Recent Preserving (Part 2)

It seems whenever Friday afternoon rolls around I become nostalgic in a way, for the way things were before I had my own family and the weekend loomed like a glittering jewel before me.  A good part of my single life, I held 2 jobs - and there were plenty of weekends spent working I'm sure, but in retrospect I had this miraculous thing called "free time" which seems to come with alarming infrequency lately.

Sunday afternoon, I got a couple of pounds of gooseberries from Klee's.  I made the time to work them into jam right away Monday morning since they were pink and soft.  They were mixed varieties, that when commingled with sugar transformed into a singular flavor that I still can't describe.  They are tropical I swear, a Midwestern answer to passionfruit.  My little tester jar of gooseberry jam the other week told me I should stop shy of the 220 degree gel point, so I boiled to 118 degrees and was rewarded with a softer set.  I'm going to write down the recipe, since it bears remembering my process. 


Gooseberries are naturally high in acid.  Green gooseberries higher of course than those that are picked and allowed to blush - but with the blush their tartness mellows just a bit and makes a "prettier" finished preserve.  There really aren't a whole lot of gooseberry jam recipes out there I noticed in my digging.  Even the county extension website was vague (and why don't those conventional sources use weights?? This plagues me:  I am a scaling addict.).  To be extra "safe", I added the juice of a half lemon.  There is definitely enough natural pectin that you should never dream of using a box of liquid or powder.

Gooseberry Jam 
yields about 4 half pints (I got 3 jars and one mostly full to eat now)
  • 2 lbs. gooseberries, tops and tails trimmed
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
Combine the gooseberries and water in a large preserving pot and smash casually with a masher to crush most of the gooseberries.  Heat over medium heat and cook until the gooseberries break down a little, about 10 minutes.  Then add the sugar and lemon juice, increase the heat to medium high and continue cooking, stirring regularly, until you reach your desired firmness - about 118 degrees as I mentioned above.  You'll feel the thickness of the jam increase as you stir, and the jam should sheet nicely off the spoon you are stirring with.

When the jam is ready, pour into sterilized jars, top with lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

gooseberry jam.
This week, I also did pickles.  My mother-in-law wanted a dozen jars and bought me a half bushel of cucumbers at the farmer's market on Tuesday.  By Tuesday evening, I had done 22 quarts (losing one to a broken jar).  I used my Gram's pickle recipe, misjudging the amount of brine I'd need two times, causing me to pause and make more.  That worked out all right, especially with a new baby walker anxious to try out his new skills at my feet in the kitchen.  Maybe I'll always associate his first steps with a mountain of pickles; that's kind of a nice thing.

This recipe is the only pickle that tastes like a real dill pickle to me.  The recipe is in my book

By late evening, I had the pickles mostly done.  I had about 5 pounds of cucumbers remaining and I was too tired to think about more pickles.  They sat for 2 days in the fridge before I put them to their final rest in jars.  I tried two kinds of refrigerator pickles that I'd not made before.  The first were these turmeric spiked whole dills that Ivy recommended.  I used the recipe as a template, since I was low on fresh dill.  I used Spice House pickling spice and extra dill seed.  I used Bragg's cider vinegar even though I "killed" it by heating it to a boil.  I love the taste of Bragg's so much that any other vinegar doesn't taste like vinegar to me.  A half recipe of the brine filled two quart sized jars just fine.

refrigerator pickle
This Weck jar is slightly bigger than a quart though, I think... 

I sliced the remaining pickles to 1/8 inch on my mandoline and made a big jar of refrigerator pickles.  I got the recipe from my Parents, who had gotten it from someone in the '90's.  I remember the plastic pail of bread and butter pickles as being too sweet and kind of flabby, not really my favorite things 20 years ago.  But I modified the recipe and so far I think they are one of my favorite pickles ever!  In part, because I left out all traces of celery seed.  There aren't many things I dislike, but I've come to the realization that celery seed is kind of one of them. 

I can't seem to keep my fork out of this jar.  After 2 days, the cukes are still pretty crisp.  I kind of winged the recipe, making just 1/4 of the brine (which was simply equal parts sugar and white vinegar, with the addition of 1 tablespoon of kosher salt), and adding a  half onion and extra brown mustard seed.  This recipe is so quick, just mix everything and pack it into a jar.  I'll give the proportions for a whole batch - but keep in mind it's pretty forgiving.  The cukes give off their own liquid when allowed to rest in the salted vinegar brine, so after a few more hours the jar above was completely filled with liquid.

Bread & Butter Pickles
  • 3/4 of an ice cream pail of thinly sliced cucumbers (remember when everyone ate ice cream from a gallon pail??) (I'd slice about 1/8 inch thick) 
  • 4 c. granulated sugar
  • 4 c. white vinegar
  • 1/4 c. salt
  • 1 1/2 t. turmeric (I added extra)
  • 1 1/2 t. mustard seed (I added extra)
  • 1 1/2 t. celery seed (I omitted it)
Combine everything in a large bowl (the ice cream pail if you are following the '90's approach) and mix well.  Place in the fridge and let sit for 4-5 days before eating if you can.  The pickles will last at least 6 months under refrigeration.  (I prefer to store in glass of course, I just mixed everything in a bowl and packed into the more-than-quart glass jar seen below.  I love that jar, my Mom gave me some honey in it once and I can't bring myself to give it back to her...)

bread & butter pickle

Part of the reason I might have a new-found love for these bread & butters is that I've been making single cucumber batches of James Peterson's Thai Cucumber Salad with Peanuts from his Kitchen Simple cookbook.  I am a voracious reader of cookbooks, and I think one of my favorite authors is James Peterson.  His books seem like friends to me, and the Kitchen Simple book in particular has become my trusted ally in quick summery eating.  His salad has equal parts sugar and rice wine vinegar (the unseasoned kind), some chile peppers and plenty of cilantro.  It's so good.  I'd imagine I could do up a quart similar to the bread and butters and munch on them for a month or so and I might just have to get more cukes to do that.

So what do I, "unemployed" for some 8 years already, do on a Friday evening now?  Afternoon has come and gone since I started writing this, and a spanakopita of sorts is just about to come from the oven, concocted of fresh chard and kale and some frozen spinach unearthed from the freezer.  The new baby walker opted out of a nap to practice his craft and is already asleep at 6 pm.  The window are flung wide open with the coolness of our most excellent summer weather ever.  I don't feel the pangs of sadness I once did that I don't do anything exciting come Friday night, instead I take pleasure in the hard work of the week and get ready for a country visit so I can hopefully bring some more work home with me.  It's really the best kind of life.

Preservation by Any Means Possible (and... a Lahey Bread, if you are still keeping track)

I like to think of words in the English language, and how they look or "feel" like their spellings... my favorite examples: laugh, quiet, grumpy. When I see the word 'August' in type it evokes this feeling of exhaustion, of exhaling with a sigh, of brevity. In the Midwest, our most prolific season is August and the aforementioned descriptions sum it up well. Pretty much any vegetable that grows in our zone is on and ripe for the preservation, and while I don't preserve as much as some, I still feel that pang of tiredness. I wonder if I am doing as much as I can do, wondering if I am doing too much for the food-eating conundrum I find myself in (a.k.a. my picky boys).

Last weekend, the Kiddo and I spent time at my Parents' farm. My only food goal was finding a peck of jalapeno peppers. Last year's peppers were excruciatingly hot, so hot that I actually still have a number of jars leftover despite the near 3 pints of candied jalapenos I ingested myself. When considering my preserving tactics this Summer, I thought of an uncle - since I could justify doing more if I had someone with the fortitude to eat the last of the super hot peppers. And he must have a stomach of steel. Last Summer, I traded some canning for some upholstery work, and when my Mom gave him the peppers he ate almost half a jar immediately.

Finding jalapenos this year was more difficult, and after some hunting, we found a farm with them. I helped an Amish man pick a gallon pail full of mixed peppers. This was after a misunderstanding at a different farm that landed me a peck of crisp green bell peppers. Monday morning before leaving, 4 dozen corn appeared tidily bundled in a green mesh sack, the result of tasting some bi-color corn we got from another Amish neighbor on Saturday during our quest. It was the sweetest corn I've had this year, and now 10 1/2 lbs. are resting in the deep freeze.

As if I didn't have enough on my plate, I decided before I left that I needed to make proper lacto-ferment crock pickles this year. This beautiful photo from Chiot's Run was what did it; after reading the post, I went down to the basement and brought up the crock my Mom gave me a year ago that belonged to my Gram. I re-washed it and sterilized it for fear of mold spores (my poisoned vinegar was in the basement) and then left it on my kitchen counter open to the air for the weekend. Tuesday, I picked up some pickling cucumbers from the farmer's market, exactly 5 lbs. when I weighed them.

I decided not to can vinegar pickles this year, but couldn't bear the thought that I wouldn't have any until next year so these traditional pickles are a welcome addition. So is the handsome crock on the floor of my kitchen.

hitchhiking caterpillar on the dill.

The recipe that Suzy at Chiot's Run used was from Linda Ziedrich's pickle book, which I do not have but intend to pick up soon. I followed the recipe, but I had no allspice. I may pick some up and add it after a trip to the co-op tomorrow... if I remember, that is. I also added just a few more hot chiles de arbol. I felt proud that my coriander seed was saved from my garden last year, I measured it out of an origami packet I made to conceal it.

my salad plate was exactly the right size to keep everything submerged.

Pickles done, I turned my attention to this gem of a recipe: lacto-fermented peppers from the Woodwife's Journal. At the farmer's market I also picked up some other green peppers of varying heats, poblanos, serranos, Aneheims, a few extra jalapenos since I was feeling a bit on the shy side with them. These are so delicious straight away, and I can only imagine they will get better with time. I had a few more alterations with this recipe since I was almost out of live cider vinegar (Bragg's, and I ordered another gallon today).

I eyeballed a half peck each of hot (green) mixed peppers and sweet bell peppers, but used only 1 1/3 c. of the cider vinegar and topped it off with plain white vinegar. I also used part olive oil and part grapeseed oil, and a few grinds of black pepper. Try to find Mexican oregano if you can, because that really makes these I think. They are the perfect kind of mild heat, slightly oily and herby, and just plain addicting. I had a half gallon jar and two quart jars, and already I'm wondering if I shouldn't do a second batch because I want everyone I know to try these. And unlike last year, the jalapenos are approachable.

The two larger projects out of the way, I turned my attention to these crazy, bright peppers. When I stood along this long row of mixed hot peppers of various types with an Amish man and picked these, he told me he planted them for the produce auction since their family doesn't much care for the super hot peppers. The auction draws both retailers and individual buyers, and many of the local Amish have gotten rather diverse in the things they grow to sell there. The most fascinating variety I thought were the tiny purple "ornamental" ones, which he assured me were edible, though he didn't remember the name. I bit into one and let my tongue discover the Scoville Heat Units. It was hot.

Last year, I remembered seeing this lacto-fermented hot sauce recipe and cataloged it. I grew a single plant of cayenne peppers and another of habanero, planning to make a smaller batch after they ripen. I may still do that, but meanwhile I used the whole lot that we picked for my bucket, 11 oz., to make a trial batch. It's fairly thick, bordering more on a salsa consistency and I'm actually not sure that I'll strain it. I have a week to think about it.

This isn't just hot. It's mind-numbingly hot. But it's fruity, and the heat doesn't last long which is kind of strange for something with all the visual warning of a traffic cone.

I saved all of the jalapenos, which worked out to exactly 3 lbs. (enough for one batch of candied jalapenos) for tomorrow and moved on to the corn. According to an old preserving book my Mom has, when blanching corn for freezing, you should boil for just as long as you soak in an ice bath - 4 minutes in the case of sweet corn. I filled up my sink with icy water and boiled 6 ears at a time. My rhythm was so efficient that before the next batch was done in the boiling pot, I had 6 of the drained ears sheared clean of kernels - in part to the bundt pan corn removal method I've been seeing around the Internet.

I crafted a "knife protector" out of a plastic lid, however. and it worked really well!

With all of the aroma of sweet corn in the air, no bread in the house, and a starter that had just recently emerged from refrigerated weekend slumber, I decided to tackle the long-lost and maybe somewhat forgotten task of making all of Jim Lahey's bread for what I affectionately coined The Lahey Project. I saved out 4 ears of corn, stripped them, and blended them smooth. Then I used my new favorite purchase, a nut milk bag, to drain out corn juice that was used for the liquid in the bread.

It rose, sweet and earthy and super sticky and I formed it, messily, into a ball. It rose for a couple more hours surrounded by large amounts of cornmeal to ward off some of the inevitable stickiness and when the time came to drop it into my pot, I of course slipped and mostly deflated it. It's been so long since I have done a no-knead bread, and forgot about the somewhat delicate nature of the risen dough. I baked it anyway. It was delicious. It may not be the most picturesque loaf, but I certainly got the gist of what flavors bread can take on when the liquid is replaced with juice.

So, August. It was midnight before I slipped into bed, finally finished my book, and then had trouble winding down into sleep mode. I love working this way, until I'm so tired I'm not really tired any more. It's all self-imposed now, which makes it feel so much more rewarding than when I made an hourly amount which never seemed to measure enough for the precious time I gave to others. (I'm not talking about you though, GOP...) The hot water bath will bubble with more hot peppers tomorrow and I'll continue to take stock and see what else I should be doing to ready myself for the days when things aren't growing and thriving. When August leaves us as quickly as the sigh that it feels like, and Fall stands proud and cold and begs you to turn on the oven.

Canning Mexican Pickled Vegetables (without the wreck of my heart.)

"I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart." Debby Bull wrote this in her book called Blue Jelly, and these are the opening lines, the ones that I've remembered since I first read it, soon after it was published in 1998.

I remember not really knowing much about canning, or being interested it in at the time I first read that book. I grew up in a preserving household, both my Mom and Gram were avid canners before me. I suppose the deep roots of self-preservation were planted when I was young, but as I stood in the bookstore reading the first chapter of Blue Jelly while trying to escape the wreck of my own young heart, I could feel the first pangs of the desire to preserve something myself.

I was probably half way through the book when I realized that Debby must be from Wisconsin, and she is. She wrote with the West Coast wanderlust that I knew could only come from a Midwesterner. I was able to escape for that afternoon (after I bought it and went back home to read it), but it was such a short tome that it didn't seem to last me nearly long enough. A few more years needed to pass before my brokenheartedness was fully repaired, and this book did nothing to really help it along - but it did emphasize the virtues of canning, and making due with what you have, heartache or no.

In each chapter, she focuses on one canning project. The one that stood out most to me was this one with Mexican Pickled Vegetables. I think she called it Mexican Relish, but since my Mom cans relish and it does not resemble this at all (this is more in the giardinara realm of accompaniments), I took the liberty of renaming. Not too long after I read this book, I canned tomatoes in my small apartment. I did it wearing an apron adorned with blue Ball canning jars that my Mom had got me that said "Yes, I Can" in bold letters across the front. I also called her a few times during the process.

I still remember those lonesome days in that apartment, more than a decade ago, where I felt a lot of the time like I was waiting for my life to begin and where I first canned tomatoes and then jam. My working life got much busier in the future, and I had a several year hiatus from canning of any sort until I blissfully slipped into stay-at-home-motherhood. In the past 2 years, I have canned all sorts of new things, but I actually have never canned tomatoes since then. My Mom cans them for me, and we work out trades. I know I'll be giving her a jar or two of this Mexican Veg, and likely several pounds of Alterra coffee over the next few months...

While I usually always alter recipes, it is important when canning to follow directions exactly. Measure accurately, and don't skimp on the hygienic practices. Be sure your jars are fully sterilized and that you never eat anything that looks or smells strange after it's been on the shelf for a few months. Most importantly, acquaint yourself with canning basics, you can do this through websites such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation (or one of my favorites, Food in Jars), through local classes taught by master preservers, or through your county extension office. A quick Google search will put you quickly on your way to home preserving!

Mexican Pickled Vegetables (Debby Bull, from Blue Jelly)
  • pint jars (my batch made 5 pints)
  • 1 cauliflower, broken into florets
  • 1 red sweet pepper, cut into strips
  • 2 or 3 c. baby carrots, or sliced adult carrots (I used 2 cups)
  • 2 c. celery, cut into 1 inch slices
  • 2 c. small whole onions, or 2 medium onions, quartered (I used the medium onions)
  • pickling salt (do not use table salt)
Pickling Solution:
  • 5 c. distilled white vinegar, 5% acidity
  • 1 c. water
  • 1/2 c. sugar
For Packing in Jars:
  • garlic cloves, peeled (I used 1 per jar)
  • chile peppers, dried or fresh (I used 2 dried chiles de arbol per jar)
Put all the cut up vegetables into a large glass, stainless, or stoneware bowl and cover with cold water and 1/4 c. pickling salt. Stir the salt into a little water before adding it to the big bowl to dissolve it. Cover the bowl with a plate or another bowl that presses down on the veg to keep it submerged. Let it sit for at least one hour.

(Debby Bull tells a story here, in the midst of her recipe, about a country music singer she dated, someone famous - who I wouldn't have been able to Google in 1998 to find out who he was. I was holding my breath it wasn't Dwight Yokam... since she assured me that he turned out to be a louse. I found out that it was Marty Stuart - who'd of thought? I always thought he looked like a nice guy...)

Drain the veg.

Wash the jars in hot, soapy water, then sterilize in boiling water for 10 minutes. (I use my canning pot for this, then keep the water boiling when I fill.) Bring some water to boil over the lids in a small pan, then turn off the heat and leave them to sit in the warm water.

For the pickling solution, combine ingredients in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. (I kept the cover on to minimize evaporation.)

To each jar, add some garlic and chiles. Pack hot jars with veg, making sure to get an assortment of everything in there. (Be sure to really pack the vegetables as tightly as you can in there, otherwise after you finish boiling them, they won't be too full.) Fill with boiling hot pickling solution to the top, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Wipe rims with a clean, lint free towel dipped in hot water (my Mom taught me to use the water that is still hot from boiling the lids).

Place hot lids on the jars, then screw the rings on. Process in boiling water bath (water should cover the jars by at least 1 inch) for 15 minutes. Start timing from when the water comes back to a full rolling boil.

Remove to a draft free place, and let sit for at least 24 hours before moving. When you hear the gentle *ping* of the lids, remember to say "thank you" (like my Mom also taught me). Transfer to a cool, dark place and let sit at least 6 weeks before opening.

I have an addiction to canning once I get going. Then, I run out of jars, or realize that I can't make everything that looks and sounds interesting, since there would be no way for me to eat it all in the next year of it's shelf life, so I try and curb myself a bit. These jars came out of the hot water bath just after 11 last night, and while cleaning up the kitchen I realized that I could just keep going and can up a batch of salsa that I had started preparing. Then I remembered the laundry, and spent a couple hours of quality time washing, drying and folding before turning in just after 1 a.m. Where the time goes in a day, I just don't know. Sometimes I think if I can just elude sleep, I can keep track of more of it, but it is a precious commodity, and it still does slip from my hands just the same.

Canning reminds me of time, I guess. When a jar is pulled from the shelf and is cracked open, I remember the day I made it and what was going on. That is why I've taken to dating the jars with the exact date, rather than just the month and year - which would be totally acceptable. I like to think back to the day it went in, where I got the produce or fruits, and what the state of my household was.

It also brings me back to my Mom and Gram, I remember their pantries and how they looked when they were fully stocked with jars. My Mom was taught and taught me to clean the jars if they got a little sticky from processing before stocking them on the shelf, and to even face and line them up nice and neat: to take pride in the work that you have accomplished. I even think of my Dad, and how he built the shelves for my Mom's hard work... she even made little curtains for them, and they still stand full, though not quite as full as when the family all lived at home.

I like to can for preservation, but just as much, I like to can for nostalgic reasons. Not to forget, that things that come from home canning taste far superior to anything you can buy, organic or not. It is a pleasure to be able to provide for yourself and your family, and it is a pride that comes with the generations for me. Even if I'll be the only one in my house to actually enjoy these hot pickled vegetables! I think with a bit of coaxing, I'll get my Husband to try them, and if they don't turn out too spicy, even the Boy-O, since he does love pickles after all.

pickle frenzy

I managed to can some pickles today...


Yesterday, I got the recipe from my mom, my Gram's recipe...the best ever. Since my son only likes a limited amount of food lately, and pickles make the cut, I had already decided that I was going to make these. After the recent inspiration from Food in Jars, I bought the pickles at the farm market on Saturday.

I think part of my aversion to canning has been time, but also that my family always canned what they GREW. I know that plenty of farmers come to the city and sell amazing wares, but for some reason, I end up thinking that I should have planted this or that to "put up". Since I am now somewhat of an Urban Dweller, I am thankful that there are people to buy great fruits and veg from, since my little plot only supplies me with tomatoes, herbs, peppers and this year potatoes and eggplants.

I love thinking about my Gram's garden, when she still had nearly a half acre of haphazard things growing and thriving barely in rows. My Dad always planted a very neat and orderly garden: very beautiful and organized...but my Gram's garden is more like my garden I guess, a wing and a prayer. She definitely knew more about plants than I do, but she kept a very organic and loose feeling plot... more a semi-organized whim, I think.

I feel grateful to have scored mostly the same size small 1/4 bushel of cucumber from the farm market. I got the last one from that particular vendor, and the farmer told the poor soul who asked after I finished paying that she should have arrived 20 minutes sooner. I felt obligated to give her my apologies. I have no room for cucumbers in the land directly south of my semi-urban garage (notice I did NOT say "suburban" here), and truth be told, I don't think I'm much of a farmer. Oh, I wish it were in my genes, as my Dad and Gram could cultivate just about everything... but I fear that tomatoes and basil are about my limit of patience and ability. Give me an animal, even a large animal, to attend to and I think I'd do fine. But I think a lot more reading and research is due to me to become a better gardener.

I even bought the dill at the market. Too bad I don't live as close to my folks as I'd like, my Mom told me she has tons of dill to spare - me, I paid $1.

I finished the pickles, excited as can be. No pickle tastes as good to me as the ones I grew up eating...and this is THE RECIPE. So, I should be well rewarded in 30 days or longer when I try them, from my own hands, the first time.