Monday, August 25, 2008

Minding my P's and Q's

Sorry I’ve been away from the computer for a while but I’ve been using all available time to put up food for the winter. Those who know me know that I am a bit of a wordophile, a student of etymology. No, not the study of insects (although that’s cool too!), but the origins, histories, and meanings of words and phrases. As I’ve been working this weekend, I’ve truly been “minding my p's and q's” because the p's and q's refer to pints and quarts and I’ve been using plenty of those (as well as half-pints).

Last Monday I was invited to a friend’s house to pick black chokeberries for making jam. He is also my official gardening mentor so he showed me what to do and we talked gardens and farmers’ markets while picking berries. He had picked a bowl full and made juice then jelly and had some juice left to give me, in addition to the many ripe berries remaining on the shrub. That night I returned and made juice by cooking down the berries with some water and straining the result. I made enough juice (supplementing his) to make a double batch of jelly and still put a quart in the freezer.

Then Tuesday we were invited to another friend’s house to pick crab apples from her amazingly-productive tree. I brought home a stock pot full of little fushia and gold fruits and a few days later, I cooked those down and strained them in my jelly bag, making enough juice for a dozen jars of jelly and another quart of juice in the freezer. I didn’t make this jelly, however, until the weekend when my parents were keeping Neva to play at their house and Kevin was home to entertain Kai. In addition to the jellies, I tried my hand at more savory canned goods. I spent Sunday making a batch and a half of Kosher dill pickles and a batch of tomato and green chile salsa. Both contained mostly vegetables from my good friend, Joe, who met me at the Roscoe farmers' market with a trunk full of extras from his garden.

The pickles promise to be good (we soaked the leftover cucumbers in the remaining juice for an hour or so and ate them for dinner), once they have a month or so to really meld flavors. I used a variety of spices and put dill, a clove of garlic, a bay leaf, and mustard seed in each jar. The salsa also tasted good right out of the pot (and smelled amazing!). It was a lot of work, time-wise, to make the four-and-a-half quarts I produced but I still think I’ll be happy to have it this winter. I would have made more but ran out of tomatoes. I intend to try a different recipe and make some more in the coming weeks. Once thing I did notice is that the heirloom tomatoes peeled much more easily, making it go a little quicker - I will have to see if I can come up with a quantity more of those for the next batch.

I am learning to be more resourceful as we progress so I squeezed and strained the juice from the bowl of tomato skins, cores, and seeds that I had removed for the salsa and that resulted in a little more than a half-quart of tomato juice which I froze for later use (either to drink or, more likely, in chili or another soup). The few ounces that didn’t fit in the container went into ice cube trays to use later in smaller quantities for sauces or to flavor soups. This morning I re-made the black chokeberry jelly as it didn’t set properly (the first time this has happened to me). I think I underestimated the amount of natural pectin in the berries (which must have been slim to none). I made up a batch of pectin yesterday and did a test jar which set quickly so I am encouraged, however, the jars I reprocessed have not yet set. I may end up freezing them and calling it black chokeberry sauce.

I have also started making corn relish, although Kai woke up and wasn’t very patient with me as I was shucking corn. I’ll have to return to that project when he takes his nap. Later today I hope to make some bread and butter pickles as well.

It Has to Get Hot Before Getting Cold... my exploits in freezing vegetables.

The other thing we’ve been doing with our time these last few weeks is freezing vegetables. We’ve got to get ourselves through the winter and early spring so we figure we can’t possibly put too much away. Three weeks ago we purchased a large freezer. In that time, we have managed to fill all but about ¼ of it. I expect it to be completely full within another week.

A few weeks ago I brought home 72 ears of corn and my parents (who were here for the weekend to help with the kids so we could do yard/garden work) helped Kevin and me process it for freezing. It took the four of us three hours (we also processed and froze some carrots I had picked up at the Edgebrook Farmers’ Market) to get it all done. I was so glad to have their help, without those three it would have taken me 12 hours alone (and proven to be a very long night!). I bought the corn from the Murphys, who sell fresh produce from their farm on Meridian Rd. (first farm on left, just north of Latham Rd.).

I have also prepared, blanched, and frozen copious amounts of green (and other) beans, squash, carrots, and other veggies as well as frozen blueberries, black and red raspberries, blackberries, and more. I have additionally done some experimental freezing (what is it with me and experiments?). I chopped and vacuum-sealed some green onions (I expect they’ll be tough but will nicely flavor soups and the like) and fresh herbs. I tried basil two ways… chopped and vacuum-sealed and chopped and frozen in water in ice cube trays. We’ll see which, if either, is the best way to do that in the future. I will, of course, keep potted herbs in several windows throughout the winter (as I did successfully last year).

If you are planning to buy or pick and freeze vegetables, know that most require a quick blanching first. Not to cook them, per se, but to kill off the enzymes that would otherwise break down their flavor and quality as they are stored (even in the freezer).

I have found I have the PERFECT tool for this process… my old pasta pot. I have a large (8 qt) stainless steel stock pot with a pasta insert and lid. I’ve had it for over 10 years but I know the brand still exists in stores (Tramontina). Anyway, using this pot has let me blanch more quickly and efficiently (I’ve tried some other methods for comparison so this is based on results, not just conjecture). I can bring the water to a boil, place the veggies for blanching in the pasta part, dunk and blanch them for the requisite number of minutes, and remove and drain them without pouring off my hot water, thereby allowing me to place the lid to keep in the heat and reuse it several times so as not waste the energy required to heat up a new pot full. Note: I haven’t been letting the used water go to waste down the drain either. After several uses, I take the hot water out the door and pour it over my compost pile. It’s providing moisture (especially good since we’ve had so little rain) as well as heat and nutrients!

Anyway, the pasta pot is the greatest invention (works well for pasta too). The other tool I’ve been relying on is a FoodSaver vacuum sealer. I admit that I’ve always poo-pooed the vacuum sealers in the past. I don’t like to buy and use plastic bags, preferring reusable containers with lids, and the thought of re-sealing my cheese after each use (for example) always struck me as silly. However, I’ve talked to several people who regularly store food in the freezer for a period of time and they swear by the vacuum sealer. So, since I wanted to maintain the high quality of this food for six months or more, I broke down and bought one. The good news is that the plastic bags I cringed to buy are actually reusable. They come on a roll and you make them any length you want. You can make them doubly-long and then wash them after use and have enough bag left to use them over several times. The rolls are pricey but I expect not to have to buy any at all next year. Only time will tell if the food is well-preserved and freezer-burn-free but I’m hopeful.

Talking to Others

Kevin and I were invited to talk about our project at the meeting of the Rockford chapter of the Hollistic Mom’s Network at Just Goods, downtown, last Wednesday night. It was an interesting group of people with some great questions and ideas for us. We enjoyed sharing with them about what we are trying to do and learning about some of the great things they already do.

I think the most important take-away message we had (and continue to hold) is this:
The important thing to realize is that eating locally-produced foods and supporting your local economy is not and all-or-nothing endeavor. Every individual regional food item you purchase is something that makes a difference, no matter how small. Commit to trying to eat one local or even regional item at each meal during the growing season (or at just one meal a day!) and you will reduce your food miles, support a local farmer, and be eating better to boot!


Agri-Energy said...

I'm so proud of you.
It's nice to know that when I start to think of Rockford as a hell hole with just a bunch of fools that didn't have the sense to leave 20 years ago - you are there.
Thank god.

Lenae said...

I've lived in Rockford for 8 1/2 years now and I think it's got a lot to offer.