Archive for Preserving

Summer is for pickles: cucumber, pepper, carrot, bean, beet.

summer pickles

Summer is pickling time.

From left to right: dill pickles, pickled banana peppers, spicy carrot pickles, dill beans, and that’s beet kvass in the back.

These are all fermented pickles — brine pickles, as my great-grandmother would say.

To make brine pickles, put vegetables and spices in a jar or crock (it works better if you put the spices in first, so they don’t float to the top so much), and pour brine over them until they’re submerged. Keep them submerged (with a jar or a rock or a plate — something nonreactive) while the pickle ferments. Cover the top with a cloth to keep the flies out. Take a peek every day, and skim off any scum or mold that develops.

How long the vegetables take to pickle depends on how strong a brine you use. For medium-small pieces of vegetable, I like about 2–3 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. This is a light brine, and the pickles should be ready in less than a week at summer room temperatures (60 at night; 80 in the daytime, where I live). If you live in a warmer place, or you want the pickles to keep a long time, use more salt.

Spice mixes depend on your taste.

For dill (cucumber) pickles, I like dill, garlic, peppercorns, cinnamon, allspice, hot pepper, bay. I use pretty much the same mix for dill beans.

For the banana peppers, I used onions and bay leaves. (Note that if you want thick-skinned peppers like these to ferment/pickle properly, you need to slice them open so the brine can get inside.)

For the carrots (which are an attempt to emulate the lovely pickled carrots at Tartine in San Francisco), I used a lot of hot pepper, onions, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, and thyme.

I don’t add spices to the beet kvass, which is a beet-flavored drink, rather than a pickle, really.

To keep pickles crisp (especially important for cucumbers), add a handful of grape, cherry, oak or other tannic leaves to the mix.

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Citrus season: marmalade!

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My cousin Nina is a marmalade queen. All winter, it seemed, she had a pot of marmalade bubbling on the back of her stove.

She inspired me and the boy to make several big batches of the lovely stuff before we left the land of local citrus.

We did four kinds: ponderosa lemon, bitter seville orange, bergamot, and blood orange (left to right in the picture). They taste nothing alike, and they are all incredibly tasty. The lemon is bright and fresh, very thick and pectiny. The seville orange is a classic marmalade, orangey with a sharp edge. The bergamot is incredibly fragrant and strong, with thick, chewy pieces of rind. And the blood orange is sweet and spicy and soft, absolutely amazing on ice cream.

It’s very easy to make marmalade. Here’s my lazy method:

Slice your citrus. (Make the pieces about the size of the chunks of peel you’d like to have in the finished marmalade.)

Take the seeds out as you slice. Put them in a small muslin bag, or tie them up in cheesecloth. (They provide your pectin! If you don’t have many seeds, as sometimes happens with eating-type oranges, add some extra seeds from another citrus.)

Put your citrus and wrapped seeds into a big, nonreactive pot (i.e., stainless steel or enamel).

Add enough water so that the citrus barely starts to float.

Simmer for forty-five minutes or so, until the pieces of peel are done to your liking.

Set aside to cool.

After the mix is cool, remove the seed bag (squeeze out all that lovely slimy pectin first).

Put your marmalade back on medium heat, and start adding sugar. (I do this by eye, and by taste, but the traditional proportions are 1 part each of citrus, water, and sugar, by weight.)

When the marmalade is as sweet as you want, keep it simmering until it reaches the texture you’d like. (To test the gel, drop a bit onto a plate and put it in the freezer for a few minutes to cool it. This will give you a good idea of what the texture will be like when it’s cooled. If you have trouble getting it to gel, you might need more sugar, or just more patience. But I say there’s nothing wrong with soft marmalade — all the better to spoon over ice cream!)

You can use one kind of citrus, or a mix. You can even add ginger like the English do sometimes. Or whatever strikes your fancy.

Have fun!

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Storing herbs: my old canning jar addiction.

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If I try to buy any more old canning jars, the boy is going to have a stroke.

But the thing is, there’s nothing better for storing herbs and dry beans and grains and such. The blue tint keeps some sunlight out, which keeps things fresher for longer (you still don’t want to store them in direct sun), and they’re just so pretty!

Try yard sales or flea markets or auctions in areas where canning hasn’t completely died out. (Southern Appalachia is a paradise for this sort of thing. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.)

(I don’t use the old jars for canning so much because they’re more likely to break, and they often have little chips on their “lips” that would interfere with sealing.)

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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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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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Preserving the harvest: elderberry wine.

elderberrywine.JPGWine-making is one of my favorite ways to preserve the harvest. And elderberry wine is a classic. It’s so tasty—a bit like sherry or port.

I’ll tell you how I make it. But if you’ve never made wine before, I’d suggest a bit of reading before you start your own. My favorite book on fermentation of all sorts (including pickles, beer, and even miso) is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. He tells you what you need to know without getting too technical.

First collect elderberries. Lots of elderberries. Several big grocery bags full, if you want to make a five-gallon batch. (I remember climbing around in the creek with my friends when I was little, picking elderberries for our parents’ winemaking.)

Clean and de-stem your elderberries. De-stemming can be tedious. Some people use a fork, but I don’t mind getting my fingers purple. If the mess bothers you, you can freeze the clusters of berries on cookie sheets. Once they’re frozen, they come off the stems more easily.

Measure your berries. How many gallons do you have? Write this down somewhere.

Now, put your berries in a large crock or bucket—something big enough to hold them, with several inches left over at the top for foam. Pour enough boiling water over the berries to barely cover them. Cover the crock with a towel and leave it to steep for a day or so.

After the berries have had time to steep, add a packet of wine yeast. (Some people use baking yeast, but I’d suggest seeking out the wine yeast at a brew shop or online. Baking yeast can give off flavors.) Stir well.

Measure out 3 pounds of sugar for every gallon of elderberries you had. (Go find your notes.) Put the sugar in a pot with about a cup of water per pound of sugar. Heat until the sugar is entirely melted into a syrup. Cool the syrup and add it to the berries. (Sandorkraut suggests leaving the berries to ferment on their own for a few days before adding the sugar.)

Ferment the wine for four or five days, or until major bubbling has subsided. Stir it every day, several times a day—as often as you remember.

When it’s ready, strain the wine into a carboy or another container that will take an airlock. Make sure to squeeze all the juice out of the berries. Put an airlock on the carboy, and put the whole thing somewhere dark and not too cold. Leave it for a couple of months.

When you’re ready, siphon it into a clean carboy, leaving the “lees” (yeast residue) behind. You can taste it at this point, but it’ll likely be a little harsh. It needs a good six months or a year to mature. Leave it in a cool closet somewhere. (Don’t forget to check the airlock every once in a while to see if the water needs to be replenished.)

Bottle your wine in time for the following winter. In our house, we often drink a little glass after dinner as a winter tonic (and because it tastes really good). You can also use it just as you’d use any other elderberry preparation. It’s one of my favorites for staying healthy during flu season, and to support recovery from colds and flu.

I love to make herbal preparations that are as delicious as they are “good for you.” So elderberry wine is high on my list. It really is worth the wait.

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