Life as I know It

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San Luis Obispo, California, and South Bristol, Maine, United States
Author ~ Illustrator ~ Lecturer

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Her Hands Darted and Dived Like Swallows

Mission and Brown Turkey Figs from the trees I planted 7 years ago. Some of the crop will be dried, some preserved, some cooked and soaked in brandy (Sicilian style). But most of those incomparable figs will be popped into our mouths (and the mouths of our grandkids who love the figs).

Dear Friends,

Oops, where did our summer go? Week after week I have meant to post something, but life keeps jamming itself in between me and my work. This is the first big block of time I've had without any assignments. My first time off in eight years. It is the waiting game for me, waiting for my book release, waiting to see if Random House will exercise their option on my newly finished work, waiting for the apples to ripen, the figs to stop exploding everywhere, waiting for life to slow down a tad so I can get caught up. Although I am a patient person, waiting is the toughest thing for me to endure.

Lots of wonderful letters and cards (and gifts) have come my way. Thank you for writing and voicing your concerns that "everyone is stopping blogging and just posting on Facebook." I won't let you down Darla, Laurie, Julie Marie, Nell, Lori in Indiana, Anonymous (who ARE YOU?), so many of you who don't connect via Facebook. It just takes me a little longer these days.

Jeff and I had our first stay at Lake Tahoe. Wow, it is so incredibly, deliciously beautiful. I wish we'd had more time to explore, but we did take long walks during both the day and the starry nights. My favorite area was Sugar Pine Point, part of the California State Parks. It is lovely and pristine and perfect for hiking, swimming, and a good, old-fashioned picnic.

Sugar Pine Point at Lake Tahoe (California State Parks). 
Tahoe is so clear you can see to a depth of about 80 feet. Amazing.

After Lake Tahoe we drove to Boise, Idaho, for the wedding of my nephew and his beautiful bride.
The wedding was held high atop a mountain above the thriving city. We danced, laughed, and enjoyed the joyful family time.

The next day we went to the Basque Festival in the Basque section of Boise and arrived at the huge pans of paella a few minutes late. Too late, but the aroma was heavenly.

ALMOST, but not quite.



Homecoming is always good. Fruit trees laden, berries popping, basil and cilantro flourishing, figs exploding everywhere (with birds, raccoons and opossum fighting over them), and everything ready for eating or preserving.

A Tribute to Gladys Marie McKinstry (aka Gram)

Gram McKinstry's tiny, freckled hands darted and dived like swallows as she worked in her kitchen. She was the master pie maker, quickly rolling out chilled dough, draping it over her rolling pin, and laying it across her masterpieces. Without missing a word in her "how-to-make-perfect-pie-crust" sentence, she crimped the dough and with the edge of a fork quickly etched leaves, tendrils, and flowers into the top of each pie. Remarkable and beautiful, and I WISH more than you'll ever know that I had taken a photo of those works of art.

The Hottest Day in August

The Dog Days of summer were the times you'd find us sitting at the old oak table in Gram's tiny kitchen. Usually on the hottest of hot, miserably humid Indiana days that could melt a glacier, Gram would say, "Time for canning. I'm nearly out of 'chila sauce'." Yep, you read it right, "chila sauce." (And I STILL call it that in her honor).

Gram and I would tie on our aprons and pull a motley assortment of pots and bowls out of her pantry. We'd wipe down the oil cloth covered table, move the toaster out of the center and onto the counter, and get busy.

Gram and Gramp had a small, but VERY productive garden that was just steps from the kitchen. The great thing about it was that the "Redbird," the Cardinal, was always flashing in and out of the trellis of 'Heavenly Blue' morning glories that shaded her back porch. He kept his bright eye fixed on everything that we did out in their garden.

We'd pick bushels of fat, juicy tomatoes and tote them into the kitchen, wash them quickly, and slit a tiny X in the side of each one. Then we'd plop them, one-by-one, into a tall enamel pan of boiling water. They'd barely be in for a minute, then another quick dip of a big spoon and they were back out and sitting in a colander atop a cookie sheet.

Gram and I would grab a tomato, toss it from hand to hand and gripe about how hot it was, then slip off the peels and move onto another hot one. I could feel the sweat running down my scalp and soaking through my clothes. Gram said that ladies don't sweat, so I guess I'm not a lady because I sweated copiously.

We canned and preserved tomatoes, grapes, berries, dilly beans, and more. I lost myself in her little kitchen, lost myself in her stories about family, about the small town of Apollo, Pennsylvania, where her parents had a bookstore/general store. We laughed, cried about the death of her sister, bemoaned the state of world politics, and somehow, without keeping track, we'd work our way through buckets and baskets of produce.

On cold Indiana mornings, when the sun barely shone through the windows, Gram could pry off a lid, or lift off a thick plug of wax, and spread the taste of a bright summer day onto her toast. Or, she'd shake some "chila sauce" onto her eggs and onto Gramp's potatoes. She'd remember the hot days we worked and laughed together in her kitchen.

For the past three months, I've thought a lot about all my grandparents and the ones I was lucky to inherit through marriage (Gram McKinstry). I started to yearn for the feelings I'd once shared in Gram's kitchen, so I took to the hardware store, bought lids, rings, jars, pectin, lemon juice, and lugs of produce.  Now what? I asked myself. I'd forgotten so much, too much to do things correctly. So, I signed up for some preserving classes taught by Master Food Preserver (same idea as Master Gardener) Ingrid Hilton. Once a month for the past three months I've attended one of Ingrid's wonderful workshops at Avila Valley Barn in Avila Beach.

The Avila Barn is great just as a place to visit (especially with kids). They have organic produce, baked goods, gifts, animals, hay rides, and fabulous food in their deli. Now they're hosting food preserving classes and a special boxed lunch from the deli (where they smoke their own meat).

The boxed lunch.

Classroom under the arbor at Avila Valley Barn taught by the fabulous Ingrid Hilton.

Ingrid and her family cart all of her canning paraphernalia to the classes. Not an easy chore.

Ingrid and her "team," Krista and Nicole, her daughters who grew up canning and preserving.

Sauerkraut in the making

Wondering what to do with all your old rings? Ingrid ties them together and uses them as a rack for the bottom of her water baths.

Gram Would be Happy

So now I've refreshed my memory (somewhat) and had some triumphs and some resounding failures.  I walked away from my grape jelly (went outside to the garden and forgot myself), and it turned into clear concrete. I could not get the spoon out of the jelly pot and had to throw everything away. I was laughing so hard that Jeff thought I was having a nervous breakdown.

I did remember one of the most important short-cuts Gram taught me, and I'll share that secret with you. 

ALWAYS keep a good supply of cream of tartar on hand. All the scorched pots were half filled with water, and I added a few tablespoons of cream of tartar to each one and gently boiled them. What looked like irreversible damage soon worked itself loose and with a bit of scraping the pots are now fine.

Here is another hint. Don't taste jelly. IT IS HOT. How did I forget that? Also, wear shoes that cover your feet (I learned this the hard way). And, always have a healthy and flourishing aloe vera plant close by.

Make it Fun!

Yesterday my friend Linda and I spent most of the day in her once immaculate and well-outfitted kitchen. We strapped on our aprons and set to work.

Gram and I never used an ice bath for our boiling hot tomatoes. Dropping them into the ice bath cooled them by 50% and made it easier to remove the skins. Look closely at the bottom of the photo above–I use these Chinese wire and bamboo tools to lift fruit and veggies out of the boiling water.

Gloves for working with hot peppers. Don't try doing it with bare hands.

We roasted trays and trays of peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. The roasting caramelizes the veggies and tugs out their deep flavors. I think roasting the veggies is the key to this salsa being so tasty.

Salsa, or what Gram called "chila sauce," bubbling in the pot. 

The final step is to toss in some fresh cilantro-which we forgot to do. So we added it to each individual jar of salsa and shoved it into the liquid.

All's well that cans well.

Everything tasted fantastic. Now we'll let them mellow and intensify for a month or so. I did a happy dance every time one of the lids popped, which signifies that it sealed properly. It is so satisfying to see your work shining/glowing from a line of jars. 

Another Hint: Don't buy the green or blue "vintage" canning jars. Your canned goods will look brown (mine sure did; these above are Linda's clear jars, much better).

Here is the simple salsa aka "Chila sauce" recipe Ingrid Hilton shared with us (with some modifications).

4   cups of onion
6   cups fresh mixed mild peppers (we chose red/orange/yellow bells, but NO GREEN ONES)
1   cup fresh mixed hot peppers (you can adjust)
12  cups fresh tomatoes (about five pounds)
1/4 cup chopped garlic
1/3 cup pepper flakes
3 tsp. salt (we halved this and figured people could salt to their taste)
1 tsp. pepper
1 cup vinegar
1 cup cilantro (we used more)

Wash tomatoes and use an apple corer or melon scooper on stem end.

Cut tomatoes in half and roast them face down in the oven. Pull off skins, chop tomatoes and pour into a large pot.

Chop onions, garlic, and peppers, and roast in oven. We added our garlic during the last few minutes of roasting the onions and peppers. You don't want your garlic to burn because it gets bitter. Add all to pot of tomatoes. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, but DON'T BOIL. At the end of cooking time toss in the cilantro and stir. Don't forget it like we did!

Ladle mixture into your hot, sterilized jars, wipe inside tops of jars (so it doesn't spoil on the shelf), screw on bands JUST till finger tight, don't crank them because you want air to escape from bottle. 

Put jars in boiling water bath (cover at least 2 inches above lids) and process for 15 minutes. 

Lift out jars and set on a towel to cool. REMOVE THE BANDS after the jar lid pops and seals.

I don't mean to insult you, but when Jeff asked, "What are the bands?" I figured that there might be one or two of you out there who do not know what they are.

You don't want to store your jars with bands on because you won't be able to detect a badly sealed jar or spoilage. Store in a cool, dark place for about a month.

AND THE LUCKY WINNERS of the One-Hour Cheese book drawing are-
(Thank you, Workman Publishing)


(please send me your mailing address and I will forward to Workman Publishing)


Khadijah-Wide Earth
(please send me your mailing address)

Stay tuned. My next posting will have a fabulous give-away of a great book An Ocean Garden-the Secret Life of Seaweed by Josie Iselin.

This exquisite book will change the way you look at the seaweed strewn on the beach, but then, that is Josie's calling, to open our eyes to the beauty around us. You may know her for some of her other books:

So stay tuned and be sure to leave comments on the posting to be eligible for the new drawing.

Heartfelt thanks

I'll finish this too long posting with a HUGE and heartfelt thank you to all of you who have sent Trowel and Error into its 12th printing. Thank you, thank you!

Signing off from this too long missive and wishing you all well.

Love across the miles and faretheewell,

Sharon (Look below to see what I just found!)

Yippee! A special give-away to all of you who leave a comment on this blog posting. I found that I have two copies of this special, old-fashioned cookbook. Leave me a note and be entered into the drawing. Good luck!