Create: Things in batches

limoncello/ good house guest

Exchanging a dozen of your fresh eggs for a jar of your neighbor’s honey was once standard practice in small towns and rural communities. This friendly and practical barter of goods is now experiencing a revival in cities across the country by like-minded food enthusiasts through highly organized food swaps. BK Swappers, founded in 2010, is one such group that my dear friend and fearless-home-cook, Jane Lerner is behind.

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I got in on the action last month, and discovered how this pantry-stocking-swap works. First, you have to show up with something to trade, and everyone brings up to 10 jars, bags, bottles or tins of whatever they’ve preserved, pickled, baked or stirred up. This being my first swap, I went with a safe bet and just made a giant batch of spiced nuts. However, this event is not for those shy around the kitchen – there was kimchi stuffed sausage, Meyer lemon limoncello and orange bitters in amber-hued tincture bottles, to name a few items.

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Everyone snags a space to display their wares. They also fill out a swap sheet with a description of their goodies, and then others can write in a proposed trade for your treat (for example: My jar of Sichuan chili pepper oil for your bacon-infused vodka). Trick of the trade: having a little tasting sample set out to entice fellow swappers.

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It’s a very social affair. In addition to all the nibbles on the swap table, people bring pot-luck style dishes to share, and one swapper had even set up a knife-sharpening station. Just as if you were at the most delicious (and ambitious) cocktail party ever, folks stand around chatting and clinking beer bottles in-between bites of lavender shortbread or a scoop of pepper-infused jelly. All is casual and friendly… until the call to swap.

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This is where things get serious, and a bit hectic. Seasoned swappers circulate quickly to pounce on those chocolate-covered pretzels or tangy pickled Brussels sprouts they’ve been eyeing. The uninitiated (ok, me) hung back and tried their luck after the initial rush. No matter your swap style though, no one walks away empty-handed or without something new and different to try. After all, who couldn’t use a jar of peppery giardiniera or homemade butternut squash butter?

Does your pantry need a spring re-stock? The next BK Swappers event is Thursday, April 24 at the West in Williamsburg. Spaces can be reserved starting this Friday, April 4. Join their mailing list for the full scoop. Happy swapping!

Create: Summer in a jar

Summer in a jar/ Good House Guest

With whipping wind, sideways-falling snow and ice slicks on every block, it’s been important to keep in mind that there will be life after winter. In New York, that also means remembering a tidier time – before sidewalks were hedged with diminutive mount trashmores (complete with Christmas tree husks) covered in snow, ice and slush.

Right now a little bit of sunshine goes a long way, blue sky days are that much better and best of all is when the forecast calls for a chance to leave the house in something other than clunky snow boots. So I’m even more appreciate than ever of the friends who preserved, canned and bottled summer’s sweetness and shared it with us. Our pantry is stocked with bright marmalades and dark fruit jellies that give us hope for the possibility of budding trees, picnics in the park and far less trash on the sidewalk.

Here is my friend Sarah’s recipe for her red currant jelly so you can have your own spot of brightness on a cold day. We’ve been slathering it on toast and mixing it into plain yogurt.

2 pounds currants (washed and stems removed – can be frozen until ready to use)
1 cup sugar

Place the currants in a large pot, add the water (about 1/4-1/2 cup) and sugar (1 cup + to taste, some people so equal parts but I like it more tart than sweet). Cook over medium heat. The currants will start to release all their juice and pop out of their skins. Once you have a more liquified consistency, about 20 minutes, drain the currants over a bowl. I did this using cheesecloth and the help of a mesh strainer. Be careful not to squeeze the cheesecloth or you’ll get more of a cloudy jelly. Once all the liquid has been drained, you can pour into canning jars and process in a water bath (water bath canning instructions here).

Wander: Portland, OR

Last year, our dear friends, Joe, Jill and Luca took a chance on carving out a more creative life for themselves and made a break for Portland, Oregon. They have since settled in a tree house perched among the pines, landed dream animation gigs, found work with interesting clients and Jill completed and staged a rock musical aptly titled DREAM. It more than seems to be working out.

All this, and they’re steps from 30-lush miles of hiking trails that are pine-scented and rich with treasures their son adores, like plump, slimy banana slugs.

We had an ambitious list of things to do during our visit. But lingering over endless cups of coffee in their living room, watching our boys delight in their insta-playmate status and sliding into our familiar places at their dining room table, with wine in hand, as we had so many nights over our years together in Chicago, slowed us down. Which was exactly what we needed. 

We did however, manage to connect with other friends in Portland, sample silky charcuterie at Olympic Provisions and meditate on the turning maples at the Japanese Garden. And headed out on the gaping open road (no traffic snarls, or towering buildings and ‘buy this!’ billboards polluting sight lines) to Cannon Beach.

Dining at Le Pigeon or Bar Avignon and a tour of the World Forestry Museum will have to wait until next trip… as if we needed any more incentive to return.

Create: Raise a glass to 2014!

Our pals Sara and Andrew never roll up to any event empty-handed. In fact, they are too generous with their gifts of homemade marmalade, sugary cakes and my favorite of their specialties – cranberry shrub. It’s a refreshing way to toast the new year, and here are five ways they suggest to mix up your shrub.

* Pour over ice and top with club soda.
* Mix with sparkling white wine.
* Muddle with an orange slice Then add ice, bourbon and top with club soda.
* Mix equal parts orange juice, tequila and shrub.
* Shake with ice and equal parts shrub, gin, sweet vermouth and strain into a glass.

Oh, and cheers!

Create: Holiday cheer

We’re having ourselves a busy little Christmas season here. How about you? But we did get in a visit with the man in red, and returned to Santa’s Village in Brooklyn, put on by the very crafty elves at My Brooklyn Baby. At three, Soren is at that sweet age where Christmas is still all about magic and fantastic tales of elves and flying reindeer, and not yet tied to stuff (well, save for candy canes).

Wishing all peace and a good bit of magic, too.

Gift: Post-feast treats

Last year, a friend who had hosted a giant Thanksgiving dinner tipped me off to the most thoughtful hostess gift: breakfast for the next morning. As a host, what could be better following the days of cooking and hours of cleaning involved in these epic holiday feasts than having someone else plan a meal for you?

And as a guest, it’s pretty simple to pick up a dozen bagels, bake muffins, make a quiche, whip up a batch of Jane Lerner’s granola or, if staying overnight, wake the house up with a pan of Adam Miller’s chilaquiles. You will surely score yourself a return invite every holiday. And that’s certainly something to be grateful for. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Pass the stuffing… tip the turkey to me… and wishing heaping helpings of love and gratitude to all.

Create: Got buttermilk?

Buttermilk cake/ Good House GuestThere are always those recipes that call for a tablespoon of this, a dollop of that or a quarter cup of an exotic or rarely-used ingredient. Said item then sits in your refrigerator, ducking behind those everyday stars – like milk and orange juice – just taunting you to make use of it before it morphs into a science experiment.

The latter is usually the way those things go over here. But there are those rare moments when I become this resourceful (not wasteful) keeper of the kitchen. And so I had to share this recipe for a lemon buttermilk cake that saved me from dumping the creamy remains of this icebox lurker. 

It’s spongy, lemony and all-around delicious – the only thing I would change is to double up on the glaze. With the dairy-heavy ingredients, I have this vision of this recipe as one handed down between the generations of a farming family. Somewhere out in the Midwest, on a green patchwork of well-tended fields, the creamy batter would be stirred with love and efficiency in a farmhouse kitchen, and placed in a window to cool only just until a small hand couldn’t resist crumbling off a corner any longer.

Agrarian roots or not, this is a darn good cake, and perfect excuse to use the leftover buttermilk taking up space in your fridge.

Wander: Camptown ladies

camptown/ good house guest

I haven’t pitched a tent, lit a camp stove or burrowed deep into the secure cocoon of a sleeping bag as owls called out to no one in particular, in far too long. Nine years to be exact. The last camping trip I mapped out was to the Apostle Islands, but that was also the same summer that my dad died, and I cancelled the trip. So when my friend Jane threw together a last minute mid-week camping excursion, I couldn’t refuse.

woodland valley campground/ good house guest

And I’m so grateful that I was able to juggle schedules and move work and childcare days around to get out to Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, New York, tucked into the Catskills at the foot of Slide Mountain.

stream cooler/ good house guest

The tidy campground established by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s, was practically empty on this Wednesday in October, and we had our pick of sites. Signed off on all the bear disclaimers and bundles of firewood purchased, we pitched our domestic domes on the bend of a gentle stream that slipped over a shallow, rocky river bed. And attended to very important matters, like setting the beer to cool in the stream. Nice work, Sue.

Crunching leaves underfoot, we strolled to the trailhead which led to substantial ascents to the ridge line, but we only had enough daylight for a healthy scramble part of the way up. This was a power camping round, but we did it all: Jiffy Pop on the fire, a gourmet feast of rich black beans and Alaskan salmon (thank you Iliama Fish Co.) and s’mores roasted over the fire pit. There was strong French press coffee in the morning and the newest trick in the outdoorsy book: heating lavender-scented face wipes in a pot of bowling water to freshen (and warm up) in the morning. My idea of a spa retreat. It was nourishing on every level, and I can’t wait to return in the spring…

Cstskills/ good house guest

spa treatment/ good house guestin my element/ good house guest

Wander: Summer Round-up

Good House Guest/Chez NousWith somewhat regular desk jobs (translation: less free-roaming vacation time) this past year, summer travel was more about the long weekend away and revisiting tradition. Some old, like time spent at the family cottage (100 years old this summer!) in Bellaire, Michigan.

Good House Guest/ Cuttyhunk, MAOthers newer, such as the three-summers-old tradition playing castaway on Cuttyhunk Island off the coast of Cape Cod. This year we loaded up on groceries, wine and diapers and stayed for one whole blissful week on island.

Floating Farm House/ Good House Guest

And, something we hope that will become a tradition, an escape to the Floating Farmhouse, in Eldred, New York, for the birthday of a dear friend. The meandering drive along two-lane roads trimmed with farm stands by way of New Jersey, with a jog into Pennsylvania and back over the New York state line to the Catskills, made it fell like more of an adventure than the easy two-and-a-half hour journey it was. 

Good House Guest/ Gazebo

This 200-year-old farmhouse was artfully revamped to blend the existing structure – wide wood floors, exposed beams, rustic wall planks – with new elements. Most notable was the open kitchen with its wood-burning pizza oven and soaring wall of windows facing the pine-dense forest. Ok, we were all ga-ga over the deep soaking tubs, vaulted ceilings and generous porch perched on the muddy pond, too.

Good House Guest/ Floating Farm HouseFrogs croaked their creaky songs at night on the pond. A black bear sauntered through the woods in plain sight. People wandered out to the gazebo with coffee in hand and a book, or rocked in the hammock. Frisbee breaks were mandatory and frequent. Like a group of test kitchen chefs, we worked on perfecting a pizza crust recipe. We lazed for hours on the loungers surrounding the pond. And we laughed, a ton. It was filling on all levels. And I can’t wait to get back there again next summer…or, in any season, for that matter.

night farm/ good house guest

Gift: Something crafty

Good House Guest/ Paper SourceI had a goodbye-for-now lunch with a friend who was off to travel and write her way around the world for the next year. And, in an unexpected turn of events, she presented me with a parting gift. Ever-generous, it was in keeping with her nature, and it was something that I never knew I needed – a bag of decorative paper scraps.

There were bright gold sheets, crinkly tails, thick card card stock and wallpaper-worthy Japanese-style prints. Soren ripped right into it and we made kites and oddball collages, and I’ve found that the scraps make perfect gift cards. 

Gather up your own assortment of colorful scraps, or pick up one of the gorgeous grab bags from the Paper Source. It’s just the thing for paper lovers of all ages – especially crafty kids.

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