30 September 2009

How to get those tomatoes naked

I rarely enjoy the task of removing tomato skins, and sometimes prefer to leave them, for certain things, such as last week's chutney, where the combination of textures (apples with their skins on, peppers, etc) conceal the tomato skins. But for a good tomato sauce, skins off is undeniably better. I've tried a few methods, dropping the tomatoes in boiling water to remove the skins, and pressing the raw tomatoes through a food mill, which separates both skins as well as seeds. The boiling water method works just fine, but it is a rather hot process working on a wood stove, and the heat tends to wear me out faster than the task. And the food mill is a slow process, but only leaves me with a puree, when sometimes I would rather have some of the texture of the tomato meats and seeds in the finished product. So it was with excitement that I read about a trick to remove tomato skins raw, in a 1980 Organic Gardening publication.

I've been wanting to try it out and see if it is a viable method for removing the skins from large batches of tomatoes. So I set out with a 20lb pail of ripe Roma tomatoes. I have a pleasant work counter and stool, so that I can sit at a comfortable height to do large food processing tasks. Here's the technique: use only ripe tomatoes, paste types work best, but it works for all varieties.

Scrape the tomato skin with the back of your pairing, or small kitchen knife. Scrape back and forth a few times, applying slight pressure, like you are shaving the skin, rotating the tomato to work around the whole fruit. You will start to see the skin wrinkle under the right pressure, and the texture of the tomato changes to that of a water balloon, as if there's a layer of water just under the skin. This method separates the skin from the flesh underneath. Then slice off the stem end and peel down from the top. The skin should come off easily.

I found this to be a method comparable to the boiling process, perhaps a bit slower, but no standing at a hot stove, waiting over a steaming pot for the water to re-boil. I certainly enjoyed the task more, and felt less worn out afterward. And sometimes that's more important than the length of time a task takes.

Naked tomatoes, ready for processing.

Add a few diced peppers, and garden herbs, and we've got a taste of summer to grace humble winter meals. What a delight when the harvest basket is full of such vibrant color, and flavor!

21 September 2009

Fruits: a celebration

The peak harvests from our tomato crop are inevitably post-frost, but the tomatoes do ripen in a hurry after the plants begin to die back this time of year. So with my first 20lb pail of ripe tomatoes, I've finally got enough to start canning! After working with a pressure canner to put up the winter's green beans and peas, the gentle and quick boiling water bath, used to safely can acid foods, feels like a snap. A good supply of tomatoes really does perk up the winter root cellar diet.

This first harvest of tomatoes went into a chutney, with some of the small tart apples, gleaned in an abandoned homestead apple orchard, abundant this year but not yet sweetened with enough frosts. The tart apples married well with the sweet ripe tomatoes, spiced with red, green and yellow peppers, curry, dates and a touch of raw sugar and homemade apple cider vinegar. Three dozen pints should keep us happy.

I enjoy looking ahead this time of year, and providing us with small gifts and celebrations of summer, for the slow cold days of winter. Perhaps this act is the more genuine origin of the holiday tradition of buying up summer's sale items, storing them in closets and other dark places to bring them out adorned with festive wrapping to generate a feeling of celebration and giving. Although I have long abandoned the malls and consumate culture of consumer-mania, I still feel drawn to practice this art of adorning our harvests into creative and stimulating combinations, package them up and put them in a dark cupboard, until they are called upon, one by one, to generate that true feeling of celebration and camaraderie.

Another crop just coming into it's peak are the Ground Cherries. These are indeed a strange fruit, quaint in their paper wrapping, and odd flavor combination of tomato and pineapple. But they are a prolific annual fruit that can be grown by gypsies and renters alike. Harvesting them is a unique process as well because as the name implies, the fruit falls to the ground when it is nearly ripe, and finishes ripening in the dappled shade of the bushes. Their paper husks make them resistant to rot, with a good mulch underneath, and dry weather, the fruits will ripen conveniently on the ground, and can be gathered once a week. Which is a relief because lifting and weaving through the tangled, ground-hugging branches to gather the fruits is a bit of a chore, not at all like harvesting other fruits that ripen at more convenient heights.

But they have a few winning qualities... They are not a watery fruit, making them easy to dry, they make perfect little raisins, with a pineapple twist. And they will continue ripening indoors, much like tomatoes, lengthening the season for fresh fruit, and making for convenient sized harvests for ease of preserving, instead of the all-at-once nature of more delicate berries. Also, I have never once seen a bird or other animal or insect (besides the occasional slug) attracted by the fruit, so I have no competition for the harvest, unlike true cherries and tree fruits.

To dry the ground cherries, I simply string the ripe fruits into long chains and hang them behind the wood stove. Depending on the weather, and how often I am using the wood stove for canning, they will take a week or so to dry into raisins. I store the dried fruit in glass jars, opening the lids often in the first month to check for moisture on the lid, or a moldy fruit. If they are still moist they can be spread out on a cookie sheet and placed in a warm (100F) oven for an hour or so, cooled and returned to an airtight container in a dark, cool place.

16 September 2009

The big and the little

It's the big one...

We've got whopping big potatoes this year, must be all the rain. And even this pound-and-a-halfer had barely a spot of hollow heart in the middle, solid potato all the way through, and enough to fill the dinner plate!

And all the little ones...

We're expecting a real Zero degree frost tonight, so the squash and pumpkins have been brought in to cure. We had a late crop, and there were a dozen or so of these little promising would-be squash. Not sure how much flavor they have, or how green they are, at best I'm hoping for something like zucchini. I figure I'll try them breaded and fried, after all, everything tastes good breaded and fried! If not, I'm sure the goats and chickens will make quick work of them.

All tucked in for the night...
We put our peppers, tomatoes and ground cherries in one long bed so that we can cover them easily. We procured some heavy plastic house-wrap from a mini-house mover. He usually has to pay to take it to the dump, so he's always keen to pass it along. It is very heavy duty plastic, we have also used it as the weather-proof layer to our board and baton barn roofs, and it has out-performed anything we have purchased. At least it's diverted from the waste-stream, it's hard to believe that plastic this heavy, with so much potential for re-use, is trashed after a single use.

14 September 2009

The flavor of frost

This is a gorgeous time of year, the temperatures have cooled off, and the mosquitoes, blackflies, biting midges, deerflies, and horseflies have disappeared with the heat, which makes a huge difference in our ability to enjoy the garden, and outdoor activities. We even had our first stargaze in quite a few months, dreaming up at the night sky without being eaten alive!

We did have our first major frost on September 9th, dawn broke to a dusting of fine white frost over the garden and fields. But we were prepared, and had covered the tender crops: peppers, tomatoes, ground cherries, a late basil crop, and even a pair of flowering fennel plants, hoping for some fennel seed. The frost spelled the end for the winter squash, pumpkin and cucumber vines, but the zucchini bushes showed real vigor, only burning the tallest leaves and not damaging the crown or small fruits. The last bean crop was also frosted, so we harvested the last of the green beans, and have been feasting on them, getting our fill of the fresh crop knowing it will be canned or fermented from now on.

The frost also marked the end of our market garden crops, which is more of a relief than a disappointment, we did as well as we could this year, and it is good to be able to focus all of our energies on our own harvest and winter preparation.

The bulk of our tomatoes, tomatillos and ground cherries are just ripening now, so we will keep them protected from frost for another 3-4 weeks before bringing in the remaining green fruits to ripen indoors. So my tomato sauce, salsa and chutney canning fest has begun. I'm also drying some ground cherries, they make nice little "raisins" for baked goods, with that unique pineapple flavor.
The sunflowers have indeed bloomed in time to make seeds, I always forget how frost hardy they are. We are going to experiment with de-hulling the seeds this fall/winter.

My own accidental hybrid "Sweet Curry" kabocha type winter squash, ripening in the dappled shade of the frosted vines. These will have to be brought in before the next frost, without the sheltering umbrella of leaves, the squash fruits would be damaged by a frost.

The popcorn is ready to harvest, the kernels mostly dried on the cob. I husk them right away, then store them in a large onion bag and let them continue drying for a few weeks before shelling the cobs.

A late summer fruit, Wild Raisins are ripening. They have a date-like flavor, but also like dates, have an unfortunate pit. My favorite way of making use of these delicious and abundant fruits is to put them through a food mill raw, and dry them as a fruit leather, they need no sugar this way. The pulp is also good added to applesauce, making an interesting applesauce variation.

Of course, the local songbird population is also fond of these sweet fruits. This female Common Yellowthroat, of the wood warbler family, foraged in the same bush.

I got this lucky shot some time later.

I try to keep a profusion of late summer and fall flowers available for the insects. These flowering lettuce bushes would normally be a part of my seed saving regime, but we are going to start over with regionally appropriate seed varieties in our next garden, somewhere on the West coast, so these flowers are just for the bees. The last pollen producing flowers in the garden are the hardy broccoli flowers, I always leave the small side shoots to go to flower, they continue to bloom and attract bumble bees even after the ground starts to freeze, well into November, even early December.

A fennel flower, on it's way to seed, I hope. I started these fennel plants in March this year, determined to get some fennel seed from these slow-pokes, we'll see.

The last of the Coriander flowers, my absolute favorite flower in the garden, they make a delicate bouquet all of their own.

It's amazing that they become such homely clusters, which is likewise, one of my favorite spices. We're curry-aholics, and if you've never tried coriander in baked goods, replace it with cinnamon in a spiced cookie recipe for a nice delight.

08 September 2009

Harvesting grains

September heralds a harvest of a different nature, with a quickened pace to match the flurry of spring planting. These two peaks of activity bookend summer's intermittent dance of advancing green, and dashing retreats from humid heat and biting insects. Summer's vegetable harvest are gathered gradually, in a steady sequence of ripeness, and the pantry fills in dribs and drabs. September wakes us from summer's never-ending dream, and reminds us that time is again short. The garden seems to remember snow and frozen ground, rushing for the finish line of ripened seed, and we scurry like squirrels to gather it all in, and store it safely away.

Nothing connects me more to my human inheritance than the grain harvest. The hard red spring wheat, our staple grain crop providing a year's worth of breads, pastas, crackers, cakes and cookies, was ready to harvest this last weekend. The tasseled heads rustle dryly in the wind, no green remains in the crop, the kernels thresh out easily between the palms of our hands, and the plump golden kernels are firm, not crunchy, but hard with a starchy gum-like center. We harvest our grains by hand, in the manner of peasants over 5 Milena. It is the very meaning of simplicity, and it connects us, in solidarity, to the millions of subsistence farmers around the world who are, I pray, likewise in their fields, gathering, threshing and winnowing their staple grain crops.

We experimented with a few hand harvesting techniques last year, and have come to settle on crude but effective, inexpensive kitchen knives as tools. Gathering a handful of stems, we cut the stalks near the heads, therefore bringing very little stalk into the storage bin. This reduces the amount of space needed to store the heads until we can thresh it all, and it also makes the threshing process easier, with less stalk to clog the equipment.

On a larger, community grain scale, we have more appropriately scaled ideas for harvesting tools, including solar/electric small or two-wheeled tractors (re: link), pedal or treadle powered threshers and harvesters, or biofueled walking tractor sickle-bar mower/binder (re: Ferrari scroll down to picture #3 for a close up of the harvester) and are quite keen to bring these ideas to a receptive community in our journey West.

But for now, we find this simple and steady pace is not too arduous or time-consuming to make hand harvesting our wheat possible. Side by side, we can cover 2000 sq ft an hour, so we can bring in our 1/6th acre in six hours of work, spread out over 3-4 days. We fill large feed bags lashed to our sides, large enough so that the bottom of the bag rests on the ground, and no weight is placed on our backs. And we empty these bags into a prepared grain bin, 8' x 4' x 4'. This way, we can thresh the grains in November and December when the rest of the harvest and winter preparation has slowed down.

And the quiet, meditative pace of the work allows us to share conversation and song, and the bond of working side by side. The greatest pleasure of harvesting by hand, rather than machine, is being able to witness the buzzing, hopping life in the midst of a sea of grain. These fire-engine dragonflies were mating on the bobbing heads, sparrows and wood warblers glean insects and seeds on the ground, grasshoppers catapult away from our sweeping hands, and the sky is abuzz with late summer song.

Our cultivated grains are not the only ones ripening. While thinking about the process our ancestors went through to begin sowing and selecting wild grains for their potential food value, my eyes began to scan for the ancient wild strains of our cultivated grains. In our garden we have these foxtail grasses, ancestor to a still cultivated foxtail millet from Asia.

As well as barnyard grass, ancestor to the proso millet we are growing. Both of these millet ancestors had been attracting small sparrows to the feast.

This flowering seedhead of bindweed is ancestor to buckwheat, domesticated in southeast Asia 8000 years ago.

And this lamb's quarters seed head is close cousins with, and ancestor to quinoa, a valuable and important high-protein staple of the Inca who called it "mother of all the grains". Because of it's ceremonial use, Chrisianizing colonists forced the South American Indians to abandon this quality food for the less nutritious and water hungry corn.

Our own proso millet was ready for harvest as well. The fan-like seed heads ripen gradually, from the top down. It is ready to harvest when the tops are ripe and the bottom grains have lost most of their green. Commercially, the crop is swathed and left to ripen in the field like hay. But it is often plagued by birds and rodents while ripening, and there was some competition for my crop as well. So I cut the heads and let them cure in the house, in a dry warm spot for a week or so.

The hulless oats, originally domesticated relatively late in the Fertile Crescent beginning 3000BC, were likewise, mostly cured, but with a few remaining green-tinged heads. Since it is a small crop, and many of the head were beginning to lodge (or fall over on the ground), and the birds were beginning to pay it some attention, I harvested a week early and finished curing it indoors. The oats are easy to strip off the stalk, and with a small crop, it can be done quickly and efficiently.