Monday, July 27, 2009

UFO beside the creek

I found this flower on a small bush by Bear Creek the other day. Weird looking, huh?

I later identified it as the flower of the buttonbush. They are also known as "honey balls." The species of the shrub is Cephalanthus occidentalis, and the Audubon guide to trees says that it's a spreading shrub that can grow to 20 feet. The one I saw was about three feet tall. It was in the right place: buttonbush likes wet soil, and the creek came out of its banks a week or so ago, when we had 3 1/2" of rain in one night.

The book also said that its foliage is poisonous, but that ducks like to eat the seeds.

Here it is again:

It's fun to find a wildflower you've never seen before and to identify it. There is a great diversity of species on Brangus Lane, especially along Bear Creek.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Peruvian popcorn

In the summer of 2005, I went to visit my sister and her family, who were living in Peru. While I was there I got some seeds. Last summer I grew out the corn seeds, but the results were mostly disappointing: the stalks got really tall, but they didn't make good ears.

The exception was a small yellow corn seed that did pretty well. I saved those ears and dried them over the winter by braiding the shucks together and hanging them in the kitchen. They looked very pretty there. The seeds looked like popcorn, so last winter I tried to pop some of them, but not many of them popped and the rest of the kernels just burned, so I thought it probably wasn't popcorn after all.

This afternoon I rubbed those same corn seeds off the cobs. I was going to dry them a little more in the oven and then grind them for cornmeal, but I decided to try popping them again first. I had read that for popcorn to pop, it has to be dried to exactly the right moisture level: 13.5% is optimal. I had no way of knowing if my corn was at that moisture level. But I guess a few more months of drying did the trick, because it popped perfectly. Almost every kernel popped!

Popcorn is flint corn, which usually doesn't grow as well as dent corn in the Southeast. But I will definitely save some of these seeds to grow again.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Preserving Peaches

I bought some peaches at the farmer's market on Saturday, and yesterday they were ripe enough to make some preserves. I used a recipe from the July 2001 Gourmet, and the recipe was called Nectarine Preserves with Basil. But I ended up altering it a bit, as usual. (This recipe can be found at the epicurious website that Gourmet shares with Bon Appetit.)

The recipe said to make a syrup with basil leaves,lemon juice, sugar and a little water, and you boil this syrup for 25 minutes. Then you scoop out the crunchy basil leaves. I had to go to town after making the syrup, and when I came back, it had solidified into a big block of hard candy! I managed to melt it, though.

You simmer the peaches in this syrup for five minutes, scoop out the peaches, boil the syrup a bit more, and add lower-sugar powdered pectin, and boil 1 minute. Then you put the peaches in the jars and pour the syrup over them.

The problem was, I had sterilized seven jars, and the peaches only filled four of them about half way. So I simmered some blueberries in the syrup for a few minutes and then topped up the jars with them. Then I poured the syrup over them. I think it looks very pretty.

Yesterday I also received in the mail a book I had ordered: Complete Book of Home Preserving, published by the Ball jar company. It is very complete, in that it is over 400 pages long, and all about putting things in Ball jars. (There is nothing about freezing in it; for that you need the Ball Blue Book, available at Walmart.)

I found an intriguing recipe in this book for peaches pickled with dill and garlic. When I was a child we had pickled peaches at Thanksgiving and Christmas, made by my grandmother, but they were sweet and spicy, with cloves in them. I loved them. But I want to make these dilly pickled peaches because it calls for dill flowers, which I have.

The recipe calls for peeled peaches. To peel peaches, you place them in boiling water for 30-60 seconds, then dip in cold water. The peels will slip off easily. But you probably knew that already.

Mary Coleman Palmer, who has a great food blog called Feeding Groom, asked for this recipe, so here it is.

Dilly Peach Pickles
Makes 5 pint jars

1 cup sugar
2 cups white vinegar
2 T pickling or canning salt
16 cups halved pitted peeled peaches, treated to prevent browning, and drained
(You'll need to buy or pick about 8 lbs of peaches)
5 cloves garlic
5 heads fresh dill

1. Prepare canner, jars, and lids. (See Ball Blue Book if you don't know how to do this.)
2. Combine sugar, vinegar, and salt. Boil over medium high stirring constantly. Add peach halves and return to a boil. Reduce heat and boil gently for 3-5 minutes, until heated through. Remove from heat.
3. Place 1 clove garlic and 1 head dill in each hot jar. Pack peach halves, cavity side down, into hot jars to within 1/2 inch of top of jar. Ladle hot syrup into jar to cover peaches, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
4. Place jars in canner, ensuring that they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process 20 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait five minutes, remove jars, cool and store.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pruning Basil

I love basil, and I love pesto sauce. I make a lot of it every summer and freeze it. But just last summer I learned something about basil that increased my harvest, and my pesto stash, by a lot: you are supposed to prune basil!

I used to think that I had to harvest it all right before it flowered, and then that was the end. But no. Somehow, somewhere online, I saw a video that showed a woman pruning her basil back to two leaf nodes. She did this several times during the summer, and after each harvest, the basil put out new growth. I found out that this works brilliantly.

So, here is the basil before I pruned it:

And here it is after I pruned it back to two leaf nodes. (A node is where one or more leaves sticks out from the stalk.)

YOu can see that I left a lot of leaves on the plant. It has put out even more leaves in the week or so since I pruned it.

My basil pesto recipe has gotten very simple: I put some garlic and salt in the blender, blend it a bit, add some olive oil, add some basil leaves, add enough olive oil to make the leaves blendable, and salt to taste. That's it. No pine nuts, no parmesan. This is cheap, vegan pesto. Cheese can be added later to any dish you add the pesto to. It doesn't have to be fancy and contain expensive ingredients to be really, really good.

I have found out that pesto makes a good spread for toast. I guess this would be a kind of bruschetta in Italy.

I also cut some of the stalks of basil long so that I could tie them together with rubber bands and dry them, hanging upside down in the closet, for dried basil leaves.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

We Can More Food

A veritable flurry of canning.

First the bread and butter pickles. But not from cucumbers: from summer squash. A neighbor thought this was weird, but I did it because an old Gourmet magazine told me to. And, it turned out very pretty, with yellow squash, green zucchini, red peppers, and purple onions. Pretty is important in canning, where the jars are clear glass.

The basic modus operandi was to slice the squashes and onions, sprinkle the slices with salt, add some crushed ice (weird, I know, but I think the purpose was to keep the slices crisp), and put all that in a crock with a plate and weight on it for four hours. This made a kind of brine that rose up and covered the vegetables. After four hours, you drain the vegetables and pack them in sterile jars. Then you were to make a vinegar and maple syrup brine with various pickling spices in it, boil that down a bit, and pour it over the vegetables. Then the jars go in the boiling water bath for twenty minutes.

Another project was pickled beans. At first I thought my beans weren't pretty enough to be seen through the clear jars and then eaten. They had brown spots on them. But those disappeared when I blanched them. At that point they looked incredibly beautiful. I packed them in my very cutest jars and poured another brine over them--about half vinegar and half water--and added sliced garlic and basil to the jars. Then I processed them for fifteen minutes. Alas, the beans didn't stay that beautiful bright green color. But they still look pretty good and I'm sure they'll be tasty, after the requisite four weeks of waiting have passed before they can be sampled.

Finally, the piece de resistance was the blueberry marmalade I'd been dreaming about, ever since I got my zeroxed copy of Preserving the Taste. The blueberries came from Hidden Springs Nursery via the farmer's market in Cookeville. I got a lot of them. The recipe had you make a kind of sugarless marmalade at first with lemon peel and orange peel (I used tangerines, just to be contrary) and juices and pulp from both the lemons and tangerines. Then you add the blueberries, sugar, and a tiny bit of cinnamon! Boil that down till it's kind of thick when you test it in the freezer (a move that's always fraught with anxiety for me: I couldn't tell if the blob of jam on the plate "wrinkled" exactly the way the book demanded it to wrinkle). Put it in jars and process a mere five minutes. The color is wonderful. The taste is sprightly. And it's thick enough!

On to corn relish. I know a patch of corn in the 'hood that I was told I could take some ears from, before the raccoons get them...