Sunday, August 30, 2009

Storing Up For Winter....

I think that all of us have come to realize that times are not what they used to be. Jobs are more scarce, the economy is crap and prices on things like fresh produce will probably go up this winter when they're not readily in season. This is one of the reasons we decided to plant our garden. Unfortunately it hasn't gone as well as we had hoped, with our corn getting corn smut (I swear it's real, I didn't make it up!), our tomatoes getting blossom end rot and a recent infestation of squash bugs. So although I'm working on saving the tomatoes, zucchini and pumpkin and they may be salvageable, the corn is dead. (That scene in Oklahoma keeps rolling over in my mind...."Poor Jud is deeeeeeaaaaaaad..." Only I hear it as "Our corn is dead." I'm weird that way.)

That's all the more reason why I wanted to start freezing as much of the fresh vegetables as possible. I tried to think of how I would use them and froze them accordingly. For instance, the zucchini I would primarily use in zucchini bread (I'd love at Christmas-time to be able to give beautifully wrapped loaves of yummy zucchini bread to friends). And carrots would either be shredded and used in said zucchini bread or sliced up & put into stews or simmered all day in a crock pot with a roast. Mmmmmmmmmm.....

So that's why I spent several hours yesterday harvesting (sounds so much better than "picking"), washing, peeling, slicing, blanching and freezing carrots. You should see my orange-tinted finger nails... But the end result was worth it. Fourteen cups of sliced carrots and two cups of small whole baby carrots tucked away into our freezer, waiting to be pulled out and cooked on a cold winter day or any other time between now and next summer. Then after the carrots, just for good measure I did the same thing (minus the peeling & slicing of course) to the green beans I had picked from the garden. It was a small amount of green beans, just enough for a side dish with one meal--my husband commented, "That's not going to get us very far." But this was just one harvesting. Green beans grow constantly and as you pick the mature ones, they continually reproduce. So each time I harvest a new batch I'll prepare it & pop it in the freezer.

Here's a little tip, thanks to my mom. (Hi Mom!) A couple of weeks ago I had spent the good part of an afternoon shredding zucchini and carrots for that zucchini bread I was talking about. I knew I was going to be using it zucchini bread and would need to measure out one cup of each for the mix. Not knowing if zucchini & carrots could be frozen together, I called my mom and asked her. She suggested freezing the shredded vegetables in muffin tins (did you know they measure exactly 1/2 cup each?) and then popping those into freezer bags. What an awesome idea! And it worked great! (Thanks Mom!)

I can't help but feel a little smug over knowing I've got things stored away in my freezer so that any time I need a side dish or an addition to a stew I can just pull it out and use it. I keep thinking of all the trips to the grocery store when I can skip past the produce section, knowing I have my own private little produce section waiting at home in my freezer. Things haven't gotten bad enough (yet) in our world that this is an absolute necessity. I can only imagine back in the pioneer days when food harvested during the summer and fall had to sustain a whole family throughout winter. I can imagine long hours out in the fields (no tiny gardens for the pioneers!) in fall, looking for those last remnants of the veggies that are going to nourish your family when you're snowed in and can't get to town. (Sorry, I appear to be channeling my inner Laura Ingalls....) But there is definite satisfaction in knowing we will save money during these tough times by storing up our own food. And just wait until we get our pork and beef in the freezer...I'll be over the moon. :)

Sunday, August 9, 2009


A couple of weekends ago I picked cucumbers and ended up with about 3/4 of a 5 gallon bucket. Only one thing can be done when you end up with that much....start pickling! I claimed a whole day to be "The Great Pickle Day" and planned to spend all day working on it. My mother had sent me a bread & butter pickle recipe and I couldn't wait to use it. Here's a basic run down of how it went...
First of course, I washed all of the cucumbers & set them out on a rack to dry. The recipe calls for about 6 pounds of cucumbers.

When the cucumbers were dry, I sliced them up. (The recipe was called "cross-cut pickle slices" so I went with that. And I've only ever eaten bread & butter pickles in slices so I wanted to go with something I knew.) But you could slice them however you wanted, or I'm sure if they were very tiny you could pickle them whole.

Next I sliced up enough onions to make 1 1/2 cups and peeled 2 large garlic cloves. Those went into the pot with the sliced cucumbers.

Then I added 1/3 cup of pickling salt & mixed it all together to coat all of the cucumbers. The recipe then calls for covering this mixture with approximately 2 trays of cubed or crushed ice and letting it sit for 3 hours. When the 3 hours was over, I removed the remaining ice, drained the pot and took out the 2 garlic cloves.

Before I started with the next step of preparing the pickles, I wanted to start heating my pint jars. This can be done in a water bath, but since I already had a lot of stuff happening on top of my stove, I went with a recommendation I got from our local extension office. I put the jars on a cookie sheet and heated them in a 180 degree oven. I had already sanitized the jars & lids in the dishwasher so this was an acceptable way to get the jars heated without getting them wet again and taking up more space on top of my stove. DON'T leave out this step though, however you decide to do it!! If the jars are not heated before you put the hot pickle mixture in, they can crack or shatter.

So then I got back to my was time to add the flavor! I combined 4 1/2 cups of sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons of Turmeric, 1 1/2 teaspoons of celery seed, 2 tablespoons of mustard seed and 3 cups of white vinegar. This was heated just to boiling and then I added the cucumber slices & onion to the pot and heated for about 5 minutes.

This hot pickle mixture was then ladled into the hot pint jars, one at at time, keeping the other jars in the oven until I was ready to use the next one to ensure they were kept hot. I loosely packed the hot pickles into the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of room on top. (Again, a very important step. Headspace must be left at the top of each jar--and each type of recipe has it's own measurement--to make sure it will seal properly in the end.) After wiping the tops to remove any liquid and removing air bubbles (oops, another important step--remove the air bubbles!! DO IT!!), put a lid and ring on each jar and seal tightly.

Next, each jar was set into the hot water bath for 5 minutes. (The time is not started until the water starts boiling again after all jars are in the water.) Here's another important part--the jars must have 1 - 2 inches of water above them for them to process properly and get a good seal.

When the jars are done processing, wipe them down to remove any residue and remove the jars to a cooling rack.

This was where my paranoia set in...I tightened any loose rings and stood there staring at my jars, wondering if they were processed right. What if I didn't do it right and anyone who eats them gets terribly sick? How do I know if they processed properly?
I was in the middle of processing my 7th jar of pickles (my canning pot only holds 6) when I heard it. A soft little metallic-like "pop" from the direction of my pickle jars. I quickly turned my head, like I thought I would catch something actually happening. No, nothing going on over there. I went back to processing that last jar when I heard it again..."pop"....This time I decided to investigate a little further and went to check out my jars. What if they were cracking or something? That's when I noticed two of the lids were just slightly different in appearance than the others. (Yes, "One of these things is not like the other" from Sesame Street actually sang it's way through my head for a moment.)
I went to my computer, logging in to the wealth of information on the internet, searching for a hint of what was going on. Aha! Remember that "headspace" I mentioned earlier? This was the reason for it! When the pickles start to cool, it forms a vacuum seal which causes the lid to pull down & flatten, hence the "pop" I was hearing. I was so excited to know I had done it right and wasn't going to kill my family with botulism.

After your jars have cooled for about 24 hours, you can test the seal. (The canning book I have doesn't recommend testing a seal until at least 24 hours after just to be safe but I've heard other say they test them sooner.)
"The best method for testing a seal is to press the center of the lid to determine if it is concave; then remove the band and gently try to life the lid off with your fingertips. If the center does not flex up and down and you cannot lift the lid off, the lid has a good vacuum seal."

That was over a week ago and this weekend I opened one of the jars and tried some bread and butter pickles. Wow, they're really good! My son tried them and agreed, which really means something since teenagers are some of the pickiest eaters on the planet...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

They're Always Our Babies...

Our kids--even when they're grown & too big to hold and don't hardly fit on the couch or the bed--are always our babies.....especially when they're sleeping. No matter what they do when they're awake, or how crazy they drive us, it seems that when they're lying there sleeping (just like when they're babies) they look so innocent & sweet. You want to sit down & cuddle them (even know you KNOW that would never be allowed if they were awake.) I wonder if I'll still be feeling this way when HE'S 41 and I'm 65......Does that ever go away?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

August Already? Time for an Update!!

Well, August is upon us today and with the beginning of a new month the guilt sets in that I haven't been keeping up on my blog again. I may have to do like my niece Jenna and do a long update post to get you all (and by "all" I mean those 2 or 3 readers out there) updated...

As of today's date, we are down to one pig, Brillo.

Collin & Trevor did an awesome job at the Canyon County Fair. Collin's pig Wallace won 4th in his class for Market and Trevor's pig Spunky got 2nd in his class for Market. The next day was Showmanship, which judges the kids on how well they show their pigs and how much control they have over them. Neither one of them placed in that part of it...we discovered just how unpredictable & stubborn pigs can be.

Overall though they were great and it was good to see them really pitching in and helping out their other club members when it came time for things like cleaning pens, feeding & watering and washing the pigs.

The morning of the first day of the fair, when we were loading up the pigs, the boys reiterated (as they had done for months previously) how much they hated the pigs and they didn't ever want to do this again. However, by the end of the first day at the fair, Collin was already talking about his plans for next year. It's amazing how just being at the fair and participating in the events can really encourage them to keep doing it. They made some good friends (or became better friends with the ones they already met through 4H) and had a great time hanging around with the rest of their club members during off hours at the fair.


Mixed feelings about the garden...on one hand some of it is growing by leaps & bounds. On the other hand, we're having trouble with other parts of it. We had a very hot spell the last couple of weeks and although we've done our best to keep it sufficiently watered, the corn seems to be drying out. Also some of the cucumber plants have gotten some kind of wilt or something. But I'm hoping to keep it from spreading to the rest of them. Of course, the zucchini is growing wild and we can hardly keep up with keeping all of it picked. Some of those little suckers hide under the big leaves and we don't find them until they've grown to monster zucchini proportion. I'm thrilled that our watermelon is doing well...the other night my husband counted all of the watermelon fruit currently growing and there are 22. Yes....22. We're keeping a close watch on the pumpkin patch, hoping to see the small pumpkins start swelling & ripening in time for Halloween. We have about 2 1/2 months until people will want pumpkins for the Halloween season.

Some people have asked us why we planted such a big garden...after all, there are only four of us in our family and the boys don't eat much in the way of some of the vegetables we're growing. But my husband and I decided before we planted the garden that we wanted to have enough to share. We want to share with our friends who have all helped us in their own ways over the past year. And whatever we have in abundance after we have shared with our friends we plan on sharing with a local food bank.

When I was a single mom, back when my son was just a toddler, we belonged to a church that had a food bank program. As a single mom, I was asked if I wanted to participate and I'm so glad I said yes. I would take Collin with me to the food bank and we would walk through the room with our grocery bags, picking out the fresh veggies & fruits (along with canned & boxed goods) that came from local farmers in the Camarillo area. This is my way of giving back what was given to my son & I when we needed it most. I only hope that I can help others as much as they helped us.