Cider, Salsa and Peach Pie

Cider_SalsaThe photo on the left is of my 3-year old volunteer peach tree, taken just this afternoon. You can see that it’s growing right next to my recently-moved compost bin, from which it volunteered. I have no idea exactly what kind of peach it is, but it was one we ate three years ago and composted that pit. It’s really taken off, when the limbs are upright it’s nearly 20 feet tall. It tried to grow fruit last year, but they all fell off before ripening. As you can see, this year it’s making up for lost time.

The limb in the foreground isn’t broken, it’s just weighted down by its load of quickly ripening fruit. Thanks to the soggy monsoon season this year, there’s a literal ton of it. None of the limbs have actually broken off yet – like one each from my apple trees did – so I’m letting it lay in the pumpkin patch for awhile to finish ripening – the peaches are still a bit crisp and hard, not very sweet. I’m hoping it’ll do okay where it is, give me some time to finish up with the apples – which are now fully ripe and coming in by the bushel.

I gave up drying the lot of ‘em, since my solar dryer is only as big as the window I made it out of, and there’s far too many poms. So grandson and I decided to make cider instead, and then to see if we can get it to harden! Or, in lieu of good ol’ hard cider, maybe it’ll do what my grape juice usually does – turn to vinegar.

Of course, getting either hard cider or vinegar out of the bounty is going to presuppose that we’re not drinking the cider as fast as we’re making it, and so far that hasn’t proven to be the case. Do have a half-gallon un-drunk so far in a growler bottle, half another growler, and enough bottles for two more full gallons. So we might end up ahead of ourselves.

What I’ve discovered is that if you don’t have a cider press (and I don’t), making cider takes quite a bit of muscle-power. Still, we’re averaging 3 pints per gallon of apples, so that’s not a bad return. Here’s how you do it the hard way…

1. Gather and wash the apples. Quarter them, tossing out any serious bruises or bugs. Put them into gallon size freezer zip-lock bags, and toss them into the freezer for a couple of days or so.

2. Remove from freezer and thaw. This gives you some pretty darned squishy apple chunks. Once thawed, empty the bag (I do this with half a bag at a time given the size of my cookware pot) into a heavy stock pot and crush the apple chunks good with a potato masher.

3. Once the softened apple chunks are good and squished, load them into a mesh food bag. Squeeze and smash the bag of chunks as much as possible with your hands. I then put the bag into a footed colander sitting in the pot. Squish juice out of the bag with fists, then I use a small pot to squish it further. The more juice you can squish out, the more cider you’ve got.

4. Pour accumulated cider into a pitcher, and from there through a strainer into your jug or jar. Compost the leavings and start the next batch.

To reliably get hard cider most sources recommend adding some sugar or honey and some brewer’s yeast. We haven’t gotten that far yet, but we’re hoping to before the refrigerator gets too full of cider. Or, it can go hard on its own, so look out for exploding bottles – don’t seal tightly until it’s done out-gassing. Will let you know how it works out for us, if we don’t drink it all first.

In between cider batches, I’m dealing with the tomato crop. Which is also coming in great guns due to the wet season, and my dryer isn’t keeping up. Have two full quarts so far of sun dried in olive oil, another quart of dry-dry that I’ll use to make tomato powder. But we’re also going to need salsa now that the salsa peppers are coming in by the dozen too, so it’s salsa time!

For this I go ahead and blanche/skin the ‘maters, de-seed and drain them. Sprinkling them with salt after they’ve been chopped and are sitting in the colander helps to make them a bit less juicy. For canning purposes you’ll want 8 cups of chopped and drained tomatoes.

My jalapenos aren’t producing yet, so I’m using the long “salsa peppers” we bought as seedlings from our local greenhouse, and some of the bells coming in. The salsa peppers are smaller than anaheims and a lot hotter, not as hot as jalapenos. They don’t have to be roasted and peeled first, just seeded and chopped finely, 2-3 cups. 4-5 cups of finely chopped onions (I’m using sweet Vidalias), two cups of vinegar or 1.5 cups of lemon juice. Salt, maybe some chili powder or hot red pepper flakes.

Put all this into a heavy sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for about 5 minutes. Ladle into canning jars, cap and process in a water bath for 25 to 30 minutes (30 is better). I’ll be doing this out on the gas grill so as not to heat the kitchen more than it already is hot. And now that it’s August, it’s hot.

Now… about those peaches. If the limbs look to be getting so stressed they’re in real danger of breaking, I’ll have to pick them all now. Peaches will continue to ripen for awhile after picking, so hopefully they’ll finish up by the time I get around to them.

Peaches take to freezing quite well, but since our electricity isn’t all that reliable I figure I’d best can them. Quarts should be plenty to make a peach cobbler or pie with, or even just to serve as dessert with a scoop of ice cream during the fall and winter. For this I’m going to want a light syrup, which is a 1:3 ratio of one cup of sugar to three cups of water. Heated just enough to thoroughly dissolve the sugar, then kept on ‘low’ while I prep the fruit.

Given the timing of ripening, these are freestone peaches. Which are much easier to process than non-freestone (‘cling’) peaches because the pits are much easier to remove. They should be blanched like tomatoes for 30 to 45 seconds in boiling water, then cooled in ice water. The skins then slip right off. At that point they should be halved and the pit removed. From there they can be sliced or quartered. Put straight into sterile jars, fill with syrup to a half-inch from the top, then clean the edges with a paper towel and cap. Process in a water bath for 25-30 minutes.

So Happy August to all you homesteaders out there, I hope your fruit crops are coming in as abundantly as mine, but with less damage to the trees!

Useful Links:

Salsa Garden – Canning Salsas
Pick Your Own: Homemade Apple Cider
Clemson Extension: Preserving Peaches

It’s Summer: Must Be Preservation Time

PreservationBoy, oh boy – it’s hot! That means tomatoes, apples, peppers and beans are coming in as fast as I can pick in the scorching heat of late July, taxing my tolerance for dripping sweat at the counter prepping tomatoes and apples for the solar dryer, keeping the oven on low – propped slightly open – in a cabin with no air conditioning to dry pans full of shell beans, just trying to make it to the usual every evening thunderstorm to cool things down. Whew!

Got 18 half-pints of apple-blackberry sauce/butter stuff from those not-yet ripe apples salvaged from the lost limb a couple of weeks ago. Very yummy and extremely useful stuff, Have enough to gift family and friends as well as use myself to sweeten plain yogurt, turn into a vinegrette dressing, dollop on pancakes and stir-fry veggies, mix into barbeque sauce, etcetera. I do NOT plan to can any more now that it’s apple-climbing harvest time. Those suckers will be dried, the lot of ‘em. Along with the peaches and pears when their time comes, of course.

My biggest dilemma right now is what to do with all those duck eggs we can’t manage to eat fast enough, mostly because it’s too darned hot to cook a breakfast this time of year. They just keep on piling up day after day, and I am unable to give them away fast enough to keep up either. It’s a good thing we didn’t go with my plan to get chickens the ducks could guard!

At any rate, I had to compost a full dozen this morning that were quickly coming up on 6 weeks of age, though in the ‘fridge they’d have been good for another couple of weeks at least, but there are two dozen newer eggs that have ‘em beat, so there’s that.

Preserving Surplus Eggs

Now, there are lots of sites out there that recommend painting sealers on eggshells or packing in sand, mud or sawdust, but the fact that eggs are bacterial havens – and salmonella isn’t fun – I’m looking for something that seems a lot safer and long-term. Regular refrigeration can preserve fresh eggs from two to five months, but they’ll need to be in air-tight containers and kept away from the door. Out of the shell eggs can only be kept for four days in the ‘fridge (and should be covered with water to prevent toughening of the white). Hard boiled eggs will keep a week in the ‘fridge, so I’m better off storing them raw.

For longer term storage freezing works. Don’t try to freeze them in the shell, as it’s likely to break during freezing and make an awful mess. You can open the eggs and whisk them thoroughly, put into those plastic food storage containers with tight lids, and they’ll keep for a year. These can later be thawed for scrambled eggs or omelets, or used for baking cookies and cakes. You could also use zip-lock freezer bags and stack them, and these will thaw faster in a pan of cold water when you decide to use them. Egg whites keep well, but if you also wish to freeze the yolks you should add some salt or sugar when whisking so they don’t turn gelatinous. Hard boiled eggs can be frozen, but they turn into rubber. Yuck.

One interesting idea I discovered from the Oregon Extension Service is to put your thoroughly mixed whole eggs into an ice tray, freeze, then remove and put into a zip-lock in the freezer. About 3 tablespoons of egg mixture is equivalent to one regular size chicken egg for recipe purposes, so this seems particularly handy. Add a 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar or 1/2 teaspoon salt to the egg mixture, depending on how you intend to use them, and do label the zip-lock so you don’t put sweet eggs in a dinner casserole or salty eggs in your pound cake.

Some people use the ice tray method, but do not blend the eggs first. This probably works, but isn’t what the extension service recommends because of the tendency for whites to become rubbery when frozen.

Another handy method is to whisk in a little whole milk or cream with the eggs, about 3 tablespoons per cup plus the half tsp. per cup of salt, put into sterile canning jars for freezing, cap with clean lids not tightened (so air can escape in the freezing process, tighten later). A jar can later be taken out of the freezer and placed in the ‘fridge to thaw and use as your basic egg-beater stuff for scrambled eggs or omelets. Do shake it up thoroughly before using. For this, half-pint jars such as those for jelly and jam are best so it doesn’t sit too long in the ‘fridge before using. Unless, of course, you have a large egg-loving family or a house full of guests to feed. In which case a pint sized jar would be optimum, to be emptied over no more than 2 or 3 days.

You can also pickle hard boiled eggs in a vinegar-brine solution, an old technique. If you do pickle, remember that the jars can’t be kept at room temperature due to botulism. Sterilize everything, and store jars in the refrigerator. Some people like to eat whole pickled eggs, but they’re also good sliced on salads. Still, they’ll only stay good for three months in the ‘fridge, and who eats THAT many pickled eggs?

You can of course add herbs and spices to pickled eggs, according to your tastes. It takes 4 to 5 days for the pickling liquid to flavor eggs the size of Pekin duck eggs, less time for chicken and smaller eggs.

Useful Links:

Oregon Extension Service (pdf)
Backyard Poultry: Preserving Eggs
How to Freeze or Dehydrate Eggs

Incoming Fruit!

Pear-Grape Jam & Pear Butter

fruitDespite the April freeze, which managed to hit after a March so warm that all the fruit had already blossomed, a goodly amount of concord and muscadine grapes managed to overcome the stress, and the cinnamon pears are falling at easily twice their usual size. And while harvest is a few weeks early this year due to the extraordinarily warm spring, the fruit is super-luscious from a summer of more than ample rainfall.

After the hail got my corn crop and the super-weeds got my tomatoes, it’s nice that something’s coming in with enough abundance that I’ll be able to trade pear butter and jam for all the crops that failed in the lower terraces. Will need another two or three dozen half-pint jars before it’s over, but August is its usual perfect weather (August and September in these mountains are absolutely the most perfect-weather months of the year, though not the most colorful). It’s cool enough to start the indoor processing, so that’s just what I’m doing.

Processing is a several-part ordeal, but will then give me plenty of pear mash and grape mush to construct the goodies. Today I have enough pears to fill my heavy stock pot half full after chopping, about 18 individual pears. Wash and remove the stems. Quarter and then half the quarters. Even bruised areas are good, just be sure to excise any actually rotten spots. Add enough water to keep the pears from sticking (about half a cup), and bring to a boil covered over medium heat for about 12-15 minutes. Stir it a few times to make sure all the pieces get good and soft, remove the lid and simmer for another 5 minutes to reduce the originally added water. Push the resulting ‘stuff’ through a sieve to get the seeds and skins out, stir in a tablespoon of ascorbic acid (available in the canning section) or two tablespoons of lemon juice, and set the pulp aside.

Then it’s the grapes’ turn. Add a quart of stemmed grapes to a half pint of water and again bring to a boil covered, over medium heat. When it’s been going for about 10 minutes mash with a potato masher to separate the innards from the skins. Continue to boil lightly uncovered until the innards liquify (about 10 minutes). Sieve the results as with the pears to remove seeds and skins. Reserve juice.

Now you’re ready to make Pear-Grape Jam…

Easy, Low-Sugar Pear-Grape Jam

• 3 1/2 cups pear pulp
• 3 1/2 cups grape pulp
• 4-inch sprig fresh rosemary
• 1/2 cup raw local honey

In a heavy stock pot combine the pulps, honey, and rosemary. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or until liquid is reduced by about a cup.

Remove from heat and let steep for 5-10 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary sprig (be careful to not lose any of the needles). Pour or ladle the jam into hot, sterilized half-pint condiment jars, leaving 1/8″ head space. Wipe the rims clean and attach sterilized lids, screw on the caps finger-tight.

Process 10 minutes in water bath canner, cool on a wire rack. Before storing make sure the lids have popped to indicate vacuum. Should fill 6 half-pint jars.
_____

Ball makes very pretty half-pint jars, which are just the right size for gifts or trade. These can be further “fancied” for the purpose of gifting by cutting out circles of bright fabric to place over the lids but under the screw caps. Great hostess gifts for the upcoming holiday parties, and as part of Christmas edible gifts of fudge, cookies, dried veggie crackers and jam.

If you, like me, have way more pears than grapes, you can always just make pear butter to gift or trade (or delight your own family with at breakfast time)…

Easy Pear Butter

Process pears as above, then sieve to remove seeds and skin. Return to pot and add [per 3 cups of pulp):

• 1 tbsp. ascorbic acid
• 1/4 cup raw local honey
• 1 1/2 tbsp. cinnamon
• 2 tsp. ground ginger
• 1 tsp. ground allspice
• 1/4 cup orange juice

Slowly bring mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Ladle into sterile half-pint jars. Wipe lips clean and attach lids, screw caps finger-tight. Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes, remove and cool.

Finishing Up Last Year’s Food

Waiting for ‘Spring Enough’ to spend real time outdoors to clear and dig beds for this year’s spring crops can be maddening. I’ve folded up dozens and dozens of newspaper seedling pots, have some of them filled halfway in preparation for planting – which can be done as soon as the local garden supply outlets get their annual allotments of potting soil. They’re not used to doing that before Valentine’s day, I’m guessing the USDA’s recent re-figuring of our planting zone took them by surprise.

I’ve gone through the seed basket to see what I’ve got, what needs planting first, and what I need to order. I’ve pulled the crispy brown leavings of last fall’s crops, and turned the compost. I’ve dug several 5-gallon buckets full of old compost out for adding to the beds and covering the perennials (asparagus, strawberries, artichokes). And I’ve planned what will go where while trimming the dry stalks of last year’s herbs and splitting root systems to spread them out a bit.

But it got cold again, and too rainy to ignore. So I figured it was a good time to do what I’ve been putting off all winter long – finishing up the processing of last year’s crops.

Sure, most has been eaten by now, though there’s still a pumpkin (MUST bake that thing soon for stew!) and some potatoes I’ll cull through for this year’s crop. But it’s the frozen and dried bounty that now needs to be finished up so I can clean out the ‘fridge and freezer in preparation for the coming bounty. That’s the jars, strings and coffee cans full of dried celery/celeriac, beets, kale, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and leeks, plus the many more jars of dried herbs and flowers. All of these were dried hard in my solar dryer last summer/fall and have been kept refrigerated until I got around to “the rest of the work.”

Once dried, these foods take up very little room. For instance, I still had what amounts to more than a bushel of tomatoes that only half filled a single 2 pound coffee container. Pounds and pounds of beets, carrots, celery, onions, leeks and garlic filled just three quart-size canning jars. But unless you’re making some serious soup or stew from dried ingredients, the food isn’t very palatable in that very brittle form. So for the past week I’ve been doing what needs doing to get all of it into easily consumable form – the way my family likes it, and will serve to add lots of extra tasty oomph to all sorts of foods we’ll be consuming this year from the garden and farmer’s market.

So I got my old Braun coffee grinder out from under the cabinet, cleaned it up good, and put it to work. Washed and removed labels from the many 3 and 5 ounce spice jars I’ve saved (always buy in bulk, glass jars). Some of those have been reused year after year, kind of like Ball jars – they can always be relabeled using paper and Scotch tape. My spice race is full of home-packed and labeled goodies. With my trusty grinder, a strainer and my favorite Japanese lacquer rice bowl I do the time consuming but satisfying job of grinding all those dried goodies into fine powder. I have some nice 8-ounce Tupperware cup things with tight lids I picked up at a yard sale a few years ago, put the powders into these as they’re ground. Tomato powder, beet powder, leek powder, carrot & celery powder, onion and garlic powder, pepper powder (for that I need to wear a kerchief over my mouth and nose, as the powder is quite irritating if you breathe it), greens and herbs powders. These make fine flakes for general use so I save some for that, but for a good table salt, bullion or soup stock, or sprinkle blend they need to be as powdered as the rest of the ingredients. Then from these I concoct my ‘blends’.

People are actually getting quite used to flavoring blends, I see them at the store and these have helped to give me some ideas for my own blends. Sometimes I go ahead and buy some powders if I don’t have enough to round out the collection. You might be surprised by some of the good deals at places like Dollar General or the Family Dollar Store on things like garlic and onion powder, kosher and sea salts, white pepper and whole black peppercorns in quantities larger than what’s along the spice aisle (and outrageously priced) at the grocery store.

The whole trick is to get all the ingredients to the same consistency so they will truly blend together instead of separating into layers. The strainer helps to ensure that. I pour what I’ve ground into the strainer and shake it over the bowl so the finest powder comes through. What’s left goes back to the grinder for more. Eventually just about everything is fine powder (this takes awhile, so be patient), including the salts. I also powdered some dried kelp flakes, and use that in some blends where I don’t really want straight salts (as for a salt substitute table blend) because it is naturally salty because it’s a sea vegetable.

Finally, when everything’s been carefully powdered and sifted into its container, it line up the jars, funnel, measuring spoons, paper, Sharpie pen and Scotch tape for labeling. I like to label ingredients in order of appearance, which gives me a quick idea of what each blend is good for and what else might be added to a dish to round out the flavor I’m going for when cooking.

Had enough tomato powder to bottle 6 ounces into a jar of its own. It will end up going faster than any of the blends, as it adds a very nice tomato punch to just about anything. Straight tomato powder is powerful stuff, you don’t need much to sprinkle on a casserole or salad or dip. Experimentation is a good idea before you go hog wild on this very concentrated powder. The rest has been divvied up. Most as the base powder for my veggie soup broth blend. Which also includes beet, carrot, celery, onion, kale, kelp and basil powders plus salt, black pepper and a bit of red pepper powders. A tablespoon of this blend in boiling water makes a fine vegetable and/or bean soup broth, more for straight beans, or a teaspoonful in a cup of hot water for bullion. I’ll usually add another teaspoon of straight tomato powder, but again you’ll have to experiment.

Leek and garlic salt powders are nice for the table, good on most cooked veggie dishes or cream soups. Tomato with salt and basil flower powder is tasty on any kind of pasta or salad. Tomato with garlic, onion, red and black pepper, lemon rind, tarragon, kelp and salt powder is a must for shaking onto grilled, baked or broiled fish before cooking and at the table. A hot blend of peppers, tomato and salt powder is a great flavoring base for a good barbecue sauce, just shake a spoonful in a jar with a little olive oil and a jigger of vinegar and an equal amount of water, let it sit for a couple of hours before brushing onto what’s being grilled. Some people like a sweet barbecue sauce, you can always add a spoon of brown sugar or blackstrap molasses. Another good additive when you’re barbecuing is a spoonful of mustard, or a half a teaspoon of mustard powder. Barbecue is a strange thing – everybody’s got their favorite sauces and some are definitely way better than others. Again, this is something to practice with. Don’t worry, friends, family and neighbors will invariably be impressed when you brag that the primary base ingredients came from your own garden!

I put off this last step in the dry processing of last year’s bounty because it is quite a lot of work, but when I finally get around to it I enjoy it almost more than I enjoy any other stage of food preservation. It’s fun to feel like a sort of mad scientist or old-timey apothecary mixing up blends and tasting them and adding a little of this or that and then being happy with it. The best part of all is that all this bounty that you took the trouble to grow and dry and grind and mix adds real, honest to goodness nutritional value to anything you use it for, in a much more significant way than commercially processed powders and table blends can boast. And it’s always a good feeling to know that all your work to plant and grow and preserve the food pays off – the nutritional value for you and your family doesn’t go to waste.

Not everyone will want to go to all the trouble to preserve foods this way, but drying keeps much more of the original food value than canning or freezing. Plus, well dried foods have a much longer shelf life – years as opposed to months. Oh, yeah. That brings me around to what was in the freezer that I finished up today… the last of last year’s grapes. I’d frozen them in quart size bags because I didn’t have time to properly process them into jam, thinking I’d get around to that sometime before Christmas. Which I obviously didn’t. So I took out a bag, thawed it a bit and put it into a gallon glass jar with a quarter cup of sugar and filled it with boiling beet water (water with ascorbic acid in it, in which I soaked the sliced beets I finished harvesting last week – beautiful red, slightly sweet. It’s now steeping and cooling on the counter. Tomorrow morning I’ll strain out the grapes, add a little lemon juice and more spring water in two gallon jug and have it for a refreshing iced drink for company this weekend.