Sunday, October 23, 2016

Making Limoncello

Back in the summer I fell in love with a new drink that made quick work of a bottle of homemade limoncello I had received as a gift. Eager to continue enjoying my Sunshine Spritzers, I hit the liquor store for a bottle of limoncello — only to discover that the commercial stuff is pretty terrible.

So, like most things in life, if you want it done right, you need to do it yourself (doubly true when your limoncello-making friend moves away). Luckily, it’s pretty easy to do:

First, I had to zest 10 lemons, which is by far the hardest part of the job if you are elbow grease-averse. (I am not.) All the zest went into a big half-gallon Mason jar, along with a liter of vodka:

I put on a lid and let it sit for a couple weeks in a fairly dark corner of the kitchen. In that time, all the essential oils from the lemon zest were infused into the alcohol.

When I got around to the next step, I made a simple syrup of 3 cups sugar and 4 cups water (boiled for 15 minutes without stirring).

When that cooled, I added it to the big jar — now filled to the brim! — and let the whole thing sit for another couple of weeks. Sugar can’t dissolve directly into alcohol, so it that’s why you need the simple syrup: The water allows the sugar to transfer. 

When that was ready, I used a funnel and some cheesecloth to filter the lemon zest out of the limoncello as I decanted it back into the original vodka bottle:

Now that somewhere just shy of an extra quart of simple syrup has been added to the vodka, there’s a lot more volume (and proportionally less kick). In addition to filling this full liter bottle, I also poured the remaining quart(ish) of limoncello into a smaller Mason jar and popped it in the fridge to use first. The big bottle is at room temperature in the liquor cabinet, where I expect it to be shelf stable with no trouble — our similarly sweet Cherry Bounce is still doing fine there.  

This recipe makes quite a sweet drink, but I don’t ever plan to have it straight. It’s perfect for mixing this way — too bad it’s so emphatically not summery outside now that it’s finally ready!    

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Our New Gardening Tool

Throughout most of the summer, the lack of rain meant that there were hardly any weeds to pull — a much-appreciated silver lining to the drought. 

Even so, crabgrass managed to take hold on the patio quickly with just a little rain in September to get it started. Since summer was mostly over and we weren’t spending much time eating outdoors anymore, we mostly ignored it. 

Not surprisingly, it got out of hand.

The state of the patio was far too embarrassing for photos, but here’s a sense:

Imagine this time about 50, and you’ve got an idea of how awful it looked.

It’s all gone to seed now, which means that when we finally got out butts in gear to pull it out, this happened:

Thousands of seeds falling between the cracks in the bricks is bad news for next year. So Kirk decided on an unconventional weed-killing method:

That’s our Shop-Vac, commissioned to suck up all the seeds before they could work their way into the cracks or around the rest of the yard or garden on the wind. Hopefully this works, or else our patio will look like a post-apocalyptic wonderland next summer. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Catawba Grape Harvest

This year’s drought wreaked havoc on our usually very reliable Concord grapes:


As you can see, they shriveled and died on the vine. At least the birds are enjoying a feast of raisins.

On the bright side, our Catawba vines had never given us more than just a few bunches in the past, but they seem to love the dry weather:

There are still some green ones in the mix, but with temperatures cooling and daylight waning, we picked them at the bend in the road between September and October.

After we cut the ripe bunches and left them available for eat out of hand for a week, I decided we needed to process them. The fruit fly situation gets out of hand quickly if you let it, and these are seeded grapes, so they’re not that fun to eat anyway. 

So I pulled every last one off of their stems and made Catawba grape jelly. There was just shy of three pounds when that project was complete, so I raided the fridge for some Himrod grapes from earlier in the season to add to the mix. 

The jam making process was the same as what we did when we made Concord grape jam a couple years ago, but I changed the recipe a bit. This time I used 3 pounds of grapes, 2 cups of sugar, the juice of half a lemon, and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

When you cook all that down, the skins of the grapes have enough natural pectin and the fruit is sweet enough that you just need a bit of acid to get it to gel — that’s the lemon and balsamic. In the past we’ve used all lemon, and the jams turn out very bright and acidic, but I like the way the balsamic adds a depth of flavor without too much citrusy zing. 

Anyway, after the initial 20 minutes of cooking down and running this through the food mill (no easy feat with all those seeds), this was already really close to set, and only required about five more minutes of boiling to get it to gel. 

Look how pretty it is on the test plate:

Because Catawba grapes are really more red than purple, the jam is is really beautiful color. Though it looks pink when it’s spread out thin over glass, the end result is really more of a mauve jam:

It tastes good, too! It’s definitely more complex than the full-powered grape flavor of the Concord jam: kind of floral, and the balsamic give it a hint of herbiness that’s really nice. I’m not sure how great it will be with peanut butter, but the kids can report back about that later. It’s definitely great for toast and probably cookies or other baking projects, though.