Thursday, May 28, 2015

Solving Drainage Issues

Most of our property is flat with heavy clay soils. As a result, our garden is wet, poorly drained, and we occasionally lose crops to standing water.

The Chief Gardener began serving as a board member on the Delaware County (Ohio) Soil & Water Conservation District a few years ago. The organization is a member of the state and national Association of Districts that began as a response to the 1930s Dust Bowl. Today, the country has about 3,000 conservation districts which help farmers, developers and homeowners manage soil and water conservation issues.

When we learned that the District was looking for a site to host a public drainage workshop, we volunteered. To prep for the event, I hung out with a couple of Delaware SWCD staff as they investigated the property. Here's what I learned:
  • Drainage tiles have been used by farmers for decades to move water from a field while keeping the soil in place. Formerly made of terra cotta, tiles are generally buried two to three feet below the surface. Today's tiles are made of corrugated plastic tubing with holes in the top to allow the water to enter. Excess rain drains through the soil, into the tile and is channelled off the property via gravity.
  • If your property was ever farmed - even 100 years ago - there's a good chance you've got access to tiles. The tiles continue to function unless they're crushed or become clogged (usually by lawn debris or tree roots).
  • Your local Soil & Water Conservation District office staff will come out, free of charge, to locate tiles and make recommendations. Any excavation, tile replacement, tree removal, etc. is at the homeowner's expense.
  • Most US residents have access to a SWCD office. While each district has programs unique to their location, most offices offer information on soil health, wildlife, water (including rain barrels), and even offer grants for conservation practices, including drainage tile, cover crops and hoop houses. Find your local office here. 

SWCD staff look for existing buried tiles. They begin with arial photos which can
 reveal where tiles are buried based on historical wet and dry patterns. Metal rods are pushed
into the ground to the locate the tiles. The rods make a unique noise when they strike a tile.

Once the tiles are located, the line is marked with flags.

This line is probably clogged with the roots from this cottonwood tree. We may have to remove it.
I'll continue to share progress as we host the workshop, replace tile and improve drainage and soil health. We're hoping next year to boost production and create a few more garden plots. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Home Canning FAQs

For the past 20 years I've traveled around the state judging home canning competitions. It's a great opportunity to visit with home canners, learn what's happening in their kitchens, and discuss canning techniques. I've noticed that many canners rely on friends and family for information. While I like the idea of sharing traditions, too often outdated preservation methods are passed along.

Canning standards are updated every few years. Recipes or methods that your grandmother used may be antiquated as produce varieties have evolved with different acid levels, new strains of bacteria exist, and we know a lot more about preservation and safe food handling.

On the heels of a recent botulism outbreak in Ohio which killed one and sickened dozens, I thought I'd revisit questions I'm often asked. This is not a complete list. If you have other questions, leave a note in the comment section below, contact your local extension office, or browse these resources:

Are water bath and pressure canners interchangeable?
A pressure canner is used for low acid foods like green beans, carrots, potatoes, meat, etc. The temperature inside a pressure canner reaches 240 degrees, which is required to kill botulism spores. Water bath canners, used for high acid foods like fruits, bread spreads and pickles reach 212 degrees. Regardless of how long the jars are processed in a water bath canner, the internal temperature will never reach 240 degrees. The canners are not interchangeble.

A water bath canner, left, is used for high acid foods.
A pressure canner, right, is used for low acid foods. 

My jars seal without processing. Do I need the extra step of processing?
The USDA recommends all jars need to be processed in a water bath or pressure canner to be shelf stable. A sealed jar means a vacuum was created and air/bacteria will not get in the jar. It doesn't mean the contents of the jar are sterile. Processing in a canner will sterilize the contents.

Why do I need to use updated recipes?
Home spun family recipes, or any recipe older than 20 years old should be replaced with a more recent, tested recipe. Canning standards are routinely updated. Seek recipes from a reliable source: USDA, local extension, Ball or National Center for Home Food Preservation (see links above).

The Ball Blue Book is great resource with tested, vetted recipes. This is the 2015 edition.

How do I can my spaghetti sauce (or other family favorite)?
Unless you're using a tested canning recipe from a reliable source your recipes cannot be canned. However, many homemade foods can be safely frozen, including spaghetti sauce, chili, salsa and more. Your recipe may differ in acid, viscosity, etc. so applying a processing time from a canning recipe can yield an unsafe product.

What are the signs of spoilage?
Mold, "off" odor, leaking jars and bulging lids are all signs of spoilage. Do not consume. However, botulism is odorless and tasteless, often showing no visible signs of spoilage. As a result, the USDA recommends boiling low acid, pressure canned food for 10-15 minutes before consuming.

Can I reuse the lids?
Two piece lids include a threaded ring and flat lid with a gum adhesive. Rings can be reused as long as they tightly hold the lid agains the jar. Lids can only be used once. New lids promising multiple use are available on the market, but they are not recommended by the USDA.

Two piece lids come with a flat rid and threaded ring. Only the ring can be reused.

Can I alter a canning recipe?
You can safely remove salt, although flavor will be impacted. Adding or removing other ingredients can alter the acidity. It's always best to stick to the recipe.

Why do I need to acidify tomatoes?
Tomatoes come in lots of varieties, some less acidic than others. To make sure tomatoes are properly acidified, add 2 Tbsp lemon juice or 1/2 tsp citric acid to each quart of tomatoes.

Can I use my oven to can food?
During "oven canning" filled jars are placed in a hot oven until the lid gum softens and seals. The contents of the jar aren't processed. It's not canning, and it's not safe.

How long will home canned food last?
Home canned food should be consumed within one year. While it may be safe beyond a year, flavor and nutrition decline.

Want more info on the science of canning? In addition to the sources listed above, I encourage you to read one of my favorite preservation posts, written by a microbiologist.

Have food preservation questions? Leave me a comment below.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Freezer Fruit Sauce

I preserve the fruit we grow to enjoy all year long. Those summer flavors make the winter more bearable and, since the fruit is ready in the freezer, it also makes a quick dessert or breakfast. While I freeze and dehydrate whole berries, I process much of the harvest into fruit sauce.

I freeze the sauce in 1-2 cup increments, which comes in handy for waffles, shortcakes, over poundcake or angel food cake, or in a breakfast parfait with granola. I've used rhubarb here (not a fruit, but acts like it), but any berry, stone fruit, or a combination can be substituted with the same results. Feel free to alter the sugar to suit your tastes.

Mature rhubarb stalks are both red and green. The leaves contain oxalic acid which is a toxin (you'd
have to eat a lot to get sick). Leaves can be safely added to your compost pile. 

Remove leaves and wash stems. 

Chop stalks. Measure 4 cups and place in a saucepan.

Stir in sugar and cornstarch. Slowly heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.

Place in freezer containers, label and freeze for up to one year.

Fruit Sauce
4 cups fresh berries, stone fruit, rhubarb, or a combination
3/4 to 1 cup sugar, depending on your tastes
1 Tbsp cornstarch
Squeeze of lemon (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Slowly bring to a boil. Reduce heat, simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Remove from heat and let cool. Use immediately or freeze, consuming within one year.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Swirl Bread

Most of the bread I make is a combination of whole grain and all-purpose or bread flours. I like the nutty flavor and full feeling whole grain provides, but prefer the addition of other flours to lighten the texture. Without a flour blend, whole grain breads can be dense and tough.

I was intrigued when I came across this King Arthur Flour recipe boasting a 100% whole wheat cinnamon swirl bread. While it only includes whole wheat flour, the dough gets its tenderness from the addition of nonfat dry milk and potato flakes.

I made it with traditional whole wheat flour, but it can be made with white whole wheat - which would make it more palatable for kids. Either way, a slice of this bread toasted and topped with peanut butter makes a fast, stick-to-your-ribs breakfast.

Combine starter ingredients and allow to rest at room
temperature overnight or up to 16 hours. This starter rested for 15 hours.

Combine starter with dough ingredients. Knead. Place dough in a greased bowl, turning to grease
the top. Cover and let rise 90 minutes. This dough was mixed and kneaded using
a stand mixer. If kneading by hand, resist the urge to add additional flour.

The dough will double in size (it may take longer than 90 minutes).

Roll the dough to a 16"x9" rectangle. Brush with beaten egg.
Combine filling ingredients and sprinkle over dough.

Beginning at the short end, roll up dough. Pinch seam to seal.

Place rolled dough in a greased 9"x5" loaf pan. Cover and let rise for 90 minutes.
Dough is ready to bake when it's risen 3/4" over top of pan. Bake at 350
degrees for 50-55 minutes, tenting with foil after the first 10 minutes.

Breakfast is served! This bread is great toasted. It would also
make a tasty base for French toast and bread pudding.

100% WholeWheat Cinnamon Swirl Bread
From King Arthur Flour

1/2 cup cool water
1 cup white whole wheat flour or whole wheat flour
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast

2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast or active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
1/2 cup orange juice*
5 tablespoons melted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
1/4 cup potato flour or 1/2 cup instant mashed potato flakes
2 3/4 cups white whole wheat flour or whole wheat flour
*Use 2 tablespoons less orange juice in summer (or in a humid environment), 2 tablespoons more in winter (or in a dry climate).

1 large egg, beaten; to brush on dough
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Make the starter: In a mixing bowl, combine the water, flour, and yeast, stirring until the flour is evenly moistened. Cover the bowl, and let the starter rest overnight at cool room temperature, for up to 16 hours or so; it'll become a bit puffy, and flatten out.

Add the remaining dough ingredients to the starter in the bowl, and mix and knead — by hand, mixer, or bread machine — until you've made a cohesive dough. If you're using a stand mixer, knead at low speed for about 7 minutes. Note that 100% whole wheat dough will never become smooth and supple like dough made with all-purpose flour; it'll feel more like clay under your hands, and may appear a bit rough.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and allow the dough to rise until it's expanded and looks somewhat puffy, about 90 minutes. Note that dough kneaded in a bread machine will rise faster and higher than bread kneaded in a mixer, which in turn will rise faster and higher than one kneaded by hand. So if you're kneading by hand, you may want to let the dough rise longer than 90 minutes.

Make the filling: Whisk together the sugar, cinnamon, and flour.

Gently deflate the dough, and transfer it to a lightly oiled work surface. Shape the dough into a long, thin rectangle, about 16" x 9". Brush the dough with some of the beaten egg. Sprinkle the filling onto the dough. Beginning with a short edge, gently roll the dough into a log. Pinch the side seam and ends closed. Pat the log gently to shape it into a smooth 9" cylinder, and place it in a lightly greased 9" x 5" loaf pan.

Tent the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and allow the loaf to rise until it's crowned over the rim of the pan by about 3/4", about 90 minutes. Don't let it rise too high; it'll continue to rise as it bakes. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.

Bake the bread for 10 minutes. Lightly tent it with aluminum foil, and bake for an additional 40 to 45 minutes, or until the center registers 190°F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove it from the oven, and turn it out of the pan onto a rack.

Run a stick of butter over the top of the hot loaf, if desired, for a softer crust. Allow the bread to cool completely before slicing.

Yield: one 9" x 5" loaf.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Spring Fruit Growth

Growing fruit can be tricky. We have a handful of fruit trees and berry bushes - each a work in progress. Although we're always learning from our mistakes, we still hold our breath each spring to learn which plants survived the winter, and which blossoms will live through spring cold snaps.

Depending on the size of harvest and the type of fruit, we'll eat some fresh and preserve the rest via freezing, dehydrating or canning.

Our oldest apple tree came with the house. I don't know the variety and it's never been a great producer. We should probably replace it with a new tree. Apple blossoms are beautiful and fragrant. This tree will be in full bloom in a couple days.

We have about a dozen blueberry bushes, adding a couple each year. These are three years old. We eat all our fresh blueberries and purchase additional from a local grower to freeze. Hoping to change that this year. Recently added bushes were eaten off by deer. Sigh.

This might be our best cherry year ever. These are Montmorency, a sour variety popular for pies. All four cherry trees are loaded with blossoms. Fruit should be ready to pick in late June/early July. We'll soon net the trees to prevent the birds from eating the cherries.

Currants grow in long chains. They don't look like much now but the blossoms will give way to beautiful deep red berries. We don't eat many currants fresh, but instead dehydrate them. I love dried currants in breakfast scones and often use them to replace raisins in recipes.

We lost a peach tree to the polar vortex two years ago. The remaining peach survived, but only has a few blossoms this year. We'll replace the dead tree, but it looks like we might have to purchase peaches to preserve. Peaches are finicky.

The strawberries are just beginning to fill in. This is the first blossom I've seen. Fruit will ripen beginning mid-to-late May. We preserve strawberries by freezing sauce and whole berries, and canning jam. The May family birthday celebrations typically include strawberry pie, rather than cake.

We've got Anjou and Bartlett pear trees. The Bartlett has never produced a single fruit. We're trying different things, including fertilizing more. The Anjou looks great, producing more blossoms than ever.  We're losing patience with the Bartlett.

The blackberry canes are still leafing out - no blossoms yet. Blackberries ripen in July. These canes are not the thornless variety but I've been happy with their hardiness and berry production.

This is our persimmon tree. Although it looks dead, it's alive. This tree leafs out very late and typically produces lots of late summer/early fall fruit. A native of the state, persimmons grow fast, require little care and are good producers. Despite those qualities, it's my least favorite fruit tree. I'm just not a fan of the fruit. As a result, most of the fruit falls and rots. Which only makes our honeybees happy.

The red raspberry canes are leafing out. I love the fruit - ripening in the summer and again in fall. These are heavy producers, providing us enough fruit to enjoy fresh and frozen whole and in sauce. If you've never had a fresh raspberry margarita, you don't know what you're missing!
I know rhubarb isn't a fruit, but I treat it like a fruit. We've got five rhubarb plants that, along with the asparagus, are the first foods we harvest. It's some of the easiest food we grow: reliably comes up every year, not many pest problems, doesn't require fertilizer, and it produces stalks for several months. While the leaves are inedible, the tart stalks make great pies, sauce, and cakes. And it freezes well.