Adventures in Jamming

A couple of people have requested my recipe for blueberry lime jam. Figured this would be the easiest way to share it.

First off, it isn’t my recipe. Its a mash up of two recipes I found on the internet: this one from Ball’s Blue Book of Canning, and this one from barefoot kitchen witch.

One of the reasons for my new obsession with jam is that I have found a new way to enjoy it…through the magic of cocktails. Make a gin and tonic and add some lemon juice, muddled mint and a teaspoon of yummy jam in it and you have entered a new world of sittin and sippin, if I may say so myself.

I’ve discovered there seems to be two distinct camps when it comes to making jam: cook the berries right away, or the mix the fruit with sugar and let it sit for a spell method. I’ve tried both, and have to say that the batch I did where I let the fruit stew in its own juices was more robust. It pulls more of the natural juices out of the fruit and that seems to deepen the flavor a bit. That being said, if you don’t want to mess around with that, don’t bother. I don’t think most of us have that much invested in how our jam tastes and for the most part it doesn’t really matter.

There are also those that use pectin, which is naturally found in fruit but you can also buy it in packets in the store, and those who don’t. I usually don’t, mostly because I never remember to buy it. Now that I’ve made a couple of jams, I have to admit, I don’t think I need the extra pectin. I like them to be more spreadable than jellied, and the blueberries have enough of their own to hold the jam together. If you want the effect of pectin, but don’t want to buy it, you can take the pithy bits from and orange or two, put it in a tea infuser or cheesecloth, and have it in the jam as it cooks. The pithy bits are anything white that you wouldn’t want to eat when you eat an orange. They pack a pectin whallop, and I’ve had good results with it.

I knew I was canning this jam, so it’s scaled up to make A LOT. Scaling back to more realistic levels just involves a little math. I’ve made batches with as little as 1 1/2 cups of berries. I’ve also thrown in a hand full of blackberries, but decided that even though I liked the flavor, I didn’t like the snap of the seeds in the finished jam.

If you want the sit and stew directions, go back and go to the kitchen witch link. I am not that organized normally, so I’ll give you the instant gratification recipe:

makes about 12 half pints of jam

9 cups blueberries
7 1/2  cups sugar (I’ve used as little as 5 1/2 cups and its still yummy)
2 T. grated lime peel (I think I ended up zesting 2 limes)
2/3 cup lime juice

Put 4 or so small spoons on a saucer in the freezer (trust me, you’ll need them later)

Crush blueberries in a large saucepan or dutch oven. Most recipes recommend you do it in layers. I’m kind of lazy so I just put it all in the pan and go at it with the potato masher. You’ll want to use a fairly thick walled pan to make sure you don’t accidentally burn the fruit during the boil. I don’t recommend aluminum pans, they are pretty thin.

Turn the heat up and bring to a boil, stirring a lot. Once it starts to boil, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. It’s going to foam and bubble a lot, so use a deep pan. Once the sugar is dissolved, add the lime zest and lime juice. Return to a “violent” boil. You don’t want a wimpy simmer here, you want this stuff going crazy in the pan. Crazy boil for 1 minute, then turn it down to a regular boil. Go ahead and skim the foam off the top. Cook and stir until it thickens a little and gets more syrupy. I’ll admit to doing this part mostly by the seat of my pants, so I don’t have a set time. I’d give it about 10 minutes and start testing. Don’t let down your guard, this is where I almost always get distracted and burn the jam.

“Start testing?” you ask. Yes, this is where those spoons come in. Take one out of the freezer, scoop up a bit, and put it back in the freezer. Give it two minutes or so. Take it out an try to pour it off the spoon. If it resists, or if you can swipe a finger through it and leave a trail through the jam, it’s done. If not, let it cook a little longer. You can also see if the bottom of the spoon feels neither hot nor cold. Technically, the jam is done anytime. It doesn’t have to be cooked to a certain temperature for food safety or anything like that. This is just to check if the pectin is working its magic, and the jam is “setting”. If you blow this part the worst that will happen is runny jam. And that’s a #FirstWorldProblem if I’ve ever heard one, so don’t sweat it.

When it’s done, take the jam off the heat, ladle into jars, let them sit for a bit, and then stash them in the fridge. If you want to can them, you have to go through the steps of washing jars, boiling them, keeping them warn, filling them, then water bathing them. It honestly isn’t that much work once you get your groove on, but you might want to make a small batch first to make sure it’s worth it for you.

Hope this makes sense/works. If you have any questions I’ll do my best to answer them, but I’m no Betty Crocker, so keep your expectations low.

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A New Obsession

I realize that if this blog had a more narrow focus, it might make more sense. But seeing as how I can barely focus on getting dinner on the table, you get what you get.

Today you get stock.

I remember the first time I ventured into the soup aisle with “stock” on my shopping list. I ended up with a rather anemic looking liquid that cost a bit more than I was expecting. Sure it did the job, but there was little excitement in it. Not that most people get excited about stock, but then again, I am not like most people.

I have put the chicken carcass in a pot with veggie trimmings before. You end up with something darker and with much more flavor. Soon I was receiving all kinds of wonderful advice on how to make stock even better, like leaving the skins on the onions for deeper color. I freeze it all in one-cup batches to have on hand because the more I cook, the more the recipes call for a cup of chicken stock.

What moved me from casual to slightly obsessed was the appearance of a duck carcass in my household. We don’t often eat duck, and this time we had bought the whole thing just to harvest the breast meat. Staring at the poor, breastlest thing, I couldn’t bare to throw that much goodness away. However, I had no flipping idea how to cook the leftover parts of a duck. Then it hit me: stock.

There was no plan, but I went ahead and made the most beautifully fragrant stock ever. Mulling over what one could use such a rich stock for, it hit me like lightening…I would make risotto. If you ever have the occasion to have risotto made with duck stock and wild mushrooms, I HIGHLY recommend it. It was rich and amazing in a way I have never tasted before (and this was me cooking…ME)

So that led me to thinking, what other glorious types of stock could I make? I have made chicken, turkey, duck and shrimp so far. The last batch of chicken stock I made with the surplus water from making applesauce, some red onion, mizuna stalks and garlic. I can’t wait to use it to soften stuffing!

The DH, bless his heart, is getting me some beef soup bones while he is out today. He is a bit concerned that I might be compiling more stock than is reasonably possible to consume. In response I point to the shelves full of fishing and hunting supplies and say, “we all have our weaknesses”. Right now mine is stock. To make more space in the freezer, however, it will soon have to be canning.

For My Sons

There are many things I hope to teach you as you grow into young men. I’d like for you to enter adulthood knowing how to do your own laundry, how to cook a few staples, and how to clean a bathroom. (I joke that I am drafting letters of apology to your future spouses…but I really am)

Something I say that I’m sure you are sick of hearing is that in life, you can only control your own actions and how you react to the actions of others (insert eye roll here). I realize that you will make mistakes on your way to being men. I wish I could protect you from yourselves, but part of your journey is falling down and learning to get back up.

To help you not fall as often, I wanted to share a few thoughts I had today while listening to a discussion about bullying:

  • Making someone feel small does not make you big.
  • Making someone feel weak does not make you strong.
  • Making someone feel stupid does not make you smart.
  • Making someone feel ugly does not make you handsome.
  • What makes you special is who you are, not what someone else is not.

I’m sure people have said this more eloquently, but think of it this way…do you want to be the guy people are happier to see when he enters a room, or when he leaves it?

Youth Sports

I have been spending eye-watering amounts of time at football fields the last month or so. As the mother of three boys I tend to spend most of my waking hours at sports venues in general. After many different teams competing in many different towns, I have come to one steadfast conclusion: Adults are messing up youth sports.

What? You think I might be over-stating things? Look no further than a crew of referees in Mandeville, LA. The exact details haven’t been released, but what we do know is that two of the game’s referees were escorted off the field mid-game.  No, they were not in danger from overzealous fans. No, the coaches had not threatened to show them what a hold looks like in the parking lot after the game. Nope. The referees were arrested because they were threatening the police. Yup, that’s right. They were arrested. In the middle of the game. How can you expect people to respect your calls if you can’t manage to muster enough respect for a police officer to simply manage to not get arrested?

Being the referee or umpire in youth sports is a lousy, thankless job. You have to know every rule, no matter how crazy and/or archaic (if you fake a punt and then throw a pass, the refs cannot call pass interference…did you know that one?) You have to do this while watching the field without getting yourself tackled or being in the way of the plays. In baseball it means seeing a little ball traveling at over 90 miles an hour and figuring out in a split second if it went over the plate between the letters and knees. When you think about how close most of these calls are, its amazing that the officials are ever right.

So you sign up to do this thankless thing, knowing full well you will get an earful of “I could see that from up here!” and “Get in the game, REF!” Since you are a volunteer or get paid some kind of laughable amount, you either do it because you love sports (and God bless you), or you do it because you are a gigantic tool with a continent-sized ego who likes to be IN CHARGE.

For the most part my experiences have been pretty good with the “sports law” for my children’s teams. I haven’t agreed with all their calls, but have noticed that the louder a coach/group of parents complain, usually the worse the calls become. Give them a reason not to like you, and they will take it all the way. Of course, it is hard to hold your tongue when they are doling out home-team calls like Halloween Candy, especially when they are not calling things like horse-collars and face masks – y’know…things that could cause profound injuries to my child or one of his team mates. What really sucks is that certain ref crews out in these parts are widely known to not make these calls against the home team. Considering the PR push by the NFL and football in general to assure people that football is a safe (enough) sport, you would think this kind of thing wouldn’t be tolerated. But in a world where Friday night really is all about the local football team, I would imagine it would be easy for weak minds to get sucked into the good-old-boy thing and try to be popular with the coaches, instead of doing their jobs. So children risk getting their heads snapped off so that some middle aged guys can feel like big-swinging-dicks in their hometown. Lovely.

The parents aren’t off the hook either. Every team has the parent that can’t help but scream loudly from the sidelines. Most of the time we are screaming encouragement, but sometimes parents are just plain mean. Just try to remember that the kid that missed that tackle or dropped the ball, his parents are probably sitting near you. Shouting that “we need to find some kids that want to PLAY FOOTBALL” isn’t going to win you any friends. And blowing up your Coach’s email with tirades about how your little darling isn’t getting enough playing time at the position you want them to play at only teaches your kids not to respect their Coach.

All this adult over-involvement manages to do is ruin it for the kids. Whether it’s people wagering thousands of dollars on a single play of pee-wee football in Florida, parents yelling at officials, or coaches quitting because parents are too much work, we are all sucking the fun out of something that gave us so many good memories as kids. I’m beginning to think those good memories were only possible because our parents hardly ever came to our games. They didn’t buy t shirts in school colors to sit at a rec field and question whether or not I should be playing something grander than right field (I did not). And if I got in trouble with a coach and had to sit out, my parents would have been disappointed with me. They would not go running off to confront my coach about how I can’t miss playing time or I won’t get onto the team at Stanford.

We all wish there were more coaches like Matt Labrum, who suspended his entire football team because of their lack of character off the field. But what I think we don’t realize is that we really wish there were more communities like his…where the parents said, “Yeah, they are acting like jerks and need to bring it down a notch or two” instead of storming the Coach’s office with pitchforks and torches.

Maybe someday people will remember that youth sports used to be about letting the kids wear uniforms, learn about the rules of the game and maybe surprise themselves with what they accomplish. It was not about free rides, pro careers, or other such nonsense. Let them learn how to lose with pride and win with grace. Let them come to terms with the fact that they are not the next Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter, and that’s okay. Most people have neither the talent or the drive to play organized sports past high school anyway.

Try this for some perspective: there are more wild pandas than MLB players, so everyone just relax and have some fun.

Edamame Extraveganza

I don’t know if you’ve heard about the recent honey smuggling ring to avoid tariffs on Chinese produced honey. You may not know that there are places in China where pesticide misuse has made it necessary for people to hand-pollinate pear and apple crops because there are now no bees left. You may not have seen pictures of Chinese cities where you can’t see the office building across the street because the air pollution is so bad. But these things all play a part in my search for domestic edamame.

The Chinese are not known for there amazing food safety record. On the contrary, they are still struggling with safety vs. profit (aren’t we all). The laws regarding pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are a throwback to the Wild West: there are none. Chemicals that have been banned in the rest of the world find their way to Chinese farms. Even chemicals that are widely used in the West are over applied and misused.

You might be thinking that edamame is Japanese, so why does all this Chinese mumbo-jumbo matter? Take a moment and check the back of your Trader Joe’s box or Costco bag, and you will see that the beans are a product of China. Believe me, I have been checking edamame bags everywhere I find them. From Jewel to our Asian market, they are all Chinese edamame.

I found this a little odd…since I live in the country that produces the most soybeans in the world (it isn’t even close – Brazil is second and we produce about twice what they do). Surely there must be American edamame somewhere.

I started my search, and quickly realized that almost all of the soy we produce is used for vegetable (soy) oil and things like fillers for processed foods and feed for animals. The actual food grade edamame that I wanted is much harder to find. Thank goodness for Google.

Luckily for me, Western Michigan is actually crawling with small farms that grow batches of food grade edamame. I went on a lovely little website called LocalHarvest that let me enter my zip code, and then it burped out a list of farms and what they produced. I was in U Pick heaven. I found a couple of places nearby (which I have found is a relative term here in Michigan), shot off a few emails, and in short order had 20 pounds of certified organic edamame being picked and boxed for me.

We ended up with almost twice what we ordered – the pods weren’t as big as she had thought – so I found myself on the business end of almost 40 pounds of unprocessed soybeans.

They were filthy. When you think about it, of course they were filthy, they grow on a farm, out of the ground. But after living a mostly buy-it-in-the-bag-already-washed existence, I was startled at how much work is was just to get the pods ready for the blanching pot. The little buggers are covered with a peach fuzz-like “hair”, and those hairs are really good at holding onto dirt. And then, when you wash them in giant vats in the sink, a lot of the hairs fall off and make the water so dark it looks like coffee.

After two solid hours of washing, rinsing, washing and rinsing again, I had a dining room table that was completely covered in edamame. Covered.

One by one, carefully measured two-pound batches of edamame were blanched, put in a cold bath, rinsed in cold water, and bagged for their new home in my freezer. It was a ton of work, but the kind that makes you feel good and productive when its over, like mowing the lawn or building a deck.

Of course, according to the DH (the Japanese food snob) it was the wrong edamame. He was disappointed that they weren’t some kind of specific variety. I expressed that this might have been something he should have mentioned before I bought the stuff. He tasted it and deemed them sweet and good enough, but next time I needed to ask for some kind of Japanese Giant variety and I thought to myself “no, next time you need to ask, because I don’t really give a crap.”

We now need to eat about a pound of edamame a week to stay ahead of the stuff. The boys eat them for snacks and I love popping them into salads, so it shouldn’t be too much of a chore.

Will I do it again? You bet. And I am so ferociously cheap that I will even probably go ahead and u pick next year to get them for even less money. Who knew that proximity to fresh produce would one of the things to make the move here so exciting?

Swamp People are the Best People

Oh YEAH!

Usually, the Terrors and I head out for an “Historic Road Trip” for spring break. I like driving in the car with them, listening to audio books, listening to the bickering, and then ending up somewhere with tons of stuff I want to see and just enough stuff for Terrors to be interested in to keep them from staging a mutiny.  This year I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. We could spend more time out East with our friends, but they weren’t on spring break and then you just become a problem instead of a guest. So where to go…where to go…?

The DH decided he needed to get away as well, which was nice for many reasons, not the least of which was we could now go CAMPING!

The DH and I are huge RV fans. We have a small camper and love to take it out with the kids. Someday, when the kids have moved out, we intend to be full-timers. I have never taken the Terrors camping on my own for spring break before because I simply cannot back up the camper. I lack the whatever it is in the brain that can do this feat of mental and physical dexterity. I don’t even like to pull it into a gas station, for fear of getting stuck. The DH, however, can back a camper into ANY SPOT! It’s truly a gift. I am in awe of his awesomeness.

So now we decided to go camping. But where?

Our damp, snowy, cold, overcast winter left us longing for warmth and sunshine. The DH checked the weather around the States and came up with Louisiana being the warmest place in driving distance for that week.

Now, if you know me, you know I LOVE New Orleans. I love the food, love the little bit of French, love the art and architecture. I was thrilled with this idea. The true brain storm, however, belonged to the DH: “Why don’t we stay out in the swamp and see if we can go on a tour. What about Pierre Part, where they film Swamp People?”

Seriously? The DH was going to take me to (hopefully) meet my “boyfriend in the TV” Mr. Troy Landry? Was he nuts? Could I pack fast enough? Even the boys couldn’t believe that this was how we were going to spend historic road trip. It was a spring break miracle.

We dug the RV out of its snow pack, set a land speed record for getting it prepped and ready to go, and headed out.

The first day was pretty uneventful. A lot of NPR on the radio, a lot of iStuff in the backseat. The next day was the interesting one. Ever drive across a 5 mile bridge over a lake in thunderstorms, 10 yard visibility and wind gusts up to 50 mph? Wish we hadn’t.

We spent our first day introducing the Terrors to New Orleans. We fed them alligator, walked them through the square, let them make a mess out of themselves with bags full of powdered sugar they call beignets.

First bite of gator sausage

First bite of gator nuggets

Tuesday was the BIG DAY. We were going on a swamp tour with Captain Vic. Capt. Vic was recommended by the good people at Duffy’s. If you watch Swamp People you’ll know that this is the gas station/quick mart/seafood storage place that the Landry family owns. Who else would you go to for a swamp tour? They hooked us up with Capt. Vic and we couldn’t wait to bake in some swamp sunshine and hopefully spy a few gators.

I had never been to a swamp before. It is indescribably beautiful. Crowds of cypress trees standing knees deep in thick water. Green everywhere. You should really take the time to see it. If you are in Chicago there is a great one in Southern Illinois you can check out. We saw two gators that were about 12 feet or larger, and Capt. Vic made the comment that he wasn’t sure if we were circling the gators, or they were circling us. At one point a gator we were watching splashed and disappeared: Capt. Vic couldn’t get us out of there fast enough. That’s when it hits you that you are not, in fact, on a Disney ride and these animals could flip the boat and gorge on Terror nuggets.

Every time we got in the car the boys would beg us to go to Duffy’s. They were sure that they would get to meet Troy Landry if they just went there enough times. Like you had to stalk him for a certain amount of hours before they’d let him out of the back. We needed gas, so we went there. And wouldn’t you know, the people out front told us that Jacob was inside.

Jacob is Troy’s son, also a cast member on the show, and he couldn’t have been sweeter.

Jacob Landry

Jacob Landry

He was helping out in the store when we walked in. I told him he had some huge fans in the Terrors, and he dropped everything to talk to them. They told him about the gators we saw. He teased them about not noting which ponds they were in so he could track them down in gator season. He signed all their hats, posed for pictures, and MADE THEIR DAY.

As great as this interaction was, it only made them more desperate to meet Troy. Not that I was against that idea, but I had no intention of spending our entire vacation at Duffy’s.

The next day was the Tabasco factory, and the next morning we packed up to leave Pierre Part for good. The Terrors were BEGGING us to make one last trip to Duffy’s. Please. Please. Please. They said he goes there in the morning. We need sunflower seeds and gas. Please…! 

We pulled into Duffy’s with the RV and to their crushing disappointment Troy was nowhere to be seen. We were done filling up, we had purchased our snacks, and it was time to go… when, what…wait…who’s that walking through the door? TROY LANDRY! The boys ran and got the hats that Jacob had signed. Troy came out of the back and The Rookie walked right up to him and says “Will you sign my hat?” Troy laughed and then talked to the boys for a bit (and I actually can understand what he’s saying…you just have to pay attention), posed for pictures, and gave me a little squeeze when I thanked him for being so nice to the boys. Then I gave even BIGGER thank you’s and squeezes to the Terrors for not telling Troy just how big a crush their Mom has on him.

Troy Landry

Troy Landry

Our swamp vacation was a huge success. J still lights up like a Christmas tree when he talks about it. We even managed to sneak in some history by taking the Natchez Trace Parkway back up to Nashville.

Don’t know how I’m going to top this next year…

Ah…Plumbing…My Great Nemesis

I wish I had a picture.

I wish I had had the time to take a picture of the disgusting lake that formed underneath my kitchen sink, but I was too busy trying to make sure the food-bit filled water didn’t seep underneath the hardwood floors.

It started off a simple evening. I was clearing the debris from another culinary masterpiece (not) when Jack calmly informed me that the cabinet was leaking. A quick look down and I discovered that a miniature Niagara Falls had formed out of not one, but both corners of our sink cabinet. I slammed the water off and opened the cabinet to see where the leak was coming from. There wasn’t a small pool turning into a river gently flowing out of the cabinet. Nope, it was everywhere. The entire floor of the cabinet was covered in dirty water and whatever it was that was chopped up by the food processor.

“TOWELS!” I yelled at the Terrors, and they quickly got the three towels left in the kitchen drawer. I had been hoping they would raid the beach towels, but instead of screaming at them, I decided to direct them to the cache of paper towels in the mud room. The Terrors formed a fire line and ferried all the crap that lives under the sink to the counter. After some frantic mopping and toweling, I got most of the standing water.

Then I turned on the water to sleuth out the leak. Wasn’t much need for it though. An entire fitting had worked its way loose, so the pipes weren’t actually connected under my sink. Yowza.

Of course, the DH is not home. And, of course, plumbing is the one DIY project I will not mess with on my own. Visions of blowing up the hot water heater, or a slow, drippy leak destroying my house, dance through my head anytime I attempt actual plumbing. With the DH by my side, I will assist, but I have to admit he does most of the heavy lifting in this department.

This meant I had to call the Rock Star Contractor, who I’m sure was thrilled to see my cell number blow up his phone. I explained that we were forming a swimming pool in the kitchen and I would love to have some assistance in fixing the problem. Expecting the worst, he showed up and was clearly thrilled to have it be something he could fix cleanly and quickly. Not quite as thrilled as I was, but thrilled nonetheless.

So instead of watching the final Twilight movie I will be washing the bottoms of all the Things That Live Under the Sink. grumble grumble