Salsa & Cherries

Canning season is in full swing, with my garden producing enough ripe tomatoes for a good-sized batch of something every couple of days, and fruits and vegetables at the cheapest they’ve been all year at the farmer’s market and supermarket. Although most days are still quite warm, it cools down quite a bit after dark, so I’ve been taking advantage of the lowered temperatures to get some canning done in the evenings after the kids go to bed. Sometimes this doesn’t work out so well when a recipe unexpectedly refuses to thicken up and I end up getting to bed around two o’clock in the morning, but I’d take a late night over canning in the heat any day.


Mild tomato salsa, all ingredients from my garden except the onions.

In addition to trying to preserve family recipes, another reason I started this blog was to keep track of recipes I’d tried, which ones I liked, and any changes I’d make in the future. Last year I didn’t write any of this stuff down, and when it came to canning season again I had the hardest time remembering what recipes I used. Sure, some of them are quite distinct, but did I get them online? Did I find them in any of my copious number of cookbooks?

The salsa above is a case in point. I mean, salsa is extremely popular and easy to make. Every canning book has at least one salsa recipe. So I figured that this year what I’d do is make a small batch from each of the recipes that interested me, and pick the one I liked best for next year. The photo above is Smoky Tomato Salsa, from page 255 of Put ‘Em Up! Fruit (Sherri Brooks Vinton, 2013). This was a pretty decent salsa, although it didn’t turn out as smoky as the writeup suggested. Perhaps I will try chipotle powder instead of smoked Spanish paprika next time. Additionally, the recipe was really, really watery, and I had to boil it down for quite some time to get my preferred consistency. This was totally my fault because I used whole cherry tomatoes instead of peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes as specified in the recipe. Last year I peeled all of those tiny tomatoes and it was so tedious that I decided never again. Because I had to boil it down, this concentrated the vinegar and the sugar a little too much for my liking. I think that next time if I use cherry tomatoes I will just elimiate the sugar altogether (cherry tomatoes are much sweeter than regular-sized ones anyway). I would also cut down the vinegar to half a cup (8 Tbsp). The yield of this recipe was three to four 500mL jars of salsa, which should still make the mixture acidic enough to be safe for hot-water canning. (Lemon juice and vinegar have a similar PH, and Pat Crocker’s Preserving recommends adding 1 Tbsp bottled lemon juice to a 500mL jar, and even halving the vinegar makes it 2+ Tbsp per jar.)


Amaretto cherries.

Another recipe that I tried this year is Amaretto Black Cherries from page 126 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons (Pat Crocker, 2011). I overfilled a few of the jars and had to remove some of the syrup-coated cherries before sealing, and I was very impressed by the flavour. I can only imagine what they’ll taste like after soaking in the syrup for a couple of months. They’re like a tipsy maraschino cherry. When I was a kid and we bought cheap fruit salad preserved in syrup, I would always save the cherries for last because they were my favourite part. In addition to eating these cherries straight out of the jar or as a dessert topping, Preserving also includes a recipe for Amaretto Clafoutis with burnt Almonds on page 128. I will definitely have to try making this dish once the cold weather hits.

Mom’s Potato Salad

Back when I started writing this blog, I set a personal goal to record the recipes that I had grown up with. I didn’t want my descendants to encounter the same issues that I’d had when my grandmother passed away and took her knowledge of family favourites with her.


Mom’s basic potato salad.

To this end, I asked my mother the other day for her potato salad recipe so that I could post in online (it’s one of my favourite summer dishes). Much to my dismay, she explained to me that she had no real recipe and added ingredients until it “looked right”. After telling me this, she laughed a bit, because she used to get frustrated with my Nan and her approach of “a little bit of this, a touch of that” dishes that were downright impossible for her to recreate.


Mom’s basic potato salad.

So Mom and I set aside some time at the cottage this summer to measure all her ingredients and record everything that she did to make her potato salad. This one of her most often-requested potluck or barbecue dinner dishes, and indeed, it got rave reviews when I made her recipe for the most recent potluck. As a bonus, it is both simple and a great make-ahead dish. Actually, it’s easier to prepare the ingredients a day ahead, then combine them into the final dish on the day it will be served. It takes the pressure off of hosting when you know that at least one dish is ready and waiting in the fridge.


Mom’s potato salad made fancier by leaving the potato skins on and including bacon bits.

Mom’s Potato Salad
Makes about 7 cups of salad

You will need:
6 cups potatoes (any variety) cut into bite-sized pieces
This recipe works well with both older and new potatoes. With older potatoes, peel before cutting. With new, thin-skinned potatoes, wash them and leave the skins on before cutting.
Place the potatoes into a large pot and cover with water. Boil potatoes until they are soft enough to be pierced by a fork, but not yet mushy. Drain and refrigerate in a covered container until cool (this can be done overnight).
While the potatoes are cooking, hard-boil:
6 large or extra-large eggs
Place eggs into cold water until they are cool to the touch. If assembling the salad the next day, the eggs can be left in their shells in the fridge overnight.
Place the cooled potatoes into a large mixing bowl. Peel the eggs. Cut up 4 of the 6 eggs into bite-sized pieces (usually eighths or smaller), setting the two most aesthetically pleasing eggs aside as topping.
To the potatoes and eggs add:
1 cup mayonnaise*
1 tsp table salt
1 tsp yellow mustard
3 Tbsp finely chopped green onion or chives
Optionally, you may add:
(375g package of low-salt bacon, cooked and chopped into bits)**
Mix well until all ingredients are evenly coated.
Scoop the salad into a serving dish, or simply serve in the mixing bowl for informal gatherings. Optionally, you may lightly sprinkle over the salad for looks:
(a dash of paprika)
Cut into quarters the 2 eggs you set aside. Arrange the eggs at the center of the salad in a sunburst pattern.
Serve.
This recipe may easily be multiplied in order to serve a larger number of people.


Mom’s fancy potato salad.

*Regular, olive oil, reduced-fat, or reduced-fat olive oil mayonnaise are all acceptable. However, do NOT use salad dressing or Miracle Whip, the flavour is all wrong in this dish.

**If you add reduced-salt bacon, halve the amount of salt in the recipe. I prefer the reduced-salt kind, but if you have to use regular bacon, don’t add any salt at all.

Potluck Dinner

Last night I attended a potluck dinner held in honour of a members of my husband’s extended family visiting all the way from Germany. For the occasion, my in-laws rented the party room in their friends’ posh apartment building, which was the fanciest location in which I have ever attended a potluck. However, the view of the Rideau River and Rivierain Park were gorgeous coming up onto sunset. (I’m assuming the views of downtown at sunrise would be equally spectacular, but at by evening the sun was too much in our eyes to appreciate it.)

Given that the guests of honour were international, I went all out and cooked up a storm of dishes to bring along. I wanted them to get a taste of the favourite Canadian dishes that I grew up with.

On the far left is the fancy version of my mother’s potato salad (recipe forthcoming). At the center is maple pecan butter tarts, using the recipe found on page 234 of The Canadian Living Cookbook (Carol Ferguson, 1987). Despite these being one of my absolute favourite desserts ever, this was my first time ever baking them. I think they turned out rather well, although the filling did overflow the crust a little bit. Lastly, I made up a batch of my Nan’s Pan Rolls.

I always worry that my cooking won’t hit the right note with the guests at a party, but this time every last bit of food I brought was consumed. I actually should have made a double batch of the potato salad, because a number of people came back for seconds and were audibly disappointed when there was none left. I got quite a few compliments on the rolls and tarts, too, but I think the potato salad was the biggest hit. The German grandmother hunted me down and made sure to make it clear, in her few words of English and copious hand gestures, that she absolutely loved it. I couldn’t be more pleased.

Blueberry Bran Muffins Recipe

Recently I came across a copy of The United Churches in Canada: Let’s Break Bread Together — the September 1988 version, though, not the current one. I love cookbooks that are comprised of favourite recipes contributed by members of the organization. I mean, where else can you find quality recipes like this one:

Jokes aside, I have learned how to make some really great dishes from books like these. I have also contributed to a few; off the top of my head I know some of my recipes have ended up in books published by my high school, the local chapter of the Girl Guides of Canada, and my kids’ preschool. Not only are these cookbooks great fundraisers, they’re also a nice way to bring the community together by introducing neighbours to the flavours and dishes that are important to them.

All that being said, these cookbooks are not written — and as importantly, are not edited by — professionals. These days it’s not as bad, what with spell check and the ability to digitally track changes when a document is being sent around for review. But you have to be very, very careful to fully read a recipe from start to finish with pre-2000 cookbooks. Well, I mean, you should probably do that anyway with any recipe, but at least in professional cookbooks they’ll generally include all of the ingredients in the ingredient list, and a general expectation of yield, and have fairly clear instructions.

I’ll use the blueberry bran muffins recipe on page 86 of Let’s Break Bread Together as an example. It specified All-Bran Cereal — but what kind? Right now, in Canada, there’s All-Bran Flakes, All-Bran Buds, All-Bran Multigrain Crunch, and All-Bran Granola. Now, I understand that in some cases with older recipes, there was only one variety of an ingredient even though now the company may have branched out. In this case, though, a quick search of the Internet reveals that in the mid-’80’s there was the equivalent of Flakes and Buds, so it should have been specified.

Also, the blueberries in the muffins, which were so clearly stated in the title, were not in the ingredient list. Instead, the kind and quantity of berry were buried in the baking instructions. As you can see from the recipe above, the formatting of this books is such that the ingredients are supposed to be in bold and indented from the rest of the text; they are most often found at the start of the recipe as well. It can be really confusing when ingredients are not where you expect them to be.

Now, please don’t think I’m angry about all this. I’m really not. This book was put together by volunteers (in this case, the United Church in Meadowood, Winnipeg, Manitoba) in their free time before the general use of the home computer. However, what it does for me is it makes me aware of how important precise instructions are to the ease of success of a recipe. It definitely makes me want to give another go-over of the recipes I’ve written, that’s for sure. And if anyone else uses one of my recipes and notices something that should be changed, please let me know so I can fix it!

Here is my version of the blueberry bran muffins recipe, updated for accuracy and to make it a little bit healthier. I have tried out the changes and it resulted in the delectable muffins seen pictured above.

Blueberry Bran Muffins
Makes 16 muffins

In a large mixing bowl, beat:
2 large eggs
Mix in:
1 cup 2% milk*
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 cup All-Bran Buds
Let stand 15 minutes for Buds to hydrate.
Preheat oven to 400°F (175°C).
In a separate mixing bowl, combine:
2 cups all-purpose white flour
1 cup white sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, stirring until blended.
Fold into batter:
2 cups fresh blueberries**
Spoon batter into greased muffin tins 3/4 full. Bake 15-18 minutes, until done. You will be able to tell that the muffins are done when the tops turn golden-brown and a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted at the center point comes out clean.
Cool the muffins for 5 minutes in the pan, until the tops are just cool enough to touch. Gently, with your fingertips, spin each muffin a quarter turn in the pan. This will dislodge the muffin from the pan and help keep it from sticking. Remove the muffins from the pan and finish cooling them on a wire rack. Once cool, they may be stored in a container for about five days. However, they are best eaten as fresh as possible.

*Alternately, a milk substitute such as almond milk or soy milk may be used. If you do so, reduce the volume of milk substitute by 1 Tbsp, and add 1 Tbsp light vegetable oil such as sunflower or canola.
**Alternately, you may use frozen blueberries. However, before using they should be thawed and the excess liquid drained.

A Walk in the Woods

A few days ago at the cottage, the rain started at something like 6:00am and didn’t let up for another twelve hours. This wasn’t a warm, soft, summer rain that invites you to go puddle stomping. No, it was a cold, drenching downpour complete with thunder and lightning; it was a preview of fall. There were a few short breaks throughout the day, but the storm didn’t let up entirely until just before sunset. After a long day inside, my parents, my kids and I couldn’t wait to get out for a walk.

Small streams and even miniature waterfalls had sprung up in the aftermath of the storm, draining all of the water that the ground couldn’t absorb towards the lake. It’s been such a wet summer that the ground became saturated extremely quickly. The girls couldn’t have been happier, though, because this meant puddles and rivulets to splash in. Frogs were out in force, coming out into the damp after the rain to catch the evening mosquitoes.

Of course, monkey see, monkey do. Thing 1 and Thing 2 insisted on bringing along some of my old cameras so that they could take pictures on our walk as well. I can think of worse things about me to imitate.

Note that the girls are covered as much as physically possible by clothing. The bugs were really bad on that walk, what with a combination of the sun going down and the rain letting up.

As so many of our nature walks do, this turned into an educational session. We identified as many birds as we could, even though I’m no birder. The bluejays, chickadees, and wrens flitted from tree to tree in front of us, and a flock of wild turkeys crossed the lawn in front of someone else’s cottage. We identified as many plants as we could as well, in my case focusing on the edible wild plants that I recognized. I’m not an expert on the subject by any means, but I am eager to learn. We did find a whole bunch of what I had always been taught were a variety of wild raspberry along the side of the road, and we picked a few ripe ones to eat. I’ve learned that these are actually called thimbleberries. I mean, I knew that they were edible, but for years I had been giving them the wrong name.

We also found a small blackberry thicket, and of course we had to pick every ripe berry we could reach. It ended up being only a couple of handfuls, but I wasn’t wearing the right gear to venture into the center of the patch. I was pricked enough by the thorns just reaching in past the edge. It was totally worth it, though, and I have mentally marked the area for future pilfering.

As we walked back to the cottage, a mist began to rise from the clearings and low-lying areas as the temperature rose very briefly before sunset.

But What Is It?

The cottage that my parents are renting is sixty or more years old (or at least the original section is), and has been both a family cottage and a year-round home in that time. Even though nobody lives there any more, the remnants of occupation remain — meaning that there are all kinds of interesting things tucked away in the back of cupboards, drawers, and shelves. In the kitchen/dining area alone we spotted a full set of vintage silverware (silver plate) and crystal glassware, alongside classic Pyrex mixing bowls, a potato ricer, and ornamental tea tins from the 1970’s. We’ve also found less likely things, like an old Mechano set, a wooden chess set, a bound book a couple of hundred pages long about one family’s genealogy, and what we think are authentic woven Navajo bowls. And then there’s this:

I haven’t the slightest clue what to make of it. The board under this device is about a foot long, to give an idea of scale, and the handle fits comfortably in my hand. But is it even something that’s supposed to go in the kitchen? Or does it really belong in the workshop in the basement, but was never put away? Or is it some kind of small farm implement (a not unreasonable supposition as there are bits of vintage/antique farming equipment decorating some of the exterior walls)?

As you can see, the tool is hinged, and still opens and closes smoothly. Based on the beveled edges of the triangular part, I would deduce it’s for cutting things — but what? Cigars? Cigarettes? Vegetables? Cheese? I haven’t the foggiest. Or is it a weird door knocker? Or perhaps just a novelty doodad made out of salvaged parts, used as a conversation piece to elicit confusion from guests?

My searches of the Internet have yielded nothing similar, and I know so little on this subject that I have an enormously broad range of search terms with which to start. Does anyone out there have a clue as to what this is supposed to be?

(Honestly, this is worse than the time I was trying to find a Kartoffelfeuer like my in-laws have. That was the only name they’d every used to refer to a very specialized cooking pot. Literally translated from German, the name means “potato fire”, but it’s actually a kind of terracotta potato baking pot. It’s also known as a “diable à patates” (Devil with potatoes? Potato devil?) in French or a “patatiera” in Italian — or so I discovered in my research. At any rate, I didn’t know that the style I was looking for is specifically a “Thomas Kartoffelfeuer“. I spent a really long time looking through information about potato fires, cooking your potato in a fire, etc. If you don’t know the right terminology, especially in a language that is not your first, it can be really difficult to find the right information.)

Cottage Supper

Supper at the cottage is always an informal affair. We often come to the table in bathing suits (if we’re not freezing after coming out of the lake), or wrapped up in sweaters and woolly socks when the evening turns chilly.

Food is often served directly from the stove, but this day we were feeling especially fancy, so we placed on the table in the dishes they were cooked in.

The main part of this dinner was an easy dish that my family has always tongue-in-cheek called “slop”. Basically, you fry up some onions and garlic (or in this case, garlic scapes), add ground beef (or a ground beef/ground chicken/ground turkey mixture, depending on what we have on hand), frying until browned. Drain off the grease, add a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a can of water. Optionally, you may add cooked frozen vegetables to the mixture at this point. Boil down the soup mixture until it has the consistency of a thick gravy. Serve the meat mixture over mashed potatoes or rice.

This time we served slop with a number of vegetables on the side; I had cherry tomatoes with basil, topped with goat cheese, as well as steamed spinach. We also served Brussels sprouts and broccoli, both steamed.