Sunday, August 31, 2008

Harvest continues

As summer winds down, we've been putting up fruit and vegetables almost every day. Enough tomatoes and hot peppers to make 18 quarts of salsa on Thursday, more grapes on Friday, this weekend found us chopping a couple heads each of green and red cabbage for the dehydrator and also canning a few jars of pepperocini peppers. I can't remember exactly when we did what earlier in the week but we have some applesauce in the freezer and a pound of jerky in jars on the counter to show for it.

The photo shows some of what came in this week. Plus DH dug a couple rows of potatoes yesterday that he laid out to cure before we store them in a cool cellar. All the garden and kitchen work means meals were cobbled together from the fresh produce and make-ahead dishes from the fridge or freezer. Yesterday's supper was no exception.

It was a filling vegetarian feast that included Marinated Tomato and Green Pepper Salad, one of our favorite make-ahead salads, yellow eye beans and lacy corn meal cakes with slices of a Sugar Baby watermelon for dessert. The vegetables and watermelon came from the garden, the cornmeal I ground fresh from local dried corn, the egg in the griddle cakes came from the backyard girls and I thinned whole-milk yogurt made from rich local milk for the cakes, too. Tho the recipe doesn't require it, I used fresh ground whole wheat (local) for the indicated flour amount. I think the whole grain adds an extra boost to the flavor of the griddle cakes tho they're also great made with regular all-purpose flour.

The yellow eye beans aren't very common apparently but I came across them several years ago at a little produce market in Pulaski that featured local farm products. We ate most of what I brought home but saved back enough seeds to plant our own the next year. The texture is creamier than a pinto, if that makes sense, and the taste reminds me a little of a navy bean. We all like dried beans so it was nice to find a new-to-us variety to add to the mix.

The cornmeal griddle cakes are a great way to have a hot bread with a meal without heating up the oven and they're fast to fix, too. My mom likes to make the batter thin (add more liquid than recipe indicates) and make the cakes crisp and lacy. If you want, you can spread butter on them but that's gilding the lily as far as I'm concerned but a spoonful of sorghum is a good choice especially if you're eating one at the end of the meal.

Cornmeal Griddle Cakes

2 cups buttermilk or about 1-1/4 cup yogurt thinned with 3/4 cup water
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour

Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and pour in buttermilk and add eggs. Beat till smooth and then add oil, stirring to combine. Cook on a hot griddle like a pancake or fry in a skillet to which a teaspoon of oil has been added. Yield: 8-10 cakes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Quick and easy grape juice, the old fashioned way

Last Saturday DH and I picked almost 5 (5-gallon) buckets of Concord grapes from my mother's two grapevines. She thinks that's the largest yield since they were planted about 20 years ago. The grapes were beautiful with no sign of Japanese beetles, a serious problem some years.

My sister offered the use of her kitchen for processing -- she lives next door to our mother, and my brother-in-law's mother and stepfather came over to help stem the grapes. It was like a harvest party.

DBIL built a fire in the outdoor fire ring and set a washtub filled with water over the flame. We followed the directions listed below for preparing the jars of grapes, filled them inside then set them in the washtub of boiling water. DBIL and DH (wearing hat in photo) waited for it to return to boil and counted off the minutes till processing was complete. They topped off the water between batches and set the finished jars on a rug placed in a nearby metal wagon. To prevent too sudden temp changes, a light towel was thrown over the cooling jars.

Using the large washtub outside meant the kitchen stove could be used for preparing a homegrown dinner which included corn on the cob, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, Harvey House slaw, green beans, and muskmelon. The grapes were finished processing just in time to sit down on the porch for dinner. Drinking our grape juice this winter definitely will bring back good memories of the day we put it up.

Quick and Easy Grape Juice

Wash and stem firm ripe grapes. Put 2 cups grapes into a hot quart jar. Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar or up to 1/4 cup honey. (I use the lesser amount of sugar.) Fill jar with boiling water, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Adjust caps. Process 15 minutes in boiling water bath.

Let stand in pantry for several weeks before using. The juice from the grapes is drawn out into the water over time. When ready to drink, pour juice through wire sieve or a coffee filter to remove grapes and any seeds or skins that may be floating loose in the jar. Taste and add 1 to 2 cups of water (sparkling water is a fun choice, too!) to dilute as desired.

If you've never canned using the water bath method, please refer to the latest Ball Blue Book of Preserving or the USDA-funded website, National Center for Home Food Preserving, for detailed directions.

We ended up with enough grapes to make 54 quarts of grape juice concentrate. When reconstituted, it should yield over 80 quarts of juice.

Check out Kitchen Tip Tuesdays at Tammy's Recipes for more good ideas.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Homegrown meals or One Local Summer challenge weeks 9-12

For the past month or so I've been whinging offline about having to post locally sourced meals for the One Local Summer challenge. Now, this is especially bad because I chose to sign up for this challenge but have not been keeping up with the posts.

The one thing in my favor is we have not deviated from the local foods idea behind the challenge. Even tho drought in our part of Virginia is playing havoc with our garden and those who supply most of the local farmers' markets, we've managed to keep some things growing and producing. Because we're diligently preserving any excess produce we're in good shape to continue eating locally through much of the coming winter.

So the one local meal (out of many eaten this week) that I want to describe was a harvest party of sorts that we enjoyed at my sister's house yesterday. We were over at her neighbor's to pick grapes and since her neighbor happens to be our mother, it quickly turned into a big family gathering, even including DBil's parents. That happens a lot in our family. Two will gather and the next thing you know there are so many family members around we're spilling out the door. Could be good, could be bad, I guess. In our family it's usually good.

Mom's two grapevines were filled with particularly sweet grapes this year thanks to the very dry weather we're experiencing. And, since Japanese beetles didn't besiege the grapes this year, it was a bumper crop. We picked grapes, washed, stemmed grapes, put them in jars and processed several batches of jars in a boiling water bath to make 54 quarts of grape juice concentrate.

The next thing you know, it's getting late and everyone's hungry. Do we call for pizza delivery? Are you kidding? First of all, they live in the country -- I'm not sure that's even an option. And secondly, DSis and DBil's garden was just sitting there waiting to be plundered.

From their home garden we prepared corn on the cob with fresh butter, Italian flat beans cooked with a small piece of home-cured ham, sweet and juicy muskmelon and sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Alongside she served Harvey House slaw made earlier in the week with some of the cabbage we harvested earlier this summer and stored in their cellar.

DH cooked a few brats over the fire in the outdoor fire ring while every thing else was being prepared in the kitchen. The brats are made by a local seller at our farmers' market. DH can't go there without getting one hot off the grill and sometimes picks up a few for the freezer, too. DSis didn't have any rolls for the brats (this was a spur of the moment dinner party, remember) but we just spread a little Nectarine Mustard on them or, in DS's case, topped them off with homemade fresh salsa.

There's only one more week left on the One Local Summer challenge and the idea of spending time over the next few days searching out some esoteric ingredient perhaps only available in this county or finding a local source for oats, a food we use a lot of both as a dish on its own and as an important ingredient in many favorite recipes, is very appealing. But I know it's not going to happen.

Tomorrow I'll spend several hours processing homegrown tomatoes into beautiful jars of whole tomatoes or salsa or just plain dried tomatoes. Tuesday's probably going to be focused on making more jerky -- DH and DS have found a recipe they both love. The fall crops of beans and more tomatoes need to be weeded and watered. Wednesday I'm going to check on a friend's pear tree and pick if they're ready. Thursday's subject will be either pears or more grapes. Jelly's on the to-do list. And so it goes.

My envy of those posters who weekly get to track down sources for local foods is part of the "grass is greener" thing. I get to harvest most all of what we eat but I do it at the expense of time to be out in the world amongst other consumers. Everyone has a niche, I just get the urge to move outside mine after several months of continuing garden care, harvesting and processing. But I'm not giving up my garden.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Zucchini Chips -- a great way to use up a lot of zucchini!

If I had to give one good reason to own a dehydrator, Zucchini Chips would be it! Yes, I use the dehydrator to dry fruits like nectarines and cherries, vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes and treats like fruit leather and jerky but since mid-July we've learned to grab those mid-size zucchini (before the skin gets tough and the seeds develop too much), cut them into 1/4"-thick slices, sprinkle with a little seasoning (latest favorite is Zatarain's Creole Seasoning) and dry for about 12 hours at around 135F. Summer squash will work like this, too, but the seeds in it are often large almost before the squash is of a good size for drying. Since it shrinks you want to use the slightly larger ones, perhaps 9- or 10-inches in circumference, rather than the small ones. They're just as tasty but make tiny slices once dried!

The zucchini chips are crispy and tasty by themselves, work like a chip or cracker when served with dip or salsa and DH says cream cheese spread works, too. DS even tested a tray with cinnamon-sugar sprinkled on top the zucchini. I didn't try any of those but he swore they were excellent and they went immediately. That's why I didn't get to taste any... Usually we just go with the creole seasoning, Old Bay or a homemade seasoning salt. All it takes is a light dusting. The slices shrink as they dry and too heavy a hand with the seasoning can make the seasoning flavor too pronounced.

Of course, there are a lot of good ways to use up zucchini and summer squash. I like to dry lengthwise slices of zucchini for use as "noodles" in lasagna and larger, thick-sliced zucchini slices, when dried, can be rehydrated and fried like fresh squash or green tomato slices (dip in batter or roll in flour or seasoned crumbs). I dry a lot of large, seeded and sometimes peeled, zucchini in slices or shreds for use in soups, spaghetti sauce, quick breads, etc. in the winter. (I used to freeze the shredded zucchini and that's still a great way to preserve it but drying doesn't take up my freezer space -- always valuable real estate around here.) Depending on how I plan to use it I soak it in water for 30-45 minutes before using it in a recipe. If I'm adding it to soup or a tomato sauce, I usually just throw it into the mix as is without soaking. Perhaps adding a little extra liquid to the recipe as I go.

Our favorite way to prepare it is to slice lengthwise, marinate in something flavorful (italian dressing, teriyaki sauce, balsamic vinegar and oil, whatever) and grill. I included another of our favorite oamc uses for zucchini in a previous post, Zucchini Cheese Squares, but I also make a zucchini quick bread similar to banana bread, use shredded zucchini or yellow squash as an ingredient in yeast rolls and salmon cakes and make squash fritters with fresh shredded zucchini in the summer or dehydrated zucchini in the winter. Lots of casseroles have zucchini added as part of the measure of vegetable ingredients. Small cubes of the squash sub for peas in tuna casserole, cubes or shreds get layered into a pan of yamazetti (does anyone know the standard spelling for that old favorite?) or lasagna and show up as an ingredient in any version of Spanish rice we throw together. On occasion I've canned a great mock crushed pineapple by combining shredded zucchini, pineapple juice and a bit of sugar or honey if the juice is unsweetened. With the price of canned pineapple going up I'm thinking of putting some up again this fall.

When they get large and the skin is difficult to pierce with your fingernail, don't despair. The really large zucchinis will even keep for a couple of months if stored without touching. Stack them like firewood along a wall in a protected spot in the garage, shed or, even better, a root cellar. Then when you want to make fried squash or zucchini bread, all you have to do is go get one. The large squash will need to be seeded and peeled for most recipes and they will rot eventually so keep an eye on them and discard any that develop soft spots. If you have chickens or other livestock that like squash this is a good way to keep the last of the crop through to early winter. Years when the squash vines keep producing right up to frost, we've had zucchini to chop up for the chickens right up till Thanksgiving with no problem. Our sheep are divided on the squash issue -- Happy-lamb and Andy, the llama, like zucchini, the rest of the sheep won't touch it.

I don't think we'll have too many to store this fall as we're getting very good about checking the vines daily. Those zucchini chips have changed the way we think of zucchini these days!

For more Kitchen Tips check out Kitchen Tip Tuesdays at Tammy's Recipes.