A Beginner’s Foray into Canning

Having recently shared my thoughts about the need for more sustainable food choices and my family’s efforts toward that end, I thought it would be àpropos to show you what I’ve been doing with all the proceeds from my backyard garden. Since we do not have an extra freezer, nor the funds to get one at the moment, canning was the obvious choice for preserving our produce. And, oh boy, did we get some! I was pulling two or three cucumbers every day. The tomatoes came in spurts, ten at a time. The peppers stayed small, but we had lots of them. The cantaloupes were like nothing you’ve ever tasted! And we had herbs galore. Some things, like the peas and beans, struggled due to pests and I plan to look into some more organic options for controlling that in the future. But for a first time effort, I give myself a hearty pat on the back.

Now for my disclaimer: All that I learned about canning, I learned from Google and YouTube. I did not have a mother or grandmother who gardened or preserved to show me the ropes. So please, take everything I share here with a grain of salt and do plenty of research on your own. I am not claiming to be an expert by any means, but merely trying to help other beginners like myself get started and overcome the fear of the unknown. ‘Cause, let me tell you, it is not nearly as difficult as you may think! I was initially dreading the process, but knew that it was a necessary evil given the incredible amount of effort I had put into the garden – I wasn’t about to give it all away or let it go to waste. So I bought myself a stock pot and some canning jars, watched some online tutorials, and dove right in. And, much to my amazement, the evil turned out to be good! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just like the garden, I found it wholesome, earthy, rich, and fulfilling. There is something so satisfying about taking a small, insignificant seed, and, through much love and hard work, turning it into rows of food that line your pantry throughout the year. So far, I have canned 20 jars of pickles, 11 jars of salsa, and 10 jars of pear sauce – and I could have done much more had I overcome my fear sooner and started the whole process right away.

So without further ado, let me tell you about the basic techniques that I followed. I will start with the process of making pickles because it is the most involved (and the one for which I took the most pictures). Sadly, the pickles turned out softer than I would have liked, but I think this is because I used ordinary garden cucumbers instead of pickling cucumbers. Next year I will plant the pickling variety and hope for a crisper result. I am told they are just as good to eat raw, so it’s a win/win.

1) The first step is to slice and wash your cucumbers. They can be wedge slices, like I’ve shown here, or they can be sandwich slices, or even whole if the cucumbers are small enough. It is important to cut off the ends as there are enzymes on the blossom ends that can spoil the pickles. Also, it is best to use under-ripe rather than over-ripe cucumbers because they will likely be crisper. (This may also have been one of my mistakes leading to softer pickles than I’d like).  Put these washed and sliced cucumbers in an ice water bath for an hour or two while you get everything else ready. This is also an ideal time to put all your jars, lids and rings into the dishwasher on the sanitize cycle since this cycle takes a while to complete.

IMG_7455

2) Next, prepare your brine. I used a pickling mix, plus a few of my own garden herbs. This takes the guess-work out of how much of each ingredient to use. I used Mrs. Wages brand and it tells you the exact of amount of vinegar and water to put in the mix. Be careful not to use an aluminum pot though as this could leach a metallic flavor into your pickles and cloud the brine. Bring this to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer to keep it hot.

IMG_7461

3) Now, while your brine is simmering and your pickles are chilling, prep your additional herbs and put them in the jars. I used one garlic clove, about 10 peppercorns, 3 small green onions, and one medium size dill flower in each jar. The green onions and dill flowers came from my garden. If you don’t want to use any of these additional herbs, don’t worry about it, ’cause the mix you use will work just fine. It simply adds a bit of visual interest and flavor to each jar. Also, start your canning pot boiling at this time. I used a LARGE stock pot filled about half full so it won’t overflow when you put your jars in.

IMG_7456

4) Next you get to fill the jars with your chilled cucumbers. Load them tightly to keep them from floating to the top of the jar and add your dill flowers last.

IMG_7464  IMG_7470

5) Now fill each jar with the brine mixture, leaving an inch of head space. Wipe the rim of each jar with a clean dry towel to ensure a good seal and put the lids and rings on the jars and tighten by hand.

IMG_7474  IMG_7476

6) Lastly, process your jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes for pint size jars. The water should be about an inch above the tops of the jars and the time should start when the water returns to a boil after adding the jars. The first batch I processed, I did not have a jar grabber and attempted using tongs. Needless to say, there were a few close calls with disaster and I highly recommend buying a jar grabber. You’ll thank me later.

IMG_7477

7) After removing the jars from the water bath, let them sit, unmoved for 24 hours to ensure a proper seal. Within an hour or so, you should hear the delightfully happy sound the lids pinging down as the jars seal. If any jars do not seal properly, you can either reprocess them, or put them in the fridge and use them first. They’ll be good for weeks in the fridge and the ones that did seal properly will keep for years in the pantry! Let them sit for 4-6 weeks to give them time to ferment and absorb the flavors. The wait will kill you, but it will be worth it.

Salsa: There are so many versions of salsa out there, just pick one that suits you. This is much easier than pickles because it’s not so scientific. I simply sliced and mixed up all the vegetables raw – tomatoes, green onions, white onions, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and garlic. For everything but the tomatoes and the cilantro, I used a food processor. Then I added an appropriate amount (this will depend on your quantity of vegetables) of tomato sauce, vinegar, salt, and cumin. Next I mixed everything up in a big bowl, filled the sanitized jars to within an inch of head space, removed air bubbles with a rubber spatula, wiped the rims clean, sealed and processed them in a water bath for 20 minutes.

Pear (or Apple) Sauce: This was the easiest of all the canning and, although we didn’t can it when I was a child, I did make a lot of applesauce with my mother so the process was particularly nostalgic as I worked on it with my son. We used pears because I have two friends with pear trees who gave me a LOT of pears. The texture is slightly different but not significantly. The important thing here is that you buy a conical strainer with pestle or a food mill so that you don’t have to peel, core, and seed all of your pears. All you need to do is slice them and throw them in a pot to boil. Boil them until they are VERY soft and then drain off any excess water. Process them through the strainer or food mill and return them to the stove to simmer if you have to do multiple batches. Then add any additional spices to taste. It shouldn’t need any sugar if the fruit is sweet enough, but I chose to add some cinnamon. Fill the jars – leaving an inch of head space, wipe the rims clean before sealing, and process them in a water bath for 15 minute.

photo 1

If you are more experienced at canning than I am and have any helpful suggestions or tips (or corrections), I’d love to hear any feed back. This has been quite a journey for me and one I hope to continue well into the future.

Sustainable Food Choices – The Journey to Backyard Gardening

Over the past year, I have been contemplating our choices as a culture when it comes to food. Without getting into all the ins and outs of the many heated sides of this debate – organic vs. non, local vs. shipped, vegetarian vs. vegan vs. meat, raw vs. cooked, gluten vs. non, preservatives, pesticides, and food dyes, oh my! – suffice it to say that, for now, the one conclusion I have come to with certainty is that something has to change. Both for our health and for our society as a whole, we have to begin making choices that are more sustainable. Already, in our generation, we are beginning to see the consequences of bad, hasty, or financially motivated decisions and those consequences will be magnified many-fold for our children and grandchildren if we don’t commit to change. I am convinced that this change cannot begin with the government or the big businesses involved. It has to begin with us. Each consumer making more informed and socially conscious decisions to benefit not only themselves, but society as a whole and thus their own posterity. Even small changes, when implemented by the multitudes, can have a vast impact on the big picture. I am sure our food choices will continue to change and grow as we learn more and more about the way things are vs. the way we believe they should be, but for now, my family is making some changes that we believe will benefit our health, our home, our happiness, and our culture.

One major change is that we are attempting to buy as much as we possibly can from local providers. We are fortunate to have a prolific farmers market in our area that is open year round and provides locally grown, organic produce, dairy, meat, eggs, plants, soaps, and much more. We have found that we can buy all these things directly from the farmers, speak to them about their farming practices, and get advice about our decisions for almost the same price that we can get them at the grocery store. The only loss is in convenience, and that convenience comes at too high a cost. Whatever we are not able to get at the market, we will continue to buy at the grocery store – and, trust me, our choices are not always as noble as we would like them to be – but at least these concessions are a less pervasive part of our overall diet.

The second big change that we have made is very near and dear to my heart, as it has become a fulfilling and beautiful part of my everyday life. I have built and cultivated an extensive back yard vegetable garden. It is the most beautiful thing I have created since Owen and I am probably a bit too proud of it. But if it’s growth and success continues at the rate it has thus far, we will have organic, home-grown vegetables to last us through the summer and well beyond. It doesn’t get much more local than that! Anyone who has read some of my previous posts on aesthetics knows that I firmly believe that just because something is useful does not mean it has to look simply practical as well. I built my garden with my own two hands and I knew from the start that I wanted it to be a thing of beauty as well as a source of nutrition. I could easily have just plowed the “back forty” into rows and started planting (which is certainly a viable option for some, don’t get me wrong), but instead I laid out and planned 4 raised beds, leveled into a hill, framed, and surrounded by walkways. I chronicled my garden building journey with many pictures and decided to share some of them here with you. Hopefully a few of you may find inspiration as I have and be led to create your own oasis of food production.

Owen wanted to know what exactly was going on when I came home from the store with all these crazy supplies.

Owen wanted to know what exactly was going on when I came home from the store with all these crazy supplies.

After cutting the necessary landscape timbers into half lengths, the next step was to lay out the location of the beds.

After cutting the necessary landscape timbers into half lengths, the next step was to lay out the location of the beds.

The first bed I attempted to till up by hand. Needless to say, for the next three, I rented a tiller.

The first bed I attempted to till up by hand. Needless to say, for the next three, I rented a tiller.

Here, all the beds were tilled and the hill was leveled out and ready for the frames to be assembled and put in place.

Here, all the beds were tilled and the hill was leveled out and ready for the frames to be assembled and put in place.

Owen was a huge help in building the frames ;)

Owen was a huge help in building the frames ;)

And lifting them into place!

And lifting them into place!

Now all the frames were in place and I discovered the need for retaining walls to prevent the soil from washing out underneath the low end of the hill.

Now all the frames were in place and I discovered the need for retaining walls to prevent the soil from washing out underneath the frames at the low end of the hill.

Aiden was a big help in building the retaining walls! I used cinder blocks that I filled with soil so that they could be used for plants as well.

Aiden was a big help in building the retaining walls! I used cinder blocks that I filled with soil so that they could be used for plants as well.

And here aesthetics came into play. I could not abide mismatched retaining walls and bed frames, so I spray painted them.

And here aesthetics came into play. I could not abide mismatched retaining walls and bed frames, so I spray painted them.

After I completed the beds, there was a significant mud problem at the bottom of the hill. So I created a walkway. A friend gave me ALL of the bricks that he needed out of his way and I filled it will builders gravel (not landscape gravel - they are essentially the same and the builders variety is 1/3 of the price).

After I completed the beds, there was a significant mud problem at the bottom of the hill. So I created a walkway. A friend gave me ALL of the bricks, saying he needed them out of his way, and I laid them out and filled them in with builders gravel (not landscape gravel – they are essentially the same and the builders variety is 1/3 of the price).

Then it was finally PLANTING TIME!

Then it was finally PLANTING TIME!

Baby plants full of potential. The pea trellises were $30 a piece at the garden store and I needed 4! I could not stomach this so I spent $15 on a bunch of stakes and some garden twine and made my own.

Here are my baby plants, full of potential. The pea trellises were $30 a piece at the garden store and I needed 4! I could not stomach this, so I spent $15 on a bunch of stakes and some garden twine and made my own.

The addition of angled trellises for the squash and zucchini.

Later, I added angled trellises for the squash and zucchini.

Some of the first fruits.

Already, we’ve been able to harvest some first fruits!

Today, the plants are enormous and lush. We're getting some fruit almost every day. This also shows the bean trellises I built from sticks I found around the yard and some zip ties.

Today, the plants are enormous and lush. We’re getting some fruit almost every day. This also shows the bean trellises I built from sticks I found around the yard and some zip ties.

Voila!

Voila!

Let me know what you think. And please share some of your gardening success stories. I can use all the help I can get!

Delicious Does Not Have To Be Difficult!

Sometimes in cooking (as in life) a recipe does not have to be difficult to be delicious. The more variables or ingredients or steps in the process, the easier it is to complicate a dish or confuse simple, rich flavors that are best left alone. The recipe I’m about to share is a prime example of this. It is hard to imagine it being much simpler, but it is so delightful that my family, especially my son, practically begs me to make it on a regular basis. It can be put together in 15 minutes and is a complete meal unto itself, requiring no side dishes or elaboration, unless, of course, you just can’t help yourself.

Now for the caveat . . . many of the other dishes that I have shared, being more intricate and involved, are made primarily from scratch. This recipe, however has several ready-made ingredients.  Some may consider this cheating. Some may consider it the norm. But whichever the case, if you are not inclined to cook with such ingredients, please feel free to make these elements from scratch. This, however, will most definitely take the dish out of the “ready in 15 minutes” category. Now, without further ado:

Tomato Cream Ravioli

1 package of frozen, cheese ravioli
3 tbsp of butter or margarine
4 good size mushrooms, chopped (not diced)
1/2 of a large red onion, chopped (not diced)
1 heaping tsp of minced garlic
1 jar of Bertolli (or your favorite brand) Alfredo sauce
1 can of tomato sauce
3 tbsp of Parmesan cheese
Salt
Pepper
Parsley

Place ravioli in a large pan and cover with water. Sprinkle with salt and bring to a boil. Boil until ravioli is tender, careful not to over cook as the ravioli will break apart.

In a large skillet (preferably with sides), melt butter and add mushrooms, onions, and garlic. Saute until onions are soft. Season with salt, pepper and parsley to taste. Stir in Alfredo sauce, tomato sauce, and Parmesan cheese. Simmer for 5 minutes to allow sauce to heat and flavors to blend.

Serve sauce over ravioli and garnish with additional Parmesan cheese and parsley as desired. This dish would go excellently with french bread and asparagus on the side but does not need it if you are in a hurry.

This may seem too good to be true, but trust me, the results far outweigh the effort and make it an easy dish with which to impress dinner guest and make them believe that you slaved for hours in the kitchen. Not that I’ve ever done that . . .

Mmmm – Don’t Mind If I Do!

It’s been a bit too long since I posted a recipe – most likely because it’s been a bit too long since I cooked anything that I got really excited about. It’s not that I haven’t been cooking. It’s just that exhaustion, pregnancy, the terrible twos, and extensive home projects have kept me pretty close to the basics in the kitchen lately – sticking to what’s quick, easy, and healthy. Sadly even this last criteria often gets sacrificed for the sake of the first two. But Saturday night, thanks to some ideas planted in my mind by my friend Maddy, inspiration found me again and developed into a night of family cooking, photography, fun, and feasting. The result – not so quick and easy, but delectable…

Salmon Cake Melts

1.) Bake the Salmon – I actually used the leftovers of a large filet of salmon that I had baked a couple of night prior, but if you are not so fortunate to have this step already completed, you will need to bake the Salmon in the oven first. I always buy my fish frozen (for cost efficiency) and follow the instructions on the package for temperature and time as this will vary depending on the thickness and size of the filet. If you buy it fresh, ask some advice from the market, or Google it and use your intuition. I baked the original filet with a cream sauce on the top that I believe enhanced the flavor of the salmon cakes later.  The mixture was of of equal parts mayo (I use canola mayo) and Parmesan cheese, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1 tsp garlic powder, and freshly ground black pepper. The amounts will vary depending on the size of the filet but the overall consistency should be thick enough to practically ice the fish, not pour over it.

2.) Prepare the Bread/Setting for the Salmon Cakes – Using a loaf of french bread, slice it diagonally into the largest possible slices. Butter both sides of the slices (I use heart-smart margarine) and broil on a cookie sheet until barely golden. Top each slice with a small amount of grated mozzarella cheese and a slice of fresh tomato. Set aside.

3.) Make the Salmon Cakes – As soon as the french bread is finished broiling, put about 5 slices of regular, inexpensive bread into the oven to broil with nothing on them. Broil them dark and crispy as they will be crumbled to use for bread crumbs. When they are done, crumble them as small as possible and set half aside. (You can also use ready-made bread crumbs to save some time. I just didn’t have any, so I went the made-from-scratch route.) Take the salmon you baked previously and flake into small pieces with a fork, carefully removing the skin first. In a bowl, combine half of the bread crumbs (about 1 to 1.5 cups), 2 beaten eggs (I use an egg substitute), 1.5 tsp of dill, 1.5 tsp of parsley, 2 tsp of dried onion, 1/4 tsp of ground black pepper, and 1 tsp of lemon juice. Add the salmon to the mixture and knead with your hands as you would a meat loaf. Be sure to remove your rings first or they may smell like fish for days ;). Once well-mixed, form into patties approximately the size of the french bread slices. Coat each patty with the remaining bread crumbs on all sides. Heat about a 1/4 inch of canola oil in a skillet over med-high heat. Fry the patties for about 2-3 minutes on each side till they are browned and crispy. Allow to dry on a paper towel.

4.) Put It All Together – Place each salmon cake on top of a slice of prepared french bread. Top each with a slice of Swiss cheese (I use fat-free Swiss, but I’m sure the real thing is even better.) Broil in the oven over low heat just long enough to melt and slightly brown the cheese. Serve with a fresh vegetable such as steamed broccoli or asparagus on the side.

5.) Sit down and enjoy!

As always, if you try this recipe, I’d love to hear how it went! Tell me what the family thought, what modifications you made, or any ideas you might have. And share it with your friends! Bon Appetite!

The End of My Cooking Hiatus!

After nearly a month and a half of barely stepping foot in my kitchen, at least not to do anything other than heat frozen meals or warm up leftover takeout, I am finally emerging from the fog of morning sickness and feeling inspired to cook again! I think my family is almost as relieved as I am. I braved the usually sickening interior of my local grocery store only to find myself excitedly picking up things I haven’t purchased in ages, like a bread mix for my bread machine, and walnuts to make several loaves of banana bread with my overly ripe bananas, and canned pumpkin for pancakes and muffins and bread, and most importantly, a roast! I have not cooked a roast in a very long time, certainly not since I found out about my cholesterol issues and quit buying red meat. But I found a small pork roast (for FOUR dollars!) and decided to give it a try. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. It was better than any of the beef roasts I’ve cooked in the past and SO easy. I spent 30 minutes prepping it in the morning before I left for work, and when I returned home a little after 5, voilà! A fully prepared, absolutely mouth-watering meal was waiting for me. It’s too bad we didn’t show the house today because the smell alone would have sold it for us.  So, after many weeks of no recipe updates, I give you my recipe for

Crock Pot Pork Roast:

Rub salt and pepper into the outside of the roast and brown it on all sides in a skillet on high heat with a little oil. Remove the roast and poor some water into the hot pan and scrape all the yummy pork leavings into the water and set aside.

Place browned roast in the bottom of the crock pot and surround it with large onion pieces and minced garlic. Cover all of it with sliced baby Portobello mushrooms and one can of cream of mushroom soup, evenly spread.

Fill the remainder of the space in the crock pot with chopped potatoes and carrots. Keep them chunky. If they’re too small, they’ll over cook. Sprinkle the whole pot with a packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix and poor the skillet water over the top.  Add extra water until it comes to the level of the potatoes. Cover and cook on low for 8ish hours depending on the size of your roast.  Mine was pretty small and it cooked for a full 8 hours and was not overdone.

Once you remove the roast and all of the vegetables, use the broth in the pot to make gravy. Simply put it in a sauce pan on the stove over medium heat and add flour with a whisk till it reaches the desired consistency.

The roast was so tender it fell apart with a fork and the flavor was outstanding.  For so little effort, this is definitely a keeper.  Please let me know if you try it or make any modifications.  I’d love to hear how it worked for you or how to make it even better.