The Hearth Project

Dilly Beans with Deb

Growing up, I always loved going over to my friend Kellie’s house. She lived in an old, renovated farmhouse and her mom, Deb, was always cooking up something delicious. I remember the first time I went down into the basement and saw floor-to-ceiling shelving units lined with rows of home canned goods. There were peaches, jams, jellies, tomatoes, salsa, sauce, pickles, and dilly beans. I was in awe. My mom and I liked to make jam, but this was taking it to the next level.

Recently Deb was kind enough to teach me how to make her dilly beans. They are so delicious. Crisp, salty, and a little spicy. While we pickled, Deb and I talked about the satisfaction that comes from preserving food.

I think there must be something about the process that’s innate because turning a bunch of beautiful, fresh produce into 10 or 12 sparkling quarts of pickles or sauce or jam is so gratifying. It’s so tangible. There in front of you is 12 quarts of food that will feed you through the winter. Even though most of us don’t need to feed ourselves through the winter, it’s still some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done. If you don’t believe me, you’re just going to have to try it.

And dilly beans are a good place to start. They’re mighty simple.

Deb’s Dilly Beans 

Makes 2 quarts or 4 pints

2 pounds green beans

2-4 cayenne peppers

1/4 cup salt (pickling, kosher, or sea salt)

2 1/2 cups vinegar (white distilled is what we used)

2 1/2 cups water

4-6 cloves peeled garlic

4-6 heads dill

Trim green beans and soak in an ice bath for 15-20 minutes. Add whole cayenne peppers to soak. This will help keep your vegetables crisp throughout the pickling process. While your vegetables are crisping, make your brine. In a medium pot, combine vinegar, water, and salt and bring the mixture to a boil. Meanwhile, wash and sterilize your ball jars. Make sure you have new lids. Never reuse a canning lid. You also will want to  have a hot water bath on the stove coming to a boil. This is a large pot of water where you will process your jars of dilly beans.

Pack your hot, clean jars with 1-2 clove garlic,2-3 heads of dill, 1 cayenne pepper, and your beans. Pack them tight because when you process the beans, they will cook and shrink.

Ladle brine over the beans, leaving 1/2 inch of “headspace” at the top of the jar. Wipe the rims clean with a clean cloth or paper towel, put a lid on the jar, and screw the ring on the jar. Carefully place each jar in the boiling water bath and bring the pot back to a boil. Make sure that the jars are covered by at least 1 inch of water, and then process for 10-15 minutes. For those new to canning, processing means cooking the sealed jar at a rolling boil for the allotted amount of time to keep certain icky pathogens from growing.

After 15 minutes, remove the jars of dilly beans from the hot water bath with tongs. You can buy special canning tongs at most kitchen stores.

Set the jars on a cloth out of a draft and wait for them to seal. Do not move the jars for 24 hours. Then after that, dive in! Dilly beans are delicious!




Peas Please: The Story of My Dad’s First Vegetable Garden

For as long as I can remember, my dad has planted a vegetable garden in our backyard. This year his garden is bursting with peas, beans, lettuces, arugula, herbs, and kale. Soon, there will be squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers.

Here is a picture of his latest pea harvest.

peas 2

My dad loves peas, and so does Gertrude, his dog.

Before this weekend, I had never heard the story of my dad’s first vegetable garden. I always thought he must have had one growing up, but I was mistaken. Rather, he learned as a young twenty something in northern Michigan.

Just a safety note. Do not do as my father did and plant your garden on septic field. But do plant a garden. It’s so easy and as my father says, utterly amazing.


Sour Cherry Pie

There are cherries littering my parents driveway this week, and every time I drive up I’m afraid I’m going to hit one of the chipmunks that are feasting on the fallen plenty. This land where I grew up is an old cherry orchard. These days, the trees are 40-60 feet tall, but still producing a bounty of delicious fruit which mostly go to the birds and the chipmunks because they’re up so high.

cherry tree

The trees produce sour or tart cherries which are small and bright red as opposed to sweet cherries which are larger and usually dark reddish black. Sour cherries are traditionally used for cooking. Obviously, you can make pie from sour cherries, but you can also make jam, chutney, crisps, a sauce for meat, cherry wine, or you can toss them in grain salads.

I recently read in The Drunken Botanist, a fascinating little book about the plants used to make various kinds of alcohol, that there is a kind of brandy made from the pits of sour cherries. It’s called kirsch or kirschwasser. I’m moving to New Hampshire next week to start a new job and maybe when I’m out there, I’ll meet a distiller and we can make kirschwasser.

cherry pits

But this post is really about sour cherry pie. The day that I made this pie, a friend was visiting from Virginia and she took many of the pictures in this post. Thanks Lisa!

Sour Cherry Pie

Step 1: Procure cherries. You don’t usually find sour cherries in a store. Usually, you have to know someone with a tree or go to an orchard.

Step 2: Pit your cherries. You can buy a cherry pitting machine which if you’re going to be processing a lot of cherries is probably a good investment. But if you’re just making a pie, you can pit the cherries with a paring knife and a bit of patience. Just slice the cherry in half and pop out the pit. When you’ve finished pitting the cherries, squeeze half a lemon over them to prevent discoloration.

Step 3: Make a really good pie crust.


2 2/3 cup flour

Large Pinch of salt

2 sticks cold unsalted butter

3-5 tablespoons of ice water

Put flour and salt in a large bowl. Then, using a knife, cut sticks of cold butter up into a small pieces. (I usually cut a stick of butter into  16 pieces).  Add to flour. Using a pastry cutter, chop butter and flour mixture until butter is in tiny pieces. Then, add a drizzle of ice water and bring the dough together by squeezing the butter and flour and water together in your hands. Add a little more water if you need but make sure not to add too much because that will make your crust tough.

When the dough has come together, separate it into two pieces. Wrap both pieces in saran wrap or cover with a damp cloth and put the dough in the refrigerator for about an hour.

Step 4: Prepare your Filling

5-6 cups pitted cherries

3/4 cup sugar

3-4 tablespoons of flour or cornstarch or tapioca

Optional: 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1 teaspoon cinnamon

While the crust is chilling, prepare your filling by mixing together sugar, cherries, and a thickening agent. You can choose cornstarch or tapioca or just plain flour. All three starches will soak up the extra cherry juice as the pie is baking.

Step 5: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Step 6: Roll out your dough

First, flour a clean surface. Plop one piece of dough in the center. ( Leave the other one in the fridge). Flour your rolling pin and begin rolling out your dough making sure to roll in each direction. This can be slightly challenging but just remember to keep your dough, surface, and pin well floured and you should be fine. When you’ve finished, carefully transfer crust into pie plate. The crust should be big enough to drape over the edges of the plate.

Step 7: Fill your crust

Place cherry mixture on top of the crust. Dot with a few teaspoons of butter.

Step 8: Make lattice.

Roll out your second pie crust and then using a knife, cut long strip of dough and carefully place them on top of your cherry mixture. Weave the pieces of the dough in an over under pattern to created the lattice. When you’ve finished, pinch the edges of the bottom crust to the edges of the lattice. If you have enough crust hanging over the edges of your pie plate, you can pinch the dough together into a pretty fluted ring around the outside of the pie. If you don’t have enough crust, don’t worry,your pie will still taste great.

Step 9: Brush Pie

To add color, whisk together 1 egg yolk and a bit of cream or milk. Brush, mixture across the top of the pie crust.

Step 10: Bake Pie

At 400 degrees, bake pie for 50-60 minutes. If the crust begins to get too dark, put a piece of tin foil over it. Remove tin foil for the last 10 minutes of the baking. The cherries should be bubbling in the middle when you remove the pie from the oven. Allow the pie to cool for 20-30 minutes and then enjoy!










Strawberry Jam with Nancy

Since this is a blog about food and home traditions, it only makes sense that I begin at home. My mom taught me to preserve fruit when I was about six years old. We spent countless balmy nights at our northern Michigan cottage putting up jars and jars of strawberry, blackberry, apricot, peach, cherry and grape preserves. Strawberry jam was always our favorite though. The first big fruit harvest of the season, it always felt like summer really started with that pot of simmering smashed strawberries.

I was up in Northern Michigan last weekend visiting our old summer haunts and bought a big flat of strawberries and brought them to my parent’s house. My mom and I made strawberry jam together for the first time in several years. As we prepared the fruit, steamed the jars, and simmered the berries, my mom told me about the first time that she learned to make strawberry jam.

She was 23 years old and had just gotten her first teaching job in Petoskey, Michigan. She went strawberry picking that first summer in Northern Michigan and came back to her little house with 10 quarts of strawberries. Not knowing what to do with all the berries, she offered her next door neighbor some berries. Instead of accepting the berries, Claudia taught my mom to make jam.

Click on the video to hear the story in my mom’s own words.

Nancy’s Strawberry Jam

Makes 9 pint jars (18 1/2 pints)

12 cups smashed strawberries (approx. 6 quarts)

8 cups sugar

2 boxes of sure jell pectin

Juice and zest of one lemon

1 tiny dash of butter (1/4 teaspoon)

To prepare berries:

First, clean and destem berries. Often freshly picked strawberries will be pretty sandy, so give them a good rinsing. Then, using a paring knife, remove the tops leaving as much berry as possible. In a big bowl or  pot, mash berries with a potato masher until nicely mashed. It’s okay if there are a few chunks. Put the smashed berries in a well insulated pot and turn up the heat. In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup sugar removed from the 8 cups with the 2 boxes of pectin. Stir mixture into heating berries. While your making additions, add the zest of one lemon and the juice of lemon. Throw in a tad of butter as well. Bring strawberry mixture up to a rolling bowl, stirring constantly (with a wooden spoon). When the mixture has boiled for a full minute (count to 60), stir in remaining 7 1/2 cups of sugar. Return to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. If it gets really foamy, remove the foam with a spoon and set aside to enjoy with bread. The foam is delicious  Again, count to 60 and then remove from heat and start filling jars.

To prepare jars:

Wash mason jars in hot soapy water or the dish washer. Make sure that you have new lids for each jar. Also, it’s important to use actual mason jars not recycled jam jars that you bought from the store. They won’t hold up to the heat of the canning process. Then, my mom sterilizes her jars and lids in boiling water on the stove. This isn’t necessary if you are going to process your jam in a water bath, but I think it’s a good idea.

To can the jam:

As the strawberries are heating, spread out a clean cloth on your counter. Find a tongs, a clean rag for wiping the rims, and a rag for holding on to hot jars as you place lids on them. You will also need a measuring cup preferably with a lip to pour jam into jars. There is specialty jamming equipment (special tongs, a special funnel, canning racks). This is nice but if you don’t have it, you can improvise. Take four jars out of the sterilization pot at a time. Fill with jam. Leave about 1/2 inch of “head space” at the top of the jar. Wipe the top of the jar well with a clean cloth so no specks of jam will interfere with the seal. Then, place the lid on the jar, and screw the ring down. There’s no need to screw it super tight as it’s only needed to keep the lid in place until it seals. My mom then turns the jar upside down for 5 minutes and then, turns it upright before she places it in the water bath. This isn’t necessary, but is one way to avoid air bubbles and ensure a good seal. Place lids and seals on all jars and then in groups of 6 or 8 depending on the size of your water bath, give them an extra dose of heat to ensure their safe keeping.

Water bath:

The water bath along with sterilization of the jars and general cleanliness, ensure that your jam will store safely for up to a year.

While the jam is cooking, prepare a large pot half-way filled with water. If you have a jamming rack, set it aside. If you don’t, make a rack, by placing extra canning rings around the bottom of the pot so that the jars won’t bounce against the bottom. Bring the water to a boil. When the jars are full of jam and lids have been placed. Put the jars either into the canning rack and lower into the water bath or if you don’t have a rack, lower the jars into the pot with a tongs. Return water to a boil and put a lid on the pot and bathe your strawberry jam for 10 minutes. The water should cover the jars by at least 1-2 inches. When it has boiled for 10 minutes, remove the jars with a tongs and place them upright on a clean cloth. Make sure that they are out of any drafts and let them cool completely.

It sounds like a lot of steps but once you get the hang of it, preserving fruit is fun and easy. It’s especially great with a few helpers.

Happy Jamming and feel free to write with any questions!







Take Back the Hearth

May 2009

There were twenty seven of us tucked into the small living room in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  In the center sat Angelica Flores, a curandera, a folk healer in the Latin American tradition. She wore a handmade embroidered blouse and her thick black and white hair was piled high on her head. Her ankle was propped up on a footstool in front of her, apparently sprained, but this did nothing to diminish the power exuding from her dark, smiling eyes.

We were gathered in Angelica’s living room on a college study abroad trip. Our group had been in Mexico for ten days already. We had spent a day learning traditional Mayan abdominal massage, we had walked the ridges and hillsides looking at the local medicinal plants, we had traveled to 10,000 feet to do a cleansing ceremony at an ancient spring, and now, we sat rapt at the feet of Angelica Flores. I was trying to write everything down, but my hand kept spasming with the effort and so finally, I had to just lay down my pen and listen.

She spoke of many things: women, men, sex, the cycles of life, magic, God, and karma.  As her talk began to move towards completion, someone asked, “but, Angelica, what should we do to make the world better?” She paused for a moment and then said, “You must reclaim the power of fire. The fire is where people come to be nourished. The fire is where people come to eat, to be healed, to share stories, to strengthen the bonds of connection, and to celebrate. Take back the hearth. This will make the world better.”

June 2013

About 18 months ago, I found my journal from this college study abroad trip to Mexico. I was working at an awesome farm-to-table cooking school on the coast of Maine at the time. It was a great place to work, but I had always wanted to start something of my own and so I began dreaming of  the “Hearth Project.” Originally, I thought that it would make a good graduate school thesis.

I would go to one of the thousands of villages where people still cook over fire (1/2 the world still cooks over fire according to the World Health Organization) and I would document everything that happened around the fire: the food cooked, the fuel used, the community activities, the healing, the fighting, the ceremonies, etc. Then, I would look at modern society and find the places where these “hearth traditions” were happening. Since I’ve been working as a farmer and cook, I thought that foodie farm scene would be a good place to start looking for the renaissance of these traditions.

But then, I applied to graduate school and I didn’t get in.

So instead of spending lots of money ( and lots of years!) in graduate school, I get to start here. Today. On this great medium that my grandfather likes to call the wavelength.

Grandpa and Me

Grandpa and Me

To begin, this blog will highlight people and organizations that are keeping hearth traditions alive in the modern world. Also, I’ll post lots of great recipes. If you’d like to share a tradition, please let me know!

One last thing.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending a few days with a 92-year-old Austrian doctor named Heinz. (Heinz was a student of Victor Frankl!)

He said to me and his wife as we sat at the dinner table eating pork chops, “All the achievements in a man’s life aren’t worth one hour sitting at the table with the people he loves smiling across at him.”

This is really why I’m beginning this project. Food  and these “hearth traditions” give us the opportunity for this kind of connection.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure.