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Mastery Challenge: Rhubarb Pickles

When I see the first harvests of rhubarb hitting farmers’ market tables among still-puny bunches of kale and last season’s root crops, I feel a surge of hope: spring is really, actually happening.

I also think of my maternal grandmother, an almost-nun turned feminist firebrand and mother of 11 who kept a huge vegetable garden — including a big patch of rhubarb — at her house in Quebec when I was a kid. Granny is the reason I turn my nose up at strawberry-rhubarb anything: her lip-puckering, sweet-tart treatment of the ingredient served straight up in pie, cobbler, and roly-poly became my standard and favorite for fruity baked goods.

As an adult, I’ve tried to do more with rhubarb than dessert, but no recipe I’ve come across that didn’t involve sweet, buttery dough has ever really seemed like it would be worth the trouble to try. So when this month’s Mastery Challenge came around during rhubarb season, I decided to give it the cold-pack pickle treatment.

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How to Make Homemade Grassfed Ghee

Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones checks in today to show us all how to make gorgeous, homemade grassfed ghee. Looking at these pictures, I can almost smell the nuttiness of the melting butter! -Marisa

Butter melting into homemade grassfed ghee

During my years as a local foods buyer for the CSA at Greensgrow Farm and Fair Food Farmstand here in Philly, I brought home my share of produce that was still delicious but no longer sellable. Those leftover, cosmetically damaged, or too ripe to sell fruits and vegetables kept my fridge full. My proximity to occasional stashes of “seconds” even spurred me to learn how to preserve those goodies for later use.

I’m no longer bringing home flats of half-moldy strawberries to pick over or sacks of so-ripe-they-burst figs on a regular basis. But my work with local farms and food makers still yields the occasional bounty of perishable product that can be turned into something delicious and shelf-stable.

The most recent foodstuff in need of a little TLC came from my friend Stefanie, cheesemaker and owner of Valley Milkhouse and one of the two area cheesemakers (along with Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm) with whom I run the CSA-style cheese subscription Collective Creamery.

I’dd gone up to Stef’s farmhouse in the Oley Valley, about 90 minutes northwest of Philly, for an evening meeting and spent the following day helping out in the cheese room. When I was ready to head back to the city, she sent me on my way with a very special treat: a half-full five-gallon bucket of cultured butter that was a little past its prime — but the only ingredient I’d need to make a big batch of homemade grassfed ghee.

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How to Make Apartment-Scale Hard Cider

Our intrepid Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is back again. This time, she’s telling the tale of her journey to becoming a home hard cider maker. You small batch home brewers are going to love this one! -Marisa

My first flirtation with home brewing happened back in 2010, before my penchant for collecting food-related hobbies and weird old stuff outgrew my life and space.

I was living with six friends in a big renovated West Philadelphia Victorian, complete with servants’ staircase coming up from the kitchen, a substantial back deck, and a south-facing backyard where I made my first attempts at raised bed gardening.

That winter, my job was managing the CSA program at Greensgrow Farms, a longtime local food oasis in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, and we often had a few crates of leftover local apples that I could buy at cost.

So when I saw a vintage wooden cider press for sale on Craigslist, I jumped at the chance to haul that huge, heavy thing home, got some apples from work, and made my first batch—after a snowstorm, it looks like. (I’m the one in the green boots.)

Since I only used one kind of apple, and a sweet one at that, the cider had an uninteresting, ricelike flavor, almost like a mild, fruity sake. Soon, our little collective house dissolved, and having nowhere to store the ungainly cider press, I passed it along to another urbanite with a love of DIY projects who had more space.

Now, with a small apartment and an already-full preserving schedule and pantry for most of the year, I thought my cider-making days were long gone. But when I was recently given a gift card to Philly Homebrew Outlet, my neighborhood supplier of all things fermentation, I found myself back in the game. (Philly-area readers can visit PHO locations in Southwest Philly and Kensington; others can shop online.)

I picked up this adorably compact cider-making kit, which contains instructions and all the supplies you need but the starter juice and yeast, which I selected with the advice of a helpful staffer. (Cider and mead are good options for the small-space homebrewer, since the fermentation vessel doesn’t need to have as much extra air space as it does for beer.)

For the starter juice, I picked up a gallon of Eden Garden Farm’s excellent fresh apple cider, made at the Bermudian Springs Cider Mill in Dillsburg, PA. It’s UV pasteurized, which helps to preserve the bright, sweet-tart flavor of farmer Lem’s specially selected blend of half a dozen apple varieties.

Using a fresh-pressed cider whose sweet-tart taste you love should yield a well-balanced end product. But any fresh or pasteurized cider or juice will work as long as it doesn’t contain preservatives like sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate. If you do want to select and press or juice your own apples, be sure to use a mix of sweet and tart varieties to get the best flavor.

Before you begin your mini-batch, you’ll want to decide if you’d like to add sugar to the recipe. Additional sugars like honey (which I used), white or brown sugar, or dextrose will boost the alcohol content of the finished product, so be sure to check the alcohol tolerance of the yeast you’re using and calculate how much sugar to add based on that range. Otherwise, a too-boozy brew could kill the yeast and halt fermentation before the full process is completed.

When you’re ready to make your cider, sanitize any equipment that will come into contact with the mixture using a bleach water solution. Add your optional additional sugars, dissolved in a little cider, to the two-gallon bucket that comes with the kit. Dissolve the pectic enzyme, which will make your finished product clear, in a little cider and add that to the bucket.

Next, add the full gallon of cider, sprinkle on the yeast, close up the bucket, pop on the airlock, and stash in a cool, dark place for at least a week and up to three. Calculating how much yeast to add wasn’t something I had discussed with my homebrew guru and online research was inconclusive, so I played it safe and added half the packet. This is something I want to learn more about before I brew my next batch.

That’s primary fermentation. Secondary fermentation is where the fun (and plastic tubing) begins.

Once again, sanitize all vessels, utensils, and other equipment that will come into contact with the cider. You’ll be transferring the cider from the two-gallon bucket into the one-gallon jug. My apartment-size movable dishwasher was the perfect height to be the siphoning surface once I propped up the jug with an apple crate.

Your siphon and tubing, also included in the kit, are the perfect tools to get the cider from vessel A to vessel B without disturbing the yeasts that have settled at the bottom of the bucket, which we want to leave behind.

To move the cider, you’ll pump the auto-siphon, which will move cider from the first vessel to the second one below. It can be a little tricky to do at first without spilling cider all over yourself or the floor; PHO recommends practicing with sanitizer until you get the hang of it. The goal here is to make sure that the tube end stays in the jug and the siphon end doesn’t stir up the yeast at the bottom of the bucket.

Once the cider (minus the sediment) has been siphoned, replace the airlock and stash your jug in a cool, dark place for anywhere from two weeks to up to a month.

After that, you’ll have drinkable, boozy cider—huzzah!

I ended up with two liter bottles and one quart bottle, about ¾ gallon yield after starting with one gallon of fresh cider.

You can stop here and keep your cider still—simply siphon into any bottle with a tight-fitting lid (a growler is great for this, but wine bottles work too) and store in the refrigerator.

At this stage, mine was very light-tasting, slightly sweet and slightly tart. It left the slightest hint of fizz on the tongue and smelled, improbably, of jasmine—a far cry from the unappealing result of my first effort years ago. I’d hoped for something a little drier, with bigger flavors, but I’m pretty pleased with this initial result.

To add carbonation to your hard cider, you’ll need to take one more step and wait a few more weeks. (I’m still in this waiting stage as I write this—but I’ll be back in a few days with an update on my sparkling cider results.)

Additional carbonation requires a little more sugar; a bottle priming calculator can help you determine how much sugar to add based on the volumes of carbon dioxide typical for the style of beer or cider you’re making and the amount of cider you’re working with.

Rather than siphoning from the jug directly into bottles, as you would with still cider, dissolve the amount of sugar you need in a little water and add to your sanitized brewing bucket. Siphon the cider (minus any sediment at the bottom of the jug, of course) into the bucket.

Then, siphon the cider-sugar mixture into sanitized bottles appropriate for carbonation. (PHO’s kit recommends doing this with the siphon; I admit I simply poured my still cider, pretty sediment-free and mixed with sugar, through a sanitized funnel into the bottles.) You can use swing-top bottles, cappable beer bottles, or plastic soda bottles to carbonate. Be sure to leave one inch of headspace between the top of the liquid and the bottle stopper.

When using glass bottles, I like to play it safe and keep them in a plastic cooler with a tight-fitting lid in case of any freak explosions while this last stage of fermentation is taking place. Let your bottles carbonate for two weeks at room temperature, then chill and enjoy.

There you have it—a way to make your own cider that won’t take up more room in your kitchen than, say, your food processor or crock pot.

Have you tried making your own hard cider before? What about other small-scale boozy projects? How did it go? Share your hopes, fears, and experiences in the comments!

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Lightly Pickled Sweet Cherries

Lightly pickled sweet cherries in jars

Sour cherries are one of my very favorite things to preserve. Sadly, thanks to a late freeze back in April, it is proving to be a very bad year for stonefruit in the Philadelphia region. Sour cherries are proving to be very hard to come by.

two and a half pounds of sweet cherries in a colander

Instead of bemoaning the 2016 sour cherry situation (though I must confess, I was able to get some from my friends’ community garden, so I’m not totally without them this year), I decided to take some of the sweet cherries from the Northwest Cherries shipment, and do what I could to give them a flavor profile similar to that of a sour cherry.

quartered cherries in the sink

I measured out two and a half pounds of the sweet cherries and using my trusty paring knife, cut them in quarters and wiggled out the pits (I don’t like using cherry pitters, because I resent how much cherry flesh you lose with every pit. Quartering them is fiddly work, but so much more of the fruit ends up in the pot).

lightly pickled sweet cherries in a stainless pot

Once the cherries were prepped, I combined them with sugar, apple cider vinegar, and lemon juice and let them sit until all the sugar was dissolved. Then I set the pot on the stove, brought it to a boil, and cooked the fruit until the cherries were tender (but not falling apart) and the liquid had thickened slightly.

Lightly pickled sweet cherries in jars close-up

Towards the end of cooking, I took a tiny taste of the syrup in the pot and was so happy with the results. Bright, sweet, and just tart enough that you feel a pleasant shiver in the back of your throat. This is one for sparkling water, pairing with cheese, or eating with a pork chop.

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CSA Cooking: Smoky, Spicy, Skillet Tomato Jam

half pint tomato jam

Skillet jams really are the best way I know to deal with a couple pounds of rapidly ripening fruit. Today’s batch was a slimmed down, extra spicy and smoky version of my classic tomato jam.

I had just two pounds of mismatched tomatoes from last week’s Philly Foodworks share and with a vacation looming, I’ve been trying to make useful things out of everything that could possibly go bad around here.

2 pounds macerated tomatoes

I chopped up the tomatoes, combined them with 1 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, and let them macerate over night (I do so love breaking up the work of even the smallest batches of preserves into easily manageable pieces).

skillet tomato jam

Then today, I poured the juicy sugared tomatoes into my trusty 12 inch skillet and added 4 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice, 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, 2 teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes, 1 generous teaspoon of smoked paprika, another teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne.

tomato jam in a measuring cup

The tomatoes cooked down over hight heat for just around 20 minutes, until it was glossy, thick, and didn’t look at all watery. Into a trio of half pint jars and processed for 15 minutes, this little batch took less than an hour total of active time.

three half pints tomato jam

Like all tomato jams, this one is good with cheese and crackers, slathered on a burger, eaten with sweet potato fries, or dolloped alongside scrambled eggs.

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Small Batch Strawberry Balsamic Jam

strawberry balsamic jam

Tonight’s live online class was terrific. A small group of diehard canners showed up and interacted with me as I made a small batch of strawberry balsamic jam in my tiny kitchen.

The recipe I made is a slightly lower sugar riff on this strawberry vanilla version. The balsamic and a pinch of freshly ground black pepper give it depth and just a little edge that goes really well with cheese or as a glaze for meat.

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