16 July 2014

Super Sour Dill Pickle Recipe

I freaking love pickles. On chicken sandwiches. On overly-burned hot dogs. Straight out of the jar for an afternoon snack. So when I learned to make my own pickles, I felt like I was unstoppable.

Except, the first few jars of pickles I made were soft and limp. And if you're averse to creepy food textures like me, I didn't want to have anything to do with these unsatisfying salty treats. Hadn't I followed all the canning instructions? Yes. Didn't I look into using pickling lime and crisping pellets? Sure. But that felt about as natural as the food dyes they put in Vlasic dill chips.

That's right. They dye them that color.

I started looking for pickles that contained more natural ingredients and fell in love with Claussen. They still had a couple of ingredients I questioned (high fructose corn syrup??? IN PICKLES?), but they preserve their cukes differently: cold processing. No heating their produce.

I looked into copycat recipes for cold processing and found this one from Foodie with Family. It was a good start, but of course, I had to tweak it to my liking. I wanted my pickles to be sour enough that your mouth puckers with each bite. Foodie's recipe just didn't use enough vinegar for that.

So here's my process for making super sour dill pickles:

craploads of cucumbers
1/2 gallon apple cider vinegar
1/2 gallon water
2/3 cup Kosher salt or canning/pickling salt (DO NOT USE IODIZED SALT)
fresh dill sprigs (NO DRIED DILL WEED)
whole garlic cloves (preferably smashed)
fresh onion, cut into quarter rings
dill seed
pickling spices (I sometimes leave these out)

Some folks hate the fact that I don't always use exact measurements. But one of the cold hard facts about harvesting from your own garden is that you don't almost end up with the exact number of pieces of produce that a recipe calls for.  After a heavy rain, you might walk in with 40 gorgeously fat cukes. When you have long stretches of heat without a drop of precipitation, you might bring in a handful of short and oddly-shaped cukes. So to prepare for canning anywhere from 2 to 20 pints, I just make a gallon of pickling brine (vinegar, water, and salt) when making a batch of pickles, and whatever is left over gets stored in our fridge until the next time I need it.

Wash and cut your cukes to your liking. When I made a batch with my 13 year-old neighbor, we decided to make a "scrap" jar because so many cukes were weirdly shaped. It contained odd hunks, half slices, and whole baby cukes all in the same jar. Very fun.

If you believe cold-soaking cukes helps keep them crispy, you can put them in an ice water bath while you do the rest of the prep.

Make sure your jars, lids, and bands are clean and sterilized just before you start putting stuff in each one. Either run them through the dishwasher or clean them in hot, soapy water. Set them open-end up (lids, too) on a cooling rack.

Here's where you get to experiment. Add as much of the garlic, onion, fresh dill, dill seed, and pickling spices as you like TO EACH JAR! Think I'm crazy? Well, I am, but it's what makes the process fun and different each session. If you want some sort of "standard," though, here's a good baseline for each jar: 2 cloves garlic, 1 sprig fresh dill, several pieces of onion, 1-2 tsp dill seed, 1 tbsp pickling spices. I'm not a huge fan of the pickling spices, and I don't always have fresh dill. So at the very least, try to use the garlic, onion, and dill seed.

Pack each jar with the cut cukes to the top, pour the brine over them until the jars are almost full, and cover with a lid and band. Don't forget the date on top. They're supposed to be good for only a month, but we've had a couple of jars make it a year. Vinegar is a hell of a preservative. Let them cure on your counter until you open them, and then store them in your electric cold box.


Are these super sour pickles any good? Well, one friend ate an entire pint within 5 hours of me giving it to her. She even sent a photo of the empty jar with a request for another. A co-worker took a pint home to his family, only getting the chance to eat one spear before his step-daughter tore through the rest. He was pretty mad he didn't get to eat more.

As for Nerd? Our tot will put on her best polite act to get her hands on a jar from the fridge.

And as you can see from this recipe, there are no dyes or lime. Not for this pickling hippie. Take that, Vlasic.

06 June 2014

Supreme Pita Pizza

For two years, I lived with an amazing gal named Macy. She could swing dance, get super bendy with her yoga, and she killed at charades. But I think I liked observing her culinary skills most of all because not only were her meals delicious, but they were also healthy. So I learned a few things from her in the kitchen, and Macy's pita pizzas became a favorite of mine. A few days ago, I rekindled my love affair with this easy lunch-time meal.

Here's what you need (and remember--I don't give exact measurements in my recipes):
•a whole wheat pita pocket (I like the Toufayan brand)
•pepperoni (I used uncured)
•Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced 
•1-2 garlic cloves, diced
•chopped/sliced sweet onion
•chopped/sliced bell pepper
•oregano and basil, to taste (I used the fresh stuff from our garden, but dried is fine)
•mozzarella cheese
•Parmesan cheese 

I store unused pita pockets in our fridge.

Pretty much cut up and throw on every rolling that you can fit on the pita. Cover the toppings with cheese. Bake at 400-425 degrees, depending on how brown you want your cheese to be on top. Then savor alongside a glass of ice tea.

The "before cheese" shot. See how lovely these ingredients look on the pita?

Melty, cheesy yumminess--with veggies!

I could see this meal easily being a kid favorite, and it hardly takes any time to assemble, especially since you're not making dough from scratch. It's not drowning in grease, either. And the pita crisps up nicely to give you a stable crust for handling. I don't have to cut these into smaller pieces! Hope you enjoy my take on my friends's creation. I love it when food ties into a memory!

26 May 2014

Basic Tomato Care

For those of you who follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you might remember this image from last growing season:

It was one of the first tomatoes we harvested, and it weighed in solidly at one pound. Maybe "real" farmers can easily grow fruit double this weight, but we don't really care. We are always so proud of what we can accomplish in our garden each growing season. And this tomato above wasn't our only pounder. Several of our tomatoes were roughly the same size and weight, and I put a lot of hours into turning these red beauties into cans of pasta sauce that took us right through the winter.

When I post photos of our garden's yield, our friends start asking, "How do you do it?" While there is a growing interest in private veggie gardens (hooray for that statistic!), it's frustrating to see my friends look at the hobby like it's something only a gardening wizard can accomplish.

Trust me, there's no magic. I'm a girl from the 'burbs who had a vegetable garden each year of my childhood. Yeah, there was help and input from my grandparents on both sides--especially from my mom's dad. He was born straight into the Depression and was raised on a family farm in north Georgia. But all you really need for a successful garden is time (even patio gardens need weeding and watering) and patience (mostly with yourself).

As for tomatoes, here are what I consider to be the most important steps to caring for your plants:

1) Create a schedule. This must include how often you water, how often your fertilize, and how often you prune. Obviously, a rainier season could reduce your watering needs and increase your pruning needs, but it wouldn't change when you fertilize. Have a calendar handy so you can record when you water and fertilize so that you don't forget.

2) Fertilize the RIGHT way. Choose a fertilizer that will encourage growth of both the foliage and the fruit based on the NPK, or nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium, rating, like a 5-6-5 or a 3-4-6. Too much nitrogen will give you great foliage, but smaller fruit. We use granulated fertilizer every 2 weeks. If you are icked out by granulated fertilizer, use 2 tbsp of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) around the base of each plant every 1-2 weeks. You can boost the potassium around each plant, too, by burying banana peels around the base. I did this last summer when my daughter ate a banana each day. We had peels to spare!

3) Choose a good soil. We use a combination of garden soil and homemade compost. Tomatoes can do well in clay soils because they're rather resilient. I would just stay away from sandier soils. Sandy soils are much better for root veggies.

4) Prune and stake. Most of us either forget, or simply don't realize, that tomatoes are vining plants. They grow much like a watermelon or pumpkin plant does, yet we don't allow them to grow along the ground. They require support, so as they grow up, wrap their vines against a tall stake (like with gardening velcro in the photo below) or train their branches in between the openings in cages for support.

As for pruning, you must first know the difference between determinate varieties and indeterminate ones. Determinate varieties are ones that have terminal growth, grow more like a bush instead of a vine, and will not bear fruit for as long. Romas are the best example of determinate tomatoes. DO NOT prune a determinate tomato plant.

Indeterminate tomato plants are the ones that grow as a continuous vine. They are the ones that come late July, you look at the plant, and ask, "How the crap did it get so big?" If you don't prune the indeterminate plants, they will become unruly. One important step in pruning a tomato vine is to remove the suckers. They are easy to spot. They are the offshoots that grow upwards from between the main/central vine and a branch. Think of them like an ingrown hair: they are a nuisance that must be plucked! Can you spot the sucker in the photo below?

Also, you can prune your indeterminates by removing the lower branches. This allows the plants air flow around the base, and it concentrates the energy into growing better fruit instead of better foliage.

5) Control those bugs. We used to have a terrible aphid problem, and we don't like to use commercial insecticide on controlling pests. Insecticidal soap is a safe solution to keeping the bugs at bay. When I can't get to the store for a bottle of insecticidal soap, I boil smashed garlic cloves (skins on) and crushed red pepper in a pot of water to make a spicy solution that bugs hate. I let it cool and then strain it into a spray bottle. It smells worse than a pizza fart, but it does help to have a misting of it on the plant leaves. Finally, plant marigolds all around your garden. There are lots of pests--both the 6-legged kind and the 4-legged kind--who cannot tolerate the smell of marigolds. It's like having a flowery force field around your garden by planting those orange-and-yellow domes.

Happy gardening!

01 January 2014

Oregon Passes a Smoke-Free Car Law, and Now I Want to Move There Even More

Since we made a visit to Seattle and British Columbia back in 2010, we have been building a dream of living in the Pacific Northwest. And after we had our daughter the next year, we began outlining a plan to move our jobs out that way. So we narrowed the search down to a few major cities in the Northwest, most of them being in Oregon. We were drawn to the state's culture and climate, and we have been trying our luck in their job market.

Who wouldn't love it there? Oregon is rich in natural wonders and national parks. Stay west of the mountains, and you don't experience harsh winters (a plus for us Southerners who see snow once every 3 years). And talk about progressive? From pedestrian-friendly communities to city composting plans to cloth diaper services, I know I'd settle in comfortably.

But it's their latest law that has me wanting to pack our suitcases because they just "get it." Starting today, 1 January 2014, they are banning smoking in cars if there is a child present.

And they consider children to be anyone under the age of 18.

If you have ever had this conversation with me, you know how strongly I feel about smoking in front of children. It is straight up child abuse.

You read that right. Smoking in front of children--or while pregnant--is abuse.

I will throw myself on my soapbox over quite a few topics. Driving while under the influence. Texting while driving. Education reform. People who treat service providers like shit.

Bring up child abuse, and I will almost certainly lead the dialogue to how adults who expose children to second-hand smoke should be just as guilty of abuse as those who starve, beat, or neglect children.

Why do I step up on my soapbox over this issue? People will argue the topic of breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding their babies until they are blue in the face. I myself experienced strangers (and friends) who bluntly asked me why I quit breastfeeding my child. It was as if they heard "arsenic cocktails" instead of "baby formula" come out of my mouth. But how many strangers walk up to a parent who is smoking in the presence of a child and swat the cigarette out of their hand?

Hear me on this, please. If you smoke, fine. Your choice. Your body. Your way of spending your extra money. Hell, several years ago, I enjoyed a rather large cigar bought for me as a college graduation gift, so I'm not going to force a stack of Chantix brochures on you.

But your child didn't slide down the birth canal screaming for a pack of Marlboros or a strawberry-flavored Swisher Sweet.

Your habit, not your child's.

As a teacher, I experience it all the time. A parent drops of their child in the car rider line and doesn't bother to remove her cigarette from her lips to kiss her child goodbye. A visitor sits in the parking lot to check their GPS and takes a drag with the window open while a class plays on the monkey bars 20 feet away. A student comes to check in daily homework at my desk, smelling like an ashtray.

Just a couple of years ago, I went to court to testify for a student when they were being sexually abused by a family member. The law was clear: it was my duty to report the matter and my responsibility to protect the student from the possibility of future physical and emotional injury.

If I was called to testify for a student who was undeniably being exposed to second-hand smoke, I'd be in a courtroom as often as I am in my classroom.

So it really has me wondering why there aren't penalties or fines for adults who engage in this conduct, especially in small spaces where kids aren't able to access clean air, like inside a car.

According to this new law in Oregon, the penalty for being caught smoking in a car with a child present is a fine of up to $250.

Between the daily health reports, the Surgeon General warnings on cigarette packs, the banning of smoking in restaurants, and the removal of tobacco ads from TV and magazines, you really can't miss the dangers of second-hand smoking. It increases the risk of asthma, SIDS, low birth rate, and respiratory problems. There's also the risk of decreasing a child's cognitive function.

Like children don't have enough to worry about.

And despite the efforts to reform smoking laws, the negative effects of second-hand smoke still looms. According to research from the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights:
...levels of secondhand smoke exposure declined between 1988-1994 and 1999-2004 in the general population overall, children were the sub-group with the least rate of decline.
Do you know why this happens? Because when I'm in the car with an adult who is fingering a cigarette, they have almost always have enough consideration to ask, "Do you mind?" But an adult craves a cigarette when their own child is snugly latched in their carseat, and there's no asking. A window might get cracked to tap out the ashes, but it's not enough:
Children are especially at risk to the harmful health e ffects caused by breathing secondhand smoke in con ned spaces, such as a car or truck. The level of toxic air in a vehicle when someone is smoking is up to ten times greater than the level which the United States Environmental Protection Agency considers hazardous. The harmful chemicals in secondhand smoke can remain in the air and on surfaces in a car or truck for many hours, and even days, after a cigarette has been smoked. These chemicals stick to surfaces, such as a child’s car seat, making it a potential hidden source of danger for children (California Department of Public Health).
While I'm jump-up-and-down happy about smoke-free car laws, Oregon isn't the first to pass this kind of ordinance. Puerto Rico passed one back in 2007, regarding children under 13. Califoria jumped on the bandwagon in 2008. Utah did it just this past year, considering children 15 and under.

Seriously, I have literally jumped up and down at the idea of children's health being protected by these laws. I just wish I knew why smoke-free car laws weren't catching on faster. We will demand the recall of a crib if it kills 3 babies. We will add safety straps to a Bumbo because a handful of negligent parents failed to follow the product's directions. But second-hand smoke results in SIDS-related death of over 400 babies each year and lands thousands more in the hospital. Where's the public outcry for the future health of children's lungs, brains, and circulatory systems?

Oregon, congratulations on your new law! It's clear you care about the health and welfare of your youngest residents, and I'm that much more excited about the possibility of our family becoming future residents ourselves. Thank you for pioneering a law that makes sense, and may your success with it influence states around you.


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