Refrigerated pickles…not just for cucumbers

IMG_20140812_124952659      IMG_20140812_123528181 With the vegetable season in full bloom, we are starting our “preserving season”. This is my most favorite part of the year…other than Christmas (we save our finest goodies for this holiday). From our garden we have a plethora of zucchinis and hopefully tomatoes to preserve. We get our plums and Asian pears from my parents and other fruits from our friends and neighbors.  We also forage for berries and mushrooms and utilize farm stands and of course our lovely CSA to obtain food for us to preserve.  This year, we hope to barter for some produce and other goodies.

Pickling is one of my most favorite means to preserve food. We have a pantry with all of our can goods (which will be remodeled this year to better store our food…later on that) and it adds joy to my life when I see the colorful jars of preserved goods I know my family will enjoy through seasons of tasteless grocery store vegetables. Pickling is not difficult but it takes some time out of your schedule and I think that is one major reason some people shy away from it. To avoid the semi lengthy process of canning our pickled products (we will be doing so later in the season, for longer storage), we make refrigerated pickled vegetables including squash, apples, daikon/radishes, onions and of course, cucumbers.

Paul introduced me to pickled squash and I haven’t been the same since. “Why hasn’t my family done this before?”, enters my mind every time I take a bite of the sweet and tangy little treats.

Refrigerated pickles differ in taste and have lots of advantages over traditional pickling. You still have to sterilize the jars and the lids (which is no problem for us since our new dishwasher comes with a sterilizing function which saves me the hassle of doing it with hot water) and make the brine but since you get to keep the goodies in your fridge (versus canning) at that point you are almost done. Another advantage is texture, for things like summer squashes, pickles, and apples, the texture is more crunchy and firm–which is more desirable by most. Don’t get me wrong, if done right, all pickles are crunchy but it takes some art to perfect the brine and the temperature where the goodies are stored–hence the popularity of root cellars. Last but not least, the most important advantage of refrigerated pickles versus the conventional pickling is the instant gratification! Chop, brine, refrigerate and enjoy (plus or minus a day, depending on how pickled you want things to be).

Our first pickling experience of the season will be summer squash since we have lots of it!  You will need about 7 cups of chopped squash total, the size and thickness of the squash is entirely up to you.

We have Ronde de Nice heirloom summer squashIMG_20140812_123621815

Zephry summer squash (a Middle-Eastern variety)

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Pattypan squash

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and of course, zucchini.  

The rest ingredients are:

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  • 1 cup grated carrots ( I used my veggie noodle maker…mainly because I like using it but also because it made the carrot look cool.
  • 1 cup thinly sliced onions
  • 1 cup finely chopped pepper (spicy, if that is preferred)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tbs mustard seeds
  • 1 tbs pickling salt

Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl and let it sit in the fridge overnight.  Squashes will produce lots of liquid and mix with the sugar, salt and vinegar to produce “the brine”.  The next day, pack the squash tightly into jars (you can reuse recycled (sterilized) jars) and pour the brine over the vegetables and refrigerate. Done!  The squash can be kept in the fridge for about three months or it can be canned in the pressure cooker or water bath using the same recipe.  We usually do a few batches of both.  We enjoy the “fresh” pickles first and then brake into the canned stash.

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We usually eat this as a anti-pasti, snacks, or include it into fresh vegetable salads–it adds a nice touch to an otherwise boring green salad.  Out of seven cups of squash, I made four small(er) jars and one big one, for us.  I made the four little ones for our family to give away

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The zucchini saga will continue as we freeze some to be saved for baby food. Our latest addition will be discovering solid food at a time of year when fresh vegetables are hard to find, or from south of the equator. The plan is to blanch and freeze the zucchini, and other vegetables, and use a Beaba babycook, which is a small steamer and food processor in one, to prepare baby food for him as needed. The quality of baby food prepared this way is not even comparable to store bought.

We had thought of canning our own, but decided against it. First of all, we would either have to deal with tons of tiny jars or always have a partially used, larger jar in the refrigerator, loosing quality and potentially spoiling. By freezing the vegetables in a mostly uncooked state we are maximizing the nutritional value, while allowing us to make small amounts as needed.

Since we received our bulk share of peaches and basil, next on our to do list will be cinnamon peach jam, Black berry and basil jam and pesto!   Canning tomatoes and making dill pickles are also in our near future, not to mention two or three more batches of refrigerated summer squash. 

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Thanks for reading!

We Are Jammin’

Yesterday, I made my favorite jams, using Italian plums and star anise.  I have been itching to use this spice for so long but never knew where and how to apply it to my cooking. I know it is a key ingredient in Pho, which is my favorite soups but I haven’t cooked the broth myself, yet.

My mom and dad have a mini fruit orchard and a vegetable garden in their back yard and the Italian plums are in their prime right now (I also get my black currants, Cherries, Asian pears an other kinds of plums from them).  The other day, my dad brought me a bag of just ripe plums. I would say about three pounds or so. There is more on the way! He lets them ripen on the tree and hand selects each one prior to picking them. He’s retired and has lots of time to do such things.

My parents garden/mini orchard:

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Once I opened the bag and smelled them, I knew that the star anise would complement the plums perfectly!  I was right.  The sweet and tangy flavorful plum and the spicy licorice-y flavor of the anise combine and make magic!  The jam is a perfect consistency for spreading on bread with perhaps peanut butter for a quick lunch, on waffles or pancakes for a Sunday breakfast or on brie to make a fancy little appetizer for a dinner party.  I am officially in love with star anise!

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I used to make jams and can them.  Anyone who has made jam before knows the obscene amounts of sugar that is required; generally equal parts fruit and sugar.  Canning the jam also takes a lot of time and heat and when it is 97 degrees outside, adding extra heat is not the best idea.

So what does one do?  Make freezer jam.  Basically, you take the same fruit, a third to half of the sugar needed for standard jam, depending on how sweet the fruit is and add a little heat.  I still sterilize the jars and the lids. Why not be extra safe? Combine the fruit and the sugar together. You can blend it if you desire a smooth jam. I always blend my black currant jam. The texture is phenomenal since the berry has lots of natural pectin and gets jelly like. Then heat on low heat until you get the first boil bubble.  Keep it on the heat for about five minutes and then pour into the jars with head room.  Wipe the jars well otherwise the sugar will make the lids stick, making opening that jar later a pain in the butt.  Since the jam is boiling hot when it goes into the jar, the lids will pop, technically, canning the jam but since there is less sugar, which is the preservative in this case, I still freeze them.  I avoid botulism like there is no tomorrow. It just doesn’t seem like a good way to go, plus it’s easy to avoid!

The jam can be kept in the refrigerator for a while but for long term (more than six months) it should be frozen.  I always use canning jars since I know they can be frozen.  Technically, you can reuse any jar, but you have to make sure the glass can be frozen to -20 degrees.  If you are planning on keeping the jam in the fridge, go ahead and reuse jars that you recycled, but if you are planning on sticking them in the freezer, invest in canning jars.  The cost of jars will be justified with many years of use and all the funds you save on the delicious homemade jams you will enjoy.

Here are some pictures of the jams we already preserved.  The recipe and procedures are pretty much the same and to be honest, I rarely follow a recipe, I tend to be the add a pinch here and a dash there type a gal.

Star Anise and Italian Plum Jam

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Blueberry and Fennel (with lemon juice) Jam

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Blueberry and Raspberry Jam (We also have blueberry and strawberry jam, no picture, sorry)

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Black Currants (being washed)

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Hope you guys take the time to make the Plum and Anise jam. It truly is a delectable treat!

Next on our agenda for jams will include: Peach and Cinnamon,  Apricot and Lavender,  Wild Plum and Balsamic Vinegar, Blackberry and Basil,  Asian pear with allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon and Some fruit with Tarragon, I haven’t decided yet (any thoughts??).  We will post pictures and reviews as soon as we make them.  

Why so many jams you ask?  Mainly because it is so fun to see, smell and taste your creations (instant gratification) but also because jams make great Christmas, birthday or hostess gifts and good items for bartering!  We try our best to give gifts that are handmade by us or locally.

Thanks for reading!  I hope I inspired at least one person to jam with me.  Please send comments, recipes and pictures of your preserved goodies.

 

Wild Zucchini Season–Raw Zucchini Noodles!

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With two prolific zucchini plants and a CSA box every week, we are eating a lot of zucchini lately. So far, we have had them grilled, sauteed with blue cheese, raw, stuffed and as noodles in soup. Today, I made a pretty darn delicious raw zucchini noodle dish. It’s simple, tasty and very healthy!

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To make the noodles, I got to use one of my favorite kitchen toys–a vegetable noodle maker. We got this Paderno model from Amazon.com and have been very pleased with it so far. I have not done a price comparison on other sites or stores, but with Prime, this one is inexpensive and works great.  I did a brief search on vegetable slicers and this one came recommended by many and had great reviews (4.5 stars with other 3,000 reviews).  One very common negative critique was that due to the design of the blade, you can’t use all of your zucchini and that it is wasteful.  I find that kind of silly.  Yes, you leave a slice of vegetable about two centimeters wide–not a big loss in my opinion and our chickens happily ate it. Yet another great reason to become backyard chicken owners–less food waste. Below is a picture of what that “food waste” looks like…yes, I know it looks like…well…slightly inappropriate.  It comes with three different blades.  One for ribbon making, which makes an awesome cucumber and sesame oil/vinegar salad and two for noodles; small–pasta size and large–curly fries size.  The blades just slide in and out of the base and have a little storage compartment. It’s a pretty sweet little machine, efficient, super easy to use and clean.  I am very against accumulating  lot of junk in the kitchen. There is no need for an avocado knife, a cherry pit remover or a banana knife, all of these tasks can be done with a single knife. It is just as efficient and takes up less room. 

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Here is the recipe.

The ingredient list is simple: zucchini, tomato(es), basil, Walla Walla sweet onion, salt and pepper to taste, and olive oil.  The directions are even more simpler.

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  • Thinly slice onions
  • Cut tomatoes into desired bite size pieces (mine was a beef steak, so I cut it into quarters and then chopped it up into wedges, really it is up to you).
  • Chop up the basil and the feta cheese.
  • Combine all of the above into a bowl, add salt and pepper and olive oil.
  • Mix and let it sit for 10 minutes.
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  • Make zucchini noodles.  Since zucchinis produce a lot of water, I do this part last–combine all ingredients together, mix and let it marinate for about 5 minutes.
  • Enjoy!

I served this dish with chicken patties (nothing special, ground thigh meat, to which I added two table spoons of bread crumbs, two table spoons of cold water and one egg and fried the patties in a skillet with a bit of oil).  Next time, if I will have a protein source such as chicken patties accompanying this dish,  I will omit the feta.  It was good, but you can decrease the calorie content  of your meal and really, do we need that much protein in one sitting? If this dish is served on its own, feta or any sharp cheese adds a nice flavor.

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Paul enjoyed it very much and the kids didn’t even try it but that was expected. He suggested that this be our weekly item on the board and with all the tomatoes and zucchinis we are expecting, I would say that is a great possibility!

Please leave a comment and thanks for reading!

They crowed–It’s Soup Time!

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So, what does one do when roosters crow–yep, it is soup time! As of the middle of last week Paul culled and processed all eight handsome but incredibly annoying boys. We did an obscene amount of research on this to make it as peaceful for the birds as possible. Our plan was to give them a shot of vodka (some apparently like that), hypnotize them, perform cervical dislocation and then make a cut on each side of the neck. Well, it did not quite go that way. Booze was turned down and hypnotizing did not work, even though some swear by it. After fooling around with all these “techniques” for 20 minutes or so, Paul realized that he was causing more stress trying to make things easy on the birds. As it is with many of our projects, it was getting too late and the mosquitoes were out, and starving. Paul calmed the chickens down by holding them and petting them. Then in one quick motion, as described in the “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens”, he broke the neck, hung the bird upside down by the feet and made a cut on each side of the neck to bleed it out. It turned out to be much less traumatic than we had built it up to be, or as difficult as described to us by some.

It is an experience that is very much out of our ordinary lives up until now. However, it is not cruel or horrible. If you are choosing to eat meat, this is the best way to truly appreciate your decision. Paul is very familiar with the process for cleaning fish, having been an avid fisherman during his childhood. However, a warm blooded animal is completely different. The amount of blood let out after cutting the jugular is very minimal, maybe 2 tablespoons. After this, there is no blood in the body of the chicken. The head was very simply removed my hand after letting the body hang for a couple of minutes. From there a decision in made. If you are going to eat the skin, you need a big pot of hot water. One tip gleaned from a video of Joel Salatin plucking chickens at the Puyallup fair, was that after a 30 second or so dunk in near boiling water, the bird should be moved to an ice bath. This seemed to really loosen up the feathers, and made plucking quite an easy task. However, feathers to do get EVERYWHERE. It is helpful to have a towel and a bucket or some other collection vessel nearby to deposit the feathers. A hose nearby is also very helpful, to spray any loose feathers off the outside of the bird.

If you are not going to eat the skin, you simply start taking the skin off. Paul made small cut on the skin around the neck with a knife, and then used his hands to remove the skin from there. Much of it peels off like a wet sock (although the meat is remarkably dry, nothing like that of a store bought chicken). When you get to the wings, things start to get kind of tough to pull, and Paul decided to just cut off the wing tips once he got the skin to that point. There is not much meat there, and going gets tough trying to pull the skin of those points. Once you get the rest of the skin separated down towards the vent, with one last tug, it all comes off. At this point, you should have a totally skinless, wing tipless, chicken, with most likely a bunch of feathers all over it.

At this point, the legs were removed. A quick nick with the knife, around the point where the feathers stop and the scaly leg starts makes easy work removing them. Once removed, they were dropped in a pot of boiling water for a moment, less than a minute, and then dropped in the ice water. The toenails pop off easily after this, and the scales peel off easily, producing a very clean leg. We have heard that once upon a time, housewives would hold a grudge against a butcher that did not include the legs in the sale of a chicken, as if they were being totally ripped off. This is supposedly the secret ingredient in “real” chicken soup. We are anxious to see.

Another tip is to remove the gland at the tip on the “tail”. It produced an oil that the birds use to coat their feathers. Apparently this oil tastes terrible. If left on the bird during cooking, it may ruin the meat. If the bird has been plucked, it is a very obvious lump just before the tip of the tail, that can be easily excised with a knife. If the bird was skinned, it’s easiest to simply remove the whole tail, as there is very little left at that point. A quick motion at the base of the tail with a sharp knife is all that is needed.

From there, the organs are removed. A small incision is made above the vent, only large enough to get hand in the body cavity. A good policy is to remove the bird in question’s food for a day or so, to ensure there is minimal feces during this part of the process. We only did that for the first bird, so there was a bit more poo present during the slaughter of the other seven birds. Either way, if you grip the colon at the outermost part, inside the bird with your thumb and forefinger, you can prevent most of anything that is present from squirting out during this step. With the colon pinched, you cut around the “exit”, so that it is freed, and then pull as gently as possible to remove the gut, gizzard, heart, liver and anything else that will come with it. One thing to be careful of, although it is very hard to see at this point, is the gall bladder, which is attached to the liver. It is very delicate, and can be ruptured easily. We have read that this can greatly diminish the quality of the meat, so it should be avoided. From there, the esophagus can be pulled through the neck, which may require some loosening from the head-side, with a finger. Now all that is left is the lungs, which are stuck to the sides of the rib cage. A scrape with an index finger usually gets them going, and then they can be pulled out.

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We saved the livers in a separate container, with the idea that we will make paté in the future. The neck was removed, and bagged separately. The gizzard was cut in half, equatorially, rinsed out, and saved separately with the heart. These will probably be turned in to dog food, as neither one of us  know how to prepare these, nor do they seem particularly appetizing (but they are fascinating!). The legs were also bagged separately. All these parts were frozen, for future use. 

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Liver, pate to come

We roasted the first rooster the oven, as we have done many store bought chickens in the past. However, our rooster made for a very different experience.  He was very skinny compared to a supermarket bird. Another thing we noticed right away was the lack of smell. We find that store bought chicken has a very distinctive, and unpleasant smell.  Our rooster has a noted lack of smell.  Store bought chicken is also typically found in a bag of pink slime.  The rooster was completely dry, and lacked any slime.  His breast was the size of what most know as chicken tenders and his meat was very delicate–almost like rabbit. Some of the thinner pieces were a bit stringy and chewy (I did not care for that texture) but the drum sticks and thighs were meaty and more familiar. Considering what we have been told about how tough rooster are, we thought this turned out quite well. The others were frozen and will probably be turned into soup. We plan on freezing some of the stock in gallon bags and ice cube trays, to punch up future recipes.

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Birds, with the thighs and wings inside the body cavity, ready for the freezer.

 

What we learned from this experience:

  • Culling a chicken is not  brutal or horrifying. It was not nearly as difficult or life-altering as we had built it up to be. It was actually fun, in a most solemn way.
  • There is no way to get closer to the source of your food, or gain more respect and appreciation for the animal that it came from.
  • WTF do they do to store bought chicken to make it all smelly and slimy? We are definitely thinking twice about eating any factory farmed chicken, organic or not, from here out.
  • As backyard chickens become more popular, there will be a corresponding number of old laying hens that people don’t know what to do with. They can always be used to do yard work, but some people may not see the benefit of this vs the cost of feed to keep hens that aren’t laying eggs. We also know a lot of people that aren’t comfortable with the idea of killing an animal they have grown accustomed to (we are not sure we are either; we had planned this from the beginning with the roosters). However, many people say that the best soup comes from old laying hens. There will come a time in many suburban backyards when a decision will have to be made, and we hope that by conveying a positive experience, we can help make the decision to retire your old hen to the soup pot a little easier.

As an aside, last summer we adopted two ducklings. As is usual around the Homestead in the Suburbs, we kept putting off building an official duck enclosure, while keeping them in a fenced in area under the chicken coop at night. What we didn’t realize is that there was an opening in the back of the fencing just big enough to allow a raccoon to get in. One night we were awoken to the ducks quaking, and found a raccoon inside the makeshift duck house, and a couple of its friends waiting for a meal on the fence. They took off as soon as we turned on the lights, but the damage was done. They mortally wounded both of the ducks, but failed to kill them. After several phone calls to an emergency vet clinic, and a lot of back and forth between the two of us, we ended up having them euthanized, for a total cost of $270.

At the time we were against slaughtering our own animals, and didn’t even know how. We still feel like it was the best decision to make at the time, as dealing with two wounded birds in what could only be a lot of pain is not the time to self teach how to properly kill one. However the whole experience has never sat well with us. $270 would buy a hell of a lot of duck or duck eggs at the grocery store. It was shortly after this that we decided it would behoove us to learn how to deal with a situation like this ourselves, in the future. We feel like it makes us more responsible chicken owners knowing how to put an animal out of misery as humanely as possible, if the situation should arise again, though we have taken precautions to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.

One last thought for this unusually long post. Earlier this year, before we bought our Jersey chicks, we considered participating in a chicken CSA, offered through a farm nearby our produce CSA. The program offered varying numbers of birds over several months, with the total cost coming out to around $28-32 per bird, depending on how many you purchased. Their birds are pasture raised, and looked like they had better lives than many people live. We thought about it, and came to the conclusion that it was “too expensive.” At that point we decided to try raising meat birds ourselves. We recently did a cost analysis on our meat flock, and have come to the conclusion that each one of our roosters cost about $22. This includes the initial cost, feed and hay. It does not include all the time spent taking care of them, the space that we have sacrificed in keeping them, general inconvenience or time spent butchering them. When all is said and done, the cost of the CSA seems more than fair. Here is a link to their website.

August Farm 

If we decide to raise meat birds in the future, we have some ideas to help cut the cost. We have had two hens go broody this year. There are companies online offering fertilized eggs for as little as $1 each. It would be very easy to hatch out a dozen or so eggs this way, and would probably make our hens happy too. There is also the benefit of having the mother hen introduce the chicks to the flock. She will put the smack down on anybody that tries to mess with them, thereby making integration potentially faster, and certainly less worrisome.

However, as the saying goes, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. We would never be certain of how many chickens we would end up with, using this method. It is also the smallest portion of the total cost of raising a meat bird ($5 initial cost for our Jersey giant chicks, which is expensive for a chick).

The bottom line is, the cost of food is the deal breaker. Unless we have a piece of land large enough that we can pasture the chickens, we will always need to buy food for them, and it a’int cheap! We just about break even with the eggs, but with meat birds things get more complicated. You are dealing with feed conversion ratios, length of time until harvest, and the fact that the roosters start to get noisy well before they are truly full sized. This is just not very well suited to a suburban lot.

Thanks for reading! Please post any questions or comments you have!