Thursday, June 26, 2014

Real Life CSA: week 11

More new stuff this week, including probably my favorite produce item on the planet...strawberries.

It's a widely known fact that I'm obsessed with local strawberries. I grew up eating my grandma's strawberry shortcake as a meal (hello, it's too good to be just a dessert) with berries from their garden. Nothing beats the tiny berries that grow in western PA in the month of June. (Full disclosure, these guys were super ripe bordering on spoiled when we got them today, so we ate them right away. Which I did not mind in the least. But I have no plans for them this week because they're already gone!)

Still not sick of the delicious lettuces we get each week. We never have problems eating it up, and it tastes so much better than grocery store lettuce. Definitely one of those produce items that has a taste difference when it's fresh and local.

Happy to get some spinach, it being my favorite green (or at least tied with chard for my favorite). Not sure how we'll use it this week, but perhaps on a homemade pizza with some feta. (Right now I'm having dreams of the amazing spinach and feta pizza Mark made for us about a month ago and I'm salivating.)

Mark and I are also big broccoli fans, so we were happy to see this guy. I was putting the broccoli in my bag while I was picking up and a little boy standing nearby looked at me with wide eyes. Yeah, kid, it's pretty cool. You should eat some!

Green onions will supplement our stash. So far this week we've eaten them on salads and in a sesame tofu stir fry I made (yum). Garlic scapes are one of the cool vegetables that I discovered from being a CSA subscriber a few years ago. Scapes are the stalks of young garlic plants, and as I understand it, we get to enjoy them because they are cut off to allow the plant to not divert energy to growing more stalk. They taste like garlic (duh), but they're mild. I might make a pasta with these because somehow in my head garlic and pasta go together. Am I the only one who thinks that?

Last but not least, though certainly exciting, is the first pepper of the season. I adore peppers - all kinds - and this one looks firm and crisp. Can't wait to eat this guy on a bed of fresh lettuce!

Get anything good in your CSA this week? (You know the answer is yes, so share!)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

garden update: late june

After the sad tale of our dead seedlings, you'd think the garden would be having a rough time. But amazingly, it's going gangbusters - particularly the items we started from direct seed. 

My herbs are all doing well in pots. Basil is doing so well that I'll have to move it into larger pots soon. (I was making do with what I had at the time and knew this would happen eventually.)

These are sunflowers that I planted after being given some free seeds at Farm to Table this year. I had no idea how they'd do or how many would survive, but they seem to be thriving and I would venture to guess will outgrow their pots too!

This little guy is one of the seedlings we thought was dead. Mark held on to two tomato seedlings that he thought had a chance and planted them in the chard bed. They seem to be alive!

A few pepper plants are doing well too, sharing a bed with some rows of chard that were direct seed. 

This bed of beans was ransacked by the chickens soon after the seeds were planted, so we didn't know if we'd get anything at all. Mark put up some netting on the top of the bed so it's sort of "caged" in. And it seems a decent amount of seeds were spared from the chickens' talons!

There are four mini "beds" with cucumber plants. They are spots of earth that Mark dug up and put some light fencing around to keep the chickens out. These seem to all be coming up healthy as well.

Last year we grew one single corn plant, and enjoyed delicious corn off of it. This year we have a whole bed! It's unlikely to be knee-high by the fourth of July, but it's also doing well.

In the big tomato bed, the plants are also getting big. We had a whopper of a storm a few weeks ago and Mark bravely went out to stake up the plants in the rain as they were getting completely bombarded before they were really strong enough to withstand it. 

We even have a tiny tomato starting! The first one to actually start growing here. (We got one seedling from our farmers' market that already had a baby tomato on it when we purchased it, so it didn't feel like it counted. This one does.)

How are your gardens coming along? What did you plant and how are they faring?

Monday, June 23, 2014

canning and preserving: two strawberry jams

This weekend we managed to squeeze in some time to put up 16 half pints of strawberry jam in two variants - balsamic and vanilla. This is our fourth year canning jam, and I think we're really getting a good system down - meaning we're more efficient and know the process well enough that we don't spend as much time agonizing over the Ball book.

Mark picked up 8 quarts of berries from Mason Farms in Erie when he was traveling for work last week. Nothing beats PA berries in June, I'm telling you. I have no idea why people buy California strawberries this time of year from grocery stores in western PA because these strawberries are almost a different fruit they're so tasty.

We use our dutch oven to make jam - it handles high temps nicely and can stand up to our stove's power burner. This is the first batch of balsamic, which we made for the first time last year and just love. The vinegar adds the right acidity and deepens the flavor of the strawberries.

I was the strawberry prepper this year, so for at least 90 minutes, this was the scene in front of me. The chickens were quite happy with their treats. (They honestly run across the yard at full speed when they see me with strawberries. OK, well anytime I come outside and yell TREAT!)

Mark was the jar filler. He often does this step, probably because he's tall enough to more easily reach into the pots.

We're going to need to replace our canning rack soon because it's starting to rust out. Four years of use is probably more than we can ask of the thing, being pretty cheap in the first place.

Boiling water baths and canning are nice, but the way it makes the kitchen an inferno is something I can pass on. We need to get ourselves a canning fan! Do they make those?

Our second batch was a new recipe variant, strawberry vanilla jam. We decided to do this one on a whim, having an abundance of vanilla beans. This next photo is Mark scraping the vanilla bean on a small portion of our kitchen island, which always looks a bit bloody after a strawberry processing day.  

The bean is scraped into the jam, and the outer husk or shell also goes in the jam during the cooking process to give it some more flavor.

We didn't think the vanilla flavor was incredibly pronounced in the finished product, but it was subtle and quite tasty. Maybe if we make this again next year we'll amp up the vanilla factor.

I love seeing our dining room table fill up with canning jars on towels. Means it's really summer and we're going to start stocking our canning cabinet again!

The rest of the 4 quarts of strawberries that didn't go into jam were made into strawberry shortcake topping and cut into pieces for snacking (and enjoying straight up). We'll be getting another quart in our CSA this week, but honestly I can't get enough strawberries in the summer. The joy of having them for a short season makes me want to eat as many as possible while they're around - and do things like can jam to save some for later!

Have you started canning anything this season? Are you eating your fair share of berries too?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Real Life CSA: week 10

Another green explosion this week, but I'm not complaining. 

Braeburn apples are a nice return after a break from the winter CSA. I'd love to know the secret of how they store these babies though, because they are still crisp! And it's June!

Lettuce will be our salad base, like it is every week. I suppose there are other things you can do with lettuce, such as wraps, but being a salad lover, I have no desire to stop eating them. If it ain't broke...

I'm actually not sure if I've ever eaten red kale before. I might actually cook this down instead of making chips or a dirt smoothie, so I can get a feel for the taste and how it might differ from the other types.

This chard is definitely getting cooked down. I am a chard fiend - I love it probably more than spinach, to tell you the truth. I think it's because spinach has become such a staple for me and chard hasn't lost its summer luster.

Goat cheese is really versatile - hopefully some of this will make it into a pasta dish or a homemade pizza. I also like salads with berries and goat cheese and nuts, so that's a possibility as well. This particular jar of hot pepper jelly is going in the holding pantry since we already have one going from an earlier share. The next time we have a party or picnic at our house, I will likely make an appetizer with it!

Last but not least is the kohlrabi, the entirely new item this week. I lurve kohlrabi. So much I even allowed myself to spell it like that. My favorite preparation is roasted so that's what will likely happen to these little guys. I've seen them get huge before, but these small ones are awesome.

What are you doing with your veggies? 

Monday, June 16, 2014

homebrew kombucha: tasting

After three days of second fermentation (after the addition of juice to the kombucha), we broke out a bottle of the mango kombucha. I was pretty nervous - not about safety, but about whether the juice to tea ratio was right and whether or not it was carbonated enough. 

We both like our kombucha cold, but since it ferments at room temp, we added ice. 

The mango was quite good. Mark thought the juice ratio was perfect, though I thought it was slightly too much. We both thought it could use another day or two of carbonation (we had these at day 3). But it was truly delicious.

We tried the tart cherry the next day (day 4 of carbonation). I thought the cherry had a better ratio of juice to tea than the mango, and Mark, even though he's not as much a fan of tart flavorings as I am, thought it was good as well. Ironically, we both felt it needed more carbonation than the mango one, even though it sat for another 15 hours. I think that might have something to do with the particular juice and how much sugar is in it, etc. 

We also gave a bottle of cherry to our friends, who both reported it tasted great. And one of them wasn't really interested in GT's kombucha when he had it, but liked mine! Better than GT's? For a tiny fraction of the price? I'll take it!

From this point forward I'll keep a supply of kombucha going and will be trying to work it into my diet daily, for the GI benefits it supplies as well as the fact that it tastes fantastic. I'm quite proud of myself for finally following through on this project and checking off one of my 2014 goals!

To read more about this process, check out these other posts in the homebrew kombucha series:

Making a SCOBY
Making the first batch
Flavoring and bottling


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Real Life CSA: week 9

Awash in greens this week - even the salsa is green! 

We had a big storm yesterday and the evening was full of activity and errands, so forgive the fact that everything's in bags in this photo. You get the basic idea. 

Happy to have the tomatillo salsa again, since we actually just finished another jar of it recently. I'm thinking of doing some kind of pickle with the watermelon radish, whether it's a salad on its own or a topping for something else. Radishes are not disliked at Next Gen House - but they're not really frequent flyers, so I have to stop and think about how to use them when we get them.

Green onions and a few kinds of lettuce, which we happily eat up every week in salads. During transport, I broke a hole in the bag of bibb lettuce, which meant muddy water on the kitchen floor - thus the Ziploc bag came to the rescue. 

Collard greens will also be a fun side to make this week. I love greens - chard and spinach are my favorites - but collards are good too. (I prefer them to kale, hands down. Does that make me a bad foodie?) Perhaps some type of soul food preparation is in order this weekend.

Happy to see more beans from Weatherbury. Honestly I didn't think I'd ever seen a turtle bean before, so I opened the bag and found these little guys. Might need to make some crock pot refried beans for the freezer this weekend. Either that or we're going to need to build a bigger pantry!

Don't forget to be checking out your local farmers markets, especially if you live in western PA. It's berry time and you cannot beat local strawberries this time of year!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

homebrew kombucha: flavoring and bottling

I am well on my way to fulfilling one of my goals for 2014: to homebrew kombucha. I truly thought this would be one of the hardest goals for me to reach, since I had so many hesitations about the process, but it turns out that it's been so incredibly simple, I'm shocked.

First, I made a SCOBY. After the SCOBY was ready, it was time for the first batch. 9 days after I started its ferment, it was ready - exactly within the 7-10 day time frame suggested by this recipe that I've been using. I hesitantly sipped a bit of it this evening to test, and was shocked that it was not just fine, but delicious. Had it been colder, I would have probably had a big glass right there.

But now comes the fun part - the flavoring and bottling. Mark's favorite kombucha flavor is mango, and I like the berry/cherry type, so we started with mango and cherry juice as flavorings. There are many different ways you can flavor kombucha, or just drink it plain, but we are both fruit kombucha fans. I wanted to use 100% juice to help keep the flavoring pure.

First, I removed the SCOBYs from the two jars of kombucha I made. A new circular one had formed in addition to the starter SCOBY I used, which means I now have 4 SCOBYs (which will come in handy a bit later on).

I decided that for my next batch I would make a double, so I kept all 4 SCOBYs aside, and also reserved 4 cups of the kombucha as a starter for my next batch. 

While I was doing this, I had the tea steeping for the second batch. I made a double, which is all the more I can make at one time anyway due to the size of my stock pot. So I'll have enough for about 12 bottles of kombucha at a time going forward, which is how many bottles I have anyway.

Next, I pulled out my EZ top glass bottles (after watching a video tutorial about 6 times learning how to get the dumb caps on!). I filled the bottle with a bit of juice (guestimating about 10-20% of the total volume of the bottle being juice). 

Then I added kombucha, leaving a decent amount of headspace, just like in canning. You leave the space because the kombucha will keep fermenting with the addition of the sugary juice (called a second fermentation) and it will be effervescent. You don't want to blow the lid! 

I popped the cap on with its tight seal and labeled them simply with trusty masking tape.

The bottles (3 cherry and 3 mango) are now sitting for their second ferment for about 3 days in the same spot the kombucha originally was (room temp, out of direct sunlight). So hopefully by the end of this week, I'll be enjoying a cold cherry kombucha on my deck!

Monday, June 9, 2014

my backyard oasis

When someone says "backyard oasis", you probably think they mean a yard you would find on HGTV - some fancy landscaped place with some kind of fountain and lush gardens. Well, this is mine.

Our deck has never been really used since we moved into this house, on account of the fact that the previous owners didn't take care of the wood, and so it's kind of a mess of splinters and shards. So we've ignored it in favor of the cement patio, where we have a table and chairs, and do most of our outdoor entertaining. 

But this year I was wanting to use that space more, because I wanted to use some of it to house my herb pots, and also because I wanted a space to sit outside that was comfortable and that the chickens didn't have access to, so I could be in peace. 

We moved the grill out of the way and off to the first corner, in an easily accessible spot that doesn't block the rest of the deck. Put a pair of flip flops by the back door so my feet don't get splinters. Bought two plastic Adirondack chairs at Lowe's. Added these deck boxes - ones we previously had with the brackets moved to accommodate their size. 

I also decided to try hanging baskets again. I tried them two years ago and couldn't keep them alive, but I'm giving it a shot again.

Mark also bought me a lily (my favorite flower) with my favorite colors (the colors of the sun - red, yellow and orange).

Now that I have colorful flowers, fragrant herbs and comfy chairs, I just add my coffee, a book and myself and it's my backyard oasis. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Real Life CSA: week 8

This week a new pantry item, and some of my favorite colors of spring.

We are still loving the variety of foods we get with Penn's Corner. Even the items we get regularly don't seem like overkill, and we like stocking up on staples like the maple syrup, even if we don't use it every day. 

Pretty excited about the apple butter - a Penn's Corner value added item that we haven't had yet. I'm only slightly nervous about it because one of the ingredients is allspice, and I usually shy away from anything seasoned with allspice because of my nightmare dental surgery/cloves experience that has permanently given me a gag reflex for that taste. But I'm brave when it comes to food, and we've so much enjoyed all of their products so far that I'm going to give it a whirl. At least Mark will enjoy it!

Tonight Mark is roasting a chicken with rhubarb for dinner, which is a new recipe. Follow me on Instagram to see how it turns out. I think we'll have enough rhubarb that I should probably bake something else with it. Speaking of rhubarb, the Pittsburgh Canning Exchange is hosting an event called the Rhubarb Social at Marty's Market in the Strip on June 14, with Marisa McClellan, who writes the Food in Jars blog and has a new canning cookbook out. We're going, and you should too! More details here.

Lettuce is our weekly salad base, and this red butterhead lettuce is particularly lovely. A friend asked recently how we store our lettuce, especially when you're overcome with salad greens in a CSA. We combine the pre-cut lettuce and the heads of lettuce that we cut up and store it in ziploc bags in the fridge with a dry paper towel in the bag to absorb the moisture. It actually keeps the lettuce crisp really well and we've had success making the lettuce last longer that way.

Not sure what we'll use the dill for this week. I'm thinking maybe a roasted potato or roasted carrot side dish, since we don't need the fresh dill to pickle anything yet.

Last but not least is my favorite item this time - swiss chard. I adore chard for its rich flavor, especially prepared the way Mark does it in garlic and broth. But look at the vibrant color of these stems. I think we get so used to seeing green in the garden that we forget about the rainbow of colors represented. Between this lovely chard and the rhubarb, plus the lettuces, it's pink and purple week!

How have you been using your CSA items?