Monday, August 26, 2013

Preserving: Peaches in Syrup

Back when I visited my grandmother in early July, I noticed an abundance of pears developing on the tree in her backyard. Last year, I used them to make a couple batches of pear sauce, but this year, the gears in my brain started going and I came up with a more ambitious list. Now that the pears are ready, I went with my mom and brother this past weekend to pick some. 

Last year, I attempted to pick pears on my own. Unfortunately, Grandma only had one rickety five-foot ladder and couldn't tell me where the long pear picker was. I attempted to get up onto the roof of the carport, but being out of shape and short, it didn't go very well. This year, I made sure there were reinforcements. My mom knew where the pear picker was, my brother was able to hop up on the carport roof and pick the good high ones, and I just scurried around on the lawn, collecting the pears as they were tossed down.

Most of the pears need to soften just a bit before they're usable, but I still managed to make a few things with Jeff yesterday. We made one batch of pears in syrup and some pear jelly (using the leftover peels and cores).

So what does all of this have to do with peaches, you ask? Making these peaches in syrup a week or so ago made the pears go so much more easily. We'd never canned fruit this way before, so the peaches were our trial run before dealing with the more difficult pears (which are hard to peel, have rotten spots, hard spots and sometimes worms inside - working with them is never straightforward). The hang-ups we had with the peaches taught us how to manage better with the pears. For example, we learned that our kitchen is not quite equipped to process ten pounds of peaches at one time. We simply do not have pots or bowls (at least, not nonreactive ones) large enough to manage this recipe. We were forced to split it in half, filling three jars, returning them to the canner, then peeling and prepping the rest of the peaches before filling the remaining jars and processing. Not ideal, of course, but there was not much to be done at that point and they seem to have come out fine. When we worked on the pears yesterday, we knew not to double the recipe, which calls for six pounds of fruit, or we would exceed our working capacity.

Since we still have pears distributed in bowls all over our house, I know a few more batches of this are in our future. Hopefully, each one will go even more smoothly than the last!

Peaches in Syrup
From Put 'Em Up.

6 500 mg vitamin C tablets, crushed (I made sure to get very plain, white tablets without any additional ingredients)
3 quarts cold water
4 c ice
10 lbs freestone peaches (you can, of course, use clingstone varieties, but it will mean a lot of extra work and will probably not be pretty in the long run)
6 3/4 c water
1 1/4 c sugar
1/2 c honey (I realized, as we worked on this recipe, that the honey we used came from the same farm as the peaches - talk about local!)

Clean and prepare six quart jars for processing.

In a large, non-reactive, extremely clean bowl, cooler or sink, add the vitamin C tablets to the cold water, stir to dissolve, and add the ice to create an anti-browning bath for the fruit (I used a large Pyrex mixing bowl and, as I mentioned above, had to do my peaches in two batches).

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add peaches, two at a time, blanching for 30-60 seconds, to loosen the skins. Remove the peaches to the anti-browning ice bath. Repeat with remaining peaches.

Cut the peaches in half, remove the pits and peel off the skin (you may be able to do this with your fingers, but some less ripe peaches may require the use of a paring knife to get every bit of skin off), returning each peach half to the ice bath as you finish with it. (If you end up having some smaller pieces, that's fine as well - just include them as well.)

Meanwhile, bring the 6 3/4 c water, sugar and honey to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan, stirring until the sugar is dissolved (you can do this after completing the peaches, as they sit in the anti-browning bath, or have them all going simultaneously).

Pack the peaches into the six hot jars.

Ladle the syrup into each jar, covering the peaches by about 1/2" and leaving 1/2" headspace. Release the air bubbles, screw on the lids and process in a boiling-water canner for 30 minutes. Store in a cool place for up to a year.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Farm Fridays: Heirloom Tomato Salsa

The tomatoes have really started coming in around here, so it's time for some serious canning.

I've found that we go through our canned goods rather slowly - so much so that I have to work at planning recipes that will use them up. For example, we put up fifteen quarts of canned tomatoes last year (plus a few pints), and five of them are still sitting in the basement. Somehow, despite going through applesauce like water the year before, most of last year's supply is still down on the shelf as well. While these things are delicious and useful, strategizing is often necessary to ensure they actually get used. However, there is one canned item that this does not apply to - in fact, I have to strategize about how to keep it  on the shelf. That item, my friends, is salsa.

I absolutely adore this heirloom tomato salsa recipe. I love how vinegary it is, the pretty mixture of colors, and how the assortment of heirlooms used gives each batch a slightly different flavor. Last month, I wrote about my sadness at cracking open the last remaining jar, which I had been jealously hoarding for months. But the time for sadness is past - now it's time to replenish those stores! We've made two batches of this salsa this month, and another one will likely go down this weekend. Since we were making this all the way into October last year, I think we've gotten a pretty good jump on things. This year, I hope to be able to give my salsa away freely and still have plenty to enjoy for my own afternoon snacks!

Heirloom Tomato Salsa
From Put 'Em Up, my go-to canning book. 
(The original recipe says that this makes 7 cups, but I like a thicker salsa, so I usually get about 5 out of it. I didn't cook this particular batch down far enough, so I ended up with 5 1/2.)
1 c distilled white vinegar
1/4 c sugar
1 tbsp salt
3 lbs heirloom tomatoes, seeded and diced (skins are fine here - how finely you chop them depends on how chunky you like your salsa)
1/2 lb onions, diced
1 jalapeno, seeds removed and minced
1 c cilantro, chopped

Combine the vinegar, sugar and salt in a large, nonreactive saucepan and whisk together. Bring to a boil (definitely put your vent fan on - boiling vinegar is hard on the eyes!).

Add the tomatoes, onions and jalapeno. Return to a boil for 15-20 minutes, until the salsa reaches the desired consistency.

Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

Ladle into clean, hot half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/2" headspace. Process 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner.

Monday, August 19, 2013

August Garden Update

I am currently paralyzed into inactivity. I have so much to do before the fall semester begins - prepping for the two classes I'm teaching, outlining my next dissertation chapter, getting materials ready for job applications - that, like a deer in the headlights, I have simply frozen and am getting nothing done, blogging included. I decided that catching up on a few blog posts might be a good way to jump-start my productivity for the week. So how about a quick garden tour?

The front yard herb garden is doing very well now that the weather has cooled down a bit (it was looking a bit scorched during that heat wave). The best thing we have going is this lemongrass plant - we actually had to move it so it didn't smother the bush it was planted next to. When I bought this back in May, it was a tiny plant in a quart container - now it's a three-foot-tall behemoth! I recently read that lemongrass can be as invasive as mint, so I hope I don't regret putting this in. Right now, though, it's filling in an empty space in the garden quite beautifully.

I've reclaimed a bit of the old herb garden in the back for fall crops. I planted the first wave of radishes and turnips a few weeks ago. The second wave has yet to go in. Hopefully I'll get going with it soon because I really want to try those beautiful golden turnips this fall!

The mobile bed on the driveway has finally gotten going. The farmers market pepper plants (Italian frying peppers, I think) have taken off and started producing, and a few of the plants I started from seed have caught up as well. Two of the red lipstick peppers on the left have flowers as does the final remaining Italian peperoncini all the way in the back on the right. So we're going to have a pepper harvest after all!

The other driveway plants aren't in great shape. We harvested the potatoes - you can see the results above. I was really excited when we dumped the bucket out and revealed the two small potatoes above - I had hope for more. Unfortunately, that was pretty much it: we harvested two ounces of potatoes (which is probably less than the one we planted to begin with!). The cucumber and squash plants on the driveway didn't do very well in their containers, so I've given up on them at this point.

The driveway cherry tomatoes are hanging in there, producing a tiny bit. The companion plantings are doing better - the basil in with them is beginning to thrive and the carrots and green onions are looking solid, if small. Something about the driveway hasn't been good for plantings in general, though. These pots will be back on the deck next year.

The wilt disease that struck my tomatoes (bacterial wilt? early blight?) took a few more victims. I lost both plants next to the deck. My strategy of quickly removing all infected leaves has worked quite well, but I slacked off for a few weeks and those two plants succumbed. The carrots planted below them are doing very well - I pulled out a 6" long one a few weeks ago, which is definitely the largest I've ever grown. Carrots just seem to need lots and lots of time in my yard.

The raised bed is doing fairly well, despite its multitude of problems. As I said, I'm managing the wilt disease pretty well and the remaining plants have grown to gargantuan proportions. The remaining yellow plum tomato (all five plants that have succumbed to wilt were yellow plums) has two branches, each of which is over fifteen feet long. All of the plants were too big for even my tallest stakes, which they were bending and stressing. I recruited Jeff to help me re-stake them all this weekend. He acquired two very tall fan-shaped trellises which you can just see in the picture - each one is a third of the way into the bed, and both are perpendicular to the camera. We twined every single tomato plant into these two, with a few extra supporting stakes for those that needed it, and then tied them firmly to the posts on the edges of the bed. That should take care of them.

Cucumbers have been the other big success out of that bed. So far we've harvested fifteen pounds of them - I've made two different kinds of pickle and a batch of relish. The leaves have begun to look diseased, but since the plants are still producing prolifically, I'm ignoring it right now. I'm more concerned about the leaves that went missing off of the ends of two vines that trailed outside the bed - preliminary research suggests groundhogs do that. The last thing I need is a groundhog eating what little produce my poor garden manages to squeeze out!

I seem to be good at growing squash vines (if not actual squashes). This is a picture of a pine tree that has been usurped by two plants - one, a mystery squash that came up in a place where I didn't even think we composted, has turned out to be a decorative gourd (those are the fresh, pointy leaves in the picture); the other is one of my massive, sprawling pumpkin vines that has decided to join the party (the rounded leaves). The pumpkin has had some kind of mildew on its leaves for months now, but it hasn't really affected growth so I'm leaving it alone.

This picture shows the rest of the squash patch. The vines creeping out onto the lawn are from the two summer crookneck squash plants that keep growing without producing anything. Most squash wither and drop off even before the blossom has a chance to bloom. We've only gotten one tiny squash so far, although I think there are three others trying to grow right now. There are two small, struggling mystery squash plants in there as well (I think one may be a butternut), but everything else you see is pumpkin.

And, lo and behold, we have pumpkins! These are from seeds I saved out of an Amish neck pumpkin I got last fall - the most delicious pie pumpkin I'd ever tried, with a very small seed cavity so it's mostly usable material. And we have two enormous pumpkins so far. I'm hoping for a couple more, but the two that are on there are so large that it'll be worth it if they're all I harvest. This one has got to be at least ten pounds already and going strong. The other one is actually beginning to turn a bit yellow-tan, so it might be ready soon (I did start these plants really early, back in March).

I'm keeping an incredibly detailed spreadsheet of everything we harvest (Jeff loves having to weigh the herbs he cuts, down to the quarter ounce, before he uses them). So far our harvest weighs in at about twenty-five pounds of produce (three-fifths of which has been from cucumbers) and counting. Just wait until we add in those pumpkins! After all the problems this garden has been through (late frosts, bacterial diseases, flooding rain, scorching heat, several infestations), I'm really enjoying this time of year. The work is mostly over - even the need for weeding has gone down - and we're just reaping the benefits from here on in.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Farm Fridays: Lemony Ricotta Summer Squash Galette

I meant to post this days and days ago, but I've been incapacitated by a terrible summer cold/sinus infection. I've been on the couch all week, hardly even picking up my laptop (which seems soooo heavy and requires me to actually sit up). I must be feeling a bit better, because I have the energy to work on this now. I'd better be recovering, because I really want to get going with some canning projects this weekend!

I did manage to drag myself up to the farm yesterday morning and was extremely pleased with all the produce. After several sparse weeks, things are finally picking up. The blackberries are ready for picking and they are gorgeous - all the bushes were absolutely laden with huge berries. I also picked up another delicious watermelon, lots of plump tomatoes and pounds of new potatoes. And, of course, the ubiquitous summer squash.

I know that a lot of people get sick of summer squash - once it starts coming in, it can smother you. But I'm more than happy to be drowned in squash. I really only started to eat it two years ago, and the honeymoon stage isn't over yet. There are still tons of great squash recipes out there that I haven't tried. (If the squash plants in my garden actually produced anything, I might be forced to eat my words.)

When this recipe showed up in my August Better Homes and Gardens, I knew it had to be made right away. I'm a big tart person, so a tart with summer squash sounded too good to pass up. While I do love a flaky, buttery crust, I went a bit more healthy with this one and tried out an olive oil crust. It was definitely tougher (on day one, it was difficult to bite through in places), but was much better the next day after it had softened. The filling was awesome - summer squash and ricotta cheese is a winning combination in my book. A slice of this tart and a salad makes for a delicious summer lunch.

Lemony Ricotta Summer Squash Galette
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens August 2013. Tart dough is from Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal.

2 1/2 c flour
1/3 c quality olive oil
1/2 c ice water
1 tsp fine salt

2 zucchini or summer squash, thinly sliced (the recipe says two medium-sized squash, which will yield 2 1/2 c, but my two yielded much more than that - I added all the slices I could squeeze onto the tart and then saved the rest for another recipe)
3/4 c ricotta cheese
1/2 c Parmesan cheese
1/4 c shredded mozzarella cheese
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp lemon zest
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 egg yolk

Mix together the flour, olive oil, and salt in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Slowly drizzle in the ice water until the dough clumps together into a ball. Remove the dough, divide in half, roll each half into a ball and flatten into a disc. Set one half aside for another project (I slip it into a ziplock bag and freeze it). Put the half you are using in the refrigerator to chill for about an hour.

Put the squash slices into a colander and sprinkle with salt, tossing to coat. Let drain for 15 minutes, then pat dry with paper towels.

Preheat oven to 400° F. Remove the tart dough from the fridge and place on a sheet of parchment paper. Roll it into a rough 12" circle (the dough will be tough to roll out, so I like to prep it with a Julia Child technique: literally beat the dough with your rolling pin until it begins to stretch out, then roll. This helps soften the dough without warming it with your hands)

In a small bowl, mix together the cheeses, garlic, 1 tsp olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Spread the filling over the dough, leaving a clean 2" edge. Top this with the drained and dried squash slices (I piled three or four layers of squash on there). Drizzle the top with the remaining olive oil, then salt and pepper to taste.

Gently fold over the edges of the crust to keep in all the filling (I also took the opportunity to fold under all the rough, irregular edges from my clumsy rolling).

In a small bowl, combine the egg yolk with 1 tsp water. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash over the crust.

Slide the parchment and tart onto a baking sheet and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the crust is golden and the squash is tender. Enjoy!