Monday, September 30, 2013

A few recipes

I'm going to keep this short and sweet.  I had a few extra tomatoes that I had already removed the skins off of, so these were going to a batch of tomato jam.
I scoured around a bit on the internet and this one appealed to me most.
Tomato Jam
Yield: Varies depending on the kind of tomato used, pan width and the finished thickness*


5 pounds tomatoes, finely chopped
3 1/2 cups sugar
8 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon red chili flakes

Combine all ingredients in a large, non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce temperature to a simmer. Stirring regularly, simmer** the jam until it reduces to a sticky, jammy mess. This will take between 1 and 1 1/2 hours, depending on how high you keep your heat.
When the jam has cooked down sufficiently, remove from heat and fill jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe rims, apply lids and twist on rings. Process in a boiling water canner for 20 minutes.
When time is up, remove jars from water bath and allow them to cool. When jars are cool enough to handle, test seals. Store jars in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

*The finished yield on this recipe varies depending on the kind of tomato you use, the width of your pan and the finished thickness to which you cook it.

I had much less tomatoes than this recipe calls for so I got much less, of course. Still what I got was really delicious.  At first, it just tasted more or less like a fancy ketchup but I ended up letting it sit for about 4 hours, slowly simmering which really condensed the flavors.  End result? 
A wonderfully delightful mixture of sweet and savory.  I think this would be awesome on crackers with a nice sharp cheese or as suggested on the website I linked to, a nice stinky cheese.  
It could also be used as a topping on meat but I would use it sparingly so you don't overwhelm the meat with the spicy and savory jam.  

This next recipe is all my own.  It came to me recently as we were in the grocery store really.  I saw all the candy up for Halloween and suddenly thought "wow, that would be a neat combination in fruit leather. Apples & Caramel.  Now, will it work??"

Making fruit leather really is very simple.  If you own a crock pot and a dehydrator it becomes much easier and if you're like me and you own an apple corer and peeler well then you have it made.
Simply peel and core your apples.  I like using the slice feature on my apples as the apples cook down much faster than if they are thrown in as big chunks.
Let your apples cook down a bit, watching closely to make sure they don't burn. Recently we also made Apple Cherry and vanilla fruit leather.  Not my absolute favorite but it is still a nice treat when you want something sweeter.
Once your apples are pretty mushy its time to add in whatever extra ingredients that you wish to use to flavor it.  Our favorite combinations are strawberry apple, cherry apple, cinnamon apple, and pumpkin pie.  We got the pumpkin pie recipe from Common Sense Homesteading
For the caramel apple fruit leather, I've just added caramel and just a few minutes ago, both my husband and I decided it needed a bit more sugar so we added some molasses to kick it up a notch. So far the batch is super creamy and now is pretty sweet.
 Keep in mind when you are flavoring your fruit leathers, don't go overboard on sugar, it will condense as it dehydrates which will leave you more with candy than a healthy snack.
The last step will simply be slowly pouring this either onto a dehydrator tray lined with a Paraflexx non stick screen from Excalibur or you can also use some saran wrap.
Whatever you do, do NOT use wax paper.  It will stick later and you'll have a mess on your hands!  It usually will take about 24 hours to dry depending mostly on how thick of a layer you put on the tray.  The thicker it is of course, the longer it will take.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Overcoming Obstacles

Four years ago we moved from Fairbanks Alaska to Aberdeen Maryland. I was interested in gardening; loved growing (and sometimes killing) herbs, a potted tomato but no where near what we do now. I played around a tiny bit with aquaponics but I was like any other American who relies solely on the grocery store for my food.
When we moved into this house we were confronted with a soggy, muddy and mossy mess. Soil that consisted of a heavy clay mixture and was ridiculously difficult to work.  For the first year each time we tilled up our soil it would smell like a septic tank had dumped its contents into our yard.
Stinky muddy mess.

We didn't know what we needed to grow anything there, we just knew that if we were to make it for the next year or two we better try growing our own fruits and veggies because financially we were strapped. 
The first year, we believed that you either
  • A. Put seeds in ground, seed sprouts and grows. Sprinkle liberally with Sevin dust and Miracle Gro and later harvest fruits and vegetables
  • B. Buy some plants at the local big box home improvement store, stick them in the ground, sprinkle liberally with Sevin dust and Miracle Gro and later harvest fruits and vegetables.
No surprise that our garden during the first year barely put much out but still, for relative "newbies" we didn't do too bad.
This is a lesson to any person contemplating starting a garden next spring.
See the improvement from one year to the next????
First; now is the time to do this.
Take the next few months and take note of where you get the most water standing after a hard rain, take note where the rain doesn't collect, take note of where the sun tends to stay in your yard.  Do you have mostly shade like us? Or are you lucky and have a yard that gets full sun all day long.  What is your soil made up of? Is it more clay or sandy? Go and buy a cheap soil testing kit at your local Home Depot or Lowes or Amazon.  See what your soil is lacking.  It'll do wonders later and save you tons of grief.  IT IS FRUSTRATING when you put plants that appear healthy into the soil and then they suddenly die so do your homework ahead of time.  I have some written here on the basics of soil testing. Now, come Spring time or any time after your frost free date, go ahead and buy some plants, pick out whatever it is you like to eat.  If you don't like tomatoes, well then for heavens sake, DON'T GROW TOMATOES! If you love strawberries, well then buy a flat of strawberries and EXPERIMENT.  If you find a plant that looks completely unusual and FUN well than do it! Gardening IS fun folks! Its fun to play around with different plants to see how they grow, what they produce and how they taste.
Awaken your childlike sense of wonder and amazement as you grow really UNUSUAL plants and produce that you would never see in your grocery store!  What's the worst that could happen? Your plant could die or just not produce. No worries though, because there is always next year.

For us, now, next year is somewhat uncertain.  We will be moving back into our home with a much smaller backyard.
Our yard in Fairbanks Alaska. Yup pretty small.
That backyard however small it may be is ours though.  We will be living in the City of Fairbanks proper so while I might not be getting my honeybees that I have wanted now for the past two years, we will most likely be getting the chickens my son wanted. I think my husbands tilapia or rabbits will have to be put on hold for a while too simply due to lack of room.
We have plans to build two raised beds and stick with heavy producers and use the most valuable lesson we learned here. Making best use of limited space. Teach your plants to grow vertical and you will maximize your space and output later on.
We also have yet another challenge that my husband has pointed out recently.  We will have to possibly give away some of our current seed stock to make room for the Alaska varieties.
Our area of Alaska has a very short growing season.  It lasts only from June to September, a month either way and your taking a chance unless you have a coldframe or cloches.  That being said though, Alaska gardeners have broken records time and again for growing the largest pumpkins, cabbages, broccoli and summer squash all thanks to the abundant sunlight. 
For our raised beds we plan to try to invest a bit more than we did here and actually buy the wood needed rather than scavenging them from used pallets at farm supply stores. We got those free by the way and they are just now falling apart. Good investment of time in my mind.
I might try and suggest cement building blocks to my husband if we can get a good deal at a local hardware store and I have to say here, I would love something taller than our current level.  It would be awesome to not have to stoop down to collect greens, tomatoes that have fallen and what not. I figure we'll have more than enough stooping and bending down if we manage to get our sons chickens.

Later we hope to expand and have the chickens, and the rabbits, and the bees, and the garden and the orchard but that all will be put on the shelf until we have a bit more room to work with. 
In the mean while we prepare. 
We are moving to Alaska on a leap of faith.  We are both uncertain of our jobs there so we work hard now to preserve as much as we can, put away food, build up our nest of acorns for the leaner times ahead much like our neighborhood squirrels do all in hopes that within four months all will work itself out. 
I've noticed, more times than not, it usually does.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Plentiful Harvests

Once again, we're preparing the backyard garden to be thoroughly deconstructed.  We just sold our patio table set so our back porch looks a tad bare.
I'm sad to see it go but we needed to remove some weight from our household goods that will be shipped.
I can say now, in hindsight, I am so glad I never put a massive amount of effort into beautifying our front yard as the military housing development here just delivered a letter to us earlier this week advising that we needed to "remove the vegetable garden" in the front yard. We actually never managed to grow too much out front. The most we've gotten to grow out there is Red Russian kale and Southern collards, both of which looked more ornamental.  Now the most we have out there is herbs so I was just a bit confused upon receiving the letter.
No matter, we'll be gone soon anyways.
Sweet potato vine
I did manage to harvest a nice selection of items today from the garden. I have never grown sweet potatoes and this past spring I had a sweet potato that had gone bad so instead of throwing it away, I threw it into a canvas bag of soil to see what it would do.

Cut the bag open. 
The top sweet potato is the one that was rotting this past spring. The bottom ones are all brand new sweet potatoes! Nice!
Our Sunchokes are getting really top heavy and are now decorated with really lovely yellow blossoms. I had no clue they would get this big!
I'm wondering what these look like UNDER the soil! Do we have buried treasure?

All told this was the backyard harvest.
Heirloom tomatoes, pepperocini, one jalapeno, bunch of sweet potatoes, handful of purple tomatilloes, 1 white eggplant, bunch of Thai Basil and bunch of Sweet basil

Earlier this morning the three of us made a quick trip to our favorite local orchard, Lohrs and took advantage of their PYO Apples.  
We walked away with 43 pounds at .80 per pound.  The price of growing apples obviously has risen by .05 in the past year because last year they were .75 per pound. This year we got a bit less than we usually get but then this year, we're not making apple sauce, apple chutney or apple butter with them.  Instead the apples will be used in making fruit leather and apple chips.
Since we were really close to the farm store we also snagged one bushel of peaches for $12. Those will be going into the dehydrator as soon as there is room. 
These type of snacks are really nice to have while driving on the road, across country.  Fresh fruit is much messier, while apple, watermelon and peach chips and fruit leather are so easy to pack up into ziploc bags and are so much better for us than the usual truck stop fare of chips, pretzels and candy.  

In past years, I have worked on developing my canning skill.  This year, I have become a pro at dehydration of fruits and vegetables. 
So that being said, off I go, to work on those apples. I have an idea to make a caramel apple fruit leather. I am wondering how it will turn out.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Getting ready for the move

Well, most definitely the star of the garden this year are the SUNCHOKES.
I highly recommend this plant as it  seemed that the less attention we gave it, the more it appreciated it.
These are now approximately 15 feet tall and seem to just keep getting taller and taller every day.  I am really hoping we get a good amount out of these as this years Christmas presents will be herbs, jams, jellies, winter squash grown in the back yard and sunchokes.

Recently my husband, Edward and I decided it was time.  Between warfare with rabbits, cabbage worms and some unknown black and yellow insect that almost looked like a ladybug on steriods, we decided to completely pull up the first raised bed near the house.

I got quite a good harvest of Red Russian Kale and Curled Scotch Kale and a few hand fulls of dill.  Then, since I was getting thoroughly into the harvesting sort of mood, I cut off the one lonely Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, massive bunches of dill, a hand full of ripe Christmas Grape tomatoes, and one white eggplant that oddly enough is turning bright, neon yellow.

Later I did a bit of research and discovered when white eggplants turn yellow it means they are mature. Wow, neat tool to figure out the ripeness in an eggplant. Who knew?
The basil, dill and kale has been dehydrated and the cheese pumpkin put into a corner on the floor since we have no potato cellar and that is the coolest location in the house.  That one won't be lonely for long however as we have our first Galeux D'eysines ripening up nicely on the vine.
I'm anxious to see how kale does when rehydrated and put into soups now that I have a full one gallon jar of it.
We have had a few other successes this year, though no where near the apparent success of the sunchokes.  The moringa oleifera is now about two feet tall and is now showing no signs of slowing down.
I am wondering how I will keep it alive during our drive across the United States. 

Our Bhut Jolokia has suddenly woke up and is heavily laden with the worlds supposedly hottest peppers.
I'm not certain I want to bite into one to test that out.

Our tomatoes, thanks to no recent attacks by squirrels are finally producing so now our entire fridge is filled to the brim with overripe tomatoes that will be made into a few jars of salsa that will then be boxed and put into one of our vehicles for the drive across country.
The winter squashes are looking somewhat sad.  I have the feeling that I should've fertilized those a bit more with manure, compost or worm tea when I put the seeds down. 
But then, this year has been the year when we really have just thrown our hands up and said "do whatever you want". 

It is most definitely a lesson in gardening and really all throughout life. You get out of life what you put into it.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A living wall

So this is what happens when you just throw your hands up on your garden and say "do whatever you want!".  You get squash plants gone wild.
On the right side we now know for certain we have a Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, on the left I'm pretty certain we have a Galeux D'eysines and on the bottom (you can barely tell) is an acorn squash which was a complete and utter surprise.  We have one slightly mature fruit on both vines.  Our vine that was of questionable parentage near the tomatoes has produced on the other side of the fence, much to our displeasure.
Our neighbor is thrilled though as she has told me she loves winter squash or pumpkin. Darn, I was hoping to have a neighbor who would wrinkle her nose in disgust when she heard "edible" and "heirloom pumpkin" in the same sentence.
Our last minute editions, Sprite Melons are doing well and are flowering.  My first thought was they're too small for this, as normal melon and squash plants usually do not start producing until they're mature enough, but after a bit of research I discovered Sprite Melon plants tend to be really small (as are the melons).
The Piel de Sapos that I was so hoping for obviously did not germinate or they died a while ago.  It is looking like I finally might get my cream of Saskatchewan, I HOPE.  I cannot be certain that the watermelon I planted is actually a cream of Saskatchewan, I have a vague memory of my son and I planting a watermelon seed for him and since I have many different watermelon seeds it could be any one of them.
My husband and I are both delighted as our Bhut Jolokia plant is not only doing well but it's now heavily laden with its spicy fruits.
Those will be dried later, probably with our Excalibur outside where the fumes won't get to our sinuses and throats.

Our sunchokes (aka Jerusalem Artichokes) this year have done AMAZING!! I cannot wait to see how much we actually harvest out of these!
These are approximately 12 feet tall!
I have a feeling the next occupants of this house will either love us or hate us as next year they will be pulling up sunchokes here and there non stop.

Like I've said previously, this year the goal is not so much to produce enough for us to can or freeze but to dehydrate and increase our long term food storage. During a military move homemade canned foods cannot be shipped (usually) by the moving company so we could not produce and can like we normally do.
It was an odd conundrum to say the least. I want to grow my own food or get it locally when it is picked at its height of ripeness and yet how do I preserve it so that my family and I can be eating well in January and February if I cannot can or freeze it?

As it stands now, I find myself in a complete polar opposite of where I usually am.
I now look in our freezing, wringing my hands anxiously, all while trying to think of something to do with the frozen strawberries (strawberry pecan bread), cherries, (dehydrate or bread??) and homemade broths.
Much of our tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, jalapenos, wax banana peppers have gone into the dehydrator rather than actually going through the canning process.
As of today I am now dehydrating kale.
I'm familiar with kale chips but I want to see if I can dehydrate kale for use later in soups or stews as a healthy addition.  I'm looking for any input here.  If you have had good results with dehydrating kale and using it in soups, casseroles or stews let me know please!

We are now approximately three months away from the time we make the move from Aberdeen Maryland to Fairbanks Alaska.  I'm grateful I know what I'm getting into and yet I feel as if I have a mountain of work, loads of research to do to get used to the growing conditions up there.
I have a feeling I will be a regular at University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Botanical gardens as they are constantly researching what plants will grow in the harsh conditions found up in that northern climate.
For the time being we move back into our old home in downtown Fairbanks that we never could manage to sell so chickens, ducks or goats won't be in our near future.  Instead we will have more of the same, small backyard gardening.  Using the most of the space we have.
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