Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas in Our New Home

It feels like forever since my last post, and it has been a long time.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday with family and friends.  

Dining Room Tree
Since I never posted before Christmas, I thought I would do a post now to show a few glimpses of our holiday in our new home and to share a few recipes we've enjoyed over the past few weeks.  Unfortunately, in the bustle of the holiday, I did not take as many pictures of food as I should have, so I'm posting the links and the pictures from the sites so you can see what they should look like. I will also post some images of our home decorated for the holidays because even though it still needs so much work, it is home now and being in it made for a wonderful Christmas season.  

Usually Christmas is a time of travel for us, going to my family home and my husband's (both over two hours from our current home and three hours away from one another), but this year was different.  We did travel to my family for Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day was spent in our own home with my husband's family visiting us.  It was nice to be home on Christmas. 

Christmas table set with my grandmother's Christmas dishes.

Our Christmas Day was very cozy with lots of twinkling lights, glowing candles, and a fire (built by my father-in-law) in the fireplace as the temperature became crisp outside.  

A glimpse of the porch before the wind blew me back inside.
We enjoyed a casual dinner of Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce, Ricotta, and Mozzarella, a simple salad, and garlic bread.

Dessert was this Brownie Pudding from Ina Garten.  If you have never tried Brownie Pudding, you must.  It is gooey, almost like brownie batter inside, but it has a crisp, chewy crust on top.  With ice cream, it is delectable.  My in-laws all brought yummy snacks, and my sister-in-law brought a chocolate chess pie similar to this one (yum!).  

Brownie Pudding 

I also hosted a cookie swap the week before Christmas which I have done for the past few years.  It was a little different this year because we opted to bring unbaked cookie dough to freeze rather than bake all of our cookies.  I am really looking forward to being able to bring out cookie dough whenever I need it over the next few months.  

Our Christmas "bush" on an old trunk in the living room.  It is decorated with my grandmother's antique glass ball and teardrop ornaments. 

The cookie swap dinner consisted of Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon baked into individual ramekins, topped with whipped potatoes, and broiled until crisp on top.  The salad recipe was really tasty. I followed this recipe from Williams-Sonoma for a Spinach, Pear, and Pomegranate Salad, but I used a baby kale blend in place of spinach and candied walnuts in place of toasted ones.  It will definitely be making a reappearance soon.  

Image Credit

I also made a Dark Chocolate Peppermint Tart from Bon Appetit.  I didn't have the patience for the decorative whipped topping, so I just mounded mine on, but it was delicious nonetheless.  Unfortunately, after we ate our fill, I was putting the rest in the refrigerator, and it slid right off the cake plate and onto the floor.  It was frustrating, but the dog really enjoyed licking up the residue later.  

The crust is filled with dark chocolate ganache and sprinkled with crushed peppermint candy. 

Then it is topped with peppermint whipped cream and more crushed candy.  I used half the whipped cream recipe, and it was plenty. 

Now that Christmas is over, it is difficult to think of taking down the decorations and getting back to "normal".  Christmas is such a magical time, and the decorations make everything so warm and cozy.  So, rather than think of it ending, I am going to savor one last evening by the fire and curl up to watch Meet Me in St. Louis while enjoying a cup of hot tea.    


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Slow Cooked Pork Roast with Spicy Asian Sweet Potatoes

First of all, let me start out by saying that I am not a photographer.  The pictures of food on my blog sometimes leave something to be desired.  In addition, when you're trying to take photos of food at night before you actually eat said food, it is even worse because the light quality is so poor.  That being said, I decided to post this anyway because the recipe was really good, and it was a more unique recipe for a slow cooker.  

I have been trying to find good recipes for my slow cooker for a long time.  Often, I find that the slow cooker washes out the flavor of the ingredients and leaves me with a meal that was convenient yet bland or mushy.  The best slow cooker recipes tend to be those that require lots of prep which, let's face it, defeats the purpose of a slow cooker.  

So, a while back I was browsing in Williams-Sonoma and saw their cookbook, The New Slow Cooker.  I came home, ordered it from Amazon (it was cheaper that way) and have cooked a few recipes from it.  I like that the recipes are different, require some but not tons of prep, and have sauces or toppings to jazz things up a bit.  

This particular recipe was pretty tasty and proved to be versatile.  I prepped the pork which included browning it along with some aromatics the night before.  I then put the pork into the slow cooker insert and refrigerated it overnight.  The next morning, I popped the insert into the slow cooker base and cooked it all day while I was at work.  That evening, I made the Asian Vinaigrette for the sweet potato chunks while they roasted in the oven.  When done, I mixed everything together with some fresh cilantro and dinner was ready quickly and without much mess or fuss.  

We ate this meal several different times, once with steamed veggies on the side, once as leftovers, and once in a quesadilla with cheddar cheese.  All were yummy and made good use of the pork roast. This would also be excellent with rice or served in a hamburger bun with or without a little barbecue sauce.  

A few notes on this recipe...the original version called for butternut squash instead of sweet potato.  I used the sweet potato because that's what I had on hand.  I used dry sherry rather than sake, white wine, or vermouth because that's what I had.  I also omitted the basil because I didn't have any, but I did have some cilantro hanging around so I added that for a pop of color and flavor.  I used a pasture raised pork roast which had a fairly thick fat cap.  I trimmed most of the fat off before cooking.  If you are using a roast from the grocery, you may not need to trim as much.  

Pork Roast with Spicy Asian Sweet Potatoes- serves 6

This recipe is adapted from The New Slow Cooker.  

3 lb pork roast (I used one with a bone but you can use boneless instead)
salt and pepper
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp dry sherry (original called for dry sake, white wine, or vermouth)
1/2 cup chicken stock 
1 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 recipe Asian Lime Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Asian Vinaigrette- makes 1/2 cup

2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
juice of 1 lime 
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp peeled, minced ginger
1/4 tsp sugar
2-3 drops Sriracha sauce

For the vinaigrette:  Mix everything together except the olive oil.  Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking until it is well blended.  

For the pork and sweet potatoes: Season the pork with salt and pepper.  Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet on medium high heat.  Add pork and brown well on all sides.  Transfer pork to the insert of a slow cooker.  

Pour most of the fat from the skillet and return to the heat. Add the onion and cook 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more.  Pour in the sherry and scrap up the browned bits from the skillet.  Stir in the stock and pour the contents over the pork.  Cover and cook on low for 8-9 hours.  

Before you are ready to serve the pork, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Toss the sweet potato cubes with olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper.  Roast, stirring several times, for 20-25 minutes until they are tender and brown on the edges.  Transfer to a bowl.  Add the cilantro and vinaigrette and toss to coat evenly.  

Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let rest while you finish the sweet potatoes.  Skim the fat from the liquid in the slow cooker.  Shred the pork.  Spoon some of the braising liquid over the meat.  Toss the pork and sweet potatoes together gently.  Serve.  

Printable Version

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October Randomness: Part Two

As October continues, my to-do list grows.  I wish I had days at home so that I could spread my list out over the course of the week rather than trying to cram it all into the weekends.  I would like to have a chat with the person who invented the five day work week.  

Now for the rest of the October random happenings...

We are still working away with our one little bee hive.  The bees in the hive seem to be doing well as far as we can tell.  We found a couple of emergency queen cells but were told that this is normal (you can see it on the right side of the frame in the picture).  They have used most of the honey stores they had put up, so we are feeding them a 2:1 sugar syrup right now to help them prepare for winter.  We will definitely be investing in a few more hives come spring as well as splitting this one.    

On a completely separate note, I decided on a whim to enter a few items into the county fair, and was so excited to win a blue and red ribbon for these pickles and this apple butter respectively.  I also entered a jar of green beans but didn't win anything for those.  I was so surprised as I had absolutely no hope for winning, but it was so much fun I think I'm hooked.

A wall of canned goods at the county fair

I had one jar of apple pie filling left and decided to make a pie with it the other night.  I had four of these pie crusts in the freezer, so I thawed one and used it as the bottom crust.  Then I spread a jar of this pie filling into it before topping it with a crumb topping made of 3/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, and 1/3 cup butter.  I cut the butter into the dry ingredients using a pastry blender until it resembled coarse crumbs.  I then sprinkled it on top and baked the pie at 375 degrees for 50 minutes.  It was easy and yummy although I do wish it had browned a little more.  Again, I'm blaming this on my horrible oven.  Let's just say I can't wait to get a new one.  It did make me realize that I need to put up more pie filling as it makes for a super easy dessert when you're short on time.  

I have plans this month to make pork stock from some bones I've had in the freezer since spring along with some apple butter and pie filling from apples we got back in August.  I also want to plant some fall pansies and kale outside, and I'll keep you posted on the chickens and bees.  Happy October!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

October Randomness: Part One

Fall is finally here, although some days it is still reaching into the low 90s.  Today was a cool, misty day, but I loved every minute of it because it was the first weekend day in weeks that has not been filled up in some way for us.  We relaxed, cleaned the house, and I canned chicken stock I had been working on since Friday evening.  Our weeks have been busy and random as we try to take care of several different things all at once.  

Before I get into what we've been up to, let me tell you that I have started making chicken stock in the slow cooker.  A foodie friend of mine turned me onto it, and it is so much easier.  I still save my chicken scraps and carcasses in the freezer until I have enough for stock, but rather than simmering it on the stove for hours, I put half of the scraps in the slow cooker along with carrot, celery, and onion, and I cook it on low heat through one night and one day.  Then I remove 2/3 of the stock (but leave everything else in there), add the other half of the chicken scraps, and fill again with fresh water.  It cooks on low throughout that night and the next day until the afternoon when I am ready to pressure can.  It means I can make stock while I'm doing other things, and I think the stock is even more rich and flavorful.  I strain several times before pressure canning according to these directions.  

Okay, now to some of the randomness of the month...

Fall means mums, Indian corn, and pumpkins.  I know I have lots of weeds and things aren't perfect, but I had to put some fall decorations out anyway.  The mums have flowered more for me this year than in the past, and they look lovely next to the light orange pumpkin I picked up from a house out in the country where the owner grows fields of pumpkins and squash.  This pumpkin has developed a spot on the back and is soon destined for the chickens who will enjoy it immensely.  

We have been working hard on our other house in the city and finally sold it about two weeks ago.  It was a little bittersweet having been our first house and our home for so many years, but I know the people who bought it will love it just as much as we did, and it's nice to be able to focus on our new home now.  The worst part was leaving my little chicken coop behind (we had three chickens there), but the new owner plans to get a little flock of her own. 

Speaking of chickens, I think they are perfectly happy here in the country.  They love to get out and peck around in the weeds and grass.  They especially love to get into the flower bed (it needs work anyway) to get bugs and worms. We are getting ready to purchase some mobile poultry netting so that we can move them around the property to forage when we are home.  They are hard workers, giving us about eight eggs a day (from ten hens).  

Al, the rooster, is still in with the girls and is still acting like a gentleman most of the time.  He is very large and handsome, and he doesn't mind us unless we are messing with his flock.  

Finally, I tried a recipe for challah bread.  I used to make challah sometimes, but had not made it in years.  I used a recipe from The Fresh Egg Cookbook. The bread was easy, used several eggs (which was why I chose to make it) and tasted delicious.  It also made three loaves one of which is in my freezer waiting for an occasion when I need a loaf of fresh bread.  I will say that I had a little problem with the baking time which is listed as an hour.  My bread was beginning to burn a little on the bottom after about 40 minutes and was done, so I took it out.  It could have been the recipe but it just as easily could have been the horrible, no-good oven I'm forced to work with right now until we have time to make some much needed changes in this new kitchen of ours. If you bake the bread, set your timer for 30 minutes and check it every 10 minutes after that to make sure it doesn't get too brown.  You may need the entire baking time or you may be like me and need to take it out early. 

I'll post part two with the rest of the randomness a few days from now.  Until then, enjoy the fall weather!

Challah Bread- makes 3 loaves 
(slightly adapted from The Fresh Egg Cookbook)

2 packs active dry yeast
2 cups warm water
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup sugar
4 tsp kosher salt
4 eggs (3 beaten together, 1 beaten separately to be used as an egg wash)
7 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

Dissolve the yeast in the water in a large bowl.  Stir in oil, sugar, salt, and 3 beaten eggs.  Stir in half the flour, then mix in the remaining flour until make a soft, pliable dough.  

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, 8 minutes, or knead using the dough hook of an electric stand mixer.  Place in a greased bowl, turning to grease the top, cover, and let rise 1 1/2 hours until doubled in size.  

Line three baking sheets with parchment paper.  Separate dough into three equal pieces.  Working with one piece at a time, divide dough in thirds.  Roll each third by hand into a strand 12 inches long and arrange them on a work surface pointing toward you.  Pinch the three strands together at the top end and braid the strands working toward you.  Pinch the bottom ends together and turn them under to secure them.  Place the loaf on a prepared sheet.  Repeat with the other two braids.  

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Let braids rise 30 minutes.  Gently brush each loaf with the remaining beaten egg and bake for 1 hour (watch this carefully as you may need to bake less time) until nicely brown on top.  

Printable Version

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bread

I am a so-so fan of quick breads.  Some are really good while others seem very one-note to me and don't appeal to me that much.  The ones I like most are moist in the center with a crust on the outside and contain some type of ingredient (either nuts, chocolate, fruit, or a cream cheese ribbon like a friend of mine adds to her breads) to break things up a bit. 

My absolute favorite quick bread is filled with zucchini and semi-sweet chocolate chips.  It is sweet and gooey with chocolate, and while you can see the zucchini, the texture of it does not come through.  It just makes the batter oh-so-moist.  I have substituted blueberries for the chocolate, and it was yummy that way as well although I remain partial to the chocolate version.  This bread is fabulous as a snack, dessert, or even for breakfast, and one loaf will last, well wrapped on the counter, about a week.  The bread also freezes really well, and since the recipe makes two loaves, I make a batch every week or so and freeze the extra loaf for later.  I also freeze shredded zucchini in three cup increments to use to make this bread when zucchini is not in season.  

The recipe comes from Very Best Baking and is very similar to another favorite of mine from that site, Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins.  

So, if you're overrun with zucchini this time of year or just find a great deal on it at the farm market, whip up a batch and try it for yourself.  This bread is also a great way to use eggs when you find yourself with too many to handle. 

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bread- makes two loaves

This bread is from Very Best Baking, and I do not alter the ingredients at all except that I add regular size chocolate chips rather than mini.  For a picture of it with mini chocolate chips, click the link to the original recipe.  The recipe calls for baking 60-70 minutes, but I usually begin checking it after 55 minutes to ensure that it does not over bake.  It is usually ready around the 60 minute mark.   

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 
1 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour 
2 teaspoons baking soda 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1/4 cup butter, softened 
3/4 cup granulated sugar 
3/4 cup packed brown sugar 
4 large eggs 
3/4 cup vegetable oil 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
3 cups shredded zucchini (about 3 medium zucchini) 
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350ยบ F. Grease and flour two 8 x 4-inch loaf pans.
Combine all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar in large mixer bowl until well combined. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in oil and vanilla extract. Stir in flour mixture just until moistened. Fold in zucchini and chocolate chips. Divide mixture between loaf pans.
Bake for 60 to 70 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Run knife around the edges of pans. Remove from pans; cool completely on wire racks. 

Printable Version


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Freezing Crowder Peas

I grew up eating field peas all the time.  My family (and practically every other family I knew) put up field peas and snaps to have during the winter months.  The field peas I grew up with (I don't know the exact variety) were green when fresh but brown and creamy when cooked and produced a richly flavored broth.  I love them served with other veggies and meat, but I can make a meal out of them alone.  

This year, I have not been able to get any peas from back home, but I stumbled across crowder peas at the farm market yesterday.  Crowder peas cook up similar to the peas I usually put up but they are a little larger in size and are tighter together in the pod which means they have dips and dimples.  

I bought a bushel basket of crowder peas and spent yesterday evening shelling them, and this morning was spent blanching them and readying them for the freezer.  Now when the few quarts of field peas we have left from last year run out, we will have yummy crowder peas in the freezer to take their place.  

My favorite way to cook field peas is to place them in a pot, cover them with water, and add a little bacon grease or olive oil to the pot.  I bring them to a boil and then reduce them to a simmer, allowing them to simmer uncovered until they are tender and creamy but not falling apart (anywhere from 30-45 minutes).  Then I season them with salt and pepper and simmer them a few more minutes.  You can also get fancy with a chunk of country ham, a ham hock or small ham bone, or other meat seasoning of choice.  The simpler the better for me though.  Served with crunchy fried cornbread to dunk or spooned over cornbread or rice (with maybe a sliced tomato on the side), they are a meal all their own.  

Freezing Crowder Peas (or other field peas)- makes approx. 7 quarts

1 bushel field peas in the shell (30 pounds)
freezer container or bags (quart size or other size of choice)

Remove the peas from the shells, discards shells, and wash peas thoroughly.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Place peas into boiling water in several batches.  Blanch each batch for 2 minutes.  Remove peas from boiling water and place in an ice bath until cool.  Drain peas to remove excess liquid.  Fill quart bags or containers, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.  Place containers in the freezer.   

Printable Version

Monday, September 1, 2014

Muscadine and Scuppernong Jam

When we moved onto this property several months ago, there were three sets of established grapevines.  One set is growing up and over an arbor and has a mixture of muscadine (purple) and scuppernong (bronze) grapes.  One is trellised and we think grows bronze grapes, but it is so overgrown that there are only a few grapes on it this year.  Our plan is to cut it back later this year and allow it to come back out over time.  The third is a single vine of Concord grapes left over from a trellis that the previous owner attempted to cut down.  They weren't completely successful, and this lone vine remains.  We got plenty of grapes off of it this year and made Concord grape jam with this recipe, and my in-laws took lots with them to make jam too.  

Recently the muscadine and scuppernong grapes were ready to pick from the arbor.  We went out on a Saturday morning and picked almost 25 pounds of grapes.  As we picked them, we separated them into containers by color.  We set aside two gallons in the freezer to reserve for pie filling which we will make a later date, and we made jam with the rest.  We used the same recipe for the jam that we use with Concord grapes, the only difference being that the skins of the muscadines are thicker and don't break down as easily.  Therefore, you end up with a less chunky jam with fewer pieces of skin.  The pulp still gets used.


In all, we made 27 half-pints of jam that day (three batches).  The grapes produce a lighter colored jam than Concord grapes and look like jewels in the sun.  The only warning I would offer is that there are tiny specks of pulp that are browner in color and those show up more in the lighter jam.  If you wanted to eliminate that, you could put the pulp in a jelly bag and let it drain, but then of course you would be making jelly and not jam.  I personally prefer the texture of jam and the idea that I'm using the whole fruit rather than just the juice.  

I'm not sure exactly what we plan to do with all this jam.  I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but using this much jam (for us) would be a feat.  We may sell it or give it as gifts.  I'm sure we'll figure out something.  :)

For the recipe, use the same recipe as for the Concord grape jam.  You will still pulse the skins in the processor separately from the pulp, and you will push as much of the pulp and skins through the sieve as possible.  You will probably find that not as much of the skins go through.  Feed the rest to the chickens or compost them.  The purple grapes produce a light pinkish lavender jam, and the bronze produce a golden yellow jam.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pullet Eggs and the Rooster

We have eleven chickens.  Within that mix are three hens, seven pullets, and one rooster named Al Capone.  For those unfamiliar with chicken terminology, the word pullet is generally used to indicate a female chicken less than a year old.  Most chickens, depending on the breed, begin laying eggs somewhere between sixteen and twenty-four weeks of age.  

Some of our pullets looking very curious for the camera

Pullet eggs usually start out small and gradually gain in size during the following weeks.  I love collecting pullet eggs.  While I'm used to the size, shape, and color of the eggs laid by my hens, the pullet eggs often offer up surprises.  As the pullet continues to lay, the eggs may change shape or even alter the shade of their color.  These eggs will eventually reach normal size and even out in their appearance as the chicken grows larger and its reproductive cycle becomes more consistent.  In the meantime, I think it's fun to see what's out there each day.  We are still waiting on four of our pullets to begin laying, and I can't wait to see what the eggs look like when they do.  One note on baking with pullet eggs...I generally use two pullet eggs for every large egg called for in a recipe.  

 (Above) Smaller pullet egg on left, egg from older hen on right 


(Above) Pullet egg on right, normal sized egg on left
Our hens and pullets all lay brown eggs, but they are in varying shades of brown.  It's interesting to note that we can often tell whose egg we are eating by its shape and color before it's cracked open.  One of our hens lays eggs that are long and pointy like a torpedo while another lays small round eggs.  

A mixture of eggs in various sizes
Since we're on the subject of chickens, our rooster is coming into his own.  He is getting more confident in his mating abilities and enjoys exercising those abilities primarily in the morning and evening.  I am keeping a close eye on him and his behaviors with the girls as I want to make sure he is not hurting them.  As of right now, he is being a gentleman.  He alerts when there is danger or perceived danger (like the lawn mower), he makes sure the girls get their share of the food, and he generally keeps order in the flock. While our chickens have always gotten along well without a rooster, I have noticed that there is less pecking and puffing of the feathers with this latest batch.  They get along and don't try to assert their dominance over one another since he is there and in charge.  If we begin seeing any signs of abuse, we will of course remove him from the flock and allow him to forage out on his own, but since we have so many predators around here (I saw a coyote in the backyard under the grape arbor just the other day), we'll allow him to remain in his current position as king of the flock until then.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Week in Review

The summer is drawing to a close for me.  In just four short days I will return to work, and the chores around here will have to be taken care of at night and on weekends.  In the meantime, I'm trying to accomplish as much as possible.  While I haven't canned as much as I usually do due to the craziness of moving, there are still things that we aren't willing to go without all year.  Those are the projects I've focused on over the past few weeks. 

We have put up a variety of canned goods.  Some of them can be seen in the photo below.  I'm still trying to find a good place for my canned goods until we can do some renovating, and I hesitate to even share this photo with you now.  They are being stored on some old shelves in the laundry room (a curtain hides them) as well as in a cabinet in the kitchen until we have a better solution. Included in the picture are jars of (top row from left to right) pressure canned green beans, grape jam, peach jam, and the best canned tomato salsa ever (from Simply Recipes).  The bottom row (from left to right) includes garlic and herb pasta sauce, chile garlic dill pickles, pickled corn/poblano/pinto salsa (from Better Homes and Gardens- I'll post about it once we open it and try it out), crushed tomatoes, and apple wine jelly made using the recipe for muscadine wine jelly but (obviously) using homemade apple wine instead.     

We recently realized that one of the grape vines that the previous owner had intended on cutting down has come back out and is loaded with Concord grapes.  We had to dodge privet bushes and the like to get to them, but we did it and ended up with about ten pounds of ripe grapes.  There are still more on the vine, and we will harvest them when they ripen.  They are absolutely delicious, sweet, a little tart and super juicy.  I used four pounds to make this Concord grape jam which is so much easier (and I think better) than jelly, and my in-laws took home two gallon size bags.   We ended up with eight half-pints of jam which will last us until next fall.  The chickens loved the leftover grape skins.  It's so satisfying making jam with your own fruit.  I usually have to buy grapes from an orchard we visit in the mountains, but not anymore.  

Our project for the weekend is to pick ripe grapes from the muscadine and scuppernong vines.  Those vines are growing together on the same arbor, and unfortunately into a nearby tree (a pruning project for later in the year).  We will pick the ripe ones and figure out what to do with them and leave the rest to ripen over the next few weeks.  I was thinking of making grape pie filling although I'm still not settled on it.  If anyone has any ideas for what to do with them, I'm all ears.  

Over the weekend we will also pick some of the pears off the tree by the chicken coop.  The chickens have been enjoying the ones that fall (which we break open for them).  Not all are ripe, but there are some that are ready, and the squirrels around here don't mind getting to them before us if we dilly dally.  I was walking around the orchard the other day and a freshly half-eaten pear almost hit me on the head when it was dropped from the tree by a squirrel.  They are cute, but they are pesky.  They also break open the walnuts and pecans.  We really hope they save some for us!  I'll be doing some kind of canning project with the pears once we pick them.  I'm considering either pear sauce or canned pear quarters in red hot syrup.  I'll keep you posted on what I decide.  For now, we're enjoying just eating them out of hand.  They are crisp and juicy.  All of the fruit trees and vines on our property have been neglected for years, but now that we own them, we hope to remedy that.  With a good pruning later in the year, we hope all of our trees and vines will be better producers (and be healthier) going into next year.  

I cleaned out the deep freezer and organized it.  It is so frustrating when you don't know how much of something you have and have to dig around to find it.  If I ever buy another freezer, I will go with an upright one rather than a chest freezer to make finding things easier.  In the meantime, I used this handy printable I found online to take inventory of the contents of the deep freezer.  It will allow me to easily cross things out when I use them so I can keep track of what we have.  

So, that's what's been happening around here.  My plan for today (since it's not raining) is to mow and check in on the bees.  There's always something to do around here, and I'm loving it!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Air Bubbles and Chopsticks

For a long time I really hated removing air bubbles from jars before processing them in the canner.  I knew it was a step I needed to take, and I did, but that didn't mean I wanted to do it.  The reason?  The plastic headspace measuring tool/bubble remover that comes with most standard canning kits was too cumbersome.  It's difficult enough to pack foods like peaches and cucumber slices into jars adequately, and then someone's telling me I have to push this plastic stick down into the jar after I've worked hard to perfect things inside.  In my early days of canning, this meant accidentally smashing foods in the jar with the tool or still having bubbles trapped because I didn't maneuver the tool around the jar effectively.  

Removing air bubbles from a jar of Quick Dills with Garlic and Chile

Then, one day a long time ago, I was cleaning out the kitchen drawers and stumbled upon one lone chopstick, a leftover from my we-will-eat-Chinese-food-with-chopsticks kick.  I started to throw it out, but then I thought this could be great when canning.  Now I know some of you came to this pretty obvious conclusion long before me, and kudos to you if you did.  You probably stopped dreading bubbling your jars long before I did.  If you haven't ever thought about it though, consider it for a moment.  

You need to remove air bubbles from your jars for a variety of reasons, most of which involve, get this, the amount of air in the jar.  Crazy, huh?  All joking aside, air bubbles really do need to be done away with as best as possible.  They can cause a variety of problems, most of which aren't necessarily safety related, but can be aggravating and cause canned goods to be less than desirable.  Trapped air makes it difficult to achieve proper headspace in the jar.  This is important in getting a good seal.  If you've ever canned, you've noticed that after you remove bubbles from a filled jar, the liquid level almost always needs to be adjusted.  That's because you removed the air and liquid filled those spaces where air used to be.  If you don't remove that air, it can mess up the headspace of the jar and even force liquid to seep out of the lid before it seals.  The food in the jar will still be safe so long as you achieved a seal, but the liquid loss can be messy, sticky, and most of all, it can cause the food at the top of the jar to discolor from being exposed to air.  This discolored food is still safe to eat, but when faced with a brown peach slice and a nice peachy peach slice, which would you want most?  Seepage can also weaken a seal and cause it to fail over time.   

Using a chopstick to gently press the foods in the jar inward to remove air bubbles on side.

Here's where the chopstick is super helpful.  Chopsticks are usually made of wood or plastic (don't use metal, not that you could probably find a metal chopstick anyway), so they are nonreactive with vinegar and other acid foods.  They are safe to use with glass jars and will not cause dings and cracks in the glass over time as much as more rigid tools.  They are small and can easily squeeze into spaces between foods where other tools can't go.  They can also squeeze in between foods without pushing too much on the foods and moving them around.  I mean, who wants the tool to rearrange the jar after you so carefully packed it?  Right?  Since they are small and straight, they are great for lightly pressing backward on foods to draw the foods toward the center of the jar and help release air bubbles along the edge of the jar.  And as if all this weren't enough, the blunt end of the chopstick is a great tool to help you arrange and pack foods like cucumber slices into regular mouth jars where your fingers can't easily fit.  I use the blunt end to keep from stabbing the foods when using it to arrange, and it's also helpful to have two chopsticks so you can use both ends without getting sticky or having to clean the chopstick in between uses.  

So, if you haven't considered using a chopstick for removing air bubbles, try it out.  You may be like me and begin to remove bubbles without dread.    

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Reason for the Absence

It's been busy around here.  So busy that I haven't gotten around to posting anything in almost three months.  With today being just two days shy of that mark, I felt like it was time to put something down in writing.  

It isn't that I haven't wanted to write, but many other things have occupied my waking hours and my mind, and I haven't really produced much in the way of canned goods or new recipes lately.  

What happened you ask?  Well, we moved.  We moved from the city to the country, from about a third of an acre to almost three acres.  We had been wanting to do something like this for a while.  Our adventures in raising chickens had made us want more land so that we could delve into new areas of homesteading.  It sounds so funny to use the word homesteading, but I'm not sure what else to call it.  We wanted somewhere we could start fresh but that already had some pieces of what we wanted established.  We searched and searched for that place, but always came up short.  Land is expensive, and the places we like just needed more work than we were looking for.  Then, we came upon this older home on three acres.  The house is in need of some cosmetic work, and the land needs some TLC, but all in all, it seemed pretty perfect to us.  We bought it and have been working for the past two months to move in and start life here.  

The first thing we had to do was get the chicken coop in order.  We originally wanted to turn a small old barn into the coop, but after inspecting it after purchase, it required much more work and money than we wanted to spend on the chickens.  It was also larger than necessary.  So, we turned a small garden shed attached to the back of a larger outbuilding into the coop, and decided to save the barn for another venture.  We had to figure out a way to transition our three adult hens and eight younger chickens to living together peacefully.  We did that using a partition which remained up for two months and came down once they had had plenty of interaction time in the run and were getting along well enough. They actually told us they were ready to integrate when we walked out to close them in one night and found all eleven chickens on the same roost in the same part of the coop.  We figured they were telling us it was time, so we took down the partition and have had no problems. 

Here is the group of new chickens, raised from day-old chicks by us.  

Four Barred Rocks (including Al), two Golden Comets, one Black Sex Link, and one Silver Laced Wyandotte

There are eight in all, seven pullets and one rooster.  It has been fun watching the rooster, named Al Capone, strut his stuff and take on more responsibility with his girls.  He now is gaining confidence, trying to protect the pullets, and trying to get up the nerve to mate with one.  He does a little dance and tries to get close, but so far, the pullets have kept him at bay.  He is a handsome fella though, don't you think? 

Al surveying his domain
The older hens have adjusted well to life in the new coop.  They have much more room (the inside of the coop is at least three times larger than our old one, and the run is very large).  They are loving running around, and they especially love when they can get out and scratch around the yard.  I would love to allow them to free range, especially since we have more land, but unfortunately we also have more predators.  We have several hawks which hover overhead throughout the day as well as other land predators, and neighbors with chickens have had terrible luck with their own free ranging birds.  So, for now, we will keep them in the run and allow them to roam the yard only when we are out and can keep a close eye on them. 

In the meantime, one of our hens is going through her third bout of broodiness since March.  Here she is after being removed from the nesting box.  She gets very unhappy about it.  I had read that putting her in a small rabbit cage would break the broodiness quickly, but so far, no such luck.  Thankfully, it has not caught on with the other two hens...knock on wood.  

Our broody hen, Piggy, lovingly named for the grunting sounds she makes when eating

We are also trying our hand at beekeeping.  My father-in-law set up several hives on his property and helped us start one on ours.  We haven't had as much time to devote to it as we would have liked, but they seem to be doing well.  Hopefully, we can keep them happy and producing the remainder of this year and add more hives next year.  They are constantly buzzing in and out and are loving the weeds, flowers, and fruit trees around the property.  Here are some bees we put in at my father-in-law's house.  More pictures on our hive to come.  

Thousands of bees ready to for their new home
On the three acres we have, one acre is a small orchard area with various fruit trees and vines.  We have apple trees, pear trees, peach trees, and several grape vines.  The problem is, we didn't realize until the fruit started developing that we have a significant Japanese beetle problem as well as some possible disease issues to figure out how to solve before next year.  This will provide us with a learning experience and gives us something to research over fall and winter.  If anyone has any experience with Japanese beetles or brown rot on fruit trees, please share.  

Pear tree (top), apple tree (above)

We also have four pecan trees, and we hope that we get to the pecans before the squirrels do this fall.  

Pecans forming on the tree (notice the little pod in the center of the picture)

I have become the lawn mower master, which I love. We went from a property on which a push mower was plenty to needing a really good riding mower (and really a tractor, but that has to go on the wish list for right now).

We recently had the field to left of our yard (part of our property also) bush hogged, and discovered that the edges of the field were lined with thickets of blackberry canes.  On the Fourth of July, we went out and picked wild blackberries which were delicious albeit prickly.  We hope to plant thornless blackberries for next year, but right now we'll make do with these yummy babies.  

The only real preserving I have done so far has been to make a batch of peach jam and put up two bushels of corn for the freezer.  My in-laws also put up two bushels.  I got 24 pints of frozen corn off the cob.  We had a little left on the cob from last year so didn't put any up this year.  I am hoping to get on the ball and do more preserving in the next couple of weeks.  

It's interesting and a little difficult to preserve and can in an older kitchen with a lot of quirks I'm not used to, but I'll get there.  It does make me feel like some kind of old-timey farm wife using the existing kitchen, and I can imagine women of years past doing the same thing in that same space.  While this seems like a romantic notion, it doesn't make it any easier to use the cabinets that don't open and close correctly or the other quirky components of a 1950s kitchen.  We'll be happy when we have time to renovate.  

So, there you have it.  The reason for my absence from blogging for three months is justified, and hopefully, I'll get back on track now.  As we move into all of our new adventures here at our new country home, I may post about more than just cooking and canning as I would like to keep a record of all of our endeavors (the successes and failures).  

I do have a really great popsicle recipe to share before cutting out today.  These are great with many types of fruit.  So far our favorites have been melons and peaches.  They are delicious on a hot summer day when you want something sweet but also want to keep it light and healthy.  Play with the amount of sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit.  This recipe makes somewhere between 8-16 popsicles depending on the size of the mold you use.  The picture below is of a peach popsicle.  I love that there is actual fruit in there giving it great taste and texture. It's also a creative way to use a less than perfectly sweet melon.  

Fruit Popsicles- makes 8-16 depending on size of popsicle mold

4 cups fruit of choice (we like cantaloupe or peaches)
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp honey
1/2 cup water

Process all ingredients in a food processor until smooth.  Pour into popsicle molds and freeze until firm.  Remove from molds and enjoy.