Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Holiday Recipes

Holy moly. I have books to recommend, and games, and oh, we had the best fondue! But what I really need to do, I know, is link to holiday recipes. Because that's what you're thinking about right now. I understand. I do. I have moved a bunch of stuff over here:

Holiday Crudités with the best-ever Green Dip
Parmesan-Rosemary Butternut Gratin
Cranberry Upside-Down cake
Cranberry-Orange Bread
Sparkling Cranberry Centerpiece
My Mom's Cranberry Sauce
Baked Pancake (this is by request--but it makes a great holiday breakfast!)
DIY Vanilla Extract (get a jump on your holiday gift-making)

Edited to add: Latkes! And there are lots of other good holiday meal and gift recipes in the index, including the most amazing-ever potato-fennel gratin, and roasted cabbage. I'm only mentioning the newly added ones above. . . 

More soon! Happy Thanksgiving, my darlings. And Hanukkah too.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Felted-Wool Blanket Tutorial

Birdy's blanket. I am still supposed to be making a small version for Strawberry.
I have been promising this sweaters-to-blanket tutorial for a long time. (Very slight Owl Moon reference. "I had been waiting to go owling for a long time." Sigh.) But this is the perfect, cozy time of year to hole up with some wool, a glass of wine, and a nice, rewarding sewing project. Plus, if you start now, you can make one for a very special Christmas present. The kind of Christmas present where you maybe have to say, "Can you believe I made that?" and redirect the person's attention from the newly unwrapped knife sharpener back to the blanket, because maybe they don't understand quite all what was involved. Be sure to tell them.

Are you ready? It goes like this.

Ben's blanket.
1. Get the sweaters. Dig through your closets, hit up friends and relatives, and go to thrift shops and hospice shops to find 100% wool sweaters. Lambswool is my absolute favorite. Merino is excellent. Shetland is finicky but will, with persistence, felt. Cashmere is lovely when it works, but also a bit finicky. Some percentage of angora is terrific, but do not go with sweaters that are even 20% nylon because they will pill. I speak from experience, having used them and regretted it. 100% wool. The bigger the better because they will get very small. Nothing that says "washable," because then it won't shrink and felt up. Don't worry about small holes, which will disappear, or rips or stains, which can be simply cut away. Cardigans are fine. (I even sometimes use the buttons.)

My approach is always the same, which is to pick a color family and stick with it. Purples, greens, pinks, blues. But you could make a motley one if you prefer. If you are finding fantastic and inexpensive sweaters in multiple colors, you could consider making two blankets! I would budget $35 for the sweaters--and less if your thrift store has a half-off day.

Reds, pinks, oranges, with a black border. One snuggle beneath, then we gave it away to dear friends, where I can still visit with it.
A note: this part--the amassing of the sweaters--usually takes me a couple of weeks. You need 8-12 sweaters, depending on how big they are, plus 3 or so in a different color if you want to edge it.

2. Felt the sweaters. When you wash and dry it, pure wool will shrink and get nice and tight, with all the fibers matted together so that you can cut it and it won't stretch or fray. However, this won't necessarily happen the first time you wash and dry it, so be patient. Some sweaters require multiple trips through the washer and dryer. Here's how:
  • Wash them. Put the sweaters in the washing machine with a cup of dish-washing detergent. I know! But it's harsh and abrasive, and works well. I also put in a pair of jeans or two, for abrasiveness, and the Velcro paddles from this game, for added fiber-matting! I really do. Do a hot wash with a cold rinse--the temperature swing is supposed to help seize up the fibers extra much. Lots of people recommend putting them in a pillow case first, to protect your machines.
  • Dry them. Put the sweaters in the dryer and dry them on high.
  • Evaluate them. If they are still stretchy, or you can really see the knit stitches in the body of it, then they're not felted. Back into your washer. Keep at it. Some will give in eventually and others won't. I have even boiled sweaters in a big pot of water, which makes the house smell like a sheep in a thunderstorm, but I am just that devoted to my art. If you have sweaters that don't seem thick and felted do not use them. No matter how gorgeous they may be. I speak from experience here: a sweater that is fraying or stretching will have you ruing the day.
  • Worry about your machines. Which may get clogged with lint. I don't know what to tell you. I do it anyway.
 3. Make a plan. Should this have been Step 1? Probably. But this is how it is. I pretty much do all my sweaters the same way: a 7 by 10 grid of 6-inch squares. This makes a generous throw blanket. If you are making a baby blanket or a bed blanket, adjust accordingly. Knowing that I need 70 (6-inch) squares is as far as my planning goes.

I made a baby blanket with 3-inch squares, and it was very cute. You can hardly see how cute it is, what with that baby plunked right on it!
4. Cut the squares. I cannot enough recommend that you get a rotary cutter for this job--and for all your sewing, actually. This is the one I have, and I swear it has paid for itself in inexpensive sewn items that make beautiful gifts. But it also means that you'll need a large cutting mat. And, if you give a mouse a cookie, while we're at it, you should go ahead and get a transparent quilter's ruler (mine is 6- by 12-inches) which, again, will make everything so much easier. You can do this with a pair of scissors and a 6-inch cardboard square that you trace around with a disappearing pen or tailor's chalk, but it will be much more difficult and frustrating.

I cut all my sweaters the same way: I cut the arms off. Then I cut up each side of the body and across the shoulders to make 2 piece that I can lay flat on my cutting mat. I then try to get as many 6- by 12-inch pieces out of them as I can by pressing and holding the cutting mat on the sweater and cutting around it with the rotary cutter. (I cut these in half.) Eventually, I cut 6-inch squares from what's left and, finally, I cut the sleeves open and get what I can from them. I don't worry too much about seams running through my squares, as long as they're not too close to the edge, which can make sewing hard later. I also happily use ribbed parts, assuming they have felted well, which they are inclined not to do. If they aren't felted, don't use them. Pockets are fun to include.

pocket detail
Cut all the sweaters (and then some) until you have enough squares.

5. Arrange your squares. This is the fun part.
I would never! Oh, wait. I did. (This is a different blanket.)
I lay them all out on the floor, and then the kitty runs through them and I curse at him and tip the wine bottle to see if there's any fucking wine left, which there's not, while the kids make fun of me for being such a weird mix of crafty and crass.

Take your time, because this is the blanket you're going to make! I usually go for random, but kind of spaced out evenly, if that makes sense. Usually there's more of one thing than another, and it's all a bit of a challenge, getting it to look right. If there's a color or pattern you are turning out not to like, now is the time to be honest with yourself, even if it means another trip to the Salvation Army.

6. Pile your columns. This has taken me a long time to codify, but I really think this method works to keep the squares organized and in the design you arranged: Pile all the squares from one column, bottom to top, keeping them in order, and ending with the top square on top. Label it with a piece of tape that says which column number it is, starting with 1 at the far left. (As you can see, in the spread-out version above, I number my columns with tape before i even pile them.)

7. Stitch the squares together. I do this on a sewing machine, and can't quite imagine doing it by hand. What you'll want to do is set your machine to do a nice wide zigzag and then, this is kind of crazy and fun, you're simply going to hold two squares with their edges bumped up against each other, and you're going to zigzag them together, doing a little back stitch at the start and end to secure the thread. (If one piece is much thinner than another, you can overlap them the teeniest bit as you're sewing.) You won't want, or be able, to pin them--which means that you'll be able to adjust a little as you go--pulling this square a little, or pushing that one, so that they stay lined up.

Does that make sense? So, for each column, you're going to start with the top square and sew the square underneath it (in the pile) to the right edge of it (back stitch, cut the thread), then the next square underneath (in the pile) to the right edge of that second one (back stitch, cut the thread), etc. until you've got your whole column sewn together. You have to do a lot of stopping and starting, but that's okay, right? Take your time, breathe deeply, and relax.

You'll do this for each column, until you've got 7 columns of ten sewn-together squares (or whatever numbers you chose). Arrange these on the floor again, in the correct order. Knot and trim extra threads at this point so they don't get caught in your machine when you stitch the columns together.

8. Stitch the columns together. Sew top to bottom, starting by stitching column 2 to the right of column 1, then 3 to 2, etc. This is my favorite part, because you get to do nice, long swaths of stitching. Adjust as you go so that the rows end up lining up more or less. Back stitch a little at the beginnings and ends to secure the stitching.

9. Fuss with it. Lay your blanket back out and knot and /or trim all the stray threads (there will be many). Peel off the tape. Hold it up to the light to determine if there are any holes or gaps in your stitching, and sew them up on the machine. (Neatness is not my great strength.) Decide if you want to make a border for it or if you've had about all you can take at this point.

10. Make a border. You might as well. I often do this in black, since it's easy to find a lot of black sweaters, but Birdy wanted hers to match. I cut two-inch-wide strips, as long as I can, from the sweaters and sleeves and scraps, then sew these together, then cut them again to the right size for each side of the blanket. You will need to do some math, so ask a child to help you. You'll need two 42-inch lengths (7 X 6) plus 2 64-inch lengths ((10 X 6) + (2 X 2)). Which is a lot of fucking border, so maybe skip it. Sew the border on the same way you sewed the rest of it, overlapping very slightly if there are places where the edge is uneven.

11. Feel wildly satisfied. You really will, I'm not kidding. In part because you've made such a lovely spot for the cat to sleep.

Don't feel like making one? Buy one from the amazing Crispina Ffrench, whose blankets, spied in a Berkshires shop, first inspired me back in 2004. . . 
Did you want to use leftover scraps to make a pillow? Or have you kind of, you know, had enough?

We machine wash and dry ours, on the assumption that whatever is going to happen has happened already, but you could be more careful, if you like!

Have fun, if you make one! Or enjoy *not* making one.


Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

To whichever one of you bought that book after linking to Amazon from here: Be careful, okay?

Gratuitous cat/partner photograph. 
Did I ever link to this piece over at Brain, Child? If not, there it is. Also, I believe I have something in the November O magazine. I keep meaning to tell you that, but then I forget to check and make sure it's true.


Monday, November 04, 2013

Barbecue Pork Sliders (in the Crock Pot)

You want me. You know you want me.
There are some foods that are such outrageous crowd pleasers that you feel like a jerk to so often subject everybody to your lentil loaves and kale goulash when all you’d have to do to make everyone’s day is ignore a piece of pork in the crock pot for 5 hours. (In my defense, given that some of our nearest and dearest are vegetarians and/or observant Muslims, this would not always be a viable option.)

Also from this angle, you still want me.
But when Ben’s birthday came around, and I offered to make him anything his little heart desired (short of deep frying, which is what God invented the chicken-wing place for), this is what he picked.

For the record, I do not like the white buns! I like the pork, straight-up. Although, full disclosure, I like a less sweet shredded pork even better.

Specifically what he picked was “Nancy Stekl’s barbecue pork sliders,” which our beloved and generous neighbor brings to every potluck—on an enormous platter—while I’m busy trying to force the entire neighborhood to choke down whatever turnip-spelt concoction our farm share has led me too.

teenagers + bbq pork sliders = good
When I emailed Nancy a couple of years ago to ask for the recipe, this is what she wrote:
Catherine, it's hopelessly lame; I just rubbed some Cajun spices on some pork butt, put it in some sliced onions in the crock pot, added about 1 cup of chicken stock and let it go. When it was done (maybe 5 hours on high), I shredded it and dumped in a bottle of traders joes BBQ sauce and warmed it up again.”

Why Nancy, that *is* hopelessly lame! I’m kidding. What it is is brilliantly simple.

Why is your pork wearing an elastic obstetric panty? I don't know.
Okay, the truth is, I *do* know. Out of its panty, the pork is not attractive. Just rub it down with the spice mixture, and try not to think about it too much.
It ends up tasting like the pork barbecue you’d get at maybe not the very best bbq place you ever went to, but a pretty darn good one. The meat is shreddy and tender, sweet and smoky and perfect. Cajun seasoning appears to be a mixture of salt, red pepper, black pepper, thyme, celery seed, paprika, garlic, and onion, and it's good here. You could probably mix some up yourself, but I bought it bulk at Whole Foods. Because I am very obedient.

"Ma, ma, it's too crowded in here!" I actually ended up doing this whole batch in the Dutch oven in a 300 oven for 5 hours. Unless your crock pot is huge, you cannot double the recipe, it turns out.
Serving this on slider buns is really kind of gilding the lily here. Or forcing the lily to root itself in refined flour? Something. It is not my typical MO, as you know. But it was Ben’s special request, after all, so we went for it. In my dream world, there would also be coleslaw. But it wasn’t my birthday now, was it?

When it was done cooking, but not yet shredded, it looked like this.
Fall-Apart Barbecue Pork (in the Crock Pot)
Makes 4-8 servings, depending on a lot of factors, including how many teenagers are eating with you and whether any of them are vegetarians. (I made bbq tofu sliders too! I don't have as much to say about them, in truth, but they were pretty good.) This is my very basic $15 slow cooker.

1 (3-3 ½ pound) boneless pork butt (this might be called boneless picnic shoulder)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning
1 onion, sliced
1 cup chicken broth (water would probably be fine, honestly)
1 bottle barbecue sauce (I use Trader Joe’s Bold and Smokey Kansas City Style)

Okay, ready for how hard this is? Take the pork out of its elastic panty, if it’s wearing one, and rub it all over with the salt and seasoning. Now put the onion in the bottom of the crock pot, lay the pork on top of it, and pour in the chicken broth. Cook on high for 5 or 6 hours (or on low for 8 or more hours) until the pork falls apart if you so much as look at it. (More exactly: Press a piece of pork with a wooden spoon. If it doesn’t yield into shreds, it’s not ready.)

At this point, I behave in a slightly fussy manner. I remove the meat to a plate, let it cool slightly, and then use a fork and/or my fingers to remove anything that looks like someone wouldn’t want to eat it. Pieces of skin or large pieces of fat or connective tissue (although, in truth, most of the nasty stuff is dissolved, in a good way). While you’re doing this, the pork will more or less shred itself, but if it doesn’t, use a fork or two to help it along.

Put the pork back into the crock pot and stir it around with the liquid,* then add the barbecue sauce, stir it, and cook on low for another hour. Serve on buns or not, as you prefer.

* If there is a lot of liquid, I sometimes transfer the whole thing to a Dutch oven at this point, so that I can heat it in the oven with the lid off and reduce the liquid a little. Which is not really in the spirit of crock-pot convenience, I realize.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Pornographic Pork Teaser

Bite me.

Next week, I promise. My neighbor Nancy's bbq pork slider recipe.

Have a good weekend, my darlings. Don't eat too many Milk Duds.