Archive for September, 2007

Preserving the harvest: herbal honey.

thymehoney.JPGI swear I will never travel during harvest season again. I mean it. Really.

I’m off to teach at the second annual Northeast Community Herbal Convergence next weekend. I’m leaving for parts north tomorrow, and this morning it suddenly dawned on me that there might be frost before I get back. (It’s hard to remember these things when the weather is so warm.)

So I went into high harvest gear, doing things the quick-and-dirty way. I think I got most of what I wanted out of the garden and the weed patches around the farm. Now watch the frost come late this year. Fine. At least I’ll come home to a sweet smelling house—there are herbs drying all over the dining room.

And I was happy to have an excuse to play with some of my favorite substances: herbs and honey. Honey infused with aromatic herbs has got to be one of the most intensely wonderful things I have ever tasted. It’s good medicine too.

Herbal honey is radically easy to make:

Take a good bunch of your favorite aromatic herbs. (Thyme, lemon balm and bee balm are my favorites.)

Pack a layer of herb in a jar, cover it with a layer of honey,* and repeat. Finish with an extra layer of honey. It will be a sticky mess. No problem. Squish it with a spoon if there are big air pockets.

That’s all. (I said it was easy.)

Let it sit for a couple of weeks at least.

Taste it. Don’t eat it all at once.

That’s thyme and lemon thyme honeys in the picture. I’ll use them for sore throats and colds this winter. And I’ll eat them with a spoon when I feel like it.

*Make sure you get good quality honey. Talk to your beekeeper about how s/he deals with mites and other pests. Ask if s/he leaves honey for the bees to eat or feeds them sugar water. Don’t buy poisonous mass-produced grocery store honey if you can help it.

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Preserving the harvest: dried beans.

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When I asked a farmer for these lovely dried October beans, he was surprised. People buy them fresh for shelling, but not for drying. The same goes for limas and butterbeans.

Have people forgotten about dried beans altogether?

Someone said “they’re too much work.” Not really. Not if you’re the kind of person who likes to sit on the back porch with a glass of wine every once in a while. Why not shell beans and drink wine? Why not have a bean-shelling party if you have a bunch?

Freshly dried beans are a revelation. I’m not exaggerating.

People who know him will tell you that this boy of mine can be picky. He was not a bean-eater before he met me. A few years ago, I fed him some big, meaty white beans I’d grown in my garden. Just boiled up and served with salt, olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. I got the sighs of satisfaction usually reserved for steak. “I didn’t know beans could be like this.”

Right. Some things: Canned beans are not really beans. They are mushy bits of cellulose and salt. The dried beans found in healthfoodstore bulk bins are not usually beans either. They are old, dead, shriveled bits of cellulose without any salt. Don’t even talk to me about dried beans bagged in plastic on grocery store shelves. Ancient. Rocks. Not food.

So. Where do you get real beans? For the most part, you have to get them from farmstands, farmers’ markets, or your garden. And like I said, sometimes you have to encourage your farmers. They don’t know people want dried beans.

People don’t know people want dried beans. And trust me, they do. All they have to do is taste them. Flavor. So much flavor. And I’ll tell you another secret: freshly dried beans don’t take a year and a day to cook like old dead ones do. You soak them (for a few hours or a few days—whatever works for you) and put them on to simmer when you start to cook. They’ll be done soon enough.

Good beans have so much of their own flavor, they don’t need a lot of help. Just a dab of fat (olive oil, schmalz, bacon fat), some onions or garlic, a bit of herb or spice. And salt. Enough salt is key. But don’t add it until the beans are almost done—it can make the skins tough. (I like to cook beans ahead of time and let them sit in their lovely broth for at least a few hours. That way the salt soaks in and they are wonderfully silky and people can’t believe how good they are.)

Some information on bean varieties: The ones I fed the boy that time were Drabo beans. I can hardly find any reference to them online. But they’re good. Very good. Fedco usually sells the seeds, but apparently their grower had a crop failure in 2007. Fedco has a great selection of bean varieties. You should grow beans. They are ridiculously easy to grow. Just keep half an eye on them for the growing season and pick them when the pods start to dry out. Don’t have a garden? If you live in California you are a lucky bastard. I was at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco this summer, and there was a stand selling maybe 30 varieties of heirloom dried beans. Good Mother Stallard, Red Nightfall, Goat’s Eye. (Yes, they were $5 a pound. But I calculated—that’s still cheaper than canned beans.)

Some opinions on bean nomenclature: October beans are the traditional Appalachian “shelly” bean. Some people say they’re the same as borlotti or cranberry beans. But I’ve grown borlotti beans, I’ve grown cranberry beans, and I’ve grown October beans, and I can tell you that they are not the same. So it won’t surprise you, then, that to my tongue limas and butterbeans are not the same beans either. Try shelling butterbeans. They are flat. You hardly think there’s a bean in there. Limas are fat. And they taste different too. Try them. Eat real beans. You’ll love them, I promise.

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Preserving the harvest: zucchini relish.

relish.JPGI promised to talk about what to do with all that zucchini, didn’t I?

Well, my favorite way to eat zucchini is grated and sauteed with lots of butter and garlic. But there’s only so much of that a person can eat.

While I was thinking about interesting ways to preserve zucchini, I remembered an old-fashioned zucchini-mustard pickle that one of our neighbors used to make when I was little. It was yellow, oniony, and a bit sweet, with lots of mustard seeds in it.

(The neighbor ladies weren’t allowed to give me cookies, as my parents were into full-on Jethro Kloss–style healthfoodism. Eventually, after shaking their heads and clucking their tongues—what’s childhood without cookies?—the ladies compromised with my mother and gave me jars of pickles instead. Not a bad deal, really. A jar of pickles lasts a lot longer than a cookie.)

I was excited to try to re-create the yellow zucchini pickles of my childhood. But here’s the thing: they were cooked vinegar pickles, and I’ve been really into raw fermented pickles lately. I figured if I made a raw pickle using similar ingredients, the flavor would likely be similar. But the texture would be really different. And I don’t really like the crunchy-but-grainy texture of raw zucchini.

My solution was to grate the zucchini and make a relish, hoping that the crunch of the zucchini would be pleasant this way.

Here’s what I did:

Grated up one oversized zucchini, minus the seeds. (This is a good use for monster zucchini.)

Mixed in one chopped red jalapeño and one thinly sliced onion.

Salted the mix. Well. Until it tasted nice and salty.

Added spices: turmeric, mustard seeds, allspice, cinnamon, pepper.

Packed it in a jar with two cherry leaves. (You could use grape leaves, or oak, too. This is to keep it from getting mushy.)

I squished the relish down until it was submerged in its own juice, and kept it there with a “pickling rock” about the size of the mouth of the jar.

If you haven’t made fermented pickles before, I’d suggest you read a bit about technique before you make any. Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation is a good place to start.

I let this relish ferment for about 5 days. (It was hot out, so it didn’t take long. At more reasonable temperatures it’d probably take a week or so.)

It turned out really well—delightfully tangy and mustardy. We ate it on goat burgers with roasted peppers the other day. The boy kept shaking his head and saying “Mmm.” He ate three.

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Local eating: goat chops and butterbeans.

butterbeans.JPGSeptember lunch out on the back porch.

The leaves on the walnut tree are starting to yellow and fall.

A nice wind, and the summer humidity is finally gone.

We had a pleasant dry rosé from the winery over the hill.

Oh, and food. We had food.

Simple pepper salad. Just sliced ripe peppers and red onions from the farmers market with a bit of salt and the boy’s homemade wine vinegar.

Butterbeans! My favorite. I was so happy to see them at the market this week. Simmered in salt water, tossed with butter. Nothing better in the world.

Goat shoulder chops from our neighbors at Cedar Dawn Farm. Rubbed with bay leaves, hot pepper, and salt. Pan broiled.

So good.

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Preserving the harvest: peppers aren’t patient either.

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First it was ten gallons of tomatoes to can, then six pecks of peppers to roast.

These were “seconds” from a local farmer—the slightly overripe or funny-shaped peppers he can’t sell to restaurants. At $6 a peck, they were absolutely worth it. But patient? No.

These peppers were really, really ripe. And that means really, really sweet. But it also means we had to drop everything to process them right away. And considering we had quite a few other harvest tasks to get to (cucumbers that needed pickling, beer that needed bottling, corn that needed shelling), that was a bit of a pain.

First we had to clean them. Rinse, cut out the bad spots, repeat. Many, many, many times. The boy was grumbling: “Are we really going to need so many roasted peppers this winter?”

After they were all cleaned, it was roasting time. We did some outside on our little grill and some in the oven under the broiler. They need to be nice and blistered and black so the skin will come off after a bit of steaming. (Put them in a closed pot to cool and they’ll slowly steam themselves.)

The next morning, peeling. This is a sticky business. You need a bowl for peppers, a bowl for peels, and a bowl of water for rinsing your hands. Careful not to waste the tasty “liquor” at the bottom of the steaming pot. (Some people peel outside because of the mess, but we live on a farm, so flies are a problem. I just resigned myself to mopping the kitchen floor.)

Part way through peeling, the boy tasted a bit of pepper. Wide eyes. “Oh, wow.” No more complaining from him.

The flavor really is amazing. So much better than any roasted peppers you can buy in a jar. Intensely sweet and bright and peppery.

We put ours in quart jars, destined for our new chest freezer. (You could pressure can them, but that’s a pain, and I don’t have a pressure cooker big enough for quart jars. You can also keep them in the fridge for quite a while if you make sure the tops of the peppers are always covered in olive oil.) We got about twelve quarts, not counting all the ones we’ve eaten in the past few days.

(Goat burgers with roasted peppers and zucchini relish? So good.)

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Preserving the harvest: tomatoes don’t wait.

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I. Have. Been. Canning.

I saw our neighbor at the farmers’ market last week. She said “Hey, do you want any tomatoes? I have extra.”

With my food-hoarding instincts, there’s no way I could pass that up.

Ten gallons later….

Well, let’s just say it’s hot in the kitchen.

If you haven’t tried canning, tomatoes are a good way to start. Home-canned tomatoes are so much better than store-bought.

You can actually just toss the cleaned tomatoes in jars and can them that way (“raw pack”), but I like to get the skins off first. Tradition says to dunk them in hot water for a minute or so to make them easier to peel, but I think that’s messy and you lose a lot of the lovely tomato essence in the boiling water.

A few years ago Jeffrey Hamelman showed me a better way. Jeffrey is a baker, and he roasts his tomatoes in the oven before he cans them. This way the juices are concentrated rather than diluted, and the skins are loose enough that you can usually pull them off with a pair of tongs. Much less messy. Just put a pan of tomatoes in a 350 degree oven for a half hour or so. They’re ready when the skins start to split.

And I make tomato paste with the skins and the leftover juice. Cook them down over low heat for a couple of hours, stirring often. When the skins are pretty translucent, strain the mix (or use a food mill). Then put it back on the stove over low heat until it’s as thick as you want it.

Back to the kitchen. (My salsa isn’t canned yet.)

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Local eating: quick fresh salsa.

salsa.JPGThe quickest, tastiest fresh salsa you could want:

Take one or two ripe tomatoes, as many hot peppers as you like, a garlic clove or two, perhaps a bit of onion, and one or two tomatillos if you have them around.

Toss them all in the blender with some salt.

Blend. Eat.

So good.

This one turned out a lovely orange color—I used a yellow tomato, a bright red cayenne pepper, and a garlic clove (all local). And salt. That’s all. Really.

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Blog Party: Preserving the harvest.

It might not seem like it around here, but winter is coming.

Herb bloggers all around the northern hemisphere are putting up tinctures, drying herbs, gathering fruit. My hoarding instincts go into overdrive this time of year, and it seems I’m not the only one.

Kiva Rose of The Medicine Woman’s Roots is busy as usual. Her harvest post includes lovely recipes with names like “Mother Love” and “Summer Berry Bliss.” (And she has a new wordpress format—check it out!)

Speaking of concoctions with pretty names, Guido at A Radicle wrote about Sparkly Comfrey Powder—a way to dry comfrey for the winter with its soothing, gelatinous properties intact.

Ananda at Plant Journeys has been decanting her tinctures: wild oregano, yarrow, mugwort, red clover, and wormwood.

Darcey at Gaia’s Gifts gave us a rundown of her pickling experiments and her plans for fall harvest.

Angie over at The Herbalist’s Path gave us quite a rundown too, with garden harvest details as well as her experiments with nasturtium tincture.

And we have a new blog party contributor: Michelle at Witches’ Dozen wrote about making rose-infused honey and included a lovely picture of one of her roses. Welcome, Michelle!

Oh, and I wrote about elderberry wine. (The best thing ever . . . in the winter, by the fire, with a book. Yes.)

Next month’s party: What’s the plant that got you into all this?

Hosted by Darcey at Gaia’s Gifts.

Darcey wants to know, what was your first “plant ally”? Tell us all about it.

As usual, post your entry at the end of the month and email Darcey with a link.

As for me, I’m looking forward to visiting the party on someone else’s blog!

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