon ziptops of precious local fruit one on top of the other by type, so that I wouldn’t wonder what lurked underneath without digging to the bottom, along with my big ten-pound bags of flour. Smaller bags of grains went on top of those, then bags of ginger, leeks, and parsley. I bagged up my cold packs to keep them together.

I made the choice to cut my losses and compost some especially unappetizing items, like stale baguette ends (for the breadcrumbs I’d never make) and batches of green soup (which I love fresh but just turns into runny green mud after freezing and thawing).

Next, I turned to the small freezer. Since it opens from the front, landslides of oddly-shaped items are a common occurrence. Despite its smaller size, so many bags of food covered my dining room table. (I pulled out everything but the gelato and the frozen fish fillets since I was worried about those thawing).

Once again, I sorted by type and had to let go of some dreams. I was never going to turn these two-year-old green gooseberries into something palatable, nor cook the fenugreek leaves I bought for curry shortly after moving into this apartment in…2012.

After wiping out several years’ worth of crud, discarding some of those sad, old items and grouping others (like the bags of aged celery hearts and bunches of parsley I save for stock) in the chest freezer with similar items, I restocked the small freezer.

I decided to keep ready-to-eat foods like recent leftovers, veggies, packages of meat, and small bags of items like nuts, dried mushrooms, and peppers there. I deliberately restocked this freezer so that there would be lots of extra room and easy-to-cook items in heavier rotation would be easy to find. (This is especially a plus with a colorblind partner who sometimes has trouble keeping up with my typically overstocked fridge full of unlabeled items).

As soon as everything was back in its frosty place, I felt much better about my year ahead. Not just because I’d crossed a long-nagging item off my to-do list, but because having a better handle on these ingredients makes me feel more confident about my ability to put some of my 2017 intentions into action.

Now that I know what’s in the freezer, I know what I should be using a little (or a lot) of each week until midsummer comes around, when I’ll start the cycle over again—a little more organized this time.

How do you guys handle your freezers? Are you good about keeping an inventory? And what’s your approach when it’s time to do a big clean-out like this one?

Comments { 35 }

My Jam Didn’t Set! What Should I Do?

This post is for new jam makers. If you are an experienced and seasoned canner, I invite you to leave your wisdom in the comments section!

six 12 ounce jars of cherry rhubarb jam

You’re a new canner and your jam didn’t set. It is runny and sloshy and you don’t know what to do. Before you start to worry, let me ask you a few questions.

When did you make the jam? It can sometimes take 24-48 hours for a batch of jam to finish setting up. If your jam is still just an hour or two out of the canner and you’re worried about the set, it’s time to chill out. Literally. Walk away. Stop thinking about it.

Okay. You’ve let the jars rest for a day or two and it’s still more sauce than jam. Next question. Did you follow the recipe? Many of us look at jam recipes and are aghast at the amount of sugar it calls for. So we reduce the amount of sugar, thinking that it won’t do anything but make the jam less sweet.

steamy strawberry jam

Sadly, sugar plays a huge role in set. If you cut the amount in the recipe and you don’t compensate with a pectin designed for low sugar preserving, your jam may well be runny.

Did you check for set while the jam was cooking? Any time a recipe gives you a cooking time, it’s simply an approximation. During cooking, you also need to be checking for signs of set. You do this by using the frozen plate test, watching how the jam sheets off the spatula, and taking the temperature of your cooking jam. More on those techniques here.

pear vanilla jam drizzle

You followed the recipe, it’s been a couple days since the jars came out of the canner, and still, your jam is runny. What kind of pectin did you use? If you used Certo or Sure-Jell liquid pectin, that might be the culprit. They changed their formulation a few years ago and I find that it’s not as effective as the other options on the market.

So. You followed a recipe, you checked for set, you used reliable pectin, the jars have been out of the canner for a few days, and still, the jam is too darned soft. Put a jar in the fridge and check the consistency in 24 hours. Cooler temperatures often help the jam find its way to a firmer consistency. 

finished plum jam

If you’ve gotten to the end of this post and you’re still unhappy with the way your jam turned out, you’ve got a couple of options. The first is to rename the preserve you’ve made. Call it sauce, pancake topping, or preserves. By changing the name, you shift your expectations and suddenly, runny jam doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

Or, if you absolutely, positively need to have a firm set, you can always remake the jam. I’ve got instructions on how to do that here. Just know that you’ll lose some yield in remaking it, and that there are no guarantees that you’ll end up with exactly what you want.

Comments { 28 }

Homemade Disinfecting Spray

Disinfectant Spray Ingredients - Food in Jars

I have never been someone who gets overly concerned about living a meticulously clean life. For all my adult years, I’ve relied on regular applications of soap, hot water, vinegar, fresh air, and a powerful vacuum for most home cleaning endeavors. But then I came down with a cold that would not end and found myself looking for new ways to kill the cold germs in the middle of winter (if it had been just a bit warmer, I would have opened up all the windows for half a day).

Half Vodka - Food in Jars

It was this search that led me to make up a bottle of vodka-based disinfecting spray. The idea of using vodka as a powerful germ killer was not new to me. When my sister was in labor with her second baby, my mom scrubbed the tub where Raina would deliver with half a bottle of high-priced vodka (it had been a gift to my brother-in-law and in those frenzied pre-birth moments, there was a strong “use what we have” vibe).

Half Water - Food in Jars

My goal was to concoct a product that could be sprayed across bedding and the couch where I spent much of the worst of the cold, to refresh and help disinfect a bit until we could drag quilts, comforters, and zip-off covers to an industrial washing machine. I did a bit of research, dug out a couple bottles of essential oils, and sent Scott out for the cheapest vodka the local state store had on offer.

Essential Oils - Food in Jars

I combined equal parts vodka and water in a spray bottle (I happened to have an empty glass one from ePantry, but anything you have on hand will do) and added about twenty drops of both rosemary and grapefruit essential oils (tea tree, lavender, or lemon would also be good options).

Shake and Spray - Food in Jars

To use, just give the bottle a good shake and spray wherever necessary. The boozy smell is faint and fades quickly, and all you’re left with is a fresh home and a bit of grapefruit and rosemary. Very few surfaces in our apartment have gone unsprayed at this point, and while I don’t know if it actually helped, I feel like it did something. And sometimes, isn’t that enough?

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My Approach to Weekly Meal Planning

January 3-9 Meal Plan

One of my personal goals for 2016 is to make a weekly meal plan and stick to it most of the time (planning is nothing without follow-through). This is something I’ve done in fits and starts for years now. On the weeks when I do it, everything seems to run more smoothly. Sadly, as soon as life gets busy, it has also been one of the first things to go. And once the meal plan habit goes out of the window, I find myself awash in food waste, too much takeout, and a faltering kitchen ecosystem. Madness ensues.

However, I find that if I can make a rough plan, every other aspect of life feels a bit less unwieldy. Even if the plan is simply a store bought roast chicken and steamed broccoli and then a pot of soup large enough to last three nights, it helps keep the chaos in check. And thus, this commitment to myself to plot out dinners a week at a time, shop for them, and then cook what I’ve planned.

January 10-16 Meal Plan

My goal here is not to offer you a formula for your own meal planning. There’s plenty of that out there on Pinterest and countless other blogs. Instead, I’m giving you a peek into my thought process in the hopes that it might help spur your own. And so, here are the things I keep in mind to keep my aspirations in check and ensure that the plan is useful and realistic.

  • What season are we in? Is something available right now that might be gone by next week?
  • Do we have things in the fridge, freezer or pantry that need to be used up?
  • Is it a busy week? Am I teaching any night classes? Should I plan for voluminous leftovers for easy reheating?
  • Did I spot anything in the last week that I particularly want to make or try? Is there a cookbook that’s been particularly inspiring of late?
  • Am I working on anything that requires recipe testing that could be dinner?

Typically, a glance at my calendar, a trip through these questions, and quick consultation with Scott is enough to have a rough plan on paper. However, some weeks, I still remain stumped. When that happens, I pull out the big guns and consult my Things I Like to Make for Dinner list. For years, this list lived in my head, but last year, I finally typed it up and published it on my ancient personal blog so that I’d have easy access to it. Reading it through always helps.

Finally, once the plan is drafted, I write it on our chalkboard wall. Having it posted in the kitchen helps keep me honest and keeps Scott in the loop. I also post pictures of the meal plan to Instagram and from here on out, will occasionally share some of the recipes here (particularly if they put preserves to good use).

Now, here’s a question for you guys. Do you meal plan? And if you do, do you have a system? I’d love to hear about your thought process.

 

Comments { 42 }

Pondering and Planning for 2016

January 15

My inbox, Instagram account, and feed reader are awash in resolutions. No matter where I cast my gaze, my eye catches a goal or intention that someone has set for themselves in this fresh, new year. I find the urge to publicly declare an infectious one and so have spent the last week contemplating what my own hopes are for 2016 so that I can share them here.

Last year, I set some good goals for myself in relationship to this site. In looking back at the past 12 months through the lens of those intentions, I must confess that I feel like I didn’t do particularly well. In thinking about why, I realize that while I set the goals (and even taped them to my computer monitor), I never created time to invite them into being.

There are so many reasons why that is the case. I was writing a book. I said yes to more classes, demos, and events than I should have. My mother-in-law got sick. And most of all, I was simply tired (I’ve been doing the independent hustle for more than four years now, and it’s hard).

So for this year, I’m keeping my professional goals simple. If I am able to do more than this, great. If not, that’s okay too.

  • Keep blogging – I simply want to continue to show up here. There will be new recipes, ways to use up what you’ve preserved, and the occasional essay. This blog is my home base in this ever-changing virtual world and I want it continue to exist and thrive.
  • Do a good job promoting my new bookNaturally Sweet Food in Jars comes out on March 22 and I want to do it justice. I am going to travel and promote (though not as much as I did with Preserving by the Pint. I overdid it there and it was a big part of why I was so wiped out last year).
  • Keep making a podcast – Back in August, my friend Joy and I launched a podcast called Local Mouthful and we’ve released one episode a week ever since. Since we both live in Philadelphia, we do occasionally talk about things happening in our region, but I’d say that about 70% of each half hour episode is applicable to anyone who enjoys shopping for, preparing, and eating food (no matter where you live). Making this podcast has been incredibly fun and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

And that’s it. I’d love to say that this was the year for me to launch an online video series, or a line of canning products, but here’s the truth. I am just one person. I do my best every day, but I can’t make it all happen. And I’m okay with that.

How about the rest of you? How are you feeling about the start of the year?

Comments { 15 }

Winter Squash Risotto with Leeks and Greens + Lagostina Risotto Pot Giveaway

Risotto Set-up - Food in Jars

I have a weakness for beautiful cookware (some woman collect jewelry, I surround myself pots and pans). The first time I saw the Lagostina Risotto Pot at my local Williams-Sonoma, I nearly swooned. Gleaming tri-ply stainless steel! A wooden topped lid (that fits tightly and doubles as a trivet)! And a thick, heat diffusing base to prevent hot spots and burning!

squash for roasting - Food in Jars

To my very great delight, not long after spotting this gorgeous pot for the first time, I got an email asking if I might like one to use for the development of a risotto recipe. I sent a positive response off as quickly as my fingers could type.

pouring rice - Food in Jars

Since this lovely piece of cookware arrived, I’ve been making a lot of risotto. It’s one of my favorite things to make and eat on chilly days. I love the ceremony of near-constant cooking (though to be truthful, I often put the spoon down for a moment or two so that I can do a little clean-up while I cook) and the comfort that comes when you cozy up to a bowlful.

finished risotto - Food in Jars

Whenever I make risotto, my primary goal is to cram as much vegetable content into the pot. Risotto can be a heavy dish, and so making sure that it’s packed with fresh produce (in this case, aromatics, greens, and roasted squash) helps lighten it and make it a more regular dinnertime occurrence.

plated risotto - Food in Jars

When I make this for me (if I’m making if for Scott, I use roasted carrots in place of squash), I peel and chop all the squash and stir it into the rice. However, if I have friends coming by, I like to reserve some of the roasted squash to serve on top. It brings a little visual and textural interest to the plate and makes it feel like something you might be served as the neighborhood Italian place.

risotto pot - Food in Jars

What’s nice about this piece of cookware is that truly, it’s good for so much more than risotto. The wide base and low profile mean that it’s a great shape for any dish you want to simmer and reduce. It does good work with small batches of jam and I love using to make Marcella’s tomato sauce.

The Lagostina Risotto pot can be found at Williams-Sonoma, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and other specialty shops, and retails for $199.95. For more information about Lagostina, check out their social accounts and visit their website.

Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

Thanks to the kind folks at Lagostina, I have one of their glorious Risotto Pots to give away to you guys. Here’s how to enter.

  1. Leave a comment on this post and tell me what kind of risotto you’d make in this pot.
  2. Comments will close at 11:59 pm eastern time on Saturday, December 19, 2015. A winner will be chosen at random and will be posted to the blog on Sunday, December 20, 2015.
  3. Giveaway open to United States residents only. Void where prohibited.
  4. One comment per person, please. Entries must be left via the comment form on the blog at the bottom of this post.

Disclosure: Lagostina sent me this risotto pot to use and write about. No additional compensation was provided. All opinions expressed are entirely my own. 

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