Monday, September 29, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: September, Week 5

Since I started this month's Preserving the Seasons posts so early in the month, you get a bonus for the series. And guess what? You don't even have to do any work for it. Just sit back, and I'll unfold a tale or two...

One of the best things to come from this year's CSA subscription -- and quite possibly, THE best -- has been the opportunity to spend time with My Wonderful Parents, to talk about food and farming and the things that concern and delight me about both, and to hear their views and their stories about what things were like when they were growing up.

They've told me about the gardens their families grew, the refrigeration business the Chef Mother's father ran, the composting practices of My Dear Papa's father, and so on. And the more I heard, the more I wanted them to document those memories.

So I asked them on one of our CSA pickup trips, "Why don't you write these things down?" I figured if I could learn from them, so could my Dear Readers, especially those who have been so interested in the Preserving series.

One day, I received a thick envelope in the mail -- with five pages of those memories, from both My Wonderful Parents, along with the permission to share them with you. So I'll try to distill what they have so graciously offered.

The Chef Mother remembers beginning to help tend the garden around the age of six or seven, starting with weeding. She notes that weeding wasn't too difficult "because the garden had really been cleared before planting. Daddy hired a guy with a tractor to plow and disc [the plot]," which cut off a large number of weeds before they could establish themselves.

The family grew a wide variety of vegetables with the intention of preserving most of the harvest while enjoying some in season:

--beets, parsnips, green peppers, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and greens appeared at the dinner table for fresh seasonal produce;
--tomatoes, cucumbers (for pickles), and peaches all were canned, with some tomato juice and catsup also included;
--apples and sauce (from an aunt's trees), corn, black raspberries, elderberries, peaches, winter squash, peas, lima beans, spinach, green and wax beans all ended up in a large double-door freezer (probably the first in town!);
--popcorn, white and sweet potatoes, onions, green tomatoes wrapped in newspaper all got stored in the basement in boxes;
--salsify, some carrots, and turnips were covered with hay and left in the ground to dig up after frosts;
--jams and jellies made from quince (a tree in the backyard), apples, grapes, raspberries, peaches.

At the age of seven or eight, the Chef Mother started helping her mother preserve the harvest, starting with peaches. Though she didn't use knives regularly until a few years later, she was able to peel the peaches and pack them "pit side down so they looked good" before her mother added the hot syrup. As the Chef Mother became involved in 4-H, she learned more about preservation, and by the age of twelve "I could pack up a storm" with quarts of tomatoes, pickles, and peaches lining the root cellar shelves.

While their garden certainly produced a good deal of food for a family of (eventually) six, the Chef Mother indicates that they bought (and gathered) other foods for storage:

--two bushels of peaches from Catawba Island (usually Golden Jubilees)
--cherries from near Clyde, Ohio (and some from an aunt's trees)
--one peck pears
--plums from the neighbor
--black walnuts and hickory nuts (her father's favorite) from along the country roads

And though this all sounds like a lot of hard work, they made it a celebration, with a week-long pickling extravaganza for the family hot dill pickles, and pea-shelling and bean-snapping parties in the backyard (I can even remember something like this as a young child, sitting under the big tree out back).

My Dear Papa, though not as involved in the preservation work as the Chef Mother was, reports a similar childhood. His family also had an extensive garden that managed to feed five:

--Fordhook lima beans (usually picked large and starchy), wax and green (Kentucky Wonder) beans, peas, cucumbers
--Silver Queen white corn and Golden Bantam yellow corn
--tomatoes, peppers
--acorn and summer squashes
--Danvers half long carrots

Other family members shared produce from their gardens and fruit trees: asparagus and Hubbard squash from his grandparents, quince from an aunt and uncle in the area, and blackberries from an aunt in Conneaut. Neighbors willingly shared surplus produce back and forth, and My Dear Papa remembers foraging for hickory nuts, black walnuts, and beech nuts (some from a nearby golf course).

Their family did not have a freezer until many years later, so canning was the primary method of food preservation. He remembers his mother preserving:

--catsup, pickle relish, cucumber relish, green tomato relish
--pickled and not-pickled pears, peaches (Hale Haven and Golden Jubilee), plums (purple and yellow), cherries, tomatoes
--bread and butter pickles, some mustard pickles
--jellies: grape, apple, apricot, quince

In addition, My Dear Papa notes that they raised their own chickens and had plenty of eggs, and with all this other food coming in from the garden, they "did have a lot to eat."

The rural upbringing both My Wonderful Parents enjoyed -- and make no mistake, despite all the work, they look back on it with fondness -- lives on in them. Despite now living in a much smaller place, they have managed to keep some of those traditions alive. My Dear Papa makes an annual ritual of growing tomatoes wherever he can, even if it's just a few pots out on the patio, and this year he also tried growing herbs, squash, and cucumbers. (Not everything made it, but he did try.)

On top of that, they have both made a more concerted effort to preserve produce for winter, especially since they've gotten so much through our CSA share. They first filled the freezer with early produce such as peas and beans and berries, but as the summer went on, they put up okra pickles, canned tomatoes and peaches, and now applesauce and apple butter. They even decided to stop borrowing my canner and to buy their own (though they still share my chinois as needed). They bought a shelving unit and have steadily filled up shelves with -- pun intended, of course -- the fruits of their labor (as seen from these photos).

Is it any wonder, then, that I do so much food preservation myself? That tradition colored my childhood, too, and I am so grateful for it. I've learned a lot from My Wonderful Parents over the years, and if they are learning a little from me now, getting back to their roots as they see me carrying on the tradition, then that just pleases me to no end.

Though it's obvious that our efforts at food preservation have the main objective of keeping us well fed throughout the year, I think it's no stretch to say that produce isn't the only thing being preserved. We're preserving family traditions, memories, stories, and that wonderful sense of community and togetherness that makes it all worthwhile. We find so much joy in coming to the table together to share good food, so why not also find the joy in coming together to preserve the food that eventually ends up on the table?

Thanks to My Wonderful Parents, I have plenty of that joy in my life.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Canner Weekend

Here it is, nearly the end of September, and I really thought I'd be done with canning by now. Silly me!

Instead, I'm taking advantage of the abundance of produce lingering in my refrigerator and on my counters to try several new things on the food preservation front:

I've gotten pears in our CSA basket for a couple of weeks, and since I've already started pear liqueur and made pear butter (sort of) this year, I decided to try making pickled spiced pears. I followed a low-sugar recipe (using white grape juice) and spiced the juice-vinegar brine with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and ginger. As you can see, I only got one pint made, but that's just fine considering I don't even know yet if I'll like them! (I did save a few pears for roasting or baking, so perhaps you'll hear more about those soon.)

I also had plenty of plums left from last week's farmers' market, and I decided just to can them (again, low-sugar, using white grape juice) in the hopes that maybe later I could dump them into a plum crisp. I'm sorry to admit that I got a little distracted while simmering the plums (between filling the jar with pears and talking on the phone), so instead of simmering them for two minutes, they bubbled for nearly eight, and they collapsed when I spooned them into the jar. Oh well, they're not pretty, but I bet they'll still taste good!

I decided to try making spiced crabapples with the tiny fruit I picked at the Archivist's "farm" yesterday. I simmered them in a vinegar-sugar syrup with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice, and then I let them sit in the syrup overnight to finish softening.

This morning, I heated them back up to boiling while the canner got up to speed, and after ten minutes in a boiling water bath, two jars of spiced crabapples came out, ready for storage.

I've been gathering tomatillos from the CSA shares for a couple of weeks, but since I've already got enough salsa for the next year, I wanted to try something different. And as I browsed one of my cookbooks, I spotted a recipe for green tomato mincemeat.

Now, I remember the Chef Mother making green tomato mincemeat, and I remember my reaction to it: wrinkled nose, tongue stuck out, a distinct "Yuck!", and a quick exit from the room. (I was not the most adventurous kid in culinary matters, and I'd sometimes like to go back and shake up that little girl a bit.)

But, well, times change, and I'm more willing to give things a try now. So this morning I chopped the tomatillos, shredded my three remaining apples, added vinegar and sugar and spices and such, and set the pot on the stove to simmer for a good long time.

And gradually I started to realize, hey, that smells pretty good! The spices, mingled with vinegar and butter, brought out the sweetness of the fruits (including some of my home-dried raisins), and it set my mouth to watering.

After a couple of hours, it had simmered long enough, turning it brown and a little thicker and altogether fragrant. So I turned up the heat under the canner and got ready to process the batch.

I ended up with two and a half pints of tomatillo mincemeat, and surely that will be enough to let me know if I actually do like it or not this winter!

I switched gears temporarily in the afternoon, making a fresh batch of vegetable stock, frying up a pan full of nettle fritters, and making a zucchini "surprise" casserole for lunches this week.

But I finished by using up the nasturtium blossoms I had picked in the Victory Garden on Friday, putting them in a sterilized jar with fresh dill from the Archivist's garden and covering it all with boiling hot white vinegar. The vinegar immediately started to draw color and flavor from the blossoms, and in a couple of weeks, I can strain the flavored vinegar and bottle it for salad dressings and other culinary dreams.

It's been a busy weekend -- but wow! Look at the results!

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Farm Out!

As obsessed as I am about food (growing, preserving, and eating), I do actually think of other things sometimes -- like work.

I usually don't get to connect food to what I do at work, though sometimes I get lucky. Usually my food-related thinking at work consists of mentally planning my meals or preservation projects while working on a database -- or telling the students I work with about all the delicious things I cook, just to make them regret the lack of excitement in cafeteria food.

But when I find time during a busy work week to talk with the Archivist -- whether about a project or shared frustrations or joys -- we inevitably end up talking about our gardens and our cooking. I'm not the only one around here committed to local foods: the Archivist has for several years grown the vast majority of the produce she and her husband eat through the year, and her baking, cooking, and canning skills (and results) rival mine. Easily.

The Archivist tends to be a pretty private person, so I feel very fortunate to have cultivated a friendship with her, and I felt even more honored to receive an invitation to visit her on her "farm" this weekend, ostensibly to gather some of the "crops" she and her husband haven't
found ways to use (namely, black walnuts and crabapples and rose hips) but also to visit the gardens and enjoy the beautiful utility of it all.

Five Acre Field, as they call it, started 18 years ago as a bare piece of land way out in the country. The Archivist and her husband built their house and gradually added perennial beds, trees, and a surprisingly small vegetable garden laid out in raised beds. They have left a large section of the property's perimeter wild, with walking paths cut through for them to reach the wild blackberry and black raspberry canes, elderberry bushes, mulberry trees, herbs, and wildflowers that have grown up over the years. Just walking along the paths takes you into a
world of peace, where the sounds you hear are limited to birdsong and insect tunes, underscored by the wind ruffling the leaves and plants.

The vegetable garden contains beds for a variety of produce: sweet and hot peppers in a couple spots, corn, a long row of astonishingly productive tomato plants, horseradish, onions, garlic, greens, peas, and herbs and flowers to draw in pollinators and other beneficial insects. (We spotted a praying mantis while we wandered around the beds.)

Where early crops were pulled midsummer, the Archivist sowed more beans, both for a potential second crop and to fix nitrogen back into the soil. (It's a technique I'll have to work into next year's garden planning myself.) She saves seeds from one year's crop to the next, making it even easier to keep growing the things they both love.

In the heart of the vegetable garden, raised beds contain strawberry plants, surrounded by
more flowers. That will be a treat come June!

Farther afield, the Archivist has planted a variety of fruits. Though the Concord grapes have been pruned back considerably this year (and damaged by the recent windstorm), the Archivist reported making about 10 liters of grape juice from this year's crop, soon to be turned into jelly. (And their grape jelly is wonderful stuff!)

Their fruit trees have provided a great deal of additional fruit this year, from pears for pear
butter to Red Delicious apples for applesauce. And to their surprise, their peach tree, completely unproductive in previous years, is absolutely loaded with small apricot-sized fruit that are just now starting to ripen. (Keep your fingers crossed that we have enough warmth left in the season for them to harvest those beauties for jam!)

And did I mention that while not certified, their entire "farm" is organic? No sprays, no nothing -- just an abundance of good food.

After my "tour" of the property, the Archivist turned me loose with my many bags to glean the unused "fruits" of the farm, starting with black walnuts. I admit, I'm not a big fan of black walnuts: I'm not crazy about their flavor, and I know you don't want them near a garden because they produce a slightly toxic substance that can inhibit the growth of some produce (as we've seen in the Victory Garden this year).

But My Wonderful Parents love black walnuts, and so I gathered two plastic shopping bags full of nuts still in their hulls, along with half a bag of walnuts I was able to hull on the spot. I'm glad I had a pair of rubber gloves with me because the juices from the hulls (saffron yellow) and from the shells (black) can stain hands and clothes something awful. (If I were more knowledgeable about dyeing
yarns or fabrics, maybe I could have done something with them, but ah well.)

Once I'd had my fill of the black walnuts, I worked my way back up the front field and gathered a bunch of small yellow crabapples before working my way around a very large rose bush, picking brilliant red rose hips from the canes. These hips are shaped differently from the ones I bought at the farmers' market earlier this season -- small and oblong instead of large and round -- but I gathered enough (I think) to make a small batch of rose hip jam sometime this weekend or week.

That's an awfully good amount of gleaning and foraging for an hour or more, and it will certainly all keep me busy this weekend.

After that, the Archivist invited me in for some of her homemade bread and wonderful Hungarian potato-bean soup, made with beans and carrots from her garden, potatoes from a neighbor, and sour cream and vinegar for the tangy creaminess. What a treat!

And then I headed home again, with food, ideas, and much gratitude for the opportunity to learn some new things about farming -- and for the friendship of a thoughtful and generous kindred spirit.

What a wonderful field trip!

Labels: , , , , ,

Market Report: 9/27/08

The skies are grey, threatening rain, but the temperatures are pleasant, making my Saturday morning trip down to the farmers' market a quiet pleasure.

Our annual "Oktoberfest" is going on this weekend, so the farmers relocated to a parking lot off the square. Several farmers weren't there (including the Lady Bountiful), and I can't blame them -- they really don't get as much traffic or business during this annual event.

But for those who were there, I spent some time talking with them and enjoying what they had to offer.

Having stopped at the grocery store on the way to the market (just to buy things I couldn't get at the market, like lemons, cheese, and vinegar), I decided I'd better not load up on produce this week. So I restrained myself and went home with:

--two small onions, a quart of green beans, and two small bulbs of garlic from the Cheerful Lady
--small zucchini, tiny Brussels sprouts, and broccoli from the Amish Farmer
--curly kale and a bag of spinach from the Madcap Farmer
--Caribe potatoes (purple skin, white flesh) and shallots from the Sheep Farmer
--a small pumpkin cheesecake, a slice of pumpkin roll, and a macaroon from a new baker

Some of the produce is, obviously, for keeping (onions, garlic, shallots, potatoes), and some I hope to cook with this week -- seeing the Brussels sprouts made me crave roasted sprouts, such a delicious warming dish. The spinach will get dried, and I'm not sure about some of the zucchini or broccoli, though I may preserve some of them, too.

But for the most part, I'm having to set all that produce aside to get to my list of other preservation projects this weekend because I really need to use up some of the CSA produce I've had for up to two weeks. (Eeek!)

It's going to be a busy weekend, and I'll share more later.

But what a way to start!

Labels: ,

Friday, September 26, 2008

And On We Grow...

You've been reading all these recent posts about all the preserving I've been doing, and you've probably been thinking, what a busy bee! How does she do it all?

True confession time: I don't do it all. For all the time I've spent preserving lately, I've been neglecting something else. And I have really been a slacker where the garden is concerned -- I haven't been there in three and a half weeks.

On that front, though, I'm blessed to have help. The Southern Belle has kept an eye on the garden patch, picking things as they ripen (with Scooter's help on the tomatoes) and pulling recognizable weeds. If it weren't for her, the place would be a jungle.

But I finally managed to find time in my schedule and met up with her today to talk with her, visit My Adorable Nephews, and work in the garden myself.

We've come a long way from the garden's lush peak, now that some of the older crops have been pulled (like beans) and others are dying back (like tomatoes). But there are still vibrant green pockets: look at those nasturtiums take over!

The tomato plants have had a rough time the past month or so, and they're looking really scraggly at this point. The Southern Belle has pulled all of the ripe tomatoes she could salvage (recent weather has caused many to crack and rot), and she has begun pulling the green tomatoes to save for salsa or relish (or fried!). On the up side, though, having the tomatoes die back means that we can now find the flourishing basil plants, and the Southern Belle now has my recipe for pesto and the inspiration to clean out the basil for that project!

With the tomato vines withering and drawing back, we can now find a lush row of carrots
continuing to strengthen. There are pockets of carrots around the garden, and none have grown very big yet, but I thinned out some small ones (probably for more roasting) and suggested that if we can, we should leave the carrots in the ground until after frost so they can sweeten.

The kale that I planted mid-summer is looking healthy but also very tasty to the Mystery Muncher, which has been nibbling away at the leaves. Given the small quantity in the garden and the likelihood of repeated visits from the MM, I decided to
pick the entire crop of leaves to enjoy myself. (And if more grows back, great!)

While the Southern Belle weeded, I harvested seeds from the amaranth spikes and from the gai lan plants. I also found plenty more stinging nettle shoots and filled a gallon storage bag with the leaves for making more of those delicious fritters.

I ended up heading home with considerably more produce and seeds than I had expected:

--half a dozen green tomatoes (I left the rest with the Southern Belle)
--a very small watermelon
--a bag full of nettles
--a bag half-full of kale
--a bunch of Italian parsley
--a bag half-full of nasturtium leaves and blossoms
--a handful of basil and dill
--small bags of seeds for amaranth and gai lan

I know that there's more I could have grown in the garden for fall harvest, and I intend to make better plans for that next year. The Southern Belle, the Absent-Minded Professor (garden builder and hungry man), and My Adorable Nephews have all enjoyed the garden so much this year that I'm thinking of ways to build on that excitement for next year. The AMP has already offered to build another garden bed, thus doubling the space for cultivation, and the Southern Belle and I have started discussing possible crops. I've even got ideas for a couple of projects for the boys to help engage their minds and bodies in growing the garden.

So much to consider and do! So on we go...

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What's Cookin' in the Government?

No, I'm not going to take advantage of this space to air my opinions on the current financial crisis (though I do have some strong words for the situation). Instead, I'm going to stick to food. I've been working on an article for a work-related newsletter lately, and I wanted to share excerpts from it with you.

(NOTE: All titles are given the government's SuDocs classification numbers, and you can find them through your local depository library.)

The federal government distributes a great deal of information on nutrition and the health effects caused in part by poor food choices (through diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and so on). But beyond the Food Pyramid, can you find any concrete information in government documents on how to eat right? You bet! Several federal agencies and departments have long furthered the cause of good eating, good health, and good consumer choices through recipe booklets published from the 1930s to the present.

Let's start with the basics: the Agriculture Department's Home and Garden Bulletin series (A 1.77:nos.) includes a large number of booklets on buying, storing, cooking, and seasoning foods under the title (Food) in family meals: a guide for consumers. The series includes food such as eggs (no.103/4), vegetables (105/7), poultry (110/5), fruits (125/4), milk (127/3), and nuts (176/2). These booklets date from the late 1970s, so the recipes range from classics like spoonbread to some of the dishes I remember from my childhood, like beef Stroganoff.

The Home and Garden Bulletin series also includes separate recipe titles like Apples in Appealing Ways (A 1.77:161/2, published 1977), featuring dishes such as Waldorf salad and the apple coffeecake I recently adapted for a fall equinox meal.

If some of those recipes sound a little old-fashioned, don't be surprised. The government has shared recipes since the late 1920s, when a radio program featured the USDA-created character Aunt Sammy (wife of Uncle Sam) to talk about the menus and recipes as well as other household matters. Though the character faded away during the Great Depression, some of her favorite foods reappeared in 1976 in another Home and Garden Bulletin called Selections from Aunt Sammy's Radio Recipes and USDA Favorites (A 1.77:215). Recipes like baked cheese and macaroni, Harvard beets, and "rocks" (drop cookies with raisins and walnuts, pictured here) are supplemented with Seventies additions from beef shish kabobs and curried pork chops to yellow chiffon cake.

Other classic (and simple) recipes appeared in a pair of documents from the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s: Refrigerator Recipes (Y 3.R 88:2 R 24) and Table Cookery (Y 3.R 88:2 C 77/3). Through these booklets, the REA sought to persuade rural homemakers that using electric appliances such as refrigerators and electric roasters could provide them "a new Freedom" in cooking -- not to mention such delicacies as homemade refrigerator cookies and ice cream.

Stretching family food budgets, vitally important during the Depression, appears as a recurrent theme in documents containing recipes. Though some of the earlier recipe books assume that thriftiness naturally guides a homemaker's approach to cooking, government publications from the latter part of the twentieth century make a specific effort to educate consumers on how best to shop for and cook economical meals:

Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2000. (A 1.2:R 24/2)

Evans, Mary Doran. Thrifty Meals For Two: Making Food Dollars Count. Washington: Dept. of Agriculture, Human Nutrition Service, 1985. (Home and Garden Bulletin, no.244) (A 1.77:244)

Human Nutrition Service. Making Food Dollars Count: Nutritious Meals at Low Cost. Washington: Dept. of Agriculture, 1989. (Home and Garden Bulletin, no.240) (A 1.77:240)

Human Nutrition Service. Shopping for Food and Making Meals in Minutes Using the Dietary Guidelines. Washington: Dept. of Agriculture, 1990. (Home and Garden Bulletin, no.232-10) (A 1.77:232-10)

Though it requires more time and more initial cost, food preservation is one method for saving money on meals in the long run. The recommended title for home food preservation is the comprehensive Complete Guide to Home Canning published by the USDA, and the most recent edition (1994) is available online through the University of Georgia web site. The Guide -- broken into sections for fruits, vegetables, tomatoes, meats, and fermented and pickled foods -- contains basic instructions and many recipes for home canning.

(OK, I am going to make a note here regarding the financial crisis: If you think times are tough now, I believe they are only going to get tougher, and knowing how to grow and preserve a good portion of your food will be vital. If you look at no other document in this list, download the Complete Guide to Home Canning -- it's free -- and use it faithfully.)

Several of the titles listed here are worth a look, either for a touch of nostalgia or for a new idea for your dinner table, but even if none of these quite appeal to you, with the holidays coming up, you might want to find a copy of one of these gems:

Agriculture Department. Talking About Turkey: How to Buy, Store, Thaw, Stuff, and Prepare Your Holiday Bird. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1987. (Home and Garden Bulletin, no.243) (A 1.77:243/987)

Food Safety and Inspection Service. Let's Talk Turkey: A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006. (A 110.8:T 84)

So what's cookin'? Visit a library and find out!


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 17

Now that fall has officially arrived, we're seeing small changes in our weekly CSA shares as well as at the farmers' market. And what a treat that is!

At the top of our produce list today, we found one butternut squash. They're beauties, and I'm finally ready to start thinking about squash again after an overload of it last winter.

The daily sheet accompanying our CSA shares also featured squash, with tidbits on how to bake it and how to store it (place newspaper in between squash that you're storing for a while so that the skins don't touch each other and darken).

So what else did we get?

--one butternut squash (for me; folks got their own)
--two sweet onions (split)
--one Black Beauty eggplant (for the folks)
--one orange sweet pepper (for the folks) and one purple (for me)
--two green peppers (split)
--a large half Crimson Sweet Watermelon (folks)
--one quart medium hot peppers (for me)
--one pint hot peppers (we actually turned this down -- too much heat!)
--two bulbs garlic (split)
--one quart pears (split)
--one bag Kennebec potatoes (split)
--one pint tomatillos (split)
--two pounds tomatoes (split)
--one bag mixed lettuces (split)
--one bunch cilantro (for me)
--one pint okra (we actually got a pint each since other folks had turned down their okra)
--one pint cherry tomatoes (for the folks)

The week's newsletter had also mentioned edamame, and when I asked the Lady Bountiful about it, her face furrowed. "Let me show you," she said, and she pointed to a bucket with
yellow-brown soybean shoots. The edamame were perfect for picking a couple days ago, but in that short time, they almost all yellowed.

The beans inside were still green, though, so I said I'd take some anyway, and I hopped into the electric golf cart with her to head out to the back field to pick some.

On our way back, the Lady Bountiful showed me other crops and their progress: the field tomatoes that are down to fallen and rotting fruit thanks to our oddball weather, the lima beans that are a couple weeks shy of harvest, and the new strawberry patch they just planted in preparation for next year.

We also stopped at the apple trees that were bowed down under the weight of their fruit. The Lady Bountiful offered me a mottled green apple -- with an apology for its appearance since they don't spray their apples -- and one bite told me she had no reason at all to apologize. I don't know what variety it was, but the apple had a crisp, almost snappy bite, a tart taste with a sweet finish, and just enough juice to entice me back for more.

We ended up grabbing a bucket and filling it with fruit so that she could get started on making some apple juice or cider, and she offered a few for us to take home in thanks. (No, thank you!)

My Wonderful (and Patient!) Parents looked tired and were ready to leave by the time I got back to the house, so we said our goodbyes and headed home, thinking about all the good food we'll make from this week's bounty.

And next week, we'll do it all over again!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: September, Week 4

Fall officially arrived yesterday, the midpoint between the longest and shortest days of the year, between the lushly green start of the harvest season and the onset of the lean months. And though the days of late have been sunny and warm, temperatures fall as quickly as the evening sun.

Though we're still seeing plenty of summer produce at the farmers' market and in the CSA shares, a subtle shift has begun in my eating habits. I actually baked this past weekend and made a batch of homemade pasta as I've started to crave a little more wholesome starch in my daily meals.

Last week's cabbage soup whetted my appetite for hearty dishes, and though I'm still not fully into the routine of serious cooking, this month's local meal reveals the coming shift.

The Renaissance Man and I share an interest in the ancient Celtic calendar, which closely followed the turn of the seasons, and as the fall equinox (known as Mabon) approached, I wanted to make a meal that exemplified the richness of September's harvest. Apples and oats, traditional Celtic fare, came to mind first, but my shopping spree at the market this past weekend offered additional ideas.

I'd been avoiding beets all season -- not out of dislike but rather from the knowledge that I didn't have time to cook with them in the midst of the preservation frenzy -- but when I spotted the Spelt Farmer's lovely striped Chioggia beets, I knew it was time to give in.

I've found that I really like beets best when they're roasted. Some of their native sweetness comes through, but it usually has a savory edge that I prefer. So I tossed the beet chunks with small whole carrots (from the Cheerful Lady), cubed Red Pontiac potatoes from my CSA share, red onion (also from the Cheerful Lady), garlic (CSA), and a crumble of dried parsley from my garden. I added juice from half a lemon, a drizzle of homemade lemon basil syrup, a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper and tossed them all together before roasting them in a 375 F oven for about an hour.

Along with the vegetables, I steamed some fresh kale from the Madcap Farmer, only adding a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of salt to finish it. It made a nice dark background for the vividly colored and crispy-rich roasted vegetables, and I found myself savoring the meal to the very last bite. (The Renaissance Man also gave his immediate approval.)

I saved the apples and oats for dessert, taking an old apple coffeecake recipe from (of all things!) a government recipe booklet and tweaking it to fit in more local foods: oats, spelt flour, dry milk, egg, maple sugar, and apples. My version resulted in a homey, light but hearty cake with a moist crumb and a crackly edge. While it would have been perfect with a cup of hot cider, I chose instead to pay tribute to the earlier harvest by serving small glasses of this year's dandelion wine, made with blossoms from the Farm.

For those of you who are wondering, this year's dandelion wine has a surprising kick. While previous years' batches ended up light and fizzy with little alcoholic kick, this year's wine is a little heavier and more syrupy (just a very little) and has a pleasing, warming finish in the throat that presses you back into the chair and says, "Oh no, honey, you're not going anywhere anytime soon. Get mellow, girl." It's goooooood.

The whole meal made the perfect celebratory welcome to autumn, and it may well be a meal worth repeating for future years. The hard labors of the harvest season are winding down -- and that's reason enough to enjoy something a little more festive.

That's fall, folks!

Apple-Oat Autumn Cake

In digging into recipe books in government documents for a research project, I found a booklet called Apples in Appealing Ways that seemed the perfect find for fall. The "Apple Coffeecake" recipe looked like a good one for either dessert or breakfast, and after a few local-foods tweaks, it was just right for a celebration of the autumnal equinox. Serve warm with hot cider, spiced tea, or even dandelion wine or homemade liqueur.

2 T unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c maple sugar
2 T rolled oats
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Cream butter and maple sugar together in small bowl. Add oats and cinnamon and mix well. Set aside to use as crumb topping.

1 c spelt flour (or whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 c rolled oats
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c unsalted butter, softened
1/3 c maple sugar
1 egg
1/2 c milk
1 large apple, peeled, cored, sliced

Whisk together spelt flour, oats, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in medium bowl until well mixed. Set aside.

In large bowl, cream butter with maple sugar. Add egg and milk and beat thoroughly. Add dry ingredients and mix until smooth. Set aside for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease an 8" square baking dish. Pour batter into dish. Arrange apple slices on top, then crumble oat topping on top.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean. Serve warm.

Makes 9 servings

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Butter Plans for the Weekend

Though the Renaissance Man was heading to The Farm this weekend, I made plans to stay home and visit My Wonderful Parents.

It wasn't an easy decision. On the one hand, there was The Farm in all its glory, needing a helping hand picking up debris after the remains of Hurricane Ike swept through. On the other hand, visiting with my parents instead of his meant I could help the Chef Mother pin a quilt, make lunch, and cook apple butter.

We've made applesauce before, the Chef Mother and I, but we've never made apple butter. So I stuck around for that.

My Wonderful Parents had visited two local orchards this past week and picked up plenty of good fresh cider and bags of McIntosh and Cortland apples. By the time I arrived at their place yesterday morning, they had chopped a bag of McIntosh apples and dumped them into their canner with some of the cider to let it all simmer and soften. Talk about a sweet greeting!

While the Chef Mother and I pin-basted a new quilt for My Dear Papa, he sauced the softened apples, using my chinois to get a thick puree out of the fruit. (I gave him a break toward the end as he was getting pretty worn out.)

We added spices, lemon peel, and brown sugar to the apple sauce and returned it to the stove, letting it bubble away quietly over low heat until it had darkened and thickened into apple butter.

I filled the sterilized jars with the apple butter and passed them along to the Chef Mother, who wiped the rims, added lids and rings, and set them into the canner.

And after ten minutes in a boiling water bath, we had seven sealed pint jars of apple butter, and two almost-full pints of unprocessed apple butter to tuck directly into our respective refrigerators. What a treat that will be!

Having been so inspired, then, by our cooperative efforts yesterday, I pulled out my Concord grapes this morning. After removing them from the stems and washing them, I simmered them with a bit of water -- just as I do in making grape juice -- and ran the softened grapes through my chinois. The difference here is that I didn't strain the grapes' liquid through a jelly bag; I wanted every thick bit of juice and pulp from the grapes that I could get.

Once I had pureed all the grapes and cast away the skins and seeds for compost, I added sugar and a hint of cinnamon to the pulp and started simmering it, cooking it down to about half its original volume.

Though I didn't get the grape butter quite as thick as I would have liked, by the time I stopped cooking it, I only filled a pint jar and a half-pint jar with the preserves. Ten minutes in a boiling water bath was again all that I needed before I had shelf-ready grape butter, thick and sweet and delicious!

So while I do still miss not seeing The Farm this weekend -- especially since the weather has been warm and sunny and delightful -- I'm not going to complain.

I think I got the butter deal.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Market Report: 9/20/08

By the end of a busy week, there's not a whole lot that would pull me out of bed early on a Saturday morning.

But I love my farmers' market, and I'm not going to miss it, so I was up early and ready to make it to the market by the time they opened.

Compared to last week, there were almost double the number of farmers and vendors in place, though the number was still well below the midsummer peak. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to spend time wandering around and chatting with many of them.

I started in the quadrant of the town square that contained the "overflow," despite knowing that that section had the bulk of crafts and baked goods (things I don't usually buy). But I visited with the Pita Princess, back for the first time this year after an extended visit with her family back home in Turkey. Aside from her, I also stopped to say hello to the Mennonite baker and to buy a loaf of her oatmeal-wheat bread, and to buy a butternut squash and a buttercup squash from a group of new young farmers.

Back in the usual section of the square, I stopped for a lengthy visit with the Lady Bountiful and bought a small basket of broccoli (and took the handful of poblanos that she gave me). I also had a long visit with the Spelt Baker as she drew me into conversation with a father visiting his college-age son on family weekend -- but I also bought some of her beautiful carrots and a bunch of Chioggia beets.

The orchard stand across the way had Concord grapes at last, so I bought half a peck of them along with a quart of President plums. They didn't have their usual tub of cider out, so I'll just have to stop by the orchard sometime this weekend to get my first jug of the season.

I visited briefly with one of the Cheerful Lady's sons, buying a handful of small onions, and I saw the Madcap Farmer across the way with plenty of fall greens, so I stopped to say hello and to buy a bunch of curly kale and two bags of spinach.

Finally, I lingered for a moment to greet the Fiddlin' Farmer (and buy a small head of his red cabbage), and before I left, he promised to save a dance for me at the next contra in town.

In all, I ended up filling my backpack to overflowing (even a side pocket filled with goat milk soaps from the Goat Lady), and I staggered on to my next stop before heading home. I'll certainly have plenty of work with this batch of produce!

The end of the season might be coming all too soon, but I'm still finding lots of good food!

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Saints Preserve Us!

Since I'm getting a breather from my social whirlwind this evening, I thought I'd better get into the kitchen and do something with at least some of my CSA produce (from last week and this).

The other day, I finally cut into my half a watermelon from last week's CSA, and I prepared the rind for making more watermelon pickles. Thank goodness, the recipe is one that can be made in stages, so I've tackled one stage at a time in the mornings before work.

When I came home from work today, I finished simmering the already-spiced rind with more sugar and vinegar, then ladled the rind and syrup into three half-pint jars and processed the batch. This batch came out lighter than the last, but it still had a very full fragrance.

After dinner, I seeded and julienned the large orange sweet pepper from yesterday's share and arranged the strips on a parchment-covered baking sheet to dry in the oven overnight. (I love how easy it is to dry vegetables!)

Finally, I chopped the cilantro from yesterday's basket and added it to a handful of chopped tomatoes from the pile on the counter, pureeing the mixture in My Wonderful Parents' little food processor (which I suppose I really ought to return to them one of these days).

I tried this last year for a new way to preserve tomatoes and late season cilantro, pouring the puree into ice cube trays as I do my pesto and freezing them for later use. It's so handy to pop a couple of these cubes into an Indian dish, adding the fresh bite of cilantro even in the heart of winter. (Besides, at this point, I'm running out of ideas for the tomatoes, too!)

I still have some eggplant in the refrigerator, and I hope I can get another batch of breaded eggplant made before I lose it, but we'll see. I've got cabbage and carrots to use up, too, so I'll probably be busy again this weekend, trying to clean up.

But a little divine intervention wouldn't be taken amiss!

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 16

Life has been exceptionally full and more than a bit chaotic this week. I've had things to do every evening, and the town has been agog over the impending visit of a major candidate in this year's election.

In fact, that visit will take place this evening close to my workplace, and all the preparations for the event meant that My Wonderful Parents were going to have a very difficult time picking me up from work for our weekly CSA outing.

So I sent them on their merry way and dodged crowds on my own walk home. Happily, though, they showed up not long after I arrived, bearing all the wonderful produce for the week:

The Lady Bountiful assembled another colorful collection of farm produce for us:

--one bunch of leeks (one for my folks, the rest for me)
--two sweet onions (split)
--one small box of Fairy Tale eggplant (for my folks)
--one big orange sweet pepper (for me)
--one small box of summer squash (split)
--two bulbs of garlic (for me)
--two Sweet Slice cucumbers (for me)
--one bag Red Pontiac potatoes (split)
--one pint tomatillos (for me)
--two pounds tomatoes (for me)
--a pint of Matt's Wild Cherry tomatoes (for the Chef Mother, who loves snacking on them)
--one bag of mixed lettuces (for me)
--one bunch of cilantro (for me)
--one quart pears, still a little on the green side (for me)

Yes, once again I took the bulk of the produce. My Dear Papa is feeling somewhat better but still has to tread carefully where raw or acidic vegetables are concerned, so I get to reap the benefits. (Sorry, Pop! But thanks!)

I think I'm very thankful that the Renaissance Man is coming to dinner tonight so that I can use some of this produce -- and perhaps send some home with him. The refrigerator is getting full again!

Just like my life!

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fair Ways and Farm Days

Last week, I got so caught up the whirlwind every day that I forgot to mention my visits to the county fair.

Yes, visits, plural. I haven't done that in a while, but after accompanying the Renaissance Man to the fair Sunday evening for a wander around and the square dance at the show ring, I welcomed the chance to return with him Tuesday night as well.

And though I could tell you all about it here, I've already posted an article about our county fair adventures over at the Ethicurean. If you haven't been to a county fair this year, read up and get yourself ready for next year's fairs! (I might even consider entering some of the food preservation categories.)

Since I've had a little extra free time as my food preservation projects start to wind down, I managed to finish another article for the Ethicurean, this time reviewing the delightful documentary "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" and giving a loving shout-out to my favorite CSA farm.

Coming up soon, a local farm -- Malabar Farm, now a state park -- will be holding one of its annual farm days during the Ohio Heritage Festival on September 27 and 28. I'm hoping to get out there at some point myself to explore the place, and if you're in the neighborhood, you might stop in, too!

Right now, it's fair weather for festivals, so you might as well get out and enjoy it!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, September 15, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: September, Week 3

September, in terms of food preservation, means apples to me.

Though apples start coming on in July and last well into fall, September is usually the time when I stock up on apples and make jar after jar of unsweetened applesauce to use in baking or just for a simple snack. Later in the month, the first truly good cider appears at the market, rich and brown and flavorful, begging to be mulled with warming spices and served up with ginger molasses cookies or a spice cake. (I can hardly wait!)

But apples aren't the only fruit that keep well and taste wonderful in puree form. Other fall fruits, like pears, the last peaches, grapes, and so on, can be made into fruit sauces or their thicker cousins, fruit butters.

Sauces and butters are so simple, you barely need a recipe, just an outline. Remember your basic canning information, though -- sterilized jars free of nicks and cracks, clean equipment all laid out, and yes, patience.

Start with well washed fruit. Trim off stems and blossom ends and cut into large chunks. (If using grapes, stem them.) Pile the fruit in a large nonreactive pot and add water. (I use my gallon-sized Dutch oven, fill it with fruit, and add about a cup of water, more or less.) For fruits like apples or pears, you might want to add the water to the pot first along with a squeeze of lemon juice so as to keep the cut fruit from oxidizing too much.

Bring the fruit to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to keep the fruit from scorching. (You may need to add more water, though I usually have to dump some out. You don't want it to be too watery.) Cook until fruit is soft and easily mashed.

Puree the cooked fruit using a chinois (as seen) or a food mill. The skins and seeds will get trapped in the equipment, so you don't have to worry about them in the final product. Mash out as much pulp and liquid as possible before composting the scraps. (If anyone knows of a good use for the leftover fruit scraps before composting, let me know. I've read they can be used to start vinegar, but I'm not sure.)

Add sweetener and spices, if desired, at this point. I used some maple sugar in this pear sauce, though I normally leave applesauce unsweetened. If I add spices to the sauce, though (like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, or a combination), I might add a bit of honey. Return the sauce to the stovetop and continue to cook over low heat, stirring often to avoid scorching, until sauce reaches desired consistency.

The difference between a fruit sauce or a fruit butter really depends on how thick the final product is, with butters being thicker and thus needing more cooking time. Fruit butters usually call for more sugar, too -- I've seen it suggested that you should use half as much sugar as fruit, which seems a little excessive to me. One way to cook a fruit butter slowly without fear of scorching is to put the fruit puree in an oven-safe baking dish and slide it into the oven at 300 F, stirring occasionally until it's thick enough for you.

When the sauce or butter is to your liking, pack it into hot sterilized canning jars, wipe the rims, add lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

There's really not much else to tell you. It's a pretty straightforward way to preserve fruit, even better than jam, and it's wonderful to be able to open a jar of homemade applesauce in the heart of winter and add a dollop or two to your morning oatmeal or pancakes. (I'm still working through last year's applesauce myself!)

It'll have you feeling saucy in no time.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I'm Oven It

I had hoped to handle just a couple of preservation projects this weekend, but the limited finds at the farmers' market yesterday knocked one project off the list.

Not to worry, though. This damp weather has made me feel a strong urge to fire up the oven for the weekend.

I started Friday evening with drying some peppers and onions, and once I had those in the oven, I made a small pot of s'chee, the Russian cabbage soup that so often heralds the true beginning of fall in my home. All the produce was from my CSA (save for the carrots, which came from the market), and I topped it with homemade yogurt and served it with a semi-locally brewed kombucha (a fermented drink that the Renaissance Man picked up on one of his trips to southeastern Ohio).

After putting up some pear sauce (more on that later) during the day yesterday, I decided I needed to do something with some of my produce and chose to make a whole wheat pizza crust, topped with chickweed pesto (from the freezer), a sliced heirloom tomato (from my CSA), and local mozzarella cheese. So satisfying!

And this morning, believe it or not, I cranked up the oven early (after drying more potatoes and peppers) and whipped up a loaf of pear-date bread based on Ed's enticing banana bread. I added some ground golden flaxseeds for a bit of added crunch, two chopped pears, some homemade yogurt, and chopped dates for a moist but crumbly and delicious little loaf that tasted so good with chai for breakfast!

Maybe I'll even make bread yet this afternoon. Who knows?

This is probably the first time in months that I've had so much made over the weekend to start off my work week with a good supply of lunches and snacks.

And I'm definitely lovin' it!

Labels: , , , , ,