Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Two Lone Rangers

I don't often post about our chickens, and I definitely don't post multiple times in a week, but I thought I would share a quick snippet from the lives of our two "lone rangers".  
Broody Piggy in the nesting box- notice how she is puffed up.

We have had our three Buff Orpingtons for several years now.  When we moved to the country and incorporated eight more chickens to the mix including one rooster, they all lived happily for a short while.  Then, the rooster, wanting to be the boss that he thinks he should be, began trying to mate with the three Orpingtons.  One of them, Rosie, took to it well enough.  She is quick and can usually get away from his advances, but when she doesn't it's not the end of the world for her.  Another chicken (Piggy), however, was used to being the ring leader among the three, and she did not take well at all to big Al (that's the rooster).  She would escape him each time, and he did not like that one bit.  So, to make a long story short, Al attacked Piggy several times to the point of drawing blood at which point we moved Piggy and her chicken buddy, Chippy, to live on the other side of the coop separated from the others.  One might think they get lonely, but they don't.  They are perfectly happy without the antics of the other chickens and the "leadership" of a male.  In fact, they probably have the best life of any of the chickens.  While the other chickens are enclosed within a portable chicken fence, Piggy and Chippy free range all day.  They don't travel far, but they travel together. 
She is puffing up to tell me to leave her alone.
The problem is that Piggy has a tendency to go broody.  This means that she wants to sit for several weeks on eggs in hopes of hatching chicks (which of course will never happen since she and Chippy do not have contact with Al).    She has been prone to broodiness all her adult life, and in the past we have tried to break her from being broody without much success.  Now that we get plenty of eggs each day and don't miss it if she isn't laying, we leave her be for the most part.  We do try to coax her out of the nesting box when it is extremely hot, and these days we try to get her out at least a few times a day to be with Chippy.  

Chippy camped out under the table saw.
I feel bad for Chippy roaming around on her own.  She has gotten to the point where she just camps out in the shed with the tractor or on the other side under the table saw during the heat of the day, and she will roam a little when Piggy is out.  

The bad thing is that Piggy is nesting in Chippy's favorite box which has led Chippy to lay several eggs under the table saw in the shed.  This is not a habit we want to stick as we don't want to have to go in search of eggs each evening.  So, here's hoping that the broody chicken snaps out of it quickly this time and the two lone rangers can keep doing their thing (together).  

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Non-Stop Summer Week

The garden has been going crazy!  Buckets of tomatoes, loads and loads of zucchini and squash, and melons ripening on the vine.  We had several pumpkin plants at the edge of the garden and we pulled 3 pie pumpkins off of them last week.  At this point, we have preserved almost everything we wanted, and therefore, we are letting the zucchini and squash plants fend for themselves from here on out.  

A pan of produce- we are getting this much every couple of days
We will continue to maintain the tomatoes and melons, but other than that we will buy corn and lima beans to freeze, and we'll call it quits until we plant fall crops.  I have been so pleased with the garden this first year.  I have spent very little money on produce to can and freeze, and that makes it all worth it.  

These were cut in half, and roasted, and then the puree was frozen.
I spent last week canning roasted garlic and herb pasta sauce (our favorite), roasted salsa verde, pickled corn and pintos, sweet pickle relish (more on this to come), tomato salsa using this recipe, and freezing lots of stuff as well. 

I froze 10 quarts of shredded zucchini to use for zucchini bread, and I made 3 batches of zucchini bread and froze those as well. I also froze zucchini in chunks to use in Chicken and Veggie Tostadas and casseroles. Is there any plant more resilient (or annoying) than zucchini?  I swear every time I walk through the garden I come in with an armful of summer squash.   

I did not plant cherry tomatoes, so when I came across a gallon of them at the farmers market for $7, I snapped them up.   I definitely need to add this to my list of things to plant next year.  

I enjoyed some of them on a BLT salad to which I also added fresh corn kernels.  Yum!

The rest I cut in half, tossed with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and dried basil.  I then spread them on sheet pans and roasted them in the oven on 200 degrees for a couple of hours until they were chewy and most of the moisture had evaporated.  They are so sweet like little tomato candies.  I packaged them in pint containers and froze them.  I will use them in pasta and sauces throughout winter.   

I had a half row of basil plants in the garden which gave me enough to use in my pasta sauce and plenty to make pesto.  I ended up making about 4 batches using this recipe with each batch being quadrupled in volume (I used slivered almonds instead of pecans this year).  I froze some in 4 oz containers because one container is perfect for a pizza or pasta meal.  The rest I froze in ice cube trays. 

My projects for the next few days involve canning crushed tomatoes.  I already have them peeled and in the fridge waiting on me.  I also have a peck of peaches in the fridge waiting to be made into jam and maybe a few jars of peaches in syrup.  

We also (finally) took a trip somewhere. We have not been on vacation since moving to the country, and I was dying to go somewhere if only for a day.  We went to Valle Crucis and spent the day browsing antique shops, general stores, and eating at a fabulous restaurant.  I snapped a picture of the flower beds in front of the restaurant.  They have winter squash and melons planted among the flowers.  I just love that! 

Next week, I will pressure can some of our potato harvest.  Some of them are not storage quality, and I will peel them and can them to use in mashed potatoes and soups.  I will also put up 2 bushels of corn, and pressure can a batch of chicken stock.  After that, I hope to be done for a while. 

We had the potatoes on the counter to let the dirt dry a little while we found a large enough washtub to store them in temporarily.

Preserving foods is a lot of work but so worth it.  It makes meal planning and prep so much easier later in the year, and most importantly we know where our foods come from and how they were grown.  



Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Blackberry Pie

The Fourth of July makes me think of fruit.  Fruit pies to be exact.  And I love homemade pie more than any other dessert in the whole wide world.  So, with summer blackberries in the orchard and the summeriest holiday of all coming up, I have been fiddling with a blackberry pie recipe.  

Pie with homemade crust but berries left whole

I wanted a blackberry pie recipe with a lattice crust because I wanted to see the filling through the top, but I also wanted there to be plenty of flaky crust to go with the filling.  I also wanted a pie with good texture, some whole blackberries, but one that was oozing with gooey goodness all at the same time.  Most of all, I wanted a filling that held together when cut.  I love all pie, but I think a slice of pie should look like a slice of pie when cut.  

I started with a recipe that I thought sounded good, but I used my own all-butter pie crust recipe instead of the suggested crust.  When I made the filling the first time, I did not mash the berries but rather just tossed them with the flour, sugar, and nutmeg.  This resulted in a pie with an incredibly flaky crust but a somewhat gluey filling.  The pie did hold together, but the filling was too chunky, and the flour had not had enough liquid to mix with to create the gooey filling I wanted.  

Pie with store-bought crust but slightly mashed berry filling
So, I decided to make the pie again.  I had the crust just where I wanted it, so the second time I made the pie I made it with a store bought crust to save myself some effort since I was just playing around with the filling at that point.  I left all the ingredients and amounts in the filling the same, but I worked on determining how much to mash the berries.  I found after playing around with this pie, that you just want to mash the berries enough so that they create a little juice.  You want enough juice to incorporate the flour and sugar completely, but you still want plenty of whole berries and berry pieces to add texture.  The pie holds together beautifully when cut but is not at all gluey.  

I would like to continue to test this recipe with different thickeners such as Clear Jel, but for now I am pretty happy with it the way it is.  I will make this pie again this weekend, but this time, I will use my homemade pie crust and the slightly mashed berry filling.  It's going to be delicious!

Blackberry Pie- makes 1 lattice topped pie

A note on fruit pies...if you want a fruit pie to hold together when sliced, it is important to allow it to cool completely.  This allows the filling to set so it will not run when cut.  

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting counter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
2 sticks cold butter, cut into small pieces
approximately 4 tbsp ice cold water

1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
6 cups fresh blackberries
a pinch of nutmeg
1 egg white

To make the pie crust, combine flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to blend.  You can also mix the dough by hand.  Add the butter to the processor and pulse several times until it resembles coarse crumbs.  Alternately, cut in the butter using a pastry blender.  Add the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together and forms a ball. Divide the dough into two equal pieces, flatten into disks, and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill the dough for about an hour.  

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  

Remove one pie crust from the refrigerator.  Lightly dust a surface with flour and roll the pie crust into an 11 inch circle and place it in a 9 inch pie pan.  

Make the filling by tossing the berries with the flour, 3/4 cup of sugar, salt, and nutmeg.  Use the back of a spoon or a potato masher to gently mash the berries until they begin to give off juice but most remain whole.  Stir the filling to incorporate the flour and sugar.  Pour the filling into the pie crust.  

Remove the second crust from the refrigerator.  Roll it into an 11 inch circle on a floured surface.  Use a sharp knife or a pizza cutter to cut the circle into strips that are 3/4 to 1 inch wide.  Arrange the strips over the filling in a lattice pattern.  Tuck the edges of the crust under to secure the strips to the bottom crust and crimp the edges.  Brush the lattice strips with the egg white and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar.  

Place the pie on a baking sheet (to catch drips) and bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees.  Lower heat to 350 degrees and continue baking 30 minutes.  Remove pie from oven and allow to cool completely.   

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Cherries Galore

I recently became the proud owner of 40 pounds of cherries thanks to some kind folks over at Sweet Preservation and the Washington State Fruit Commission.  I was asked several weeks ago via email if I would like to receive a box of fruit to can, and I said yes (of course) because who turns down free fruit?!  Well, little did I know that a "box" of fruit would really be two twenty pound boxes of the ripest, most perfect sweet cherries.  

Now, normally I can what's in season here in my part of the world, and that does not include cherries.  In fact, I have never purchased cherries that were grown here in NC, and I am not even sure that they can grow here (maybe in the mountains), so my hours of cherry canning experience totaled zero.  I was very excited to get to experience fruit that I had never dealt with before, and to have access to something different.  The problem I faced was trying to find ways to use all those cherries!

So, I immediately got on Amazon and purchased this cherry pitter because, of course, I had no reason to own one before that day. It did the job fairly well, but it takes a really long time to pit 40 pounds of cherries.  It would have taken less time if I had purchased a pitter that would allow a quicker flow of cherries into the chute and out again.  This one said it would, but ultimately, the cherries were so large and juicy that I had to place them just right in the chute so that it actually removed the pit and not just the side of the cherry. 

I decided to try several recipes and methods of preserving them.  I made a small batch (4 pints) of pickled cherries, 4 pints of cherries in amaretto liqueur following this recipe (I did process them for 25 minutes rather than 15 though as that is the standard processing time for raw pack cherries in syrup), and another 5 pints of cherries in syrup using the same syrup as for the amaretto cherries but omitting the liqueur.  

I also dried two quarts after pitting them which gave me about a quart of dried cherries for salads, sauces, etc, and I froze five quarts of pitted cherries for later use in pies and desserts.  All in all, barely a cherry went unused, and I was pretty proud of myself for going through them all.  

I have opened a jar of the cherries in syrup, and they are tasty.  I know the others will be as well.  Oh, and I almost forgot, I also used two quarts of crushed cherries to start a batch of Cherry Bounce.  Cherry Bounce is made with crushed cherries, sugar, and bourbon.  You let the cherries sit in the fridge for 3-4 weeks, and then you use the liquid as a mix in for lemonade, tea, or even to deglaze the pan when making a sauce for pork chops.  I'll let you know how it turns out once it is finished.  

For now, I hope you enjoy this recipe for pickled cherries.  You can adjust the spices in the jar as you wish.  I used a cinnamon stick, but peppercorns, whole cloves, or whole allspice would work also.  You can also use white vinegar if you prefer.  I used the apple cider vinegar for a sweeter, fruitier pickle.  

One word of caution, some recipes called for gently pricking the cherries before putting them in the jar while others did not.  Since the cherries are processed whole with pits and stems still intact, the idea of pricking is that the cherry skin will not split as easily.  I took the lazy route and tried without pricking, and some of the skins did split.  I don't mind that because I'm going to the one eating them, but if you plan to give them as a gift or serve them for a special occasion, you may want to prick each cherry once on the bottom before placing it in the jar.  

Sweet Pickled Cherries- makes 3 pints

A few notes on this recipe.  You may choose whatever whole spices you like, but don't change the amount or strength of the vinegar.  I also increased the pickling liquid by half so that I would have a little more which is how I ended up with 4 pints rather than 3.  

1 3/4 cups apple cider vinegar
1 3/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
3 cinnamon sticks
2 pounds sweet cherries with stems and pits intact

Prepare your jars and lids.  Jars should be kept warm in the canner.    

Combine vinegar, sugar, and water in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil and simmer until sugar is dissolved. 

Remove hot jars from canner.  Pack each jar with cherries, and add one cinnamon stick to each jar.  Pour hot syrup over cherries leaving 1/2 inch headspace.  Wipe jar rims and place lids and rings on each.  Process 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.  Remove jars from canner and cool. 



Sunday, June 14, 2015

Baseball Bats from the Garden

Last week was a very busy one, and in all my other tasks, my garden got a little overlooked.  Yesterday my husband went out to pick veggies while I was canning (more on that later), and he came in with the most gigantic zucchini I have ever seen in my life.  Who knew you could grow a zucchini with the diameter of a baseball bat and a length almost as long?!

He then called me out to help him pick,  and when all was said and done, we picked 10 pounds of zucchini (some were good size while others had gotten too large), 6 pounds of cucumbers (some of these were large also), a few pounds of yellow squash, and some zinnias.  

I will still use most of the large vegetables, but I will remove the seeds first.  The large zucchini will most likely get shredded and frozen for zucchini bread, but the baseball bat zucchini may get donated to the chickens.  I'm not even sure they will appreciate it, so it may contribute to the compost bin after that. 

I will post very soon regarding my latest canning project.  I'll give you a involves a fruit I have never canned before and lots of it!  Do you think you can guess what it is?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Canning Inventory 2015

Each year as I can and freeze foods, I keep track of the amounts in a small notebook as well as in the What's Preserved section on the side of my blog.  This is helpful on several levels.  Not only does it make me feel good to see my efforts pan out over the course of the summer, but more importantly, it helps me determine how much of each item we used over the year.  This is very important in helping me determine how much of something I want to put up the next year.  This year, I also started a Harvest section in the same notebook to keep track of how many pounds/pints/quarts/etc. of each item we harvested so we can plan how much to plant next year.  

Zinnias from the garden
Our garden is doing well so far.  Our tomato plants are loaded with unripe tomatoes.  Our squash, zucchini, and cucumbers are already giving us lots of tasty treats, and we harvested our red potatoes last weekend.  I am already freezing zucchini and squash in both shredded and chopped forms, and I am going to make a batch of pickles this week.  The plan is to eat the red potatoes fresh over the next few months, and to pressure can many of the white ones once they are harvested.  

We have a shelf area in our mud room which houses most of our canned goods as well as a small chest freezer in which we store all of our vegetables.  Here's what is left from last year.

Canned Goods: 

  • 2 pt green beans, pressure canned
  • 1 pt pasta sauce
  • 2 pt chili garlic dills pickles
  • 2 pt corn poblano salsa
  • 6 pt crushed tomatoes
  • 4 half-pt Concord grape jam
  • 1 half-pt plus 3 (4 oz) jars peach jam
  • 3 half-pt apple wine jelly 
  • 13 half-pt scuppernong jam
  • 7 qt blueberries
  • 2 qt whole figs
  • 2 qt blackberries
  • 1 pt pumpkin puree
  • 2 qt shredded zucchini
  • 3 qt crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 qt pesto cubes
  • 2 qt turkey stock
  • 2 pt chicken stock
  • 1 pt pasta sauce
  • 13 pt corn kernels
  • 3 gal whole strawberries
  • 7 qt crowder peas
  • 1 gal plus 1 qt chopped zucchini/squash
Once I have compiled a list like this, I try to analyze it to see what we used and what we didn't.  We didn't use as many berries or crushed tomatoes as we have in the past which means I can get away with putting up less this year.  My list also reminds me that I am much more likely to use things like chicken stock, pasta sauce, and tomatoes when I have canned them rather than frozen them.  I think that is because those are things I tend to reach for at the last minute, and when they are frozen I don't prep them in time.  We also used less corn than in the past, but to be honest the variety we purchased last year wasn't our favorite which I think led to less corn side dishes.  We will try to purchase Silver Queen corn this year which is our favorite.  We also need to find other uses for the scuppernong and muscadine grapes in addition to jam.  We used all of them for jam last year, and even though it was good, we tend to prefer Concord grapes for jam.  We gave some away and ate some, but there has to be another use for the grapes.  We will search for something.  

There were several things that we really ate lots of and need to make more of this year including pasta sauce and salsa (!!!).  We also need to make salsa verde which we didn't make last year but are now out of, and we want to try our hand at pressure canning any potatoes that aren't storage quality so that we can add them to soups, stews, or mash them throughout the winter.  

In addition to all of this, I put up some things we have never put up in the past, and it will be interesting to see how we like them over the course of the year.  I have frozen sugar snap peas, broccoli, and kale so far. 

If you haven't been keeping a canning notebook and list of preserved items, I definitely encourage you to start.  It is most helpful and you will appreciate your efforts so much when you get into the canning mood this summer.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Foam and Two Types of Strawberry Jam

It is nearing the end of strawberry season here, and we picked up what we will probably be our last berries on Monday.  We have been getting a gallon or so a week to eat fresh and to make jam.  We also pureed a gallon and a half and made fruit leather in my new dehydrator (more on that later).  

When it comes to strawberry jam, I am a bit of a purist.  I like flavors in other jams like cardamom pear, gingered peach, and apple pie jam, but when it comes to strawberry I just want to taste strawberry.  I have gone the strawberry vanilla jam route without added pectin before, and even though it was good, the longer cooked jam and the vanilla took away some of the fresh taste that I love about strawberry jam.  So, I go the purchased pectin, classic recipe route when it comes to strawberry, and I am perfectly happy with that.   Over the years I have learned to preserve what we like best and what we will eat because ultimately (even though it may be fun), that's the point.  

I did decide to make some strawberry freezer jam this year though.  Freezer jam is not cooked, and therefore, it retains all of its bright, fresh flavor.  I froze the jam in pint containers, and it is delicious.  I wish I had added a little more pectin though because my berries were pretty ripe that day, and they prevented my freezer jam from setting up as much as I would have liked.  It is still spreadable, but could have been a little thicker.  I am thinking it will be just as delicious over yogurt as it will be on toast.  

All in all I put up 11 half-pints of canned strawberry jam and 5 pints of strawberry freezer jam.  

While I am posting about strawberry jam, I wanted to address the foam on jam issue.  If you have ever made cooked jam, you have most likely experienced a thick layer of foam on top as the jam cooks.  The directions in recipes will tell you that you can prevent some of this foam from forming by adding a little butter to the jam as it cooks.  I never do this, but that leaves me with foam to skim off.  

Foam on jam just after removing the pot from the heat

There are several reasons you want to skim the foam from jam, and even though I know some people who don't bother, I think good jam making practice says otherwise. First of all, as the jam cooks and air bubbles up forming the foam on top, the foam takes on a different appearance, consistency, and texture from the rest of the jam.  It is still tasty, but it is light and airy, not like jam.  It creates color variations in the finished jam if added in, and you will be able to visibly tell that you left it in.  This may not matter so much if you are just using the jam yourself, but if you plan to give it as a gift, enter it in a fair, etc. it will just be better aesthetically without it.  

Second, canning experts like those at the Missouri Cooperative Extension bring up a potential safety reason to remove foam.  They say that since the foam is made mostly of air, if you add the foam into the jar you are essentially increasing the head space in the jar.  This could lead to improper seals or jams that mold more easily.  While I don't think you will ever get sick from jam with foam (unless you eat visibly moldy jam), it could mean that your jam will not last as long, and let's face it, no one wants that.  So, when faced with foam, remove it by skimming a large, clean spoon lightly along the surface of the jam once the heat is removed.  Place the foam in a bowl and repeat until most of the foam has been removed.  The foam can then be eaten on toast or refrigerated for a few days while the rest of the jam is canned. 

Foam on jam after sitting for a minute or so-  you can see the difference in color between the lighter red foam and darker red jam and berries. 

I personally find that strawberry jam produces more foam than most other types of jam.  I'm not sure why this is the case, but I find I do more skimming with strawberry than any other.  If you make freezer jam, you may see a little foam at first (like in my pictures at the top), but that foam is different from foam on cooked jam. It will dissipate as the jam sets over that 30 minute period.   

Strawberry season is such a fleeting season here.  We look forward to it all year, and it is gone before we know it.  Preserving some in the form of jams, leathers, and even freezing them ensures we have the taste of strawberries year round, and for that, and I am grateful.  

picture from previous 2013 post on Strawberry Jam

For the canned Strawberry Jam recipe and directions, visit my page from a few years ago.  I use the same one.  I did, however, make 11 jars this year, so I adjusted my ingredients for a 10 jar batch (you don't want to do more than this at one time as it can prevent the jam from setting up).  If you wish to make 10 jars, follow the same procedures as on my previous post, but use the following quantities instead.  For 10 jars, you will use 6 2/3 cups crushed strawberries, 7 1/2 tablespoons pectin, and 8 1/3 cups sugar.  

Strawberry Freezer Jam- makes 6 half-pints (or 3 pints)

5 cups crushed strawberries
2 cups sugar
6 Tbsp Instant Pectin (for freezer jam)

In a large bowl, stir sugar and pectin together.  Add crushed strawberries and stir 3 minutes.  Ladle into freezer containers and allow to sit at room temperature 30 minutes.  Freeze or enjoy fresh.