Gift in a Jar: Handmade Spice Blends

mixed pickling blend

Back in the summer, I went through a period during which I made approximately seven pints of dill pickles a night for at least a week (I now have a lot of pickles in my coat closet). While I worked my way through at least a bushel of pickling cukes, instead of opening up each individual container of spice for every batch, I’d mix up a spice blend and add a couple of teaspoons of the mix to each jar prior to packing the cucumbers in.

pickling blend in layers

During that pickling frenzy, I toyed with the idea of mixing up a extra-large batch of this spice blend and selling it in a little Etsy shop. While I never followed through with that thought, homemade spice blends do make excellent gifts for the right person. The following measurements fill a half-pint jar: 4 tablespoons dill seed, 2 tablespoons black peppercorns, 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes and 1 tablespoon mustard seeds. Two teaspoons of this blend can be substituted for the spices in this recipe (everything else stays the same).

bbq rub

If you’re not making gifts for canners (I realize that not everyone is as crazy for home preserving as I am), but you like the idea of a handmade spice blend, how about a barbecue rub? I mixed this one up for a 4th of July cookout last summer and used it on a nice, big brisket (that was a good food day!).

This rub comes from Elizabeth Karmel’s terrific book, Soaked, Slathered, and Seasoned: A Complete Guide to Flavoring Food for the Grill. It’s called the Barbecue Circuit Rub and the recipe is after the jump. However, if that one doesn’t look good to you, definitely check out her book, there are more than 20 rub recipes in there, so you’re sure to find the right one for your bbq lover.

Ty's spice blends

These spice blends were a most thoughtful wedding gift from Ty (my friend Shay’s mom). She makes all manner of these blends from the herbs she grows in her backyard (Ty was also the source of that 2-gallon bag of basil I got last summer). For those of you who like to think ahead, consider planting an expanded herb garden next summer and harvest the herbs for holiday giving.

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Dark Days: Mostly Local Latkes

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Hanukkah started last Friday night. For a secular, half-Jewish girl with Ashkenazi roots like me, that means it’s latke season. I didn’t grow up with latkes (my mother has something of an aversion to fried foods), but I adopted the practice of making them in college.

In fact, the second time I ever made these shredded potato pancakes was as a snack for a study break, when I was an RA in North Hall (a former hospital turned residence). I made around 150 in rapid succession. I learned a lot about the art of latke making that night (I also ended the evening with a number of grease burns on my forearms).

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Over the years, I’ve developed a process of latke-making that utilizes both a frying and baking method. It means that I can use just 2-3 tablespoons of oil/fat and still have a latke that’s crispy on the outside and tender (and fully cooked) on the inside.

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I shamelessly use my food processor for the shredding of the potatoes. I’ve tried hand-grating them as well and I’ve found little discernible difference between the two. In this instance, I happily choose technology over elbow grease (it is about ten times faster). My Aunt Flora, who’s vintage Cuisinart I now possess, would be so proud to see it used in this fashion.

The only problem I come across when using a food processor is there’s always a thin bit of potato and onion that doesn’t get grated. I pluck those bits out and give them a quick chop, so that they mimic the size and shape of the food processor veg.

squeezing potatoes

One of the secrets to making a good latke is making sure that you squeeze as much moisture out as possible. Some people suggest putting the grated potatoes in a colander and weighing them down. I find that wrapping them in a kitchen towel (the floursack variety works best here) or some cheesecloth and then twisting to remove the liquid, works the best.

local lard

Hanukkah is a celebration of oil. The reason we celebrate for eight nights is that lamp oil that was only supposed to last for one night, miraculously stretched to cover eight nights (the time needed for more oil to be produced). That’s why we eat fried foods at this time of year, to honor the gift of that oil.

Because I was trying to keep these latkes local (they did contains non-local salt, pepper and flour) I made a decidedly un-Kosher choice. I cooked them in local lard. It was the best local cooking medium I had (I considered clarifying some butter, but could not find the time) and honestly, they were some of the most crisp and celebratory latkes I’ve ever made. If you aren’t trying to keep your latkes local (or you live in a different area of the country, with wider local fat choices), peanut, olive or some other vegetable oil would all be more traditional choices.

browning latkes

Last night’s batch of latkes used three small to medium Yukon gold potatoes, a quarter of a very large yellow onion, 1 egg (those first three ingredients were all-local), 4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour and bit of salt and pepper. Grate the potatoes, wring the liquid out, combine them with the grated onion, egg, flour, salt and pepper. Mix to combine. I’ve found that a fork is the best stirring tool for this particular job.

latkes on cookie sheet

Add 2-3 tablespoons of fat to a frying pan (I like using a cast iron skillet for this job) and line a cookie sheet with foil (it’s important that you use foil here, parchment or a silpat will make for soggy latkes). When the fat is hot, grab a small palmful of latke batter, give it a quick squeeze (too much liquid is the enemy of the latke), form it into a patty and add it to the pan. You can pat it down with a spatula if you’d like, but do not move a latke in the first couple minutes of cooking. Early movement can destroy the structural integrity of the latke and you’ll end up with hash browns instead of pancakes. Still delicious, but not the plan.

Give the latkes 4-5 minutes on the first side and an additional 2-3 minutes on the second. When they’re nice and brown on both sides, move them to the foil-lined cookie sheet. I made a relatively small batch of latkes (just the 15 you see above) so they all fit on a single sheet. When the cookie sheet is full, put it in a 350 degree oven and let them baking for an additional 15-20 minutes (baking on the foil allows for further browning. It’s best to put the lighter side facing down so that you don’t get over crisping).

Once they come out of the oven, spread them out on newspaper, paper towels or brown paper shopping bag, to absorb the excess grease. Eat with sour cream and applesauce (preferably homemade). We ate ours as part of a dinner that included steamed broccoli (local), roasted brussels sprouts (local) and roasted salmon (sustainably fished and purchased through Otolith Community Supported Seafood).

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Spouted Measuring Cup Winner

random measuring cup I’m just tickled that so many of you liked my canning gift guide (and the attached giveaway). Thanks for all the terrific comments! (There are a lot of Weck lovers in the crowd!)

The winner of the giveaway was Annie, who’s comment made me laugh when I went to match the random number up with the winning name. She said, “Great stuff, Marisa. Thank you! Can’t wait for the generator to spit out my number!” Well Annie, spit out your number it did. I’ll be emailing you shortly to get your details!

Still to come this week I’ll have at least two (if not three, depending on how demanding my day job is) more “Gift in a Jar” posts, as well as my local meal for the Dark Days Challenge. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear how your holiday preparations are going (I passed out jars of Apple-Cranberry Jam, Apple Butter and the Rosemary-Maple Nuts at my family’s Hanukkah party last night to a crowd of excited cousin)s.

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Gift in a Jar: Rosemary Maple-Glazed Nuts

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Here’s another simple little edible gift, that can easily be packaged up in jars and distributed to your friends and family for the holidays. This recipe is inspired by a sweet and spicy nut mix that my friend AnnElise was once famous for in our circle of acquaintances. It was her favorite thing to bring to parties and potlucks, and I would always make sure to station myself by the bowl as soon as she walked in the door. Then AnnElise up and moved to Ohio and I lost my spiced nut source. After suffering through months of cravings, I pulled myself together and made my own.

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This particular glazed nut recipe isn’t too sweet, but I think balances the forces of sweet, spicy and herb-y (from the rosemary) nicely. I can’t stop eating it and that’s always a good sign.

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It’s a quick little thing to mix up (I managed to make it on Wednesday night, after getting home from work right around 9:30 p.m.) and the active time is less than ten minutes. In one pot, melt together butter, maple syrup, a tiny scoop of cayenne and a couple palmfuls of dried rosemary.

In another larger pot (Dutch ovens work nicely here) or skillet, toast the raw nuts until they develop deep brown speckles (turn them constantly and watch like a hawk, nuts burn fast). When the nuts are sufficiently toasted, pour the butter/maple syrup mixture over top and toss to coat. Then spread the nuts out on silpat or parchment lined, rimmed cookie sheet and roast at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.

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The minute you take the nuts out of the oven, sprinkle a couple of pinches of crunchy salt (kosher, sea or flaky Maldon work best) over the top, so that it adheres. Once the nuts are cool, pack into jars or bags. Careful that you don’t nab a handful or two each time you pass the pan, as soon you’ll realize that you don’t have enough for all the gifts you’d planned. Not that I did anything like that. Nope. Not me.

Official recipe after the jump.

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A Gift Guide for Canners (+ Giveaway)

canning gift guide

I’ve been talking a lot lately about what you preservers out there can put in jars and gift to your friends and loved ones. However, I think that you all also deserve a few treats under the tree or menorah*. Here’s are a few of my favorite canning helpers, from cookbooks, to the best floursack towels out there, to my very favorite 2-quart measuring cup. My thought is that you can send a link to this post to a generous spouse, parent or best friend with a note that says, “I’d like number 2, please!”

Additionally, as my way of saying thank you to all of you who keep coming back, leaving comments and generally making the process of writing this blog a joy, I’m going to be giving away one of those 2-quart measuring cups. Mine’s an older model, but I find that I use this vessel more than any other bowl in my kitchen. This giveaway will be open for entry until Saturday, December 12th at 11:59 p.m. Just leave a comment to enter (one entry per person, winner to be picked via the random number generator).

Starting from the top left corner…

1. Putting Up: A Seasonal Guide to Canning in the Southern Tradition This is one of the best canning books out there and is great for beginners, as it contains all the instruction you need to get started canning.

2. A Stainless Steel Jar Funnel. I like the metal ones better than plastic. Looks better and is sturdier in the long run.

3. Weck Canning Jars. These European jars are beautiful and functional. Extra thoughtful gift givers will also pick up a set of plastic snap-on lids, which turns these into the best leftover vessels I know.

4. A Set of Graduated Measuring Scoops. I prefer using a 1-cup measure like the one pictured when filling jars with hot jam. It gives greater control than a ladle does, and is the exact right amount for a half pint jar. The rest of the measuring cups are useful too.

5. Floursack Towels. Canning can be messy business so it’s always good to have a stack of clean towels on hand. I like these white floursack towels, as they are absorbent, fairly lintless and can be bleached clean when you’re all done cooking.

6. Ball Utensil Kit. This is an easy way to get a new canner started, or to help an experienced preserver refresh their collection of tools (that jar lifter takes a beating after years of use).

7. My Beloved 2-Quart Measuring Cup. I think I’ve said enough about this item. I just love it.

8. A Good, Sharp Knife. I’m a big fan of my Global, but any sturdy, sharp knife will do. When you’re processing a bushel or two of fruit, you want to use the best tool for the job.

9. A Roomy Stock Pot. Instead of buying a pot designed expressly for canning, invest in a good stock pot. That way, it can also work as your pasta or soup pot. But slip a rack in the bottom and voila, it’s a canning pot.

10. Wide Mouth Half-Pint Jars. I adore these squat, easy to fill jars. For some reason, they’ve become impossible to find in stores (I often order a couple dozen and keep them stashed under my couch, for when they’re the only jar that will do).

What are your favorite canning tools? What would you like to see under the tree?

*Yes, I do know that Hanukkah gifts don’t go under the menorah.

Jar Storage Tip: Rotate Your Grains

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For my entire life, my mom has kept an array of grains, seeds and nuts in a mix-and-match assortment of jars that had once held marinara sauce, peanut butter and fruit juices. One of the most useful things she taught me about storing dry goods in jars (other than always make sure your jar is 100% dry before filling) is to rotate the contents.

This means that when you bring a fresh bag of popcorn home from the bulk section, take the time to pour what remains in the jar out into a bowl, so that the freshest product ends up at the bottom of the jar and the oldest is at the top. This way it gets used in order of age. Here are a few pictures to show you exactly what I’m talking about.

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Empty the remaining contents of your popcorn jar into a bowl for temporary storage.

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Then empty the fresh popcorn into the jar. You might notice that it’s appearing that I have more popcorn than is going to fit in this half gallon jar.

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Top the jar off with the old popcorn. A wide-mouth funnel is a real help here, as it keeps your popcorn contained (unpopped kernels escape so easily).

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The popcorn jar is filled. But what’s that? There’s still some corn left in the bowl.

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That ends up in an overflow jar. I’ll make a point of using this one up first, since it holds entirely older popping corn.

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See, I even label it as such, to ensure that I remember that it’s the one that should be finished off first. Sharpies are so handy for jar labeling, as they write on the glass smoothly and erase with a bit of rubbing alcohol (I learned that trick in 12th grade biology).

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