I have been building a tool carrier this week, a wooden box with splayed sides and a handle like every carpenter had a hundred years ago, long enough for my hand saws and my jointer plane, designed for easy carrying. This was supposed to be a simple project, which was my first mistake — but I’ll get to that later, in another post, after I’ve finished the thing. In addition to being more complicated than I realized it has turned out to be more work than I’d expected, for a couple of reasons.
This is less a recipe than a suggestion, and less a suggestion than an essay on strawberry shortcake, which well-made is one of the great triumphs of American cuisine and deserves more respect than it usually gets.
It has for several years been a source of mild frustration to me that I cannot find a reliable recipe for preserves. I have all kinds of recipes for chutneys and conserves and marmalades, and for jams with honey and low-sugar jellies and for special preserves made from this or that sort of (where I live) unattainable stone fruit. What I want is simply strawberry preserves, peach preserves, blackberry preserves, and there, so far as I can tell, are no well-tested recipes to be had in books.
For basic jams and jellies, of course, the folded sheet in the box of pectin gives me instructions, but the point of preserves is not to use boxed pectin. Preserves is fruit with just enough sugar to literally preserve it, and perhaps a touch of fresh lemon juice if even that much sugar seems too sweet; it is stirred and tended while it cooks down; it is soft on the spoon and in the mouth, not molded like a school-lunch dessert. To make true preserves is to capture the essence of fresh summer fruit and hoard it away in a cupboard for the horrible soggy February morning when you simply cannot face another day of winter, and you open it up and spoon dollops onto buttered toast and feel that perhaps you can live another day.
My problem with baking bread as a habit has been finding a recipe I can make every week that meets my family’s needs rather than my foodie dreams. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
When I was learning to cook I liked to watch Jacques Pépin. In the early 1990s he recorded a series of short videos on basic cooking techniques that the local PBS station aired every year during its pledge drive. Poaching an egg, for example, or making mayonnaise, or trimming an artichoke, or making tomato flowers. When demonstrating a technique that required learned skill he slowed it down and patiently explained it so that the viewer could see and understand what he was doing. Then — and this was the part I especially liked — he would speed it back up so that you could see what the technique looked like in the hands of a professional. “In cooking school you would do it three, four hundred times,” he would say with a shrug, “and then it will look like this.” This looked like magic, but because I’d seen it step by step, his expectation that I would emulate him at home seemed perfectly reasonable.
For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.
Metric vs. traditional systems
First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)
The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.)
In the Chinese Calendar, the New Year, which arrives four to eight weeks after the winter solstice, marks the beginning of spring. (That’s late January to mid Feburary for you Westerners.) That makes sense to us, because in North Carolina, it’s time to plant potatoes, lettuce, greens, onions, peas, and cabbages and their kin. We planted lettuce, turnip greens, red and white onions, sugar snaps, broccoil, cabbage, radishes, and carrots in raised beds. The potatoes go in "bins," chickenwire cages lined with newspaper and filled with topsoil and compost. As the plants grow taller they can be covered with more dirt.