Making and using crepes

Crepe-making is a wonderfully diverse kitchen skill to have; crepes are easy to make and can be used to improve so many different dishes. I’ve used them as spring roll wrappers, pseudo-tortillas, and even as a reasonable substitute for Ethiopian njera (see below). A batch takes so little time that crepes can be an easy meal for a busy night, simply stuffing them with whatever you might have on hand. We learned to appreciate the diversity of crepes through restaurants in Montreal and western New York state (such as this one), and have yet to run out of uses for them. Here’s a look at several different ways to make them, and some of the uses we’ve put them to here on the farm. Continue reading

2011-2012 winter food preservation

We take our food preservation seriously, finding deep value in detaching ourselves from the industrial food chain and the stress and bother of grocery shopping.  We like to keep records of our annual food preservation for our own information, and figure some readers may also be interested in the sheer diversity of foods just this one farm can produce and preserve; it can also be an inspiration to CSA members.

Here’s a mostly complete list of the foods we prepared and preserved over the past year, to feed us through winter and spring of 2011-2012, and in some cases through the following summer or fall until the products become available again (like fresh meat). All we really purchase anymore are staples like sugar, salt, flour, spices, vinegar, oil, and such, and those mostly in bulk so we always have them on hand. All items listed below were sourced from our farm unless otherwise noted.

Continue reading

December food on the farm

December is a wonderful month for on-farm food, as we have about the highest possible diversity of ingredients to work with. Some fresh produce is still available, we can justify starting to dip into preserves, fresh meat is back on the menu, and we can start making time to do some really interesting and enjoyable things in the kitchen. In addition, we often end up hosting many visitors throughout the month, giving yet another impetus to culinary extravaganzas. Here’s an extra-long photo essay on the kinds of food we can source and make from this one diversified farm. As always, ingredients listed in italics were sourced on-farm.

Joanna’s birthday party
We held a special birthday celebration this year, as it turned out that a couple from Joanna’s college geology department would be visiting for the first time over her birthday weekend. Her old workplace at the USGS hosts several other college geology alums, so we invited everyone out for an evening of catching up. Here’s the diverse spread we put together to feed the crowd.

 Tasting platter: smoked pork shoulder, smoked Canadian bacon, cucumber pickles, beet pickles, fresh goat feta cheese, aged goat cheddar cheese.

 At left: homemade ravioli with creamy (goat milk) winter squash sauce & sage leaf. At right: pork loin simmered in goat milk sauce with carrots and parsley.

 At left: fresh bread from Missouri flour. At right: sweet potatoes chopped for roasting.

 At left: mixed salad greens (not the same ones served this night, but a similar fresh mix). At right: birthday carrot cake (our eggs, goat yogurt), with creamy (goat chevre) frosting and organic Missouri pecans.

 This was a fun meal to put together. Overall, Joanna wanted an Italian theme, as her college geology department has strong ties to Italy. As Italian food is generally her realm (partly because of her experience there), this was mostly her meal to prepare, which she was quite happy to do. I insisted on the nice Germanic tasting platter just to even things out a bit, and give me something to do. Plus we had all this fresh pork begging to be shown off…

Serving Sycamore
We try to invite our main restaurant chefs/owners out to the farm every winter. This allows them to see the place and maintain a direct connection with their ingredient sources, allows a good discussion of the past and future growing year, and lets us thank them for their support by preparing a good farm-sourced meal (especially from things we can’t/don’t sell them). Last month it was Trey from Red & Moe; this month we hosted Mike from Sycamore. We went with a Mexican theme this year.

 Fresh-made Missouri-wheat tortillas in the cast-iron skillets, plus two sauces. Upper right, smoked pork simmered in a spicy red pepper sauce (dried anchos, jalapenos, red anaheims, garlic). Lower right, green sauce (roasted green tomatoes/onions/garlic, dried peppers, herbs).

Tortilla fillings (along with meat and sauces): fresh goat cheese, cowpeas.

Other treats: fresh pepper sausage (ground pork, dried anaheim/jalapeno/ancho peppers, garlic, cilantro, stuffed in our hog’s casings). Fresh carrot sticks & watermelon radishes for garnish.

Not shown: baby greens mix and cilantro for topping the tortillas & fillings.

 Other random meals
 When we’re not hosting guests, there’s still lots of interesting food to be made with December ingredients. Here are just a few more meals that we happened to take photos of:

 Stir fry of ground pork pepper sausage (see description above), rehydrated peppers, daikon radish, Filipino noodles. Side of fermented kimchi (cabbage, carrot, daikon).

Healthy breakfast: Diced sweet potatoes fried in lard; fried eggs & cured bacon. Side of strawberry yogurt (goat’s milk yogurt, preserved strawberry jam). BTW, we define healthy as “hearty enough to get us through a morning of work without being hungry two hours later”.

 Above left: baked beans (beans unfortunately not ours due to crop failure): organic white beans, maple syrup, mustard seeds, cured pork, onion. Above right: our weekly staple cornbread (ground corn, goat’s milk yogurt, eggs, leaveners).

Above left: BST (bacon, spinach, & cheese sandwich; cheese on left is our aged cheddar, cheese on right is purchased smoked gouda) with cucumber & beet pickles. Above right: sweet potato pancakes (sweet potatoes, eggs, onion) with simmered cabbage (onion, cabbage, pork, organic Missouri apples, wine, caraway) and a rare treat of brussels sprouts (from a depressingly low-yielding test planting).

There were many more interesting meals, and most of these photos are drawn from the first half of the month alone. Don’t let anyone tell you local foods are boring or restrictive.

Food preservation methods: Fermentation

Note (Dec. 2014): We wrote this years ago, when we were just beginning to dabble in fermentation but knew little about beneficial microbes and benefits of fermented foods. We were a bit nervous about giving bad advice, so advised cooking the kraut just in case…which in retrospect is a more microbe-phobic mindset than we currently subscribe to. For those interested in fermentation, we strongly recommend Sandor Katz’s excellent books, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation.

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.
 

FERMENTATION OF VEGETABLES
Fermentation is a historic food preservation method that has increasingly fallen out of favor since the advent of freezing and canning, but one that remains useful for some vegetables in particular. Cabbage, for example, can be fermented into sauerkraut, a perfectly normal food that nonetheless is almost entirely purchased instead of homemade. Even our hard-core traditionalist German cookbook assumes the home cook buys, instead of makes, sauerkraut. Yet there are distinct benefits to fermenting vegetables yourself.


One useful book on the subject, Keeping Food Fresh (a fascinating collection of traditional Old World recipes and methods for food preservation; the new edition has been renamed Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning), includes this worthwhile point:

Inevitably, food is altered in the preservation process. However, unlike sterilization (canning) or freezing, many traditional methods do not necessarily mean a loss in flavor or nutritional value. Lactic fermentation, for example, enhances digestion and also increases the enzyme and sometimes the vitamin content, compared with the unfermented food. In other processes, the act of preserving often enhances the flavor of a food rather than its nutritional value.

From another angle, Harold McGee’s eminently scientific tome On Food and Cooking states that:

(the microbes involved in fermentation) leave most of the plant material intact, including its vitamin C (protected from oxidation by the carbon dioxide they generate); they often add significant amounts of B vitamins; and they generate new volatile substances that enrich the food’s aroma.

We’ve found that home-fermented sauerkraut is a tasty and stable way to preserve cabbage (which you can’t really freeze or can), that doesn’t degrade the product, and was well worth our trying over the last few years. We’ve also experimented with fermented pickles and kimchi.

JAR FERMENTATION
The simplest method, which I drew from Keeping Food Fresh, is to pack shredded cabbage into jars, layered with salt and spices, and let the natural fermentation take hold in a controlled setting. I am intentionally not giving a recipe here, as fermentation (like any other home kitchen experiment) can go wrong if not done right, and folks wanting to try this should rely on a more authoritative source for specifics. But here’s how it looks when I do it:

I shred multiple cabbages using a food processor. For this batch, I did about 20lb of cabbage, 5 ~4lb heads of our excellent fall Napa. I cut out the cores but use the rest, washing it well. For rough reference, this resulted in 4 half-gallon jars packed tightly.

Then I pack the shredded cabbage into quart or half-gallon jars (latter shown here), adding a dose of salt every few inches, along with a few juniper berries per jar. A wooden rolling pin makes an excellent tool for repeatedly mashing down the cabbage into a tightly packed mass, which also helps release some juices. When I’ve packed all I can to the base of the rim, I pour some boiling water into the top, and screw on a good-quality canning lid and ring, a good use for once-used canning lids. You don’t want these to seal entirely, so you don’t water-bath them. The not-quite-seal you get with hand-tightening allows just enough air exchange to allow for controlled fermentation without spoilage. These just sit on the counter or another storage area, and do their thing; weeks or months later, we crack a jar to a loud HISSSS and most of the time a nice, tangy, excellent kraut. We cook it before serving just in case, but usually it’s quite obvious when it’s gone bad (this has rarely happened).
 CROCK FERMENTATION
We’ve also tried fermenting cabbages in large open crocks, with less success. For this to work you need to keep all the vegetable submerged in a brine, weighted down, and this has been hard to do with the materials we have on hand. We’ve wasted a distressing amount of cabbage which has just gone moldy. So this fall we ordered a modern German Fermenting Crock (picture below from the linked site) on the strong recommendation of a trusted friend. This new version of the old-school crocks has a special water seal that helps keep the process under control, and seems quite well thought-out. Our trial run is underway, and we’ll report on the results when applicable. We prepared this batch in late November when cabbage was abundant and we were still overwhelmed with other produce. The recommended fermentation time is 4 to 8 weeks, meaning that we’ll have abundant kraut just about the time that our freshly harvested greens take their winter break.
OTHER FERMENTATION
There are many other items, and ways, to ferment. We’ve tried cucumber pickles before, with mixed results. One batch worked okay, but we didn’t prefer the flavor compared to “normal” vinegar pickles, though this may just be what our taste buds are used to. Both we and a good friend have experimented with fermenting kimchi, with very tasty results. The kimchi recipe that we used needed only three days of fermentation at room temperature, yielding very quick results (but arguably not achieving much in the way of food preservation since we ate it in within the time frame the the ingredients could have stored on their own). On the other hand, it was a good way to experiment with fermentation. The quick-fermenting kimchi recipe that we used is from Nourishing Traditions, a cookbook that we saw referenced frequently when we did some online reading on the topic of fermentation; Daniel Boone Regional Library has a copy or two.
Whey is an optional but recommended ingredient for many fermented recipes, because it helps jump start the microbial activity. We use whey from our cultured cheeses such as feta or cheddar (but only if we started by pasteurizing the milk), or we drain yogurt in cheesecloth and collect the whey from that. We don’t use whey from ricotta, because it’s not cultured, and we don’t use whey if it is from an unpasteurized batch of cheese that will be aged (just to be on the safe side).
Books on fermenting are full of interesting and oddball ideas for home cooks to explore as desired. But the core point is that fermentation is a very useful and unique method of food preservation, one that doesn’t require as much work or equipment or energy as many other methods, and which can even improve the food in question (something rarely said of freezing in particular). So it’s worth trying if you’re feeling adventurous or just like the idea of making real sauerkraut for once.

Food preservation methods: Root cellaring

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

ROOT CELLARING & WINTER STORAGE
Many kinds of produce and foods are reasonably stable on their own, if given the proper conditions. Traditional farms and homes used various forms of a root cellar, generally a room dug into the ground (or a retrofitted basement) which used the ambient ground temperature and humidity to keep foods in proper conditions for long-time storage. As in other topics, there is a ton of information available in books and online, so we’re going to focus on the ways we handle this process.

Choosing storage varieties:
There are many different varieties of any given produce item, with different culinary and storage properties. For exampe, Arkansas Black apples are virtually indestructible, while others may last only a few weeks (see this publication from Iowa Extension for examples of apple storage qualities). Potatoes, garlic, onions, and many other storage crops are the same way. If you’re buying (or planting) items intended for storage, do some research and ask some questions first. If the grower has no idea, that may be a hint that they don’t store food themselves and maybe aren’t handling the food properly for storage either (see next).

Preparing storage items:
In some cases, like apples, the product is pretty much ready to store as-is, assuming you establish the proper conditions. Onions and garlic need to be cured first, a process of hanging the fresh crop until it dries enough to become shelf stable. Most of the time, you buy these two in this condition anyway, though it’s worth being aware of the season and asking the grower to ensure they’re actually properly cured and not fresh. Other things, like sweet potatoes, are often sold “fresh” at farmers markets but will benefit greatly from proper curing before sale, and will then store much longer and taste much better. In these cases, curing involves storing the items for a certain length of time at fairly warm temperatures to allow certain natural chemical changes that enhance stability and flavor.

Storage locations:
Selecting the proper storage location begins by researching what “ideal” storage conditions are for a given item (in terms of temperature & humidity), then finding the closest conditions that reality will permit. Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers, p. 432 & 433, is our reference source for storage conditions. For long-term storage, temperature stability is a plus; temperature swings will reduce the storage life of produce (this is why garages aren’t ideal). For example, garlic begins to sprout if temperature fluctuates regularly; sprouting is desired from the October-planted garlic in the ground that will be next year’s crop, but the garlic that we want to keep eating into March needs to be tricked into thinking that it’s not time to grow yet, and stable temperatures will help. Sweet potatoes like it warm and will start to go bad if they get too cold. Most other storage crops are happier in cooler conditions. We don’t have a proper root cellar, dug into the ground to ensure high humidity and temps just above freezing all winter, though it’s a someday-project. It’s also possible to construct a basement version, in effect a cold-storage room that stays colder than the basement itself (see these articles from Mother Earth News on building a proper root cellar and a basement version).

We do, however, have a house that is larger than we need, and whose back rooms we hardly ever use and thus don’t heat or cool artificially. So for years we’ve used the back “master” bedroom as an excellent root cellar, as it tends to remain between 34-40F throughout the winter, given the large buffering presence of a basement underneath and well-insulated walls. Apples, garlic, onions, and more do well back there, the former in crates or boxes and the latter hung in bundles or spread on wire racks. Other items store best at warmer temperatures, like sweet potatoes and winter squash, and we store these in the house itself, often in the same room we cured them in originally. Darkness is important, too: daylight will encourage sprouting or other unwanted developments.

Storage time:
We don’t always intend our storage items to last a really long time, given that we also preserve lots of food in other ways. In most cases we shoot for things like apples, potatoes, and squash to last us into January, at which point we can start dipping into more canned and frozen foods for the next few months. Garlic and onions usually last us into March with some attention. It’s important to check your storage items regularly, and use anything that’s starting to sprout or otherwise go bad. You can’t predict ahead of time which onions will sprout in January versus March, but regularly checking and using the ones just showing some green will naturally cull the supply without much waste.

If you take your home food supply as seriously as we do, refusing to buy produce from off the farm year-round, you quickly realize that the “hungry” months aren’t winter, but spring. We still have plenty of food on-hand in the depths of February; it’s the warm rainy days of March through May in which food supplies are actually the thinnest. By this point the only fresh food is lightweights like salad greens and radishes; you still have months to go before the heavy hitters of summer and fall show up again. This is why we use root cellaring as a complement to other preservation methods, as a way to delay the use of longer-term storage items. Our special Mercuri winter tomatoes are the same way; we don’t expect them to last all year, but we do expect them to keep us out of the canned tomatoes for a few extra months, thus saving the need to do extra canning during the already-busy season.

Salvaging stored items:
When you do notice stored items starting to sprout or go bad, there are many ways to salvage them before loss. Sprouting onions can be cut up and dehydrated, an easy task for a cold February day. Now you have onions for much longer, without doing all the work in busy onion season. My favorite trick for saving sprouting garlic is to steam-roast large batches, then freeze the pulp (a trick I learned from a Michael Ruhlman cookbook). I pack a glass baking dish with sprouting garlic heads, pour a little water in the bottom, cover it with foil or a lid, and roast for an hour. Then I squeeze all the soft, aromatic garlic pulp into a dedicated ice-cube tray and freeze it, creating little “bullion” cubes of pure roasted garlic that add great flavor to soups and sauces for months past the expiration date of the whole garlic. Mid-winter squash or sweet potatoes can be cooked up into pulp, then frozen, replacing empty spots in your freezer where you’ve started pulling out other items. Mid-winter apples turning brown can still be made into applesauce.

All of this could  be done in the fall, but that’s when we’re already too busy preserving food that has to be dealt with then, and still actively farming. If nothing else, cellaring/storage is a way to delay some of that preservation work a few months, spreading it out so it’s not so overwhelming, and extending the storage life of these items. At best, it’s an easy way to enhance the diversity of your winter menus with food that took little to no preservation work, simply the dedication and planning required to acquire and store fresh local food when it’s available.

On-farm Thanksgiving 2011

Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday, and possibly favorite day of the year. The meal we prepare and serve functions as a reminder and celebration of the year’s work to support ourselves, and the value of the food we produce, as well as the reality and potential of locally sourced food from independent farms. We take no notice of consumerism, stress, or arbitrary cultural prescriptions, and simply prepare a special meal that reflects both real seasonal food, and the accumulated results of a year’s farming. This year we celebrated alone, a word that in our increasingly urban society has negative connotations, but is often just the way we like it. Throughout the day, we interspersed food preparation with relaxation, reading, and conversation, leading up to a mid-afternoon meal that had no schedule but the timing of the food, which took only moderate concentration to get right, and whose component dishes were no more complicated than any other meal we normally make. Here is the meal we sat down to, with thoughts on its sourcing, preparation, and the holiday’s place in our lives. As always, on-farm ingredients listed in italics; compare to last year if you like.

The dishes

Above left: roast chicken, freshly butchered the day before. A young Rhode Island Red rooster, healthy and fat, with exquisite flavor, one of many extraneous roosters resulting from on-farm breeding this year as we increase the size of our laying flock. We’ve found that our farm-processed heritage-breed birds aren’t very fussy in the oven; the breast is still tender and juicy when the deep inner thighs are finally done. I hardly baste or fiddle with such birds; we think the inherent quality of the meat (the moisture is natural, not injected), and perhaps the quantity of fat, keeps it from drying out. Above right: my customized stuffing, the only version Joanna has ever really liked:  onions, sage, thyme, parsley, egg, fresh-made bread cubes, organic Missouri pecans, organic Missouri apples, Missouri honey, Missouri Norton wine (adapted from p. 23, In a Vermont Kitchen).

Above left: roasted vegetables, including onion, carrot, potato, sweet potato, parsnip, sunchoke, garlic, leek, daikon radish, salsify, herbs. Above right: fresh-made rolls from a family recipe, including Missouri wheat flour. Not shown, farm-grown/canned strawberry jam, garlic butter.

Above left: fresh-made applesauce from organic Missouri apples. Above right: fresh salad of spinach, goat feta, organic Missouri pecans, organic Missouri apples.

Above left: fruit salad of preserved blueberries, strawberries, Missouri peaches, plus fresh organic Missouri apples. Above right: pumpkin pie: pumpkin, sweet potato, egg, goat milk, sugar, spices etc. with homemade crust. Note: all such pie recipes call for evaporated milk. We hate purchasing such processed products, and in the past have spent time cooking down our own milk to make an equivalent. This year we just used straight whole goat’s milk, which worked perfectly. 

Final thanks
The day before, I happened to run across this quote from John F. Kennedy, which seemed especially fitting for our celebration of this holiday:

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

When we assess our current lives, it’s easy to see that our choices and actions directly support those things we value most and are most thankful for, such as independence, food, health, physical & intellectual stimulation, variety, and perhaps most of all, each other. We’re grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given in this life, for the families that raised us to make the most of these opportunities, and for the mutual support, dedication, and love that continually help us build a comfortable and meaningful life on this humble but infinitely worthwhile farm.

I’m thankful this is my morning commute, even in inclement weather.

November farm food

Throughout November we remain inundated with fresh food, finding no need to dip into already-preserved items, while struggling to find time for preserving the harvests that keep coming in. Here’s another of our regular photo essays on the farm-sourced food we eat year-round. Many photos aren’t very good, as this time of year most of our cooking is done after dark, and the lighting in our kitchen is not ideal for photography. They still get the point across. As always, on-farm ingredients listed in italics.
Using vegetables
Left: stir fry of peppers, onions, garlic, broccoli (ours & some from our friends at Happy Hollow Farm), served with peanut sauce (organic peanut butter, vinegar, Missouri sorghum, soy sauce, hot peppers). Right: simple salad of mixed greens, lettuce, watermelon radishes.
Left: salad of spinach, fresh goat feta, organic Missouri apples from Blue Heron orchard, organic Missouri pecans. Right: creamy soup of garlic, sage, thyme, goat milk, delicata squash, spinach, butter, flour.
Entertaining chefs
This is the time of year we start holding on-farm end-of-year meetings with our chef customers, to go over the year’s sales, discuss feedback in both directions, and discuss next year’s plans. We try to hold these at the farm so they can see the place, and so we can thank them with a good meal. The first to visit was Trey from Red & Moe, along with his wife. Lunch included:

Left: baked polenta (fresh-ground cornmeal, water, salt, butter). Right: polenta sauce (delicata squash, garlic, sage, goat milk, butter, flour); basically a thicker version of the soup above.
Left: fresh-made pita wedges. Right: fresh goat’s milk ricotta. Also served: green tomato relish (green tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc) and mixed green salad with watermelon radishes.
Using chicken efficiently
November also launches fresh meat season, as we finally start butchering fall animals. Young roosters are high on the priority, as we hatched several batches of eggs this summer to increase our laying flock, and naturally 50% of those birds will never lay an egg. The first two under the knife were hybrids between Rhode Island Reds and Black Ameraucanas. Rhode Island Reds are especially great meat birds with succulent flavor, especially when they’re as fat as these two were, and we think Reds are easier to gut than Ameraucanas (which seem to have more connective tissue holding the innards in place). Fortunately, these two seemed to have characteristics of a typical Red with respect to butchering and flavor. We can stretch a single chicken through many meals, making the most efficient use of the entire carcass. Here are the many meals we sourced from just one rooster.  

Left: sauteed chicken breasts, served with a spicy pepper sauce (onions, garlic, tomatoes, mixed dried peppers, cilantro). Right: chicken soup (broth from bones & carcass, onions, carrots, cabbage, parsley, leftover noodles & rice). The delicious fat from this carcass made this an especially rich and satisfying winter soup.

Chicken “tacos”: homade pitas stuffed with shredded chicken (scraps picked from carcass after boiling for broth), spicy pepper sauce (see ingredients above), shredded purchased cheddar cheese (a special treat; our numerous homemade rounds haven’t aged enough yet), cilantro. Roasted sweet potatoes on the side.

Not pictured: oven-fried chicken (thighs breaded with fresh-ground cornmeal & eggs), mashed potatoes with giblet gravy (chicken organs sauteed with onion, butter, flour, salt, goat milk).

Using apples
We’ve recieved several deliveries of organic apples from Blue Heron Orchard in NE Missouri (5 bushels in all) for home preservation and use, and do all sorts of interesting things with them, including canning lots of applesauce & apple butter, and drying apple rings.

 Left: fresh apples with cajeta (Mexican goat’s milk caramel: slow-simmered goat’s milk, sugar, cinnamon). When done right, this thick caramel sits in a jar in the fridge making tasty treats quite easy any time of day. Right: baked apple pancake (apples, egg, goat milk, sugar, flour. An easy and hearty breakfast, topped with maple syrup.

Bourbon-apple-pecan pie, my favorite to make, though not exactly farm-based. A filling of bourbon-soaked raisins, sliced Missouri apples, Missouri pecans, & sugar. The crust uses a bit of goat milk, that’s something… Just a fantastic flavor.
Thanksgiving
All November meals are just a prelude to Thanksgiving, the most important holiday here as it celebrates truly good food and the completion (mostly) of the year’s farming, along with a sense of self-reliance that is deeply meaningful to us. Take a look at our 2010 menu if you need any last-minute inspirations, and may the holiday be as relaxing and inspiring to you as it will be for us.

Food preservation methods: Canning

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

CANNING (Boiling water bath)
Canning heats and seals food in glass jars, using a large pot of boiling water, making it shelf-stable for a long period of time. It takes the most supplies, prep work and processing of any method, and must be planned for accordingly. It is also more dependent on having a critical mass of food to be preserved, as it is highly inefficient to heat a large water bath for just two jars of something, as opposed to the quick-and-easy packing of a few containers to be tossed in a freezer. However, canning allows the bulk preservation of many extremely useful staple foods that would require rows of freezers otherwise, and makes the preserved contents instantly usable when desired (unlike thawing or rehydrating).

Canning does raise more food safety concerns than other methods; the process must be done properly to ensure the food is safe to eat, and some items cannot be safely canned in a boiling water bath (pressure canners are more flexible, but are more expensive and not covered in this discussion). It is highly important to follow and understand reliable directions & guidance; this is available from numerous reputable sources and we will not be attempting to reinvent the wheel in covering this topic thoroughly. However, we are considering holding one or more canning demonstrations next year for CSA members interested in learning more.

Canning is generally most appropriate for high-acid foods (such as vinegar pickles) and/or high sugar foods (such as jam). Our canning effots this year included pickles (cucumbers, beets, & green tomatoes), relishes (zucchini & green tomato), crushed tomatoes, tomato juice, whole tomatillos, jams, fruit butters, applesauce, green tomato pie filling, and peach halves in syrup. Notice the green tomato theme? They were extra abundant this year. On the other hand, we didn’t get to some of our favorite canning recipes including ripe tomatoes, such as tomato paste and salsa, as there weren’t enough tomatoes to accomplish this.

 

Methods:
Canning leaves little room for creativity in the kitchen; ingredient ratios often have to be just so to ensure a safe results. Recipes that are intended for canning should be followed precisely; recipes not labelled for canning should not be assumed to be safe for canning. For example, the Ball company (preeminant maker of canning supplies) has a large website devoted to guidance and recipes. Our primary reference for canning is the book So Easy To Preserve, available from the Georgia Extension; their website also seems to have most or all of the recipes & info from the book. That said, we occasionally tweak a recipe now and then, but only in minor ways that don’t mess with the ingredients or ratios that are critical to the food safety. For example, we once ran out of dill seed while making pickles, started substituting other spices in the same quantities, and discovered some really good spice combinations to make pickles more interesting (for example, a mix of cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cloves, and fennel makes amazing pickles).

The need to be careful to produce a safe product should not frighten people away from canning; it is no worse than handling raw meat in a proper manner or any other sensible handling of food products for which the home cook should be able to take responsibility.

Canning involves multiple steps, which we’ll only summarize because again there are many other thorough references available (such as this complete timeline) Empty jars are heated in a large boiling water bath, then packed with hot food (either complete liquids like applesauce, relish, and jam; or solids like cucumbers and tomatillos surrounded by a pickling liquid). Metal lids with rubber seals are applied, held in place by a screw-on ring. The jars are returned to boiling water for a recipe-specified time to ensure food safety, then removed to cool. The process of cooling creates a vaccuum within the jar, compressing the lid to create an airtight seal which allows the food to be stored at room temperature for a year or more.

This all takes time, including bringing a large quantity of water to boil, preparing all the food ahead of time, processing the jars, and so on. With experience you’ll learn how long each of these take, and learn to balance the tasks to take a minimum of time. For example, with pickles I’ll often start the water-bath pot going before I even start to cut up cucumbers, whereas prepping and cooking down applesauce takes far longer before you’re ready to can. In some cases you might break the work into two days, such as making applesauce one night and reheating it the next night along with the water bath to do the actual canning.

Jars may be reused, though with each use their chance of breakage increases with varying levels of loss. Cucumbers may be salvaged from a pickle jar which breaks in the water bath and eaten fresh; applesauce which took half an evening to prepare and cook will disperse through the water and be a total loss. We generally use new jars for high-value items like applesauce and tomatoes, reserving used jars for lower-value or salvagable items like pickles and tomatillos. Lids should NOT EVER be reused, as the rubber seals cannot be guaranteed through more than one use; the metal rings are fine as long as they’re clean and unbent.
Equipment:

  • Canner & jar holder: These large black pots come in two sizes, one that can hold pint-size and smaller jars, and one that can hold quart jars. (We have one of each.) The rack that comes inside the canner keeps jars from bouncing around next to each other.
  • Jar lifter: a special and necessary tool that safely lifts hot jars into and out of boiling water.
  • Metal funnel: Needed for getting food into the jars with minimal mess. We prefer metal to plastic given the amount of hot-boiling material involved.
  • Thermometer: This is helpful for maintaining the temperature of the water that the lids sit in before being put on the jars. The water should be around 180ºF. Boiling the lids before they go on the jar can ruin the seal.
  • Bubble remover: Bubbles will sometimes form in the food as it goes into the jar, and these should be worked out of the food before putting the lid on. We’ve found that a small wooden spoon works reasonably well. A small, heat-resistant rubber spatula might be an even better choice. Some canning starter kits come with plastic bubble removers, but we prefer to avoid plastic. We’ve read not to use metal utensils to remove bubbles becaues they can scratch and weaken the jar. 
  • Kitchen scale: not always necessary but helpful for judging product quantities.
  • Jars, lids, and rings
  • Large soup pot for preparing sauces or brines

All needed supplies are widely available at grocery and hardware stores, at least in our area. I estimate a starting setup would cost $50-$60, all of which will last a long time. Jars which cost about $1/each for quarts (including rings & lids), and should give several years of use with careful handling.
  

Food preservation methods: Dehydration

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

DEHYDRATION OF FRUITS & VEGETABLES

Dehydration, like canning, takes more up-front work but produces a shelf-stable food item that requires no further energy to store. Numerous fruits and vegetable can be dehydrated; our favorites include herbs, tomatoes, peppers (hot & sweet), okra, shiitakes, strawberries, and locally purchased peaches and apples. Some dried foods are quite good just as they are. Others can be rehydrated for a few minutes in boiling water and used in cooking.

In many cases, dehydration intensifies flavor and sweetness, especially for fruit (including tomatoes). For example, during wet summers, we’ve harvested cherry tomatoes with mediocre flavor and frustratingly quick splitting. These often did not meet our criteria for market quality, so we dried a test bunch as a salvage operation. To our delight, the flavor of the resulting product was superbly sweet and complex, and they served us well on pizza throughout the winter. Now we make a point of dehydrating cherry tomatoes every year; another way to utilize what would otherwise be a waste product on the farm.

Equipment:
In some climates, sun drying is an option; not so much in central Missouri. It’s generally too humid here to safely or effectively dry most foods. Some ovens can be set to low-enough temperatures to act as dehydrators, but this can tie up the oven for long periods of time. And it is possible to build your own dehydrator, but by the time materials and labor are accounted for, we’re not sure that would end up being cheaper than buying a good, reliable one. After researching the options and reading online reviews, we decided to invest in an Excalibur Food Dehydrator, and we absolutely love it. These are American made and sold direct from the California factory. And they work really well. Given the cost of many dried foods like sun-dried tomatoes, or dried fruit, a good dehydrator can pay for itself in a reasonable time period, especially if you have access to extra produce through a garden, CSA, neighbor, or other source.

We have the nine tray version with an automatic turn-off timer, which is really useful for letting items dry for the proper time even if that ends in the middle of the night or when we’re not near the house. We strongly recommend getting a version with a timer. Nine trays are actually quite a lot of space to fill; working with some smallish end-of-season sweet peppers, it took the two of us about an hour to fill nine trays. Some things are faster than others; with the help of an apple peeler/corer/slicer and a capable user, trays of apple slices go pretty quickly. (Our apple peeler/corer/slicer is from Back to Basics in Draper, UT, and we quite like it. We’ve used other versions that haven’t worked as well. We can’t find a website for Back to Basics, but this gadget is available from various online sources.)

Before buying a dehydrator, you might consider where you’re going to put it. Often a running dehydrator will smell like the food inside (it is running a strong fan in there, after all). This is not a big deal when it’s tomatoes or apples, but if it’s peppers (even sweet peppers), hoo boy. We can’t be in the same room as nine trays of drying hot peppers; we tend to keep our unit in an unused back room while it’s running. It certainly doesn’t need to be in the kitchen, as the unit is self-contained and not messy. You can do all the prep and tray-loading in the kitchen, then carry the trays back to wherever your drying chamber is (spare bedroom, closet, basement). It’s also helpful to be able to open a window. Just thought we’d mention it before someone with a one-bedroom studio chases themselves onto the street with a full load of drying jalapenos.

Methods:
For most items, the basic idea is to cut up the produce, maybe seed it (like peppers), and spread the pieces on each tray before setting them in the dehydrator. You can dry some items whole (like hot peppers), it just takes longer. Generally it makes sense to at least halve things. Also, the smaller the pieces, the more trays you can fit in the dehydrator at a time. When I’m doing whole cayennes, for example, I can only get 5 trays in because they stick up so much, whereas sliced Anaheim peppers allow all 9 trays.

Whatever size pieces you choose, best practice is to make all pieces roughly the same size so the whole tray or batch finishes at the same time.  Judging doneness can be difficult, and somethimes I think we’ve erred on the side of over-drying just to be safe. Over-drying results in a crispy product that won’t be as good, while under-drying risks the product molding or otherwise going bad in storage. Rotating the position of the trays can also help to ensure even drying. We consult the references mentioned below to know which products should be leathery and which brittle. Examples of the latter would include items you intend to grind or powder later, like herbs and some hot peppers (one of our standard winter spice mixes involves blending lots of different dried peppers in a food processor to make an intense pepper powder, great for salsas and sausages). There are lots of good books, manuals, and online resources (such as this University of Georgia site) for getting drying times right (our dehydrator also came with a reference manual). We’ve also relied heavily on the book Making & Using Dried Foods.

Many dehydration books are full of oddball ideas for things to dry, including lettuce (???). We’ve tried unusual things like mustard greens, which were really neat to powder into a broth, but took lots of space for almost no resulting product. It’s fun to play with trying different things. Herbs can work quite well as a way to preserve summer bounty and cut the need for purchasing old spices from a store.

Washing all the trays can be mildly annoying, so we often try to do multiple batches of the same thing before changing. Washing between different items can be quite important, though. We once dried mint, then went straight to apples thinking the uncut herbs couldn’t have left any residue. We ended up with a batch of apple rings that tasted like toothpaste. Wash your trays; no one wants hot-pepper dried strawberries.

Also, we once had an insect outbreak in some tomatoes, so we’ve started to put products in the freezer for a week or two after dehydration as an extra way to kill insects. It’s easy and increases the storage life. Just don’t open the container or bag until it comes back to room temperature, or condensation will decrease the storage life by partially rehydrating the food.

Storing & using dried foods:
Dehydration results in a substantial volume reduction, since vegetables and fruit are mostly water. This sometimes feels a little depressing when nine trays of peppers fit in a few small jars, but it also means a lot of food can be stored in a small space. We store most of our dried items in old glass canning jars that we don’t trust for canning anymore. They arrange nicely on storage shelves and seal well enough to preserve the food. Sometimes we’ll use sealed plastic bags, but these aren’t as reuseable. Masking tape labels ensure we know when the food was dried (so it doesn’t sit too long) and what exactly it is (you can’t always tell which peppers are which, hot or sweet, once they’re dried).

Apple slices, halved strawberries, and cherry tomatoes are great snacks just as they are. Others we use in soups and stews, like onions or okra, or as pizza/pasta toppings, like tomatoes, peppers, or mushrooms. These can be easily rehydrated by soaking in boiling water for a few minutes; in some cases I’ll just toss dried stuff into a simmering soup broth and let it absorb the liquid already there.

Food preservation methods & supplies: Freezing

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

FREEZING
Freezing is one of the easiest methods of food preservation, and this technique relies on a minimum of specialized equipment. We freeze many types of food including beans, greens, basil in oil, shredded zucchini, sweet corn, okra, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, an assortment of prepared foods (zucchini soup, chutneys, sauces, frijole mole), meat, broth/stock, and more.

Methods:
Methods vary depending on what is being frozen, with advice available from many cookbooks and at this site by the Georgia Extension (their excellent food preservation book is our standard reference). A few products can be frozen with no preparation at all. Blueberries and (contrary to other advice) okra are two examples that we just chuck in a container or bag and put in the freezer. Most vegetables benefit from being blanched before freezing (okra turns too slimy if you blanch it). We generally blanch in boiling water, and standard kitchen supplies are sufficient for this process: a big soup pot or two, a colander, and a large bowl to hold ice water for chilling.

Food can either be packed into a container or bag right away, or spread on a tray for freezing, then packed into a container after freezing. The former is faster but means you get a solid block of frozen material that needs to be thawed all at once; the latter takes more work up front but means you can dip into the bag/container for just what you need at one time. We especially use the tray method for whole okra, strawberries, and some green beans. Either way, try to drain or dry the food before you pack it up; otherwise you’re wasting energy freezing water and it can decrease the product quality.

The freezer itself:
The freezer compartment of a normal refrigerator can hold a pretty good amount of frozen food, if well managed. Upon outgrowing that, a larger standalone freezer is worth considering. Size is the biggest consideration, since freezers are most efficient to run when full, but of course fullness fluctuates over the course of the year. Ours is stuffed to the brim by Nov./Dec. (when it is loaded with vegetables and freshly butchered animals) and is least full by about May (when we put numerous ice blocks in to fill otherwise empty space). We like to support locally owned businesses, so we bought our chest freezer at Downtown Appliance, and have been very happy with it.

Containers to put frozen food in:

  • The cheapest route is to reuse containers (such as quart yogurt containers). When we stopped buying food that comes in containers, we eliminated this option for ourselves.
  • Most hardware stores in our area sell Arrow plastic freezer containers. The square shape makes these among the more space efficient containers we have, but we’ve found that the lifespan of these is shorter than desired. We’ve had quite a few develop cracks in the bottom.
  • This year, we’re trying out some Ball plastic freezer jars, also available at our local hardware stores. These are BPA-free, stackable, and tight-sealing, plus they appear to be durable. They are more expensive up front, but we think they may be cheaper in the long run than the alternatives. They’re also round, which makes them less space-efficient than the cheaper square ones.
  • Glass jars can work for freezing some things, but it is important not to fill them too full. We have lots of small glass jars around, and we tend to use these for condiments that we want to thaw in small quantities, such as chutney and pesto.
  • Freezer bags are convenient for some items (okra and chicken, for example) that don’t pack well into solid containers. We keep some on hand for times when we run out of other containers. However, these generally head for the landfill after a couple of uses, so they rank low on the sustainability front.
  • Freezer paper is our choice for wrapping cuts of meat.

Optional accessories, one cheap, one expensive:

  • A freezer alarm will beep if the freezer temperature gets too high (whether due to the freezer being accidentally unplugged, the door being left open, or some form of malfunction). This is an inexpensive investment to provide some protection to the large amount of flavor, effort, and money represented by the food in the freezer, though you still have to be near the freezer to hear it (we don’t go in our basement every day).
  • In case of an extended power outage, a generator will provide a true backup. A few years ago, Joanna’s parents in Arkansas experienced a severe ice storm followed by a week (or longer) power outage and temperatures in the 70s, a nightmare scenario for a freezer full of a year’s worth of food preservation. Eric drove down with a chainsaw and a newly purchased generator–one of the last ones available in Columbia, a couple hundred miles from the storm zone. When generators are needed, they can be hard to obtain. Dry ice can also be used to get a freezer through a power outage.

Tracking frozen items:
One of the keys to making the best use of a freezer is knowing what’s in it. We generally defrost our freezer in November or December, and this is a great time to do an inventory. We make a list with all of the freezer contents & quantities, post it in the kitchen, and do our best to check off each container that comes out of the freezer. This way, we can pace ourselves as the winter progresses, making sure to use everything that is available. Come spring, we can also assess whether there were some things that we froze way too much of (shredded zucchini, anyone?), and we can adjust our quantities the following year.

Using frozen items:
We don’t generally try to use preserved items in the same way as their fresh counterparts; you won’t find a pile of frozen green beans steamed in a pile on our plates in January. Part of seasonal eating is learning seasonal cooking, in which different recipes work best at different times of year. We don’t make many stews and soups in summer when produce is at its individual best, but do this all the time with frozen and preserved produce in the winter. It’s much more effective to combine these ingredients in diverse dishes that build on the strength of each, but hide the weaknesses. For example, it’s incredibly easy to grab a stack of broth, beans, okra, greens, corn, and more to simply chuck in a soup pot with some onion and turn into a nice stew, when many of those served on their own would be noticeably less interesting than the fresh version. Frozen fruit is mushier than the fresh original, but made into a baked good or thawed into yogurt, the flavors come through nicely without noticing the loss of texture. Pre-making soups, sauces, and other mixes to freeze also makes using frozen foods more practical, as they’re more space-efficient than their raw ingredients. Finally, some items are best to thaw before use (broth, sauce) while others are best used half-frozen. For example, okra is easiest and least messy to chop when frozen whole and chopped just slightly thawed (a few minutes on the counter).