Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My First

     Yes, it happened not last weekend but the weekend before. It was a beautiful spring night, everything was perfect and a good time was had by all. That's right, the first big BBQ bash to welcome in the summer. An intimate gathering of twelve, LOL, all to welcome my cousin who was in the city studying.

     I had a blast. We moved the kitchen table outside so we all had a place to sit. My gardening tub, filled with ice doubled as a cooler, no running back and forth for libations. We had a fire going in the fireplace, the fountain provided, well, whatever a fountain provides and we ate and ate and ate.

     I have had several requests for recipes from the menu that night so here goes. I'll list the menu and when it is red it means the link to the recipe is ready and done. I wish I had taken more/some pictures. Everything was great but the show stopper was the little mini pavlovas. I'm not above a little showing off in the kitchen LOL.

A deceptively simple dessert that always turns heads

     Just so you know, I don't cook like this often but it is fun to flex those culinary muscles once and a while. Besides who needs a better reason than a gathering of family and friends. And it was my first after all, I wanted it to be memorable.

    Some of my guests brought their own creations as well but I don't have recipes for those so.......


Roasted Red Pepper Hummus- I bought this, I can make it but .....
5 layer dip- can be as easy or complicated as you choose to make it


Bean Salad- one of my father's favourites

Dessert- The Dainties - a bit of a private joke

Lime Squares with Almond Shortbread Crust


Beer, lots and lots of Beer- I do have lots of Irish and Scottish blood after all LOL

     I will try to get the recipes up as fast as I can but I'm a lousy typist so bear with me.

     What are your favourite summer recipes? I'm always on the look out for great new BBQ ideas so feel free to pass along yours. I hope you enjoy these as much as we did.

Surviving the Urban Jungle

     It has been  a bit since I posted anything, it has been busy around here. I'm sorry to say the blog is the first casualty of the nice summer weather. There just aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done.

     One of the biggest jobs in the summer is trying to stay ahead of the garden. First, so I have all kinds of deliciousness for the kitchen and secondly to have my own little oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle. It makes the perfect setting for entertaining or just relaxing after a long day.

     How do I tame my urban jungle? With my trusty Ipod and a bunch of tunes of course. Yes, I have my trowel, various shovels, pruners, hoes and rakes but it is my Ipod that is my most used bit of gardening gear. I have it on an idiot string around my neck (or I would lose it), tucked inside my shirt ( because I catch the earphone cord on everything ), blasting away.   Whether I'm "Gardening till the World Ends" with Britney, tying up my tomatoes to Rihanna's "S&M, going "What the Hell" with Avril as I survey the damage the squirrels caused, everything ends up "Perfect" with P!nk. The time just melts away. I'm sure the occasional dance move / seizure keeps the neighbours entertained. And yes, my friends have all told me I have embarassingly bad taste in music. LOL

     So here is what has been keeping me occupied.

Bright red dainthus taking over as the soapwort fades

My false indigo, much smaller than last year but it has spread like crazy

White peach leaf campanula

Cranesbill geranium

Antique roses, such an incredible scent

Brilliant yellow primroses,
a transplant from my mother's garden

Gorgeous blanket flowers

Brown Eyed Susans,
their real name escapes me right now

Bright red New Guinea impatiens

     That pretty much covers the floral part of the garden. My lilies are almost ready to bloom, maybe a week away, the morning glories are climbing and the snowball astilbe and toad lilies are all progressing well. All my annuals, impatiens, heliotrope, geraniums, marigolds etc are all doing well in their respective pots except for my petunias. I always plant them because I really like the smell but something is eating them this year so they are a little less than spectacular.

      Speaking of which, I lost two plantings of dill, eaten right off to nothing, several of my lilies have the flower buds eaten away and my green beans also suffered, but only the green, the yellow bean plants were untouched. Go figure?

My poor row of beans,
They have since recovered so I should still get a good crop
I thought I was going to have to replant

     What else has suffered? Some one stole one of my marigolds off the end of the vegetable patch and one got run over by someone turning in my driveway, thanks, but the biggest hit this year has been my strawberry patch. Just as my strawberries were coming in, the horde descended.

Perched on the top of the fence,
the miserable little rodents

Coming in for the harvest

The strawberry patch after the fact

     I'm not sure if the picture does it justice, but the squirrels this year have completely trashed my strawberries. Anyone have any good recipes for squirrel pie? Before you start feeling too badly, I did manage to get about 35 cups of strawberries out before/during the invasion. But seriously? If anyone has any tips on keeping them away please pass them along.

     Even though I do this every year, I still get a charge out of seeing the first of my produce coming along.

My herbs are flourishing
I'm using my basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, tarragon, sage, mint, oregano and cilantro

My heirloom yellow pear tomatoes, tied up and doing fine

The rest of the tomato patch, staked and tied

Cucumbers all in flower and trailing everywhere but up the trellis I provided
I had to tie them on to start them up

The start of my zucchinis,
All eight plants are producing and I should have the first by the end of next week

Peas climbing, all ready for summer

My winter onions, with the first new sets out and almost ready to harvest for next year's planting

     A few tips for the vegetable patch.

     Peas are climbers and usually end up as a big tangled mess. Plant them around tomato cages and they stay neater, are easier to pick and  to weed. Thanks for the tip aunt Jean. They also can't stand a lot of heat. Mine are planted next to the fence so it shades them in the afternoon during the hottest part of the day.

     Cucumbers are also climbers so trellis them as well. The best cucumber crops I had were at another house growing up a chain link fence. It saves a lot of garden space if you grow your vines on the vertical. Cucumbers are strong enough to support the weight of their fruit but melons are not. Put melons in a nylon sack, cut the ends off of pantyhose, and tie them to your trellis. As the melons get larger, the pantyhose stretches to accommodate them and the trellis supports the weight so you won't damage the vines. Looks strange but hey, whatever works.

     Always stake/support your tomatoes. It makes them easier to prune, keeps your garden tidier and easier to work in, provides sunlight and airflow around the plants and helps prevent tomato rot from fruit resting on the damp earth. Tomatoes can be very tricky. They are susceptible to about everything that can go wrong in the garden. Tie them with broad strips of cloth not fine cord like butcher's twine or jute. It can saw right through the stem as it moves in the wind damaging or killing the plant. Tie them as securely as you can as well. All my old pillowcases get shredded up for this.

     I always plant at least one heirloom variety of seeds, usually three or four. It is important to keep our seed heritage alive and well rather than depending on only a few varieties.

     What aren't you seeing? The lettuce, Swiss chard and arugula are all doing well and being used. The watermelons are coming along after a rocky start. The radishes, well..... The beets that survived the squirrels seem to be doing okay, if nothing else I'll have greens and the blackberries and eggplant are coming along nicely.

     All in all, it looks like it's going to be a good harvest this year. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed and the music loud. LOL

     How is your garden growing? Drop me a line and let me know. Feel free to pass along any of your tips for keeping your garden green. Take care.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Canning 101

     This is the last of the canning instruction posts for now. I've already touched on food safety, what's what and pectin. This is a quick reference for the beginner and maybe a refresher for the more experienced. It only pertains to canning in a boiling water bath. I'll go over the equipment I use and some of the terms you'll likely encounter along the way. All in time to take advantage of strawberry season.


My agate water bath canners and my blancher

     The first thing you'll need is a canner. You don't have to buy one like I have, although I highly recommend it, any big stock pot will do. If you are using a stock pot there are two things to remember.

     One, there has to be a rack of some kind to lift the jars off the bottom of the pot. If there isn't, the jars will crack because of the temperature differential between the bottom of the pot and the boiling water.

     Two, the pot has to be tall enough to cover the completely submerged jars with at least an inch of water and then another couple of inches above that to prevent boil over. If the jars are not kept completely covered with water, they will not seal properly and you are not "canning" a safe product.

     Go with the agate canner, they are designed for it and will make life a lot easier. I have two to accommodate the large, litre, and smaller jars, 125, 250 and 500 ml. You can do both in the larger pot, but not in the smaller.

     I have a blancher just because the insert makes it more convenient. You can blanch in any stock pot. I  find mine faster and I burn myself less, enough said.

The bits and pieces

     The picture above is all the little bits and pieces I have collected to make things easier when I'm working.

     The essentials, all the red bits in front. They are a "canning kit", jar lifter, tongs, funnel and lid lifter. Any hardware store should sell them and they are quite inexpensive. All make working around boiling water and with hot products easier and safer, something I need, clumsy.

     In the back, a Chinese sieve with pestle, my eight cup measuring cup, a scale and up front on the right a food mill.

    The sieve and pestle are for straining juice for jelly and I use mine for processing tomatoes as well. Not necessary but nice to have.

     The large measuring cup, very handy, but again not essential.

     The scale is essential. It doesn't have to be like mine but many recipes are by weight not volume so a scale of some kind is needed.

     The food mill is for separating apple pulp (apple sauce) from the seeds and skins when I am making apple stock. It is the only time this gets dusted off. I must admit I find it awkward to use.

     I almost forgot my thermometer. There are several ways to test the gel if you are making jelly or jam but I rely on temperature, 8 degrees above boiling or 220 Fahrenheit, about 104 degrees Celsius. It hasn't failed me yet.

Three piece sealing jar, band, jar and lid (attached to the lid lifter)

     You need jars. For safety's sake, only use the modern three piece jars shown above. They are not what my grandmother used but are considered the only safe way to put up home made preserves.

     Finally, and this is essential, a good cookbook or recipes that follow modern canning techniques. Because making various types of preserves depend on exact conditions being met to either "set" or to be safe, do yourself a favour and invest in a good book. There are lots to choose from but my personal favourite is "Gourmet Preserves, Chez Madelaine" by Madelaine Bullwinkel. She goes into lots of detail about the how's and why's of doing things. I have four others and family or Internet recipes so there are lots of choices out there. I have adapted most of the recipes I use a bit but very carefully and with lots of knowledge behind me about what affects what.

Terms and Procedures

     Probably the most important procedure is to sterilize your jars and lids. Both need to be clean to prevent contamination or spoilage.  For the jars, I use the 10 minutes in a water bath method. I already have the canner out so..... There are other methods but I don't use them so I can't comment on the effectiveness or safety. One thing I did stumble across was a dishwasher with a sterilize cycle, that would be convenient.

     To sterilize the lids, I start them in warm water and bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat. I do this just before I'm ready to jar what ever I am making. If you over heat the lids, the rubber rings can separate and your jars won't seal properly. I also never re use lids.

     You don't have to worry about the bands, they don't come in contact with the food, they just have to be clean.    

     Head space is the space between what you have made and the top of the jar. It is there to allow air to escape during processing to create your seal. When in doubt, I fill my jars to the first threads on the jar that hold the band in place.

     Processing is putting your preserve in a boiling water bath or pressure canner for a specific amount of time. It does two things. It kills bacteria by bringing your product to a specified temperature for the correct amount of time and it helps to ensure the "seal".

     The seal is how tight the lid of your jar is. It prevents air getting into your jars and causing spoilage. A properly sealed lid should be slightly bowed in and not move if you press it with your fingertip. As jars cool you should hear the lids "ping". When you try to remove a properly sealed lid, it should be relatively difficult to get off. If it pops off in your hand easily, chances are something is amiss.

     Finger tip tight applies to how tightly the band is put on the jar before you process them. Too tight and your lids will buckle, no proper seal achieved. Too loose and water gets in and again no proper seal. Screw the bands on lightly with your finger tips and tighten them down after your jars have cooled after processing.

     Hot packing refers to filling your jars with your preserve when they are still hot, just off the stove. It is to keep the temperature up and reduce processing times. For jams and jellies, this also helps prevent overcooking and breaking your gel.

     One last procedure I can think of off the top of my head is removing the air from your jars. As you are filling jars, pockets of air can get trapped. Running a knife around the inside edge will usually get the worst of them. The pockets of air can hold mold spores, bacteria etc that might not process properly and can ruin all of your efforts.

     There are other things I could touch on, process or techniques I know of or have heard of, but I want to keep this focused on food safety and not stray off on tangents, presenting pros and cons of things I don't do in my own kitchen.

     There you have it, my quick (?) guide on canning. Did I forget something? I'm sure I did. Drop me a line or leave a comment and let me know. Feel free to share your experiences or techniques. Hopefully this will help you enjoy the fruits of the season all year long.

A Guest in the Kitchen/Jammin' with the Bread Machine

     With summer officially just days away, things are heating up in the kitchen. A cousin's visit prompted the first big blow out BBQ of the season (still recovering). Strawberry season is starting, so lots of pies, jams and my all time favourite, Strawberry Shortcake on the horizon. It also seemed the perfect time to invite a guest into the kitchen, my cousin Leslie aka RoryBore.

My cousin Leslie, ain't she cute??

     Les has a blog of her own, click here to visit, and was part of the inspiration for mine. She is a busy SAHM (stay at home Mom) with three children. I have no idea how she finds time to write, just reading her blog makes me tired. LOL

     Her post is about making jam in a breadmaker, something I had no idea was even possible. Although not really "canning" exactly, still a way to enjoy making your own jam at home.

Jammin' with the Bread Machine

Well, I went to get some strawberries to make some fresh jam in my bread maker, and of course, the strawberries were dreadful!   I mean truly horrible.    No decent child of farmer stock would carry them across the threshold to her humble abode!  LOL  
I checked the website from my local supplier and it states that the strawberries should be ready by end of June.   Guess all that spring rain set farmers crops back a bit.
I also see that another local grower has set up their usual summer stand, so I will check to see if they have any.  
So no personal pics to accompany recipes.    There is a mixed pepper jam that I want to try too....will have to update you on that at later date.
My bread machine is a Black and Decker Home, All In One Automatic Bread Maker (Model B6000C), which has a jam setting.
So far, I find it works quite well.  I wouldn’t say a bread machine makes jam as well as my mom’s freezer jam method, or well...any of my aunt’s recipes (of which Paul obviously inherited the cooking gene, while I merely got the Fisher looks – ha!).   Traditionalists will likely prefer the traditional methods.   But if you want some jam for your morning toast, and you don’t want to stand sweating and stirring over the stove, and/or miss the latest Tweet, Facebook update, or who dances, sings, or survives the best, then this method will suffice.    Call it the slacker mom jam, if you will.   I’m totally ok with that.    The important thing is, it is still home-made, and thus not full of preservatives, added sugar, or any other ingredients that require a bio-medical/chemistry degree to pronounce or understand.  
The one thing I have not yet done with jam made in the bread maker is freeze it.   Most recipes state refrigerate either 3 – 6 weeks.  I do not see why you could not freeze it, but the real drawback to this method is that you probably are not making enough jam to freeze.   Again, slacker method = just enough jam to get you until the next grocery trip, or when you feel inspired to haul out your bread maker again.    Or, because you realized at 9 pm that you are out of jam and eldest child will most certainly request PB&J for his school lunch; as per the previous 38 days.  And a trip to the grocery store means getting out of your pj’s and back in “real” i.e yoga pants, clothes.  
For me, one of the most important things is to finely dice your fruit.   Or mash fresh berries lightly with a fork.   The paddles will only stir the mixture as it cooks, not chop it.    My first attempt was some seriously chunky, lumpy strawberry jam, which some people might not mind, but it does not look all that attractive.   Really, you could have just chopped some strawberries and thrown them on your toast; saved even more time.   Also, if using frozen berries, I would recommend thawing completely, then mashing with a fork or potato masher.  The other important thing with bread machines is to always measure ingredients exactly, and to put them into the Baking Pan in the order listed in the recipe.   I also highly recommend using some tin foil around the outer edges of the pan insert, leaving a hole in the middle, to avoid.....well, a complete mess.  Which renders that handy viewing window obsolete.
And as Paul already kindly confirmed for me, if you choose to use pectin (and I recommend you do with the bread maker) --- powder and liquid are NOT interchangeable.  Stick with the recipe; unless you prefer to slice your jam, as opposed to more common scooping and spreading method.  
This first recipe is great for those who enjoy the natural sweetness of the fruit; without a lot of added sugar.   So, if you are, oh say.... trying to get back into your skinny jeans after your 3rd baby – this recipe is for you.   If you are adding the pectin, make sure it is the one for low sugar recipes.   
NOTE: Why can’t you use a regular jam recipe in the bread maker?   Recipes with too much sugar, cooking at too high a temperature = possible overflow and big ole sugary mess in your bread machine!  not pretty, nor easily cleaned.
Strawberry Jam
3 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (about 1-1/2 pints, or 680 g.)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp. lemon juice
*1 pkg. (1.75 oz./49 g) of powdered pectin may be added with ingredients to thicken*
Place in baking pan, select Jam setting, start.
When complete signal sounds, remove baking pan (um –use pot holders!), and pour into jars.  Place in refrigerator to cool.
You can store in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks – so don’t forget to label the date.
Total time:  approx. 1 hr. 20 minutes
Yield: About 1-1/2 cups
This 2nd version ups the sweetness factor a bit more, although I think it is still less sugar than my mom’s freezer jam recipe.   It still states to use pectin for low sugar recipes.
Strawberry Jam (alternate)
2 cups sugar
2 tbsp. pectin for low sugar recipes
4 cups of fresh or frozen strawberries; washed, hulled and diced
4 tsp. lemon juice
As in recipe above, measure into baking pan, select Jam, and Start.
Also can be stored in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. 
Basically, you can substitute any fresh, or frozen fruit in the above recipes.   You may have to experiment with the quantities.    I like the "triple berry threat”, so normally do 1 cup of strawberries, 1 cup of raspberries, 1 cup of blackberries for a nice “field berry” jam.  I have also used frozen blueberries, which requires a bit more fruit (measure after mashed well) AND I use Lime juice in this recipe instead of lemon.  But the one I really love substitutes 2 cups of freshly chopped pineapple, with 1 cup of fresh strawberries. If you are feeling really decadent, roll up a banana in a tortilla, spread with peanut butter and some of this jam: it’s like the sandwich version of a banana split. And I am quite certain it has far fewer calories.
Now, if you want to get really funky......here’s a more tropical one for fun.  This one is great for biscuits, muffins, or scones.   “It’s A Boy!” baby shower optional.
Blue Kiwi Mango Jam
3/4 cup (6 oz.) kiwi fruit (ripe, but not mushy), peeled and chopped
3/4 cup (6 oz.) mango (barely ripe), peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 tsp. lemon zest, grated*
1 tsp, orange zest, grated*
4 drops blue food coloring
As above, place in baking pan, in order, select Jam, Start.
*make sure none of the white rind gets in your mixture – unless you like the batter bitter*
Since the bread machine renders making jam so easy, I am thinking this will be the year to take the kids to the local berry patch for some fresh berries.   I am sure they will have a grand time eating picking all those ripe, juicy berries.   Besides, it’s a time honoured tradition in my family.   I can remember going with my mom and her sisters quite frequently, and it’s important to pass on such things to your offspring, you know.  This is what great family memories and bonding is built upon. 
It’s not about the cheap labour at all – honest. 
     There you have it, making jam in the bread machine, who knew? Technology really can be a great thing.
     A special thank you to Les, it seems appropriate my first guest would be family. It wasn't about getting someone else to write for me so my slacking of late would be less noticeable - honest. LOL
     Bob Marley said it best, " We're jammin', we're jammin', hope ya like jammin' too", ROFL. How ever you decide, I hope you like jammin' with me and the family. Thanks for dropping by, Paul


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Food safety for the home canner

     This is the second last of the pre canning posts and by far the most important, food safety. There is no joy in making people sick with your home made products. Although there is a risk factor, it is perfectly safe to can at home. Just remember to be smart and follow recipes and processing times, they are there for a reason.

Clostridium botulinum bacteria

     May as well start with the big one, botulism. It is caused by the bacteria above and thrives in a moist, anaerobic(no oxygen), low acid environment. Improperly canned foods can be perfect. The reason for concern is that there is no odour or obvious sign of spoilage with this particular little bug.

     The good news, most fruit is acidic, vinegar is acidic so if those are the what you are using to can, jams, jellies, pickles, you are safe, carry on. One of the tricky ones is tomatoes. They straddle the safe pH level and you'll notice recipes for boiling water canning contain vinegar or lemon juice to boost the acidity to make them safe. Don't omit or reduce either.

      To neutralise the bacteria, you need a temperature of 240 degrees for at least three minutes. You can only do that in a pressure canner. Your low acid food, vegetables, meats, dairy products and fish, all need to be processed in a pressure canner for the recommend times and pressures. Don't wing it, ever. Why take the risk?

     The next big three, E. Coli, Salmonella and Listeria are also heat sensitive but at a lower temperature and a boiling water bath is sufficient. Again, make sure you process for the recommended amount of time.

     All of the above are quite common and are present in our environments, the same goes for the variety of molds and fungi that can spoil your efforts. That is why it is important to keep your work spaces and utensils clean. You can contaminate your sterilized jars and lids if you aren't careful. Make sure all fruit and vegetables are properly washed, don't use the same knives or cutting boards if you are handling higher risk food like meat or poultry (or at all, really) and always wash your hands after handling food. It only makes sense.

     If you don't get a proper seal, refrigerate and eat right away. If the lids bulge or buckle after storage, discard. Properly sealed, the lids should be hard to remove not just come off by themselves. Same thing for discoloured, moldy or food with a funny smell ( I was going to say unpleasant, but I have canned goods that don't smell great but that is what they smell like).

     Use proper jars and lids and don't re use the lids, you can't guarantee a proper seal otherwise.

     Use proper techniques. Boiling water or pressure canning is the only safe way to can at home. Open kettle, steam or the dishwasher are not safe. Yes, maybe 99.9 percent of the time nothing bad will happen but really, why?

     Do consult with you local province, state or federal food safety agency. Most have very comprehensive lists on how to can just about everything safely. Here is the link to just one. I couldn't find the Canadian one, I've seen it so I know it exists, but where???

     Canning at home has changed a lot over the years. Many things your mother, grandmother or anyone else for that matter did, may not be recommended today. I have had lots of heated discussions on the subject of food safety and canning at home. Check and make sure, be smart and be safe.

     If you notice a mistake by all means let me know and I'll correct it. Same thing if I left something out. Next up is the Canning 101 post, all about the equipment you need to start making your own home made preserves. Thanks for stopping by.

It's gotta be jam cuz......

     Surprisingly, there is a lot of discussion or should I say questions about what preserve is what. Names can vary from country to country, region to region so here is my understanding and criteria for what makes what.

Top to bottom, marmalade, chutney, conserve

     Even the term canning is used in different ways so let's start there. It applies to the process of preserving fruits, vegetables and meats in either a boiling water or pressure canner. To some it applies only to the use of a pressure canner, preserving low acid food. To me canning is the first, putting up any kind of preserve.

     Preserves are anything that is .... well......  preserved. That is opposed to smoked, salted, fermented, dried or frozen, all other ways of preserving your food. Jams, jellies, chutney, butters, compotes and pickles are all examples of different types of preserves.

     Preserves are also a category on their own. They are fruit, whole or sliced, that are preserved in a syrup. For example, I have a delicious Spiced Peach with Honey preserve recipe. It is peach slices in a honey syrup. The peaches are blanched in the syrup and then packed hot and processed in the canner. Preserves typically look like the fruit you started out with, they aren't cooked down.

     Jam vs jelly, jelly is made from the strained juice, jam from the whole fruit. Jelly is opaque with particles in suspension in the case of pepper or herb jellies. Jam is not see through and contains the juice and pulp. Both are set, a spoonful will not run, settle or change shape unless heated. You make marmalade by adding a lot of citrus rind to either of the above. I have recipes for both preparations.

     Between preserves and jam or jelly there are several others, stewed fruit or compote, butters, chutney, salsas and conserves.

     Compotes are full fruit that are cooked and reduced. The amount of reduction depends on your taste. When spooned out normally they will separate a little, juice from pulp. Chutney and salsa fall into this group. Chutney normally is heavily spiced and has other dried fruit or nuts in it, salsa also usually spiced and the fruit is in larger pieces and not reduced a lot. There is no "set" in any of the above.

     Fruit butters, apple and tomato are my favourites, are full fruit cooked and reduced quite a lot. They can be as runny as tomato sauce or as stiff as paste, the choice is yours. Again, no "set".

     That brings us to conserves, full fruit, cooked just to the gel point and a very soft set. A conserve will not hold its shape if spooned on to a plate. This is my favourite type of "jam".

     That just leaves pickles. Pickles are any fruit or vegetable preserved in a vinegar brine. The brine has to be at least 5 percent acid for food safety and can be sweetened with sugar, pickled crab apples, spiced , dill anything or just plain. Usually there is salt in the brine if it isn't a sweet pickle.

     Here is a little tip for anyone who is just starting out. One of the biggest complaints for new and experienced alike is jam or jelly that doesn't set. Do I worry? Not a chance. As I mentioned earlier in the pectin post I'm not a huge fan of jam or jelly. There are a few I like and make but I much prefer the softer set of conserves or no set of butters and compotes. Don't tell. If your jam doesn't set, you weren't making jam, you were going for a conserve or a compote. Who's to know? I promise I won't tell. LOL

     Unfortunately for jelly, it is a little harder to convince people you were going for hot pepper coulis but why not, give it a try. Jelly can be reheated and tried again. I have done it and had it set beautifully the second time, so don't despair. Unless you scorch it, you can usually salvage it and at the very least, it's good on iced cream.

     Did I leave anything out? Drop me a line or comment and let me know how you distinguish your preserves. Take care.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Are you gelling? All about Pectin

     Canning season is here, I covered sugar so now it's time to talk a bit about pectin, what it is and how it works. You can't make jam or jelly without it so it is always good to know a little bit about the stuff.

     Pectin is found in all fruit in various quantities. It is a hetropolysaccaride(complex carbohydrate) found in the cell wall of  plants and is what gives an apple it's crisp texture. It acts much like collagen in our skin. The highest concentrations are in the skin and core. For our purposes here, there are two types, high and low methoxyl.

The pectin molecule

     Pectin has a variety of health benefits, helps lower cholesterol, can be used as a detoxifier and is a good source of soluble dietary fibre. Unfortunately this is only before you make jam with it. An apple a day really can help keep the doctor away.

     Most of us are familiar with high methoxyl pectin. In traditional jam and jelly making, at the right temperature, sugar and acid make pectin bind with water creating a gel or setting the jam/jelly. Many fruits have enough but there are also commercial brands that allow the added pectin boost to set things like strawberries or rhubarb that aren't high enough on their own. You can also make pectin stock or your own powder at home.

     Where does the commercial stuff come from? It is made from the leftovers of juice extraction, apple pomace or citrus fruit rind. It is a natural product. It comes in a powder or liquid form. They are different concentrations, so are not interchangeable in your recipes.

Powdered pectin

     Why is it added to most store bought products? Pectin is heat sensitive and if over cooked, loses it gelling capability. Most commercially produced jams are cooked at high temperatures, for longer periods and in large quantities, destroying the natural pectin in the fruit so it is added to set the finished product. This is why you can't, or shouldn't, double or triple your recipes at home.

     Why all that sugar? High methoxyl pectin requires very specific conditions be met to produce a gel, if they aren't your recipe won't set. Jelly is very sensitive to changing sugar quantities, it is just juice. Jam is a little more forgiving because you have the added pectin of the fruit, but only a little.

     That brings us to low methoxyl or no sugar pectin. True no sugar pectin binds in the presence of calcium. You have to add the calcium, usually in the form of calcium phosphate, to your recipe. The plus is this is a more stable form of pectin that doesn't degrade over time. You don't end up with expired stuff that won't work, and believe me I've tried and it doesn't. You can add as little or much sugar or any other sweetener as you like. You can double or triple recipes. On the negative side, no sugar jams and jellies spoil faster when open, no preservative effect from sugar. It is more expensive and harder to find than regular pectin.

     The low sugar pectin I have seen all have dextrose, another name for glucose, as the first ingredient so .....
I don't use it because I don't have a recipe I like that calls for it, so no experience there.

     Do I need to use extra pectin? Absolutely not. This opens up the whole long boil vs short boil debate.

     Traditional jam and jelly making is the long boil. Fruit and sugar are boiled until it reaches the gel point, 8 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point, 220 degrees, roughly 104 degrees Celsius. It takes as much time as it takes. I can't be any more specific than that because it varies. You don't typically need to add pectin to these recipes because pectin poor fruits are combined with pectin rich fruit or juice to achieve the gel.

     Short boil is exactly that. A minute or two after your mixture reaches the boiling point, you add your pectin, cook a minute or two longer and it is done.

      Adding pectin shortens cooking times and increases yield and nutrient content. True, but none of my recipes cook more than 20 minutes, the increase, a lot of it is water and as far as nutrient content, heat sensitive nutrients are destroyed at certain temperatures. Yes, prolonging cooking time makes it worse but not by huge leaps and bounds. Besides, jam or jelly is not my go to for minerals and vitamins, nor should it be yours, it isn't particularly high to start with.

     The only difference to me is taste. Personally I find the two products are different and prefer the taste of the long boil. It is more intense because the fruit is more concentrated and the longer cooking time caramelizes some of the sugar. Strictly a personal preference. I'm not a fan of freezer jam at all although it does make good ice cream topping.

     I know it doesn't sound like it but I do use the stuff myself and have been very pleased with the results. I just like to present both sides of the argument. The choice is yours.

     In all honesty, I'm not a huge fan of jam or jelly. I do make and love some but I prefer the texture and taste of fruit butters or compotes skipping  the pectin/sugar debate entirely.

     Are you gelling? Leave me a comment below and let me know your experiences working with or without added pectin. Take care.


By any other name, is it still so sweet?

     This is really an addendum to the post on sugar, but something I decided that needs a little attention, sweeteners. I'll keep it short and am really mainly concerned with how it behaves when you cook with it. This is again not the definitive work on the subject, just my musings.

     There are quite a few sweeteners on the market, some derivatives of sugar, some chemical and I only know of one that falls into the natural category.

       One of the best know is sorbitol. It is a sugar alcohol with half the calories of sugar. The majority comes form birch bark, cheap, renewable and plentiful. You may also know it by xylitol or glucitol.

     In the chemical category, there is aspartame or saccharin. I have no dietary restrictions so have no experience with either.

     That brings us to stevia, the only natural sweetener I am aware of. It is a member of the sunflower family and a native of South America. It has been in use there for over 500 years and has been used since the '70's in Japan. Because it is a plant, there is no patent or proprietary use for stevia. It is sold as a dietary supplement and is under a lot of fire in many countries because of concerns around safety. The rebuttal is that there are billions of dollars at stake so the only danger is to the company bottom line. One real drawback with stevia is that it's production and preparation aren't regulated. It can mean that the extract quality can vary a lot from company to company but it is the same with vanilla and many other flavourings so... Find one you like and stick with it.

     All of these products are used as sugar substitutes and that is a bit misleading when you are cooking. They are not sugar and should really be treated like vanilla or cinnamon when you cook. They only provide the sweet taste, none of the other chemical reactions. They are in essence flavourings.

    You can't make jelly or jam set using only stevia or any of the others, they don't cause the gelling reaction with pectin and acid that sugar does. They don't preserve the way sugar does, they don't react with gluten the same way and finally don't provide the volume.

       Does that mean you shouldn't use them? Not at all. Just be aware that incorporating them into your cooking regime might be a little harder than just a simple substitution. For people with diabetes or other dietary problems, these products are a great way to be able to enjoy the sweet taste with out putting your health at risk.

     Do your homework. Every one of the products above is laced with controversy surrounding their safety, there are hundreds of pages devoted to it. Be smart and make informed choices.

     As I mentioned earlier, I do not suffer from any dietary restrictions nor am I counting calories (although I could stand to lose a few pounds), so I have no experience with any of these products.  I must admit I find stevia interesting and am wondering about trying it out in the garden.

     Feel free to leave a comment and share your experiences, good or bad. Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How sweet it is, all about sugar

     In preparation for canning season, I have been doing a little research on various subjects, pectin, food safety and sugar. I wanted to be able to post articles that were informed and informative that would help answer some of the questions that come up when you are starting to make your own home preserves. I had no idea what I was getting into.

     The debate around sugar has been raging for decades. I went out in search of some concrete facts, what I found was a lot of talk with not a lot of substance. As it turns out, everyone has their own agenda and it is very difficult to sort fact from fiction about sugar and it's alternatives. This is what I found out and is no way the definitive answer but hopefully will spark some discussion or make you think about your own sugar consumption.

Sugar in all it's glory

     First a brief explanation of just what sugar is, a carbohydrate. It is naturally occurring in various amounts in all plants and is our source of energy. It falls into two broad categories, mono/single/simple and di/complex saccharides. Examples of mono saccharides include fructose, glucose, galactose and dextrose. Some of the complex are sucrose, a glucose and fructose combined, lactose, a combination of galactose and glucose and maltose which is a double glucose ( and you use it to make beer, Hurray). Here's the thing, most plants contain both kinds, simple and complex. So where does that take us?

     We'll start with sucrose or common table sugar. It is referred to as refined sugar, bleached white, crystallized and sweet. The body breaks it down into its component glucose and fructose and goes to work. Insulin metabolizes glucose and it can be used by any cells in the body. Only the liver can metabolize fructose.

Sucrose molecule, glucose on the left, fructose on the right

    In and of themselves, neither is particularly good or bad for the body if you are in good health. Here is where the problems arise. During the refining process, sugar is stripped of all of it other minerals and nutrients (impurities). For the body to process it, it needs to draw on stores that are already present. If you over indulge you risk nutrient deficiency in other areas. If you are diabetic or have liver problems, you can't process one or the other properly and that leads to problems, some with severe consequences.

     The vegetarian angle, which I didn't know, is about 25% of the bleaching that occurs in commercial production in done through bone char. Not animal friendly.

     What are your alternatives? Brown or raw sugar? Nope, it is illegal to sell unrefined sugar, I don't know why, so all sugar is processed in some way. Brown sugar is made by re introducing molasses to white/refined sugar in varying amounts. Seems redundant to add it back but it is to maintain consistency of product, consumer driven. It is marginally better for you because the molasses contains some of the nutrients processing stripped out but only marginally.

     Honey, succinat, maple syrup, agave nectar? Healthy? Not necessarily, all are high fructose and too much fructose is as bad as too much sucrose, just in different ways. Here's the kicker, all sugars have the same calorie count. There is no such thing as a "good" sugar.

     No sugar pectin? The first ingredient is dextrose, another name for glucose. There is another type of product that gels with calcium so true no sugar pectin exits. The other normally is marketed as "no sugar added", 'cause it's already in there.

     Where does that leave us? We need sugar of some sort to exist, it is our energy source after all. Is one better than the other? Yes and no. Getting your sugar by eating fruits and vegetables means you are getting other nutrients and fibre as well so is definitely better for you but you can still over indulge. Basically, much like sodium intake, be aware of what you are eating. Everything in moderation.

     There you have it, my much over simplified post on sugar. If you are interested in a more in depth look, click here. It is one of the better articles on sugar that I found.

     Are you sweet enough? Let me know what you think about sugar, how you use it, alternatives etc. Lively debate is always interesting. Take care.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Down the garden path

     After my stellar May 24th weekend back on the farm it was back to the city. If you have been following along, I did up my morels, canned my rhubarb, all that left was my gardens. The weather didn't cooperate on my return, another four days of rain, so I didn't get my garden in until last weekend. A little late so I cheated a bit. I bought a bunch of seedlings for things I would normally just sow directly into the ground.

     As I was wandering the various gardens of my relatives I was a little surprised. It has been so wet my parent's garden was like quicksand, same with my grandmother and aunt Jean. The only person who could actually plant was my aunt Marlyn (or was it my uncle Don who did the work? LOL). A bit of a reminder that despite our best intentions, Mother Nature still has final say.

     If you ever wonder where I get inspiration or gardening tips, here are a few snaps of my relatives gardens, followed by some newer ones of mine.

     First up is my aunt Jean, she has beautiful flower beds, a vegetable garden and a bountiful rhubarb patch. All things she is more than willing to share.

First flower bed, with those mini irises

Long shot of the second,
Go big or go home

Beautiful tulips

Bed three,
It was full of gorgeous yellow tulips but the wind blew all the petals off before I got the picture

Number four, beside the house

     What you're not seeing is the vegetable patch, the containers on the deck, the roses along the fence, the lilacs in the front..... Thankfully, my cousin Curtis loves Grandma Jean and helps her out with some of the yard work, Katie watches LOL.

     Next up, my aunt Marlyn and cousin Wendy. They have a beautiful place on a lot with lots of trees and around the house is all gardens.

The long view leading to Wendy's

A bit closer view,
you can just get a peak of the back gardens

Part of the front plantings

The far side of the front plantings,
the path to Marlyn's door.

     I won't even try to describe what you aren't seeing, there are gardens all around the house and a vegetable patch to boot. These pictures don't really do it justice. It was getting dark and a lot of the pictures didn't really turn out.

     Next up was my aunt Barb but the pictures I took didn't turn out at all, it was too dark. Next time. She has a stunning spot on the lake and everything is landscaped from the back of the garage right to the waters edge. It makes me tired just thinking of all the work that goes into keeping all of it beautiful.

    There it is, just a peek of the gardening expertise I can draw on for help and inspiration. It's a hard act to follow.

     That brings me to the updates for my own garden. After a ten hour marathon on Saturday, everything is finally getting in shape around my back yard.

The long view again,
what a difference a couple of weeks make

The columbine is in full bloom

Soapwort is filling in as the phlox fades
My poor pathetic peony in back, one tiny bloom
Everybody has huge bushes of them back home
I guess I have peony envy?

Check out the iris,
Erica gave me some 2 years ago and this is the first time they've bloomed
They're massive, almost 4' tall

The containers by the step, all flowers this year
Heliotrope, stock, marigolds and regal geraniums for scent and colour
with some lobelia and verbena to fill in any bare patches
I plant as much for scent as I do for colour

The tomato, cucumber and herb garden,
just waiting for the eggplant

Check out that strawberry patch,
Hoping for a great harvest this year

The back garden all cleaned up and planted
I cheated this year and bought seedlings for my zucchini, Swiss chard, arugula, lettuce and watermelons
My blackberries look good and two new bushes started
I've also got peas, yellow beans(pickles), green beans(eating), beets and radishes in
Late for the beets and radishes but you can always hope

     I always think of late June being the start of harvesting from my garden, not so much. I'm already using the rhubarb, mint, tarragon and winter onions. My strawberries are just starting, one at a time and my oregano, parsley, thyme and basil are good to go. That's not counting edible flowers either, but that's another post. I tend to take my garden a little for granted and forget just how much I use it all the time.

I did try to get a more flattering shot but...
Until something grows up around to hide the back it's looking less than perfect

     Finally, the fountain. It was a silly purchase several years ago but I really like having it in the back yard, so do the birds, squirrels, cats, raccoons etc.. I like to watch the birds come in for a drink, the seagulls can be a little alarming, they're pretty big after all, but I get little brown wrens, starlings and a little red headed woodpecker who drop by as well. Grandma Fisher would have loved it.

     Speaking of which, I have some of her little red dahlias she always had at the home farm. I got them from my mother years ago and have kept them ever since. I plant them with my lilies to take over when they are done blooming. I also always plant morning glories, they remind me of Grandma Craig. She still has them all over the garden fence.

     That's how my garden grows. A splash of colour, a lot of scent, a bunch of good memories and a truck load of good eating.

     How does your garden grow?