Millions of Peaches, Peaches for Me

What I wouldn’t give in the dead of winter for just a taste of summer. And what tastes more like summer than a ripe peach? But to eat a peach in December here in Southern Ontario, I’d have to head to the grocery store. The end result would be expensive, environmentally damaging, and less delicious. This is because the peaches would have been trucked in across all sorts of miles from WhoKnowsWhere.

In the height of summer, local peaches can be bought in bulk for cheap at our city’s weekly farmers’ market. There is such excess of these precious favourites that we couldn’t possibly eat all the bounty before it goes bad.

My main goal in all of this gardening has been to slowly acquire skills and knowledge towards (semi) self-sufficiency. Preserving food for the winter months is part of this, and dehydrating is a great way to save the best of summer for the less-productive winter months.

Eventually, I would like to construct a non-electric food dehydrator. But for now, since I don’t have the bounty to justify such a project, I am experimenting with oven-drying. Here’s the recipe I used from Foodland Ontario. It was an interesting project, but I didn’t feel great about the use of energy. And the oven heated up our already-roasting house. And the peaches, once dried, were pretty much welded to the cheesecloth. And I was underwhelmed with the result: some kind of ho-hum-flavoured peach-chip.

I will keep working at it and let you know when I find something that works!

 

How to Harvest Black Walnuts (and why my tomatoes wilted)

Behold, the black walnut tree:

Our backyard is bordered with these trees. They are magical! Here’s why:

1. Magical Plant-Ruining Toxins! This explains why my tomatoes wilted. It turns out that the tree (especially its roots, nut hulls and flower buds) contain a chemical called juglone which can cause many plants (such as asparagus, cabbage, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, rhubarb and tomatoes) to stunt, turn yellow and wilt. Plants affected by its toxicity (usually within 50-80 feet of the tree, and especially under its drip line) will struggle to live and may even die. The symptoms are very often confused with fungal or bacterial wilt. Well, that explains A LOT. Apparently, even if you chop the trees down, the toxins remain in the soil for several years. If this problem affects you, there is a list of juglone-resistant vegetables at Wisconsin Horticulture.

2. Magical, Skin-Dyeing Properties! The flesh of the hull is a powerful dye, used historically to colour products like cotton and basket materials. It’s also caustic. If you’re going to handle these nuts, wear clothes you don’t care about and a pair of protective gloves. And make sure said pair of protective gloves does not have a tiny hole in the thumb, or else your hands will look like mine, to the left, for A LONG TIME. Nothing gets it out. My friends call it my “Haunted Thumb”.

3. Magical, Edible Nuts Inside! Walnut trees produce nuts inside green, spherical hulls that you’ll likely recognize if you’re North American. With some work, they’re edible but be warned: the taste may surprise you. Amy Crowell of Edible Austin writes: “It tastes nothing like the common English walnut; it’s much more aromatic and tastes like an expensive perfume… author Samuel Thayer once likened it to really good paint”. Black walnuts are not snacking food; rather, a delicacy that you can add to treats such as home-made ice cream and cookies.

Most folks leave these things to the squirrels. But, as you can see by my thumb, I decided to harvest some of my own to make my ruined tomatoes worthwhile. Here’s how it went:

  • Collect the nuts that have fallen from the tree when they are soft enough that you can press in the skin with your thumb and leave a dent. They should be greenish-yellowy and will likely have black spots. (I am wearing the helmet because I am scared a walnut will fall on my head. I am a Registered Nurse and live in constant, unreasonable fear of life-altering brain injury).
  • Getting the nuts out of the hull was an ordeal… until I found a true Gardening for Chumps solution:  run over them with your car. (But beware of rogue nuts that fly out from under the tire!). Simply pluck the nut out once the hull is crushed. You may notice some tiny Hull Fly larvae in the flesh. They are a bit gross but don’t affect the actual nutmeat so don’t worry about them.
  • Pour the walnuts into a big bucket or a laundry sink, cover with water and stir them around with a stick so that the walnuts rub against each- this will remove more of the hull remnants. You won’t get it all off, but it will make your job less messy later.
  • Lay the nuts out to dry in a warm place for a day (in the sun, if possible), somewhere where you don’t mind a possible stain.
  • Hang the dried walnuts in an onion sack for 2 weeks to cure.
  • (And this is the hard part): crack open the nuts to get the nutmeat out. This video provides an informative review of black walnut harvesting, with a great explanation of this step starting at 5:10. I like this video, plus there is something warm and jolly about the host- he’s kind of like a Young Santa:
  • Once you’ve removed the nutmeat, do a quick visual inspection to make sure there are no remaining shell pieces hiding in there, just waiting to ruin your cavities if accidentally added to your banana loaf.

DO’s and DON’Ts:

DO: Wear protective gloves and old clothes when handling hulls.

DON’T: Work with hulls/wet walnuts over surfaces you’re precious about.

DO: Compost leftover hulls. Surprisingly, a three-year study quashed the popular belief that, because of the juglone, hulls shouldn’t be composted. It turns out that well-decomposed hulls are the “black gold” of compost, with alkaline pH. After 6 months, the harmful chemical breaks down- but I wouldn’t try this if your compost isn’t well maintained.

DON’T: Pour the leftover water from nut-washing onto your lawn. It kills the worms below.

DO: Wear protective gloves. It bears repeating. 

DON’T: Leave your walnuts out where squirrels can get at them. Little devils.

DO: Store in the freezer: walnuts, both in and out of shells, can be kept this way for up to 2 years. (This is particularly handy, as most walnut trees only produce nuts in abundance every other year).

DON’T: Expect your black walnuts to taste like your usual snacking-walnut. Remember: expensive paint.

Happy harvesting!

Making What’s Hopefully Not Bottled Botulism (aka Pickling)

This long weekend, I learned a lot about myself; for there is nothing to bring out the best and the worst and the Crazy in you like a full day of pickling for the first time ever. I laughed, I cried, I called my mum. A lot.

I used to think that the biggest deal about pickling was how time-consuming and laborious it is. And sure, it’s both of those things- in a big way. But the biggest deal of all is safety. If you don’t can properly, you could get sick. Really sick. As in, dead. So clean working conditions are a must. Get your surfaces and equipment as close to sterile as you can and follow the “official” procedure for canning your items meticulously. And this post is just about what I did, which is definitely not to standard. For legitimate information on canning safety and recipes, check with your local… er… food safety agency. Here: these guys look pretty legit.

I, on the other hand, used my mum’s recipe. Here’s what it calls for:

LIQUID MIXTURE (I had to make this about 4 times for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers):

  • 8 cups water (I used distilled because Peterborough tap water tastes like licking the bottom of a cow’s hoof)
  • 4 cups vinegar (I used white vinegar- because it had a picture of pickles on the front!?- but now wish I’d used Pickling Vinegar. At 7% acetic acid, it’s 2% higher than white vinegar and therefore more likely to kill micro-jerks that could make you sick)
  • 1 cup pickling salt

FOR PACKING THE JARS:

  • Pickling cucumbers, which need the following prep the night before you can them: wash in cold water and scrub with a soft brush, paying special attention to the knob on the end where the flower used to be. Then soak them overnight in a cold 8:1 water:pickling salt solution. Drain in the morning.
  • Fresh Dill (it’s best to use the flower head while it’s still green)
  • Garlic cloves, peeled (1-2/jar; cut in half if large)
  • Other things I added to some jars for kicks (in shot-in-the-dark quantities): pickling spice (1tbsp/jar), pepper flakes (I used 1/8 tsp/jar); 1-2 bay leaves/jar, pepper corns. Keep in mind that if you put any kind of powdered herb or spice in there, it will make the brine cloudy which may be off-putting.

TOOLS: Pickling jars (I used 21x 1-Litre jars for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers), ongoing pot of boiling water for sterilizing, pot of simmering water for heating jar lids, large pot for boiling pickling solution, metal ladle and tongs, metal lid picker-upper tool (optional)

And here’s what I did:

  1. Wash hands and kitchen surfaces very thoroughly. Keep hand-washing throughout the pickling process.
  2. Mix the water, vinegar and pickling salt in the big pot. Bring it to a rolling boil and keep it there. The metal ladle needs to be sterilized, so keep it in this pot.
  3. Take the circular lid tops off of the Mason jars and place them in a saucepan full of simmering water (they should have a thin ring of rubber on the underside- the heating is what activates that ring so it will seal to the jar later). Also keep a pot of boiling water around in case the tools need to be re-sterilized at any point.
  4. Place the jars in the oven and turn it on to 220 degrees F. And don’t add the jars to an already-heated oven. They crack. I may or may not have learned this the hard way.
  5. After at least 5 minutes at 220 degrees F, take a Mason jar out of the oven. Do not touch the inside of the jar or the rim- that would introduce bacteria to the newly-sterilized jar.

    I read today that it’s actually better to boil the jars for pre-packing sterilization; apparently the oven doesn’t distribute the heat well enough.

  6. Carefully pack the jar with pickles, a head or 2 of dill, 1-2 garlic cloves, and whatever else you might want in there- again, no touching the rim or inside!
  7. Using the sterile ladle, pour the boiling pickling liquid in the jar to within 1/4 inch of the very top.
  8. Dip a clean cloth in the boiling water and wipe the top of the jar so there is no food residue left behind.
  9. Using a sterile tool or a special magnetic picker-upper, lift a lid out of the simmering water and put it in place, without touching the rim with your hands, and then screw the ring on overtop.
  10. Place the jar aside to cool. It should make a POP sound later due to the vacuum that’s been created. After cooling, check to make sure this has occurred by pressing down on the lid; if it “gives” under the pressure, then the sealing didn’t work. Store such duds in the fridge and eat them within 3 weeks or so.
  11. Label (with date) and store properly-sealed jars in a cool, dark, dry place for 4-6 weeks before eating.

    Dear New Treats: Please don’t kill me

** A NOTE ON SAFETY: To make sure you don’t get botulism, food safety agencies very clearly state that after you screw on the lid, the jar should be completely submerged in a pot of boiling water for something like 20 minutes. My mum does not do this because she says it makes the pickles less crunchy. In her words, “I’ve been making pickles without boiling them after for 30 years and no one’s died yet”. It’s a small but serious risk. I only boiled a couple of jars to see for myself how mushy they will get. I don’t plan on giving any of these first unboiled batches away. But before committing to the risk of the non-boil, I did a little research and here’s what I found:

From Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante (1999):

ON THE BOIL-BATH PROCESSING DEBATE: “The USDA and the FDA recommend that all fermented foods should also be canned in a hot water bath to protect against botulism. However, traditional lacto-fermentation methods such as those described here seem to effectively prevent botulism by creating a sufficiently acidic environment…”

ON CHECKING FOR SPOILAGE: “In most (though not all) cases, food that has spoiled in storage should be readily apparent. Signs to look for include mold growing inside the lid of the container, on the food itself, or on the outside of the jar. Food that is badly discoloured or darkened, or that is smelly or slimy, is likely suspect and should be thrown away. When food is going bad, small bubbles form inside a storage jar, and gas or liquid may escape in a rush when you unseal the container”.

So, there you have it. I didn’t post-boil and I stand by that choice. But if my posts suddenly stop in the next 4-6 weeks, you should definitely, definitely not let them serve these pickles at my funeral reception.

*** UPDATE***: I tried the first (unboiled) batch of pickles, 5 weeks later, and it killed me. I died.

… Just kidding! STILL ALIVE! They are delicious! Very salty- more than Gabe likes, but just right for me. I will update again later on the degree of mushiness of the batches that were boiled.