Saturday, August 25, 2012

Spicing up your life

Did you know that there are over 1000 varieties of pepper?  A typical grocery store may carry a few such as the sweet bell pepper or Jalapeno chili but that doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the flavors and varieties out there. 
Most people don't realize that many of the peppers we enjoy today originated from South America.  We take for granted those wonderful little surprises that make many of the southeast Asia dishes so tasty.  As peppers come into season, you can enjoy them fresh, pickled, dried, roasted, or even frozen for later use.
Some people say that they don't like peppers because they are too spicy.  With over a thousand to choose from, the favors are as varied as the peppers themselves.  The Poblano pepper for example adds a rich spiciness to your dish.  Just a word of warning: the heat can vary from pepper to pepper on the same plant.  Additionally when allowed to red ripen and then dried, the Poblano becomes the chile ancho a popular addition to many Mexican and Central American dishes.

Another popular chili is the Banana pepper.  These are available in both a sweet and hot variety.  We enjoy these pickled as a bright side dish or garnish to our summer picnic table.   One of our favorites is the Cherry Bomb pepper.  These can be amazingly hot.  About  the size of a golf ball, these can be stuffed with cheese or prosciutto to make Poppers that your guests will always remember!

So seek out new varieties of the season's peppers and enjoy the spicy side of life!

For further reading and other fun:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tomato perfection

Are they ready?  Not yet.  How about now?  Soon.  Now?  Wait for it...

This is the mantra of every gardener.  The rose enthusiast waiting for the certain blossom to open.  The orchardist waiting for the fruit to reach its sun blest juiciest.  And of course the summer vegetable gardener waiting for the tomatoes to vine ripen for best flavor.

So now is the time.

Although we will can a few during these first few weeks, nothing compares to a tomato which has ripened in the warm summer sun.  You can keep your hot house and hydroponics.  For me there is no comparason to the flavor mother nature intended.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Little Jewels

While chatting with a friend the other day, it was asked about the difference in chicken eggs.  The brown shelled eggs sold at the market are frequently higher in price and touted as being more healthy.  The shell of an egg has nothing to do with how healthy the content.  Put simply: what goes in is what comes out.  
Little Miss and Goldie
Think about it.  When you eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sunshine and exercise, and are able to relax among your friends, you feel better and are more productive.  Chickens are no different.  Most laying chickens live rather sad lives, confined to small cages where they receive food and water in exchange for producing a certain number of eggs.  When the egg production slows down, they are culled and replaced with younger birds. 

For those folks that only purchase eggs or chicken meat marked 'Free range', all I can say is buyer beware.  The USDA standard for free range merely states that a bird needs to have access to the outdoors.  This unfortunately doesn't mean that she is roaming a lush pasture with her little chickeny friends.  The picture on the carton may show wide open spaces, however her reality may be only to have a 6x6 foot concete yard to share with 100 of her fellow layers. 

Our girls have lots of room to roam with plenty of chicken snacks, sweet grass and clover, plus a wholesome feed available to them to ensure a balanced diet.  As a suppliment and special treat, the gals also receive cucumbers and other vegetables from the garden, tomato bits, and even a bit of watermelon from time-to-time. 

So why do some chickens lay white eggs and others lay colored shelled eggs?  Good question.  If you were to look at a hen's anatomy, all of her eggs start out the same and are pretty goopy as they form in her ovaduct (egg producing tract).  Toward the end of the tract, the shell forms around the egg and yolk, with some liquid to cushion and bathe the developing chick.  This shell is white.  As the egg is laid, an oily secretion coats the shell to protect it from bacteria yet allow the developing chick to breathe.  This secretion is what gives the shell its color.

The general rule of thumb is, if your chicken has red or dark colored earlobs she will lay colored eggs.  If she has white earlobs she will lay white eggs.  Now here's where I wish my camera could pick up the soft and subtle colors of an Americauna egg.  The photo doesn't do these lovely jewels their due.  Missy's eggs are a soft turquoise color.  Each girl produces a different shade ranging from pinks and blues to minty greens.  I can look at the color and tell you, who it is from. 

They taste no different from any other egg but because they are produced from calm, healthy, happy hens are more nutrious than those produced by those sad birds at the egg laying factory.  Something to keep in mind the next time you reach for a dozen.

Hidden treasures

Monday, August 6, 2012

There are somethings in this world that never get old.  This morning's sky was as bright as a robin's egg.  The rains have cooled the world down to the point that it is comfortable enough again to venture out.  Wild flowers are exploding out all over and tiny blades of grass are struggling to get established.  Of course the cooler conditions also have encouraged the moths and butterflies into action. 

Black and Tiger Swallowtails drift and flutter every where.  It's fun to watch the dogs dance about on their hind legs as they reach and prance as they attempt to capture their elusive foe.

I found this on YouTube this morning and thought that you also may enjoy it.  Many of the butterflies featured are the same ones that presently grace our pastures.

Nothing teaches patience like waiting for one's tomatoes to ripen to perfection.  Each morning, I wander out and carefully peak at each one (ready?  not yet.  Ready?  no yet).  Each year I think I have planted enough tomatoes however each year I find that nothing beats the flavor of a fresh from the garden beauty.  We still can and sauce quite a few however keep our fingers crossed that we have enough. 

Since you asked, yes, the chickies are all doing well.  Fresh water and plenty of shade has kept everyone reasonably comfortable.  Our lover boy roosters have been very attentive making sure that everyone knows where to find the choice bits, even nicely sharing those special snacks (fresh from the refridgerator).  I have found that they especially love cucumber seeds and peels, which I am more than glad to save for them.  Aside from their free choice from the pasture, we also share our vegetable scraps with them.  This provides some extra nutrition and variety to their diets.  Besides: everyone enjoys a cool treat when it's hot outside and the chickies are no different.

Don't forget to visit and support your local Farmers Market.  In many parts of the country farmers are struggling to stay afloat.  Please help them out and buy local.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Harvesting and stocking up for the winter

Two weeks ago I did a posting about green beans and provided a lovely recipe for DH's favorite three bean salad.  I assumed that everyone knew what 'blanched' meant however learned that some of you needed a few hints on how to do this so that the vegetables come out crisp tender.

To begin, the smaller the amount of time between harvest and freezing or canning your vegetables the higher amount of nutrition you will receive from them.  This also goes for flavor.  Vegetables just taste best when fresh from the field or garden.  For the best flavor, pick your vegetables in the cool of the morning.

Although others may work a little quicker than I, it takes me about an hour to prepare and process a gallon of green beans.  You will need to following to blanch and prepare your vegetables for freezing.
  1. large bowl to hold fresh picked vegetables (or keep them in your clean garden bucket)
  2. large bowl to hold cleaned raw vegetables
  3. large pot for boiling water and stainless steel stainer to hold vegetables while cooking.
  4. large bowl of iced water with a colander for holding and draining
  5. vacuum sealer or press and seal freezer bags.
Although this process can be used for nearly any vegetable, we're using green beans (mostly because that's what is coming from the garden in the greatest abundance).

Before beginning, clear your counter space to allow you to work efficiently.  The configuration of my kitchen allows me to work in clockwise.  Starting at the sink, take a small handful of beans and gently rinse the dirt and plant debris, such as the dried blossoms, from the beans.  Pinch or cut off the stem attachment and discard.  Now snap or cut the clean beans into 1 - 2 inch segments.  If the green or yellow beans are fresh, they should easily snap into pieces.  If they are a little rubbery, it just means that the beans may not the freshest however may still have good flavor.

Rinse the dirt from your beans

Once the stem attachment has been removed, snap your beans into 1 - 2 inch segments.
While you're cleaning your beans, set a large pot of unsalted water on the stove to boil.  As soon as it reaches a rolling boil, take a handful of beans and drop them into the straining basket so that the beans are covered in water but not bouncing around in the water bath.  Many of the better cookbooks also contain a reference table for how long to keep them in the water bath in order to blanch them until crisp tender.  I typically cook mine until they turn a truly lovely shade of bright green which is about 3 minutes. 

When starting out, you may want to take one out of the bath (careful: HOT), rinse it in the cold iced water, then taste if it is cooked to your liking.  whatever you do: don't cook it until it turns to mush or turns grey green.  if you are freezing your harvest, you will most likely be thawing and cooking it at a later date.  You want it to be a wee bit raw to hold those lovely flavors!  Remember that those bright colors are the nutrition you're saving.  Don't boil away the vitamins!

Boil about three minutes, until crisp tender
When ready, drain the hot vegetables and plunge them into an ice water bath to cool and halt the cooking process.  This will preserve the color and lock in those vitamins!  Once cool, the drained beans are ready to ladle into the freezer bags.
Plunge into an ice water bath to stop the cooking and retain the nice color
Drain the beans throroughly before spooning them into freezer bags.  Be sure to remove as much air as possible before sealing.  This can be done in several ways:  if using a vacuum sealer, follow the directions for your appliance, add your vegetables, evacuate and seal each package.  If using press and seal plastic bags, scoop the vegetables into the bag, then place the bag open side up into a pan of cold water to press the air out.  Be careful not to submerge the open bag into the water and get water in the bag!  When the air has been removed to your satisfaction, seal the bag and remove it from the water.

Add the cool, drained beans to the freezer bag, seal, and freeze
Why remove the air? Air pockets will allow frost to form, causing freezer burn and will eventually undo your efforts.  Vegetables prepared in this way can last a long time and will continue to feed your family well into Winter when Summer is just a delight as we peruse our seed catalogs dreaming of next year's garden.