Archive | August 2013

Domestic Priorities

For the moment, I live in the suburbs.

The two families on either side of me are the original owners and have lived along side us for 15 years or more. We get along great, although we are all very different from each other. One is an older couple from the hills of Kentucky, with one college-age daughter and five cars that they periodically park on their lawn. The others are born & bred New Jersey with three kids in their late teens, all still living at home.

I was asking my NJ neighbor to keep an eye on the house while we’re on vacation later this month. Along with getting the mail and papers, I told her she could take whatever she wanted from my garden because it was just going to rot on the vine (taking a big vacation in August was NOT my idea, and I will do everything I can to avoid that in the future!).

Then I happened to mention about all my cucumbers and that I was going to try to make some pickles before we went away. She chuckled and waved me off and said, “Don’t be telling me about all your domestic stuff. I was born without that gene. I don’t have time for all that.”

Ummm . . . ok.

I thought about her comment the rest of the day.

As little as two years ago, I felt the same way. I was involved in so many things outside my home that I didn’t have much time for the inside. And I was among those people who are basically unprepared to take care of themselves and their family for any significant length of time without help. I didn’t know it, though.

I never had more than a few days worth of food in my house. Nor any stash of paper, cleaning, or other supplies. (Yes, I, too, ran to the store for milk, bread and toilet paper along with everyone else prior to a snowstorm.) And I didn’t like to cook either – didn’t even really think it was necessary with all the grocery stores and restaurants within a 10-mile radius of my house. I certainly had no CLUE about dehydrating, canning or preserving food for long-term storage. And while I knew how to garden, I didn’t have time for it – at least I thought I didn’t.

Not only did I not have many “domestic” skills, I had no interest in learning them. Yes, back then I was exhausted and busy with small children and a husband that worked too much, but I was also too wrapped up in things that didn’t matter.

Many of the homestead blogs I follow are written by women with children. YOUNG children . . . whom they homeschool in addition to all else they do around the home. Now THAT’s someone who “doesn’t have time.” I have no idea how they do all that they do. I guess they never sleep. Maybe they have help?

I still have a spouse that works too much and so, for the moment, I’m leading the way in new skill-building. Translation – I pretty much do everything myself (unless I need to draft him as heavy labor). But I don’t have super young children anymore either (mine are 11 & 14). They can occupy themselves, feed themselves, and HELP me when I need it.

My neighbor’s comment really resonated with me. And in a way, it made me feel good. I NEVER thought anyone would call me “domestic.” I used to be where she is. But I’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. I realize I do have time to pursue the knowledge and skills for truly taking care of my family. And I’m making it a priority.

Pickles

Right now, I have more cucumbers than I know what to do with.  I must have optimum cucumber growing conditions this year because they are HUGE and abundant.  Since I use heirloom seeds, I was unsure how many would germinate and/or thrive.  So this spring, I planted six cucumber seeds.  Of course, all six lived. 

For weeks, we’ve been eating them raw, sliced for salads or just for snacks with ranch dressing, and I still have a ton.  So I decided I would try my hand at garlic dill pickles.

As I’ve said before, I’m new to canning, so my goal was just to successfully process a batch – regardless of what they end up tasting like.  I can work on that after I’ve mastered everything else!

Since my cucumbers were so big, I decided to do “chunks” instead of whole or spears.  And since I had so many, I decided on quarts instead of pints.  I looked through several of the blogs I follow for pickle recipes and recommendations.  It seems everyone has their own way of canning pickles!

cucs

I decided on a method that involves using cold cucs so as to keep them more crisp.  I was nervous at first because you aren’t supposed to put cold food into hot jars – you risk breakage due to the rapid change in temperature.  I asked the blogger and was told that as long as I didn’t pack the jars too tightly (with the cold cucs pressing up against the hot glass), I should be fine.

So, with much trepidation (seriously, I fretted about this all day!), I set about packing and processing my cucs.

Well guess what?

I did seven quarts of pickles today in my stock pot, and I didn’t break a single jar!  And they all sealed!  I’m so excited, I think I’m getting the hang of this!  I have absolutely no idea what they will taste like, but I don’t care.  I did it!

pickles

I still have a ton of cucs leftover.  I think I may donate them to a neighbor or two . . . or six.

Mental note:  Plant only one or two cucumber plants next year!

Canning Lessons Learned

Sometimes a novice is the perfect person to offer advice on a subject because they don’t make assumptions or skip over important details that an experienced person might take for granted.  This thought kept running through my head as I was making my first solo attempt at canning today and screwing up royally.

Back in January when I was salivating over the seed catalogs, envisioning all the yummy things I could grow, I knew at some point I’d have to find a way to preserve all of that produce that I would (hopefully) harvest.  I don’t like to rely on freezing overmuch – (1) because some things just don’t freeze very well, and (2) if the power goes out for an extended period of time, you’re screwed.

Enter canning.

This term initially confused the bejesus out of me because I thought canning meant you put things in a CAN.  Nope.  (I guess “jarring” would be confusing in other ways.)  Canning involves packing foods into glass jars and boiling them for a specified amount of time, thereby sealing in the nutrients and flavor, and keeping out the bacteria.  Canning allows you to store foods on your pantry shelves, unrefrigerated, for months or even years without fear of spoilage (if you do it right).

There are two types of canning:  (1) water bath canning, and (2) pressure canning.  People generally start with water-bath canning, and once they’ve mastered that, move on to pressure canning.  Water-bath canning can only be used for foods that are highly acidic.  The natural acids in foods such as tomatoes and fruits, or foods that are “pickled” using vinegar brine, helps keep bacteria from growing inside your jars.  Non-acidic foods need to be subjected to temperatures higher than the 212°F boiling point, which can only be achieved inside the pressure canner (not a pressure cooker, they are different).

For more detailed information on different foods, as well as instructions on both types of canning, BALL is generally held as the gold standard.  This is the book I use.

Back in June, I had my first canning experience (that sounds kind of weird or dirty, but you know what I mean).  My friend Po, who is somewhat more experienced than I (which isn’t saying much), came to guide me.  With her help, I was able to “put up,” as we canners say, fourteen 1/2-pint jars of strawberry jam.  Mmmmm!

straw jam

Since then, I’ve done a lot more reading on the subject.  I’ve also purchased my own canning equipment (pot, jar lifter, magnetic lid wand, etc.).  So, feeling brave, today I spent some time water-bath canning a small batch of pickled banana peppers all by myself (I used this recipe).  Since, it was only my second time ever canning anything, and the FIRST time I did it by myself, let’s just say I was making mental notes right and left.  Here’s what I learned:

Glass cook tops suck for canning purposes.  I bought a dedicated canning pot w/a rack so that I wouldn’t have to use my stock pot anymore (like I did w/the jam).  Well guess what?  The canning pot is bigger than my largest burner.  And because so much heat is reflected back onto the stove surface, the burner periodically cuts off, even on HIGH, as a safety precaution.  Well guess what?  That keeps a giant pot of water from actually BOILING.  Kind of the whole point of canning.  Ugh!  So in the middle of sterilizing my jars, I had to swap pots back to my stock pot (it is slightly smaller and fits the burner).  Stupid canning pot.  And guess what?  It says right on the label “do not use on glass cooktops.”  Whoops.  (BTW, I found out glass cooktops are also incompatible with certain pressure canners, too, so beware if this applies to you!)

Have all of your produce prepared (cleaned, seeded, skinned, chopped . . . whatever) BEFORE you begin.  I was madly trying to finish seeding & slicing my peppers before the water and brine were boiling.  Too stressful.

Consider doing a “dry run” when you are packing jars with things like peppers (before the brine is added).  The recipe called for 6-7 banana peppers, or 1-lb., yielding 2 pints.  Yeah, I skipped the “or 1-lb.” part, not considering that size does matter (haha).  I had twice that many peppers, at least, so I figured I had enough for 3 pints.  Well guess what?  I only filled (or so I thought) two pints w/those peppers, but after I processed them, they were mostly brine and only half peppers.  Next time, I will take a cold jar (one I’m not using) and really pack it to see how much it should hold.  And if I need more, I’ll cut more.  BEFORE-hand.

Have more than enough brine ready.  Brine is the vinegar “broth” that’s used to pickle foods (vinegar raises acidity levels).  I filled one pint, then got halfway through the second pint and realized I didn’t have enough!  Ugh!  I had to quickly (before the jars cooled too much) boil some more for that second jar.  Well guess what?  If I’d had enough peppers in the jars, the brine probably wouldn’t have been an issue.  Oh well.  You can always save any leftover brine for another day.

Make sure you have enough support in the bottom of your pot.  Glass jars should not rest directly on the bottom of the pot because they can crack.  I bought a disc to put in the bottom of my canning pot, but alas, it was too big for the stock pot.  I had to resort to the fall-back that many canners use – placing lid rings in the bottom of the pan.  Since I was already in a time crunch because of my other issues enumerated above, I took the lazy way out and only grabbed a few rings to use – not enough to cover the entire bottom of the pan.  Well guess what?  When that water really gets boiling, it pushes the jars around.  And they WILL tip over if they come to the edge of their support.  Ugh.

Most important revelation – with all those pots of jars, water, and brine boiling away, it gets quite humid in your kitchen.  My hair looks like a shrubbery.

pick pepp

Even after all that, my jars gave a satisfying *POP* when I pulled them out to cool.  Such a wonderful sound!  One that will entice me to try again and again.