An Early July of Biblical Proportions

The first week of July here in the southern Appalachians has been positively diluvian. That means we’ve had so much rain – falling at the rate of 1-2 inches an hour spaced in waves throughout the day and night – that I’ve literally considered that I ought to build an ark. Worst day of all was the 4th of July, which brought more than 6 inches of rain, flooding streets and fields and swelling creeks to dangerous levels. Nearby towns cancelled parades, picnics and fireworks shows. Sun finally came out yesterday, but the creek’s still high.

fruitHowever, with the overdue appearance of old sol in the daytime sky, the fat, well-watered blackberry crop may finally ripen instead of simply mold itself into oblivion. Tomatoes and peppers may kick in at long last as well, you never know. But my issue right now has to do with one of my apple trees that managed to lose its footing in what has become a pure mud-bog. It’s a total loss after only 15 years of production, leaving me with just one producing apple tree. Must get a few new ones or we’ll never have home grown apples again.

One of the kids visiting for the holiday helped me salvage the unripe apples on that tree, hoping I could do something with them despite the fact that they’re three weeks to a month away from ripe. They’re filling three large baskets on the dining table right now, still waiting for me to figure out what I want to do with them.

Now, I could quarter them and cook them down in a big pot, then strain for pectin to use when making jams and compotes later when the peaches, pears, berries and grapes come in, but it seems a waste of my Final Harvest. I could use them for applesauce instead, but they’ll need a lot of sugar. Maybe I’ll make unsweetened sauce and save it in the ‘fridge until the blackberries are ripe, make some combo sauce (will need less sugar). Or I could peel and slice them for drying in my nifty solar dryer – which hasn’t seen service so far this year – then hope against hope that the sun may stay around long enough to do the job. They could be half-dried, then reconstituted in sugar water before drying again for snack bits and/or pie filling. But they’re small, would make very small dried tidbits.

So of course I went looking for crab apple and little green apple recipes, found some intriguing ones. Below are the most promising ones I’ve found. I’ve enough apples to try several methods of preservation, may save the drying for the rest of the crop that’s still growing. Will report on how they turned out, so stay tuned!


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Sweet Wine Poached Apples

1 pound little green apples
1 cup sweet red wine [like Riesling]
1/2 cup white sugar
Pinch of salt
1 orange, sliced crossways
1 bag of mulling spices
or
2 tsp. ground cinnamon or 1 broken cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. ground cloves or 5 whole cloves
1 tsp. Carolina allspice
1/2 tsp. ginger

Wash apples, quarter with skin on and cut out the seeds. Combine the wine, sugar, spices and salt, Bring to a simmer while stirring constantly. When the sugar is completely dissolved, add the orange slices and apple quarters. Cover and turn heat to low. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the apples are tender, just before the skin starts separating.

Remove apples and pack loosely in half pint jars. Strain leftover wine and add this to the jars to 1/2 inch from top. Cap, cool, then refrigerate or freeze. Should keep at least a week in the ‘fridge, several months in the freezer. Serve as appetizers on bamboo skewers or long toothpicks.
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Green Apple/Tomato Chutney

1/2 pound unripe apples
1/2 pound green tomatoes
1 3/4 cup brown sugar
2 onions
4 tsp. turmeric
2 tsp. pickling spices
2 cups plus 2 tbsp. cider vinegar
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. small diced ginger root

Wash apples and tomatoes. Peel and core, dice apples and tomatoes into small cubes. Bring vinegar, sugar, salt and spices into a heavy saucepan and heat on medium while stirring until it comes to a simmer. Add chopped onions, ginger and green tomatoes. Reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Add apple cubes, continue to cook ~10 minutes. Mixture will be reduced and thick.

Cool on stove, then ladle into jars, cap tightly. Keeps about 6 months on the shelf, longer in the fridge.
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Blackberry and Green Apple Jelly

1.5 pounds green apples, quartered
1 cup fresh blackberries
4 cups water
3 cups white sugar
1 tsp. pickling spices (optional)

Place apples and blackberries in a heavy saucepan (do not use aluminum), cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 10-15 minutes until pulp is soft. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, then filter through cheesecloth or coffee filter paper. You want 4 cups of juice, add water if there’s less than that. Compost the pulp and seeds.

Return juice to clean saucepan and bring to a simmer, cook for 10 minutes. Skim off any foam that comes to the top using a wooden spoon. Stir in the sugar until completely dissolved. Continue to cook until the liquid reaches thread stage [220ºF or 110ºC,].

Pour jelly into sterile half pint jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Cap and process 10 minutes in water bath or cool and seal with wax.

Almost Summer

Garden-Greens Vichyssoise
Garden-Greens Vichyssoise

June is upon us, which usually means the spring crops are about done and the summer crops haven’t started producing in abundance yet. So… you’ve taken your morning garden stroll. The corn is a foot high, the tomatoes growing fast but still not blooming, the beans, squash and cukes are up and starting to climb. The potatoes have all shown up and at least now you can remember where the heck you planted them.

You’ve got a big handful of mature kale – the rest will have to be harvested soon before the bugs get it, dried and crumbled to flakes for winter soups. In the basket there are about a dozen pea pods, 4 asparagus spears and some almost bolted red leaf lettuces. What to do, what to do…

Aha! How about a cold end-of-spring soup?

Garden-Greens Vichyssoise

• 2 cups fresh greens – kale, spinach, collards, lettuce
• 3 peeled and cubed potatoes
• 1 cup chopped asparagus and/or shelled peas
• 1/2 cup chopped onion
• 1/4 cup chopped celery tops w/leaves
• 1/ 2 cup chopped mint
• bay leaves
• 2 tbsp. lemon juice
• 2 tbsp. butter
• 6 cups water or broth
• 1 cup whole milk or cream
• Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a heavy soup pot. Add vegetables, mint and bay leaves, cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, until soft. Add water/broth and simmer for 20 minutes until soft. Add milk and then puree until smooth, then add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate and serve cold, garnish with mint sprigs and a drizzle of olive oil.
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On the side I plan to serve up a basket of fried day lily buds, since they are now abundant and and the squash is nowhere near blooming yet…

fried lilies

Fried Day Lily Blossoms

Batter:
• 1 cup flour
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 cup beer
• 1/2 cup ice water
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped

10-12 Fresh picked barely-open day lily blossom buds.

Thoroughly mix the batter, with sage and garlic. Dip flowers into batter and fry in hot vegetable oil until golden brown. Drain well and serve.

This beer batter is also excellent for squash or pumpkin flowers, onion and pepper rings, mushrooms – any type of fresh vegetable coming in from the garden. You can omit the sage and garlic for a more delicate taste.

Looks like dinner to me!

Ginseng: New Research & Income Opportunity

GinsengResearcher Sang-Moo Kang at Georgia State University’s new Institute for Biomedical Sciences reports that ginseng can be used to treat flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). I have touted in this blog the scientifically demonstrated benefits of elderberry preparations as effective anti-virals and immune system stimulants, so am now happy to add ginseng for something more [scientifically] significant than just general tonic, energy-booster and libido stimulant, the traditional uses of ginseng.

Kang joined university and research institute partners in South Korea for a collaborative effort to document the health benefits of ginseng. Which is also purported to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and immune modifying properties.

We all know the health and economic ravages of seasonal influenza, which kills 250,000 to 500,000 people world wide every year. Some of us actually remember stories from our parents and grandparents about the horrific toll of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 to 100 million people. That was 3-5% of humanity, which makes it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Given the viral propensity to mutate until it can best an average immune system, such not-quite critters present a constant hazard for life on planet earth.

Modern medicine, interestingly enough, does not have any kind of pharmaceutical toolkit of defenses against or treatments for viral infections. There’s oseltamivr phosphate [TamiFlu], and that’s about it. It’s not that effective at prevention or treatment, and side-by-side clinical trials during the swine flu epidemic a few years ago had elderberry tincture ahead on both preventing infection and shortening time/lessening severity of infection. The use of plant-based alkaloids and other compounds to promote health and heal illnesses is as ancient as humanity. Modern pharmaceuticals, however, are based on the chemistry of those alkaloids and compounds exclusively, ignoring any and all other compounds found in the plant sources that may aid the efficacy in select applications. Don’t let them fool you – there’s nothing ‘primitive’ or ‘unscientific’ about the knowledge of plant-based pharmacopeias. Just because our ancestors learned by observation and experiment instead of molecular manipulation it doesn’t mean what they learned is any less respectable.

Pruning Grapes and Fruit Trees

It’s into February now – the longest month of the year psychologically, so the shortest month numerically – and pruning the fruit trees and grape vines is the name of the game in my region. Even as we’re facing yet another nasty winter weather ‘event’, this one scheduled to dump a foot or two of snow on top of ice that will no doubt interrupt electrical service and make the animals miserable. Though it should be melted off by the weekend, when we’ll be back to more normal 50+º days. At least it won’t be bone-chilling cold as it was twice last month. Which is good, since we just finished replacing the incoming water pipes due to freezing…

Last spring and summer my region got so much rain that the apples and peaches went crazy. About 20 inches above what is considered ‘normal’ in this microclime, and this microclime ‘normally’ gets a good inch of rain a day (average) from mid-March through June. Anyway, two of my apple trees were so overloaded with heavy fruit that big limbs sank onto the grape arbor, and finally broke off altogether. The peaches – first year the volunteer from a seed in the old compost bin had produced full fruit – ended up with its limbs sunk onto the pumpkin patch, not broken off, but split along the bends. And the grape vines, which daughter had over-pruned the year before so I hadn’t pruned before season, were so thick I had grapes growing on the ground, even as sturdy fence poles supporting the arbor sank low over the upper end of the mints below.

So I’ve got the clippers, loppers, hand saw and chain saw set out on the shed workbench and ready to go to work once the snow’s melted. While grandson and/or hub are armed with the chainsaw, I’m going to finally get rid of the ugly back yard he-holly I’ve been hating for years now, and about half the boxwood out front that blocks way too much sun from the solarium.

Figure I’ll just cut the apple trees in half. They were originally those nifty Stark “columnar” apples I ordered on line nearly 20 years ago and planted too deep. Instead of being a 10-foot tall central, vertical limb with apples all around, they reverted and got 25 feet tall with branches everywhere straight up. Too tall for me to reach, I engineered a hand-claw onto a big plastic drink cup and duct taped it to a long sapling pole so I could pick ripe apples in the upper reaches, but I’m thinking just cutting them short should encourage more low level fruiting. If not, I’ll just take ‘em down and plant new apple trees on the upper terrace above the driveway next year.

The peach is trickier, because ‘m just not sure how to prune it properly. It’s nearly 30 feet tall after 4 years, so I figure it’s probably not a true mini. I’d like to encourage it to be short and thick, though, more spread out but less likely to droop to the ground when full.

I already know that any removed large limbs or portions of upper trunk need to be slant-cut so water won’t stand on the ends to encourage rot, and that I need to paint those cuts to seal them. But planning what cuts to make is a thoughtful job, for which it’s best to follow the advice of agricultural ‘experts’. For that purpose I’ve gathered some good sources – complete with detailed illustrations and instructions – and offer them below. Will take pictures of the before and afters, with more to follow at mid-season and harvest to show how well the project works for what I’m aiming for. Stay tuned, and if you will be pruning your fruit this month or next, please do check out the sources at the links below. They could help salvage older trees/vines, and increase your harvest!

Useful Links:

NC CES: Training & Pruning Fruit Trees
NCSU: How to Prune Peach Trees
Stark Bros.: Successful Fruit Tree Pruning
How to Prune a Grape Vine – Illustrated
Pruning Grapes in Home Gardens: Some Basic Guidelines

Mid-Winter Thoughts: A Continuum of Consciousness

Is Consciousness a Universal Aspect of Life?

harvestingMany years ago, when I was harvesting peppers and tomatoes in my very first yard-garden soon after my husband got out of the navy, a friend and I got into a discussion about the then-current ‘fad’ of talking to plants (and playing them good music) on the assumption that plants must be included on a supposed continuum of consciousness that extends through life itself from the smallest to the greatest. We had just recently given up eating meat in favor of an ovo-lacto vegetarian-like diet, no longer wishing to participate in the industries of mass death represented by the consumption of meat.

My friend asked if I wasn’t also guilty of visiting death upon those poor tomatoes and peppers, if I was willing to accept that a continuum of consciousness did exist. I laughed a little bit, and explained that those tomato and pepper plants I’d raised from carefully tended seed and interacted with regularly as they grew to maturity and fruited had an existence entirely limited by the length of the growing season. They would die regardless of whether or not we ate their fruit, as producing the fruit – and the seeds inside the fruit – was their ‘purpose’ in living at all. And because I cared enough about them to bring them to life from seed and tend them so lovingly, my time-limited tomato and pepper plants would be thoroughly insulted if we didn’t thankfully enjoy their fruit to the nourishment of our longer-lived and far more conscious bodies, perhaps save some seeds toward the perpetuation of their species during the next growing season.

Now, I admit it was a pretty silly conversation. But it was the ’70s, we were just beginning to set out on the path of homesteading and desired self-sufficiency, and plant consciousness was a regular big deal in some corners of the “expanded consciousness” new-agey movement. And truth is, if my family were in dire need of nourishment and it were not readily available for some reason, I’d have no problem killing, cleaning, cooking and eating whatever critter would best serve the need. Even rattlesnakes or lizards (taste like chicken), squirrel, deer, bird of any usable size, etc. Heck, during the Depression my Mom lived on her grandparents’ farm in Georgia because there was no work in Miami for her father. She managed to cut off the end of her finger trying to get the head off a rooster with a hatchet for Sunday dinner, so learned how to ‘flip’ the heads off chickens instead. People will do what they need to do to stay alive. My issue was primarily that I wasn’t willing to raise animals to kill – or kill them – and don’t believe that having some gigantic death industry do it for me so I don’t have to think about it is all that justifiable.

That’s just me, of course. Many homesteaders raise and slaughter their own animal livestock, which I believe to be an honest approach to eating a meat-based diet. Good on them to be willing to so honestly deal with the higher-grade consciousness of animals in that way.

Wild Herbs Endangered By Poaching

wild_herbs[Slide show of poachers from Mountain Express]

My southern Appalachian homestead was originally purchased more than twenty years ago as the high country standard of “13 acres more or less, graded.” That means they took an overhead map (probably one from the USGS with elevation lines), put a 1-acre grid over the top of it, and counted the acres within the boundaries. The fact that it is so steeply graded means there’s a bunch of land that if flattened out, would add greatly to the total acreage. We have walked the land a lot, and the true number is nearly 25 acres, most in thick stands of third-growth temperate hardwood forest. There are a few scattered giants, trees that are at least two hundred years old, but the rest has been logged and/or burned more than once since white folks drove the Cherokee west.

There were large stands of wild ginseng and black cohosh growing on the rich tilth of well-shaded hillside when we got here, and I began the project of re-planting and managing (against invasives) of these valuable medicinal herbs. To a lesser degree we’ve got a smaller stand of introduced goldenseal in the bottomland of the smaller creek across the ridge, and we also occasionally tend collections of other marketable wilding herbs fancied by herb dealers and shop owners. September is the big month, when in my region the roots and herbs are gathered, dried and taken to one of the itinerant licensed herb dealers servicing the region.

As the herb season is in full swing in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, an age-old problem has reared its ugly head as the price for ‘sang (and black cohosh, an at-risk medicinal) has skyrocketed. Poaching.

Last season wild-managed ginseng topped $800 a pound, definitely the “gold standard” among wildings in these parts. It takes a lot of roots to equal a pound dried, and they must be kept intact enough for the dealer to determine their age. Some years ago when wild American ginseng first made it to the endangered plants list, restrictions were imposed to the ability to sell your crop. Wild roots are not marketable at under 5 years or over 15 years. This was done in hopes of salvaging the truly wild stands from poachers, who aren’t shy of who’s land they’re stealing from.

Illegal harvesting of ginseng has become so rampant that the U.S. Forest Service cut the number of 3-pound national forest harvesting permits by 75%, but as much as 90% of diggers don’t bother with permits in the first place.

“Dramatic declines of wild ginseng populations over the past decade suggest previous harvest levels are no longer sustainable,” Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail explained in a June 20 press release announcing the changes. “It is in everyone’s best interest to further limit the amount of the harvest to help ensure the plant’s future sustainability.”

So it is increasingly falling to us rural landholders, if we have the ability and conditions, to preserve this plant to the best of our abilities. Both for our own income purposes as an annual cash crop with careful management, and as preservation of a valuable botanical in its native areas. There are definite plusses for committed homesteaders in putting even the wild areas of our ‘steads into some kind of production that can help support our lifestyles. A good overview of the project comes from NCSU, Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals.

Of course, poaching ginseng on either private or public land is a crime (punishable by fine or prison time, or both). Alas, it is a crime that is seldom prosecuted. Robert Eidus, licensed ginseng dealer and owner of the North Carolina Ginseng & Goldenseal Company, puts it this way…

“I’m allowed to buy from people who steal from other people,” adds Eidus. “It’s the last illegal, sanctioned business in America.”

Ginseng can be – and is in many places – grown in artificially shaded plots and usually sold young. Wisconsin grows about 95% of the farmed ginseng in this country, a $70 million crop for the state. But this ‘sang usually sells for a mere $18 to $24 a pound – nothing close to the $800+ a pound wild ‘sang is earning. If correctly managed there is no discernible difference between forest-managed and truly wild ginseng, though well-managed beds chosen for their thick tilth of forest floor will return larger roots than wildings that may have rooted in shallow tilth or in beds choked with sizable rocks.

Good managers never harvest a root without planting a few small young roots or several seeds. It takes two years for the seeds to sprout, so it’s important to get them before the deer do when they ripen to bright red, and further to discourage deer from foraging where your ginseng is growing. But fear not – even if deer do eat your leaves and seeds one year, the plant will come back next year as long as the root is still in place.

Meanwhile, in my area the N.C. Ginseng Association is actively recruiting homesteaders and landowners for development of more forest managed ginseng crops. Other herb companies in areas where ginseng grows are organizing the same sort of thing, which might offer newcomers to the idea of forest farming some valuable knowledge and physical help to get started. You may end up having to police your own crops for poachers, though, so a little tidbit of wisdom I was taught back during my childhood by a wild ‘sang manager in eastern Kentucky should be kept in mind.

“Don’t tell people about your crop.” Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a dog either. Good for keeping poachers, deer AND bears away! Do give it some thought, consider if your land is suitable for ginseng. And/or black cohosh, goldenseal, spikenard, elder or any other of the increasingly valuable botanicals marketable these days.

Useful Links:

Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals
Botanical Bandits
WildGrown: NC State wildcrafting survey
Cultivation and Marketing of Woodland Medicinal Plants
NC Ginseng Dealers 2013/14 [PDF]

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.
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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.