Saturday, August 30, 2008

project bacon

i've been obsessing over bacon lately.
after years of vegetarianism, i started eating bacon at the beginning of this year, and like many former vegetarians (and naughty jews) i know - i'm fascinated with bacon.
one tried and true bacon confection that everyone seems to love: bacon-wrapped figs (sometimes stuffed with gorgonzola) - perhaps aryn will guest blog that tutorial.
some other bacon treasures i've discovered are:a few weeks back, while all i could think about was breaking my "master cleanse" fast - i found the idea for bacon cups on the blog not martha. if you've had any interaction with me since then you've already heard about these. they are inspired by the infamous bacon placemat, but then not martha took it to a whole new three-dimensional level. i really recommend reading her tutorial - because she has beautiful photos and her cups turned out way better than ours.
but since i've been talking it up so much, here are the photos from our attempt at bacon cups.first of all, my muffin tins were too small to wrap bacon around, so sele generously offered her ceramic ramekins. these were nearly the right size and shape, but a little too short and squat - as in the bacon couldn't wrap all the way around the cup, which compromised the structural integrity of the finished product.i agonized over what to fill the bacon cups with - since the salad was pretty but i thought a kind of lame attempt to pretend that eating bacon cups is a healthy choice. we decided to try several different fillings: egg salad, regular salad, caramelized peaches and apples.the whole process was highly enjoyable and the bacon cups were very tasty albeit ugly. the tips i have for those of you who want to make your own bacon cups are this:
use large muffin tins, like not martha says - i think that shape would work better.i only thought of this after the fact, but i think weaving a placemat out of the bacon and then laying it over the cup mold may work better than what we did, which was to weave directly on the cup. but i'd have to try it to see.
document the process and share it back to us - so we can all learn from each others' bacon adventures.

spies make great cooks

i'm totally into spies right now.
i try to always have some audio story accompaniment while i'm cooking/crafting, and my current book-on-cd is: "legacy of ashes: the history of the CIA" by pulitzer prize-winning new york times writer tom weiner. i just started it today, having borrowed it from the library, and there are 21 1/2 hours of this unabridged version on 17 cds. so far it's pretty interesting - from what i make of his perspective it's less about denouncing the cia's role in covert operations abroad, which is what i expected, and more about outing the failure of the u.s. to have any functioning centralized intelligence body, which in turn jeopardizes national security. i think i'll learn a lot.
hey, did you hear last week that fellow smith college alumna julia child was a spy? apparently with the release of certain formerly-classified documents from the u.s. national archive, it was revealed that julia worked for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA (as i'm learning about in my book). her notable accomplishment seems to have been inventing a shark-repellent because they were having trouble with nosy sharks setting off underwater explosives that were intended for german u-boats. really, i couldn't make this up.
also a great spy movie i watched this week: black book (zwartboek) - about a jewish lady spy who infiltrates the gestapo in the last days of the war in the netherlands. i don't think she did any cooking, but she was a great spy.

Friday, August 29, 2008


oh, the things you can do on the internet.
since i'm pretty much resolved to not leaving the house today, let me share with you what i just learned about from u-handblog: wordles.
amazing. you can enter the web address for your blog (or anything, really) and create an abstract word collage of the words most used in the site: the more frequent the word, the larger it appears.
basically what i learned from my blog's wordle is that i wrote more about canning than everything else put together. i'll have to check back on wordles after my blog's been around a while longer.
you also have the option to paste in a bunch of text and create a wordle out of that. i took my thesis [about native hawaiian resistence to geothermal energy development] and pasted that in, just to test how it would work with 128 pages of text. it didn't even blink - and produced this:
it's really fun, and a great way to avoid doing other things. you can also mess with the colors and font and word direction, if you've got something big to procrastinate about. try it out.
also, if you want to save the image (the website doesn't really allow you to do that) lisa lam of u-handblog kindly gives you links on how to take a screenshot with both macs and pcs.
if you do make your own wordle, please comment about it and share.

jobs and stories

my good friend harold sent me this ecard - which made me laugh out loud (i will not say lol on principle). it's so perfect. absolutely true that obsessively posting about my cooking and crafting endeavors on this blog justifies me not having a job (and not leaving the house).
in other job-related news, i got my first call-back and interview this week. for a job i would actually love to do - being a facilitator at the new san francisco storycorps booth. if you haven't yet heard of storycorps you should absolutely check them out and listen to a few stories on their website, i'll suggest a few to start with at the end of this post.
the idea is that regular people come into one of the storycorps booths - or the traveling airstream trailer, even classier - with a friend or family member and you get to interview each other. one copy of the interview you get to take home with you and one copy is stored at the american folklife center at the library of congress. usually people end up asking things they've always wanted to hear about but never found the time to ask, so you get to hear all kinds of life stories and lessons and challenges from ordinary people's lives. it's an incredible program. i subscribe to the podcast so each week's story downloads automatically to my itunes, but it also plays on npr's morning edition.
if you're going to start listening, let me suggest a few of my favorites, each story is only 3-5 mins long:
be prepared to cry, if you're so inclined.
wish me luck on the interview, it's next tuesday.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

jamming with the pluots: a how-to guide

the pluots got processed into jam this week with the help of laura and marty. i finally settled on adding ginger to the jam to ratchet up the flavor of the pluots, because as i mentioned in an earlier post, i don't actually like the taste of pluots that much, although i think they're so pretty. i couldn't resist adding some pink peppercorns - because, well, they're pink and they're pepper, and i think pepper should go in everything.
every time i talk about canning someone says to me "oh, really? i've been wanting to learn to do that," and after doing it with aryn's help i realize it's really not hard at all. so this is my first attempt at a blogging tutorial. i am by no means an expert on canning, everything i know i learned from the recipe in the pectin box and from my mom and aryn, so if any of you readers have something to add please do.
first off, laura's time was limited due to our extended lunch - and while she wanted to see the process through, it was a damn good lunch (the panini press is my favorite recently acquired kitchen tool - it's made sandwiches suddenly exciting). so laura and i washed, seeded and chopped the pluots into medium sized chunks. we put the pluots on the stove (with no added water - they boiled down with plenty of liquid on their own) on low heat.
and then laura had to leave and i got caught up in socializing and not watching the pot, which boiled over. oops. try to avoid that.
at the same time, i put a large covered pot of water on to boil. i think you can put the lids of the jars right in the water at this point because you want them to boil for a while and let that gummy stuff get soft.
ideally you would have read the recipe in the pectin box prior to starting this process, which i didn't. so my ingredients didn't go in quite in the right order, but now you're learning from my mistakes. as i mentioned, i'm thrilled with Pomona's Universal Pectin, but depending on what type of pectin you use, your process and ingredients will be different. just follow the recipe on the box.
so for the ginger-pink peppercorn-pluot jam i used Pomona's recipe for "sweet plum," which calls for 1/4 cup of lemon juice and somewhere between 3/4 - 2 cups of sugar for every 4 cups of mashed fruit. i didn't actually measure the fruit before putting it on the stove, but instead based my recipe on laura's assessment that it looked like "more than 4 cups." therefore i put in a little more than 1/4 cup of lemon juice and one cup of sugar. as you can see, this was not a precise process. and it turned out fine.
the reason pomona's pectin requires so much less sugar than your average pectin is that it uses calcium for the jelling process (i don't really understand how that works, but i'm explaining it here like i do). and there was a question about if pomona's pectin is vegetarian, and yes - it is, my understanding is that all pectin is vegetarian, it's gelatin that is not, but i know for sure this one comes from fruit part of your canning process then is to mix up the calcium with some water (1/2 teaspoon calcium powder to 1/2 cup water). and this is the only complaint i have so far for pomona's: the box comes with two packets in it which look identical except that one has less powder in it, and one is the pectin and one is the calcium powder and neither are labeled. sure, the instructions tell you that the pectin is a darker color powder and there's less of the calcium powder, but for your average frantic canner who's never dealt with calcium powder before and has several things on the stove boiling over i think they could just label those suckers. maybe i'll call their jamline to give them this feedback.with pomona's you stir together the pectin and the sugar first and then mix that into the fruit. what the recipe actually says is that you put the calcium water and the pectin-sugar mix into the fruit and then bring it to a boil. i did it the other way around, letting the fruit boil for a while before adding the calcium and pectin, but i think that worked out ok because the largish chunks of fruit needed time to cook down. i still put the calcium water in first and then added the pectin, just in case that's important. what IS important is to constantly stir while pouring the pectin-sugar mixture into the fruit on the stove, otherwise you're liable to end up with gelatinous chunks. thus the awkwardness of me trying to pose the above photo while using both hands. thanks to marty for his photo documentation of this this point your water should be at a nice rolling boil and you can add the jars for sterilization. i always give my jars a quick soapy wash first just because who knows what they were exposed to in the factory and they always smell kinda chemically. here the pomona's package said you should bring the lids and rings to a boil but then turn off the heat and let the jars sit in the hot water. i think this is to reduce your chances of breaking the glass, but i called to consult aryn about this and we agreed that i'd rather reduce my chances of getting botulism so i boiled the jars too for about 3 minutes. then i turned off the heat and let them sit in the hot water for a while, just to be sure.
a note about water: it's a delicate balance to determine the right amount of water to boil - you want it to completely cover your jars (about an inch above their tops) but remember the displacement factor - once the jars go in your water level will rise. maybe a good idea is to test the jars in the water before it starts boiling to make sure they fit right. another tip if you're not thinking ahead is to add already boiling water if you've guessed too little on the water - that way your water keeps boiling and you don't bring down the temperature. meanwhile, i'm stirring my jam - vigorously - for 1-2 minutes until the pectin dissolves and it returns to a boil. then i take it off the heat. don't worry if it seems too liquidy to be jam at this point - as long as you've added the right amount of pectin. it will thicken as it cools and it will set up completely in the jars. i worried that mine looked to thin, even once i put them into jars - but after several hours it set up nicely. here is a great website resource for jamming - much more thorough and knowledgeable than what you're reading right now. in it she suggests a way to test for jellyness: keep a metal spoon in a glass of ice water, grab a spoonful of your jam and let it cool to room temperature on the spoon. if you need to add more pectin to make it thicker you can, just follow the instructions in the pectin you're going to want to take your jars and lids out of the hot water and put them on a clean dish towel to dry off a bit. i considered buying the actual jar grabbing tool that they sell specifically for this purpose, but decided that i could make do with my metal tongs. after several scalding and near-dropping experiences i really recommend not being cheap like me and getting that jar grabber.
remember to turn your water back on to boil (i keep it covered) for the final water bath.once your jars have cooled a bit - or grabbing them with a towel if you're impatient like me - you're going to fill them to 1/4 inch below the rim with jam. do your best to get the jam into the jar and not on the outsides of it because that will make your next step easier. that being said, it's harder than it looks, so don't worry if it's a messy process. we decided to put in sprinkles of pink peppercorns in layers as i filled up the jars because we were worried they would all sink to the bottom. they actually float rather than sink, so a lot of the peppercorns ended up at the top of the jar. i think if i were to do this again i would stir them into the pot of jam just before jarring and hope it was thick enough that they mixed in well. i tried to place them close to the edge of the jar in hopes of maximizing their visibility from the outside, but they had a mind of their own.the next step is wiping the rim of your jar. i did this with a half-wet, half-dry paper towel. the point of this step is to get all the gunk off so you get a tight seal and no botulism. once you've got the rim clean you can set your lid on top and twist the ring on - it doesn't need to be twisted on super tight at this point, i'm not sure why that is, but i give it a quarter turn back from super tight - i don't know why - maybe because of my training with air tanks for scuba diving. who knows.

once you've got all the lids on the jars you're going to process them in the water bath. gently put them all upright in the boiling water (again, the water should completely cover the jars). the recipe in the pectin box says you only need to boil the jars for 5 minutes - plus an additional minute for every 1,000 feet you are above sea level, i won't even pretend to know what that's about. i didn't really believe that and left them boiling longer while i checked the internet for a second opinion. it's confirmed, in fact, that they only need to boil for 5 minutes, so go ahead and believe your box. as i said, i left mine boiling longer and they turned out fine.
the other thing the box says that i don't believe is that the jam "lasts about 3 weeks once opened." that can't be true, right? doesn't jam last basically forever in the fridge? i'll let you know, because i had not enough jam left over to fill a whole jar, so i kept my leftovers in the fridge - i'll keep you updated on their decay if it lasts more than 3 weeks. once your jars have boiled for 5 mins you can take them out and leave them to cool - ideally in a "draft free area where they won't get bumped." but if you happen to leave them in front of the fan to cool and your boyfriend comes along to shake them up and down trying to find the peppercorns - that'll be ok too.
the way you test for a secure seal (and no threat of botulism) is the fun little popping button on the top of the lid. don't worry if it still pops up and down when you take the jars out of the water bath (i love that term, by the way, it's like my jam is getting a spa treatment). give them a couple hours and they should seal as the jam cools. if one or two jars don't seal and the button still pops up and down - don't worry, just keep that one in the fridge and eat it first.
and that's it. enjoy that jam.

Monday, August 25, 2008

blog inspired lunch

today's lunch is a testament to how impressionable i am about food blogs. i saw the idea for marinaded eggplant, mint and capers on smittenkitchen yesterday right before heading out to buy groceries, so i made it for dinner last night and again for lunch today. i made a few adjustments, one being i really don't like the taste of vinegar, and i don't have the patience to marinade things - so after roasting the eggplant i just squeezed a little lemon on it and tossed in the capers and mint and i added some heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella because i had them on hand plus some black pepper because i think everything should have black pepper ground onto it. in fact, i'm on the hunt for a pocket-sized pepper grinder i can carry with me in my purse at all times. why not? i'm taking inspiration here from aryn, who never leaves home without salt. i also added red pepper flakes, though this didn't really go with the flavors in the dish, so i don't recommend it.
i put this all over rice and then made myself a salad to go along with it. i had some mixed baby greens left over from the sf ferry building farmer's market last week, tossed them with some toasted hazelnuts and pink peppercorns. again, all pepper all the time. i drizzled some things that seemed tasty over the top for dressing: lilikoi (passion fruit) juice from aunty lilikoi's on kaua'i, maple syrup (to balance the tartness of the lilikoi), blood orange olive oil, and of course some more black pepper. if you haven't tried stonehouse's blood orange olive oil yet i absolutely recommend getting yourself some. even if it means having it shipped. it'll change your life. if you like olive oil.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

concern of the day: lead poisoning.

the business next door that used to be an auto repair shop closed down a couple months ago and in the past few weeks a work crew has been there demolishing parts of the building. aside from the friendly wake-up sounds of demolition, i have a new concern about the building. a few days ago they wrapped all entrances, including windows and roof vents, in plastic and friday the yellow signs you see pictured here showed up declaring it a "lead hazard zone." hmm. that's a little unnerving considering marty and i have been complaining about all the dust that's been blowing into our house through the open windows for the past week, and that the morning coffee has been tasting more metallic than i phoned alameda county's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program on friday and explained all this to the woman on the phone. she didn't share my concern, saying that if they had wrapped the building in plastic and posted signs that essentially they were abiding by regulations. her only real concern was if there were children under age 6 in the house. i told her there weren't, but i was still concerned for my own health, and while i had to concede that she was probably right that i have completed my neurological development (unfortunately), i still don't think lead is good for health. and while there aren't any children living in the house now i may just want to have some sometime and should this concern me for say, my ability to reproduce? she said no, she didn't think so and suggested if i was worried about it i should wipe down all the surfaces that have dust on them with a wet rag. the more i pressed her with questions the more she retreated into her known repertoire of lead poisoning services - so for instance she told me if i got the landlord to request it we could have a free inspection of the house to point out potential lead hazards in the paint and soil. well now that you mention it, maybe i should be concerned about that too - but that was not what i called about.
so i've done a little online research about lead poisoning for adults and discovered that it can indeed affect basically all your bodily systems and that symptoms are hard to detect but might include tiredness, irritability, loss of appetite and some other gastrointestinal issues. while i can readily admit to the first two, i certainly haven't lost my appetite so i decided not to pursue that avenue of lead detection. they also suggest eating a balanced diet high in iron, vitamin c, and calcium reduces lead absorption. this information is all coming from a very informative pamphlet put out by oregon's lead poisoning prevention program. they also give you a number to call for lead hazard inspections. it's too bad i don't live in oregon. because what i really want is for some unbiased inspector to come out and tell me if i'm indeed living in a lead hazard zone and what to do about it, but if i can't get that i guess i'll wipe down my furniture and eat more leafy greens.

not every meal is worth mentioning...but i will anyway

I'm by myself this weekend and therefore putting less effort into meal planning. It's less satisfying to cook when you are the only one around to compliment the results. This morning's breakfast was therefore a random assortment of things I had in the fridge: potatoes I started chopping up maybe a week ago before we decided to go out to brunch at Z cafe instead (fabulous restaurant hidden in between car dealerships right near our house). I stuck them in a bowl of water in the refrigerator and was surprised that they survived the week looking nonetheworse for wear. Threw in some jalepenos, garlic, and onions and then fried up some of my current obsession: okra. The guys I like to buy okra from at the market weren't there this week, so I'm finishing up last week's supply. I decided to try rolling them in the flour/spice batter without dipping in buttermilk, which has been my preferred method of late for frying, because I figured they're sticky little buggers on their own so why is this liquid dipping necessary? The flour stuck really well onto the okra but once they hit the oil in the pan most of it came off, so I think that's the reasoning for the liquid dip. Live and learn. In an attempt to cut the greasiness of my meal, I sliced up one of the more visually appealing tomatoes Sele and I selected yesterday. And then because I noticed my fingernails matched the tomato so nicely I had to take pictures and play with the limited effects of picasa on my computer.
I'm sharing my breakfast routine with you not because I think it's that interesting, but because I've been looking at a lot of cooking blogs lately while trying to learn about blogging - and their snobby photos make it look like every meal they prepare is perfect and stunningly beautiful. And I want you to know that I fry up random stuff from the back of the fridge and pretend it goes together as a meal. And I'm ok with that.
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Saturday, August 23, 2008

market score of the day: pluots

Sele and I headed to the Lake Merritt Farmers Market this morning with the expressed purpose of finding more things to can. We settled on pluots simply because they were so beautiful. I like the idea of pluots: plums and apricots put together, what's not to love? But I'm always disappointed with their taste. So I was scheming on what to add to pluot preserves to make them more appealing: Sele thought basil. I'm skeptical about this, but was willing to do purple sweet basil, just for aesthetic wonder. We sniffed the purple basil and decided against that idea. I'm still considering star anise - not really because I think the tastes would go together, but again solely for aesthetic reasons. I can picture the pink translucent flesh of the pluot along with the sharp angles of the star anise in the jar and it's so appealing. The spiced jam idea is inspired by my friend Rachel's mom, Mindy's recent batch of strawberry-cardamom jam, which got my wheels whirring. I couldn't quite bring myself to pay for strawberries and then not eat them fresh, so I'm working on a less expensive alternative with the pluots. We'll see what comes of it.
In other market-related news: heirloom tomatoes are still out in force and so fabulous. Here's Sele with some particularly great selections.

oklahoma goodies

sipping saturday morning coffee today inspired me to feature my favorite recent find: the oil rig coffee mugs. we found these treasures at a thrift store on our recent trip to oklahoma. i love them, partly for the irony of cherishing this symbolic image of our impending doom, and partly for the aesthetic accuracy of comparing oil to the type of coffee I insist on brewing, no matter how many guests can't drink it.
here they are making appearances next to the ongoing dragonfly quilt project and the other baby-related craft i finished in oklahoma: knit baby hat. this is baby hat number 3 for our friend justin's new baby, nasra. the first two i completed with grandma ho's help while in hawai'i - one crocheted and one knit, but i was trying to figure out how to decrease without a pattern on the knit hat and it turned out with a few extraneous angles, so this is my redo attempt, a few sizes bigger so she can grow into it.

fabricating dragonflies

Several years ago I started inexplicably collecting dragonfly patterned fabric. I don't have a particular affinity for dragonflies nor did I have a project in mind for the fabric, so its been boxed up at my mom's house awaiting an opportune project to surface. On our recent trip to South Dakota I met baby Payton Sky - who does have a particular affinity with dragonflies - and so the quilting project emerges at last.
Thanks to mom's diligent postal assistance I now have the fabric and a paper piecing pattern for dragonfly squares. First of all, I'd never heard of paper piecing before - miraculous. It's like paint-by-numbers for quilting. You literally just take scraps of fabric and sew them together on top of the actual paper pattern - no thinking required once you figure out that the piecing is kind of counter-intuitive, meaning you end up pressing the pieces into place after stitching them right sides together so it takes a minute to figure out how to lay them so they press into the right places.
I ended up copying the pattern by hand onto tissue paper (easier to rip off the piece once its done than regular paper - newsprint would have been the ideal weight, but I didn't have any) thus the picture of the pattern taped to the window of my new sewing studio.
After a week of obsessive paper piecing I now have a flock of seven dragonflies, which I think is all I'm going to make since the number seven is significant in baby Payton's culture. My task now is figuring out what the rest of the quilt is going to look like and how to incorporate all these dissimilar dragonfly prints together to make something appealing.
Since I'm working with regular quarter yards and fat quarters for once and not scraps I feel like I should make a regular patterned quilt, but regular patterns bore me - I like to work with things that are a little wonky and irregular so we'll see what comes out. I am considering tacking felt up on the wall of the studio to create a design wall, but I priced felt at Longs where I found myself this morning at $6/yard and I'm too cheap to go that route, so carpet design remains the strategy of choice for now.

Friday, August 22, 2008

canning continues

before my housemate, aryn, moves back east to pursue her graduate degree, i've been garnering all i can of her knowledge of canning. a couple weeks ago we went to pick peaches and plums in brentwood, ca - which turns out to be a disorienting gated-community-type suburb with random orchards hidden in the middle of it. we made peach and plum jam with this pectin i found at whole foods - and while i normally despise having to shop at "whole paycheck" as aryn calls it, this time they provided some pectin that changed my whole experience of jam. this stuff, pomona's universal pectin, uses calcium instead of sugar to activate its jelling power - meaning you can use a fraction of the amount of sugar that normal pectin requires (often one to one fruit to sugar, eew). now i can't justify using any other type of pectin. not to mention they have a "jamline" - really, that's what they call their phone question line.
following the success of our peach and plum jamming experience, aryn and i jarred up some heirloom tomatoes - taking advantage of that season and anticipating the long hard winter aryn has ahead of her in worcester, ma. we roasted the tomatoes in the oven until they melted into little puddles and then scooped them into sterilized jars, layering with lemon juice (to prevent botchalism, nobody wants that), olive oil and basil leaves. then put the jars back into the water bath for about 45 mins. all the jars sealed up tight (though i didn't do a good job of getting all the air bubbles out of my tomatoes, i hope that won't be a problem) and they look pretty and tasty.