Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mid-Winter Cool Down

Last year at this time, I was attending the Saco River Market on Saturdays.  This was keeping me extremely busy, both with the business, as well as with the kiddos.  While I was always way more successful in school when I was super busy and my life was full of scheduled sports events, school work, and hobbies, as a mother that has all changed.  When I get into full on PB&J (and I don't mean sandwiches) mode, I'm barely capable of thinking about anything else.  I worry about every detail and hardly think about what's for dinner.  Joe is extremely helpful, and while he commutes to Newington daily, working a 40 - 50 hour week, plus traveling, he comes home cheerful and ready to intercept the kids and stir the peanut butter.  Anyway, this winter I opted out of the Saco market, deciding to focus more on our family, being a mom, and creating traditions in our home.  We didn't sign the girls up for anything this winter, as our plan is to be active with them all winter as a family.  So far so good on that. We're loving snowshoeing together, sledding, playing games, and eating dinner together every night at the actual dinner table.

It's not to say that I'm not working, 'cause I'm working.  I have several new retail accounts locally, as well as we are building our peanut butter business substantially beyond where we were a year ago.  It's seemingly little things like changing up containers, labeling, official food testing, and other related boring stuff that take up of tons of time.  We plan to be in this for the long haul, so doing it right is our goal.  Also, it is pretty fun.  Why would I do this otherwise?  I love it.

Currently I'm working with a local label company to come up with a more efficient process by which we will label our peanut butter jars-- without changing our rustic look and attitude.  This is a challenge, but a fun one.  I'm used to printing our labels as I need them.  Not only is this not cost effective, but it takes quite a long time.  So no more of that!  Sorry HP, we'll stick with you for the jam (no pun intended) for now, but the PB is hitting the high road.  Here's what our label looks like currently, just so you have a before shot.

The other cool thing about having labels printed is that they (the company) can easily include important stuff like nutritional information, a bar code (oooooooh, big time!), and other things beyond me, like the Maine Made seal (yep, I'm proudly one of them now), and Get Real, Get Maine info.  Basically, they can take care of placement details that this shmo (me) can't.  It's what they do.  Anyway, I'm psyched to be able to share it with you, spread the PB all over Maine (pun definitely intended on that one), and have fun doing it.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Becoming a Master Food Preserver

After being ever-so-lucky to be accepted into UMaine Cooperative Extension's Master Food Preserver course, I've been attending classes a couple of nights a month in Gorham.  It is an extremely quick commute for me, with some folks traveling upwards of 3 hours to be there.  It has been SO FUN so far, and I am learning so much.  Every time (for real, every time) I leave the class I call Joe to tell him about my night.  Meanwhile, he's doing his best to smoothly transition the girls from the living room through the tumultuous teeth-brushing inconvenience, and then on to their beds without a war, and I'm going on about canning beans or eating fabulous chutney.  He is amazing as always.

Anyway, one of the things about the class is the incredible fate that is the fact that there are so many other people who obsess about canning, freezing, drying, fermenting, and generally preserving food as much and even more than me.  Who knew?  Did I mention how much I am learning?  Despite making jam and pickles (peanut butter too, of course) at least 40 hours per week during the summer, I have been humbled by the new information I've learned.  There are opportunities every week in class to be a part of some new preserving experience, from making quick freezer jam, to drying herbs, making flavored vinegars, freezing fruits and veggies, canning a variety of pickles, making sour kraut (fact:  Never tried it 'till now), and talking about it all the entire time.  It is wonderful.

Having been an educator for a dozen or so years, I'm fully aware that my own learning style is to "say back" what has been read or said to me for learning.  This can be extremely frustrating and annoying to a traditional teacher who wants to lecture and move on.  But in this totally hands-on class, I'm reading, asking questions, actually experiencing the lesson with my hands, and talking about it the whole time.  It is the perfect way to learn.  I can't wait to share what I've learned with everyone I know.

As the class is about half way through, I thought I'd give you a glimpse into what we've been up to so far.  Sorry I didn't get photos of strawberry jam/jelly night.  The low-sugar jelly was my favorite by far.  So delicious!  So really, this is just a bitty glimpse, and probably not totally in the right order.  I'm not too fancy when it comes to the blogging.  Here's some of the recent scoop in photos:

Our class, minus Lauren.  We'll catch up with her next time!
Prepping sage for its vinegar.

Herbal Jelly in the making.
It's a very serious moment of pondering pesto and dried herbs.
Blueberry Freezer Jam.
Prepping the peaches for freezing.
Perfect peaches.
The Most Beautiful Peaches!
Beans over Peaches.
I'm not gonna lie:  I'm pretty sure I ate most of this jar of dilly beans one of our groups made in class.
Canning beans.
Not exactly watching water boil, we have to keep an eye on the feisty pressure canner.

Just needs corn, then Corn Relish.  Mmmm.
Corn prep for relish.
Heidi was a trooper when it came to mashing the cabbage for kraut.

Everyone gets a chance to mash the cabbage!
It's pretty amazing that this results from simply "bruising" cabbage in preparation for fermenting.

Removing the blossom end helps pickles stay crisper.

The pickle line.

Quick sour pickles.
Out of the water bath and sealing.
Our first independent project included these terrific rye crackers...
blackberry jam, homemade cream cheese...
Wait for it... Pickle Leather!  Very odd, but not bad. 
Dehydrated spaghetti dinner.  Smart and yummy meal for the local boy scout troops to take camping.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Year-Round Maine Produce

In the summer, our kitchen is filled with fresh fruit and veggies. From cukes, onions, corn, and herbs, to an abundance of all kinds of locally picked berries and tree fruits, we have plenty of what we need for eating and canning. This time of year, however, individual "commercial" preservers like me have to search a bit harder for local produce, as our freezers are suddenly emptying of the masses we felt were enough for the year in the heat of last summer.
The truth of it is, to make a living (ha!), this time of year we jam-makers and picklers often succumb to buying bulk products from distributors, including fruit and veggies from far-away places, to supplement what we don't have or can't get locally in the winter and spring. I too supplement with far-away fruit but try to use as much as I can of these Maine-grown items year-round in our jam and pickles: Tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, apples, blackberries, rhubarb, some raspberries (never enough), herbs, corn (thanks bro!), and eggs. I have three freezers quickly dwindling of my summer and fall berry, veggie, and rhubarb supply. We also always use local Maine honey and a bit of local cider vinegar. Seasonal favorites pop up soon, including dandelions (who doesn't have enough of those?) and fiddleheads, along with never-enough Maine-grown asparagus.  It's tough growing cukes in the winter and spring, and I even begged Kate of Tibbetts Family Farm to help me out with that, to which she laughed and offered to grow some in big planters for me. She must have felt my desperation. I'll wait on those until true summer comes along. Sometimes it's better to wait for something good in order to get it from Maine.
Here are some examples of Maine-grown items I used this week with which to make jam and relish.

Keeping tomatoes local in April means opting for these
hot-house yummies from Backyard Farms.  These were for the Spiced Tomato Jam.
Utilities from Giles Family Farm.  Apple Sauce and Apple Pie Jam.
Anderson Farms, of course. Quickly running out!  Corn Relish.
With about 50 pounds left, I hoarded these cranberries from
Old Grey Beaver Bog in Kennebunk.  Cranberry Hinkle Hatz Jam and Cranberry Sauce.
Bradybury Farm, Hollis.  Blueberry Jam, Pickled Blueberries,
and Black & Blue Honey Pie Jam (low sugar/high honey favorite).

We picked up this local vinegar right at Hannaford.
Supplies are limited.
Typically I use a combination of wild and cultivated blueberries from Maine, which are easy to come by year-round. Still, Bradbury Farm in Hollis called me yesterday to see if I needed some, as they were going to unplug their freezer. I drove up the road to the farm (just a few miles), where Mrs. Bradbury GAVE me a 30 pound bag. She carried it out of the house, brought it to the car and put it in my trunk. Think I'll be making her some Black & Blue Honey Pie Jam.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Having children changes everything.

In the United States, in Maine, where our children can go outside and play freely, where we have the space and patience to stand in a spot long enough for a chickadee to land on our hands for a snack, there is very little fear for tragedy.  The difficulty in parenting is balancing that ideal with the reality of a bigger picture, including bad people who do bad things.

When a horrible thing happens in the world, several questions pop into my head, invading the fluidity of a regular worry-free day, and causing truly sleepless nights.

What kind of person am I to have brought children into this awful world?  How am I going to help these girls grow up and steer clear of this madness?  What are the things I can do to continue to make them feel safe and yet make sure they understand how to protect themselves in every situation-- I mean, Every situation.  My mind goes nuts thinking about all of the ungodly things that could happen.  And then I think about what they are learning in their first years of school.  The basics.  Be kind to each other.  Don't dwell on the little things.  Help someone when you can.  Watch where you're going.  Take risks, but don't hurt anyone, including yourself.  Remember that everyone has a story.  Trust the adults in your life.  Stranger danger.  Ask questions.  Keep going.  These are the things I ought to be focusing on too.  And hugs.  More hugs.  Appreciate the simple things. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

New and Hipper

Yeah, I know it's been a while, but I really do have some good excuses.  The jam business has turned into more of a jam and peanut butter business, with orders-a-plenty busying up the holidays and the farmers' markets.  We've also gotten quite a few local wholesale requests from coffee shops, bakeries, and produce markets.  I'm happy to have my PB&J wherever the local foodies frequent.  Also, you can't blame a girl for taking care of herself more than her blog, right?  Enough said about all that.  The point is, the jamming is good, thanks to all of our awesome customers.

Now, more about me.  You'll see over on the right of my blog that I am a self-classified "runner."  I sort of think that once a person has been running for a good while, technically speaking, no matter how fast or slow, how short or long the distance, one is a runner.  However, I have not been actually running for over a year due to a bum hip.  Suddenly after I turned 40, I felt pain in my hip.  It was drastic and sharp.  I could barely walk, forget about run.  It happened abruptly while running one day.  And I run slow, so seriously, I was not pushing it.  I just couldn't run or walk without severe shooting pain in my hip.  That pain spread all around the hip joint and led me eventually to see a doc to have it checked out.  The short version is, after some physical therapy, a couple of cortisone shots, and some chiropractic care, I was told I needed a new hip.  Actually, I was told that from the beginning of the doctor's visits, but because of my age, doctors wanted to take other measures to see if we could make the pain go away without replacing body parts.  Bad from birth I was told, with the ball just not fitting the socket properly.  Thus the socket was chipping away where the ball was running into it in all the wrong places.  In the x-rays you could actually see one of the little chips floating around my hip joint.  Gross, I know.  Anyway, last week I got a new hip, and here's what it looks like, except this one's about double the size of the one in my body now.  And yes, the new hip is pink.  How cool is that?

So now, one week later, I'm up walking with a cane, driving my kids to local Maple Syrup Weekend events, getting over it.  They say that people who have had this Anterolateral Hip Replacement surgery can look forward to resuming ALL regular activities within three months.  Does this mean I'll go back to running?  Already, although I am still bruised and swollen, exhausted after being up for a couple of hours, and it's obvious I am growing into parts that are not originally mine, I feel the running itch.  It would probably not be the smartest idea to take it up again, but we'll see...  I think I'm a runner.  

Having said all that, I do love hiking too, and it's probably better on the joints.  See you out there soon.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big Batch Cranberry Sauce

It's that time of year, and I've hoarded all I can manage of local cranberries.  Last year I did well, making it to August with one last gallon of cranberries sitting lonely in the freezer.  I'm already worried this year that I won't have enough for my own basic survival needs.  I have obsessive thoughts of cranberries pouring into every fall recipe, and, no kidding, I've had recent dreams about that cranberry-simmering moment when the first berry pops in the pot.  In the fall, that little pop is as satisfying as hearing a jam jar lid seal.  That pop is precious.  I told you I'm obsessed.

If you've not tried making your own cranberry sauce, you must do so right this second.  It's fall and the cranberries are plentiful.  Don't worry about messing it up.  It'll either under-gel or over-gel if you do-- either way it'll still taste good.  Oh, and the sauce I make includes whole and chopped cranberries and gels rather solid.  Stop reading now if what you want is the jelly you can see through with no chunks.  I'm a fan of the chunks.  Please don't quote me out of context on that one.

The recipe here is for a relatively large batch of sauce.  You'll end up with about a dozen pint-sized jars.  If you decide to make a smaller batch, lessen the boiling time.  Half a batch of the recipe below should be boiled for about 15 minutes.

Here's what you'll need:

5 Lbs of whole cranberries (fresh or frozen)
10 cups of water
15 cups of sugar

Place half of your cranberries in a large stock pot with the water and turn on the heat.  While you're letting that heat up, chop the rest of your berries in a food processor.  How much you chop them is up to you.  Pour those berries into the pot.  Stir berries in with the water occasionally until it comes to a boil.  Boil, while stirring, for 6 minutes.  Add the sugar and stir it in thoroughly.  If you're like me, you'll be impatient about watching the pot until it boils, so you might as well get another batch of jam or pickles started, or make some coffee while you wait.  Still, keep an eye on the pot so nothing burns to the bottom.

Once your sauce comes to a boil, stir it regularly for about 20 - 25 minutes.  The 20-minute-mark is crucial in terms of waiting for that gelling point.  If you feel better using a thermometer, make sure it reaches 220F and stays there for a few minutes.  I also have several small plates in the fridge upon which I administer is "gelling test," which I am famously terrible at.  When I feel most confident that the sauce has created a "sheet" on the plate, rather than several "drips," I call it good and turn off the heat.  Much like jam, use a large spoon or skimmer to remove whatever foam might have appeared on the top of your sauce.  Fill hot jars with the sauce to about 1/8th inch from the top, cover them with hot lids, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  Great for your Thanksgiving turkey or as a condiment to your turkey sandwich all year long.      

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fantastic Fryeburg

This year's Fryeburg Fair was amazing for both Above the Dam Jam and me personally.  I met so many new friends, reunited with many old friends and family members, and reminisced with several former students and colleagues from all over New England.  I talked canning with hundreds of foodies, connected with other local jammy businesses, and created new business relationships along with way with individuals, New England kitchens, and local specialty shops.  I can't say enough about how awesome the week was.  Having said all of that, by far the best part of the week was sharing it with so many family members who also spent time at the fair.  Hope to see you all again next year!

These beef cows were raised by my brother Ed and our cousin Ron, with most of the work load resting on the shoulders of my niece Sage and our cousin Cory, both who showed cows all week.
Sage:  The Cow Whisperer.  She won like a zillion awards showing cows, as well as they even made up a special award for her overall participation and helpfulness as a 4H member and farm kid.  This one's heading to college for agriculture next fall.
My cousin Allison hung out at the barn, working through the week at the fair, as well as keeping up with her own school work.  Don't worry, I checked.  She was getting it done!
Make sure you pick up this year's Christmas tree from our Meserve cousins at Boiling Spring Tree Farm in Dayton.  This tree was raised up onto its own platform to show it off as a winner at Fryeburg.  

Joe took time off from work to be up in Fryeburg with me.  He loved every second of it and was super supportive.  Lucky to be in love with a man like this one!
Every day I had relief from family members who stopped by to let me take a break for a bit.  When Aunt Carol and my mom showed up, Auntie took the money, while my mom "worked the floor" (her words!).  Those ladies can sell pickles!  Also note the amazing set up Joe spent hours-into-days building for me out of planed wood that came from farm trees our cousins cut down years ago.  Our. Display. Rocked.  I can say so since I really had little to do with it.

These girls were so incredibly patient throughout what ended up being a crazy week mostly spent without their mother.  They traveled back and forth to Fryeburg quite a few times, and of course we toured the fair scene, experienced fair food, and even had one or two fair meltdowns.  All in all they were terrific.  This pic is actually taken on our last trip home from Fryeburg after an apple picking stop on the way.  Glad to be home with them now!