Thursday, September 29, 2016

September – Processing Homegrown Food

September Sunset on Lopez Island
It’s harvest time in Puget Sound.  My husband and I are home gardeners with a small garden but even we have extra food to process.  We have three apple trees, one Italian plum, nine blueberry bushes, strawberries, raspberries, countless runner beans, tomato plants and a variety of other vegetables and herbs in our garden.  It is remarkable how much food one can produce with relatively little effort – more it turns out than two people can eat. 

Only trouble is I am not, by nature, a person who has ever made jellies or jams, pickles or canned beans.  In fact the idea of sterilizing and boiling glass jars fills me with trepidation.  I am positive I will trap botulism inside my applesauce.  The whole process of canning, vacuum packing and sealing glass jars gives me the willies.  A few weeks ago I found myself surrounded by pounds of green beans, apples and plums.  I needed to do something with the food before it rotted.  I spoke with one of my friends – a woman who is both a professional (retired) chef and also an experienced home canner.  I asked her how to make applesauce and how to preserve it if canning in vacuum-sealed glass jars is not an option.  She suggested I freeze the sauce in 1-quart Ziploc bags.  This I can do. 

I assembled my apples on the kitchen counter, put on an apron and tuned in the Pandora Road Tripping radio station.  I highly recommend this station for cooking music! 

Step one – wash a big pile of apples. 
Step two – put a Dutch oven on the stovetop. 
Step three – cut and core the apples. 
Step four – cook the apples very slowly. 

One of our trees has an issue with coddling moths and some apples had moth damage.  I wasn’t worried.  I was pretty sure that the remains of a few coddling moth carcasses would simply add protein to the sauce.  Soon the bottom of the pot was covered with apple pieces.  I added a tiny amount of water and turned the gas on low.  As I cut and cored more apples, removing some peel and leaving some in place, the apples filled the pot and started to simmer.  A lovely scent of fresh apples filled my kitchen.  The music was rocking and I was rocking too.  When the pot was completely full I stirred and mushed the softening mixture, letting it cook slowly on the stove for an hour or more.  I had a fragrant pot of chunky pink applesauce. 

Applesauce Simmering
I left it to cool and went for a bike ride with my husband – Lopez Island is a great place to bike – rolling traffic-free roads and gorgeous vistas of Puget Sound.  After riding about 25 miles (I'm glad I've kept up circuit training and regular bike rides so I have strength and stamina), my husband suggested we stop at the local watering hole for a cold brew.  That was an excellent suggestion and with some fried oysters, the stop tided us over until we got home and cooked dinner.  That’s what I like about being retired in the summertime – any day can turn into a slice of summer vacation.

By the time we’d eaten dinner the applesauce had cooled.  I set quart Ziploc bags on a rimmed cookie sheet and ladled the fragrant mixture into the bags.  It was a messy process since my ladle is about the same diameter as the Ziploc opening but no mind.  It did not take long before the bags were full and standing up like fat little soldiers on the tray.  I squeezed excess air out and sealed the Baggies with a flourish.  Fortunately I inherited a standup freezer so freezer space was not an issue.  I lined the bags up on an empty shelf and look forward to eating the best applesauce in town. 

The Tiny Green Bean String
Next up for processing were green beans from our garden.  There the processing was a little more efficient – remove the tops and tails of the beans; string them – by that I mean pull the string off the seams on both sides; cut into ~2-inch lengths and parboil for one or two minutes; cool; bag and freeze. 

My third experience with food preservation turned out to be my favorite.  I washed, halved, pitted and dried more than 100 Italian plums.  I don’t have a dehydrator so I needed another process. 

After a bit of Internet research I discovered that a regular kitchen oven can substitute for a home dehydrator.  I put the plum halves on parchment paper on rimmed cookie sheets and used a low temperature, 200℉ for four hours.  
Italian Plums snuggling up in the oven

I turned the temperature down to 150 and left the plums in the oven overnight.  The next morning I had dozens of sweet plum halves.  They tasted delicious and I couldn’t resist sampling as I put them into Ziploc bags prior to freezing.

Have I turned into a pioneer woman in my late sixties?  Who’s kidding whom?  A dozen or more quarts of frozen beans, dried plums and applesauce do not a pioneer make.  After all I’m going to the supermarket to buy most of my food.  But our small garden kept us well supplied all summer with fresh salads and other veggies, berries and apples.  It was also a wonderful reminder of the joy and relaxation that working in a garden and growing some of you own food can bring.  Plus, it was fun to preserve our own fruits and vegetables.  I’m already looking forward to pulling the beans out on Christmas day.  That will be special.

Last week marked the fall equinox – when the path of the sun crosses the imaginary line above equator.  In the northern hemisphere, the fall equinox marks the beginning of autumn and the gradual shortening and cooling of days as the sun moves away from the northern hemisphere.  The days in Seattle are still warm and sunny but there is the beginning of chill in the evening air.

Early Morning Mist on Puget Sound
Summer has been a continuous carousel, time flying by, shared conversations and outdoor meals, short vignettes and images of flowers and trees and water shimmering in the sun, friends and family biking, boating, walking on the beach and enjoying fresh food.  It is a privilege to be retired and have the time to exchange visits with loved ones.  My husband and I have moved back and forth from Seattle to Lopez Island tens of times, catching early morning and late evening ferries.  Puget Sound shines in summer and Indian summer.  We watched the full moon rise over the ferry landing and felt as if we’d lost our bearings in the early morning mist.  The flowers in my garden welcomed me home to Seattle and at Lopez we picked fruit and caught Dungeness crab.  I saw orca whales and harbor seals feeding in the kelp off Lopez Island and went canoeing at my brother’s house in South Puget Sound.  I watched kingfishers, great blue herons and Bald eagles diving and flying in the clear skies.  While hiking across Lopez Island as part of the fourth annual Lopez Walkabout, I saw the giant nest of an osprey on top of a doug fir snag - a first for me.

Despite the seeming abundance of wildlife in Puget Sound, August was the second hottest month on record in the Pacific Northwest, following in the footsteps of July.  I read that the Arctic ice caps, the preferred habitat for giant polar bears melt and freeze a good three and a half weeks earlier and later than historical records.  The meaning of this is obvious – polar bears have seven fewer weeks to wander and hunt and find mates on the ice – a limitation that threatens the health of the species.  

There is an unfathomable gap between the beauty of the San Juan Islands and the global changes we are experiencing.  It makes me appreciate the resilience of the earth but, at the same time, I feel humble in the face of change.  Both my children are married now and all four are working to effect change for the better.  Their, and their cohorts’ optimism and energy is encouraging.  In addition to our daughter's wedding, we helped celebrate the weddings of three other young couples that we’ve known virtually their entire lives.  In the midst of the too often chaotic world we live in, it was wonderful to see young adults embark on the adventure of married life.  These folks are smart and work across multiple fields that have the potential to improve our world – medicine, music, art, hydrology, alternative energy and finance – all arenas that need new solutions to sustain our world and our imagination.  Let’s hope their efforts contribute to a better future – a future where everyone has the ability to grow a little food and experience how delicious just-picked fruits and vegetables can be.  And a future Puget Sound that is still home to healthy populations of people and wildlife.

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