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!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Raspberry Buckwheat Pancakes

A few weeks ago, I had the brilliant idea of putting berries into pancakes. Unfortunately, I had this idea while we were still in the midst of the monsoon rains of a few weeks ago. When I went to the farmer's market that Friday, there were no raspberries to be had. I was told that they didn't get a chance to pick them that morning before the rain, but to try again the next day. So the next morning, as Jeff prepared our pancake batter, I ran back over, intent on berries. No dice. It had still been too rainy.

Ever since then, I've been desperately craving raspberries. I'd seen them at the market for weeks before that, but wasn't inclined to buy them. I enjoyed the few berries we got off of our backyard bushes, and that seemed to be enough. But once this pancake idea got into my head, I had to have them. Unfortunately, as soon as I wanted raspberries, they were unavailable at the market - the berry bushes I'd been waiting for during the rains had finished for the season and the next set of berries wasn't ready yet.

This week, the raspberries are finally back! As soon as I saw them, I pounced, determined to have my pancakes. As it turns out, these were totally worth the wait. The tartness of the berries adds a huge pop of flavor to the nutty buckwheat. Add a little pecan syrup to the mix and you've got yourself an extremely tasty breakfast.

Raspberries + pancakes = deliciousness.

Raspberry Buckwheat Pancakes
Slightly adapted from Simply Recipes.

3/4 c buckwheat flour
3/4 c flour
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 egg
2 c buttermilk, divided
1 c raspberries (or more!)

Preheat a griddle on the stove over medium-low heat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, slat and baking soda. Pour the melted butter over the dry ingredients and mix slightly. Measure out 1 c of buttermilk, add the egg and whisk well to combine. Pour into the dry mixture and stir to combine. Slowly pour in the remaining buttermilk, stirring until just incorporated. Do not overmix or you'll get tough pancakes!

Spritz your griddle with a little cooking spray.

Ladle the batter onto the griddle in 1/4 c increments, then sprinkle with raspberries (I fit about 5-7 berries per pancake). Cook about 3 minutes (until the edge of the pancake starts to bubble and can be lifted with a spatula), then flip and cook another 2-3 minutes. Add more cooking spray, if necessary, and repeat with remaining batter.

Serve with pecan syrup and garnish with extra berries.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Farm Fridays: Sauteed Kale with Bacon

My farm share has been looking pretty scanty lately. The crop loss and delayed plantings due to the eight inches of rain we had in June are finally having an impact on my basket. The quality of the produce hasn't suffered, though. I brought home two bunches of beautiful curly kale this week. One of them will be making its way into a casserole in a few days, but I decided that the rest of it ought to be used immediately, while it was still so wonderfully fresh and crisp. I had a single strip of bacon in the freezer, left over from something we made a few weeks ago, so this dish was a no-brainer.

Why is it that the dark greens - kale, spinach, collards - which are so wonderfully healthy and good go so well with bacon, which, despite its deliciousness, is one of the least healthy foods in the universe? And bacon is so efficient: cooking oil, flavor agent and meaty goodness all in one! Even better, I threw this dish together in my cast iron skillet, so that bacony flavor will be infused in future dishes. That one strip of bacon wears many hats (not to mention artery clogger and cholesterol raiser).

I'm not really trying to scare you off the bacon, though. Everything in moderation, right? It's just one strip of bacon, and its ill effects are (maybe) counteracted by the pile of vitamin- and fiber-full greens. We all want to be healthy, but we have to live a little, too. And somewhere in the midst of that compromise, my friends, this dish lies. So enjoy your bacon. And enjoy your kale.

Sauteed Kale with Bacon

1 strip thick-cut smoked bacon
1/2 onion
4 oz kale
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and saute 3-4 minutes, until the fat has rendered and the edges begin to crisp.

Add the onion and saute another 4-5 minutes, until softened and translucent.

Finally, add the kale (in batches, if necessary - I managed to squeeze it all into this pan at once, but it was a stretch). Cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted but still vibrantly green, about 7-8 minutes.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

July Garden Update

Once again, I have a cautiously optimistic garden update for all of you. Cautious optimism seems to be the theme of my garden. I know some things aren't going well, but I keep plugging along anyway.

As you can see from the above picture, the most successful thing going down right now is the cucumber harvest. I grew cucumbers in this exact same spot two years ago and got nothing - just a couple scrawny little things that sat and rotted in the crisper drawer. This year, however, the cucumbers are thriving. Why? I have no idea. I'm just happy to be getting something! I've already canned a batch of dill pickle chips and another batch (just a few hours ago) of pickle relish, all from our own cucumber harvest. And, based on what I see on those vines, there will be many more lovely cucumbers to come this summer. I'm not going to question it - I'm just going to harvest them and enjoy!

The herb garden has adapted fairly well to being moved to the front yard. The heat has taken its toll (I really should have been watering it more during that heat wave), but most things are thriving. Check out that lemongrass in the back - growing like a weed! I'm going to have to transplant it before it takes over that bush!

The only casualty of the move was my winter savory plant, which sadly died a few weeks ago. Everything else is coming along nicely and, as I said in my last post, I'm still enjoying popping out into the front yard to gather my herbs!

The old herb garden in the back hasn't been dealt with yet (except for weeding - it was totally taken over by grass until we finally got to it on Sunday). I tried to give some of those extra herbs away to neighbors and had some interest, except no one actually turned up to take them home. While I continue to try to find them homes, I'm starting my fall crops in the bare sections. I planted some small rows of turnips and radishes in the front of this patch on Sunday. It would be a great spot for greens, too, if I could get my hands on some more seeds.

The tomato plants next to the deck are finally looking awesome - they are enormously tall and are full of tiny tomatoes. Unfortunately, my tomato crop has been hit by some sort of bacterial wilting disease. It started in the raised bed, where I've lost three huge plants so far and it seems to have spread to every tomato plant in the yard. I've been trying to stave it off by removing any infected leaves that I see, but I think it's already too late for these - one of the largest branches has started to wilt. Hopefully I'll get some tomatoes off of them before they succumb. Below the tomatoes is a very lovely looking crop of carrots and another of green onions. At least something over there is going well!

Across from those, in the strawberry patch, is my one tiny tomato plant - Matt's wild cherry. The minuscule tomatoes only just began to ripen, so I don't know how they taste yet. This plant got off to a really slow, unhappy start (it still looks rather yellow at the bottom), but it's starting to surge forward again. I read that this wild variety actually reseeds itself, so we'll see what turns up on that spot next year!

The raised bed in the back looks amazing. The tomato plants - both the four I purchased and the five "mystery" plants that came up from the compost - just shot up. Once the plants got going, they quickly surpassed my six-foot-tall bamboo stakes and started falling all over the place. Unfortunately, just as that was happening, they acquired that bacterial disease. It started with one plant mysteriously wilting, then another. Then I noticed the spotty, yellowed leaves. Now every single plant is infected. I had to remove three of the beautiful plum tomato plants.

This picture shows the scale of the single remaining plant, which was the biggest from the beginning. Check out the top of the plant in the top right of the picture, then follow the stem back to the ground - it's at least twelve feet tall, and has another branch that's nearly as big. It, too, has this infection, but I've been pulling off diseased leaves and what remains looks pretty healthy. I hope it can pull through, because it's just dripping with baby tomatoes!

The other side of the garden, apart from the cucumber vines, still has a row of collard greens. Most of my chard died in the heat wave (they never got very big anyway) and I recently pulled out my bolting arugula. I put in half a row of carrots the other day and I'll be starting more in the coming weeks.

The big news out of this area, though, is the squash patch. The difference between this picture and the one I took a month ago is amazing. The pumpkins love it over there! I have yet to see a pumpkin start to grow, but the side shoots are only just starting to spread out. There are still two giant summer squash plants under there. They are filled with blossoms and growing like weeds, but so far we haven't gotten any squash. There have been very few female flowers and the baby squashes seem to shrivel and die off right away. I don't think it's a pollination issue, because those flowers are covered with bees. I really hope the pumpkins will do better than the summer squash - those are what I'm really hoping for!

We've also acquired a few mystery squash plants in the back garden bed. Two small vines popped up and I just let them grow. Even though I only took this picture two days ago, the vine on the left is half dead right now, having succumbed to vine borers. I guess the preventative foil I wrapped around the base of the pumpkin and summer squash plants paid off, since they're all looking great. I hope the other mystery squash sticks around, because I'm curious to learn what it is and how it got over there. 

The driveway plants are still struggling. I've given up on the cucumbers in the low oval pot - it doesn't drain and they've basically drowned. The cherry tomatoes are doing ok - a bit spindly, but I've harvested some already. They, too, have the bacterial disease, but I've pulled off infected leaves and it doesn't seem to be spreading. The bucket on the right, with our single potato plant, is looking like a disappointment. I tried digging for baby potatoes a few weeks ago and found literally nothing, so I don't have high hopes. We'll see what happens when the greens die back and we dump everything out.

Let's end on a high note - the peppers in the mobile bed are finally growing! I didn't do anything - I never even tested the soil. They just began to adapt, I guess. The six Italian peppers I bought, on the right side, are actually starting to thrive. They've gone from yellow to green, are growing well and even have flowers. A few of my from seed peppers are also getting bigger, although no buds yet. I hope I at least get to try a pepper or two before the season is over. There's definitely still time - I got small pepper varieties on purpose, knowing that bell peppers often took too long to develop in the past.

So far my harvest (which I have been keeping meticulous track of) has been minuscule - eleven pounds of food, total, and nearly six pounds of those have been cucumbers. I'm crossing my fingers that there will be no more disasters and hoping for a late surge!