Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saving Money Under Pressure

I've loved this pressure cooking adventure from the minute I started it. Got myself an 8-quart Presto pressure cooker, along with a Fagor Futuro 4- and 6-quart combo and an antique Lagostina that had belonged to a coworker's mother. I love them all, especially the Presto. It's a workhorse, and definitely tough -- I've accidentally managed to fire it up dry, twice, and it's still ok. What's more -- the pressure valve has even survived a very exciting trip through the garbage disposal, and, though it might not be as pretty as it was, it still works fine. Now that's tough!! Pressure cooking has so much to recommend it: Fresh, homemade food with no "junk"; dinner on the table in minutes -- even if you forget to plan ahead; and, you just might find yourself eating an even wider variety of things! That's because it takes so little time to cook even things like beans, potatoes, artichokes, etc., that it's much easier to get them on the table. There's no doubt this approach would help you save money -- things cook in one-third the time, and using very little energy. And you can cook inexpensive things like beans, and cheap cuts of meat, and end up with a dinner worth writing home about, in short order!! Plus, we've found that we're far less dependent on packaged foods, or even, heaven forbid, the local drive-through. But I think the thing that's surprised me most is how it helps us avoid letting food go to waste. Awhile back, there was a lone artichoke in the veggie drawer that I came across while rummaging around for "salad stuff". One of the pressure cookers was already on the stove, with meatloaf cooking away in it. In "the old days", knowing it would take at least 30 minutes to cook, I would probably have put the 'choke back into the fridge, forgotten it again, and it would have ended up, eventually, in the compost bucket. Instead, I trimmed it up and tossed it into the other pressure cooker. And about fifteen minutes later, both the meatloaf and the choke were ready for the table. I'm no longer hesitant to buy or grow potatoes, either -- right now, I have gold, red (new), blue and sweet potatoes on hand. Last night, I cooked a handful of sweet potatoes -- peeled and warmed up a bit, they made an excellent breakfast! It's no problem at all to work potatoes and other things that take awhile to cook into the grand scheme of things, when they cook so quickly in the pressure cooker!! We've found our pressure cookers to be well worth the investment -- you can save money by eating cheaply, cooking quickly -- and avoiding waste!! Read more!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sprouting 101

Every time I think I’ve learned “all I need to know” about storing, cooking and enjoying food, I manage to prove myself wrong. Case in point: Sprouting – particularly grains and beans. We lean towards the “veggie” perspective (pretty strictly, for quite a number of years). However, as we’ve simultaneously gotten a little older and dramatically reduced our intake of legumes, our ability to digest them has decreased. So I’ve been scouting around for ways to make it easier for us to handle them. We tried the digestive enzyme sold specifically for this purpose, which helped some, but didn’t cure the problem. I also tried soaking the beans (refrigerated) for several days, changing the water twice a day. Perhaps it would have worked better if they had been kept at room temperature (which is what the instructions generally recommend), but I just wasn’t comfortable with that idea. Then I discovered sprouting. (Rediscovered, more accurately.) And have been pleasantly surprised by a number of things. First, food that is sprouted expands quite a bit, and so will go a lot further – literally stretching one’s food dollar! Second, beans that have been sprouted really are far easier to digest. Sprouted beans (or grains) store nicely in the fridge for days, needing only an occasional rinse to keep them fresh, so there’s very little waste. (Proponents say the nutrients in sprouted foods become much more bio-available, but the research I’ve read has been conflicting on that point.) An unexpected bonus: Because they are sprouted ahead of time, and because so little results in so much food, it’s easy to keep them on hand, ready to cook at a moment’s notice. So if I haven’t taken anything out of the freezer to thaw, I can still put dinner on the table in a flash! The only disadvantage, if there is one, is that sprouted beans tend to stay a little on the crunchy side unless cooked really thoroughly – but even slightly crunchy sprouted beans are remarkably easy to digest! Our sprouting experiment started with wheat, and expanded into garbanzos, cranberry beans (which look like overgrown pintos), lentils and pink beans. (The only beans that haven’t worked all that well, so far, are pintos and black beans.) The wheat has been fun – after sprouting, I ground some to add to the dough for sourdough tortillas, which gave them a nice flavor – took the edge off the sourdough. I also dried some, which I later ground into flour. I’d read that flour ground from sprouted grains can be used in pretty much the same way as traditional flour, and so tossed it into the bread machine with the rest of the ingredients for my favorite bread recipe. Wasn’t sure how it would really work – sprouting, I reasoned, must change the gluten in some way, but it actually made a very nice loaf of bread. A little gummy, perhaps, but the flavor was nice nonetheless. I’ve also taken the wheat sprouts, just as they are, as a snack for work. And the beans have been fun. It’s been great to enjoy these protein-packed foods again, without any of us suffering digestive distress. And legumes of all stripes are a huge boon in a food storage plan -- high quality protein, shelf stable, can be stored for years, and each pound in storage is worth at least three pounds on the table! Most sprouted beans need to be cooked, and can be used in pretty much any recipe calling for dried beans. One concern I had was convincing my family to try them. I used a three-prong approach: educate them about the benefits of sprouted foods; use them in foods they already enjoy; and offer something else as a backup, just in case. I knew I’d probably face a mutiny if I simply announced one evening that we’d be enjoying pan-fried lentil sprouts with our brown rice and salad. Fortunately, there was some leftover pizza in the fridge. So I cooked the lentils briefly with some garlic, seasoned them with a little soy sauce, and politely asked everyone to have a bite "to taste it". To my surprise and delight, they actually wanted a serving along with their pizza. Cool!! Sprouting most grains and beans is about the easiest kind of “cooking” there is: Put the grains or beans into a jar or other container (they need plenty of room to expand – no more than a cup of beans in a quart jar, and 2/3 or so is better), rinse, then fill the jar with cool water. Cover the jar with cheesecloth or a clean dishcloth, or, if it’s a canning jar, one of those plastic mesh lids with holes especially designed for this purpose (you could also use plastic window screen material, or any other rust-proof material that lets the jar drain). Leave at room temperature for 8 – 12 hours (or a little longer), then drain. Rinse and drain a couple of times a day, until little tails appear. (This usually only takes a day or two.) How long the tails should be allowed to get depends on the intended use. Sprouted beans can be used in virtually any recipe that calls for dried beans. I’ve even used sprouted white beans, which I accidentally cooked until they disintegrated, as the base for a pasta sauce. Here’s how I made the sprouted lentil dish: Pan-fried Lentil Sprouts Butter Small handful slivered garlic (I used some from a batch of lacto-fermented pickles) 2 cups sprouted lentils, tails 3/8” or so Soy Sauce Heat the butter in a frying pan and add the garlic. Saute, stirring frequently, for a few minutes. It’s ok if they end up lightly browned. Add the lentils and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 – 15 minutes (add a little water if necessary). Add soy sauce to taste. Enjoy. Read more!

Back in the (Canning) Saddle!

Canning again!! What with one thing and another (buying and renovating a house, moving, a week-long stay in the hospital -- all in a matter of about 6 months!), I haven't done much canning -- or writing, for that matter. But I'm back in the saddle, with a couple of cases of cubed pork (pressure canned, of course), and strawberry jam under my belt. It's really nice to be back in the canning biz!! Took a good, hard look at our food storage today, and set a goal to can a case of meat, plus whatever fruit happens to be in season, each week, for the next while. (This will work great, so long as I can find something we use on sale -- this week, it's pork sirloin (aka tri-tip), which I picked up for $1.19 a pound. Guess the $.99 days are gone for good. Sigh.) So far, I'm ahead -- the third batch of cubed pork is in process now. Unfortunately, only 6 of the last 10 sealed. I think that's because I started with the heat too high, and ended up turning it down too quickly. So this batch I'll start a little lower. Contrary to popular advice, I also have a lot of trouble getting things to seal if I turn the heat down periodically during the whole processing time. So I'll adjust it a few times, then let it go. I've done some raw packing, which is wonderfully convenient, but the results always taste like tuna to us. Ham and corned beef, on the other hand, do not. So, operating on the theory that pre-cooking the meat will take the edge off that flavor, I elected to cook the pork before canning it. The first batch became pork "burger" -- through the grinder, then browned and canned in stock. That proved to be a lot of work, so I just cubed the next batch, browned it and simmered it until the pieces had shrunk and felt a little tough against the spoon. I cut the third batch into smaller cubes, browned it and simmered it with some garlic. I've gotten into pickling foods the old fashioned way -- in a salt brine --, and so used some of the garlic from a recent batch. Pork has such an affinity for garlic! The stock tasted great; hope the pork will too, when it comes out of the canner. Any of these options will provide a quick & easy way to get dinner on the table, as well as building up our food storage. Nothing lasts forever -- not even homemade jam. So the bottles from 2008, and maybe even 2009, aren't long for this world. Now that I've learned how we tend to use them, I can plan more effectively -- which means we shouldn't end up with jars and jars of brown apricot jam a few years from now... So this is shaping up to be a busy summer, but hopefully a productive one. Read more!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Canning Meatballs - Not Sure I'd Bother Again

Canned meatballs after work tonight. All I did was use my favorite meatloaf recipe, which is a pound of ground meat, a couple of tablespoons or so of dried onions, a teaspoon of dried mustard. I usually put in a handful of rolled oats and an egg or two as well, but thought it would be better to leave them out for canning. I also normally top it with ketchup, but I left if off of the ones I planned to can.

As I write this, the canner is chattering away. Only managed to get three quarts done, but that's three more than we had before! There were a half-dozen left over, which made a nice dinner for us. I started with about 12 pounds of pork cushion steak (tri-tip), which I put through the grinder last night. I'm a little surprised -- usually when I pressure can things after work, I'm up until midnight, at least. But it's only 9:20, with only 20 minutes left before the canner can be turned off. Then twenty minutes for the pressure to come down, two after the weight comes off, and ten more before the jars can be taken out. So I'll be finished with this adventure before 10:30! Cool!!

I decided to pressure cook the meatballs before I packed them in the jars. Some recipes call for them to be raw-packed, but most suggest browning them first. Although I do raw-pack some things (cubed chicken breasts or thighs, cubed pork, cubed ham), I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea of raw packing meatballs. So I layered them in the pressure cookers (luckily I have several, with baskets, trays, etc. to fit in each), brought them up to pressure, and cooked them for about 6 minutes. Then hot-packed them into quart jars, wiped the rims, put the on the lids & rings, and put them into the canner. I sure hope all three jars seal -- I've had such an awful time getting things I've pressure canned to seal lately. Except for the corned beef. I canned some over the weekend, and all 7 jars sealed! Hurray! Maybe that's because it must be hot-packed -- I'm not sure. But in any case, I'm really glad they all sealed!!

It's a good thing we had the leftover ones for dinner -- the texture was a little coarse, so I realized that it would be a good idea to run the meat through the grinder again. I have another batch to can tomorrow night, so I'll go ahead & re-grind it tonight. Although, this might not be necessary -- I know that canning changes the texture of ground meat. For example, I canned some sloppy joe filling awhile back. Before it was canned, it had the texture of regular old ground beef (even though it was made with pork -- we're not big beef eaters). However, the canning process seemed to make it very fine. I presume meatballs would be the same way. Still, I'd rather take the time to prep it as well as possible.

Update: Wahoo -- all three jars sealed! I'm convinced that hot-packing made the difference. I also re-ground the meat, and I can tell just by looking at it that it was a good thing to do.

Update #2: We sampled the meatballs the next day, and decided we don't need to add any more to our food storage. Raw-packed canned meat acquires a flavor for which we don't care, and I'd hoped to avoid that by pre-cooking the meatballs. No such luck. So I think I'll stick to canning cured meats (ham, corned beef), because their flavor doesn't seem to change after canning.
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Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Change for the Better

A change has come over our culinary lives, so slowly that we didn't really notice. But it has, and the effects are unmistakable.

I set out, about year and a half ago, to learn to preserve as much as possible of what we consume -- including meats, soups, prepared beans, etc. And, with the acquisition of a few well-chosen pieces of equipment, I have. And I thought I was doing just fine -- all of the prep work I've done will certainly serve us well in the future.

But what really surprised me is how much easier it makes our lives now. Planning for dinners some time in the future has also caused me to have things that can be quickly put together for any meal, and so better able to feed us, on a daily basis. And I recently started learning the fine art of pressure cooking, which has done wonders!!

So, as I've begun to buy things on sale and/or in bulk and can, freeze or dry them, we've gradually weeded out pretty much all commercially prepared foods. Not that we ever relied very heavily on them, but they were a part of our lives, to one degree or another. I didn't make a conscious effort to give them up -- it just sort of happened naturally. But there's a side effect, and one that I didn't anticipate, or even notice, until today. Particularly since I've begun to learn about pressure cooking, we really haven't eaten anything except what I've prepared. And today, after a rare visit to a local drive-through, I was shocked to realize that the aroma coming from the steaming bag the young man handed us didn't remotely smell like food to me. And when we opened it up at home and I tasted one of the fries, I was surprised at how disappointed I was. How many fast food meals have I eaten, without noticing?!

But now that we have a pressure cooker (well, ok -- 2. Or 3, if you count the pressure canner), I can very quickly get dinner on the table. And it's good, homemade stuff -- no chemicals, preservatives or artificial flavors to disguise the real flavor of the food. The only thing I need to remember is to add something for crunch. Any of a number of things will do: chopped nuts, raw or toasted sunflower seeds, even things like water chestnuts or crispy fried onions.

I never had any idea, when I set out on this adventure all those months ago, what a hugely positive impact it would have on the quality of the food we eat, every day!!

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pressure Cooking: The Adventure Continues

How many times have I thought of something I'd like to make for dinner, but couldn't because I hadn't planned ahead and soaked the beans, thawed the chicken or done some other bit of indispensable prep work? These days, thanks to a kitchen marvel called a pressure cooker, it's no problem!! In fact, I've found this piece of equipment so useful that I've purchased a second one!!

The first cooker that I purchased was the familiar rocker-type, a 6-quart model (Presto), and I fell instantly in love with it. In fact, since it arrived, I haven't used the stove for regular cooking -- except for a dinner of fried rice, which definitely cannot be done in the pressure cooker. Today, a "new generation" cooker (8-quart, also a Presto), with a pressure release mechanism in the lid, arrived. And tonight, I used them both to cook dinner. The smaller one handled the artichokes, while I tossed together a Shrimp Bisque from Toula Patsalis's "The Pressure Cooker Cookbook" in the new one. Because the soup recipe is somewhat involved (several more steps than I would normally consider, but, hey -- I was celebrating my new piece of equipment!!), dinner took longer than it usually would when using a pressure cooker, but the results were well worth it!! I did substitute brown rice for the white, but otherwise I followed the recipe pretty carefully. Oh -- and instead of running cold water over it when the shrimp were cooked, I let the steam off with the release mechanism, so the shrimp were probably a little more done than they needed to be, but it still turned out very nice. And it was good to know that my husband was heading off to an evening meeting well fed.

I've been doing a bit of reading, and am intrigued by all the things you can cook, and the ways you can cook them, in a pressure cooker. You can, of course, put things like soups and beans directly into the cooker. But you can also prepare several different kinds of foods at the same time, if you put them into individual containers -- so long as they fit into the cooker with at least a half-inch to spare on all sides. You can stack them, too -- provided you don't fill the cooker more than 2/3 full. Small stainless steel bowls are ideal, and ovenproof casserole dishes and ramekins are second-best. The stainless heats up both quickly and evenly, while ceramic cookware heats unevenly and requires a little extra cooking time. What this means is that you can virtually cook a whole meal -- including dessert -- at the same time. Using a quick-release method will allow you to cook meats or beans, grains or potatoes and various veggies to perfection.

I had just a few small ovenproof cooking vessels, and decided I wanted to try to find some small stainless containers. So I headed for one of the larger thrift stores in my area. A walk down the aisle of their kitchen section turned up only a 2-cup, lidless Corningware casserole, which, of course, I grabbed. Disappointed that I hadn't found more, I was turning to leave when I noticed a woman rummaging through a bin I'd walked right by without noticing. I sidled up to the opposite end of it and started sifting through the mismatched pots and lids, serving trays, cookie sheets, etc. And, whaddya know -- hidden among the pots and pans were little silver jewels -- stainless steel serving bowls, probably former residents of some defunct resaurant, and not one priced more than $1!! So I scooped up all that I could find and made my way to the register. After a trip through the dishwasher, they'll be ready to be pressed into service.

Admittedly, I'm still learning to time things (which means things often end up either over- or under-cooked), but each time I cook this way, things come out a little better!

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Monday, November 15, 2010

The Joys of Pressure Cooking

What a cool adventure this pressure cooking is!! Besides the energy (and time) savings, it has really freed me up in terms of dinner preparation. In times past, I dreaded the idea of coming home and having to cook dinner. To be painfully honest, some days, it was just more than I could face.

In fact, in an effort to make dinner preparations easier to manage, I recently made up a spreadsheet with about 2 months' worth of dinners, complete with instructions like "thaw pork", or "soak beans", for the next day's meal. It does help, although I find that I usually only follow it for a few days at a time.

Enter the pressure cooker. Now, if I haven't planned ahead, I can toss in some frozen chicken or pork, (I cut it into bite-sized pieces before freezing, and pack in no more than half-pound packages), and add some sauce and a little water. If I don't have any rice cooked and haven't planned ahead for (homemade) garlic bread or the like, I might put the rack (came with the pressure cooker) on top, put in some quartered, seasoned potatoes (I make a foil "bowl", making sure there's clearance all the way around), and let 'er go. In a very short time (about 30 minutes), dinner is ready.

Dried beans are amazingly quick, too. Conventionally soaked or "speed soaked" (thanks, Lorna Sass!!), they cook in anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes. If you're speed soaking, the whole thing, soak to table, can be done in 30 - 40 minutes!

There are so many advantages to pressure cooking: Saves time, energy and nutrients; tenderizes inexpensive (tough) cuts of meat as well as the crockpot; takes about a third the time and uses about a third the energy of conventional cooking methods; cleanup is generally pretty easy -- because you're cooking with steam, things tend not to stick as they might with dry heat...

And an unexpected bonus is that it's actually opened up our daily dinner options. Even if I haven't planned head, I can still put virtually any meal that might be cooked on the stovetop, and even a lot of things that are usually cooked in the oven, on the table in record time. The key is that the dish must either have enough liquid in it to make the required steam, or it must be cooked in an ovenproof casserole or steel bowl (or canning jars!!) covered with foil, with water in the bottom of the cooker. For example, we recently attended a concert, and got home right around dinner time. On the drive home, I decided to cook beans. As soon as we walked in, I tossed a cup of beans into the cooker with 3 cups of water and brought it to pressure. About 40 minutes later, we were sitting down to a hot, homecooked meal that was much better (and healthier!) than the restaurant fare we would probably otherwise have had -- and we saved money, in the bargain! I can spot ribs on sale in the local paper, pick some up on my way home from work, and have a nice ribs & garlic mashed potato dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes from when I walk in the door. We haven't had occasion yet, but it's nice to know that, sometime when we're in the middle of a project and dinnertime is suddenly upon us, we can save the $25 or so we might otherwise have spent on a bucket of chicken, and have a nice hot, quickly home-cooked meal, instead.

And if it wasn't enough that you can cook a complete meal in one of these babies, you can also whip up a dessert, as well. DH is not a big dessert fan, so I've been perfecting the art of making custard for one. It's amazingly easy: Put 1/2 cup of milk, an egg, a little sweetener and a little vanilla in a small ramekin or canning jar (both work equally well), mix thoroughly and grate a little nutmeg on top. Put in the cooker with the required amount of water, turn on the heat & cook 8 minutes at high pressure. Quick release the pressure, take the ramekin out, and, viola -- custard for one!!

With so many advantages to this kind of cooking, I'm puzzled when folks, as they typically do, show only polite interest!! Maybe it's because of the reputation these cookers once had, or because it would mean an initial extra expense. But modern pressure cookers are very safe when used according to the manufacturers' directions, and experience has shown me that the time and money these amazing things save quickly more than makes up for the initial expense -- even if one were to purchase one of the more expensive models, with all the bells and whistles!!

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

BBQ Ribs & Garlic Mashed in 25 Minutes!!!

I've fallen in love with a piece of kitchen equipment. Nothing new, there -- I've fallen in love with pretty much every pressure canner and rice cooker I've brought home, but this time it's different!!

Since my shiny, new 6-quart pressure cooker arrived, I find myself spending more time planning dinner (that's a good thing), yet a lot less actually cooking it! It all started when my grandmother agreed to share a beloved (and coveted) recipe, the first step of which requires pressure cooking one of the ingredients. I happen to own a 21-quart pressure canner, which was way more than adequate for the task at hand.

And after I experimented with it a bit, and experienced the savings in time, energy and nutrients (and money!!), I decided it was time to take the plunge. Logged onto my favorite online retailer, and in short order received a beautiful stainless steel cooker. Pressure cookers, it turns out, are quite reasonable -- you can pick up an aluminum one for around $25, or stainless for a little more. Whichever one you choose, you'll start saving money (and thus recoup your investment) the minute you start using it!!

Dinner -- both planning what to cook and actually getting the job done -- has always been a challenge -- especially since I get off work at 6:00. Who wants to spend an hour messing around with dinner at that hour -- especially after working all day?! Enter the pressure cooker. It typically takes about a third the time to cook things as conventional methods do, so you immediately save both time and energy. Add to that the fact that the pressure cooker can tenderize tough (read: inexpensive) cuts of meat as well as the crockpot, and the fact that you'll be less likely to hit the drive-through if you have a few ingredients on hand & ready to toss into the cooker at a moment's notice, and it's obvious that this kitchen wonder can make your life better in several ways!!

As an experiment, I recently tossed in uncooked pasta, a jar of sauce, a little water and about a pound of frozen (yes, frozen!!) chicken. Viola -- 31 minutes later, dinner was on the table. It might not have been quite as nice as it would have if I'd started with thawed chicken and cooked the pasta separately, but it's good to know that the option is available, should I ever find myself in a bind!!

Tonight, I browned some ribs (they stuck a little, but I wasn't worried -- I knew the braising would take care of that), put them in the bottom of the cooker with a jar of homemade barbecue sauce and a little water, and set the rack (most come with one, these days) on top. Put a single layer of new potatoes (pierced with a fork first) on the rack, put the lid on and brought it up to pressure. I calculated 22 minutes, which was fine for the thinner ribs, but I wish I'd cooked it for 25 -- the thicker ones weren't quite as tender as they could have been. Ah, well -- next time... Still, a nice rib dinner was ready in no time at all!!

Another great thing about pressure cookers is how easy it is to clean up!! You're cooking one-pot meals, and, unless you've really goofed and scorched something, clean-up is much quicker and easier than when cooking with dry heat. One warning -- if you're steam-cooking (as opposed to braising things in liquid), you may want to use cooking spray to keep things from sticking.

I can't believe what a great piece of equipment this is -- since I've owned it, I haven't cooked anything, except fried rice, in the conventional way. And I don't think I will much, either!!

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mid-Spring Musings

Pulled up deer tongue lettuce today. I hated to do it – it’s a lovely variety, and has fed us through the winter. But it’s time – wanted to catch it before it bolted. In keeping with my goal of year-round gardening, I mixed in some compost from the worm bin, and replanted with pole beans (“eye” side up, as I’ve recently learned). Although a storm is coming, I think it’ll be warm enough to get them going. Also transplanted quite a few things from the starting "plugs" to 2” and 3” pots. They were looking pretty sad, so I hope they make it. Not sure what happened this time – last time it worked so well! Ah, well, can’t expect things to always be so easy.

Had to add another tray to the worm bin today. They haven't looked "right" lately, and DH laughed, when I told him I'd figured out what was wrong with them -- they need more fiber in their diets. But it's true -- since we've basically given up coffee, I've only been giving them veggie trimmings, plus the odd tea bag -- and it's not a balanced diet! So I started a new tray, using a layer of veggie trimmings, paper from the shredder, a healthy layer of leaves and a layer of moistened newspaper. I'm a little concerned about the shredded paper, though -- when I mixed it with water, the water turned a lovely shade of blue. I rinsed it out as best I could -- I'm hoping it won't hurt them. Guess I'll know pretty soon...

I'm very pleased to be able to eat wheat again. For a time, it seemed to cause all kinds of problems. But, after giving up coffee, I can now eat wheat. Been making bread using Peter Reinhart's method -- soaker & biga prepared 3 days ahead & refrigerated -- which seems to make it even easier for my system to handle. In fact, I've been so pleased that I've shared the information with a friend who also has difficulty with wheat (or maybe gluten -- he's not sure). I'm really hoping this will help -- it'd certainly make it easier for him & his family!!

I'm really pleased with the way we're eating these days -- not only is it healthier, it's MUCH cheaper!! I buy most things in bulk, including wheat, oats, beans, etc., and we grow more of our own produce than I'd have believed possible!! Tonight, for example, we had a salad made of mostly homegrown greens, embellished with homegrown carrots & beets, and storebought peppers & tomatoes. Slices of homemade multigrain bread, augmented with a little animal protein (which we're in the process of getting away from again) to round out the meal. Right now, we have about a dozen baby tomatoes on various vines. There's another big storm coming in (this has been an unsually wet and cold April), which I'm hoping won't hurt them.


It didn't, as it turned out. It wasn't an exceptional year for tomatoes, but we did enjoy them from mid-May until mid-October, so I feel pretty good about that!!
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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Living and Learning...

Interesting adventure, this year-round gardening thing. Planted some greens, carrots, beets & other stuff about a month ago. Carefully picked a mix of warm weather greens, spaced the seeds just so, kept them watered -- and then noticed that the cat has been enjoying those formerly nice, neat rows, too.

Although I'm not happy with losing most of what I planted, I really can't blame him. If I had to do my important business in this slab of concrete pretending to be dirt, I'd pick the nice neat rows, too.

So it's a bit of a setback, but it's caused me to expand my approach. From here on, I'll start what I can indoors (he doesn't seem to bother the little seedlings, once I set them out), and arrange an inconvenient spot (for him) to plant the rest. A friend told me about upending 5-gallon buckets, setting an old door or shelving on top, then putting a kiddie pool or two on top of that. You have to drill holes in the pool, of course, and I think I'd probably throw plastic over the door or whatever, so it'll be likely to last a little longer. My friend's growing potatoes in hers, but I think I'll stick to carrots, beets & other stuff that doesn't transplant well. (I'll probably throw some chicken wire over, to make clear to His Highness that this is not the perfect kitty box.)

Planted cucumbers and beans today. Planted some a couple of weeks ago, then we got a cold & rainy spell, so I lost what little did come up. Now I understand a little better the frustrations & joys of my farmer friends... I realized, after I planted the cucumber seeds, that I'd planted most of them in the shade of the little fence I want them to climb -- not sure how many will actually come up...


Very few, as it turned out. Well, they might've come up, but I never saw 'em. It was a bad year, earwigs-wise, I was told. In any case, not a single cucumber -- nor even so much as a bean -- did we harvest. So I ended up buying all of the cucumbers I needed for our winter's supply of sweet pickle relish (for DH's "Thousands of Islands" dressing) at my two favorite roadside stands, and my sister provided us with beans from her garden. Oh, well -- we had a great crop of spaghetti squash...

On the positive side, two of our tomatoes are setting fruit already!!!
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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Act of Faith, Exercise in Patience

2:40 in the afternoon on a beautiful very early spring day. It's actually a false spring -- we're still in for some cooler weather, and the Weather Channel on my desktop says rain all next week.

The weather can do what it will, at this point -- we have a greenhouse full of young carrots, kale, peas, kohlrabi, spinach... More are settled into the cold frames -- some transplants, some just up, and some still working hard to send their tiny roots down and their little cotyledons up. Before I got all of this set up, I would have been impatient for Spring -- itching to get my hands in the earth and some seedlings into the ground.

It's always an act of faith, planting seeds. Those tiny things could be dirt, for as much as you can see. I'm always intrigued by the fact that seeds virtually never resemble (even faintly) the plants they will become. Yet hidden within those tiny bits is almost unbelievable potential. What a masterful design -- exquisitely practical, and each utterly unique -- another witness to the creative Genius at work in the calling into being of all things.

And if planting is an act of faith, waiting for them to emerge, once planted, is an exercise in patience. We do all we can, to provide conditions that will give them the best chance to be all they were meant to be. And how lovely, when finally we see the tender green shoots, poking tenuously through the rich, dark earth!

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Die-hard Redbor Kale!

Huge storms headed our way, so we spent the weekend frantically getting our cold frames set up, and the transplants settled into it. We made it -- barely. By the time I was finished watering, I was soaked, too. Most of the transplants went into the cold frame, and the rest into the greenhouse. I want to see which ones are likely to do best, where...

That's part of what I'm trying to accomplish -- to learn which plants do best under what conditions. I planted several cool weather things last weekend, and noticed today that a single Redbor Kale plant has pushed its little cotelydons up into the (greenhouse) world. The sight of that tiny purple stalk gave me such a thrill, I had to restrain myself from dashing in to order more seeds!! I planted the last 2 seeds as part of last weekend's efforts, and was pleasantly surprised when this one made its appearance today. I planted most of the packet last Fall, but it must have been the wrong time -- not one plant came up. Or maybe something ate them as they emerged, before I saw them. In any case, I was glad to see this little one!

Planted several kinds of tomatoes and peppers in our new Bio Dome starter today. Put the heat mat under them, to really get them going. It's a bit early for the tomatoes, but I want to try growing them in the greenhouse. One of my goals is to see if we can harvest tomatoes, and possibly peppers, for much of the year.


The tomatoes and peppers came zooming into the world, and we ended up enjoying them weeks earlier than would otherwise have been possible. I will definitely do that again this year!!

And who would've believed it -- that redbor kale is still going strong!! It sort of hung on, until we moved the planter it was in out of the greenhouse. Turns out the greenhouse didn't get enough light where we had it. So we moved it in early spring, and because the plants looked ok (maybe a little stunted), we left them. They sort of hunkered down & didn't do much over the summer, but now that it's starting to cool off again, they're going to town!!

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Planting Spring in the Greenhouse

Planted some early Spring things in the greenhouse today -- beets, carrots, kale, peas, spinach. Didn't plant lettuce, as we still have a row of it. Being new at this year-round thing, I didn't plant enough last Fall, so we've had to supplement it with store-bought, to make it last the Winter. Three to six inches of rain forecast in the next couple of weeks, so, though I'm itching to put something in the garden too, I will wait.

There's been a flurry of activity around here, lately. I wanted a light shelf (for peppers and tomatoes, mostly), but didn't want to spend the $250 or more for the one in the catalog. So I spent the weekend engineering and wiring, learning about light output and T5 vs T8 or T12... Finally, my little seedlings are basking in the glow of 2 grow lights. It was obvious that I needed to give them more light, as they were all leaning in toward the center, to soak up all they could get from the original single-light fixture.

My ever-patient husband has spent the last couple of weeks fiddling with the (inexpensive -- flimsy) greenhouse, trying to make sure it can withstand the gale-force winds we get, here on the edge of the valley. With the storm that's coming, it's about to be tested...

I was struck, as I was tucking in the little specks that will, hopefully, one day soon provide us with a shot of color and vitamins for our dinner table, by the idiosyncracies of time. An investment of less than two hours of my time, and a larger investment on the part of the sun and the little seeds, will, with any luck, yield food that will nourish our bodies -- just as the growing and harvesting of it has nourished my mind.

I've been thinking about my motivation for all of this. It began as an outgrowth of my interest in food storage -- which has ultimately translated to taking more control over the foods we eat. When I discovered Eliot Coleman's excellent book, "Four-Season Harvest", I realized that we could eat from our own backyard all year. That, in turn, led to the idea of growing things we've never tried before -- kohlrabi and sorrel, for a start.

I had already set up a vermicompost system in our laundry room (if it's properly managed, there really isn't any smell, to speak of), because it just didn't make sense to me to throw away kitchen scraps and then drive to the store to buy compost. Living as we do in the city, a compost pile isn't really all that practical -- although we have made some excellent compost just by burying things in the soil. But the worms do it a lot faster -- they can handle a half-pound of food a day! In fact, I've just added another tray, so in a few months, they'll need even more than that.

There are so many benefits to this year-round gardening thing: The freshest food possible; a wealth of nutrients not available in commercially grown produce (we're doing this as organically as possible, so there should be a nutrients available to what we grow that just aren't there for commercial produce, plus we're growing things in a multitude of colors -- red kale, purple brussel sprouts, blue kohlrabi -- providing us with phytonutrients both discovered and otherwise...)

I can't help but reflect on the fact that we were designed to be hunter-gatherers, spending our time looking for food and consuming it very soon after obtaining it. Produce at the supermarket has rarely been picked the same day it is purchased.

There are many benefits of year-round gardening, and one that I'm particularly happy about is that planting a little at a time, once the area has been prepared, hardly feels like work! We've also expanded our culinary horizons, by growing and consuming things that aren't necessarily found in the produce section of the local supermarket.

I have discovered, though, that there's not much information available on year-round gardening, even though I live in Zone 9 (one of the easiest zones in which to grow things to eat all year), so I'm making notes as we go along. I did, however, get a useful planting guide table from the Cooperative Extension, and am using it to help plan our planting schedule.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Time (in a Greenhouse)

The concept of time, in its various guises, seems to be a theme lately. Everything, from the hours it takes for the sun to glide across the garden in the backyard, feeding the leaves that feed the plants that will, in turn, feed us, to the days between nestling a seed into the earth and the reward of seeing its tiny cotilydons pushing up toward the light, to the months of infinitesimal increases (or decreases) in the temperature of the soil, is inextricably linked to the passage of time.

And yet, Einstein proved that time is not linear. I can't help thinking about our forebears, and it wasn't all that long ago, to whom the concept of "ownership" of time would have been completely foreign. They were at the mercy of time -- or, rather, someone else's concept of it. Whoever owned the clock, owned time.

Even now, in our cyber world, for all our understanding of it, we are completely and utterly unable to have any impact on it. Except, maybe, in a greenhouse. Actually, we can't really have any impact upon time -- but, by making slight changes to the environment, we can definitely have a very real impact on the length of the time we can grow various things each year. In fact, we can actually produce things to eat, in our own backyards, all year. That, it seems to me, is the purpose of a greenhouse. It can, of course, be used for starting plants earlier than would otherwise be possible. But the real value, for my money, lies in the possibility of extending the time that tomatoes, say, can be grown at home. And in improving the quality of the produce we enjoy.

So we experimented with a greenhouse. It didn't, ultimately, work out very well -- but only because the only part of the yard we could put it in at the time didn't get enough sunlight to support plant life. Still, I consider the experiment a success, in that we learned a great deal in the process, and it helped us along on the journey toward growing our own food.


We've moved the greenhouse (all 4 x 6 of it!!) to the garden. It now resides on a raised bed DH built for it. I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do with it, now that it's in a place that gets adequate light!!

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Surrounded by Life

I suddenly find myself surrounded by a surprising amount of life: A flat of seedlings reaching their tiny cotyledons up to a grow light in the garage, a tray of red wigglers busily making compost in the laundry room, what Laurel Robertson calls “yeast beasties”, frantically transforming freshly ground flour, honey and water into the Staff of Life that sustains…

And what sustenance it is! Following Peter Reinhart’s “Power Bread” recipe, which, though it takes three days to complete, is pretty easy, yielded the best bread I’ve ever made. It’s a lovely combination of whole wheat (I use freshly ground white wheat -- still a whole grain, but lighter in flavor and texture than the traditional hard red) with the sweetness of raisins and honey, and the earthy notes of sunflower and sesame seeds. Although it's quite sweet, it doesn't seem to cause blood sugar issues -- thanks to the combination of proteins in the grain and seeds. And, because the enzymes are given time to do their work over the 3-day process, and the sunflower seeds are ground, it's very easy to digest. I have been on a quest for the perfect bread recipe for some time, and this just might be it -- it has certainly become my new favorite bread recipe...

And the greens and baby carrots we bring in from the garden are vibrant with life. How fortunate we feel, enjoying a fresh salad popping out of the bowl with color -- in the dead of winter! And all it took was a bit of effort last Fall. As Eliot Coleman points out in his wonderful "Four-Season Harvest" book, plant selection, plus timing, really can equal a year-round harvest of fresh food that makes the flavorless (and expensive) produce on the grocery store shelves at this time of year even less appealing. And I can't help but think of all the phytonutrients we're getting -- probably some they haven't even discovered yet, new as that science is.

It's amazing how much more involved with what's real in life we've become.

Our new (portable) greenhouse arrived yesterday. Though I'm itching to put it up (to see what the temperature extremes will be), we're not quite ready. I've taken next Monday off from work to give me time to play with it. The seeds I ordered should be mailed this week (finally -- they were a Christmas gift!!), and the new heating mat, coupled with a second grow light, will allow me to get a jump start on the peppers, tomatoes and other heat-loving things we want to grow... My goal is to be able to harvest fresh food all year, and I'm optimistic that the (relatively inexpensive) equipment we're accumulating will allow us to do just that.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Soil Temperatures & Sunlight Hours

Have spent much time & energy researching how to do this year-round gardening thing on the West Coast. Despite the fact that we live in an area that is pretty easy for plants to grow in, I'm having trouble locating information on the subject.

So far, I've learned the minimum germination temperatures for the various things I want to grow, the first and last frost dates for my area, and am beginning to amass a general understanding of what plants generally do well in cooler weather. I plan to keep a journal of what we planted & how it did, which will help us refine our plant choices & timing in the future.

My goal, in all of this, is to gain more control over our food supply -- the quality, the variety and the cost.
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Bowlful of Spring in December

Park's Master Chef Lettuce Blend 12/20/09

Pak Choi, Violetta, 12/20/09

We're reaping the rewards of efforts we made last Fall -- lovely, dark green leaves to add to our salad. I planted several kinds of lettuce, spinach, carrots, cabbage, broccoli and green onions. Must have been the wrong time for the kale, though, because it never poked its red head above the soil.

But, how nicely the rich, dark greens of violetta pak choi (a mild-flavored, purple leaf-style cabbage), deer tongue and other interesting lettuces, as well as mild cabbages brighten up our winter salad!! And having done a little research, we're also including dandelion and a few of its lookalikes.

It was an act of faith when I nestled those little seeds into the ground months ago. Even though I live in a Zone 9 region (very hospitable to plants most all year), and despite the fact that I've always been interested in year-round gardening, I'd never really believed it was possible. Then I stumbled upon Eliot Coleman's book, "Four Season Harvest", ( As it turns out, he and his family live in Zone 5 -- few daily sunlight hours and deep snowdrifts every winter -- yet they enjoy fresh produce from their backyard all year. After reading his discussion about hours of sunlight (we had 9-1/2 today) and plant choices, I realized we stood a pretty good chance of being able to grow something to eat in Winter.

In fact, I really got excited when I realized that, by choosing the right plants and putting them in the ground at the right time, we would not even need a greenhouse!! So I spent a late September afternoon putting in what I hoped would be our Winter garden. Things took quite a while to come up, and at times I worried that I'd either put them in too early or too late (too early, as it turns out). In fact, the Mesclun mix just came up a couple of weeks ago! I'm eager for it to get big enough that we can add it to our salads.

But as the photo above shows, we now have a nice variety of greens to brighten up our salad bowl. Unfortunately, as we're pretty big salad eaters, I'm afraid I haven't planted enough that we can live on it exclusively. But we do get enough to supplement the high quality lettuce I still have to buy from the store. And next year...

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Canning Ham

Been canning ham. Got it for under $1 a pound, so I bought 4. Anything over nine pounds will make a full pressure canner load (8 wide-mouth pints), plus a nice meaty bone to put in the freezer for soup or beans later. Am just about to take the third out of the canner, and am looking forward to getting the last one done.

Takes a little time to cut them up (they need to be in fairly evenly-sized chunks), but with a good sharp boning knife, it's no problem. Ham is my favorite meat to can -- the flavor is excellent, and it's very nice to have on hand for a quick meal. We often eat it as it is, with some instant mashed potatoes (with a little garlic salt for pizzazz), a green salad (we keep a big bowl made up in the fridge) & a steamed veggie (one of the few things I'll buy already prepped -- that nice bagged broccoli is an excellent time saver!!!) Of course, it'll also add something nice to soup, beans, scalloped potatoes or any number of other things.

I find it really makes a difference, keeping these kinds of "shortcut" foods on hand. Not only do we save money by buying things on sale to begin with, but we also save what we might have spent on fast food, if we didn't have something tasty available, & ready at a moment's notice!

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Who'da thunk -- it's almost December & I'm still canning!! Been meaning to put up some cranberry sauce -- had a couple of bags in the fridge leftover from a cranberry mustard adventure (from the Ball book -- great recipe!!). Made a couple dozen pints of it to give as gifts recently, and bought extra berries with an eye to putting up some sauce.

Never made it before, but found it pretty easy. Used the Ball book recipe, substituting 3 cups honey for the 4 cups sugar. Lovely red color, and with a depth of flavor that's missing from the commercial stuff. (Didn't mind getting away from all that corn sweetener, either!!) Am thoroughly enjoying being familiar enough with canning to be able to improvise safely -- after cooking for a little longer than the required amount of time it still wasn't thick enough, so I blended in a little Thik'n'Quik. Didn't add much -- just enough to thicken it a bit. Ended up with 8 half-pints of sauce for my hour-and-a-half's worth of work. (Tasted it later, and found that it had a very slightly grainy texture, though it dissolves quickly -- next time I'll add the thickener up front.)

I thoroughly enjoy canning -- in the same amount of time it would take to put together a meal, I can end up with 6 or 8 (or more) jars of cranberry sauce, chile verde sauce or even sloppy joes that will stay, safely, on the shelves until we need them. (Although, I have to admit, the sloppy joes take a little more time & effort, because of the pressure canning required...)

Have also dried some cranberries. I can't have the commercial ones (because of the sugar), but I'd like to have them around for the occasional recipe that calls for them. Turned out ok -- nothing to write home about, but good to have when you need them. Don't know what the texture of commercial dried cranberries is like, but the homemade ones (with fructose and a tiny bit of Splenda) ended up being pretty hard. Storing them in the freezer, because some of them didn't quite dry completely & I don't want to end up with a moldy mess months down the road...

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hot Packing Chicken

Summer canning season has finally trickled to a halt, and, after using our stores of canned meat without replenishing any for the last several months, I'm ready to get back into the meat canning business! There hasn't really been much in the dollar-and-under range for awhile, which is probably just as well -- I've had my hands pretty full!

But one of the stores had chicken leg quarters for $.39 a pound, so I headed out for it after work. Unfortunately, I made this stop after making a Costco run, and by habit, accidentally went to another store that often has great deals on meat instead. They did have chicken leg quarters, for $.69 a pound, and I decided that I was too tired, and for the gas it would take, it wasn't worth the trek over to the other one. So I grabbed a 10# bag and headed home.

I'd forgotten how satisfying it is to "put up" high quality meat for my family! After baking the chicken (sprinkled with a little herbes de provence & extra thyme) until it was almost done, I pulled the meat & skin off the bones and put it in the fridge overnight. Ended up with 3 separate containers -- meat, skin & bones and stock. This a.m., skimmed the solid layer of fat off the stock & threw it, a little more water, the skin & bones, an onion and some more herbs & salt into a stockpot. When the last bits of meat had fallen off the bone, I tossed out the skin & bones and put the stock back on to boil. Warmed the meat in the microwave, put it into the boiling stock and brought it back to a boil. It made 7-1/2 pints of chicken, plus stock, to fill 8 pints. It's now in the pressure canner, chattering away. Very good to know it'll be ready to use, sometime soon when I really need it -- and for less than $1 a pint! THIS is the whole reason I bought the pressure canner!!
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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Canning Tomatoes, Round 2

Just started on my second 50 pounds of canning tomatoes. When I brought home the first one, I got out the Ball book and picked out quite a few recipes to try. Several different sauces, both red and green, are now stacked neatly on the pantry shelves, waiting to be turned into a quick meal.

We've already used one of them, in fact -- the Mexican-style one. Found I had to add a bit more of the spice mixture when I used it (which I happened to have, leftover) to get the flavor I wanted. So I'm considering adding a bit more of it before I can it, next time. But it was very nice to have something I could grab off the shelf & use to throw together a very quick dinner! In addition to expanding my food storage, it's been a goal to create my own "convenience foods", for a lot less money and with much better quality.

Canned some red salsa tonight. I've never made salsa that I actually enjoyed enough to want to eat, until I modified the Ball book recipe -- ended up sweetening it a bit. It's cooling on the counter now. And one of the great side benefits of canning is the leftovers -- there's a quart of salsa in the fridge, waiting to be turned into Spanish rice or something similar.
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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Winter Gardening

We finally put in our Winter garden today. I've been reading "Four Season Harvest" by Eliot Coleman, and what a revelation it's been!!

We've always talked about having a year-round garden. In fact, that was one of our goals when we moved. But I've never been able to figure out how to do it -- until I read this book. As it turns out, quite a few things (salad greens, spinach, and, of course, the brassicas) can be planted in the Fall and consumed during the Winter. As Mr. Coleman explains it, the critical things are crop selection and timing of planting. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, we haven't been able to get our garden started until today -- about a month after we probably should have put it in. But, according to the book, if we'd planted at the right time, we shouldn't need to do anything special -- not even a cold frame! Mr. Coleman has 30+ years of gardening experience, and says he & his family enjoy fresh produce from their Zone 5 garden in Maine all year.

So if they're planted at the right time, the plants, which should be at the right size for eating by the time it gets cold, go dormant and can be harvested all
Winter. It's usually cold here by Halloween, so the little guys only have about a month to get going. That's probably not quite enough time, so we may end up having to throw a sheet of plastic over the garden to create a temporary greenhouse. That's ok too -- thanks to my brilliant husband, we've set it up so we could do that if we needed to.

I'm not really sure which factor is the biggest in my interest in Winter gardening -- the high expense and low quality of the produce available that time of year, the limited selection available, the wish to work more closely with the land in providing for our sustenance, the urge to be more independent... In any case, it's pretty exciting to think that we might actually be able to enjoy fresh, homegrown food from our garden all year!!
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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Autumn Canning Blues

I think I can understand why our forebears lived such short lives. Over the course of the summer, and while working full-time, I've made it a point to preserve things as they've come into season. As I write this I'm exhausted, but still waiting for the pressure to fall in the pressure canner. There's a load of pumpkin in it, which we grew in our garden, and which we'll be glad to have on hand at some point in the future. Cut into chunks, flavored with honey, cinnamon, cloves and with a bit of lemon juice added for extra insurance, it'll make nice pie (or cookies, or bread) at the holidays -- or even later.

There are also 50 or 60 pounds of tomatoes (mostly red, but some green, too) in the garage, waiting to be turned into sauces of many descriptions: sweet & sour, chile verde, barbecue, creole, pizza... Fortunately, they're canning tomatoes, and so are pretty tough -- they can sit in the garage for a little while. A couple of years ago, I found myself canning the last of them in November.

And then there are the apples I have coming at the end of the week. They have absolutely incredible flavor!! Everyone sort of thinks, "ho hum, apples" -- until they taste these. There are two varieties: Sommerfield (like eating apple cider) and Gala (a little sweeter). It's more than I can manage right now, but luckily, they'll store fine in the fridge, until I'm ready to deal with them -- and we can eat them just as they are, too.

So even though we're heading into Fall, and even though I'm "all in", there's yet a bit of work to do. So I'll do as my forebears did: Imagine all those beautiful jars of summer treasure, lined up & waiting on the shelves -- and keep smilin'!


Just realized I have been saving drafts, and not actually publishing anything, for quite a while. Interesting -- here we are, at the end of another canning season, and I obviously didn't learn my lesson -- I've just spent a couple of weeks canning about 250 pounds of tomatoes -- and there are still the cherries, apricots and berries from last summer, waiting in the freezer until I can turn them into jam or sauce for us to pour over our homemade yogurt...

Ah, well, the more things change...
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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Canning Chili Verde, Pumpkin for Pie Filling

Visited a local farm to pick a bunch of tomatoes, both red and green, this a.m. Made a batch of chili verde sauce with some of the green ones, using a recipe I found online. Used the green tomatoes in place of tomatillos -- flavor's pretty much the same, but they're 'way cheaper). Turned out pretty good, but next time I think I'll tweak the recipe just a bit -- this batch was a little warm for us, and I'm not quite satisfied with the balance of flavors. It's close, though, and as long as I'm careful about acidity, it should adjust fine.

I've also picked out a bunch of recipes from the Ball book to try with the red ones. Once they're made up & on the shelf, they'll make it easy to throw dinner together in a hurry some night down the road. Funny thing, though -- I'm running out of places to put my canned goods!! Actually, I still have a bit of space -- I just need to "shore up" the shelves to put them on. I've been thinking in the back of my mind about the best way to do that, and I think I'll just get a closet pole from the hardware store & cut it to fit between the shelves, all the way up. Might have to do it in a couple of places, but it'll solve the problem.

Finally got around to canning the pumpkins we grew this summer. (Sugar Babies -- small pumpkins, compact plants, supposed to be good for pie.) Been putting it off because I knew how much work it'd be, but I finally felt ready to tackle it today. The best way to remove the skin, it turns out, is with a vegetable peeler. Once the pumpkin is halved and the seeds removed, quarter it, then use the peeler laterally -- it's easier than top-to-bottom. Although there's no getting around the fact that the job is labor intensive, this method seems to work pretty well!! I wanted pumpkin that would be more or less ready for pie, so I canned it (hot pack, cut in chunks -- see the Ball book) in a syrup with a little cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Pressure canned it, of course, adding a half-cup of lemon juice, and processing it for 10 minutes longer than the Ball book says, for extra insurance. Our whole harvest fit into 16 pint jars, plus a bit leftover that I tossed into the freezer. It'll be nice in pie, muffins, or even homemade ice cream!!
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Friday, September 11, 2009

Locally Grown Apples

Have been too preoccupied with chairing my adopted hometown's Centennial Celebration Committee to write much lately (which was totally out of character for me -- I'm normally much more comfortable in the background, but I guess it's good to stretch a bit, once in a while). The final event of the Celebration took place last weekend, and, to no credit I can claim, it was a rousing success!! So, now that that's behind me, I can turn my focus back to what I love to do -- "preserving the harvest".

THANK GOODNESS for the local farmers market, which was started just this year!!! Every Friday afternoon, I wander through with a few dollars in my pocket, visiting with the farmers and learning about varieties, harvest order and duration... Soon, I'm loading up my car with fresh, colorful, honest-to-goodness, naturally ripened things for us to enjoy during the coming week. I've also made it a point to try to preserve some of each thing (fruits, particularly, but corn and other things, too) for us to enjoy (and maybe even share) during the winter when the only things worth buying at the grocery store are imported bananas and, maybe, apples.

Apples -- one of the farmers has the loveliest, most delicious little apples I've ever enjoyed!! They were selling two varieties today, and I've ordered a 40# box of each to pick up next week. They're cute little things, most of them about half the size of a store-bought apple. And the flavor is unbelievable!! If you've only experienced apples from the grocery store, please do yourself a favor and seek out some really fresh, locally grown apples. I figure I'll give away some, make some into applesauce... One of the varieties was gala, and I don't recall the name of one of the two varieties, but eating it was like eating fresh apple cider -- the complexity of the flavor was astounding!! I think it'll make lovely applesauce -- can't wait to try it out!!

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rice Cooker Discoveries

Wahoo -- what a cool discovery!! I've had an Aroma rice cooker (about $30 at Costco) for awhile now, and have had the feeling I wasn't getting the most out of it. Finally had the sense to get my hands on some cookbooks, and wow -- you can do SO MUCH MORE with these babies than I ever imagined!!

Turns out you can even cook pasta in them!! As a "trial run", I cooked some pasta (happened to be orzo), some cubed pork, a little garlic & salt. Used a 2 - 1 ratio (2 cups water to 1 cup pasta), set the machine for 25 minutes, and let 'er rip. Twenty minutes into it, threw some veggies in the steamer tray & put them in to steam as it finished cooking. It browned a bit on the bottom, though, so next time I think I'll try 20 minutes. What a great option for a busy weeknight -- whether anything's thawed or not!! And cleanup couldn't be easier -- especially if you spray the pot with Pam first. What's even better -- it takes a lot less water and energy to cook in, and clean up, a rice cooker than a couple of pans on the stove!! I happened to have some frozen cubed pork on hand (knew that $.99/lb tri-tip would come in handy one of these days!!), which I thawed in the microwave, cut into smaller pieces; I think 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes, or maybe even a little bigger would work ok.

Soooo, I think you could really cook just about any one-dish meal in a rice cooker, so long as there's enough liquid in it. I've seen several different mac-n-cheese versions, as well as various ethnic dishes (rice and otherwise)... So, now I'm keeping my eye out for casserole recipes to try.

The other thing, and I can't believe this didn't occur to me before, is fried rice. What a great way to use up leftovers, and throw together a very quick one-dish meal, to boot!!! You want to use cold rice, and break up any clumps. Saute it with a little soy sauce & oil, then add diced ham, sliced green onion, chopped cooked veggies, scrambled egg, or whatever other bits of this and that you might have hiding in the fridge... I think next time I cook rice, I'll cook extra so I'll have it on hand -- either in the fridge or the freezer.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Corn Harvest

10:28 on a Wednesday night in the middle of August. Was the happy recipient of a whole fridge-full of sweet corn after work tonight, and with DH's help, have managed to get the first couple dozen ears into my stalwart Nesco dehydrator. Made 4 trays, which should fill a quart jar, maybe 2. It's a messy proposition, no getting around that. But the effort required offers its own rewards, and drying it's a lot easier & faster than canning, to say nothing of the much lovelier flavor of the end product. It'll brighten up many a cold winter evening...

The experience reminded me of my childhood -- growing up in an area where a lot of food is grown, I had opportunity to go with my family and pick various things. I remember picking pomegranates, later helping my mother peel and seed them for her famous pomegranate jelly. We picked pecans, my father knocking them with a long pole. Once I ate so many of them, I couldn't look at a pecan for quite awhile. One of my dad's friends had a pasture, and one especially wet year we brought home enough field mushrooms to add depth and flavor to spaghetti sauce, among other things, for quite a while. My mother treated them as the rare treasures they were, saving them for special occasions -- or when she'd grown tired of hearing us ask. I can still, over 40 years later, recall the long walk through the muddy grass to get to them, and their wonderful, earthy flavor. And I remember asking, long after they were gone, if we couldn't go back and get some more.

And so, abundance translating to generosity, a friend invited me to come and pick. Despite the fact that we drove to the cornfield in a vehicle powered by fossil fuel, wearing clothes loomed by machine and shoes manufactured, at least in part, of plastic, the experience was wonderfully primal. Corn -- ancient, simple, basic, delicious. The act of picking, a connection with generations uncountable, cultures aboriginal to sophisticated, time out of mind. Countless feet, yellow, red, brown, black and white, finding cool respite on ground shaded by skinny stalks stretching high overhead; many hands pushing long, slender, slightly scratchy leaves aside to grasp long, slender ears, gift-wrapped and ready for cooking, crowned with the brown tassels that indicate perfect ripeness. The original "fast food". All that was required of our ancient forebears was to throw them into the coals of the cooking fire, and then summon the patience to wait until they were ready to be plucked, smoldering, from the fire, and devoured.

And something about being involved in harvesting, whether or not one has grown the produce, adds a whole dimension to the enjoyment of food. It is empowering, in an undefinable way. A feast for all of the senses, from the moment one arrives at the field, lush green of the plants setting one's retinal cones abuzz, the sun warming one's face, the heavy scent of earth, perhaps a breeze to ruffle one's hair, arms brushing sandpapery leaves, the warmth of the ear in its grasscloth cloak. The snap-rip as the ear is broken away from the stalk, then twisted free, and, finally, the first tangible reward in the process -- the weight of the ears in one's arms.

Or perhaps we enjoy it more because we are accustomed to the utterly uniform offerings at the supermarket, and our brains (and psyches) appreciate the opportunity to choose something a little smaller, or bigger, or riper.

Or that what you pick yourself is, invariably, fresher.

And there is the satisfaction that comes from the rows of jars safely stored in a dark pantry, waiting to bring a bit of summer sun to a cold winter day. A few hours spent shucking, blanching, cutting kernels from cobs and spreading them onto trays yields the second reward -- half-gallon mason jars of dried corn to be tucked away, and brought out to savor long after the last of the bright green stalks, ground into silage, has fermented into cattle feed. The jars, a gift from my mother-in-law, no doubt indispensable in feeding her three boys and two girls, a treasured connection to my husband's childhood.

The third reward is the comfort of knowing that each jar of dried corn (or canned peaches or strawberry jam) puts the possibility of suffering if food ever, for whatever reason, becomes scarce, that much further away.

And the ultimate incentive: Pleasant crunch and bright corn flavor, enjoyed out of hand or sprinkled on a salad, singing out sweetly in a chowder, adding a high note to cornbread, all throughout the winter.

So I found myself threading my way between stalks and in and out of rows, gathering up armloads of bright, sweet corn. Dropping it into my Costco totebag (you can use them for groceries, too!!), heading back into the corn forest for a few more ears... Knowing full well the amount of work I was getting myself into.

And certain, as our ancient forebears knew, that it would be worth it.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Dehydrating Cantaloupe

Found myself with an abundance of cantaloupe, and decided to dry it. Turned out to be one of the few things that seems to retain its true flavor when dried!! I just cut it into about 1/2-inch slices, put it on the trays & let'er rip. Next morning, we had nice, dehydrated melon. Retains its lovely peach color, too. This is one of the things I'll definitely put the effort into drying, if I can get my hands on some more!!

Funny -- I'm actually starting to look forward to winter, which is not usually my favorite time of year. But as I've put so much time and energy into food preservation this summer, I find I'm actually enthused about having a little more free time (DH doesn't mind this idea, either)!! Although, no matter what time of year it is, there always seems to be plenty to do... I figure if I'm not canning or drying something, I'll probably be canning meat. Of course, I've been doing that all along, buying only what's on sale for less than $1 a pound...

I was reading a bit about the pioneer women, and what they went through trying to feed the folks they were responsible for, and in the various cirumstances in which they found themselves. It gave me a better appreciation for the challenges they faced and overcame, and reinforced my determination to make sure we have something "put by", and in a form that can be stored at room temperature.

Lucked into a bit of corn recently, and enjoyed being able to give a little of it back, in a form my benefactor can enjoy long past corn season. She was pleased to get it, but we were both a little surprised to realize that it takes about 18 fresh ears to fill a quart jar with dried corn! But it doesn't seem to take as long as one would think to prepare it (you just shuck it, blanch it for about 3 minutes & cut it off the cob, scraping with a spoon or the dull side of the knife to get all the good stuff, then dehydrate), and it's certainly worth the effort --it's quite sweet -- and shelf-stable!!
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Drying Sweet Corn

I put this in my tips, but liked the end product so much, I decided to do a post about it. As always, my goal is to provide us with a variety of good things to eat all year. But I was very disappointed when I tried the creamed corn recipe in the Ball book -- first time it's ever let me down. Decided to dry the next batch -- 'way better!! It takes 3 - 4 ears per tray, and about 12 - 16 ears will fill a quart jar.

It tastes almost exactly like fresh corn -- except sweeter, because all the sugar gets concentrated as it dries. It's nice just to eat on its own, or you could toss it into soup, sprinkle it over salad, even rehydrate & mix it into cornbread. Someone even suggested mixing it with toasted nuts & raisins, on the order of trail mix...

Corn is very easy to dry -- just husk, then blanch the ears for 3 - 4 minutes. Cut the kernels off the cob, then scrape the cobs with the dull side of a knife or a spoon, to get all the good stuff. Spread the corn onto drying trays. Depending on your dehydrator, it should be done in a few hours, or overnight. (You could also spread it onto cookie sheets & dry it at very low heat in the oven.) We both love corn, and I'm very pleased by the prospect of brightening up a winter dinner with this little bit of summer!!
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quest for the Perfect Loaf of Bread

Off on a new adventure -- the quest for the perfect loaf of bread!! I picked up Peter Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads" book a while back, but was daunted by the seeming complexity of his method. Guess it needed to perk for awhile. Bored with my old standby recipes, I recently picked it up again looking for inspiration. And in looking at it again, I realized the methods and recipes really aren't that difficult. (In fact, they're actually easier, and less time-consuming, than traditional methods.) Made a loaf of multigrain bread yesterday, and was pleased -- I used some corn and oats, as well as the wheat, and the result was a nice, just-sweet-enough bread.

This was a good thing, because, after obtaining some whole corn recently, I milled enough for a batch of cornbread (which was an adventure in itself!!). We were both quite excited to try it -- and were sorely disappointed. Not nearly sweet enough. Ah, well -- how boring would life be, if everything was easy!! Just means I get to do a little experimenting...
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Homemade" Cantaloupes, Sugar Baby Pumpkins

Although I've been pickling cucumbers from it for a little while, we finally enjoyed our first real garden treat tonight -- a small, but very meaty, cantaloupe. Lovely!! I chose a small variety to save space. The flavor is wonderful!! When we transplanted them, we thought they were okra -- which would have worked perfectly in the space alloted. So they're a bit crowded, but are producing nicely nonetheless. Unfortunately, one of the plants is next to the cucumbers, and I could detect a little cucumber flavor, but not enough to put me off (I do not enjoy cucumbers, honeydew, watermelon, etc.).

We have some Sugar Baby pumpkins that look just about ripe, too. The Ball book tells how to pressure can it, and has what looks like a nicely spiced pickle recipe, too. Looks like we'll probably have them coming our our ears, so I'm planning to try both.

How nice to finally (literally) be enjoying the fruits of our labors!!
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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Much To Do, & Glad of It!!

It's probably a good thing the chicken I bought on sale ($.59 a pound!!) was still partly frozen. Otherwise, I would have felt compelled to can it tonight -- several hours' work, and I didn't arrive home until after 6:00. And there are still several pounds of apricots in the fridge, waiting to be canned (as jam or otherwise) or frozen (a good option, if you need to postpone the work for a little while). I did manage to make a batch each of nectarine jam and dill pickles last night, and a batch of peach jam this a.m.

And, in the garden, there are just about enough pickles for another batch of sweet relish, a couple dozen pint jars of which I need to make this year. It's astonishing how much work there is this time of year, for those of us who are determined feed ourselves and our families as cost effectively as possible. (Not to mention the quality...) I can appreciate how those ladies not that long ago must have felt, the first time they opened a can of peaches that hadn't cost them hours on their feet in the kitchen, arms itchy with peach fuzz (and, very likely, itching also from bug bites obtained while picking the fruit), sweat pouring down their faces, children underfoot.

I'm very grateful to have the ability, physically and mentally, to have learned the various arts (canning, dehydrating) necessary for storing food. There is a huge amount of work to be done at the moment, and I'm doing my best to do it -- even if it occasionally means dashing home at lunchtime to start a batch of pickles, as I did earlier this week. Much work, but very satisfying, too!
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Asian Plum Sauce

Been meaning to try the Asian-style plum sauce recipe in the Ball book. Looks like a good one -- plums, sugar (honey, in our case), vinegar, a little ginger, garlic & chilies... Bought what I thought was enough plums to make it at a fruit stand awhile back, but when I got them home, realized I was a little short. So I halved them & put them in the freezer until I could come by a few more.

Funny, how these things sometimes work out -- when we met some relatives for lunch at a restaurant in the Bay Area recently, I was telling them about my canning adventures, and happened to mention the plum recipe & that I needed a few more plums. As we were preparing to leave, my husband walked out first. But he immediately came back, an odd expression on his face. He gestured for us to follow him, and we were astonished to find a large basket of lovely little Santa Rosa plums, free for the taking! Feeling a little funny, but giggling all the while, each of us put a few in our pockets.

I finally had a chance to try the recipe this a.m., and it turned out lovely. The recipe says it'll make 4 pints, but DH does not enjoy sweet sauces, so put it into the little 4-oz jars. Seems I always end up with more jam, sauce or whatever than canning recipes say (presumably because of the extra liquid contributed by the honey) -- I just took three half-pints and a dozen 4-oz jars out of the canner. Those will really make a nice contribution to a stir fry, or be lovely to dip chicken into, one of these days.

The Ball book has quite a number of other sauce and condiment recipes, which I intend to make as the summer progresses. As the storebought versions of them typically are expensive, and contain sugar (which I cannot have), I'm very pleased to be able to make and store a selection of them. I'm not sure which I'm looking forward to more -- the satisfaction of having made them affordably, and in such a way that I can actually eat them myself (and having adjusted the seasoning to our tastes), or the variety they will contribute to our food storage. Either way, it will be a lovely thing to see them on the shelf, and enjoy them throughout the coming year!
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Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Next Link in the Chain

My niece and I made dill pickles today, and, for the first time, all of the cucumbers came from our garden. We've now had several opportunities to can things together, and she really seems to be enjoying learning this new skill. I suppose this isn't necessarily all that surprising, as she loves to cook. But teaching her this art is important to me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it will give her the option, one day, of saving a lot of money while feeding herself and the people she loves as well as possible. I find canning to be, among other things, very empowering.

Using my homemade pickle relish to make salad dressing, for example, dramatically demonstrated this for me. I decided to make my own pickles because I've noticed a flavor and odor in storebought pickles (both sweet relish and dill) lately. Planted pickling cucumbers, and in due course, made a batch of pickle relish. Used it to make salad dressing, and was astonished -- haven't had pickle relish this good since I was a kid!! All of the flavor "notes" are there, and in the right balance. I will definitely make that again -- I'll have to, as we seem to go through a couple of pints a month. At this rate, I'll need at least a couple dozen to get us through to next canning season. Hope my cucumber supply holds out!!

Got a kick out of teaching her to crack walnuts, too. Found them awhile back, while driving down a country road off the route I normally take. Harvest was last fall, but they still had their sign out. As I'd rather deal directly with the farmer any day, and assuming they were trying to get rid of the last of their crop (if they hadn't just forgotten to take their sign down), I stopped. Picked up 20 lbs, in shell, for $.40 a pound. This works out to about $.80 a pound, as it's about a 2:1 ratio -- which is still quite a bit better than the $4.95 a pound you pay for them already shelled! When she found out I had nuts to crack, she couldn't wait to try her hand. I showed her how to crack them, and DH showed her how to take the little part with the acid out. She had a ball, and ended up helping me shell 5 lbs -- taking home a quart of halves in the process. (She'll get 3 of the 6 quarts of pickles we made, too, but they weren't ready to be moved by the time I had to take her home.)

It's so cool, sending her home with things she's made herself!! And there is great comfort and satisfaction in knowing that she will remember these times, and, hopefully, be inspired to create these kinds of things herself for the people she loves, one day. These skills are too important to be lost, and the absolute best way to avoid that is to take a direct role in handing them down from one generation to the next.
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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Homemade Pickle Relish

Made some sweet pickle relish recently, and tasted it last night. I'll never buy relish in the store again!!! This was a lengthy process, involving soaking the cucumbers, peppers and onions in salted ice water, then fresh ice water, and, finally, a vinegar-and-spice solution, before canning them. I was originally motivated by what I perceive as the deteriorating quality of the store-bought product, but when all was said & done, I realized there’s a nice side benefit – I’ve saved some money, too!

Over half of the cucumbers were home-grown (a little later in the season, they all will be). The rest were bought at the farmers market for less than $2. I used maybe $1.50 worth of red peppers, along with a couple of onions ($.50), 6 cups of vinegar (another $.50) and 2 cups of honey ($2). The canning jars were purchased on sale ($4.50). So, for a total investment of about $11, I have 9 jars of relish, which works out to about $1.22 each, including the jar. However, as I reuse them constantly, I prefer not to include the cost of the jars in the equation. Sooo, excluding the jars, the cost drops to $6.50 total, or $.72 per jar. Either way, a significant savings over the $2.25 I usually pay at the market – and, though it's thinner (store-bought relish is thickened slightly), the quality of the relish is definitely superior!

I’ll need to do another batch or two over the course of the summer (need a couple dozen or so, to get us through until the next cucumber crop). I make it a habit to taste things as I go along, and I thought I'd need to tinker with the recipe, as I didn't quite like the balance of flavors, even after it was heated in the vinegar solution. However, once it's canned, it comes out perfect!! It has all the complexity of flavor that commercial pickle relish used to have.

And the best thing about this recipe, unlike some pickle recipes, is that it doesn’t need to “cure” – once the jars come out of the canner, the relish is ready to use.

Also on my radar screen is dill relish, though I probably only need about a dozen half-pint jars for the year. Although I usually use it only for tuna and potato salad, I might make it a couple dozen, just for good measure. The recipe in the Ball book looks like a good one.

Another thing I’m looking forward to doing: A few jars of dainty little baby dills, if I can accumulate enough that size at the same time. Or maybe baby dills & baby carrots. Or baby dills, baby carrots & baby onions. We do have some okra coming in; that will be nice pickled, as well…
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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hosting Honeybees, Yeasty Banana Bread

Our garden is playing host to bees. And, considering what we know about the plight of the honeybee, I find this very reassuring. When I was a child, the mere sight of a bee anywhere near me was enough to send me flying toward the next county, screaming all the way. I knew that, beyond being painful, a sting would probably send me to the family doctor, or at least to the couch, very swollen appendage slathered in baking soda paste and wrapped in an ice pack.

But I'm grown now, and haven't been stung in years. And I understand that those winged ladies are just doing their job, and really not interested in bothering anyone so long as they aren't disturbed. In fact, I can't help but notice how many of them our flowering cucumber, cantaloupe and tomato vines attract, and sincerely
hope that the renewed national interest in vegetable gardening will help encourage them. I understand there is some mysterious ailment they are suffering, and that whole hives sometimes have to be wiped out because of it. But I still hope that, as more of us reclaim responsibility for the production of our own food, the bee population will grow. I feel comforted to know that, at our house at least, we're doing our part.

Been kind of bored with my favorite wheat-oatmeal bread, and the usual raisin- (or date-) nut variation. Reread the appropriate section of the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book (excellent book!!) for inspiration. Ended up adding a half-cup of chopped (scissored, actually -- how did I ever cook before I discovered kitchen shears?!) dried bananas & some walnuts. We both love banana bread, but I don't make it very often because it's a quick bread, and yeasted breads offer so much more -- both nutritionally and flavor-wise.

So I decided to adapt the wheat-oatmeal bread, using dried bananas which were still somewhat leathery. (I make it a habit to slice & dehydrate bananas when they're getting very ripe and in danger of going to waste. DH thought it was kind of silly -- 'what're you ever gonna use those for?!' -- but he may change his tune, if this experiment works out.) The recipe, designed for use in a bread machine, calls for 7-1/2 ounces water. An odd amount, and, as the bananas will absorb some of the liquid in the dough, I decided to add another half-ounce. (I mentally compared the bananas to raisins, which don't require extra liquid, but the bananas were a bit drier. The half-ounce (1 tbsp), should be enough to make up the difference, but not so much as to throw the moisture content off.) I'm planning to bake these in pint jars, which are already prepped and waiting on the counter. (If you make jar bread, remember to wipe the rims with vinegar to remove the shortening or other lubricant, which could prevent the lids from sealing.) Without the bananas & nuts, the recipe usually makes a generous 4 pints, so I prepped 5. I'm very interested to see how this will turn out!!

Ok. Bread out of the oven. Has a mild banana flavor. Not quite sweet enough, though. Next time, I'll try adding the bananas to a sweet bread recipe...
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Friday, June 26, 2009

Blackberry Jam; Homemade Sweet Pickle Relish

I've been thinking in the back of my mind lately that I'd really like to make some blackberry jam. I have jars and jars of strawberry, apricot, even somewhat off-the-path things like cherry and kiwi. But I've been thinking it'd be really nice to make something special, and blackberry jam would definitely qualify. Funny how these things work -- as I was in town for my haircut today, my hairdresser mentioned that her mother recently bought some blackberries at a stand nearby. I resolved to hit that particular fruit stand (a new one for me) on my way out of town, and was delighted to find that they still had a few of the purplish-black berries. Scooped them up, along with some plums for a sauce I spotted in the Ball book, and headed home with my loot.

A couple of hours later, 7 half-pint jars of the rich, speckly purple jam are cooling on the counter. And, with the lovely ripe cherries I also bought at the stand, I'll be able to scrape together one more batch -- cherry-berry, this time. I'm very glad to have a good selection of candy flavoring oils on hand -- they can really round out the flavor nicely if the jam doesn't quite sparkle on its own. (And why would I bother with jam that doesn't?!)

Finally beginning to harvest a few pickling cucumbers from our garden. I've been inspired to try this because the pickles I've bought lately (only brand I can find at the "big box" grocery store) seem to have a distinctly chemical scent and flavor to them. We use a good bit of sweet pickle relish in salad dressing, so I need to make a couple dozen pints over the course of the summer. Don't quite have enough cucumbers ready on our own yet, so I bought some at the farmers market to round out the first batch. Found several promising looking recipes online; will share that experience in a future post.
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Monday, June 22, 2009

Ashley Kate's First Batch of Jam

This is how it's supposed to work -- each generation hands down knowledge and life skills to the one coming behind. I introduced my niece to the art of making jam today. I remember, when I was a little younger than she is now, helping to pick the fruit (pomegranates, in particular), then, wearing old clothes, helping to peel it. My mother extracted the juice, and spent hours in the hot kitchen, making jelly. I remember the steam rising out of the big pan, the purple-stained tea towels on the counter and in the sink, and my mother's absolute focus as she turned that sweet, purple liquid into jelly. Later, that jelly would find its way into sandwiches for our lunchboxes. And now it's come full circle.

Ashley and I made apricot-pineapple jam (her choice). It came out beautiful, and she was thrilled to be allowed to take all but one of the jars home (I wasn't about to let all of her first effort go out the door!!). Walked up and proudly handed it to her dad and stepmom, receiving appropriate praise in the process. Seeing the pride on her face, I'm grateful -- the next generation tucks another skill under its belt, and this is, indeed, how it's supposed to work.
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Pressure Canning Chicken Soup, Saving $$$

Been meaning to can some chicken soup, and picking up chicken for less than $.80 a pound finally gave me opportunity / inspiration to do it. I intend to make some chicken stock, too, one of these days, but I'm glad I started with the soup. I wasn't sure how much chicken it would take, so I made sure we had several on hand.

As it turns out, one 3 - 4 pound chicken will yield more than enough for soup, plus a good bit of skin and scraps for the dogs -- not to mention the innards! Those were quite popular, cooked & chopped up. Very nice topping for kibble.

So it took a chicken, an onion, a couple of carrots, a couple of stalks of celery, and some chicken boullion. Some herbs & a little salt to round out the flavor... Less than $4 worth of ingredients, plus a few cents' worth of gas to cook it, and, viola -- eight pints of real, homemade chicken soup. It will need starch of some kind (rice, potatoes, pasta) when it's served, but for about $.50 a jar, I'll be able to put a nice lunch or dinner on the table (in a hurry!) one of these days. And I haven't bought canned chicken soup lately, but I know it costs more than $.50 a pint!!

The sloppy joe recipe I found online (seems every site I looked at had exactly the same one) is excellent. I bought the meat (pork cushion steak -- neither of us is a big beef fan) for less than $1 a pound, put it through the grinder, added the onions, garlic (already prepped -- see tips), ketchup, chili sauce & a few other assorted things, and for about $1 each, we'll have a nice dinner one of these days.

So, although I felt a little guilty when I spent the money on it (about $200) earlier this year, we have more than recouped the investment I made in the pressure canner. And not only are we saving money and building our food storage very quickly, what we're storing is the highest quality possible!
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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Homemade Cup-a-Soup

Finally got an impromptu chance to try my hand at homemade cup-a-soups!! Our dinner plans changed unexpectedly, and I found myself with an extra chicken and a good bit of leftover rice. I've done enough reading to know that (health conscious or thrifty, or both) backpackers often dehydrate their own trail food, and now that I'm set up for it, this sudden overabundance of cooked food seemed the ideal excuse to try it myself. The chicken was cooked in the crock pot, and was so well done that I didn't want to can it. So what better solution than to dry it, toss it into pint jars with the rice (also dried), drop in a few dried veggies (onions, celery, carrots, mushrooms...) and vacuum pack it! Should make an ideal lunch, or even dinner, one of these days. I'll post about it again, once I've had a chance to put it together & try it out.


Sampled the cup-a-soup the other day. Hadn't gotten around to packing it into individual pint jars (although now that I've tried it, I will take the time to do that) so I just tossed a bit of the chicken and some of the rice, along with some dehydrated garlic, mushrooms and carrots, into a bowl with some hot water & soy sauce. Takes about twice as long as you wait for commercial cup-a-soups, but the quality is 'way better. So I'll be making it a point to dehydrate leftovers to use in this way from here on.
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Much Ripe Fruit & One Freezer Down

There is something inspirational about the perfume of very ripe strawberries. The kitchen is full of this lovely smell, and I'm frantically trying to get them into the freezer, until I can devise some new ways to use them. The problem is that we've just lost one of our fridges, and I couldn't pass up the overripe peaches, either. Ah, the joys of summer produce!! My niece is coming for the weekend, and I can't see an overripe peach without recalling the first time I offered her peaches and cream. She wasn't any more than 7 or 8, but she managed to put away several kid-sized bowls. What a wonderful, old-fashioned, summer ritual. Of course, telling her, as I set it in front of her, that my grandmother used to make it for me, didn't do much to dampen her enthusiasm!

But now I'm facing a counter full of extremely ripe strawberries, a batch of jam's worth of overripe peaches, plus the frozen meat that survived the freezer meltdown. (The latter is now distributed among the two remaining freezers, one of which I'd been meaning to clean out anyway, but my ultimate goal for the meat all along has been to can it, and I want to get it done asap. Found a terrific recipe for sloppy joes online...) There is also some meat that thawed, that needs to be cooked & dehydrated for the dogs.

The Ball book has some good recipes for the fruit, a few of which I've already tried. I think I'll try strawberry pie filling next. Seems a quick & easy way to put up a fair few of them at once. In fact, I'm ready now to branch out from jam to canning fruit in syrup or as pie filling. And I'm not even opposed to adding a bit of food coloring (gasp!!), or even candy flavoring, if it'll make the end product more appealing. My time (and shelf space!) is far too valuable to me to invest, if all I'll end up with is a mediocre end product.

The death of the fridge/freezer underscores another reason I'm glad I'm a canner. My ultimate goal is to arrange our food storage so that it can all be stored at room temperature, because we just don't know what might "come down the pike" for us. It could be as simple as an appliance on the fritz (as so clearly illustrated by my current situation), or as major as a local or regional disaster. In any case, I want to be able to feed the people I love, even if it's just cold meat, jar bread and canned fruit from the pantry. So I'm working very hard to obtain things (fruits & veggies, at this time of year, with the odd bit of meat thrown in, along with some wheat & other grain) in quantity, at the best possible price, then break them into smaller portions and can or dry them.
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