Winter is Coming

Although I am much better, my kids are still fighting their colds. Last night I decided to go the more traditional route, dinner-wise, in an attempt to help them get well. I don’t know that it actually helped, but it didn’t hurt at any rate, and it was pretty tasty.

I made up a batch of chicken noodle soup based roughly on the recipe on page 125 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker). I added carrots and rosemary mostly because it’s what I happened to have around the house. I served the soup alongside fresh-baked Poppy Seed Loaf (page 138, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter, 2002)) with avocado slices on top. Unlike me, the rest of the family ate their bread with butter and scooped the avocado out of the skins directly with a little bit of salad dressing on top.

Last night ended up involving a lot more food prep than just supper, though. The forecast called for the temperature to drop precipitously overnight to a low of -10°C (14°F) with a windchill of -20°C (-4°F). I had left a few frost-hardy plants in the garden after the main harvest, but I knew that cold this intense would kill them. So I had to bring in two good-sized bunches of celery, which I washed and trimmed the leaves off of, then put in a jug of water in the fridge for use over the next week or so.

I had a whole mess of Swiss chard to bring in — believe it or not, this was all from only two bunches!

I washed it all, then chopped the stems into bite-sized pieces, which I bagged to freeze in single-use packages over the winter in soups, stews, stir-fries and casseroles. The leaves don’t freeze nearly so well, so they’re still drying off in my sink while I figure out what to do with that much chard. A friend suggested a soup, but I don’t have a recipe yet.

My uncarved Halloween pumpkins had to come inside; freezing isn’t terribly hard on them as a general rule, especially if you’re just going to cook them, but a frozen-solid gourd is really difficult to prepare. Heck, it would take an axe or a sledgehammer just to get through it!

I also brought in the last of my summer herbs so they didn’t get frostbitten (along with half a case of Coke that I’d been cooling outdoors since the Halloween party; cool fall temperatures mean that the outdoors makes a great refrigerator for non-perishables). There are two pots of lavender, one of mint, one of rosemary, and one of parsley. Some of them I will eventually dry, others I will preserve (I have an interesting recipe for parsley jelly I want to try). They’d survive just fine in the house all winter, but the pots are quite large and take up my whole patio window. I think I will just plant new herbs in the spring and not deal with the hassle.

Crab Apple Jelly

A while back a friend of mine offered to let me pick crab apples from trees just outside of her back yard, on land that is owned by her community association. She has been picking apples from those trees for years in order to make crab apple jelly, as have a number of other neighbours who are inclined to make preserves. These totally wild, untended trees produce an overabundance of fruit every year, and the canners in the neighbourhood only make a tiny dent in that. I’d never made jelly before, but I figured sure, why not? I love cooking with ingredients that I can harvest locally, especially when that harvest is free!

The first thing that I realized is that making jelly is a lot more difficult than making jam. After washing all the tiny little apples and making sure to remove all leaves and stems, you have to cut them all in half. Sometimes the fruit can be wormy or rotten inside even though the outside is pristine, and cutting it in half means that you can check every single one. Then you have to cook the fruit, strain it through a jelly bag (being careful not to squeeze the bag so that the jelly will remain clear), boil the resulting juice along with sugar and any additional ingredients until set, and then finally can it.

After all that work, I was really happy that I liked the end result. Crab apple jelly is packed with tart flavour, even with all of the added sugar. I’m definitely going to make more next year. I’ll be sure to pick twice or even three times as much fruit. It’s not like the neighbourhood wildlife will miss the relatively small quantities that I will use.

One of the things that I was surprised about regarding crab apple jelly is how many of my preserving cookbooks don’t have a recipe for it. Not only that, but some of them don’t even consider crab apples to be a fruit worth canning. I find that odd because a) they’re very tasty, b) they are winter hardy in northern climes, and can even grow wild, and c) they’re often planted in orchards among the larger apple trees because it helps with pollination. They’re also a very popular ornamental tree, so it’s not like crab apples are hard to come by, either. The books that I have that included a crab apple jelly recipe are, in no particular order:

Joy of Cooking page 932, or on the app (Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker, 2006 edition)
Pickles & Preserves page 58 (Love Food, 2012)
The Complete Preserving Book page 92 (Canadian Living, 2012)
The Good Cook: Preserving page 94 (Time-Life Books, 1981)
Preserving page 166 (Oded Schwartz, 1996)

Although there are many variations when it comes to additional ingredients such as lemon juice, lime juice, or in one case hot peppers, all of the recipes seem to agree on a ratio of 1:1 of volume of strained juice to white sugar.

As an aside, if you’re interested in harvesting unused fruit from local sources and aren’t up to approaching homeowners/tenants on your own (although if you’re shy, a politely-worded letter is often well-received), you could volunteer for an organization here in Ottawa called Hidden Harvest. The group harvests fruits and nuts that would otherwise go to waste on public and private property. When the bounty is harvested, one quarter goes to the homeowner, one quarter goes to the volunteer harvesters, one quarter goes to the nearest food agency, and one quarter goes to Hidden Harvest. The portion kept by Hidden Harvest goes to their sponsors, who in turn help pay to run the organization. Last year alone the group harvested almost 4,500lbs of fruit and nuts, and donated almost 2,000lbs of that to charity.

In my case, I’m a homeowner whose apple tree drops hundreds of pounds of fruit every year, and I’d love to be able to have Hidden Harvest come and take most of the fruit away. I don’t need nearly so much. However, I’ll have to deal with that poor tree’s apple scab first. And my poor little pear tree‘s harvest of four pears this year isn’t worth volunteering. Perhaps when it grows a little bigger. Next year I’m seriously considering becoming a volunteer harvester, though. As for this year, I understand that apples with apple scab can actually make a better hard cider, so if any cider-makers want to clean the rest of the apples off of my tree, they’re welcome to them.

Maybe one of these days I should just buy/make a cider press.

Carrot Jam

I’ve been looking for creative ways to preserve the carrots from my garden, since there are only so many carrot-based dishes that I can eat in a row. Yes, I could freeze some of them, but my freezer is getting awfully full of soups and sauces and broths (this happens every autumn), so something shelf-stable is what the doctor ordered. I also wanted a recipe that disguised the unusual shapes of my homegrown carrots (which I combined with store-bought orange ones for a bit of visual interest), since I know that ugly food tends to be eaten less enthusiastically than pretty food, even if it tastes identical.

So I browsed through my cookbooks and found a recipe for Carrot Jam on page 206 of Preserving by Pat Crocker (2011). I had never heard of carrot jam before, but there’s a similar recipe for Carrot Orange Marmalade on page 142 of Prizewinning Preserves by Yvonne Tremblay (2001), which apparently earned a red ribbon for best marmalade at the 2000 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. I guess it can’t be that unheard of. However, the Prizewinning Preserves marmalade was missing the intriguing spices of Preserving‘s carrot jam, which cinched my decision to make the latter recipe.

Preserving suggests letting the jars sit for a few weeks before opening for best flavour, but the cooking jam smelled so darned good that I opened up my first jar the very next day. I am so glad that I did. I baked up a quick batch of Dad’s Biscuits upon which to spread the jam, and then I was in seventh heaven. If these preserves get even better with age, I can’t imagine how delicious they will be. Suggested uses for this jam are as follows (Preserves, page 207):

Carrot jam can be used as any other fruit jam, but I particularly like it on quick bread nut loaves and with savoury meat pies or wraps. Use it as a glaze for cooked vegetables: toss grilled or steamed vegetables in up to 1 cup (250mL) of the jam while hot, just before serving. This is also a flavourful topping for fresh yogurt, or you can add a couple of tablespoons (25mL) to a Vinaigrette Dressing or Salsa Verde.

I can’t wait to try carrot jam in all of these ways! I think it would also make a lovely glaze for roast pork or chicken. I love this recipe so much that I think I will grow carrots again next year specifically to make them into this jam. Maybe I’ll even grow those red and/or purple heirloom carrots just so that the jam is even more visually interesting.

Last of the Zucchini

One of the biggest challenges about this time of year, at least to me, is to either eat or preserve all of the fresh produce that comes my way before it goes bad. It seems to me like the utmost example of taking what you have for granted to let food — especially fresh, homegrown, delicious food — go bad. Practically speaking, this does mean freezing, drying, or canning a lot of it to eat over the coming winter. But it also means a lot of meals made with just-picked ingredients.

Over the last few days I’ve finally managed to cook my way through all of the zucchini from my friends’ gardens (although I may end up with more in the next little while, not that I’m complaining). Last night for dinner we dug into another loaf of Harvest Garden Bread (which contains zucchini), Baked Panko Zucchini Sticks, and haddock baked under a generous coating of Blender Salsa (page 92 of Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014)), which was made almost entirely from produce grown in my garden.

Then it was Double Chocolate Zucchini Muffins for dessert. I had never tried this recipe before, but it was highly recommended to me by a friend, and now I realize why. These muffins are moist, dark, rich, and chocolatey. They also aren’t as unhealthy as other muffins with similar flavour. I mean, it would be a stretch to actually call them health, what with the chocolate chips and the oil in there, but there is more zucchini in the recipe by volume than flour, and that has to count for something, right? 10/10, will definitely bake this one again.

Harvest

Even though the days have been lovely, it is now the beginning of October, so the nights are getting colder and there is often the threat of frost. This means it’s time to bring in the harvest. I dug up about half of my garden last week, and it wasn’t all mutant carrots!

Please excuse the long grass. My plants were hanging over the sides of the wooden garden border, so I figured I should pull them all up before mowing.

I picked the last of the hot peppers and dug up the few shallots that survived the season. For some reason, most of my shallots didn’t sprout this year. I will freeze the hot peppers with the intention of making hot sauce at a later date.

I tried growing lemongrass this year, which was very pretty but didn’t yield a huge amount of edible parts. It’s supposedly a perennial, but the root ball may not survive the harsh Canadian winter. We shall see if it sprouts in the spring.

I’m still harvesting ripe cherry tomatoes, much to my surprise. Last week’s heat wave meant that the plants haven’t started to die down as much as usual by this time of year.

I had a total yield of about 30lbs of Prince of Orange potatoes. These potatoes are apparently a pretty new breed. They have reddish skins and a dark yellow interior (actually pretty close to my Creampak carrots when cooked). They also have a stronger flavour than traditional white-fleshed potatoes, which I really like. I may plant these again next year, or may be I’ll alternate with Violet Queens, which have purple skins and flesh. I figure hey, if I’m going to grow it myself, why be satisfied with the few varieties that are available at the average grocery store?

Carrots

I love both cooking with and eating carrots, so I’ve been planting them in my garden for a couple of years. I haven’t had great success, though. Last year, one of my carrots looked like this:

(That’s a dime for size reference.)

So when I planted my carrots this year, I didn’t have any great expectations. Instead of growing them from seeds like I’d tried in previous years, I bought pre-started seedlings from Laporte Gardens. I hoped I’d get a few decent-sized carrots and probably some finger-sized ones as well. Little did I know that I was growing MONSTERS.


Thing 1 helping me harvest the carrots.

I left lots of space between each planted seedling (so I never had to thin them), made sure they got lots of water (not a problem this year) and that they weren’t being eaten alive by pests or crowded out by weeds. I also fertilized the entire garden with sheep manure compost early in the spring. And that was all I did. I’d learned the hard way that you really just have to leave root vegetables alone for as long as possible so that they develop fully. Um… Mission accomplished, I guess?

(Yes, I know now that I probably should have re-buried the carrots as they began to poke out of the ground so they didn’t discolor, but I didn’t know that back when it mattered. My carrots have never before grown so large.)

So yeah, that’s Thing 1 holding up one of the carrots/carrot clusters that she pulled up for me. It’s almost as big as her head.

Instead of the roots growing long and straight, they looped back upon themselves multiple times, creating gnarled, mutant bunches. Even in the spots where there was only one top, the roots looked like this.

These are creampak carrots, by the way. They’re supposed to be yellow instead of the more common orange.

All in all, my small planting of carrots yielded a root harvest that overfills a 11″ x 15″ x 7¾” IKEA GLES box.

Washed and untangled, the carrots looked more like the vegetables I’m used to. The photo above is of only one of the root balls. I kept giggling as I washed and separated, since it all seemed so absurd to me. This is honestly the funniest plant I have ever grown… And I have grown some weird-looking plants.

Thing 1 washed and cut up some of the smaller bits, then harvested a few cherry tomatoes from the garden to make her own carrot and tomato salad. I was very proud of her for taking the initiative to make a dish out of the food she’d helped harvest. She insisted that I photograph her creation and put it on “the blog”.

I included part of the harvest in yesterday’s dinner, which was steamed carrots, whipped potatoes (which are Prince of Orange potatoes and almost the same colour as the Creampak carrots when cooked), and maple & cinnamon sausages. After spending the afternoon in the garden, the whole family cleaned their plates.

Blender Salsa

The other day I brought Thing 1 and Thing 2 out to the garden and enlisted their help to find all of the ripe tomatoes. Between us, we picked 10lbs of tomatoes, which seems like a lot for the size of garden that I have, but in the end that only yielded…

…Five 500mL jars of canned salsa, with a bit left over for immediate consumption. It’s always a bit disappointing to see how much ingredients can shrink down when you cook them, especially when you grew said ingredients yourself. However, this time I was much happier with the taste of the end result than I was with my last batch. This time I used the Blender Salsa recipe found on page 92 of Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014). Like most salsas, this preserve is both vegan and vegetarian. It’s a really easy recipe, which appeals to me. I liked that it used lime juice and citric acid to increase the acidity, instead of using vinegar. I also liked that the recipe was free of added sugar, which is healthier anyway, but sugar’s unnecessary for flavour when cooking with cherry tomatoes. I did have to boil down the salsa a bit to obtain the desired consistency, but I’m beginning to think that that’s just a consequence of using predominantly cherry tomatoes. I will definitely be using this recipe again.