Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dill Relish

I've been blessed this year with a really phenomenal cucumber season.  I stopped keeping track of the harvest mentally once I got over 60 pounds, I think it was -- so I can't wait to do my end of the month tally to see how many cukes I brought in this year and what their retail value is.

However, one can only eat so many cucumbers fresh, so I have been making gallons of pickles.  While I have primarily focused on making my grandmother's Bread and Butter Pickles, I also searched for a recipe for more of a "side salad" pickle.

Basically, I wanted a pickle that would more closely mimic the fresh cucumber so that it would be easier to just scoop some onto a plate or into a wrap during the winter.  You can easily do this with bread and butter pickles, but the flavor is definite enough that they pair best with more aggressively-flavored foods.  I was looking for something just a touch milder.

This recipe is adapted from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving.  I decided to cube my cucumbers rather than shred them to keep them a better texture, and I used cider vinegar as my base rather than white wine vinegar.  I also used dill weed instead of dill seed for the flavoring.  The result is rather dill pickle-ish, but the sugar and turmeric really smooth out the bite.

Dill Relish
8 pounds pickling cucumbers, cubed
1/2 cup salt
2 t. turmeric
water to cover

1 pound yellow onions
1/3 cup sugar
2 T. dill seed
1 quart cider vinegar

Wash and cube cucumbers and place in a bowl sprinkled with salt and turmeric.  Cover with water and let stand two hours; drain and rinse.

Chop onions and combine with cucumbers and remaining ingredients in a large sauce pot.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.  Ladle into pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace, and cap.  Process 15 minutes in a water bath canner.

Makes about 7 pints; the recipe is easily halved for smaller batches
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Monday, August 26, 2013

Sustainable Bookshelf: Saving the Season

(Disclosure:  I received a review copy of this book from Random House/Knopf.  The opinions in this review, as in all of my posts, are mine alone.)

It is so difficult to find a really great new book on food preservation.  Of course, everyone starts out with some of the basics:  The Ball Blue Book and Putting Food By are two of my stand-bys that I recommend to beginners.  But if you want to go beyond that, you typically find books with one or more of these problems:
  1. They assume you know exactly what things should look like at every step.
  2. They assume that you are either preserving bushels-full (and want recipes for giant quantities) or cups-full (and want to load up on expensive, luxury add-ins).
  3. They are boring to read.
This is why I was so thrilled to receive a review copy of Saving the Season.  Kevin West manages to solve all three of these problems in a book that is just beautiful to hold.  (And I do sometimes judge books by their covers and paper quality -- once a mark of literary shallowness, but I think a reasonable criterion on which to judge paper additions to your library when you also have e-book options.)

First, West assumes that you know nothing of the canning process.  He includes line drawings of all of the necessary equipment, and he isn't afraid to add explanations about things he misunderstood while learning.  West's explanation of Basic Strawberry Jam is a triumph in this regard -- he devotes two whole pages to talking the novice through a recipe that most experienced canners know by heart and can do in their sleep.  But I am confident that, given the right equipment, the virgin canner could walk through this explanation step-by-step and emerge with a batch of impressive-looking jam.

This attention to detail continues to the photography.  The photography is beautiful, but, more important, it is sometimes messy.  That is, it shows what food looks like smeared on a plate or a utensil, something that is important for canners hoping to learn what things should look like.  I absolutely swooned over a photo of jam jars that had vented hot jam onto towels beneath.  It was artistically beautiful, but, more important, it showed what that accident actually looks like, which should dilute the terror that you feel the first time it ever happens in your kitchen.

Second, West does an admirable job of including both basic and gourmet recipes for small farmers' market purchases and home gardens.  I grow a big suburban garden, but I don't bring in produce by the bushel.  However, I favor the basic recipes, and I'm often faced with cutting down recipes that are designed to fill a 9-quart canner.  This book is idea for figuring out what the basic way of preserving a variety of crops is, in quantities that are easy to manage and easy on the budget.

Then, he includes the specialty recipes that will have you running for additional add-ins that may not be frugal, but are sure to impress your guests and gift recipients when they find out you make your own aromatic bitters or cocktail onions.  I don't always appreciate recipes that send me to several stores for a pinch of this and a jar of that, but occasionally I will want to make something truly gourmet, just because it is something special for me and my family.

Finally, the book is fun to read.  West is, first and foremost, a writer, and he includes stories, memories, poetry, and detailed explanations highlighting his experiences with and knowledge of food.  It is these additions that make the book something that the reader will keep out in the kitchen year round, reading stories of tomatoes in the depth of winter, then turning to instructions on how to make marmalades from the organic citrus you find at your favorite bodega.  These recipes are almost enough to make me break my "eat local" pledge, at least long enough to get enough citrus so I have something to can in January.

Saving the Season on Amazon
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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Saving Pepper Seeds

Apologies for the erratic nature of the posts lately!  I'm always frustrated when the blogs I read can't stick to a publication schedule, yet here I am doing the same.  If it is any excuse, I am spending my blogging time putting up pickles.

In any event, this is a quick tip that most of you already know, but which would make the beginnings of a great new gardening project for you or a fabulous homeschool project for your kids:  saving seeds.

One of the great things about growing "heirloom" or "heritage" varieties of plants is that the plants are open pollinated, meaning you can save seeds from one generation to the next and expect the plant to breed true unless it has accidentally crossed with another plant.  So saving seeds is another easy sustainability skill that lets you become that much more independent in your food-growing efforts.

Some seeds, however, are more difficult to save than others.  Tomatoes famously like to go through a process similar to what they'd experience if the fruit fell from the plant and decomposed before the seeds will sprout (although I have fairly good luck with some varieties just rinsing and drying the seeds).  Carrot seeds must wait until the plant flowers in its second year.

Peppers, however, are a great beginner's seed to save.  Just pop the seed core from the pepper while you are cooking and lay it on a plate to dry.  In a few days, you can flake the seeds off, let them finish drying for another day or two, and then put them in a bottle or envelope for next year.  I keep mine in an old amber yeast jar so they are protected from exposure to light, and I store them in a cool place.

Other plants also save seeds easily, including beans and squashes.  What seeds will you save this year?

The Analysis
Fast:  Saving pepper seeds is as easy as drying them on a plate.  A few minutes total of your time, at most.

Cheap:  The whole purpose of saving seeds is saving money -- just a couple of peppers will give you more seeds that buying an entire pack for $3.50 or more.

Good:  This is another step to sustainability, or a great science project for the kids that will go all winter, starting now with seeds and progressing to starting them in February and planting the plants next spring.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Praise of the Black Krim Tomato

If you grow your own tomatoes, you have the luxury of choosing varieties that would probably not make it to many farmers' markets, let alone to a supermarket.  Such is true of my favorite:  the Black Krim.

The Black Krim is my favorite so far of the entire family of "black" tomatoes.  As you can see in the picture, they aren't really black, but when they are peeled and sliced, they look kind of bruised and beaten.  Their flesh ranges from a deep purple through red and into a rather sickly green, making them one of the least attractive tomatoes to see on your plate.

To top it all off, they are not very satisfying to let ripen.  They have dark green shoulders that can take up as much as a third of the fruit, and these green shoulders never turn red -- or, at least, they never do for me.  Instead, that is where the tomato seems to hide all of its core, so that it is easier to just chop off everything green before you peel or slice.

But once you deal with this, they are a wonder to behold.  A perfectly ripe Black Krim has skin that slips from the fruit with the barest touch of a knife, making them perfect for people like me who like to peel their tomatoes before slicing.  They are extremely juicy while being extremely meaty, which means that they are a wonderful addition to sauces and juices.

The flavor, though, is what brings me back.  They are acidy, with a tingle on the tongue that reminds me of the old fashioned tomatoes my Grandma grew.  And they have a "dark" undertone to their flavor that is decidedly meaty, rather than hewing toward the "berry" flavors that some slicer tomatoes can have.  Make no mistake, this is a savory tomato, not a sweet one.

My garden critters love the Black Krims as much as I do, and since the plants tend to set fruit near the ground, I lose a certain percentage every year.  But the ones I get to eat are pure heaven, and I am not exaggerating to say that I have dreams of Black Krim tomatoes in the depths of winter.

What is your favorite tomato variety?
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Friday, August 9, 2013

Esther Simpson's Tomato Juice

August is tomato month, and every time I can tomato juice, I think of my Aunt Esther.

Aunt Esther had a truly magical garden and canning operation.  If we visited her during the summer, she would say, "let's see what we can get ya" and take us out to the garden.  Most times, we would leave with a bag full of tomatoes, beans, and whatever else was ripe. If she happened to be getting ready to can beans when we arrived, we would sit on the porch and snap beans with her.  It is still one of my favorite things to do.  Her basement was a canning kitchen, filled with jars of finished products and cabinets full of spices where she could do her canning and keep a little cooler.  It was a great place to explore.

When I wanted to learn how to can, she sat down and wrote out my grandmother's bread and butter pickle recipe for me and her instructions for making tomato juice.  She sent us home to make our first quarts of juice with the loan of her ricer (which you may know as a food mill).

The recipe below is Esther's, and you will notice that it is dead simple.  Like the bread and butter pickle recipe, it was intended for open kettle canning, in which the hot juice is put into a hot jar and allowed to seal without further processing.  I've added the processing times to comply with current thoughts on canning.  I've also added the lemon juice; modern hybrid tomatoes are bred to be less acidic than traditional heirlooms, so this small bit of lemon juice keeps you on the safe side of acidity.

Further note:  the picture above is not the best, but I wanted new canners to see the way the tomato pulp sediment separates out from the liquid when the jar has been standing for a while.  This is normal.  It is easy to freak out a little when you see this the first time you put up tomato juice, because we are all so accustomed to the overly-processed stuff we get in the store or a restaurant.  Just shake the jar up before you drink.

Esther Simpson's Tomato Juice
Tomatoes (Seriously, just whatever you have -- the amount of juice depends a great deal on the size variety of tomatoes you've harvested.  Try to have at least 5 pounds or so to be sure you will get a quart.)
Lemon juice

Cut out cores, stem ends, green places, and bad spots.  Cut into quarters and place in a large pot. Use your hands to squeeze the tomatoes to make juice.

Let the tomatoes come to a boil, stirring throughout.  Let boil at least 5 minutes or until peels start to leave the pulp.  Run the pulp through a ricer to remove the seeds and peels, and return the juice to the pot.  Reheat to a full rolling boil.  Can in hot, sterilized jars to which lemon juice (1 t. for quarts, 1/2 t. for pints) and salt (1 t. for quarts, 1/2 t. for pints) has been added.

Process in a water bath canner for 35 minutes (for both quarts and pints).

Note:  If you are not a tomato juice fan but want some wonderful basic sauce, just continue to cook the juice until it boils down into sauce consistency.  Can the same way.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July 2013

We're almost there!  By the end of July, the garden was very close to breaking even and moving into profitability!

The garden spreadsheet has gotten too large to share in its entirety on here, so I'll have to share some highlights with you:

  • Expenditures held steady at $278.70.  It is very unlikely that we will make any more purchases, unless I pick up some lettuce seeds on clearance.  So, we have a stable target.
  • The blueberries did much better this year than expected.  When I first looked at my one productive bush (along with two that set just a few berries), I predicted we would harvest 12-16 oz. of berries. Instead, we wound up with 26.5 oz. for a value of $11.93.
  • Zucchini, of course, have been very productive.  Organic zucchini were $3.36 a pound here, and I brought in 440 oz. (27.5 pounds) through the end of July, for a value of $92.40.  We have eaten zucchini at nearly every meal, put up zucchini relish, and given several pounds away.
  • Cucumbers, too, were $2.56 a pound, and we have brought in 607 oz. (37.9 pounds) through the end of July for a value of $97.99.  We are eating cucumbers at every meal too, plus turning lots of the cukes into bread and butter pickles.  For a couple of weeks now, I've been making pickles every other day.
  • Corn in the store is $0.49 per ear, and we have harvested two ears.  The squirrels are fighting us for the rest.
  • Likewise, organic apples are $0.89 a piece, and we have harvested one.
  • Basil, as I mentioned before, is hideously expensive in the store, at the equivalent of $1.00 per ounce for fresh leaves.  I've brought in 7 ounces for cooking thus far.
  • Organic tomatoes on the vine are $3.49 in the store, and I've brought in 5.6 pounds so far for a total of $19.80.  So far, the Burpee Super Sauce are the first to crop, so they are ahead in the production race.  However, there are lots of green tomatoes out there on all the plants, and the mild weather means that the plants continue to set fruit.
Overall, I'm pretty sure that the garden is already profitable as of this writing, or at least close.  It is a pretty good garden year, and I can't wait to see how much produce I can grow on a small suburban lot with fairly marginal soil.

How is your garden growing this year?
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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lillian Rumsey's Bread and Butter Pickles

Some of my best memories of my grandmother come back to me in summertime.  My grandparents owned a farm, and, while I suspect some of my cousins have fond memories of the tractor and the animals, my favorite memories are of the gardens.  Grandma and I would go out to pick strawberries together, eating as many in the field as we brought into the house.  They were never so sweet inside as they were outside in the sunshine, giggling together about our berries.

When I started learning to preserve food, I "inherited" Grandma's bread and butter pickle recipe.  Although we never got to put up pickles together, making this recipe reminds me very strongly of her.  I can feel her with me while I'm out in the sun picking the cucumbers, and I can imagine her cutting her produce and turning it into pickles just as I do.  Nothing says summer happiness to me quite like Grandma's pickles.

Lillian Rumsey's Bread and Butter Pickles
(Note:  This recipe makes 4 quarts, but it is easy to quarter and just make a quart at a time if your garden is small.  That's what I do.)

12 cucumbers (6-7 inches long each)
8 small white onions
2 green peppers (I usually omit these because my peppers aren't ready at the same time as the cukes)
1/2 cup salt or enough to wilt the veggies

Pickling Syrup:
5 cups sugar
5 cups cider vinegar
1/2 t. turmeric
1/2 t. ground cloves
1 t. celery seed
2 t. mustard seed

Wash cucumbers, peel, and slice thin.  Slice onions and green peppers.  Place in a bowl layered with salt. Weight the veggies down with another bowl filled with ice.  Let stand for 3 hours or until veggies are wilted.
Drain and rinse thoroughly.

Mix together pickling syrup and boil 5 minutes.  Add drained veggies and bring to a simmer.  Can in hot, sterile quart jars.  Process in water bath canner, 10 minutes for pints/15 minutes for quarts.

(Note:  The original recipe does not include the processing in the water bath canner, as this recipe was intended for "open kettle" canning, a type of canning that relies on the heat of the jar and the contents make the jar lid seal.  Pickles were often canned this way; dill pickles were often not canned at all, residing for their entire lives in a crock.  The pickling syrup or brine was usually enough to keep them preserved.  In deference to modern food safety norms, I have added the water bath canning step.)
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