I’ve Got My Eye on You: Favorite Links This Week

Here’s what I’ve discovered this week on the Internet:

  • This smart pantry Italian Seasoning will take about three mintues to make and will make seasoning pizza sauce a snap.
  • I saw some great fabric headbands in a great fabric store recently, and found this video tutorial that shows how crazy-quick they are to make from fabric scraps. Cute cute cute.
  • Tom Hirschfeld of Bonafide Farm Food started a new cooking-meets-literature site, and I love this first story about his daughter.
  • My sister-in-law gave me some red quinoa, and I can’t wait to try this salad to take for work lunches.
  • I fortunately discovered Kombucha Kamp before throwing out what I thought was good kombucha going bad. Instead, I learned that what looks like pre-mold scum  (above) is exactly what I want to start forming a new scoby.
  • I’m going to make some of these rice-filled heating pads for all the aching muscles we inexplicably seem to have in the Kitchel home.
  • Some of our ugly tomatoes are going to make their way into Smitten Kitchen’s fresh tomato sauce.

Anything fun you’ve found online?

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Thoughts on the Dinner Hour

Most nights we eat dinner, together, as a family. We didn’t always.

Dinner together pre-kids happened maybe three or four times a week. After we had Max, we found it easier to throw something at him that he’d eat and eat ourselves later, often scrounging what we could find. Sometimes taking the time to prepare something really good. Too often ordering in. When Tommy came along, we would find ourselves buying the boys fast food a couple of nights a week and filling in with easy meals for them, often ourselves eating later or grabbing bites, standing up, while shoveling food into a toddler’s mouth.

At some point, I realized dinner needed to change. It needed to stop being the utilitarian execution of food and become the central time of the day when everyone gathered. By the time Sylvia came along, we’d established at least the intention to eat home-cooked meals. Phil and I still would often find ourselves at 5:00, finishing work, and neither of us with a plan for dinner. There was too much fast food and too many meals out, but we were making progress.

When Phil became a stay-at-home dad, I do admit for a while I assumed I’d come home from work to a Phil-styled version of June Cleaver, who would have the table set, flowers overflowing from vases, and dinner about to be served.

But while no one is vacuuming the house in pearls or serving fish preserved in aspic, we have finally fallen into a good dinner routine. We expect of ourselves that one of us will be making dinner, and that the kids will sit down with us, for even a short period, to eat and talk and tell us about their days before bolting out the door to see friends before the sun sets. On weekends we’re more casual, as we often have extra kids or are short some of ours, and Friday night pizza does sometimes mean feeding five kids on outdoor plates while Phil and I eat inside.

During the summer, Phil had the kids at swim lessons every day, so I would come home from work, pour a glass of wine, and make dinner. I usually knew by early morning what I’d be making that night. I had a moment of quiet to myself doing something I love, cooking (and drinking wine!), and the kids could come home from their lessons with food about to be served.

Now that the boys are back in school and lessons are over, Phil is responsible for dinner. Today we talked at around 3:00 and he said he didn’t have a dinner plan, so I suggested a simple night of quesadillas and salad left from last night. He added a topping of sauteed onion, black beans, and leftover grilled chicken (last night’s dinner was more of a production), plus garden tomatoes and an avocado. All simple, pulled together, but important.

And with our humble, pantry-pulled-together meal, we feasted. As a family.

Next Year’s Garden List: Garlic Chives

We were at my brother and sister-in-law’s house in Ohio (or as Sylvia says, “Nohio”) this past weekend. My sister-in-law, Heidi, is also a gardener, is many steps beyond me on the natural/whole foods journey, and is always fun to talk with. We were outside one day and I commented on the cucumbers crawling up her pergola (I’m thinking I might try the same next year with the duck enclosure), and then noticed some beautiful white flowers with striking greenery. The flowers were alive with bees. I asked what they were.

Garlic Chives. I’d never heard of them. Heidi had received a clump of them from a friend from China, who said that they are used extensively in Chinese cooking — more like a vegetable used in stir-fries and soups. Like the chives we’re all familiar with, they are perennials that flower, although they flower later in the year, whereas what I consider “classic” chives flower in the spring. As you would expect from their very descriptive name, they have more of a mild garlicky flavor than a mild oniony flavor. They also spread, so the small clump Heidi had been gifted was now crawling beautifully around their deck.

I found this article from one of my favorite garden writers, Barbara Damrosch, who sings their praises. This year I lined our expanded front garden with Swiss Chard, which is not only gorgeous, but has provided us more greens than we can eat all summer, and will continue to produce into the winter. I’m now figuring out where we have another spot in need of bordering. I know what’ll be going in there come spring.

Sylvia’s Trash-Picked Chair

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On my way to work one day, I drove down a little road I rarely drive down, and the owners were clearly housecleaning. The curb was full of things they were finished with: An Exersaucer, a double stroller, stuffed animals. And this kid-sized early-American glider rocker. I snatched the rocker, with big plans to tackle it that weekend and make it a little fresher and a little more feminine for Sylvia’s room.

This was summer 2010.

For two years I was stared at by this this chair, stuffed in a corner of our too-small basement, mocking my good intentions while it was buried under 48-count V-8 packs from Costco. At some point, maybe a year ago, I sprayed it with primer, sure I’d finish it shortly. And there it sat, primed, under V-8 packs.

But this past wekeend I finally spray painted it, and a couple nights ago I used the old, pseudo-wool cushions as a pattern to make new cushions. The cushions are simply enveloped, so I can slip them off to wash them when I need to. Total, I think this took me maybe three hours. Three hours and two years.

The fabric came from my rather ponderous stash, so the only expense was new pillow stuffing and a $3 bottle of spray paint.

I snuck the finished chair into Sylvia’s room while she was sleeping. The next morning she stumbled downstairs, not noticing her new chair. When I came up later, she was sitting in it, rocking a doll. She loves it.

Maybe this will give me the confidence to tackle the yard-sale antique chair in the yard barn that I’m planning to reupholster. Ya know, one of these days.

The Resilient Garden

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but rain was scarce here in the midwest this summer. Another way to phrase that was that we experienced the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days. It’s been a hot, nasty, dry summer. I’ve questioned several times the wisdom of getting ducks, who need to wallow in water, over chickens, who enjoy scratching in dust. Live and learn.

The garden suffered this year; no doubt about it. But it’s been fascinating seeing the resilience of plants and how quickly and fully things sprang back after a bit of rain.

I’m only planting greens in our shady backyard, and had planted six sorrel plants with the plan of having this perennial for years to come. And then all six, despite my watering, shriveled and died. Or so I thought. A couple of weeks ago, after a bit of rain, they reappeared:

Same with some arugula that had withered and refused to grow:

The side garden had been full of garlic and a single row of mums. But the compost apparently had some tomato seeds, because six tomato plants sprung up, and I’ve let them go. These days, it’s a jungle out there:

And I don’t want to speak too soon, but it looks like I’ve possibly broken my zucchini curse. I planted a few seeds in late June, hoping to have planted late enough to avoid the squash borers that always kill my plants while everyone I know complains that they have NO idea what they’re going to do with all that zucchini. Check out this little fella:

Even the kale that the ducks nibbled down to nubs and that had gotten droopy and sad in the 100+ degree weather has bounced back and should be full and giving us greens through the fall and winter:

In the front garden, I’ve pulled up the melons and potatoes and pumpkins (which did nothing — stupid squash borers), and planted the fall garden. We now have tiny radish, beet, collard, mesclan, spinach, and snow pea plants that should be getting into high gear in the next month. When the tomatoes finally go, there’ll be more kale, which loves cold weather.

I always love the (paraphrased) line from the children’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs: “The garden is a miraculous place, and anything can happen on a cool moonlit night.” So true.

Hot Pepper Jelly

This year I have about five hot pepper plants — some standby jalapeno, but also some other varieties like Scotch Bonnet, which means more pepper sauce, pepper vinegar, and my favorite: Hot Pepper Jelly.

If you’re new to canning but want to give it a whirl, this is a perfect first recipe. It contains few ingredients, is foolproof, and doesn’t take long to make. We use it in tons of ways throughout the year: As an appetizer with cream cheese, on a toasted English muffin topped with scrambled eggs, on cornbread during Chili Night. Depending on the variety, it can be super-hot, or just have a little kick. This year I combined several peppers, and it turned out hotter than plain jalapeno, but not remotely unbearable and sweat-inducing.

I also love giving this away because it’s a little unusual as far as kitchen gifts go, and if you use a variety of red and green peppers, you’re matching all the holiday decor come December. I made one batch a couple of weeks ago, and sent Sylvie with a jar to our new and already adored next-door neighbor. Sylvie told me a couple of days later that our neighbor, Heidi, told her the jelly was “rocket ships.” I think she said “the bomb,” but what do I know? I’m not hip enough to know the lingo these days. But I got the impression Heidi liked it.

If you’re new to canning, you might want to watch a couple of YouTube videos just to see the process in action, but know that it’s easy-peasy and very addicting. I didn’t grow up with a canning mom, and I was fairly certain this was rocket science when I first attempted it; fortunately my friend Martha, whose mom did can, p’shawed me 15 years ago and helped take the mystery out of canning. She’s right; it’s not intimidating once you try it.

Oh, but if you’re trying hot pepper jelly, do yourself a favor and wear rubber gloves to cut and deseed the peppers. Seriously. As someone who pooh-poohs those warnings every year and has to hold baggies  of ice for hours afterward, don’t be like me. Wear gloves.

So you wanna make some jelly? Here’s how.

Hot Pepper Jelly

1/2 cup finely diced and seeded hot peppers
1/2 cup finely diced and seeded bell pepper
6-1/2 cups sugar
1-1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 3-oz. package liquid pectin (such as Cert-o)

Sterilize 7 or 8 half-pint canning jars and their lids. They will also have rings that hold the lids in place, but these rings just need to be clean, not sterilized. To sterilize, stick the jars in boiling water for several minutes. Meanwhile…

Mix the peppers, sugar, and apple cider in a good-sized non-reactive pan. Over high heat, bring this mixture to a boil. Lower the heat and boil gently for about 7 minutes, give or take a minute, stirring frequently. The little peppers will get limp and the sugar will be dissolved. Pour in the liquid pectin and boil for another 60 seconds.

Spoon the hot jelly into the sterilized canning jars, leaving about 1/2 inch of space at the top of the jar; you don’t want to fill it all the way to the top of the jar or the jar won’t be able to seal. Don’t get greedy and overfill the jars. Also, if any jelly gets around the rim of the jars, wipe the jar rims clean with a damp cloth; the jars won’t seal if there’s if the jar rims aren’t completely clean. Put the sterilized lids on the canning jars and screw on the ring bands. To seal the jars, process them in a water-bath canner for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, take the jars out of the canner and wait for the satisfying *ping* telling you each jar has sealed. If any don’t seal, just store them in the fridge and use them first.

This makes about 7 half-pint jars of delicious, delicious jelly. Happy hot peppering!