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Mystery Food Week 7, Vacation, and the Fresh-Food-Panic

15 Jul

We’ve all been there.

A fridge full of beautiful, fresh food. And you’ve tried, (oh you’ve tried) to eat and use as much of it as possible. Alas, here it is the day before your vacation and well…there’s still food.

It makes me really sad to waste food. There are a lot of hungry people in the world and I am grateful to have a job that allows me to put healthy meals on the table. I became really interested in canning when I was still living in Boston. After a trip to pick apples at a farm not too far from the city, I realized rather sheepishly that in my excitement seeing all of the delicious varieties of apple trees, I’d bought far too many. Lots of people got spiced apple pie filling for Christmas that year, but nothing went to waste. I don’t even peel thin-skinned fruits like apples, tomatoes, or peaches.

In this instance, it was the drupe-fest that came last week, and in Mystery Box Week 7:

I got a lovely napa cabbage, yellow and white peaches, spring onions, purple frilly basil, summer squash, cucumbers and apricots.
Last week’s mystery box was also full of peaches, apricots and some red plums. Swimming in stone fruit, (I know, woe is me right?) I needed to take care of it all before leaving for a trip to Pittsburgh-yay!-to see my family and party with them.
In light of that, I thought I’d share some of my favorite last-minute techniques for preserving things when you just don’t have time to can.
Drupe Project 1: Fruit Sauce
Applesauce is awesome, but stone fruits make some excellent fruit sauce. My “drupe-sauce” was simply peaches, plums, and apricots cooked on the stove until nice and soft and then mashed up. If you like smoother sauces, go ahead and run it through a blender. Add a little bit of lemon juice so it doesn’t lose the pretty color. Stored in a well-sealed container, you can keep it for a good week or so.
Drupe Project 2: Fruit Leather
I have a dehydrator, but you can also do this in your oven on a parchment lined baking sheet. Set the oven to its lowest temperature–don’t worry if it doesn’t go as low as the dehydrator temperature I mention. Using a food dehydrator, about 135-140 degrees is fine. Blend pitted, diced fruit together with a tablespoon of honey (this keeps fruit leather pliable) and then spread the mixture out on a cookie sheet or dehydrator tray. It is ready to remove from the oven when it is dry all the way through and feels pliable, but not mushy. Store in a cool, dark place in a jar between slices of wax paper.
Drupe Project 3: Brown Sugar-Spiced Peaches
Another dehydrator/lowest-oven-setting project. Dice up some peaches, toss them with lemon juice to keep them from browning, and then toss with a tablespoon of brown sugar and a few shakes of cinnamon. Lay the fruit on a dehydrator tray or parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake until dry, but still pliable. A fantastic addition to cookies, muffins, or quick breads. You can also rehydrate them later for fruit compote.
This dehydration technique (minus the sugar/cinnamon/lemon juice) can be used with tomatoes and peppers as well. Great for making homemade cayenne powder. Mmm.

Drupe Project 4: Dreams of Future Baked Goods
Just freeze them! Pit and dice your fruit, lay them on a baking sheet and freeze. When the pieces have frozen, put them in a labeled/dated freezer bag and store in the freezer for…a long time. Doing this keeps the individual pieces of fruit from sticking together in a frozen lump. Oh, it’s the middle of the winter and you want peach crisp? No problem, just grab that bag out of the freezer and you get a little piece of summer back.

Mystery Food Week 6: Post-vacation edition

8 Jul

I have discovered that the school semester becomes marathon-like when reduced from 15 weeks to only 10 for the summer. You would think that after last summer’s adventures with the Great Perl Dragon (and its subsequent defeat) that I would have learned to select only one course.

Not so. Not stubborn, “determined-to-do-the-weird-difficult-or-strange” Neen. I’ve never really understood this obsession. It’s like my brain goes, “Hey, I wonder if I can do____” and I have to try it. Can and preserve jam/relish in a one-bedroom Boston apartment kitchen with absolutely no counter space? (Yes) Take three classes during my first semester of graduate school? (You betcha) Ferment yogurt using only a large pot, cooler, and a heating pad? (Done) Bake 65 dozen cookies as Christmas presents for co-workers and family in the midst of working and school-ing full time? (Just call me Santa) Dry beef jerky using a box fan and several layers of furnace filters? (Okay, I stole that idea from Alton Brown)

So when Joe asked last week if I’d like to go down to Chincoteague Island over the 4th of July weekend, I spent the next two days on schoolwork overload so I could turn off and read science fiction on the beach and back porch all weekend. It. was. blissful. And for once, instead of the return from vacation being a difficult let-down, I felt more motivated than ever to push through these last 6 months of brain-stuffing. I mean, it’s pretty impossible to NOT feel good after spending a weekend like this:

Top L: View from the back porch of the house
Top R: Annual VFD carnival which culminates with the famous Pony Swim at the end of July.
Bottom L: Fresh caught shrimp and homemade garlic bread, grilled up and ready to devour.
Bottom R: Cigar and Kindle on the screened-in porch. The sweet life.

And then, THEN I came home to this:

The first of the cayenne peppers from my garden decided to grace me with their ripeness. So pretty and bright…yet, painful in large doses. I think I will put them in the dehydrator and then run them through the food processor to make homemade cayenne powder. A pinch of it in a batch of marinara sauce is so good. It adds just enough heat to balance those nice, sweet summer tomatoes that are coming our way.

A mere day later, the produce gods smiled on me once again, with a very fruity CSA box!

Beets, spring onions, red chard, apricots, peaches, and plums. I’m never too sure about beets. They are good roasted, pickled, or fresh on top of a salad, but I always long to do something a little more interesting with them. Of course, the farmers market is always inspirational (for the devoted/obsessive cook) and I tasted some really amazing beet relish that I’m going to try to replicate. I just kept thinking how good it would taste on a smoked turkey or rare roast beef sandwich.

I hope you all had a wonderful 4th and that you too got ‘back to the grind’ without too much trouble.

Ciao for now!

Mystery Food Week 5

4 Jul

It was a very fruity week for the farm share:

I got beets, spring onions, peaches, apricots, plums, and an arugula plant! All very delicious and wonderful.

But alas, this is a short post because I’m on vacation with Joe this weekend. 🙂 Happy 4th all!

Ciao for now,

Mystery Food Week 4 and Library School Gymnastics

25 Jun
I’ve spent the week with my head in two very different worlds. My spring semester was challenging in a way I’d not expected. I took a course on managing prison libraries, which forced me to weigh access to information against public safety and take a very honest personal inventory of my thoughts and subconscious judgments about the incarcerated population. What I learned was that prison librarians have an incredibly important role. These are the men and women who lead the book group discussions that teach positive socialization, help prisoners locate and comprehend legal materials, and ultimately manage and circulate resources to prepare them for life post-incarceration. It takes a certain amount of determination and resiliency to face what is often a difficult population to serve, whether those difficulties arise from the imprisoned or the bureaucratic “hurry-up-and-wait” nature of prison administration.

When it came time to register for summer courses, I finally decided to stop procrastinating and got around to signing up for a required research methods course. The specific topic for the course is “action research.” While I’m still grasping the concept, it seems to deal a lot with how research acts as a continual, fluid learning process that has no fixed beginning or end. For my other course, I chose a class on selecting materials for children ages 0-4. So you can imagine that going from writing about the constructivist theory of learning to evaluating a copy of Clifford: The Big Red Dog might make some mental gymnastics a necessity.

Nonetheless, I remain determined to share the joy of local food with the world and so present to you Mystery Food Week 4. This was the best haul so far (in my humble opinion).

Here we have some arugula, garlic, spring onions, kale, a potted basil plant (Yay!), a summer squash, and some lovely yellow plums.

…And now a confession: I have never eaten a fresh yellow plum. But the delightful smell as I opened the little container was so sweet that I immediately chose and bit into one.

Oh. My. God. Juicy, fruity, and wonderful. Like a tiny, golden nectarine. Immediately visions of chutneys, preserves, sauces, and salsas danced through my brain. Yes, yes, yes to fresh, in-season yellow plums.

I baked a few of them with some peaches for dessert last night, but wanted to save a few for a spicy plum salsa to go with a grilled pork loin I plan to make for a late Father’s Day BBQ this weekend. (Hey, we do things at our own pace here in the “south.”) I just finished the menu plan and it’s chock-full of delicious goodies. I’ll try to take some pictures.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone. Mine will be spent at my favorite market and then celebrating with family. Oh, and maybe a little homework will sneak in there too…all in all, not a bad way to spend a few days.

Ciao for now!

Mystery Food Week 3 and Doing the Can-Can

17 Jun

I took advantage of waking up incredibly early this past Saturday and decided to take a trip out to Bluemont, VA and visit Great Country Farms. That’s where I’ve purchased a CSA share from this year and their weekly newsletter noted that tart cherries were ripe for picking.

It took about an hour to drive to the farm from Arlington, but it was a peaceful, sunny morning and I spent the next hour or so in cherry trees looking for the chubbiest, dark red specimens. Well, 6lbs. of cherries later I finally decided that I had enough for jam and drying. The trees were so lovely and the landscape was incredibly serene. It was nice to be somewhere so quiet.

Sunday morning I at last christened the new canning rig…Now this is canning Tim Taylor/Jeremy Clarkson (“POWERRRRRRRR!”) style:

I whipped up a batch of fabulous tart cherry jam. No-sugar-added jam is actually quite easy to make. The canning process adds a few extra steps at the end, but the actual method for jam-making is very straightforward.

 I used 3lbs. of cherries, 1 1/4 cup of white grape juice, one box of no-sugar/low-sugar pectin, and a 1/2 tsp. of citric acid to preserve the vibrant red color. To get started, pit the cherries and put them in a big pot on the stove over high heat. Smash them up with a potato masher, sprinkle in the citric acid (you can also use a squirt of fresh lemon juice) and let it come to a simmer. Whisk the grape juice and pectin together and then add them to the cherries. Let the mixture come to a full, rolling boil (one that does not stop when stirred) and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and skim the foam off of the top of the jam. Let it sit for 5 minutes and then stir before ladling into jars. This short rest period followed by stirring keeps the fruit from floating to the top and separating from the juices. Even though it’s very liquid-y when hot, the jam will set as it cools down.

If you’re interested in canning this recipe for long-term storage or gift-giving you will also need a big pot of boiling water, 5 or 6 pint jars with flat lids and rings, and something to lift the jars in and out of the boiling water. Jar grabbers are available online for less than $10. If you have mason jars hanging around, the actual jars and rings are certainly reusable, but it is important to always use brand-new flat lids as the adhesive on them will only form a tight seal once.

Sterilize the jars and rings by washing them with hot soapy water or running them through a dishwasher with a heated dry cycle. While you prepare the jam, place the flat lids into a small pan of simmering water to warm up the adhesive. Gently ladle the hot jam into the jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace at the top. Wipe the edges of the jars with a damp towel, place on the flat lids, and then screw on the rings. Place the closed jars into the pot of boiling water, making sure that they are completely submerged, and boil for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the hot jars and place them somewhere to cool undisturbed. Over the next several hours, you might hear tiny popping noises–it’s a good thing. It means that the air-tight vacuum has formed and that the jar has properly sealed. After 24 hours, check all of the jars by pressing down on the flat lid gently. If it doesn’t pop back, the jar is safely sealed. Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Homemade jam will start to lose its firm set after about 8 months, but is still safe to eat (albeit a bit runny) as long as the jar remains sealed.

Here’s the final product, from farm to table in one weekend:

Not a bad way to spend the weekend, I must say. And of course, a mere two days later it was time for more goodies:

That’s Mystery Food Week 3 and included in the basket this week were collard greens, red leaf lettuce, beets, broccoli (my personal favorite), and cilantro. Cilantro and I don’t get along so well, so that plant will probably be given to a good home. I’m sorry cilantro, it’s not you, it’s me.

I’m still thinking up creative ways to use everything, but those collards look destined for my favorite application—sautéed in a bit of bacon fat with a whole lot of garlic and white beans. Food just doesn’t get more comforting than that.  Have a great week all!

Ciao for now!

Mystery Food Week 2

9 Jun

Here’s this week’s delivery of red chard, mixed salad greens, potted chives, spring onions, and strawberries:

My goodness, look at that chard! It’s beautiful. How beautiful do I think it is? It was beautiful enough that it got me out of bed 20 minutes early this morning so that I could think of something to make with it for lunch. Now that is some serious motivational power.

I still had a small bunch of (oddly not wilted) kale from last week’s delivery, so I chopped that up with several handfuls of the chard and sautéed them in olive oil with garlic, spring onions, and about 1 and a half cups of cooked garbanzo beans. Seasoned it all with a few heavy pinches of salt and some red pepper flakes and then took it off the heat and added about 2 tbsp. of grated parmesan cheese. The whole process took about 10 minutes, and if you can believe it, the chard got even more vibrant as it cooked. Normally, I’d just eat that as is, but I like to have a little bit more protein at lunch for a mid-day boost. I boiled a few eggs this morning and will likely chop one up and put it over the greens and beans.

The strawberries were exceedingly ripe and therefore needed to be eaten immediately (oh darn!). I baked a version of yesterday’s Goodbye Gluten Peach-Berry Crumble, changing out the blueberries for strawberries. It was every bit as incredible as I dreamed.

My own little garden is looking pretty fantastic this year. I attribute this mostly to good spring rainfalls and a few doses of bone meal and blood meal at the base of the plants. Here are some of the lovely cayenne peppers and zucchini that are growing:

I was surprised how much larger the peppers have grown this year. Those two are already the length of my hand!

The garden also has two watermelon plants (that seem to grow longer by the hour) and several Romanian sweet pepper plants that are starting to bear vegetables. The spinach plants have been harvesting big, beautiful leaves for the past month, but are about finished now. Finally, there’s the tomato plant. I’ve never had much luck with tomato plants in the past, but I bought a smaller variety this year and already have three little green tomatoes.

All of this makes me very excited to be receiving Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods by Eugenia Bone in the mail today.  I want to christen the new pressure canner with something fabulous.

Ciao for now!