Christmas Prep

We’re right smack dab in the middle of Christmas prep around here, dashing from hither to yon to prep for school spirit days, family events, and hosting over the holidays. Of necessity, suppers have been quick and easy; I think tomorrow I will be breaking out the slow cooker just to make dinner that much easier.

Last night, though, I rummaged through the freezer and turned up with some rather nice basa fillets. I dredged them in flour, sprinkled them with a bit of garlic powder and salt, and lightly fried them in a glug of olive oil in a non-stick pan. (As an aside, when making this kind of dish, does anyone else think about that lightly fried fish fillets meme?) I topped the fried fish with crumbled bacon and served it alongside boiled baby potatoes and steamed carrots.

I still wasn’t feeling spectacularly well last night, so I didn’t get as much prep work done as I wanted to, but the hectic pace around the holidays is one of the reasons I start canning way back in the summer. As planned, I plunged into my shelves of homemade preserves to get gifts together for my kids’ teachers.

As with Guiders, I consider teachers to be especially important to my children and, as such, they are deserving of some nice things around Christmas to show my appreciation. Teachers put in long hours in a job that I, to be completely frank, am vastly temperamentally unsuited to do. Before my children were born, I seriously considered home-schooling, but as time went on I realized that teaching is definitely not one of my gifts. I have the utmost appreciation for those people who can do so, especially while both funding and support are slowly withdrawn from the public school system over the years.

This year, my kids’ teachers are getting amaretto cherries, spiced pear jam with pineapple, handmade cloths, and a box of Girl Guide cookies. (I considered giving the cookies to the Guiders too, but I thought they could probably use a break from this fundraiser by this point.) I hope that the teachers will be able to enjoy these foods over the winter break — or any time after, really, as they’ll last about a year unopened.

The Last of the Canning — Maybe

It looks like I have finally made it through my not-inconsiderable list of foods that I wanted to put up for the winter. I mean, I still have two pumpkins left to roast, but the puree is just going in the freezer, which doesn’t take nearly as long as hot water bath canning or pressure canning. If I don’t have to lug my canning rigs and bunches of jars out of the basement, it doesn’t count.

The last two things to put up were parsley jelly and hot sauce, both of which contained produce grown in my garden. I brought a big pot of parsley in with the first major cold snap about a month ago, and I kept it alive until I could chop it up for the jelly. The peppers for the hot sauce were brought in as they ripened, and then were frozen. This isn’t the greatest solution if you want your peppers crisp, but if you’re just going to run them through a blender or food processor, it doesn’t really matter. This way I was able to cook up a whole season’s peppers at once, instead of using them up individually as they became ripe.

I was curious to try the parsley jelly (from page 298 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons by Pat Crocker (2011)), since I’d never heard of it before. Mint jelly, sure, but not parsley. Apparently it’s and English thing? This jelly can also be made with sage, thyme, or basil, in addition to the mint that I’m familiar with. Sadly, as good as it looks, the jelly didn’t set despite following the instructions to the letter. That’s why I added a “maybe” to this post title. I mean, I could just give up and chuck the unset jelly, or I could try to re-cook it. I’ve used this technique in the past and it has worked out well. But I am so incredibly busy with the Christmas season at the moment that I might just give up and try again another time.

My hot sauce, however, turned out wonderfully. Since it’s a puree, it’s not like I have to worry about the set. I base my hot sauce on the Essential Habanero Hot Sauce from Genius Kitchen. I got great reviews on the sauce last year. Although the heat of the sauce varies because every summer I grow slightly different peppers, I’m pretty sure that this year’s is at least as hot as last year’s because even just the vapours from cooking it completely cleared my sinuses. Let’s hope the people I am giving it to for Christmas like it as much!

Pear & Honey Jam Recipe

As I wrote about before, I had a lot of cooking pears that needed to be used up recently. All of this excess meant that I had a chance to experiment with making a jam of my own devising. Pears are a naturally acidic fruit, which makes them perfect for hot-water-bath canning with a bit of sugar. It took me a couple of tries to get this recipe right, since since I didn’t want to use like ten cups of sugar (with would generally produce and easily firm set), since I wanted to taste the fruit and the spices more than the sweetness. In the end, I had something that I am quite proud of. Next year, when pears come into season, I think that I will make this the main pear jam (although I did really like the Spiced Pear Jam with Pineapple found on page 935 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), or on the app). Maybe next year I’ll have a yield of more than four pears off of my baby pear tree, and I’ll be able to make more things from fruit I’ve grown myself!

Pear & Honey Jam
Yields six 250mL (1 cup) jars

Prepare and sterilize six 250mL (1 cup) jars (or twelve 125mL (1/2 cup) jars) and matching lids as per manufacturer instructions. Keep jars and lids warm until it is time to fill them.
In a Maslin pan or other non-reactive, heavy-bottomed pot, combine:
1.5 Kg (3.3 lbs) ripe/slightly overripe pears, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
350 mL (1.5 cups) honey*
700 mL (3 cups) sugar
60 mL (1/4 cup) lemon juice
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground allspice
5 mL (1 tsp) ground cinnamon
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground cloves
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground nutmeg
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground ginger
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Run the mixture through a blender or food processor until it reaches a smooth consistency, being extremely careful as the ingredients will be very, very hot. Return the mixture to the pot and bring it back to a boil.
Add:
one 85 mL (2.9 oz) package of liquid pectin
Bring mixture back to a boil. Stir constantly as mixture boil hard for an additional minute.
Ladle the jam into the prepared jars, leaving a 5mm head space. Wipe jar rims with a clean, damp cloth or paper towel. Top jars with lids and screw metal rings into place until fingertip tight. Place jars on top of a canning rack inside a boiling water canner, being sure that none of them touch the sides of the pot or each other. Jars should be covered by at least 2.5cm (1″) of water, so add hot water if necessary. Bring to a rolling boil and process for 15 minutes, starting your timer once the water is boiling.
Remove jars from canner and place them on a cooling rack, not touching each other. Let them rest for 24 hours before touching. Label if desired. Jams may take up to 48 hours to set, so do not open them until this time has passed.
This jam may be kept in a cool, dark area for up to one year.

*It’s really not worth it to use unpasteurized honey here, since all the additional benefits are lost when the honey is cooked.

Not-So-Silent Night

Last night was one of those nights where it seemed like all I did was run from pillar to post and back again. It started as soon as the kids got home from school. There was snacks, then showers, then finding all of the parts of their Guiding uniforms (or, in Thing 1’s case, a matching set of PJ’s for her unit’s holiday pajama party), then the kids making their lunches while I whipped up dinner…

Dinner was what I think might very charitably be called deconstructed shepherd’s pie. I had taken the meat out earlier in the day to thaw, but by the time dinner prep time came around I knew I’d never have time to bake it as a casserole. So I prepped the meat as I would for my usual shepherd’s pie (with a few extra mushrooms thrown in because that’s what I had in the fridge), boiled up some baby potatoes, and microwaved some corn. Instead of layering it into a casserole, I just served it as is. The kids ate all of theirs without complaint, and I found it almost as tasty (if not as creamy) as the real thing, so it worked out okay.

Then I had to wrap Christmas thank-you gifts for my girls’ Guiders. Guide leaders are volunteers, and I think it’s important that they know how much my children and I appreciate all of their hard work. Without Guiders, there would be no Girl Guides. I couldn’t do what they do (despite having two children that I adore, my patience levels with children is not great), which is why I try to support them in other ways.

Although the bags look slightly different, that’s mostly because I ran out of white tissue paper near the end. They’re all identical inside, containing Amaretto Cherries and Cinnamon-Scented Parsnip Pear Jam. I am very quick at gift wrapping, having worked the wrapping station in a number of retail jobs over the years, which comes in handy when I have ten gift bags that I’ve forgotten to put together until the last minute. I could have sworn Thing 1 and Thing 2 had one more meeting before the holiday break, but obviously I was mistaken.

Then I had to rush out the door to drive the kids through a snowstorm to their respective Guiding activities for the evening — Thing 1 to her pajama party and Thing 2 to sing Christmas carols at a retirement home. Of course, I got stuck spinning my tires on a patch of ice as I left my driveway, and luckily my husband arrived home just in time to help push the car. Then it was a very slow, cautious drive to the girls’ activities, then another slow and cautious drive to my parents’ place to help them put up their Christmas tree, then back to pick up the girls and get them home and in bed for the night, despite the huge amounts of sugar they had consumed.

When all that was over, I had to relax a bit. I poured myself a lovely glass of rum and eggnog (okay, Earth’s Own Almond SoFresh Almond Nogg, which isn’t a half-bad substitute for the lactose intolerant). I had a real tree twinkling with lights in the living room. And, at least for a few hours, I tried to ignore the fact that I had less than two weeks to go to get everything done before Christmas.

Pumpkin Butter

I wrote last week about finally canning my Halloween pumpkins. So far I have done two of the four. For one of them I simply froze all of the pumpkin puree that I created by roasting the gourd and then running the flesh through a food processor. The other pumpkin I turned into pumpkin butter.

Way back when I started making preserves, I burned an entire batch of fruit butter by trying to cook it too quickly on the stove. Ever since then, I make my fruit butters in a slow cooker, for the most part. I don’t have a recipe as such, more of a technique. For the purpose of posterity, this time I measured everything out. I used a six-litre slow cooker, but I didn’t fill it to the brim because fruit butters tend to have big bubbles, so there needs to be some space under the lid. For this batch, I used:

20 cups (4.75L) pumpkin puree
3 cups (710mL) honey
4 Tbsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp ginger
2 Tbsp nutmeg
1 Tbsp cloves

Then I cook it with the lid a bit ajar so the steam can escape (some newfangled crock pots have a vent, but mine is probably older than me so it does not) for about 24 hours, or until the butter thickens. If it doesn’t reach the desired thickness in this amount of time, sometimes I will cook it a bit on the stove, since I find that leaving it longer than that in the crock pot can make it taste burnt. When it is ready, it will have changed from orange to a deep, nutty brown.

Now, I’d been making pumpkin butter for years using this recipe and then hot-water-bath canning it, and I never had any problems. I was using what I thought were USDA-approved recipes — and, indeed, they used to be! But the rules have changed over time, and now it’s no longer recommended to can pumpkin butter (or even pumpkin puree, which is less dense) at home. So once this pumpkin butter is complete, it’s going right in the freezer — which is the approved process. I use wide-mouthed mason jars to avoid cracking as much as possible, I don’t fill them all the way, and I make sure they’re totally cool before I freeze them. I still will lose a few every year to cracked glass. Of course, you can always buy plastic freezer jam containers and avoid cracked jars, but I like to give my preserves as gifts, and I find the glass jars to be much more attractive.

Now I’m a little bit paranoid about the whole thing, and I don’t want to make anyone sick, so I do pressure-can my pumpkin butter first. I process it for an hour (being careful not to let the canner boil dry), and when the cans come out of the cooker I can still feel butter boiling inside the jar. In addition to making the pumpkin butter safer, I find that pressure cooking it for this long also changes the texture. I wonder if this is because it is guaranteed to reach the jelling point (220°F to 222°F)?

(As an aside, the instructions for my pressure canner, which is only about four years old, specifically states that pumpkin puree can be pressure canned safely in this device.)

Pressure Canner

I have to admit that I find pressure canning more than a little terrifying. The steam hisses out at irregular intervals and constantly makes me think I’m going to end up with some disaster like this. In reality, that hissing means that the pressure is venting properly — what’s really a problem is if it stops (if you haven’t turned off the heat underneath first). That means that your steam vent has clogged and the pressure inside is building up disastrously.

In the end, I ended up with fourteen 250mL jars and one 125mL jar of pumpkin butter. Now all they need are labels, and they’ll be ready for the freezer!

Canning Pears

A while back, a friend of mine brought me a box of cooking pears from his neighbour’s tree, which was producing an overabundance. Not too long after that, he brought me a second box full. I’m told that these boxes of fruit kept appearing in front of his house under not-so-mysterious circumstances; apparently that neighbour was getting really tired of being beaned in the head by falling fruit. This week I finally had the chance to tackle this mass of pears. I’ve been cooking with them for over a month, but my rate of attrition was much too slow, and some of the fruit was starting to turn.

First I made a double batch of Cinnamon-Scented Parsnip Pear Jam, from page 407 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons by Pat Crocker (2011). As interesting as this combination appeared at first glance, I found the final result much too sweet; it uses twice as much sugar as fruit by volume, which is a very high ratio even by jam standards. It would still be nice on Dad’s Biscuits, fresh bread, or toast, but I guess I was hoping for more of a flavour punch given my success with this book’s carrot jam. However, I do agree with the book’s assessment that this jam, when mixed with a bit of orange juice, would probably make a lovely glaze in which roasted root veggies could be tossed.

I well and truly overestimated how much fruit & veg to prepare to make this recipe, even doubled; I honestly thought I’d be able to get at least a quadruple batch in, but with all of that sugar, my pots just weren’t big enough. So I had a whole bunch of peeled, cut up pears (left) and parsnips (right) after this attempt.

The parsnips became part of our dinner last night, roasted in the oven with a sprinkle of salt, pepper, rosemary, and olive oil. I served them with baked pork chops coated in dried onion soup mix, which is a dish from my childhood that I’ve been making a lot lately once I was reminded of it. It’s just so easy! I probably have enough parsnips left for another three dinners like this one, but I think that would get old fast. I’ll need to research another recipe.

For my next recipe, I took a chance and tried peeling my ginger with a spoon, which is a kitchen hack I’ve seen floating around the Web for a while. I was quite satisfied with how this worked, actually. Not all cooking hacks are worth your time, but I found that this was honestly easier than a veggie peeler or a knife, and it wasted much less of the root.

The next step was to break out the candy/deep fry thermometer and bring the next jam up to the jelling point. (As an aside, am I the only one who feels like they need a shield as their jam/jelly gets thicker and it starts spitting huge globs of boiling-hot sugar and juice out of the pot?) This time I made Spiced Pear Jam with Pineapple found on page 935 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), or on the app.

I was much happier with this jam than the previous one. I could definitely taste the fruit, and it wasn’t too sweet (it has a much lower sugar-to-fruit ratio). I have to admit that I couldn’t really taste the pineapple; the citrus note is definitely the strongest part of this jam, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it does end up tasting more like a marmalade.

I probably still have enough chopped pears to make one more batch of jam. What kind should I make? I still haven’t decided. I have a lovely old recipe for pears poached in red wine and then canned, but that’s really intended for whole pears. These cooking pears needed to be chopped up to remove imperfections, so they’re sadly not really suitable to such a dish.

Crab Apple Jelly

A while back a friend of mine offered to let me pick crab apples from trees just outside of her back yard, on land that is owned by her community association. She has been picking apples from those trees for years in order to make crab apple jelly, as have a number of other neighbours who are inclined to make preserves. These totally wild, untended trees produce an overabundance of fruit every year, and the canners in the neighbourhood only make a tiny dent in that. I’d never made jelly before, but I figured sure, why not? I love cooking with ingredients that I can harvest locally, especially when that harvest is free!

The first thing that I realized is that making jelly is a lot more difficult than making jam. After washing all the tiny little apples and making sure to remove all leaves and stems, you have to cut them all in half. Sometimes the fruit can be wormy or rotten inside even though the outside is pristine, and cutting it in half means that you can check every single one. Then you have to cook the fruit, strain it through a jelly bag (being careful not to squeeze the bag so that the jelly will remain clear), boil the resulting juice along with sugar and any additional ingredients until set, and then finally can it.

After all that work, I was really happy that I liked the end result. Crab apple jelly is packed with tart flavour, even with all of the added sugar. I’m definitely going to make more next year. I’ll be sure to pick twice or even three times as much fruit. It’s not like the neighbourhood wildlife will miss the relatively small quantities that I will use.

One of the things that I was surprised about regarding crab apple jelly is how many of my preserving cookbooks don’t have a recipe for it. Not only that, but some of them don’t even consider crab apples to be a fruit worth canning. I find that odd because a) they’re very tasty, b) they are winter hardy in northern climes, and can even grow wild, and c) they’re often planted in orchards among the larger apple trees because it helps with pollination. They’re also a very popular ornamental tree, so it’s not like crab apples are hard to come by, either. The books that I have that included a crab apple jelly recipe are, in no particular order:

Joy of Cooking page 932, or on the app (Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker, 2006 edition)
Pickles & Preserves page 58 (Love Food, 2012)
The Complete Preserving Book page 92 (Canadian Living, 2012)
The Good Cook: Preserving page 94 (Time-Life Books, 1981)
Preserving page 166 (Oded Schwartz, 1996)

Although there are many variations when it comes to additional ingredients such as lemon juice, lime juice, or in one case hot peppers, all of the recipes seem to agree on a ratio of 1:1 of volume of strained juice to white sugar.

As an aside, if you’re interested in harvesting unused fruit from local sources and aren’t up to approaching homeowners/tenants on your own (although if you’re shy, a politely-worded letter is often well-received), you could volunteer for an organization here in Ottawa called Hidden Harvest. The group harvests fruits and nuts that would otherwise go to waste on public and private property. When the bounty is harvested, one quarter goes to the homeowner, one quarter goes to the volunteer harvesters, one quarter goes to the nearest food agency, and one quarter goes to Hidden Harvest. The portion kept by Hidden Harvest goes to their sponsors, who in turn help pay to run the organization. Last year alone the group harvested almost 4,500lbs of fruit and nuts, and donated almost 2,000lbs of that to charity.

In my case, I’m a homeowner whose apple tree drops hundreds of pounds of fruit every year, and I’d love to be able to have Hidden Harvest come and take most of the fruit away. I don’t need nearly so much. However, I’ll have to deal with that poor tree’s apple scab first. And my poor little pear tree‘s harvest of four pears this year isn’t worth volunteering. Perhaps when it grows a little bigger. Next year I’m seriously considering becoming a volunteer harvester, though. As for this year, I understand that apples with apple scab can actually make a better hard cider, so if any cider-makers want to clean the rest of the apples off of my tree, they’re welcome to them.

Maybe one of these days I should just buy/make a cider press.