Gift in a Jar: Vanilla Syrup

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A couple of years ago, I uncovered a secret that completely changed the way I cooked and baked. I discovered that it was possible to order bulk lots of vanilla beans on eBay for cheap. I went from treating the vanilla bean as a precious item to using them freely. And this time of year, they can become an easy path to a sweet, homemade holiday gift. Homemade vanilla syrup can sweeten coffee, is delicious in plain yogurt and is wonderful drizzled as a quick glaze over top of any number of simple baked goods.

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To make, combine one cup of water with two cups of sugar and add three to four vanilla beans, split lengthwise and scraped. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and pour into half pint jars (when I made this tonight, I filled two half pints and one quarter pint). Include a piece or two of vanilla bean in the jar to keep infusing.

Because this is an unacidified product, it can’t be processed for shelf stability. However, it will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Gift this with some pancake mix, freshly baked scones or a pound of coffee.

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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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Gift in a Jar: Apple-Cranberry Jam

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Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my parents’ standard holiday gift for friends and family was a bag of my dad’s homemade pancake mix (in particularly flush years, we’d also gift a bottle of maple syrup). The bag would also contain printed instructions on how to turn the mix into batches of fluffy cakes or waffles. I have it on good authority that people looked forward with great anticipation to those pancake mix gifts.

Over the years, we were also the recipients of many a homemade holiday gift, including jars of lemon curd from our cousins in the Bay Area, bottles of homemade coffee liqueur and divided plastic plates from my dad’s business partner, overflowing with cookies, fudge and caramels, hand-wrapped in squares of waxed paper.

In recent years, as my canning practice has grown, more and more of the holiday gifts I give are home-jarred edibles. This year, I’m planning to give my Philadelphia cousins jars of apple butter and apple-cranberry jam, along with mini-loaves of cranberry bread. If you’d like to give your friends and family their own jars of apple-cranberry jam, the recipe is after the jump (it’d be great with some scones on Christmas morning).

I’ll be posting more ideas for gifts in jars in the coming weeks, in the hopes that I’ll be able to inspire you to give your own gifts in jars this year.

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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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Thanksgiving Prep: Fork You Makes Gravy

Long before I was putting food in jars on a regular basis, I was making a little online cooking show called Fork You. One of the first episodes Scott and I (long before the idea that we’d ever marry each other was even a glimmer of a possibility) made was in the fall of 2006, where we outlined my father’s sure-fire, no-fail method for making large amounts of turkey gravy.

Essentially, a day or two before your holiday meal, you toast a couple of cups of flour in a dry frying pan over medium low heat until it’s a dark and nutty. It takes anywhere between 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of your pan and the amount of flour you’re toasting. As it heats, you keep the flour moving around the pan, to prevent burning (run your exhaust fan as you toast, and don’t walk away, it goes from perfectly toasted to burnt in an instant).

The day of your meal, when you’re putting your turkey in the oven, you start a pot of turkey broth, using the neck/giblets/trimmings and some veggie scraps. When it’s time to make gravy, you make a roux (this isn’t a true roux, but it’s close) with a few tablespoons of the toasted flour (sift after toasting) and some turkey drippings and slowly expand it with the broth, additional toasted flour and whatever turkey drippings you can spare. The amount of gravy you make depends almost entirely upon how much broth you make and how much flour you toast (you may not end up using all the flour you toast, but it’s always better to toast too much as opposed to not enough, because when you’re making gravy, there’s rarely time to stop and toast more flour).

For those of you who need a visual understanding of how to do what I’ve just described, here’s the video we made lo those many years ago.

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Whole Wheat Millet Pumpkin Bread

Whole Wheat Millet Pumpkin Bread

Last week, I wrote about things you can do with pumpkin puree. Here’s what I ended up doing with mine. It’s a little quick bread I tossed together this afternoon that has a really nice crumb and uses toasted millet instead of nuts for crunch (good if you cook for someone with a nut allergy).

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