Amanda Hesser Comes to Philadelphia for a Potluck

The Essential New York Times Cookbook

Last night, a collection of food bloggers, food writers and publishing folk gathered at Audra’s home in West Philly to meet, share food and celebrate Amanda Hesser and her extraordinary new book.

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It was a party many months in the planning. It all started back in August, when Audra and I went up to Brooklyn, to attend a canning party that the fabulous Kate from The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking was hosting. It was there that we met Katarina, who was coordinating the publicity for the book. They were planning a series of potluck events around the country and had been looking for a Philadelphia connection. It was kismet.

Amanda, doing her demo

Audra provided the space and I used my various connections to obtain beer (many thanks to Victory Brewing and their social media guy Dave for bringing such a tasty collection of brews) and pull together a list of possible attendees.

Victory Beer

I must admit, I was pretty jazzed to meet Amanda. Seven years ago, when she was promoting Cooking for Mr. Latte I was working at a job I didn’t particularly like. I spent my days sitting in a basement office that smelled of mildew and the cigarette smoke that blew in from the loading deck 50 feet away. One morning, while answering emails and doing a bit of filing, I found myself listening to a interview between Marty Moss-Coane and Amanda on WHYY.

Amanda and Kristen

In that moment, hearing her talk about her book and the work she did at the New York Times, I felt like a light was coming on in my body. It had never occurred to me that one could actually make their living writing about food. After a lifetime of agonizing over my lack of passion and direction, I suddenly knew what I wanted to work towards.

Audra, Amanda and Marisa

I shared my little story of illumination with Amanda while she was signing my books (I totally made her lose her train of signing thought though) and she didn’t back away or think I was a crazy stalker. Thanks for that Amanda!

my NYT spinach salad

Part of the intention of the potluck was that everyone would bring a dish made from their favorite New York Times recipe. It didn’t have to be one that appeared in the book, just one that had run sometime in the last 150 years. I brought a spinach salad that was first introduced to me by an ex-boyfriend’s mother and has been a favorite of mine since I gushed over it at a lunch in 2003. Two days later, the recipe appeared in the mail, xeroxed from a New York Times cutting.

You finely slice two lemons (rind and all) and marinate them overnight in two tablespoons of sugar and a few pinches of salt (it’s essentially a quick preserved lemon). I recommend sharpening your knife before starting this task. Makes those paper thin slices much easier to do. Just before you’re ready to serve the salad, you dump the lemon and juice out onto a foil-lined cookie sheet and broil it until the liquid gets syrupy and edges of the lemon start to brown. You heap the broiled lemon mess on top of a bowl of hearty spinach, drizzle with olive oil and toss to combine. A little freshly cracked pepper and a bit of honey (if the balance of sweet to tart is out of balance) finish things off.

One thing to note is that this salad requires mature spinach leaves because the heat of broiled lemons cause the greens to wilt pretty quickly. Baby spinach leaves dissolve into mush far too quickly. I realize it might sound a bit intense, but the resulting salad tastes verdant, bitter, sweet and tart all at the same time. It’s a highly appealing combination that always sends people running to the bowl for seconds.

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Canning 101: What to do When a Jar Breaks in the Canner

broken jar

At 11 p.m. last night, I was in my kitchen doggedly trying to complete the canning project I’d started hours before. I’d made stock from a turkey carcass a friend had given me (knowing that I didn’t get a chance to roast a bird, this friend froze his remains for me after all the meat was picked away. I know such good people) and was nearing the end of the process. The stock was strained, defatted, funneled into jars and in the pressure canner when tragedy struck. A jar broke.

I had just put the lid on the pressure canner and was venting it before beginning to raise the pressure when I heard a quiet snap. Though it doesn’t happen to me often, the sound that a jar makes as it cracks is etched into my kitchen existence and I recognized it immediately.

After a few choice expletives (my grandma Bunny called it “work language” and would have certainly approved its use in this circumstance), I pulled the lid off the pot and surveyed the scene. The stock from the broken jar was draining out into the canner and there were several chunks of floating glass. I pulled the good jars and set them on a cutting board (wood is always better in this situation than cold countertops made from granite, marble, steel or even formica). Using tongs, I fished the broken pieces out of the pot. Lifting the pot off the stove, I poured its contents into the sink, rinsed the pot and replaced the necessary water with the hottest my tap could produce.

The pot went back on the stove over the highest heat possible with the lid on. My goal was to raise the temperature of the water back to near-boiling level as quickly as possible, so that my hot jars of stock didn’t have a chance to cool down too much before I was able to put them back in the pot. However, I didn’t want to put them back in before the water had a chance to heat a bit more, since I know that my hot tap water tends to be around 180 degrees and those jars were hovering right around the boiling point. The last thing I wanted to deal with was more broken jars.

When the water was nearly at a boil, I returned the five remaining quarts of stock to the pot and began the process of venting, pressurizing and then monitoring the pressure. It was after 12:30 a.m. when the processing time was up. I was grateful to be able to simply leave the canner to depressurize and cool on its own and headed to bed.

There are important things to be learned from this experience. Here’s what I think the key points are:

  • It’s vital to stay around your stove when canning, particularly in the beginning of the process. Had I strayed a few feet further from the canner, I might not have heard the crack of the jar and wouldn’t have known there was an issue until much later. This is particularly important when pressure canning, because a broken jar can turn into a projectile in the hot, volatile environment of the pot and damage the remaining jars. It also leaked all the stock out into the pot, which drastically changed my carefully controlled liquid level and could have caused issues during processing.
  • Don’t freak out when a jar breaks. Take a moment and a deep breath. You’re already dealing with boiling water and broken glass, don’t add frenzied behavior to the mix.
  • Use your head. Plot out how you’re going to tackle the mess before you start moving pots. You don’t want to be left holding a pot of heavy, boiling water without knowing where it’s going to land.
  • Get the broken glass out of the pot as soon as it is practical. This is particularly key when it comes to pressure canning, but it’s always a good idea. You run an increased risk of more broken jars if you leave it in there to bang around and it may also break into smaller shards. That turns clean-up into even more of a chore. However, if you’re doing a standard boiling water bath and it’s nearly done, you can let it go to completion and deal with the clean-up once the other jars are finished.
  • If you have to temporarily remove full jars from the pot before processing is finished, remember to take care with them. Protect them from heat shock by placing them on a wooden cutting board or towel-lined countertop. If your process was curtailed half way through, know that you’ll have to start your timer from the beginning when you return the jars to the canner.
  • Always look closely at your jars before starting a canning project. In this case, I was using older jars that had already taken a couple of trips through the pressure canner in their life with me. That jar’s lifespan was probably just nearing its end.

Now that you’ve heard my tale of woe, let’s hear your stories of canning misfortune. Have you had a jar break? How did you handle it?

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Dark Days: Veal Cutlets, Sauteed Spinach and Roasted Potatoes

Valentine's Day Meal

The short, chilly days of winter are now upon us and that means just one thing. Time for another round of the Dark Day Challenge, in which participants from all over the country (and world) prepare at least one intentionally local meal per week during the winter and blog about it. The goal is to prove that it’s possible to eat locally, even during the cold months when the verdant abundance of summer is just a memory.

For this first week, I have a meal that’s actually doing double duty for me. It’s the bulk of my article for the February issue of Grid Philly, all about how to have a romantic and tasty home-cooked Valentine’s Day. You’ll have to wait until that issue hits the street (or internet) to get the full details of the menu. However, I can tell you that it was everything you want in a celebratory meal – a little bit special, not at all too hard and very satisfying. It also requires the use of both a knife and a fork, which alone elevates it above more than half the meals I make on a regular basis. All ingredients were sourced from the Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market, a highly useful resource for Philadelphia grocery shoppers as they carry nearly everything you need for virtuous eating, all year round.

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Holiday Giving: Homemade Vanilla Extract

vanilla extract ingredients

Thanksgiving is behind us and out here on the East Coast, December is less than an hour away. Sounds to me like a fine time to start talking about homemade, edible gifts (well, as long as you’re prepping for Christmas. For those of you starting your Hanukkah celebrations tomorrow night, well, I’ve failed you miserably).

Now, I know that lots of you spent the summer putting up luscious jams, vivid jellies and puckery pickles to tuck into boxes and baskets. However, I have my suspicions that there are more than a few folks out there just beginning to think about how to cover their gift giving bases. I can empathize, as I am a known procrastinator and truly, if it weren’t for my canning habit, I’d be perpetually stuck for hostess and holiday gifts.

splitting vanilla beans

However, there is hope. One easy, lovely holiday gift that you can get started now and will be ready in plenty of time for Christmas/New Year’s giving is homemade vanilla extract. It’s an amazingly easy thing to do and people are mightily impressed when you present them with a ribbon-wrapped bottle.

Vanilla beans in vodka

Making vanilla extract is as simple as splitting eight or nine beans (although even more is better) and dropping them into a bottle of vodka. Now, I realize that vanilla beans can be a bit spendy. However, if you buy them bulk the price drops impressively. I have found that you can get them on eBay in bundles of 12, 15, 30 or more beans for just a few bucks. Team up with a few friends, order a pound and suddenly whole vanilla beans won’t feel like such a rare commodity anymore.

I like to let the beans steep for at least a couple of weeks before pouring the now-infused booze into the regular-mouth half pints jars. I typically include at least one bean in per jar (though two is even better) that I’m gifting and I like to top each one off with a bit of dark rum, to balance the sharpness of the vodka.

It’s nice to add a tag to the jar before giving it as a gift, instructing the recipient that as they use it, they can keep topping it off with vodka or rum to extend the extract. Eventually the vanilla bean will surrender the entirety of its fragrant virtue, but it can refresh several rounds of booze quite happily.

Updated: Many of you have gotten in touch to say that you don’t think that a couple of weeks is long enough to fully develop the extract flavor. And while I’ve always managed to get good vanilla flavor in that time, I do understand that results can vary. If you don’t think the vanilla extract is sufficiently vanilla-y when the gift exchanges arrive, you can still bottle it up and give it away. Just let your recipients know that it may need a bit more time to get appropriately fragrant and flavorful. Asking people to wait prior to use does nothing to the thoughtfulness and eventual utility of the gift.

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Open Jars: Upside-Down Jam Cake

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still trying to get myself together after all the food and lazing about of the Thanksgiving holiday. Happily, while I recover from the amount of pumpkin pie I’ve ingested in the last five days, I have a guest post from Melissa who blogs at The Wynk to keep you all entertained. As you plan your holiday meals and parties, her very clever Upside-Down Jam Cake is definitely one to file away.

Here’s my confession: I love pineapple upside-down cake so much I could eat the entire thing in one sitting. I had some jam lying around and decided to see if I could do something similar with it. It turned out so delicious, that it’s now my new favorite way to both use up leftover jam and bake cakes.

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It’s also brilliantly easy, because you go through all the same steps you normally do to make cake, with one addition: after you grease the cake pan, add a layer of jam to it!

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You want to get a nice layer of jam in the bottom, but it doesn’t even have to be the same kind of jam. The cake I made last night had a bit of tangerine marmalade and a bit of strawberry-muscat.

Then, you just make your cake up as usual. You can use your own favorite cake recipe, or even a box mix.

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Pour the cake in the pan, on top of the jam.

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Pop it in the oven and bake to your recipe’s instructions.

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Let it cool a few minutes, and then turn it upside down onto a platter.

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Experiment with different combinations of jam and cake. The more fruit there is in the jam, the better it will come out.

apricot upside-down cake

vegan chocolate-strawberry upside-down cake

Another thing I’ve learned–coworkers really don’t mind if you bring in your experiments. That is, if there’s any left. ;)

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Let the Thanksgiving Prep Begin!

Pre-Thanksgiving Fridge

It’s the day before Thanksgiving. All across the country, turkeys are transitioning into states of readiness. The vegetables are gathered and waiting for their assignments. Desserts are being baked and serving dishes are getting getting their annual preparatory rinse.

I’m not responsible for cooking the full meal this year. In a few hours, Scott and I will be braving I-95 South (along with half the eastern seaboard) in order to spend the holiday with his mother and extended family. It’s not a wholy cooking free week for me, though. I spent the last two nights baking a double batch of these blondies and two of the vanilla bean loaves from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte (it’s the best pound cake I’ve ever had) as my contribution to the Thursday dessert table.

My family’s meal is taking place on Saturday and I’m bringing a vanilla-flecked sweet potato puree (loosely based upon this one), mashed cauliflower (so my carb-avoiding husband can have something akin to potatoes) and about a half gallon of homemade gravy. My cousin Angie is roasting the turkey and has promised to save the drippings, so that we can add them to said gravy.

I’m also taking a jar of that Cranberry Quince Sauce I mentioned yesterday to each of these dinners. I’m excited to share some of what I’ve canned with these friends and family. This time of year, it just feels right to share a bit of my own bountiful harvest (no matter that I didn’t grow any of the food I put up).

And that leads me to my question for all of you. How are you integrating the foods you’ve canned and preserved this year into your Thanksgiving celebrations? Whether you’ve made your own cranberry sauce, you’re laying out a relish tray bedecked with homemade pickles, or you grew and preserved every single side dish, I want to hear about it. Additionally, if you manage to snap a few photos of your jars in action this holiday season, don’t forget to add them to the Food in Jars Flickr group.

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