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Archive for June, 2010

preserving summer, how to preserve berries

We have 14 or 15 different types of jam in our pantry and I eat toast a few times a year.  We use jam for cheese, in salad dressings, smoothies, cut it with balsamic to make a glaze and more.  But more than a dozen different types of jam is more than enough and I’d like to have options access to Ontario’s fresh fruit flavours without a significant punch of sugar.

There’s a tonne of great information on freezing at the National Center for Home Food Preservation (this US site is typically accepted as the bible of safety in preserving circles).  They cover far more than I could here in a single article on how to freeze food effectively (odd concept as I generally found “stick in freezer ” generally works just fine) but is worth the read.

One of the tips on the site that I have learned the hard way is to not pack your freezer with vast amounts of unfrozen food.  This will increase the temperature of the freezer and dramatically lower the quality of your food.  Freezing the freshest fruits in a single layer (on a cookie sheet for example) before throwing them in a sealed container has been a great secret of my mother for many years.

We have a friend who freezes whole fruit in the busy days of summer and makes her jam in the slower (and colder) nights of winter.  I’ve read that jam from frozen fruit can be runnier though she insists it’s not (I suspect that using commercial pectin would assist with this).

The major disadvantage for freezing is space and equipment (a freezer).  We have neither.

Dehydration also requires equipment but it’s results are fabulous.  Anyone who has ever reduced a sauce by boiling (i.e. removing water), knows the impact on flavour by removing inherit water content that appears in our food.  Imagine doing that to a strawberry.

Home-dehydrated food is often very different from commercially produced fruit (often bought in bulk) as the commercial stuff which is often dehydrated chemically.

There’s not a lot to describe when it comes to dehydration.  Cut your fruit evenly – precision is essential for even dehydration and will save a lot of work pulling thinner pieces out of the dehydrator before the thicker ones are done).  We use a mandolin for this process and cut our strawberries 1/4 inch (about 6mm) thick.  Strawberries cut this thick will end up paper thin after about 6-8 hours in the dry heat (typically around 135 degrees for fruit).

A lesson learned: take the time to individually place your fruit slices in the dehydrator.  loosely throwing them in will cause them to stick together and will increase your work – 2 slices will become the thickness (and timing) of a thick slice.

Don’t miss dehydrating the hulls to make tea through the fall and winter (or iced tea in the summer).

This is part of our Preserving Summer series (click the link for access to all of the articles to date)  that supports our recent article in Edible Toronto.  We welcome any and all questions, comments and your ideas!

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The next 10 days will feature posts relating to the preserving ideas presented in our article in Edible Toronto. We`ll be sharing ideas on cherries, peaches, tomatoes, elderflowers, peas, hot peppers, raspberries, currants and berries.  We`ll touch on infusing, dehydrating, freezing, canning and pressure canning.

The most difficult part of putting the article together was dealing with the sheer quantity of choices from the summer harvest (easy for me to say as Dana is the designer who just makes it look so easy to me).  It`s tough to believe we go from the first strawberries to the last tomatoes in about 3 months.  Summer is an intense preserving time in our house and an essential time for us to keep busy in order to have locally produced food year-round.

A rumtopf is a great place to start as it includes fruit from the entire growing season.  It`s also a great place to start preserving as it doesn`t require water bathing or much equipment of any sort (more on that in a few paragraphs).  For those of you looking for it on the chart, it’s not there – this appears as a recipe separate from the chart.

A rumtopf is a winter treat. Treat fresh fruit with sugar (measurements follow) and let it steep in rum for several months. The fruit can be consumed and the liquid sipped as a Holiday toast.

A proper rumtopf is made in a crock which seals the jar and keeps it dark. Our friends Tigress and Sarah B. Hood both have samples of wonderful crocs that they’ll be using for their recipes.  We are experimenting with a clear glass container that we’ll be storing in a dark and cool place.  It’s our hope that the darkness will suffice and our see-through jar will provide a window into the layers of the harvest like some sort of mineral deposit.  The safest bet is the croc but a dark and cool place should easily preserve fruit in a clear vessel as long as it seals.

We’ve started with strawberries, spiced rum and brown sugar.  Here’s our start (we’ll update through the season):

Here`s the recipe as it appears in Edible Toronto (thank you Gail for allowing us to share this):

Buy or pick the first fruits that are in season locally and delightfully fresh. Wash and dry the fruit.†If using fruit with a stone (pit), remove the stone. Peel any fruit that can be peeled, such as peaches and pears.

Cut the fruit into bite-sized chunks.†Weigh the fruit (I prefer weight over volume for accuracy) and place it in a large bowl.

Add 50 percent of the weight in granulated sugar (so, if you have 500 grams of fruit, add 250 grams of sugar).†Let this stand for an hour (or overnight in the fridge); this is known as plumping the fruit.

Transfer the fruit and sugar mixture to the non-reactive†container and add just enough rum to cover.

Cover the container with plastic wrap before putting on the lid to help prevent evaporation and loss. Always keep the fruit completely covered, adding additional rum as needed.

Repeat with fruit all summer long by adding layers of different fruits to the same jar.

Store in a cool, dark place.

After the last addition of fruit and rum, wait at least six weeks before serving.

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As a part of the Can Jam, I got to thinking about how many hundreds of pounds of strawberry hulls that hit composters and trash bins across the world this month (ok a little melodramatic but it`s Sunday and I reserve the right to be a drama Queen on Sundays if I so choose).

I also really love the idea of nose-to-tail eating as applied to vegetables and fruit.    Thinking of eating a strawberry `nose-to-tail`just makes me giggle a small bit.

Our hulls have a bit of berry attached.  They were roughly pulled from the berry as the fruit was hand crushed at the same time to be added into jam.  The hulls, with berry bits were later squeezed of their final juices and a plan was hatched.  There had to be something that could be done with all of those hulls.

And there was:

An entire jar of dehydrated strawberry hulls.  They will keep indefinately (a year or two but will disappear well before then).

We theorized that dehydrated hulls could  make a natural tea (or iced tea) and can be combined with other dried projects (such as our lemon slices).

The results are awesome and totally exciting.  A small dab of honey, 1 dehydrated lemon slice and a small spoon of hulls made this strawberry iced tea delightful.

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Perhaps the longest title we`ve ever posted.  I`m really fired up this morning.

We do not eat 100% local.  I love lobster, crab, and will buy some things out of season (including lettuce).  I do adore the sentiment, try to eat as seasonally as possible and prefer the sensibilities of local food where possible.

The local food movement has been under attack from many angles.  Food is an emotional topic and the politics of it run deep through many people.  False, exaggerated or misleading information is shared from all sides.  I try to avoid the arguments and would far rather focus on the positives in my life and on my plate.

I purchased9 pints of local strawberries yesterday for $7.11 (taxes included) from a retail store.  The berries were a day old and had to be sold on discount as their quality drops quickly and the store receives a daily shipment from a local farm (one that I`ve gone to for 30 years).  At $0.79 a pint they are much more affordable than the $3.79 for todays berries.

While lining up to pay, the woman in front of me was looking at my box of berries with wonder.  I noticed she had 2 pints of strawberry-like product (ok they were `real`strawberries) from California.  I live 4,364 km (2,700 miles) from where her strawberries are shipped.  Her 2 pints were $7.00 plus tax ($0.30 cheaper than local berries).

If berries that are shipped 8 km to the store lose almost all value in 24 hours, what the heck are we consuming when it comes from the other corner of the continent…  The most amazing thing about those berries is how strong they are to withstand the shipping and handling that they do.

I had the privledge of listening to Chef Thomas Keller speak this year and the experience continues to resontae with me.  When a woman stated that she wanted blueberries in the winter, he smiled, looked at her and simply stated `but you can`t` (Keller is a massive fan of quality and local is not a mandate of his).

In a few weeks I will not be able to buy local strawberries and that will be the end of my strawberry consumption for a year.  Call that local if you wish; for me it feels like the only option.  And, for that, I`m excited!

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As you`ll see tomorrow (if you care to come back for a visit :)), we bought 9 pints of local strawberries for $7.11.  They were a day old and perhaps a little less than ideal for jam but we were looking for something much more liquid and I had something else up my sleeve.

I adore making multiple different types of preserves at the same time.  You can gain massive efficiency and by mixing batches up you can easily do things you couldn`t otherwise.  Here`s what I mean:

  1. We started using a small mandolin to cut uniform pieces of berries.  A mandolin is a quick way to cut uniform slices and an awesome tool when dehydrating.  The difficulty is an inherent danger of cutting yourself as your food gets closed to the blade.  The finger guard that comes with them is great on larger fruit and veg but useless on small and tender berries so we dehydrated the bottom half of the berries (the pieces we could easily use the mandolin for) and used the top half for jam or syrup.
  2. As we went through 9 pints, we picked the best looking fruit to be added to our Rumtopf (more on that in coming days).
  3. We even saved the hulls for a 4th batch of something special – more details on that experiment on Sunday.

One short evening of work produced dehydrated strawberries, strawberry syrup, the starting of a strawberry Rumtopf and Strawberry syrup.  It`s awesome to have choices.

Today`s focus is on Strawberry Syrup – it is, essentially, a liquid jam.  We can in 2-year cycles and I had done a lot of strawberries last year of which I still have many (my favourite remains the preserved whole strawberries in simple syrup).  We avoid adding pectin and are happy with a runny jam that can be used as a topping for ice cream, slathered on pancakes, spooned onto deserts, laid on a bed of bread-protecting peanut butter and the like.

Our berries were day old and very dark.  I was inspired by the recent discovery that a bottle of beer I had purchased for $12 was being sold in a restaurant in Toronto for $90. The beer is Brooklyn Breweries Black Ops beer (it is some of the best copy I have read in beer marketing ever) and I thought it would be fun to make a jam shrouded in mystery (or at least as close to black as I could make it).

The recipe is simple (you can modify the quantity if you keep the ratios in tact):

  1. 2 lemons
  2. 6.75 pounds of strawberries
  3. 5 pounds of sugar
  4. Optional: some balsamic vinegar (there`s enough acid with the lemons to carry this so this is merely for flavour and colour).

Reduce the berries and lemon for about an hour at a gentle boil.  We went about 90 minutes (and still have a very runny product).

Add sugar and bring back up to a boil and test for set (my favourite way remains putting some of the jam in the freezer for 2 minutes and running my finger through it to ensure it stays divided).

Place in hot, clean jars and you`re off to the races.

More details on our other preserves in the next few days…

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Like a sweet child that turns into a teenager, many greens become bitter as they mature (I couldn`t resist the analogy).  Age transforms small and tender stalks to larger, bolder leaves which demand your attention.

This couldn`t be any more evident that dandelion leaves.  Major chain stores are starting to carry them and I suspect that hardened dandelion foragers will balk at buying what is available in abundance for free while some newer to the task may experiment by picking up the commercially provided solution.  There will be plenty of exceptions but I do wonder how many newcomers will buy mature dandelion leaves and never go back to them once they taste how bitter they are.

Some common solutions including a quick blanching (works well but changes texture), mixing them into other leaves for a mixed salad (works but kind of misses a pure dandelion experience if that`s what you are going for), adding lots of sweet fruit and vegetables and a salty dressing or cheese.  Of course this applies to other greens as well.

If you want to keep the integrity of your leaves and consume a less bitter version there`s an easy solution: run cold water over your leaves for 2-6 hours.  The water must be running and a long exposure is required.

When I first read this final tip, my nose scrunched up.  It sounded like the most un-environmental way to serve greens in the world.  I`d probably have to leave my house as well since I`m nut sure I could take the sound of the running faucet for half a day (or more).

But I kept listening.

People have been eating bitter greens for a long time.  Long before we had kitchens, running water and split sinks.  Native Americans would place bags made of netting (and filled with greens) in creeks with running water for hours on end.  Nature`s faucet would work her magic on the leaves and take their bitterness away.  It`s amazing to me how we`ve gotten so far from this that many of us (including me) consider the only source of relevant running water to be the tap.

I haven`t had the opportunity to try this yet.  I have a spot picked out up north and when the timing is right, we`ll jump in.  In the mean time we`ll either enjoy a bitter salad or look at some of the other solutions above.

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There is a `secret`to tomato sauce that many home gardeners miss when it comes to preparing tomato sauce.  Before we spill our beans, let`s share a hint:

The majority of aroma of the actual fruit of a tomato comes from the skin and the outer fruit wall.  As sauce typically discards the skin, we lost a major olfactory component.  Cooking the fruit further lowers the rich tomato smell as the flesh of the tomato transforms with eat and produces a slight sulfur compound.  It`s not bad for you, it just isn`t all the freshness that a tomato can be.

If you`ve ever touched a tomato leaf, you`ll know that the majority of smell of a tomato is from it`s leaves.  We have several 4-foot high plants in the backyard right now that you can smell from many feet away.

A last-minute addition of a few fresh tomato leaves to your sauce (use like a bay leaf) will significantly increase the aroma.  You want to add these towards the end of cooking as they will lose their potency with too much processing.  We also plan to dehydrate some of our leaves for this use through the winter.

There were rumours, for years, that the leaves were possibly toxic.  Harlod McGee and other food scientists have concluded that while the leaves do contain an alkaloid called tomatine, it actually grabs onto molecules of cholesterol in  our digestive system which prevents our body from absorbing either compound.  This does in fact suggest that there are additional health benefits of lowering cholesterol via tomato leaves (of which significance I have no idea).  I do love food science though.

Of course many Italian Grandmothers have been doing this for years – I really encourage others to give it a try!

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