Blueberry Conserve/Preserve

It isn’t every day and anyone ends up with more blueberries than she ever imagined would be sitting in her kitchen.  But that is where I found myself this year after having the excellent luck of a friend offering for me to pick at his family’s blueberry patch because nobody else would be using them.  I froze many for the winter.  I dried many more for the winter.  I then decided that maybe I would make some preserves and I tried a little experiment.  This takes a lot of blueberries and does not yield a lot of preserves.  However, the upside is that it uses only enough sugar to balance the tartness of your blueberries.  This is more of a technique than a recipe, and you can substitue any type of berries, or blend of berries.

The Technique

Put enough blueberries in a stainless steel (non-reactive) pot to fill about half way. Add about an inch or two of water and the juice of one lemon.  This will help prevent scorching as you begin to cook the berries.  Over medium heat, bring the berries up to a low boil.  Reduce the heat to low simmer, stirring frequently, until they have decreased in volume by about a third.  The fruit will be mushy and the mixture will look runny.  Add more blueberries until you have a little more than the original volume in the pot.  Cook these down until the volume decreases by one third.  Repeat the process until you have use all of your berries.

At this point, you need to watch the berries carefully and stir the pot a lot to prevent scorching.  Continue cooking the berries until mass becomes thick and spreadable.  If you are using honey to sweeten this, remove the preserves from the heat and add the honey to taste.  If you are using sugar or other sweetener, add it to taste, and continue stirring until all of the sweetener is dissolved.

Put the hot preserve into freezer-safe jars*, and cap it.  When it has cooled, put the preserve in the freezer, or store in the refrigerator, where it generally keeps well for 3-4 weeks.  Once it is defrosted, the jam keeps well in the refrigerator for 3 weeks.

Freezing Jars

Glass jars may crack in the freezer, so take some precautions:

  1. Use freezer-safe jars! These have straight sides (“jelly jars,” regular mouth half pints, wide mouth half pints, wide mouth pints).
  2. Leave more “head space” at the top of the jar.  When liquids freeze, they expand — the reason ice floats in your drink is because between the temperatures of 34 F and 32 F, water actually expands as its structure changes from liquid to solid.  Therefore, whatever you are freezing will take up more space in the jar than it did as a liquid.  If you do not give the liquid room to expand, it will break the jar as it freeezes.
  3. Be sure that the jar is completely cooled before moving it to the freezer.  I do this by allowing the contents to come to room temperature and then putting it in the refrigerator overnight before moving it to the freezer.

*Not all canning jars are freezer safe, so read the label of the case to be sure.

Foraging in my Yard

It has been a while since I had time to work on my blog, which was a sadness.  But now Summer has begun and with it a bit more flexibility in my schedule.  For the past few days, I found myself awake at 4:30 AM, not able to fall back to sleep, but not thinking about lesson plans or Student Growth Objectives, which is a nice change.  Instead I was thinking about blog posts, berry picking, staking tomatoes, and what to do with the mint that had gotten out of control!

Clearing Space

I have two varieties of mint growing on the side of my house: peppermint and spearmint.  They seem to get along with the raspberries, but this year, when I went out to start picking, I couldn’t get down the rows because the mint was out of control.  I started pulling it out and ended up with three enormous bunches of mint.  It hurt my heart to just throw them in with the chickens, and then I had the “A-ha” moment: tea.  This was way too much mint to put in my dehydrator, so I just tied it up to my clothes line.  I took it down at night and hung it back out the next day.  It took three days until it felt like it was really dry.  Then I just stripped the leaves from the stems and stuffed them in a jar.

This coming winter, I will happily drink mint tea from these dried leaves.  It also makes a nice iced tea, but I generally use the fresh mint for that in summer, since we have so much.

Storage Space

The fun part of this is that all of that mint, when dried packed into a quart jar.  In the winter, when I use the mint, I will put it in the mini-prep (a small food processor) to chop it up and release the oils from the leaves. Otherwise, I think it has a little bit of a “grassy” taste.  Sometimes I will mix it with loose black tea; sometimes I just make the mint.  Other dried herbs that make a nice tea with mint are lemon balm and chamomile.

This time of year, a lot of perennial herbs, like mint, sage, and oregano are going a little crazy.  Cut them back before they flower and dry them.  Any dried herbs you have left from last year should get thrown in the compost (or give them to the chickens!), as they have probably lost their potency.

 

Living La Vita Locale 6/4: Strawberry Jam

Strawberries?  Again?  Well, that’s the seasonal life — eating foods when they come into season, and trying to preserve some of it to eat when it is not.  I have already written about freezing strawberries, but I have never posted about making strawberry jam, a staple item in  our pantry.  We use it for flavoring yogurt, flavoring ice cream and sometimes just spreading it on toasted really easy homemade bread.

I always had very bad luck making jam.  It wasn’t until my friend Andrea took me under her wing that I got the most important part of making jam: follow the directions exactly!  Here they are:

Before you start with the berries, prepare the canning jars according to manufacturer’s specifications.  There is no use going to the trouble of making jam if you mess up on the jars.  They must be sterile.  I boil the jars in the canner and leave them simmering until I am ready to can the jam.

Strawberry Jam

  • 3-4 quarts of strawberries, with the green caps and any stems removed, lightly crushed to make 6 Cups
  • 8 Cups of sugar
  • 3 1/2 T powdered pectin (or one box)

Measure 6 cups of crushed berries into a big stainless (or other non-reactive metal) kettle.  Add the pectin and stir it in.  Turn on a high heat and bring the fruit to a full rolling boil.  Not a simmer (my early jam mistake — I never let it come up to a full boil).  Once it is boiling, add the sugar and stir it in and bring the mixture back up to a full rolling boil and boil for one full minute (actually time it — don’t guesstimate) and remove from the heat. Let rest for 3 minutes.

Take the jars out of the canner and put them on a towel.

Skim the jam to remove any foam and then gently stir the jam to evenly disperse the fruit.

Fill the jars leaving a 1/2 inch of head space and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (that’s for Sea Level NJ.  If you live someplace that has an altitude over 1,000 feet, consult an expert!).

 

Tacos From the Freezer

One of the ways we make dinner easier is by cooking in advance and putting things in the freezer.  The title is a bit misleading, because we don’t actually eat tacos from the freezer.  We have Taco Casserole, or Taco Lasagna. It is one of those super easy meals to make in advance and put in the freezer.  When I make this I generally make three or four casseroles (yes, we have a lot of freezer space), cook one and then freeze the others. When my friend Andrea (you may remember her from other entries, like Felony Milk) shared this idea with me I was very excited.  And then I thought that I couldn’t make it because the recipe included one envelope of taco seasoning.  Did you ever read the ingredient list on that stuff?  NO way I could put that in anything I make.  As I was walking home, I thought, DUH, I’ll make my own.  Creating your own spice mixes and having them on hand is really simple and makes your cooking life that much easier.  Awhile back, I shared a recipe for Seafood Seasoning that is akin to an “Aged Inlet” since I don’t want to get into any corporate trouble.  Here’s another one.  I actually mix this up by the pint, because we use is frequently.  In addition to seasoning meat for tacos, it is great mixed with yogurt or sour cream for dip.

Taco Seasoning

In a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, put the following ingredients:

  • 2 T chile powder (we use Ancho Chili Powder)
  • 2 t garlic powder
  • 1 T onion powder
  • 2 t red pepper flakes (more or less– adjust to how hot you like things)
  • 2 t oregano
  • 2 t paprika
  • 3 t cumin
  • 2t salt
  • 2 t black pepper

Put the lid on and shake to blend.  I use about 2 tablespoons per pound of meat.  If you prefer this to be more like commercial seasoning, you should crumble the oregano very fine.

Purchasing spices in bulk really saves a lot of money.  Check out Frontier Co-op and Penzey Spices to read up and get informed.  Both of these sites are stores, so they want you to buy, but they also both have a lot of information.

Now, Taco Casserole

For each casserole:

  • 1 package of corn tortillas
  • 1 pint jar of Salsa
  • 1/2 lb. Colby cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 lb. ground meat (we generally use beef, but any ground meat will work)
  • 2 -3 T taco seasoning mix (above), divided in half
  1. In a large skillet, heat about 1T of fat — just enough to brown the garlic and onions.  Saute the garlic and onions until golden brown.  Add 1/2 of the taco seasoning and stir around until it smells like tacos.
  2. Add the ground meat.  stir frequently to break up the chunks.  The meat should be in little pieces for this.
  3. Cook until the meat is all brown and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add the rest of the taco seasoning and stir to mix thoroughly.
  4. While the meat is browning, oil the bottom of your casserole dish.  Put in a layer of tortillas to cover the bottom.  They will overlap and there will be some “bare spots.”
  5. Spoon in enough meat mixture to cover the bottom of the pan in a thin layer.  Smooth on some salsa and then a layer of each of the cheese.  Repeat the layering, ending with tortillas.  Cover with foil.
  6. If you are freezing it, put the reserved cheeses in a freezer bag and cover the casserole with foil.
  7. To bake: put the cheese on the counter to defrost. Put the cold casserole in a cold oven.  Turn the oven on to 350F and back for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil cover and add the cheese.  Put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.
  8. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving.

I get foil pans and make this casserole in the disposable pans.  I understand that this isn’t the most ecologically sound thing to do, but it makes clean-up fast and easy.  And let’s face it, part of why we eat out or get take-out or delivery is not only do we not feel like cooking, we don’t feel like cleaning up, either!

On Canning Tomatoes

Repetitive tasks appear to be what we must avoid.  I remember a college professor telling a story about a writer who worked in a factory, twisting caps on toothpaste, or something equally mundane, day after day, week after week, month after month.  Selling poetry is no way to earn a living wage, so poets need to work outside of their own minds in order to be sure there isn’t too much month left at the end of the money.  This writer loved his job because the physical monotony of his work allowed his mind to be free to work on poems.  He kept a small spiral-bound notebook in his back pocket and pulled it out to write down ideas as they occurred to him.  Most of us could not get away with that! We have jobs that require incredible attention to what is in front of us.  I think this is part of why I enjoy canning, especially these next couple of weeks when the tomatoes are just going crazy, and all I seem to be doing is cooking, straining, and canning.  Canning tomatoes, and canning tomatoes, and canning tomatoes may seem mundane and monotonous, but the task provides the opportunity to be mentally active on one task, like what I am going to be teaching the first week of school, while I am being physically productive preserving tomatoes.

CSA Tomatoes
CSA Tomatoes

Another reason I love canning tomatoes is because, in a sense, this is where all of this food stuff began for me.  Canning tomatoes.  It brings me back to my beginning.  In a weird way, it’s like looking at pictures of my children when they were infants, a sort of loving nostalgia.  And to be quite frank, it isn’t very difficult and you don’t need any special equipment outside of proper canning jars and lids, and a pot that is large enough for the jars to stand upright and have enough water to cover.

Easiest procedure using the least amount of equipment:  Cut and core the tomatoes and put them in a pot.  Cook over a medium heat until they have reduced in volume by a little over 1/2.  So if you start out with 4 quarts of tomatoes, cook them down to 2 quarts.  Let them cool a little and puree in a blender, or run a stick blender through them.  While the tomatoes are cooking, prepare the jars by boiling them in your boiling water bath, and prepare the lids according to package directions.  Ladle prepared tomatoes into jars, adding 1T lemon juice per pint, 2 T lemon juice per quart, affix the lids, and process (20 minutes for pints, 25 minutes for quarts).

Squeezo
Squeezo

If you want to remove the seeds and skins entirely, you will need to run the tomatoes through a sieve, food mill or Squeezo-type extractor.