Friday, August 26, 2011

Frugal Food #6: Eat in Season

You've heard it before.  It's the new mantra, along with Eat Local.  It's always cheaper to buy stuff that's in season (especially when it's really, really, in season and everyone just wants to get rid of it rather than can it, freeze it, or feed it to the livestock!).  If you have a garden, then you must eat it when it's in season.  Sometimes the season gives you quite a smorgasbord, sometimes it just gives you way too much of one thing.

We've been 'enjoying' summer squash for a few weeks now.  I know all the zucchini jokes, but really, for some reason zucchini just won't grow at this little place here.  But summer squash does.  Planted in the same garden.  At the same time.  In the same row, even!!  I've had exactly two green zucchini this season.  We've had about a dozen summer squash, and there are currently nine more on the counter that I need to come up with a creative recipe to use them in, plus another eight or so in the garden growing overnight to the size of billy clubs.  I plant the summer squash just in case the zucchini poop out on me again (as they have 7 out of 8 years here).  They are pretty much the same, just yellow.

We are rather sick of summer squash.  But it's abundant, and, since we started it from a $1-something packet of seeds, at this point each squash is costing just pennies.  With another month to go before we hit the 'average first frost' date, I'm predicting our squash will be costing negative numbers before the season is over.  There aren't a whole lot of recipes for preserving summer squash (other than shredding and freezing in 3-cup quantities for 'zucchini' bread all winter long), so it's kind of an eat-it-now thing.

Which means creative cooking.  What can I do with those abundant yellow soft-skinned veggies?  There's:
  • sauteed summer squash (sprinkle it with some Lawry's and saute in olive oil or butter)
  • fried summer squash (batter with egg and crushed crackers and fry until browned)
  • squash boats
  • grilled summer squash
  • diced squash thrown in spaghetti sauce, soup, stew, etc
  • shredded squash used in zucchini bread/muffin/cake/cookie recipes
  • if you have chickens, they will love to eat the ones you are totally sick of, and it will save on chicken feed!

Other things that are in season can be canned, frozen, or dehydrated and stored for eating all year.  For me right now, that would be peaches, pears, corn, tomatoes, green beans, and cucumbers ('stored' as dill pickles, YUM!).

Right now, in Michigan, it's the peak of gardening.  Melons are coming ripe, the corn is on, the tomatoes are turning red every day, there is a huge variety of fresh eating.  Even if you don't have a garden of your own, you can most likely find a farmers market or a roadside stand with someone's extra veggies for sale (or maybe even free, if you like zucchini or their yellow cousins!).  Get some.  Eat some.  Preserve some.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Will Work For . . . Pears?!?

My friend and neighbor has a very large, very old pear tree.  We're not sure what variety it is, but it sets large tasty pears that ripen in mid to late August.  We always know it's time to harvest the pear tree when she wakes up one morning to find a dozen or more pears on the ground.  At that point, getting the rest off the tree is top priority, because they will be overripe within a week.  These are definitely an heirloom type of pear for preserving rather than a pear that was developed for shipping long distances and selling.

For the past six years or so, I have helped her harvest the pears.  She doesn't need many for herself, as she lives alone and doesn't do any canning.  Instead, she harvests them and gives them away.  For my help, I get to keep as many pears as I want.  Some years that's more, some years that's less, but right around two bushels.

Yesterday was pear harvest day.  Probably could have been a few days earlier, but I've been out of town getting DS2 moved into his dorm at college.  So, Monday morning I loaded up the truck with baskets, and headed over to the neighbor's house to assist in the picking of the pear tree.

Two hours later, I returned home with about 2.5 bushels.

Some will be eaten fresh.  Some will be made into pear pies to sell at the farmers' market this week and next.  Most will become canned pears and pear sauce.

Will work for pears.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Homegrown Peaches!

When we bought the property at this little place here, I planted a small 'orchard': 3 peach trees, 5 apple trees, 2 pear trees and 2 cherry trees.  They have grown slowly, with a few losses: one cherry tree died completely, the other has struggled, and a peach died back but came up again from the rootstock (so now I have no idea what variety of peach it is).

Last year I was able to eat a peach or two from my own trees.  This year, I actually got to can homegrown peaches!!

Not a lot of peaches, as the trees are still small.  From two of the trees (the Elberta and the Reliance, I believe), I harvested a total of about three and a half dozen peaches.  They weren't huge, and all fit into a large basket.

my peach harvest

Since I don't spray my orchard, quite a few of the peaches had bug bites and blemishes.  The largest, prettiest peaches I saved out for eating fresh.  Ahhh, the taste of a ripe peach fresh from the tree. . .

The others, I blanched, peeled, and cut off the blemishes.

blanched peaches cooling in the sink

From there, I pitted and quartered the peaches, briefly soaked them in a lemon juice and water mixture to help them keep their color, rinsed them, packed them into pint jars, covered them with a hot light sugar syrup, and water bath canned them for 25 minutes.  I have to admit, they aren't the prettiest canned peaches I've ever made, but I got the job done. 

first ever batch of homegrown canned peaches

Sunday, August 14, 2011

And Then There Were Four

Early this morning, this little place here went from having five human occupants, to having just four.  Don't worry, no one died!

DS2 left for college.  Or, more accurately, left for a wilderness camping excursion with a group of incoming freshman of his chosen college.  I'll see him again in five days, when DH, DD1, DD2 and I make a nine hour trek to the uppermost reaches of Michigan to bring him the majority of his stuff for life in the dorm.  He really starts college life on Saturday, the official move-in day.

But this morning, he left us.  His room will remain unslept in from now until Thanksgiving break.  That makes a mother a little teary-eyed.

You'd think this would be easier on me, since I've all ready seen one son grow up and move away.  In some ways, it is.  DS1 left for the Marine Corps when he flew from the nest.  I did not get to hear his voice for the 13 weeks of boot camp; he only had time to send a letter once a week or so, and email was not on option for him during his transformation from teenaged civilian to lean, mean, fighting machine.

So, yes, this second child's leaving is a bit easier.  I have all ready heard his voice, telling me he had arrived safely, checked in, and was heading out for dinner.  And I will see him in five days.  He has a cell phone, and email in addition to the postal service. He's only 500 miles from home, yet still in the same state.  His  brother went to California, then to Florida, then to Virginia, then to South Carolina, overseas to Japan and Thailand.  500 miles is nothing.  That's practically right next door.

Even though I've done this before, watched a child take that big step into the adult world, and gone from a house of six to a home of five, somehow going to only four changes things more significantly.  Now we are a household of one male and three females.  (And that male is scared to death!!  LOL).  It has been nearly 18 years since we were a family of four, without knowing that we were soon going to be a family of five.  The last time we were a family of four, I was the outnumbered one; the only female in a house of males.

Maybe why this change is such a significant one is that we all know in just twelve short months we shall become a family of three when DD1 takes her turn at flying far from home.  DH and I are over half-way done with raising children.  We have reached the summit of that mountain, and are now peering over the precipice, knowing that once we step one more inch forward, our feet will fly down the slope and we will be at the bottom, the finish line, sooner than we could ever expect.

It's a big deal, becoming a family of 'only' four.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Oven Soup

What do you do when, while cooking a pot of homemade chicken soup (still in the 'put raw chicken  and seasonings into 6 cups of water and bring to a boil' stage) on the gas stove, your propane runs out?  Well, first you curse yourself for not keeping better track of the level in the propane tank.  Then you realize that the last delivery, which was more than the previous delivery, lasted about 1 month less.  So you reprimand your daughters for 1) taking hot showers that are many times longer than they need to be, and 2) using the clothes dryer during the summer because they are too lazy to walk out to the clothesline and hang up their laundry.

And then, and only then, you call the propane company and request a delivery, but not an emergency delivery, which would cost extra.  Just a delivery in the next few days, whenever they will be in your area.  Darn teenage daughters can suffer through cold showers for a day or two.  They can also lug a basket of wet clothes (washed on cold, as most should be) out to the clothesline.  It's good exercise.

After that, you figure out what to do with your chicken you were going to make into a pot of soup.  You have the brilliant revelation that you have a cast iron dutch oven, out in the camper.  A dutch oven that is almost as big as the soup pot on the stove with the chicken in it.  A dutch oven that can be used in your oven, not just in a campfire.  Because your oven, a double wall oven, actually, is electric and will still work despite the lack of propane.

Problem solved: retrieve dutch oven from camper, dump contents of soup pot into dutch oven, put on the lid, guess what temp you should set the oven to, and proceed with cooking soup for dinner.

Oven soup.  Necessity is the mother of invention  :0)

Monday, August 8, 2011

I want to keep it.

This is what I've been doing in the middle of the hot humid days lately, instead of working outdoors:

Flutter wheels pattern

It started as an idea along about March, when I found out my brother and his girlfriend (as read about in my post on Easter at this little place here) are expecting a child.  I knew I wanted to make a crib quilt as my gift to them. I wondered what colors I should make the quilt in.  Should I go with gender neutrals like yellows and greens?  Should I do all pastels?  All bright primary colors?  I asked if they had picked out any colors for the baby's room (sneaky, huh?).  They said they were going to find out what the sex of the baby was before painting.  So, I waited to purchase fabric in whatever the appropriate colors were.

Then, in May, they found out they were having a girl.

A girl!!  Wait a minute, I have the only girls on both sides of the family.  Whoa now, that's my domain, sets me apart, makes me special.  Hmm, not sure about giving up my 'Sole Producer of Girls' status.

Then I went to the fabric store and saw the cutest girly fabrics.  Awww.  I'm going to have a niece :0)  I get to join the ranks of those with a little girl to love but who do not have to deal with her hormones.  Yay!  By the time my brother starts experiencing the joy of parenting a storm of emotions, both of my lovely daughters will be grown and out of the house.  Hmmm.  This could be fun!

So I got excited.  And I started cutting out pieces for the quilt top.  240 little triangles.  36 squares. 17 rectangles. 

I sewed them together.  I pulled out stitches on a few of them, lined up the corners better, and sewed them again.  I sewed the triangles into squares and the squares into rows.  The rows into bigger squares.  Then the rectangles and more squares into strips to sew between the big squares.  After each sewing of each piece, there was ironing the seams open and flat before attaching the next portion.

(Yes, this took many hours.)

Then I had to line up and pin the layers together: top, batting, backing.


Then, I had to quilt it.  Because I wanted to really quilt, not just tie it together.  (All the other quilts I've made so far: 2 baby quilts, 4 twin bed sized denim quilts, 1 double bed sized denim quilt, and 1 king sized denim quilt, have been tied rather than quilted).  I had decided after that last denim quilt that it was time for me to become a 'real' quilter and make a quilted one the next time.

Quilting it wasn't hard, as I used the 'stitch in the ditch' method of just stitching over the seams that were all ready there (well, the seams on the squares and rectangles, not the pinwheel triangles).  It wasn't as easy as it should have been, though, because my sewing machine did not like sewing through three layers in mid-day heat (plus it's about as old as I am and really needs some repairs).  I had to stop three times and set a fan blowing directly on the motor to cool it down before I got the whole thing quilted.

But, it's done now.  And it's so stinkin' cute, I want to keep it!

The pink fabric has little purple hearts with green leaves.
The purple is a small print tone-on-tone floral.
The green backing is flannel with boy and girl frogs.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Tale of Two Peelers

Well, actually, maybe it's more the tale of one peeler.

Years ago, I think perhaps even before we'd built the house at this little place here (so, prior to 2003), DH's grandmother gave me a stainless steel vegetable peeler for Christmas.  It was the best vegetable peeler in the world: it felt great in my hands and peeled like a charm, very sharp without taking too much good stuff on the underside of the peel.

I loved that peeler. (And I loved DH's grandmother, she was a very neat, tough, farmlady.)

DH's grandmother passed away in 2008.  That fall, my beloved vegetable peeler came up missing.  I searched and searched, but could not find it.  I then thought that maybe it had gotten taken on our cross country trip to Oregon and was still in the camper. 

Nope, not in the camper. 

I searched the house again, even in the kids' bedrooms and the basement, thinking one of them had made off with it.  Because kids tend to take dishes and cups and things into rooms they should not be taken to, and then leave them there.  It's a quirk of children.

Nope, not in the house.

I was sick.  My peeler was gone.  DH's grandmother was gone.  Not only did this MIA peeler drive home how much I missed her, I also could not ask her what brand it had been (it was unmarked with any type of logo or printing).  I bought a series of peelers from stores, trying to find a match for my perfect peeler.  All to no avail.

Finally, early this spring, I happened to get some of those junk mailing cards of things you can mail order.  One was for Rada cutlery.  It had a picture on it of something that looked eerily like my long lost peeler.  I got on their website.  I looked at pictures of peelers.  I read descriptions of peelers. I got my hopes up! I ordered a peeler.

It came in the mail.  I opened the box, to find a twin of my beloved perfect vegetable peeler.  I picked it up, and felt it's weight in my hand.  It was perfectly balanced, a natural extension of myself.  I tested it on a potato, and a carrot.  It worked perfectly, easily making thin peels onto my countertop.

Ahh, I had found where the perfect peeler had come from.  I had, after more than two years of searching and longing, replaced my perfect peeler.

A month later, I decided to empty one of the compost bins, one that had been slowly composting for several years.  I had a few 'chicken holes' (depressions made by ecstatically dust-bathing chickens) in my flower beds I wanted to fill in.  The well-aged compost seemed the perfect soil solution for those holes.  I employed DD2 to assist me in this endeavor.

On her third trip from the compost bin, where she was filling the garden cart with "homemade" soil, she approaches me with a smile instead of her normal 'Mom is making me work' scowl.  In her hand is a dirty, slightly rusty, but very recognizable vegetable peeler!

My original perfect peeler, the one DH's grandmother gifted me  many years ago, the one MIA since 2008, had been unearthed deep in the compost bin.  And as a testimony to it's awesomeness, after I took it in, rinsed it off, scrubbed at the rusty spots with some steel wool, and gave it a wash, it works just as well as it ever did, and looks nearly identical to my brand new one. 

Old peeler on left, new on right.
They look identical, despite the old one having 'lived' in a compost heap for 2+ years

Old on left, new on right.
Only blemish on old one is the whitish slightly bubbled spot near bottom of handle.

How's that for product durability!! Buried in composting vegetation and kitchen scraps for over two years, exposed to heat, cold, and moisture, and it still works just like a brand new one.

I know what company I will most certainly order peelers from in the future, peelers all my children will have in their future homes!!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Annoyance #632. . .

My dishwasher won't start.  Again.  I know what the problem is, it's the door handle switch. 

And how do I know this?  Because this is the THIRD time I've experienced this problem with this dishwasher.  This dishwasher that was brand new not quite eight years ago when we built this house.  This dishwasher that had the first door handle replaced when it was only four years old. 

The second time I had this problem, DH was able to fix it without replacing the door handle, as it was just a loose connection in the switch. 

This third time, DH is unavailable.  I'm hoping that between DS2 and I we can get the dishwasher door apart and that we'll find a loose connection again rather than good connections and a bad handle.

So, annoyance #632:  appliances that don't last for crap.  When I pay hundreds of dollars for something and buy it brand new, I expect it to last longer than it takes for your average teen to get through high school.  Like, at least long enough for two average teens to get through high school.  Four would be even better.  My parents had the same appliances the entire time I lived at home without ever having them crap out.  Why is it too much for me to expect the same?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Blackberry Jam

Here's my first attempt at seedless jam.
First, I measured out and rinsed 9 cups of  the berries I picked yesterday.

Then I crushed the berries in the pot I use for making jam.

Then, I heated them until soft, poured into my food mill (a great find at Goodwill last winter!), and attempted to remove as many of the seeds as possible.  This wasn't working (blackberry seeds evidently are small enough to fit through the holes in the bottom of a Foley food mill), so I poured it all back into the pot and changed my mind about making seedless jam. Seeds will be fine ;0)

Then I added 1 box of pectin, and heated everything to a boil. 

Once it was boiling, I added 6 cups of sugar, stirring to dissolve it all into the berry juice.

Then I brought the berry/pectin/sugar mixture back to a boil.  Boiled for two minutes (love my little kitchen timer DH got me), then removed from heat.

I skimmed the foam, which wasn't much, although if there's lots, by all means save it in a dish rather than throwing it out.  It sets into a yummy whipped jello type of thing. (Which you can then eat without guilt because you have surely sweated more calories than this standing over the boiling jam pot and canner, right?).

 Then I ladled the jam into hot 1/2 pint sized canning jars. . .

 . . .which had been kept hot in a sink of really hot water, as evidenced by the steam in this picture.

When I put the jam into the jars, I left about 1/4" of head space so they don't boil over during processing in the canner. 

Then I wiped the mouths of the jars to make sure no jam was on them that would interfere with the sealing of the lids.

After putting on the lids and screw bands, I put the jars into the canner (water all ready brought to a boil while the juice was being made into jelly).

 I lowered the jars in the canning rack, making sure they were covered by a minimum of 1" of water.  Then I put the lid on the canner, and when the water returned to a boil, I set the timer for 15 minutes and let the jars process.  When the timer went off, I took the jars out of the canner, and set on a clean dry towel on the counter to cool for at least 12 hours (so the lids can get a good seal). 

Now I get to debate with DS2 how many jars he gets to take to college with him (blackberry is his hands down favorite), and how many are going to the farmers market on Thursday!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Going Berry Picking

The call of the woods and the ripe blackberries was irresistible tonight.  Despite the heat and humidity, I suited up into my anti-poison ivy/bramble gear.  I was sweating before I even walked out of the house!  But, armed with two baskets and the camera (just in case, you never know what you might see in the woods), I headed out across the wheat stubble in the field with juicy sweet blackberries on my mind.

The sky was a beautiful blue, especially as seen from under the fringe of the old oak tree in the middle of the field.

I wasn't alone in my trek across the field:

a wild turkey was out browsing in the weeds near the edge of the marsh,

this little toad was almost blending in with the wheat stubble,

there were many butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies,

and a hawk was out looking for supper.

Entering the woods, I found what I was looking for; ripe, luscious berries shining like onyx in the evening sun.

Some spots had only one or two ripe berries, while others had dozens.  They varied in size also, with the biggest being half as large as my thumb! 

The end of the trail, as the sun goes down.

By the time I had gotten to the end of the woods path, the sun was sinking low, and I had collected three quarts of berries.  Tomorrow's project: blackberry jelly!