Giveaway: The Optimist Cleaning Kit

The Optimist kit front

For the last decade, I’ve kept an ugly, industrial-looking spray bottle of diluted white vinegar under my sink. I use it mostly as a simple, non-toxic countertop spray that’s good for quick clean-ups during meal prep. While it’s been effective enough, both the look of the spray bottle and the unadulterated scent of vinegar leave something to be desired.

The Optimist kit back

Enter The Optimist Co. Founded by Devin Donaldson after conventional cleaning products left her with a nasty asthma attack, they focus on simple, effective, non-toxic cleaning products that will help you keep your home spotless without compromising your health or the planet.

contents of The Optimist kit

Devin sent me The Optimist Co.’s Make Your Own Cleaning Products Kit to try out a few weeks back. It comes with two amber-colored spray bottles with the cleaning formulas printed on the labels, a small bottle of castile soap and three small bottles of essential oils to make your custom scents.

Add some white vinegar and flat club soda* from your pantry to the mix and you have everything you need to build both an all-purpose spray (Time to Shine) and a glass and surface cleaner (Bright Side).

Making The Optimist Bright Side cleaner

I made up both bottles the same day that the kit arrived. I followed the suggested recipes almost exactly, making only one change to the Bright Side. It suggests that you use plain white vinegar but instead, I used some of the lemon-infused vinegar I’d made during my Meyer lemon frenzy back in January (that’s what’s in the smaller measuring cup in the picture above). Bolstered with the enclosed lemon essential oil, every spray of that cleanser is a olfactory pleasure.

I’ve been using these sprays exclusively since they arrived and could not be more pleased with their effectiveness. I use them without worry around food, because I know that if a few droplets land on the contents of the fruit basket, no one will be harmed. Plus, they are far prettier than my old bottle of watered down vinegar.

The Optimist Bright Side

I know that lots of you are trying to make your own homes more non-toxic and sustainable and homemade cleaning products are a very good way to start yourself on that path. To that end, Devin is offering up three of her Make Your Own Cleaning Products Kit for this week’s giveaway. Here’s how to enter.

  1. Leave a comment on this post and share one thing you’ve done to make your cleaning routine a little more sustainable.
  2. Comments will close at 11:59 pm eastern time on Saturday, April 11, 2015. Winners will be chosen at random and will be posted to the blog on Sunday, April 12, 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.

*When we talked, I asked Devin what the flat club soda added to the mix and she said that it helps the cleaner wipe away streak-free, particularly on stainless steel appliances. So clever!

Disclosure: The Optimist Co. sent me the make your own kit at no cost to me for review and photography purposes. They are also providing the units for this giveaway. No additional payment has been made and all opinions expressed here are entirely my own. 

Links: Quick Pickles, Nut Butters, and Winners

A solitary homemade waffle

This weekend was about family and book work. My extended family gathered at my cousin’s house on Friday night for our Seder. Saturday was devoted to hunkering down in my local coffee shop to work on the book draft. And on Sunday, my mother-in-law came over for a simple Easter brunch.

I like nothing more than food, family, and productivity, so I had a very lovely time. I hope your weekends were equally good and balanced! Now, links!

glass dharma end labels

I so enjoyed reading all your straw stories last week during the Glass Dharma giveaway. The three people who won the $25 gift certificates are #77/Julie Parker, #139/Rebecca, #168/Anita. If you didn’t win, make sure to check out their Earth Day straw giveaway (all you have to do is pay shipping)!

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Other People’s Preserves: McVicker Pickles Rainbow Cumin-Pepper Carrots from Garibaldi Goods

rainbow cumin-pepper carrots

Other People’s Preserve is my opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the very delicious jams, pickles, and condiments being made by dedicated professionals. If you see one of these products out in the wild, consider picking up a jar, tub, or bottle!

I am exceedingly fond of pickles with attitude. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take a crunchy spear just about any way it comes, but when pickles immediately telegraph personality like McVicker Pickles do, I am sold before I even pick up the jar. And if they are crisp, earthy, and just slightly spicy like the jar of Rainbow Cumin-Pepper Carrots you see up above, well, consider me in pickle heaven.

McVicker lid

The brain behind McVicker Pickles is Kelly McVicker. Raised in the prairie, she brought her pickling know-how to San Francisco and has been sharing it with the Bay Area (and beyond) since 2012. In addition to making a variety of pickles for sale, she also teaches preserving classes (including some really fun sounding ones like Whiskey Picks Not Whiskey Dicks: Pickling With Beer & Booze).

top of McVicker pickles

This jar came to me by way of Garibaldi Goods, the third installment in a monthly series we’ve been doing together. Garibaldi Goods is an online shop that features artisanal, small batch products all made in the fine state of California (place of my birth!). This month, you can get free shipping on all of their products by using the code “foodinjars”. The code is valid through April 30, 2015.

Disclosure: The folks at Garibaldi Goods sent me this jar of McVicker Pickles for sampling and photography purposes. All thoughts and opinions remain entirely my own. 

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Cookbooks: Better on Toast

Better on Toast cover

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have noticed that I’m a big fan of putting things on toast (though lately, I’ve been on something of a soft boiled egg kick). I think that toast is an equally good vehicle for pickles and kraut as it for jams and butters and I have made many a meal over the years out of a slice of toast topped with a few scraps of cheese and a goodly layer of relish.

toast picture from Better on Toast

So when I heard that there was a book coming out called Better on Toast by Jill Donenfeld, I made a point of searching out a copy. I figured it would contain some good inspiration for my own toast practice, and also might offer some ideas for those of you who looking to use up your preserves in fresh ways.

salmon rillettes Better on Toast

The book opens with a introduction that goes deep into Jill’s love of toast and the many ways you can transform a humble slab of bread into toast (traditional toasting, grilled, pan toasted, or oven toasted). Then, it proceeds into sections devoted to breakfast, hor d’oeuvres, non-veg toppings, veg toppings, and finally things to do with your extra bread.

Pesto Swirl Better on Toast

I think the beauty of this book is that while it offers a number of actual recipes, it should be used more as an inspirational guide. Because Jill’s ideas can easily translate to the specific contents of your own pantry without too much issue.

Grilled Cheese Better on Toast

For instances, the recipe above for Grilled Cheese with Romaine and Bosc Pear (page 123). When pears aren’t in season, you could just as easily make this with canned pears from your pantry, or even with a couple dabs of pear vanilla jam. A few pages later, she’s got you heaping golden beets on a piece of toast topped with yogurt that’s been spiced with vadouvan. Steal the idea and use your own pickled beets instead.

Better on Toast spine

If you struggle how to use up your preserves and love toast (I realize it’s an endangered species these days), this might be a good book to add to your wish list or library queue.

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Making Brisket for Passover

ten pounds brisket

About four years ago, I became the official brisket maker for my family’s Passover Seder. I’m not the most natural fit for this role, particularly since up until the time I moved to Philadelphia, I’d only ever attended Seder in the all-purpose room at our Unitarian Universalist church.

uncooked brisket

I started dabbling in brisket making during the years when Scott and I were regularly filming episodes of Fork You. We did one episode in honor of Philadelphia’s beer week, in which I braised a smallish brisket in a slurry of sauteed onions, herbs, and a generous pour of dark beer.

prepped onions

For the longest time, that beer soaked method was my favorite. However, once I took on the task of making brisket for Passover, the beer had to go because fermented grain products (like beer) are most decidedly not kosher for Passover. And while my people aren’t particularly observant, using that as my braising medium seemed a step too far.

slicing onions

Since this year is my fifth brisket adventure, I thought I’d take a few minutes to write about the process (I actually took these pictures last year, intending to write this post then). It’s not hard to do, but it is time consuming. I always start the day before I plan on serving the brisket. This allows me to remove the bulk of the fat that the meat releases and truly, things just taste better the second day.

brisket prep

My current approach is relatively simple but time consuming. I start with one pound of brisket for every two people I’m feeding, plus a little more just in case. This year, we’re expecting 18 people, so I started with 10 pounds of brisket (if the pieces have a substantial fat cap, I suggest buying even a little bit more).

sauteing onions

I use one pound of onions for every two pounds of brisket. They add a ton of flavor and lend substance and body to the eventual sauce. In the beginning, I sliced those onions by hand, but by year two, I got smart and pulled out the food processor. It’s still not easy on the eyes, but it is a lot less tedious.

pot of brisket

To brown ten pounds of brisket, I pull out two large pans and heat some oil with a high smoke point until it shimmers. Salt and pepper the brisket pieces (to get ten pounds, you end up with at least two big pieces) and brown them on all sides. Once the brisket is nicely browned, they get pulled out and I saute the sliced onions in the fond from the meat.

ready to braise

Once the onions are done, I put a little down in the bottom of the pans I’m using for braising. Because of the amount of brisket I make, I tend to divide them between a low, wide Dutch oven and a large cast iron roasting pan so that I can fit them all into my oven.

in the oven

I pour beef stock in so that it comes up most of the way up the sides of the meat. Finally, I arrange the remaining onions on top of the meat and tuck sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme into the pans. I cover both pans and cook them in the oven for 3 to 4 hours at 300 degrees F. They’re done when you stick a fork into the center of the meat and it feels tender instead of tight.

finished brisket

Once the brisket is finished braising, I let everything cool down. Then I separate the beef from the sauce and refrigerate them both separately.

A few hours before I want to serve the brisket, I remove the container of braising liquid from the fridge. I pull off the fat that collected (keep it and roast potatoes in it later) and I push everything through the fine screen of a food mill. This removes all the woody herb bits. Then I pour the milled liquid into my crock pot and taste it. I’ll add a little balsamic vinegar and salt, if necessary. If it feels too granular, I’ll sometimes zap it with an immersion blender.

brisket fat cap

The last thing is to cut the brisket against the grain and add the pieces to the sauce. This way, it heats slowly and never develops any of that funky, reheated meat taste. Special occasion food, at its finest!

finished brisket

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Pickled Red Beet Eggs

red beet eggs

These are some words I originally wrote for Serious Eats, back in the days of my In a Pickle column. As we approach both Passover and Easter, I thought it might be appropriate to share this tale and recipe here, in the hopes that you might be inspired to take some of your hard boiled eggs and tuck them into a jar of beets and brine, for a batch of classic pickled red beet eggs.

I grew up in a household with hippie tendencies. This showed in a number of ways, from the 12-grain bread my mom used for sandwiches, to the jar of homemade granola that made up the bulk of our cereal selection. However, it was never more obvious than around major holidays.

hard boiled eggs in a jar

At Halloween, we were the house giving out raisins or tiny tubes of toothpaste. Christmas brought candy canes sweetened with maple syrup. And around Easter, our baskets were filled with carob, fruit juice sweetened jelly beans and naturally dyed eggs.

Instead of pulling out the dyes that the other kids used, my mother would gather onion skins, carrot peelings, spinach leaves and beets for our egg coloring sessions. I found these methods deeply frustrating because they never provided the same depth of color that the commercial egg coloring kits could.

pickled beets

I blame the fact that I was very late to red beet eggs on my frustration with those natural dyes. You see, these pickled eggs get their color through the addition of beets to the pickling liquid. And I just didn’t want to have anything to do with adding beets to eggs.

But then, I had the opportunity to taste one a few years back and I changed my tune. Pickled red beet eggs have nothing in common with the still-in-their-shell hard-boiled eggs I once tried to dye with beet juice.

beets and eggs in a jar

The finished eggs are bright in both color and flavor. Pickling firms the whites of the hard boiled egg, transforming them into something springy and substantial. The finished eggs are good eaten on their own, or chopped into a vibrantly colored salad and make a terrific addition to any springtime table.

A few tips for you before you get started

To avoid peeling frustration, use the oldest eggs in you fridge for hard boiling. Super fresh eggs are incredibly hard to peel, while the ones that have been around for a week or more will give up their shells more easily.

pouring brine

I used home-canned pickled beets for this recipe. However, don’t feel like you have to make the pickled beets first. Commercially pickled beets do just as good a job here.

Make sure to let the eggs rest in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours before eating the first one. They do keep well for up to a month, so don’t feel like you have to bolt them down once they’re ready.

pickled eggs

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