Three new things I did this weekend

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada, and as the waning hours peter out, I look back and see it as a far more interesting weekend than I’ve had in recent years, notably with the things we managed to do.

In particular, three things that I did. Notably, things I had never previously done before, and there was some concern (on a couple of them) as to how well they’d turn out.

As for how turned out, that’s … well, part of the story.

Making Jam

For the record, my grandmother made jam. I think Mom did, too, once or twice. Me? I don’t even eat the stuff (buttered toast is my favourite, followed by peanut butter; I use clotted cream on my scones, thank you very much). So making it wasn’t really high on my list of priorities. But, thanks to one of my “brighter” ideas last fall, we ended up with a few bags of strawberries and raspberries, frozen solid, and sucking up space in our freezer.

Our freezer, incidentally, isn’t that big. (And no, before you suggest it, we (currently) have no realistic space for a deep freezer anywhere in the house.)

I’d originally been thinking “pie”, but Alex nixed it, saying the fruit would be goopy from freezing. Which suddenly got both of us to thinking that it’d be perfect for jam. The catch, of course, is who would make it? Well, actually, not much of a catch, because of course it would be me — I hate throwing things out, and if I wanted to keep the fruit from landing in the compost, I had to get … uh … jamming.

Enter one box of a dozen jam jars with heat seal lids, and one box of pectin (with jam-making instructions). Oh, and some decent memory of the things I’ve learned watching Alton Brown‘s Good Eats series (still a tragedy that it has run its course — an eminently instructive show).

For the record, if you can boil water, you can make jam. Almost. The real trick, honestly, is to follow the instructions that come with the pectin — they’re pretty specific. What you make the jam with is up to you, but you’d BETTER make sure you’ve got enough sugar, lemon juice, and water to make it all work. (Sugar makes the medium very difficult for anything to grow in, as does the lemon juice. Finally, boiling makes sure that the jam’s pretty darn sterile to begin with.)

The problem I ran into most was the size of my pot, which was too small to do more than four jars at a time. (This is why, ladies and germs, that canning pots exist.) Actually, there was a second problem: cavitation.

Cavitation is the bubbles that form in the water. When you’ve got nothing in boiling water, they’re just kind of fun to watch. But when you’ve got, oh, a glass jar sitting on top of the bubble, things get dicey — the jar will float up on the bubble, then slam down when the bubble gets around the jar. Bye-bye jar.

This is also why the jam instructions also include the word “rack”. Oddly enough, some strategically-placed forks did nearly the same job. (Next year, I’m getting a proper rack.)

That was Saturday morning. Today (Monday), I had jam on my rice bread toast. Geoff did good…

Gluten-Free Turkey Stuffing

Alex has been on a challenge diet for a few months. One of the challenges is trying to make everything work, and yet somehow appear more-or-less normal. (Maintain normalcy, you have a greater chance of success.) One aspect of that diet is avoiding gluten.

That’s really bloody hard. Gluten, in the form of wheat, barley, or oat flour, is in so many things that you become a voracious label-reader. You become very aware, very quickly, just how many things contain wheat flour that you’d never thought should.

The hardest part of this, on Alex, has been the lack of good bread. Alex is a bread addict, and has been since the first time I met her. And I’ve gotten pretty damned good at making bread at home, so the level of torture on poor Alex has just gotten worse and worse.

I finally decided it was time to stop making wheat bread, and start making gluten-free bread. Which is a lot harder than you think, especially if you’re trying to keep it (mostly) natural without using all sorts of kooky chemicals.

We’ve tried Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Gluten-Free flour. It’s an effective one (it makes a pretty damned good pie crust, by the way), but it leaves a taste that I find … well, not ideal. (I’d been using it for a while with pancakes, and it got to the point where I stopped eating pancakes.) I hadn’t tried it for bread, but Alex’s baking (cookies and muffins that she could eat) had that same aftertaste that didn’t sit with me.

Hence, the move to rice bread. Rice makes a decent bread, all things considered, though I’ve found it’s a real stinker to get to rise and then hold when you bake it — my loaves keep collapsing when the baking actually starts. One day, I’ll figure this out.

I know, I’m rambling. But there’s a reason. Our turkey needed stuffing. And for most traditional stuffing recipes, you need bread cubes. And I wanted to make a stuffing that Alex could eat. And that meant a loaf of rice bread, baked, then cubed, and let to dry until Sunday, when I made up the stuffing.

The stuffing’s contents were “the usual”: onions, celery, carrots, walnuts, spices, and a cup of (homemade) chicken broth. I was worried that when this fairly soupy mix came in contact with the dried rice bread, that the entire thing would turn to mush. But it held its shape and consistency, right up until it was brought out of the turkey some four hours later.  I think, even, that I could do the same recipe with wheat bread, and no-one would be able to tell the difference.

Geoff did good, again!

Tilling the Garden

Last year, we hacked out some of our grass along the fence to make room for a garden. So far, the only thing we’ve planted in it are a bunch of flower bulbs, and some extremely late (but still exceedingly tasty) carrots. Otherwise, it’s been a neglected mess.

One (partial) issue are three highly-annoying shrubs that occupied that garden space that we had hoped to incorporate with a future (lovelier) garden. Instead, the insipid things mocked us through the entire year with their need for constant attention and sheltering of grasses that made it hard to see what we could have been doing (had we actually done anything).

So.

Just by pure fluke, yesterday, I ran into our neighbour, Alex (yes, having two Alexes in the neighbourhood gets very confusing during conversations; they’re often prefixed with “Not Your” or “Your”, and periodically “My” — we never seem to use “him” or “her”, however…), having a chat with another neighbour, John. John had a roto-tiller, which Alex was negotiating to borrow to till part of his backyard for a garden. I inserted myself for the same opportunity.

John, as it turns out, had just acquired the tiller second- (and possible fourth-) hand, and wasn’t even sure how well it worked. He offered it to us to try out, so we could let him know how well it worked. Alex then tried to negotiated with Amber to get an hour to try tilling the garden, to which Amber issued Executive Wife Order #4, and ordered him to get in the car so they could go to the lake for Thanksgiving.

As it turns out, Amber was utterly, totally right.

This morning, I accepted the mission to remove the shrubs from the garden space. They didn’t go without an epic fight (and a decent amount of the dirt, I should add). Merely removing the buggers was enough to suck the wind outta me. But I was far from done…

After spreading out the contents of our composter onto the garden bed, I traipsed over to John’s house, and brought back the tiller. If you’ve never seen one, it’s really little more than a lawnmower engine mounted on top of a set of four star-shaped blades, where each star tip is alternately angled 90 degrees. The theory goes that as the blades spin, they’ll cut into the sod and soil, give it all a good turn, and you get a nice, soft patch of soil in which you can plant whatever you desire.

It took me five minutes of heart-pounding pulling to finally get the damned thing going. (See above note about shrubs utterly weakening me.) With the machine off to the races, it was time to expand our garden space into something larger and (potentially) more productive!

At least, that was the theory. For the reality to happen, the blades need to be sharp — they have to cut through the sod to be able to chop it all up into little bits and loosen the soil. John’s unit, which I hadn’t thought to check — and John really didn’t care, since he was using it on an existing garden — was as dull as a [insert political joke here]. Even though the gizmo’s pretty front-heavy, which should push it down hard into the ground … it just kept bucking around, scraping away the grass, but making no difference whatsoever in the soil.

(The sod in our area is heavy with clay, which makes it very difficult to work with, and outright painful to walk on after all those damned worms make their mounds in the middle of the summer.)

Now, add to this the one thing I hadn’t expected — the tiller has a lot of oomph. Think of this as a half-dozen very large dogs trying to run ahead, while you attempt to keep them in place. It was hell. The machine bucked and jumped constantly, the handles vibrating harshly in my hands. I’ve done some pretty hard workouts in my day, but nothing beats trying to run a tiller properly. Especially one with dull blades.

Thankfully, inside the garden I’d already broken up, the machine worked much better, and although I’d never used one before myself, the concept was fairly simple. But I totally ruined my shoes (which, in my defence, were already falling apart, anyway), caked in a very thick and sticky combination of soil and compost.

It took me an hour of wrestling, wheezing, and wrangling to finally get something worthy of a garden. But it’s no bigger than we had before. Although the tiller did a decent job of mixing, it’s original purpose (expansion) fell horribly short.

Then Alex — Not My Alex, that is — tried that on his yard. Only he didn’t have the benefit of an existing space without the sod to start with. He, like I, will have trouble holding a pen tomorrow.

I’m in pain. Great pain. Between the shrub removal, the compost spreading, and that tiller, my hands are raw, my arms numb, my shoulders and back sore, and my legs are cramping. And I thought I was in reasonable shape, too. But the job is done, and now we can start planning for that garden…

Geoff did … too much. Owie.

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