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FYI: At some point, I made this journal friends-only. I haven't bothered friends-locking old entries yet, though I might at some point.

Thing Fifty-Five: JAM!

I've done some canning before. Not much. I canned some pickled jalapeños in an effort to preserve some of my garden's produce. That, I did on my own. I also made some amazingly delicious apple butter with one of my bridesmaids, canning that in little jars as favors for my wedding this past fall. She and I worked together on that all day, and finished pretty late at night. I still have some of that apple butter, and it has been a delight to eat on my toast.

That same friend and former bridesmaid is on vacation this week, and asked me to check in on her cats every few days. My "bonus" for doing so was that I could pick as many blackberries from her backyard blackberry bush as I wanted, since the ripe ones wouldn't be good anymore by the time she and her family returned. On Monday, I went to check on the cats, and ended up picking an entire QUART of blackberries. I just couldn't bear to leave any of the ripe ones that I could reach there to rot. Now, I'd also just been to the farmers' market, and had bought a fairly big box of bluberries. This made for a grand total of one metric buttload of berries. It was definitely more than I could eat before they went bad. There was only one possible solution: cook the blackberries up into something that would last longer than they would fresh.

Now, my husband is a big fan of blackberry jam, but prefers it WITH seeds. These days, it can be hard to find any that isn't seedless in the stores. What could be a better use of my bounty than to make a supply of seedy blackberry jam? I ran to the Interwebz and sought advice from my go-to resource on canning, the National Center for Home Food Preservation. It had a little chart that gave simple ratios for making fruit jams, with or without pectin. Since I didn't have any pectin, I opted for the latter. For any kind of berry, it said, use four cups of crushed berry pulp to four cups of sugar, and that would make 3-4 half-pint jars.

When I washed and crushed my berries, I was left with about two cups of pulp. Hey, easy ratios are easy! I dumped the pulp and two cups of sugar into a non-reactive pot, and started cooking it down while I sterilized a couple of half-pint jars. When it started looking thicker, I checked it by putting a spoonful on a chilled plate in the freezer for a couple of minutes. Yes, it had gelled nicely! I filled my two jars, and heard the lids pop satisfyingly. But what was this? I had a decent bit of jam still left in the pot! I grabbed one of the little jars I'd used for the apple butter, gave it a wash, and popped it into the pot to sterilize. I filled it and put on the lid, and to my relief (it was a little one-piece screw-on lid with no button), it went concave on me very quickly. Success! I still had more jam in the pot, but it was too late for me to consider sterilizing another jar, so I just washed one, spooned in the jam, and stuck it in the fridge.

I feel like this was a super-successful venture for several reasons:
1) I avoided waste of good produce by preserving it!
2) I got in some practice canning!
3) I learned a simple ratio that will mean I'll never need a pectin-free jam recipe again!
4) I made something yummy that my husband will like!

All in all, a win.


OK, OK, I didn't REALLY cook snake. Granted, I could have done. This is the Boston area, after all. We have Savenor's, where they will either stock or acquire any kind of meat you could want (and some you might NOT want). I didn't really want to pay for it or go to the hassle of trekking to Savenor's to get it, though. Instead, when I was eyeing the Dornish Snake with Fiery Sauce recipe from A Feast of Ice and Fire, I decided to go with something a little more mundane as the base: chicken thighs.

Now, if you've read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series at all, you know that Dorne is a hot place, desert-like, and that the food they eat there is in many ways similar to that of our world's Middle East. They are even keener on hot peppers in Dorne than they are in that part of our world, though, and any recipe including the word "Dornish" is likely to be quite spicy.

The recipe for the "Fiery Sauce" in this cookbook is no exception. It contains whole-grain mustard, red wine, peppers, turmeric, honey, lemon juice, and olive oil. For the peppers, the cookbook authors recommend ancho. I ended up using half ancho and half Aleppo. Also, I was lacking whole-grain mustard, so I used about 2/3 dijon mustard with 1/3 whole mustard seeds.

The combination of the ingredients was one that intrigued me, with half of them adding up to something fairly French (wine, mustard, olive oil) and the other half adding up to something Middle Eastern (hot peppers, honey, lemon, turmeric). When I cooked the sauce ingredients down as instructed, a delicious alchemy seemed to take place, melding everything into a combination that was rich, complex, and warming. This sauce was super, super good. The balance of sweet, hot, tart, and savory was just right. It transformed my simply baked chicken thighs into something exotic and delicious. Accompanied by homemade tabbouleh (herbs and tomatoes from my garden!) and some roasted eggplant, I could imagine myself transported to Dorne, eating my dinner by under a pomegranate tree by the water gardens with the Martells. This will DEFINITELY be a "make again" recipe.


Thing Fifty-Three: Wok Hei

...or, "Don't Fear The Burner."

Wok Hei is not a dish. It is not an ingredient. It is an essence, a characteristic taste and smell. Literally translated, it means "Wok Breath." Wok Hei is the sort of smokiness that makes the stir fries you get at restaurants taste so good. It is achieved by stir-frying ingredients in a wok over VERY high heat, with oil that has reached the smoke point. The technique involves moving the food around the wok quickly, so that it gets tossed through the vaporizing oil. You don't even really need a whole lot of oil to do this. Today, I managed it with a good spray of canola oil from a mister. It's not easy to achieve at home because most people's ranges don't get hot enough. The best way to make it work is to cook in small batches. Today, I worked with about two cups of shredded cabbage and kale for my first batch, and about a cup or so of mixed sliced zucchini, sweet peppers, and onions for my second. The real key, though, is to put your burner up as high as it will go. I spent a long time afraid to turn my burners above medium high for anything other than boiling water. Now, though, when I take the wok out, I put it on the most powerful burner, crank it up to high, and let it blaze with abandon.

I am planning, one of these days when my husband is home to remind me how to use it properly, to put the wok on our outdoor propane burner (SRS BSNS BTUs) to REALLY get that baby going. My husband was the one who suggested this. I love having an enabler.

Wok Hei can make the difference between a decent stir fry and an excellent one. It adds a whole new dimension to the taste of the dish. All I seasoned this dish with was a little soy sauce, a splash of dry sherry, a drizzle of sesame oil, and some white pepper, but the result was complex and delicious.

So give it a try! Don't fear the burner!


Thing Fifty-Two: Cherry pie

The house next door to mine, the one where the neighbors are loud and obnoxious, has a cherry tree. I suspect it was planted by the old guy who used to live there. He was an elderly Italian guy who had a nice garden. The tree is quite big, and some of its branches reach over the fence between the two yards and hang down over the edge of my yard and the back of my driveway. This leads to a lot of cherries going "splat" onto the ground and making a huge mess. I decided this year to kill two birds with one (cherry) stone: I picked a whole bunch of cherries--as many ripe ones as I could reach with the aid of a wire hook made from a coat hanger--and minimized the mess while acquiring noms.

Since I had SO many cherries, I decided to make a pie. I did a little poking around for pie recipes that used sweet cherries rather than sour ones, and found this one on one of my favorite recipe blogs. I trust Deb, so I decided to make this. I already had a couple of storebought pie crusts in the freezer that needed to be used, so instead of making her crust, I just used those. I didn't have quite two and a half pounds of cherries from that tree. I did, however, have a bunch from the bag I bought at the supermarket the other day! I combined the two bunches of cherries. Let me tell you: I am SO GLAD that I bought a four-at-a-time cherry pitter last year! That was an EXCELLENT investment. I didn't have any almond extract, so I added a splash of maraschino liqueur instead. I think that will be a nice addition.

The crusts were a little unruly. One was in the form of a big ball of dough because it had been opened but not used. I was smart enough to take it out of the bag and dab off the condensation from the inside of the bag and the dough itself while it was defrosting, but I didn't open up the unopened crust. Consequently, that one ended up kind of mushy on the outside edge. Still, they held together for me to make the pie. It didn't turn out all that pretty. I am very clumsy with forming neat edges! I hope it will still taste good tonight, though. Voila!

Cherry Pie


Thing Fifty-One: Thai Peanut Chicken

With this entry, I'm finally past the halfway mark on the 100 Things challenge! Jeez, it's only taken me...FOREVER. When I started, I wasn't even engaged yet. Sheesh. Anyway, the past two nights, I've had a really tasty dinner. I had some leftover coconut milk after making some shrimp in a Thai-style sauce for dinner with my husband on Saturday night. I had also just replenished our supply of peanut butter. Clearly, this called for a nice peanut sauce.

I started with a base of those two things--the coconut milk and the peanut butter--whisked together. To that, I added fish sauce, soy sauce, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, galangal, Sriracha, lime juice, and brown sugar. I tinkered a little with the balance, adding a bit more of this, then of that, until it was just right. Then, I pounded chicken breasts to an even thickness, and seasoned both sides with salt, garlic, ginger, galangal, and lime. I cooked them in my grill pan until they got nice grill marks on both sides, and were done all the way through. I let them rest for a few minutes, before putting the sauce on top. I served it with corn on the cob (lightly microwaved in the husk, then charred over a gas burner) and salad, both nights. So delicious.

The nice thing about this dinner is that the most time-consuming part of it was making tonight's salad, since I had to wash the fresh lettuce from the farmers' market and spin it dry before making the salad. All in all, it was quite fast.


Thing Fifty: Pear Blossom

I actually made this recipe up back on May 18th, but only posted about it on Facebook. Since it's a cocktail recipe, I'm using my cocktail icon instead of my usual Swedish Chef. :) I wanted something fruity to drink, but not just citrusy, something springlike and refreshing. Since my bridal shower back in September, I've had a bottle of pear vodka sitting on my bar, barely touched, and I've wanted to find a good use for it. Well, this was it. I mixed two ounces of the pear vodka with one ounce of Lillet Blanc, half an ounce of lemon juice, and half an ounce of simple syrup. The result was fruity, slightly tart, with the subtle floral taste you get from pears and also from the Lillet, and very drinkable. I decided to call it the Pear Blossom, for lack of anything better that came to mind. I think the thing that makes me proudest about this cocktail is that I created it by using the kinds of ingredient ratios I've seen in other cocktails, balancing strong and sour and sweet. My instincts on how much of everything to use turned out to be spot-on.

I am drinking one now, as it happens, and it is lovely!


Thing Forty-Nine: Scallops Provençale

Guess what? I followed a recipe! Well, mostly. :)

Anyone who reads this blog knows I usually make stuff up when I cook. Yesterday, though, my brain was mostly focused on knitting and gardening, and by the time late afternoon came around and I realized I'd need to go to the grocery store soon, I had no idea of what to make for dinner. I went on Serious Eats and looked at a couple of the recipe columns they have that focused on quick and easy cooking. Browsing one of them ("French in a Flash"), I found a recipe for Broiled Scallops Provençale. The name of the recipe is a bit misleading, as the scallops are really baked, not broiled, at a fairly high heat.

The basic idea of the recipe is that you put scallops and grape tomatoes into a couple of gratin dishes, then top them with a mix of breadcrumbs, fresh basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, and butter. You bake them at 450 until the top is brown and the scallops are cooked through. I didn't have gratin dishes, so I just used an 8"x8" Pyrex baking dish and put both servings in there. I substituted panko for the fresh breadcrumbs in the recipe, since that's what I had available. I also didn't have grape tomatoes; however, I did have Campari tomatoes, which I quartered and stuck in there with the scallops. I used less butter in the breadcrumbs than the recipe specified, I think--maybe a tablespoon instead of two.

This was a really easy recipe. The herbed breadcrumbs were deliciously flavorful. The scallops were perfectly cooked through. The tomatoes provided a tangy complement to the sweet scallops. Everything worked beautifully, even if I did need to cook it a bit longer than the recipe specified, likely due to the different bakeware.

I used some of the fresh basil along with some fresh dill I had to make a yogurt-based dressing for the salad that accompanied the scallops. I thought about making some polenta to serve underneath the scallops when I plated them, but decided the dish would probably be filling enough, and it was. This will definitely be a dish I make again!


Thing Forty-Eight: Vinegar

I think this is the first time I've posted about making something that I'm using primarily as an ingredient in other things. I suppose yogurt could count, since I usually eat it with other things (on oatmeal, with honey and fruit, etc.), but this is a real raw ingredient. Yes, I made my own vinegar!

It all started a few years back. I noticed that a big ol' chunk of slime was sitting in my balsamic vinegar bottle. Grossed out beyond belief, I threw it away. It wasn't until later that I found out that the slimeball was actually something called a vinegar mother. This is a collection of the awesome little bacteria that convert ethanol (the kind of alcohol that we drink) to vinegar. This slimeball, I read, could be used to make your own vinegar from wine! How exciting! I resolved that if I were ever to see a slimeball like that again, I would treasure it instead of throwing it away, and would use it to make vinegar.

It took a few years before I found another mother in a vinegar bottle. Again, it was the balsamic variety. When I finished the vinegar, I bought myself an inexpensive bottle of red wine from Trader Joe's (don't ask me what kind, but it was a dollar or two over the price of the Two-Buck Chuck). I also bought a glass crock that could easily hold the entire bottle, with more than enough space left over for the mother. I poured the wine into the crock, and shook the vinegar bottle over it until the slimeball squeezed out with a schlup and fell in with a plop. I covered the crock with cheesecloth to keep bugs (and cat hair) out, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Everything I read said that only a couple weeks were necessary to turn wine into vinegar, but my wine wasn't getting sour, and I was getting impatient. After a little more research, I concluded that sadly, my mother was mostly made up of dead bacteria, not live and hungry ones. I decided that instead of throwing away a failed experiment, I'd fix it with a cheat. I went out and bought some Bragg's Cider Vinegar, an unfiltered raw vinegar that has the mother still in it. In their vinegar, the mother is not a slimeball, but a less nasty-looking cloudy haze that settles to the bottom of the bottle if undisturbed. I poured a little of it into my wine, and waited.

I did not have to wait as long, this time. Before too much time had passed, my wine was mouth-puckeringly sour. I had vinegar! A couple of nights ago, I did my best to filter it. Unfortunately, it seemed to clog up paper coffee filters. I ended up using a chinois and calling it good, but I'd like a somewhat clearer vinegar next time. After all, I don't need to save it for a mother if I have the Bragg's. I reckon that any filtering method I used at home would still leave SOME of the mother in the vinegar, anyway.

Last night, I used the vinegar to make a Greek salad dressing. I mixed it with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, and oregano, a pinch of salt, and just a tiny pinch of sugar to balance it out. The vinegar definitely has more character than the one-dimensional stuff from the supermarket. I'm really excited by that. I'm interested now in making other vinegars, perhaps from mead or sherry. I may even make some just to give as gifts. The more scientific side of my chef self also wants to get some pH testing strips that I can use to determine pH over a wider range than the set we currently have in the brewing box can handle. I figure, if I can ensure that the pH is at the right level, I can use it in pickling! Exciting!


Thing Forty-Seven: Squeeeeeeeeed.

I'm in the middle of reading an issue of Saveur devoted to seafood. Last night, this made me decide to cook seafood for dinner. I settled on squid because it's cheap and easy, and it has a nice texture--when you don't overcook it. Cook squid too long, and it turns into a rubber band. Get it just right, and it has a nice tooth to it, but isn't hard to chew at all.

I chose a stir fry because I was craving Asian-style flavors, and those always go well with squid. I also wanted vegetables to be part of the main dish, and stir fries are great for combining veggies with animal protein. I started out with the first step of almost all my stir fries: aromatics. I used minced garlic, minced fresh ginger, and scallions cut into one-inch pieces. When they started releasing their delicious smells in the hot oil, I added in broccoli that I'd cut into florets, and some cut frozen green beans that I'd happened to have on hand. I added a splash of water at this point, because I wanted to get the broccoli nice and tender-crisp before blasting it with high heat to get the Maillard reaction going to create some flavor. After it had cooked for a bit, I also added some mushrooms (a variety of types, most of which came from a gourmet mix I got at Whole Foods, and some of which I rehydrated from a package of dried oyster mushrooms). Once the broccoli got to the tender point, I turned up the heat and added the squid.

Some people aren't fond of squid tentacles, but I love 'em, and the guy at the fish counter at my grocery store seems to remember that about me. He offered to bring out some tentacles that weren't in the display case, so I could have some. I sliced up the bodies, and tossed them and the whole tentacle-portions into the wok. I also started adding sauce ingredients right away, since the squid cooks so quickly. I used black bean sauce (a really thick version of that funky fermented paste), mirin (Japanese rice wine, which I wanted for the sweetness), and Sriracha sauce. Then more Sriracha sauce. And a bit more. OK, a little more. Hey, I was craving SPICY, OK? All that blended with the liquid released by the squid to form a spicy, umami-rich sauce for the dish.

When the squid was opaque, the tentacles were curled up, and the sauce was bubbling and thick, I turned off the heat. I drizzled in some dark sesame oil, and mixed that in to add depth. The dish turned out perfectly. I had realized I was kind of craving white rice, which I rarely eat, and decided to use up the last of my sushi rice. I didn't actually make it sushi-style, with vinegar, but I made it nice and sticky and fluffy and good. I left the rice itself plain in cooking, but topped it with Japanese furikake sprinkles (these ones were dried fish eggs, nori strips, and sesame seeds).

Everything was great, and I have leftovers for dinner tonight. I'm so glad my grocery store carries squid on a pretty regular basis! I think there are a lot of people out there who have only tried it in the form of fried calamari rings, and who don't know what a versatile, delicious, and EASY protein it can be. So get out there, people, and buy some squeeeeeed.