Mystery Plants

Victoria Day long weekend (more commonly known as May Two-Four) is this coming weekend, which is usually the time when most people in this neck of the woods start plating their garden for summer. Mine isn’t quite ready to be planted yet. The one along the fence line needs cleaning out, added soil, and sheep manure fertilizer; the one near the house may be partially dug up so as to do some work on the foundation. Even if that wasn’t the case, I’ll be at Russell Flea all day Saturday and I’m hoping to hit the Rockland Community Garage Sale on Monday. (Yes, Monday — apparently they hold it on the holiday Monday every year.) So I wouldn’t have much time to garden this weekend in any case. I’ll try to get as much possible done next week instead.

Since I wasn’t sure how much of my garden I was going to be able to plant this year, I didn’t bother starting plants indoors for a change. Once I know how many I’ll need, I’ll just buy seedlings from a local nursery. However, I do have a few items sunning themselves on my window shelves. One of the gifts that I got from Thing 2 for Mother’s Day this year was a cute little bee plant pot made from a recycled aluminum can. When I received it, it was filled with soil and, I was assured, a few seeds.

And the seeds have sprouted! I am probably way too excited about this, but plant gifts from children often aren’t in the best shape by the time they arrive home, so their survival was not assured. I have no idea what kind of plant this will end up being, so I don’t know how much to water it or if it’s a sun or shade plant, so… Fingers crossed?

(And yes, I know that my photo is kind of hazy, like a femme fatale in an old film noir movie. I’m not sure if the lens/mirrors need cleaning or if there is something wrong with my camera/lens since I kind of dropped it on Saturday at the con. I have to give it a good once-over; I’m really hoping it’s just dirty!)

The Last of the Canning — Maybe

It looks like I have finally made it through my not-inconsiderable list of foods that I wanted to put up for the winter. I mean, I still have two pumpkins left to roast, but the puree is just going in the freezer, which doesn’t take nearly as long as hot water bath canning or pressure canning. If I don’t have to lug my canning rigs and bunches of jars out of the basement, it doesn’t count.

The last two things to put up were parsley jelly and hot sauce, both of which contained produce grown in my garden. I brought a big pot of parsley in with the first major cold snap about a month ago, and I kept it alive until I could chop it up for the jelly. The peppers for the hot sauce were brought in as they ripened, and then were frozen. This isn’t the greatest solution if you want your peppers crisp, but if you’re just going to run them through a blender or food processor, it doesn’t really matter. This way I was able to cook up a whole season’s peppers at once, instead of using them up individually as they became ripe.

I was curious to try the parsley jelly (from page 298 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons by Pat Crocker (2011)), since I’d never heard of it before. Mint jelly, sure, but not parsley. Apparently it’s and English thing? This jelly can also be made with sage, thyme, or basil, in addition to the mint that I’m familiar with. Sadly, as good as it looks, the jelly didn’t set despite following the instructions to the letter. That’s why I added a “maybe” to this post title. I mean, I could just give up and chuck the unset jelly, or I could try to re-cook it. I’ve used this technique in the past and it has worked out well. But I am so incredibly busy with the Christmas season at the moment that I might just give up and try again another time.

My hot sauce, however, turned out wonderfully. Since it’s a puree, it’s not like I have to worry about the set. I base my hot sauce on the Essential Habanero Hot Sauce from Genius Kitchen. I got great reviews on the sauce last year. Although the heat of the sauce varies because every summer I grow slightly different peppers, I’m pretty sure that this year’s is at least as hot as last year’s because even just the vapours from cooking it completely cleared my sinuses. Let’s hope the people I am giving it to for Christmas like it as much!

Pear & Honey Jam Recipe

As I wrote about before, I had a lot of cooking pears that needed to be used up recently. All of this excess meant that I had a chance to experiment with making a jam of my own devising. Pears are a naturally acidic fruit, which makes them perfect for hot-water-bath canning with a bit of sugar. It took me a couple of tries to get this recipe right, since since I didn’t want to use like ten cups of sugar (with would generally produce and easily firm set), since I wanted to taste the fruit and the spices more than the sweetness. In the end, I had something that I am quite proud of. Next year, when pears come into season, I think that I will make this the main pear jam (although I did really like the Spiced Pear Jam with Pineapple found on page 935 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), or on the app). Maybe next year I’ll have a yield of more than four pears off of my baby pear tree, and I’ll be able to make more things from fruit I’ve grown myself!

Pear & Honey Jam
Yields six 250mL (1 cup) jars

Prepare and sterilize six 250mL (1 cup) jars (or twelve 125mL (1/2 cup) jars) and matching lids as per manufacturer instructions. Keep jars and lids warm until it is time to fill them.
In a Maslin pan or other non-reactive, heavy-bottomed pot, combine:
1.5 Kg (3.3 lbs) ripe/slightly overripe pears, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
350 mL (1.5 cups) honey*
700 mL (3 cups) sugar
60 mL (1/4 cup) lemon juice
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground allspice
5 mL (1 tsp) ground cinnamon
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground cloves
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground nutmeg
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground ginger
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Run the mixture through a blender or food processor until it reaches a smooth consistency, being extremely careful as the ingredients will be very, very hot. Return the mixture to the pot and bring it back to a boil.
Add:
one 85 mL (2.9 oz) package of liquid pectin
Bring mixture back to a boil. Stir constantly as mixture boil hard for an additional minute.
Ladle the jam into the prepared jars, leaving a 5mm head space. Wipe jar rims with a clean, damp cloth or paper towel. Top jars with lids and screw metal rings into place until fingertip tight. Place jars on top of a canning rack inside a boiling water canner, being sure that none of them touch the sides of the pot or each other. Jars should be covered by at least 2.5cm (1″) of water, so add hot water if necessary. Bring to a rolling boil and process for 15 minutes, starting your timer once the water is boiling.
Remove jars from canner and place them on a cooling rack, not touching each other. Let them rest for 24 hours before touching. Label if desired. Jams may take up to 48 hours to set, so do not open them until this time has passed.
This jam may be kept in a cool, dark area for up to one year.

*It’s really not worth it to use unpasteurized honey here, since all the additional benefits are lost when the honey is cooked.

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.