Archive forTutorials

Dilly Beans, and canning tutorial

I’d been saying for several years that I knew one day I’d get into canning, but it wasn’t until last summer than I finally took the plunge. I bought a bunch of new canning jars (although I already owned a great deal of vintage jars that I store food and goods in, and ferment things in, and dispense soap from, and drink out of…you get the picture: I had a lot of jars and I bought a lot more jars) and Marisa McClellan’s wonderful Food in Jars. I’d been reading Marisa’s blog for a long time, so I had a good idea of what I was getting into, and I knew I’d trust her recipes to be both tasty and safe. Marisa’s book is a fantastic resource for the new canner, and especially those who might be daunted by visions of 15-hour canning sessions, pounds of fruits or veggies to peel and cook, and tons of finished jars of store…and eat. Food in Jars is great because most recipes yield about 4 pints, which is perfect for trying out recipes with little investment, squeezing short canning sessions around busy schedules, and not overwhelming small households with hundreds of jars of the same thing. Plus, Marisa is personable and very responsive to commenters on her blog.

The first recipe I made from her book, and the first thing I ever canned, was Dilly Beans…which I think is probably the first thing a lot of people try. And for good reason: they are easy and delicious! Since Marisa generously shared her recipe on Serious Eats (it’s actually slightly different than the one in the book in that it makes 5 pints instead of 4, and which worked out perfectly brine-wise for me), I’m going to go ahead and repeat it here with my photos just to inspire any of you out there who are like me and want to try canning but are worried about the initial investment or the time it might take up, or think it might be difficult to do. However, if like me you end up enjoying canning, I strongly urge you to buy Food in Jars or Marisa’s new book Preserving by the Pint, because the recipes are good and easy to understand and there is a ton of info for new canners.

Spicy Dilly Beans
Recipe by Marisa McClellan, shared on Serious Eats

3 pounds green beans (I had 2.8 lbs, all but about 6 green beans I was able to force into 5 pint jars)
2 1/2 cups white vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup pickling salt
5 cloves garlic
5 tsp dill seed (not dill weed)
5 tsp red chili flakes or cayenne powder, or 5 small chili peppers, slit (last year I used fresh chilis that Mark grew), or you can omit this if you don’t want spicy dilly beans

About the vinegar: although I use it by the gallon around the house, I usually don’t cook with white vinegar, preferring a myriad of flavored and homemade vinegars, however, in an unprecedented move I followed most of the canning recipes I used last summer faithfully instead of getting creative, and not only did these turn out delicious, but everyone I’ve served or given them to has raved, so I’m sticking with the white vinegar for now. In an older version on her blog, Marisa uses apple cider vinegar.

The first thing you need to do when getting started canning is purchase or scrounge up the following:

  • canning jars and rings – You will need 5 pint jars for this recipe and they will come with rings, which hold the lids on in the boiling water bath until they’ve sealed to the jar.
  • lids – Although you can and should reuse the jars and rings for many years, lids can only be sealed once. New jars will come with a new lid for each jar, but if you are reusing jars, you will need to purchase enough new lids for the batch you plan to make.
  • a pot large enough to fit the 5 jars (in a single layer) as well as water to cover by a couple of inches, plus another couple of inches head room for boiling
  • an insert for the pot that the jars can sit on instead of sitting directly on the bottom of the pot
  • small saucepan for warming lids
  • jar lifter or some other device, such as tongs, for moving jars into and out of the boiling water bath – Jar lifters are cheap and are a LOT easier than tongs, so I do recommend you pick one of these up if you can
  • magnetic lid wand – optional but handy device for lifting lids out of simmering water; you could also use tongs
  • dish towel – for setting hot jars on
  • clean towel – for wiping jar rims after filling

As much as I love kitchen gadgets and pots, I have no desire to buy a dedicated canning pot (unless I later decide to get into pressure canning, which doesn’t really interest me at the time). I already had this 12-quart Calphalon stock pot and pasta insert that is perfect for up to 5 pint or 4 quart jars. Unfortunately I can’t really find it for sale anywhere; I bought it as part of a larger set years ago. But if you already have a large stock pot, you can easily rig something up without a pasta insert, just by putting a heat-safe trivet on the bottom for the jars to sit on.

The first step in canning is to sanitize your jars. You can run them through a dishwasher cycle if you like, or bake them in the oven at 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes, but since you are going to be boiling water anyway for the water bath, the easiest thing to do is just boil them. So put your insert into your large pot and the jars on the insert, then add water to cover by a couple of inches (I also like to add a glug of white vinegar, which keeps the jars sparkling) …

… then bring to a rapid boil for 10 minutes. Now what you should NOT DO is at this juncture realize you need more vital wheat gluten for the seitan you are simultaneously making and just drive off to Wegmans to buy more, leaving the water boiling on your stove because you are an idiot. DO NOT DO THAT. (The good news is Mark was home the whole time I was gone, although until/unless he reads this, he had no idea!)

Put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a very low simmer. All you want to do is warm the seals on them so they adhere to the jars later.

Use your jar lifter or tongs to remove the jars from the water (very carefully pouring the water out of them without spilling it on yourself) and place them on a folded dish towel. You can keep the water simmering while you continue prepping.

Prepare the brine by combining the vinegar, water, and salt in a medium pot and bringing it to a boil. Let it simmer until you are ready to use it. I saw this fourth burner pot on Marisa’s blog and yes, I DID have to buy it, but I don’t use it just for canning. You can absolutely use any pot you have that the brine will fit in; I just like this one because it has a spout that makes it easy to pour into the jars later, and also when canning, the stove tends to gets crowded and this pot takes up little stove real estate.

Next, prepare the green beans (or you could do this ahead of time if you are more efficient than I am). I don’t do that whole bean snapping thing. I just do not have the time for that nonsense. I line a bundle of beans up, chop off the ends with a sharp knife, turn the bundle around, line them up again, and chop the other end off. The important thing here is that you make sure the beans will fit in the jars, so what I do is trim one to the perfect size for my jars then lie it on my chopping block as a template. I’m not super fastidious about this, but if you don’t make them short enough to fit, it’s annoying later to go back and trim them down.

It’s easiest to fill the jars if you keep the trimmed green beans orderly:

By the time you’ve trimmed the green beans, the jars should have cooled enough to handle, so stuff each one with as many beans as you can fit, without smashing the beans up. I find it easiest to put a bundle in, hold the jar on its side …

… then shove another bundle on top, then sit the jar upright and fill in any gaps with more beans.

Put one clove of garlic, 1 tsp of dill seeds, and 1 tsp of chili flakes or cayenne pepper or one whole chili pepper into each jar.

Turn the burner under the brine off and pour the brine into each jar, leaving 1/2″ headspace. Carefully (they’ll be hot!) tap each jar on the counter and/or poke a chopstick around the edges to remove trapped air bubbles. If necessary, add additional brine to bring the headspace back to 1/2″. (By the way, you want to add HOT brine to the jars so they don’t go into shock when you later put them in the hot water bath…so don’t pre-make that brine and add it cold to the jars.)

Use a clean towel to wipe the rims of the jars (spilled brine could keep the lids from sealing properly). Next, turn the burner under the lids off and carefully remove the lids from the pot, placing one (seal-side down) atop each jar. Screw a ring onto each jar just until hand-tight.

Jars ready for canning:

If necessary, bring the large pot of water back up to a rolling boil, then use the jar lifter to carefully place each jar onto the insert on the bottom. You will probably have to remove some of the boiling water from the pot now that the jars are full; I use a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup to do this or you could use your small saucepan. Once all jars are in the pot, you want the water to cover them by about 2″ (so they are entirely submerged even when the water is bubbling). This picture is hazy because my camera was looking straight down into the steaming water.

Once the water is at a rolling boil after the jars are in, set the timer for 10 minutes. Let the jars boil (this is what is meant by “process in a hot water bath” that you may have read in recipes) for 10 minutes, then use the jar lifter to carefully remove the jars and set them back on the dish towel (the dish towel helps prevent shock from a cool counter or table top). [Note: Always process canning recipes for exactly the amount of time specified. If you don’t process for long enough, the internal temperature of the jar may not go high enough to create a seal and safely preserve your food, and if you process for too long, you may end up with overcooked food. Use only canning recipes from sources you trust. When in doubt refer to the USDA Canning Guidelines or the Ball website. Do not use older publications as the USDA guidelines have changed over the years and older canning books may be outdated.]

As the lids seal, you may hear a little “ping” from each one. This is a joyous noise because you know the lid has sealed when you hear it, however, not all seals will ping, so don’t worry if you don’t hear it. I usually hear a ping, but none of these five pinged for me and they all sealed. Let the jars sit overnight (or 8 hours) to completely cool, then you can remove the rings and test the seals. There are two tests you can do: 1) push the middle of the lid slightly. If it gives or pops, the lid is not sealed. 2) gently try to pry the lid off with your thumb. If it comes off, it’s not sealed. If you buy quality lids, they should almost always seal, but everyone will occasionally have one that does not. If you have one that didn’t seal, no problem: just put the jar in the refrigerator and use it up first.

Pro tip: always write the name of the contents and the date packed on the lids. These dilly beans will be good for at least a year. Also, store the jars without the rings. Apparently there is some debate amongst canners about storing with or without rings, but I’m firmly on the “without” side because a) rings could get stuck on over time and b) if the seal breaks during storage (a rare but possible occurrence), it’s harder to notice it if the ring is on. (Note: if after storage, you go to open a jar and find that the lid comes right off without being pried, throw the contents of the jar away. They might be okay, but it’s better safe than sorry in this case.)

The Serious Eats recipe says wait at least a week to eat these pickles; the book says two weeks. I’ve always waited two weeks, which may seem interminable, but believe me, it’s worth it!

Some people don’t know how to open a sealed jar. I use the bottle opener hook of my can opener (it looks like this one), but you can also use a church key or dull butter knife or spoon.

These dilly beans are really popular and I bring a jar or two to every party I attend in the summer and throughout the year. There is an ever-growing number of people who love to receive a jar of these or other of my canned items as a gift as well. When I give canned foods as gifts, I tend to stick a ring back on it, so if the recipient doesn’t use the contents in one sitting, they have an easy way to secure the lid and refrigerate the jar. Personally, I save up the standard-sized metal and plastic screw-on lids that come on commercial products like peanut butter, Vegenaise, cocounut oil, etc. and use them for storing jars in the fridge as they are less hassle than a lid + ring, and I toss used lids in the recycle bin as I open jars. If you give jars away, tell your friends to recycle the lid, but to save the jar and ring. I always tell recipients that they are welcome to keep the jar (and ring) if they want it, but if they have no use for it, to return it to me so I can fill it up for them again. 🙂

Dilly beans make any barbecue fare – nay, any meal – many times better, are awesome in bloody marys, and are just great snacks! These are from the open jar I currently have in the fridge, canned last year. The pepper is one of Mark’s, and yes, I will eat that (and the garlic!) too. Pickled peppers, yum! (Pickled ANYTHING, yum!)

If I can be like Bryant Terry and provide a soundtrack for this recipe, or any canning recipe, it would be any (non-annoying) song by Led Zeppelin. Mark and I both consider Zeppelin to be quintessential summer music and I listened to my all-Zep playlist over and over last summer while canning. In fact, whenever a Zeppelin song comes on now, I’m instantly transported to sitting on a barstool in my kitchen peeling, coring, and canning 100 lbs of tomatoes last summer. Which was a really zen thing for me for some reason. (Does anyone want a tutorial on canning tomatoes once tomato season hits? Because as awesome and delicious as dilly beans are, tomatoes are by far the most useful thing I canned: I haven’t bought a single can of tomatoes in a year, and I used to go through a LOT of cans of tomatoes!)

[PS If you feel like Led Zeppelin is overplayed, enjoy one of my other favorite summer songs. YOU’RE WELCOME.]

I’m extra excited about canning season this year because all I’ll have to buy is new lids, so it’ll be much cheaper this year than it was last year when I had to make the initial investment in the jars (which aren’t really expensive, but I bought a lot). And canning just does it for me. I’m as guilty as most other Americans of generating more waste than I have any right to burden this planet with, but I HATE it. I get really, really sick thinking of all that trash sitting in landfills, most of it not biodegrading, and all the plastic floating in our wonderful oceans. It’s true I keep on consuming, but I really try to think about packaging, and purchase as little of it as possible. To me, canning is just so great because I support my local farmers by purchasing everything I can from the farmers market (I’d grow it myself if I didn’t have a black thumb!), and I carry it all home in my market basket and reusable shopping bags, and I can it in reusable jars, and not only do I have a bounty of delicious, local ingredients to enjoy year-round, but I’ve wasted NO PACKAGING. It just makes me deeply happy. And I have LOVED opening my jars all year and enjoying the contents. I’m still amazed every time I open a jar of my home-canned tomatoes and they smell just as fresh as the day I canned them. It’s a scent and sensation I’ve never gotten from commercial canned tomatoes, even the really expensive ones I’d buy because I’m a pizza snob. So if you’ve been on the fence about trying canning, hopefully I’ve given you the push you needed to try it out this year – it’s very rewarding. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a picture totally unrelated to food, did you? Here is a groundhog climbing a tree:

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Produce/Bulk Bin Bags

I feel somewhat bad that the first thing I’m posting after so long is a sewing tutorial instead of food, but this craft creates a bag for procuring food, and that’s a part of cooking, right?

I’m becoming interested in natural dyes and to that end recently set up an indigo vat. Indigo dye comes from a plant, but it’s interesting in that it’s actually fermented. And I’m a big fan of fermentation of all sorts. It traditionally takes a few days to create an indigo fermentation vat, but since I was just trying it out for the first time, I bought a kit that comes with pre-reduced indigo, which unlike non-reduced indigo, is water soluble, which eliminates all the time and hard work of the fermentation process. I then proceeded to dye everything in the house indigo. I dyed a white blanket, because neither Mark nor I should be trusted with anything white, and I dyed several garments I had that I didn’t love the colors of (I loved the results of this and am so glad to have several “new” pieces of clothing that I’ll wear much more often now). And then I decided to experiment with shibori, which is basically Japanese tie-dyeing.

I practiced on strips of muslin. Muslin is a light, inexpensive cotton often used by seamstresses to make mock-ups of sewn items. I tend to keep several yards of muslin on hand because it’s cheap, useful, and I do often make mockups (also referred to as muslins) when I’m drafting patterns for projects. (This makes me sound like I’m a “real” sewer…believe me, I’m not!) Anyway, these qualities made muslin the perfect fabric for me to do some practice shibori on, however, this left me with a bunch of shiboried (I’m not sure that is actually a word, but it is now) pieces of muslin with which I needed to find something to do. And it just so happened that I’d been meaning to make some drawstring bags to take to the farmers market for things like green beans and potatoes. Sooooo, while you certainly do not need to shibori your fabric to make these bags, it explains why mine are tie-dyed, and also shibori is really fun. The pre-reduced indigo kit I bought was a good value because I was able to dye quite a few garments, that blanket, a bunch of Smark towels, and a couple yards of muslin for these bags, and I really enjoyed doing all of it.

You don’t have to use muslin; any lightweight fabric will do, although if you are a novice sewer (like me), I strongly suggest you stick to 100% cotton with no stretch. Muslin is cheap, strong, and useful to have on hand. I weighed one of my bags and it was exactly one ounce, which I don’t expect to have much if any impact on the price I’m paying for my produce and bulk bin items.

Drawstring Produce Bags

You need:
cotton muslin (or other lightweight cotton) – the size you want your bag plus a couple inches for seam allowances and the drawstring casing
thin cording – at least twice the width you want your bag plus 6″
rotary cutter and mat, or fabric scissors
sewing machine
large safety pin
pinking shears (optional)

I made my bag by taking one long strip of fabric and folding it half so I only had to sew up the left and the right side; the bottom was the fold. The best way for you to cut your fabric may be to cut two pieces. You can make it whatever size you want, but when cutting, add 1″ to the width and 3″ to the length you want your final product. Here I’ve laid out my folded fabric on my rotary mat, which I also used to measure it.

I cut my fabric so it was 14.5″ wide and 16″ high (but remember, it’s folded, so really I have one piece of fabric that’s 14.5″ x 32″; if you are cutting two pieces instead of one long strip, cut them both the same size). You can use regular fabric scissors if you don’t have a rotary cutter and mat.

First we are going to make the casing for the drawstring. There are two ways to do this: what is probably the better way, and what is the lazy way. The better way involves pressing so I did it the lazy way. Place the fabric right side down (if your fabric has a front side; muslin doesn’t really) in front of you. You want to fold the top edge over by about 1/8″, then over again by another 1/8″, so the raw edge is hidden.

The best thing to do here would probably be to just press this, but I pin and stitch it. Pressing is better because it uses less thread and you only end up stitching once. Stitching is easier because I much prefer sewing to pressing.

If you have two pieces of fabric, repeat on the top edge of the second piece. If you have on long strip like me, repeat on the “other” top edge, making sure that you fold down on the same side of fabric.

The next step is to actually make the casing. All you have to do is fold the folded edge down one more time. How wide you make the casing depends on the cord you’ll be using, but 3/4″, as I’ve done here, should be more than large enough. Just make sure you’ll be able to get your large safety pin through it later. Pin.

Stitch the casing closed. If you stitched for the first step instead of pressing, stitch right over your first line of stitching. If you pressed for the first step, stitch near the bottom of the casing. Repeat this step for the other piece or other side of fabric.

Next we’ll sew the bag closed. We’re going to use french seams to do this, so although normally you would always sew seams with right sides of the fabric together, we are going to start by sewing the seams wrong sides together. Even if your fabric didn’t have a right and a wrong side to begin with, now that you’ve made the casing it does. The wrong side of the fabric is the side the casing is folded into. If you have two pieces of fabric, put one right side down and then place the other on top of it, right side up, lining the casings up at the top. If you have one piece of fabric, fold it so the casings are at the top and the right sides are facing out. Starting at the stitching of the casing, NOT the top of the fabric, sew the right side using a 1/8″ seam. For me, the right of my presser foot is 1/8″. Note in the picture that I’m starting at the bottom of the casing – if you start above the line of stitching you did, you’ll sew the casing shut.

If you are using one piece of fabric, sew to the bottom fold, then flip the bag over sew the other side up in exactly the same manner.

If you have two pieces of fabric, pivot 1/8″ from the the bottom fold and then continue sewing your seam along the bottom, then pivot and sew up the third side, stopping at the bottom of the casing.

Again, note that you need to leave the casing open on both sides.

Now for the magic of the french seam. Turn the bag inside out. We’re going to sew the side seams again, trapping the raw edges inside. I didn’t bother pinning the inside seams because bags like these are manageable sizes and cotton fabric isn’t going to slip around, but I do pin for the second pass just to sandwich everything together tightly. The better way would probably be to press the seams, which would eliminate the need to pin.

Again, starting at the bottom of the casing, stitch the side seams again, this time 3/8″ from the edge.

Finished seams.

Now here’s the rather unprofessional part of this drawstring bag. I’m just going to allow exposed edges here instead of getting all fancy, but it will help to use pinking shears if you have them. Snip off both corners of the casing at a diagonal as shown in this picture:

Turn the bag right side out.

See the “v” in the casing we have at the seams?

Stick your safety pin through one end of your cord …

… then start feeding it through the casing starting at one of the “v”s.

Keep pushing the cord through by pushing the pin through the casing.

When you come to the opening on the other side, stick the safety pin in and feed it through the second side of casing.

When you are finished, the cords will meet. Remove the safety pin and knot the cord ends together.

Finished bag:

With a couple others I made in different sizes:

Filled with goodies. These will be great for produce, both at the store and the farmers market, and for bulk bin buys.

For the farmers market, I love, love, love this basket, and it has a perfect pocket for stashing these produce bags.

Speaking of shibori, here I am at a local vineyard today (that sells boxed wine, yay!!!), sporting a shibori scarf I made. The scarf itself was no-sew because it’s knit and doesn’t ravel; it’s just a long length of a gauzy cotton knit that I shiboried in my indigo vat.

And guess what? The dress is one of the garments I dyed indigo. It was previously bright red, if you can believe that. It was pretty, and I wore it red a few times, but usually I’d put it on and take it back off again because it was so bright and I just don’t do bright colors. I LOVE it in its new color.

Aaaaaand, time for cat news! So, in early summer I noticed a cat hanging around our yard. In fact, she never seemed to leave. I have wildlife cams out there and I saw her on them 24 hours a day. She lived in the top of our overgrown arbor, in kind of a nest, which seemed really pathetic to me, especially in the rain. I started feeding her because I knew she wasn’t going to a home elsewhere and I didn’t want her deciding to eat my birds. She and I very quickly became friends once I starting showing up with food, and one day I took her to my vet and had them scan her for a microchip. That came back negative and inquiries with the animal shelter and various lost & found sites got me nowhere, so the week before a big heatwave, I brought her in. I got her shots, cured her of some ear mites, then a few weeks later started introducing her to Gomez and Torticia. She didn’t have a name for the longest time, because I wasn’t sure we were going to keep her and because I couldn’t think of one that really seemed to suit her. They had to enter something on her record at the vet, so they entered “No Name”, and we actually called her Noname for a couple of months. Sad, eh? Then last weekend I was driving down the road and saw the name Heidi on some horse show sign and that was it! Because she likes to hide! She’s Heidi! (Except Mark keeps calling her Meatwad, to my disapproval.)

So with no further ado, meet Heidi!

Yep, she’s a tortie like Torticia! The tortie twins don’t like each other much though. Gomez and Torticia have been AWESOME the entire time. They never expressed any concern when I was harboring her in her own room, even though they knew there was another cat in there, and when I started letting her out, Gomez in particular has just wanted to be friends with her. Heidi’s not having it, though. I think she’s just still really terrified of them so she gets all defensive and hisses at them, then Torticia hisses back. Mezzie just walks right up to Heidi and stares at her with his ginormous eyes, head cocked quizzically, like, “why don’t you want to be my friend?????” while she’s hissing in his face. I’m hoping all the hissing calms down eventually, but if months go by and I think Heidi is living in fear, I will try to find a one-cat home for her. She’s very sweet and affectionate when she’s on her own, although Mezzie and Tish are always wherever I am so it’s hard to spend alone time with Heidi. We’re trying to make it work, though, because she IS very sweet, and she does seem super grateful to be here. I was worried she’d cry to go back outside, but she has shown no inclination to return to the great outdoors whatsoever. I really don’t think she was happy out there. I wish I knew who abandoned her.

A food post soon, I swear! It’s just that I spent so much of my kitchen time canning over last several weeks that I didn’t have time for blogging, or making blog-worthy meals. Canning is dwindling down a bit, and half of our raccoons are released, so I’m starting to have more time and I expect to get back into the swing of things soon.

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Mark’s Sushi Tutorial

The Smarkster and I were quite pleased to find that our local sushi restaurant recently upgraded their menu and greatly expanded their vegetarian options. Mark was so happy about it that he re-discovered his sushi obsession and when it came time to make his weekly Sunday dinner, he decided to make sushi. Which went so well that he decided to make more sushi last night. He suggested I do a post, so I have. Now you can learn from the guy who has made sushi twice sushi master!

What I didn’t chronicle is how to make sushi rice. I make my rice in my beloved rice cooker. To make sushi rice, I cook the rice as directed, then cut in some rice vinegar (sometimes seasoned with sugar, but sometimes I don’t bother) and salt. I just do this to taste, although there are plenty of tutorials around with much more precise instructions. Maki’s tutorial on Just Hungry comes to mind. When I’m making sushi rice to accompany a meal or even a scattered sushi, I just serve it warm, but when you are making sushi rolls, you’ll want to cool it, fairly quickly. To do this, Mark removed the rice from the rice cooker, put it in a wide bowl, and put it in front of a fan for a few minutes. So first, prepare some sushi rice.

Next, prepare some fillings. Raw veggies like cucumber, carrot, and avocado are common and easy. Cut them into thin strips like this:

I didn’t get a picture, but Mark also used some of the pickled radishes I’d made earlier in the week (using a simpler recipe than the one linked; I just put them in a slightly sweet brine overnight). This was fascinating because Mark has never, ever eaten a single one of my pickled radishes, and I’ve made tons of them. (Of course, I was only able to convince Mark he liked radishes at all a few weeks ago.) But he said these were really good! They’re great in sushi, even the red ones (whereas you usually see yellow pickled daikon in restaurants).

Mark, who would probably be happy living off of Gardein chick’n, also grilled up a couple of cutlets and decided to try that in sushi as well. Here he is slicing them thinly:

He also made some kimchi rolls. He prepared some bite-sized pieces of kimchi to use as a filling; though since kimchi is wet, these were a little trickier to roll. Totally worth it, however, as kimchi is great.

Next, he prepared the bamboo rolling mat. I’ve had this mat for years, with the best intentions of making my own sushi rolls, but I have never done it. Who would have thought Mark would make sushi before me?! He covered it with plastic wrap because he read that it is nearly impossible to clean stuck-on rice from them. Which I can believe, although I would imagine that once you’ve got enough practice, you shouldn’t be getting much rice on them, if you are making nori-outside rolls. Anyway, here is the mat all set up.

Place a sheet of nori on the mat. Our nori has these handy perforations on them showing you where to cut later. If your nori does as well, you want the perforations to go up and down, or opposite the direction of the bamboo sticks. Nori has a rougher side and a smoother side. Put the smooth side down; rough side up to receive the rice.

Set up a bowl with some water near your workspace. Sushi rice is sticky and you’ll want to dip your hands in the water often. With damp hands, grab a handful of rice and spread it out on the nori. You want to create a fairly thin layer of rice leaving about an inch at the top and bottom.

The lighting in our kitchen is not ideally suited for food photography, so this is a bit hard to see, but what Mark is doing here is placing some of the carrot and chick’n strips lengthwise along the bottom of the nori.

Next, he held the filling in place while simultaneously beginning to curl the bamboo mat, the nori lined up at the bottom edge, away from him.

Keep rolling until the edge of the mat hits the rice.

Then, keep pushing the roll together with your fingers, but release the mat.

And continue the roll without the mat, maintaining an even pressure on the roll and kind of tucking it in as you go along.

When the roll is complete, grab the top of the mat and start rolling back the other way to seal the roll.

Unfurl the mat …

… and if necessary, add a tiny bit of water to help seal the roll.

Next, with the sharpest knife you own, slice the roll into pieces about 1″ wide. My knives are rather embarrassingly dull right now, but Mark found that chopping fairly quickly was better than trying to saw through them. He also suggests wetting the knife first.

Pretty great for a second-time sushi maker, no?

Next up Mark wanted to make a drizzling sauce, which you sometimes find on extra-fancy sushi. He rummaged around the kitchen and pulled out these things: vegetarian stir-fry sauce, hoison sauce, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, sriracha, and lemon juice.

He mixed them together in proportions that were pleasing to him. The vinegar and lemon juice were literally just drops.

Then he plated the sushi with some wasabi, pickled ginger, and some of the Korean banchan we had bought at Super H, because it looks pretty (and goes really well with sushi). The rolls also got a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

I think Mark is trying to show me up by making things I’ve never made! And doing it well!

In personal news, we released some more raccoons this weekend, but this has been a long, photo-intensive post, so I’ll save pictures of that for another time. Oh, all right. ONE raccoon picture.

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How to make a rag quilt

This is still a food blog, I swear! To the uninterested, I’m sorry for the back-to-back sewing posts. I’m going to do the bread bag tutorial sometime in the next month or so because several people said they want to see it, but other than that, I promise this is not going to become the “i sew stuff” blog (maybe “i sew stuff badly”!). But I’ve had this post ready to go for a couple of weeks now and I’m sick of seeing it in there with “Draft” next to it, and as the quilt featured in it has now reached its faraway destination of Australia, I can finally publish it! Food next time, no excuses!

The post…

Okay, this is going to be an incredibly long post and there will be no food and only incidental kittens, so most of you can probably just quietly leave now and return soon for the good stuff. But since I did get some interest in a tutorial for making rag quilts, I photographed the steps when I made a baby quilt for Kylie’s new baby boy, Liam. Here we go:

Rag Quilt

Necessary items
cotton flannel (NOT pre-washed)
cotton or cotton/poly batting (you could also just use more flannel)
sewing machine (unless you are extremely industrious and are willing to sew by hand)
size 16 sewing machine needle (you can try size 14, but I broke a couple 14s)
pins, quilt pins if you have them

Strongly recommended items
walking foot for sewing machine
rotary cutter and self-healing cutting mat
rag quilt snips

About the fabric

The first thing you need to do is determine the size of the quilt you want to make and the size of the squares you wish to use. This will tell you how much fabric you need to buy. I have made two sizes of quilt: adult, which contained 8″ finished squares, 7 or 8 squares wide by 8 squares tall, plus a border on all or some sides, and crib, which contained 6″ finished squares, 5 squares wide by 8 squares tall, with a border. I’ll be working with the crib size in this tutorial, and I felt 6″ was good for that, but for the adult quilts, I liked the 8″ squares. The smaller your squares, the more sewing and snipping you have to do.

Once you figure out how many squares you will use and their sizes, you need to decide on the number of fabrics you will use. I used a different fabric for each square in each row, so, for example, for the 7-square wide quilt, 7 different fabrics. Then you can do some math and figure out how much of each fabric to buy. For an adult size quilt with finished squares no larger than 8″ (you’ll be cutting 9″ squares), you can just get a yard of each fabric and it will come out perfectly. I would just get a yard for most baby quilts too, although you will probably end up having leftover fabric.

Joann’s has a large selection of cotton flannel, although I can’t stand the place. Hancock’s also has a lot. Locally, I like G Street, although their flannel selection is not nearly as good as their regular cotton selection; it’s mostly kid stuff. My favorite source for flannel is actually Etsy, because the selection available is great, and most sellers send their fabrics out within a day or two, and honestly, I find it easier to have fabric arrive in my mailbox than I do waiting for it to be cut in a store. I’ve had great luck with this method.

Sometimes sellers on Etsy will offer pre-washed fabric. Do NOT buy pre-washed flannel for rag quilts and do NOT wash the fabric before cutting or sewing it. This is opposite of what you usually do; for most sewing you always wash the fabric first. Due to the nature of rag quilts, though, washing is your final step. The quilt won’t work as well if you use washed fabric.

About the batting

I prefer Quilter’s Dream Cotton batting, which comes in easy sizes like “double”, “crib”, “queen”, etc. I say I prefer this brand, although to be honest, it’s the only kind I’ve used. I really liked it though and have no desire to try anything else. When they were out of all-cotton, I bought a package of cotton-poly, but I haven’t used it yet. It’s just a little less soft and I’m sure it won’t be a problem. G Street Fabrics sells Quilter’s Dream. Other fabric stores may have other brands. I’m sure they are all pretty similar. Instead of actual batting, you could also use additional flannel, either one layer or two.

About the thread

Buy a good quality, like Coats & Clark. You need a lot for quilting (probably more than one spool), but you’ll be sewing through many layers at some points and you want something that won’t break. Buy a color or colors that go with your color scheme. I used “winter white” for most of my quilts, which goes with just about everything.

About the walking foot

A walking foot is a special sewing machine foot that has feed dogs on the bottom of it, so the fabric is being gripped and pushed through the needle area evenly from the top and bottom. This is important when you are trying to sew through several layers; it keeps the layers moving in tandem. It’s hard to sew a quilt sandwich without having the layers shift, causing puckers, unless you use a walking foot. I know from experience. Many machines come with a walking foot, but if yours does not have one, you can buy a universal walking foot for about $15-$20, which I think would be money well spent, even for a single rag quilt, as it will save you a lot of frustration.

About the rag quilt snips

Like the walking foot, I feel some of you may feel this is an investment you don’t care to make if only ever make a single rag quilt, and I can’t lie: it is a rather single-purpose tool. But the snipping part is a pain, I’ll be up front about that, and I can’t imagine doing it with regular scissors. The Friskars rag quilt snips are a good price on Amazon, and Joann’s sells them as well, and I know they often send out coupons, so maybe you can get them for even less that way.

About the rotary cutter and self-healing cutting mat

You can certainly cut your fabric and batting with regular fabric scissors. But a rotary cutter makes it much easier, and unlike the snips, you’ll find you use them often for other projects. I’m pretty terrible at sewing, so a lot of what I do is based on straight edges, and the rotary cutter is a huge help. These can be a bit pricey, especially if you get a larger mat, but you don’t want a mat that’s too small.

Okay, now that we’ve discussed the supplies, I think we’re ready to begin!

Once you’ve amassed all of your fabrics and batting, it’s time to cut them into squares. Your flannel squares should be cut 1″ larger all around than the final size, so if you are doing 8″ finished squares, you will be cutting 9″ squares out of the flannel. Your batting squares will be cut the same size as the finished square. I usually put a half-size, solid-color border, either on the top and bottom, or on all four sides of my quilts. These are rectangles; to size them take half of the finished square size and add an inch to get your height. The width is the same size you cut for the squares. So for a border rectangle for a quilt with 8″ finished squares, your border rectangle dimensions would be 9″ x 5″. For 6″ finished squares, they would be 7″ x 4″. I’ll show you this later. For now, lets start with our interior squares.

You need to cut two squares for each block: a front and a back. So if you are making a quilt with 8 rows of 8 squares each, and each square is a different fabric, you need to cut 16 squares of each fabric. If you are using regular scissors, just cut these squares. I’ll demonstrate doing it with a rotary cutter.

If your flannel is very wrinkled, iron it first. I don’t believe you need to be quite as fanatic about perfectly pressed flannel for rag quilts as you do for most sewing, but you definitely do not want heavy creases or big wrinkles.

Fold the fabric selvage to selvage (the selvages are the finished sides), ensuring it is wrinkle-free and smooth. Lay it on the mat so the selvages are on the left and line the folded fabric up so it is straight, using the grid on the mat. Use the rotary cutter and a ruler to cut the selvages off, and also trim the bottom to square it. (I couldn’t take photos of myself cutting, but this is a great tutorial with photos.)

Use the ruler and rotary cutter to cut strips from top to bottom, the width of your flannel squares. (Remember, that’s 1″ more than the finished square size.) If the grid on your mat is ruled (and most are), unless you start at “0”, make sure you are cutting at the right inch mark! If you butt your fabric up against the 1″ mark, you need to cut at the 10″ mark for a 9″ square.

Take one of your strips and put the newly-cut edge to the left again, and square it with the grid. Cut into squares.

You will end up with pairs of squares when you do this, and they will be lined up in the right direction, back to back, just like you need them. Since you are cutting two squares each time, you need to make the same number of squares as need for your quilt (not double, as you would if you were cutting one ply at a time). Make a nice stack.

If you are using a border, those pieces need to be cut in rectangles as described above, but the process is the same:

Next up is the batting. Open the package and unfold the batting a while before you use it, to help it lose any creases. Then cut it like you did the flannel, but make the squares the same size as your finished squares are to be, i.e., 8″ for an 8″ finished square quilt.

Don’t forget to cut batting for the border as well:

Next it’s time to assemble the quilt sandwiches. As I mentioned, if you used the rotary cutter method, you ended up with perfect sandwiches that just need batting stuffed between them, so this step is pretty easy. If you used regular scissors and didn’t cut from folded fabric, make sure the front and back of any fabric with a design that has an orientation match are lined up correctly.

Take the top piece off the sandwich and position a square of batting in the middle. It doesn’t need to be exact, so don’t measure it or anything, but just line it up evenly on all sides.

Then put the top back on. I pin the large squares; not in the center, but a bit above so I can sew them later without removing the pin. Really flannel doesn’t move around on batting, so honestly, the pinning is optional.

Sandwich all of the squares, including the border pieces if you are using them. (See, i didn’t bother pinning the border pieces; they just stay in place.)

Now it’s time to sew! If you’ve never used a walking foot before, consult your machine’s manual on how to install it, but I took this photo because the first time I tried to use one, I didn’t understand where the weird arm went. It grabs onto the screw that holds the needle in. Speaking of the needle, for quilting the sandwiches, you can use a standard size 11, but later I’m going to make you swap it out for a bigger one.

I mentioned in the post where I showed you the quilt I made my mom that I free-motion quilted the squares. I didn’t do that for Liam’s quilt because I didn’t want one of the first things the boy learns to focus on to be my horrible quilting. I can show you how I did my mom’s quilt in a later post if you’d like, but unless you already know how to do free motion quilting (which requires a different presser foot), just sew an X in each square, from corner to corner. This is the traditional, normal way to make rag quilt anyway.

For the border rectangles, just sew a straight line down the middle, lengthwise. Corner squares get an “L” as shown in the picture. Notice that for this quilt I used a decorative stitch, despite my owner’s manual telling me not to, because I don’t follow rules I don’t believe in. DON’T DO THIS. I’m pretty sure I broke my walking foot by using the decorative stitch. Fortunately, I had a backup from my old sewing machine, but using only the special walking foot stitch with the walking foot is now a rule I believe in. It’s also much more obvious when this fancy stitch doesn’t line up from square to square, so until you are an expert (which I am not), I suggest using a straight stitch in a color matching the fabric, with the goal of having the stitching blend in, not stand out.

Closeup of the corner square:

Now the fun part – laying out the design. You probably already have an idea how what you want it to look like, but what I do next is lay the whole quilt out on the floor and make sure I like the order of the squares. The kittens are a huge help with this step (ugh, actually the drive me crazy!!).

Once the quilt looks the way you want it to, it’s time to pin the rows together. When you pin, pin back side to back side, then open the fold open.

Make a chain of each row.

I then roll each row up – be sure to keep them in order!

Although I try to be fairly neat when I pin the squares together, when I’m ready to sew, I unroll two squares, then remove the pin and very carefully line the two pieces up so their edges exactly match.

Then sew together with a 1/2″ seam allowance – that is, so the needle is 1/2″ from the edge of the fabric.

Keep unrolling squares, carefully aligning, and sewing squares until the row is finished. Make sure every seam you stitch is on the same side as the others.

When you have sewn together every row, it’s time to switch your needle to a size 16, which is necessary for sewing rows together as you will be going through many layers in some parts. I was unable to use even a size 14 without it breaking. Size 16 works like a charm, however.

I sew the rows together starting at the bottom and going up. It’s really easy to get confused about orientation when you are pinning rows together, so go slow and check after pinning every time! Place the bottom row in front of you so the quilt top is facing down (that is, the seams are facing the ground), and the designs are oriented correctly as you are looking at them. Take the next row and place it on top of the first, but so that the quilt top (the side with the seams) is facing up and the design is facing away from you.

Pin together, about 2″ from the edge, once in each square. I line each square up, making sure the seams match exactly. If you didn’t cut or sew some of the squares perfectly, you can make small (very small; you do want to be careful with the cutting and sewing) adjustments by bunching one square up slightly to make it fit. Then open the quilt and look at the rows and make sure you pinned them correctly. DO THIS EVERY TIME! Like I said, it’s very easy to get disoriented, and I think it gets easier to get confused the more rows you do. Here I am checking that it’s pinned correctly.

When you are sure it’s pinned correctly, fold it back on itself to be sewn, and again, sew the rows together 1/2″ from the edge. It helps to pull your sewing table away from the wall if it’s against one, so the quilt has somewhere to go.

This starts out relatively easy but gets more challenging to maneuver the more rows you add! But it also gets more exciting because you’re almost done.

When all rows have been sewn, sew a line all around the entire border, 1/2″ from the edge. (Do this even if you didn’t use border rectangles.)

Lay the quilt out on the floor…and get comfortable; you’re going to be there a while.

Get your rag quilt snips if you have them.

Now start snipping all of the seams – all of them – about 1/4″ apart, being very careful not to snip the seam. Don’t do this all in one sitting; you’ll go crazy and your hand and back will be killing you. I usually take at least one meal break and/or try to get out of the house in the middle of it.

Personally, I hate this part, but at least I always have company.

Don’t forget to the do the edges too.

Now, grab a book you’ve been wanting to read and take the quilt to a laundromat. It needs to be washed and dried in commercial machines the first time because it will produce too much lint for home machines. Wash it in cold water (detergent is optional), then dry on medium or high heat. The next time it can be washed in a regular machine, and it should only become softer and more raggedy with each washing, so wash as often as you’d like, but always clean the lint trap afterwards. When I get mine home, I like to tug at each of the seams and make sure I didn’t snip any. I found a little hole in one of my quilts from snipping a seam, so I went and sewed it back together.

Whew! That’s it! Hopefully that helps someone out there. I think rag quilts are great for beginning quilters and others who aren’t great at or lack confidence in sewing – and all of those categories include me. They are fairly easy and don’t take so long you get sick of it or frustrated. (It generally takes me about a week to complete one, though if you were determined, you could do it in a weekend.) My final tip is this: make a practice quilt for yourself before making any for gifts, and be easy on yourself about the practice quilt. Expect to make mistakes. I made my practice quilt for Mark (which is the same as making it for me) before making any others, and I’m very glad I did, as I made a few mistakes. None of them were things he would notice, but I learned a lot from each of them and didn’t make them in subsequent quilts. When I finished the practice quilt, we had a very useful (if not entirely perfect) new blanket (which you can never have too many of), and I felt a lot more confident about my sewing skills. I wouldn’t have wanted to give the first one to anyone but my husband, but I went into my second quilt knowing I could make something I’d feel comfortable giving someone else. And even though I hate sewing in general, I actually had fun making these. So I think it’s a great project.

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How to make a lunch bag tote

I know I keep mentioning that I hate and am terrible at sewing, but then I keep posting sewing tutorials, which I guess may seem odd. One thing I am slightly good at sewing, though, is bags and purses. That’s because I have a terrible time finding purses I like so I have to keep resorting to making my own. Well, I’m set for purses right now, but the other day the bag I’ve been toting my lunches in, some cheap little thing I got at Whole Foods, tore. It wasn’t really big enough to begin with, nor strong enough to carry the Pyrex bowls I take my lunch in (I will only microwave in glass). So this weekend I decided I was going to make a bag to carry my lunch in, and hey, that’s food-related, right? So I made a tutorial. I know several of you are waiting for the new bread bag tutorial I promised, and it’s coming, but I have to go to the fabric store first and I’m just not ready for that yet. (After a positively disastrous visit to JoAnn’s during President’s Day weekend, I sent my parents an email entitled My Black Heart Seethes with a Burning Hatred of JoAnn’s about my experience, which they seemed to find hilarious, but I have yet to recover.) In the meantime here is how I made a lunch bag.

Lunch Tote Bag

1/2 yard cotton fabric
1/2 yard another cotton fabric in a coordinating color
loop turner (optional)

Wash and press your fabrics. Cut two 14″ x 15″ pieces of each fabric (for a total of four squares). I prefer using a rotary cutter but regular scissors work just as well. (I cut both squares at the same time, on folded fabric.)

Cut two 2″ x 17″ strips of each fabric; these will become the handles.

Pin right sides together of one of the fabrics, leaving the top side open.

Sew the three sides, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance.

Open the seams near one bottom corner, then pull either side of the fabric away from each other and flatten. This is easier to show in a picture than describe:

Take a ruler and find the line that is 4″ across under the point of the corner, where the seam is at exactly 2″; use a pencil or fabric marker to draw this line. Again this is easier to show in a picture:

Sew the line you drew. Don’t forget to lock the stitches by sewing backwards for a few stitches at the beginning and end.

Trim the corner off about half an inch from the new seam.

Repeat with the other corner. You now have an inside-out bag.

Follow the above procedures with the other fabric. Turn the lining fabric right-side out …

… but leave the exterior fabric inside out.

Place the lining inside the exterior; right sides will be facing each other.

Next make the straps. There are two ways to make them. Since I hate ironing and have a loop turner, I will show you that way. I’ll also describe what to do if you don’t have a loop turner. This is what to do if you have a loop turner:

Pin one piece of the lining fabric to one piece of the exterior fabric, right sides together.

Sew both of the long sides, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance. For the loop turner I have, I also have to sew one of the short sides.

I have a tube that I slid into the open side of the strap …

… and push it all the way to the end.

Then I push the rod through the tube …

… until it comes out the other end. Then pull it all the way through.

If you don’t have a loop turner, fold 1/2″ over on both long sides of all four strap pieces, so you end up with a 1″ wide strip, and press so it holds the creases. Place a pressed lining piece onto a pressed exterior piece, right sides out, so the folds are sandwiches inside. Pin.

Whichever method you used for the straps, edgestitch both sides; if you are using the second method of making the straps, you’ll actually be sewing the two sides together in this step. For turned straps, you are just flattening them and making them neat.

Next you will be attaching the straps to the bag. Position one strap so the exterior fabric is facing up and it makes a U, with the ends meeting the top of the bag. You are just positioning the strap, it will NOT be sewn as it is shown in this picture.

Move this strap INSIDE the top two layers of the bag: between the right side of the exterior fabric and the right side of the lining fabric (which are facing each other). Place each of the ends 2″ from the side seams. Pin.

Again, the strap is caught between the right sides of the inside and outside fabrics:

Pin the other three strap ends as well, then pin the rest of the top edge of the fabric. Most sewing machines have a removable area that makes the sewing surface smaller for sewing sleeves and the like. If yours does, remove this piece. Sew a seam almost all of the way around the top of the bag, sewing the straps in as you go, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance. DO NOT FINISH THE SEAM! Leave a 3″ gap in the seam, which you will use to turn the bag right side out.

Here is the hole I left:

Pull the bag through the hole so you see the right sides of both fabrics. You’ll also pull the straps through.

Push the lining into the bag.

Pin the hole together, making sure the edges are turned under.

Edge stitch (stitch as close to the edge of the fabric as possible) all the way around the top of the bag, closing the hole in the process.

And that’s it!

Hey guess what – it’s reversible!

These are the Pyrex dishes I use, so the bag was sized to fit them.

Here is a prototype I made using cotton flannel. It’s slightly less wide.

I also made a bigger bag for toting library books and shopping for smaller, non-grocery items. It also has longer straps so I can use it as a shoulder bag.

The library tote was a bit difficult to photograph, even with the assistance of kittens.

Speaking of kittens, they aren’t kittens any longer. 🙁 Their first birthday was March 9 so I guess they are just the boring old cats now, but they’ll always be “the kittens” to me.

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Bread Bag Tutorial

Bread is sort of my “thing”. I think I’m invited to some parties just because it’s assumed I’ll bring homemade bread. When I go to friends’ houses, I’m often bearing the gift of bread. As I like to give away bread, I bought special paper bread bags from King Arthur Flour a few years ago, to have something to transport the loaves in. They were good bags, with tiny holes to allow air circulation, which is good for crusty breads, and they came in packs of 100. I realized the other day that I was just about out of the paper bags so I went to King Arthur to order some more and was dismayed to find they no longer sell them. Thus began the great hunt for paper bread bags. I can’t find them anywhere in packs of less than 500, and even when I thought maybe I’d just buy 500 and sell half of them on eBay, none of them seemed as good as the kind I had. I was beginning to get very annoyed.

My googling for paper bread bags gave me the idea, however, to make cloth bags. Since I’m already making cloth gift bags, I don’t know why this thought didn’t occur to me earlier. The best part about this idea is the fact that linen tea towels are the perfect size for making bread bags. That’s my favorite part because it means no cutting – I can’t cut in a straight line even with a rotary cutter – and no finishing seams! AND I get to shop for vintage tea towels, which is fun!

This is a very quick, easy, inexpensive, and useful craft item. If you don’t bake your own bread, these bags are good storage for artisan breads you buy in a bakery as well. As I’ve said before, I’m AWFUL at sewing, so if I can do this, you can too.

Bread Bag

1 linen tea towel (14″ – 18″ wide by 30″ – 36″ tall)
string or ribbon
large safety pin

To determine how much string you need for a regular artisan loaf bag, multiply the width of the towel by two and add 10″. So if your towel is 16″ wide, multiply 16 x 2 to get 32, then add 10 to get 42″. If you are making a baguette bag, just add 10″ to the width of the towel, so for a 16″ wide towel, cut 26″ string.

Wash and iron your tea towel. Now, ironing is something I never do. I don’t even know where this iron came from; I found it in the laundry room and I think it’s the landlord’s. But some of my towels were pretty wrinkled and I have a hard enough time trying to sew in a straight line on smooth fabric, so I figured I’d better iron them.

Unfortunately, I made a horrible mistake in deciding to iron on the dining room table (I put a bath towel on it)…when I picked up the bath towel, I discovered I’d done THIS to the table:

Which is bad news because Fortinbras bought and refinished that table for me as a gift. I asked him what I should do and he said, “buy an ironing board like every other American; what’s wrong with you?!” He also said he’d look at the photo I sent him and call me back with advice but I haven’t head from him since so I think he’s plotting ways to strangle me. (Actually, F-dog is extremely busy right now and I shouldn’t have been bothering him in the first place.) So, um, iron your towel some different way than what I did. As for me, I’ve learned my lesson and will never iron anything ever again.

So anyway, here’s my ironed tea towel. This tutorial is for a regular bread bag. I’ll explain the how to make a baguette bag at the end (it’s actually even easier).

Fold the top and bottom edges over (wrong sides together), by about an inch (depending on how wide your string is), and pin. Note that the top of some tea towels is already folded over like this so you can insert a dowel for hanging. If your towel is like this, half your work is done for you: just pin the bottom edge.

Sew close to the original edge.

When you’ve done both the top and the bottom, fold the towel in half, top to bottom, right sides together, and pin.

Sew these two seams, being very careful to start at your first seam, that is, don’t sew the loop you created above closed. Look where my needle is in the picture and start sewing there.

Here is the bag with both sides sewn up:

Here’s a closeup of the top edge, you can see where my side seams start below the top hem:

Stick a large safety pin through one end of your string. It may help to put a bit of tape on the end of the string first so it doesn’t unravel.

Insert the safety pin into one of of the top hems.

Holding the safety pin through the fabric in one hand, scrunch the fabric onto the pin, then pull the pin through a bit.

Keep going until the safety pin comes out the other side.

Then stick it in the other hem and repeat the process.

Pull the string so the ends are even and knot the ends.

Turn the bag right side out, and you’re done!

To close, just pull the strings.

To make a baguette bag, hem just the top of the towel as described above, then fold the towel in half lengthwise (right sides together) and sew the side and the bottom. Insert the string in the same fashion. These bags won’t be long enough for a real French baguette, but they are long enough for baguettes made in most home ovens, and they’d probably be plenty big enough for storing leftovers of store-bought baguettes.

Here are all the bags I made today. My favorite towels are the souvenir travel towels. I just got two map of Scotland towels today, too, that I’m excited to turn into bags.

Here are some loaves of Hamelman’s pain au levain (which is fancy French for sourdough) I baked today:

I finally got an oval brotform:

Let bread cool completely before storing if you can, although linen will breath enough that I’ll feel confident slipping hot loaves in when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere with them, which is often.

Now, my theory of these bags is this: I’ve bought (and am still buying) a bunch of old tea towels for a couple of bucks each, which I’m going to make into bags in batches as I have a chance. I can probably make 5 or 6 in an hour. I plan to make an initial stash of 25 to 30 bags, a few of which I’ll keep for my own use, but most of which I’ll use for transporting bread to other people. The first time I take a bread bag to someone, it will be a gift: they keep it and use it (I hope). There are some people that routinely get bread from me; these people would eventually end up with more bread bags than they can use, so they can just start returning the extras to me to be refilled. Most of the bags will just be given away, though, which is good, because making these bags is the perfect craft for me: it’s cheap, it’s quick, and although it involves the sewing machine (usually a huge no-no in Renae crafts), it’s kind of foolproof. So I’ll just keep an eye out for cute vintage towels, buy them as I see them, and periodically make a bunch of new bags.

I used my two Australia bags today in honor of the fact that one year ago today, I was in Australia.

I think I might also branch out and make potato and onion bags as well.

Bonus Brachtune picture:

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Roti (Indian flatbread)

As I’ve mentioned, since I got the great cookbook Cooking at Home with Pedatha, I’ve been determined to make more Indian food at home and convince Mark to like it. To that end, I decided to learn how to make roti, which I figured would entice the carb-loving Smark. Breads aren’t covered in Pedatha, but a quick google turned up this excellent video by Manjula, who made it seem so easy. If you are fortunate enough to have a gas stove, search for some of the other roti videos as well because it looks like it’s even more fun to make them on a gas stove (you puff them directly over the flame), but being stuck with an electric stove, I feel particularly attached to Manjula’s procedure.

I was worried that having years of experience, Manjula was making it look a lot easier than it really is, but I’m happy to report it really is (almost) that easy. The hard part is not getting it to puff (though they didn’t puff as nicely as those in the videos by people with gas stoves), but finding the perfect balance of using enough flour to prevent sticking when rolling but not adding so much the extra flour burns when frying. It probably took me a bit longer than Manjula to pull the roti together, but considering it was my first time making roti AND I was photographing every step (which requiring washing my hands every 30 seconds in order to be able to touch the camera), I’d say the time it takes to make these is really negligible and it’s easily doable for a weekday meal.

This recipe is direct from Manjula’s site, and I urge you to watch her video a couple of times because she demonstrates the process far better than I can.

1 cup whole wheat flour (I used white whole wheat and ended up using 1 cup + 1 Tbsp)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup lukewarm water

Mix all ingredients. You can do this with your hands (or a wooden spoon) or cheat like I did and use a food processor (actually, I used a Sumeet grinder, but it’s an Indian machine so I decided it was okay…in fact, I think the instruction manual came with a recipe for roti, come to think of it).

Knead until it forms a very soft, cohesive dough. The consistency you are looking for might be a little more difficult to determine for people less accustomed to working with wet bread doughs, but if you watch Manjula’s video I think you’ll get the idea.

Drizzle just a couple of drops of oil on the dough to keep it from sticking and place it into a bowl. Cover and let sit for at least 10 minutes. (I went on a 45-minute walk at this point so mine sat for a while.)

When you are ready to make the roti, heat a very heavy – preferably cast iron – skillet over medium heat. I set my burner just a tiny smidge past “medium” and it seemed perfect. Do not add oil. Divide the dough into 8 equal parts.

Prepare a workspace by sprinkling it with flour. You want to use as little flour as possible to prevent sticking when rolling, but the dough is going to stick, so don’t be too stingy either. Take one of the balls and flatten it, turning it in the flour to coat.

Roll the dough into a circle; don’t worry how rough your circle is. (Mine were awful!) Constantly turn the dough over and sprinkle with and roll in additional flour to prevent sticking. You’re striving for a 5-6″ wide circle.

Place the flattened dough into the hot skillet.

It will cook very quickly and you will see bubbles forming on the top as the edges lift up.

When the top surface changes appearance, flip the roti over with a spatula. Use the spatula to press down on the roti as it cooks; this helps it puff up.

Flip it back over and cook another few seconds.

The roti is done when it’s puffed up and has brown (but not burnt) spots on both sides. As you finish with each roti, move it to a stack with the others, keeping them covered with a tea towel. Ideally put the tea towel in a covered container to completely trap the steam, although just a towel worked fine for me.

The finished roti:

From the cookbook, I made vegetable sambhar.

it may have made more sense to serve the roti with something other than sambhar (which the cookbook suggested I serve with idli or steamed rice) but I’m not known for always making sense. And the sambhar was thick enough to scoop up with the roti anyway.

This was a SUCCESS! When I announced dinner was ready to Mark, I added, “I hope you eat it,” to which he asked, suspiciously, “why, is it Indian?” and I answered, “what it is is yummy!” “It’s basically lentil soup and bread,” I added in my most convincing manner. He poked the sambhar with a spoon and sniffed it, again, with an air of suspicion. Then he ladled a small amount into a bowl and scooped it up with a roti. “It’s good!” he said, somewhat surprised, returning to the pot to fill his bowl. His final verdict: “it may be Indian, but it’s good anyway!” There’s hope for him yet!

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How to make a heavy-duty, steel tofu press

I am often asked where to find non-plastic tofu presses. There are a couple of places you can get wooden ones online, but the really nice ones are stainless steel and seem only available in Japan. I have a wooden one that I got in Japantown in San Francisco, but I’m not even 100% happy with that one because I use such heavy weights I’m afraid it’s going to fall apart. It’s a bit wobbly. So I thought I’d make myself a heavy duty tofu press and show you how to do it at the same time.

Here’s what you need:

2 medium (about 8.5″ x 4.5″) loaf pans: the cheapest you can find; they need to be able to nest
a drill, with 1/8″ and 7/32″ bits (or thereabouts) that are good drilling for metal (the ones I bought said “soft metals” and worked fine)
sand paper

Unless you plan to make more than a pound of tofu at a time, don’t buy large loaf pans. Your tofu curds won’t fill it deeply and you’ll end up with very flat tofu. I usually start with 8 to 10 ounces of soy beans (ending up with about 12 to 14 ounces of tofu) and the medium pans I bought are the perfect size.

I had a helper, by the way:

Optional materials:

that little pointy thing you tap to make indents so you can center the drill; I don’t know what it’s called

Finding cheap loaf pans was the hardest part of this project, oddly enough. It’s easy to find inexpensive pans – these were $4.99 each at K-Mart – but they are much thicker, heavier, and nicer than the old, cheap tin pans I was trying to find. You can try scouting out thrift stores for old, thinner pans that may be easier to perforate. These worked fine, though, so don’t go nuts looking for something lighter. You also need a matching set so they nest, which may be harder to find in thrift stores.

While I was at K-Mart, I called up ole Fortinbras to confirm with him that drill bits that said good for “soft metals” would work on fairly heavy loaf pans. Fortinbras is in Florida and did not answer the phone. He’s supposed to be my handyman, at my beck and call, ready to answer all of my tool questions at any time. Damn him! I took a chance and bought the bits without his counsel. They were fine.

How awesome is my drill, by the way? It’s older than I am!

It was my grandfather’s. He died when I was very young but I remember him and he was the greatest. I’m very attached to his drill. Even if you can see sparks inside it while you’re operating it and it has big vents my hair could get caught in, getting tangled around the motor and catching fire on those sparks. So I get excited when I have projects that involve drilling. I tried to think of a way to do this without a drill in case some of you don’t have one, but drilling seems to be the fastest, easiest way. Hopefully most of you at least know someone who has a drill you can borrow.

Prepare the drill by inserting the smaller bit. The picture depicts the larger bit. Pretend it’s the smaller one.

I marked where I wanted to put the holes by tapping indents with this doohickey using a hammer. That’s optional, and you could also use a marker of some sort.

Hullo, Brachtune. This was just before I turned the drill on and she ran away, though when Mark came home and flopped down next to me, she decided she loves Mark more than she is scared of the drill.

VERY IMPORTANT! WEAR SAFETY GOGGLES! Or failing that, onion goggles, as I did:

Not only should you wear goggles any time you operate a drill because bits can break during use- it’s happened to me – but drilling metal will cause a lot of metal shavings to fly around and you do NOT want that in your eye.

Drill holes with the smaller bit, using the indents as your guide if you made them …

… then re-drill the holes with the larger bit:

Here I’ve marked all the holes I want to make on the bottom of the pan:

Then I drilled all the small holes …

… including a row around the bottom of the sides of the pan:

Then I drilled my big holes:

At this point in time Fortinbras returned my phone call and upon hearing I was playing with power tools advised me to drink a beer. According to Fortinbras, the operation of any power tool is enhanced by the consumption of beer. Fortinbras knows much more about power tools than I do, so I take his word on these things. I retrieved a beer.

When the holes are all drilled, the next thing to do is sand them smooth, on both sides.

Now, Fortinbras was on the phone with me when I began this step and he started saying something about how I wanted Raymond Burr to clean up the holes but I don’t know what he was talking about. I think it involved me buying some sort of additional power tool. In my opinion, if my grandfather’s drill didn’t come with a Raymond Burr attachment, it can’t be necessary. And sand paper worked just fine. In fact, sanding the holes was much easier than I expected, because the drill removed most of the metal from the hole instead of just pushing it aside. See, here’s the first tofu press I made, a long time ago, before I had the wooden press:

(Wow, it looks so primitive!)

I didn’t use the drill because I was a sissy back then. It’s hard to see, but what I did was hammer nails through the pan, which caused very sharp edges inside the holes. That was annoying. You probably need Raymond Burr to clean those holes up.

Anyway, the drilled holes were pretty smooth to begin with and a brief session with the sandpaper finished them right up in no time. I did start turning into the tin man in the hand area though:

Do any of you watch Black Books? It’s the best show ever so you should. Looking at my hands after sanding my holes, the only thing I could hear in my head was the Cleaner saying, “dirty, dirty. Everything is very dirty.”

Since everything is so dirty, wash the pan (and your hands!) and dry it.

Then vacuum or sweep up all those metal shavings. They’d be no fun to step on barefoot!

And that’s it! The press is done. I’ll show you how to use it in a little bit. Next, if you don’t have one, you’ll want to make a lining for the press. Use a lightweight, cotton or nylon, very porous fabric. Probably not dyed. I like muslin or chiffon. Muslin is easier to finish the edges of. To figure out how large you want the lining to be, measure the length, width, and depth of the pan.

For my 8.5″x4.5″x3″ pan, I multiplied 4.5 by 2 (once for the top and once for the bottom), then multiplied 3 by 2 (once for each side), then added that plus 2 inches for overlap, which gave me 17 inches for the width. For the length, I took 8.5 once (because the width is wide enough to cover the top, this dimension doesn’t need to be doubled), but rounded it up to 9, then added 3 x 2 (for the depth of the top and bottom) and added 2 inches, which also gave me 17 inches. So I made a 17″ x 17″ square. You don’t have to be quite so fancy with your calculations. Just make it large enough that it can wrap the pan neatly without a lot of excess fabric.

It fits in the pan and would completely cover the contents, without too much left over to bunch up:

Then I just zig-zagged the edges to help prevent unraveling.

The finished lining:

Now to use it. You can read my tutorial on making tofu for the details, and I’ll just show you the new press in action with photos.

I set the perforated pan in the sink to drain the whey.

Then I line it; I think it’s easier to wet the fabric so it stays put.

Then fill with the curds:

Fold the fabric up:

Place the non-perforated loaf pan on top:

Then add weights. I use a couple of cans, then my steam pan (the cast iron skillet I didn’t season and use for steaming bread) and a molcajete. I like very firm tofu. For a less firm tofu, just use less weight.

After half an hour or so, remove the weights. You can see how far the top pan has sunk:

The flattened tofu:

I use the edges of the liner to lift the tofu out:

The finished tofu. There are ridges where the curds seeped up into the folds of the liner.

I trim them off and reserve them in case I want to throw them into something.

This vintage glass loaf pan/refrigerator dish is the perfect size and shape for storing the tofu. Just cover the tofu with water:

Place the lid on, and refrigerate!

This tofu turned out better than my tofu has been lately, and is so firm I’ll be able to stir fry it without it falling apart. My tofu press was a success! Total cost: $9.98 for the loaf pans and about $2.50 for the drill bits, which I bought just because I wasn’t sure any of the ones I already had were good for drilling metal. That’s a lot less than I spent on my “real” tofu press and this one will take a lot more abuse. It’s also much easier to apply the weights. This project has saved me a trip to Japan to buy a stainless steel tofu press! Er, wait…that sort of backfired, didn’t it?

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Cooking in and caring for cast iron

I was trying to decide what a good dish to make for my post on cooking in and caring for cast iron would be, and thought it would be easiest to make something I’ve already featured so the meal itself isn’t distracting from the tips on using cast iron. I realized that Carolina Red Rice was perfect because it allows me to demonstrate just about everything I want to show you.

Because it is so heavy, cast iron takes a little time to heat up. Once it’s hot, though, it can’t be beat for heat retention. After prepping all my ingredients, I usually set the pan on the burner, set it to medium or medium high, and let it heat for a minute or so while I finish setting everything nearby for my mise en place. After the pan is hot, I add a small amount of oil. There are three basic ways to add oil to the pan: 1) pour it in, then tilt the pan to swirl the oil until it coats the bottom, 2) mist with spray oil, and 3) brush the oil on. I like the last two best because you can use less oil and not only is cast iron heavy, but the handle gets hot (grip it with a tea towel if you need to touch it).

I have this little brush I got in Japantown that I often use:

You could also use a pastry brush that you’ve dedicated to this purpose, or if you must, a paper towel, although I think that’s wasteful. In most cases, you need only a very thin layer or oil.

Wait 30 seconds or so for the oil to heat up, then add whatever you are frying. I’m frying some fake bacon here; I only brushed the smallest amount of oil onto the pan (and I probably could have gotten away with no oil):

Now a word about utensils. The best rule of thumb is to stick to the same utensils you’d use for non-stick cookware, because you don’t want to scratch your seasoning. Scratching the seasoning on a cast iron pan is not the mortal mistake it is on non-stick cookware: the worst that will happen is you have to re-season it, but it’s best to treat it somewhat carefully. That said, the occasional use of metal utensils, such as these tongs, is not going to do any real damage.

It’s my opinion that babying cast iron too much rather defeats one of the main reasons for using it, which is that it’s indestructible. So once your seasoning is in good shape, don’t be afraid to let loose and use whatever utensils you want. You probably don’t to chop anything with a knife while it’s in your cast iron skillet, as that probably will damage your seasoning, but using a metal spatula here and there isn’t going to do significant damage.

Once the bacon was done, I removed it. Here I’m showing you my other preferred method of oiling the skillet: spray oil.

You probably need a lot less oil than you think do – especially after you’ve been using the pan regularly for a few months – so just spritz a little. If stuff starts to stick, I’ll show you what to do.

Now I’ve added the veggies I am sautéing.

Back to utensils again. As I mentioned, you can use any type you prefer (just be mindful not to scratch the seasoning up too much if you use metal), but I like wooden or bamboo best. My favorite utensils are the wooden spoons my mom handed down to me, and I also have this set of bamboo spoons and turners, which is great. They are also perfect for use with a wok as well. I’d go so far as to say my wooden utensils are among the top five most important things in my kitchen.

Sometimes, especially if your seasoning is pretty new, you’ll find food sticking to the pan. Don’t be alarmed, and don’t add more oil. Now, I actually tried to get my onions to stick so I could show you this, and they just refused! So I had to pretend. If your food is sticking, first make sure the heat is high enough. Food is less likely to stick at higher temperatures. To deal with food that’s sticking, deglaze the pan: just add a little stock, wine, or water …

… and stir, scraping off the browned bits and mixing them into rest of the food.

I usually use a little bit of any liquids I have prepared that are to be added later, or if I’m drinking a glass of wine at the time, I just dump some in, or if necessary, I just use water. Here I’ve measured the stock for the recipe; to deglaze the pan, I just poured a little of it into the pan:

The next step in the Carolina Red Rice involved adding additional ingredients including tomatoes, which is a good prompt for me to discuss the cooking of acidic foods in cast iron. Acidic foods like tomatoes like to eat through your seasoning, and for this reason, some people suggest never cooking these foods in cast iron. Some people have also complained of cast iron imparting a metallic taste to tomatoes. While it may be a good idea to shy away from tomatoes and other acidic foods the first few times you use a recently seasoned pan, there is absolutely no reason to not cook any type of food in cast iron once it’s well seasoned. In fact, I bought my first piece of cast iron, a pre-seasoned Lodge Dutch oven, specifically for making tomato sauce because I wanted to get more iron in my diet: it leaches into tomatoes well. If you by a pre-seasoned piece, you should be able to cook tomatoes right away. If you have just seasoned raw cast iron, I’d say use it maybe 5 or 6 times before cooking with tomatoes, just to be on the safe side. If your food tastes at all metallic, it’s not seasoned well enough. Re-season once or twice. What you don’t want to do is let tomatoes sit around in your cast iron for hours on end, but you don’t want anything sitting around in your cast iron for hours: it’s always got to be cleaned right away, which I’ll discuss later. So, by all means add those tomatoes to the skillet! Trust me, nearly everything I make has tomatoes in it.

Next up is another reason to love cast iron, though I didn’t do it when I featured this recipe last time (probably because I planned to refrigerate the leftovers in that Corningware dish). Cast iron can go from burner to oven, in fact, cast iron can withstand any temperature a home oven can throw at it. In fact, some people recommend putting cast iron through the oven’s self-cleaning cycle as a way to remove rust. I’ve never tried it because I’m afraid of the self-cleaning cycle, but I have put cast iron in a 550-degree oven and it couldn’t care less about the heat. Being oven-proof makes cast iron great for, say, browning onions on the stovetop, then tossing in the rest of a casserole’s ingredients and moving the whole thing to the oven to bake.

The original recipe for Carolina Red Rice called for covering the oven-safe casserole with foil, but I always use a lid if I have one. I don’t have a cast iron lid, but I do have a Calphalon lid that fits my skillet, so that’s what I’m using here:

After baking for 40 minutes, the rice was done:

Now, at this point in time, a lot of people would insist that you remove the rice to a serving dish, and then clean your skillet before it cools. The key to cleaning cast iron, they say, is to do it while it’s hot. This is where I am in contention with the hardliners. I’m not saying that cleaning it while it’s hot is not the best way to do it, but I am saying that there is no way I’m going to do it before I eat. I actually do clean up as I cook: all my prep bowls from the mise en place get cleaned up as I go along, and the only thing that’s left over to do later is the very last pan, pot, or dish required by meal. But I like to eat my meals hot and although cleaning cast iron is not the scary ordeal some make it out to be, I’m simply not going to do it until the meal is over.

Often Mark and I will watch a movie while we eat. So sometimes my skillet might sit, unclean, for two hours, as it did tonight. All that rice and tomatoey goodness was just hardening right on to my skillet!

As I said before, if your cast iron is not perfectly seasoned, you may not want to let acidic products sit in it for too long because they are corrosive, so if you have a newly seasoned piece and you’ve cooked tomatoes in it, that’s one case in which I would say you should move the food from the pan before sitting down to eat, especially if it’s going to be a while before you get around to cleaning it up. Otherwise, it’s okay to go enjoy your meal before cleaning up. It’s not okay to wait until tomorrow to clean up, but an hour or two isn’t going to hurt the pan.

After you’ve eaten, remove most of the food from the skillet, preferably with your wooden tools.

The key is to do as little cleaning as you can get away with. Ninety-five percent of the time, I can get away with rinsing the pan out and maybe wiping lightly with a soft sponge: no soap and no abrasive scrubbies.

Soap is the enemy. Or rather, most soaps are the enemy. Most dish detergents are made to cut oil, and while that’s great in most cases, it’s exactly what you don’t want when the oil in question is seasoning your pan! A small amount of very mild soap isn’t going to ruin your seasoning, but dish detergent will. Honestly, once your pan is seasoned well enough, even washing with dish detergent once in a while isn’t going to hurt it, but once you get the hang of it you’ll realize you don’t ever need dish detergent on cast iron.

Never plunge a hot cast iron pot into tepid or even warm water. The rapid change in temperature could cause it to crack, which is just about the only way you can possibly destroy cast iron. Never soak cast iron. If I need to lightly scrub the pan, I use a bamboo brush, just as I do on my wok. If there is gunk that’s being very resistant, simply fill the pan with water and bring to a boil; simmer for a couple of minutes, then remove from heat and pour the water off. The gunk should slide right off with it.

If you simply can not get rid of baked-on food, even after boiling water in the pan, sprinkle some salt in the pan and rub with a paper towel, then rinse with water and re-season. I’ve actually never had to do this. Boiling water in it for a minute or two has always cleaned it right out with no problem.

When the pan is clean, dry it completely with a towel. Never let it air dry.

Cast iron’s biggest enemy is rust. It’s not a very formidable enemy because it’s pretty easy to clean up, but even so, since it takes a few months of regular use to get a beautiful seasoning, it sucks to have to start over again. To avoid rust, keep the pan dry at all times. One of the reasons I told you in the seasoning tutorial to season the outer as well as inner surface of the pan was because the seasoning helps prevent rust. (The other reason is so you can use it as a grill press!)

After the pan has been cleaned and dried, you can prepare it for storage. There are three ways you can do this, and you can decide which to do based on how roughly you treated it during its last use and cleaning. 1) You can do nothing: simply store the clean, dry pan wherever you keep it. This is the method to use if you used it lightly and the seasoning is in good shape. If all you had to do to clean it was wipe it out and the seasoning looks black and shiny, you don’t need to do anything else. 2) Spritz lightly with oil and store. If the pan seems a little dry or looks sort of matte, you can spray it lightly with oil before storing. Sometimes I’ll rub the oil in with my fingertips (I don’t find it necessary to waste a paper towel for this). 3) Do a light re-seasoning. If the pan got pretty dirty and you had to work pretty hard to get it clean and you really want to give it a special treatment before putting it away, spray or rub the interior of the pan with a thin film of oil, then heat the pan over medium high heat for about 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the oil to bake on. Let it cool then store. You can do this while you are cleaning up other stuff in the kitchen.

I usually do #1 or 2, but it never hurts to do #3, so when in doubt, season! Here I’ve sprayed it lightly with oil:

Then I just rubbed with my fingertips:

And that’s pretty much it. The main thing I want to stress is cast iron is not as big a deal as some people make it out to be. It’s strength is its durability. You have to remember a few things, primarily that water is the enemy of iron, but for the most part, you can really do anything with it and that’s what makes it so great. The only things you can’t do is leave it soaking in the sink overnight or put it in the dishwasher. I actually forgot to mention the dishwasher before now because it would never even occur to me to put a pot or pan into the dishwasher. But please don’t put cast iron in the dishwasher. Or the wooden utensils I recommended. Those don’t go in the dishwasher either. (Putting wood in the dishwasher actually opens its pores and infects it with bacteria! And if it didn’t rust first, the same thing would probably happen to cast iron as well…it’s porous, believe it or not, and heating it causes it to become more so.)

You’re not going to ruin your cast iron, though. There’s no need to be afraid of it. The main thing to do is just use it often. In fact, I meant to mention this in my previous post, but one of my recommendations is to not buy a full set of cast iron. You don’t need one in every size. Buy one large skillet, then later buy one small skillet if you feel you need it. And a Dutch oven if you like. But the best thing you can for your cast iron is to use it, and if you only have one skillet, you’ll have to use the same one all the time, and the seasoning on it will just keep getting better and better. A couple of months after getting my cast iron skillet, I can’t even make things stick to it when I try!

I started writing this post up while the rice was baking, then when it was ready, Mark and I went downstairs to eat and watch TV for a couple of hours. When we came back upstairs to clean up, we found this:

That’s Brachtune sitting on this post. She had typed a lot of Zs. Oh my, how many Zs she had typed in the middle of this post. Bad cat!

Also, today was Free Comic Book Day. Mark and I got free comics at our local comic book store. And also spent $60 on comics. I see how this works.

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How (not) to make a burrito, by Mark

Tonight when I asked Mark what he wanted for dinner, he replied, “nothing,” and proceeded to help himself to a large pile of saltines. “You are not eating saltines for dinner,” I informed him. “Why not?” “Because you need nutrients. I’m making burritos, will you eat one?”

We went back and forth about the burritos, with Mark being rather picky about what he would accept in his burrito (including, oddly, cucumbers), until I finally said, “why don’t you make your own damn burrito?”

So he did. And he suggested that I share the wonder of his burrito making “skill” with you. So I did.

First you need to gather the ingredients. These include canned pinto beans, Ro-Tel tomatoes, chopped onions, hot sauce, salt, and (oddly) a cucumber.

Oh, and tortillas.

Open the cans using a can opener.

Mark is unsure about canned goods. He thinks they all smell bad. This is because he’s in charge of feeding Brachtune her tuna and that really does smell bad.

Get over your disgust and plow on through with the burrito-making process.

Pour the beans into a strainer …

… and rinse.

Look how Mark balanced the strainer on the sink! How talented he is in the kitchen!

What step is next, I wonder?

Oh yes, the chopping!

First, murder your wife.

Then go to business on that cucumber.

(This is about when I told Mark he was finished with the cucumber.)

Remove a tortilla from the package.

Tortillas can serve many purposes. For one, they help prevent the spread of swine flu.

They can also be large yarmulkes.

If, instead, you’d like to eat the tortilla, place it on a work surface. Arrange your chopped cucumbers in the middle.

Add some of the beans. No need to cook them!

Instead, just smash them down.

Choose only the finest tomatoes from the tin. The only way to know which are best is to taste them.

Put them on the tortilla as well and smash.

Get some onions. The onions are a very important part of the burrito.

Add them to the pile on the tortilla.

Generously sprinkle some hot sauce over the tortilla.

Your tortilla should now look like this:

But we’ve forgotten the most important ingredient!

Now fold the tortilla up:

Your meal-in-a-hand is done!



Wait a minute …

… this is a little disgusting.

And also messy.

The final product:

And that was Mark’s dinner tonight.

Warning: Mark’s burritos may cause insanity.

As delicious as Mark’s burrito looked, I chose not to follow his recipe. I made my own burrito, which consisted of pinto beans that I cooked, with vegan nacho cheese, tomatoes, onions, taco sauce, vegan sour cream, and a distinct lack of cucumbers.

Not too pretty, but very tasty and very satisfying!

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