Home Grown Paprika

Friday, October 28, 2011

We've got a lot of peppers. A LOT. So we've been trying to figure out how to preserve them. A little internet reading on what exactly chipotle is led me to finding out what exactly paprika is. It lived in that special source-less world of spices (Do you really know where the pepper in your pepper grinder comes from, or what the plant even looks like? We didn't until we picked up this book). Spices are always excluded from locavore demands, but why? Yes, they're much less intensive to import in their generally small quantities, but if you can produce them here, and better yet, yourself, why not?

Peppercorn vines are a tropical plant, so importing is necessary, but paprika is simply dried sweet peppers. We picked a few bushels of mixed sweet pepper varieties, cut them up and smoked them in our smoker for a few hours (optional) before finishing them off in our dehydrator.

We destroyed the grinder above when some of the peppers wedged themselves between the wall and a blade, sending a puff of smoke out of the bottom of the grinder. We bought a new one and were a bit more careful with the rest, shaking it constantly to keep it moving. The result was a beautiful, sweet, smoky spice we look forward to adding to all sorts of soups and rubs.

Garden Status Report 7

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wow. Status report number seven. It's amazing what has happened in the garden over the past few months. From tiny seeds in our front porch to nearly a half acre of food in just a few months. It was often more than we could eat, and still more than we could have preserved. People ask us all the time how we have time to do all this, especially with three kids. I'm not really sure, but we did it.

The past few weeks have been great. The mad production of august and september have slowed down and left us with some simple tasks here and there. We've spent the time collecting seed, smoking and drying peppers, and rounding out our preserves with things we didn't grow.

Growing your own food is as exciting as it is unpredictable. In our culture where we've tried as hard as possible to remove all risk, surprise, and danger, a garden can be one of the most exciting and humbling projects to take on.

The pumpkin patch has been the star of the past few weeks. It laid low at the back of the garden all summer, but now they're all picked, still dirty from the field, and waiting to be carved for halloween or better yet, turned into pie or soup. Although the two "giant" pumpkins are to only be used as seats by decree of our son.

The drying beans have had it rough. After planting them late because of the wet spring, the summer drought slowed their growth, and now, with such a wet fall, they're having a terrible time drying out. Many of the pods are mouldy and possibly a half will be discarded. We've picked them all, and they're spread out in our window-filled front room in hopes they'll finish drying before any other mould takes hold.

The onions, the few that we ended up with, will be eaten within a couple weeks. The spring rains washed away most of our seedlings, so we've only had enough to eat this summer.

There are still some things left to do out there. Potatoes need to be dug. The last of the herbs need to be picked and dried, peppers need to be gleaned by the end of the week if there is no killer frost, and all the carrots need to be pulled.

It was a lot of labour mixed with time. But in the end, very worth it. Every time we would compare the price of potatoes in the grocery store to, say, picking potato beetles by the hundred by hand for our own crop of potatoes, we'd have to catch ourselves. Because that time investment isn't just producing potatoes, it's producing knowledge, full-disclosure, and most of all, respect for food.

Mom Bottling Some Tasty Grape Juice

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Here's a quick video from some footage I took when we were picking up the steam juicer Melanie talked about in yesterday's post.

It's of my mom's crown capper we were talking about. This is what I watched her do year after year as far back as I can remember.

Field Trip: Homemade Grape Juice

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We love preserving, but it's not just jams, jellies, and pickles that we can, it's juice too. Our son is addicted to the stuff. At just three-years-old, it's a favourite that's already showing hints of nostalgia. He drinks his (heavily watered down) juice on the couch in the morning while he watches his shows, and sits on the couch with his juice at grandma's house not taking a sip until the previews are over and the main feature begins on whichever movie he has picked out. Yes, he loves us first, but juice is a really close second.

So to fulfill his need for the stuff we headed to the Niagara region in search of some grapes. We were on our way to a farm in St. Catharines, Ontario that wasn't answering its phone when we saw a trailer with a few bushels of grapes on it at the side of the road just east of Beamsville. We pulled in the driveway and were greeted by the kindest couple. They took Jesse out into the vineyard and started throwing grape varieties at him. Once he tried the green Niagara variety, we couldn't turn them down. Jesse picked a bushel, and we took one of the roadside blue grape bushels for Jane, Jesse's mom.

The couple we bought the grapes from were happy to see us, a young family, come in. They commented on how most people our age don't know how to go to a farm and blindly ask for things anymore... they just know how to go to stores. We bought our grapes and they sent us on our way with free apples and a squash from their garden. All we had to do was drop in on a farm.

We let Jane juice her grapes, and when she was done, we borrowed her steam juicer. Pressing grapes is the traditional way of extracting juice-it's fast and simple-but Jane's juicer does a beautiful job and heats the juice while it's working. We're buying our own soon, this one. It's stainless, which is "non-reactive" and doesn't stain like the aluminum one.

Steam juicing is a very easy process. The lowest part of the steamer's three sections is filled with water. The juice collector sits on top with a volcano-like hole that allows the steam to reach the grapes that are in the top tier where it softens the cells of the fruit, making it lose all of its juice. We've tried the juicer with pears and apples, but their cell structures are too strong, so we just use it for grape. And it does a beautiful job.

But there's a warning involved here. Preserving anything at home presents risks, and we break three major rules canning our juice this way. The first, is that the juice isn't technically at a full boil in the juicer. It's very close for an hour, but it's never at a full boil. The next thing is that we sterilize our bottles in the oven as opposed to boiling them, and the third is that we hot-pack the juice into vintage pop bottles with beer-style crown caps that don't indicate a seal. Whether you're using a steamer, pressing grapes, or even just using a counter-top juicer, the juice should be jarred hot and then the jars should be put into a hot water bath to make sure they're sterile.

These "errors" scare some, but Jesse has been drinking this stuff his whole life (famous last words), and he's never run into a single bad bottle. We're also comfortable with the temperature because it's in a good range for a long period of time. And as far as the old bottles and caps, they're a great use of Jesse's old bottle collection and give off a comforting hiss of air when you pop one open. Regardless, if you're canning into mason jars, a hot water bath is a simple and recommended bit of insurance.

If you drive down to Niagara or your local wine region this weekend, which around here will probably be the end of the season, you're sure to pick up a cheap bushel of grapes. Then pick up a steamer juicer. If you're in Ontario, you can get the Lee Valley one or one at Home Hardware.

But most of all, make an informed decision on how you're going to process your juice. The USDA's National Center for Home Food Preservation grape juice page is a good starting point.

Homemade Chipotle

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The stress lines aren't a defect, but are supposed to indicate a higher level of heat.

One of the reasons I made our smoker was because I had been studying smoked foods. I only recently learned what chipotle really is and even what paprika is. They lived in an ignorant place in my mind, more as just flavours than any physical thing. It's a bit like when Jerry Seinfeld is wondering if mesquite has anything to do with mosquitoes.

Here I am, "neutering" some of the peppers. Gloves are a necessity if you're handling any of their guts.

We've added chipotle powder to dips and chills without question, but making my own gave me a new respect for the flavour which is made from smoked, red jalapeño peppers.

The ripest red jalapeños are picked and then cold smoked for days on end as they slowly lose moisture and soak up smoke. It's quite a long process as they can take up to a week to fully dehydrate in the smoke. However i'm sure not all chipotle is smoked right to the end, wikipedia tells me that there are usually big gas dryers involved.

So, we picked a few baskets of our own jalapeños and put them in the smoker for two days before moving them to the dehydrator to finish. I decided to de-seed my first batch to lose some of the heat, which I later learned aren't actually called chipotles, but "capones", which literally means "castrated". Feeling less of a man myself, I kept the second batch intact, removing only the stem to let the smoke inside faster, while retaining all of their heat.

The sweet smokiness is incredible when you smell them, and we're still looking for the first opportunity to use them. We can't wait to start adding them to dishes this fall and winter. I like to think of the heat as a little bit of the summer sun captured for winter.

Field Trip: A Growers' Market

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It was exciting when the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation got a hold of us and offered to take us shopping last saturday. The only catch was that we had to visit a new market. They armed us with $50 worth of their "Market Bucks" and we headed down to the Ottawa St. Farmers Market in the east end of Hamilton, Ontario.

It's one of the markets listed on the Greenbelt's Market Finder. The Greenbelt, the band of green that surrounds the Golden Horseshoe in Ontario is vital to preserving green spaces, watersheds, and farmland that, in turn, are the main source of local food for Canada's most populous region.

The Ottawa Street market has been operating for over 50 years, year-round. It was formerly at a mall just down the road that was recently demolished. When the land was redeveloped with big-box stores, there were no considerations for the market, and it was immediately homeless. The Ottawa Street BIA took them in and the year round, 100km, outdoor market now has a home just off of Ottawa Street.

We were amazed as we walked through the vendors. The first thing that struck us was, on top of the usual small baskets of produce, there were also full bushels of romas, beans, apples and pears. Quantities that a home-preserver love.

We learned that the market is a growers' market. We've had criticisms of local markets in the past, full of vendors who simply buy produce as a grocery store would and resell. But at this market, you need to be a grower to sell. This takes out a profit-seeking middleman, and often gives you a lower price at the market, and a higher profit to the farmer.

But the more important thing with a growers' market is that there is no broken link in the story of the food. Chances are the person handing you that food knows exactly how it was grown and when it was picked. Right down to the hour.

So what did we buy with our Greenbelt Market Bucks? Plums, peaches, a bushel of pears for canning, a huge bag of onions, maple syrup, honey, orange cauliflower, popcorn on the cob, and root parsley.

A little sign mix-up on the celery root, but my favourite picture from our visit.

The Market Bucks initiative is coming to a close for this season, but we'll be sure to let you know when they're on for next year. They're a great gift to push someone into a farmers market, or for someone who does a lot of preserving. If you still want to do some preserving, but didn't get to it, the late summer this year has lots of things still in season. Find your closest Greenbelt market, call a vendor ahead to bring you a bushel of whatever you're looking for, and preserve a taste of the Greenbelt to enjoy when it's covered in snow.

Shagbark Hickory Tree Nut Harvest

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

We live in town, and there's this massive tree on the corner hanging right over the stop sign. It's almost like clockwork that a car stops and a giant black walnut drops onto it. When you're in the car, the first thing that comes to mind is a gunshot, but, once you look around at all the "misses" on the road, you realize what happened and start cursing.

But sometimes nature is just trying to hit you over the head with something you've been ignoring. We suddenly learned to love what that shocking impact indicates when we visited Grimo Nut Nursery last year, and learned a whole lot about nuts, especially local nuts. Now, with that knowledge, it's hard to ignore that loud sound and wonder what it tastes like on the inside.

On one of my first visits to Jesse's parents' farm, Jesse's mom, Jane, was very excited to take me for a long walk to show me her favourite tree on the property-the Shagbark Hickory. Jane first noticed the tree, with it's long and loose strips of bark, during a walk on the farm in the late eighties. Ever since, it's been a farm landmark.

But it gained new attention this past winter when Jesse was doing some reading on Slow Food USA's website. Slow Food, the forerunner of the locavore movement, has a section on their site called the Ark of Taste. It's where they list regionally important foods, with an emphasis on taste, that could be at risk of being lost. Think of it as an endangered species list for food.

There, under a section labeled "Nuts", was Shagbark Hickory along with lots of motivating descriptions. We've been impatiently visiting the tree since, and now, finally is its time.

Shagbark Hickory is related to the pecan, but many say it has better flavour and can be used in the place of walnuts and pecans. So why don't we all have a jar of hickory nuts in our cupboards? The main issue with hickory nuts is the difficulty in cracking them industrially while keeping the meat intact. Of course this is an issue in our industrially-minded world.

It's funny that in our personal attempt to get away from the industrial supermarket, we finally noticed something incredible, something new to us, that was growing right under our noses for over twenty years.

Keep an eye out for some shaggy bark this fall, and if you see a Shagbark, pull the car over and husk a few dozen nuts. Let them dry out for a few weeks and then see if you can hit the bullseye to get them opened cleanly. The flavour is addictive, and cracking them while keeping the meat intact is, quite possibly, even more addictive.