The Finished Smoker

Friday, September 30, 2011

The smoker is finally done after a paint job and a new lid finished it off. When most people think about smokers, they think of a little box that sits over a burner in their gas grill that adds a smokey flavour as you cook. But our smoker is the real deal-no propane involved (except for the torch that gets it moving).

It's a cold smoker, meaning that no heat is produced, just smoke. The smouldering oak sawdust at the bottom slowly combusts without flames and produces a sweet, blue smoke that flavours whatever you put above it. Cold smoking separates the cooking and smoking processes and allows for much more flexibility. And since you're not cooking and drying the outer layer of the food, it soaks up the smoke a lot more easily.

The beautiful part, is that the oak we're using to smoke is from the farm-grown on the same land as all the food we're smoking. My dad harvested some white oak trees from the forest a few years ago, and our sawdust is from him planing the boards down. I've got my eye on a big hickory bough that the wind brought down during a big spring storm this year. I bet it will make some tasty smoke.

I had a hard time getting the sawdust going at first when I simply put a pile of it around the bottom like the book that I got the smoker plans from suggested. What I ended up doing was pulling out some pliers and bending some wire mesh to make a crude sawdust maze. Still having trouble getting it going, I put it on a grate to get it off the drum's floor and now light a small piece of charcoal under the start of the maze to get it going. Now it smokes for 10 hours uninterrupted.

We're just getting started with our smoker, we've made a few batches of genuine chipotle after we learned what it was as well as some smoked paprika. But we would love advice on what else to smoke. I see some meat hanging in there in the near future.

The First Annual Ketchup Tasting

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Last year we canned our first tomatoes and tried a batch of ketchup. We loved the ketchup so much that this year we decided to do it again with one not-so-subtle difference-we only used tomatoes we grew ourselves.

Jesse spent days outside skinning, boiling down, fighting off the wasps, spicing, and boiling down some more to get three very large batches of ketchup. We figured the best way to celebrate all the labour was to trudge back out to the garden, dig up some of our potatoes, pull out the deep fryer, and have a little party.

We don't have any russet burbank potatoes, the classic frying potatoes, but we have lots of Yukon Gold, which do fine. We also dug up some purple potatoes and the first of my mom's sweet potatoes which she sprouted in an interesting way this spring.

We loaded everything and everyone into the car and headed to our good friend Tanya's house for some expert palates. Jesse set up the deep fryer outside (it's never allowed in the house) and worked away at double-frying them.

We sampled the three recipes we made. A standard ketchup from the National Center for Home Food Preservation's website, another recipe based on the Joy Of Cooking's ketchup recipe, and a Jamie Oliver recipe.

The Jamie Oliver ketchup was the winner with its bold flavours. Personally, I liked the Joy of cooking recipe, possibly because it was made from our favorite black plum tomatoes. It might be a bit strange to have a party over a condiment, but the time put into these condiments earned them a bit of time in the spotlight.

Home Grown Ketchup

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Last year, we tried making ketchup for the first time. We were impatient. We thought a couple of hours of boiling should be good enough. What we were left with was the most delicious, and watery ketchup we'd ever eaten.

This year, we were excited by the fact that we grew most of the ingredients ourselves and sourced the cider vinegar at an orchard around the corner. We also decided to reduce it to the point where it actually resembled ketchup and to try a few new recipes to see which one we liked best.

The pictures in today's post are of our Black Plum Ketchup, from a recipe adapted from the Joy of Cooking cook book. The black plums were our favourite heirloom tomato this year. Not only are they delicious right off the vine, they're also quite pasty with, in my opinion, less water than a roma, the classic paste tomato. Black plums were made for ketchup.

I was feeling lazy, so I didn't de-skin the tomatoes. Black plum are a small tomato, so I wasn't looking forward to the task. But I should have known better, since the minute heat hits them, the skins roll up and look (and feel) like tiny pieces of straw all throughout your sauce.

I ended up picking them out with tongs as it reduced which quickly taught me to remove the skins properly in the remaining two batches. I ended up with a very efficient de-skinning system, which was far less stressful.

The hardest thing to do is to let it boil down. 90% of the time in any ketchup recipe is in the reduction. Every minute you're hoping for it to start thickening up. But then, eons later, it finally does. You awake from your stirring daze and look down as the ketchup leaves a deep canyon right to the bottom of the pot in the wake of your moving spoon.

It's almost not worth it. All I can think about as I'm stirring the thick, red, time-suck, is how cheap ketchup is at the supermarket. And then I force myself to ignore that thought, because this ketchup is ours. We didn't just make it, we made the tomatoes, onion, and garlic that made the ketchup.

And then, when it's finally jarred and processed, you get to hear the best sound in the world.

Brussels Sprouts

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Neither Jesse or I have ever really eaten brussels sprouts. A few tastes as kids, but nothing memorable. One thing we knew was that we were supposed to hate them. So we took that as a challenge and grew them.

They are such an interesting plant, a lot of people don't know how they grow or what to do with them.
Perhaps they are just afraid of them, the smell, the supposed gas that comes along with them. But perhaps people just don't know how to cook them.

Our good friend Hollie is a long time lover and big promoter of brussels sprouts, she gave me some suggestions on how I should cook them and assured me to not be afraid. So last week we whipped up a batch and didn't regret it one bit! The whole family (minus Margaret) ate a pile. And the kids have been begging me to make them ever since.

Simply prepared brussels sprouts:

• In a frying pan put butter, onions and garlic.
• Cut the sprouts in half length-wise; place in frying pan cut side down.
• When the brussels sprouts brown in the bottom edge flip them over for a few more minutes (allow them to soften a bit).
• Put a bit of water in the bottom of the pan to steam-fry.
• Salt to taste

Eat up and enjoy.

Garden Status Report #6

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

As the end of summer nears, it feels we're over the hill in the garden. We've had a pretty successful year, our first as "farmers". There have been successes, failures, but most of all, a lot of learning, with a growing list of improvements for next year.

Every time we go to the farm we spend a couple hours picking tomatoes. Our favourite this year, by a large margin, has been our black plums. They are technically a paste tomato, but they're so sweet we can't stop eating them fresh. Jesse even did a batch of "black plum ketchup".

The tomato plants that were ridiculously over-producing just a few weeks ago have slowed production considerably over the past weeke They are beginning to show signs of blight-a strong signal that the end is near.

When we planted Brussels Sprouts we wondered if anyone would actually eat them. Oddly enough they have become a favourite for us and the kids. Our three year old asks when we're going to have them on a daily basis.

I think the bad reputation that brussels sprouts have earned is not because of the vegetable at all, it's because of the horrible boil-and-serve way they've been presented to unassuming young children throughout history.

One of the recent surprises in the garden was one of our carrots going to flower. This isn't normal, since carrots are usually biennial. They put energy into building a big root the first year, and then focus on making a flower and seeds the next. Since we're trying to save as many seeds as possible this year, we considered saving the seeds, however the only thing relative around to pollinate them would be a common weed Queen Anne's Lace. Chances are, the cross between the two would make a new plant with a spindly root. Not worth the attempt.

Our pumpkin patch is beautiful with its different shapes, colours, and sizes. From Rouge Vif d'Etampes "cinderella" pumpkins, to giants, to carving and to small pie pumpkins. All but the giant pumpkins are edible, and we'll be preserving as much as possible. Seeds for next year, snacks, and the meat for pies, soups, and other undiscovered uses.

The bounty we have in the pumpkin patch doesn't extend to the melon patch. After having their feet too wet in the spring, all but one watermelon plant survived. And on that one plant, two out of three melons have rotted. We've got lots of hopes pinned on one melon.

The next major thing we need to do is to collect seeds. We planned to save seeds from all of our favorite tomatoes, but with the business of the garden and life in general, many varieties passed us by. Luckily there are a few that we can save seed from, but others will have to be started from leftover seed from this spring or new seed.

Even though summer seems to be near its end, our work carries on in harvesting and preserving so that we will have our little bit of summer all year long.

Field Trip: Tree & Twig's Annual Tomato Bash

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sunday afternoon was Linda Crago's annual Tomato Bash at her Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in Niagara. It's her annual party to celebrate the ripening of her tomatoes and show off the crazy diversity of her farm. The Tomato Bash centred around Linda's tasting table packed full with over a hundred different varieties of tomatoes. Everyone was encouraged to taste each variety and vote for their favourite.

Linda's farm is based around the notion of open pollination. Modern farming practices are generally based on hybridized seeds that are the results of forced breeding. This isn't a terrible thing, sometimes you can get some wonderful results, but generally saving and growing the seeds of the resulting fruit are unreliable, and sometimes even illegal if patented.

Open-pollinated seeds can be saved year after year. They're able to, over generations, get used to a climate and be selected based on positive attributes. Our own garden this year features a row of delicious peppers planted from the seeds of one pepper we ate last summer.

Linda's farm is a staunch opponent of the idea of industrial agriculture. There is likely more genetic diversity in her few small acres than there were in the sum of all of the monoculture fields on the trip to farm.

Szechuan Buttons

One of the unique things we tried were Szechuan Buttons, a grassy flavoured herb that has a built-in painkiller. When eaten, it numbs your mouth and causes you to salivate. I guess that's why it's been traditionally known as the "toothache herb".

The best part of the day was her garden tour. Showing off, yard-long beans, chinese pickling cucumbers and the most interesting thing to me, an "angora" tomato plant. The leaves of this variety didn't have the typical green, they were lighter and duller because they were covered in hair. And the fruit was hairy as well. It felt more like a peach than a tomato.

We planted about twelve different varieties of tomatoes this year, which felt like a lot, but to have 101 varieties to taste, and probably many more out in the garden just shows us how diverse nature is.

In a world where we're used to going to the supermarket to buy a "tomato" that is picked green in Florida, ripened in a truck, and shined up to look like the perfect image of a red tomato, Linda's farm stands out. She's proof that there's really no such thing as just "a tomato".

Make sure you get a piece of Tree and Twig's diversity. We have. We're growing a lot of vegetables from Linda's own seed. If starting from seed is a bit daunting, she has a seedling sale every spring, where you can find a whole garden's worth of plants. She also has a CSA you can sign up for if you're in the area.

Tree & Twig Heirloom Vegetables
74038 Regional Road
45 Wellandport, Ontario
(905) 386-7388
Twitter: @treeandtwig

Smoker Project - In Progress

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What is labour day without a little labour? Since we have a ton of peppers coming on, I decided to make a smoker to give us another preserving option.

I started with an old oil drum. Yes, an oil drum that had oil in it. I've read advice to use a barrel that only had food in it, and others simply saying to burn off whatever was in there and that'll be more than enough. So, after making the little door and cutting the top off, I started a fire. A big fire. My little barrel billowed black smoke, the bright green paint on the outside lit on fire, the bars inside began to warp. And when it was over, the inside was cleaner than when it was made. And you know what? I might burn it again, just because. And then have my dad sandblast the inside. And then burn it again.

The door is a hatch to the fuel chamber where charcoal and wood chips will burn. Directly above it is a baffle made from the original lid. The baffle diffuses the smoke as it rises in the barrel. Above that is a makeshift grate for the food. I need to source, or just cut a proper fitting grate from some sort of metal mesh.

We have a lot of jalapeños coming on and as soon as I have any sort of quantity we'll be throwing them in here to make chipotle. I'll also try smoking some of our sweet peppers to make a sort of smoked paprika.

Any suggestions on what to smoke? I'm a total newbie and would love to hear some stories/recipes/advice.

Next up is a coat of bbq paint, a thermometer, a grate and a lid.