Last fall’s canning projects

I took a hiatus from this blog for much of last year — no big reason, just I wasn’t really in writing mode, more in making mode, so I let things hang out here while I was busy in the garden, the kitchen, and my knitting and sewing den. However, I wanted to share a little project I did in October when I was faced with pounds and pounds of tomatoes on the vine that were still green and, given that we were well into fall, would have had no chance to turn red.

I’ve learned that there are plenty of things you can do with green tomatoes, but at first all I could think of was fried green tomatoes. We ate those for a while, but really a person can only eat so many fried green tomatoes before she starts looking around for something else to do with them. Those something elses turned out to be two canning projects that I’m really happy with, not only because they taste good, but because they were made entirely with garden produce and featured all those green tomatoes that were tired of being battered and fried.

First up was this hot sauce, which I altered slightly (see below) in ways that wouldn’t mess with its acidity (no botulism here). Making garden hot sauce was actually my big goal for the season. I had bought a bunch of habanero and cayenne pepper plants in the spring with plans to make hot sauce for my brother, who is something of a hot sauce expert. I thought that even if everything else in the garden failed that year, if I managed to get one jar of hot sauce for my brother out of it, I would consider the year a success. As it was, last year’s garden was the most productive one yet, and I got not one but five jars of hot sauce out of our hot pepper plants. This hot sauce isn’t overwhelmingly spicy and has a slight sweetness to it from the apple cider vinegar.

After the hot sauce I went searching for a way to use up the rest of the green tomatoes. I was thinking some kind of chutney or relish, and finally settled on one that was very sweet and very sour and went nicely with some bread and a sharp cheese like cheddar or gruyere. I unfortunately can’t locate the recipe (should’ve posted about it when I made it!) but there are dozens available online that are very close to what I made as far as their ingredients.

The last of the fall canning was the spiced apple sauce from Canning for a New Generation. I only got one jar out of it, using apples that had fallen from the trees in the garden, so I had to do some high school level math to figure out quantities. (An aside: I’m finding that high school math has been coming in handy these past few years — algebra for canning, geometry for sewing. I’m still waiting to find out if calculus and trigonometry are useful.) The spiced apple sauce is also a nice recipe. If you’re into canning and don’t have that book, I’d recommend it. Full of good things.

These were by far my favorite canning projects so far, not because they tasted the best (I think that would be strawberry-lemon preserves, also from Canning for a New Generation), but rather because they were nearly “free” in the sense that I paid very little money to make them aside from a couple bottles of vinegar and the canning jars. (And of course the plants and seeds back in the spring, but that’s much cheaper than buying the resultant fruit and veg.)

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Medium term investment planning

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Appreciation

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Return on investment

The spices and salt I already had on had, so this was preserving for necessity, preserving to prevent waste. For other canning I’ve done, I’ve used crates of produce that I picked up at my town’s farmer’s market. I get a good price when I do that because I buy by the crate from my regular vendors, but I’m still shelling out money, so those are fun projects rather than necessities to prevent perfectly good produce from going into the compost bin. In canning this hot sauce, relish, and apple sauce, I was working with a surplus, the first time the garden presented me with such a predicament. I was being thrifty. It was a nice feeling.

The hot sauce recipe:

GREEN TOMATO HOT SAUCE

Ingredients:

8 cups chopped green tomatoes

1 cup combined cayenne and habanero peppers

1 cup chopped onion

4 cups apple cider vinegar, 5% acidity (<– the acidity level of the vinegar is important, so be sure to check)

2 teaspoons salt

a tea ball filled with peppercorns and coriander seeds, in about a 2 to 1 ratio

2 cinnamon sticks & 3 bay leaves

For cooking and water bath canning instructions, see the original recipe here.

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Back to bread and other fermented things

My sourdough starter turned one year old at the beginning of April. I can’t calculate the date exactly of course, so I chose the date of what I thought was more or less its birthday the way I celebrated my shelter cat’s birthday on February 2. (By celebrate I mean just saying “Happy birthday cat” and letting her gorge herself on cat treats — I wasn’t the sort of human companion who baked birthday cakes for my cat.) My sourdough starter didn’t get any special treatment, just its usual morning dose of fresh flour and water, but I did sing happy birthday to it as I gave it a stir. And now I’ve gone and embarrassed myself.

I haven’t kept tabs on the number of loaves of bread I’ve made with this starter in its first year of life, but I can guess at something in the two hundreds, and it’s also been split off and shared with a number of friends. Mas got some, as did the people who came to the Trade School classes I did. I gave some to Patti and Bron as well, twice, since they killed the first ones (like I’ve done, many times). Patti also managed to bring some over to the US, by putting a small amount in a travel sized jar in her toiletries bag. TSA was none the wiser. This was a good thing since the authorities generally don’t like cross-border transportation of microbial life. Stefan Tiron (an artist who comes to visit Plantopic regularly) ran into some issues once when traveling with his nukazuke. The customs agents were suspicious (maybe understandably so) when they unearthed from his belongings a Tupperware of fermenting rice bran and Stefan tried to explain, but it’s nukazuke! They weren’t impressed but eventually he got it through to Geneva, and I wound up getting a bit of it to start my own (which I killed).

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Time log of a highly productive day

On Wednesday Mas and I met up at the garden to catch up, which is an odd thing for me to say because normally we see each other all the time, but by fault of various circumstances we somehow managed to go an entire month without seeing each other, nor even really having much in the way of contact aside from a couple of brief emails. At long last we were reunited then, and before we knew it we’d been talking for 10 hours straight. It was nearly 2 a.m. and we were both too exhausted to make our ways home, so we slept in the house of the art association that cohabitates in the same land plot as the garden (we have the house keys). The next day was Thursday, which would prove to be a highly productive day.

0827 –  I woke up, showered, dressed and was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee by 0900.

0910 – Mas and I are sitting at the table on the garden terrace, drinking our coffee and enjoying the still of the morning. I’m working on my latest knitting project. The still was interrupted when the birds arrived to feast on the grape arbor hanging over our heads. “I’ve had enough of their gluttony,” I said. “I’m fine with them eating some of the grapes but last year they ate everything. Let’s pick everything that’s ripe and make wine.” Mas said, “Right,” and got her laptop to start looking up how to go about such business, because neither of us had ever done it before. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen and stood on a rickety wooden chair cutting down bunches of grapes and loading them into a plastic bag hooked on my elbow. I picked a huge pile, something like six or seven kilos I’d say, and then returned to my seat to continue knitting while Mas read aloud to me instructions she was finding online for how to make wine.

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Check your jam

I have a confession: as of last week I hadn’t yet opened any of the jam I’ve made over the past months. I’ve tasted while cooking, but the truth is I’m not much of a jam eater. Making jam was for me just a simple starting point for learning how to can produce, but when it comes to toast I’m a butter and honey woman. I’ve given away plenty of the jam as presents, but not a whole lot of feedback yet — I assume my friends do what I often do when I receive a homemade present, which is to keep it unopened, unless perishable. We so often have such a revere for the homemade, because of the care it entails, that we guard it like a treasure or don’t use it at all for fear of ruining it …

my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks. (Neruda)

The exception to this was my mother, who immediately opened the jam I gave her when she and the rest of my family were over here for the wedding. She gave it two thumbs up.

So with only one feedback given, a positive one, naturally I assumed my jam was a success all around. Imagine my surprise then last Thursday evening, when Alvaro and I were having dinner and he asked “by the way, did you put alcohol in that apricot jam?”

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Garden pesto, sort of

What to do, what to do.

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So I made pesto, sort of. It’s not real pesto because there’s no cheese in it. In the mix were basil and chives from the garden, a whole load of garlic, toasted almonds, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. I pounded it all by hand in a mortar and pestle.

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I wasn’t trying to be clever, it’s just that we’re lacking in a lot of kitchen appliances that people often have for these sorts of things, such as a blender or an electric food processor. So the food processor was my right bicep and forearm.

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Jam canning class

Class #3 at Trade School Geneva. Notes on Class #1 here, and #2 here.

I’m very happy with how things went. We had about 50% attendance which I’m going to blame on the heavy rain (I had to drag myself into town, and I was the one teaching the damn class!) but this meant that the four people who braved the tempest were truly dedicated to canning jam. There were kitchen stories told and a bottle of wine polished off, and announcements were made all around of weekend plans involving canning. (Except for me — I’m getting the hell out of this rain-soaked, sorry excuse for a summer and down to where the sun is shining.)

The recipe we used was Honey-Sweetened Peach Vanilla Jam, times four, with half the vanilla bean. Also I wound up accidentally (I think — maybe the grocery shop mislabeled their peaches) buying half yellow peaches and half white peaches, which I discovered when I tore into one for a snack while walking home from the shop. No biggie, because I had time to figure out what to do to remedy this dire situation. White peaches are lower in acid than yellow, so I would need to up the acid content in the recipe to ward off bacterial growth. I did some high-level mathematical calculations to figure out that adding a scant tablespoon of lemon juice per jar would do it, judging that we would get about 10 jars from the recipe.

That was another thing I liked about doing this class. Converting an American recipe to metric, quadrupling it, and then having to figure out how many jars we would get with the quadrupled recipe given that the store was out of 200 mL jars, and the original recipe called for 1/2 pints, which is nearly the same as 200 mL but nowhere near 385 mL; then figuring out how much lemon juice to add given the total expected volume of the jam: All this required whipping out my 10th grade algebra, which since 1996 I’ve had the opportunity to use on a somewhat regular basis. Learn your math, kids!

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Apricot Preserves

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This was my fourth jam making session (preceded by strawberry-rhubarb, apple-rhubarb, and rosemary-rhubarb, after which we had no more rhubarb). One of our regular stops at the farmer’s market is the stand where the guy wears cherry earrings and is always good for tossing a few free things in along with whatever you pay for. The other week he started having apricots, and so two Saturdays ago we bought an entire case of them. Now he likes us a lot and gives us even more free stuff. (Five or six tomatoes last Saturday: Lesson: Make friends.)

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My first jam

My friends, I have reached a milestone. I have made jam, and canned it.

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We’ve just started getting semi local strawberries here — they’re from farther south in France, so it entailed a little bit of transportation to get them to us in the Rhône-Alps region, but they are very definitely real strawberries that smell and taste as such, not watery and flavorless like the ones you get when “strawberry season” hits the big chain grocery stores in late February. I will never understand why people buy strawberries so far out of season. There is no pleasure in a winter strawberry.

If I had to pick one food to survive off of for the rest of my life, putting aside questions of whether or not that food contains all the essential nutrients, I would pick strawberries, no debate on that. And because I will not buy out of season strawberries, I am only able to enjoy my favorite food ever for one short window of time throughout the course of the year, and so of course I take full advantage of their presence, i.e., I gorge myself on them — straight up raw, mixed with yogurt, paired with scones and whipped cream, whatever. We bought two kilos at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning and they were all gone by Sunday night. (I had help. Some.)

I also picked up some rhubarb at the market, but an off quantity of it, not really enough to make crumble, which is the only dish I know to do with rhubarb. The only other thing I know that involves rhubarb is strawberry-rhubarb jam, which my grandmother used to make and which I ate directly out of the jar with a spoon when I visited her place as a kid. She was a child during the Great Depression, and my mother has a theory that Grandma’s food preserving and hoarding of everything from plastic bags to bulk dry goods is a direct psychological response to that experience of deprivation. At my grandparents’ old house, the one my mother grew up in, they had four refrigerators, one large industrial freezer, and an entire basement room lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with canned everything. My cousins and I used to go in there and play a game called Who Can Find the Oldest Preserves. If I remember right, the winner was Apricot Jam, July 1972.

So my grandmother was a thrifty woman, but the canning thing didn’t get passed on through my mother to me. Mom has never canned anything to my knowledge, and in general seems kind of wary of the practice — botulism and whatnot. Because of this I’ve always had a fascination with people who can, imagining them to have some sort of wizard-like capacities to be able to toe the line of bacterial food poisoning without falling on the wrong side. I also assumed a laboratory full of fancy equipment was needed, and that plus the botulism thing had scared me off trying it, until now.

Alvaro’s mom came for a visit last month, and one day putzing around the apartment she decided to sterilize a half dozen of the old glass jars she found at the back of one of the cupboards and put up a batch of tomato sauce. I met up with her and Alvaro that evening for a St. Patrick’s Day beer and when we got home I discovered her afternoon project cooling on the counter top. Needless to say I was astounded. I’m always kind of astounded by her. If you merged the homesteading powers of Alvaro’s mom and my mom, it would create an unstoppable Force of Mom that would no doubt rock the very foundations upon which our culture stands. I asked her how she had managed to do all of that canning without anything in the way of fancy equipment, and she clucked at my naivety and explained putting up produce in a way that suggested it was really not all that magical.

Since her visit I’ve had nothing in the kitchen crying out to be canned, until a couple of days ago when the strawberries plus rhubarb put me in a nostalgic state for my grandmother’s jam. I decided to just go for it. That’s what you need to do sometimes. I sat down and read everything about canning in my Joy of Cooking, and read up on boiling water canning on Food in Jars. This was also supplemented by what Marisa (Alvaro’s mom) told me, namely that per her instructions I reused old jars that had once held corn and peanut butter (not together). JoC says to always use new lids, but Marisa didn’t see this as being particularly vital, and since no one in her family has come down with canned tomato sauce-induced food poisoning I decided to take her word for it. Besides, food preservation using this method has been going on for generations, and I would hazard a guess that not everyone had access to brand new canning lids and so they would just reuse the old ones. (I’m not a professional so don’t take my word on this.)

Thus I began. First with two cups of chopped rhubarb and two cups of sugar, mixed together and left in the fridge overnight.

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The next day, with the rhubarb good and soaked in the sugar, I brought it all to boil in a wide pan and then added a quart of washed, hulled, and halved strawberries.

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I stirred it constantly while it simmered for fifteen minutes, until it had thickened up and the mass of foamy, liquid bubbles had subsided into a mass of tiny, gooey ones. Then I transferred it to a glass Tupperware, loosely covered, and put it in the fridge overnight again to plump up.

This morning I took it out and began heating it back up to a boil:

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In the meantime, I washed several old glass jars in scalding hot, soapy water, rinsed them, and set them in a soup pot filled with rapidly boiling water for fifteen minutes. I used a metal spaghetti strainer to lower them into the water, and once the sterilization time was up I pulled out the jars one by one, filled them with the hot jam, leaving about a quarter inch of space at the top, and screwed on the lids. Then, full, they went back into another boiling water bath. I took them out after ten minutes, and as they cooled off a vacuum was created that sucked all the air from the jars and sealed the lids.

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And there you have it, three jars of my strawberry-rhubarb bounty preserved for future toast. I can’t quite believe that this actually worked, but it seems to have done just that — the lids are on tight and don’t pop up when you press in the center so they are apparently good to get stored away in the pantry. It was a fair amount of work for three jars, but it was a fun sort of work that carried with it no small amount of joy in learning something new. I feel rather accomplished. And while the jam jars were boiling I mixed up a leaven (prepared last night) with flour, water, and salt, and right now it’s hanging out in the kitchen for its bulk rise before baking later today. Tomorrow’s breakfast is going to be the best in history.

(Note: If you’ve never done this and are interested in trying it, please do your research before leaping in full throttle. What I’ve shown here was the general process, not a detailed recipe, and there’s a lot of important information, precautions and terminology to get down first if you don’t know what you’re doing. Food in Jars is a great reference, as is the canning chapter in the Joy of Cooking.)

Let me tell you how the baking’s going

I’ve finally managed to get a good sourdough starter going, which I tried using last week and which resulted in complete failure. Yet I soldiered on.

I cultivate my starter (or rather starters, since I’ve killed a great many and so have had to build new ones several times) using the method described in Chad Robertson’s bread book Tartinea tome that has continuously frustrated me since the day I bought it because my bread has never, ever looked even remotely like the bread made by the people included in the book as testimonials for the basic bread recipe:

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The testimonials in the book are all by mere commoners like me in the sense that they are not professional bakers, presumably have no baker’s training aside from paging through Tartine, and have busy lives like us all and yet still manage to crank out the sort of loaf you see above.

My problem? To start with I’m missing a few key pieces of equipment — proofing basket for one, but the big one is that I cannot get a Dutch oven anywhere. Apparently the French/Swiss do not use them, or perhaps they only use the ones handed down to them by their grandmothers, because I’ve searched every kitchen shop in Suisse Romande and Pays de Gex and there are none to be found. I suppose I could order one online but I don’t even want to imagine the cost of shipping cast iron. So there’s that.

I first started using the book last summer and time after time was frustrated by my inability to handle the wet dough the recipe creates. It would always grow to be soft and airy in the bowl, but as soon as I touched the dough it all went to hell and I wound up with a sticky mess all over me, all over my clothes, all over the kitchen counter. So I abandoned the instructions in the book and just started experimenting on my own, figuring that maybe what I needed was to start with a dough that was less wet and work on my handling skills until I gradually made my way to higher water contents. Eventually I succeeded in making some pretty decent bread (I think) — it still looked nothing like the pretty pictures, but it had good flavor and texture, and most importantly I didn’t drive myself crazy over it, didn’t attempt to recreate an exact copy of the supposed ideal.

During the winter my baking went dormant, until in the past couple of months when, as I’ve said, I’ve started playing god again with the microbe world. This time, however, I’ve decided to work only with whole grain flour — and this poses a problem if I’m trying to use Robertson’s instructions, because his bread is mostly white flour, which reacts in a very different way than whole grain when rising, being handled, and getting baked. (EDIT: It seems he’s got a new book out on baking with whole grains!)

One of the tips in the book is, after allowing your starter to ferment overnight, to drop a pinch of it in a glass of room temperature water to check that it floats. If it floats, it’s aerated enough to get going on baking. If not, you need to wait a bit longer or else increase the ambient temperature of the kitchen in order to speed things along. Last week I wrote that my leaven sank, and I didn’t return later that day with a bread update because there was no bread. I did the float test pretty much every hour on the hour all day long until finally I gave up, scooped off a bit of it and re-fed it with flour and water and waited for another day.

Monday night I mixed up a leaven once more and the next morning redid the float test. Still nothing. This time I decided to hell with it, I would use it anyway. The flour I was using was a mix of whole wheat, spelt and kamut, and so I thought maybe these heavier flours were the reason why the leaven refused to float. Maybe, maybe not.

But first I endured a morning and afternoon of turning the dough — no kneading, since time and leaven do all the work of developing the strands of gluten — and around five o’clock I finally went to flip the dough out onto the counter to begin forming loaves. This is when disaster struck. The dough stuck to everything. Alvaro was home at the time and I started swearing to myself and crying out for help, and he ran into the kitchen and found me covered in a thick, wet mess of dough with no elasticity, only hatred. I was so frustrated and wound up that when he asked what had happened I couldn’t begin to find the words to explain it and so just let loose a string of obscenities. He suggested I try primal screaming to let it all out, and so I tried, to no avail, and started swearing that I was never going to bake bread again as long as I lived.

I’m not sure how I managed to calm down from that fit, to just add more flour and knead things like I was used to, and let it sit again to rise for another few hours. I got into bed with a book on bread and a few highlighter pens and read for a bit while Alvaro napped next to me, and then around seven I got up and decided that at the very least I could divide the dough doomed for failure in half and use one part of it for pizza dough. So I did, and it was delicious. For future reference, you should absolutely try the following combo on your next homemade pizza: caramelized onions, garlic, smashed potatoes, paprika, kale and toasted pine nuts. When it came out of the oven I spooned over the top of it a bunch of globs of fromage frais laced with garlic and chives.

As a pizza dough it worked really well, but I was expecting as bread it would be a brick. It was not. Granted it was probably one of the uglier loaves of bread I’ve ever made — split in weird ways, dull colored crust — but it’s aerated well enough and has a nice, mildly sour taste.

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I know it doesn’t look like much, and it’s definitely nothing like the sort of bread you’d get from white flour, but I like it. I had it with butter and jam this morning, no complaints.

And then because I’m a glutton for punishment in addition to bread, last night I got another leaven going.

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And this morning made it into dough for baking later today.

And made yet one more leaven this morning that I’ll use to make dough and start turning tonight, and let it ferment in the fridge overnight for baking tomorrow.

So with all that this is what my kitchen looked like at eight thirty this morning:

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Left to right: The dough for baking later today; the starter mixed with a bit of water, before adding flour; the bread I baked last night; my jar of starter.

I’m a machine. Back in business. Maybe I’ll get in on that silly toast craze I’ve heard is sweeping the US.

Catching up on some reading & whatnot

I’m working my way through all the articles big and small (plus some videos) that I let linger during crazy week last week…

Also this weekend I discovered the work of the New Zealand-based artist Xin Cheng. Sounds like my kind of stuff. I shall follow up. After coffee #3.