Soil and Cellar

Growing and preserving foods in Seattle


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Freezing Berries

My freezer isn't too full now, even after the trip to Costco. I'd like you to note how brave I am to post a picture of my freezer, vodka and all.

My freezer isn’t too full now, even after the trip to Costco. I’d like to state that I feel weirdly exposed posting a picture of my freezer, vodka and all.

One of the best tools in the food preserver’s belt is the freezer. You can freeze just about anything, but since we have this small freezer I try to make strategic choices about what to freeze and when. Plus, there are only two of us, so too much frozen food not get used fast enough.

I’ve frozen two things this week – blueberries and peaches. I will be picking blackberries this weekend, too, so will add those to the pile shortly. The peaches are in compote I made for a friend’s ice cream social. We had a bunch left over, so I froze it in a plastic container, like any other dense leftovers. If I hadn’t cooked them, I could have frozen the slices for pies later.

berries on tray

I love this little tray. Normal trays would be great for larger batches, but I’d also have to have the freezer space to keep the tray flat.

I freeze blueberries every year. See, D doesn’t need blueberries in his life (he’s not from the Pacific Northwest, it’s the only explanation) and I do. So I have to know that I can eat all the berries I buy. And I can, because I eat them almost every day of the year on my cereal. Frozen blueberries are as special to me as fresh ones, because in cereal the milk freezes around the berry and makes a little ice-cream casing. It makes me feel like a kid, and I love that. I prefer to freeze my own, but my freezer just doesn’t have the capacity for a year’s worth of berries. And since they only keep for 6 months, the math just doesn’t work out.

How perfect is that fit? Unless you need ice cubes, then it's rather inconvenient.

How perfect is that fit? Unless you need ice cubes, then it’s rather inconvenient.

Freezing blueberries is as easy as pie (ha!). First, get the best blueberries you can find. Don’t wash them (they keep a better texture if you wait until you pull them out of the freezer to wash). Other berries should be washed and patted dry. Pick out any that are bad or blemished, and remove stems. Spread them out on a baking tray or other flat dish in a single layer. They will freeze quickly and won’t clump up. I have this tiny baking tray that came with my toaster oven, and it fits perfectly on top of my two ice cube trays.

Set this in the freezer and wait until frozen, like overnight.

Frozen berries go straight into the freezer bag.

Frozen berries go straight into the freezer bag.

The next day, put the berries into a Ziploc freezer bag (not sandwich-style bag), label, and get as much air out as possible. I use the straw in the bag method – seal the bag almost all the way, insert a straw, suck out the rest of the air, and seal quickly.

They will last 6 months in the freezer, unless they’ve been thawed and refrozen. You’ll know if that happened because you’ll see ice crystals on the berries. This happened to me last week because after a trip to Costco I didn’t notice that the door hadn’t closed all the way for about an hour. Whoops!

berries in bag

I have been reading up on freezing foods in my favorite food storage book, “The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar,” by Jennifer Megyesi. She has a lot of info and ideas, and there is also a wonderful chart in the book that tells you how to freeze all types of fruits and vegetables. I imagine there is such a thing on the Internet, too, but I haven’t searched it out.


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Happy Birthday, Mom

Mom and birthday cake

Mom singing to me at my 3rd birthday

Today is my mom’s birthday. I thought of Mom over breakfast, and again at the tire shop, but in an abstract way. Then I got an email from my mom’s oldest friend, and it pulled me up short. She wrote about how much she misses my mom, and how much my mom loved my brother and me. As hard as it is to be reminded how truly sad you are, it’s good, too. Because the intense sadness I feel this afternoon (which most other days just tints the world with a soft shade of blue) is a reminder that I still love my parents even though they’ve been gone for years, and that love lasts forever. As much as it sucks, it’s pretty comforting, too.

It’s been a little over 2 years since we lost Mom, but only 6 months since I ate any of her cooking. Amazing, right? That’s because of her jam. Her magical, delicious, always perfectly set jam. I took the last good jar of her jam camping with my brother and his family this spring. It seemed fitting to share with him and his boys. Her jam is in all of our blood, bones, muscles, it has nourished us all our lives. And now it is gone. I have another jar, but the seal is broken and the jam has changed color. I know not to eat it, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. She hand-wrote the label.

Here it is - Mom's last jar of jam.

Here it is – Mom’s last jar of jam.

I have always equated food with love, and it’s no accident. My parents were both good cooks, and did everything for us with so much love and sacrifice. I learned my early cooking techniques from Dad (basically, there’s nothing that cheese can’t fix). Later I became more like Mom, sort of following actual recipes. My mom cooked for us almost every day, but didn’t really love it. After we left home she ate a lot of English muffins with pb&j.

But jam, that jam was in her veins. She loved making it, and really loved eating it. She taught me to take pleasure in hard work, and then to pause and take pleasure in the results. And she was excited to share the jam with the family. It was one of the things she openly took pride in, and agreed with us that it was the best ever.

Nowadays, I’ve been trying to channel her instincts when I make jam. I’m not there yet, and I find myself so frustrated sometimes. That frustration turns to sadness when I can’t call Mom after I screw up. All I can do is keep trying. I didn’t know to look over Mom’s shoulder more, to follow her around the kitchen, to pay closer attention. We all have regrets that we can do nothing about now. That’s one of my biggest. In writing this post, I’ve just now realized I don’t even have any pictures of her making jam or cooking. How is that possible?

But I want to honor her memory by learning this. It’s been a big year for me, with a lot of changes, but I’m the most proud of how far my canning skills have come. Happy Birthday Mom, I miss you. Thanks for the jam.

My family. Dad made solar food driers for a little while, and I'm eating a piece of dried fruit.

My family. Dad made solar food driers for a little while, and I’m eating a piece of dried fruit.


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Fig Blueberry Pie

The finished pie, not too pretty but awfully delicious!

The finished pie, it fell apart but was awfully delicious!

I was at a party at a friend’s house recently, and she has a Desert King Fig tree that is putting out figs like crazy (that’s the same kind of fig I planted this spring). I was literally stuffing myself with figs for lunch. I think she took pity on me, or maybe she had like 5 buckets of figs and needed to unload a few. At any rate, lucky me, I went home with a dozen figs – 2 days before my neighborhood potluck!

Figs (and the blind-baked piecrust).

Figs (and the blind-baked piecrust).

I had these figs, but not really enough to go crazy with. Since blueberries are cheap because of a bumper crop this year, I thought I’d mix the two. I saw are a few recipes online for this, but none that really met all my pie needs. So I mished and mashed and made up a recipe that works for me. I like that there are chunks of fruit, and also some that are cooked down and saucy.

blueberries

Fig Blueberry Pie

Ingredients:

1 Pie crust (I always use this one from Cook’s Illustrated, it’s fantastic, but use whatever is your go-to crust)
Egg (for egg wash, optional)

Filling:

¾ cup sugar
3 Tbsp tapioca starch or cornstarch (approximate)
4 cups washed and sorted blueberries
16 oz figs (about a dozen), washed and trimmed
2 Tbsp lemon juice

Crumble Topping (adjusted from a recipe I got out of Cooking Light years ago):

½ cup flour
½ cup old fashioned rolled oats
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1/8 tsp salt
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup chopped almonds

Peeling the figs. When I eat them raw I eat the whole thing, but for baking wanted to reduce the amount of skin and pith.

Peeling the figs. When I eat them raw I eat the whole thing, but for baking wanted to reduce the amount of skin and pith. Those don’t hold much flavor and are firmer than the flesh inside.

1. Preheat oven to 425. Blind bake the piecrust partially, because you’ll be baking it again once the fruit is in. To do this, first chill the crust in a pie plate, then weigh it down with pie weights on parchment and bake at 425 for 10 minutes. Remove the weights, apply an egg wash if desired (1 egg mixed with a little water, for glistening brownness), and return to oven at 375 for 5 minutes. Let cool on counter while you prepare the fruit.

2. Keep the oven on at 375.

figs sliced

3. Take about 2/3 of the blueberries and cook with sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the starch bit by bit, to get the thickness you want. Stir gently and regularly until it is bubbly (about 12 minutes). You want it to be thick but not as thick as jam. It will thicken a little more before serving, too. Cool a bit, like 20 minutes, just so that it isn’t hot when you pour it into the crust.

Cooking the blueberries, sugar, starch, and lemon juice.

Cooking the blueberries, sugar, starch, and lemon juice.

4. Peel the figs, if desired. (I did because these Desert King figs have a thick and slightly bitter skin). Slice into quarters, and place in a mixing bowl. Add the remaining blueberries.

Raw blueberries and figs. Beautiful!

Raw blueberries and figs. Beautiful!

5. Add the cooked blueberries to the raw fruit. Fold gently to mix.

Raw fruit folded in with warmed fruit syrup.

Raw fruit folded in with warmed fruit syrup. You could stop here and put this on ice cream, too!

6. Prepare the topping: mix everything but butter together using a whisk or fork. Add melted butter, and stir until the butter is evenly distributed and the mixture is all clumpy.

Dry ingredients for the crumble topping. The original recipe had me cutting cold butter into this mix. Silly! It's not a pastry, it's just crumble topping. Pour melted butter over it and stir, it's so much faster.

Dry ingredients for the crumble topping. The recipe I took this from had me cutting cold butter into this mix. Silly! It’s not pastry, it’s just crumble topping. Pour melted butter over it and stir, it’s so much faster.

7. Pour fruit into piecrust. Sprinkle topping over fruit. Place pie on a cookie sheet and bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, and cook another 30 minutes. The filling should be bubbly and the topping browned. It may take more time than this.

Ready to go in the oven. Exciting!

Ready to go in the oven. Exciting!

8. Try to wait and let it cool completely before serving. (I almost never do. I’m impatient and warm pie is delicious, and also I tend to put off making the pie until the last minute and we have to leave the moment it’s out of the oven. Last year at Thanksgiving, I had an apple pie ooze its juices onto D’s backseat on the way to a friend’s house. Whoops!)

Voila! Finished pie, ready to serve.

Voila! Finished pie, ready to serve.

This was a satisfying experiment, and my neighbors enjoyed it. The tartness of the blueberries joined well with the earthy sweetness of the figs. My pie was a little too sweet, so I’ve reduced the sugar here. Also, the looseness of the filling meant it was more of a crumble with piecrust nearby, so I upped the starch in this recipe. But you know, just because it isn’t pretty doesn’t mean it isn’t tasty!

I can’t wait until next year (or the year after?) when I have figs of my own. Yum!


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August in the Garden

Flowers from "Velour" beans. Gorgeous color!

Flowers from “Velour” beans. Gorgeous color!

Did you know it’s the middle of August? Yeah, that snuck up on me. I had brilliant plans for the garden this year, like getting my raised beds in and doing tons more veggie gardening, and it just didn’t happen. It fell way down the list of important things to do, and therefore didn’t get done. BUT, I have a few little plants plugging away and producing charming little fruits.

My vegetable garden. This is where we will be putting a couple of raised beds once these veggies are done producing.

My vegetable garden. This is where we will be putting a couple of raised beds once these veggies are done producing.

When last I wrote about my garden, I was harvesting peas like crazy. Well, shortly thereafter I pulled those plants out and replaced them with bean seeds. I think that was late June, just before we went to India. By the time we got home, the little beans were popping out of the ground. I knew it might be late but still wanted tomatoes. I always have tomatoes! Well, it turns out mid July is WAY too late to buy tomato plants that don’t look like death warmed over, nuts. So I bought a couple cucumber starts instead.

Velour bean plants. They are producing really well.

Velour bean plants. They are producing really well.

And I will pat myself on the back by saying that, even though it didn’t meet my goals for an epic harvest, I’ve been more active in the vegetable garden since our first year in the house. I am a perfectionist (not in a good way, if there is such a thing) and don’t start unless I can see how it will end perfectly. So the fact that I didn’t completely throw in the towel when I fell behind is a big step for me. Pat, pat.

Speedy beans. There are probably more beans than leaves at this point. The plants haven't taken off but are still giving me plenty of snacks.

Speedy beans. There are probably more beans than leaves at this point. The plants haven’t taken off but are still giving me plenty of snacks.

On to the veg! We have 2 kinds of bush beans, Speedy and Velour, both from Territorial. We got the seeds from our garden club, which has been doing this wacky bean-fest thing all summer. Speedy is true to name, and quickly produced tasty green beans. They are quite nice for snacking. The plants haven’t really taken off with the neglect I provided them, mysteriously. I haven’t had enough at any one time to cook them. But maybe soon?

Velour beans. Holy smokes, the color on these kills me.

Velour beans. Holy smokes, the color on these kills me.

Velour is so dark that the pods are almost black. The flowers are beautiful bright purple, too. Territorial Seeds says they turn green when cooked, like most dark beans. They are so beautiful that I’ll probably just use them raw. They, too, are quite tasty. I feel like they’ve handled my neglect with aplomb, and are doing their level best to grow in spite of me.

Cucumber Summer Dance. This is the biggest fruit, I think I'll pick it today for dinner tonight. I like to refrigerate my cukes an hour or two, to give them that classic cold crunch.

Cucumber Summer Dance. This is the biggest fruit, and the photo was taken a couple days ago. It’s longer now, so I think I’ll pick it for dinner tonight. I like to refrigerate my cukes an hour or two, to give them that classic cold crunch.

Finally, I have two Summer Dance Cucumbers. I bought them as starts. This is a Japanese burpless type, and I’ve had luck with similar plants in the past. I almost always make garlic sesame cucumbers (recipe here – I just use the top half, not the vermicelli.) It’s hard to imagine a more flavorful crunchy salad. It’s like the cucumbers you get in Chinese restaurants, but better because you made it yourself. If I have plenty of cukes I may also slice and pickle some.

See how well this plant is growing on the tomato cage? Its sister plant is a little more rebellious. I'm liking the use of the tomato cage though, normally my cucumbers just sprawl all over the garden.

See how well this plant is growing on the tomato cage? Its sister plant is a little more rebellious. I’m liking the use of the tomato cage though, normally my cucumbers just sprawl all over the garden.

Cukes have always grown really well for me. This is my first year using the tomato cages to try to keep them off the ground. It seems to be working, but I keep needing to put one of the plants back onto the cage, it hasn’t grabbed hold. The other plant has been behaving nicely. Newsflash: plants do what they want!

OK, that’s my garden report for August. Hopefully soon we’ll be eating it all up, and I will definitely tell you about it when we do.


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Raspberry-Chipotle Jam with the Ladies’ Preservation Society

Raspberries from the Farmer's Market, one of my favorite things!

Raspberries from the Farmer’s Market, one of my favorite things!

Oh my! I can’t believe it’s taken me two weeks to post this! The Ladies Preservation Society met two weeks ago, how late can I be? Well, let’s not waste any more time…

Peel the lemon (get as little white part as possible), slice the peel, and juice the lemon.

Peel the lemon (get as little white part as possible), slice the peel, and juice the lemon.

For our July meeting, it was a friend’s turn to choose a recipe. She thought up the idea to do a raspberry and chipotle jam, and was surprised to find there already was a recipe for it online. Well, as they say, there is nothing new under the sun. So we went out to the farmer’s market on the most gorgeous day to collect our fruit.

Slicing the chipotle pepper. You also add some of the adobo sauce from the can.

Slicing the chipotle pepper. You also add some of the adobo sauce from the can.

Part of the fun of the Ladies’ Preservation Society is the chance to make foods we might not normally have the time or the creativity to do ourselves. I didn’t know what to expect from this recipe. Sweet and smoky isn’t a flavor combination I’m used to. But, sweet/salty or sweet/savory are huge right now, and I’m a big fan of those for sure. The recipe contains lemon juice, lemon peel, roasted garlic, chipotle peppers, and adobo sauce, in addition to the fruit and sugar.

Everything in the pot, ready to cook.

Everything in the pot, ready to cook.

Also, this is a no pectin recipe. The only other time I’ve made jam without pectin was quite the saucy failure. So this was a good opportunity for me to take a backseat and learn something new. (As the perennial hostess of these parties and selector of recipes, I’m often the leader. This was a wonderful change!)

We did end up mashing the mixture, as the raspberries were taking a while to fall apart.

Action shot! We did end up mashing the mixture, as the raspberries were taking a while to fall apart.

This was found over at Jules Food, here’s the recipe.

It’s a long recipe, and we followed it closely, so I won’t repost it here. We didn’t have a candy thermometer, so we went by testing the set. It ended up taking us much longer (35 or 40 minutes rather than the 10-15 she suggests) to get a good set. It was a hot day, and I was glad to have the 3 of us, so we could take turns stirring.

Another action shot, look at that swirl! This is after it was cooking for awhile, you can tell it's starting to look like jam.

Another action shot, look at that swirl! This is after it was cooking for awhile, you can tell it’s starting to look like jam.

The end result is a little quirky for me, like more sweet than savory but with a smoky aftertaste. The raspberry flavor is really great, and at first that’s all you taste. Then comes the sort of garlic and chile flavors, then the smoke, then the heat from the peppers. That smoky aftertaste means it’s less like a dessert than most jams, even though it is very sweet. I suggest adding more chipotle and garlic, go whole hog with the savory thing, and maybe try reducing the sugar. I didn’t find it to be very spicy, but if you’re spice-averse follow this recipe first before upping the ante.

Doing a plate test. Keep a couple of small plates in the freezer. To test the set, put a spoonful of the hot jam on the plate and put back in the freezer for 2 minutes. If the jam "wrinkles" when you touch it, it's ready to come off the stove. It took us at least twice as long as the recipe recommended to get the wrinkles.

Doing a plate test. Keep a couple of small plates in the freezer. To test the set, put a spoonful of the hot jam on the plate and put back in the freezer for 2 minutes. If the jam “wrinkles” when you touch it, it’s ready to come off the stove. It took us at least twice as long as the recipe recommended to get the wrinkles.

D says he likes it more than normal raspberry jams, because he likes the acidity and smokiness balancing out the sweetness. I liked it with a soft cheese (like brie… see photo below). It might be perfect on roasted pork or chicken, but I’m vegetarian so I’ll leave that to others to test. I think it’s best just plain on toast (with butter, of course).

As an aside, here's what my stove looks like when I'm making jam. One pot for jam, one (rear) to start heating the water bath water (it takes forever on my electric stove) and one to hold the lids in hot (not boiling) water to keep sterile.

As an aside, here’s what my stove looks like when I’m making jam. One pot for jam, one (rear) to start heating the water bath water (it takes forever on my electric stove) and one to hold the lids in hot (not boiling) water to keep sterile.

Pouring the hot jam into jars. We used a normal funnel this time, for chunkier jams I have a wider-mouth funnel. Also, check out how little counter space I have. That's my whole counter, and it's always a mess! Yet I find that I can still manage to do a lot of cooking. Someday maybe I'll have a big kitchen, but I'm not wait for that day to have fun cooking.

Pouring the hot jam into jars. We used a normal funnel this time, for chunkier jams I have a wider-mouth funnel. Also, check out how little counter space I have. That’s my whole counter, and it’s always a mess! Yet I find that I can still manage to do a lot of cooking. Someday maybe I’ll have a big kitchen, but I’m not going to wait for that day to have fun cooking.

Beautiful!

Beautiful! I love the jewel tones in jam, and the raspberry seeds are like stars.

Last but definitely not least... the payoff! I love doing taste-testing pictures, because it means I have to do a lot of tasting. Enjoy!

Last but definitely not least… the payoff! I love doing taste-testing pictures, because it means I have to do a lot of tasting. Enjoy!