Friday, October 19, 2012

Soup's On!

Tomato soup has been my Holy Grail ever since I started growing far more tomatoes than I could possibly consume several years ago. I asked friends for recipes, and no one really had anymore more refined than "tomatoes, basil, add cream." So I tried that and while it was good, it wasn't GREAT. I asked the internet and it suggested, "Use tomatoes and onions, but ROAST them first. Maybe with some carrots." Somewhat better, but not exactly the tomato soup of my dreams. All perfectly edible, but not perfect.

So for the most part I gave up and just canned whole tomatoes or crushed tomatoes. This year, however, I happened across this recipe: 

Actually this is her photo for creamy gazpacho, but it looked more like tomato soup than her tomato soup picture.

Now there were several things that seemed interesting about it. For example, cloves which I would NEVER have thought to add to tomato soup. As it turns out, cloves are the magic in tomato soup the way nutmeg is the magic in mac and cheese. It just tastes right. And running it through a food mill before seasoning and thickening it is smart because it saves me from the frizzy hair and burned fingers that comes with blanching and slipping the skins off of tomatoes for canning. PEELING TOMATOES SUCKS. That's right. You heard me. And it's about time someone said it. 

So having only the internet's promise that this was a time honored and much loved recipe, I decided to chance it despite my limited tomato resources...

Okay, I lied. I was at risk of being crushed to death by tomatoes.

The recipe calls for "1 1/2 ice cream pails" of tomatoes. I have no idea how much that is given that the last time I bought any quantity of ice cream that could be described as a "pail," I had to bike to the grocery store and pay with change. 24 cups is the official quantity, but I'm not sure if that's whole or chopped or what. Now that I have made approximately 7000 batches of tomato soup I can tell you - it really doesn't matter. Just put in a lot of tomatoes. I have these TRYGG serving bowls from IKEA that hold about 12 cups of whole, fresh tomatoes.

It's like they're made for this.

So generally I aim to have two of these full per batch of soup. Now here's the beauty of this soup:

Tomato soup is like the statue of liberty of tomato canning endeavors. Tomato soup wants your bruised tomatoes, the ones with spots on them, the not-quite-ripe, and the 400,000 yellow cherry tomatoes popped up in the garden unasked for from last year's fallen harvest. Tomato soup doesn't judge! 

So just cut off whatever bits look unappealing and half or quarter them, then toss them in a big stock pot over medium heat. Just add the other ingredients as you prep them. Don't put a lot of effort into making small pieces or anything, a rough chop is fine. Add in:

  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 4 cups onions, roughly chopped
  • 2 large green peppers, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1 small bunch of parsley, roughly chopped (about 3/4 – 1  cup chopped)
I've done it without the celery or with dried parsley and both turned out just fine in the end. I'd say the same thing about home grown peppers and onions as I do tomatoes, just cut off any blemishes and throw it in, no worries. This is a great way to use up stuff that wouldn't otherwise keep.

The first change I made to the recipe is to add a couple of jalapenos quartered (and seeded, if you like) because I prefer for tomato soup to have a good bit of zing. Also, if you think the tomato situation is bad, you should see how many jalapenos I've had to deal with this year. To the pot add about 5 bay leaves and 6 whole cloves. Again, this differs from the original recipe a bit. I like food to be jam packed with FLAVOR. Bring it all to a boil, then turn it down and let it simmer for a couple of years hours.

Sure, it LOOKS like rabbit puke, but the house will smell wonderful!

Eventually it will all cook down and look more like you think it's supposed to.

Mmm, gloopy!
So it looks good, but DON'T TASTE IT. Remember, there's no salt or sugar in it yet, so it will taste about as good as a used Kleenex at this point. Time to fix that. First, dig around in there and pull out those bay leaves if you can find them. The next thing you want to do is turn off the heat and use an immersion blender to puree it all into a fairly thin consistency.

R.I.P. white immersion blender

If you have an immersion blender with a plastic shaft, you might want to let it cool a bit before this step. I got away with it a few times, but eventually the plastic warped enough on this one that the blades scraped against the bottom of the pot. I splurged on a new red Cuisinart immersion blender that has a stainless steel shaft.

And yes. I realize how many times I just said "shaft".

Once it's good and pureed, ladle the soup into a food mill fitted with the fine screen (if yours is adjustable like mine). I tried running it through twice, but it didn't make much difference in the final product. The first pass-through will catch enough of the seeds and skin to result in a pleasantly silky soup.

Strain it back into the pot (I usually rinse it out first), and turn the heat back on. Meanwhile, whisk together the following:

  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 1 tsp Cayenne pepper

Again, I upped the cayenne because I like things on the hot side, although my six-year-old who refused to eat NOODLES and has screamed, "TOO SPICY! TOO SPICY!" upon making skin contact with mild salsa loves this soup more than Jesus. Er, more than the six-year-old loves Jesus I mean. Jesus would probably also love this soup, but possibly not more than the six-year-old. I'm not really sure I can prove my argument one way or the other.

Somewhere Michael Pollan is saying, "See, I TOLD you there's corn in everything."

In YET ANOTHER bowl, or the one you used for the straining, melt a stick of butter (the recipe calls for margarine, which might be after for long term canning. I think it's gross, so I risked using actual butter). Stir in a scoop or two of the reheating soup, and then whisk in the dry ingredients. Once you've got a good slurry going, stir it into the pot of soup. Bring to a boil and let it thicken. Now comes the fun part - the tasting! I like to add in a couple of frozen pesto cubes, along with about 1/4 cup of lemon juice both for the flavor, and to keep the balance acidic for canning safety. Add salt, sugar, and lemon juice as needed to adjust the soup to your taste. 

To can, spoon thickened soup into hot, sterilized jars. Top with sterilized lids and bands, and process in a boiling water bath 45 minutes. Each batch makes about 5 pints, but I usually double it and end up with 5 quarts and a little left over. 

To serve, mix it with equal parts milk or water and heat, then top it with loads of freshly ground pepper and cheese, ideally with a good crusty baguette.

The full recipe as adapted from The Baking Beauties:

  • 24 cups whole tomatoes
  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 4 cups onions, roughly chopped
  • 2 large green peppers, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1 small bunch of parsley, roughly chopped (about 3/4 – 1  cup chopped)
  • 2 or 3 jalapenos, seeded if you prefer less heat
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 5 whole cloves
Chop all this up, boil it for a couple of hours, hit it with an immersion blender, run it through a food mill, then add all this stuff.

  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 1 tsp Cayenne pepper
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/3 cup prepared pesto
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
Bring it back to a boil, then store it as you prefer. 

Voila! The BEST home made tomato soup!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Problem with Pants

As anyone who knows me could tell you, I'm not a big fan of pants. Yoga pants, sure, and I'm pretty sure the whole jeggings trend was started just for me. They LOOK like pants, and you wear them where pants are supposed to go, but they are not, in fact, pants. Every now and again, though, I get the urge to wear jeans. There are nine billion pins a day of these cutely composed outfit centered around a pair of jeans. (And also usually a scarf, but scarves are a topic all their own.) But the big problem I have with jeans is just how hard it is to get a pair that fits right. If the waist is comfortable, the legs aren't long enough. If the legs fit well, then the rise isn't high enough and you either risk a plumber situation every time you bend over or they are far too tight in the crotch. So even though I don't frequently wear jeans, I have probably no less than fifteen pairs in my closet each CLOSE but not quite there.

A good example is this pair of American Eagle Outfitters Super Skinny jeans:

Looking sleek!
Which look great on the model, but on me, it was a little different:

So baggy I could carry groceries in the knees.

I don't know why it took me so long to think to tailor the jeans. I'm used to cutting off hems for the kids, but I never thought to restructure the jeans themselves. UNTIL NOW!

All I did was get a pair of jeans that had legs that fit well (and compared the two.

Another pair of American Eagle Outfitters jeans, but these are just the skinny and not the super skinny. Maybe there was some kind of mixup at the factory? 
The inside seam is flat felled, so I compared the straight stitched edge. Not much difference, and I actually ended up taking them in a bit more by about an inch and a half on the outside seam of each leg. But what a difference it made!

Still comfy up top, but now with a good fit on the leg as well! Hooray! Now I just have like another 14 pairs to go...

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ripped from the Archives - Pantry Edition

You see, there used to be another blog. An awesome blog, full of hilarity and mostly ducks. But then grassbags were grassbags and the ducks had to move and, although we could still easily get ducks for art and photo purposes, I would rather not have the government show up at the door again demanding that I explain my blog. Not that the government wasn't nice about it, it's just that apparently grassbags know how to use both the internet and the county's anonymous zoning tip line.

But I digress. These posts were some of my favorite projects we've ever done, and I want to share them again with the VERY CLEAR DISCLAIMER THAT ALL DUCK INVOLVEMENT IS PAST TENSE. We no longer have ducks living here and we are in compliance with all county codes and regulations. And also, if you're the sort of person who had a problem with ducks in the first place, you are a world class disk golfer. YES, YOU!


Our pantry was fine. Perfectly fine. Uber functional in design, and visually it was as if one of the old masters had constructed it from pieces of heaven that had the mis-fortune of falling from the sky. It was a bit art deco with hints of Victorian flourishes and just a dash of federalist finishes all at once.
I'm not sure I want to go to heaven anymore...

Alright, fine! It was wire shelving. Horrible wire shelving that you normally find in closets and Matisse paintings. The setup itself was straight up mind boggling (again, much like a Matisse painting).
Now if you own a pantry and odds are you might, it's normally a place where you store stuff. Big stuff, normal size stuff, small stuff. But not in this pantry. No ma'am. Any smallish container or packet would slowly tumble out of sight only to be found 3 months later during spring cleaning. The shelving was also only four feet long despite the fact that the pantry itself was six feet long. Why? No one knows. It was a riddle. And not one of those fun riddles that makes some semblance of sense once solved. More like an annoying riddle, such as why Carson Daly is still on the air.

Yet as bad as it seemed the pantry had grown on me. It was becoming part of the family. The fun little support struts that you couldn't put anything under. The fact that the shelving was only 10 inches deep when the space itself was twice that. It had character, panache, a certain "je ne sais quoi". The pantry was single handedly making me re-learn French and because of this I didn't want to see the old gal go.

Nothing beats having your stuff piled up on all your other stuff. 

Anyway, we started where all pantry planning should start. With a wishlist.
The rough draft only had one line, "Not to suck"

With these things in mind and the measurements of the pantry space, we set right to work to draw up some fantastic new pantry plans!

The tea and bags must be kept separate for obvious reasons.

We knew what we wanted but we weren't too sure how far we wanted to go. The original plan was to buy some plywood sheets from Lowes, have them cut it into strips and then go to town (much like the platform bed). But then we started second guessing ourselves because we didn't want to live without a pantry for a week (one of those nightmare worse case scenario). We began considering a series of cheap bookcases from Walmart and even the largest Expedit from Ikea which turned out to be *just* 3/4 of an inch too long (that was probably for the best). Of course then it dawned on us that we were just being lazy and that by going down any of those routes would still leave in the same situation. Using something that wasn't built for being a pantry.

So plywood it was. We did decide to kick it up a notch with birch front plywood.

That's right Dan Quayle, P-O-T-A-T-O-E-S.

The other problem was that we didn't actually have that many nice / useful storage containers. I mean honestly, when you're working with wire shelving it's not as if stainless steel canisters are going to save the day. Not that we would go in that direction, mainly because we're cheap.

No, we were in the market for something "cost efficient", something sleek looking, something you could picture James Caan using in a futuristic movie about a sport that evolved out of roller derby. Something like say, this.

Exhaust vents not pictured.

Finally we were able to come to terms with a plan. Something that would meet our needs and "wouldn't cause a disturbance in the force" as this seemed rather important to Edie.  Immediately we set to work and took the shelving down. Suddenly the pantry looked about one hundred percent to two hundred percent better.


After that we got super paranoid and began writing on the walls. Nothing as cool as in "A Beautiful Mind", basically it was helpful stuff. Like where wood was gonna go. Because stuff like that is important.

Then came the truly fun part of the project. Even though the pantry was six feet long there was exactly one stud within that six feet. And while yes, this is up to code, it seems completely dickish. If you build a closet / pantry type of structure that's six feet long, put a second damn stud in it, s'ok?

There was a lot of hate. It's the only emotion that can get you through installing 45 wall anchors. Sure we didn't have to install wall anchors but when we put items on the shelves, we kind of wanted to make sure the cleats would *stay* in the wall and not crash onto the floor with the shelves and said items.

And if you've never installed more than three wall anchors at a time, I really can't do it justice. It just seems to take *forever*. Once the wall anchors are in you then have to drill the cleats into them and hopefully, just hopefully, everything is level. If not well, you just do the whole operation over again normally at various uncomfortable heights because that's just how life works.

How this task didn't end up on All American Handyman is completely beyond us. You're slipping Mike Holmes.

It's up to code!

As stated, the main point of these wall anchors was so we could install some cleats which the shelves would be placed on top of as well as inbetween. Something like this.

We level everything, but only for entertainment purposes.

Then because we were tired of seemingly not making progress, we dry fitted all the boards we were planning on using. Frankly there's just not a lot of "glory" in wall anchors and cleats.

If this is Glory, where's Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman? 

Of course by the end of day two, it was getting *pretty* late. Which meant it was time to drink.

I love it when it's Drinky o'clock.

And of course if you've got time to drink, you've got time to paint.

BAM! Look at that abstraction!

Sometimes you paint with the colors you got, not with the colors you want. We may have had a gallon or two of "Abstract White" sitting around from a previous project. It's a harmless enough color except when it gets all abstract and is like, "Pablo Picasso was a sellout after the rose period!" Which is crazy since we all know that pieces from said period were not, despite their great popularity, much more than pendants to late 19th century Symbolism.

But hey, we didn't have to pay for the paint at least.

Of course if you *still* have time to drink, you got time to stain.

You ever walk through one of the stain sections in a home improvement store? You ever linger too long at the "one stop stain and poly" section? You think to yourself, one coat and BAM all my troubles will be solved! And you buy it despite the fact last time you needed stain you thought the same exact thing and that project didn't turn out exactly as you wanted it to, mostly because that stain sucks.

Well, we fell for it again but after staining one side of one board, we bailed on it. Smart play because again, that stain tends to suck. Of course we'll probably fall for it next time we need to stain because that pitcher of booze did not last through the two coats of stain and two coats of poly we put on everything. And it's upsetting to have to stop staining and the like to make more booze. Because we drink booze when we stain, or poly... or breathe.

Expectations are high!

So with the cleats installed, the inside of the pantry painted, all the wood stain it was *finally* time to do something fun. Like build a bloody pantry. Notice the pencil sharpener and candle on the on the table in the above picture, I have no idea why they're there but I know in my heart they played an integral role in getting us to this stage.

WonderTwin powers activate! Form of... a pantry! 

Nothing really fancy at this phase, just praying the stain and the poly didn't throw off all the calculations we made during the dry fitting. Of course we still had to cut down some pieces just right because again, that's just how life works. But at long last, we were done. Kinda like this post should have been eight pictures ago.


Look at that pantry. Just drink it in. Shelving that's not made up of wires. Shelving that goes all the way across. Shelving that is 16 inches deep. Shelving that looks, you know, good. And it suits our needs. And it wasn't overly expensive. And I no longer feel the need to learn French or make Matisse jokes.

Of course one of those is probably a lie.




I was kinda shocked looking back at those "after" pictures! Even though we took down the doors long before this project, I'd had a curtain covering everything and planned on doing the same after the reno. Well, we rather liked the open shelving, so we decided that something had to be done to make it look more cohesive with the rest of the kitchen. Well *I* decided that, anyway. Neal thought it was fine. Neal thought it was silly to go to IKEA just for glass jars. Neal thought it was ridiculous to go BACK to IKEA again because we didn't get enough glass jars the first time. Neal got really quiet and went out to spend some time with ducks when I told him I was going to paint the plastic bins. But now, it's DONE! I guess. I mean, it's been this way for the better part of a year now, so it's probably done. We just need like three more trips to IKEA tops.

I painted the walls the same color as the kitchen and sprayed the white baskets with Krylon. I think it looks much fancier that way! So, just to recap: