Making Strawberry Jam!

One of the great things about the warmer months of the year is ripe berries. If you’ve tasted an imported blueberry bought in the dead of winter, you know those grassy tasting pellets don’t hold a candle to a plump one from Washington or Michigan in the right season. Similar things are true of strawberries, raspberries, and a whole bunch of other fruits.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Berries are a truly tasty and nutrient-filled delight. But because their awesomeness only shines for a few months, you’re left craving it the rest of the year (which is why there are expensive, mediocre berries from who-knows-where in your grocery store in January). One way to enjoy some of that delicious berry ripeness year-round is to can them–jam, preserves, etc., etc. You can also use other methods of preserving like dehydrating (which will be another post down the road).

Our favorite Saturday farmer’s market has been overflowing with juicy berries for a couple weeks, so we’re starting to get ‘em while they’re good and stored away in jars. Canning takes a little understanding, patience, and proper cleanliness. But the rewards are incredible and the risks of messing up are pretty low. When you pop open a jar in winter and have that summer berry taste on bread or ice cream, you’ll thank yourself that you planned ahead and put in a little bit of work to get it. Thank you, us from the past.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

The batch we just made was strawberry jam. We got these somewhat pricey yet incredible organic Gaviota berries that were at their absolute peak ripeness. (These California berries are apparently so renowned they got their own New York Times feature last year).

We have a few jamming and canning books on our kitchen bookshelf, which have given us great results for other fruits and vegetables before. But this time we went looking for a recipe that was more minimalist. Less sugar and no added pectin (a setting agent that’s often added to hold things together). Many recipes have as much or more sugar as there is fruit. That’s good and sweet on the tongue, for sure. But we’re trying to be conscious about how much added sugar we eat.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

We gave this one a try and got jam that tastes great and has just the right texture. Always nice when cooking goes well on the first try.

It’s all pretty simple from start to finish. The berries are rinsed and stemmed (“hulled”). Then mashed, combined with lemon zest, lemon juice, and sugar. You cook that all down until it sets. Then scoop the jam into your clean jars and run through the standard water bath process for canning.

 

Similar steps apply to other canned fruit goodness, so once you have the basics down there are lots of approachable possibilities before you. There are some important considerations of things like pH, though, to ensure what your preserving doesn’t get weird or spoiled. For example, most vegetables, some fruits, and things like seafood need to be pressure canned because they’re low-acid. So it’s a good idea to start with a trusty step-by-step for whatever fruit or vegetable you’re working with. Then you can modify ingredients and feel more comfortable as it becomes clearer what you need to do for this or that thing going into a jar.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

We’ll definitely be canning more things this summer. For now, we’re gonna hide some of that strawberry jam so we don’t eat it all before the berries are out of season again.

 

Brew Your Own “Damn” Coffee

Do you start the day by pouring yourself a cup of coffee? So many of us don’t feel fully awake or fully ourselves until we’ve had our comforting pick-me-up.

The world of coffee has changed quite a bit over the past couple decades. The rise and omnipresence of Starbucks is well known. There’s one on every other street corner nowadays. It’s a sort-of-Italian-espresso-culture inspired progression from the nondescript tins of beans (marketed with stereotypical figures) that had dominated before.

The two of us grew up on the sweetest white mochas and Frappuccinos in our small town Barnes and Noble Starbucks Cafe. There’s definitely still a time and place for a big cup of sweet and stimulating. Starbucks is a number of people’s go-to everyday.

At the same time, there have been further shifts in the evolution of coffee beyond Starbucks and other old-school chains. Lo and behold, there’s a whole world of flavor and uniqueness to be discovered in the coffee beans themselves rather than in pumps of syrup overriding the coffee’s inherent flavors.

Coffees from Ethiopia are distinctly different from coffees from Colombia. Even within the same country, you can find hyperlocal differences. Growing conditions, the variety of bean, when it was picked, and how it was processed and roasted all play a role in what you drink. A coffee from the exact same place might have distinct differences from one year to the next (though don’t brew up last year’s beans if you still have them around. That’s not gonna taste great).

All of which makes it fun to try some things out at home. Try is the key word. Preparing coffee well takes some patience and experimentation. There’s potential for a really unpleasant cup if things go wrong—even if you started with the best beans you can buy. But it’s just ground coffee and hot water. WTF?

Well, it’s a little more than that, and subtle changes to how it’s prepared can make a big difference. That’s probably why many people justify spending $4-$12 (yeah, there are $12 cups of coffee) for something good and ready in a hurry. Ain’t nobody got time for gross coffee.

But you have time to make good coffee! We believe in you. We’ve gone through plenty of trial and error. It’s worth it to see what you can do yourself with a bag of beans. It can actually be a lot of fun when you know what you’re doing, delicious when things go right, and definitely more affordable than dropping $5 at a coffeeshop every day.

So what do you need to know?

Water

A cup of coffee is almost entirely water (wow!). So it’s important to work with the right H20. What’s that mean? First and foremost, not tap water. The water that comes out of your tap is wonderful for staying hydrated. But it’s not great for a delicious cup of coffee (or tea). There’s too much stuff in there (like dissolved solids and chlorine) to brew something tasty.

This is the one and only time we’ll advocate that you buy bottled water (which isn’t super great for the environment or the economies they’re sourced from). Most spring waters–Crystal Geyser, for example–are really good for making tasty coffee. They have a friendlier composition to let the coffee speak for itself.

Grind

Alongside water and the quality of beans you get, grind is a pivotal factor in making great coffee. Grind right before you’re going to brew. Don’t use a grinder you use for other things (spices, for example). Try to find a reasonably priced burr grinder–which is much more consistent–rather than using a blade grinder. Having ground coffee particles that are almost exactly the same is the key here. Blades chop things up into irregular bits.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetIf you don’t have a burr grinder yet, see if a friend or local coffeeshop can grind your beans for you (tell them the device you use to make your coffee). In that case, you’re better off having something ground with great consistency in advance, rather than something shoddily ground when you’re about to brew.

Most of the time, you’ll be looking for a semi-fine grind–neither so fine it’s powdery nor so coarse it’s cracked-pebble-like. The fineness of the grind is one of the things you’ll pay attention to and adjust as you go (see below).

Beans

Get great beans! There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there, but a lot of not-so-great, too.

Coffee beans are best in the first week or two they’ve been roasted, so definitely don’t buy something several weeks old. As we said above, there’s a huge spectrum of possibility based on country and variety and how it was picked and processed. Some are very fruity, floral, and light. Others are more subdued, feel heavier in your mouth, or have dominant flavors like nuts, chocolates, or sugars.

Coffee Beans

Try beans from different countries and different roasters. Look at who’s won awards for what they source, who treats the producers they work with well, and who sells consistently good single origin stuff. Blends can be good, too. But the most interesting coffees are the ones from one distinct place and time that had a lot of care and respect go into them. You’ll know it when you see and taste it.

IMG_1094Look for lists like this, and buy beans that sound like they have flavors you’d want to taste. Remember, these are flavors within the beans themselves–not something added to them. The flavors are subtle, and they may taste a little different on your palate compared to someone else’s. But the bag’s description will give you a ballpark of what you can expect when you brew it right.

Oh…and never store your beans in the fridge or freezer. Keep them in a sealed, cool, dark place.

Methods

There are a whole bunch of gadgets and machines to brew coffee. It really comes down to which one you feel most comfortable with and gives you good results over and over. Broadly speaking, you’ve got manual methods (like Kalita Wave, Aeropress, Chemex) and automatic methods (classic drip makers and more sophisticated machines). We’re partial to manual methods because they give you greater control and participation (this is supposed to be fun, remember?). But if you’re short on time, or are struggling to get good cups of coffee no matter what you try, there are some solid automatic machines out there.

Our usual go-to is a Chemex, but we occasionally use a small v60 or Aeropress (particularly when we’re camping, because a Chemex isn’t super portable). The approach is pretty similar with all of these. Water just off boil is poured over ground coffee in a gentle but steady circular motion. You want to pour evenly and not agitate too much. It’s easier with any model of a gooseneck kettle, which gives you more control.

Everything should be done by weight. You’ll need a coffee or kitchen scale that can measure in grams–ideally in half or tenth of a gram increments. Weigh your coffee dose. Weigh your water. Put whatever device you’re using on the scale while you’re brewing to keep tabs on everything.

Different coffee companies will recommend different ratios of water to coffee. Different coffees and different methods can have slightly varying ratios in order for your cup taste its best. Wait, what? This is an aspect of brewing where you can really geek out, and where there can be a decent amount of trial and error. You’ll probably be in good shape with a ratio between 1:14 and 1:16. In other words, if you’re using 30g of coffee in your Chemex, you want as little as 420g (30 x 14) of water and as much as 480g (30 x 16).

Try different amounts with different coffees on the same device, and see if you can hone in a ratio that makes your taste buds happy. It could be more like 1:13, or 1:18. Again, you can do a lot of experimentation here, and you’ll probably need to when you switch to a new bag of beans.

It’s vital to bloom the coffee first. By evenly pouring twice the amount of just-boiled water as your coffee dose (e.g. 60g of water to 30g of coffee) and allowing it to bubble for 30 seconds to a minute, carbon dioxide is released. That CO2 impacts the flavor of your cup of coffee and how the rest of the brewing process goes. After the bloom, you want to gently and steadily pour the rest of the water in circles until you’ve reached the total water weight you’re shooting for (based on the ratio you’re using).

If it all flows through super fast, your grind was probably too coarse. If it’s flowing too slow or stops completely, there’s a good chance your grind was too fine. Taste and see either way. It might still be acceptable, but you’ll know what to tweak slightly the next time around.

Adjust, Taste, Adjust

Play with the grind. Play with ratios. You can also keep your water weight the same and increase or decrease your coffee dose by a gram. There’s a lot of science and variability behind coffee exaction–with tools, articles, and other resources to understand it and alter what you’re doing. But it really comes down to whether or not the coffee tastes good to you. If it does…party! Nice job. You’ll know how to brew the rest of that bag of beans.

If not, try to start picking up on the little changes that will improve what you’re tasting. Your mug of bean juice should be naturally sweet, have delicious fruit acids, and a finish that lingers pleasantly. If it tastes sour and empty, the coffee is under-extracted. You can try grinding finer or using more water. If it tastes bitter and dry, it’s probably over-extracted. Try grinder coarser or using less water.

Coffee Time

You deserve to wake up every day and enjoy awesome coffee without waiting in line. Starting with these things will give you a good springboard to make tastier cups of coffee on your own. Just make sure to invite us over when it’s ready.

Reading Together

Is there anywhere more comforting than your bed? It’s the place of sleep, sex, and solitude. There’s nowhere cozier and more distant from the world’s insanity than the shelter of blankets and pillows you come back to night after night. Relationship and sleep experts regularly caution against bringing anything else in. No phones. No TVs. No work. Just calm, undistracted rest and romance. Your bed is the place you come back to every night after a long day. And where you can fully let your guard down. Stress and distraction shouldn’t be allowed in.

But there may be one more thing to do in bed that’s conducive to both a good night’s rest and intimacy with your mate: reading together. Yeah, reading. The benefits of books are well established—whether it’s to counter our increasingly goldfish attention spans or to feel a little more inspired and knowledgeable. Reading in bed before you call it a night is like a calming cup of tea for the psyche. When you crack open a book with someone else—with your significant other—it’s even more enjoyable and beneficial.

IMG_0899

Reading together in bed may not sound like the most obvious or exhilarating thing to do. It wasn’t always part of our relationship, but it has been for a while now. At first, we mostly read separate books. That was a great start—a much better way of winding down at night than other disjointed and distracted things we were doing. We would stop every few pages to talk about the interesting factoids or unexpected turns of the plot in our respective books.

Getting that enjoyable little hit of learning something new, asking eagerly to hear what happened next in their novel, or laughing in disbelief how randomly things we read connected with something that happened that day. Reading side by side in the comfort of your bed is a bit like binging shows on the couch, but with more nourishing engagement for your brains than passively watching, and without the sleep-depriving effects of a screen.

Over time, we’ve discovered that it’s even more enjoyable to go through the same book together. One of us will read out loud to the other. Or we’ll hold the pages in-between us so we can silently read along and stop for tangents or wait for the other to catch up. It’s mostly been novels lately—falling asleep imaging what characters might do next and where we see our lives in the stories. But we’ve read through plenty of nonfiction books on communicating, emotions, travel, and history and politics (though sometimes those have been a little dark or depressing for bed).

It’s a unique and wonderful feeling to share stories and ideas with the person you love most. There’s a kind of restorative psychological intimacy that reading together in bed produces—adding layers of closeness and pleasure to what sex and sleep do. Whether you’re lost in some book on mindfulness while they’re in the thick of a fantasy novel, or you’re taking turns reading the same book out loud, you’re engaging your minds in a way that makes them more intricately and satisfyingly connected. It’s a bridge that takes you out of the day’s stresses and absurdities and into each other. It’s much better than being hypnotized by the glow of your phones—barely aware of one other.

Your bed is a place to be vulnerable and calm. After all the day’s ups and downs, you get to lower your defenses and alert systems and hyperactivity to sink into the covers and just be. No demands, no bustle, no fires to put out. It’s all the more comforting when you share your bed with your true love (as long as they don’t snore or take up the whole damn thing—but that’s another post). You get to just be, together. That sacred space of warmth, solitude, and intimacy are beautifully deepened when you open a book together before curling up to go into dreamland.

Sioux Chef

There’s nothing like new encounters with food and food cultures. The first time you have sushi. The first time you have pho. The first time you have Korean barbecue. The first time you taste a blueberry in-season. The first time you have good coffee.

But not all foods and food cultures are equally represented. Even here in LA, there are certain things that are hard to find or underappreciated. Lately, we’ve been exploring Native American cuisine–which isn’t really on most people’s radar. Our entry point has been the excellent book The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. This James Beard finalist is no mere recipe collection. Listen to the dedication page:

This book is dedicated to our ancestors and all indigenous people who have suffered through centuries of colonialism. We, the First Nation descendants, are living proof of courage and resilience. We offer our work to the next generation so that they may carry the flame of knowledge and keep alive our traditions, our foods, and our medicines for generations to come. We devote these pages to the earth, Turtle Island, our home, our everything, in hopes that we indigenous people will always stand strong to protect her.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

This book is a gift of history, remembrance, and wisdom from the communities in which it originated—uncomfortable settler-colonial truths included. It feels fortunate to read and learn and prepare dishes that have such rootedness and story.

Indigenous Kitchen goes far beyond fry bread (while outlining its origins) to reconnect with what “the ancestors ate before Europeans arrived on our lands.” The book is a milestone in Chef Sean Sherman’s ongoing pursuit of reconnecting and recording. “Every day, our work becomes richer and more interesting as we travel and meet with elders, indigenous chefs, historians, researchers, health professionals, and food justice advocates.”

Indigenous Kitchen encapsulates “our specific northern Midwestern region, but it’s hard to be precise…we’re not purists…” (yay, Midwest!). In addition to being delicious and enlightening, this culinary tradition has the added benefits of being “hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy: no processed foods, no sugar, no wheat (or gluten), no dairy, no high-cholesterol animal products. It’s naturally low glycemic, high protein, low salt, plant based with lots of grains, seeds, and nuts…It’s what so many diets strive to be but fall short for lack of context. This is a diet that connects us all to nature and to each other in the most direct and profound ways.”

All of which makes Chef Sherman wonder, “Why isn’t the original indigenous diet all the rage today?” Yeah, why? Perhaps it soon will be–thanks to this book, Chef Sherman’s restaurant and other projects, and continuing research, preservation, and advocacy.

Cooking from Indigenous Kitchen has added wonderful depth to our existing convictions of eating and living in better rhythm with nature–and learning more about Amy’s Native American roots.

 

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Maple-Sage Roasted Vegetables

 

So what are some of our favorite things from the book? The Maple-Sage Roasted Vegetables are fantastic. Super easy to prepare, super easy to adjust for seasonality and availability, and super tasty. You can make this last-minute on a weeknight. Have as leftovers with fried corn cakes. Or add to greens and herbs for a hearty salad. Yum.

The maple vinegar that recipe calls for was new for us. It definitely brings the whole dish together with its unique, subtle tang. Indigenous Kitchen has given us first-time cooking encounters with juniper, cedar, sumac, duck eggs, smoked salt, and many more ingredients. The Indigenous Pantry section is worth perusing for its own sake and intrigue. Several dishes have maple syrup. Who doesn’t want to eat more of that?

Some other things we’ve really liked are:

Squash and Apple Soup with Fresh Cranberry

Wild Rice Pilaf with Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Chestnuts, and Dried Cranberry

Cedar Braised Beans

 

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Corn cakes with raspberry-rosehip sauce

 

Wojape

We’ve only just begun cooking our way through the book. Next, we want to find respectable, affordable sources of bison and venison shipping to LA (one of the things we miss from living in Wisconsin) so we can dive into more of the meat dishes. (Sorry, vegans and vegetarians). Can’t wait.

It’d be awesome to see Indigenous Kitchen win the James Beard award in its category. It totally deserves it. But whether it does or not, this is a book, a project, and a culinary tradition that should be on everyone’s radar. If you’re trying to eat more holistically, or want to learn more about Native American cuisine, pick up a copy of Indigenous Kitchen and get cooking.