Community (And Pickled Chioggia Beets)

"Anti-social media."

That's what my husband says when you bring up Twitter, Facebook, Google + or anything that incites or requires interaction through a computer or smartphone. He is, at heart, a huge people person. His business requires near constant contact with people - all of which he prefers to do face-to-face or at least on the phone.

His argument is that people think they have friends that they make or maintain friendships through social media, but that it's just superficial. Indeed, he merely tolerates my stories of people I've never actually met. He's not discounting that, once you've met in person, a friendship can grow.

I'll admit, some days I completely agree with him. Then I get a note from someone who reads the blog that is full of more support than a friend I've had for years has given. Or someone I only know from on-line shows up at my door with food, when no one else does on a bad day. Or I am heavily impacted by a tragedy that rocked the world of someone else.

Always remember, there is a real person behind that on-line presence.

That means you can indeed form a relationship with someone you've never met. Will it be as close as the one you have with your best friend since high school? Maybe. Maybe not. But it will still be valuable and important for its own reasons.

On the days that I do see merit in what he says, I take a step forward into my community. Not my on-line world, but the one that is literally outside my door. I take a walk and chat with the neighbour. I grab a beer with another mom from the preschool. I call my brother or sister to just chat about our kids. Nothing can replace a face-to-face conversation.

Because of those conversations I have beet pickles today.

There we were, minding our own business, devouring my husband's hamburgers in the backyard. Our front door was wide open, the dog was probably sound asleep, and the kids were already performing after dinner hula hoop tricks. Suddenly the back door opens and one of our neighbours walks through. In her hands was a grocery bag full of chioggia beets and a big bowl of apricots.

With family in warmer climates and friends coming through she was left with a pile of produce from her folks' backyard. Too much for her and her husband, she brought them over to share. And she knows I would happily accept because we've actually talked before. We live on a street where most of us make an effort to know each other. So she knew I would tackle the colourful produce with gusto and none would go to waste. (There is an apricot crisp in the oven for another neighbour who just had a baby.)

This is my community. Embrace the friends you have when they need it, whether with a quiet note or the full force of your arms. Embrace the shared journeys. Embrace the beets they bring to your backyard.

This was my first time making beet pickles. Inspired by the Pickling Party, hosted by Shauna Ahern from Gluten-Free Girl, and my neighbour. The recipe is a mish mash of ideas from memory, Aimee from Simple Bites, and the Harrow Fair Cookbook. Even my cooking is an amalgamation of my many communities!

Pickled Chioggia Beets
Makes 3 500 ml jars

2 1/2 pounds scrubbed beets, tops and stems removed
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp pickling salt
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
3 cloves garlic
rosemary (optional)

1. Boil the beets in a large pot of water for 25 minutes. Make sure a fork will go through the largest beets easily. Drain and immediately place in a sink or bowlful of cold water. Once cooled use your hands and, if necessary, a knife, to trim the skin from the beets. Slice and set aside in a clean bowl.
2. While the beets are cooking clean and process 3 jars and the screw lids in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Keep hot in the water while you clean and slice the cooked beets.
3. While you prep the beets combine the vinegars, water, sugar, salt, and seeds in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and keep hot, hot until ready to use.
4. Quickly drain your sterilized jars. Keep the water boiling.
5. While they are still hot add a garlic clove to the bottom of each jar, then fill with beets. Stop filling 1/2'' from the top. Carefully pour in the pickling liquid, leaving at least a 1/4'' from the top of the jar of space. Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth and screw on the lid.
6. Process for 20 minutes in a boiling water canner. Do not start timing until the water comes to a boil after you add your jars.

(Why didn't the skeleton cross the road? Because he had no guts!)
(Said skeleton keeping the almost pickles company.)

Another Condiment Obsession

I’ve had a mild obsession with tomatoe marmalade since out weekend in the Okanagan.  After our trip to the market the clouds broke and we ventured to the aptly named community of Summerland.  There we drove up the mountain to the colourful Valentine Farm.  Our hosts, Kim Stansfield and John Gordon, met us in the yard of their compact property, next to their fantastic home and guest house
After introductions we gathered our lunch from the generous garden of Kim and John, under the watchful eye of an odd looking llama, a couple of horses, and a friendly guard dog names Asta.  We picked a half dozen types of greens, beets, radish pods, corn, flowers, and lots of tomatoes (minus the ones Hubby scarfed while picking).  
Kim and John are more than mere gardeners.  They are grape growers too.  But unlike every other wine maker or grape grower in the region who fears their wine spoiling), Kim and John intentionally infect their wine with acetic acid to turn it into a pungent and flavourful vinegar John showed us their small production facility (a very nice looking and obsessively clean garage) then set to finishing our lunch in the outdoor, wood-fired oven.

Our gathered items made their way into the most diverse salad I've ever had, dressed, of course, with Vinegar Works organic vinegar. We were also served a large platter of sliced heirloom tomatoes reminiscent of a sunrise.  Smaller tomatoes made their way on to the wood fired pizzas.

Oh, the pizzas.  The most tender yet crispy and somehow bulbous crust (yes, all at the same time) covered with tomatoes, sometimes chard, feta, and my newfound obsession: tomatoe marmalade. Can I just say I will never made a pizza without tomatoe marmalade ever again?  I would love to say that I will only ever eat pizza from a wood-fired backyard oven, but I don't live in Summerland or here to make that happen. But so long as I can hit 450 degrees F on m home oven I will be using this as my sauce.

So when my mother-in-law showed up with 20 pounds of Romas last week I set to work. The girls helped as much as it held their interest.  For Smilosaurus this meant transferring tomatoes from the box to the sink for washing, sampling along the way. She also had a special job of stealing the cloth for cleaning the jars. For The Monster helping meant transferring blanched tomatoes to the ice water, stirring the marmalade as it cooked, and helping label the finished jars. See, you can can with kids underfoot. Okay, it helps if your mother-in-law is around for bike rides and swing pushes when it gets a little boring for the little ones.

This marmalade sweet and just a little bit spicy.  It sets about as much as a runny jam.  I'm saving mine for pizza, but The Monster has already claimed some for dipping fresh bread.  It isn't Kim Stansfield's recipe, but I think it is nearly as good.  Then again, I'm not sure I could ever recreate that lunch and the taste of sunshine in every bite of our meal.

Tomatoe Marmalade
(makes 7-9 250 mL jars)

12 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes (drained of liquid)
9 cups sugar
1 orange, thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon whole cloves
6 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 green cardamon pods

1. Mix the tomatoes and sugar together in a large pot. Place the remaining ingredients in a bag made from cheesecloth.  Put the cheesecloth bag and tomatoes together in a large pot and set on the stove.
2.  Bring to a strong simmer and cook for 45-60 minutes, until mixture thickens and the juices are syrupy.  Test for gel by placing a plate in the freezer.  When the plate is cold place a spoonful of the marmalade on the the plate and replace the plate in the freezer.  After a few minutes, run your fingernail through the marmalade.  If it doesn't immediately fill the space left by your finger it is ready.  If the liquid runs back on itself cook the marmalade for another few minutes.  Test again.
3.  Meanwhile, wash and sterilize your jars, lids, and screw tops in boiling water. Keep the jars hot until ready to use.
4.  When the marmalade is ready fill the jars to 1/2 inch from the top.  Wipe the rims clean with a hot, clean cloth.  Top with the lids and screw tops.
5.  Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (start timing once the water has returned to the boil after adding the filled jars). Freeze or immediately use any jars that don't seal.

It Must be the Ukrainian in Her

There are a million lists that circulate through inboxes that start with, "You know you are X when..." I must admit that I can identify with the ones that refer to children of the 80s, Ukrainians, and quilters. But nowhere on the list about Ukrainians does it mention wanting pickles for breakfast.

Mornings in our house are lazy affairs, what with me on mat leave and Hubby self-employed and not a morning person. The Monster wakes up, steals a few snuggles, aggravates her sister and sits down with a handful of raisins and Zaboomafoo while I nurse Little Miss Sunshine. Once the little one is fed I make myself some tea and try to convince the Monster to eat some breakfast. Like her Dad, she isn't much for eating early in the day.

Well, one day last week she made the particularly unique request for pickles for breakfast.

We had a jar sitting on the counter, waiting for Hubby to open. When my parents make pickles and my dad does up the jars with his beefy construction worker hands a special gravity is enabled, one that holds the lids on with particular force. Of course, old lids don't help and being the frugal Ukrainian that he is, he won't replace the jars. Opening his jars is a two person, hot water, wooden spoon, and damp cloth job.

So that morning Hubby and I tried struggled. We rinsed, we banged, we grunted, we braced ourselves and turned. Nothing was working. Hubby finally felt some movement so tried that extra bit harder. I could hear the crack in the other room. The lid came off - with the top of the jar. Definitely time to replace the jars, Dad.

After the Monster got over the shock of the noise and the short-lived drama of thinking she wasn't going to get any pickles, we opened one of the jars that my mom and I made while our playhouse was being built. The Monster got her breakfast of three little pickles, and a bit of cheese too. Off to daycare a happy little Ukrainian. Well, half Ukrainian with garlic breath.

Was It Really Worth It?

Some things are just more trouble than they're worth. I now put homemade ketchup in that category, along with transplanting houseplants you already hate, arguing with a toddler over green socks versus white ones, and trying to keep the dog hair off the new couch. Is it better than your bottle of Heinz? Hell yeah, but it still isn't worth the expense or the effort.

I blame you, Jamie Oliver. You and your ridiculous enthusiasm for gardening, food, and making sure people eat well. I blame you, Safeway, for having Jamie at Home on sale in the book bin. I blame you, Calgary weather, for making sure I had loads of tomatoes ripening in stages on my kitchen counter in September and defeating my efforts to make a large batch of tomatoe sauce. I even blame the Monster - just a tiny bit - for having the common desire of any toddler to dip everything in ketchup. In that case, I blame you, Hubby, for fueling that desire in her by never growing up yourself.

Ultimately, however, I have to blame Michael Pollan. He and the Slow Food folks are encouraging me to reduce the amount of processed foods coming into the house. We go through a lot of ketchup and I thought I was being a good mom/wife by introducing another homemade staple.

The recipe* itself was time-consuming, but not difficult. The toughest part was reading through the Jamie Oliver style of recipe writing. And there were a ridiculous number of ingredients! Who knew?

So I spent an afternoon chopping, simmering, reducing, and pureeing. The house smelled wonderful. Two pounds of tomatoes and I got little more than 1 bottle of ketchup. Then the Monster decided that she liked mustard better. Seriously, every time I tried to serve it to her she cried for mustard instead.

Now the ketchup sits in the fridge. This is good stuff. I can't wait to try it on Hubby's famous hamburgers. For now, and post root canal, I will savour it on some scrambly eggs. But next time I'm just making tomatoe sauce.

*Let me know if you want the recipe and don't have the book. I followed it exactly so I won't repeat it here.