Early Season Canning

I’ve already been canning this season. A lot of people hear this claim and wonder just what it is that I’m canning. The first food I started canning is soup. I get the ingredients from my freezers. Anything that’s starting to get a bit old is fair game. I also save the larger bones from various meats, especially when I have the meat processed by someone else. The meat and vegetables made into soup can quite well and last a lot longer than they would in the freezer. Nothing is quite so nice on a cold winter’s day than hot soup. I usually get two or three servings out of each quart that I can (sometimes four if I add enough additional items). Given the cold winters here in Wisconsin, I can go through a lot of soup.

Once I can the soup, the freezers are less full, so it’s time to defrost them. It’s essential to defrost, clean, and reorganize your freezers every year. Doing so lets you create an inventory of what you have in stock so that you have a better idea of what you need to grow. In addition, you don’t want to keep items so long that they become unpalatable and visually unappealing. Freezer burned food is completely safe to eat, but you may not want to eat it. Some of the ways in which you can prevent freezer burn is to vacuum pack your food and to ensure you rotate it out before it sits in the freezer too long. In some cases, when food is mildly freezer burned, I’ll make it up into pet food (my animals don’t seem to mind as long as the food is prepared to their liking). However, it’s better to use the food up before anything actually does happen to it.

So far I’ve made 14 quarts of chicken soup and another 14 quarts of venison stew. Canning soup means using a pressure canner. Make sure you follow the instructions in a resource such as the Ball Blue Book and the book that comes with your pressure canner. Read Considering the Dangers of Outdated Canning Information for details on keeping yourself safe when using the Ball Blue Book.

It’s also time to can early garden items. For example, when canned properly, rhubarb makes a highly nutritious fruit dish that I eat directly from the jar. You can also make it into pie filling. So far, I’ve made up 7 quarts of plain rhubarb and 7 quarts of spiced rhubarb, both of which will be quite tasty this upcoming winter. Fortunately, you can use hot water bath canning techniques with rhubarb and other high acid foods.

In some cases, you need to mix and match items. The frozen green and wax beans in my freezer weren’t getting any younger, so I used them to make up four bean salad. Actually, it’s supposed to be three bean salad, but some of my recipes called for Lima beans, while others called for kidney beans. I decided to use both, hence four bean soup. I used up all the remaining beans and garnered 16 pints of four bean salad on my larger shelf. Doing so also used up the cans of kidney and Lima beans in my cabinets.

Finally, pickled asparagus can be quite a treat in the middle of winter. So far, I’ve only made up 8 pints of pickled asparagus, but I’ll make up more. I’ll also be freezing some asparagus for fresh use later in the year. In short, canning season has started—time to get going! Let me know about your current canning project at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Freezing Cabbage

Cabbage is one of those items that’s hard to store for the winter months. I know of some people who wrap the cabbage up in newspaper and then store it in their root cellar. In order to make this approach work, you need a cool root cellar—around 40 degrees (or lower) is best. The cabbage can last up to five months when stored this way if the storage meets all the required conditions.

Another way to store cabbage is to pressure can it. I’ve saved the secondary cabbages that come up after you cut off the primary cabbage this way. You can prepare and store the cabbage whole in most cases and it comes out reasonably well. The minute you have to cut the cabbage up, pressure canning starts to lose its appeal because the cabbage gets quite soft (sometimes downright mushy).

It’s also possible to preserve cabbage as sauerkraut—an approach that I highly recommend. Nothing quite matches the taste of homemade sauerkraut. Certainly, nothing you buy in the store will match the fermentation approach that most homemade sauerkraut relies on. Unfortunately, you can only eat so much sauerkraut in a year, even if you love the stuff.

Freezing cabbage is another alternative, but one that is also fraught with problems. I’ve eaten more than my fair share of truly horrid cabbage that has been frozen. If you don’t prepare it right, the mush that you get out of the freezer will not only look unappealing, it’ll taste quite bitter. In fact, about the only thing you can do with it is put it in the compost—it really is quite bad. After years of experimentation, I have come up with a way to freeze cabbage that does produce a palatable result. You can defrost the cabbage made this way and use it for anything that required cooked cabbage—the cabbage will still lack the crispness of fresh, so coleslaw is out of the question. Here are the steps I follow.

  1. Clean the cabbage carefully, removing any damaged leaves.
  2. Cut the cabbage in four to six parts of about a pound each. Don’t cut the cabbage too small. Cut the cabbage in such a way that each piece is still attached to the core. Don’t remove the core.
  3. Heat a pot of water to boiling. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and 1/4 cup of vinegar to the solution. The salt and vinegar improve the taste of the final product by keeping minerals from adhering to the cabbage.
  4. Blanch the cabbage for 2 minutes (timing is critical).
  5. Immediately cool the cabbage with copious amounts of cold water and ice.
  6. Place the cabbage on clean, white towels to dry. Pat or otherwise handle the cabbage as little as possible, but try to get as much of the water off of the cabbage as is possible.
  7. Freeze the cabbage overnight. Don’t wrap it. Separate pieces from each other using waxed paper or aluminum foil (the foil works better, but is a lot more expensive).
  8. The next morning, place the cabbage in the smallest possible freezer bag or, better still, use a vacuum packer such as the Food Saver to store it. Less air is better. When using a vacuum packer, use the lowest possible setting to avoid damaging the cabbage. Using the 8″ rolls works best because you can make the bags as large as needed.

If you’re able to vacuum pack the cabbage, it can last a minimum of a year in the freezer. In fact, you can often keep it in the freezer longer without any sign of frost damage, but longer storage may reduce the quality of the cabbage and affect the nutrients you get from it. Let me know if you have any questions about this technique at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering the Dangers of Outdated Canning Information

I am now the proud owner of not one, not two, but three copies of the Ball Blue Book. Of course, the first question anyone should ask is why I own so many copies, given that all three copies are in great shape. The problem is one of outdated information. Science is constantly finding out more about bacteria and the methods used to battle it, so working with old information is dangerous from a number of perspectives.

All of these issues affect how you can food. Consequently, it’s a good idea to keep your canning resources updated to ensure you stay safe. The point was driven home to me again last week when I went to check on the process for canning zucchini. My oldest Ball Blue Book had a perfectly usable recipe for the process. I also found recipes on several sites online, some of which included pictures that looked precisely like the process I had followed in the past. At least one resource talked about another book on my shelf, Putting Food By. However, I became suspicious when a third resource mentioned a potential issue with canning zucchini. Locating the USDA resource online provided the full story. It turns out that the USDA can’t determine a good processing time for zucchini because of the way the squash cooks. So, I froze my zucchini using the process found in all three copies of my Ball Blue Book (a process that hasn’t changed).

After spending some time researching this issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really need to recheck those old family recipes of mine to ensure they’re still safe. I also need to spend more time ensuring my resources, such as the Ball Blue Book, are updated regularly. Saving money by canning your own food loses its luster when a family member gets sick or possibly dies due to food contamination. Play it safe—throw that outdated book out and get the latest copy of any resources you use to ensure that you’re using the latest techniques. If in doubt, check additional resources such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation site for additional information or choose not to preserve the food in question. Let me know your thoughts on safe canning techniques at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Unexpected Drought Consequences

I’ve written a number of posts about the effects of global warming from a personal perspective. It does make a difference in how I view the whole issue of global warming. Whether global warming is a matter of cyclic world changes, human interaction, natural sources, or some combination of thereof isn’t the point—the point is that the earth is getting warmer, which is causing changes of various sorts that affect me as a person. Your best way to deal with these changes is to make a list of how they affect you and come up with effective strategies for dealing with them.

This summer saw a drought come to our area. There is more than a little evidence to say that the drought is just another effect of global warming. People focus on droughts during the summer months because crops are affected, grass dies, and the heat becomes oppressive. The television, radio, and newspaper blare pronouncements of impending doom from dawn till dusk each day. However, the winter effects of drought can become even more devastating than those in summer.

Consider the fact that snow acts as an insulating blanket for the earth. It helps retain some of the heat in the deep layers. When there is a lack of snow, frost tends to go further into the ground and cause all sorts of nasty consequences, especially during a heavy freeze. My reason for writing about heavy freezes is that we’re experiencing one here in Wisconsin and I’m concerned about the potential of damage to either my well or septic system. Nothing is quite as exciting as living almost four miles from town and not being able to use any water because your septic system is frozen. Once frozen, you need to call a professional to thaw the system so you can use it again. If your professional is especially busy, you may be waiting for a few days.

The problems of deep frost aren’t limited to the well or septic system. A deeper frost creates more heaving—water freezes and the resulting ice displaces some of the earth underground. The most conspicuous result of heaving is that any pavement on your property buckles and doesn’t last nearly as long as it could. It’s possible to assign an actual dollar amount to the lost longevity of your sidewalks and driveway. The effects can also profoundly affect your house’s foundation.

Heaving also causes myriad other problems for the self-sufficient person. For example, those posts you put in for your grape vines will become misaligned—forcing you to spend time readjusting the cables and possibly damaging the vines. A deep frost can kill tree, vine, and permanent bed plant roots. You’ll also have the pleasure of picking more rocks from the garden come spring because heaving brings them to the surface (despite the perception that they grow there during the winter). I’m also wondering how a deep frost will affect our new chicken coop (despite having put the posts as deeply as we could in the ground, heaving will still have an effect on them).

There is also the direct heating costs to consider. A blanket of snow on your roof acts as additional insulation. When this blanket is removed completely, your house loses more heat. Of course, there is also a problem when there is too much snow on your roof (causing damage from the weight) and the whole issue of ice dams. However, during this time of the year, a nice insulating layer of snow can save heating dollars.

Drought causes serious problems during the winter as well as the summer. No matter where you live, you have to consider the effects of drought on your property and the structures it supports. What sorts of winter drought effects have you see in the past? Do you think the increased number of droughts is due to a natural cycle in the earth’s weather pattern or from global warming (or possibly a combination of both)? Write me about your drought observations at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Making Brussels Sprouts Palatable

Rebecca and I grow a large assortment of vegetables. There are many reasons to grow a variety of vegetables, but you can distill them down into several important areas:

 

  • A balanced diet requires diversity because each vegetable has something different to offer.
  • Each grown year comes with different challenges and you can’t be assured that a particular vegetable will grow well in a given year.
  • Local nurseries will offer different choices in a given year, so unless you start absolutely every vegetable in your own greenhouse, you’re reliant on what the greenhouses have to offer.
  • Biodiversity ensures that your garden’s soil won’t be able to concentrate any particular pathogen.
  • Crop rotation is known to help garden soil by keeping any particular element from becoming depleted.

There are likely other reasons for growing a large variety of vegetables, but this list will suffice for the purpose of this post. I eat every vegetable we grow. In fact, I’ve never had a problem eating vegetables, having had insistent parents when I grew up who ensured I developed a taste for everythingeverything thing that is except Brussels sprouts. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t convince myself that the little cabbages were good tasting. As a child, I’d swallow them whole to avoid tasting them at all (since eating them wasn’t an option).

Imagine my surprise then, when I got married and found that the one vegetable that my wife loved best was Brussels sprouts. Given a chance, she probably would have eaten them at every meal, leaving me wondering what to do next. So, I embarked on a quest to make the Brussels sprout more palatable while begging my wife’s indulgence in eating them only occasionally until I found a solution.

A good part of overcoming any vegetable dislike is to find a way to prepare them. Simply boiling Brussels sprouts in water and serving them with a bit of butter preserved the bitter taste all too well. My first discovery was that boiling Brussels sprouts (or any other vegetable for that matter) is simply a bad idea. Simmering tends to reduce the bitterness. I also discovered that lemon juice and garlic salt make the bitterness of many vegetables appear considerably less. So, here is my first Brussels sprouts recipe that made the vegetable at least sort of palatable.


Plain Brussels Sprouts

 

3 tsp

Garlic Salt

1/2 cup

Lemon Juice

3 tsp

Butter

2 cups

Brussels Sprouts

1/2 cup

Parmesan Cheese


Just
barely cover Brussels sprouts with water. Add lemon juice, garlic salt, and
butter. Simmer Brussels sprouts slowly until tender (don’t boil them). Remove
from heat and dish out into a bowl. Let cool for about 5 minutes. Coat top with
parmesan cheese. Serves 4.

Later I discovered that the method used to grow Brussels sprouts makes a huge difference. Most people pick them during the hot summer months. We found that by letting the Brussels sprouts continue to grow until late fall and only picking them after the second frost, that the Brussels sprouts were not only much larger, but also considerably sweeter. Since that time, we’ve found a few other vegetables that benefit (or at least survive) a light frost, including broccoli. (Most vegetables don’t like frost, so this technique does come with risks.) The combination of the new growing technique and my recipe made Brussels sprouts a somewhat regular visitor to the table, much to the happiness of my wife (who had waited patiently for many years for the day to arrive).

Recently I experimented with a new Brussels sprouts recipe that makes them taste even better. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say, I like them enough to eat them more often now. Here’s the fancier Brussels sprouts recipe.


Fancy Brussels Sprouts

 

1/2 tsp

Lemon Peel

3/4 tsp

Corriander

2 tsp

Garlic Salt

1/2 cup

Pomegranate Balsamic Vinegar

1/2 cup

Water

2 tsp

Butter

1/4 cup

Parmesan Cheese

2 cups

Brussels Spouts


Mix
the water, lemon peel, coriander, garlic salt, pomegranate balsamic vinegar,
and butter together in a pot. Bring the mixture near a boil, but not a full
boil. Add Brussels sprouts. Reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer Brussels sprouts
until tender. Remove from heat and dish out into a bowl. Let cool for about 5
minutes. Coat top with parmesan cheese. Serves 4.

Now you know my secret methods for dealing with Brussels sprouts. However, there are some important lessons here for the self-sufficient grower. First, make sure you pick your vegetables at the optimal time because timing is everything when it comes to taste. Second, the manner in which you choose to cook a vegetable is important. Taking time to make your vegetables taste good is an essential part of learning to like them. Let me know about your vegetables eating experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.