Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Easy Crockpot Peach Butter

I received my second of three gifted CSAs last week (I still can't thank Laura enough!), and as expected, we were once again swimming in fresh produce. Admittedly, I made a couple mistakes with my storage solutions and lost the potatoes and nectarines (it was more humid in my kitchen than I realized), but the peaches remained the stalwart of the group. This was the second time this summer I'd received a 5 lb. bag of fresh peaches, and though I had previously really enjoyed incorporating them into nearly every meal I made for a week (peach smoothies, peach and blueberry chicken salad, peach cobbler...the list goes on), I just couldn't face another round of daily Pinterest searches for "peach..."

So I did what any self-respecting mid-century housewife would do and I made fruit butter! This was my first foray into the wide world of preserved fruit, and I was amazed at how easy it was to make such a delicious spread. The idea of standing over a hot stove all afternoon made me want to plunge into the nearest body of water (which for me is the East River, so that wasn't gonna happen), so I made it all in the crockpot. While it was nearly an all-day affair (prepping the peaches took about half an hour, and as you'll see in the recipe below, the peaches get pureed halfway through the six-hour cooking process), the sweet smells of cinnamon and nutmeg that filled my kitchen made me realize that fall is just around the corner...and that I really, really have to get cracking on that summer tan. Also, cooking the peaches on low for a longer amount of time allows the juices to fully extract, resulting in a wonderfully full-bodied and robust flavor.

Put this peach butter on toast, mix it in to your yogurt or cottage cheese, and call me crazy, but I spread a little onto the bread of my lunchtime chicken salad sandwich, and oh wow was it good. Also, in the category of Personal Education and Knowledge-Gained, I offer you this fantastic breakdown of what constitutes jelly versus jam versus compote versus fruit butter versus a couple other things I didn't even know existed. Don't make the mistake of giving the wrong name to your fruit spread like I originally did! It's very disheartening to spend the better part of an afternoon thinking you're making peach jam when what you're really doing is making peach butter. It changes your entire outlook on life. No, I'm not quite sure exactly how that happens, but trust me - it does.

Easy Crockpot Peach Butter
- 5 lbs. fresh peaches
- 1 cup sugar
- Juice from 1/2 a lemon
- ~1/2 tsp. each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger
- 1-2 oz. American Honey bourbon liqueur (this can be omitted if you prefer)
- Handful of ice cubes (for ice bath)

- About 20 oz. of peach butter

Special tools needed
- Crockpot
- Immersion blender
- Large pot for boiling water
- Large bowl for ice bath
- Glass jelly jars (with lids) for storage

To peel the peaches
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When the water is boiling (but not before), submerge each peach into the boiling water for 30 seconds, then immediately plunge the peach into a bowl of ice water for 10 seconds. I found that it was easiest to work in batches of 3-4 peaches at a time. After removing the peach from its' ice bath, you should be able to easily pinch the skin off. If the skin isn't coming off easily, the peach probably isn't ripe enough for this method, so carefully use a knife to remove any remaining skin.

To make the butter
Chop the skinned peaches into small cubes and place in a crockpot. Add sugar, lemon, spices to taste (I tend to be a little heavy-handed with my spices, but that's just a personal preference), and the honey liqueur. Stir the ingredients so that the peaches are evenly coated, then cover and cook on low for six hours. At the three hour mark, use an immersion blender to carefully puree the peaches to your consistency of choice. Like your fruit butter a little chunky? Then blend for about 30 seconds. Prefer a smoother spread (as I do)?  You're looking at closer to two minutes of blending time. Please do take caution when doing this, however, as the fruit is extremely hot at this point and may splash a bit! When the peaches have been blended to your liking, replace the crockpot lid and continue cooking for the remaining three hours. Spoon the butter into glass jars, and freeze, refrigerate, or give away to friends and family as needed.

Friday, August 22, 2014

weekend getaway: the berkshires

This past weekend, J and I spent a few days in the tony vacationland known as the Berkshires - a vast swath of quaint towns, farms, and theaters in western Massachusetts. I have to confess, though, that the reason for the visit was a gastronomical one - we were accompanying our good friends to a food tasting held by the caterer of their upcoming wedding. The chef had generously agreed to serve a party of four, and we didn't need much prodding to accept the offer. Saturday night's dinner had our tastebuds dancing. We were treated to heirloom tomatoes with fresh buffalo mozzarella, skewered beef tips, chilled tomato gazpacho, roasted butternut squash soup, salmon baked in asparagus vinaigrette, sirloin steak and hash browns (incidentally, the best potatoes I've ever tasted), pasta served with a mushroom medley that included rare chanterelles, a deconstructed wedding cake, and a blueberry cobbler that I had to force myself not to lick clean. Food coma FTW.

In preparation for the calorie-fest that would be our dinner, we spent Saturday afternoon reconnecting with nature and reminding ourself what it was to take an honest-to-goodness walk in the woods. Or rather, woods that happened to also be on a mountain. Though it took some huffing and puffing (on my part, mostly; our friend Alexis woke up early on the morning of our hike to go for a "quick seven-mile run"), we eventually made it to Squaw Peak, the summit of the 1,642" Monument Mountain. The view was pretty great, but what stood out more to me was the noise level - or rather, lack thereof. Once we had walked a few hundred yards onto the path, highway noise ceased to exist, replaced only by the sound of twigs under our feet, the click of a camera, and the occasional chirp of a bird. I can't remember the last time I was so relaxed while simultaneously exerting so much energy.

Each evening, the four of us would congregate on the back lawn of our hotel. We'd sit in Adirondack chairs underneath giant oak trees and watch the light turn from golden to purple to black. The clouds would float away and reveal more stars than I remembered existed. Nightcaps were slowly sipped, stories were lovingly shared, and laughter rang out over our little circle. Every once in a while, there'd be a lull in the conversation and we'd drift into our own thoughts, accompanied by a symphony of crickets. No screens, no technology, no digital devices of any kind. Just the Great Outdoors. At no point did anyone declare it to be a media-free weekend, but the marvelous thing was that after the GPS was no longer needed, we all naturally put our phones away, focused on each other, and just talked. Like in the old days. And I have to say that it was really quite lovely.

Monday, August 18, 2014

20 sunsets

One year ago this month, I began the process of moving all my worldly possessions into J's one-bedroom apartment. There is no official move-in date because the entire event took almost three weeks - since I was moving a total of three whole blocks we never had the need for movers, so we simply took every spare moment to slowly pack and haul and unpack a half a dozen or so carloads of Ikea bags. Though I was a bit nervous about the whole endeavor (other than roommates, I'd never lived with anyone before!), it almost immediately proved to be the best thing I've ever done. It has been so much fun learning to coexist with my boyfriend, and I truly look forward to coming home to him each night (cue: early 90's sappy underscoring).

Anyway, I digress. Despite the lack of heat, lack of air, lack of windows, lack of screens on said windows, paper-thin walls, consumption-riddled upstairs neighbor, occasional infestations, moldy bathroom ceiling, frighteningly rusty fire escape, terrifyingly ancient basement, uselessly nonagenarian landlord, and even more uselessly nonagenarian super who once locked me out of my own bedroom, I will forever hold a soft spot in my heart for my first New York apartment. I lived there for four years - the longest I'd lived anywhere since moving out of my parent's house and into my college dorm. My tiny bedroom with three blue walls and one burgundy wall was the space in which I laughed, cried, loved, lost, slept, didn't sleep, dreamed, despaired, tried, failed, and learned what it meant to be a single white female living in New York City in the late 2000's (cue: Sex and the City theme song. actually wait, don't take that cue. that show is a terrible representation of what life is like in NYC, and anyone who deludes herself into thinking her life is going to be one tenth of what Carrie's is needs to fall into one of those frozen polar-vortex curbside puddles pronto).

I knew I was getting a lifestyle upgrade when I made the move towards cohabitation. In addition to that whole life-partner-automatic-wedding-date thing, the apartment we share sports a few amenities I had previously convinced myself I could live without. Things like ceiling fans, a dishwasher, cable television, screens on windows that actually open, a bedroom big enough for not one but TWO nightstands, a washer/dryer in the apartment, and most important, that dial on the wall that lets you TURN ON THE HEAT WHENEVER YOU WANT TO (I'm told it's called a thermostat, but that term is unfamiliar to me) have become de rigueur - and I have enough self-realization to know that I don't want to go back to the prehistoric era anytime soon.

There is one final aspect of the apartment that I love love love - our balcony. It's by no means a fire escape, and it's so much more than a Juliette - it's a full 15'x5' lanai that houses three chairs, one table, seven plants, and two plastic flamingos - and faces west, offering daily and stunning views of Manhattan. I know I just sounded like an advertisement right there, but there's really no other way to describe the feeling I get when I want to know what color the Empire State Building is rightnow and realize that I can just duck out to my balcony and take a look. Some of my happier moments of this past year have been on that balcony - early morning coffees, quick trips to say hi to the plants, cold beverages on hot summer afternoons, watching in silent awe as the sun drops below the skyline, and late-night conversations with only a citronella candle to light out words.

True-to-form, I developed a bit of a sunset-photo-obsession when I moved in. I try not to oversaturate my blog posts with sunset pics (a "if you've seen one, you've seen them all" kind of thing), but that doesn't stop me from hitting the pause button on whatever we're watching on tv to run outside with my camera. I assume that eventually, the novelty of a gorgeous sunset over Manhattan will fade - but it's been a year now, and my love for this view is still going strong. Granted, I miss a lot more sunsets than I get to see. Nine times out of ten (or rather, six out of seven nights a week), I'm at work before, during, and after the golden hour. And there were a whole lot of late-winter/early-spring Monday evenings when I was home but only to witness the sky turning from light grey to dark grey. So maybe that's why I get so excited when I am able to catch a sunset - it's still a rarity in my life, and I'm like a kid in a candy store when they come around. The pictures above were all taken from the same vantage point on my balcony, give or take a few feet in either direction. Some color-correction was done in either Snapseed or Instagram, but by and large those photographs are showing their true colors - and my favorite view in the whole world.

Friday, August 15, 2014

weekend link love 06

I'm off again on another weekend-o-fun (I swear I'll start working again soon...one day...), but until then, here's a quick collection of some my favorite things these here interwebs has had to offer. And as this summer begins its slow countdown, I wish you nothing less than a whole handful of red ripe tomatoes, a cool breeze from a northern lake, and more lazy days on a porch in the sun than you know what to do with :)

*I recently received a refrigerator full of leafy greens from a friend's CSA, and in an attempt to branch out and try new dishes, discovered the delicious wonder that is this cabbage slaw.

*A Gawker blogger put TGI Friday's "endless apps" promotion to the test and lived to tell the tale. She is my hero.

*A while ago, I started following a bizarre little blog that posts hand-drawn pictures of people's grocery lists (the internet is awesome, you guys). Intrigued by this concept, I sent in my own equally bizarre list of ingredients I had to purchase one harried morning before a tech rehearsal. It turned out to be the featured list this past week, and looking at it in pictograph form, I realized that my job is even more ridiculous than I previously thought.

*For your interactive and humanitarian clicking pleasure, this map ranks every country in the world according to a Global Peace Index. I know that no statistic is never fully not skewed, but it's nonetheless fascinating to read.

*I can't wake up without three different alarms, the sun streaming into my face, and preferably a marching band parading through my bedroom. Maybe a coffee-maker-turned-alarm-clock is the solution to my arousal?

*This article is beautifully written, empathetic, and inspiring. And it was published by Buzzfeed. Who knew?

*And finally, in the "this has no category" category, I looked down this afternoon and realized that my nails, tank top, AND phone case were the exact same shade of seafoam green. Is there a color interpreter in the house to help me analyze why I'm suddenly drawn to a color introduced by Crayola in 1949?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

weekend getaway: tennessee lakehouse

It's August, and once again I find myself out of work, out of money, and traveling all over the country. This past weekend, we went to J's family's lakehouse in Nowheresville, Tennessee Union County, TN, somewhere in the eastern side of the state and right smack dab in the middle of the Smoky Mountains. It was a rainy, lazy weekend, spent mostly inside catching up on reading and knitting, although the weather did clear up for quite a while on Saturday, giving me just enough time to drink a beer and read a book in a giant oversized inner tube.

I did have to wait an extra six hours for that beer though. After we landed in Knoxville and drove nearly an hour to Maynardville (pop. 2,390), we stopped at the local Food City for some necessary provisions. In the checkout line, our cashier informed us that he was not able to sell us the six-pack of Corona Lite, but not because it was a Sunday (it was a Thursday). No, we were to become temporary teetotalers because there is a law in Tennessee that forbids alcohol sales on election days, and as luck would have it, there was in fact a local election taking place that very day. We were more than welcome to come back after the polls close at 8pm, though, because Food City stays open until 10 and he'd gladly sell us the beer then. As I picked my jaw up off the floor, he asked me if I still wanted to purchase the two limes laying helpless on the conveyor belt. No, I do not want to purchase those limes, thankyouverymuch.

Friday evening's dinner was at Bubba Brew's, the local watering hole that offers both a boat-thru pickup window and Friday night karaoke, neither of which we participated in. Even as we were docking the boat, strains of an impressively off-key version of "Before He Cheats" floated up from the outdoor seating area. After getting past the six-man bouncer team comprised of neon tank top-clad guys with biceps bigger than my head (who checked my bag but not my ID), we were given prime outdoor seats right in front of the karaoke stage.  They did have Blue Moon on tap, but I instead chose a Bud Light to accompany my burger, rightly assuming that this was neither the time nor the place for even the slightest hint of cerevisaphillic pretentiousness. Though the vast majority of the clientele were sporting more than a few tattoos as seen through their cutoff jean shorts and ripped tank tops (grunge is back, kids!), there was one man who had a face tattoo to rival Mike Tyson's. We didn't think much else of him once we had made the obligatory face tattoo comments, but while we were waiting for our food to arrive, we heard the unmistakable first few bars of Sinatra's "New York, New York." J and I looked at each other to make sure that we were, in fact, sitting at a sticky picnic table in eastern Tennessee, and then rolled our eyes in sarcastic anticipation of what was sure to come. But before we could fully complete our eye roll, we heard something pretty darn close to Sinatra's voice ring out, loud and clear - "Start spreadin'..the news..." We looked up. It was our friend with the face tattoos. Luckily, it started to rain, and we moved to an indoor table before I was forced to reconcile my preconceived notions about the type of talent found below the Mason-Dixon line.

The rest of the weekend was taken up with boredom-combative baking that resulted in comically-sized chocolate chip cookies AND pancakes (and our new favorite phrase, "when in doubt, Uncle Buck it!") and a pleasantly surprising amount of photography. It turns out that Jerry, J's father, is a pretty serious photographer in his spare time, and was more than happy to lend me a few of his crazy fancy lenses and take me out to an overlook point just to shoot the sunset. Granted, it was a fairly hazy night and there was more cloud coverage than actual sunset, but it was still really cool to spend an hour just playing around. Since I was using one of Jerry's extra tripods, I was able to set my ISO to numbers I hadn't previously been able to use (my own tripod is one of a billion things on the when-I-get-a-stable-job wishlist), and though the pictures were still a bit dark and grainy, I was pretty pleased with the results.

Though I did snap a few iPhone pics (the requisite feet-at-the-end-of-the-dock, and a few of my beer, once the good people of Food City were finally allowed to sell it to me), the photos in this post were all taken with my DSLR (Cannon EOS Rebel SL1) and edited in Lightroom. Looking at them now I realize they're all a bit dark and forlorn, but I assure you that wasn't the mood of the weekend! I guess it was just that a rainy weekend in the mountains caused me to be a little more focused and introspective than I normally am - and as a result, have even more close-ups of branches and flowers than I usually do ;)

If you go:
The house we stayed in was located on Norris Lake, in Maynardville, TN. It's one of those areas in which the dichotomy between rich and poor is blatantly obvious (massive McMansions lay just half a mile from dilapidated barns and trailer parks), but the scenery is gorgeous. Local activities include hiking in the Smokey Mountain National Park, spending the day at Dollywood, and any number of water sports on the lake itself. Bubba Brew's is located at 170 Beach Island Rd., Maynardville, TN, and is offers both fifteen flat-screen TVs and "1200 feet of floating fun."

Monday, August 11, 2014

52 photos/weeks 29-32

29.) A serious case of the Mondays was quickly cured by one scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough.
30.) I'm trying not to chose any selfies for this project (usually it's serious photos only, folks), but we spent a perfect afternoon on a boat in the Finger Lakes and I loved the day and I love this photo.
31.) Soo...first I started a knitting project (hello, unemployment!!) and then I made progress!!
32.) In an attempt to combat both boredom and unsightly tan lines (hello, unemployment week #2!!), my bff and I spent an afternoon on the balcony with beer and a deck of cards. We deviated from our usual Gin Rummy and taught ourselves a more traditional version of Gin - and I got crushed in the learning curve.

52 photos is my personal challenge to take one awesome picture per week in 2014. All photos were taken by me on either my iPhone 5s or Cannon EOS Rebel T3i (my "big girl" camera). If edited, I use Snapseed, Instagram, or Adobe Lightroom. Follow me - @maspad - to see these and many more pics!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

balcony garden/update 02

Houston, we have vegetables!

Well, ok. That's not technically true. What we have is the for-real beginnings of some soon-to-be tomatoes and one honest-to-goodness eggplant. BUT STILL. Seeing as how it's been three months since I haphazardly threw a bunch of seeds into a few pots of dirt, I consider this some serious progress.

Regarding the tomatoes: I have three different pots of plants. Two are filled with stalks that I replanted when the original pot got overcrowded, the third is full of the initial plantings. I'm not sure why, but that third, original pot is doing the worst of them all. The stalks are short, the leaves are kind of pitiful, and there's no sign of a tomato. The other two pots, however, are delivering a bounty handful smattering smidgen of fruit! There are currently three little green orbs fighting their way to fruition, and I couldn't be more proud of my little pomodori ;)

The eggplant is thriving. Granted, I was gifted this plant from a farmer-friend, so I can't take full credit for its' prosperity. But I did receive it before there was even the hint of a vegetable, so the fact that I nurtured this guy to near-edibility is pretty impressive. I'm not 100% sure when he'll be ready for picking, but I feel like a good Google search should generate that answer.

In other plant-related news, I inadvertently propagated one of my succulents! Apparently this is an actual thing (see: herehere, and here), but I only discovered it after an arm (leg?) fell off one of my succulents. J had been watering them (like all good parents, we give them a bath in the kitchen sink on Wednesdays and Sundays) and a little piece fell right off. I felt so guilty about the dismemberment that I couldn't bring myself to throw the arm away, so I put it on the surface of the dirt in which I was growing oregano outside. Women's intuition? A mother's love? A potentially innate ├╝ber green thumb? Whatever it was, I unintentionally aided in the regrowth of a succulent, because in order to propagate them, you need to pull off any extra growth and lay them on top of some dry cactus soil. The soil I used was neither dry nor cactus (it's been pretty rainy in the northeast and I wouldn't know a cactus if it poked me in the face), but after about six weeks, the little arm started growing some new, um, arms!

I finally put the oregano out of its' misery and moved the succulent to his own home. Following the advice of people who actually know what they're doing (better late than never), I carefully removed the leaf and placed it on top of some new soil. He has since rejoined his brothers and sisters on the window ledge in our kitchen.

My other succulents are doing shockingly well. They're actually starting to get a bit overgrown (I've had to "stake" them using extra chopsticks from last week's beef and broccoli), but I'm not sure if I'll be able to foster any more propagation, simply because I'm running out of both room and time. I love my apartment, but it sure isn't set up to house a greenhouse full of succulents (I think I'm testing J's patience with the four vegetable, three herb, and now six succulent plants we currently host). And weather-wise, it may be hard to believe but cool fall mornings are on the horizon, and I don't want to harm any new plants by exposing them to harsh conditions. So until then, I get to just marvel at the private Jurassic Park that lives in my kitchen.

They grow up so fast ;)