Strawberry-Jalapeno Jam & Deep Quarantine Thoughts

Day five gazillion of quarantine. We’ve been plodding along, and thank bejesus, today is the last day of school. Homeschooling did not bring out the best in me, and poor Bean deserves a teacher who is not brought down by the devil otherwise known as “Common Core.” While this past week has been an exercise in patience, I did have a bright spot:

I took a quick drive down to the strawberry farm to pick up a couple of perfect flats. (Before you side-eye me, it was contactless pickup). Despite it being the spring from hell in terms of storms, hail, and tornados, the crops managed to thrive. When I arrived home, I immediately launched into a full afternoon of canning.

Ok, maybe I went a little overboard. But in fairness to me, I think a lot of us under quarantine feel the need to fall back to, or learn, some fundamental skills of self-sufficiency. My social media feeds are full of sourdough starters, homemade breads, pantry recipes, and ideas to stretch items further. People are also tackling things that they would normally outsource, like birthday cakes, haircuts, and even pet grooming.

I totally get it. We see supply chains breaking down, and I think that we are all getting the reality check that it takes mere weeks to go from abundance to scarcity. If you told most of us on New Years Day that, by May, we would be rationing meat, toilet paper, and cleaning products, we all would have laughed hysterically. Especially if you told us yeast turned into one of the most coveted commodities. But now, we all have the uncomfortable knowledge that we are more vulnerable than we think, and so we turn to the kitchen, garden, sewing machines, and other tools that help us feel more in control of our lives.

So yeah, I canned a crap-ton of strawberry-jalapeno jam, and you can to!

Strawberry-Jalapeno Jam

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Ingredients

  • 2 quarts of strawberries (or about 4 cups crushed strawberries)
  • 1 cup minced jalapeno peppers
  • 1/4 cup bottled lemon juice
  • 1 package powdered pectin
  • 7 cups granulated sugar

Procedure

  1. Wash strawberries and remove stems. Crush strawberries in a large pot one layer at a time. Add jalapenos, lemon juice, and pectin, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Return to a roiling boil, and boil hard one minute, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
  3. Skim foam. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe rim clean, add lid and ring, and adjust until fingertip tight. Process 10 minutes in boiling water canner.

A few notes on canning this recipe:

  • This should make about 8 half-pints, but I don’t think I’ve every made a recipe that did not go either over or under expectations.
  • If you are new to canning, I highly encourage you to purchase the Ball Blue Book to learn the basics. I posted a few thoughts in this post for those considering giving it a try. Canning is not hard, it’s just understanding a few basic principles.
  • When canning, ideally use commercially bottled lemon juice. I know that stuff is gross as all get-out, but the reason professionals recommend it is that it has a consistent acid level. The acidity of fresh lemons can vary greatly, and the acidity is key in safe water bath canning. Remember that canning is about food safety, so the experts want to ensure we all have consistent results and not death by botuluism.
  • Take the time to skim the foam well.
  • You will probably still have strawberry solids that float to the top of your processed jars, giving your jam an uneven appearance. As mine cooled, I would occasionally turn the jars upside down, let them cool for a while, turn them right side up, cool for a while, repeat. Toward the end of cooling, I have them a good shake to ensure any solids distributed evenly in the jelling syrup.
  • If ever there was a time to tune into the food supply and learn an essential skill, this is it. Go for it!

Quarantine Fatigue

I think this is the week when I hit the wall, and I’m just about over this crap.

I hate homeschooling with the fire of 1000 suns. I have zero enthusiasm in the cooking or working out department. I don’t think I’ve had a descent night’s sleep in weeks. Overall I feel antsy, irritated, and instead of getting things done, I spend too much time scrolling through my phone and zoning out. Even my knitting languishes untouched.

As I was unwisely watching the news this morning, I heard one of the reporters use the term “quarantine fatigue,” and I realized that this is exactly what has been weighing me down this week. I have plenty to do, and more than enough things to occupy my time, yet the general malaise and total lack of motivation persists. Every day for the past few, I keep telling myself that I’ll snap out of it and get back that determination and proactivity to make the best of a sh*tty situation.  After all, we are healthy, my husband is gainfully employed, and we are not dealing with a fraction of stress and challenges that so many people face. While deep down, I still have an attitude of gratitude, why am I feeling as snarly as a irritable grizzly bear?

I think the term quarantine fatigue speaks to the heart of the matter. I accept that social distancing saves lives, and I definitely don’t understand these yahoos who vehemently argue against the reccomendations of the leading health experts…cause ya know, science. For the health and wellness of our family and community, we will continue to be cautious long after restrictions lift. However, the not-knowing takes its toll. I can endure discomfort, disappointment, and watching stupid people make even stupider choices, but the lack of an end-date creates a pervasive, ever-present, white-noise-like sense of anxiety. Even if you aren’t actively paying attention to it, it’s still there in the background grating on your last nerve.

Beyond that, there’s this constant, internal tug-of-war between petty disappointments that hurt deeper than they should, and the stark truth that they stem from ridiculous first-world problems. Yes, we lost our vacation, prom, graduation, First Communion, birthday celebrations (including my 40th this weekend), and the big family reunion. This was going to be a year of many milestone events for our us. But, with people truly suffering physically, emotionally, and mentally, feeling upset over not being able to have the graduation/18th birthday bash for my oldest makes me feel deeply ashamed.

But, for now? I want to get back the optimistic determination that carried us through the first month of quarantine. I want to not feel like I wake up each day with less energy and more pessimism.

So, I’m trying to get this listing mental ship back on even keel. It wasn’t much, but I baked Mom’s Pound Cake today, and will try to cook dinner and not stab one of the picky eaters with a fork when one of them complains about some aspect of the meal. I will promise myself that tomorrow, I will workout, I will get off the phone and read a book for a while, I will knit, and I will wage war against quarantine fatigue that came out of left field.

Or, maybe I’ll get a drive-thru daquiri. There’s always that option, too.

 

Eclairs with Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard and Chocolate Ganache

Well, after having a not-fun-at-all Easter thanks to the storms (no power equaled no Easter lunch, and no sleep to boot), we spent most of last week continuing the work-from-home/homeschooling grind.

However, I’ve been in the kitchen more than ever, and if you follow on Instagram, you’ve seen this bit of deliciousness:

I decided to try something new, and boy did it pay off. I started with a basic choux paste, which is a cooked dough that is used to make cream puffs or eclairs. Then, I messed around with what I affectionately call my mom’s “Cheaters Custard” method, incorporating a lone vanilla bean that was hanging out in my pantry, and finally topped the whole mess with chocolate ganache. I swear, the kids went bananas for these, and my neighbor was over the moon. (Don’t worry, we don’t break quarantine, we do contactless meal delivery to her).

Anyway, even though this recipe seems like a lot of steps, the whole process is really easy. I think people new to the choux paste concept might be a little intimidated at first, but once you go through the steps, you will be like, “Oh, ok, that was no big deal.” So, not only can you have an impressive, delicious dessert worthy of a special occasion, but you can also bask in the complements from your lucky eaters.

Eclairs with Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard and Chocolate Ganache

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Ingredients

Choux Paste

  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 7 TBS unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 TBS granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 5 to 6 large eggs (see method for why)

Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 TBS unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 vanilla bean (alternatively, you can use 1 TBS good quality vanilla extract OR 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste)

Chocolate Ganache

  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate
  • 4 ounces heavy whipping cream

Procedure

Choux Paste/Éclair Shells

  1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Get out a couple of sheet pants and line them with parchment paper or baking mats. In a medium sauce pan, place milk, water, butter, sugar, salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring often, ensuring the butter is completely melted. Add the flour all at once, stirring quickly and vigorously until the flour is thoroughly incorporated. Cook about 45 more seconds and remove from heat. Transfer mixture to a bowl (ideally use a stand mixer with paddle attachment or hand mixer for the next step).
  2. While the dough is still hot, add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition (start with the 5 eggs only). After you have added all 5 eggs, test to see of the texture is right. If it seems too thick, add the last egg. I only needed 5 eggs. The dough should be a good consistency for piping while maintaining it’s structure.
  3. Transfer dough to a Ziploc bag and cut a corner so that you will get about a 1-inch diameter hole. Pipe the dough onto your prepared pans into logs about 5 inches long. (If you have piping equipment, go for it fancy-pants, but a Ziploc will do, I promise). *note, I did not do it, but if you want to, you can give the eclairs an egg wash before baking*
  4. Bake eclairs for 15 minutes at 400, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for about 10 minutes more until they are golden brown and feel hollow. Keep an eye on them the last 5 minutes of baking. My convection oven cooks hotter than a standard oven, so I had to pull mine out sooner than I expected. Set the pastry shells aside to cook completely.

Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard 

  1. In a medium saucepan, add milk, butter, flour, sugar, egg yolks. Slice vanilla bean in half and scrape the vanilla caviar from the bean halves into the pot, then toss the scraped pod halves into the pot as well.
  2. Place the saucepan over medium heat, and mix it thoroughly with a whisk. As it heats, it will begin to thicken and bubble. Keep stirring, and once it is bubbling consistently, let it cook for 1 minute. Remove the pot from the heat, and using tongs, fish out the vanilla pod halves and discard them. Transfer custard to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the custard surface (this prevents it from getting a “skin” on top). Refrigerate until cold and thick.

Chocolate Ganache

  1. Place chocolate and cream in a heat-safe bowl, then place the bowl over saucepan of simmering water (medium-low heat), making sure the water isn’t touching the bowl directly. Stir frequently until the chocolate is completely melted and incorporated into the cream, and is smooth and shiny.

Assembly

  1. Place custard in a Ziploc bag for piping, and snip a corner to make a 1/2-inch diameter hole. For each éclair, cut a small slit in the side of each pastry, and then pipe the custard into the center making sure you get good coverage on both ends. Finally, dip the top of each éclair into the warm ganache and place on a baking rack to set. Refridgerate until ready to serve!

Maple Orange Bourbon Glazed Ham & What We are Cooking for a Quarantined Easter

With Easter coming up this weekend, social distancing means that the usual celebrations will be very, very different this year. No hanging out with the family and no Easter baskets for the kids. I figure that the grocery pick-up/delivery services are busy enough with real needs, and that shopping for chocolate bunnies and trinkets is a waste of their time and resources. We have candy and plastic eggs in the house already, but will forgo dying real eggs because I just feel like it’s wasteful in a time of scarcity (before you get offended, no one in this house will eat hardboiled eggs, so it really would be wasteful for us).

But, I’m still planning a good meal that will make us at least feel like it’s a special day, even if we can’t watch my sister and kids throw plastic eggs at each other.

I don’t usually cook ham at home, because HoneyBaked Ham is totally my jam, but I’m not in the mood to spend that kind of money for just the five of us. I saw this recipe on Food Network last summer, and decided to make it when we went on a family vacation. It got rave reviews, so I decided that I will bake one up this weekend, along with my Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole, roasted asparagus, biscuits, carrot soufflé and a carrot cake (or maybe red velvet). Also, the bone and scraps will be repurposed for Cajun 15 Bean Soup in the Instant Pot, and if we have an leftover casserole, I may try to transform it into something new.

So, we will cook, eat, celebrate, and be grateful this weekend.

Maple Orange Bourbon Glazed Ham

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Ingredients

  • one spiral-cut bone-in ham (about 7-8 pounds)
  • 1 cup orange marmalade
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup (the real stuff, not the pancake syrup from the dollar store)
  • 2 TBS butter
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp cloves

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  2. In a roasting pan with a rack, place ham on rack, fat side up. Using a small knife, lightly score the fat in a crosshatch pattern. Add a 1-1/2 cups water to the bottom of the ham, place ham in oven and bake for 45 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, make the glaze. Combine remaining ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick and syrupy.
  4. Brush the ham with half of the glaze, then continue baking, while glazing ham every 15 minutes until it’s reached an internal temp of 130 F (about 45 minutes to an hour).
  5. IMPORTANT: The ham should get very brown, but the amount of sugar in this can start to burn. If you think your ham is geting there, cover it with foil that has been sprayed with non-stick spray (lest you rip off all that glaze). Once the ham is done, let it rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

Short-Cut Slow Cooker Beef Stroganoff for the Judgement-Free Zone

Ok, I know we are all supposed be cutting down on our processed food consumption. But we are in the middle of a damn quarantine, going to the grocery store is not the best idea, and even if I did, pickings are slim. Oh, just order groceries, you say? I don’t even want to into get into how well that is NOT working out. My husband kept wondering why my phone dinged 50 times yesterday, and I had to explain that was the Instacart shopper refunding all of the items Kroger did not really have, despite what the app said.

So, as every planned dinner idea crapped out with each successive ding, it was time for plan F.  I pulled a chuck roast out of the freezer, dove into my pantry, and settled on…*gulp* canned cream of mushroom soup.

Keep your judgements to yourself there, Karen. We all know you secretly have a crush on that Tiger King guy.

Anyway, this recipe only takes about 5 minutes to throw in the slow cooker, and other than the chuck roast, uses ingredients that you probably have on hand. If you don’t have sour cream, cream cheese or Greek yogurt would work in a pinch. I served it over egg noodles, but you can make do with other pastas as well. The Heathens love it, it’s easy, and while it probably takes my foodie street cred down a notch, there’s no shame here.

Short-Cut Slow Cooker Beef Stroganoff

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Ingredients

  • 2 medium yellow onions, halved and sliced
  • 1 chuck roast, approximately 3 to 3-1/2 pounds
  • 2 (10-1/2 oz) cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 1-1/2 tsp. seasoning salt (like Lawry’s or Morton’s)
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 TBS ketchup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • egg noodles or pasta for serving

Procedure

  1. Cut chuck roast into cubes (about 1-1/2 inches). Add onions and chuck roast to the slow cooker.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine soup, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and ketchup, whisking to combine. Add the soup mixture to the slow cooker, and stir until the meat is coated. Cover and cook on the LOW setting for 8 hours, or until the beef is super-tender.
  3. Just before serving, stir in the sour cream. Check for seasoning, adding more if needed. Serve over egg noodles, and if you are feeling extra-fancy, garnish with a little parsley.

 

 

This Too Shall Pass…

 

I was scrolling through my photos this weekend, hoping to clean up my phone storage, and came across this pic of G-Man. He presented a lecture at a local conference, just a week before everything went to hell in Louisiana. It was a bittersweet moment, finding this photo, because things have changed so much such a short time. Louisiana has been hit especially hard by this crisis, and we continue to adapt to a way of life that seems so incredibly foreign and surreal.

I can’t really compain about the quarantine. As a knitter, crafter, reader, and cook, I’m never, ever bored. I have enough yarn,  needlepoint projects, craft vinyl, fabric, and embroidery projects to last for years, and my to-be-read pile of books will barely have a dent in it by the time this crisis is over. Yes, I do get tired of cooking, and miss date nights with the Hubs, but I I’ve been challenged to be more thoughtful and intentional about meal planning during this time of scarcity.

While social media has it’s drawbacks, being able to stay connected with my friends and family is what makes this situation less of a challenge. We share silly memes and jokes full of pandemic humor, because a good laugh reduces stress. But even as we stay connected, I still feel the sting of how this quarantine impacts things that are trivial in comparison to the situation at hand, but still carry with them sadness just the same. We celebrated Bean’s birthday, and while she remained as positive as ever, I know she was disappointed about missing her planned trip to the amusement park. Bear turns 16 this week, and all he wanted was to eat at his favorite restaurant, which is clearly a no-go. So many of our favorite places have closed and it remains to be seen if they will be able to reopen when this crisis ends. So, a milestone birthday will feel just like any other day, even if we do our best to celebrate at home. We couldn’t even get his gift shipped due to overseas manufacturing shutdowns.

Most of all, watching G-Man’s senior year end like this has been especially difficult. Both senior prom and his graduation ceremony look doubtful, and the the huge party we planned and our first international vacation will not happen.  He also missed signing day at his future college, because they had cancel all on-campus events.

Despite these small disappointments, the Heathens have been amazingly understanding. They 100% get the magnitude of what is happening, and know we all have to do our part to flatten the curve. When I start to let the stress of these strange times get to me, or when I want to tear my hair out while attempting to homeschool, I also take a breath and focus on gratitude. These are miniscule drops in a bucket in comparison to the proverbial hurricane so many others face right now, as well as the real sacrifices being made by those most impacted by this pandemic.

Changing directions, progress surprisingly continued on the pool project:

The construction company decided they had to proceed, because once they dug the hole and placed the rebar, they deemed the project too much of a danger to leave in that state. Hopefully, they can continue soon, but at  least we aren’t facing severe threats of erosion or unintended impalement anymore.

If you have been following my Instagram, I have been posting frequent dinner pics as I try to make the most of our pantry and freezer. Last week, I made a brisket from See You on Sunday by Sam Sifton, and turned the leftovers into nachos, tacos, and shredded BBQ beef with hash brown casserole.

Then, I made a mini-Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and dressing and sides, and used the leftovers to make Turkey a la King with stuffing waffles, and finally turkey noodle soup. My friend created a Facebook group specifically devoted to quarantine cooking ideas, and between that and posting on Instagram, we are all trying to share inspiration as we think outside of the box.

Finally, I finished two more baby knits:

Pattern: Seamless Baby Booties

Yarn: Berrocco Comfort in the Adirondack colorway

Needles: US 4

Notes and Mods: If I were to do these with this yard again, I probably go down to a 3.

Pattern: Baby Sophisticate

Yarn: Berrocco Comfort in the Adirondack colorway

Needles: US 8

Notes and Mods: Cute little pattern, but I had to pick up a couple of extra stitches and decrease in the sleeve underarm to make the join less noticeable.

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So, as much as life is bananas right now, let’s take a breath, do something good, and stay the heck home. This is exactly why we have drive-thru liquor stores, after all.

Chicken Alfredo Pizza with Caramelized Onions and Sundried Tomatoes

So, I mentioned on the blog yesterday that I was going to start posting some recipes and ideas just in case they may help people navigate the ways quarantine is limiting our abilities and pantrys. Chicken Alfredo Pizza was something I made frequently when the boys were young. It’s fast, easy, cheap, customizable, and can stretch two smaller chicken breasts to feed a family of 5. This week, I made two versions: one with caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes added, and one with just the chicken, garlic, sauce, and cheese for the picky peeps. Before I list the recipe, here are some ideas to customize it or hack it if the grocery store is still a wasteland:

  • You can use any cooked chicken or turkey, or even brown up ground chicken and crumble it. When all the meat was gone this week at Kroger, there was a whole wall of smoked turkey legs. In a pinch, you can remove the meat from those and use it.
  • Who says it has to be chicken? Our store still had plenty of frozen shrimp in stock. Just sauté some until just under done, because they will finish cooking on the pizza.
  • Pizza dough: Making your own is easier than you think, and as long as you have flour and yeast on hand, you can do it. Alternatively, buy the tubes from the refrigerator case, which is what I did up until the Heathens were no longer tazmanian devils 24/7. My Kroger also sells fresh balls of pizza dough in baggies, which is in the deli section where they store the pre-made soups, salads, and take-home entrees.
  • While this recipe calls for the caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes, you could add bacon bits, sliced peppers, red pepper flakes for spice, toasted bread crumbs for texture, spinach to sneak in some veggies,  or finish with a drizzle of balsamic glaze.

Just remember, until life settles down and our grocery stores can catch up, not every meal is going to be a Pinterest moment, nor is every recipe going to be a favorite of everyone in your household. I will say, though, that I think both experienced and less-confident cooks are going to come out on the other side of this having learned something new about the ways we shop and eat.

**Note–I doubled this recipe to make two the two pizzas seen above**

Chicken Alfredo Pizza

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Ingredients

  • 1 ball or tube of pizza dough (basically enough so you can roll it out to the size of a half-sheet pan or a large pizza pan.
  • 1-1/2 cups shredded cooked chicken
  • 2 TBS olive oil (or butter)
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup jarred sundried tomato Alfredo sauce (regular jarred Alfredo works too)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced (or a couple of teaspoons of the jarred stuff)
  • 1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped (the kind packed in oil preferably)
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella (or pizza blend cheese).
  • 3 TBS grated parmesan

Procedure

  1. Start the onions first: Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat and add the onions and a small sprinkle of salt, stirring well. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally until they reach your desired level of caramelization.
  2. While the onions cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a sheet pan or pizza pan with non-stick spray.
  3. Dust your counter and a rolling pin with flour and roll out your pizza dough to fit your pan, then transfer it to the pan. Bake the pizza  dough for 11 minutes, then remove from oven.
  4. Spread the Alfredo sauce evenly over the pizza dough, starting with 1/4 cup at first and adding more as needed. The amount of sauce you will need will depend on the size of your pizza and your preferences. You want a nice even layer of sauce, but try not to drown it.
  5. Distribute the chicken, onions, garlic, and sundried tomatoes over the pizza. Top with mozzarella and parmesan and return it to the oven.
  6. Bake an additional 7-10 minutes until the cheese is melted and starts to brown a little in spots.
  7. Let pizza rest about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.