Flea Market Inspiration + Elbow Grease

I was recently reminded of a flea market find I mentioned back in February. It was a cool old cast iron feeder that had seen better days, but I thought would be perfect for my Mom if spiffed up a bit. Here’s a refresher of what it looked like:

Pretty neat and vintage, but in need of help.

At the time, I hoped the weather would be good enough to do some outdoor derusting and painting so it would be ready by Mother’s Day.

Well, the weather this spring stunk for that kind of work – cold and damp, damp, damp. But there were enough breaks in the weather to get it going. Starting with a wire brush (and yes, even a putty knife for some crusty bits) to get rid of excess rust, I followed up with this lovely black rust converter spray that stops the rusting process and primes the surface for paint.

After using various tools to derust the bird feeder, it received several coats of rust stopper

After using various tools to derust the bird feeder, it received several coats of rust converter.

It’s not much fun to get off your fingers, and the can could use a kinder spray nozzle that didn’t make my finger feel like it was going to have a permanent indentation – but it did provide a nice base on which to paint.

Birdfeederblack4

Man, those paint can nozzles can hurt!

At first, I considered a bright yellow because it’s not the same old, same old – and it’s one of my Mom’s favorite colors. But she’s also pretty traditional, so I went with white. I also considered trying to paint the bird, but I know I’m not that good of an artist – especially when the bird is tucked away like it is here. So, it’s just white. So much for creativity.

And it was done in time for Mother’s Day. I wrapped a ribbon around it and carried it into her home that Sunday – she genuinely seemed surprised that it was for her. And she genuinely seemed to like it, though it can be hard to tell for sure – she may have been nice to save my feelings (although Mom has become much more blunt than she used to be).

Voila! Finished bird feeder.

Voila! Finished bird feeder.

This went so smoothly that soon after, I tackled a cute little wrought iron wheelbarrow planter. And that one’s for me (and for a later post)!

Preserving Basics: Powder vs. Liquid Pectin

You’re at the store, wanting to get some pectin to put up some jelly or jam while the fruit is in season. You’re in a hurry and just grab one – it doesn’t matter what kind, right?

Well, there are several brands, but I’m not talking about that kind of difference. The biggest difference (in my opinion) is between the powder and liquid pectin. I have seen how not understanding the difference can be the downfall of a batch of jelly. Why? Because they are used just a bit differently. It’s even fooled experienced preservers who always used dry pectin and decided to try liquid, especially as the liquid is often a little cheaper.

If you don't use the instructions that come with the pectin you buy, be sure to use it in the right order with your recipe.

If you don’t use the instructions that come with the pectin you buy, be sure to use it in the right order with your recipe.

The main problem? Using a recipe with directions written for one type and using it with another type. There’s actually a change in the order of ingredients depending on the type of pectin you are using. With the classic powder, you put the crushed fruit or juice in the pan, sprinkle the pectin into it, and stir to ensure it dissolves. Then, you bring it to a boil. THEN you add the sugar and bring it to a boil again.

Liquid pectin, however, has tripped people up. With it, you mix the fruit/juice and the sugar together first, bring that to a boil, and then add the pectin and let it boil again.

So to summarize:
Powder: Fruit/juice, pectin, sugar
Liquid: Fruit/juice, sugar, pectin

It’s a subtle shift that has caused more than one batch of jelly to turn into fruit syrup – though that’s pretty tasty too. So if you’re going to try a type of pectin other than the one the recipe calls for, remember to adapt the procedure.

Happy preserving!

Preserving Basics: It’s Not That Hard!

After the last post, I remembered that there are quite a lot of people who believe that putting up jelly and jam is hard.

Well, I’m here to dispel that myth: It’s not hard! In fact, some varieties can be pretty easy.

Honestly, the hardest part of making jelly and jam is picking the fruit (assuming you pick it yourself instead of buying it from a store or farmer’s market). Remember yesterday when I mentioned about blackberry picking equaling being bitten by chiggers and scratched by briars? That’s not a lie. And while some other fruits are kinder to pick (such as blueberries), there are some options that don’t require any picking – such as jelly made from bought apple cider or a flower or herbal infusion (mint jelly is an old-school favorite).

You don’t even need a lot of special equipment (no pressure cooker required). The absolute basics include:

  • Jars with lids and rims – When you buy jars, you get lids and rims with them, and can buy replacements if you reuse the jars the next year. Most jelly recipes call for the 8 oz. size, though you can use smaller jar and sometimes a pint-sized jar (though that takes longer to cool, which affects how the pectin sets up).
  • A large stockpot or water bath canner – The pot needs to be a couple inches deeper than the height of the jars you are using.
Canning pots

I used the stockpot on the left for years before buying the water bath canner with the rack insert on the right.

  • A large saucepan
  • Jar tongs (aka: the Grabber) – this is really the only specialized tool you need for jellying/canning. For safety’s sake, don’t try to remove hot jars fromJar grabber boiling water in a stockpot without one. I have an inexpensive one, but there are fancier ones out there.
  • Funnel – A large-mouth canning funnel works best.
  • Pectin – OK, this isn’t equipment, but it’s seriously important. There are dry and liquid options; this helps the jelly or jam thicken and set up.
  • Other ingredients for which the recipe calls.

You can find recipes online or in recipe books, but all basic fruit jams and jellies are covered in the instructions that come with the pectin. And it’s usually a simple process:

  1. Process fruit (if needed)
  2. Sterilize jars and lids
  3. Mix juice, pectin, sugar and other ingredients together as directed in the recipe, boiling as suggested.
  4. Ladle prepared jelly into jars. Wipe jar mouths clean and place lids and tighten rims.
  5. Place in water bath and boil as long as directed. Remove from water and watch ensure all lids pull down with a popping noise.

Easy peasy! So next time you see some fresh fruit or fresh-pressed cider available, give making preserves a try!

• The Art of Preservation

For many people, summertime means weekends at the lake, barbecues, and lazy days by a pool. But for some of us, summer is the time when we practice our skills at putting up preserves, relish, pickles, and other treats from the garden or berry patch.

I grew up helping my Mom make blackberry jelly. The chigger bites, scratches, and purple fingers from picking blackberries were a small price to pay in exchange for having blackberry jelly all winter long. That’s really the magic of preserving the fruits of summer: in the middle of January, you can pop open a jar of farmer’s market salsa or blueberry-lemon verbena jam and the scent takes you back to summer and warm sunshine.

This Blueberry-Lemon Verbena compote makes a tasty topping for lemon sorbet.

This Blueberry-Lemon Verbena compote makes a tasty topping for lemon sorbet – a perfect summer treat!

After growing up, I never made jelly on my own. When I moved into a house with grape vines that grew over a walkway arbor, something had to be done with the grapes lest they simply get squished underfoot and attract mosquitos. Being a variety of grapes too tart to simply eat, I decided to relearn how to make jelly.

And that started the madness.

A few years go by, and I’m pretty good at making grape jelly, so I decide to try a few different varieties. I started out with the incredibly easy white zinfandel jelly – a hit in holiday gift baskets. Then I branched out to try jellies made with apple cider, adding autumn spices or fresh thyme and lemon to create some different flavors. Then came trying to make herbal jellies from infusions, such as herb jelly featuring lemon balm and lemon verbena.

One year, I made a rose-glazed lemon cake for Mother’s Day. I thought the flavor combination was wonderful. Not many Americans seem to realize that rose is a common dessert flavoring in some parts of the world, but I had been making rose petal tea for years. So combining my knowledge of the tea and using herbal infusions for jelly combined with the cake as flavor inspiration, I created my first original jelly recipe, which I call Sunshine & Roses. Surprisingly, more people like it than I had anticipated.

In the last two years, I’ve tried strawberry margarita jam, honey Chianti jelly, blueberry-lemon verbena compote and jam, lemon-tangerine jelly, spiced grape jelly, farmer’s market salsa, and spicy dill pickles. Not all of them made the cut – spiced grape didn’t win any fans and the pickles just weren’t anywhere near crisp enough – but it’s always fun to try something new.

Hoping all of you stretch your culinary horizons and try something new and summery before summer is all gone!

• The Banes of Spring

With so many beautiful plants showing off as we traipse through springtime landscapes, it’s hard to believe any of them could do harm. But be warned: there are banes of spring.

Bane, as in the word derived from the Old English word meaning “killer, slayer, or murderer” (and that word was derived from the Proto-Germanic word for “wound”). During the Middle Ages, it was applied to plants that cause serious harm – even death. Some include Henbane and Wolfsbane, but another harmful plant of spring is Hemlock. Not to be confused with the conifer tree by the same name, Hemlock is a biannual plant that closely resembles wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s Lace.

I was reminded of this plant by being quite surprised at its appearance in my back yard yesterday. Nothing like seeing a poisonous plant in the yard to wake you up!

Hemlock 1 Hemlock 2

They were still pretty young, so it’s hard to be 100 percent sure that it is Hemlock, but it lacked the hairy stems that wild carrot is supposed to have. According to a site about wild carrot, the leaves look more like hemlock. (To learn more about identifying this plant, check here and here.) Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to plants like these, especially if you have pets or young children who might accidentally ingest some of the plant. So consider pulling it out – roots and all – and wear gloves, as Hemlock is toxic even through contact with the skin!

Hemlock 3

One of the reasons I was so quick to pull it out (I did it as soon as I spotted them) was because I have an elderly dog that had been exhibiting a few symptoms that a mild Hemlock poisoning could explain. Dogs who eat it may exhibit symptoms such as salivation; diarrhea; neurological signs like muscle tremors or weakness, convulsions, or coma; and respiratory distress. Get to a vet soon – if the animal ate enough, death can occur in the matter of hours.

People exhibit similar symptoms: nausea and vomiting, salivation, dilated pupils, headache, altered mental status, seizures, weakness, respiratory failure, and more.

When you enjoy the outdoors, it’s always a good idea to learn a bit about native plants to avoid as well as those that are helpful. With a little knowledge, nature is a safe and wonderful escape from our noisy modern world.

• Flea Market Inspiration

Sometimes I get too many projects going at a time. My newest project I blame completely on Flea Market Gardens magazine.

The 2013 edition came out recently and, while hanging out with some friends a couple weeks ago at the book store, we perused the fun and funky projects throughout the magazine’s pages. So the next day, I decided to check out a large local flea market to find some garden inspiration.

I wove through several of the long, endless aisles. And then there it was, amidst a booth running amock with garden-bound items including a lovely wrought-iron arbor, about a half dozen chipped and rusting (known as “vintage” in the world of flea markets) hanging wire baskets, and more. It was an old – excuse me, vintage – cast iron bird feeder:

Feeder & planter

The metal planter beside it was found in the same booth. It looked like it would go nicely with the bird feeder if painted the same color, but the feeder was definitely what caught my eye. Though I kept looking for something that could be used to make a more unique garden creation, the feeder turned out to be the main prize for the day.

Admittedly, I bought it to clean it up, paint it, and find a place for it in my own yard. But as I unloaded it from the car, I realized that this was something my Mom might really like.

And the timing for new outdoor décor couldn’t be better. A couple months ago, Mom moved to a ground-level senior apartment. Luckily, they allow residents to create small flowerbeds or veggie patches around their apartments. Mom’s is currently pretty bare, and she has suggested that helping create some pretty outdoor areas would be a great Mother’s Day gift

But would she like a rusty old feeder?

Sneaky girl that I am, I left it and the planter on the front porch so Mom would see it when she visited on Sunday. “Did you see my flea market finds?” I asked her innocently. Sure enough, she did love the bird feeder (not sure the she had much to say about the planter). I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised – Mom loves all things bird. She loves to feed wild birds and see what kind she can get to come to her yard. She likes ornaments, pictures, and other ornamentation with birds. You can bet the Christmas cards she sends will have a cardinal or chickadee on it somewhere. She even has a clock that chimes each hour with a different birdcall. Annoying thing.

Definitely "birdy"

Definitely “birdy”

Though not putting the feeder in my own yard makes me a little wistful, I feel that I was supposed to find the feeder in order to pass it on to a person who would enjoy it more. Sometimes things are put in our hands for safekeeping until we realize who it is truly meant for.

Now I just need to wait for the weather to cooperate for some outdoor rust removal and painting. I’ll post a pic to share how the cleanup goes.

So what’s the favorite thing you’ve done to surprise a loved one?

• A Smoking Addiction

No, not that kind of smoking addiction – I’m talking about all things edible that are smoked first

Smoked meat has been a personal favorite for as long as I can remember. And the first time I had smoke-flavored black-eyed peas, I fell in love. But I was never sure how the beans were flavored, presumably with liquid smoke, which I’ve always found to be a suspicious ingredient. Call me unadventurous.

In recent years, however, we’re seeing more options for smoky indulgences. In the past year, a good friend introduced me to smoked cinnamon and smoked paprika; the later has become a regular in many dishes served up in my kitchen. Soon after learning about these, I got a hold of some smoked sea salt and it, too, has a permanent spot in the spice rack. You can also get smoked garlic, smoked caraway, and probably several other options I haven’t discovered.

Smoked spices

Smoked paprika and apple wood-smoked sea salt take center stage in the spice rack.

Lately, spices smoked with particular woods are getting some attention. From pecan-smoked sugar to hickory-smoked sea salt, those with refined taste buds are getting a treat.

On a recent shopping trip, I found that my local health food store, which sells bulk herbs and spices, had some apple wood-smoked sea salt. I wasn’t sure if it would really be different from plain-ol’ smoked sea salt, but I just had to try it. Surprise! It has a lovely, deeper flavor than the regular smoked sea salt and really shines in the simplest of dishes – a fried potato and scrambled egg hash, for example.

Given its popularity, I know my friend and I aren’t the only ones who have fallen prey to this food fad. Do you have any smoky addictions and how do you like to use them?