Living Simply: Candied Jalapeño

Cowboy candy.
Cowboy candy.

It may seem silly, but I miss David Foster Wallace nearly every day since he killed himself on September 12, 2008.

I “met” him first through his novel Infinite Jest, a 1,100 page tome with 150 pages of endnotes (give or take, depending on the edition you have).

I read this book three times.

The first time it took me three weeks, as I was taking notes, writing down vocabulary lists (for real, and I am an English major), and looking up definitions. I also referred when necessary to the endnotes DFW created, including the complete movie catalogue of one of the characters (with plot synopsis and everything).

It’s the kind of brain-based focus that has not really occurred in my life for the past several years.

The next two times I read Infinite Jest, it was for the simple pleasure of winding myself up in his beautiful prose. His complex characters, modeled on real life people, perhaps, or mostly on autobiographical bits of himself, are deep and complicated and sometimes downright unlikeable.

The plot unfolds at a snail’s pace, which explains the book’s length, but every word feels necessary and in service to the larger purpose. I read it as a marathoner might pop out and jog a quick ten miles  – to keep my intellectual muscles strong and engaged and with a type of joy that comes from already knowing what happens. In this way I could gather the little pebbles I missed along the way (which happens quite a bit, as I may already be a little senile, the most burnt out non-potsmoker one might meet).

Few books have called to me in the same way before or after. I don’t know what it is about the reward you get when you need to spend more effort on something to truly understand it. Infinite Jest was not an easy read any of the times that I read it. I read it at times when I was most preoccupied in my life (grad school, with a newborn, and when I started my school), almost as if the action of reading such a book pulled me out of the foggiest parts of my brain and made me sharpen my gaze, like honing a blade.

Sometimes, though, this steel-sharp focus is counterintuitive. Sometimes simplicity is what we really need.

Simplicity does not equal stupidity, although one could be lead to believe otherwise by the current state of everything in the U.S.

Simplicity can easily be achieved by allowing whatever is to be whatever it is without wallowing in it or reveling in it or otherwise complicating it with interpretation and reaction. Seems easy enough, right?

In another part of my life, I am a 500-hour certified yoga teacher, and one of the texts we studied during my training was The Splendor of Recognition. This is a study of 21 Tantric sutras (which, disappointingly, DON’T MENTION SEX EVEN ONCE).

Side note: One of my main issues with spirituality in general is that language is inadequate for its discussion, so I will keep it to a minimum here. 

The Splendor of Recognition posits that not only are we in the universe, but the universe is also in us. All we need to become as limitless and boundless as the universe is to recognize that truth.

The best part is that once that recognition happens, it’s always there. There is no backsliding. So you can still do the things you love (like drink and have sex and whatever else it is that you love) without thinking that your soul is in jeopardy. The universe springs forth from the heart, and you can dive into it whenever you want.

This is, of course, deceptively simple. It’s not so easy to truly believe that you are in the universe and the universe is in you. And we are all of us human beings (I think), and human beings like to react and interpret and make it ALL ABOUT OURSELVES. That’s the rub.

Putting up summer produce, however, is about as simple as it gets, and it’s also meditative as hell for those of you that wish to skip sitting down and thinking about nothing (HA. Good luck with that.) for 30 minutes a day.

In just three hours, I canned 13 pints of tomatoes, three 1/2 pints of cowboy candy, and an experimental quart jar of sauerkraut.

Some things that made this so simple:

  • I didn’t make more work than there had to be. The standard way to skin tomatoes is to boil a huge vat of water, plunge the tomatoes in there, and then plunge them in an ice bath to easily remove the skins. This is 100% effective. You know what else is 100% effective? Using a box grater. I turned 16 pounds of tomatoes into pureed tomatoes in less than 20 minutes by cutting off the stems, cutting the tomatoes in half, and rubbing them on a box grater until all I had in my hand was a little wisp of skin. Simple, and no messy boiling water or skinless-tomato chopping.
  • I used what I had. I had six cups of jalapeños, some sugar, and some vinegar. This is perfection for cowboy candy (recipe below).
  • I just thought about what was happening in front of me. For three hours, all I did was cook and can. I didn’t worry about the fact that I have not yet found mercenary writing work to replace the writing job that ended two weeks ago (I am for hire – FYI.), or about the dog who may or may not (but probably does) have an ear infection, or the kid many thousands of miles away, studying in France until June 2017 (2017, people. TEN MONTHS.).

I just grated tomatoes, chopped jalapeños, sterilized jars, and massaged cabbage.

You, too, can live simply.

Cowboy Candy (a.k.a, Candied Jalapeños)

Note: This makes three half pints but can easily be doubled. You can also mess with the ratio (1:2 vinegar to sugar) just a bit and make an even two full pints. #YouAreTheUniverse

Ingredients

1 cup apple cider vinegar

2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

4 cups jalapeños, sliced about 1/4″ thick (more or less)

Method

Before beginning, make sure you have your canning jars are ready to go. “Ready to go” means washed in hot soapy water and sterilized. You could kill many birds with one stone by washing them in the dishwasher right before you begin. Then they are clean AND sterilized. Otherwise, clean by washing by hand and then sterilize by submerging jars in boiling water for five minutes.

Remove with tongs, and for fuck’s sake be careful. That water is boiling.

If you are planning to be legit and can these to last for a year, use new canning lids and dip them in the boiling water for a minute. Set all of this aside.

In a large pot, combine vinegar, sugar, celery seed, and jalapeños. Stir to dissolve sugar over medium heat, then bring to a boil. Boil gently (not a rolling, vigorous boil) for five minutes.

Add jalapeños to the pot and simmer for five minutes. Try not to inhale the steam coming off the pot. You will be very, very sorry if you get a lungful of that, and you may cough until you puke. I did not, but this is also not my first rodeo.

Use a slotted spoon (or a fork or whatever is handy) to remove jalapeños from the syrup and pack into jars. Don’t push too hard, but make sure each nook and cranny is filled.

Return the syrup to a boil, and boil for six minutes.

Ladle HOT SYRUP into the canning jars, leaving space at the top (about 1/4″ or maybe a little more if you are making pints.).

Wipe the rims of the jars and place lids on top, screwing the metal band of the canning lid until it is just a little tight (not all the way – canning books sometimes call this “fingertip tight,” which I think is super odd, but whatever makes you happy).

At this point, you could let these cool on the counter before placing them in the ‘fridge and then waiting at least three days to start eating. This way, they will last about two weeks.

If you want to get old school, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil (the same pot you sterilized the jars in) and place your jars in that pot of boiling water for 15 minutes (with at least an inch of water covering the top of the jars) before removing them to a counter. Let them sit, untouched, until completely cool. If you hear a little “pop,” your jars have sealed and will be good on the shelf for a year.

If you don’t hear the pop, and the little button in the center of the lid still moves up and down, they have not sealed properly and should be placed in the ‘fridge. You could try to re-process, but that’s a pain in the ass and completely unnecessary since you will be eating all of these pretty much ummediately anyway.

Recipe notes:

  • Botulism is NO JOKE, but canning is not actually rocket science. I was trying to find a solid guide to link to, but honestly, lots of them are either trying to sell you something or to not get sued (that’s the USDA canning guide). A can lifter is helpful, as is a wide-mouth canning funnel (but strictly speaking neither are necessary). You do not need a special pot or anything fancy. The Serious Eats guide to canning is pretty good for method, and it links to the sites trying to sell you something or not get sued so you can make up your own mind.
  • Slicing jalapeños is also no joke. Wear gloves if you are very sensitive (which I am) or cheat (as I did) and just hold on to the stem while you slice them. If you touch the juice of the jalapeño, wash your hands immediately. Do not touch your face or, heaven forbid, go to the bathroom. #YouWillBeSorry
  • You can submerge a towel or a wire rack in the bottom of your pot of boiling water before you place your jars in the pot. This will keep the jars from dancing around and potentially cracking.

I cook when I need to be the universe. If you require some simplicity, what do you do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 10 Most Important Things That Happened In My Kitchen This Year

Baltimore Museum of Art, September 11th. Friday field trips, a lovely tradition from this year.
Baltimore Museum of Art, September 11th. Friday field trips, a lovely tradition from this year.

I won’t lie: I am a sucker for a listicle.

Perhaps it’s because I am myself a prodigious maker of lists. Or maybe it’s because I am old and have the attention span of a fruit fly these days. It’s hard to focus on big words and long sentences sometimes, and yet this blog is filled with them.

Ah, well.

But lists.

I love them.

And I especially love lists that apply to cooking, kitchens, food, or anything otherwise involving comestibles and their preparation.

And now is the time of year when everyone puts out their top ten lists of everything (movies, songs, celebrities, etc). While I won’t lie and pretend that I haven’t ever read a tabloid in line at the supermarket (or on an airplane, or while at the beach. Ahem.), I will say that in general I couldn’t care less about those sorts of lists.

However.

I love top ten lists of cookbooks, like the one from Bon Appetit or this one from Paste.

I love a solid how-to list for ingredients or supplies of a particular cuisine (hello, Korea! You are happening in my kitchen in 2016!).

I especially love lists about stocking a bar (although I would swap out the absinthe in this list and add in a very expensive bottle of sipping whiskey of your preference. Mine is bourbon, and it’s a bottle of Pappy. What else is there?).

Lists create order out of chaos. They gather, organize, and distill crucial information. While I still enjoy reading a page-long sentence every now and then (hello, Kerouac!), and I very obviously enjoy writing them, lists have become a crucial part of my writing, cooking, and daily life.

So. To that end, it only makes sense that I end the year on this, my very new food blog, with a list. I will call it The Ten Most Important Things To Happen In My Kitchen This Year. In no particular order, here they are.

1. I actually got a kitchen

Call it the rehab that never ended, but we bought the house in October and didn’t move in until mid-May. That’s SEVEN MONTHS ON AN AIR MATTRESS. But who’s counting? I am tremendously grateful to be in this house, in this kitchen I designed, regardless of how long it took.

2. Shared my expensive bourbon with a gentleman caller

Because my friend Mark has a lovely liquor store connection, he was generous enough to snag me a bottle of 15-year Pappy Van Winkle. On the interwebs, these bottles are going for upwards of $800. Although I didn’t pay nearly as much as that, I sip it with reverence, and I am not prone to sharing. I shared a wee sip with a gentlemen. It is both the sharing itself and the person with whom I shared that makes it an item on this list. #Standby

3. Acknowledged the importance of vulnerability. Using cake

I decided that moving forward would become impossible and fruitless were I to continue in the manner in which I was traveling prior to death of my spouse. SO. Time to open up to the possibilities. Cake teaches lessons.

4. Got to know a candy-apple red stand mixer

This is my first stand mixer, and it was my Mother’s Day gift to myself. I LURVES it. It marked a new era of spending money on myself, something that I have previously had difficulty doing, and it allows me to make ALL OF THE THINGS.

5. Reaffirmed my love of mise en place

I am mise en place-ing like a boss these days. It just makes life in the kitchen easier. Turns out, having everything in place makes the rest of life easier also. #KitchenLessons

6. Learned how to sharpen my knives (and actually sharpened them)

Yeah, turns out this makes a huge difference. I knew, but lazy took over, then crazy took over, and finally we settled down in Baltimore, and I did it.

7. Mounted my own magnetic knife rack

I dug my standard Ikea magnetic knife thing out of a box when we finally moved in to our permanent house, kicking myself for not having the contractor install it. So it languished in the box for awhile until I couldn’t take it anymore, and I mounted it myself. With a level. #LikeABoss

8. Decided to dig into the shadows 

In keeping with the trend of #3, shadow work has become a focus over the past six months. Uncovering the darkest parts of my experience, examining them, and letting them go has made a profound difference in the quality and depth of my ability to grieve and then move forward. Not nearly done, but the process has been eye-opening.

9. Made a cooking video

But guess what? It was crap, so I am not posting it. I am okay with showing the process, but this was just not even close to what I was going for. So maybe this time next year.

10. Re-designed this website

I said I would not do another website ever again, but I bit the bullet and did it. While it is not exactly what I want yet, it does represent a certain amount of tenacious ferocity that I have learned lurks deep within me. So there’s that.

These go to 11: Got to know The Teenager better

So The Teenager and I are at this amazing place in our relationship where we are transitioning from a straight mother-daughter thing to more mother/daughter friends. This can be very difficult for both parties, as The Teenager sometimes struggles with understanding that I am still her mother (and as long as you are living under my roof….), and I may have difficulty believing everything that comes out of her mouth (the working motto: Trust but verify). In the end, she is becoming a strong, intelligent, opinionated, passionate human who is an excellent friend and an all-around good person. I have realized that it is up to me in many ways to treat her in such a way that allows her to continue on that road, and I did it during one of our long, after-school chats. That she still wants to have them is such a gift.

So that’s my top ten list for 2015. What’s yours?

 

 

Pickled Beets And Thieves Oil

Beets

It may be the holiday season, but right now it’s 70 degrees outside in Baltimore.

I am no Californian. I like four seasons. It should be cold for football, and there should be at least two decent snowfalls per winter. I don’t need Massachusetts-level weather, but snow is imperative.

I have welcomed this weather this week, though. December 14th to the 21st is the darkest week of the year in the northern hemisphere. The last little bits of daylight get swallowed by the darkness well before the dinner hour, and by the time seven o’clock rolls around all I want to do is go to bed. At least the warmth helps.

Still.

“I love the stars too much to be afraid of the dark.” ~Anonymous~

This weekend at yoga teacher training we talked about shadow sides, the darkness that we all have, and how to embrace it just as much as the light. The darkness is what makes people so complex. It is the thing that makes people who they are.

What does this have to do with beets and thieves oil, you ask? Isn’t this supposed to be a food blog, you say?

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~Leonard Cohen~

For me, when it gets dark outside, and I have trouble finding the crack, it is the smallest of gestures that brings me back to humanity. This weekend I was sick. Weird sick, like feverish with no fever, weak, dizzy. The teacher training went for three and a half hours on Friday night, with two hours of yoga, nine and a half hours on Saturday, with four and a half hours of yoga, and five and a half hours on Sunday, with two hours of yoga.

When I dragged myself to the training Friday night, one of my fellow students handed me a gift, a Mason jar with thieves oil Epsom salt bath soak. I had commented on this delicious combination of rosemary, clove, lemon, eucalyptus, and cinnamon on her Instagram, and she saw that I was sick.

This simple gesture stuck with me. It doesn’t take much.

If thieves oil brings me out of the darkness, beets remind me to hunker down. Putting up or preserving seasonal food is primal for me. In times of financial strain, I tend to buy two things: food and books. Entertainment, knowledge, sustenance. Mason jars on the pantry shelves remind me that I have everything I need and give me permission to hunker down until spring.  In the case of pickled beets, they are really in the back of the ‘fridge, but you get the idea.

Here’s how the magic happens.

Thieves Oil Epsom Salts (Scrub or Soak)

Thieves oil has a grisly history. Legend has it that it allowed thieves to rob sick people during the Black Plague without getting sick.  Every recipe I have found has had different proportions, but the one I like best is this:

10 drops of clove essential oil

9 drops of lemon essential oil

5 drops of cinnamon essential oil

4 drops of eucalyptus essential oil

3 drops of rosemary essential oil

Add as much or as little of the above as you like to one cup of Epsom salts. Dissolve salts in a hot bath, or use as a scrub. While there are some claims that thieves oil protects against illness, kills Ebola, and prevents you from contracting the Black Plague, I will settle for the fact that it smells delicious, and the transdermal magnesium provided by the Epsom salts soothes sore muscles, helps all organs of the body function, and relieves insomnia.

Spoiler Alert: Some of you local people will be receiving these. Act surprised.

As for the beets, the recipe is very, very simple. I love pickled beets, and I do them a little differently.

(Quick) Pickled Beets

The three jars above used to following ingredients:

Two bunches of beets (living in the drawer of my ‘fridge with their greens cut off for approximately three weeks. I generously call this an “aging process,” but it is highly unnecessary and was more like four weeks. Maybe five. They were none the worse for the wear.)

Pickling brine in the following 1-2-3 ratio: One part vinegar, two parts sugar, three parts water ( I used slightly more vinegar because I love it. White or cider vinegar is fine.)

One cinnamon stick per jar

Method

Peel beets. Wash hands constantly, use gloves, or live with a pinkish hue for awhile. Cut into “hearty matchsticks,” which just means don’t worry too much about uniformity. Call it “rustic” if anyone questions your knife skills.

Pack beets into Mason jars. Add one cinnamon stick for each jar.

Boil pickling brine ingredients for several minutes, then carefully pour over beets. Leave some room at the top.

Cool with the lids off until just warm, then put them in the back of the ‘fridge. Wait until they are completely cool, then start snacking. When the beets start to run out, slice an onion up and throw it in the pickling liquid.

I bet the pickling liquid would make a delicious cocktail. Give it a try and let me know.

These stay delicious forever. They are crispy, crunchy, bloody purple deliciousness that are great on their own, in salads, as part of a relish tray or…? I usually eat them standing in front of the ‘fridge while I decide what else I want to eat.

What brings you out of the darkness? What helps you see the light?

Sharp Knives: The Key To World Domination



Again, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Do you sense a trend towards hyperbole here?

However.

A dull knife in the kitchen is a recipe for disaster. In my kitchen right now, the knives are speeding towards the iceberg while Jack and Rose are waltzing on the deck. In short, they have not been actually sharpened beyond a few passes on the steel in, oh, say, a year.

This is culinary blasphemy. You know it’s bad when your 15-year-old comments on it.

So. Sharpening it is.

If you have never sharpened a knife, this is a simple how-to that utilizes two different methods: the steel and the stone.

There is a clear distinction between these two implements, though, in that only one of them actually sharpens the knife.

Honing

As a knife is used, the blade suffers microscopic (sometimes even visible) dings and bends in the blade. A steel doesn’t sharpen so much as it hones the blade. Passing a knife evenly on both sides straightens the edges in a knife. There is very little of the blade material removed, but by straightening the knife, it may seem as if the blade is actually sharper. It’s straighter, but not technically any sharper.This is why a knife should be honed every time it’s used, just after the chopping, dicing, and kung-fu fighting. Alternately, you could get super attuned to your blade and use your best judgment, but if your judgment is often clouded by lazy, just get into the routine of honing after each use.

Sharpening 

On the other hand, a stone removes bits of the blade itself, producing a new, sharp edge. This can be done with a grindstone or whetstone but not with a Curtis, Joss, or Rolling Stone. Thankfully, this is only recommended three or so times a year, really depending on the amount of use the knives get (way more for professional chefs or seriously dedicated and prolific home cooks).

Let’s start with honing, since that’s what you will be doing most often.

How To Properly Hone (Steel) A Knife

1. Hold the steel up in the air. Don’t wave it like you just don’t care. This is serious. Keep your fingers below the butt of the steel so you don’t accidentally slice off the tip.



Alternately, you can stand the steel on a cutting board and hone in downward strokes for safety. If you are accident-prone, this may be the technique for you.



2. Hold the knife in your dominant hand (you will be moving this hand and need some control. Now is not the time to work on ambidexterity) and place it against the steel at an angle between 12 and 15 degrees. You can move the knife either towards you or away from you, but start at the widest part of the knife (the heel) and slide it along the steel while moving towards the narrowest part (the tip).

Maintain the angle the whole way, the do the same thing on the other side.

3. Use strokes with more pressure to begin with, gradually using less pressure as you work. A good place to start is about four pounds of pressure, which can be measured by pressing your knife on a pastry scale. Lacking a pastry scale, just guess and do it until it is sharp.

4. Test your honing skills with the classic slice-a-piece-of-paper gambit.  Or just try it on a tomato, one of nature’s most ridiculous vegetables to cut. A properly honed blade should slice cleanly through the skin and into the tomato with minimal pressure.

If you hone your knife and it is still not slicing and dicing cleanly and with ease, that’s a good indication that it’s time to actually sharpen.Now that you are a pro at honing, let’s move on to sharpening.

How To Sharpen a Knife

1. Take the easy way out and drop your knives off at that guy’s stand in the farmer’s market, you know, the one who sharpens them while you shop. If you only have a few knives in rotation, this is actually not a bad idea. I mainly use a chef’s knife and a paring knife, so for me, this is a good idea. But I am a big fan of DIY, and I hate paying for something I can do myself.

This is a #judgmentfree zone. Take this option if you want. If not, keep reading.

2. Your sharpening stone may require pre-soaking, but many can be used with just a sprinkle of water. For properly sharpened knives, you will need two types of stone, one coarser than the other. The easiest purchase is a combination stone with one coarse side and one fine side.

Start with the coarse side and wet the surface before you begin.

3. Use the same angle on the sharpening stone as you did on the steel (about 12 to 15 degrees). If you are having trouble gauging what that angle is and happen to have a matchbook handy, it’s approximately that steep.

4. Hold the knife in your dominant hand and place the fingers of your other hand on the flat of the blade to apply even pressure. There are two techniques for sharpening:

  • The simple back and forth: move the blade back and forth as you also move from the heel of the blade to the tip.
  • The sweeping arc: sweep in one movement from the heel of the blade to the tip in an arc across the sharpening stone.

Pictures don’t quite do the process justice. Here’s a quick video on one way to sharpen your knives with a steel.

Whichever technique you choose, repeat it on both sides. You are actually grinding material away in order to bring both sides of the blades together.

When you can feel something on the blade called a burr (like a wire edge), it’s time to flip the stone and move to the finer side. This polishes the sharp surface you created. Pressure lightens as you finish your polishing,

If this doesn’t help your knives, chances are A) you are not applying enough pressure as you sharpen, B) your knives are super dull and just need more, or C) your knives are cheap and not very good and it is time to replace them. If that becomes an option, ditch the 16-piece knife block and spend your ducats on the only four knives you actually need.

Sharp knives are a safety essential in the kitchen. How often do you sharpen yours?