Secret Weapon: The Mason Jar

28 Dec

For as long back as I can remember, I have had an unhealthy passion for cute containers. If mom brought anything into the house in a passably interesting tin, jar, or box, I’d call dibs on it before she’d even touched the safety seal. It’s one of my guilty privileges of adulthood (along with baking cookies at midnight while wearing a vintage slip and sipping rum out of a teacup) that I will pay a couple bucks extra for jam or fruit butter or coconut oil or spaghetti sauce if I like the jar it comes in. I know, okay, it sounds a little frivolous, but hey, I’m going to use that jar, right? And I’m far more likely to use a pretty jar, right?

…Don’t judge me.

When I moved into my apartment, I got my responsible-adult-collection started with couple of cases of Ball canning jars in various sizes, and I use them for everything except canning. Don’t get me wrong: I read canning blogs late into the evening hours and lust after homemade preserves like nobody’s business, but I don’t think I have the drive to make time for another all-consuming food-related hobby just now. (But one day. One glorious day.) However, those jars are brilliant for making yogurt, protecting grains and legumes from hexapedal invaders, preserving soups and sauces in the fridge, and perhaps most importantly, toting beverages to and from wherever.

I mean, I’ve been teased once or twice for pulling what looks like a jar of moonshine out of my bag in broad daylight on a college campus, but I take that as a badge of pride. I like the front-porch homeyness of a jar full of mint tea. I mean, c’mon: don’t you feel refreshed just looking at it?

Aside from the stylistic benefits of mason jars, I’m also a huge fan of the first-hand recycling aspect of the game. Bereft of original contents, jelly-sauce-and-condiment jars serve exactly the same function in my pantry and my lunchbox as canning jars do. Just for example, I’ve lately been accruing a quantity of Bonne Maman jam jars. They’re the exact size and shape of the glassware we had in my kitchen as a kid, so they make for marvelous beverage conveyances. Furthermore, the wide mouth and 13oz size render them the perfect size for soups, chilis, and bean salads, and minus the lids they are microwave ready. Since glass doesn’t stain, I can microwave as much cheese-and-tomatoey goodness in these as I like, without forever suffering the red stains scarred into plastic for eternity.

Lastly, as I’m sure you’re already aware, plastic food containers have been getting a bad rap lately for potentially leaching a toxic chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) that has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer (along with other scary effects). Now, I’m not the most plastic-paranoid person out there (particularly as more and more BPA-free plastics are flooding the market), but if in this case health and aesthetics go hand in hand, I’m happy to make the effort to replace my potentially-toxic plastic with pretty-and-functional glassware. Besides which, pretty containers motivate me to pick pretty food (what can I say: I’m a simple girl), and pretty food is better for you.

To help get you started on your downward-spiral to mason jar hoarding (because nothing helps an obsession like spreading it around), check out the links below. You will never look at a jar of pasta sauce the same way again!

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My Love Affair With the Freezer

9 Nov

I detested the freezer as a child.

My mother, that supreme model of economy and practicality, would freeze leftovers out of the refrigerator to resurrect them for later time-crunched weekday meals, and for as long as I can remember I would turn my nose up and sneer. I was convinced, convinced, I tell you, that the freezer was where good food went to die. As far as I was concerned, it contained only the diseased corpses of half-masticated lasagna preserved against the distant day that a cure for stale noodles was finally found.

In my defense, I was right more than once — my mother (reasonably enough) adhered to the “freeze it before it rots” method of food preservation, chucking things in foil and freezer bags before they’d reached the point of no return. This, my esteemed colleagues, is no way to freeze food. More on that later.

To be absolutely fair to my brilliant and beleaguered mother though, a great deal of my anti-freeze prejudice to the idea of re-constituted three-month-old beef-stew was simply that it was old. Some essential flash of vital deliciousness must surely have been frosted away forever — not to mention (I intelligently reasoned) that it was surely no longer as healthy as freshly-slaved-over-that-very-day food was like to be.

Right here, right now, in front of the entire world, I’d like to take a moment to say six very important words — words that I’m sure I will often find reason to repeat in my independent adult life: “I’m sorry, Mom. You were right.”

There.

You see, folks, as a chronically-poor-and-pressed-for-time college student, I have neither leisure nor money to afford freshly-prepared-by-me-or-professionals food on a daily basis. I don’t! I don’t even have the cash (or, thankfully, the taste or desire) for quick convenience foods like macaroni and cheese or frozen pizza.

But I do have a freezer. And I love him. (All inanimate objects have a personality. I imagine my freezer to be a six-foot-tall blonde  from frosty Scandinavian climes who desires nothing more than to pamper me in the manner I so obviously deserve. His name is Sven.)

With the assistance of Sven (you think I’m kidding?), I have healthy home-cooked meals on call 24 hours a day, including the wee small hours of dawn when I’m blearily packing a lunch box, or the dusky twilight hour when I finally return home too hungry and tired to stand in my kitchen longer than ten minutes. And while my adolescent self was right to the degree that there are some foods that don’t survive Sven’s icy embrace as well as others, there are just as many (if not more) that return from their journey as fresh and fantastic as the day they disappeared. 

I didn’t start out freezing food on purpose, you know. At first it was merely a gesture of defense against the creeping sense of frustration at my complete inability to cook food in single-person-appropriate-portions, and the all-encompassing guilt at the thought of tossing any of that lovingly-produced splendor away. So I funneled the soups and stews I made so abundantly into freezer-bags and hid them out of sight, never really intending to visit them again.

Then, as it so often does, necessity struck. One dark and dismal night I found myself faced with a fridge as howlingly empty as my stomach and my bank account at the end of a day comprised of a full load of collegiate classes and a particularly stressful evening of rehearsal. Rather begrudgingly, I plucked a bag of black bean soup from the dark recess of the freezer, peeled it open, and dropped it in a saucepan. 

And it tasted all right. Absolutely fine. I did not sicken, I did not die, I did not go hungry, and I did not look back.

***

The secret to freezer-food-success is this simple philosophy: put some aside in advance. Do not wait for it to show signs of distress a week after you cook it: not only will the flavor suffer, but thinking of the freezer as an intermediary quarantine between the refrigerator and the garbage can is not likely to instill feelings of excitement and appetite in you when you reach for that food later. Think of the freezer as a vital weapon in your food prep arsenal, your secret stash, your Swiss bank account of culinary riches. (Get it? Sven? Swiss? Anyone?)

Most recipes I find online are designed to prepare as many as 6-8 servings. On the night I cook, I only put about three servings in the fridge to serve for the week; the rest of it goes immediately into individually portioned containers. Individual portioning is key; that way you can simply thaw as you go, rather than thawing-and-refreezing-and-thawing-and-refreezing the whole quantity ad infinitum.

Initially I favored the quart-and-gallon freezer bag approach. The individual portions go in the quarts, the sealed quarts all go in one gallon, and the gallon is clearly labeled with contents and date, and I am left with one complete package. It has its advantages, and I still do this for solid foods like cake, banana bread, lasagna, and so forth. These days though, my soups, stews, and beans go into wide-mouthed pint-sized canning jars. They take up a little more space than the bags, but they are fully re-useable, do not retain odor or stains, and their same-day transit from the freezer to my lunch box to the microwave are a major part of their secret weapon status. (Seriously. It’s freakishly useful.)

Back in August, a month or so before classes started for the fall quarter, I entrusted six or seven jars apiece of chicken soup, turkey chile, and lentil soup to Sven. Between classes, auditions, callbacks, and a respiratory virus to beat all viruses (seriously, though, I think I’m dying) I have had one or more freezer meal per DAY this week alone. I am probably blowing this whole thing just the tiniest bit out of proportion, but the fact is that I tremble with self-superior glee every time I reach into my frozen safety-deposit box and remember how wise I was to save up for a rainy day. It’s like a letter of encouragement from month-ago-me. I like month-ago-me. And I really like Sven.

What are some of your favorite freezer-friendly foods? What’s your favorite freezer-safe container? Any particular stories of hail-mary-freezer-meal-rescue? Share below!

Good Morning, Class

13 Oct

I’ve been considering this project for a while in all sorts of forms and permutations.

The fact is that last year, for the first time, I moved out of my parents house and into an apartment of my very own. I’m excessively lucky to be the only one in that apartment — no roommates, no parents, no one to bother about a refrigerator full of experiments and a sink full of filthy dishes. Thusly have I discovered that

  1. I love to cook,
  2. I’m not a terrible cook,
  3. Cooking is more fun than going out to eat, and most importantly
  4. Without my lunchbox, I am nothing.

That last I learned with this previous school year, which involved a hundred-mile round trip commute to my full-time university schedule and a secret double life as a working theater actor. Consequently, I spent the majority of my waking hours hungry, impoverished, and away from home, with an extremely limited amount of leisure time left over between my bed and my car every morning and night. Under these military-level high-pressured circumstances, I quickly developed my one and only superpower: the Lunch Reflex.

I cooked magnificent portions of everything. I carried mountains of food everywhere I went. I mapped out refrigerators and microwaves at every daily destination. I even spent weekends pre-packing tupperware full of protein, veggies, and quinoa. Most telling of all, the first day I let myself off the hook and bought lunch, I involuntarily ran the calculations in my head: I could roast a chicken and buy three heads of lettuce for the cost of one measly chicken salad. Damn.

It’s official: I am a Kitchen Evangelist and Lunch Box Crusader for life.

…Now, about this blog. I considered doing something straight up project-oriented: take a picture of my lunch everyday (boring), commit to never going out to eat for an entire year (impractical), never repeat the same lunchbox content twice (are you insane?!), but for various reasons, none of those seemed sustainable. I know myself too well, and with the looming specter of this next school year to think about, such commitments are more pressure than I need. Besides: I don’t just cook lunch, and I don’t always cook specifically for lunch. I usually cook for dinner. Actually, I usually cook several dinners at once over the course of one afternoon. And now that I think of it, what about Sunday breakfast? Can I really compel my own silence on the glories of fresh pancakes? I say nay. I cry it false and unjust to do so. On the other hand, the lunch reflex is strong with me. In my months of trial and error I have earned some hard-won secrets of self-sufficiency that I can’t just keep to myself, but (like most bloggers, I suspect), I just don’t know enough people who are as fascinated by my lunch tricks as I am. Strange but true: the majority of the population does not find homemade vanilla lattes in pint-sized mason jars as adorable as I do.

So with all that said, consider this blog as a general-cooking-notebook-with-a-lunchbox-slant. Here you will find my secret weapons of the workday, but also my favorite all-day pot roast recipes, my unusual fascination with homemade yogurt, my tempestuous love affair with kale, and my thrilling exploits with a cast iron skillet (spoiler alert: bacon!).

Thanks for visiting, and don’t be shy! Let me know what you like, what you want to see more of, and what you know more about than I do — I have much to learn.