Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Knitting and Thinking Harder about Handmade

On average, I knit about one scarf each winter, using the most basic knit pattern, which is the limit of my knitting skills. This year I got a headstart and already completed one scarf for a birthday gift. In the past I have simply picked out yarn from a store based on cost, color, and feel. However, while making homemade gifts and buying handmade items has become a rallying cry and an important way to keep money out of corporation's pockets and support small businesses instead, sometimes simply handmade is not enough. In fact, one of the benefits of handmade is that you can exert more of a direct influence over the materials used.

So I started to think harder about the source of my scarf materials. If it's wool, what were the conditions of the animals raised for wool? Did the wool travel halfway around the globe to get to me, from Australia and New Zealand, which are the leading wool producers? If it's cotton yarn, what about pesticides? If it's acrylic, it's manufactured with polycrylonitriles, which may be carcinogenic. And then there are the dyes, probably laden with toxins rubbing up against your chin as you try to keep warm.

This batch of yarn came from happy sheep upstate, care of Catskill Merino, a farm that sells lamb meat and hand-dyed wool at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays. You may have noticed their gorgeously colored natural-dyed skeins while passing through the market. This fascinating Osage and Logwood color looks gray-green indoors with highlights of lime green in sunlight. The yarn is soft and I loved working with it. It wasn't that much more expensive than "nice" wool at a regular yarn store, so I felt it was worth it. There are many other eco-friendly yarn options out there, and alternatively, you could also check out your local thrift store for yarn or unravel an old sweater to reuse.

I like that kniting lets me relax and feel productive at the same time. It's a welcome way to slow down in this busy era of life when I feel I should always be accomplishing something with my time. The repetitive process is a meditative kind of multi-tasking, knitting while sitting around the living room watching TV with roommates or chatting on the subway.

I've got more yarn leftover from a lazy scarf fail last year, so I think a friend or family member might find a scarf under their tree this December. Who wants one? I'm considering expanding my repertoire to add some kind of pattern this time. This holiday season, I challenge you to also not only buy or make handmade gifts, but to think harder about handmade.

hanging yarn photo via flickr

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Canning Pickles and a Word about Skillshares

At the skillshare in September, we also made pickles and pizza, in addition to beer. We followed a recipe for canned garlic and dill pickles that Sarah learned at a pickling class at the Brooklyn Kitchen led by Bob McClure. I thought I didn't like fresh dill in my pickles, but I was wrong, because these were great and tasted simply as pickles should. In fact I liked them so much that I was willing to join a daring round of shots of pickle brine when we found ourselves snacking on the finished pickles a week later.

I'd only ever made lazy refrigerator pickles using storebought pickling spice mixes, which is easy and quick for making a jar at a time. Canning is a longer process, but worth it if you want to stockpile pickles. Afterward, we worried that the cans didn't sealed properly and decided to store them in the fridge, but it turns out they had indeed sealed. We put them in the fridge too early, but you should leave your cans out overnight to completely cool before testing the seal. Click here for more on how to know if your cans sealed.

As for skillshares, they have been popping up as a cheap alternative for learning new skills and trying new activities without having to pay for classes. Brooklyn is now home to its own annual Brooklyn Skillshare day each fall with classes ranging from composting to yoga to bike repairs. Skillshares can also be a great way to spend time with friends or get to know your community better. Ours was smallscale with just three people and three food-related skills, but even so, I have a few tips.

* Figure out ahead of time what you will need to bring with you. We got a late start because our host didn't have all the kitchen tools on hand (tongs, etc) we assumed he might, so there were some runs to pick up supplies.

*Plan complementary activities. For example, beer brewing and canning both require long periods of boiling in a giant pot, and there was only one giant pot, so it probably wasn't the best idea to do them in the same day. It all worked out okay, it was just a late night by the time everything was finished.

*You might also want to make plans for food or breaks. Originally I was going to bake bread as my skill, but I am really glad that I made pizza instead so that we were able to have a meal during the long day.

What skill would you teach if you organized a skillshare with your friends?

McClure's Garlic and Fresh Dill Canned Pickles

3 lbs small pickling cucumbers (Kirby)
6 cloves of garlic
1 bunch of dill
1 1/2 cups of water
1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar (5%)
little less than 1/2 cup picking or Kosher salt
crushed red pepper (optional)
6 canning jars

1) Wash cucumbers and place in a large deep bowl with ice. Cover and put in fridge.
2) Wash dill and chop off roots
3) Place minced garlic in a small bowl and pour hot vinegar over it. Let stand for 1 minute then pour vinegar out.
4) Fill a large pot with water. Place a jar in the pot and make sure the water is at least 1 inch above the top of the jar. Remove the test jar and bring water to a boil.
5) In another large pot, combine the vinegar, water, and salt. Bring the brine to a rapid boil. Stir the salt to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot
6) While pots are getting up to a boil take cucumbers out and quarter them. Make sure cucumber will stand 1/4 to1/2 inch below the rim of the jar.
7) After water is boiling, submerge mason jars and lids in pot and sterilize for about 90 seconds. Remove carefully with jar tongs.
8) In each jar, place garlic, dill and then enough cucumber spears to fill the jar, making sure cukes are below the “neck-line”.
9) Fill jars with hot brine and add an optional pinch of crushed red pepper.
10) Cap and seal jars. Turn them over to make sure you have an adequate seal. Repeat until all jars are complete
11) Place jars back in boiling water pot. Process sealed jars in boiling water for 10 minutes.
12) Let cool. Wait a week to two weeks before eating. Pickles will keep up to 1 year if stored in a cool, dry place.