Archive for August, 2011

Pickle, pickle, pickle starts with “P”!

This is a time of year about which I feel very mixed. The weather is really quite lovely, most of the “work” in the garden is done and the harvest is abundant. But that’s the thing, the harvest is here. As in, it’s the end of summer folks.

However, with the end of summer comes one of my favorite summer activities. Canning. The preservation of the harvest for colder and darker times. A bit of winter “sunshine.”

Growing  up, my mom did quite a bit of canning. There were always quarts of peaches and pears which we devoured with dinner. I never liked pickled beets until I was an adult (I know, crazy, right?), but my mom canned oodles of them. In the winter she pressure canned freshwater salmon. Yum. I remember watching this happen, but can’t say I have any recollection of really helping. But kids do tend to learn by osmosis and I seem to have a part of my brain which retained at least some of the information, or interest, in any case.

I started canning as an “adult” in 2007. I can’t say exactly what inspired it, but the idea called to me loud and clear – now is the time to learn this. With my own mom over 1,500 miles away, I turned to two other mom’s here in the Midwest. With my husband’s mom I learned to can applesauce, pickles, salsa, and tomatoes, and with a friend and her mom I learned to pickle beets (yes, I LOVE them now). This inter-generational learning is of such value and with many of my generation’s grandmothers now gone, much of the passing on will fall on the shoulders of those women – now in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s – who were lucky to learn these skills. Some of them may be mothers, others may be working for their local extension service and others still volunteering in community centers. However it is being passed on, there seems to be a whole new wave of interest among young people eager to learn.

Now, you’ll notice I’ve only mentioned mothers, but I want you men out there to know you are more than welcome into the kitchen to test your hand at the water bath. To be fair, it was pretty much just womens work for a very long time.  However, canning is an incredible way for everyone to learn about buying from farmers or picking your own, realizing the realities of how long fresh fruits and veggies really last and how to safely handle and prepare foods for a longer shelf life.

The canning I have learned thus far has been hot water bath canning, which can only be used for acidic foods, such as tomatoes, jams and pickles. Vegetables and anything with meat must be pressure canned, which gets the food to a high enough temperature to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism. Canning is a lot of fun, but food safety is to be taken seriously, as the results can be fatal if it is not done properly. Most of the time, if you follow recipes which have been tested for safety, this is easy to avoid. Unfortunately, this means that, while many of the techniques we learned from grandma are still be applicable, some of her recipes may not be. If you’re not sure what kind of canning you need to do, this webpage offers some basics on how to decide.

For the last three summers, I have been doing almost all my canning with a good friend and we continue to expand our repertoire and skills each season. First on the agenda this year – dill pickles, of the cucumber kind to be exact (the term “pickle” can refer to any number of things which are made with a brine, often involving vinegar). We tried our hand at pickles last year, but weren’t quite satisfied with the “crunch factor” so this year we did a few things different including fresher, smaller cukes and a larger ice bath. Crossing our fingers.

After pickles, we did salsa (37 pints to be exact)! It’s a great recipe we’ve been using for three years now and it never fails to please. Next week, when my mom is in town, we’ll try our hand at peaches. And somewhere in the next month we’ll squeeze in beets, applesauce and hopefully some pepper jam.

In case you’re looking to do some canning yourself, here is the salsa recipe we use, courtesy of Ana Micka:

Ingredients

  • 10 cups tomatoes (peeled, cored and chopped)
  • 1 cup green pepper
  • 2 cups onions
  • ½ cup hot peppers (mixture of banana and jalapeno peppers with seeds removed)
  • ½ cup celery
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • Lemon juice

Instructions

  1. Start boiling water in the canner.
  2. Sterilize mason-type jars and lids (pint sized best for salsa)
  3. Add tomatoes to large, stainless steel pot and cook for 30 minutes, until tomatoes are very soft and the large chunks are gone.
  4. Remove excess liquid from the pot, then add additional ingredients.
  5. Continue to cook at a low boil for 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
  6. Fill sterilized canning jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace. Add 2 tablespoon of lemon juice to each jar and process in a hot water bath for 35 minutes.

Makes 5 pints

MY NOTES: Great flavor, excellent texture too. The big thing I will say is more about safely canning salsa than this recipe. When you are using a recipe you know has been tested, DO NOT change the ratios of the ingredients. Basically, its tomatoes to everything else. You can increase the overall amount, but the volumes need to remain the same ratio to keep the pH at a safe level. And don’t forget the lemon juice!!

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August 24, 2011 at 12:07 am 3 comments

Dirt Therapy – Part 2

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I find gardening to be very therapeutic. But, life isn’t perfect, and sometimes therapy isn’t very uplifting or enjoyable – though it often remains enlightening. What I didn’t write about then was the reality that sometimes gardening can make you want to pull your hair out. Tonight was one of those nights.

I arrived at the community garden around 7 o’clock and immediately noticed something was wrong. The gate was mangled and the four beautiful eggplants I had showed my mom on Sunday were gone. As I investigated further, I realized most of the tomatillos had been removed from their stems and the few pepper plants that had survived the last bit of vandalism had not escaped destruction this go ’round. Soon a few kids came over and offered names of culprits and suggestions of motives, and we learned a neighbor had seen the damage taking place and took photos of those responsible, but little was to be done tonight except to clean up the mess. Fortunately the beans had been ignored and a couple kids went home with enough to make for dinner.

Vandalism, especially of community things, has never been something I’ve understood. Maybe I’m naive, but this kind of destruction just never added up in the “making sense” category of life. So, when it happens in a place I feel directly connected to, it is hard to not take it personally. But I must also remind myself that this garden is about the community and not me as an individual, so I find I am only sad, not angry. I think one of many things influencing my disappointment is that there is a person, or persons, who doesn’t see the value of the garden and the opportunities it can provide. The chance to learn more about our food, how to cook it, how it grows and how to have patience while the fruits mature.

Unfortunately, I don’t think patience is something many people have these days. We have little patience in traffic – road rage anyone? We have little patience with slow internet or lines at the store. And we have very little patience for being told we cannot do what we want. Some times I think if we all learned how to garden as kids that we might have a little more patience. It is impossible to grow beets well without the patience to thin them, and leaving an almost ripe tomato on the vine requires the restraint of a saint.

So, how do we learn to be patient? How do we learn to leave anger and frustration at the garden gate and move at the pace of an earthworm? I believe it is really a community effort – requiring all – and until we realize that, it will be very difficult. We have a very me-centric society and it is hurting our ability to function. We may think we are “self made” and “independent,” but when was the last time you did anything that didn’t involve another human being?  If you wore clothing, ate food or used any sort of transportation today, you will realize that we cannot do it alone. And if we look in the garden, we know that the tomatoes know this too. They cannot fruit without healthy soil, abundant water and sun, motivated pollinators and a whole host of microfauna and flora doing their job underground. Similarly, the kids at our garden need guidance, nurturing and positive examples. And they especially need our patience and listening ears.

See, I told you therapy was at least enlightening.

August 9, 2011 at 11:29 pm 2 comments

Are you Italian? No? Me neither.

But sometimes I sure wish I was, at least when it comes to PESTO!

Kale pesto ingredients

That’s right, it’s that time of the summer. The basil is high and ready for picking and we’re all craving something aromatic and tastebud pleasing from the garden. Enter one of the world’s finest, yet simplest, and honestly most flexible, “sauces” around. Traditionally made with basil, pine nuts, hard cheese, olive oil and garlic, “pesto” can be made with a variety of herbs, greens, nuts and seeds. Over the last few years, the price of pine nuts has sky rocketed, so many alternatives have become popular. One of my favorite cheap options is Kale Pesto. This “poor mans” pesto is a great way to use up kale when you’re not sure what else to do with it (or need a way to convince those who “hate” kale to eat it) and also save some money – this recipe uses no cheese and substitutes sunflower seeds for the nut. It also allows for some creativity, depending on how you’re using it, when it comes to the herb flavor. Choose basil for a more traditional taste or branch out and try oregano or marjoram.

If you grow your own basil and have an abundance, I highly recommend making LOTS of pesto and freezing it. This allows for enjoyment all winter long and it takes very little space to store. One option for freezing is in little jars, saved from jams or jellies, but the best way I have found is to make your pesto (some people recommend leaving out the cheese and mixing that in when you us it. I could go either way on this) and then freeze it in ice cube trays. Once the pesto is solid, take the cubes out and put them in freezer bags or whatever container you like. These are the perfect size for single servings and are much easier to use than a large amount frozen in a jar. However, if you do go the jar route, the best way to defrost the pesto – if you’re not using the entire jar – is to put it in a pot of close to boiling water and allow it to thaw from the outside. Heat until you have enough for your meal and then pop the jar back in the freezer. This limits the amount of pesto that is thawed and refrozen each time you use it.

Now that you’re dreaming of green, go make some! Try making some with arugula. Maybe some lemon basil (we did this once and put it on grilled fish – yum). Walnuts or almonds are both grand, and there is nothing that says you have to use Parmesan for the cheese. Try it on pasta, fish, veggies and bread. Use a bunch fresh and freeze even more. Basically, when it comes to pesto, think outside the box and have fun!

August 7, 2011 at 10:39 pm Leave a comment

Blend, baby, blend

This year for my birthday, I received a gift I’ve been wanting for some time now. There aren’t many big ticket items out there that I desire, but this is one thing I had begun to talk about to friends, family, co-workers, anyone who would listen. I may have even told strangers. I’d first heard of this item through my brother and was beginning to have what I referred to as a serious case of “blender envy.”

Yes, that’s right. The item I coveted was a blender. What kind you ask? A serious one. There seem to be two prevailing “high end blender” camps out there and I fall on the Blendtec side of things (Vitamix is the other). This thing has settings for smoothies, soups, sauces and spreads. While not recommended to try at home, it will even blend golf balls.  It has revolutionized our lives. I would go as far as to say I love this blender. May seem a little Enemy of the State, but seriously, this blender is amazing. And after way too many episodes where I only ended up uttering curses at our previous two blenders – brands to remain unnamed – it was time to splurge.

Most of the blender’s work thus far has been fruit drinks in the morning. My husband has concocted a wide variety of combinations, experimenting with strawberries, pineapple, raspberries, mangoes, apples and more. It is fantastic how little work is required and on items like kiwi, you don’t even have to remove the peel – which I have learned is actually quite high in fiber and very good for you. This has been a really great way for us to ensure regular fruit intake, especially on days when time is tight.

Tonight, however, I ventured into the world of soup. The most amazing part of making soup with this blender is the fact that it gets going so fast that the friction – or whatever physics are going on – actually heats it up. No cook soup. Genius. I’ve made one other soup so far, based on a recipe in the handy cookbook that comes with the blender, and tonight I tried a modified version of the “Bacon Cheddar Potato Soup.”

Here is the recipe:

  • 2 c milk
  • 1 medium potato – baked and cut in half
  • ½ c cheddar cheese – shredded
  • 1/4 c onion – steamed
  • 1/4 tsp dill weed
  • 1/4 tsp rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Directions: Place above ingredients into blender jar and secure the lid. Press the Soups button. If soup is not hot after first cycle, press the Soups button a second time.

Add:

  • 3 slices bacon – crisped and broken into bits
  • 1 baked potato – cut in half

Directions: Press the Pulse button approximately 5 times to blend in added ingredients.

MY NOTES: The most obvious change for this pig free diet was removing the bacon, but I also had to improvise on the milk. As I mentioned in my post about French Toast a few weeks ago, we rarely have milk in our house, so alternatives require some creativity. Tonight my two cups of milk looked like this: a fourth cup half and half, a fourth cup plain yogurt and one and a half cups water. Might sound weird, but it worked. In addition, I didn’t have enough cheddar so I used some brick cheese we picked up in Wisconsin and it added a nice creamy flavor. Also adding to the flavor was a bit of parsley I had picked from our garden and had left over from dinner a few nights ago.

The other thing I learned tonight is that baking potatoes in a toaster oven – even when you’re using little potatoes and have the temp at 375º – isn’t the most time efficient idea. I could have popped them in the microwave for a quick cook, but the more I learn about microwaves and how they affect our food, the more I want ours to die so I can take it to the recycler and be done with it forever. So, in the future, I think I’ll need to plan ahead and either start them in the toaster oven earlier or find some other stuff that needs baking and fire up the regular oven for a bit.

And for a final few thoughts. I love dill – my favorite soup is Borscht – so this recipe caught my eye right away. Even with only a fourth of a teaspoon, the dill did not disappoint. And, while August 1 may seem like an insane day to have a hot creamy soup, today we had a huge rain storm and it was rather overcast much of the day, so it seemed appropriate. Overall, this soup had a wonderful rich taste and I look forward to blending up more potato soup combinations in the future.

August 1, 2011 at 9:42 pm 1 comment


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