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Friday, August 29, 2014

Tomato Review: Burpee's Steakhouse

This year, I've been all about the heirloom tomatoes, with several new varieties joining old favorites: Cuor di Bue, San Marzano, Box Car Willie, Black Krim, Amish Paste, and, of course, my cherished volunteer tomatoes.  But I have to give a nod to my new favorite hybrid tomato:  Burpee's Steakhouse Hybrid.

Now, contrary to the product description, I have yet to get a three pound tomato out of these, but I am regularly getting tomatoes that are between 10 ounces and one pound.  Not too shabby, when many of the rest of my tomatoes are coming in at 4-8 ounces.

The flesh of these is meaty and dense, but it retains a juiciness and sliceability.  It's easy to peel if you like your slicers peeled on a plate, as I do, and it even adds a great deal of volume to sauce.

The Steakhouse Hybrid is an excellent addition to your garden for both canning and for eating raw.  Even though I'll keep growing heirlooms, I'll save room next year for a few of these beauties.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pressure-Canned Beef Stew

Thank heavens for a blurry, tilted iPhone photo, because this has got to be the ugliest thing I've ever canned.  But it will get the job done!

Friday, I told you that I was contemplating putting up some beef stew for Mr. FC&G.  He works a lot of long hours, and this often means he's in a factory environment at all hours of the day and night.  Seeking a meal means vending machines or fast food if he doesn't take food along with him.  But he really needs options that are shelf-stable (desk-drawer-stable?), so that he doesn't have to worry if he takes a lunch and then winds up not eating it because he's busy or because the guys opted to go out to eat.

Enter beef stew.  This recipe could be fairly expensive, except the garden is in full production right now.  Therefore, the only thing I bought was the beef and the onion.  It also takes a while to make, but most of that time was pressure canning time, so I just needed to be near the canner and not actively supervising it.  (That is, I'm in the room, but I'm not watching it like I would a television show.  Never leave a pressure canner completely alone.)

Beef Stew
2 lbs. beef stew meat (I used organic beef from our farmer's market)
1 large onion, diced (organic)
1 qt. stock (home canned from my pantry)
8 oz. sliced carrots (garden)
8 oz. snapped green beans (garden)
1 t. dried thyme (garden)
1 t. dried marjoram (garden)
1 t. corn starch for thickening (never flour if you are going to pressure can)
salt and pepper to taste.

Brown stew meat and cook onions until translucent.  Add stock and vegetables and bring to a steady simmer, adding the corn starch for thickening if you wish right before canning.

Into sterile pint canning jars, ladle the stew, leaving about 1 inch headspace (about the thickness of the jar threads).  Seal and process in pressure canner, 75 minutes at 15 lbs pressure.  (Note:  We are right at 1,000 feet, and my canner instructions says to always can at 15 lbs pressure above 1,000.  If you are truly below 1,000 feet, 10 lbs. pressure should be fine.

The Analysis
Fast:  This recipe took me about two and a half hours, so not very fast.

Cheap:  Organic stew beef is $9.50 per pound at our farmer's market, so I was happy to pay $19 to finish this recipe and have the peace of mind of the quality of the meat.  The price was mitigated by how much produce and stock came from my own efforts.  Add in a bit for the onion and the starch, salt, and pepper, and this still comes in at $20 for four healthy-sized servings, or $5 per meal.

Good:  I've got to be honest:  beef stew is a bridge too far for my picky palate.  But Mr. FC&G nodded approvingly when I took him a sample before canning, so I guess it works!
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Friday, August 22, 2014

Today I Am...

Well, this week certainly got away from me!  It's Friday afternoon, and I owe everyone a blog post.

The thing is, many of the sustainability projects and activities I'm doing aren't new; they're the regular late summer things.  So, I'm taking a leaf out of The Non-Consumer Advocate's book and telling you what I'm up to today. (But before you read, please head on over to The Non-Consumer Advocate and tell Katy how much you love her blog!)

Today I am....

  • Dealing with some challenging work projects.
  • Looking for just the right new writing project for fall to replace a gig that fell through.
  • Visiting the farmer's market for organically-raised stew beef so I can make Mr. FC&G some pressure canned jars of beef stew for his winter lunches.  I love the thought that he can take a jar with him to work and either reheat it that day or have it available the next day.  Since he sometimes works 16 hours at a stretch, finding food that's healthy and that travels well to work is really important if I want him to eat well and avoid the fast food.
  • Trying to figure out whether Mr. FC&G is pulling one of the aforementioned 16-hour shifts tonight, which would leave me to find something to do on my own.
  • Contemplating whether that "something to do" will be crocheting and watching Netflix.  I'm excited about a new line of bamboo/silk yoga socks I have in my Etsy store, and I'm eager to add more.
  • Looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow morning!  I don't want to open my eyes until that clock reads double digits in the hours column, thank you very much!

So how about you?  Tell me what sustainable activities you're up to!

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Not Your Average Cook-out

I love a good "burgers and dogs" cookout as much as the next person.  But once in a while, its nice to be able to "kick it up a notch" and really make something special over an open fire.

Mr. FC&G and I did just that last night.  We recently built a new fire pit in the area where a much-neglected rose bush once stood.  It's just a simple circle of landscaping brick with a thick layer of lava rock in the bottom, but it already is a favorite feature of our garden area.

For dinner, we seasoned some salmon fillets with Old Bay, and then we cooked them beside a saute pan full of a splash of olive oil, a cube of frozen basil pesto, and a bunch of fresh veggies:  spiral-sliced zucchini, plus peas, beans, tomatoes, and cilantro.  A little sea salt and some wood smoke were all the additional seasonings needed.

Let me tell you, this was perhaps one of the best meals we have ever made.  Maybe it was hunger from chopping wood all day, or maybe it was the freshness of the veggies, but this was $25-a-plate kind of flavor.  And it was all on the cheap in our back yard -- we didn't even pay for electricity to turn on the stove.  That's what I call a sustainable win!


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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Science of Canning: Part II

OK, now that we've got the science of canning down pat (and I gave you the weekend to either ponder tonicity or conclude that I'm nuts), it's time to put it into practice.

(Note, and I am not kidding about this:  This blog is not the substitute for following good canning practices.  I am not responsible for canning errors, failures, or food spoilage.  You are responsible for your own food safety.  The system I'm about to share does not replace the need to follow a proven canning recipe and the practices set forth by the USDA.)

OK, legal disclaimer out of the way, let's play a game! Your challenge is to can some food, and get the highest score possible:

Canning/Preserving Method

  • Pressure canning:  The most secure of all canning methods, this does a complete job of killing all bacteria in the food and on the inside of the jar with both pressure and heat.  5 points
  • Water bath canning:  For most high-acid foods, this is the right choice, doing a nearly complete job on the bacteria with heat.  4 points
  • Freezing:  Good for short term storage of less than a year, this doesn't kill bacteria but slows them way down.  3 points
  • Open kettle canning:  This traditional method of canning relies on having hot jars and hot food to sterilize the jar and headspace and seal the jar.  It is no longer considered safe by the USDA, although there are some home canners that still use it.  2 points
The Canning Environment

  • Acidity:  Boosting the acid, often through the addition of cider vinegar, is a time honored way of preserving food.  In fact, acid plus salt is the reason that you can leave a pickle crock standing out in a general store with no problem to the pickles.  The value of acidity depends on how much is in the food itself and how much you add.  2-3 points
  • Salt/Sugar:  By playing with the tonicity in the canning environment, you can kill the little bacteria that threaten your food.  Like acidity, the effectiveness depends on how much you add.  2-3 points
  • Spices:  Herbs and spices often have their own food preservation qualities, which is why they have traditionally been used in preservation.  We no longer routinely rely on spices to preserve our food, but they help.  1 point
Hygiene

  • Give yourself 1 point for setting up your kitchen like an operating theater, complete with a clean apron for you, sterilized jars, and clean utensils.
  • Give yourself 1 point for following a modern canning recipe to the letter, not deviating on amount of acid, salt, or sugar, and for processing the items for the full time specified.


Scoring
If you are playing along, look at your canning processes and try to get a score of at least 6 on every project. Examples:
  • Canned stew beef:  Proper recipe and procedure (1 point) + pressure canning (5 points) = 6 points
  • Pickles:  Acid (2 points) + Salt (2 points) + Water bath canning (4 points) = 8 points
  • Freezer jam:  Sugar (2 points) + Freezer (3 points) + Clean environment (1 point) = 6 points


Again, this is not a substitute for following proper instructions, but it should be a way for you to think about your food preservation in a scientific way and assess whether your recipes and process are up to snuff!  And, for you preppers out there, this is a good way to start thinking about food preservation in a grid-down situation when you may not have all the resources you would ideally want on hand.
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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Science of Canning: Part I

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people say they "aren't using their education" because they are doing domestic duties on a full- or part-time basis.  OK, maybe you don't have to have professional licensure to keep house, but the more education you have, the better you will do at the job.

Case in point: home canning.

Canning season is now upon us, and every year there are one or more stories in the media about safety concerns about food you put up yourself.  Not only are these threats of spoiled and dangerous food dramatically overestimated, but a simple knowledge of science will go a long way toward keeping your food safe.

Let's go back to a few principles:

Tonicity:  Remember high school biology? If you are like me, you spent a lot of time trying to figure out the concepts of something being "hypertonic" and "hypotonic," probably in relation to red blood cells and the surrounding plasma.  It was always confusing, but it's an important concept in home canning.

The concept is this:  systems like to be in balance.  A cell, which is filled with water, solutes (substances dissolved in the water), and organelles (little cell organs), will try to achieve a balance with the liquid that it lives in.  If the cell has more solutes than the surrounding liquid, it will take in liquid until there is a balance.  If the cell has more water than the surrounding liquid, it will eject water until there's a balance.  If it takes on too much water, it will explode; if it expells too much, it will "dry up" and die.

If this has you scratching your head, stay with me: the implications for home canning are simple.  In canning, we are trying to control the presence and growth of bacteria, which are just cells.  Often, we do this by playing with the tonicity.  For example, if I pickle my cucumbers in a brine, I've put the cucumbers and whatever bacteria are hitching a ride into a solution that has way more solutes in it than the bacteria cells do, because the brine is salty.  The brine is hypertonic to the bacteria cells.

We often think that salt "draws the water out" of things.  It does, in this very process.  And not only does a brine make the cells of the cucumbers release water and get floppy, it also draws the water out of bacteria cells.  The bacteria cells quickly reach a state in which they don't have enough interior water to live, and they die.  This is why salt and brine have been such an important food preservation method throughout history; salt creates an environment that the bacteria can't easily live in because they expel too much of their own water. Sugar will do the same thing, which is why jams and jellies are so shelf-stable and why we often recommend them as a first canning project.

pH:  We also control bacterial growth by changing the pH of the environment inside our canning jars.  If you've heard of "high acid" and "low acid" foods, you know that acidity is an important component of keeping foods safe.  Most bacteria prefer an environment that is a neutral pH, so plunging them into an acidic environment will kill them or inhibit their growth.  This is why we put added lemon juice or vinegar into our home-canned tomato juice and sauce.  Tomatoes used to be a very acidic fruit and thus very safe to can, but modern tastes have led to the development of hybrids that are much less acidic.  Therefore, we have to boost the acidity (lower the pH) to create an environment that our little buggy friends don't like.

Temperature:  Temperature is a very effective way of controlling bacterial growth, and some temperatures will kill bacteria.  For example, temperatures above 165 degrees F will kill many bacteria, which is why we use meat thermometers to make sure our Thanksgiving turkeys have reached the right internal temperature.
Heat that doesn't reach 165 but is still above 140 will slow bacterial growth, which is why we keep hot food hot when we serve it.  Likewise, freezing food doesn't kill bacteria, but it does slow its growth, which is why frozen food keeps a long time but not forever.

Water bath canning relies on something called "convective heat transfer," which means that it is the transfer of heat due to the movement of fluids.  If you process your canning in a water bath canner, you are basically using convection to sterilize the interior of the jar, the head space, and the food.  Because this process is never 100 percent effective, we only process high acid foods in water bath canners.

Pressure:  Pressure is another force that kills bacteria, and it is one of the most effective around.  Like our own bodies, bacterial cells can only withstand a certain amount of pressure before they burst and die. Pressure canning is therefore possibly the very safest way of preserving food, because it creates enough pressure to kill all of the bacteria in the jar and in the food, plus it employs heat to help the job.  A pressure canner is basically an autoclave, that machine that your doctor or dentist uses to sterilize medical equipment, and, indeed, a pressure canner can be used to autoclave medical equipment in an extreme emergency.

Antibacterials/Antifungals/Antimicrobials:  Finally, some spices have their own antibacterial properties, which is why many preserved foods, particularly those that were developed before pressure canning or modern freezers, are so highly spiced.  Some traditional medical lore (used before modern antibiotics and germ theory) even suggests treating wounds and diseases with certain herbs, spices, and plants with antibacterial, antifungal, or antimicrobial actions.


OK, so what do we do with all that?  Tune in for my next post, in which I'll introduce you to my theory of how to combine scientific preservation methods to ensure a safe product.




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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July 2014

The garden vaulted into production this month, with about 39 pounds of produce coming in, just over a pound a day.  This bounty almost obscures the fact that, compared to last year, we are about $100 behind last year's end-of-July tally. 

There are two reasons for the relative shortfall:
  • This has been one of the coldest, longest springs on record, extending well into summer.  I've always said I wish a June garden could last forever, and I almost got my wish this year. Most gardeners I know estimate that we are about three weeks behind normal this year, which means a lot of fruit set on the tomatoes but a delayed harvest overall.
  • We harvested an insane amount of cucumbers last year:  73 pounds, most of which came in July.  We are having a good cucumber year this year, but it is much more normal, at 21 pounds so far.
So what are our triumphs this month?  They are many.  We had one small seed expenditure, and a great deal of harvest.  In addition to the cucumbers, some notable totals YTD include:
  • Cuor di Bue tomato: 39 ounces
  • Box Car Willie tomato: 22 ounces
  • San Marzano tomato: 22 ounces
  • Super Sauce tomato: 8 ounces
  • Black Krim tomato: 7 ounces
  • Basil: 11 ounces
  • Zucchini: 140 ounces
  • Peas: 13.5 ounces
It's telling that I am still harvesting peas daily at the end of July/beginning of August, even though it should be far too warm for peas.  The tomatoes, too, are poised for a great August, since we have several varieties that have not yet begun to redden, plus the ones mentioned above are still producing.

So, while we are far from profitability yet, I'm pleased to have brought in 46 pounds of produce YTD with a retail value of $151.50.  Bring on August!

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 743
Pounds: 46.4375

Total Value of Harvest: $151.50
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $-134.63
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