Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Orange Stuff

Our weekend company is gone, and the guest room bed changed and made up again. Having an extra set of flannel sheets for that bed means I can put the room back into crafts/office mode right away, without having to rush wet sheets out onto the clothesline in gale-force freezing winds. The turkey carcass was cooked into soup last night (with barley, carrots, and mushrooms), and the leftovers are slowly disappearing. The last of the Thanksgiving Orange Stuff made a great lunch today.

Orange Stuff is one of those really retro recipes. I first tasted it more than 20 years ago, as a regular dish at my mother-in-law's Thanksgiving table, and I'm sure she'd been making it since the 1950's at least. It never really even had a name - it was just that orange stuff she always made. It's a regular on my Thanksgiving table now too.

Thanksgiving Orange Stuff
16 oz cottage cheese
8 oz Cool-Whip (thawed)
3 oz box orange Jello (dry powder)
15 oz can mandarin oranges (drained)

Mix everything together and chill until serving time.

My Texas cousins gave me their church fundraising cookbook, and this type of "salad" appears in quite a few variations - drained pineapple with lemon Jello, or miniature marshmallows with pistachio instant pudding powder. It's good enough that I always think I should make it more often.

I tried something different this year, that really ended up being a hit. Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my sister's family is on the road from California, and I'm trying to decide what to do for dinner when they get here. I need something quick, easy, that everybody will like. The refrigerator is full of food for the next day, including the brined turkey air-chilling, so there's no room for leftovers either. So, how do I feed a vegetarian, two hard-core meat-loving men, two picky but hungry teenage boys, and an omnivore (me). How about make-your-own pizza? My pizza dough recipe makes enough for two 12" pizzas. Figuring half-a-pie per person, I increased amounts by half again to feed six people. That evening, the dough divided into six equal balls, we set up a dough-rolling station, opened up a jar of tomato sauce, shredded a mountain of cheese, and sliced up a variety of topping choices. We could cook two pizzas at one time, so everyone was in the kitchen. It turned mealtime into a fun event, everybody happy and well-fed, and no leftovers. Everyone agreed that ideas's definitely a keeper.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Bit More Canning

It seemed like this year's Bosc pears all ripened overnight, down in the cellar. One day a few were just starting to change color, by the next some were only fit for the chickens. So I had to do something to process the rest of them quick. I also had some non-storage apples starting to soften, a dehydrator tray full of the last of the grapes that hadn't dried enough to store, and the last of the Asian pears still in the refrigerator crisper. Why not just mix everything together?

So I started looking for Pear/Apple Mincemeatless recipes. Most used way more sugar than I wanted. I ended up adapting this one. As it was cooking, with the orange peel and the spices, it made the whole house smell wonderful. I ended up with six quarts, plus three more cups in the refrigerator. I'm thinking I'll add some chopped nuts when I go to make a jarful into a pie.

As long as I had the grinder out, I figured I might as well get a start on my Thanksgiving dinner preparations. I made up a batch of my favorite uncooked cranberry relish - grinding together a bag of cranberries, an orange, peel and all, and a handful of walnuts, then stirring in 3/4 cup of sugar.

The grinder I found in a rental house years ago, forgotten in a high cupboard. It leaks, so I have to put a bowl on a stool underneath when I use it. When Aries built the kitchen (before I knew him), he made a pull-out wooden shelf under part of the counter. It was supposed to be a pastry board, but I have a huge piece of recycled bowling alley for a cutting board that works even better for pastry. I use the shelf for attaching the grinder (and the apple peeler) so I don't dent my countertops or kitchen table. However, if I were around when he was building the kitchen, I would have had him put the shelf on the other side of the sink. Where it is, it's too close to the stove to attach those old right-handed appliances on the other side, where they'd be easier to use. The shelf does pull out enough, though, that I can still turn the handle. It's a bit awkward, but it works.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Wonderful Work Table

We live in a reasonably small house - kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, one bath. It's easy to heat with only a wood stove, but means I often have to get creative in our use of space. The second bedroom (small, no closet, windows filling two walls, door on the third) serves triple duty: as a guest room, an office, and a sewing/crafts room. If I were decorating this room from scratch, I'd probably prefer a daybed/couch with a trundle underneath, or even a Murphy bed, for the guest room part.

But my husband found an Art Deco four-poster bed, matching waterfall vanity with stool, cheap, he just couldn't pass up, years ago. Those pieces take up half the room, but they're so beautiful I love them too (and it's nice having a mirror in a sewing room). Then, add a rolltop desk and a couple of filing cabinets, sewing machine and a small fabric storage dresser. The room is quite full, and still reasonably functional.

Except I needed a work table. When I'm working on a project, whether it's sewing, paperwork, scrapbooks, whatever, it's nice to be able to spread things out. I could use the living room table, but that's the first thing you see when you walk in our front door. The wind from opening the door could quickly wreak havoc, and small houses can go from cozy to cluttered way too easily. Sometimes, I end up using the living room floor, but that's certainly not ideal. Then, last year, I got a folding, 6-foot banquet table. And discovered it fit perfectly across the guest room double bed. That was nice - it gave me a place to spread out green tomatoes in the fall; cut out small sewing projects; lay out bookkeeping paperwork. It made a nice workspace, but not yet great.

And then, I noticed Target had the same folding banquet table on sale this week. Hmmmm. I took another look at my work space, tape measure in hand. There was just enough room for a second table alongside the first (without mashing the bed pillows). Perfection! Plenty of room to lay out a sewing pattern or organize clippings, but still easily convertible. I have guests coming Thanksgiving, so I'll need the bed uncovered. No problem. Both tables lift off, fold up, and store behind the door; sewing machine into case, under sewing table turned luggage stand - instant guest room. I just love it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Keeping Busy

When I get a nice day, I try to get outside to work a while in the yard. Aries dug the last of our finished compost into half of one garden bed for me a couple of days ago. So I planted my garlic and shallots for next year, along with a few spinach and arugula seeds. I got the grass and weeds pulled out of the strawberry bed, thinning out some of the runners in the process, and then mulched them with straw for the winter.

The chickens are let out of their pen each day now, on pest patrol, but a couple of them have been flying over the garden fence. So when I finish up with something in the garden, I have to cover it with wire or they'll dig it up again. Every once in a while, I'll hear them all start squawking and really raising a ruckus outside. That usually means the hawk is back. This morning, he posed on the deck railing long enough for me to snap a photo through the kitchen window. I don't think he's big enough to take one of the chickens, but he sure makes everybody nervous when he's hanging around. They huddle under the lilacs, the picnic table, and the deck steps. I hope he's just looking for the mice and sparrows that come after the chicken feed.

When the weather is too windy, cold, or wet, I keep busy indoors. All of the peppers and chiles have been processed for the year - the chipotles done and packed away, the bells chopped into pieces and frozen, the habaneros made into a batch of hot sauce. Reliance red seedless grapes are supposed to hold for a few months in storage, and mine have. I just got the of them I'd stashed in the cellar cleaned and into the dehydrator.

It was my turn to post on the SGF Co-op blog today. I've been trying to make a few pillowcase aprons for National Tie One On Day, November 25th. I took photos while making this one, and posted a tutorial. Made from a thrifted pillowcase in an hour or two, it's a great project even for beginning sewers. Need an apron before Thanksgiving gets here? Check it out!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Finding Mother

Mother of vinegar, that is. I wanted to try making vinegar out of some of our hard apple cider. I've been reading up on it. Susy, over at Chiot's Run, sent me a link to a great tutorial from the Sunset magazine website. Since cider vinegar is made from apple juice that has first been fermented into alcohol, half my work was already done.

Supposedly, vinegar flies carry the right type of bacteria needed to convert alcohol into vinegar - so you want to get the flies to your cider (or wine) while at the same time keeping all the other airborne wild bacterias out. Mother of vinegar is then produced by the right kind of bacteria. Once you have some mother, you can keep it going just like a sourdough starter. Maybe we don't have vinegar flies in high desert; maybe they die off in the cold; maybe local bad bacterias kill off the good stuff - I don't know. I've tried making vinegar a couple of times before, but I never ended up with anything even remotely edible. I needed some other way of finding my vinegar mother.

When my (actual) mom was visiting, her flight home was out of the San Francisco airport. So after spending time with me in Nevada, the plan was: we'd meet up with my California sister in one of the Sierra foothill towns, halfway between our houses, and then Mom would go home with Sis. We decided to spend the day at Apple Hill, near Placerville, for our meeting place.

So we met for lunch, and then spent the afternoon checking out my favorite Apple Hill vendors. One of them, Denver Dan's, sells lots of flavored cider vinegars. Light bulb moment! I asked to talk to the owner, asking if he would sell me a little bit of vinegar mother. He ended up up just giving me a little jar with about a tablespoon scraped out of the bottom of one of his barrels. That was enough.

Following the directions from the tutorial, I poured three bottles of my hard cider into a glass gallon jar, added half again as much water (since my cider was made with added sugar, I'm sure it has a pretty high alcohol content), stirred in the mother (a rubbery, white goo), topped it off with some cheesecloth (mother needs air), and set it inside a top cupboard, where it would be warm and dark. And it's working! I haven't tasted it yet, but it smells really good. The mother multiplied in the bottom of the jar, and a fresh layer is now starting to form on the top, just like it should, converting the alcohol into vinegar. I'm so excited! I still have lots of apples, so I'm thinking I'll press out some more juice and let it ferment without adding sugar, just so I can keep my vinegar jar going. Maybe I'll start a second jar with leftover red wine too.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Crafty Camouflage

I took down the curtains in my bedroom and kitchen and washed them today. We use mini-blinds for privacy, so the curtains are just decorative, lightweight cotton in the kitchen, lace in the bedroom. Before putting them back up, I iron them with spray starch. I think it gives my homemade curtains a professional look, and might even resist dust. I'm curious. Surely, I'm not the only crafty frugal homemaker out there. Anyone else out have an item of clothing that matches a part of your decor?

Not even your old blue jeans?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Roasted Tomato Salsa

I can finally get to lots of household tasks that have been waiting for me around here. Sitting on a couple of trays in my spare bedroom, the rest of the tomatoes I picked green in early October had ripened. Plus, I needed to do something with the last of the fresh peppers in the refrigerator. I'd already put up 16 pints of tomato sauce earlier, so decided a batch of salsa sounded good.

My salsa canning recipe is ok, but could be better. Throwback at Trapper Creek had written about roasting her tomatoes for salsa on a post at the Simple Green Frugal Co-op blog a while back, and that sounded good. So I used her recipe, adapting it to what I had on hand.

I grow paste tomatoes for canning, so I just cored them and piled them into a roasting pan to roast more or less whole. After slipping the skins, I had 16 cups of tomatoes, so I increased all the ingredients by half again. I like a chunky salsa, so I just snipped the tomatoes into pieces with kitchen shears right there in the measuring bowl. I thought roasting the peppers would be good too, so I took the last of my fresh green bell peppers and a bunch of the fresh green jalapenos out to the barbecue grill. After they were roasted, sweated, peeled, and chopped, I added a few frozen chile "packets" until I had enough. I used my cayenne pepper hot sauce instead of Tabasco, and added a teaspoon of lime juice to each pint before filling the jars (to make it a bit more acidic, just in case roasting the peppers made more of them fit into the measuring cup). I put up 12 pints, with just a little bit left over for the refrigerator. So now, I'll have to see what Aries thinks.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bottling Sparkling Hard Cider

It took about three weeks for our five-gallon batch of apple cider to ferment completely. After our overflow emergency had settled back down, we put the regular airlock back on the fermenter and let it bubble away for a couple more weeks. It eventually slowed, and then finally stopped bubbling. If bottled before the fermentation has stopped, the gases produced are powerful enough to blow the tops off the bottles, or even break the glass. So we always wait another day or two past the last bubbles through the airlock, just to be sure. When the level in the airlock starts to lift backwards, it's time to get the bottles out.

As with the fermenting process, cleanliness is still very important to prevent any off-flavors in the cider (or exploding bottles), so an empty bucket, the tubing, bottle filler, bottles, and caps are all washed, then rinsed with a weak bleach solution to sterilize. The spent yeast has sunk to the bottom of the fermenting bucket, also helping to settle out everything else in the juice. Hooking the tubing to the spout of the fermenting bucket, the clear, fermented cider is transferred to the clean bucket, leaving the bottom dregs behind.

We want a sparkling hard cider, with a bit of carbonation in the bottles. So Aries dissolved 3/4 cup of corn sugar (not cane, beet, nor from any syrup - I don't know why, but he says we need to use only corn sugar) in one cup of boiling water, and then left it to cool earlier. That's enough for the whole 5-gallon batch. He gently stirs that into the bucket of cider (with a sterilized spoon), puts the lid on top loosely, and sets the bucket up on a stool on our counter so the cider will flow out the bottom valve. We're ready to bottle. That little bit of sugar will ferment in the bottles; the little bit of CO2 gas produced is enough to carbonate the cider without (hopefully) blowing the bottles.

My mom was visiting, so she helped Aries bottle the cider. From the valve on the bucket, the cider flows through the tubing to the filler. It's a rigid tube with a spring-loaded valve on the end. When the bottom of the filler is pressed against the bottom of a bottle, the cider flows. When the cider reaches the top of the bottle, lifting up on the filler stops the flow. The filler displaces just enough space in the full bottle so that when it is removed, it lowers the level of the liquid inside just the right amount.

Aries hands clean bottles over to Mom, taking back the filled ones to seal. When making beer, we like to reuse 16-oz Grolsch-type beer bottles, the ones that seal with a gasket, porcelain top, and a metal bale. Since we added extra sugar before fermenting the cider, it has a higher alcohol content than our beer - quite a bit higher, so we want to use smaller bottles. A 12-oz bottle is enough for three, even four, servings (and then I often mix my portion with ice and club soda). We reuse regular beer bottles, sealing by crimping on new metal bottle caps. Domestic bottles with twist-off caps can't be resealed, but we (and our friends) save empty foreign beer bottles that still need a bottle opener for our home brewing endeavors.

Hey lady! No sampling!

The filled bottles are labeled with item and date (little dot stickers on the caps) and packed away into a couple of boxes (I kept a few out for experiments in vinegar-making). Aries put the cases on the floor of our bedroom for another week or so. The secondary fermentation, the carbonation inside the bottles, gets off to a good start in the warmer environment, and we can keep an eye on the bottles to make sure none break. He just moved the cases down to the cellar yesterday, putting one bottle in the refrigerator for tasting last night. The cider still has quite a sharp taste, but it's not bad, even this early. There was a bit of a hiss when he opened it, but no bubbles yet. By Christmas, it should be mellowed nicely; by next summer, make for some wonderful cocktail hours, out on the deck watching the sunset.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

October, the Crazy Month

Things got a little crazy around here the past five or six weeks. I got just about everything harvested from the garden and orchard. I'm lucky to have a cellar, that we cool down by opening the door and vent whenever the night weather is cool but not freezing. The apples, pears, and last of the grapes hold down there until I can get around to canning, dehydrating, or otherwise processing them. I'm used to dealing with that - that's a normal part of the annual rhythms around this house.

But then I also ended up with lots of family goings-on too - subject for another post (or three). Suffice it to say that I ended up driving out-of-state for two long weekends, my mom stayed here for a week (she's an easy keeper - it's nice when she comes to visit), and sweet husband was on vacation two separate weeks - all further disrupting my usual household routine.

Add to that, too many, too close together Soroptimist fundraisers - the Rummage Sale, our big golf tournament, and then Nevada Day selling sleeve garters. Nevada is one of the few states that still celebrates its admission as a state. Called the Battle Born state, President Lincoln signed it into Union statehood on October 31, 1864, towards the end of the Civil War between the states.

When I first moved here, Halloween trick-or-treating here in the capital always took place on October 30th, so the kids wouldn't be out in the evening after adults had been out partying all day on the 31st, no matter what day of the week it fell on. In 1997, to make the celebration and big parade easier on rural towns sending high school marching bands to the parade, and state employees in general, Nevada Day observance was officially changed into a weekend event, "the last Friday in October", with the big parade and all attendant festivities on Saturday. The kids could trick-or-treat on Halloween once again. This year, however, it just happened Halloween was on that Saturday so kids here, by official proclamation, were out on the 30th once again.

I love an excuse to play dress-up sometimes too. Starting with a blouse, skirt, and tights I already had, a few safety and bobby pins, a couple of feathers and a few silk flowers, I made a saloon girl costume to wear selling this year's sleeve garters. I had a great time - walking both sides of the street before and during the parade and through the downtown street parties afterwards, and got to see lots of old friends. Now, finally, November is here and I'm looking forward to some "me" time.