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.