Amish life

Learning Vinegar.

Saturday, just after lunch, I went down the road a half mile to my Parents' Amish neighbor's house to see if I could get a cup of heavy cream. An hour and a half later, I returned back home with a quart of heavy cream, and a bucket full of mother of vinegar.

The first time I officially met Elizabeth Hershberger last Spring, my Mom introduced me and said "This is Elizabeth, but most people call her Lizzie...". Lizzie smiled at me warmly and snapped back, "That's just one of the things people call me!" We spent at least an hour chatting about pork and beef (we were looking for sources to raise for us), and I wished for many split seconds that I was raised Amish. She told us stories that seemed straight out of Little House of the Prairie, how her and the children dispatch their cow every year, and all of them are made to help, even though a couple of them would rather not. They do the work as a family in the warmth of her husband's wood shop, since that wood stove is warmer, and they keep a cast iron skillet on there ready to go for when they get hungry. I wanted to crawl up into their world of a quiet, hard-working life and never leave. I figured that any homesickness for technology and indoor plumbing would subside after a few months of eating around that house...

Lizzie's gregarious demeanor makes her home on the corner the hub of information for both the Amish and English (the Amish term for us) communities: her family has a huge array of friends, many of them non-Amish. As I witnessed Saturday, a steady stream of visitors dropping in, picking up, dropping off - every one with a bit of information to trade. It's quite possible that Lizzie operates her family under the radar of conventional Amish eyes - I know that she watches some English children for a friend, and conceals them cleverly in Amish clothing so no one's the wiser. The bonus of that set-up is that the children are learning German.

I never went to Lizzie's home before without my Mom, but did Saturday for the first time. She welcomed me in, pulled me up a chair, and offered me a doughnut. Their kitchen table was a mess of coffee cups and half eaten pies, two of her daughters were attacking the post-lunch dishes. (The Amish don't keep daylight savings time, so I accidentally caught them just after their mid-day meal.) I stole sideways glances at them, since their hair was likely just washed for Sunday church and hung down well below their waists as it was drying. It isn't often you see an Amish girl with her hair down - and it really takes you by surprise.

I tried to make all of the mental notes possible about Lizzie's kitchen: the Pioneer Princess cookstove that her daughters drew hot water from to fill their dishpan, the stainless bowl that was heaped full of rising bread dough and covered with store-bought bread bags that had been cut open to increase their surface size. The Amish waste nothing. My Mom once saw an Amish woman sewing a plastic bag on her treadle machine to extend it's life.

After an hour or so of the news from around the area, Lizzie remembered that I was looking for vinegar mother last summer. I remember she ran down to her basement and came back with her arm dripping wet with vinegar up to her elbow. Her vinegar was made from cider, and stored in a 50 gallon barrel. She must have remembered as well, since she told me that the mother was ready and she could give me as much as I needed. She grabbed a clean plastic pail that once contained cottage cheese from the local creamery and quickly disappeared to fetch it.

"Do you want to see it?" She smiled at me, and took the lid off. It smelled delicious - like a floral alcohol tinged vinegar. I was surprised at the similarities to my kombucha SCOBY, but it was definitely different. It looked like a pile of fleshy rags. I started to get really excited.

Although I had been wanting to play around with vinegar since almost a year ago, I was totally unprepared. Lizzie's instructions were vague to say the least She said to just add it to some cider or wine or juice, her suggestion was to use the liquid that peaches are canned in since that tastes really good. She also said to leave it in a nice warm place, since her vinegar took a very long time to work in the basement- once she moved it upstairs, she had better luck. I figured with the Internet on my side I would have great luck in finding all the information I'd need to get started - including the very basics like how long will the vinegar mother last without being in a liquid? and how much vinegar mother do you need to inoculate the liquid you intend to make into vinegar?

A brief hour on the computer yesterday proved me enormously wrong. It seems a very simple thing like vinegar is somewhat complex. As with any culturing adventure, everyone you ask has a different perspective and set of rules. What am I actually looking for in my vinegar anyway: a gourmet extract that I can impress people with or a humble and quick addition to a salad dressing? Seeing that I got a quart of rhubarb-raspberry juice from my Mom's pantry to try and vinegarize, I'd say my goal is probably a mix of the two.

My quick research was telling me that to make successful vinegar, you need to put the mother culture into an alcoholic solution. The culture then ferments to make acetic acid, and at that point I need to decide whether or not to stop the fermentation process by pasteurization of the vinegar prior to bottling and aging. I'll have a few months to worry about that last step - and a few months to be more thoroughly confused by all the conflicting information. I do not have a scientific mind, and I have to read and re-read a lot of information that is somewhat scientific to digest it. If that fails, I know I have a great contact.

My ponderings were made a bit easier by a visit to Northern Brewer today. I should have been cleaning my house and doing some laundry, but I ducked out after lunch and got to meet Jeremy King in real life. I think I apologized to him a few times for looking "glazed over", when he was explaining how yeast eat, and how best I should go about making my quart of fruit juice into alcohol. We talked for quite awhile, and then he suggested that I try using already fermented wine. I knew (and so did he) that I was supposed to use low-sulfite wine, and lucky for me, he had a menagerie of homemade wines in the basement. I know I need another food hobby like a hole in the head, but I was so excited looking at what all the people at Northern Brewer are fermenting!

He insisted that I take a couple gallons of an amazing new-to-me wine varietal Lemberger. The grapes were grown in Washington, and the wine was started last October if I remember right. Since the wine is already fermented, I pulled off a portion of the mother of vinegar, and added a few tablespoons of the liquid to the pail Jeremy gave me. I stashed it under the kitchen counter, and now I just have to wait a few months. I have a feeling it is going to be amazing.

Jeremy also coached me on a yeast strain to use for kick-starting my rhubarb-raspberry juice into alcohol. I felt like an apothecary (looking at crib sheets, of course) adding nutrients, energy and yeasts together this afternoon. I hope it works, so I can give him all of the credit for helping me turn Wisconsin rhubarb and raspberries into salad-worthy vinegar. I have another little packet of yeast to try my hand at fermenting some cider, I just hope my co-op still has the gallon jugs I remember seeing a few weeks ago.

I can't help but think that all of the time I feel like the our world is such a fast-paced place, and that we really make it that way for ourselves. Lizzie can be up to her eyeballs in canning in the mid-Summer, but if you stop by, she is never too busy to make you feel at home. Places like Northern Brewer are unique since it's expected that their employees would need to chat to effectively serve the customer, but it's really more than that I think. Food people always take time for other food people, and it really makes the world feel smaller and more intimate. It's comforting that I'm actually able to connect with other people and learn things from them, something a computer will ever be able to do. That kind of one-on-one schooling is priceless.

It may be a good long while until you read more about my vinegaring... but sometime it will pop back up here. Meanwhile, if you have ever made vinegar (intentionally or not), drop me a line and give me some advice!


It does seem like awhile since I've sat in the warm glow of the little netbook here... I was out of town, which for me usually translates to "at the farm". My Parents' place about 3 hours west of here is just about as perfect as a respite can be, a gracefully aging (and continually improving) farmhouse with plenty of acreage for a city bred Boy-O to cut his country chops.

Western Wisconsin has had a very rainy summer, so much rain that most of the carefully groomed gardens in the area have been overtaken with weeds, if not been totally destroyed by flooding. Some garden crops in some gardens didn't take, but fortunately for everyone, there are plenty of people willing to swap, share or sell. August in the country is a continual reminder of the bounty of harvest time - and it starts to feel impossible that fresh veg will again be out of reach before we know it.

My Parents planted 8 jalapeno plants, and had a scarce handful of fruit as their yield. I didn't really know that I would be in for 2 days of jalapeno processing, but when you happen to ask, sometimes your dreams can come true. Many of the family farms in the Amish community have taken to opening self-serve and on-your-honor farm stands. Tuesday morning, before heading back to the city, my Mom and I went to one on one of my favorite ridges - Irish Ridge - intent on getting another super sweet watermelon from such a stand. When you have an exceptional melon, you tend to remember where you got it! That is certainly the way of the Amish farm stand. We asked about the pesticide situation, and found that that while not "organic", they didn't spray any of their melons or peppers - and then by accident my Mom asked if they had jalapenos.

Most of the Amish community is just plain amazing to me. Ideology aside, I am impressed and continually aghast at the sheer amount of work they are able to do in a growing season. They have large families, and they can up enough fruit, veg, and meat to last an entire year. Summer's work is usually never an excuse to talk to a neighbor, however, and the slow, quiet way of life seems like something I could get used to real easy. The Amish are unaffected by such trendy ideas as "eating local" and "organic and sustainable" agriculture. Most of them practice these gospels by necessity, and a greater amount of them than I realized are against chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

One peck of sliced peppers: 8 lbs of heat!

When asked how many peppers I needed for canning, I just knew I wanted "a LOT". "Well, how many peck do you want?" An Amish woman asked me, and showed me a box that was the equivalent of one peck. I "erred on the side of gluttony", and said 2 boxes - having no real idea the weight on a peck. She sent a family member out to the garden to pick them as we waited on the side of the road, noting the quiet, the horses, the children scampering who also have a work-minded purpose to their days. My two pecks of jalapenos ended up being 16 lbs of peppers, and here is what I did with them:

Just as I was about to pull out of the driveway, we were talking about slicing that mountain of peppers. My Mom ran back in to get her V-Slicer to lend me. Made of blue carbon steel, the blade is stationary - a dangerous piece of kitchen equipment that she has used ever since I can remember. On scanning the packaging, I love to notice the way that advertising has changed over the years. I can not think of a recent example that would feature a working woman's hands, and the hands of a woman that show a wedding ring, no less. There are a few water spots on the box, but I assure you that the original image does not show the mitts of a 20-something parts model... those spots are hard earned.

The V-slicer did fairly quick work of slicing the peppers, and thanks to their handy stems, I didn't worry too much about the lack of a safety guard. I shielded my hands with non-latex food prep gloves, hoping to avoid the burn of capzasin, but a couple of knocks against the blade and the sterility was breached: jalapeno juice stinging my digits for the rest of the evening, it's warfare reminding me every time I forgot and rubbed my eyes.

The candied jalapenos I made last year were quite a bit different. The process as well as the proportions were different than the recipe I used this year. I used a different recipe primarily because I couldn't find the one from last year, and it turned out to be a good thing. The jars filled more full, and the texture is more akin to the ones I've had commercially from the West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shop. Don't let the canning stop you from making them: if you don't feel like canning, simply fill the jars and keep them in the fridge. They should stay fresh and well preserved for at least a couple of months, probably longer. My yield for a double recipe (6 lbs of peppers) was 7 pints.

Candied Jalapenos (adapted from Foodie with Family, via Tasty Kitchen)
  • 3 pounds firm, fresh jalapeno peppers, washed and sliced about 1/8 inch thick
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 6 cups white granulated sugar

In a large pot, bring cider vinegar and white sugar to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pepper slices and simmer for exactly 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peppers, loading into clean, sterile canning jars to within 1/4 inch of the upper rim of the jar.

Turn up the heat under the pot with the syrup and bring it to a full rolling boil. Boil hard for 6 minutes.

Using a ladle, pour the boiling syrup into the jars over the jalapeno slices. Insert a chopstick (or a small icing spatula) to the bottom of the jar two or three times to release any trapped pockets of air. Adjust the level of the syrup if necessary. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth and top with new lids and rings to finger-tip tightness.

Place jars in a simmering hot water bath canner with water to cover the jars by 2-inches. When it reaches a full rolling boil, boil 10 minutes for half-pints (8 oz) or 15 minutes for pints (16 oz). When timer goes off, transfer the jars to a cooling rack. Leave them to cool, without moving, for 24 hours.

I think that adding the sliced peppers to the boiling brine made for a much better end result. My peppers were very big, and due to the aforementioned rain, were nearly splitting their skins. They were, however, super firm and super hot, so they should mellow out into perfectly wonderful candied jalapenos. The Pioneer Woman recommends saving the leftover brine for use in potato salad or marinating a roast (sparingly, I think, since it was wicked hot), and I did can up one pint and one half pint. I figured I could always use a little spicy hot kick in the depths of winter... I used the 15 minute time recommend to can both the pint and half pint at the same time.

Math savvy readers will note that since I made a double recipe, I still had 2 lbs of sliced peppers to contend with. As the evening wore into late night territory, I used them to make another of my favorite things: escabeche. A favorite Rick Bayless recipe of mine uses fresh ingredients to approximate what I added to my jars - I figured a few pints of these would make quick tacos sometime in the future... mixed with other ingredients or even just beans and rice. I used my Mom's recipe for the brine, which is easily doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc. The amounts listed gave me exactly 4 pints with no leftover veg, and just a smidge of leftover brine.

Escabeche (Canned)

for the Veg:
  • 2 lbs. fresh jalapenos, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
  • 2 carrots, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
  • 2 onions, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
  • 4 t. Mexican oregano
  • 4 cloves of garlic, each sliced in half
for the Brine: (proportions for 4 pints, this is a triple recipe of my Mom's brine)
  • 3/4 c. olive oil
  • 3/4 c. water
  • 3 c. white vinegar
  • 1 T. (3 t.) canning salt
Pack sterile jars with veg, putting 1 t. of Mexican oregano and 1 clove of garlic in each. Make sure to get a variety of vegetables in each jar.

Bring brine to a full rolling boil. Fill jars to within 1/4 inch of top. Wipe rims, and seal with new lids and rings to finger-tip tightness. Process in boiling hot water bath for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely. (Remember not to start the timer until the water comes back to a rolling boil.) Do not disturb for 24 hours.

I left the other 8 lbs of jalapenos until yesterday to process, and did another 6 pounds into candied jalapenos. Yes, I now have 14 jars of candied jalapenos - on top of the Mexican Pickled Veg and now the Escabeche. Guess I got my spicy fix taken care of!

I probably had *just* a few more peppers than I actually needed, and may have started to cause myself unnecessary stress in how to prepare them. But when the work is complete, and I see them all on the counter, ready for the journey to the basement shelves, it feels so good and satisfying that all of that melts away into oblivion. Granted, I would probably need to eat peppers every single day for the next year to get to the end of my stash alone, but now I have plenty for sharing, and even for perhaps a CakeWalk Giveaway sometime in the near future!

I have a lowly 2 pounds of jalapenos left on my counter, whole ones that are beautifully unblemished from overgrowth. Monica just shared a family giardinera recipe with me, that I'm hoping maybe to make, but I need a few days of rest from those hot beauties. I hope they will still be ready to use early next week. And, hopefully Monica will be up for a canning party so she can keep most of the jars. Otherwise, the Comet will have to contend with RCakeWalk for The Buttafuoco!