Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Oh, Yes We Can!

For the first time in my life, I am pretty settled and live in a house where I have my own garden. This, plus my undying DIY spirit have prompted my desire to finally learn how to preserve and can my homegrown harvest.

Not wanting to venture into this task all by my lonesome, I thought it would be advantageous to can with friends who had previously done it, thereby making them experts on the techniques and methods, able and willing to pass along their skills and knowledge to me through a hands-on, "quilting-bee" style of teaching.
Both times that I employed this method of learning from my presumable expert friends, we did not have the proper tools, ingredients, or recipes, nor did any of them have any more than a vague notion of what the canning process was supposed to be like. This was a great learning experience, but more along the lines of "what NOT to do" while canning. Although the end results in both cases were semi-successful, I concluded that the only way I was going to learn how to can was to purchase a canning book with exact recipes and explicit instructions.

Fortunately, and coincidentally, there happened to come along a Canning Workshop (free, no less!) at the Seattle Tilth's Harvest Fair over the summer, taught by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Jessica Dally of the Seattle Free School. Jessica is a true "expert", having been certified as a "Master Food Preserver", and dedicated most of the class to food safety and prevention of food-borne illness. While this was not a "hands-on" class, and the students did not get to do any actual canning, I left the class feeling confident that I could take on any canning challenge that came my way.

For anyone else who may have a desire to dabble in food preservation, I thought it would be neighborly of me to pass along some of the tips that I learned from the workshop, and some that I learned from my trial-and-error experiments with friends:

1) Botulism is the Most Deadly Toxin Known to Man!
Botulism is a microorganism that, in itself is harmless and all around us every day. It is when the spores multiply in mass quantity in an ideal environment (low acid, anaerobic conditions, such as an improperly canned jar of string beans), and then release a neurotoxin as they die off, that they become dangerous, causing serious illness, neurological malfunction, and death. In addition to being microscopic, it also has no odor, color, or taste, so it is not detectable to the naked eye (or nose or mouth)! This is not something that you want to mess with! No one wants to die by eating a jar of asparagus that was canned by well-meaning, sweet Aunt Pearl who was unaware of the dangers of microorganisms and food safety. Jessica's goal was to scare us all into practicing proper canning procedures, and I would say that she accomplished this, at least with me. If you are not convinced and think we are being a bunch of worry warts or overly cautious old biddies, I recommend doing your own research on the subject.

2) Only Use and Follow Approved Recipes
Although it's impossible to tell if botulism is present in any jar of improperly canned food, it is possible to control and kill this and other microorganisms by cooking and processing the food and jars to a specified time and temperature. That's what canning is all about. Approved canning recipes are those that have been commercially and scientifically researched and tested to meet the proper acidity levels and heating times and temperatures to successfully kill or prevent growth of harmful bacteria, molds, etc. (FYI--other types of molds are visible, and/or smelly, and sometimes the lids will pop off if contamination is present--obviously, these foods should not be eaten!)

Two of the approved recipe books mentioned in class are: "The Ball Blue Book" (as in Ball canning jars) and "So Easy to Preserve", put out by The National Center for Home Food Preservation of the University of Georgia (one of, if not the only, school in the country where you can still get a college degree in Home Economics!). Books should be the most current edition, as recipes often change with more research and new knowledge and testing methods.

The Ball Blue Book has a 2009, 100th Anniversary edition available now. If you can find it locally, it should cost around $8-$10. Otherwise, it may cost you twice as much, as the shipping charge at most of the online retailers seems to be about the same or higher than the cost of the book. I ended up ordering mine directly from Ball. At $5.49, it was the least expensive copy I could find online, but even there the shipping was more than the book--$6.95! But even spending $12.44 is well worth it, considering there are over 500 recipes, plus detailed information and instructions on canning procedures. (I later found a copy at two local hardware stores for $10, so I recommend checking there first.)
So Easy to Preserve can be purchased directly from the University of Georgia for a total of $18, which is also much cheaper than you will find elsewhere online. (If you order two or more, they are only $15 each, so you might want to pick one up for a friend.) Unfortunately, they do not have an online ordering system. You have to print out the order form and mail in your payment. They do accept credit cards, but I chose to send a check--if they're going to have an old-school style of ordering, then I am going to use an old-school form of payment.

3) Water Bath Canning Vs. Pressure Canning
Most fruits are high acid, which means they are not a suitable environment for botulism. If Mrs. Crabtree from down the street presents you with a lovely jar of strawberry jam for Christmas this year, it is most likely going to be safe to eat it. High acid foods can be processed in a boiling water bath canner, as the temperature of boiling water is sufficient to kill any dangerous microorganisms in most fruits. Water bath canning is a pretty simple procedure, which is why my expert-canner-friend experiments were not complete failures. It is still important to follow recipes and process according to the instructions, which should give you a highly successful canning experience.

It is not necessary to purchase a special water bath canner, and if you have an electric stove, don't even bother with one. The ridged surface on the bottom of specialized canners causes uneven heating, which could negatively effect your processing. All you really need is almost any large cooking pot with a smooth bottom, and a rack that fits inside to keep the jars from sitting on the bottom.

Most vegetables, on the other hand, are low acid. And you know what that means, right? A perfect breeding ground for Botulism! This is a job for the Pressure Canner, which is a little trickier to use, but once you get the hang of it, you'll want to can everything you can get your hands on. A pressure canner gets the water hotter than boiling, which is necessary for killing microorganisms in low acid foods (with the help of adding extra acid to the food in the form of lemon juice, vinegar, etc.). Be sure to follow your recipe exactly, and process for the correct amount of time, with the correct temperature and pressure.

Ms. Dally recommends using a weighted gauge pressure canner as opposed to the dial gauge style. This is because there is no guarantee that your dial gauge is calibrated correctly, unless you get it done professionally (and those places are getting more difficult to come by), and there is no way to tell if the temperature is staying constant without physically watching it for the entire processing time. Considering a recipe might call for one and a half hours of pressure canning, you could be spending a lot of time staring at that little dial. The weighted gauge, by contrast, lets you know it's working by steaming and rattling, causing a loud racket--thus giving you the flexibility to roam about the house, tending to other tasks while your canner is hard at work killing all that botulism. (Pressure canners can not be used on glass-top stoves!)

4) Adding Acidifiers
If a recipe calls for lemon juice or vinegar, it is important to use the bottled, store-bought variety, rather than squeezing a fresh lemon or using homemade vinegar. This is because the commercially available acidifiers have been tested to meet specific levels of acidity. Since the acidity level changes (goes down), as fruits ripen, there is no guarantee that the juice you are squeezing has the level necessary to meet the needs of the recipe. Some recipes will specifically state "store-bought lemon juice" or "vinegar with at least 5% acid", as a reminder, but you should get in the habit of keeping the store-bought variety of both on hand, if you plan to do any low-acid vegetable canning.

5) Essential Canning Equipment
Canning without certain tools can make for an inefficient and often frustrating experience. While it may be possible to can using kitchen gadgets that you already have on hand, such as salad tongs, or even tools from the garage (channel locks?), I can assure you that it is well worth the small amount of money that it will cost to purchase a few simple specialized tools. (It's possible to open a wine bottle using a screwdriver and hammer, if nothing else is available, but obviously it's much easier and faster to do with a cork screw.) Even if you are just trying out canning one time to see if you like it, I would recommend purchasing a canning kit that will include some of these essential items. You will be more likely to enjoy your canning experience with the proper equipment. And even if you decide you don't like canning, you can always find someone else who does, and will be happy to take all the equipment off of your hands.

Jars: The only jars that can be used for home canning are those that are specifically manufactured for this purpose (aka "Mason Jars"). They are designed to withstand the extreme temperatures and pressures that the canning process will put on them; and the edges are flat, suitable for the lids to form a proper seal and the rings to screw on nice and snug. The most common brand is Ball or Kerr, but other brands are also available such as Leifheit and Bormioli Rocco. (A brief history of canning jars can be found here.) Jars can be used over and over again, for many, many years, as long as they are kept in good condition. Be sure to check that the rims have no chips or nicks to ensure a proper seal, and check for hairline cracks in the body of the jar to avoid unnecessary breakage and explosions in the boiling water.
Lids: Canning lids are a two-piece system. First there is the sealing lid that covers the top of the jar and forms a tight, air-proof seal with the rubber coated ring on its underside. Then there is the metal band that screws on top, which holds the lid in place while it's sitting in a pot of bubbling water. Both pieces are essential to the canning process, but it is important to remember that the sealing lids are NOT reusable! Once a seal has been made, and then cracked open, it is a total crap shoot as to whether a proper seal will form again with a used lid. (Please re-read the Botulism section above if you want to know why this is important.) It is also important to note that all canned goods should be stored without the metal screw band. The bands should be removed once the lids have sealed and the jars have cooled. There are two reasons for this: 1) If there is mold or some other problem with the seal, you want the lid to be able to pop off if it wants to, so that you know not to eat that one--the screw band will prevent that from happening. 2) The outer metal screw band IS reusable. Once you take it off of your current project, you are free to use it for another batch of home-canned goodness.
If you purchase a set of brand new canning jars, the package will come with a corresponding number of two-piece lids. New lids can also be purchased separately, usually in packages of 12, and with or without the bands.
Jar Lifter: This simple, yet handy little device allows you to safely and quickly lift jars in and out of the hot water without burning your hands. (Trust me--doing this job with a set of salad tongs and an oven mitt is not fun!) I put this on the "must have" list.
Funnel: Since it is crucial to not have any food particles getting in the way of your seal, wiping any spillage off the jar rims will be a lot quicker and easier with this "must-have" tool. The wide-mouth opening of a canning funnel allows you to accurately pour your hot fruit sauce, syrup, or boiling water into a canning jar without making a huge mess.

I hope this information is helpful to any beginner canners. I plan to post more articles on my canning experiences in the future, with links to approved recipes and other info that I come across. Until then, this should be enough to get you started, or at least get you thinking about getting started, and preparing for the next harvest season.

Happy Canning!


Monday, November 15, 2010

Putting the Vino Back in Aguavino

This week, I am very happy and excited to announce the Grand Opening and Grand RE-Opening of my Etsy shops!

Hair of the Dog is my brand new creative endeavor featuring a collection of functional gifts, handmade from leftover beer, wine & liquor packaging, using a variety of DIY techniques. All products are made using recycled and/or secondhand materials, with eco-friendly additions here and there. Products include Pick Yer Poison Journals, a Hangover Helper, Soy Wax Beer Candles, Bring-Your-Own Coaster/Cozies, Brandy Bottle Soap Dishes, Goldschlager Candy Dishes, and lots more. You could say that Hair of the Dog puts the "vino" back in Aguavino! (Don't worry, there is no actual dog hair in any of my products!)

My original Aguavino Etsy Shop is also alive and well with a brand new assortment of handmade recycled light switch covers. I'll also be adding some new product lines to that shop in the near future.

What does all of this mean for you? Lots of great deals, a fun contest and exciting opportunities to win fabulous prizes and help out some rescued farm animals!! If that sounds intriguing, please continue reading.....

Happy Hour
Hair of the Dog will regularly feature Happy Hour Specials which may happen at any time of day, on any day of the week. (Please be my fan on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, join my Mailing List, or follow this Blog to be kept abreast of all Happy Hours in the future) But for now, to celebrate the Grand Opening, it will be Happy Hour ALL WEEK with 20% off everything! Use coupon code "HHBWEEK" to have 20% automatically deducted from your order. (This applies to Hair of the Dog only; does not apply to shipping or tax; and expires Tuesday, November 30, 2010.)

Barfly Bucks
If you've checked out my new shop, you may have noticed that there are a lot of items made with Crown Royal bags. If you drink a lot of Crown Royal, you may have a drinking problem.... but, you can cash in those bags for "Barfly Bucks" that can be used to purchase items in my shop! For every bag that you send in, you get $1 of credit. Limit 10 bags per customer, per year. Please email aguavino@gmail.com for more details.

Free Shipping
To celebrate the Grand RE-Opening of my Aguavino Etsy Shop, I am offering FREE Shipping on ALL items through the end of the month! To take advantage of this great deal, write the message, "I was born on a pirate ship" in the notes to seller. This one will not calculate automatically, so you'll have to wait for an adjusted invoice after you place your order, or a refund through PayPal. (Sorry, but this offer applies to US orders only.)

ArtFire, Too!
For those who prefer to do their handmade shopping on ArtFire, my shop is still active there, too! I will slowly be adding some of my new line of products to that site, but it currently has a lot of items that are NOT listed in either of my Etsy shops. So I am extending the 20% off deal to everything in that shop as well -- no coupon necessary for that one; the discount has already been applied to all items!

Warm Fuzzies -- Do it for the birds!
In addition to all the great deals above, I will be donating 50% of sales on many items to Pigs Peace Sanctuary! Any item with a bird on it (in honor of the turkeys) and/or any other item labeled with my "Spread the Love" icon. This is an ongoing donation program that I run through my shops. Just look for the Love Dove on selected items, and read more about it here.

Name that Bird DRINK
And finally, no Grand Opening event would be complete without some fun and prizes! I will be reinstating my Name that Bird contests on a regular basis. To celebrate my new shop, this one will involve birds and beverages :) Up for grabs this time is a set of handmade holiday themed coaster/cozies, plus a scary snowman wine bottle holder (definitely NOT handmade, but both are definite must-haves for a successful holiday season!). There will be TWO winners randomly drawn from all the correct responses -- the first one gets to choose which prize he/she wants; the second will get the other. So here we go......
Since there are two prizes, and two winners, this will be a two-part contest:
1) Name this drink that shares a name with a bird: Made with champagne, orange juice and grenadine syrup floating on top; served in a cocktail or champagne glass.
2) Tell me what drink you are most thankful for during the holidays, and why.

Please email your answers to aguavino@gmail.com with "Bird Drink" in the subject. Contest ends at Midnight on November 30, 2010.

Whew!! That's a lot of excitement for one week. But this should get you through Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and a little beyond to give you a jumpstart on your holiday shopping!!


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Clog Blog #2: Featuring The Girly-Man Skirt

It's time once again for the Eclectic Cloggers to get ready to hit the road for the summer touring season! I am excited to be back in action after taking maternity leave as of last August. Even with five months off, I was able to enjoy nearly a full summer of shows, with baby Theo along for an exciting ride! His prenatal performances included University District Street Fair, Northwest Folklife, Shoreline Arts Festival, Yakima Folklife, and Olalla Bluegrass Festival.

Olalla @ 5 months

If you recall from my last Clog Blog, we are a diverse group of dancers, but experience a bit of gender identity confusion due to our disproportionate ratio of women to men. Last year we came up with a solution to this problem with the introduction of the Girly-Man Skirt: Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman! Making it's debut at the University Street Fair, the black skirt is worn by a lady playing the part of a gent in some of the dances. This helps the audience distinguish between the two roles, and allows the lady to still show off her bloomers!

Another way that we like to compensate for our shortage of testosterone is to do a little improvising, DIY-style. Using ordinary household objects, such as brooms, mops, and wine corks, we are able to create our own dance partners! Meet Slim and Jim...

If you've missed the Eclectic Cloggers in the past, not only did you miss pregnant dancing, broomstick gents, and girly men, you've also missed out on a lot of energetic, foot-tapping, hand-clapping fun! Plus, you never know when the roof might blow off the stage, a tap shoe might fly off mid-kick, or a suspender might unsnap mid-jump....

Be sure to check us out this summer! Here is a partial listing of where you can find us. And if you really "like" us, become our Fan on Facebook! We'll be posting more details and updates there as we finalize our schedule.

May 31 NW Folklife Festival
1:50 PM International Dance Stage
June 27 Shoreline Arts Festival
1:00 PM Shoreline Room Stage
July 10 Yakima Folklife Festival
2:00 PM
July 31 Lake Wenatchee Campground
Fireside show at dusk.
August 21 Olalla Bluegrass Festival
12:00 PM
**Special thank you to Jenny Grand of CE Photos for all the great shots at the University Street Fair last year!!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Size & Batteries

If I've learned nothing else from having a newborn baby around, I've learned these two very important lessons:
1) Size does NOT matter
Why is it that some onesies claiming to fit 0-3 month old babies barely fit over my newborn's head? If we do manage to squeeze one on, the sleeves are usually so tight, he looks like a mini metro-sexual. How long is a baby considered a newborn anyway? Cause seriously, items that are size "newborn" fit him for like a week. Even before he turned 2 months old, he was wearing clothes supposedly designed to fit 3-6 month olds. I have heard this same story from at least 3 of my friends who also have baby boys. I thought it was just because their children must be freaks of nature. Surely my Theo is no freak (although he seems to have inherited my ape arms), but we are experiencing the same issue. So my theory is that clothing manufacturers still use patterns designed 50 years ago when maybe babies were not as well nourished as they are today. Or they are made in countries who give birth to much smaller children. Certainly they are designed by someone who has no experience dressing a modern-sized, US-born, squirming baby.

Someone should do something about this. Until they do, if you need to buy a baby shower gift, I recommend that you buy big. Better for them to have something to grow into, than to only get to wear an outfit for one day, or not at all. I also recommend buying second-hand. Goodwill has oodles of baby clothes in nearly new condition for like, a dollar. Or steer clear of clothing altogether, and buy a toy. Kids love toys.

2) Keep lots of spare batteries on hand at all times.
I've never used so many batteries in my life! Nearly every accessory designed to keep a baby occupied or quiet requires at least 2 of various sized battery. Some even require more than one size of battery, and use an uneven number of them! One bouncy-vibrating-musical chair uses two different size batteries, and has a separate location for each size, both requiring a screw driver to open!! My question here is: Why do these items not also come equipped with a plug-in option? (Ever hear of AC/DC?) Granted, we do move some of the items around from room to room, or even outside on the patio, as needed. But for the most part, those places do have electrical outlets available, so I would save a lot of money by not having to use the batteries at those times. It would also save my sanity and back, when the batteries invariably die mid-play or, even worse, mid-nap and I realize we do not have any backups on hand. This leaves us to either deal with a screaming child, or become the human swing!!

Until this issue is addressed, I am forced to keep a full stock of batteries on hand, from AA-D. Oh, and don't forget the 9 Volt.

The Swing: 4 x Size "D" Batteries

Bouncy Vibrating Musical Chair #1:
3 x Size "AA" + 1 x Size "D" Batteries

Bouncy Vibrating Musical Chair #2:
3 x Size "C" + 1 x Size "D" Batteries

The Sleep Sheep: 2 x Size "AA" Baaa-tteries


Flashback.......What a (Guilty) Feeling

A few months ago a friend gave us a stack of old vinyl record albums that he no longer wanted. Mixed in with the mostly classical and folk music was this flash from the past:

I assume the movie Flashdance was rated R, and since I was only about 12 when it came out, I don't know how I was able to see it. But I vividly recall Jennifer Beals maniacally strutting around in her collar-less sweatshirt by night, and attending her day job in a full welder's mask.

Anyway, none of that really matters. The point is, if you look closely, you will notice that the album is OVERDUE from the Seattle Public Library by 23 YEARS!!

Tom intends to return it to the Fremont Branch from whence it came the first chance he gets. But will they accept it? Or even want it? Will they make HIM pay the overdue fee?

There is a very good chance that Gus has never even heard of the movie, let alone would listen to the soundtrack, so we can only assume it was his ex-wife, an old girlfriend, or possibly his sister, who checked it out of the library and is responsible for this egregious infraction. (We originally thought it might have been his daughter, but after doing some mathematical calculations, realized this was impossible since she was not even born when the movie came out, and was only about one year old when the album was checked out of the library.) In any case, this was in the days before computerized library records and scanning bar codes, so there may be no way of ever knowing who the offender is.

We can only hope it has as happy of an ending as the 99 year overdue book!