Relishing a fruity bargain

Every summer I make a trip or two to buy some exotic fruit and hunt for edible bargains. Early on Friday mornings, throughout the year, a fruit and veg supplier sets up his stall in Newcastle Emlyn and, amongst the standard green grocer’s fare, there are many bargains to be had. You can’t guarantee what he will be selling off cheaply and the best bargains need to be cooked or eaten quickly, but it’s always worth a visit. In the past I’ve bought very cheap nectarines, tomatoes, mushrooms, mangoes… and I’ve brought them home for bottling.

So yesterday, rather than my early morning swim, I had an early morning shopping trip. The best bargain I found was organic pineapples – two for £1. The tops were looking somewhat worse for wear, but the fruits themselves seemed generally sound, and I bought four. I also managed to get some peaches, although they didn’t have any big boxes and I will be returning in the hope of finding some more later in the summer.

Earlier in the year we were served pineapple and chilli relish at a restaurant and I had managed to recreate this at home with tinned pineapple (which, until then, I hadn’t bought for years). The fresh ones, along with the current abundance of home-grown chillies meant that it was the perfect time to make a larger batch of this relish. I simply chopped the pineapple, added a little sugar (to help with the preservation) and water, and cooked it up with chillies. First I added a Hungarian black, then a Romanian yellow and finally two lemon drops before I reached the desired heat. The addition of three chopped red chillies that have no heat (a disappointment from 2015 and stored in the freezer) added a little colour and also a visual signal of the contents (lest we should accidentally mistake it for something to eat for dessert). Into hot 0.25l Kilner jars and twenty minutes in a hot water bath, and the relish was ready for storage. Very easy.

This morning I bottled some of the peaches. The flesh is pale, but the syrup is a beautiful pink colour:

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bottled peaches

And finally I’ve making a few jars of peach, lime and red currant jam. We are not big jam-eaters, but it is nice in a Victoria sponge. We’ve got loads of red currants this year and still haven’t used up all last year’s crop, plus I found some lime halves in the freezer with their zests removed (having been used in a lime drizzle cake a while ago),  so I thought I’d do something creative. Peach jam does not set without the addition of pectin, so I am hoping that the currants and lime will be sufficient.

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peach, red currant and lime jam

I love food preservation – opening one of these jars in winter will be like bringing summer into the house.

Those pesky pesticides

Having written, the other day, about growing your own food to avoid unwanted chemicals, I’ve been doing a little more thinking. A friend asked me whether washing vegetables in dilute vinegar would help reduce pesticide residues more than washing with water alone. My initial thought was that, even if this did work, it would only help with surface residues, not pesticides that the plant had absorbed. I did do a bit of reading around and I didn’t find an answer to the original question but I did come across an interesting piece from Cornell University, entitled Can you wash pesticides off your fruits and vegetables? They note that various heat treatment (e.g. pasteurisation, canning and frying) have been found to reduce pesticides, as have milling, brewing, baking, malting and wine-making, but that drying and dehydrating can increase pesticide levels. Their conclusion:

Washing your produce certainly removes pesticide residue from the outside, but there’s no clear data showing whether it reduces pesticide exposure compared to consuming organic fruits and vegetables.

So, it does seem that the safest option is to grow or buy fruit and vegetables that have not been exposed to pesticides in the first place. At this point, it’s worth noting that some pesticides are acceptable in organic systems, so buying something that is labelled ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean that it is pesticide-free.

With home-grown produce, you need not worry about pesticides if you know you have not applied any. This means that when it comes to preparation, cooking and storage, you can relax and do what you like.

Since my (pretty-much chemical-free) garden is now at the beginning of its most productive period, I’ve already started preserving some of the bounty. I’ve made mint sauce, I’ve frozen some of the raspberries I’ve picked and I have some oregano hanging up to dry in the limery. There’s a small bowl of tomatoes in the fridge ready for conversion into passata, which I freeze if it’s only a small quantity or bottle if I have large amounts.

I love all the potential at this time of year. I know that by the end of summer I will be sick of courgettes, but now as I watch the first fruits swell, I can hardly wait for my first harvest. How about you? Is there something you love to grow and eat?

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2017 Courgette #1

Meet Liisa

We are currently in the throes of apple processing season. My usual approach is to stew all my apples and then bottle them hot before heating them in a water bath to ensure that they keep for a good long time. I used to freeze them, but we just ended up with a freezer full of apples with no room for anything else! Now, once they are processed, no additional energy is required for their storage. This year I’ve also bottled blackberries with some of the apples for a bit of variety. I love being able to preserve food like this, especially apples since we get so many given to us for nothing.

For a few years, though, we have been discussing the possibility of making a scratter and press so that we could produce apple juice. Somehow we never got round to it. And then a couple of weeks ago I was introduced to a gadget that I simply couldn’t resist – a steam juicer. This amazing gadget produces hot juice that can be bottled directly for storage. It’s really just a big steamer with a reservoir to collect the juice, which has a pipe to drain hot juice directly into bottles. All that the user needs to do is wash and then chop up the apples (in fact it works with all sorts of fruit and vegetables), place them in the steamer basket with some sugar if the juice is for keeping, fill the bottom pan with water, turn the heat on and let them get on with it. After about a pint of juice has been released, you collect this in a jug and pour it back over the fruit, but after that there’s very little to do. You obviously need to be around to keep an eye on things to make sure the bottom pan doesn’t boil dry and to drain juice into (pre-heated) bottles, but it’s a remarkably easy way to produce juice.

And the name of this glorious gadget? It’s a Mehu Liisa. And I feel I must thank Rachel (@CambridgeGoats) for introducing me to this wonderful thing. Now, where can I get some more apples…?

The little things

Often I feel that with all the major events going on in the world, I am completely insignificant, my actions are futile and I might as well not bother. And then I realise that I’m not designed to live in this world of global news; that I can only assimilate information from a community that is meaningful to me and that I have to adjust my focus.

So, I have been trying to avoid The News, I’ve stopped following various people and organisations on social media and I’ve been concentrating on things I can do. I know that one of these things is to share ideas and so I’m feeling a little bad that I’ve hardly written for the past few weeks. I know that a stone thrown into the pond makes ripples that spread a long way. So, in that spirit, here are a few things I’ve been up to to save the planet in my own teeny-tiny way and make so ripples…

Katy the Night Owl gave me some eating apples from their neighbour’s tree, so I rolled my sleeves up and got baking, I used some of them to make an apple plait – a sweet, enriched dough filled with cinnamonny apple. It was delicious.

Then I put the remainder of the apples to work temporarily – encouraging some of the green tomatoes in the limery to ripen up:

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Come on tomatoes – there is nothing I like to make with green ones!

There are still chillies to harvest and tomatoes ripening up every day, so I made yet more passata, converted some of it into sweet and hot sauce (recipe here) and bottled up the rest.

I do still go shopping and when I do I try very hard to remember to take my own bags and containers. I’ve recently started going to a little local butcher who is happy to tell me about the source of all the meat that I am buying and to put all my purchases into my storage boxes rather than plastic bags… I’m hoping that she’ll start encouraging other customers to do the same.

The haul included some suet for making dumplings. As with many local butchers, this was free, although a donation for their charity collection was requested. I love using something like this that’s otherwise considered a waste product. You may have noticed that my bag is emblazoned with the words ‘Community Clothing’. This fabulous project is…

a manufacturers cooperative with a simple mission; to make excellent quality affordable clothes for men and women, to create great jobs for skilled workers and by doing this help to restore real pride in Britain’s textile communities. (Community Clothing web siteCommunity Clothing web site)

I got the bag via a crowdfunding campaign which helped to get the project off the ground.

So, that’s it, that’s the sort of thing that I do – shop local, support small businesses, use and preserve seasonal produce, reduce consumption of single-use plastic, oh and make cake, because the world is a happier place with cake…

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Lime cup cakes

Tools of the trade

Having written about my food preservation activities quite a bit, I thought that it might be useful for any of you considering doing this yourself to know a bit about what’s required. I have collected my equipment over a number of years and when I started, I managed with the most basic items: a preserving pan, a funnel and a ladle. Since those days, I have gathered more equipment, but this is mostly because I now feel confident enough to try different techniques and preserve more challenging foods.

In the UK we have a very dull approach to preserving. Pick up a British book on the subject and you will find recipes for jams, pickles and chutneys, with perhaps lemon curd and fruit leathers. More recently, dehydrating food has become fashionable, but I’m not keen. To get really inspired, you need to cross the Atlantic (metaphorically, at least) and see what the Americans are doing. In fact it was Willowscottling who pointed me in the direction of the most useful book that I own on the subject: Putting Food By. Apparently this is an American classic, but hardly anyone in the UK seems to have even heard of it. It was because of this book and a discussion with Kate Chiconi that I finally bit the bullet and invested in a pressure canner (again not something people in the UK are familiar with, where most people think it’s the same as a pressure cooker).

So, what do I have in my collection? First there are a few books. As well as Putting Food By, I also like The Ball Blue Book of Preserving. And the I also have two books by Marisa McClellan, which are full of excellent ideas for more small-scale preserving:

Then I have two preserving pans – a stainless steel one and a brass one – as well as a pressure canner.

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pots and pans

If you are making jams and pickles, then the pans are probably sufficient, but if you are embarking on bottled (canned) vegetables and low-acidity fruits, then the pressure canner is an important piece of equipment. I’ve been told by several Brits that I could just have bought a pressure cooker for this purpose, but I disagree. The difference between a pressure cooker and a pressure canner is this:

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getting the pressure right

This is a pressure gauge and without it you cannot be sure that the food you are processing has reached the correct pressure for the right length of time. If you don’t know this, you cannot be sure that you have destroyed all possible sources of contamination – botulism being a particular hazard. I want my food to be safe, so I would not be happy bottling without this piece of equipment.

As well as pressure, you need to check that you’ve achieved the right temperature, so a thermometer is essential, Plus you need tongs to remove hot jars from hot water, and I also have little silicone mitt (the purple thing in the picture below) that is useful for handling items that are both hot and wet.

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some of the essentials

The photo above also shows some of the preserving jars that I use – various sizes, but all have lids and separate screw bands. I do actually use jars with spring clips too sometimes. And to get hot food into hot jars without spilling, a funnel is essential.

There are some other items that I have which, whilst not essential, are very useful: a stainless steel bucket (easy to sterilise and ideal for washing fruit or holding prepared fruit or vegetables prior to cooking), my passata mill (which saves me hours of work with a sieve and ensures that there is minimal waste) and a pH meter (very useful for peace of mind – allowing me to check whether the threshold pH of 4.6 has been crossed).

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not essential but oh-so-useful

And finally, although I haven’t been using them recently, I have a jelly bay and supporting frame, for making clean jellies and juices.

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jelly bag and frame

So, those are all my bits and pieces. Do you have useful equipment you can recommend? Or a particularly good book?

Sticky Sunday…

… and Saturday as well.

Over the past two days I have mainly spent my time in the kitchen. I started Saturday by making the custard base for some vanilla ice cream*… because we had lots of eggs and some cream that needed using up (well, that’s my excuse anyway). Then I processed the tomatoes I had roasted on Friday and bottled up 25 jars of passata.

I put the roasted tomatoes through the passata mill three times to extract all the pulp and the small amount of skin and seeds left goes on the compost heap. I then reheat the passata and bottle it using the hot water bath method, having checked the pH is below 4.6 and therefore safe to preserve. I’ll do another batch later in the season and then we won’t need to buy tinned tomatoes for a whole year and we will have avoided a whole load of cans that would have had to be recycled (the jars are reusable).

Then I set the now cool custard to churn to turn into ice cream and then returned it to the freezer before starting to make nectarine nectar (just a fancy way of describing purée), which I bottled this morning (Sunday), and which I have just realised will be perfect for Nectarine Bellinis:

And finally, I bottled peaches and nectarines in light syrup combined with the left-over nectar (just one picture because of the stickiness):

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bottled summer

And then I noticed that Mr Snail had dressed appropriately:

Now, I just have a lemon cake to make with the egg whites left-over from the ice cream and then I will be having a lie-down!

-oOo-

*I can’t eat ‘normal’ ice cream because of my lactose intolerance, but if I pre-treat the milk and cream with lactase enzyme, I can make my own that I can eat.

Auguste and the apples

Chilli goodies

Chilli goodies

Mr Snail went away last weekend to visit Sister of Snail, to help her de-clad a shed and start to turn the remaining frame into a fruit cage*. They made good progress, which he’s sure to blog about once he’s finished this NaNoWriMo business (he’s got less than 7,000 words to go now). It was a sociable event by all accounts (I had to stay home and tend to dogs and chickens) involving family and friends. I dispatched Mr Snail with some chilli goodies for my nephew, a pair of socks for my mum and some netting for the top of the fruit cage and he returned with some old pillow cases for Hannah (Spinning a Yarn) and… drum roll, please… some more apples!

Apples being stored in the limery (Mr Snail returned with a couple more boxes yesterday)

Old apples on the left, new apples on the right

Since I have filled all the half-litre preserving bottles that I own with passata, nectarines, mangoes and apples, this new delivery will have to be stored in a different way. In fact, simply keeping an eye on the apples in boxes and removing any that seem to be going bad is currently working well and means that I will have fresh apples to use well into December. This is aided by keeping them in open boxes in the limery, where there are no mice (unlike the shed) and the temperature is cool but fairly stable. Storing apples this way is lovely because it means that you can use them in any recipe… the bottled ones tend not to be any good for cakes, for example, because they are too mushy.

Even so, I think that I will freeze some of the latest crop. Fortunately, Mr Snail has loaned me his sous-chef, Auguste to help out. When living with Mr Snail in Reading, Auguste specialised in savoury dishes – being particularly good at pizza – but since his return home earlier this year, he has been turning his paw to sweet treats and now has experience of cake and waffles. I’m hoping that he gets good at peeling apples, but I’m looking at those paws with some doubt…

-oOo-

*Us Snails are very creative when it comes to (re)using resources!

On the bottle

Three and a half days and almost all the preservation is done….

My kitchen table on Friday morning

My kitchen table on Friday morning

My kitchen table now

My kitchen table now

And in the interim, all this has happened:

And  this:

In fact, I got so involved with the process, I didn’t photograph all the stages. The tomatoes were all made into roast tomato passata, some for the freezer and some bottled (canned). The bottled ones were processed in a hot water bath, which is safe as long as they are acidic enough, otherwise they need to be pressure canned (the threshold is 4.6 and mine were well below at 3.9). I’ve retained some of the passata to make into ketchup, but I need some more jars to store it and those should arrive later in the week, so for now I will freeze it so there is no chance of it going off. As for the peaches, those were peeled (they were so ripe the peel came off without immersion in boiling water) and the stones removed, before being poached in a light syrup and bottled. Again, they were processed in a hot water bath. The left over peel and stones are now fermenting naturally to make vinegar. So, the two processes produce hardly any waste and what is left over goes into the compost.

It’s hard work, but well worth the effort – such a joy over the winter, plus the knowledge that I know exactly what has gone into the food that I’m eating and a reduction in packaging compared to buying tinned goods.

Minty

Family mint

Family mint

In my garden I have some mint. My mum gave it to me as a cutting from the mint in her garden, which came from the mint at our old family home. Subsequently, cuttings and root clumps have been given to various friends and relatives. Last year, mum’s plant went into a decline, so this year a clump will be returned to her garden. Also last year my sister moved house and so another clump went to her for her new garden. I love the fact that this particular plant has a family history and that it has been valued by so many of us.

Freshly harvested - just the top four pairs of leaves

Freshly harvested – just the top four pairs of leaves

It’s not the usual peppermint that folks use in cooking, but a variety of apple mint, although one that has a stronger flavour than many I have encountered. It makes a very good herbal infusion (I refuse to call it tea) when fresh and is our mint of choice for making mint sauce to serve with lamb and mutton. In addition, I like to grow it amongst my soft fruit to suppress dock and nettle growth and attract insects when it flowers. There are also suggestions that growing aromatic herbs with fruit can repel insect pests – I’m not sure that we really suffer from pests on the raspberry, but perhaps it helps keep sawfly off the gooseberries. Anyway, I don’t think this sort of companion planting does any harm and I like the visual effect.

Chop chop!

Chop chop!

I ran out of mint sauce not long ago, so yesterday morning I made three more jars. It’s very easy, just chopped mint leaves in vinegar. The choice of vinegar has an effect on the flavour. When I was a child, we made it using malt vinegar and we “chopped” the leaves by passing them through a herb mill, which pulverises the leaves, squeezing some of the juice out. I do own a herb mill, but these days I prefer to chop my mint by hand using a mezzaluna – it’s a bit more time-consuming, but I like the texture and the blade is much easier to wash than the fiddly herb mill! Neither do I use malt vinegar, but instead prefer the more subtle flavour of cider vinegar. Because of the vinegar fumes, you shouldn’t store mint sauce in jars with metal lids, so I have put mine in little preserving jars with glass lids this year.

Mint sauce

Mint sauce

This is my first foray into preserving this year, but I know that there will be much more to come.

 

Getting a grip

One of the joys of Mr Snail being in a big city is that I can send him off on a quest during the week.

No more boiled fingers!

No more boiled fingers!

Having failed to be able to find any in Aberystwyth (well, what did I expect?), I set Mr Snail the task of buying me some jar tongs last week. First of all, I had to explain to him what jar tongs are and then I had to send him a picture because my verbal description was clearly woeful (either that or he just doesn’t have the capacity to visualise such things). Anyway, a picture was sent, a comment was received about it looking like some sort of surgical appliance and off he set to seek out what I wanted. In fact it only took him three shops, one stock search and one helpful assistant before he was able to splash out £4 on what he thought, and indeed was, just the thing.

Jar tongs, in case you have never encountered them, are designed to remove preserving jars from pans of hot water. For some years now I have, however, been struggling without a set and thus getting boiled fingers. But no more… my preserving activities are going to be safe and scald-free from now on.

Two sorts of grippy-thing

Two sorts of grippy-thing (complete with spots of stewed apple to prove I’ve been hard at work!)

Of course, we went to Lampeter on Saturday and found jar tongs in our favourite hardware/housewares shop for 40p less! Mr Snail was not impressed, but did buy me another useful jar-gripping gadget – a little non-slip silicone mitt that is waterproof, so can be used to hold wet jars, spoons and lids without hot water seeping through. I was delighted even if he was still grumbling a bit.

So now I’m making further progress with apple processing. Other things do keep getting in the way (paid work, for example) but so far I have bottled up 7.5 litres (about 13 Imperial pints or 15 US pints) of stewed apple, which should keep me going for a while. There are still plenty more apples awaiting attention, so the jar tongs are going to get a really good work out over the next week or so… don’t you just love having the right tools for the job?

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