Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Homemade Gifts

Now that Christmas has come and gone, I can fill you in a little bit on a project that's kept me busy since August. I've been making preserves from home-grown and farmer's market produce. I've been making cucumber refrigerator pickles since last summer when my cucumber crop went crazy, and this year I decided to step it up a little bit and move into hot water bath canning. This makes the food shelf-stable instead of having to keep it in the fridge. This is helpful since there's only so much room in my fridge and at the end of the summer about half of it was taken up with pickle jars!

So on to what I made, and gave as gifts, this year. I didn't have the forethought to photograph the process or the finished gift baskets before they were opened, but here's an idea of what my family got for Christmas this year:

Pickled Beets! This was especially for Jill. She is the resident beet lover in the family and I thought she would like this new way of having them. And they're SO pretty! This photo doesn't even do it justice. The color of the beets is just outstanding.

Another brightly-colored concoction was the Curried Cauliflower. I love curry spices with cauliflower and this just appealed to me, and again, the color is outstanding.

Both the Pickled Beets and the Curried Cauliflower recipes came from a book titled Put 'Em Up! My friend Trinity used a few recipes from there and I thought they sounded good, so I looked for the book at my public library and didn't see it. So I requested for them to purchase it for the collection and lo and behold, they bought it! Yay!

Something that I made just a few days before Christmas was this Holiday Snack Mix. It's basically just nuts and pretzels with a salty/sweet/spicy glaze, but it's SO good, and super easy to make, if you have the ingredients on hand.

I put it in these cute little jars I picked up at the Crate & Barrel Outlet with snowflakes and snowmen on them. It made for a nice presentation and even as a stand-alone gift.

Another recipe from Put 'Em Up! was the Corn Salsa. This is a perfect way to preserve end of summer tomatoes, corn and peppers. The corn was from the farmer's market, but the tomatoes and peppers were from the garden.

I've already eaten some of this that I saved for myself and I have to say, it's quite tasty! I also got a review in, the day after Christmas, from my nephew who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up! That must mean it's good.

And some notes on the packaging: I got all of the fabric from the Crate & Barrel outlet. They sell remnants of very expensive Marimekko fabrics for 99 cents a pound! These fabrics normally sell for $35 a yard! And a pound of fabric is more than you might think.

I used colored business card paper from the Paper Source for the tags and the "Handmade By" stamp was also from them. The twine is good old baker's twine and the jars are mostly Ball jars except for the snowflake ones from Crate & Barrel, which were not suitable for canning. It was fun to decorate all of the jars, but more time consuming than I imagined! But I was happy with the end result.

I also made Pear Chutney with a lot more than just pears.

It's a chunky, tangy, savory, sweet mix that's quite appealing. This was a bit of a stretch, but I hope the people who got this as gifts find a good use for it. I would try it with just about anything and see what fits. It's a unique flavor and could add a little zip to an otherwise boring plate.

With an abundance of pears, I also made Pear Butter. I had no idea how many pears go into so little Pear Butter. I got four of these teeny jars from a whole pot full of pears. It's pretty amazing. The result is a smooth spread with a concentrated pear flavor (with some other spices included). It's really nice, but holy cow did it take longer than I thought it would. I'll have to budget some time if I decide to do this again.

The tomato crop this year was especially nice. This was a great way to use up some of the San Marzano tomatoes that I grew in my garden this year. I had made quite a bit of tomato sauce for the freezer at this point, so I decided to try something different and went with this Bruschetta in a Jar. It's kind of dangerous to can oily or dairy-based things, at least in hot water bath canning, so this requires a little work to make it great. You just have to add some olive oil and a little bit of fresh mozzarella to make it just the perfect thing to spread on little toasts or crackers. I've already gotten a thumbs-up review of this as well. I'll have to keep it on my list of things to make again next year!

My community garden had an abundance of abandoned late-summer jalapenos, so picked some and pickled them! I didn't pick a peck of peppers to pickle, but I got enough to make a few jars. They're great on nachos!

The peaches! Oh, the peaches this year were just amazing! I can't go on enough about how much I loved this year's stone-fruit crop. Every week they were in season I bought enough to have one almost every day. At the peak of the season I bought more peaches than I thought I could ever use and yet again discovered that it takes a lot of fruit to make jam. It also takes the effort of peeling all of them, which I'm still figuring out the best method to use. But the result was pretty outstanding if I do say so myself. This jar was one I gave my parents and it was opened on Christmas morning to accompany our breakfast. I love it with cottage cheese and of course it's great on toast or an english muffin. Yum!

Also, the week of Christmas, I made a couple batches of Molasses cookies. These made it into each gift basket and I also filled another of the snowman jars with them to give to my 94 year old grammy, who has a huge sweet tooth. She approved whole-heartedly and kept complimenting my cookie-making skills, which I know are far inferior to some people I know. But I'm glad she liked them. She had already taken the jar home by the time I got around to taking photos, but this was the fabric and tag that went on the jar:

Here are the elements that were included in the basket I gave my parents, all lined up in a row.

And here it is in the basket. I also got the baskets at the Crate & Barrel Outlet and to finish wrapping it up, I got a roll of clear cello and put the bow on top. I was really happy with the end result and I think everyone was happy with their Christmas gifts!

And to anyone who thinks that homemade gifts are the easy, cheap way to go, I have to heartily disagree! I put way more effort, time and energy into these gifts than I would have if I had gone out and purchased something. But the end result is totally worth it! Already looking forward to trying new things next year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Prairie Home in NYC and the Phaal of Fame

Mac and I headed into NYC for a fun-filled day on December 3rd. The main purpose for going was to attend a taping of A Prairie Home Companion, which was a late birthday/early Christmas gift for Mac. But before going to the show, we squeezed in a few hours of metropolitan fun. Our first stop was Celsius at Bryant Park. It's a restaurant that overlooks the ice skating rink and it was a great place to grab lunch. And after eating we wandered around the Christmas market for a bit. There's always something interesting going on in Bryant Park. The above photo was taken while the ice was being Zambonied, that's why no one's skating.

While walking around to the front of the library building we came across this wonderful little view of the Chrysler Building with the moon right above it. It's funny, it was one of those things where you see someone taking a photo, so you look up and then think "That is a good photo" so you lift your camera and before you know it everyone is stopped on the street taking a peek at this scene. Sometimes it's hard to look up when you're in the city, you don't want to trip or step in something, but I'm glad we got to see this little moment.

When we got to the front of the Public Library there was a cute little group of kids caroling. I really do love Christmastime in NYC. We also enjoyed the "Best Of" exhibit in the library. It was like a greatest hits show of their treasures to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the building.

We also stopped in at The Princeton Club of NYC. We happened to be walking past it and just popped in to see what it was all about. And it's all about flaunting your Princeton pedigree. Super posh, members-only, etc, etc... But it was a trip to go in and see it, especially when they gave Mac info about becoming a member. We read it on the train ride home, mostly in disbelief that such a place exists.

We also stopped at the International Center of Photography, which is conveniently right around the corner from the theatre where Prairie Home was happening. We stopped in for some art and a snack. It was a perfect little break before the show.

Then on to Prairie Home! We had very good seats and thoroughly enjoyed the show with musical guests Nellie McKay and Heather Masse. And of course, Garrison Keillor is just such a great storyteller. It was a great way to spend the afternoon and a perfect excuse to go into the city. Here's the outside of Town Hall:

And a shot I snuck in at the end of the show:

And Mac and I outside the theatre after the show:

Our second mission (or at least Mac's mission) was to go to Brick Lane Curry House to eat what is supposedly the hottest curry in NYC. Read the description below to get an idea:

Mac has been excited about trying this since he saw it featured on Man v. Food on the Travel Channel. I was more nervous about this than he was. When I asked if he was ready for this he said, "I was born ready." Here he is trying the first bite:

And here's the last bite. He polished it off in about 10 minutes. No Naan. No Water. No Rice. Just straight up hot, hot curry. I was thoroughly impressed.

And here he is, proud of his clean plate.

This is his expression after the waitstaff congratulated him:

And our server presenting him with the official "Phaal of Curry" certificate:

He's a Phaal Curry Monster!

After dinner we walked back to Penn Station via Rockefeller Center and all the craziness of seeing the big Christmas tree. It was too crowded to go inside, but we walked down the block and got a couple photos.

We also walked through Times Square just for fun. It's always an experience to see all the lights and hubbub.

After a very full day, we got back on NJ Transit and headed home. It was a great way to usher in the craziness of the holiday season and something fun to do together. For as close as we are to NYC, we don't find ourselves going there very often, but when we do get up there we always try to make the most of the (kind of expensive) train tickets and cram in as much fun as we can. I think we were successful in this, yet again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tiger Trot 2011

This year I convinced my co-workers to join Mac and I for a 5K being held on campus. It was a pretty easy sell: the "entry fee" was a canned good, it was on a Friday afternoon and the starting line was about 100 yards from the front door of the library. We all did well, even though it was a bit of a chilly day and the route definitely had some hills on it. I ran my best 5K time yet, and all of us finished without heaving too hard. It was great to get everyone out of the building and doing something fun together.

And because we had 6 people on our team, we were awarded "Intramural Champion" t-shirts because we had the biggest departmental team at the race. So for one canned good we got two t-shirts and an afternoon to remember.

Mac ran this race as well, but he was running for Wilson College where he's a Residential Graduate Student, so he didn't count as part of our team. He finished faster than me and actually ran back to meet me for the end of the race and cheered me on to the finish line. It was fun to cross together even though he had already finished.

It was a great day and for a good cause. All of the food went to support a local food bank in time for Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pumpkin Carving 2011 - in the dark!

Right as I was leaving my parent's house on Sunday afternoon, Mac called to let me know that the power was out in my apartment. That was around 3pm, and people were showing up to carve pumpkins around 5pm. So, I headed back to Princeton and sure enough, when I got to my apartment there was still no power. In fact the power stayed out through the entire party, but we still had a great time carving pumpkins, and got some wonderful results! Here's me, Mac, Kim, Nicole, Tyler and Kim after carving:

With the really long exposure that's needed for the dark conditions, I had the camera on a tripod and someone took this ghostly photo while everyone was getting ready to go:

The original plan was to have dinner at my house, but we ended up going out to get sushi instead. This was certainly a memorable way to celebrate my 12th annual pumpkin carving party!

End of October Family Birthday Fun

On Sunday, after the snow, everyone came down to Mom and Dad's house to wish Dad and Dan Happy Birthdays. It was a fun excuse to get everyone in one place, which the kids especially love. We had a little cake and ice cream and sang Happy Birthday, and John played along on his saxophone:

And did a really great job!

Here are Dad and Dan blowing out their candles. Unfortunately, Mac wasn't able to make it, otherwise he would have joined them.

This year, I got Dad a headlamp. The idea came to me after they were without power during Hurricane Irene and I told them how much Mac and I liked having headlamps in a power outage and Mom thought it was a good idea. So here's Dad and I with his headlamp:

I hope it comes in handy!

It was also the day before Halloween, so I had to bring treats for the boys. Here they all are with me and their goody bags. I promise, they're all in there somewhere...

Everyone else stuck around for dinner, but I had to leave in the afternoon to get back up to Princeton to host my Pumpkin Carving Party.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October Snow!

Of course, the day that we have a big family birthday gathering planned, it decides to snow! This was a freakishly early October snowstorm on Saturday the 29th. Princeton got about 5 inches of the white stuff, but the biggest problem was that many of the trees had not yet lost all of their leaves, so this heavy wet snow stuck to the leaves, weighed down the branches and snapped limbs on many trees in town. In the photo above you can already see that there isn't too much snow, but limbs from the huge pear trees on Witherspoon had already snapped.

And a little tree outside my apartment building didn't fair so well either:

In order to save the trees in the courtyard of my building, Mac and I went out and shook the snow off the branches a couple times and watched them spring back up once the weight of the snow was off of them. Here's another view of Spring St. with some of the damaged trees:

Thankfully the next day was much nicer and most of the snow on the roads had melted. We were able to reschedule the family birthday fun AND I got to squeeze in my pumpkin carving, too.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mac's Birthday weekend

Mac's birthday is October 25th, but this year he had to be at a conference that day, so we celebrated the weekend before. It was another beautiful fall weekend in NJ, so we took advantage and did some outdoor things along with some fun indoor things, too.

One of the highlights of the weekend was going to the Howell Living History Farm during their "pick your own popcorn" event. On our way out to the popcorn field, we came across this lovely scene of one of the farmers using a team of horses to plow a field.

Once we got to the field with the popcorn, we were pretty much given free rein to go through and pick any ears that we thought looked good. Mac and I found a good trove in the middle of the field. Mac didn't seem to have any problem getting his ears off the plant:

I, on the other hand had a little more of a struggle. Here's me posing for a photo:

Here's me after having to yank so hard on the ear that my sunglasses fell off:

Here's me laughing about the whole scene:

And here I am, finally victorious with my sunglasses in the right place and a big ear of popcorn!

We also got to see a demonstration of how to pop popcorn over an open fire (you need a popper to put it in), and learned about how popcorn is a specific type of corn that can't be eaten like a sweet corn because the hulls on each kernel are so hard. They said even the deer don't like to eat the popcorn growing in the field. But it's this extra hard hull that traps the steam inside and makes popcorn pop. On the flipside, you can't just dry out any ear of corn and try to pop it. It will basically just steam and never actually pop. We also walked around the rest of the farm and picked up a nice big pumpkin before we left.

On Saturday night we went to a student production of MacBeth on campus and Sunday morning we saved what we could of this half-moldy pumpkin:

It was a pumpkin that Mac had brought back from Maryland at the beginning of October and a teeny little spot on the back blossomed into quite a large moldy area, so we did a little surgery and cut off the entire back half of the pumpkin to end up with this guy:

It was quite a project, but I'm glad we saved what we could. Mac really wanted to dry it out in the oven to make it more of a shriveled pumpkin mask, so he took it from there. You can see the results of his efforts in the photos from the Pumpkin Carving Party.

Also on Sunday we went to a curator-led tour of an exhibit of Hogarth prints that's up at Firestone Library and after that we had a wonderful dinner at a local Indian restaurant. It turned out to be a wonderful, cultural, indoor, outdoor adventure of a weekend. I'm bummed I couldn't celebrate Mac's birthday with him on his actual birthday, but I think we did a pretty good job of making him feel special before he left for his conference.