March 24, 2011

a weekday jam session and a lesson

And I don't mean music. Unless you call canning 72 jars of homemade strawberry jam in my little kitchen with two babies in tow, one of them only six weeks old, music. I guess I do. What a fun day! And exasperating and utterly exhausting all at once.

You see, I had a project to get done. I decided that there is no better wedding favor than a homemade one, and seeing how my April wedding will be all about the season, I could think of no better gift than strawberries. But since strawberries will just be coming in at all the local farms at the end of April (and Tennessee has some amazing pick-your-own strawberry farms), I could not wait until then to make the favors. I am crazy but I'm not insane.

So I asked my good friend, former boss and pastry chef extraordinaire Tom, if he could help me source some good strawberries now, a month early. He called his produce guy and lo and behold, he had some beauties just in from Florida. The strawberry season gets under way down in Florida about a month before it does here. On Monday I had two flats of strawberries in the back of my Volvo. That's 16 lbs of strawberries. And his guy wasn't lying: they were beautiful.

I invited my jam-making friend Rachel over to help out. Even though she just gave birth about 6 weeks ago to sweet little Aida, she was game! I knew there was a chance that we'd get nothing done and spend most of the time caring for the babies, but we did it anyway.

Rachel did in fact spend most of the time nursing and rocking her little one and keeping mine out of trouble, but if it weren't for her I couldn't have done it. She also gave me lots of moral support, which I needed because it was my first time trying to make jam in such quantities (I needed about 70 4 oz jars filled). I have made lots of small batches but never a mass production.

There were some failures, some successes and lots of learning along the way.

About two hours into it, I had to call in the reinforcements. Missy is a good friend, a local lady who seems to me to be the most amazing cook and mom in the universe. She can make --or sew or bake-- just about anything. She made the most adorable little knit hat and sweater for June that we love so much we are still squeezing her into despite the fact that she's outgrown them both. She brought the most delicious homemade food to us right after June was born and my family is still talking about her mixed berry bread pudding and tomato sandwiches with homemade mayonnaise. I mean, who does that? Missy does.

Anyway, thank God she showed up when she did because Rachel and the babies and I were ruining the whole operation. There is something about using pectin that has always intimidated me. So I usually stick to jams that don't require it and can set up on their own, like apples, blackberries and pears. But strawberries have very little natural pectin so it seemed necessary.

We used the Sure-jell brand and the recipe that I found on their website. But in my confusion over pectin I didn't realize that it called for the liquid kind and I had bought the powdered. This meant we added it at the wrong time and didn't really follow the recipe, and instead of a jam that gelled into a nice solid consistency, it stayed runny with all of the fruit rising to the top of the pot and a huge amount of liquid underneath.

Even though I knew something was wrong, we were in too deep. I had quadrupled the recipe and used most of the strawberries and sugar on this one huge batch. We filled the jars and processed about half of them before figuring out our mistake. Duh. First lesson of jam making: Do not make more than on batch at a time, especially if it's your first time making it. I tried to make a quadruple batch! I should know better. You can't do that in baking either, without lots of fussing with the recipe and trial and error. We didn't have time (or supplies) for trial and error. So we basically ended up with a runny, almost syrupy jam that looked and tasted beautiful, but would certainly not win any awards at the fair.

You may be asking "but why do you need to make award-winning jam? It's the thought that counts, right?" And my answer would be that I never give things away to people that I don't think are perfect. It's my dumb critical Virgo nature and there is nothing I can do about it. But more on this in a minute.

When our savior Missy arrived bringing with her her own pot with strainer, she showed us how she does it and of course, her one batch came out perfectly. It set up like a dream minutes after making it. We filled the last 12 or 15 jars, processed those and then, after everyone had left, I went about making yet another batch --the right way--just to prove to myself that I could do it!

June was a great help, until she was over it.

June was getting really bored by this time, having only slept about a half hour all day because she didn't want to miss out on all the fun. She literally sat on the floor and screamed for a few minutes while I finished processing the last 6 good jars, cursing my mistake and feeling like a failure and a bad mother. That didn't last very long, I promise. I scooped her up with my sticky hands and soiled apron and took her out to her new swing on the porch and she laughed and forgot about the neglect and I sat there worn out and tired, and only partially satisfied with my more than six hours of labor.

I seriously considered dumping out the 'bad' jars (more than half of them) and going out to buy more strawberries and making them over. But then I came to my senses. What was I thinking? It still tasted delicious, it would be loved by everyone and it will be a gift that came from the heart and will embody the essence of our wedding. I mean, is perfection what I am striving for here? The mega-wedding industry and its over the top-with-cuteness wedding blogs that make every "DIY farm wedding" look like a movie set wherein every person is beautiful and every detail is perfect would have us all believe that perfection is what we need. And it is tempting to go down that road.

(I mean, who wouldn't want this?)

But I am trying really hard to resist that and to keep the urge to desire perfection under control (something that is very difficult for me) while trying to enjoy this process and keep in mind what the day will really be about. It will be about Daniel and I and our little family being loved and supported by our extended families and friends as we take this big step toward our future. It won't matter if the flower arrangements match, the tablecloths are white or brown or the jam is perfect. That won't be what people remember. And hopefully it won't be what we remember either.

So I decided to embrace the runny jam, to give it away with love and to smile on all that effort without beating myself up. How cute is this little package, no matter what is inside?

And now my mind is already on the next project. And my dress. And the caterer. And the lights. And the list goes on and on and on... Stay tuned!

March 15, 2011

we're having a wedding!

image from

Okay, here I am in a slightly different guise than you've come to expect. I have been struggling of late to blog about food and cooking. This could be because my mind is on so many other things right now like caring for my little Junebug, working on a new job as a freelance writer and planning a wedding. All of those things are pretty time consuming on their own, let alone when trying to combine all three. Needless to say, it has been busy but I am a seasoned multi-tasker. What mom isn't?

So I decided to change gears a little bit and for those of you out there following, I hope this won't be too big a change, but I am going to blog here in the coming weeks about what's keeping me busy: being a new mom and the fun and frustrations of planning a wedding, in addition to food. I still love to cook and bake, though it is not my only obsession at the moment. I'll still blog about what I cooked or the dinner parties I've had, but I look forward to sharing my new joys with you here too. And hopefully 'joy is cooking' will still be on your radar, if with a slightly different perspective.

So here are few of the things that inspire me as far as the wedding goes. It will be an intimate Spring wedding at the end of April, outside of Nashville on a friend's property which sits on 65 acres of countryside.

The open space near the trees is where the ceremony will be and closer to the house on the big flat space in front is where we will set up a tent to dine and dance under. Pretty, isn't it? It will look even better when those trees are green with leaves.

Our invitations were done by a fabulously talented friend, the niece of the above property owner and close family friend. Heather worked with me to create a whimsical invitation that while still classic and beautifully printed on an antique letterpress, is not too formal and perfectly illustrates the vision we have for our celebration. I love how they turned out.

Once the invitations were out, we set about looking to hire a caterer. This is a hard thing to do for someone as obsessed with food as I am. If I could possibly conceive of doing it myself, I would. But that would be ridiculous. I love the idea of friends helping out and I do have many talented food loving friends. But then I would have to ask a lot of the same people who I would want to be there as guests to work hard at the wedding and that didn't seem right either.

I looked into one of the more well-known caterers in town whose food I tried at a friend's wedding and she would have been great I am sure. But it was out of our budget. Then I heard of a local girl named Kindy Girdley who is kind of a newbie, having owned a little cafe and worked in some local restaurants but now is concentrating on her full-time catering business. She lives in my neighborhood, knows some of my friends and has a background in fresh, organic and healthy cooking. I liked her right away. Together we are coming up with a menu that will be all about the season: fresh, seasonal Spring ingredients prepared simply and displayed buffet style in my own serving dishes and platters.

Things like:
herbed roasted pork loin with spring onions and haricots vert
image from Suzanne Goin, Sunday Suppers at Lucques

asparagus salad with toasted walnuts and goat cheese
image from

and of course, my favorite Spring treat, fava beans, as in these smashed fresh pea and fava bean bruschetta
image courtesy of

and beautiful, local strawberries which will be available just in time
image courtesy of

These are just inspirations for the menu we will create. But it has been fun to imagine a perfect Spring dinner celebrating our future together on a beautiful evening with our closest friends and family.

And, when things get stressful and I need a break from wedding nonsense, I look to this this stupidly funny wedding blog and I always end up laughing instead of crying.

Here's to a new focus and a new season. Happy Spring!

March 4, 2011

homemade baby cereal

Here is a quick tutorial on making brown rice cereal for your baby. I know it's really easy to buy a box of powdered baby cereal at the grocery store, add a little water, and there you go. But this is really just as easy if you spend any amount of time in the kitchen already, it is definitely less expensive (wait til you see how much it makes!) and I am willing to bet you a night of babysitting that your baby will like it more. Plus, I am sure the fiber content and minerals are higher than than in the processed kind. It a whole food, and what is better than that?

I posted earlier on how I believe the taste and texture of foods is important and how when I tried the powdered stuff with June she spit it out. It was a weird gray color and the consistency was awful AND it tasted bad. No wonder. And while I don't believe in force feeding a baby anything and I am a huge fan of babies feeding themselves, this brown rice cereal is so loaded with nutrients and hard to find minerals that it is the one thing I make that I spoon feed to her. She is old enough now, though, to grab the spoon out of my hand and do it herself, which mostly works and only sometimes ends up all over her. I'm okay with that.

Six months is a good time to start this one because the baby's digestive tract is mature enough to digest the whole grains. Later, at about 9 months, you can make it with other whole grains (millet, oatmeal, barley, quinoa for example) and really increase the nutrients.

I start with organic, short grain brown rice. I like the short grain because it makes the cereal a little thicker and creamier. Depending on how much you want to make, these amounts may vary.

For 1 cup of brown rice use 2 cups of water to cook*

Boil the water and cook the rice for about 45-50 minutes until tender and all water has been absorbed.

Let the rice cool completely then spoon into blender

Add as much water as rice --1 cup of rice = 1 cup of water to blender

Blend until the consistency is like a porridge or oatmeal

Spoon into serving size portions (an ice cube tray is great for this)

Freeze. When frozen, pop out and into a plastic bag and put back into freezer. Take out and thaw in fridge overnight, or in microwave for 15 seconds before serving. *Make sure it is not hot, but just warmed or even room temp when serving. My baby eats it cold too.

*this will make about two ice cube trays of cereal (each cube is one serving)

For about 15 min. of actual work, plus the cooking time, you have at least two weeks of cereal made. How easy is that?