Wednesday, July 31, 2013

canning and preserving: refrigerator pickles

Two years ago, when we first started canning, pickles were at the top of my list for things to try. I really only like homemade pickles, having been spoiled by my grandma's pickles growing up. So I was anxious to try to can them myself. We made dill slices, bread and butter rounds, and sweet relish. And they were TERRIBLE.

Taste wise? Fine. Safe? Perfectly. It was the texture that was horrid - total mush. I remember being so excited when we could open the first jar, and being so utterly disappointed that we wasted so much time and an entire case of cucumbers on what turned out to be totally inedible crap.

We know now that our problem was a combination of using the wrong cucumbers (waxy English ones as opposed to pickling ones) and not using pickle crisp

But before I go head first into full canning of pickles for long-term preservation, I wanted to try my hand at refrigerator pickles. Plus, thanks to my sweet husband, I had some adorable throwback Ball pint jars to use.

I used Ball's recipe for dill slices, but cut my cucumbers in spears, since I don't eat pickles on sandwiches. 

I believe the cucumbers we were able to get from my grandparents' garden were close enough cousins to pickling cucumbers that we could take a chance with them. (The shine is from water and the overhead light in our kitchen, not wax.)

After cooking down some white vinegar (with an acidity of at least 5%), water, sugar, pickling spice and canning salt, you soak the cucumbers in the mixture for a half hour.  

While they are soaking, you prepare the jars with the other spice mixture and some garlic cloves, plus the pickle crisper. This recipe doesn't call for pickle crisper, but I'm not taking chances this time around, and it won't hurt anything. So in it went.

The jars are packed with cucumber spears, making sure to leave at least a half an inch head space. I had just enough cucumbers to fill the 5 pints the recipe intended.

After filling the jars with the appropriate amount of leftover brine, use a lid and band to close the jar, and stick them in the refrigerator to sit for at least 2 weeks. (I might have to start a pickle countdown.) They will stay good for 3 months in the fridge. Hopefully they will taste good enough to want to keep them all!

Monday, July 29, 2013

canning and preserving: green beans

On Friday, my mom let us know that my grandparents' garden was bursting, and if we wanted to make the two-hour jaunt, we were welcome to what we could pick. So we headed north to visit my family and spend some time knee-deep in bean plants. We came home with this. (And this isn't all we picked - some of it was distributed elsewhere.)

I've got plans for a lot of these items (and you'll see some of them appear later this week). But as soon as we got home and settled, we got to work on the beans. As you can see, we had a lot of them. We like green beans fresh or canned, and aren't big fans of them frozen, so we decided to can quarts. 14 jars this weekend with beans leftover.

We can primarily with recipes adapted from Ball, being the home canning experts and all. We're hyper paranoid about canning safety. We will use recipes that we find other places, but we always compare the recipes to a similar Ball one to make sure the acidity ratios are similar, as well as processing times. 

For beans, canning safety requires a pressure canner. Beans are a low-acid vegetable, so they have to be done in a pressure canner since they have little natural acid that protects against the growth of bacteria, particularly botulism (whose spores can't die in a low-acid environment unless the temperature reaches 240 degrees). This is the pressure canner we use, which can hold 7 quarts.

In canning recipes that call for salt, it helps to use pickling/canning salt as well, since it doesn't cloud the water like iodized salt does. The kind our local stores carry is Mrs. Wages, another popular canning supply company.

We started by camping out in front of the TV, snapping the ends off beans and cutting them into bite size pieces.

An hour and 14 pounds of beans later, you have piles of prepped beans, like this.

We use the cold-pack (raw-pack) method for beans. After you wash your jars, lids and bands, you heat them in water that reaches at least 160 degrees. Once they are heated, you pack raw beans in a hot jar.

Once you have the beans packed in, add the salt and ladle boiling water into the jar, leaving the appropriate amount of head space (in this recipe, 1 inch). Head space is the distance between the top of the jar and the liquid. Put the lid and band on the jar, and place it in the pressure canner.

Then do that six more times.

You add white vinegar to the canner (to prevent discoloration of the aluminum and also hard water stains on the jars) as well as three quarts of boiling water. Follow the instructions for your particular canner and the recipe to process. Our beans had a processing time of 25 minutes, but it takes more like an hour from start to finish with the processing, since you have to allow the pressure to build and then reduce on its own. You know, so the lid doesn't blow off.

And then you have beans. 

We store them with their bands off to prevent rusting. Plus, you can re-use the bands on the next canning project. (Lids cannot be reused, no matter what your grandma says. You might be fine, but you might get botulism if you take the chance. And I don't take chances with killer bacteria.)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 8, produce

More new veggies this week! We're starting to have a stockpile at home, so this week's meals will be heavy in the vegetable department. (Also, the cast iron wok didn't come in the CSA. I'm just too lazy to clean off my island for the photo.)

Blueberries didn't stand a chance - Mark and I split the pack already. We might combine cucumbers with last week and make refrigerator pickles. We've got basil coming out our ears and have to make a decision about what we'll do with it. Green beans will probably end up as a side dish.

Tomatoes and green onions will end up as salad toppings. The radicchio and lettuce will make for more flavorful salads. I've really been enjoying the variety of salad greens we get each week. The salads are so flavorful. I feel sorry for people who eat salads with just iceberg lettuce. Blech.

In our weekly email from the farm, we got a recipe to use up some of our fennel, which we'll do this week. These fronds are so crazy.

Might take the opportunity with the eggplant to find a new recipe. I am particular about the way I eat eggplant because I find it's often bitter or tough in preparation. And I don't like a giant slab of it breaded on spaghetti. So I need to get creative.

That's the great thing about CSAs. They force you to get creative with what you're eating and discover new things!

This weekend we'll be going upstate to take advantage of the bounty of produce in my grandparents' garden. Beans galore, ready for picking (and perhaps canning?) as well as various other veggies (and possibly raspberries...).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

garden update: late july

We've had some insane weather in July. A week of heavy rain and bad storms and flooding followed by crazy heat with humidity that put the heat index over 100. Then a slight cool off, and today more rain. I didn't get outside this weekend to get sunny photos, so I settled for afternoon break-in-the-rain photos. 

My how the garden has grown. The assortment of wildflower seeds I randomly planted as an experiment have come up strong, though no blooms yet.

Lovely little purple basil, small but strong!

Sage seems to barely be holding on, but it's still there.

Here is some proof I haven't moved these containers in a little bit. Rainy spider web!

The sweet corn plant is getting high and has some growth. Still waiting to see if this experiment will produce an ear of corn. Even if it doesn't, it's been fun to watch it grow.

The bean patch is pretty much ready to burst out of its confines. Still no real beans, but I'm holding out for a miracle. They are dragon beans, after all.

Mark has been waging a war against cucumber beetles all summer, and he seems to have won thus far. No cukes yet, but the plants have not succumbed to the little buggers. 

Now, this is the melon/squash/pumpkin mound area. I think we have a few plants that are plotting to take over Carnegie. (While the chickens hang out in the compost.)

I just love these little curls coming off the plant. Looks like gift wrap ribbon!

I see you, squash blossoms! Might need to eat you on salad this week!

Hey, ladies. 

We're starting to get some bell peppers, as well as a few hot ones. I like how you can see the marigolds in the background. They seem to be working as a pest deterrent.

A ridiculous basil plant, one of way too many we have in the yard. Fragrant, though!

Perhaps my favorite is what I'm going to refer to as the tomato forest. From seedlings we weren't sure would survive to this...

Definitely some tomatoes coming, slowly but surely.

These ones are elegant, with their curls and globe shape.

I swear every time I go out to take photos, I stumble upon something new that has sprung up in our backyard. This trellis was left by the previous owners, and it's attached to the garage, so I have never removed it. I pulled the dead plants out of it earlier this season, and suddenly, we have this. Gardens never cease to surprise and/or amaze me!

Hopefully I'll have some photos to share soon of actual vegetables that we produced. I shared the first peppers on Instagram this weekend. Follow me there and on Twitter at @nextgenhouse.

Monday, July 22, 2013

reading this week

No, Fast Food Won't Cure Obesity (Salon)
A piece ran in the Atlantic recently written by a man who claimed that the real key to public health is to get Big Food to start making their products healthier. The essay was so ridiculous, I won't even link to it. But this is a well reasoned rebuttal. (Warning - super creepy photo of Ronald McDonald on the page.)

Breeding Bacteria on Factory Farms (NY Times)
A Mark Bittman piece on antibiotic resistant pathogens from factory farms. This is one of the myriad reasons we don't eat meat from confined animal feeding operations. There is no reason any of us should be exposed to livestock-associated MRSA. 

How to Better Protect Farmers from Pesticides: Spanish (NPR)
We know how to use household chemicals safely by reading the label on the bottles. But how do you know how to protect yourself on the job when the labels aren't in a language you understand? Many of our nation's produce workers speak Spanish as their first language and aren't able to understand warning labels on the pesticides they use in their work. 

Why CSPI is Wrong Not to Support Genetically Engineered Food Labeling (Center for Food Safety)
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a well-known consumer advocacy organization, but it won't support GMO labeling. This article explains why that's a mistake. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 7, produce

This week was a great share, with lots of variety and the firsts of a few things we haven't seen yet this year.

First of all, blueberries. July, organic blueberries. Enough said.

I'm going to attempt kale chips again before this kale wilts. Either that or some kind of green smoothie, which I've always wanted to experiment with. First yellow squash of the year, which is exciting - really good grilled in planks. Tomatoes are always welcome at this time of year.

This cabbage is beautiful and firm. As soon as I saw it, I thought sweet and sour cabbage.

First green beans of the year are exciting and will be delicious blanched. Leaf lettuce and green onions will go in this week's salad. 

Thinking about making refrigerator pickles with these cukes since there's not enough to can. The only kind of pickles I like are homemade anyway.

We've also got more basil that we can handle at this point, with three different types growing in our own garden and it coming in heavy in the CSA. Going to have to make pesto to freeze or freeze it on its own with a little olive oil.

Don't forget that Clarion River Organics is doing a peak of the season, 6-week CSA, which is a great way to get introduced to the CSA model and determine if it's right for you. If you can keep up with a peak of the season share, you can keep up with one for the entire summer!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Peak of the Season CSA from Clarion River

I just read that Clarion River Organics is offering a 6-week, Peak of the Season CSA featuring the best of the summer's bounty. This is a great way to try out a CSA to see what you are interested in and whether or not the model works for you. There are two size/price options as well - both incredibly reasonable for what you'd pay for produce at the store - and this is the best our area has to offer! Check it out here.

Starts the first week in August, so hop on it!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss is probably the best food book I've read this year, and definitely ranks up there with the best food journalism that's available today. For anyone who has ever craved an Oreo cookie or loved Lunchables as a kid and now is skeptical about the health of processed foods, this book is for you. (Also, if you recognize any of the letters on the book cover from the packaging of foods you eat or have eaten in the past, you should read this book. Very clever graphic design.)

I went into this book thinking that the writing would be great, since Michael Moss is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. (Spoiler alert - it was.) I also thought I'd enjoy it because I am passionate about people being educated on what's in their food. And I definitely did. But I didn't expect to learn so much that was new - and also to realize how much of my life I spent not just as a marketer's target customer, but as their pawn in the relentless pursuit of profit over any other priority.

The book is divided into three sections, each discussing one of the pillars of processed foods. Moss goes back to the beginnings of processed foods and investigates how the foods developed over time. Many large food producers today started out as small, family-owned companies, with the owners committed to using natural or real ingredients. Even large companies were afraid at first to sell products with chemicals in them because they were afraid of the public's reaction. The book discusses how we got from that point to where we are today, with Americans eating way too much of all three building blocks of processed foods.

I found the discussions about our tastes and the science behind that to be fascinating. Babies are not drawn to salt - in fact, they are repulsed by it. We are all born with an innate like for sweet and a dislike for excess salt. Studies have shown that exposure over time to sodium in processed foods for babies leads to the development of a taste for and eventual craving for salt that otherwise would not have been there. Also, if you reduce your salt intake for just a few months, your taste for salt will reset and you will likely not enjoy the level of saltiness in your food that you once did. 

There are so many details in this book that are worth knowing that I couldn't possibly list them all here (and it would deprive you of a great reading experience), but perhaps the greatest lesson I took from this book was to be very aware of the power of marketing and to never take products at face value. Processed food manufacturers (including the ones that make processed "health" foods) have a vested interest in making you come back for more. Bet you can't eat just one isn't just a marketing slogan - it's a call to action for them. 

They manipulate the content of foods to make them craveable and addictive, lighting up the same parts of the brain that are receptive to drugs. And then market them as something positive that plays on our desire for happiness, convenience or health. Every marketing or health claim is designed to play off one of those needs. Want a cereal that has less added sugar? Jack up the sodium and/or fat and then put "less sugar" as a marketing label on the box. Want a low-fat frozen lunch? Jack up the sodium to more than twice the daily recommended amount to make up for the lack of flavor. 

People want to feel like they are making good choices for their families, and that's admirable. But marketers and food manufacturers know that, so they use that desire to their advantage. Moss details companies who were sued for misleading health claims that helped sales to skyrocket but were empty of any truth or real benefit to the consumer. After reading this book, you feel like the processed/industrial food world has played you for a fool.

The good news is that educating yourself about the content of your food and what labels and package claims really mean can help you stop playing into their hands. This book is a great place to start if you've been thinking about moving your diet away from processed foods. (By diet I mean the foods that you eat, not diet in the "weight loss plan" sense.) 
Also, I should note that I don't believe that eating one Oreo cookie with chemicals in it is going to doom you to bad health. But for me? I feel better in general when I avoid processed foods, and I know that I have never in my life eaten just one Oreo. And I also feel better knowing that my money goes to farms or food producers that are making their best efforts to produce healthy food, or non-healthy food that's transparent about what it is. I don't want to give my money to companies that know that what they produce makes people unable to stop eating and to prey on their weaknesses. Corporations are not people (regardless of how the government likes to classify or treat them) and their motivation is profit, not our well-being. And that's what I try to keep in mind when I shop.

Monday, July 15, 2013

beauty product detox

I've been slowly trying to evaluate the household products (including personal care items) that I use to determine my level of exposure to endocrine disruptors. It's been almost two months since I started doing the research and realized what was actually in the products I use (many for more than 10 years). Here's an update on what I've done so far. (For the record, none of these companies know I exist. These are just my own opinions about the products. I'm linking to the products I recommend so you can see what they look like and look at the ingredients for yourself, not because they are affiliates.)

Household products:
We had already switched to Method cleaners for our bathroom and kitchen surfaces awhile ago and we continue to like them for those purposes. With cleaning supplies, I'm mostly concerned about toxic fumes and residue, as these products aren't being applied to my body directly, so I am okay with some chemicals being in these products that I am spraying on my bathroom or kitchen counters. Method also has this handy list of disclosures about all possible ingredients in their products. I am always a big fan of companies that value transparency.

We just switched to Seventh Generation dishwasher detergent, and we've only done a few loads, but so far so good. I actually like that there isn't the strong fake scent of lemon coming out of the dishwasher after washing, and I did notice that my Camelbak didn't have that funky dishwasher smell after cleaning.

Beauty products:
The big three that I wanted to address for beauty products were deodorant, shower gel and shampoo, since I use those most frequently, especially at the rate I work out. I first compiled a list from my research of the big things I wanted to try to avoid. This is what I came up with:

DMDM hydantoin
imidazolidinyl urea
phenol derivatives
TEA (triethanolamine)
sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate
benzyl salicylate
fragrances and dyes
aluminum (in deodorant)


I looked at the ingredients of several deodorants to try and choose one that might meet most of my criteria. I settled on Tom's of Maine Long Lasting Women's Deodorant in the Beautiful Earth scent. Well, it did its basic job, keeping odor away when I was sitting at work or at home in the air conditioning. But because it wasn't labeled an antiperspirant, I wasn't surprised when I noticed much more sweat than usual. This deodorant doesn't contain aluminum, which is the main antiperspirant ingredient in these types of products. So it worked when I wasn't concerned about wetness. But when I worked out for the first time with it? Fail - on both the odor and wetness fronts. Definitely not a product that was designed for heavy sweating, whether in hot weather or exercise (and definitely not hot weather exercise). So I will probably use this product from time to time, but it won't be a long-term solution for me for daily use. 

Shampoo and shower gel
I was having major problems even finding a shampoo to try because so many of them are advertised as "natural" but only remove a few of the most toxic substances. That's good, but not good enough for me for the amount that I shower. I happened to read about the Honest Company from another blog and decided after looking at the list of ingredients and the breadth and depth of their product lines to take a chance and order the sampler pack of the Essentials. It came with hand soap, lotion, shampoo/shower gel, laundry detergent, and healing balm. I tried not to let myself simply be enchanted by their lovely graphic design and really test them out to see if they worked. 

I immediately loved the shampoo/shower gel hybrid. It has a very faint orange/vanilla scent that doesn't linger long, but it is very clean. It also doesn't leave a film in my hair or on my skin. It's also kind of nice to use the same product in my hair and as a shower gel, since the scents don't compete with one another. It also has one of the cleanest ingredients lists I've found in any shampoo/shower gel.

The hand soap smells very clean as well, with a hint of lemongrass. When you use it, you don't feel like you've taken a bath in perfume. The lotion seemed like any other lotion, and the healing balm was particularly nice to use on my blistered right foot that has been battered by running this summer.

The laundry detergent is fragrance free, which is something I will have to get used to, since I've been a Tide girl since college. But the clothes still smell clean after use.

I am definitely a fan of all of the products I got in my sampler, so we decided to go ahead with a subscription. You can choose your delivery date for each shipment, everywhere from 4 to 8 weeks, and each time you choose 5 products from their very large line and can add up to three extra products at a 25% discount. Buying it in the bundles saves money off of the list price. In the first bundle I'll be getting some of the other beauty products, including some conditioning hair products that should hopefully help tame my humid weather frizz.

I should note that this is more money than I'm used to paying for cleaning or personal care items, even with the discount, but I'm impressed enough with the products that I'm willing to pay the extra cost. If I'm willing to pay more for healthy foods to put IN my body, I should be willing to pay more for safe products to put ON my body. I want the satisfaction of knowing I'm doing the best I can to limit my chemical exposure.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 6, produce

This week was a big explosion of diversity in our produce share. Look at this goodness. I could barely fit it in the camera frame.

We already decided to make mint ice cream with the first fresh mint. The basil might go in a homemade pasta salad for my family reunion on Saturday. The lettuce will go in salads. Gotta figure out what type of lettuce these tiny little purple bundles are. Any ideas? Whatever it is, it's lovely.

New potatoes are yummy as well. They have to be stored in the fridge, and they cook quicker than mature potatoes. Our CSA email update told us that they aren't often sold in stores because they turn dark at room temperature and don't store well. So here's a treat you can't get in stores!

Someone at our pick up site didn't want their green onions and fennel, so we ended up with two of each. Not complaining! As soon as I saw this fennel, I thought of a great pasta recipe I have that uses fennel and sausage, which we have from our meat CSA! This fennel is honestly so large it could eat Carnegie. I had to fold the fronds back under the bulbs just to fit it in the frame, but they were easily 2 or 3 feet long!

The email also told us that green beans will appear next week as well as another of my summer favorites - BLUEBERRIES. 

Those of you subscribing to CSAs, what did you find in your share this week?