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Canning up a Storm

Canning up a Storm

It’s that time of year, the time of year when there’s suddenly a dearth of canning jars in my house, when I run out of white vinegar, when my sweetheart comes in each night and looks at another stack of jars and just shakes his head at my propensity to stock up for winter. “We do have supermarkets, you know,” he’ll note.

Yes, yes, I know — but we have all this lovely produce right now, and I have a cookbook review to write this weekend, so I’ve been playing around.

This week I put up eight beautiful (and gigantic) ears of corn we didn’t eat last weekend as a hot corn pickle that I think will be great in quesadillas with black beans. Although my carrots have not performed well in the garden this year, the Hutterite Colony who sells veggies at our farmer’s market had some perfect thin young carrots for the spicy pickled carrots I like in nori rolls. I made a jar of Dorie Greenspan’s delicious cured and marinated salmon — she serves it with boiled potatoes as an appetizer, I tend to eat it on crackers with the spiced yogurt cheese you can see in the tub. I’m sort of back on the cheesemaking, having tried out a very simple fresh cheese from one of the books I’m reviewing for Bookslut this week — it was easy, and came out with a lovely texture, not chalky or rubbery at all. I’ve also been slighlty maniacal about putting up a kind of bathtub gin (in the blue bottle) — basically it’s the best herbs out of my garden, sage, thyme and lots of summer savory with lemon peel, pink peppercorns and coriander seed steeped in cheap vodka. It’s slightly medicinal but a couple of tablespoons in a glass of cheap white wine makes a lovely (and cheap) sort of vermouth-like apertif. I did a batch of garlic cloves pickled with thyme and coriander seed and hot peppers — they’re lovely and I forgot to put them in the photo. I’ve also got a batch of Schezhuan green beans in the hot water bath at the moment.

Part of my mania is simply that it’s that time of year when I feel like if I can preserve as much of the really great produce we’ve got, then I don’t have to eat icky out-of-season produce that has come from god knows where to my supermarket. Part of it is that I have a stack of new cookbooks with some really fabulous ideas in them. And part of it is that my beloved sweetheart doesn’t really like most vegetables, so I’m looking for easy ways that I can add a serving of veggies to my dinner without having to cook a whole separate dish at the last minute. We’ll see how that goes.

And then there’s that part of me that yes, feels much better on a sort of existential level when I can look into my pantry and see that come disaster, we can eat, and eat well, for quite a while. Especially after the 4-H pig we bought after the fair is ready — hams and bacon smoking now over in Big Timber. Pig, veggies, fruits, pasta, lots of grains, dried mushrooms, dried beans — oh, and homemade booze — bring on the snow. We’re almost ready.

Why You Have to Do It Yourself … Yogurt Edition

Why You Have to Do It Yourself … Yogurt Edition

I pretty much quit making yogurt when I stopped buying raw milk from my rancher friend. However, this spring, I’ve been craving yogurt again — on fruit in the morning after my bike ride, and mixed with Aleppo pepper, salt, herbs and olive oil on almost everything else.

So I’ve been buying yogurt, which bothers me on two fronts. For one thing, the plastic containers — they add up. I don’t use plastic anymore for food storage, and we don’t have good recycling here, and it just seems unnecessary. The other problem is that commercial yogurt has weird things added to it. The thick Greek yogurt has extra milk solids and pectin, and the Tillamook (shown above) freaked me out when I read that it had gelatin and “modified corn starch.” I don’t eat things like “modified corn starch” if I can help it — especially not in something as simple as yogurt.

So, I went back to making it. I bought a container of the yummy, and unadulterated Straus yogurt when I was down at the Bozeman Co-Op the other day, along with a half gallon of Organic Valley whole milk. Since there was about half a quart of skim milk starting to turn in the fridge door, I threw that in too (I’d go back to buying milk from my rancher friend, but I don’t go through a gallon a week, and my cheesemaking phase seems to be over for now).

Here’s the method:

  1. Heat the milk to 90 degrees Celsius (I use a candy thermometer)
  2. Put the pot in the sink in an ice bath and stir until the temp comes down to 50 degrees Celsius
  3. Add yogurt (I poured probably a half cup out of the container — you really only need a few tablespoons, but I always add a little more to be safe)
  4. Stir to mix
  5. Ladle the hot milk mixture into clean, sterilized jars (if you like sweet yogurt, you can add a little jam to the bottom of the jars)
  6. Cap the jars (I reuse lids for this since they go in the fridge and it’s not “real” canning)
  7. Pack the jars in a cooler, and fill with hot tap water to the bottom of the rings
  8. Close the lid and put the cooler someplace quiet
  9. Leave it for several hours or overnight, in the morning take the jars out and put in the fridge. With the seal that forms, they stay good for quite a long while.

There it is. Easy. And you get nice, clean yogurt with no weird stuff in it.

Food additives

Food additives

There’s a great piece over at Civil Eats this morning, Our Deadly, Daily Chemical Cocktail on the sheer amount of chemicals in the food most people eat. Here’s the quote that got me:

Based on the anecdotal information I see in my client’s food journals, people eating processed and packaged foods are taking in exorbitant amounts of artificial ingredients and additives. Typically, a client will say something like, “I eat a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk, have yogurt for a snack, and a Subway sandwich for lunch.” While this sounds relatively harmless, here’s what it might actually look like based on some popular “health food” items:

  • One serving of Kellogg’s Fiber Plus Antioxidants Berry Yogurt Crunch contains more than 13 different additives, preservatives, and food dyes, including Red 40 and Blue 1, which are known to cause allergic reactions in some people and mutations leading to cancer in lab animals. It also contains BHT, monoglycerides, and cellulose gum. In addition, conventional milk often contains residues of artificial bovine growth hormones, known endocrine disruptors as well as antibiotics used in industrial milk production.
  • Dannon Light & Fit Peach yogurt contains more than 11 different additives including Red 40, aspartame, potassium sorbate, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium.
  • A Subway sandwich of turkey and cheese on nine-grain bread with fat-free honey mustard, peppers, and pickles contains more than 40 different additives, preservatives, and dyes. The pickles and peppers have yellow 5 and polysorbate 80, the bread has ten different additives including dough conditioners, DATEM, and sodium stearoyl lactylate, and the turkey contains ten additives as well.

The person in this example has consumed more 60 food additives eating breakfast, a small snack, and lunch alone, to say nothing of dinner, dessert, further snacking and drinks. Consumers Union’s Dr. Hansen told me, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it were up to 100 additives or more that people are taking in on a daily basis.”

Excerpts like this make me feel like actually I’m weirder than I think. I don’t buy any of that stuff, in part because it seems like a ripoff to me (those little pots of yogurt) and because I’ve always been suspicious of processed food. And Subway. Ugh. The bread is sweet! There’s so much sugar in what most people think of as “regular” food.

While I’ve always proselytized for eating “real food,” I do realize that since I work at home, and don’t have to commute, and don’t have kids, I’m in a different demographic from many people, and hence, it’s easier for me. Or is it? Really, how hard is it to buy plain yogurt and, if you like it sweet, add a dollop of real jam? Or make a sandwich at home from real ingredients that you can control? Or even bread — I make bread once or twice a week depending (except in the summer when it’s too hot) and it’s not hard at all.

But more fundamentally, I don’t understand why people trust these huge corporations, whose motive is only profit, with the food that goes into their bodies. Why, for example, would someone think that food produced in some huge factory someplace, by strangers, then loaded with chemical sweeteners and emulsifiers and preservatives is somehow better than what you can make at home from simple ingredients?

Mutant Rye Bread

Mutant Rye Bread

A couple of weeks ago I took a stab at the Classic Rye Bread recipe that Michael Ruhlman ran on his site. My beloved likes rye bread, and had asked for a sandwich bread. The recipe was really simple, so I took a shot at it (minus the caraway seeds because neither of us really likes them).

The first loaf I made was sort of heavy, and the crumb lacked elasticity. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great.

So this time, I did a mashup between the original recipe and the no-knead sourdough that I do weekly. I added a cup and a half of sourdough starter to the dough, mixed it to the “craggy wet” consistency of the no-knead, and left it to rise overnight. What I wanted was the stringy gluten that a long ferment seems to produce so effortlessly. This morning, it had risen to the top of my bread bowl and had that nice wet bubbly texture that I’ve come to appreciate from overnight fermentation.

Because it was so wet, I plopped it in my trusty 40-year-old Kitchen Aid and added some flour while it kneaded. I kneaded it for about 10 minutes, and probably added an extra cup of bread flour along the way (this might be one cause of the mutant oven spring). It still seemed pretty sticky, but it was very very elastic. I made a rectangle, folded it in thirds like a letter, and tucked it inside a big pyrex bread pan to rise. About an  hour later I was thrilled to see it rising really nicely, so I slashed the top and put it in the oven.

Twenty minutes later when I checked on it, I saw this: mutant classic rye bread. It had sprung up and out of the pan, and was splitting open along the seam where I’d slashed the top.

Mutant shape aside, this bread tastes great. It’s got a nice elastic crumb, the rye taste is detectable but not overpowering, and I think it’ll make really nice sandwiches. Which is what we wanted.

Next time, will probably not add so much extra flour, or I’ll use my larger bread pan. This is an easy loaf and tastes great.

Post-Storm Hoop House Greens!

Post-Storm Hoop House Greens!

We’ve had about ten days of snow and temperatures, sometime daytime as well as nightime, in the single digits. We’ve had over two feet of new snow, which is good, because it insulated my one experimental hoop house where I planted cold-hardy greens. There’s one row each of chard, laccinato kale, bok choi, and arugula, plus I started komatsuna seedlings in mid-October (they’re tiny). I also transplanted a row of scallions between each row of greens, since they’re the one thing I buy most often during the winter.

Here’s what the hoop house looked like before I dug up the edge of the plastic on the far side to take the photo above. I really did not expect anything to be green in there. It was zero or below for three or four days straight. In my past experience, even the most cold-hardy greens succumb at that point. So it was a delightful surprise to find things still looking green and alive in there when I peeled back the cover.

We’ll have to see whether they survive. Everything is green, but the soil is frozen, and so are the bok choi. I cut a few bok choi this morning, as well as some arugula and chard leaves, and managed to pull a couple of scallions. I still don’t know if this is going to work over the course of the whole winter, but so far, things are green, if not necessarily available. The experiment continues ….

Pepper Pa-Looza

Pepper Pa-Looza

I’ve been just the tiniest bit obsessed with peppers this year. I grew a bunch of different varieties — Hungarian Wax, Cayenne, Aci Sivri (a Turkish pepper), hot Italian cherry peppers, Spanish pequillo — and for once, I got a decent crop. I also bought a few bags of hot peppers from the local farmer’s market (as well as several bags of roasted New Mexico green peppers from another vendor). I made salsa out of the roasted green peppers, and I pickled just about everything else. For the pickled peppers I used Michael Symon’s Pickled Pepper recipe (via Michael Ruhlman). This is going to be my go-to recipe, maybe forever — I love these peppers. A little vinegar-y, a little garlicky, with coriander and peppercorns. I’ve been eating them on everything and only hope they’ll last all winter.

The cayenne and aci sivri (a nice sweet-hot Turkish pepper) I strung into ristras. The problem was that they were almost all green, and after hanging up for a day or two, they weren’t really ripening. So I took them down and put them in a cooler with a couple of apples and a couple of potatoes. The apples and potatoes give off ethelyne gas, which helps with the ripening. This is what they looked like after about four days — the ripening is noticeable — and the smell emanating from the cooler is marvelous.

It was a long hard slog this year growing peppers, and most of the season, they had to be under plastic in the hoop house, but I’ve got perhaps a year’s worth of delicious, home-grown peppers. And as we all know, using my own home-grown stuff makes me weirdly happy.

In the Garden and Kitchen

In the Garden and Kitchen

No Knead Bread
Fall must be upon us since I’m back to making no-knead bread. I bake once or twice a week during the winter — seems goofy to spend four bucks on a loaf of bread when I can make it myself, but in the summer I can’t bear to heat up the house any more than I need to. So this new loaf of bread felt like the beginning of cooler weather and more cooking. My sourdough starter is getting it’s mojo back, and this loaf came out so pretty that even though I’ve posted a zillion no-knead bread pictures on this blog, I thought I’d pester you all with one more.

I’ve also been playing with hoop houses this year. The one on the left has peppers inside. Because we had such a weird summer, cold through the end of June, and no real heat until late July, but then this other odd stretch where we have yet to see a real frost, they’ve pretty much been under plastic all summer. In the hot part of the season I either opened the plastic or took it off altogether, but mostly, they’ve been covered. Which I don’t love the aesthetics of, but since I’ve finally got peppers beginning to turn red, I guess it was worth it.

The other hoop house, the one on the left, I’m thinking of as my “winter garden.” I got rereading Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long and decided to see how far I can extend the season this year. Usually by this time of year, I’m bored with the garden and ready for everything to just die already so I can get some writing done, but I don’t know — maybe it was that the dino kale was still so small, or that the scallions had just started looking great, or that the chard was finally tall and crisp and beautiful. I wasn’t ready to let it go. So I dug up one bed, and transplanted kale, chard, lots of scallions, some arugula, and the green Chinese cabbages. I also planted a row of komatsuna, which I fell in love with this spring, but I’m not sure we have enough daylight for it to sprout.

Then I got real with the hoop houses and put some brackets in to hold the hoops. Last spring, I just stuck them in the ground, which worked okay, but they got sort of hunched and sad looking. By bracketing them they get enough stability that I’m hoping they’ll survive some snow. Plus, they look nice now. Crisp. Upright. Official.

So now I’m looking forward to seeing if I can get some fresh greens for part of the winter. I put the plastic up last night on the winter garden because it was supposed to go down to 28, but I don’t think it did. I think they like the extra warmth though, and the humidity. When I pulled the plastic back this morning to take a photo, everything was looking pretty upright and perky. We’ll see.

Culling Chickens

Culling Chickens

Seven chickens, it turns out, was a little more than my yard can really handle, and for the past several months, I’ve only been getting 2-4 eggs a day from the bunch. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do — and while I thought about trying to pawn them off on someone else, really, I knew all along that the responsible thing to do was to cull a few of them. (And for all of you Angry Vegans out there, I have heard your arguments, especially in light of my post at Ethicurean about how I don’t consider my chickens pets, and let’s agree to respectfully disagree.)

As I was going back and forth, trying to gather up my courage to actually deal with the situation, one of my older chickens came up lame the other day. They’d been out doing their chicken-y thing in my yard, and when I got the scratch and called out that it was snacktime, one of them was limping badly. This just brought home to me the problems posed by getting chickens when I didn’t know how to humanely kill one. That one was on the list, and now it was in pain, which was the one thing I wanted to avoid all along. I’d read online about wringing necks, but as I looked at the chicken, I was afraid I’d just botch it and hurt it more.

So I put out a couple of calls — to my Egg Lady, and one to Mark Rehder, who runs Farms for Families here in town, and who’d come by this spring to see the coop on a coop tour he was leading. Isabelle got back to me first, or rather, her husband Larry, who came by with their daughter Azalea to show me how to kill a chicken. Larry’s a Vietnam vet, a big gruff guy (and who has the sweetest relationship with Azalea, who is about eight, she and her dad just adore one another) and he showed me how to hold the bird, stretch it out, and quickly and quietly break its neck. It was very humane and over quickly. He did all three for me, cut their heads off, and we hung them from the apple tree. “You can do the rest,” he said. “It’s just like gutting a fish.” Um, sure, I thought as I waved them off.

So there I was in the backyard with three headless chickens hanging from the apple tree. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I could do this, but I figured I had to try. I put my biggest stockpot on to boil. I dug out the latex gloves I use for painting because I didn’t think I could stick my hand in warm chicken guts without them. I sharpened my knives. And I went online! Where I printed out instructions from these two sites: Cultivating Home, and this one, from Howling Duck Ranch. Thank you internets! Thank you people who posted good, close-up pictures in step-by-step format!

I set up a folding table (to which I later added a heavy cutting board), put the hose on low and left it to water the plum tree in the meantime, got a bucket with some hot bleach water for a rag and to clean my knives in between chickens, and lined a bucket with a garbage bag. I’d seen my dad and my brother field dress ducks, and of course, during my time with the Mighty Hunter there was even the antelope, but I’d never done it entirely on my own. I was kind of excited too, this was a skill I’d been wanting to learn.

So I put on an apron and went to work. I dunked a chicken in hot water, swished it around, and started plucking feathers — they came off really easily, most of them. It took me 15 minutes maybe, not too long. Then I had to start cutting. The first one, I broke the crop trying to get it out of the neck cavity, which was a little messy, but I just kept hosing everything down, and I was clumsy getting the guts out, but eventually, I had a clean bird with a clean cavity. I didn’t try to save the livers or hearts or gizzards because well, I don’t really like them that much, and I sort of tore things up getting the innards out. Next time. The first bird took the longest, after that I sort of got a system down, and I can see how raising a bunch of meat birds would be useful if you wanted to learn how to kill and butcher. Like anything, they’re skills that come with practice. It took me just over 2 hours to do all three birds, which now reside in the freezer, waiting for the stockpot.

They’re pretty skinny — about 3 pounds each, and they were old birds. I might try a coq au vin though … My sweetie thinks it’s all more effort than it’s worth, in part because he doesn’t like livestock, but even though these were not the most economical chickens I’ll ever cook, I’m really pleased that I learned how to do this. I now know that if the end times come, I can kill, clean and butcher my own chicken. Which is something.

More Hoop Houses

More Hoop Houses

The hoops I built over the beds of greens worked so spectacularly well that I’ve hooped the tomato bed and planted the tomato seedlings a little early. I did discover that it makes a difference whether you use thin or heavy plastic — I think I’ve lost one seedling, and a couple others got a little burned up, but once I replaced the thin plastic with the heavier, the tomatoes are looking better. I think it’s not only the warmth, but the humidity.

I also moved a bunch of greens out of one hooped bed, arugula, spinach, and some endive, and planted the whole bed with peppers. The pepper seedlings are really tiny, they haven’t popped yet, so I’m hoping that warm and wet will work for them as well.

Here’s how well the hoop house worked on the Chinese greens. I had to take the cover off because ti was getting too hot in there. Dont’ they look beautiful? I love that chartreuse Chinese cabbage. They taste great too …

Blast from the Past

Blast from the Past

bassine de confiture ancienne

[I’m up against a bunch of deadlines, and just don’t have any blogging mojo right now, so here’s an oldie but goodie from the archives. Back soon.]

Behold, my gorgeous Veritable Ancienne Bassine A Confiture en Cuivre, 10L. I got it on eBay France (which is a very dangerous site), although if you click the link above, they’re also available on Amazon. I first saw the Beautiful French Jam Pot in this piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about small jam-makers in the Bay Area. There was a charming photo of Rachel Saunders of the Blue Chair Fruit Company making jam, and behind her on the stove you can see one of these pots. I emailed her, asking about the pot, and wondering whether the fact that it’s unlined copper is a problem. She pinged me right back and said this: “Actually, these are THE classic pots for jam making. Once the fruit has been combined with sugar, it will not react with the copper — in fact, quite the opposite; it does not affect the flavor at all, unlike aluminum and various other metals, and it makes the cooking SO much easier. I can’t recommend it enough; the only thing to remember is, don’t put fruit by itself into a copper kettle, or it will react!”

So off I went to eBay France, which is, as I said, a very dangereuse place for someone like me, and I found this great pan, with a big long copper and brass spoon to match, and it was expensive, but not outrageously so — I clicked PayPal, and six weeks later, look what arrived at my door (along with a very sweet little ceramic candleholder that the seller threw in as a petit cadeau). I was beside myself with joy, and the first thing I did was go down to the cellar and clean out all the frozen plums that have been languishing down there since last fall. We’re so far behind the season this year that there isn’t any new fruit, but as you can see here, I had plenty to fill my gorgeous bassinefull of fruit I pitted them, and weighed them as they went in, and it was about 20 pounds of fruit. Of course, I forgot that I’d need room for 15 pounds of sugar (I generally go on a ratio of one part fruit to 3/4 part sugar for jam), but with some melting and stirring, it all fit. Then I used my mini-chop to whiz up the zest from four lemons, and a big chunk of fresh ginger, which I stirred in as well.

I love love love this pot. Rachel was right — the temperature control is fabulous — there’s enough room with that wide top that it didn’t boil over, and there wasn’t any sticking or scorching. Through no fault of the pots, I did overcook it some — there was so much liquid that came off the plums that I kept thinking I needed to boil it down some more. My mistake — the jam is very thick, almost like a fruit leather, but it tastes great.  The ginger and lemon zest add just the right zing — I’ve been eating it the past few mornings on leftover frozen pecan biscuits (that I made for my Easter party — I got a little carried away and had a couple of dozen frozen leftovers — but they’re great — you can just pop them frozen into the toaster oven and there you go). Anyhow, I’ve been taking a pecan biscuit, splitting it open, slathering it with yogurt cheese and then drizzling some of this jam over the top (a minute in the microwave makes it drizzle-able). Yum.

plum ginger jam jars Here are the fruits of my labors. Ten pint jars and a dozen half-pints. Hostess and holiday gifts … and just yumminess on the shelf. Yay. Summer is here. There’s jam to be made and a gorgeous pot to make it in ….