Funnels, canning jars and the power of standardization


Norpro wide mouth funnelI was going to write a review of the Norpro Wide Mouth Funnel for the website Cool Tools, because the former is one of my favourite kitchen tools and the latter one of my favourite stuff blogs. But I realized the funnel is part of a larger system of canning jars in my kitchen, and that you have to be into jars to get excited about this funnel.

The canning jar – better known as the Mason or Ball jar – is the only cheap, standardized food storage solution I know, and therein lies its beauty.

There are, of course, fancier, more expensive jars available, but buying enough to be truly useful is cost-prohibitive. With new designs you run the risk the company will stop making them after you’re heavily invested. Weck and Fido jars, while classic and useful for specific purposes, lack cross-brand standardization: you take apart the lid for cleaning (so many pieces!) and then wonder which jar that lid belongs to. Similar lid-hunts will result if you build your food storage system around used peanut butter and jam jars. Not so the canning jar.

Usually around $1 apiece (or 25 to 50 cents in thrift stores), canning jars are cheap enough to build a collection. I have at least a dozen of each size in regular rotation in my kitchen, pantry and fridge and use them many times a day:

• I pack lunch items, including soup, tea, pudding, and nuts or seeds, in half pint and pint jars which then go into an insulated lunch bag (available at your local thrift store).
• Pint jars double as drinking glasses, of course. At our wedding we had an assortment of them and coloured sharpies for guests to label them with. Classy, I know.
Immersion blenders fit snugly into a wide-mouth jar to make shakes, mayonnaise or whipped cream. Leftovers can be easily capped and stored.
• When making sauerkraut or other anaerobic ferments, a 4oz canning jar makes a handy weight inside a wide mouth or bail-top jar, to keep the veggies under the brine.
• Straight-sided jars can be used in the freezer without breaking. Put them in warm water for a few minutes and the food slides right out.

Amco strainer

The generic canning jar is fair game for all kinds of innovative accessories. My favourites are the aforementioned funnel, which stacks elegantly on top of a small strainer and allows you to strain and store in one go. You don’t know how much you want this function until you have it. One-piece lids are also handy.

(There are a myriad of other accessories, including the cuppow, Kraut Kaps, ReCAP, Tattler lids, and the Holdster. So far none of these have proven themselves indispensable, or even all that useful, but they’re evidence that the magnificent canning jar continues to inspire.)

The website Food In Jars has a useful taxonomy of canning jar sizes. Note that my infatuation with jars begins and ends with the wide mouth variety. Unless you have tiny hands, regular canning jars are a pain to hand wash and should be banished to the tool shed.

Although “salad in a jar” is a thing, canning jars don’t make great lunch containers  for sandwiches or, ahem, salads. As far as I’m concerned there really isn’t a perfect non-plastic lunch container on the US market. I’ve tried many, from Indian tiffins to Ikea glass lunch containers. Inevitably they aren’t leak proof, or they are but then they get a dent, or you lose the lid, or the seal gets filthy or wears out, and then the parts aren’t replaceable, or the company stops making them and you have to buy a new set and throw away the old lids. I hate throwing shit away. Which is why I dream that one day someone will design a standardized, open-source, leak-proof travel bowl. I already have a name for it: the extra-wide mouth. 

Next in the series: An Ode to the Silicone Spatula…

Recently on the homestead

Wildcrafting the parking lots of the high desert

vons olives

There is nothing quite so exciting as finding food in trees, especially in the desert. Once you start looking, you notice more and more. Honey mesquite trees are commonly used in parking lot landscaping all over the high desert. The other day a friend and I were snacking on mesquite pods in a parking lot and were approached with curiosity by both the manager of the nearby McDonalds and a panhandler. Both were very skeptical about tasting the pods. If only they knew how much the flour costs in health food stores.

Olive trees are less common, but I just noticed these ones in a supermarket parking lot in Yucca Valley. Score.

I’m starting to keep season and location notes for myself so I will know exactly where to harvest things like olives, mesquite, palo verde, prickly pear, pine nuts and wolfberries from around town when they’re in season.

The Boss — waterless airlock for desert fermenting


I have a beautiful 5L fermenting crock I got as a wedding present (the brown one pictured above). It fits three shredded cabbages and makes the most beautiful, mold-free kraut. It does this by means of a water-filled moat around the top (similar design to a butter bell) that lets carbon dioxide out and doesn’t let oxygen in.

But I need more vessels. Right this moment I have a batch of kraut going, and it needs at least another month. I want to do some quick, small batches of veggies in the mean time.

My only complaint about the magnificent crock is that our dry air (~20% humidity) sucks the water out of the moat at a rate of more than 1 moat per day.

Enter the Boss Pickler, from Primal Kitchen of Olympia, WA. It’s a glass jar with a silicone gasket and a silicone nipple that serves as the airlock. Brilliant! (They also make Kraut Kaps for less than $10, if you’re less of a fanatic about avoiding plastic and don’t have the evaporation issues we have).

boss pickler

I bought a 2L and a 1.5L on Etsy. I can’t wait till to try them out.

Update: The pressure of fermentation seems to make my brine dry up in the Boss Picklers. My sister-in-law is doing a lot of experimenting and seems to think covering it with a cloth for the first week or so is the way to go. Anyone else care to weigh in?

Mystery Kraut Fail

Kraut fail

I’ve attempted three batches of sauerkraut now using an old jar of salt from my pantry labeled Fine Mediterranean Sea Salts. This is the ol’ jar-with-the-cardboard-label-stuffed-inside. Not sure where it came from, but it tastes like salt.

The most recent attempt was in a Harsch crock. There was never any bubbling. After almost a month we opened it and the water was crystal clear, and the cabbage looked exactly the same as it did a month ago, still firm and of a texture that would squeak between the teeth (I tasted one batch. It was gross), and the kraut smelled…. totally un-krauty. It’s not obviously yeasty or mouldy. There is a slightly yucky smell, maybe a bit “diaper” (#1), but like I said the water is crystal clear.

The first couple batches were made with conventionally grown cabbages. This most recent batch was made with organic farmers market cabbage. In between I’ve made many successful batches of kraut (and lost a couple to obvious yeast or mold overgrowth).

Could it be something with the salt that is making these batches go wrong in such a strange way? It’s almost like bacterial growth has been suppressed altogether. The cabbages were from different sources, so the salt is the common factor. Was the salt secretly iodized? Is there some powerful mineral in the sea salt that is suppressing bacteria?  I’ve never had this problem with any other batch of salt. What the heck is going on?

June/July homestead update

It has been very hot.

How to make clarified butter: put regular butter on the counter for about an hour. Your results may vary.
How to make clarified butter: put regular butter on the counter for about an hour. Your results may vary.

I started a new part-time job. I really like my new workplace and my employer.

What you see when you pee at my new workplace
Recycled metal siding at my new workplace.

My brother-in-law, Damian, harvested mesquite and palo verde off their property and shared some with us.

Mesquite flour ground in a vitamix.
Mesquite flour ground in a vitamix.
Palo Verde beans, blanched.
Palo Verde beans, blanched.

The next day I harvested some palo verde myself.

Hard work, yummy beans.
Hard work, yummy beans.

From the garden, we’re getting a lot of tomatos… and tomato worms.

tomato worms

I leave for Oregon and Not Back to School Camp in a week, and then Vancouver. I’m excited to get out of the heat and see some of my favourite people up there.

Hi Desert Homesteading Fair

David & Sant's Tiny House, photo by Stephanie Smith.
David & Sant’s Tiny House, photo by Stephanie Smith.

The Hi Desert Homesteading Fair was this weekend. We had more than 50 people! Kim Stringfellow gave a talk about her Jackrabbit Homestead research. People brought DIY technologies, things to taste and things to trade (I brought sauerkrautquilts and a sun oven). Stephanie took lots of great photos – you can see more of them on the new Hi Desert Homesteading website. 

Desert bread, photo by Stephanie Smith.
Desert bread, photo by Stephanie Smith.
Talking kraut, photo by Stephanie Smith.
Talking kraut with Tania Hammidi, photo by Stephanie Smith.
Angela's creosote bundles, photo by Stephanie Smith.
Angela’s creosote bundles, photo by Stephanie Smith.

When I got home, my copy of The Good Life Lab had arrived. I love it. It’s scrappy and very desert-oriented: where other DIY books have instructions on soap making and canning strawberries, this book has a papercrete dome built with a drag-behind mixer and a recipe for taking rust off old tools; the recipes use wolf berry, ocotillo and prickly pear, with instructions to substitute local plants as needed.

How to be a cactus eater

When I saw Damian, my brother-in-law, walking around with a pair of tongs and a bucket full of cholla blossoms, I thought he was on some crazy mission to stem the proliferation of spiky flora on the property. But no, Damian had learned that cholla buds are not only edible, but were a staple of native peoples in the desert and are an excellent source of vitamin C.

Well, great! The cholla forest is blooming this month, so I went out collecting too.

Getting the spikes off is a trick. I eventually settled on using an old screen door propped up off the ground and a straw broom. Sweeping the buds back and forth across the screen works pretty well: the spines catch in the screen and break off, and the ones that are left become dull enough to pick off by hand. Even better would be a box with tall sides and screen on the bottom, to allow for more vigorous sweeping.

I learned the hard way that its important to do this while the buds are fresh; the job gets much harder as the buds dry out. Once spine-free, I boiled them for 15-20 minutes to remove oxalic acid. I added lemon juice to the boiling water and ran them under cold water once cooked to try to keep some of the bright green colour.

The flavour has tones of artichokes and asparagus with a little of the sliminess of nopales or okra in the middle. I served them with butter and lemon, and then we dipped them in some roasted garlic and balsamic salad dressing Nathen made the other night. Delicious, and well worth the effort.

The Phoenix New Times reports another method for de-spining:

All you need to prepare your cholla in the wild is a lighter and a pocket comb. Grasp the comb and rake in a downward motion along the shaft of the plant. The fruit should pop right off and be trapped in the teeth of the comb. Skewer your cholla onto a small branch and use the lighter to spark a pile of brush. Cook until the spines char and break off. Once the fruit is clear of spikes, simply peel the skin and roast until warm.

I’d love to know what tools and methods native peoples used, since plastic combs and metal screens are relatively recent inventions.





Quilt for a mystery baby

I just finished a quilt for my second niece or nephew, who is in the late stages of gestation as we speak. We drove down to Pasadena for the baby shower over the weekend.

After the shower we picked avocados and meyer lemons from the our hostess’ backyard trees and did some weeding in Ely and Christina’s backyard. It was nice to get our hands in some lush biomass for a change.


Springtime is garden time.

Nathen dug a garden in the old goat pen. Have I mentioned that my husband is very good at getting things done? He bought starts and we filled up the garden on Saturday: tomatoes, hot peppers, cantaloupe, squash, corn. It was so fun, and has changed my relationship to the yard. I see new possibilities in every direction. Next up, rabbit proofing and a couple trips to the dump.