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Archive for May, 2010

I grew up with the understanding that Mason jars were things you filled with jam, beets or mustard pickles.

My parents started making tomato sauce when I was in high school and expanded their canning over the last 10 years to include many different ingredients and approaches.

I was talking with my Father when he shared stories of his mother preserving whole fruit (or slices) in little more than sugar-water.  Peaches, apricots, plums, strawberries and more.  It instantly got my curiousity going and I had to learn more.  We`ve been preserving whole fruit and berries for a few years now and these are often our favourite jars of the year.  Leftover syrup can be used in beverages, ice cream, baking, iced tea while your fruit or berries can be eaten whole, served as desert, baked with, added to yogurt and lots of other options.

Fruit (and berries) are consider high-acid (most have a pH under 4) which means they will preserve without the need for additional acid.  This acidity and their natural occurring sugar makes them awesome to preserve with as little else in the jar as possible.  Jarring chunks of whole fruit or berries in a simple syrup like this are traditionally known as a `preserves`.

The basics of this technique are simple:

  1. Mix raw fruit with sugar and let it rest for up to 24 hours in your fridge.  This is known as steeping.
  2. Cook the fruit to the jell point – place in jars or return to the fridge overnight.  This is known as plumping and will help stop your fruit from floating in the jars (I also believe it makes for fuller jars but that`s simply my perception and is probably tied to the lack of floating created by this technique).
  3. Return the fruit to a boil before canning and processing in a hot water bath.  Don`t be afraid to really force your berries tightly into a jar – you`ll br amazed at how much space is created as they further soften in the hot water bath.

If you were to preserve strawberries like this, you would mix 2 pounds of strawberries with 3 cups of sugar and a quarter-cup lemon juice.  You could crush the berries if you wanted to – or leave them whole.

I`m a really big fan of making complementary jars which can be mixed and matched into something even better than it`s individual parts.  Open a jar of whole berries preserved like this, strain out the juices (save for other uses) and add the whole berries to a jar of jam (or preserved rhubarb) for the chunkier and most berry-liscious spread you can have.

As you lower your sugar in the jar you typically also lower shelf-life though I have found that our whole berries have at least a year of fabulous flavour.  To find more recipes for preserves, simply look for the name of a fruit followed by the word `preserves` (i.e. quince preserves, strawberry preserves, gooseberry preserves, etc).

We will discuss other options – including using apple juice, grape juice and alternate sweeteners later in the week.

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We’ve explained why we avoid adding pectin earlier (the commercial stuff is so tart that the sugar often doubles in a recipe just to accommodate the thickener).  I actually choose a runny jam  which tastes more like berries than a thick jam which is closer to sugar.

Pectin is highest in the skin and seeds of fruit – take a look at the following list and mentally compare the type of skin and seed each of the fruit in one category has to another:

High-Pectin Fruits
tart apples, crab apples, cranberries, currants, gooseberries, concord, muscadine, and supernong grapes, lemons, loganberries, bitter oranges, damson and some tart plums and quinces.

Low-Pectin Fruits
apricots, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, elderberries, figs, all other grapes, huckleberries, guavas, nectarines, peaches, pears, pineapples, pomegranates, raspberries, rhubarb, sweet plums, strawberries.

Once you know what yo9u`re dealoing with, here`s a few tips on how to avoid using pectin:

  • Don`t panic if your fruit is marked as low pectin.  I have never used pectin with raspberries (marked as low on just about every list I`ve ever found) and Raspberry always sets firm.  I`ve probably cursed this years batch :).
  • Do not use a recipe intended for pectin and modify (or vice-versa).  The sugar contents are radically different and your results will be unpredictable – at best.
  • The more ripe the fruit is, the less pectin it will contain.  Buy just-ripe (or even a shade under-ripe) fruit will help keep your pectin content higher.
  • Since the highest amounts of pectin is in the skins and seeds, consider using them.  If you are preserving something seeded or peeled (peaches are both while cherries are typically just pitted), consider placing your discarded peels and seeds into a cheesecloth bag during the cooking process – you can pull the bag out before jarring.
  • Overcooking is the number one cause of pectin degeneration.  Cook slow and steady and follow your recipe closely.
  • Don`t be afraid to remove the heat while testing for set.  I love doing the quick-chill test (place a small amount of jam on a plate, place in freezer for 3 minutes and draw your finger through it.  A firm-set will remain parted while a soft-set will slowly head back together.  If you don`t take your pot off the heat, your jam may over-cook and your test will be invalid (you`ll be testing what the gel point was 3 minutes before).
  • Perhaps this is an extreme recommendation but, for me, it`s worth considering: investigate alternative approaches.  We`ve moved away from strawberry jam and preserve whole strawberries instead (in simple syrup; more on that tomorrow).  We don`t have a thick-setting jam but we do get plenty of whole fruit and a great flavour-syrup which is much lower in sugar than a `perfect`jam.
  • Know your options – combining fruits and finding recipes that do provide options that will let you add a lot of structure while maintaining a more moderate balance of added sugar.

Would love to know of any other tricks others are using out there..

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As part of the CanJam and feeling like virtual hosts, we’ve promised to share 7 days of berries – ideas, inspiration, tricks and the like.  We don’t have many photo’s as there’s not a lot of berries around these parts – yet.  Things will be radically different in coming weeks as our markets begin to fill (and empty and fill and empty…). 

It’s an exciting time indeed.

Based on the comments yesterday, it’s truly amazing how different each of our seasons are.  Many of my “local” friends would trade a finger for a fresh berry while reports are bounding of people being filled with strawberries or having done 3 or 4 batches of jam with them already.  Whodathunk?

If you’re not done with your berries yet and you plan to be picking the freshest product you can make sure to ask your local farmer (or forest if your forraging) if you can take some of the leaves with you.  Not all will accommodate but it never hurts to ask.

This will be our first year pursuing leaves.  Santa brought a food dehydrator; died leaves make a great tea.  I really adore preserving multiple different parts of the same plant in different ways. As an example, we treated wild leeks 3 ways as we pickled the bulbs, froze pesto from the leaves and dehydrated the roots.

I’m particularly excited to get me some strawberry leaves.  I plan on dehydrating them to be used for “teas” later through the year (though they may have other uses; we’ll have to experiment with the flavours).

Here’s a few tips for turning leaves into teas:

  • Pick only the freshest.  By greedy here – no spots, dots or blight.
  • Get leaves that are chemical free.  Pesticide-tea may not be the best idea.
  • Dehydrate well – a hint of moisture will create mould over time.
  • Leaves that are still partially moist will cause some people to become nauseous or sick.  If you’re using a dehydrator, this is easy to avoid.
  • Dehydrate low and long – typically between 90-100 F.
  • Dehydrate single leaves (i.e. not a whole branch of them) and do not crush or grind to store.  Smaller pieces have more surface exposed to air and this means lost flavour faster.
  • Store in a cool, dry, dark place.  Mason jars are decent storage vessels but the clear glass won’t protect the fragile leaves if left in the sun.
  • Ask permission or ask a farmer for some.  You may be surprised how easy these are to get (or that they don’t want you to take them – don’t ask after taking :)).
  • Avoid the temptation to pre mix different leaves, lemon, etc.  Storing them separate will allow you to create your own custom concoctions later on.
  • Ensure the leaves you are using are edible (some leaves are not friendly to consume)

Another possible use is on the BBQ (I’d only do this if I had a massive amount of leaves).  I haven’t tried this yet but thinking it would be worth a try.  Imagine:

  • Light your grill, let it come up to heat.
  • add strawberry leaves under the grill and on your coal or heat.  This will cause berry smoke.
  • Grill pears of peaches on the grill over the strawberry leaf smoke.
  • Finish with maple syrup, serve over ice cream.

SHAZAM!

We are also on the lookout for flowers and the like.  I’d love to set up a tea buffet in the winter – a little of this, a little of that…  heh.

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We were thrilled to hear from Tigress that June was our pick for the Tigress Can Jam.  More than 100 bloggers started the 12-month challenge in January who are also joined by many non-bloggers and many more since.  It`s been an exciting week with a lot of options discussed with Dana, myself and our lovely Hostess.

We’re lucky to choose and announce the ingredient below – and are hoping to sweeten the pot with 3 extra incentives this month (more on those further down).  Ler’s get to the ingredient first!

One of the most fascinating things about the recent 6-8 weeks in the canjam is the speed and diversity that each of us has encountered different ingredients.  It seemed like everyone had onions in January (the  wonders of cellars) but I saw asparagus in New York 5 weeks before it opened in Ontario and reading about the bounty in Southern US farmers markets has me drooling.  Many of Toronto`s dozens of summer farmer`s markets opened last weekend (or this one coming) and some farmer`s are there to greet old customers and friends with nothing from the field..yet…  And that`s no mentioning the UK and other places in the Can Jam.

The timing of our local seasons is actually becoming more diverse as the sun shifts her focus North.

We considered a few options and tried to avoid the über obvious while still being practical to provide some options that people could experiment with and have fun with.  We considered cabbage, mushrooms and even thought about bending the rules a little).

Shaeffer (our pup) even suggested that we preserve tennis balls for June.  He lost (but we`ll make sure he`s looked after).

It is with humble excitement we are pleased to announce that the ingredient for June is (or is it ARE) __________berries.  That could be a straw, a goose, a blue or even a cherry (we decided it was a berry).  Basically, it is all things that end in ERRIES (just not scaRRIES).

ED.  To clarify, any type of berry will do (even if it does not end in ____erry).  Sorry for any confusion.  🙂

There are so many options this month – both for your main flavour and the rest of the jar (your flavour saver, so to speak).  Pickled, drunk, infused, jammed, preserved whole; as long as it`s in a water bath.

All of the bloggers in our cosy (but not so little) posse have to post their articles between Sunday June, 20th to Friday June 25th with Friday at midnight being the deadline.

We`re going to sweeten the deal….

Deal Sweetener Number 1

We are honoured that so many are effectively letting us choose an ingredient this month that we are going to pick our favourite recipe.  If there’s a tie, which is more than likely, we will have a draw of the finalists.

We will donate $50 in honour of our winner to a KIVA.org food business of their choice (if they can’t choose, we’ll pick one).  KIVA is a micro-financing charity which helps connect entrepreneurs in developing areas find financing with others who can afford to help them start their small businesses through small loans.

This will likely be announced after the roundup Tigress does so that we’ll have a chance to see all the contendah’s!

We are not trying to turn this in to a competition – we all win with jars on our shelves.  We just thought it was an excuse to give back and was really a way to represent all can jammers and say thanks.

Deal sweetener Number 2

To get you started, we`re launching 7 DAYS OF BERRIES.  We blog daily here and will update the site for the next 7 days (it`s generally around 7AM, a bit later on weekends) with ideas and tricks for berries.  We`ll also be sharing some non-can jam berry ideas (such as dehydrating) and welcome any questions (though many in the can jam could teach us tonnes).

Deal sweetener Number 3

A quick guide to some of last years berry faves:

What have I got against pectin?
I used to use a lot of pectin in our jam.  I now avoid it when possible; sometimes I even make jam that’s so runny I have to eat it over the sink.  If you’re on autopilot with pectin, consider flying solo (taste pectin by itself to find out why – the article explains more).  Besides, it’s fun to eat over the sink.

Angel on one shoulder, devil on t’other
We canned about 700 jars last year and made more than 50 different types of waterbath preserves.  A trick to extending your efforts is to alter a few ingredients and turn a single batch into different things at the same time.  We did two different types of cherries last year (one in simple syrup and another in alcohol) and eat them separate or mix them together for a third different taste.  Mixing and matching is a lot of fun when you work with fruit.

“Berried” Alive – in Strawberry Jam and preserves and rhubarb and…
Jam isn’t the only option.  We love having whole strawberries (and other fruit) in simple syrup.  Awesomest on ice cream, cocktails or mash it to your own spreadable mess on toast.  We also do separate rhubarb so we can make our own mix and match flavour combos later (and each person can alter how sweet or how tart they want it by making thier own custom jam on their toast).

Leftover strawberry syrup innovation
Oh.  My.  Good.  This was the best idea with something I may have foolishly thrown away previously.  If you are preserving fruit, in simple syrup (sugar-water) you simply must consider this.

What to do with all that jam…host a tasting party!
I love pairings.  Almost all of your berry dishes will work for breakfast.  I don’t eat a lot of breakfast and I make a lot of jam.

What cheese would be best with your confection?  Our raspberry-jalapeno jam is breathtaking with brie and our wild blueberry and maple syrup preserve  is all about goat cheese (you’ll have to visit that link to find out what matches up with our blowtorch).

Now it’s time to cross our fingers and wait for the sun to heat the fields even more!

A giant thanks to Tigress for the privledge of choosing this month – hope everyone’s excited!

@BusterRhinosBBQ @MaryLuzonfood

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This is Shaeffer standing at Shaeffer`s Pond (he was named after the pond, but don`t tell him that):

It`s been a while since we`ve had an update on Shaeffer and although he loves to eat a lot, he hasn`t had a lot of culinary moments that would tie to our topics of conscious eating, local food, preserving and the like.  He`s just turned 10 months old so there`s lots of time for him to have his moment in the sun.

He showed signs of those times to come this weekend – and taught me a powerful lesson:

Shaeffer is a Vizsla.  Vizsla`s are Hungarian bird hunting dogs (they will also chase larger game).  He is a fantastic companion and a student hunter (in that order).

As much as I would enjoy Shaeffer becoming a strong hunter, the truth is that I`ll be very happy if he is a happy dog and great companion who enjoys tramping in the woods.  He will come along on our hunting trips (for newer guests to WellPreserved, these are sustainable harvests that we consume all of our harvest from – a comprehensive intro explains a bit on my perspective here).

My Father was very vocal that I’d learn more from the dog about hunting and the woods than he would from me.  I thought that was a fairly easy leap of faith as my knowledge is thimble-deep.  I am learning that his wisdom isn’t simply better than mine because of my low ability – he simply has built-in tools that are teaching me lots.

Shaeffer is pointing in the second photo above.  This is a fairly casual point – in this case he was staring at his ball.  Although we don’t encourage him to point at his toys, it’s a reaction that happens often.  He’ll stare at the ball for minutes until you throw it and then he’s off like a shot before chasing it down and returning it back on the double.  An errant ball which is launched into thick woods is often found by its stentch – a moment marked by a triumphant jump out of the woods and back to the source where the projectile launched.

The point is a natural reaction that is a typical when he spots birds.  His points are a frequent site on the streets of Toronto where he insists of showing us where all the pigeons are.  It’s a lot of fun I frequently find myself sneaking up on the birds with him.  He does not lunge, attack, bark or startle them – his instinct is actually to show me where they are and not startle them which would give me, as a hunter, time to react and take action.

He also sneaks up on the occasional ONCOMING dog as well.  It’s a funny site to see him practically belly crawl up to a dog walking towards him – a slow-motion stalk where he is apparantly either invisible or hiding behind his shadow.  When he does this I often begin to tiptoe like the Pink Panther.  It can be a little embarassing if you’re not prepared so if you ever come walking with us you’ve now been warned.

We went for a walk in the forest near our cabin this weekend (hunting is an activity reserved for the fall – this was simply a fun walk).  Our pup was walking on my right, about 3 feet away when the woods exploded with activity.  I had stepped within 6 feet of a nesting Partridge.  Shaeffer went into full point – head down, tail straight and paw out.  He snapped a quick glance my way to make sure I saw it before he flicked his stare back at the path of the bird flying away.  I was able to easily find the bird by simply looking at where he was staring; something I would have struggled with by myself because of the natural camouflage of the forest floor and coat of our avian friend.

We watched the bird for a few minutes before I turned my back and moved on.  I reflected on my new knowledge – partridge nest on the ground and they will let you get remarkably close to you without moving… This was the point that a third piece of knowledge hit me square but I knew I was too late before I even turned back around.  A bird stays still for a reason…

Shaeffer was a much faster student than I.  He had remained in a full point until I told him it was time to move on – at that point he figured it was fair trade to eat the egg the bird had been guarding.

I’m sure it sounds odd to a non-hunter that there is a certain sadness around this act.  Some of it is self-serving (less eggs equal less birds) but it seemed simply careless on my behalf and didn’t reconcile easily with me.  I have no justification or understanding other than a few hunches to spend some more time exploring.  I am not disappointed in Shaeffer – he did what comes naturally and he taught me lots.

In the meantime, it’s time to take my notebook out and start listening to my teacher.

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We shared the theory between of  two different types of campfire yesterday and eluded to a third setup.  Cooking over hot embers is great in theory and fabulous for steak but if you`ve got to cook a roast you will quickly find a problem – embers won`t last 6 hours (or longer) and flame is your enemy.

Here`s a little trick:

On the left is a 7 pound picnic (also known as a `butt`) roast of pork.  On the right is a prime slab of the Canadian Shield – it was a bit heavier.  Having the counter weight weigh more is not an accident – it must counteract the leverage of the `hanging`weight and it`s position makes it virtually unflippable (it could have been much heavier than the roast).

And yes, that`s an old tire rim.  It`s affectionately known as our Rim-A-Cue.  We`ve been cooking with it for most of my life (a few times a year)

This indirect heat allows for plenty of smoke and slow cooking.  This roast cooked slow and steady for about 8 hours seasonsed with garlic, salt, pepper and pureed pepper paste.

The roast continues to cook away from the main heat (our logs shifted intentionally towards the far side as we continued to cook our dinner):

This may be my favourite picture to illustrate the distance of the heat while still having open flame:

The inside of the pork was white, moist and tender – we judged doneness by eye and it worked perfectly.  If you`re not willing to take the same risk, use a thermometer – the irregular heat of the fire makes cooking time more art than science.

Our final roast nearing it`s finale:

I was thrilled at the results – this felt like a significant culinary moment in my life.  It was the first roast I had cooked over a campfire and it was exquisite.

Now for a couple of small lessons learned that, while serious, are enough for me to laugh at myself for (though I was lucky) and serve as a good reminder to all.

Lesson 1
A rock when placed oven an open fire becomes hot in less than 5 minutes.  And by hot, I mean really hot.  As in, don`t move it with bare hands:

Lesson 2.
Don`t get too close to the flames – they will crimp your hair.

Conclusion
I`m ok – humbled and got lucky twice.  I`ve been around campfires for my entire life.  I know better than both of these silly mistakes – never, ever, take fire for granted.  Or your finger.  Or your hair.  Be safe and look after one another.

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We`ve just returned from 3 days in the middle of the woods.  A fantastic break in early spring and the isolation of the cabin was wonderful.  We did pull out the generator to catch the last episode of LOST; some may think that`s cheating but I thought it was a fitting location to end a 6-year obsession of ours.

I`ve had an odd relationship with fire my entire life.

My Father was a FireFighter for 37 years.  My household taught me to respect fire rather than avoid contact with it.  I understood the great damage it could do and could tell when Dad had his toughest nights simply by the lingering smell it left on his clothes when he returned from work.  Having a FireFighter for a Father was both super cool and super scary.

It is ironic that one of my truly undiscovered talents is lighting a fire.  It`s a talent that remains  hidden from most and one that is of little use living in the city (these two facts are indeed intimately linked).

There are primarily two different types of fires one should be handy with if they are going to spend any time in the woods – a heat fire and a cooking fire.  The goal of this post is to share a bit of food for thought on my approach to both.

Before dissecting the two different types of fires, let`s discuss the 3 things a fire needs to thrive:

  • a source of ignition
  • fuel
  • oxygen

A lot of people struggle building a good fire because they don`t pay enough attention to the third factor.  Oxygen is just as important as having wood; and even more important when you are starting a fire.  Placing wood too close together with no room to breathe is a guaranteed way to struggle.  A general guideline is to leave the same amount of air between pieces of kindling as the pieces themselves (i.e. if your kindling is 1-inch thick, leave an inch between pieces).

Let`s move on to the two different types of fire:

Heat fire

This is the one many know and love.  We start with pieces of kindling and set them up like a `tent`or a `teepee.`  A few pieces pf paper or birch bark is surrounded by pieces of kindling which lean on each other and simulate a tent.  This generates a lot of oxygen `pulled`through the structure which further fans the flames with more oxygen.  Adding thicker pieces of wood on the outside creates a taller teepee and stronger flame (with the addition of more fuel).

Cooking Fire

This term is a bit of an oxymoron as the goal is to cook over coals as opposed to a crazy flame.  Many use the heat fire above which is difficult to cook on – the sheer height of the fire creates a hot spot in the middle (it`s highest point) and cools towards the outside.  Not an ideal cooking instrument.

A cooking firse starts like a log cabin – kindling is laid on the ground and alternate pieces form a square structure which allows for air circulation and creates a `flatter` heat source to cook over.  This can be more difficult to light and setting up a teepee in the middle of your cabin can help you get a jump-start.

After lighting

We tend to burn wood for several hours before letting it cool down and turn to embers.  The ambient heat of the coals will provide plenty of heat to cook.  As you place more wood on the fire make certain to ensure proper air circulation for a faster, hotter burn.

We`ll share a technique tomorrow (and photos) on a way to cook with flame (and break all of these rules) while not burning your main course to shreds.

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