food : Dark Days Challenge

What better way to kick off the month of December than join in a local food challenge! It’s dark, it’s cold, the growing season is over, right? Wrong! At least, not completely so. Thanks to Even’Star Farm‘s commitment to year-round farming, we receive a CSA through the winter. It consists of cooking greens, salad greens, and root vegetables (turnips, rutabaga, sweet potatoes, and radishes). As a result, we are cooking with local foods all through the winter; historically, the challenge has not been finding the food but rather finding new recipes to make that take us beyond our beans-and-greens rut.

For the purposes of the Dark Days Challenge, I am going to work on minimizing the non-local ingredients used in my cooking. The challenge is not only to use local food, it’s to keep as many ingredients as what the originator refers to as SOLE: sustainable, organic, local, and ethical. In this framework, the staples I buy that can’t be (easily) sourced locally fit the bill. Our organic oils are from Spectrum; I am particularly committed to their canola oil, in an effort to push back against the GMO-rapeseed that has become dominant in the United States. Sugar is certified fair-trade and organic, supplied by Wholesome Sweeteners; cocoa and coffee are also certified fair-trade and organic, from Equal Exchange. Organic spices are from Frontier, a member cooperative; butter is from Organic Valley, a regional farmers’ cooperative (milk, eggs, and cheese are from specific local farmers). Organic flour is from King Arthur, a regional company if you count Vermont as at all local to DC (I don’t necessarily, but still value East Coast products over West Coast ones); Bob’s Red Mill is another option for a (now) worker-owned company.

To supplement the vegetables in our CSA, I’ll visit the year-round farmers market in Takoma Park and shop the local items at My Organic Market (typically from Pennsylvania, from many of the same farms who supply our summer CSA). Already I know that I want to make a sweet potato pie, and am hoping that my favorite made-in-Philadelphia gingersnaps qualify as “local” for the purposes of the crust. Truly, with a new little person in the house, I don’t have the time or energy to go searching out more local sources for flour and grains and the like. For me, this challenge is about making the most of what we have readily available to us in the winter and instituting some regularity in blogging about it. For inspiration, I can always turn to recipes tried out by those who’ve done this before.

To start us off, I’ve compiled a list of the produce we already have on hand in the house:

  • sweet potatoes (orange, cream, and Japanese purple)
  • shallot, garlic, and onions
  • green tomatoes
  • Italian sweet peppers and Cubanelle peppers
  • potatoes (red and white)
  • squash (butternut and acorn)
  • greens (arugula, Chinese thick-stem mustard, salad mix, stir-fry mix, and parsley [more of them were destined for the composter than I realized])
  • turnips, carrots, and radishes
  • apples (Pink Lady, Gala, and Stayman)
  • mushrooms (cremini and shitake)
  • cranberries
  • lemons (organic, but not local)
  • pumpkin and squash puree [frozen]
  • persimmon puree [frozen]
  • tomato puree and juice [frozen]
  • chopped kale [frozen]
  • blueberries, cherries, rhubarb, and peaches [frozen]

There are probably things I’m forgetting, and we’re getting more tomorrow (our last summer delivery) and Thursday (our regular winter delivery). But that will do to get started.

food : Dark Days Challenge

food : summer canning

Lemon garlic pickles, spicy bread and butter pickles, brandied peaches, sour cherry-walnut conserve, cherry sauce (with rum), and canned cherries, with pickled summer squash in front.

Now is as good a time as any to report on the canning I did this summer. I had big plans to make cherry jam, or even cherry preserves, however my stubborn refusal to (a) follow a recipe or (b) use pectin landed us only with jars and jars of variations on cherry sauce (something like 13 half-pints in all). I am sure that if we ever make pancakes or eat ice cream it will be delicious, and we have a many year supply now on hand. I did follow a Ball recipe and made 7 half-pints of sour cherry-walnut conserve, which turned out more sour and more grainy than I’d imagined. I’m not sure I like it; I’ll let you know where I stand when we make it through the remaining jars.

Besides the cherry experiments, pickles were my main focus. Using produce from our CSA and the farmers’ market, I made several types of pickles: 7 pints of lemon garlic cucumber pickles, which included sliced red pepper and are canned with a whole garlic clove and lemon slice in each jar; 6 pints of spicy bread and butter pickles, with less sugar and more red pepper flakes than the traditional recipe; 2.5 pints of pickled summer squash, a sweet pickle that’s combined with sliced onions; and 2 quarts of lime-mint cucumber pickles, which are a freezer pickle that I am very much looking forward to thawing this winter. All of the recipes, most of which were from The Joy of Pickling, turned out well; we particularly enjoyed the lemon-garlic pickles, and once I became used to the kick of the bread and butter pickles I ate them regularly on sandwiches. I’m looking forward to using them all (in combination with the pickled beets) for a pickle platter at our holiday party.

Just before we went away on vacation, I also made a batch of brandied peaches using the New York Times recipe. Despite some issues with generating way more liquid than needed, they were delicious and we are hoarding the remaining three pints for the dreary days of winter. We’re forecasted to have a cold wet season here this year, so the alcoholically preserved fruit concoctions should be quite the ticket.

food : summer canning

food : autumn canning

Applesauce, tomato sauce, pear mincemeat, and pickled beets, with spiced pear jam in front.

A couple of weeks ago, we spent an afternoon at Larriland Farm, where we picked our own bags of Stayman apples (48 pounds), beets (20 pounds), and Roma tomatoes (30 pounds). I also bought three smallish pie pumpkins and a box of pear seconds. This last was from Catoctin Mountain Orchard, where we’d hoped to pick apples and were disappointed to discover they were only sold pre-picked from the store (thus the trip over to Larriland). My plan was to turn all of this into canned goods, that we’d eat through the winter while marveling at my foresight and dedication to our tastebuds. Okay, maybe not the last bit, but making the food last a good long time was definitely the plan.

The first day, I made tomato sauce from Barbara Kingsolver’s recipe from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The sauce was tasty (we had enough left over for a meal that night), and I have 10 quarts of it to look forward to eating over the next year. I have 10 quarts of it because…well, because the 30 pounds of mostly Roma tomatoes I picked were apparently much denser than the 30 pounds of tomatoes she calls for in her recipe. So I had two big pots of sauce simmering down, which were then combined into one big pot, which was then augmented with another 1/2 recipe of spices, and finally simmered down to 10 quarts. It’s not only that my 30 pounds was more voluminous than her 30 pounds, it was also that I puréed the tomatoes by putting them fresh into a food processor, not by cooking them and straining them and then putting them into a food processor. So whatever liquid was in the tomatoes was in the pot waiting to be cooked off. Nothing I’ve read says that the way I did it was wrong, and I still had a half recipe more than projected, so I’m thinking the larger factor was having all Roma tomatoes. At any rate, come on over for pasta!

After the tomatoes were dealt with, I proceeded on to beets. Over the course of the next three days, the 20 pounds of beets became 19 pints of pickled beets (technically 21 pints, as two went into the fridge and we ate it right away). While this works out to about one pound per pint, the recipe was in cups of sliced beets so it was a bit…exciting…to figure out how many were needed for each batch. In the end, I just boiled pots of beets, skinned them in cool water (much easier than peaches, or tomatoes for that matter), and stored them in the fridge until they could be sliced and pickled in 10 cup increments. I used the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving recipe, and had to double the amount of liquid to fill the five pint jars per batch. (I found that if I stored the extra beets and liquid from the first batch, and added them to the pot at the end of the second batch, two batches made 11 pints.) Don’t ask me why; maybe my pot had too much surface area, maybe I boiled it too vigorously for too long. Whatever the reason, I needed more liquid (which is how we ended up with 2 pints in the fridge in the first round). Before I started I considered making a variety of flavors of pickled beets, but in the end I stuck with the regular kind, figuring that everyone knows and likes the familiar taste so why mess around with it. So, come on over for pickled beets!

The other major effort was turning the apples into applesauce. These Stayman weren’t particularly great, sort of mushy and not as tart as I remember from previous years, so my plan was to combine them with a few Empire apples (from my market friends at Harris Orchards) and make them all into sauce. About 12 pounds of apples goes into four quarts, and with the combination of the two kinds I had plenty for four batches with some left over. I started off following the Ball recipe, but quickly abandoned it as it uses far more sugar than I like. (It also calls for a tablespoon of lemon juice for each quart; I forgot to add it for one batch, which led us to do some research and learn that the USDA does not require lemon juice for canning apples, as all apples on the market are acidic enough to safely can using the water bath method. I still added the lemon juice to the last batch, but don’t worry if the recipe you have doesn’t include it or you forget.) The first batch I made with half the amount of sugar and some cinnamon, and it came out way too sweet (I’m sure my partner will slurp it up like the candy it is). The second batch I made with only 1/2 cup of sugar, the way I like it, and the third I made with more cinnamon (2 teaspoons) and 1 cup of sugar (which still made it a very sweet dessert sauce). The last batch was back to the 1/2 cup, and the apples were old enough by that point that even the added lemon juice couldn’t keep them from browning up quickly. It still tastes fine, but doesn’t look as nice in the jar (which destines it for early consumption). Now that the sauce is out of the way, I’m looking forward to another round of tart apples (such as Granny Smith and Braeburn) to make into other things, like chutney and mincemeat.

Speaking of mincemeat, that’s what I made from the pears. Two kinds of mincemeat (one with rum and currants, and one with port and regular raisins) both from the Ball book. The pears were overripe and very juicy, so I’m not sure that the consistency is quite right on the mincemeat, but they both tasted delicious (if a bit overly sweet; for a person with a sweet tooth, I seem to be at the low-sugar end of the range). I’m sure they’ll be a hit at Christmas, and their beef-free status makes them worth their weight in dried fruit. These two recipes were also by volume (10 cups of chopped pears each) rather than weight, and I neglected to weigh the fruit ahead of time, so I don’t actually know what we acquired for our six dollars. Enough to make 8 pints of mincemeat and another 7 half-pints of jam. The jam was the first attempt at using pectin, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the jam gelled up beautifully. On the other hand, the jam seems cloyingly sweet to me, although that’s somewhat cut when it’s actually on toast and not just being taste-tested from a spoon. It’s a nice recipe, though, with cinnamon and dried cranberries for a bit of a spicy-tart undercurrent. Of course, as soon as I’d used all the pears this way, a friend pointed out that Elise put up a pear butter recipe at Simply Recipes, so I’m tempted to get another box of pears and make pear butter next week. The downside is that it involves cooking the pears then putting them through the food mill, a process that I generally dislike. The upside is that it looks delicious!

Now, I just need to cook, purée, and freeze the pie pumpkins and the kitchen dining room will be cleared and ready for the next round of apples. Just as soon as I find a place to store all the filled jars.

food : autumn canning

food : peaches

This year I am canning peaches for the first time. I’ve never been drawn to canned fruits, although I know people who can pears and peaches every year in massive batches. I couldn’t resist the recipe for brandied peaches that reran in the New York Times recently, and decided that I could make a few pints. Since I was only able to scrounge up four wide-mouthed pint jars in the house, four was what I settled on. Which is good, because six pounds of peaches is heckuva lot. At every step—weighing, peeling, slicing, boiling—the bowls and pots I have were at capacity.

The peaches themselves were not the best I’ve ever had. They were ripe, with a couple of exceptions, but the texture was a bit mealy (which I discovered when I went to have one for breakfast earlier in the week). They came from the farmers’ market, from Harris Orchard which generally has excellent fruit. I think the weather this year just didn’t agree with stone fruit, even more than is typically true in this area.I hope they won’t fall apart with cooking; it’s my belief that sugar syrup and brandy will go a long way toward making the texture of the peaches not of paramount importance, but maybe that’s the wrong end of the stick.

After cooking them in sugar syrup until just soft, I packed them into the jars. I’m pretty sure I cooked them too long, and I’m not clear on what I could have done to have the jar not be filled with liquid that seeped out of the peaches. Maybe drain them in a colander first? That seems to defeat the purpose of having them hot. At any rate, I drained them a bit in order to have room in the jars for more sugar syrup, but in the end only had room for the brandy. So, I had an enormous pot of sugar syrup left over. It seems inconceivable that peaches cooked in sugar syrup could end up not being sweet enough, so I’m going to assume that they’ll be fine. In the unlikely event that they’re not, I suppose we can sprinkle sugar on them.

In the future, if I do this again, I think I’ll keep the peaches in halves and definitely not cook them nearly as long. I’ll let you know around Christmas how this batch turned out.

food : peaches

food : tomatoes

A couple of things have contributed to my silence around here the past couple of weeks. One, it’s been godawful hot and sitting in front of our furnace of a computer is the last thing I want to be doing. Plus, the heat makes my brain melt so anything that requires stringing words together coherently is out. Two, we’ve been up to our eyeballs in fruits and vegetables, and it seems like I’ve been working around the clock to chop, peel, dice, slice, bake, roast, stew, and generally turn them into meals. It probably hasn’t been around the clock, it just seems that way because the kitchen gets so hot.

This year has not been great for tomatoes in our area, so we didn’t get as many early in the season as we usually do. In the past, we’ve been heartily sick of tomatoes by this point in the summer, and this year we’re just getting going. I’ve had sliced Purple Cherokee tomatoes on fried egg sandwiches and my partner’s been taking the assortment of cherry tomatoes to work with his lunch. That leaves us with several pints per week from our CSA (now quarts as the harvest picks up) of mid-sized red, orange, and yellow tomatoes to deal with, in addition to whatever odds and ends are given to us by our friends with the enormous garden. Two weeks ago the solution was deer chili. Yes, I said deer chili. I know that you couldn’t pay me to eat a venison burger during the nine years I lived in a deer-shooting-friendly state, but now that I’m a grown-up and the deer is free and leaner than beef, I’ve succumbed. It’s actually not that bad, and works really well in the recipes in which I’d previously used ground turkey. So, yeah, I’m not a vegetarian anymore, but that still doesn’t mean I’ll eat any of the meat that is reasonably easy to procure and cheap by way of coming from a CAFO. Mennonite-raised chickens and turkeys, wild salmon, and deer killed by a friend: that’s about the whole of it. I may branch out to Mennonite-raised pigs for the holidays this year; don’t hold your breath, though.

At any rate, the chili was good and used up a lot of tomatoes. We have another 2 lb. package of ground venison, but since we also have 2 containers of chili in the freezer, I probably won’t make another batch just yet. Last week I made ratatouille for the first time in order to use up some tomatoes and one of the two eggplants we had in the fridge. While I ate ratatouille growing up, I never buy eggplants of my own volition because I don’t really like them. Since subscribing to our summer CSA, I’ve had to adapt to receiving them as one of the semi-regular vegetables. The first year, I made all of the eggplant into baba ghanoush. Which worked out well, because many of our friends liked it so I could serve it to guests and didn’t have to really eat that much of the eggplant at all. Last year, the weather wasn’t great for eggplants and we didn’t get many (or, possibly, our farmer scaled back because we received so many the year before). This year has been a low-eggplant year, but in CSA terms that means I’ve only gotten a few of the Japanese eggplants and 2 decent sized standard ones. Thus, ratatouille, using the Simply In Season recipe. It was good, and my partner liked it well enough for us to allow for a repeat later this week. I did have to go out and purchase the courge, which I found kind of amusing. Our farmer is committed to not overwhelming us with the vegetable that everyone else is typically overwhelmed with in the summer, thus the summer squash shortage.

Winter squash, however, is a different story. We are already starting to see the boom of winter squash, and I had two spaghetti squashes (one enormous, one normal) to find a use for. I’ve seen those weight loss shows, I know that you can do some weird thing and the squash gets all stringy and you can eat it with sauce if you’re on the Atkins Diet. I just really didn’t know what weird thing, or if this was a food that a person not trying to lose 10 pounds per week would ever want to actually put in their mouths. Since we had the squash we gave it a try, serving the ratatouille over it, and I am pleased to report that it was good. The other half of the (enormous) squash I used to make a cold salad with chunked fresh tomatoes (also chopped onion, minced garlic, and fresh basil). The salad was surprisingly good. I am not the best at cold salads; it rarely occurs to me to make them and I am always doubtful regarding their appeal. Last summer was the first year I made a cold salad other than bean or potato (and I haven’t made potato salad in years), a shredded beet salad from a recipe foisted on me at the farmers’ market by the guy who runs the nearby community garden farm. This year I tried a couple new combinations, and they were all nice so I shouldn’t really have been that surprised that a non-green salad was good. So good that we voted to use the remaining squash for another salad rather than with the ratatouille, even.

In addition to tomatoes, which another round of salad has the benefit of making a dent in, the item I most need to find a use for is chicken stock. Our winter CSA included two stewing chickens, and due to limited time I only ever stewed one of the chickens. (Yes, I don’t have a job, but that doesn’t mean I actually have a lot of time for all-day activities like making chicken stock.) Now, limited freezer space means that I need to use the chicken stock I have before I can thaw and stew the remaining chicken. One of the only recipes that I make regularly with chicken stock—Turkey Lentil Pilaf, also from Simply In Season—also uses up fresh tomatoes, so we’ll be having that tonight and probably a couple more times over the next few weeks. In fact, the recipe doesn’t use much more than chicken stock and tomatoes: lentils, turkey, rice, and fresh mint. Probably also some onion and garlic. Now you know.

After tonight’s pilaf and tomorrow’s ratatouille, I’ll assess the remaining tomatoes and decide if some of them need to be stewed and frozen. And then we’ll pick up our CSA on Thursday and start all over again.

food : tomatoes