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Pondering Pickles and Other Preservation Techniques

 

Canning Display at Franklin County Fair

Canning Display at Franklin County Fair

Harvest season is upon us. This is the reward of summer-long labors. I’ve been talking to neighbors who are canning dilly beans and corn, making peach jam and drying herbs. One neighbor is seeing what she can rescue from the late blight that is hitting many tomato patches in the area. Harvest time can be hectic when so much produce is coming in at the same time.

I don’t do much canning any more. I depend more on the freezer, and a cold closet where I store winter squash. However, this week I tried out a new recipe for a turnip and beet pickle from my Ottolenghi Jerusalem cookbook. Delicious, and I don’t think I will have any trouble finishing the jar within the month – as recommended.

I always admire the canning display at the Heath Fair and the even bigger display at the Franklin County Fair. Those sparkling jars of beets, tomatoes and corn, of relishes and jams glowing with color and flavor are so inspiring. I am reminded of all the canning my Aunt Ruth did back in the 40s and 50s, turning the basement into Ali Baba’s cave. I also remember hot summer days and making sure I stayed out of the steaming kitchen with its bowls of produce and boiling kettles.

Preparing for the Fair and reading about the root cellar workshop that was held at the Bullitt Reservation in Ashfield last weekend (unfortunately I was not able to attend) I got to thinking about the many ways food has been preserved over the ages. It is all very well to invent agriculture, but even that will only take you so far. Winter comes and the fields are covered with snow. How did the ancients preserve food?

One of the oldest methods of preserving food was drying. Dried grains have been found in ancient Egyptian and Chinese tombs. Most of us don’t dry grains anymore, but it is easy to dry beans and store them for the winter. I know people who air dry apple rings, and others who now use dehydrators. The skill of drying food has come a long way since 3500 B.C. when all you had was the sun and breeze, to the 21st century when you can have a little electric dehydrator on your kitchen counter.

Once fire was invented drying meat and fish took on the extra dash of smoking, adding an interesting flavor to the drying process.

Fermenting was also an early food preservation technique that resulted in the happy invention of beer and wine, but also the fermented milk drinks of Asia. We must also remember that when Johnny Appleseed was making his rounds his apple trees were intended to make cider. Hard cider. Fermented apple juice. Cider could be much more reliable than water for safe drinking in those days.

It is interesting to think how the ancients learned the rules of fermentation, and how to control the process for ever better flavor. In fact for every development in food preservation there must have been careful observation, and perhaps deliberate experimentation to make these techniques work dependably. They may not have come up with any ideas about the microbial action that caused spoiling, but they could observe that certain actions kept food edible for a longer period of time, as well as adding new flavors.

Pickling was also invented and used in ancient times. The first pickles were a product of fermenting. Real Pickles in our own neighborhood uses the ancient techniques of fermentation to make their array of pickles. I also have friends who make their own sauerkraut, another fermented food.

Most of us these days use vinegar to make our dilly beans or bread and butter pickles, or chow chow relish. When was vinegar invented? First you needed wine, but the discovery that spoiled wine could be useful was not far behind. Legend has it that 5000 years ago the Sumerians used vinegar as a cleaning agent as well as food preservative and condiment. Caesar’s armies drank vinegar and hot and thirsty 17th century colonists drank switchel, water, vinegar and a sweetener like honey, or maple syrup.

Heath root cellar - end of season

Heath root cellar – end of season

Another of the simplest ancient ways of preserving food is cooling, as Emmet Van Driesche explained at the Bullitt Reservation. Here in Heath we had a Cellars and Cave Tour this past spring, organized by the Heath Agricultural Society. We got to see how several of our Heath neighbors set up root cellars in their basements without the work and expense of digging a root cellar. The trick is to maintain temperatures above freezing and below 40 degrees.

My Uncle Wally and Aunt Ruth had a big root cellar on their Vermont farm. When we bought a house in Maine there was a root cellar set up in the basement, equipped with rat traps. In confusion and dismay I asked Uncle Wally what I should do? “Set the traps,” he growled. We never used the traps or the root cellar because we moved to New York before the harvest was in.

Nowadays my own food preservation activities are limited. We hardly heat our upstairs (I require a cold bedroom for sleeping) and the guest room closet works well for storing cured butternut winter squash. There is the freezer for green beans and berries. Obviously I am lucky that I am not dependent on my own labors for fruit, vegetables and condiments to feed me during the cold season of winter.

Are you putting by any of your harvest?

Between the Rows    September 6, 2014

CSA – Community Supported Agriculture is for You

Winterfare Market February, 2012

For some people the initials CSA are just another of those annoying acronyms that can make our conversations sound like an unintelligible inter-office memo. For some CSA means Community Supported Agriculture which encompasses delicious local food, help for the farmer, and a community of like-minded folk who enjoy fresh food, and enjoy knowing they are supporting farmers and farms, and the very land and environment that surrounds us.

Small farmers never think they are going to get rich doing what they love. They only hope they won’t go broke after a bad season. In the 1980s a new idea came on the scene when the first community supported agriculture farms were first organized. The idea is that people would buy shares in the farm and its harvest at the beginning of the growing year, essentially sharing the risks the farmer would face over the course of the season. Would there be flooding rains? Drought? Would blight kill all the tomatoes? Mother Nature can throw all kinds of disasters at a farmer. CSA members are essentially buying the harvest as crops are planted and becoming a part of a community – a “we’re all in this together” community sharing the risk, the worry and the joys of the farm.

When I first became aware of Community Supported Agriculture some years ago, there were not many CSA farms or people buying shares. The organizational elements were fairly standard. An individual or family would buy a share in the spring, and then as the May and June harvest started coming in they would pick up their weekly boxed or bagged share of greens, beans, radishes and vegetables of every type in season. Because man does not live by carrot alone, many CSAs also included a bouquet of summer flowers.

Now there are many more CSAs in our area. I spoke with Phil Korman, Executive Director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) who said that in the three counties, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden, in 2009 there were about 4550 farm shares sold, but in 2012 that number had increased to about 7300 farm shares sold. Some of those shares were to people outside the three counties. The expectation is that the number has continued to increase but statistics are only collected every five years. Korman pointed out that those farm shares did not include winter shares which are now available.

In fact, there are now many more kinds of CSA shares that people can buy. In addition to the regular vegetable garden shares, there are shares for meat, fish, eggs, flowers, and grain.

The last few years have seen other changes in CSA distributions. Originally, a shareholder paid up, and then picked up that share weekly at the farm. Nowadays CSA shares can be delivered to various sites including schools, retirement communities, and work sites.CooleyDickinsonHospitalallows staff to pay for their share with a payroll deduction, and the share is delivered to the hospital.  Some people share a share with a neighbor

Hager’s Farm Market and Upinngill Farm sell vouchers. The Hager vouchers are dated for use throughout the season, but they can be used at the Market on Route 2 in Shelburne with the shareholder making his own choices, for produce or pies, eggs or yogurt. Upinngill’s vouchers are not dated. Several can be used at one time. In both cases, at the Hager Farm Market and the Upinngill farmstand, the vouchers provide for a discount, so you are saving money, as well as getting wonderful produce.

There are 15 CSA farms inFranklinCounty, inGreenfield, Montague, Gill, Leyden, Colrain,Sunderland, Ashfield, Whately, and Berndarston. Each CSA farm delivers its share one day a week. All of them are now signing up shareholders for the 2014 season.

Western Massachusettshas been “an incredibly receptive community” to desiring and buying local farm products Korman said. The first local, and now longest running CSA farm is Brookfield Farm inAmherst. The first Winterfare was created inGreenfieldby volunteers just a few years ago. Now farmers plant winter storage crops for the 30 winter farmers markets that are ongoing across the state. CISA was the first non-profit organization in the state and created the Local Hero marketing project.

Currently there are 55 Local Hero restaurants using local produce for a total of about $2 million a year. There are also 240 Local Hero farms. They sold between 2002 and 2007 $4.5 million worth of farm products, but that amount has now doubled to $9 million. Food coops account for $16 million in sales. Right now in the three counties between 10%-15% of our food is fresh local food, but CISA’s goal is to have 25% of our food grown and enjoyed locally.

I was shocked that we are eating so little local food, but Korman gently pointed out that the whole population ofFranklinCountyis only half the population of the city ofSpringfield. I can see that it will be a great day when everyone inSpringfieldgets 25% of their dinners from local farms. I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone lives in our beautiful and fertile valley or near a hilltown farm where fresh food is available for a good part of the year.

It’s finally getting warmer. It’s time to think about fresh salads, grilled vegetables and corn on the cob. It’s time to think about the possibility of joining a Community Supported Agriculture farm.

You can find a full listing and information about local CSA farms on the CISA website. http://www.buylocalfood.org/buy-local/find-local/csa-farm-listing/

Between the Rows  April 5, 2014

Cooking Lessons Over the Years

Rory in 2009 cooking lesson over the years

As a liberated  woman I have made sure that my grandsons have had a few cooking lessons over the years. Rory was 13 when this photo was taken, but it is not his first lesson. Perfect scrambled eggs was probably an early lesson, but by 2009 he had moved along to the perfect omlette.

Rory with Saumon en papillote 2010

Saumon en papillote, a Julia Child recipe, amazingly simple, but a dish with dash, has become Rory’s specialite.

Rory’s pickles for the Heath Fair 2010

I cannot begin to tell you how many blue ribbons this family has won at the Heath Fair in August.

Rory and more pickles for the 2011 Heath Fair

We made a lot more things for the Fair than pickles. Cookies are also always on the list.

Rory with cookies 2012

I told you he made cookies!

Rory making real caramel corn 2013

Making real caramel is quite an operation, but he is up to it.  When we are cooking for the Heath Fair, the rule is that  I can instruct and advise, but I cannot touch anything. That rule has carried over into all our lessons.

Tynan making cookies 2008

Rory’s younger brother followed in his brother’s footsteps.

Tynan kneading his bread 2009

I bake a lot of bread. It is fun to do. I tell all the children that they have to think about all the people who will enjoy their cooking while they work. That love gets cooked right into the dish.

Tynan with his raspberry jam. 2010

If you have a raspberry patch, you must make raspberry jam, and Tynan did.

Tynan at the Art Garden in 2011

I know Tynan did some baking every year, but there does not seem to be a photographic record. However, creativity comes in all forms – many of them are found at the Art Garden in Shelburne Falls.

Drew and Anthony 2009

Because Anthony and his younger brother Drew live in Texas we got them both at the same time in the summer. Less cooking, more field work like picking raspberries.

Anthony and Drew at the Hawley kiln 2011

Of course, we take all the boys touring locally at historic sites like the Hawley kiln, and art sites like MassMoCa. There is lots to do at the End of the Road and all around western Massachusetts. I think these boys have gotten fewer cooking lessons, but they are Boy Scouts. They need to cook around the campfire.

Bella and French toast in 2013

The boys are getting ‘old.’ They’ve got jobs and less time for cooking lessons and frolicking. Fortunately, we have Bella, a great-granddaughter, who has moved close enough to start her cooking lessons.

Winterfare – Always a Delicious Success

Winterfare veggies

Saturday more I went down to Greenfield for Winterfare – always a delcicous success. People in our area are so happy to be able to buy fresh vegetables directly from farmers, even in winter. Of course, this winter farmer’s market isn’t limited to vegetables. Real Pickles had a booth selling – Pickles! Sunrise Farm was selling maple syrup, Apex Orchards was selling apples, Warm Colors Apiary was selling honey and other bee products, Barberic Farm was selling  lamb and lamb fleeces.  El Jardin had their fabulous breads and there were many other great vendors. The soups they served at lunch were delicious.

Salad toppers from LaSalles

Winterfare always schedules a few talks. I gave mine on how to extend the growing season and I mentioned ‘micro-greens’. This was a new concept for some of my auditors, but I could send them to John LaSalle’s booth where he was selling – and I was buying – what he called salad toppers, otherwise known as micro-greens. You wouldn’t get a whole salad for the family out of his flat, but you could snip off a few leaves for a fresh topping.

Freesias from LaSalles

We do not live by bread, or veggie alone. John LaSalle also brought bundles of his famous fragrant freezias. Most of these end up in New York City florist shops. Winterfare shoppers were very happy.

I came home with a bagful of veggies and bread and a flat of  salad toppers. Winterfare is always a delicious success!

We do not live by

Sweet Winter Fare Meal and Event

Honeybees photo courtesy of beneficialbugs.org

What sweeter way to begin the Winter Fare activities that with a honey brunch at Green Fields Market.

Sweet Honey and the Brunch!
Sunday, February 5 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Green Fields Market, Main St., Greenfield

Green Fields Market will feature local honey in a variety of dishes for this special brunch.   While you enjoy brunch, Shelburne’s Piti Theatre Company will be buzzing with information about their new production about bees (and the challenges they’re facing) To Bee or Not to Bee. Piti is launching a “10% For the Bees” Campaign in collaboration with Greening Greenfield and High Mowing Seeds, encouraging the replanting of 10% of business and home-owner lawns with bee- friendly habitat. The co-op will donate a percentage of brunch sales to the production which will premiere at the company’s SYRUP: One Sweet Performing Arts Festival, March 17th in Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls. Support the production at www.indiegogo.com/bee or learn more at www.ptco.org/bee.

Then put this interesting movie on your Winter Fare calendar.

Film Showing: “King Corn”

Wednesday, February 8, 7 p.m., Sunderland Public Library, School St., Sunderland

King Corn is a documentary about two friends and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation: corn. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, Ian and Curt plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most productive, most subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat — and how we farm. (Duration: 90 minutes). Free. For information, contact Aaron Falbel at (413) 665-2642 or visit  www.sunderlandpubliclibrary.org.

Dan Conlon who I wrote about here told me that corn syrup is just as bad for bees as it is for humans. Beekeepers routinely feed sugar syrup to bees during the winter and very early spring if they see that honey supplies in the hive are low.  Cane sugar is pure sucrose, and the nectar that honeybees gather is principally sucrose so bees process it just as they do nectar.

Corn syrup, as we all know, is cheaper than sugar which is why it is used in so many of our processed foods and soft drinks. High fructose corn syrup is also cheap for those large bee companies to use, but the bees do not find it as delicious as sucrose. Aside from their taste preferences, corn syrup is a problem for bees because it crystallizes in the hive and becomes so hard that the bees cannot eat it.

Fortunately we have beekeepers in our area who give us great honey like Warm Colors Apiary,  and the Shelburne Honey Company located at Apex Orchards. Pretty sweet.

Yes, You Can!

Our area is still picking itself up after Irene left her gifts of washed out roads and bridges, flooded basements and houses. We have been fortunate here at the End of the Road because we never lost power and the water that ran into our dirt floored basement, ran out politely without making a fuss. We thought our only problem was hoping the popcorn supply would last through Sunday afternoon while we read our books.

In fact we thought we had gotten through the storm with no damage at all – until a neighbor called to warn us that Rowe Road was washed out and that Henry would not be going to work on Monday. We were stranded.

We are country people and do not let the family larder get too low, because you never know what could happen. Power outages, blizzards, hurricanes. Mother Nature can throw any number of gifts at us and we know we should be prepared.

When people checked in with us, the first question was do you have enough food. Yes, we did. We have a freezer full of meat, fruit, vegetables, bread, and even butter. The pantry has soup and pasta from the store, but also homemade jars of pickles, jams and peaches, not all of which were made in my kitchen.

As more and more people are trying to produce a little more of their own food and cut down on food-miles, the issue of preserving the harvest comes up pretty quick. Even a small garden can produce too many tomatoes to eat all at once, and they will not keep long. What to do?

Daniel Gasteiger has come to the rescue with his new book, “Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too: The Modern Step-By-Step Guide to Preserving Food” ($19.95) published by Cool Springs Press. I have my old stand-bys on my shelf, Putting Food By and the Farm Journal Book of Freezing and Canning, but Gasteiger’s book can take an inexperienced reader step-by-photographed-step through a whole range of food preservation techniques.

Grandson Rory making pickles

This summer my 15 year old grandson used ”Yes, You Can!” to make bread and butter pickles to enter in the Heath Fair. The two of us read the recipe and looked at the pictures and discussed the process, but of course, since these were to be entered in the Fair, I could not help any more than that. Rory followed the directions, slicing, salting, soaking, draining, cooking, packing and canning. He won First Prize! And I can attest that the pickles are crisp and delicious.

Gasteiger gives general directions for canning quick pickles, low acid and high acid foods, hot water baths and pressure canning and includes a few recipes. Jams, jellies, syrups and candied fruits get their own canning chapter.

I mostly use my freezer, so the chapter on freezing was familiar material, although he and I disagree about freezer jams. He likes canned jam, and I like freezer jam, but that is just a matter of taste.

I have a neighbor who does a lot of drying and I was interested to see her electric dehydrator recently. Between the ease of using that counter top machine and Gasteiger’s directions for making Tangy Tomato Treats I am tempted to invest. Instant mashed potatoes, dried herbs, dried fruits, yummmm. Very tempting.

Gasteiger talks about cold storage, too. When we bought our house in Maine there was a fenced off root cellar area in the basement. We noticed rat traps in there as well as a couple of wooden boxes. I asked my Vermont farmer uncle what to do about rats. He said, “Reset the traps.” Gasteiger does mention that rodents are something to consider if you set up a root cellar. Then he lists the basic requirements for an effective root cellar, temperatures, humidity and what different crops require.

As he goes through each kind of food preservation from root cellars and fermentation to freezing, Gasteiger gives information about necessary equipment and basic techniques like blanching. The clear photographs of equipment, techniques, and individual processes are very useful to the novice.

I consider myself pretty experienced in the kitchen, but I admit I have never frozen fruit pies, or thought about putting together a real meal for the freezer. Gasteiger seems to have thought of everything, including the advice not to reheat frozen meals in their plastic containers because of concerns about toxic chemicals that might be released from hot plastic.

The organization of each section is logical, the photographs are useful and the text is clear and encouraging. This book is everything a gardener new to food preservation could need, and even someone more experienced will find new information and inspiration.

 

Don’t forget. The Sunflower Contest, co-sponsored by The Recorder and The Greenfield Garden Club will be held on Saturday, September 17 at the Energy Park on Miles Street in conjunction with the John Putnam Fiddler’s Reunion.  Entries will be accepted from noon until 2 p.m. at the Energy Park. The contest is divided into two groups:  15 and younger and 16 and older. The categories are tallest, most blooms on one plant, heaviest head, largest head and best arrangement, which must contain mostly sunflowers. Additionally, judges reserve the right to create a special category should that prove necessary. Winners will be announced from The Station in the park, once the judging is complete. Contest winners get bragging rights, a nifty ribbon and a bag of local apples. Everyone who enters gets their picture in the following week’s Life & Times section. ###

Between the Rows   September 3, 2011

Winterfare and Ice

4th Annual Greenfield Winterfare

Saturday dawn cold with another storm promised. I dashed right out to the Greenfield Winterfare to stock up, and I wasn’t the only one. Every booth was busy. These young women from Wheatberry Farm and Bakery were selling the wheatberries AND delicious muffins. Ben and Adrie Lester, the founders of Wheatberry are also founders of The Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain CSA.

Simple Gifts Farm

At the Simple Gifts booth I bought lots of roots – and make a shredded vegetable slaw when I got home. Perfect accompaniment to casserole roasted pork. Brooke Werley and Emily Adams say they do everything!  at the farm. They have a brand new tractor at Simple Gifts and they are very excited.

Sunrise Farm

I not only found the Grade A Medium Amber Maple Syrup I had been looking for I found out that the sugar house I pass when I drive from Heath to Colrain is called Sunrise Farm and is operated by a branch of the locally famous Lively family. It is wonderful to have so much Lively-ness in our area. Rocky’s family has been on this farm for over 100 years.

Most of these farms are already signing people up for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. For a full list of CSA farms visit CISA, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

One thing I have noticed is that there are more farms selling meat locally. I am buying lamb from a neighbor, and I found out that the new Pen and Plow Farm in Hawley is selling beef – and it doesn’t have to be a whole quarter of an animal.  Hmmmm. Oxtail soup and osso bucco may be in my husband’s future.

I stopped at the library on my way home from Winterfare, but a ‘wintry mix’ was already falling out of the sky.  By suppertime everything was encased in ice. This is the view when we woke on Sunday morning. Beautiful but dangerous.

No lounging in the Cottage Ornee today.

Maybe I’ll be able to finish up my seed orders.

Eating Together

The Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted their whole 10-10-10 issue to Eating Together.  Well, the previous weekend the Heath Gourmet Club celebrated its 29th anniversary — 29 years of serving ourselves.  Michael Pollan wrote about the 36 Hour Dinner Party that he enjoyed with famous chefs and his son in Napa, consuming a whole goat and a lot of really good produce and olive oil. They also had the pleasure of cooking in an outdoor ‘cob oven.’  Thirty-six hours of cooking and eating with a convivial company does sound like a lot of fun, but when I consider how much fun we have had over 29 years I know that I am blessed.

The Gourmet Club was formed on July 4th in 1981 when Sheila (pictured above with her foot in the air cast)  and I and Catherine (who passed away several years ago) met in the town museum bewailing the lack of good local restaurants – not that any of us could afford to give them our custom anyway. So right there, we decided to form the Gourmet Club and we planned our first dinner for September. We were all busy with the Heath Fair in August, so September was to be our inaugural meal. The plan was simple. We would take turns hosting; the host would set the theme and make the entree. Other courses would be assigned the other couples.

We hosted that first meal. The menu was modest, A Simple Summer Supper with Soupe au Pistou.  The 289 meals since then have sometimes been simple, sometimes complex. We have indulged in French, Moroccan, German, Russian, Tex-Mex, California, African, Clam Bakes, and Spanish themes – among others.  We’ve had presidential meals with courses out of a White House cookbook, a Stuffed menu where every course was stuffed featuring the magnificent Turducken, a chicken stuffed inside a duck inside a turkey. Never once was there a disaster. At least not one any of us would admit to.

Fruit Chips

I can only think of one dinner where I couldn’t eat a course – and we made it. For some reason we all wanted Mock Turtle Soup and, as it happened, Henry was in Baltimore where they have the rare ingredient for Mock Turtle Soup.  Henry was down at the seafood wharf and directed to a little old black man who knew the secret – ‘rat.’  Muskrat that is.  And so, Henry hand carried two muskrats back home in a cooler and made the soup. I could barely watch. Those little heads with their beaver-like teeth coming out of the pot were too much for me.  But everyone else had soup spoons at the ready.

There have been picnics, a tea party and a brunch held during an ice storm. We set out in our Rabbit, but slid into the ditch at the side of our road before we had gone 300 yards. We called Sheila and she said she’d pick us up in their Volvo.  It took 400 yards for her Volvo to slide into the ditch. We called her husband, Budge, to get us in his pick up.  We made it to the host house, but as you know, only two people can fit in the cab of a pick up.  Henry and I and our basket of fruit cups squatted in the bed of the truck while the ice continued falling out of the sky.

We have celebrated all the local food we have used in our meals from the berries, herbs and vegetables from our own gardens, our own chickens and eggs, our own pigs, our own goat milk and cheese, as well as local beef, cream, apples, and cider.

Of course, the Gourmet Club has experienced more than food in 29 years. We have had two divorces, two deaths and one wedding. The wedding couple met at Gourmet Club!

Most of us spend a lot of time eating together at big family get togethers, and at parties. There are intimate lunches with a friend, or tea on the terrace or the nightly supper with spouse and children. The food doesn’t have to be fancy, but it is important. It is a symbol of the love and care we bear each other, nourishing and strengthening in ways we cannot measure. So, with the NYT, I celebrate the joys of Eating Together.