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Dark Days: All-local soup

veggie composite

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).

sauting veggies

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).

nearly finished soup

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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Dark Days: Week Two (broccoli, meatballs, potatoes)

Dark Days, Week Two

This was the first night I’ve cooked dinner in a full week. This rarely happens to me. I believe in making dinner and eating with Scott (even if we do end up consuming said meal at the coffee table instead of the dining room one more often than not). Sharing a meal is part of the joy of living with another human being. It’s something I missed during those times when I was single and without roommates, and the pleasure of a companionable meal is something I don’t take for granted.

However, the last week of non-cooking hasn’t been due to solitude, just delicious leftovers, dinner with friends, holiday meals (we got to do Thanksgiving twice this year, without cooking more than a couple of sides and a pound cake) and a bit of post-travel disorganization (Scott, his brother Sean and I drove down to Virginia to be with their mom and relatives on Thanksgiving and Friday night when we got back, ended up ordering corned beef sandwiches from the deli downstairs instead of foraging through the kitchen). But now I’m back in the kitchen and am so delighted to have had the Dark Days Challenge to keep things simple and honest.

This dinner is entirely thanks to our meat buying club and the Headhouse Square Farmers Market. The ground beef comes from Meadow Run Farm and since discovering how succulent and flavorful their grass-fed beef is, I have a practice of keeping a couple of pounds on hand in the freezer. Those meatballs also featured some finely minced red onion (the last one from the CSA), one local, pastured egg (also from Meadow Run) and some crumbled feta. That feta is a revelation. From The Patches of Star Dairy in Nazareth, PA you can either buy it fresh, packed in brine or canned and packed in oil. The canned feta is shelf stable for up to a year and is an delicious treat to have tucked away in the pantry for those times when you haven’t shopped and need a quick meal.

Along side the meatballs were some boiled red potatoes (from Three Springs Fruit Farm) that I dressed with some homemade butter and salt (they were so tender and creamy that I could have eaten them forever) and roasted romenesco broccoli (from Culton Organics). The only non-local ingredients in tonight’s meal were the salt, pepper and olive oil.

I realize that the picture above makes this meal look a little monochromatic, but please believe me when I tell you that it had so much flavor and was so satisfying. Had I not been trying to create my local meal for the week, I might have tried to make it fancier or somehow more elegant. And yet, I’m so appreciative for the simple, wonderful meal that it was.

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Dark Days: Good Eating, Week One

Monday night local dinner

From now until the middle of March, I’ll be diverging from posts about foods in jars (no matter how loosely related to jars they are) once a week to post my Dark Days Challenge meal. The goal of the challenge is to eat at least one local meal a week during the colder months of winter. Because it’s quite easy to eat locally when the markets are bursting with strawberries, melons and eggplants, but when the farmers markets are yielding nothing but squash, potatoes and beets, it feels a little daunting.

These days, I’d say that about 65% of the food we eat at home is locally sourced. Part of what makes that number so high is that for nearly two years now, Scott and I have been members of a meat buying club. We order online and can select from a wide assortment of pork, chicken, beef, sausage, cured meats and eggs. They’re delivered to a friend’s house eight blocks from our place and the monthly pick-up has turned into a social occasion, as a number of friends and acquaintances all converge to get their locally raised, grass-fed, pastured groceries.

In addition, the bulk of our fruits and vegetables come from our CSA membership (although it just ended for the season) or the farmers market (there’s a weekly year-long market two blocks from our apartment). Also, being so close to Lancaster County means we have easy access to good, local dairy products. That just leaves things like beans, rice, grains, coffee and olive oil (and all those snack foods that Scott loves so much).

But anyway, on to our first Dark Days local meal. It consisted of some slow cooked pork, pan crisped potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts. The pork was from the buying club (Meadow Run Farm), the potatoes were from our CSA (Dancing Hen Farm) and the sprouts were from the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market. I forgot to take a picture until we were finishing up dinner, which is why the pans you see above are mostly empty (proof of a delicious meal).

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Preserving Pumpkin

roasted pumpkin

Don’t forget to sign up for one of my cranberry classes – jelly on 11/15 and chutney on 11/21

Last week I picked up my final CSA share. The box included an adorable little sugar pumpkin. Normally, I would have kept it in the dining room for a week or two, in order to enjoy the autumnal look it would lend my grandmother’s table. However, this one came with a soft spot, so it had to be used right away, lest it rot away entirely (Jonathan at Wasted Food would be so proud). So Sunday morning, I cut out the bad spot, split it in half and put it cut sides down on a cookie sheet, to gently roast until soft at 350 degrees. When it was fork-tender, I turned the oven off and left it to cool in the oven until I was ready to deal with it.

Not having a plan for it, when it was soft and cool enough to handle, I simply scraped the flesh away from the skin and packed it into the jar you see above. It’s still in the fridge, and I’m hoping to puree it until smooth tomorrow night (it’s too late tonight to embark on a fresh kitchen project) and use some of it to make a batch of these whole wheat pumpkin muffins (if you follow that link, my apologies for the awful photo. I can’t believe I ever thought it was a good idea to post that horror). The rest is going to go into some variance on this seriously delicious potato/pumpkin/gruyere casserole (I promise you that if you try it, you will forever make a place for it on your Thanksgiving table).

However, all that doesn’t tell you a whole lot of about preserving pumpkin past this season (although, those muffins can be frozen to delicious results). What I can tell you is that you have a few options when it comes to this gorgeous, vitamin-rich vegetable. Most easily, as long as you have good storage space, you can simply keep these pumpkins whole. Ask your farmers and market vendors which they recommend most for long-term storage.

If you want to have roasted pumpkin/squash at your finger tips, freezing is your only safe option. The density of mashed/pureed pumpkin is such that even pressure canning cannot guarantee your safety. However, it’s very easy to freeze it. Roast your pumpkins just like I did above and then measure it out into zip top bags, plastic storage containers or jars (if you freeze in glass, make sure to leave plenty of room for expansion). If you have a favorite recipe that calls for pumpkin/squash puree, consider freezing in that exact proportion, to make for easy cooking/baking.

However, you are able to pressure can pumpkin chunks packed in water. Here’s what you do (these instructions were taken directly from So Easy to Preserve, the canning bible out of the University of Georgia cooperative extension). Peel the pumpkin and cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes. Add to a pot of boiling water and cook for two minutes. Pack the hot cubes into hot jars and add cooking liquid, leaving 1-inch of head space. Remove the air bubbles, wipe rims and apply lids. Process in a pressure canner at 11 pounds of pressure, 55 minutes for pints and 90 minutes for quarts.

When you’re ready to use this pumpkin in a recipe, you’ll find that a quick drain and a few smashes with a fork (or a run through a food processor if you’re a stickler for a lump-free texture) will provide you just what you need.

Lastly, if none of those options particularly float your boat, consider scoping out the Pumpkin Marmalade that the lovely Tigress in a Jam made recently. It’s currently stuck in my head and I’m thinking I may not be able to shake it loose until I make my own batch.

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Canning Whole Peeled Tomatoes

pile of tomatoes

Before tomato season comes to a close, I want to talk about my favorite way to preserve tomatoes. I typically only can them one way – (mostly) whole and peeled, in their own juices. I do them this way because I like the versatility they retain when put up in this manner. Later down the line, I can choose as to whether I want to puree them down, make a chunky sauce or just crush them with my hands and use them to top homemade pizza (Mmmm).

One thing to note is that my tomatoes aren’t perfectly whole. I do crush them a bit while cramming them into the jars, in order to generate enough liquid to totally cover the ‘maters. I find that I’m able to get three romas into a pint jar and six into a quart. On occasion, I’ll cut a tomato in to thirds or halves in order to finish off a jar and still have the proper amount of headspace.

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Take your tomatoes and core them. This isn’t an absolutely necessary step, but I hate dealing with the cores when it comes time to use the tomatoes on the other end.

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A cored tomato. Seriously easy.

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Make two shallow cuts on the bottom of the tomato, to ease the peeling.

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Drop cored and scored tomatoes into a pot of boiling water (don’t put too many in at once, or you’ll drop the water temperature drastically and it will take forever to return to a boil). Blanch tomatoes for 1-2 minutes, until the skins start to blister or loosen.

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Put your blanched tomatoes into a boil of cold water, to halt cooking and to make them handle-able.

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Peel tomatoes. The skins should slip off easily after the blanching and the cold water dip.

filling jars

I put the tomatoes into the jars as I peel. Two standard sized romas typical fit at the bottom of the jar.

smashing tomatoes

You may need to give them a little help. I use my hand when filling wide mouth jars, but when dealing with regular mouth openings, I employ the handle of a wooden spoon.

full jar

Look! A jar that’s filled with tomatoes! All the liquid you see here came from the tomatoes, as I gently smashed them to fit the jar.

2 tablespoon measure

Don’t forget to acidify. It’s one tablespoon of lemon juice for pints and two for quarts. I pour it on top of my filled jars, and then use a chopstick to remove the air bubbles from the jar and work the lemon juice down into its contents. You should have approximately 1/2 inch of headspace remaining after you add the lemon juice and de-bubble the jar.

After that, I wipe the rims, apply my lids (carefully simmered for 10 minutes at around 180 degrees), screw on the rings and lower the jars into the heated boiling water canner (remembering to use a rack so that the jars aren’t resting on the bottom of the pot).

Quarts of whole peeled tomatoes get processed in a boiling water canner for 45 85 minutes. Pints get processed for 40 minutes the same amount of time. Tomatoes that are packed in water are processed for 40/45 minutes.

Because my life is busy, I rarely do my tomatoes in one great, big canning day. Instead, I stretch the process out over several post-work weeknights. I’ll do four quarts at a time, because that’s how much my stock pot can hold during processing, and it keeps me from feeling overwhelmed. I find that a 25 pound box of tomatoes will make approximately 12-14 quarts of tomatoes, and so I do four jars a night for three nights in a row. It keeps me sane and keeps my pantry filled with wonderful, local tomatoes all winter long.

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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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