Small Batch Sundays: Homemade Vanilla

I often find myself in the position of being too busy and/or too tired to accomplish a lot of the projects on my to do list. It can be really difficult to get motivated to do anything other than sit after a long day of being out working for pay, doing dinner and family time and helping out with housework. But I miss having the time and energy for the things I love to do, so I thought of the perfect way to kick start my motivation and fit projects back into my lifestyle – small batches. I was thinking of small batch canning specifically, but the concept can extend to anything – foodcrafting, sewing, knitting, crocheting – anything I want to do. A small batch project is one that can be completed in an hour or two. And my goal is to finish at least one small batch project per week, and post about it each Sunday.

This week’s project is incredibly simple – all I needed was some vodka (we’re not big vodka drinkers, but I keep a bottle on hand for exactly three things – home made vanilla, vodka chicken and the annual dirty martini I have in the summer), some vanilla beans and a jar.

I split the beans in half so that more surface area was exposed and plunked them in the jar. Then I filled it with vodka. It will sit in the back of dark cupboard for at least a month before it’s ready to use.

DSCN1117

DSCN1118

When it’s fully infused it’ll be a nice warm brown color and smell distinctly like vanilla extract. It’s a simple project – but a gratifying one. There’s nothing like home made vanilla in soft, chewy chocolate chip cookies!

Baked Egg Casserole

Mornings are insanely busy at our house, like they are for most people. How I long to be able to relax over a cup of tea and a good breakfast and take my time starting my day. But with a toddler to get going and a long commute into the city for work, that’s just not going to happen. I don’t even have time to sit down to eat in the morning; getting my son his bit of breakfast is all we’ve got time for. Unless I want to wake up at four in the morning, which I absolutely do not. I usually eat breakfast once I get to work and am tethered to my desk for the day. While the occasional doughnut makes an appearance, and I’ll choke down instant oatmeal if I’m forced to, I really like a hot substantial breakfast. But eggs and bacon and all the trimmings are out – they don’t reheat all that well and would be a pain to make up and pack enough of for a few days at a time.

Fortunately, there is an a solution to the problem. Casserole. Yep – a breakfast casserole. Easy to make, easy to portion as well as filling and tasty. Now there are a lot of breakfast casserole dishes on the internet, and I’ve tried a few and mostly found them wanting. It’s a great concept, but with a dish so simple – eggs, potato and meat – it’s easy to mess it up. A lot of them call for hash browns, which just end up turning mushy and insipid. And some of them don’t call for precooking the meat, which makes me skeevy in addition to the simple logistics of well-cooked meat paired with overdone everything else. They’re just nothing to write home about.

So I took the concept and tweaked it a bit. I precook the meat. And I swap out the flaccid hash browns for more substantial tater tots, which I brown first in the oven. It’s a winning combination, as you can see –

Breakfast Casserole

The meat is perfectly cooked. The tater tots are golden brown and substantial. And the eggs are light and fluffy. Thirty to forty minutes in the oven, and you’ve got a delicious complete breakfast for a few days. And it’s so easy to throw together. You’ll need the following –

half a package of tater tots

1 tube of breakfast sausage

6 eggs, beaten with a 1/4 cup of water and salt and pepper to taste

vegetable cooking spray

1. Start off by cooking your tater tots in the oven according to package directions.

2. While the tater tots are baking, precook the sausage thoroughly in a skillet. Set aside to drain on paper towels while the tater tots finish.

3. Once the tater tots are done, layer your ingredients in a 9×9 baking dish – sausage on the bottom, and tater tots on the top. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the entire dish.

4. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the egg is set and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

And that’s it – enjoy!

 

The Great Tomato Chase

At long last, the tomatoes are all done! Photographed, jars wiped down, rings washed and stored for next year and the jars all neatly arranged in a closet, ready for use this winter.

Here’s the haul –

That’s eighty pounds of tomatoes right there. I got twenty-seven jars – one jar shy of being four full batches in the canner. Most of the lot is Amish paste, which I love for canning (easy to peel and hold their shape). A few jars are beefsteak-style tomatoes – I think I got quite a few Brandywines. And you see my lone jar of yellow Brandywines front and center.

As mentioned, it took me a maddening twenty-four hours to can these babies. They are well worth the effort. Last year I only did fourteen jars (and wrote a tutorial about it) so I just about doubled last year’s take. Next summer I plan to double it still again, and that should be enough tomatoes to last us a full year. We eat a lot of tomatoes at our house.

Of course, I refined my process a little bit this time around – I’m always looking for ways to make the process smoother. The actual canning is easy; it’s the prep that’s backbreaking.

– I’ve stopped scoring the tomatoes before blanching them. To me, it actually makes them harder to peel because the skin starts to come off in the boiling water and then the ice bath, and it makes a big mess. So after I take them out of the ice bath I put a slit in the skin with my knife and then peel – it’s quicker and less messy all around.

– Thirty seconds in the boiling water is enough! I’m reminded every year how critical this step is when I let them go a little too long. You’d think you’d want to leave them in longer to loosen the skins more, but it actually makes them harder to peel because they don’t hold their shape as well. So be diligent about your blanching time.

– Blanching and the ice bath leads me to another question I don’t often see answered anywhere – how much ice do you need to can tomatoes? The ice bath is an important step – it stops the tomatoes from cooking and makes them cool enough to peel. Cold water alone isn’t sufficient – tomatoes from boiling water are hot and you’ve got to cool them down as quickly as possible. For eighty pounds, I went through thirty pounds of ice. Thinking in terms of a single canner batch of seven jars (or about twenty pounds of tomatoes) – you’ll need a single seven pound bag. There’s your math exercise for the day.

– Don’t forget to add a little white vinegar to the canner. It makes the jars so much easier to clean when they come out of the canner, and they actually shine up pretty easily. This is definitely a nice step if you happen to have hard water – no unsightly hard water spots on your pretty jars!

– Wear shoes. Even though I knew better, I wore sandals during canning this round, and the whole time I kept thinking to myself “you better put shoes on before you burn your foot”…. cue the last five minutes of my canning session and guess what happens? I splash hot water on my toes! Fortunately, it was just a drop and not super boiling, but lesson learned – wear shoes while doing heavy work in the kitchen. Always.

So, that’s it for tomatoes this year! Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine folks at Midnight Sun, where I got my load of tomatoes again this year – I literally couldn’t have done it without them!

Tomatoes. Tired. Sleep.

A banner weekend here – 27 quarts of whole tomatoes with no added liquid and a gallon of juice. There will be photos of my haul, but not tonight. Sometimes I don’t know how our foremothers did it – because 27 quarts of tomatoes wasn’t cutting it for a big farm family back in the day. Probably triple that and it would be enough. Plus that quantity of beans, jams, jellies, pickles… oh lord. But for little suburban me, four batches in twenty four hours is a lot. So photos are coming. Details are coming. But right now I have to sleep!

Crockpot Pumpkin Butter

love, love, love Little Debbie Pumpkin Delights. In the course of normal living, prepared snack items never show up at our house, laden as they are with high fructose corn syrup, unpronounceable preservatives and other nasties. But Pumpkin Delights are a childhood weakness of mine. I’m sure you’ve seen then before, in the limited weeks every fall when they’re available in stores –

They are so good. But really, I never feel so hot after eating them. They’re all junk. I’ve been brainstorming for a good long while how to reverse engineer these things. And I think I finally figured it out. It needs to be a pumpkin butter filling encased in a soft, spiced cookie. I’ll have another article up shortly detailing the specifics of building a batch of home made Pumpkin Delights (don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging!), but first things first – the pumpkin butter filling.

It seems that most places in suburbia do not sell pumpkin butter. Apparently I’ve been highly spoiled living in a food mecca like Chicago (ahem). No matter, pumpkin butter is easy to make on your own. I have two criteria for making fruit butters. Number one, it’s got to be a thick, buttery consistency – no glorified jams, please. And number two is no stove top cooking. No matter how diligently I stand at the stove and stir, the stuff always burns into a mess on the bottom of the pan. Not my idea of fun, especially with a baby (okay, he’s practically a toddler now) underfoot.

Crockpot pumpkin butter seems to be the answer, and the recipe for Slow Cooker Pumpkin Butter at Baked Bree seemed like it would work. One thing I like about Bree’s recipe is the fact that it starts with canned pumpkin, but allows for fresh. The method simply entails putting a couple of cans of pumpkin puree, some apple juice, lemon juice, maple syrup and spices in a crockpot for 5-6 hours on low heat.

Of course, I made a few modifications. I reduced the maple syrup by a 1/4 cup, doubled the spices and added cloves to the nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger that she calls for. And because I’m a stickler for a thick, luscious consistency in my apple butter I propped the lid of the crockpot half open during the last hour of cooking so some of the liquid could evaporate.

Here’s what my pumpkin butter looked like when it first went in –

When it’s cool, I’ll portion half of it for the freezer so I can make Pumpkin Delights again, and use the other half for a fresh batch of them. And don’t worry – you won’t have to wait long to see how they turn out – I can’t wait to give the recipe I came up with a try!

Green Tomato Pickles

Before we moved I cleaned out the tomato plants. They were about at the end of their season, so it didn’t really make sense to move them. I got a small quart of green tomatoes off of our three Golden Nugget cherry tomato plants, so I figured that a quick pickle would be just the ticket.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to even worry about canning for long term storage (even the small batch recipe for Pickled Green Tomatoes over at Food in Jars calls for a pound). It is however, just the right amount to put in the fridge to eat over the next week or two.  How great will these be on the last grilled burgers of the summer?

I halved Marisa’s recipe, which is an excellent basic dill brine –

1/4 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup water

3/4 teaspoon pickling salt

1 teaspoon dill seed

2 garlic cloves

1/4 teaspoon whole peppercorns

1 bay leaf

The process is much the same for refrigerator pickles as it is for the canned variety. Bring the vinegar, water and salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Turn off the heat and add the dill seed and peppercorns.

Put the garlic and bay leaf at the bottom of a jar. Pack with the tomatoes – for cherry tomatoes you can just leave them whole, or cut them in half – which ever you prefer. Pour the brine over the tomatoes and put your lid and ring on the jar. Let the jar cool to room temperature on the counter, then refrigerate. Consume within two weeks, but pickles are best if left for a few days to cure in the brine and develop their pickle-y goodness. And here they are –

Please note – these are not shelf-stable pickles! Even if you hear a “ping” from your jar lid because the brine is hot, that doesn’t mean these are “canned” and safe to keep for long-term storage. This recipe is definitely for a refrigerator pickle only! If you’d like to make water-bath canned pickles, the Food in Jars recipe above gives the processing instructions. The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving also has an excellent recipe.

Getting Organized

Okay, a big move to suburbia and a big move to a new blog home all in one fell swoop. That means I’ve got a lot to do. Fortunately, things on the home front are pretty well settled in since we’ve been in our new place for about a week now. So that means I can figure out which projects are next up on the list (and therefore, which great things I can share with you). So without further ado, here’s a little sampling of what’s in store over the coming weeks here at Agrarian Revival.

– Green tomato pickles (a small batch from the Golden Nugget plants I grew this summer).

– 28 quarts (at least) of whole tomatoes canned in their own juice (from the lovely folks at Midnight Sun).

– Restocking the chest freezer with any corn and fruit I can still get at the farmers market.

– Home made pumpkin delights (I think I finally figured out how to reverse engineer the Little Debbies!).

– Sewing projects! Pants for Little Man’s first birthday party, an over-the-seat car organizer, and a coupon wallet are all on the immediate agenda.

– Painting a dinged up wood side table that we’re using in Little Man’s room – a splash of color will suit it just fine.

– Brewing another batch of two of beer. We’re down to the last few bottles of the last batch, so it’s high time to brew more!

There are a ton of other things on the long term list, but I think that will keep me busy for a few minutes. Be back soon to give you the details!