Thursday, October 15, 2009

We Be Smokin'

Earlier this year when posting here about my pepper pantry, I mentioned that I would be growing extra jalapenos this summer to replenish my chipotle (che-POAT-lee) supply. I promised I would post instructions for putting together a make-shift smoker, and turning jalapeno peppers into chipotles.

Start with ripe jalapeno peppers, ideally those that have turned completely red. This year, we had a late spring, reasonably cool summer, and snow the first week of October. Only a couple of my jalapeno peppers had just started to turn red when I had to pick everything (the golden ones on the left are habaneros - they too were picked green, but are faster to change color).

No problem. Peppers, like tomatoes, will continue to ripen after they're picked if left unrefrigerated. I let the peppers set out on the counter for a couple of weeks. They can set for quite a while, but try to process jalapenos before the stem starts to separate from the body of the chile. Some peppers with thinner walls will continue to ripen and then dry, but jalapenos are too fleshy - they tend to rot before they'll dry. Smoking them is one way to preserve your jalapenos - canning them as nacho slices, or freezing them whole, sliced, or stuffed with a cream cheese mixture to turn into poppers, or whipping up a batch of jalapeno hot sauce are other options (that link also has a recipe for my habanero-orange hot sauce - my absolute favorite, and why there are also habanero peppers ripening on my counter).

But I digress. We're supposed to be making a smoker to turn jalapenos into chipotles. Commercial smokers, that have been previously used for meat, can give a greasy, and later rancid, taste to the chiles, so it's best to use something just for the chipotles. Unless you're planning on going into the chipotle business, a temporary smoker made from easily acquired items is the way to go. The main thing to remember is that you don't want to cook the jalapenos, but rather let the smoke waft away the moisture in the chiles as it also infuses them with flavor. The best way to do that is to make a separate firebox, and then connect it to your smoking box with a piece of pipe. Of course, the firebox portion has to be able to withstand fire, so I've used some cinder blocks and a piece of steel pipe. I used some crumpled foil to fill in the areas between round pipe and square blocks, but it doesn't have to be perfectly airtight. The smoker section, on the other hand, only has to hold the chiles suspended in the smoke while it acts as an offset chimney, so a cardboard box works fine. In the past, I've found taller boxes (that held a windshield, or a washer) but this year I just picked up a couple of smaller ones. They were two different diameters though, and instead of trying to fit them together, I found a piece of roof vent flashing, set that on the bigger box, then the smaller box, and taped the flaps of the bottom box to the upper box, just in case the wind came up (and notice that there are bricks holding down the flaps of the bottom box for the same reason). For a more primitive option, depending on your soil type, you could dig a firepit and smoke trench, covering both with metal or even rocks, and then add your cardboard smoke box.

Next, you need some way to suspend the peppers in the rising smoke. A pan poked full of holes could work, but isn't ideal - the peppers would tend to steam in their juices more than dry. In the past, I've strung the peppers on lengths of string, and hung that draped across dowels poked through the box. That's not too bad, depending on how you want to use your chipotles. If you're just dropping them whole into a pot of soup, it's ok, but if you're planning on grinding some into powder or making some in adobo sauce the string can be difficult to deal with. A wire basket or a rack that won't allow the chiles to drop through is best. I bent a piece of hardware cloth into a tray, supporting it with the (cut-down) cardboard divider inside the box plus a couple pieces of coat hangers stuck through either end of the box.

The best woods to use for smoking the chiles are from fruits or nut trees. If that's not possible, hardwoods are the next best. You just don't want to use pine, mesquite, or other resinous woods. I lost a nectarine tree to borers this year, and always save the prunings from my fruit trees, so I had a nice supply of smoking wood. The night before, I soaked half the wood pieces so they'd burn slower and cooler. Be aware that once you start up with the smoke, you will be perfuming your entire neighborhood. But smoking chiles smell like food, not smoldering leaves, so the neighbors just might drop by with their mouths watering to see what's going on.

It's always best to be prepared when playing with fire, so I pulled the hose over, on at the faucet and closed off with a twist valve. Aries also brought the fire extinguisher out of the garage, just in case. I started a small fire in my firebox, and while I waited for it to get going, I pulled the stems off the jalapenos and loaded up the basket. I used all my red ones, those partially changed, and then some of the green ones with white corking (very desirable in chipotles - don't ask me why).

Once I had a nice little bed of hot coals in the firebox, I added a couple handfuls of soaked wood and then put a piece of metal over the top, held down with a couple smaller bricks. I sat out to watch for a while, just to make sure everything was holding together ok. Every hour or two, I'd add more wood, and turned the chiles a couple of times.

Low and slow is the way to go with chipotles - both for the best flavor and to ensure ones that will last in storage. It's better to stretch it out over a couple of days than to try and hurry up the process with more heat. Let the fire burn out overnight, and start it up again the next day. I smoked my chiles all day, but rain was forecast for tomorrow. I just pulled the cardboard boxes away from the pipe and set them in the garage for the next day and a half. The photo above is after another afternoon of smoking, and I have them going again this afternoon. If you're in a hurry, the jalapenos will dry faster if cut in half and seeds removed. You can also dry them in a dehydrator or your oven until wrinkled but not stiff, and then smoke them (doing it in reverse will also work, but your house will smell like smoke for days). Finished chipotles are hard, lightweight, and dark brown in color. Ones that are still leathery won't store as long. Once the chipotles are dried, store them in jars with a rubbery seal or in an airtight plastic bag.

To use, drop one into a pot of beans or soup, and remove after cooking (or dice the rehydrated chile and stir bits into the pot to taste). They add a rich, smokey, bit of heat. If you want to grind them into powder, they might need to be dried further, until they can be broken in half. I use lots of mine to make a big batch of enchilada sauce (pressure-canned) every couple of years. Or make up a batch of chipotles in adobo sauce, rehydrated chipotles pickled in a tomato-based sauce.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Reno Italian Festival

This is a tourist area, so there are lots of events year-round designed to draw in the Californians. But this past weekend was an event that always seems more oriented towards the locals. Always held the weekend of the Columbus Day holiday, the Reno Italian Festival has long been a favorite of ours.

Virginia Street is closed to cars from the Reno Arch to Circus Circus - a big, free street fair. The crowd is an easy-going, family-centered one - lots of dogs and kids, no one smoking outside (all the smokers are inside the casinos, I guess), everyone enjoying our beautiful fall weather.

There are a couple of live-music stages, with acts ranging from accordion bands to Italian crooners; booths selling gelato, wine and Bellini's, artichoke hearts and cheesy garlic bread; street entertainers that range from stilt walkers to living statues, jugglers and balloon-twisters.

New this year was a Farmers Market and Crafts area in the park where the train tracks used to be, before the covered train trench made the downtown much more pedestrian- and traffic-friendly.

We just missed the semi-finals of the boccie ball tournament, and didn't feel like waiting around to see the final round. So we wandered back through the crowd to the other end of the fair, arriving just in time for another round of the grape-stomping contest.

The grape-stompers compete as eight teams of two - a bare-footed stomper plus a mucker that scrapes the juice towards the drain spigot and into a jug. After three-minute rounds, the team with the most juice by weight wins that round (it looks like Topsy the Clown has been stomping grapes too).

A woman came up and asked Aries if he'd like to be her mucker in the next round. He said no - a good thing, because I really like the shirt he was wearing, and grape juice can leave such a nasty stain.

But the best part of the Italian Fest is the Sauce Contest. After the judges are through tasting, anyone can buy a bowl of thick spaghetti noodles (with spoon-it-yourself cheese) for $1. You take your bowl around to each of the 25-30 sauce booths lining both sides of the street, and they'll ladle on a bit. Then you stand there in the middle of the street with your bowl and fork, slurping up one sauce after another. I'll usually eat just the sauce off the top of the noodles, and then go on to the next. Most places will also put their sauce on a small slice of Italian bread, so you can taste it apart from the strange soup that develops in the bottom of your bowl. Halfway through, I was overwhelmed by all the tomato sauces, so searched out only the booths that had white or pesto sauces. The Casale family pesto was my pick; Aries goes more for the tomato and hot Italian sausage ones.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

20th Wedding Anniversary

Twenty years ago, we got married outside the Virginia City Courthouse. It was basically an elopement. I didn't really want a big wedding or lots of guests showing up - this was just for us. My sister and my roommate at the time stood up with us. Three friends from work showed up unexpectedly, making the Justice' Chambers a bit too crowded, so we took it outside - a little lawn area under the golden-leaved cottonwood trees, next to the building. That was really nice. I also liked the idea that our officiating Justice of the Peace was a woman (Aries was surprised, but I'd set it up so I knew).

Something old: I had an antique linen handkerchief with crocheted edging that belonged to my grandma in my pocket. Something new: I wore brand-new white tennis shoes - they hadn't even been scuffed up yet. Something borrowed: my sister loaned me a beautiful pair of earrings to wear. Something blue: blue jeans (after the ceremony we went down the street to one of those old-timey dress-up photo places for our "official" wedding photo, so Mom did get a wedding picture of me in a wedding dress). And a 1953 silver dime in the heel of my left shoe.

I keep my wedding night peignoir and negligee tucked away in a satin-lined pouch, getting it out again each year, to add to that sense of occasion (note to the ladies: if this is a tradition you'd like to try, I'd advise choosing either something diaphanous and floaty or one with some stretch and ribbon ties - you'll be glad you have that bit of leeway in the fit during all stages of your life together). Sweet husband gave me an anthurium. For him, I looked up the list of traditional gifts. China, it said, for a 20th anniversary. So I told Aries he'd need to get a passport - couldn't talk him into that though. Instead, we spent the afternoon at the Italian Fest in Reno (he liked that - he's half Italian-descent), tasting pasta sauces and wandering about in the crowd.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oh No! Fermentation Overflow

Cider is said to ferment vigorously. There are stories about people finding the sticky stuff spattered across the walls, or bubbled over flooding the floor. But we're making five gallons in a fermenting bucket that holds more than six, so I didn't think we had anything to worry about. I was wrong.

The fermentation lock had been happily gurglely-burgleing since yesterday, just like it's supposed to. We make beer sometimes too - that sound is something you just get used to. I'd even stopped looking at it, sitting there on the kitchen counter.

But then, as I was heading out the kitchen door, it kinda snuffled instead of gurgled. That got my attention. The fermentation lock was completely filled with greenish bubbly apple goo, and there was a puddle growing across the lid. Thankfully, I saw it before it completely blocked the fermentation lock - that's when you could end up with fermenting goo on the ceiling. Aries wasn't home - I was going to have to fix this by myself.

I mopped up the lid before it overflowed, and put a big platter underneath the fermenter, just in case. I didn't want this stuff flowing all over my counter or kitchen floor if I could help it. I know keeping the brew from getting contaminated is important, so I didn't want to take off the lid, but knew I had to do something to allow it to continue outgassing and still contain the overflow. I did a quick online search. I needed to replace the overflowing fermentation lock with a tube running into a container half-full of water. The container would hold the overflow, gases could still escape, but nothing would get in.

The fermentation lock fits into a plug that fits into a hole in the lid of the fermenting bucket. We have plastic tubing for when we're filling beer bottles, but it was too big to fit into the hole in the plug, and too small to fit in the hole in the lid. I needed to figure out how to make an air-tight connection between the tubing and the hole in the fermenter lid.

I thought about cutting a wine cork and hollowing out a hole to make a thin little gasket. That sounded like a good way to cut off a finger. I thought maybe one of the gaskets from the bottle tops might work, but they were too flimsy and didn't fit tight enough. I mopped up more overflow from the lid and kept thinking.

I was going to have to use the plug from the fermentation lock; I just needed some way to join it to the larger-diameter tubing. I went through the bag of beer-making supplies again. Eureka! When filling a bottle of beer, we use a hard plastic tube that fits into the bottle. It has a spring-loaded valve on the bottom to press against the bottom of the bottle - when the bottle is full, you lift up on the tube and the beer stops flowing. It's designed to fit inside the tubing; it looked like the perfect size to fit into the plug too.

I pulled off the valve, and fit the tube into the tubing. I dunked the whole set-up into some weak bleach solution to sterilize it, running some through and out the end of the tubing. I pulled the fermentation lock out of the plug and stuck the hard plastic tube in instead. It fit perfectly. I didn't want the hard tube to fall over, possibly letting it leak, so I tied it up to the towel rack above. Then I stuck the tubing into a carafe partially filled with water, and it worked! Pretty good, don't ya think?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Brewing Hard Apple Cider

Many, many years ago, I took a trip to rural Iowa (where the pigs each had a patio) with a native farm boy. It was in the fall, cider pressing time, something I'd never seen before. I was surprised that they used all the apples - not just the perfect ones plucked right from the tree. They used the bruised windfalls, the bird-damaged, and the wormy ones. Dumped into a washtub for a quick rinse, then into the grinder, down into the big round slatted press, and the cider came pouring out the spout. It was absolutely the best stuff I'd ever tasted.

Now, I have my own apple trees. Every once in a while, we'll get enough apples to make the bother of pressing cider worthwhile. Just for the record, we're not just making a couple of glasses of juice - we're going for five gallons to ferment into hard cider, plus extra to drink now.

You don't use early summer apples to make cider - they don't have enough sugars. I make applesauce out of my excess early apples. Late apples, the ones that ripen late in the year, the ones otherwise known as storage apples, make the best cider. This year, my Macintosh and Liberty apples set a lot of small fruit, too small to bother peeling and coring, but perfect for cider. We let them set for a week to soften and sweeten a bit - even longer would have been better, but since it's partly an outside activity we watch the weather too. Yesterday, we decided it was cider time.

Aries starts outside, cleaning and setting up our press on the edge of the deck. Basically, it's an open rectangular frame, a small rock underneath the back edge to tip it forward a bit. The bottom plate has ridges that allow the juice to flow beneath. To lessen leaking, he lines the bottom plate with plastic wrap, taped to hold it in place. He sets the plate into place within the frame, a catch bucket underneath the spout with a lid to cover it (to keep the yellowjackets out - they'll be here as soon as the juice starts flowing).

The first step in pressing cider is to grind the apples into little bits. The same old neighbor that gave me my 1970's-era dehydrator also gave me an equally ancient juicer. It weighs a ton, but the metal grinding teeth do an excellent job on the apples. It also has solid plate to use instead of the juice screen across the juice spout, so it will just push all the apple mush out the end spout (or maybe you'd prefer the "bucket & sledge hammer" option, here).

Once I've got the juicer/grinder all put together, I set a bucket on a stool under the spout to catch the ground apples. We also make beer, so I line the catch bucket with a nylon mesh bag normally used for boiling the grain in beer-making (we have two bags, making the process a bit faster). The solid plate leaks a bit, so I put a small bowl underneath that too. The less leaks, the better - apple juice is so sticky, and my kitchen floor is going to be a disaster zone soon enough anyway.

Everything in place, we're ready for the apples. The apples are dumped into the sink full of water for a quick wash, piled into a tub, and then roughly chopped into pieces small enough to fit through the small hopper of the grinder. Aries chops, I feed handfuls at a time into the hopper. A friend, Micah, stops by, so we give him a knife too, and he starts chopping on the other side of the counter.

Once there's quite a bit of crushed apples in the bag, Aries takes the bucket outside. He twists the mesh bag closed and puts it on the press. He dumps any extra juice out of my bucket and gives it back to me. This is where the second bag comes in handy. I can take that bucket back inside, line it with the other bag, and get right back to grinding apples.

Meanwhile, Aries puts the smooth-faced top plate over the bag, topping that with a small jack. As he starts jacking up the jack, it presses against the top of the frame, squeezing the mush between the top and bottom plates. The juice flows through the spout into the catch bucket. When the spout stops flowing, he covers the catch bucket, loosens the jack, and removes the top plate. The bag of almost dry apple mush, now called pomace, is emptied into a waiting wheelbarrow (and later given to the chickens). Aries comes back inside to continue chopping.

Just like when making beer, sanitation while fermenting hard cider is very important. You want only the things you purposely put into the fermenting bucket in there, and everything else kept out. Wild yeasts present in the air can ruin a batch, giving it a bad flavor, as can the bacteria on a dishcloth. Bleach is a good sanitizer, so we previously rinsed the fermenting bucket and lid with a weak bleach solution, then kept it closed up until we're ready to fill it from the catch bucket of cider.

From about two bushels of small, otherwise unusable apples, we get almost six gallons of cider - a little over five in the fermenter, almost a gallon for the refrigerator. For the hard cider, we decide to add only extra sugar and a packet of champagne yeast. I heat up some of the cider and add four pounds dark brown sugar, stirring until it's all dissolved, and then put that back into the fermenter. Stirring with a sterilized spoon to aerate it a bit, Aries adds the yeast then snaps the lid on tight and puts a fermentation lock, filled with a bit of vodka, into the top. By this morning, the escaping gases caused by the yeast turning the sugars into alcohol have started burbling up through the lock. Fermentation has begun.

Oh, and the fresh stuff for drinking now? Aries likes to pour his off the top without disturbing what's settled, but I like to shake it up before I pour a glass. There's so much fiber in unfiltered apple juice I almost feel like I should chew it. And it's so filling - four ounces is almost more than I can drink at one time. It's sooooo good.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Of Cabbages and Kings

Yesterday, I got seven and a half pounds of cabbage, from ones that split and heads too little to store, shredded, salted, and packed into a crock for sauerkraut (how-to here). My cabbages grow in the same bed as my root crops. I stop watering for a week or so before digging the carrots, beets, and potatoes. But I've had problems getting enough moisture out of the cabbage, and don't like feeling like I'm bruising it instead of just packing it down.

So this year I tried soaking the heads overnight first, and then letting them drain/drip dry in the dish drainer this morning. That worked great - the cabbage shreds were crisp and crunchy, and once tossed with the salt started to sweat right away. When I packed it into the crock there was plenty of brine. I put the crock into the cellar, where it will slowly ferment over the next couple of months. I've still have 4½ nice big cabbages for fresh eating this winter too.

While I was in the kitchen, Aries picked the apples from our MacIntosh and Liberty trees (those are my potted fig trees in the wagon - not normally grown in Nevada. Right now, they're being moved in and out of the garage until they go dormant, and then they'll spend the winter in the cellar). We got a lot of apples, but they were all so small, some bird-pecked, and some of these late apples had worms in them (the earlier Freedom apples were much better; and the birds got all the Gravensteins, our earliest apple, this year). We also gleaned three baskets of heirloom apples from an old tree on a lawyers' office lawn in the old section of town before the snow. They're beautiful, big apples, but three-quarters of those were wormy too. I picked through them, and put the good ones in the cellar. We're going to make a batch of hard cider from all the rest. I'll write about it when we do. After he finished with the apples, Aries started cleaning up the garden - pulling out all the plants that froze, shredding them, getting them into the compost bin.

I can't believe he did it again!
Black kale, Tuscan, dinosaur, Lacinato - whatever you call it, it's supposed to be the king of kales for taste and texture. Last year, I had one plant, that I stuck in with the peppers and tomatoes after a pepper plant died. I was really looking forward to having a wonderful winter green for fresh eating. But after the first freeze, and Aries had cleaned up the garden, my beautiful kale plant was gone! He'd pulled it up along with the dead plants. "Couldn't [he] see it was a thriving plant, not dead?" He said he was sorry - he didn't realize it was something I wanted. What else could I do but forgive him?

This summer, I set out three black kale plants, this time, in with the rest of the greens and hardy plants. They grew great. The aphids didn't bother them, neither did the recent snow - all three were strong healthy plants almost two feet tall. And today, all three were gone! Again! His defense: "they didn't look like food."

Aaarrgggh! It's thriving, in a vegetable garden - what else would it be! I still can't believe it - especially since he left a puny little chard plant growing right next to them, and some weedy bitter overgrown mustard plants down the way a bit (he also pulled up all my lettuce plants I had purposely let go to seed so I could harvest the seeds - ok, they did look pretty weedy; and the last head of cauliflower - now that had to look like food). Sometimes I just don't understand how that man thinks!

Ok, I have to get over it. What's done is done. On another note: Two nights ago, the full moon rose over the middle of Prison Hill. Our house is pretty much square with the compass points, and the moon was due east, straight out from the deck and our big window. Then tonight, when I went out to close up the chicken coop, the moon was coming up waaaaay over to the northeast, clear over above the north end of Prison Hill. I couldn't even see it from our big window. Even though I've noticed the same thing before (was it this time of year? maybe), it's hard to believe the moon's orbit wobbled that much in only two days (they haven't bombed it yet, have they?). Or is the Earth wobbling on its axis? Maybe that's why we're having earthquakes and tsunamis? Can the ancient Mayans be right after all?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

First Snow

I spent yesterday morning at the Muscle Powered bicycle valet for our last Farmers' Market of the year. The Market organizers would like to see us do it again next year. For the most part, we all enjoyed our Saturdays we volunteered and thought it made for a good presence in our community. After talking it over, we decided to try and do it again next summer.

It was a bit blustery in the morning, and there was a definite autumnal feel to the day. By noon, the wind really started to pick up. We were glad we'd decided against putting up the shade structure as we watched some vendors trying to hold onto theirs, before finally giving up and just taking them down.

That afternoon, I had wanted to go to a walk-n-talk about the reconstruction efforts after the Waterfall Fire, but when I went out to the meeting place at the College the cold wind was blowing so hard I decided I'd rather just come on home.

So I did, and got another 5 pints of tomatoes into the canner. With a late Spring, a cool Summer, and now an early snow, this hasn't been the best year for the vegetable garden, but we did get quite a bit of fruit for a change. I bundled up and headed outside to start getting ready for the snow - rearranging the shed a bit, putting away the umbrella and outside cushions, moving some of the outdoor furniture. I took the eggs away from Junior - she'd been too fast for our little rooster and none of the eggs were fertile, so it's time for her to go back in the coop with the rest of the flock. When Aries got home from work, he cleaned out the woodbox, and then filled both it and the kindling box. The first sleety pellets started to fall at nightfall.

Curing this year's pitiful squash harvest - less than a third of normal

We woke to a drippy, gloomy day. I was thinking it would be a good day to make a pot of chili. Aries walked down to the store to get some milk and the San Francisco Sunday newspaper for me. He always likes to check the meat department for sales, and today came back with chicken, so I decided to make white chili. This afternoon, while I got some great Northern beans cooking, Aries sat down in front of the TV and started de-stemming grapes. As he'd get a bowlful done, I'd wash them, give them a 10-second dunk in simmering water (just long enough to crack the skins), and filled the dehydrator trays. I started cutting up a bowlful of bird-pecked Asian pears, and managed to get two cups of chopped fruit - using them instead of apples to make these muffins. Then I started on the chili. So tonight, we're all snuggled in with full, warm tummies, in front of a warm fire. Let it snow!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ghosts in the Garden

Years ago, a new neighbor called to me over the fence in mid-October. "You gave us a bit of a start last night," she said. "We came home late, and thought there were ghosts in your garden."

We laughed. Standing there in the sunlight, she could see that I'd wrapped up my tomato plants in old draperies to protect them from an expected freeze. But I'm sure things looked different in the moonlight, especially with Halloween on the way.

I covered the tomatoes and peppers a couple of nights ago, and everything made it through the night's low of 31º. Night before last was predicted even colder, and I didn't want to take a chance on losing anything, so I picked all the mature green tomatoes, peppers and squash. I covered the tomato plants again, just in case I could get them through a few more weeks, but a low of 25º was too much even with the covers. And now snow is expected tomorrow night. I dug up the beets, carrots, and potatoes this afternoon, and have only one taller cherry tomato plant, the tomatillo, and the cole crops still out there.