The Mason Jar Cookbook Craze

Somewhere along the line, mason jars hit the mainstream. They are all over Pinterest, in major store chains as bona fide home décor pieces, and on hipster dinner tables everywhere subbing for stemware. Mason jars are trendy. They are also in lunchboxes, from kid-friendly “bento” boxes to working mom meals. And that’s where the cookbooks come in.

How does one assemble a lunch entirely in a glass jar? Gone are the days of Tupperware and plastic baggies – there is actually a bit of an art to how to layer your lunch in that jar, friends. We don’t want soggy salads, now do we?

I recently received two very different, but equally interesting, mason jar cookbooks to review from their respective publishers, and while I thought at first that they might be hokey (can one really publish an entire book of just salads?) they’re both actually quite good. And they’re a lot more than salads.

The first, Mason Jar Salads & More by Julia Mirabella is bylined as “50 Layered Lunches to Grab & Go”. Grab and go pretty accurately describes mornings at my house, so that certainly got my attention. The book gets off on the right foot in the Introduction but giving pictorial instructions for how to layer your salad, which I thought was neat. You wouldn’t think it would make a big deal how you cram stuff in a jar, but reading the instructions, it actually makes a lot of sense. Dressing first, the solid ingredients that won’t soak up all the dressing, greens on top, and cheese/nuts on top of that. When you take it out of the jar your plate it’s “right side up” and ready to eat, and it’s still fresh and not soggy. Smart way to do things!

The rest of the book is divided into chapters for different types of meals – breakfasts, salads, snacks, etc. The Mixed Greens with White Bean Salad and Orzo Pasta Salad are both quite good and do stand up to being in the jar quite well. Bruchetta and Spicy Hummus with Vegetables are also great snack ideas for taking to work. Another thing I really like about the book is that you don’t have to rely on bottled salad dressings – there’s even a chapter on making homemade ones, which is great. It’s a simple book, but hits the nail on the head perfectly and has really given me some great ideas for how to easily make over my lunch routine for work.

The other jar book on my shelf is Meals in a Jar: Quick & Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes by Julie Languille. This book is quite a bit more expansive and focuses more on the preservation side of meals in jars, with dry mixes and home processed canned meals. The canning methods in the book are basically sound and follow the USDA endorsed canning guidelines – though I do disagree with one of them. This book advocates canning cheese, which I do not agree with. There’s a lot of debate in the canning community about this. Some says cheese is acidic enough to water bath can, some don’t. Some say it’s too dense to water bath can, some don’t. What tips the balance in favor of not canning cheese for me is the fact that the USDA, National Center for Food Preservation, and Ball Canning all advise against it. Botulism is no joke, so I just don’t want to risk it. Two out of three people in my household are lactose intolerant anyway, so it’s not something that’s near and dear to my heart. But you should decide what’s safe for you and your family, so if you’re comfortable canning cheese, have at it. If you’re not, be like me and skip over those recipes. There are lots more to choose from.

Another feature of this book that I do like is the bulk prep. If you’re preserving something, you generally want to do it in quantity, and this book scales the recipes appropriately. This is especially handy for the dry mixes. The format of structuring all of the components for a meal (when there are multiples) into a “meal kit” was something that was really appealing to me as well. By organizing each meal in this way, you ensure you’ve got everything you need to hand, and you can easily see at a glance what you’ve got in the pantry. A little organization goes a long way to making mealtimes easy, especially on weeknights.

I must admit I was a little confused about the recommendation to use Mylar bags for some of the components of each meal kit. I have no experience in using Mylar bags for any kind of food preservation, and frankly – I can’t really find any information about it online. It seems like an easy way to store some of the smaller components of each meal kit, but until I can do my own independent research on this method, I won’t validate it here. I’ll likely use half pint canning jars in place of the Mylar bags, or vacuum-sealed food-grade plastic (like the Tilia Foodsaver).

Caveats aside, I think Meals in a Jar is a useful book, and I look forward to researching some of the methods it espouses further. Between that and Mason Jar Salads I shouldn’t have any trouble keeping my canning jars filled to the brim, even when canning season comes to a close each year.

So…

We bought a house! Stay tuned.

Doctored Pasta

Who was it that said there is nothing new under the sun? Leonardo Da Vinci? Well, whomever it was, he was right. There really isn’t. But I’ll still share anyway, because this version of pasta sauce has become my fourteen-hour-workday-from-hell-exhausted-mom save-the-day secret. And we’re all doing it, us working moms. We’re opening up a jar of bottled pasta sauce and adding stuff to it and plunking it on the table for dinner. We could spend time chatting about how we feel guilty that’s it’s not our awesome homemade Bolognese, or we can take the win.

Let’s the take the win today, ladies. Because it’s Monday and sometimes being a working mom sucks and half homemade is still a thousand times better than straight out of a box, or restaurant take out. Therefore, I give you Doctored Pasta!

  • 1 jar of bottled marinara sauce
  • 1 cup of dry white wine, or water
  • 1 package of loose, uncased Italian sausage

Cook the Italian sausage in a pan until it’s nicely browned. Dump the jar of pasta sauce in with the sausage. Pour the white wine or water into the marinara jar and put the lid back on. Shake it for a minute to get all the sauce bits incorporated – waste not, want not friends. Dump the liquid into the pan, and heat the whole thing through.

Done. For bonus points, you can dice up some onion, celery and/or carrot and sauté it with the sausage. Or you can sneak in some spinach, chard or kale at the very end. But it’s shockingly good with just the three things above. I often find that jarred pasta sauce is a little glumpy (brand new word – word of the week!), and the extra little bit of liquid smooths it out just the right amount. And if you choose to use wine you get a little extra flavor boost from that too.

If you’re looking for bonus points and extra credit, serve bread and salad on the side. And you know what? I’m not going to judge you if your bread comes out of a tube and your salad comes out of bag. Of course homemade is best. But sometimes, half homemade will do. Happy Monday, friends.

Holiday Decorating with Quilt Panels

Until recently, I didn’t even know what quilt panels were. But now that I know, it seems far too good a secret to keep to myself. I was browsing the interwebs the other day for Halloween-themed fabric (yes, I spend time looking up fabric online – Pinterest is way cheaper than therapy) and stumbled across a skeleton quilt panel –

Skeleton

I always thought that when one wanted to make a quilt, hours cutting shapes out of fabric were required. It then had to be pieced, sewn together, sewn to a backing, quilted… quite the process. But apparently there is this cheater method out there where you buy a panel with a cool design on it, sew that to a backing and then quilt it. In my mind, that’s just a regular old blanket, but I digress. Probably if they were called blanket panels that would confuse everyone.

At any rate, I have no desire to make a skeleton quilt, at least at the current time. But I did think to myself – how cool would it be to make a wall hanging of that? All I would need to do would be to hem the edges to finish them nicely, and then maybe mount it in on a dowel, or maybe even just stretch it over a frame or canvas. And voila, interesting fabric wall art for a reasonable price!

So of course then I ended up down the rabbit hole of searching for interesting quilt panels, and came across quite a few holiday ones. The smaller ones would look really neat framed up individually and hung as a gallery wall, I think. Here are my personal favorites for Halloween and Christmas -

Black Cat

Green Grinch

Grinch

As the photos show, all of the panels are available at Fat Quarter Shop, which is my new favorite place for fabric on the web. The selection is amazing, and the prices are reasonable. And despite the name, they sell much more than fat quarters – panels, fabric by yard and all kinds of accessories and notions. The panels above are currently priced at $7.75 each – which is not a bad price at all for a unique piece of fun wall art.

So, what do you think? Would you make some DIY wall art with quilt panels? There are all kinds to be found – it would be really cute to do for a nursery or kid’s bedroom as well.

Mississippi Milk Glass

Family vacation this year was a bit of a mixed bag. We were supposed to camp for a week at Mississippi Palisades State Park, but the weather was downright horrid – either dangerously hot and humid, or severe thunderstorms. So we ended up with plan B and stayed in a hotel for two nights, camped for just one and came home a day early. Fortunately we were able to salvage our trip with plenty of time in the hotel pool, as well as fun visits to the De Immigrant Windmill (where they grind their own flour – which tastes amazing), the Sawmill Museum, Heritage Canyon, and Wide River Winery (the Felony Red cabernet sauvignon is especially good and didn’t give us the tannin headaches we usually get with red wine).

And of course, we visited a few antique stores. The prices were downright cheap, and I was excited to find a few bargains in milk glass at Great River Road Antiques. I’ve long wanted a set of milk glass beer steins, so I was super excited to find four of them for just $2.50 each -

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I also found something I’ve never seen before in milk glass; four jars with lids. I confess for a split second I thought of spray painting the lids red, but then I came to my senses – the black and white graphic is just too punchy and fun to paint over -

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I was curious about what the jars once held, so I googled the name on the lid and discovered they’re marmalade jars from the UK -

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And shockingly – they’re going for $20.00 each on eBay! So I got $80.00 worth of jars for just $8.00. I knew they were a real find when I spotted them. The steins are starting for about $5.00 apiece on eBay, so those were a pretty good bargain as well. So all in, I got $100.00 worth of milk glass for just $20.00. And the best part – we’ll use them every day.

Yes, An Obsession

I am an admitted Downton Abbey junkie, anxiously counting the days until Season 5. And honestly, if there is a perfect era to fantasize about living in, it’s the Edwardian. Indoor plumbing and electricity, but still simplicity and elegance. And yes – Downton isn’t strictly Edwardian, I know – but it started there!

At any rate, to tide me (us) over until Season 5, I’ve been Pinteresting just a bit…

Downton

The Hoax of the Frozen Tomatoes

Last year I had a conundrum when it came to putting up tomatoes. I grew my own, but as luck would have it, they didn’t all ripen at the same time. I just couldn’t get enough to put up a full canner load at the same time. So I thought about solutions and scoured the internet and came up with freezing tomatoes. Everything on the internet said you could just pop them into freezer bags whole – no prep at all. No blanching and skinning, no coring. No dicing or quartering. Literally pop them in the bag, and presto chango – preserved tomatoes, all ready to go. And even my sister had done it, and sworn by it.

But friends – do not be seduced. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. And so it is with freezing completely unprepared tomatoes. Naturally. These things were far more trouble than they were worth. Defrosting was a nightmare – it took forever. And when I didn’t have forever to wait, using the defrost function on the microwave (yes, I cheated a few times dang it) turned them into cardboard-textured mush. Moreover, I ended up pitching half of them into the trash, because have you ever tried to peel a skin and pull a core out a half-defrosted, cardboard-textured tomato? If you haven’t, take my word for it that it is not something you want to spend your time on. Completely the definition of “fruitless (such as it were, that is) endeavor”.

Sigh. This year I planted a variety that is supposed to ripen at once, more or less. Unless nature is wanting to play a cruel joke on me two years running, which frankly, I won’t quite rule out!