When I walk outside right now the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, and my cherry tomatoes are overflowing! It’s time to learn how to make sun dried tomatoes!
I know it’s only February, but I have been spring dreaming the last few days! I’m ready to break out my tank tops and swing on a hammock in a gentle breeze. Sure, it might snow tomorrow, but my mood is looking to the future.
That makes it a great time to revisit my Bright Summer Salsa. This is one of my favorite sunny day foods! It’s spring and summer and fresh and color all swirled together in a beautiful deliciousness. You can eat it as a salsa with tortilla chips. Or you can do it like I do – straight from the bowl with a spoon!
This salsa includes corn, black olives, tomatoes, red onion, and bell pepper for bright bursts of flavor.
It’s got olive oil and avocado to smooth and balance out the flavors.
Then there’s jalapeño, lime, and salt to perk things up.
You’re going to love it!
By Joshua Bardwell, originally posted in May 2011 at Jack-Booted Liberal.
Today, I’m making strawberry preserves!
A caveat: Preserving/canning is easy and basically anybody can do it. That being said, if you do it wrong, you can make whomever eats your food seriously ill. If you want to start canning, find a complete set of instructions and follow them closely. This post is not intended to be a complete set of instructions, although it will contain some helpful tips. You can find instructions for canning all over the Internet. A good source of information is the University of Missouri Extension service. The boxes of pectin that you buy also often contain canning instructions. Follow them closely!
Step 1: Start your water boiling with your jars in it. Depending on how many jars you’re going to can, you may need a lot of water, so it’s good to start this going before anything else, so that the water has time to come to a boil.
The number of jars you need will depend on how much fruit you have to preserve. The recipe will tell you how much fruit you need per pint or per half-pint. My recipe, which I got from the back of my jar of pectin, says I need 1 2/3 cups of crushed strawberries per pint of preserves. I determine that I have a total of 9 cups of crushed fruit, so I divide 1.666 into 9 and determine that I am making 5.4 pints of finished preserves. I will need 5 or 6 pint jars.
Some instructions will tell you that you need to boil the jars in order to sterilize them. The Ball Book of Home Preserving disagrees with this. If you think about it, you’re going to process the closed jars after you fill them. That’s when sterilization occurs. Pre-sterilizing is unnecessary. The real reason, I believe, for pre-boiling your jars, is that it avoids temperature shock. If you take a room temperature jar and put it into a boiling water bath, the jar can crack. Any method of pre-heating the jars will work. Some people put them in the dishwasher. Some people even put them in the oven, although that takes longer, because air is a worse transmitter of heat than water. Since I’ve got to get the water boiling anyway, that’s how I prefer to pre-heat my jars.
There needs to be enough water in the pot to cover the jars by at least 1″ when they are full of preserves. Since the jars are empty when they go into the pre-boil, they displace less water than they will when they’re full, so I usually fill the pot just enough to cover the jars during the pre-boil, and then when I fill the jars, they displace enough water to raise the level to 1″ or more over the jars.
The pot you use for canning can be anything that’s big enough to hold the mason jars and have at least 1″ of water over the top of the jars. I have a huge pressure canner that I like to use, because it lets me can many jars at a time. Be aware, however, that with most forms of fruit preserves, you do not need a pressure canner, because they have sufficiently high acid levels to kill botulism spores. Any pot that will hold boiling water will work for high-acid canning, which is what we’re doing here.
You’ll also notice that I’m using a propane camp stove, even though I have a perfectly functional range top. The reason for this is that I have a glass-top electric range, and the weight of the canner and all that water might break the glass. Also, the propane stove puts out more BTUs than the electric stove, so it boils the water faster. A final benefit is that the propane stove can be put outside during the heat of the summer, which is when most canning goes on.
On a side note, I do a lot of camping, so owning a camp stove is a no-brainer, but it’s wonderful from a preparedness perspective as well. We recently had some bad tornadoes in the southeast, and some of my friends were without electricity (and, hence, their electric range) for a week. A propane camp stove would have gone a long way towards increasing their comfort. If you decide to go this route, I highly recommend buying an adapter that allows you to run your appliance off of a 20 lb propane tank. Most small appliances come with a fitting that attaches to a 1 lb tank. 20 lb tanks have a larger fitting that is usually used for gas grills and larger appliances. 20 lb tanks are better in that they are cheaper per pound and they are refillable, so you don’t have the waste of the empty 1 lb tanks. You can find the adapter in the camping section of some Wal-Mart stores, or online (of course). Here’s an example of such an item:
That item has an attached extension hose, so it’s an adapter and an extension. If you just want the adapter (to attach to the hose that came with your appliance), you can buy that as well, and it’s about 1/3 the cost. Just be careful that you’re buying the right adapter, as there are several different kinds (for example, you don’t want the one that will let you run your big gas grill off a small 1 lb adapter. You’re trying to go the other way, and run a small appliance off a big tank.
Step 2: The next step is to prepare the fruit that’s being preserved. In this case, that involves hulling strawberries and then rinsing them. I’ve got compost on the left for the tops and a colander on the right for the rinsing. I like using a grapefruit spoon to hull strawberries, but Issa prefers a knife.
Step 3: Next, I mash the strawberries with a potato masher. I like to have a lot of solid fruit in the preserves, so I don’t mash them very much. After mashing, I pour them out into a measuring cup, to keep track of how much I’ve got, so I know how many jars I need and how much pectin and sugar to put in.
Step 4: Pour the mashed fruit into the pot and add the appropriate amount of pectin. The recipe will say, “for each pint of preserves, you need X amount of fruit, Y amount of pectin, Z amount of sugar,” and so forth. I’ve got the strawberries in a very tall pot because sometimes when you add the sugar, they froth up a lot, and I’ve had it overflow some of my smaller pots.
A word on pectin. Pectin is a chemical that occurs naturally in plants. It is added to preserves, jams, and jellies as a gelling agent. It’s what causes the preserve to “set up” and be thicker than a sauce. You can make no-added-pectin jams, in which case you boil down the fruit until it naturally thickens. Adding pectin means that you don’t have to cook the fruit as long, which makes for a fresher taste and faster cooking. Adding pectin also increases the odds of successful set. That being said, it’s not absolutely essential that a preserve sets. I’ve eaten many a piece of toast with runny jam on it, and it was just as delicious, if a little bit harder to manage.
There are at least two types of pectin: full-sugar and low/no-sugar. Full-sugar pectin requires a lot of sugar in the recipe to set the preserves—perhaps 1 to 1.25 cups of sugar per cup of fruit. Low-sugar pectin is capable of setting the preserves with less sugar in the recipe—1/2 cup of sugar per cup or less. I prefer low-sugar jams for several reasons. First, sugar is the most expensive part of the preserves for me, since I grow my own fruit. Using less sugar means cheaper preserves. Second, when I eat preserves, I want to be eating fruit first and sugar second, both for health and flavor reasons. That being said, I have made strawberry preserves with very little sugar, and I didn’t like the taste at all. Much too tart! I find about 1/2 cup sugar per cup of fruit to be about right.
Step 5: Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. As you do this, the strawberries will release a lot more juice. Keep stirring to keep the mixture from scorching on the bottom and in the corners of the pot. It is necessary to boil the mixture vigorously to thoroughly cook the pectin. Once the mixture reaches a full boil that cannot be stirred down, pour in the sugar. Continue stirring until it comes back to a full boil that cannot be stirred down and boil for one minute. Remove from heat.
During this step, be careful not to let the boiling mixture splash up onto your hand or arm. Boiling hot sugary sticky mess makes unpleasant burns.
Step 6: Remove the empty jars from the boiling water and fill them with the hot fruit mixture. A canning funnel (pictured above) is very useful for this. A canning jar lifter is also very useful for handling the hot jars. One note: when you lift the empty jars out of the water bath, they will be full of boiling water, which you will need to pour out. Be very careful not to accidentally pour it onto your hand or arm. Sounds obvious, but it’s a common mistake.
When filling the jars, it’s important to leave enough headspace (empty space at the top of the jar). The recipe will specify the amount of headspace required.
Step 7: Put on the lids and screw down the rings tightly. The cans are now ready for processing
Step 8: Using the can lifter, return the filled cans to the boiling water bath. Cover it (optional, but it makes things go faster) and return it to a full boil. Once the water returns to a full boil, start the timer, and process (continue to boil) the cans for as long as the recipe says to.
Keep in mind that various things affect processing times. Most notable are altitude (higher altitudes have to process longer) and the size of your jars. If your recipe says to process for 15 minutes in pint jars, you will need to process longer if you elect to use quart jars. It’s best to follow the recipe closely. Remember, we’re talking about food poisoning here!
After processing, remove the jars from the water bath and set them on the counter to cool. As they cool, the lids will “pop”. What’s happening is that the air remaining in the jar (the headspace, remember) is cooling and, as it does, it is contracting, creating a vacuum inside the jars. The lids “pop” down as this happens.
After 24 hours, remove the bands and check the lids. The centers should all be popped down and the lids should be tightly stuck to the jars. If any of the jars did not seal properly, you can simply place them in the refrigerator and consume them within the next few weeks. You do not need the bands anymore; the lids should be quite securely stuck to the jars. If you store the jars with the bands on, they can rust and stick to the lid and the jar, making it very difficult to open the jar and also leaving rust on the threads that is a pain to clean off. Also, one of the signs that a jar has gone bad is that a lid comes un-stuck. What happens is that, if the sterilization process went wrong somehow, micro-organisms inside the jar will start to multiply and feed, and they will produce gases as they do. This will spoil the vacuum in the jar and cause the lid to pop off. If you come across a jar on the shelf with a loose or popped lid, don’t eat it! Throw it out! But if you keep the bands on your jars, you might not notice this.
The process described herein is basically the same for all fruit preserves. The only difference is the ratio of fruit, pectin, and sugar. If this kind of thing interests you, I also heartily recommend looking into canning pickles, which is another high-acid food that’s incredibly easy to do. Maybe I’ll write a post about that in the future.
By Joshua Bardwell, originally posted in December 2010 at Jack-Booted Liberal.
Some time back, I found myself not wanting to eat meat that had been raised in oppressive conditions. At home, I have more pork than I know what to do with, but what I was really missing most was chicken. Not steak. Not hamburgers. Chicken. Go figure. And not just yummy roast or grilled chicken either, but the inability to use chicken stock meant lots of my favorite soups and sauces were off the table. Chicken stock is a fantastic way to add rich, complex flavor and “meatiness” to all kinds of dishes that would otherwise be much simpler.
Today, Issa and I went to The Market, which is an outlet for Laurel Creek Meats. In short, Laurel Creek claims to raise happy animals. That their web site uses the phrase, “the animal’s psychological distinctiveness,” reveals that they’ve read some of Joel Salatin’s words. Good enough for me. I picked up seven chickens, most of which will go to the freezer, and one of which is getting turned into tom ka gai (Thai chicken lemongrass coconut soup).
Before I could make tom ka gai, I had to make chicken stock. It occurred to me that some of you readers might not know how to make chicken stock. Let me tell you, if there is one food product that combines easy to make and light-years better than its store-bought counterpart, it’s chicken stock. I’m not too proud to use store-bought chicken stock if that’s what’s required, but every time I do, I cry a little bit inside, because I know how much better home-made would be. Real chicken stock is like liquid chicken, just chock-full of flavor.
So I thought I’d tell you how to make it.
How to Make Chicken Stock
First, you need some chicken. The most cost-effective way to make chicken stock is to use parts of the chicken that you wouldn’t otherwise eat. I almost always buy whole chickens and then section them myself. I typically end up with: legs/thighs, breasts, wings, and back. I’ve found that the wings and back together is more than enough meat and bone to make a gallon or so of stock. Back before I started buying whole chickens, I would buy a family-sized package of thighs or drumsticks, and use it to make stock. Spending $10 or so on chicken just to throw it in the stock pot may seem like a waste, but when you consider you’re going to get a few gallons of grade-A stock, and store-bought stock is $3 or so a quart, you’re still coming out way ahead. But like I said, the most cost-effective way to make stock is to use parts of a chicken that you wouldn’t have eaten anyway.
When choosing parts of a chicken for stock, I want both meat and bone to go into the pot. You can make broth with just bones, but it’s not nearly as good in my opinion. Dark meat, like thighs and legs, makes better stock than white meat. Also, cooked meat and bones is less than ideal, because a lot of their flavor has already been give up to the cooking process. You can simmer left-over bones from last night’s dinner—in fact, this is a great way to wring a little extra flavor out of what would otherwise be trash—but if that’s all that’s in your pot, the flavor of the stock may leave something to be desired.
How much chicken to use is a matter of personal taste. I have seen some sites recommend as much as 4 lbs of chicken to a gallon or so of water. I personally don’t know how they got any water in the pot at all, with all that chicken in there. Just tonight, I made some lovely stock with just the back and wings of a single chicken, so about 1 lb of meat in a soup pot gave me exactly (coincidence!) 1 gallon of stock. That might be a good place to start. Using more chicken will result in a richer, more concentrated stock, so don’t worry about the chicken going to waste. However, if you use a lot of chicken, you may want to economize by watering down the stock some before using it in cooking. At the end of the day, it’s all a question of flavor and cost. I once made about 6 quarts of stock using about 3 lbs of chicken. That was some rich stock, but boy did it make some good soup.
To make the stock, you put the chicken in a large pot, cover it with cold water, then bring the water to a boil and simmer the chicken for at least 4 hours, but longer if you can. Some people chop up their chicken with a cleaver, but I don’t bother. After the water has come to a boil, you may notice a scum collecting on the surface. You don’t want that. Skim it off with a slotted spoon and throw it out. Check back every hour or so to see if any more scum has formed. Interestingly, I never had scum collect with grocery-store chickens, but the chicken from Laurel Creek scummed up a storm. I don’t know what that means.
In addition to chicken, some people recommend putting in various vegetables, spices and seasonings. Onion, carrot, and celery are common. I’ve seen salt and pepper. I’ve seen olive oil. I’ve seen bay leaves. My philosophy is this: I’m making chicken stock, not chicken soup. I want this to be a versatile, general-purpose ingredient, not a finished product. If I decide later that it needs salt and pepper, I can put some in, but I sure as heck can’t take it out. So I don’t put any of that stuff into my stock, except for one thing: onion. Quarter maybe a single onion per gallon of stock and put it in the water with the chicken to simmer. The onion flavor really adds a lot, and chicken stock without it tastes a bit bland, in my opinion. With onion, the stock doesn’t taste like onion at all, just… better.
You’ll know the stock is done when the meat falls off the bones and the bones are soft and bend easily. If you’re inclined to taste the meat, it should be almost completely flavorless. There’s not really any harm in continuing to simmer the stock until this point, even if it takes all day. Stopping early leaves flavor in the chicken, and, hence, the trash. Get every bit of goodness out of that chicken and into the liquid!
Once the stock is done cooking, strain it through some cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer into another container. Discard the chicken and vegetables. They’re worthless now. Stand back and admire your liquid gold.
Cooling Chicken Stock
Cooling the stock can be tricky. You’ve got a gallon or three of liquid at 180 degrees or so. The “danger zone” for food safety is between 40 and 140 degrees. Once that stock gets below 140, it’s going to start turning into a microbial nightmare. The rule of thumb is that you don’t want food in the “danger zone” for more than two hours. So, once the stock hits 140, you have two hours to get it down below 40. If you care about that sort of thing.
Now, if you’re like most people, you just take the hot stock and pop it in the fridge. Congratulations, you have just dumped 180 degrees times 3 gallons of mass into your nice cold fridge. Guess what the temperature is going to do in there. Not good, but hey, people have been doing it for years, and I don’t think anybody’s died of it. Maybe their milk spoiled a little early. Another method I’ve heard of is to set the stock in front of a fan. The moving air is very effective at carrying away the heat. Yet a third method involves actually pouring the stock band and forth between two containers in front of a fan. Seems like a lot of work, but I can see how it would decrease the temperature quickly. A fourth method involves freezing water inside plastic soda (or other) bottles, then stirring those bottles around in the stock. The icy bottles drop the temperature of the stock really quickly, and since the ice is contained, it doesn’t water the stock down, like it would if you just tossed a bunch of ice in there.
If I absolutely have to get the stock cooled quickly for some reason, I use the “icy container method.” I toss some ice in a zip-lock and use that. But usually, what I do is just let the stock sit out on the counter until it gets down to 140, then pop it in the fridge. My fridge has a “power cool” setting that cranks the compressor into overdrive for two hours. Yeah, I know that putting a 140 degree hunk of thermal mass into the nice cold fridge isn’t ideal, but it’s what works for me.
If your chicken parts were particularly fatty, the next morning, you will find a congealed layer of fat on top of your stock. This is known as schmaltz and can be used for cooking, or you can throw it out.
Storing Chicken Stock
The final step in the process is storing your liquid gold. I like to freeze the stock and then pop it into zip-lock bags once it’s solid. Ice cube trays would work, but I usually use a few cups of stock at a time, so ice cubes are a little small. I prefer muffin tins. The only problem is how to get the frozen blocks of stock out of the tins. The best method I’ve found is to boil water and then set the muffin trays over a 9×13 brownie pan (they fit perfectly) with 1/2″ or so of hot water in the bottom. The steam gently melts the stock-blocks until they will drop out, then I put them in the bag and into the freezer they go. If you had a pressure canner, you could easily can the stock, since it wouldn’t matter at all if it was boiled.
Joshua and I have thought a lot about ham this week. It started on Tuesday. Actually, we’ve been thinking about ham a lot since we got our dry cured hams back from Bentons a couple of weeks ago. While we had the processor slice the hams that we gave to some friends, our own two hams have been hanging in the kitchen.
Yep, that’s a pig butt hanging from my kitchen ceiling. An actual pig butt – not a Boston butt which comes from the pig’s shoulder. I’m not in charge of naming these things!
Dry cured ham is shelf stable. It could hang like that for a year with no trouble. Eventually, the quality of the meat would fade, but it would never be a health risk to eat.
In any case, on Tuesday, we decided to get ready to cook one up.
The first obstacle with dry cured ham is that it is extremely salty. It’s the saltiness that’s keeping it from rotting. So in order to make it tasty, you first have to soak it. If you buy a country ham at the store, the package may say, “Soak overnight”, but the internet assured us that overnight was not nearly enough. Three days seemed to be a more common recommendation, and everywhere said that even after 3 days it would still be pretty salty.
To prepare it for soaking, first Joshua cut off the hock:
I froze the hock for tossing into ham and beans later on. The next step was to give the ham a good scrub.
The reason for scrubbing is that during the curing process (which took 4 months for our hams) mold builds up on the outside of the ham. This is to be expected and not a problem at all, but it’s got to be scrubbed off at this point.
Next up, the ham went down into a cooler for soaking.
This ham is about 20 pounds of meat, so a cooler was the only container big enough to hold it! Some people use a bathtub, but since the ham needs to be submerged, a bathtub would be overkill on the amount of water you’d be changing out.
The water should be changed a few times a day. As the water changes happened, I noticed some changes in the meat, too. The ham/water started out smelling like salty smoke. We didn’t get the hams smoked, but they still smelled a bit smoky. As the days went on, though, it started to smell more like just meat. One day that purplish color that you can see in the photo above appeared, too, which I thought was odd, but presumably normal.
We were going to wait until Saturday to cook the ham, but we jumped the gun a tiny bit and got started Friday night.
First, it had to be cut in half:
We didn’t have a pan big enough to cook the whole thing, so it was going to have to go half and half.
There are lots of suggestions online for what to use as the cooking liquid when baking a ham, but we didn’t have most of them on hand. What we did have was a can of pineapple juice, so that’s what we used. Between the juice and some water, we got the liquid level to a couple of inches from the top of the pan.
We debated about whether to cover the pan in foil, and ended up going with yes:
While that half was in the oven, we decided to test out the half that wasn’t baking. Joshua sliced off a few pieces:
And we fried them up:
When we first got the hams, we tried some fried slices from the other two hams that the processor had sliced up. We didn’t know about having to soak country hams at that time, and WOW was it salty. So trying this one out would give us a comparison after three days of soaking. It was noticeably better, but still really, really salty. We’re going to let that second half soak for a couple more days!
We baked the first half at 350 for 10 minutes then dropped the temperature to 250 and let it cook until it got an internal temperature of about 140 degrees. I don’t remember how long that took… a little over two hours would be my guess.
Looking all brown coming out of the oven:
But still pink and juicy on the inside:
We ate a couple of big pieces, which were pretty darn salty. Then we tried some thin slices, which actually tasted better. Joshua made a sandwich, and with the bread and condiments to cut the salt, it almost tasted like “store bought” ham.
Joshua sliced the whole thing up, and we’ll probably freeze individual packs of a few slices. The little stack you see to the right in this picture is some odd-size pieces that I’ll add to the future ham and beans.
For now, the slices are just in our refrigerator. One upside to all that salt is that there’s not much risk to the ham going bad!
Joshua wants to try boiling the next half, and after that we have a whole other ham to do, so we might try some different methods. Joshua says he’s happy with the dry cure process.
I’m interested to learn about wet curing for next year and to see what that does to the taste and the saltiness. What we’ve got right now is clearly meat of a fine quality, but I don’t love the taste. Since we have 40 pounds of it, I really wish I loved the taste! I’m looking forward to trying new things with the ham and seeing what happens.
Either way, we are still having an adventure with these pigs!