Friday, August 30, 2013

The Pickle Problem

When I first moved to Georgia, I knew I would miss some things about New England, the smell of crisp fall leaves, snow, my family, the house I grew up in. You know, all the stuff you're supposed to miss.  Turns out, much of that was over rated! I don't miss snow at all!  Especially slush puddles that hide near your car door, waiting to leap into your dress shoes at the first opportunity.  I don't miss I-95 and it's potholes one bit. The beach, eh, it was ok but I'm far too fair skinned to really need to be there frequently.  Plus, sand is scratchy.

What has taken me by surprise over the years is the stuff I never thought I'd miss, but realize when I see it again that I missed it terribly!  Saltbox houses and old barns with fields surrounded by endless stone walls rank high on this list.  Another top contender- Pickles.  Pickles, like biscuits, spaghetti sauce, pizza and other regional specialties and family recipes are one of those things that you develop a taste for as a kid and spend the rest of your life trying to find the recipe that tastes just like Mom's, or just like Vinnie's or just like what you had when you were 8.  When you relocate to a different part of the country, it's even harder to find something that is at least, close enough.  In Atlanta, I can find over a dozen kinds of pickles, none of them are the fat, crunch, kosher half sour pickles my dad used to fish out of the barrel at the Hickory Farms store in the mall and share with me as we waited on my mom to finish shopping. I didn't even realize how much I loved those pickles until I went without them for so long!

Shortly before my wedding, a little bagel shop opened up in my college town. They got terrible reviews. The bagels were hard, leathery, impossible to chew.  The toppings were odd, What's a lox?  They were AWESOME!  They were exactly like the bagels we'd buy in Grand Central Station and eat for the entire half hour it would take us to get home on the train!  The locals here were used to squishy Lenders bagels from the grocery store. They had no idea! Soon-to-be-hubby and I ate there one day and he ordered a sandwich. It came with a pickle wedge that he offered to me. Expecting the typical vinegary dill pickle, I was at first surprised by the salty, garlic deliciousness that I tasted.  Then I realized what I had!  My eyes widened and I started to clap my hands and stomp my feet. I think I made audible YUMMY noises. Hubby thought I was having a stroke. I handed him the pickle and told him to try it.  He did and he made a face and said it tasted weird.  I ran to the counter and asked if I could buy more pickles.  A very confused clerk said "Um, no, they aren't for sale. The owner has them flown in every week from New York." She thought they tasted weird too. She said most people try them and throw them out!  Oh my, what a waste of good pickles!  Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the bagel shop didn't last and my small lifeline to half sour pickles was gone. I could never find them in a store and any reference to home pickle making I could find in the library was only for vinegar pickles. Half sour pickles are not 'pickled' in the 'soaked in vinegar' sense of the word, but rather are fermented in brine so they aren't listed in typical canning and storing type cookbooks.  So sad. I gave up on finding those pickles again.

Fortunately, a few years later this nifty research tool became available...the internet!  I found several recipe variations to my beloved half sours and tried a few. As I decided what I did and didn't like about each, I tweaked the recipes into one.  This is the one I use.

My highly technical recipe.

And these are the things you need- A pitcher of room temperature water, a box of salt, pickling spices, garlic, a jar to ferment the pickles in and some cucumbers. If I was a more organized blogger, all of those things would be in the picture :)

Rinse the cucumbers in cool water. Nothing special here, you just want to rinse off any loose dirt. Pickling cukes will work best, but since they only soak for a sort time, larger salad type cukes will work too but the end result will be softer than the smaller, pickling variety.
Dissolve 1/4c of salt (pickling, kosher, coarse, ice cream, whatever is cheapest.) into 8 cups of room temperature water.  If you want to be super special, let the water sit out overnight to let the chlorine dissipate, or use filtered water. All those goodies they put in the water is to kill bacteria, and we're trying to grown bacteria so getting them out helps the process happen faster. For the same reason, hot or cold water can slow fermentation, just go with room temp.

Put your spices (2T) and garlic (5-6 cloves) into the container you're going to use to ferment the pickles. Normally, I use fresh garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife, but I was all out and I really wanted pickles so I used the oil packed. Also, these are just store brand pickling spices. I think these have too much clove so I just pick out about 2/3 of them before adding to the container. If you absolutely must have DILL in your pickles, add a spring or two of fresh, whole dill now. Don't use the really fine, powdery,  dried stuff, or if you have to, put it in a muslin bag first so it doesn't stick to the pickles.
Cut the blossom ends off the pickles. I hate biting into a bit of stem so I cut off the stem ends as well. This also makes them fit nicely in the jar!  This is the time to decide if you want whole pickles, or slices or wedges. Cut them however you want them.  Whole will stay crisp longer but if I know I'm going to use them up fast, I sometimes cut them in 4ths.
Goof alert! I usually mix all my brine and spices into a large crock (below) so I threw everything into the pitcher for this tutorial.  This was my first run with these smaller jars and I didn't use all the brine, leaving me to scoop and scrape the garlic out of the pitcher and into the jar after the fact. You can see the spices in the brine in the pitcher. Ignore that, put your spices in the jar!  The smaller jar probably would have been fine with half the spices and garlic, but having twice as much didn't hurt.  Luckily, we love garlic in our house! If you don't have a mason jar or a big crock, any large plastic or glass container will work, a big cookie jar, or a food grade bucket from a fast food joint. A wide top is useful, so you can more easily submerge the cucumbers. This glass crock was under $10. I think it came from Old Time Pottery or Garden Ridge. 

Pack the cucumbers into the jar. It helps if you can wedge them in enough that they don't float around too much, but you want them loose enough that the brine can get in and around all the cukes.
Right before my craving for pickles, my hubby bought a set of "Pickl-it" fermenting jars. I figured this was a great opportunity to try them out. They come with a glass dunk'r, to hold the food under the brine (visible below) and a nifty airlock to keep anything unwanted out of the jar, including oxygen, while allowing fermentation gasses to bubble off.  In the past, I've had issues with yeast or other less desirable things growing in my pickles, with the pickl-it airlock, I had none of that!  (and they didn't pay me to say that, or give me swag...though I'm not opposed to swag!)

Pour the brine over the cucumbers, covering completely. If you don't have these fancy jars, you can use a smaller dish to hold the cukes down, or a baggie filled with brine.  In my big crock above, I use a plastic needlepoint mesh cut to fit just inside the top, with a small plate or ramekin perched on top of it to hold it all down.
Leave your jar in a room temperature place, out of direct sunlight and away from extreme temperatures, for at least 3 days. The water will get cloudy, even downright murky!  There will be little bubbles. There may even be mold on top. If so, just scoop it off with a spoon. If you aren't used to fermenting your own food, it may look a little scary.  I promise you, it's ok!  These pickles are actually quite good for you!  They do wonders for your intestinal flora!  If you're scared, you can read up at the extension service, or any of the MANY internet sources about fermented foods to be sure you're doing it right. If you're not sure, or the whole thing looks like it's gone way off, or smells way off, by all means toss them and start over. This is supposed to be fun, not give you a belly ache!
After 3 days, move the jar to the fridge. (with the pickl-it, you can remove the airlock and put in the rubber stopper) Give the new pickles a little time to get cold, then dig in!  There are no more pictures because this batch didn't last long enough!  Once they hit the fridge, hubby, who has since developed a taste for the briny beauties, and I devoured them. You can let them sit longer, and they will get more and more sour. In a week or 2, depending on the weather, you'll have full sour pickles.  This is another reason these are so hard to find, the shelf life is so short! Both hubby and a dear friend of mine who knew my plight eventually found a commercial jarred half sour pickle, but they only pop up in stores briefly and then are gone again. It's easier to just make your own!

Do you have a favorite kind of pickle?  Is there a recipe that you grew up with that you've been trying to replicate as an adult? 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Let's revisit- Foster Parent?

2 years ago I posted a story about being asked if I was a foster parent.  I'd been asked so many similar questions (do you do daycare? Are they ALL yours?) that I was curious if it was because of the number of kids I had with me (I only have 4!)  or if there was something about my kids, or my demeanor that suggested we weren't a family. I heard back from other moms of many kids that the daycare thing was almost universal.  Apparently, any more than 2 kids with you at one time gets those comments!  Is more than 2 really that odd?

Similarly, any mom pushing a double stroller is asked "are they twins?" even if the kids are an infant and a toddler!

A few weeks after I was asked if I was a foster mom, I ran into the young man that had inquired.  I asked him why he thought I might have been a foster parent, and not just mom.  He stammered a bit and said "Um, because you always come in with different kids!  One day you came in and one of the kids with you wasn't the same race. The kid didn't look like he could have been even half yours, so I thought maybe you were a foster mom.  My mom used to foster, so I thought it was kinda neat!"  I had to think for a bit and I guess he must have seen my kids playing on the playground with some of their friends.   My kids certainly do have friends all over the spectrum of skin color and race, so the odds of him seeing them playing together were good.  We talked for a while about his mom and what it was like for him growing up with real siblings and foster siblings. I left feeling grateful that I *only* had 4 kids with me, and flattered that he'd asked because he thought I was that cool, and less concerned that he asked because he thought I was weird!  :)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Let's revisit- Paper towels!

Wow, it's been almost a year since I started my experiment to stop using paper towels!  Aren't you just dying to know what happened?

First of all, I had opted to buy pre-made cloth diapers instead of trying to make my own from a bolt of fabric.   I'd have loved to go all "little house on the prarie" and make my own, but I realized pretty quick that just wasn't gonna happen!  I know my limits!  Our TV friend, Martha likes to say "It's a good thing!" I'm much more prone to the phrase "Scr*w it, close enough!"

So I bought the diapers and little baskets and set up a little system for myself.  It took a few days for the kids to stop asking where the paper towels were. I found a few dried up spills on the kitchen table and when I asked "Why didn't you wipe this up?" got back "because we're out of paper towels and you said not to use your good bath towels to wipe up spills."  OK, I did say that, good to know that actually got through! It's hard to be upset about that!  I reminded them a few times about the new system and eventually they got in the habit.

What worked?  We still have the 3 basket system, one for clean, one for dirty and one to catch the orphans that appear in the wash outside of the big towel washing day.  The only thing that's changed about that is the location of the dirty towel basket.  I had it next to the trash can but it now lives either on the counter, or, if I don't want to look at it, in a lower cabinet.  I found out the hard way that leaving them by the trash made them too enticing for the dog.  Since we'd use them to mop up food spills and hubby cooks a lot of meat in the crock pot, the towels smelled yummy and the dog tried to eat a few!  Luckily, the dog is fine and only a couple of towels have chew holes in them!  They've held up quite well in the wash and I can foresee getting several more years out of most of the towels.  The chewed ones may not survive but the rest look fine.  Some are stained but I really don't care about that.

What didn't work?  My belief that they'd get washed in the regular laundry and not add to my laundry load went out the window pretty fast.  I do sometimes wash them with socks and underwear, and occasionally one gets in with the regular laundry because it was used for some non-kitchen purpose, but about the same time I started this system, I also started a laundry basket system where the kids do their own laundry.  I no longer have a big basket of socks and underwear to wash on a near daily basis.  Also, because they tend to be pretty grubby, I like to wash them with bleach on the sanitize setting on my washer. Now I just wait until they are almost all dirty and do one big towel wash.  All together they make a decent sized load of laundry!  The good news though, is that 36 towels can last us several weeks so I'm only doing that wash every once in a while.  Typically, we have 2 or 3 towels in rotation at any time.  One clean one by the sink for hand and dish drying. It's not really dirty so much as damp. We hang it on the edge of a drawer to dry.  Another, probably an old dish dryer, used for wiping the counters and wiping the splashed water from around the sink. Not super dirty, but not clean enough to dry dishes.  Then possibly another near the table, slightly more used, that's used for cleaning the table with spray cleaner, or mopping up spilled milk at breakfast (do they ever stop spilling that?) Big spills still call for a handful of  towels out of the dirty pile. Who cares if they get more dirty on the floor?  So one rag might be in use for a few days, advancing to more and more dirty duty before retiring to the dirty basket. 

I admit, I do still have a roll of real paper towels stashed in a cabinet!  There are just some things that require paper. Draining bacon is one. Scraping dog vomit off the carpet is another.  I have to keep them hidden because if anyone sees them, they immediately reach for them instead of a towel!  Keeping them hidden allows for occasional use without wasting them.

All in all, I'd say it's a great system and it's working well.  We've gone from using about a roll a week, 52 a year, to using maybe 2 or 3 rolls a year?  How many trees are in 50 rolls of paper towels?