WE WANT TACOS!

August 17, 2012

Katie and I like to go and see the Rockies play on occasion, especially when our friend Jamie is in town. This visit has been no exception. Part of the deal locally, is if the Rockies score seven or more runs in the game, Taco Bell runs a promotion in that they give away free tacos the next day. Last night’s game we won, but didn’t quite meet the requirement for tacos. Additionally, I don’t think Taco Bell tacos are all that yummy, so here is a recipe for your own delicious tacos.

We used a basic, small-sized flour tortilla for our tacos. We then made the following filling:

18 oz braising beef or skirt steak

1 small onion

Garlic

4 tomatoes

Herbs (we used thyme, oregano, and parsley)

A bit of salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar

Hot pepper of your choice

1 Tbsp vinegar

1 Tbsp tomato paste

The original recipe called for boiling the steak for about 30 minutes, at which point you shred the beef with forks. This totally didn’t work for us as boiling the steak made it pretty tough. We wound up shredding it by hand, which took a long time, so I would do all of this before hand. I think next time I would be inclined to a) brown the beef and cut it up b) boil the beef in something more flavorful or c) choose a different cut of beef entirely. Plus it looked unappetizing.

Beef issue aside, heat a saute pan with some olive oil and brown the onion and garlic. Next add the tomatoes, pepper and seasoning to the pan, reduce the heat and cook for approximately 20 minutes covered.

Remove the lid and cook for another ten minutes or so, until the sauce thickens a bit. Add the shredded beef and cook for a few minutes until everything is warmed through.

Once warmed through, you can begin plating your tacos. We added sour cream, romaine lettuce, feta, and sliced  radishes to our tacos, which made for a very surprising flavor. They taste very fresh and summery.

It’s been a little while since we’ve published worked on a refinishing project, which honestly seems to be the most popular thing we do. We’ve been on the hunt for a while for some patio furniture we don’t detest. The problem is that it’s all ugly plastic or REALLY expensive. So we’ve kept our eyes out for something we can work with.

Finally this weekend we found some plain metal chairs. nothing special but the perfect base for a refinishing project. The chairs were $4.99 each, not in bad shape or rusted, and we bought two cans of spray paint at $3.50 or so each.

 

They started out black, with a few rust spots here and there. Still, they were stable and in decent shape.

 

Add a little paint…

 

And viola! They went from dud to fun in about ten minutes. We let the paint dry and set while we work on cushions for the seat and back (because hey, why not).

We haven’t made the cushions quite yet, but have our fabric planned out. This fabric was another Goodwill find at about $3.00.

 

I think this project will be a great start to spicing up our back patio. We have a really sizeable patio that is covered, which is nice, but doesn’t keep rain or snow or wind out. It’s nice for the summer when our house is sweltering because we have the stove, oven, and dishwasher running all day, and I’d like to make it more functional. I’m a super huge fan of the “outdoor rooms” you see set up at home improvement stores and such.

Don’t tell Katie, but I have designs on our outdoor space. I’m really tempted to put in a low wall around the slab and then put in canvas and vinyl or screen “walls” that we can roll down when it’s nice, and can go up when it’s not so nice. I think we can do it and it would be pretty much epic. I think it’s about time to recruit Father Burb and Father Burb in law to come out for a visit.

 

(Garden party last year, but you can see the space and get the idea. )

Don’t Be A Jerk-y

August 13, 2012

While we clearly have a summer preservation plan for fruits and veggies, but we also have another agenda in mind. Our fifth anniversary passed by at the beginning of the month, and we decided to mark the occasion by taking a trip. It’s our typical tradition to go camping over our anniversary. Looking for something special, we turned toward my childhood and decided to plan a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which is a huge expanse of lakes in the northern part of Minnesota that extends up in to Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to go twice as a child.

 

 

Photo credit

 

The BWCA is a very special place to me and I’m nothing less than thrilled that we have made it happen. Some number of years ago Katie and I bit the bullet and bought most of the equipment we needed for camping. Thinking ahead, most of the equipment we bought is appropriate for backpacking (read: LIGHT).

So this works perfectly for this type of trip, which also happens to be our first backpacking trip together.

Anyhoo, I’m generally disappointed by the quality and price of pre-packaged meals, so we have dehydrated a lot of produce to make soup mixes and such.

Photo (left to right): Peaches, apples, strawberries, jerkey, front carrots and celery.

One of the hardest things about backpacking I think is that it is hard to incorporate protein. One of the more interesting ways of doing that is by making jerky! I love all kinds of jerky but beef is the most economical, so that’s what we chose today.

Jerky is pretty easy, all things considered. You make a marinate, soak your meat, slice it up (or not), and dry it. Our marinade included soy sauce, worchestershire sauce, garlic, and cayanne pepper. We let the meat, cut in to strips, marinade for about six hours and then put it in the dehydrator overnight.

 

 

We’ve actually made jerky on a couple occasions and we haven’t quite got the timing right yet. Left overnight it tends to go a little on the long side and while good, is a little tougher than necessary. You’ll have to play around with it and see what works based upon your meat size. Our pieces were pretty small which probably contributed to the cook time issue.

I have no doubt that we will post more about this trip as we close in on it (early September). For now after eight hours of packing food, we’ve got a start, albiet small, in our packing.

Photo credit

Jars Jars Jars

August 12, 2012

I’ll admit it. I’m a liar. I posted that I was going to do a series of posts about canning stuff. Turns out when you just plain power through a bunch of stuff, you kind of forget to take pictures along the way. So my “series” is going to end with this, the second post. The picture at the end will be worthwhile though.

To start I want to hit on the peaches I also promised to write about. In Denver, produce is pretty expensive most of the time because produce just doesn’t grow as well at the high altitude. Plus it’s dry. So getting produce at *any* kind of good price gets us pretty excited. One of the few produce items that actually does decently well is peaches, usually from Palisade. Starting mid-summer they start to come in and you can smell them as soon as you enter the produce section of the grocery store. By now, late summer, they’re starting to go on sale. We bought a TON yesterday at $0.99 per pound, and what better to do with them than dry them and can them.

Canning peaches is actually extremely easy. The first order of business is to get the skin off in some capacity. If your peaches are a little on the unripe side, you can probably get away with using a vegetable peeler if you use it gently. Your other option is to blanch and shock your peaches. That basically means you plunk your peaches in to boiling water and then take them right back out and in to an ic water bath. Doing so loosens the skin from the fruit and makes it easier to just peel or rub the skin off.

Next decide how you are going to pack your peaches. Typically people will have peach halves or peach slices. We went for slices since stuffing an entire half a peach in your mouth, while amusing, is slightly awkward. One note of advice I will mention is that when buying peaches for canning or drying, try and get peaches that don’t have “cling stone” pits – those are the ones that don’t cleanly pop out.

To pack, stuff your (sterilized) jars with peaches. You can pack a lot in there because the liquid will loosen them up a bit and make them float. Fill the jars with a simple syrup that is 1:1 sugar to water, brought just to a boil. To make it extra yummy, split a vanilla bean or two and throw a chunk in each jar. This will add a wonderful vanilla taste to your peaches.

***

We’ve also made quite a bit of strawberry jam this summer. I personally love strawberries and since I don’t really like pie, jam seemed like the way to go.

A basic jam recipe includes four cups of berries, three tablespoons of pectin, 4 cups of sugar. Crush the fruit with something like a potato masher. Bring the fruit and the pectin to a boil and then add the sugar. Bring it back to a boil and take it off the heat. We chose to use our stick blender and puree the jam so that it is a smoother consistency, but feel free to leave the chunks in, if you want. Skim the bubbles off the top, jar, and can.

 

 

To demystify pectin a bit, pectin is a natural product of fruit that acts as a thickening gel agent. When you cook your fruit, the pectin will come out in the fruit, but many fruits need an additional boost to thicken as much as is required for jam. An interesting factoid: Granny smith apples have the highest amount of naturally occurring pectin of any fruit.

***

Other items we’ve canned so far include cherry jam, more mulberry jam, corn salsa, peaches, strawberry jam, and interestingly, ketchup (we’ll save that for another post :) ).

 

 

Back (left to right): Plain corn, yellow peaches, strawberry jam, mulberry jam, cherry jam

Front (left to right): Corn salsa, white peaches

Yes, We Can!

August 10, 2012

As we’ve posted many times before, Katie and I do a lot of canning, and this is the perfect time of year to do it. As much as I love fall, it marks the time when produce refers exclusively to potatoes and apples. Now don’t get me wrong, I love potatoes and apples, but it gets a little tedious after the ninth straight week. To fight this, we go crazy on produce over the spring and summer, processing and canning while everything is at the peak of its season.

Now I know I have promised a post on canning peaches, so I’m going to do a small series on the things we have canned this season (so far!). I might also include some of the other preservation we’ve done.

Today’s feature is corn salsa. This salsa is incredibly fresh-tasting all year around. The general recipe is along the lines of 12 cobs of corn (we used sweet white corn), 5 pounds of tomatoes (Romas are fine and generally inexpensive), 1 onion, 1 bell pepper (green), and as much hot pepper as you want. We used one serrano pepper.

Cut the corn from the cobs and dice all the vegetables. Mix them up and chop some cilantro, held to the side in a separate bowl.

 

Take the veggie mix and put it in a large stew pot with (3 cups?) white vinegar and bring it to a boil. Once it hits a boil, stir in the cilantro and turn the heat off, removing the pot from the heat.

Ladle the salsa in to previously sterilized jars. Tip: It’s important to sterilize your jars every time because otherwise nasty critters can get in there and make you really sick.

 

Add your lids and rings, then can them in a water bath or a pressure cooker like shown above. Be sure to read the instructions for your canner closely, to make sure that you boil your jars for long enough. Altitude also affects the boil time. For more information, check out the website for the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Their site contains a lot of good reading about the best way to preserve food.

Once the jars have boiled long enough, remove them (carefully!) with your jar tongs, set them aside overnight to allow them to cool slowly (reducing the likelihood of shattering), and for the seal to pop. When you are ready to store your canned jars, make sure all the seals have not popped up. If so, you can still use the contents, just make sure you put it in your fridge and use it soon :)

 

 

Dancing the Meringue

August 9, 2012

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Katie and I have done an awesome job making a new recipe every week. Largely the process by which we’ve done this is to check out a bunch of cook books from the library, copy all the recipes that look yummy, and then try them. If they’re good, we keep them, if they’re not, we give them to our friends.

(I kid, I kid).

Part of Katie’s secret plot is to expose me to some flavors we don’t typically cook with. I’m all for it since Father Burb** did a good job of giving us a huge range of foods as kids. I mean, how many people have had caviar before the age of 12 or have helped butcher their own deer. Seriously. That said, I’m a *little* skittish about certain flavors that I have not really cared for in the past. Most of those fall in to the category of Indian spices and flavors (This means you curry, coconut milk, and ginger!). The conflict comes in where Katie loves them and I hate them, so she checked out a book that had everything to do with using spices to make exciting food. I agreed to be open-minded about it, and we began copying recipes.

All of that is the preface to an only sort of related thought. In flipping through this book, Katie noticed a recipe for nougat. Like, REAL nougat. Not that stuff you find in candy bars, the stuff you find in the Mediterranean. She also recalled that I happen to REALLY REALLY LOVE nougat. Who knew it would be that easy to get me to like eastern flavors. Ha!

Anyhoo, she decided to “make me some” which actually means she started them, then got wrapped up in something else, so *I* made nougat. Still, it doesn’t really matter how it happened, the important thing is that it did.

Nougat, like so many other forms of yumminess, start with a hefty amount of sugar. In this case we are working with a blend of sugar, corn syrup, and honey. Bring this to a boil, stirring/whisking occasionally until it incorporates and begins to boil. Clip in your candy thermometer and brush the sides of the pan down with water. Then let it go.

While the syrup mixture is coming up to temperature, take some room-temperature egg whites and start whipping them in to meringue. Tip: Using room-temperature eggs is awesome because they are so much easier to work with, especially for something like meringue. Because the eggs are warmer, the proteins have an easier time relaxing and stretching out, meaning you can work it harder faster. Whip your egg whites in to softish to lightly stiff peaks. Tip: Save back your egg yolks! We turned right around and used them in a custard because obviously. I guess you could also mix them in to your dog’s dinner to promote a healthy, shiny coat, but  I think everyone will agree that custard is  obviously the better option. Obviously.

Once your eggs are about the right consistency, make sure your syrup reaches a “soft ball” stage. This means that when dropped in to water, the syrup will form a ball shape that is soft and loses its shape when pressed between your fingers. On a candy thermometer this is around 234 F or 224 F for those at altitude. You can see that the syrup is very very lightly starting to take on color. The bubbles will transition from small and fast to larger and slower.

Once you reach the soft ball stage, turn your eggs back on at a slow mix and pour approximately one quarter of your syrup in to the eggs. You want to pour slowly and toward the edge of the bowl so you disrupt the eggs as little as possible. Working too fast can deflate your eggs and ruin the fluffy quality of the meringue. Once you get the syrup in, turn the eggs to medium speed and put the syrup back on the stove.

Bring the remaining syrup up to a “hard crack” at around 300 F/ 290 F at altitude. When this syrup is dropped in to water it forms in to a firm and brittle sugar chunk.

You can see how the syrup has taken on a much deeper color under the bubbles. The bubbles are also bigger and slower, as compared to the bubbles in the soft ball picture. Once you reach this temperature, turn the stove off and again slowly add your syrup in to your eggs, which should be mixing at a slow speed.

Once all the syrup is in, increase the speed and continue to whip the mixture until it is fluffy and glossy.

Once everything is incorporated and smooth, add in a bit of butter and some vanilla. We also chose to add pistachios, which are traditional, although the recipe called for almonds. Another traditional flavor is rose water. Just be careful with the rose water. It’s strong stuff and can make your confection taste like soap.

BE CAREFUL! The sugar is  extremely hot and will make your mixing bowl similarly really hot. Further, working with sugar can be dangerous regarding burns. The natural instinct is to wipe it off if you get sugar on you. DON’T. It will smear and burn more of you. Get it under very cold water as soon as possible to cool the sugar off for safe removal. Also, wear shoes when you work with sugar. Seriously. Dangerous stuff. Also: delicious stuff.

Once your mixture is incorporated, you’ve mixed in your roughly chopped pistachios (or other ingredients), take the nougat at pour it in to a WELL BUTTERED cookie tray. This stuff is super super sticky so if you don’t grease your tray well…have fun getting that out. Pour in enough nougat to comfortably fill the tray, smooth it in to the corners, and refrigerate to chill and set. It’s important to let it chill for at least four hours. Remember how it was super hot? It will stay hot in the middle for quite a while. Plus it will be much easier to cut when it is cold.

Once cool, place a piece of wax paper over the top of the tray and smooth on to the nougat. Then turn your tray over and work the nougat out. I did this over a cutting board so that I could then directly slice it. I also found that it is helpful to loosen as much of it as you can before flipping it – I took my bash and chop and worked it under all the sides so that I had a lot less to detach when upside down and awkward.

You can actually see my bash and chop lines in the middle. While the sides were free, I had to take the BnC and loosen the middle. This is  significantly easier with a buddy.

Once out, place a second piece of wax paper over the top. Then take a well oiled knife and cut the nougat in to smaller pieces. You could go high class and wrap each piece in a piece of wax paper. We took the heathen approach and just stacked them in to a container. The downside is that because our house was a million degrees, they kind of stuck together on the sides. The good news is that you can pretty easily snap them apart when cold. The better news is that it also means that “one piece” might not be the same as one piece :D

This recipe actually made two trays worth, so we had quite a lot. The nougat is sticky like a taffy (mind your teeth!) and tastes strongly like honey. However, when you get a bite with the pistachio, it is utterly to die for.

**EDIT: Mother Dear Mother was also a HUGE driver of the variety of my diet.

Peachy Keen

August 7, 2012

Peaches are WAY up there on the list of awesomest fruit. But I constantly struggle with feeling like they are only “in season” at the grocery store for about 45 minutes, and that by the time I am done unpacking the groceries to put everything away, they’re wrinkly-mush-balls.

Still, we’re making an effort, and at least 15% of our peaches are ripe when we process them. Most of the peaches we’ve handled so far we have sliced up, placed in a simple syrup and a chunk of vanilla bean, and canned (probably another post coming to a blog near you). We had a few chunks left over so we tossed them in the dehydrator because why not, and they are EFFING FANTASTIC. They hold their flavor so well they are just absolutely yummy.

So we dehydrated a bunch of peaches just for funsies because I definitely want more of those around.

We went with fairly thin slices (.25 inch) for the dried peaches, and slightly larger (.5 inch) for the canned peaches. Also, if you are doing both at the same time, I’d can the peaches that are the least ripe. They will be flavored some by the syrup as well as the other peaches, and the sugar will help pull juice and flavor out. For drying, what you put in is what you get out, so the ripest ones are the best.

Chopping up peaches…it’s the pits! (ha ha…oh fine. It wasn’t funny).

I will say that even slices will help you maximize your dehydrator space. The very even rows *really* appeal to my neurotic side.

Next to come will likely be the saga about all the insane amounts of canning and drying we are doing. It might even include a sneak peak of our upcoming adventure that will put our skills to the test. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Urban Foraging

August 6, 2012

So first, we owe you an apology. We have been pretty absent this summer. I think it’s because summer is when we go and do so much fun stuff it’s hard to slow down enough to keep up here. However, with summer starting to wane, we are doing better about taking pictures for posts, and we have a *little* bit of a head start on several things, so that we don’t catch up on posts before we are out of fodder.

So! Onward and upward!

This weekend Katie and I took our first dabble in to what I’m calling ‘urban foraging.’ Close your eyes and imagine this:

Actually open your eyes or you can’t read.

*ahem*

Denver, like many other places, is in full bloom all spring as all the fruit trees flower. It’s stunning and it smells lovely. The blossoms eventually drop, the trees leaf out and viola! you have summer. Fast-forward three months and the leaves are *just* starting to get hints of yellow…..and there are effing berries all over your car, the street, the sidewalk, the list goes on.

As annoying as that is, we had the aha! that this is all FRUIT. Fruit you can harvest and use. Fruit that is free.

Let me caveat with this: We did not and do not condone taking any produce from someone’s yard without explicit consent to do so. That said, we have seen a large number of trees with fruit in the medians of streets and in some parks.

So how do you collect all this fruit? Well, basically you can sort the stuff that hits the ground, or you can climb the tree. The first trees we tackled had yellow fruit that we were really excited to think were apricots. Upon closer inspection, however, we discovered that they were actually tiny yellow pears! We had thrown a huge bag of bags* in the car and took it with us across the street. Katie sorted through the pears on the ground, I picked those I could reach on the tree.

Now, I will admit it is slightly awkward to be standing basically in the middle of the highway. But whatever, we were pretty excited.

We took two bags (maybe eight pounds?) of pears back to the car and headed down the sidewalk about 50 feet. Then we spotted the apples. There were apples everywhere. Katie started again with the ground fruit, and I with the tree fruit, when it very quickly became obvious that to pick fruit that was sizeable, I’d have to climb the tree. We spent the next hour getting me in to the tree (about ten feet up), shaking the branches enthusiastically (while Katie stood way out of the way), and then collecting the apples.** I couldn’t believe how hard it was – climbing was easier when I was a kid, but still it was fun. We wound up with four bags of apples that totaled about a bushel. The apples themselves are green with a bit of rosy pink on them, and they tasted somewhere between a Granny Smith and a Gala apple. Our grand plan is to make applesauce with them.

Finally, we also found some berries but we didn’t know what they were. We took them home for identification purposes but PLEASE do not eat any fruit or berry you are not familiar with.

All in all it was a pretty good haul – we are estimating about 40 pounds of fruit, collected in about two hours. The potential is huge if we do this even one day a weekend for the next few weeks.

So back to this idea of urban foraging. I was thinking about it on our way home and I realized that living in the city, we are no longer able to see the trees through the forest. Urban life encourages such a disconnect from what is around us that we can’t even see the resources available. How many people can be fed by produce that is available in public spaces? I’m not sure what I want to do with this thought yet, but it’s certainly something I want to spend some time with.

 

 

* That’s for you Father Burb!

** We do not advocate climbing trees as it can be dangerous. Please be careful.

We’ve been quiet around Burbex recently. Rachel had nasal surgery last week, so we haven’t been up to any large projects. To keep you entertained if you’re bored in the mean time, here are a few fun pictures and small projects to keep you going:

Here you can see two of our syrups we made for soda. The brown color is the pineapple mint, which we talked about in another post, and is from the really fun cookbook, “Can it, Bottle it, Smoke it”. The pink syrup (which is almost gone!) is strawberry. This was an adaptation of the Strawberry Black Pepper syrup from the same cookbook.

We also made a small batch of mulberry jam last night, which can also be seen in the picture above. We have a mulberry tree in our back yard, but this is the first year we’ve been proactive enough to actually harvest some of the berries before the birds ate them all. Mulberries look and taste a little like blackberries, except instead of growing on an uncontrollable vine, they grow on a funny looking tree:

 

 

We’re also in the middle of a big project that is a part of our long, ongoing yard renovation:

Eventually all of the sod will be removed, and we will have a garden here under the cottonwood tree. You can also see from the state of our grass (dead!) how hot and dry it has been here in Colorado. You can also see were we have previously started the sod removal in this garden and never finished…

And last, but not least, we welcomed a new member of our menagerie here at Burbex:

 

This is Kazumi. He’s a nearly 2 year old retired Bengal. He’s settling in and bringing a little equilibrium to our wild household by giving Sora someone to chase around.

 

 

Sorry about the long absence. Our household manage to contrive to have company or to be on vacation for nearly every weekend in the month of May. As a result we got almost nothing crafty or home-related done for the entire month. So to feed your withdrawals, here’s a quick look at carbonating your own homemade soda.

The first thing you need is a flavored simple syrup. We made a pineapple mint syrup by macerating pineapple with sugar overnight and then cooking the syrup with mint. We had also made a blueberry lemon syrup through a similar method. Once you have your syrup, you want to funnel it into a clean glass jar.

This shows just the syrup in the jar. You want to dilute the syrup 1:2 with water, so your soda isn’t overly sweet. I had about 3/4 C syrup, so I added about 1 1/2 C water.

This is with the water added. As you can see, we didn’t have enough syrup to make a full bottle of liquid. You can leave the rest as open air space, it will not hurt the soda. Once you’ve done that, you want to add a TINY pinch of active dry yeast. This will react with the sugars and cause the carbonation. The next part is patience. It has to sit in a room temperature place for at least 24 hours, and up to 3 days. The yeast will keep reacting, so you shouldn’t leave it longer than that. We learned this the hard way. We left ours about 4 days, and it was kind of off the radar. Rachel went down to the kitchen, heard a funny hissing noise, and not thinking, opened the blueberry over the sink. She then spent the rest of the morning cleaning up blueberry soda off the ceiling, walls and floors. So really, don’t leave it longer than 3 days.

Once your three days are up, you can pop your soda in the fridge. This will slow down the yeast reaction, but not stop it entirely, so you still need to drink the soda you’ve made within a few days. The amount shown above is probably 2-3 standard glasses.

Also, if you want to look fancy, but not mess with your own carbonation, you can always make your syrup and add it to carbonated water. This is actually the method we use much more often as we usually have soda water around, and it’s less likely to make a mess if you forget about it.

 

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