Living La Vita Locale 6/4: Strawberry Jam

Strawberries?  Again?  Well, that’s the seasonal life — eating foods when they come into season, and trying to preserve some of it to eat when it is not.  I have already written about freezing strawberries, but I have never posted about making strawberry jam, a staple item in  our pantry.  We use it for flavoring yogurt, flavoring ice cream and sometimes just spreading it on toasted really easy homemade bread.

I always had very bad luck making jam.  It wasn’t until my friend Andrea took me under her wing that I got the most important part of making jam: follow the directions exactly!  Here they are:

Before you start with the berries, prepare the canning jars according to manufacturer’s specifications.  There is no use going to the trouble of making jam if you mess up on the jars.  They must be sterile.  I boil the jars in the canner and leave them simmering until I am ready to can the jam.

Strawberry Jam

  • 3-4 quarts of strawberries, with the green caps and any stems removed, lightly crushed to make 6 Cups
  • 8 Cups of sugar
  • 3 1/2 T powdered pectin (or one box)

Measure 6 cups of crushed berries into a big stainless (or other non-reactive metal) kettle.  Add the pectin and stir it in.  Turn on a high heat and bring the fruit to a full rolling boil.  Not a simmer (my early jam mistake — I never let it come up to a full boil).  Once it is boiling, add the sugar and stir it in and bring the mixture back up to a full rolling boil and boil for one full minute (actually time it — don’t guesstimate) and remove from the heat. Let rest for 3 minutes.

Take the jars out of the canner and put them on a towel.

Skim the jam to remove any foam and then gently stir the jam to evenly disperse the fruit.

Fill the jars leaving a 1/2 inch of head space and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (that’s for Sea Level NJ.  If you live someplace that has an altitude over 1,000 feet, consult an expert!).

 

Tacos From the Freezer

One of the ways we make dinner easier is by cooking in advance and putting things in the freezer.  The title is a bit misleading, because we don’t actually eat tacos from the freezer.  We have Taco Casserole, or Taco Lasagna. It is one of those super easy meals to make in advance and put in the freezer.  When I make this I generally make three or four casseroles (yes, we have a lot of freezer space), cook one and then freeze the others. When my friend Andrea (you may remember her from other entries, like Felony Milk) shared this idea with me I was very excited.  And then I thought that I couldn’t make it because the recipe included one envelope of taco seasoning.  Did you ever read the ingredient list on that stuff?  NO way I could put that in anything I make.  As I was walking home, I thought, DUH, I’ll make my own.  Creating your own spice mixes and having them on hand is really simple and makes your cooking life that much easier.  Awhile back, I shared a recipe for Seafood Seasoning that is akin to an “Aged Inlet” since I don’t want to get into any corporate trouble.  Here’s another one.  I actually mix this up by the pint, because we use is frequently.  In addition to seasoning meat for tacos, it is great mixed with yogurt or sour cream for dip.

Taco Seasoning

In a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, put the following ingredients:

  • 2 T chile powder (we use Ancho Chili Powder)
  • 2 t garlic powder
  • 1 T onion powder
  • 2 t red pepper flakes (more or less– adjust to how hot you like things)
  • 2 t oregano
  • 2 t paprika
  • 3 t cumin
  • 2t salt
  • 2 t black pepper

Put the lid on and shake to blend.  I use about 2 tablespoons per pound of meat.  If you prefer this to be more like commercial seasoning, you should crumble the oregano very fine.

Purchasing spices in bulk really saves a lot of money.  Check out Frontier Co-op and Penzey Spices to read up and get informed.  Both of these sites are stores, so they want you to buy, but they also both have a lot of information.

Now, Taco Casserole

For each casserole:

  • 1 package of corn tortillas
  • 1 pint jar of Salsa
  • 1/2 lb. Colby cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 lb. ground meat (we generally use beef, but any ground meat will work)
  • 2 -3 T taco seasoning mix (above), divided in half
  1. In a large skillet, heat about 1T of fat — just enough to brown the garlic and onions.  Saute the garlic and onions until golden brown.  Add 1/2 of the taco seasoning and stir around until it smells like tacos.
  2. Add the ground meat.  stir frequently to break up the chunks.  The meat should be in little pieces for this.
  3. Cook until the meat is all brown and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add the rest of the taco seasoning and stir to mix thoroughly.
  4. While the meat is browning, oil the bottom of your casserole dish.  Put in a layer of tortillas to cover the bottom.  They will overlap and there will be some “bare spots.”
  5. Spoon in enough meat mixture to cover the bottom of the pan in a thin layer.  Smooth on some salsa and then a layer of each of the cheese.  Repeat the layering, ending with tortillas.  Cover with foil.
  6. If you are freezing it, put the reserved cheeses in a freezer bag and cover the casserole with foil.
  7. To bake: put the cheese on the counter to defrost. Put the cold casserole in a cold oven.  Turn the oven on to 350F and back for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil cover and add the cheese.  Put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.
  8. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving.

I get foil pans and make this casserole in the disposable pans.  I understand that this isn’t the most ecologically sound thing to do, but it makes clean-up fast and easy.  And let’s face it, part of why we eat out or get take-out or delivery is not only do we not feel like cooking, we don’t feel like cleaning up, either!

On Canning Tomatoes

Repetitive tasks appear to be what we must avoid.  I remember a college professor telling a story about a writer who worked in a factory, twisting caps on toothpaste, or something equally mundane, day after day, week after week, month after month.  Selling poetry is no way to earn a living wage, so poets need to work outside of their own minds in order to be sure there isn’t too much month left at the end of the money.  This writer loved his job because the physical monotony of his work allowed his mind to be free to work on poems.  He kept a small spiral-bound notebook in his back pocket and pulled it out to write down ideas as they occurred to him.  Most of us could not get away with that! We have jobs that require incredible attention to what is in front of us.  I think this is part of why I enjoy canning, especially these next couple of weeks when the tomatoes are just going crazy, and all I seem to be doing is cooking, straining, and canning.  Canning tomatoes, and canning tomatoes, and canning tomatoes may seem mundane and monotonous, but the task provides the opportunity to be mentally active on one task, like what I am going to be teaching the first week of school, while I am being physically productive preserving tomatoes.

CSA Tomatoes
CSA Tomatoes

Another reason I love canning tomatoes is because, in a sense, this is where all of this food stuff began for me.  Canning tomatoes.  It brings me back to my beginning.  In a weird way, it’s like looking at pictures of my children when they were infants, a sort of loving nostalgia.  And to be quite frank, it isn’t very difficult and you don’t need any special equipment outside of proper canning jars and lids, and a pot that is large enough for the jars to stand upright and have enough water to cover.

Easiest procedure using the least amount of equipment:  Cut and core the tomatoes and put them in a pot.  Cook over a medium heat until they have reduced in volume by a little over 1/2.  So if you start out with 4 quarts of tomatoes, cook them down to 2 quarts.  Let them cool a little and puree in a blender, or run a stick blender through them.  While the tomatoes are cooking, prepare the jars by boiling them in your boiling water bath, and prepare the lids according to package directions.  Ladle prepared tomatoes into jars, adding 1T lemon juice per pint, 2 T lemon juice per quart, affix the lids, and process (20 minutes for pints, 25 minutes for quarts).

Squeezo
Squeezo

If you want to remove the seeds and skins entirely, you will need to run the tomatoes through a sieve, food mill or Squeezo-type extractor.

Really Easy Homemade Bread

Notice the title doesn’t read Home-Baked Bread.  If you buy bread dough in the frozen food section of the supermarket, go home and pop it in the oven, that bread is home-baked.  Just like all of those restaurants that advertise “Baked on premises,” any industrially produced food that is put in the oven and cooked is baked in that oven.  Where a product is baked does not change the number of preservatives and additives that it contains.

There is no great mystery to bread baking.  Oh, there are bakers out there who would have you believe that baking bread is some tricky, difficult task.  Look at it this way, people have been baking bread for a thousand years.  How difficult can it be?  So, if you haven’t used your mixer in a while, dust it off!  Here is my recipe and method:

  • 1/2 C fat (I use melted lard*)
  • 1/2 C molasses** (or half honey and half molasses)
  • 2 C Warm water
  • 2 T milk
  • 2 t salt
  • 2 C AP flour
  • 4 C Whole Wheat flour
  • 2T + 2t yeast* (4 packets)
  1. Put the hook attachment on the mixer.
  2. Put all of the ingredients in the bowl of the mixer in the order listed.  By measuring the fat first, you grease the measuring cup and the molasses will slide right out of it.  By following with the water, you get the rest of the molasses off of the sides.
  3. Put down the hook and mix on “2” (the second slowest setting) for 8 minutes.
  4. Grease a bowl.
  5. After 8 minutes, turn the dough out and knead it a couple of times and form it into a ball.  The dough should be a little sticky.
  6. Put the dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.  Do not let it over-proof.
  7. Grease two loaf pans.
  8. Punch the dough and deflate it.  Mush it into a ball and cut the ball in half.
  9. Roll the 1/2 ball into a “snake” about 12″ long.
  10. Using a rolling pin, roll out the snake into a rectangle.
  11. Roll up the rectangle and then pinch the seams together.  For the sides, stretch the side to form a seam on what will be the bottom of the loaf.
  12. Place it in the loaf pan SEAM SIDE DOWN! Cover with plastic wrap.
  13. Repeat 9-12 for the other half.
  14. Let rise until double (about 45 minutes).
  15. Bake in a 350 F oven for 35 minutes.
  16. Take the loaves out of the pan ASAP.  Let cool completely before storing.

Notes:
*We use all pastured meats (that means the animals we eat were raised in pastures, out in the sunshine), and render our own lard.  I do not reccommend lard from the store, that has been sitting on a shelf for who knows how long. You can use butter, or even olive oil, although both impart a different flavor to the bread.

**YES, I use sweeteners!  Bread won’t rise unless the yeast has something to “eat.”  I choose molasses because in addition to being yeast food, it adds vitamins and minerals, including iron, so it isn’t just empty calories.

 

Making Your Own Greek-Style Yogurt

We love yogurt.  We especially love the thick, creamy Greek-style yogurt that has become so popular lately.  And just like everything else we have learned to do, making yogurt was a trial and error process.  The recipe that follows is more of a guideline than a hard and fast recipe.  The conditions in your kitchen will not be the same as the conditions in my kitchen.  Because we do not have air-conditioning at our house, the conditions in my kitchen vary drastically throughout the year, and therefore, so does my yogurt making.  I have one blanket for summer yogurt incubation and another for winter!

I have stopped using reserved yogurt as my starter.  I have found much more consistent results from using the whey that was strained from the last week’s yogurt.  However, you cannot strain commercial yogurt and use that whey as a starter.  That series of experiments was an epic fail!

Homemade Greek-Style Yogurt

3 ½ Cups of whole milk (see note below)

½ C plain yogurt (either commercial with LIVE cultures, or reserved from your last batch) OR 1/2 C whey from your last batch  of yogurt

candy thermometer

Heat the milk on the stove slowly.  If you are using pasteurized milk, heat to 180° F, and let cool to 110° F.  If you are using raw milk, heat to 110° F.   Whisk in the ½ C yogurt or whey.  Transfer to a quart size mason jar and place the jar and a heating pad inside a little cooler.  Turn the heating pad onto Medium.   Incubate for 4-8 hours, depending on how tart you like your yogurt.  After the yogurt has incubated, put it in the refrigerator until it is completely cooled (I usually leave it overnight).   The next morning, place a flour sack towel inside a sieve and place the sieve on a bowl.  If you have used raw milk, scrape the “cream” from the top and reserve in a small bowl.  Put the rest of the yogurt in the sieve.  Add the cream back on the top. Put it back in the fridge and let is strain for two or three hours.  Reserve the whey for lacto-fermenting (it will keep in a jar in the fridge for a couple of months).  Invert the sieve into the bowl and peel the towel off the yogurt and enjoy!  My children LOVE this yogurt salted for dipping vegetables.

NOTE:  I feel that grass-fed raw milk gives the best, most consistent results.  If you cannot get raw milk, try to find grass-fed milk that is not homogenized.  If you can’t find that, then settle for organic milk that has not been ultra-pasteurized.