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.