Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hostess Gift? Ok, Check the Pantry

Heavy snow last Friday caused a friend to cancel a planned holiday get-together. Then, a break in the weather allowed her a last-minute rescheduling for last night. I worked yesterday, plus am trying to get a bit of daily exercise out walking with the dog each day (the little stars on my calendar signify at least 30 minutes activity - I'm really trying to make it a daily habit). This left me but a little time to put together a hostess gift, but I was sure I could figure out something.

I like giving people something I've made when I can manage it. Let's see - what do I have in the pantry? I label my canned goods with the date, and while jelly from a couple of years ago is just fine for us, I think gifts should be the freshest and best. This year wasn't the best harvest for a wide variety of goodies. Hmmm - besides, a jar of tomato sauce or a couple of sour pickles just isn't going to cut it. I really think a holiday hostess gift should be a bit more festive than utilitarian, and still be something she'd like, too. Something she could either add to her party table, or set aside for personal use later. Aha! how about a dried fruit platter?

I have some great dried fruits - harvested at the peak of ripeness from my own trees. Growing fruit in the high desert is feast or famine - late Spring frosts often mean no harvest at all. So in the years when we do manage to get fruit to set, it often ends up being a bumper crop. And our hot, dry summers are perfect for drying fruit; while quite heating up the kitchen with a big pot of boiling canning water, not so attractive. Another plus: when properly stored, dried fruites hold onto that great taste for years.

The big tins in my pantry hold bags of wonderful dried fruit. Pulling them out, I quickly put together a tasty mixture of sizes, textures, and colors - pie cherries, plums, apricots, raisins, peaches, and pumpkin pie leather - little labels for each (the apples and pears, other leathers, are great too - but I ran out of room on the plate). When I gave it to her at the door, she graciously added it to her table. Bits of dried fruit look deceptively small - each bite is packed with flavor and fiber; too rich to eat by the handfuls. There was enough for everyone's snacking throughout the party, plus plenty left for her to enjoy later too.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Drizzly Day

A steady drizzle of rain, starting last night and on into today, and the six inches of snow from two days ago is melting. Instead of shoveling, I'm out checking that my little drainage trenches keep the water flowing around the house instead of through my front door (we live at the mouth of a small canyon, on the downhill side of the street). So far, so good.

Outside, there are no birds to be seen around the feeders. However, a lone little sparrow hawk perches in a nearby tree, patiently waiting for his chance to get something to eat. For now, it's a standoff - they hide, he waits.

Dinner last night: a winter squash (the big one, that got a little too close to the wood stove while curing this fall - a patch on top sunk in and turned white, but the inside looked fine when I cut into it) from the bin in the bedroom, cut in half and into the oven for an hour. I had some raviolis ready to cook, a pint of tomato sauce ready to heat up, but wanted a little something more.

How about some eggplant? home-grown eggplant? in December, with snow outside on the ground? Ah, yes, with a bit of advance planning, entirely possible. Eggplants store quite well for a couple of months, if snugly wrapped in plastic, on a shelf in my kitchen pantry (the zucchini stored in the cellar are still in fine shape too - I love experimenting with my wintertime fresh food options). I unwrapped a couple of small eggplants harvested last October, just before the first killing freeze. Sliced, dipped in egg and crumbs, they joined the squash in the oven for the last 30 minutes baking time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An Email to Mom

It seems like the only time I've sat down to write about what I've been doing is when I send a newsy email to my Mom. Here's what I said today:

My schedule has been crazy-busy since last week. I started working Tuesdays and Thursdays for a CPA in Minden; went to Christmas luncheons Wednesday and Saturday; a Board meeting Monday; volunteered for 4 hours at the Food Drive (mostly playing traffic director) Friday; and my birthday was in there too. Aries took me out to dinner Sunday to an Italian restaurant in the Fandango casino (ran my $10 up to $20 afterwards, playing quarter video poker), and then we walked around the Methodist church's living Nativity display (took up a whole block, vignettes from Herod's decree to the baby in the manger; admission was a can of food). Monday, we hiked up Prison Hill, to the north end, with the dog. Last night, we went out with friends to Chili's - their thank you for watching their house while they were gone.

I'm a Christmas angel to a couple of boys in foster care; one eight, the other 10. Each gets a bag with blue jeans, socks, and underwear, and then we can spend up to $25 more. So today, I went shopping. I got each a long-sleeved shirt, a Goosebumps book, art supplies and a pad of paper, and a hand-held electronic toy they'd each asked for. Friday I take the stuff over to the DCFS (Nevada Department of Child and Family Services) offices, and they'll do the wrapping and delivery.

I haven't gotten Aries anything yet. He put a cutout picture of a socket set on the refrigerator. Guess I'll have to go see if I can find one :-) And maybe make some goodies - cookies and fudge - to trade off with some of the neighbors and both of us to take to work. I decided not to bother setting up my tree this year, but have Christmas decorations and linens in the kitchen and living room, and a poinsettia on my dining room table. It looks nicely festive. Wal-Mart had some little paperwhite bulb-forcing kits, so I started a couple of those - one pot's just starting to bud, and the other one just now starting to poke above the dirt.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Temperatures Dropping, Cider Bottled

Snow storms have been coming through off and on for the last few days. Aries works, so I'm the one out shoveling paths to the chickens, woodpile, cellar, and mailbox. It's supposed to clear up, finally, tonight, but that means it's gonna get COLD! Eleven at night and it's 18F - it could go below zero before morning.

But inside, we're nice and cozy. Between the wood stove and the oven, this house is warm enough for a t-shirt right now. By morning, it will probably drop to the high 50's inside, but that just makes for a nice sleeping temperature. The only possible problem when it gets this cold outside is sometimes the bathtub drain freezes. Bothersome, but not unbearable. But also not something I want to happen with weekend company arriving tomorrow. So Aries poured a quarter-cup of windshield wiper fluid into that drain tonight. It's mostly alcohol, and such a little bit, and done so rarely - messing up the septic system or the chance of anything harmful getting into the leach field is something we do have to keep in mind.

Speaking of alcohol (like that segue-way?), Aries bottled the hard cider this evening while I was out doing some last minute Thanksgiving grocery shopping. Playing with the hydrometer says this batch, made with apples only, no added sugar, is about 7% alcohol (most beers are 4-6, wines around 12). Since it's not as strong as the last stuff we made, he bottled it in pint bottles. When we go to drink it, that should be a nice size for the two of us to split a bottle. The cider yeast didn't settle out like the champagne yeast did previously. That earlier batch is now a very dry, clear bubbly (almost like champagne - duh). This batch looks like mud. It tastes pretty good though, even now. Letting the apples set for a few weeks, to soften and sweeten before grinding, worked well.

As before, Aries mixed in a bit of corn sugar before bottling. I asked why it has to be corn sugar, and he said because it's an inert form of sugar - more easily broken down by fermentation, and the one least likely to affect the taste. Ok. I already knew that this priming sugar, as it ferments in the bottle, forms carbon dioxide; makes bubbles in the cider. So now, the bottles are in our bedroom for a week or two, so the sugar can do its thing in a warmer temperature. Then, we'll move them down into the cellar to mellow (and maybe settle out a bit).

Monday, November 22, 2010

I Miss the Ping!

Canning jars used to seal with a clear, ringing, PING! It was almost bell-like, and loud. I could hear it throughout the entire house. I'd take a load of jars out of the canner, and could count them off as each sealed, no matter what room I was in.

I still use the narrow-mouth, two-part lids-with-a sealing ring I always have, the same jars, the same headspace. But now, whether due to probably a cost-cutting change to the metal or the shape of the sealing "dimple", there is no more "ping". Jars now seal with an almost inaudible "tap" or small "thunk" sound. I sometimes miss it even when I'm right there in the kitchen. I'll look over at the jars, and the dimple is pulled down, but I never even heard half of them. I miss that PING! It was one of my favorite sounds.

I canned a last batch of tomato sauce today. I harvested all my green tomatoes last month, just before a killing freeze, and laid them out on a table across the guest room bed to ripen. Usually, my final tomato canning is done by mid-October. But this year, the last harvest was quite late, with our mellow autumn, and the house is much cooler this time of year. Thus, the last canner load now, in late November. I'm just glad to get anything at all, with as poor a gardening year as the past one was.

With company arriving later this week, it was time to get that room switched over to guest room status. I held out a couple of nice, big red tomatoes for fresh eating this week. Those still green or orange I loaded onto a tray to put down in the cellar. Those I'll bring up, a couple at a time, to ripen in the warmer kitchen throughout the winter. The taste certainly can't compare to vine-ripened summer tomatoes, but is better than the ones I refuse to buy in the grocery store. The rest of the tomatoes warmed up the house as they cooked down into sauce today - nine pints in the canner, plus two more in the freezer.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Microwave Broccoli Cheese Soup

Why open a can, when you can have homemade soup, with fresh ingredients, in less than 20 minutes? This is a good way to use up a little bit of leftover meat, and these veggies are at their best right now. Add a slice of rustic garlic bread, toasted and buttered, and we have a favorite autumn dinner. Tonight, I added a glass of Chardonnay; Aries had a glass of home-brewed dark beer. Hot food, warm tummies.

Microwave Broccoli Cheese Soup (serves 2)

1 cup thinly sliced carrot
1 cup chopped fresh broccoli (or a 10-oz pkg frozen broccoli; or substitute fresh or frozen cauliflower)
1 teaspoon instant chicken bouillon granules (optional)
1 cup milk
½ cup shredded cheese (I like cheddar or swiss)
½ cup finely chopped cooked meat (I like chicken, ham, or turkey ham)
2 tablespoons flour

In a 1-quart glass casserole dish, stir together the carrots and broccoli with ½ cup water and chicken granules if using (instead of the little bouillon jars in the soup section of my market, I buy the bigger, cheaper jars from the Mexican food section; if you happen to have some stock in the fridge, instead of the water, even better!). Microwave, covered, 5-7 minutes or until the veggies are tender, stirring once. Stir in the milk, cheese, and meat. Mix the flour into ½ cup cold water until smooth, and stir that in also. Season with a bit of black pepper. Microwave, uncovered, 5-6 minutes, stirring every minute or so, until thickened and bubbly. It's soup!

I just had to post a sunrise photo Aries took this morning, too.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tie One On - Pillowcase Apron Tutorial

Once you start getting into the simple lifestyle, sooner or later you're going to want an apron. I have my favorite bib-style H-back one that I usually wear. But I like having a couple extra aprons around too - guest aprons, you might say. My sister and her family usually visit for Thanksgiving. She loves it when I offer her an apron to wear too. It just makes her feel more "in the spirit", she says.

Once you have one for yourself, and maybe one or two for your guests, consider making an extra apron or two for Tie One On Day. Started by EllynAnne Geisel, it's a way to put the "give" back in Thanksgiving: "Participation is simple: on the day before Thanksgiving, November 24th this year, pause in the preparation of your own meal, wrap a loaf of bread or other baked good (maybe my One-Hour French Bread?) in an apron, tuck a prayer or note of encouragement in the pocket, and deliver the wrapped bundle to someone without your bounty - a neighbor, friend, or family member in need of physical or spiritual sustenance, a bit of recognition, or just a kind word."

Half-aprons make a good project for even beginning sewers. A quick and easy way to make a cute half-apron is to start with a pillowcase. Nice ones can usually be found at your local thrift store for $1 or less. I look for ones with some kind of different print or decoration around the opening end. That end makes the skirt of your apron - cut it between 16 and 20 inches long for a nice length (to make nice straight cuts, I measure and make a small mark on the edge where I want each cut. I fold the material over at the mark, align the sides and smooth everything flat, and then slip my scissors inside the fold to cut.) The middle cross-cuts make the waistband and ties. Cut two equally sized strips about 3" wide (I'm using a King case here, so I had enough material to cut three. I used one as a center piece and then trimmed half off the other two. Using all three would make ties long enough to wrap around and tie in front, for a different look) . Cut the sewn side seam off the skirt and band pieces. The closed end will make the two pockets, so don't cut the pillowcase seams on that piece.

Fold the raw side edges of the skirt, where you just cut the pillowcase seam away, over twice to the wrong side, press, and sew down.

Make the pockets by cutting the top corner parts of the case into two equal squares (discard the center piece). Turn the corner inside-out, flatten, and stitch down the remaining two open sides of the square, leaving an inch or two left unstitched to be able to turn right-side out. Turn (you can clip the tips of the corners, then use a crochet hook to push the corners out to a nice point) and press flat, tucking the unsewn part evenly to the inside. Repeat on the other pocket.

Lay the skirt out flat and position the pockets an inch or two on either side of the center. Try different positions until you have something you like best - maybe with the pattern running perpendicular to the skirt's or putting the pockets on an angle. Just make sure that the unstitched part of the pocket edge isn't part of the top edge (top-stitch it to close it up if you just have to have it on the top part). Pin in place, then sew down three sides close to the edge of the pocket, leaving the top open. I like to spin the pocket around and run a second line of stitching just inside the first. You might like the look of using a contrasting color of thread too.

Join the ends of the waistband/ties. Press the seam edges open, and then fold over and press one long side. Find the center of the long piece, then lay the long piece right-side UP on your work surface with the folded side farther away from you (flip the piece over long-ways from the way it is in the above photo).

Lay the skirt, also right-side UP, on top of the long piece, matching centers of both pieces, the raw edges closest to you, and put a pin in the center. You can just pin the pieces together flat, but I like to gather or pleat the skirt a bit. If you want to gather yours, measure out equal distances either side of your center pin on the band piece, and pin the outside edges of the skirt there. Then pin in your pleats or gathers, matching what you do to one side on the other side. Sew skirt to band (I find it easiest to have the skirt part on top when sewing too, so that I can do any final adjustments to my pleats or gathers).

Fold the bottom edge of the waist ties up and press. Fold the top edge down, matching the folded edges together on the ties, and covering the line of stitching on the front of the skirt, and pin. Tuck the raw ends of the ties to the inside and pin them too, making a nice corner.

Top stitch the end of a tie, along the folded edges, across the top front of the skirt, along the folded edge of the other tie and across the end. A final quick pressing and you're done!

Monday, November 15, 2010

More Autumnal Chores

The cupboards and pantry are filling up with jars containing this year's harvest. One of the pints of yesterday's tomatillo salsa didn't seal, so it went into the refrigerator, joining the jar that wasn't quite full. There was room in a top corner cupboard for the rest.

That top cupboard shelf also holds my apple cider vinegar jar. It had been almost 2 months since I'd fed it, and as long as I had the step-stool right there, I figured I might as well take care of that too. The five gallons of this year's cider are still burbling away, in the fermentation bucket on the counter. It could be a couple more weeks before it's finished. So I went down to the cellar (skimmed the scum off the pickle crock while I was down there) to fetch a bottle of last year's hard cider.

There was a thin fresh layer of mother on top of the vinegar in the jar, plus quite a few layers of dead mother piling up in the bottom. So with well-washed hands, I pulled out the fresh mother plus one more thin one, putting them into a clean bowl, then reached in and pulled out the rest of the dead layers to throw out. I diluted the bottle of hard cider with half again as much water, poured that into the jar, and dropped in the thin pieces of fresh mother. Topped with its cheesecloth lid, the jar went back into the dark cupboard to continue its magical process of turning alcohol into tasty vinegar.

Aries went with me for the drive this morning, up to Tahoe to get the mole-removal stitches out of my arm. Doc said everything looks good and the lab reports say benign, so I'm good.

This afternoon, Aries was once again busy over at the compost bin. He'd cleaned out the chicken coop earlier this fall, and most afternoons has been out there raking leaves as they fall. He still had one last wheelbarrow load of finished compost for me, so this afternoon I dug that into part of next year's "early" bed, and raked it out smooth and level. I set out garlic and shallot cloves, from this summer's harvest, and winnowed, then sowed, spinach and arugula seeds from the dry plants I had hanging in the shed. Everything tamped down and laid over with wire to deter hungry birds, they now wait for winter's snows to water them in.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Canning Tomatillo Salsa

I've been trying to get the last of the garden harvest out of the guest room before family get here for Thanksgiving. I can't believe it's only a little over a week away! I still have tomatoes covering one table - most of them are finally getting red enough to process, so a big batch of tomato sauce is on the agenda for sometime this week. I went through what onions I was able to harvest, separating out the ones that didn't bulb up and the ones with thick necks (because they won't last in storage), and am using those up first.

The project for today was processing the last of the tomatillos, along with homegrown onions, garlic, and chiles (processed and frozen earlier this season), into green salsa. Over time, and through experimentation, I've learned what things will hold without refrigeration or processing until I can get around to doing something with them for longer storage. Tomatillos are one of the best for that - picked when fruit is full-sized and the husks still green, and just piled in a bowl, they'll easily hold for a couple of months on the counter or in the pantry.

I'd already canned 9 pints, a full canner load, of plain tomatillos earlier this summer. And a long, mellow fall allowed me to get a second flush of chiles. My tomatoes didn't do very well this year, so what ones I have are destined for tomato sauce and jars of whole tomatoes; no tomato salsa this year. I still have two jars of roasted tomato salsa from last year, a few more of peach salsa, plus some of last year's hot sauces, but we really like salsa for everything from chip dip to tacos to spicing up everyday meals. So I started looking for a tomatillo salsa recipe.

I thought I'd try this one, from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, one of my go-to reference sites for canning info. Since I now use my own blog as recipe storage (after losing some online recipes, I just had bookmarked, when the sites disappeared), I'm re-posting a quick version here. Go to the original site if you're new to canning and you need more instructions.

Tomatillo Salsa (about 5 pints)

5 cups chopped tomatillos
4 cups chopped onions
1½ cups chopped chiles - roasted, peeled and seeded
½ cup minced jalapenos - seeds and ribs removed
1 cup lemon or lime juice
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
3 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon canning salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Simmer 20 minutes; ½" headspace; 20 minutes boiling water bath (for my 5,000 ft altitude)

I had enough tomatillos to make a double batch, ending up with 8½ pints. Since I don't have a food processor, I just hand-chopped everything. I'm thinking maybe next time, I'll try running the tomatillos and onions though my old food grinder instead.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

To all our veterans: we remember, and we thank you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

First Snow

The herbed potato chunks and chicken in the oven were almost done. I needed a quick vegetable dish. Darkness had already fallen (so early now, with the switch back to Standard Time), but there was enough light from the back porch light to let me grab a handful of Tuscan kale out of the garden. It only took a few minutes to saute some garlic and chopped mushrooms, clean the kale, and dump the still-damp leaves into the skillet. Putting the lid on to let it steam-fry 'til done, I went about the house closing up the blinds and shades for the night.

And was genuinely surprised to see that during that little bit of time from when I'd just been out in the garden, our first snow flurry of the year was now coming down fast and furious. Ah well, it is the middle of November, after all.

Speaking of the garden, I love the Tuscan kale. This is the third year I've grown it, but the first time I've been able to eat any. The past two years Aries had pulled up the plants when he was gathering up spent plants to shred for the compost - his defense, "they didn't look like food." The first time, I figured it was an honest mistake. But twice!? I chewed him out last year, but the damage had been done. So this year, I made sure to set down the rules before he even set foot in the garden. "I don't care that you don't eat salads - don't you DARE touch these kales or those chards! I want them for fresh eating until it finally gets cold enough to kill them." He got the message. And I'm still eating fresh greens, despite temps in the low 20's :-)

I'm happy too, because I scored a sweet deal today. A friend gave me two cases of empty Grolsch beer bottles - the reusable kind that seal with a porcelain top, gasket, and metal bail. Aries had used up all we had when he made a batch of beer a couple of weeks ago, leaving me NONE for my kombucha. We do have the smaller tall-neck reusable beer bottles, but I don't like having to go out to the shed and get the equipment necessary to hand-crimp metal caps onto those (we'll use them for the hard cider when it's ready - 12-ounce bottles are the perfect size for cider). Plus, there were also four glass gallon jugs in the boxes she gave me. They need new stoppers, but will be nice to have for smaller experiments in home brewing and vinegar-making. Besides, I think things just taste better stored in glass.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It's Cider Time Again

The weather is finally feeling more like November. Last night's lows were in the low 20's, and today, all day, was cold, gray, and breezy - not really a good day to be outside much. So I spent the morning on the computer, creating certificates to give to our Soroptimist Girls of the Month and scholarship recipients tomorrow.

We've had the potted fig trees in the big wagon for the last six weeks, so we could move them into the garage when it was really cold, and then back outside when the nights have been more moderate. The trees can take temps down to the mid-20's, but not an entire winter outside. Today, with most of their leaves finally gone, we pulled the last few off and moved the now dormant trees down into the cellar to spend the winter.

Then, this afternoon, it was cider time. We got no fruit at all from our trees this year - what little bit survived the late Spring freezes, Bambi ate. But a month ago, before the first freeze, we gleaned four bushels of apples from a big old heirloom tree on the west side of Carson City. The ones without bird pecks or worm holes I tucked away in the cellar for fresh eating through the winter. I canned enough applesauce for the year, have been baking a batch of apple muffins every week, and we're eating fresh apples every day. Time to get the rest of the apples out of my living room, where they've been ripening, sweetening, and softening so they'll make more juice.

While I set up the grinder and other equipment in the kitchen, Aries got our cider press cleaned up and ready to go outside on the deck (more about our setup and the entire process here). It took us about 3 hours to quarter, grind, and press almost three bushels of apples into six gallons of cider. Five gallons are now in the fermentation bucket on the kitchen counter, the sixth in a gallon jug in the refrigerator to drink fresh.

A couple of years ago, we tried an online hard cider recipe, calling for added tannic and other acids. We ended up with something that tasted more like hard lemonade. It was ok, but not what we were going for. Last year, we tried brown sugar and champagne yeast. That batch tastes like a dry champagne - not bad, but the added sugar increased the alcohol content quite a bit. It's too strong for my taste, so when we split a 12-ounce bottle, I have to mix my half with club soda. This year, we're trying a cider yeast, with the juice alone. And we have a new toy to play with - a hydrometer. We floated it in the fresh juice, and came up with an 8% reading (sugar content, I think - the little measurements are labeled "potential alcohol content"). We're supposed to take another reading after fermentation has finished, subtract the first reading (or is it the other way around?), and that should tell us the alcohol content. Should be interesting.

When I was washing out the gallon jug, prior to filling it with apple juice, I used a neat little trick I learned when I used to work construction. One of my tasks on one job site was filling up the big water coolers strapped to the work trucks using five-gallon water bottles. To quickly and easily get liquid out of a narrow-mouthed bottle without any glugging or splashing, put your hand over the mouth and give the upside down bottle a quick horizontal swirl, to get the water swirling around inside. Take your hand away, and the liquid quickly and smoothly spews out in a circular motion as the air enters through the middle of the spiral. Try it with any round bottle, and see for yourself.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Email to Mom

I've been busy with lots of stuff lately, and keep thinking "I really need to write about that" but then I get distracted and another day goes by without a post here. To try and get back in the posting mode, I decided to just paste in an email I wrote to my mom earlier today [with a few explanatory edits added]:

Hi Mom,
I canned 16 half-pints of applesauce the other day. I picked through all the apples [she helped me pick when she was visiting a couple of weeks ago, from an antique tree in the old part of town; that's her feeding my chickens below], and put 4 trays of really nice ones into the cellar for fresh eating this winter. I still have almost 3 basketfuls in my living room. [Aries] wants to grind and juice most of them (maybe leave out enough for another pie, or two) for a batch of cider to ferment, as soon as the five gallons of beer he made last week is finished fermenting so we can use that bucket.

He went back to work today, after his last week of vacation. I went up to Tahoe this morning, to the [casino's] Clinic, and had some moles removed. I now have 9 stitches on my arm where a cluster of them were, and just a small bandage on my thigh. I asked about a shingles vaccine [Aries and my mom both have gotten shingles, and both said it's the worst pain they've ever been in - I'm not a big fan of pain, especially if it can be avoided] and I'll get that when I go in to get the stitches removed in about 10 days.

I have a job interview tomorrow, as a favor to a friend, with a CPA in Gardnerville that wants someone for maybe 10 hours/week now, and full-time February to April. I'm going to can a five-pint batch of tomatillo green salsa with the last of my tomatillo and chile harvests. I picked all my green tomatoes, and have them spread out on the table in the guest room to ripen. The garden *finally* froze last week, so [Aries] pulled out the dead plants and shredded them for the compost pile, and now I have to get out there and clean up the rest. I still have to plant my garlic and shallots sometime soon. I also want to transplant some stuff as soon as it goes dormant, but before the snow starts and the ground freezes solid.

I found a guy in Reno that does accordion repair, and took my old white one in to get the strap bracket replaced (it broke on one side, and would swing open - I was afraid the straps would slip through and I'd drop it). He had to open it up and take it apart inside to get to the broken part, so he also blew 60 years worth of dust out of it, tightened everything up, and fixed the one key that sometimes wouldn't sound. He says it's in great shape (and that it's a really good instrument: the old ones are the best, if properly cared for and stored - the new ones now are mostly made in China, even the ones from German companies, and are really cheaply made) [my folks bought me that accordion, second-hand, when I was 8 years old]. He guarantees his work so said just bring it back if I notice any more problems. I played it for a while yesterday when I got it home. I'm a bit rusty but the fingering on some songs came back quite quickly. I'm thinking I'll practice this winter, memorize some songs, and maybe try busking downtown next summer - might even earn myself some traveling money. Later! Love ya!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Storing Eggplant

As our cold weather season approaches, the warm weather crops must be harvested before the first frost. Dealing with the resulting glut of fresh veggies takes many forms around our house. The tomatoes picked green, set out on a table and covered with newspapers, will eventually ripen enough to be canned or otherwise processed; the cucumbers are pickled or fermented; the winter squashes and onions cured for storage.

Many gardeners don't realize eggplant, the big round Italian types, can be stored for a couple of months in the pantry. Pick your eggplants at the peak of ripeness, when the skin has a glossy sheen. Once in the house, trim the stem as close as possible to the top of the fruit, without cutting into the flesh. Lift and break off the "petals" of the green cap so the spines won't pierce the wrapping, taking care not to break the flesh. Then wrap the fruit as snugly as possible in plastic wrap, and store at room temperature, or a bit cooler. A shelf in my pantry works best in my house.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chickens 101

I'm not a big television watcher. I'm bored by most programming today - I'd just as soon have music as my "background noise." However, there are a few TV shows I do like to watch. One of those is Survivor. I'm an adventurer at heart - I wonder how I'd "survive" (I'm too old and slow now - they'd vote me out first thing). I also like watching the personal interactions, the machinations and manipulations, the internal struggles. I was a bartender for years - I'm a veteran people-watcher. Nothing shocks or surprises me all that much.

But last night, watching the show, was a first. I was totally aghast at what happened.

One of the teams won two hens and a rooster in a cage to take back to their camp. Usually when this happens, I'm waiting for the first idiot to let them escape, and the ensuing antics as they try to catch them again. In daylight, chickens can see very well, and are extremely quick. Without a fence corner to corral them against (or Grandma's wire leg hook to snag one) they can be practically impossible to catch when running free. But once night comes, they squat down and don't move. If you just wait until dusk, watch them settle down (and quite often, if allowed, they'll come back "home" to roost), you can then just walk over, pick them up, and put them back in the cage.

But last night, they'd just got the chickens back to camp - no one yet had the chance to talk baby-talk to their little pets, or mess around and let them get loose. They were ready to eat one. Those people are hungry - I can understand they'd want to eat one right away; I'd agree to that. But one person made the comment that they should keep an egg a day coming in for a steady supply of protein; that's a good plan too. But then, I just couldn't believe it when they reached in and grabbed one of the hens to butcher. Could they not see the difference between a rooster and the hens? Did they think they needed the rooster to get eggs? Have we so vilified science and sex education in our country that an entire group of grown adults knows nothing about "the birds and the bees" anymore? Are we that distanced from our food, and where it comes from?

Ok folks, here's the deal: hens lay eggs even when there isn't a rooster around. The only time a rooster is necessary is if you're planning on hatching out your own homegrown baby chicks. I really find it hard to believe that of all those adults there, not one seemed to know that. The game only goes for, tops, 39 days - they know that. They're not really marooned forever - they don't need to be raising a self-perpetuating flock of chickens. Listen, people: next time, eat the rooster, keep the hens, and you can be eating two eggs a day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Janan's Jalapeno Jelly

I didn't get many jalapeno peppers this year. Summer was late, and then it never did get really hot this year (plus, our visiting Bambi reached his nose down inside the plant cages and ate the tops of the plants, spitting out deer-slobbered chewed peppers, until we finally got a tall enough fence up). But I did get a small bowlful, so started thinking about what to do with them.

Last year, I planted extra jalapenos, and then smoke-dried them into chipotles (tutorial here), enough to last for 3-4 years. I still have a couple jars of nacho slices, and besides, there weren't enough this year to bother getting out the pressure canner. I've run out of jalapeno hot sauce, but like my cayenne and habanero/orange hot sauces better anyway.

And then, my friend Janan in Tennessee posted a beautifully staged photo of a cracker with a smear of cream cheese, topped with a dollop of jalapeno jelly, on her FaceBook page. Bingo! It looked sooo good, I asked for her recipe. She was kind enough to send it to me. And when it turned out as good as it looked, I asked if I could put it on my blog. "Go ahead," she said, "make me famous."

Janan's Jalapeno Jelly

2½ cups roughly chopped peppers (I use approx. 20 smaller jalapenos = 1½ c. jalapenos, + 1 c. bell peppers)
2 cups apple cider vinegar (divided)
7 cups sugar
2 packets liquid pectin
optional - a couple of drops green food coloring

WEARING GLOVES! (I've been working my way through a box of latex surgical gloves for the past six years, and probably still have enough to last me a couple more years - definitely a worthwhile investment), remove stems, seeds, and inside ribs from jalapenos. In a blender, liquefy peppers with one cup vinegar. Combine with sugar and remaining cup of vinegar. Heat to boiling, then continue to boil for 10 minutes. Add pectin and, stirring constantly, continue to boil one minute more. Remove from heat, and stir in food coloring if using. Fill hot, sterilized jars to 1/4" headspace, seal, and process in a hot water bath 10 minutes (I did mine 15 minutes, since I'm at 5,000 feet altitude).

Janan says this recipe makes 10 half-pints, but I average six to seven. Even so, mine does have the perfect balance of heat and sweet, and the jelly, while firm enough to hold its shape in the jar, is still "spreadable" too. My jalapenos averaged a little over 2", which I figured were on the small side - Janan said hers were more like 4 inches. I've since edited the recipe include my notes over the years.

In the photo above, the jelly is on the right (I did add the food coloring), and then a few jars of tomatillos on the left. There's more information about growing and canning tomatillos here, in my post on the Simple Green Frugal Co-op blog.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sour Pickle Experiment

When I was a kid, I asked Santa for a ChemLab one Christmas - back then, a toy laboratory in a tri-fold tin box. The best part, for me, was the microscope. But playing with chemical mixing and reactions was fun too. I still like experimenting with chemical reactions. Only nowadays, I have a whole kitchen for my laboratory (plus now, my results are edible - well, most of the time, anyway).

The end of August this year, I had a glut of cucumbers. For some reason, they did really well (especially the hybrid Sugar Crunch - earliest, prolific, and yummy; next best were from my saved Lemon Cucumber seeds - though later to start setting fruit, they're amazingly prolific, and the last ones picked will keep a few more weeks in a bowl on the counter, on into the fall; not so good - an open-pollinated one, Long Green). I feast on fresh cukes when I've got them, and quite often have planted enough to put up as well. Only thing is - Aries doesn't like pickles, so I'm the only one eating them. I already have enough sweet relish, dill chips, sweet pickles, and bread & butter pickles. I started researching other options.

My dill chips, from my Aunt Lillian's recipe, are tasty, but not crunchy enough. Pickles can add such a nice crunch to a sandwich. Hmmm - maybe pickling them whole would be better. These were pretty good-sized cukes though - two, maybe three, to a quart jar. Then, I started looking into fermenting instead of pickling. Ooo, something new to experiment with. I like sauerkraut; I've got a nice glass crock (extra cool for playing scientist, for observing those chemical changes).

I thought it especially interesting reading about the need to cut the merest little slice off the blossom end of the cucumbers. The blossom end produces an enzyme that hastens ripening of the fruit, and if left intact can contribute to softness in pickles. News to me - I'll definitely have to experiment more with that when I next make any other kind of pickles. Ideally, leaving a bit of the stem attached to the other end also makes for a better pickle.

Especially in the older recipes, layering grape leaves in with the cucumbers was said to contribute to crunchiness in the end product. I just happen to have a couple of organically-grown grapevines, so I picked and washed a bunch of palm-sized leaves. Everything ready, I made a layer of grape leaves, shiny-side up, on the bottom of the crock, then stacked in the whole cucumbers with fresh dill, garlic, and a couple of dried hot peppers. I topped the stack with more grape leaves and a ceramic plate, poured in the lightly salted (with only a little bit of vinegar) brine, and then left it to start fermenting (the recipe I used here).

After a couple of weeks, it was smelling pretty good. The fresh cukes were still rolling in, so I pulled out the plate and top layer of grape leaves, added another layer plus more brine, and replaced the leaves and plate to let it go on fermenting.

And now, it's five weeks later. About every third or fourth day, I use a stainless steel spoon to skim the thin layer of whitish scum off the top of the water. It stills smells yummy. Inside the crock, things are really interesting. The cucumbers have lost their shiny green color, and are starting to take on a more translucent look. At first glance, it looks like a white mold is forming on the top sides of everything.

But disturb the crock and it turns into a 20-pound snow globe. The white stuff swirls around, almost flaky in appearance - floating about, turning the brine milky, and then slowly settling again.

My research said fermentation takes about 4 weeks in a 70-degree environment - our average countertop temperature this time of year. When finished the pickles should have a uniformly translucent appearance, and a pleasantly sour taste. I cut one open, and there are just little bits of still-whitish flesh. It was sooooo good! I left it out on the cutting board this afternoon, and have already eaten half of it - one slice at a time.

A lot of the sources say the finished pickles will keep 4-6 months refrigerated, but should be heat-processed for longer storage. But they also say that if you maintain at least a couple inches of brine above the pickles, and skim the top scum off regularly, they'll keep fermenting, getting sourer and sourer. Fermentation slows down too, the lower the temperature. I don't want to cook the pickles (possibly lessening crunchiness), and don't have much refrigerator space, so my plan is to try keeping them in the crock through the winter. I pulled everything out of the crock, and cleaned and re-sterilized it. I filled a quart jar with a couple of the smaller pickles, to keep on the fast-track ferment here on the kitchen counter. I then re-packed the rest of the pickles back into the crock, mixing up a bit more of the brine to top it off.

We've been opening up the cellar nights now - the inside temperature is now down in the low 60's. I'm going to move the pickle crock down there, and keep a close eye on the scum situation (if left too long, mold then forms too - ruining the pickles and possibly poisoning me). But I'm thinking, the cellar temperature will continue to drop, fermentation will slow down, and I can safely eat yummy sour pickles all winter (or until they're all gone, anyway). Worst case scenario, they'll end up in the refrigerator by February.

**Edit added six months later: Now, towards the end of March, the pickles are still doing fine down in the cellar, where temps are still in the low 40'sF. They pickled all the way through, but since then I haven't noticed that they've gotten any sour-er.

Every week to 10 days an almost gel-like layer of scum forms on the top, occasionally with a couple specks of blue-topped white mold on top of that. It's easy enough to just pinch that layer, pull it out, and toss it.

The pickles are still submerged a couple of inches below the surface, beneath the heavy china plate. When I want another pickle, I'll fish one out, redistribute those left, and replace the plate. Inside the house, I have a quart jar of brine in the refrigerator, where I keep the current pickle, cutting slices off as needed. No scum forms on the jar in the refrigerator.

A lucky bonus came from using the grape leaves. I don't know if they made the pickles any crisper, but they pickled along with the cucumbers. I'll usually eat one or two standing right there in the cellar. I have some recipes for making dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with a rice filling, and might try that if I have any left when it's time to empty the crock to move what's left to the refrigerator as the cellar warms up. They're good enough that I think I'll add even more grape leaves to next year's batch.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Sociable Weekend, Out and About

The weather was absolutely gorgeous this past weekend, and both of us got the chance to be out enjoying it. After Labor Day, when the kids head back to school, the number of tourists visiting Lake Tahoe naturally drops - at least until snow brings the skiers. However, right now really is the best time of year to be out and about - the heat of summer gives way to pleasantly warm days, while the nights have yet to get down below freezing. The area capitalizes on this by scheduling a plethora of outside events every weekend in September and into October - luring the tourists (and their money) back.

Earlier this month were the Reno Balloon Races, the Camel Races in Virginia City, the the Reno Air Races , and closer to home, our local Basque Festival.

Aries took a week's vacation this past week, just so he could finally check out this weekend's big event: Street Vibrations - "a celebration of music, metal and motorcycles." The highway is only two blocks from our house, and from Thursday afternoon through Sunday, the rumble of motorcycles was almost non-stop. For three days, Aries was out with his buddies - riding up to Virginia City, and then checking out the bikes, vendors, and shows in Reno and Sparks. I have a bike - an 800 cc 1989 Honda Pacific Coast, but haven't ridden it much lately. I let the boys have their fun without me.

But, not to worry, I was out and about having fun with the girls. My Soroptimist Club held our biggest annual fundraiser Saturday - the Stroke to Help (fight breast cancer) Golf Tournament. The money we raise pays for mammograms and biopsies for uninsured local women. On the day of the tournament, I volunteered to be an official observer on a par-3 hole where a hole-in-one would win a $10,000 prize.

I used to work at Eagle Valley Golf, where we hold the tournament. I know the hole-in-one hole I'd be working - it's one of the prettiest places on the West Course. I packed a thermos of coffee, a magazine, and my Ipod: prepared to spend the morning kicked-back in a golf cart, looking out across just about all of Carson City. I stitched together two photos (above, click on photo for a closer look) and still only show a partial slice of the view. No hole-in-one (it's a pretty tough hole - short distance, but there's a ravine between the tee and the green that shakes a lot of golfers' confidence).

Sunday, Aries and I were out and about together. He joined me to check out the Candy Dance Faire in Genoa. Originally called Mormon Station, a trading outpost built during the California Gold Rush days, Genoa is the oldest permanent settlement in Nevada (photo above is statue of Snowshoe Thompson, legendary skiing frontier mail carrier, outside the Mormon Station State Park in Genoa). In 1919, the town needed money to buy street lights, so they held a fund-raising dance with home-made candy for refreshments. Of course, once the street lights were bought and installed, they then had an electric bill that had to be paid each year. So the Candy Dance became an annual tradition.

Ninety years later, they still hold a dance on Saturday night, and they still make candy (hundreds of hours by devoted volunteers - making, packing, and selling over 4000 pounds of candy). But the biggest draw now is the Arts & Crafts Faire. They close off the streets in this tiny town of only a couple hundred people, and for two days hundreds of vendors attract thousands of people. We didn't buy anything, other than our lunch, but I love wandering about, people-watching and to see what other people have made - it's a great idea-starter for my own projects.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Drying and Storing Herbs

I can't believe how time slips away between posts here. I've been doing a lot of seasonal chores, and some kitchen experimenting, and I know a lot of it would be interesting to my readers. I find myself composing blog posts in my head, and then never seem to find the time to sit down and type. I have taken some photos too, so will try to use them to rebuild a bit of my activity of the past few weeks.

Between the rigors of late Spring freezes meaning a slow start to the garden season, a summer on the cool side, and Bambi's predation, my harvest is going to be somewhat meager. I haven't been doing very much canning this year. The nights are still hanging in there above freezing, with the lowest of the lows in the high 30's, so I'm still hoping for a bit more from the tomatoes, squashes, and peppers. Right now, I'm harvesting herbs.

Perennial herbs are great. I love that they're, for the most part, low maintenance and drought tolerant. Once I find the just the right spot for each one, they pretty much take care of themselves. Throughout the summer, I snip bits here and there for fresh use. But now it's time to clean things up for the winter, cutting the plants back and hanging labeled bunches to dry.

I use rubber bands on the bunches (tying with string not so good - the stems shrink as they dry and will slip out of string) and then use old drapery hooks for hangers. The pointy part slips beneath the rubber band, the hook part fits over the edge of a high shelf. Once dry, I crumble the leaves from the big stems into a large colander set atop a piece of newspaper. Then a combination of shaking and more crumbling separates out the smaller stems and leaves me with reasonably uniformly shaped bits of dried herbs to last me through the winter and spring. My tea herbs are stored in clear glass jars I've lined with paper to protect them from the light; brown glass bouillon powder jars are reused to hold the cooking herbs.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Building a Hobart-Marlette Link Trail

I love being in the outdoors, and camping (speaking of camping, for my most recent turn to post on the Simple Green Frugal Co-op, I wrote about using a dutch oven to bake fresh, hot campsite treats). Luckily, living here in Carson City, there's beautiful camping country practically right out my back door. Much of the land around the Lake Tahoe shoreline, especially the western, California side and the casino areas just across the Nevada state line north and south, is densely populated, developed property. But thanks to the eccentricities of a few reclusive, rich owners over the years, the land on the east side has remained pretty much undeveloped, and is now in the public domain as the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. The interior of the park is closed to motorized traffic, but there are numerous trails for hiking, mountain biking, equestrians, and cross-country skiing, and a few backcountry campgrounds.

When I was younger, I used to do some backpacking. It was hard work then, carrying everything. I know I'm not in good-enough shape to get much into the backcountry now (but I'm trying to get back in better condition, and with new advances in gear weight and technology, maybe someday . . . ). So when, as a member of Muscle Powered, I heard the park ranger was allowing 4WD vehicles to drive the 6-8 miles into Marlette Peak campground for a weekend of volunteer trail building, I jumped at the chance to go. I dug out my old pup tent and backpacking stove, threw my gear in a duffel bag, and met up with the others to carpool in early Saturday morning.

The campground is quite nice, especially for a backcountry site. There's a pit toilet, bear boxes, tables, fire rings, and water available (no trash pickup - pack everything out), and it's right on the Tahoe Rim Trail. We saw quite a few mountain bikers, a few day hikers, and a couple of overnight campers the two days we were there. By Saturday evening, the weather had turned cold and windy, but if it had been warmer I would have walked the mile and a half down to Marlette Lake after a dusty day's work, and jumped in for a swim.

We were working on a section not far below the campground. When finished, the trail will run from the Tahoe Rim Trail to Hobart Reservoir (where there's another campground). It's a reasonably gentle grade - hillside traverses interspersed with swooping turns in the shade of the pines. When finished, the trail will provide a much nicer alternative to the hot, steep climb on the road up Sunflower Hill (the photo at the top of this post is a view across a trailside meadow, with Reno in the distance). It will probably take three years to hand-build the planned five miles of trail. One more work weekend this season (volunteer for just a day, or camp overnight) is planned for September 18-19, weather-permitting. See Muscle Powered for more information.