Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fall Favorite - Apples

Fall is one of my favorite seasons. I really do enjoy this time of year mostly for the foods that are in season. Root vegetables, hard winter squashes, brussels's sprouts, and most of all apples. I love all kinds of apples, and I think that there is not a variety that I have tried that I have not liked in some way. Usually, every fall, my husband and I head up to Sebastopol, CA for their annual Gravenstein festival.  It is a great little fest, and I highly recommend it for anyone who loves apples and that small town feeling of a county fair. This year, however, we decided to try something different. This year we went all the way to Camino, CA for the Apple Hill Growers Association harvest weekends. We drove the two and a half hours from the San Francisco Bay area out to Eldorado county and the foothills of the Sierra mountains. Once there, it was a beautiful drive around the winding hills of the Apple Hill area. There were many different farms that had different kinds of activities and events. You can most likely find a farm out there that will fit the kind of day you wish to have.

Many of the farms had large tents with crafts for sale, pony rides for children, corn or hay mazes, and lots of food venders. We wanted a quiet day picking our own apples instead of prepacked boxes and jostling crowds. It took us a bit, but I figured out which farms I wanted to see. The first farm we wanted to visit was Sun Mountain Farms. We finally found this very small and picturesque farm after winding our way around the larger farms that had more for family type entertainment. Sadly, once we started up the driveway, we saw the dreaded sign: Sold Out. I quickly looked back at the map and picked Pine-O-Mine. We raced back down the road and found this farm. They luckily still had apples left to pick. They were a select grower and nestled amongst their tall towering pines were Granny Smith and Fuji trees; two of our favorite varieties for canning. We intended on only getting a few pounds to can as I am running out of empty jars, but we ended up with a half bushel from off of the trees there. Next we ventured to O'Halloran's Apple Trail Ranch. This was another cute farm that had apples pre-picked and sorted into large bins from cold storage. We got another half bushel from these growers. They had all sorts of varieties such as winesap, Rome, and golden delicious among others. They also had pears there, so we picked some of them up too. This particular farm also had pumpkins for ridiculously low prices. Our jack 'o lantern pumpkin was found amongst the sunflowers that dotted their pumpkin patch.

Yesterday was the start of working through the bushel of apples that we bought over the weekend. I love the delicate smell of fresh picked apples, and it was a delightful thing to wake up to that smell in our house. I decided to make sauce today with any of the marginal apples that could cause our good apples to spoil. Applesauce is a very easy thing to make, and it is a great way to use up windfall apples or those with some soft or bad parts to them. Just make sure to completely cut out the damaged parts and compost those pieces. If you are in good with your local grower, this is a great way to save money on your canning as sometimes you can get bruised and windfall apples for a much lower price than pristine apples. Just be sure to ask someone in the know as often times they keep these apples out of sight.

This year I chose to do the sauce in the slow cooker as I wanted to run a bunch of errands. Cooking it this way would free up my time for other things rather than attending a pot of bubbling apple goodness. I made a full recipe from my book; twelve whole pounds of apples were counted out. I made this sauce with a combination of Fuji, for softness and sweetness, and Granny Smith for a firm structure, sour under notes, and lower juice content. I peeled, cored, and rough cut up all the apples. Now I did not get rid of all the cuttings. Those go into a plastic bag in the freezer for later use making pectin for your canning next year or into apple syrup for pancakes. Don't let these things go to waste! Now many people like a totally smooth applesauce, in that case, do not worry about peeling or coring the apples. Just remove the blossom end of the apple and compost that. The blossom end has enzymes that can weaken the natural pectin in the apples. You can then just run the cooked down apples through a food mill right before canning.

The hubby and I personally like chunky applesauce, so the extra peeling and coring are necessary as a food mill is not an option. Once I had the slow cooker as packed to capacity as possible, I added a tiny bit of water to aid the cooking and a very scant cup of sugar. You can feel free to omit the sugar if you want an unsweetened sauce. I also added four tablespoons of lemon juice to help retain the color as well as for added acidity. This is one of those wonderful "set it and forget it" kind of things. I went about my day running errands and picking up around the house. When I would breeze through the kitchen, I would lift up the lid, stir, and chop up the apples in the sauce a bit. After quite some time, the sauce started to finally get saucy and cook down.

After seven or so hours on high, this is what I have. There are distinct areas of sauce and also quite a few big clumps. I could have let this cook longer and continued chopping up the chunks until they were the size I wanted, but dinner needed to be made and these jars needed to get into the water bath. Enter the immersion blender. If you do not have one of these things, I would highly recommend getting one. I never thought I would use one of these as much as I have, but it is a great way of doing many things that would otherwise be a total mess. I am looking at you soup recipes that say to blend them up in a food processor. Now the whole point of not running this through a food mill is that I want some chunkiness, so when I used the blender I only blended up certain areas. I made sure that, even though the immersion blender is a blast to use, I only pulsed it around a few areas.

From here you should taste your sauce. Add sugar if you need to make it sweeter. You can also add spices such as cinnamon, cloves, mace, or nutmeg. I typically choose to not add spices to my canned sauce because I can add it later if needed for a certain recipe. You cannot take it away once it is in the jar after all. Make sure that you leave a generous inch of head space for the jars. I did that this year and still had more siphoning out of the jars than I would like. Perhaps the slow cooker does not keep the sauce hot enough to avoid this problem, or it could be the chunks releasing more of their fluid during the processing. Some day I will figure this out. Twelve pounds made three full quarts and two pints. I also had a little left over for dessert that night. Hopefully this will be enough to get us through to next year... somehow I doubt it!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Canning Week!

Despite my lack of blog posts, this has not been an idle year for canning. I have done quite a bit, although, I have not done nearly as much quantity as last year. I have tried many different kinds of things in small quantities. I am hoping that by doing some small batch canning I can learn what I like to make and perfect things with out having to eat many, many jars of it. It was very nice when I had my canning partner living out here. I could do full batches of a recipe and split it. It was a good thing to try things at their full recipe to ensure that they had the flavor they were meant to have. Sometimes when recipes are cut, even though the proportions are kept the same, the flavors just don't seem to be quite as vibrant to me. It most likely is just be a personal "perception," not the true reality of the situation. So, in the spirit of trying new things and attempting to get over my want for large quantities of jars bumping around in the water bath, I tried several new recipes this year when the peaches were in season.

I love peaches, and since I missed apricot season this year due to all the traveling, I decided to make extra peach recipes to fill in for the missing favorite of my husband's. I am hoping this stop gap helps me stretch the few jars of apricot that I have left. Often times I can make a one to one substitution for peach jam. This especially works in cases of glazes made for roasted meats. Peach or apricot jam with some soy sauce and freshly graded ginger makes an especially tasty glaze for pork roast or pork chops. A quick filling for crepes, cakes, and jelly rolls, apricot is my go to gal! Peach, however is one of my favorite fruits, so I hope that I can see it into rotation in place of the old family favorite.

Aside from making several jars of plain peach jam, I added some new flavors. One flavor combination I have always enjoyed is peach and ginger. I particularly like peach ginger iced tea. It seemed only natural to try out this combination in jam format. I added candied ginger to a regular peach jam recipe. I mixed up the sugar and peaches, and I cooked the mix until just before the jellying point. At the last most minute, I added finely diced candied ginger. I hoped it would add some nice bite both literally and figuratively to the jam. I have yet to try it, but I will post a Follow Up Friday as soon as I do.

I also made spiced peach jam. I added cinnamon, cloves, and allspice to the jam for this one. I have to say that there is nothing quite like spiced peach jam on a freshly toasted English muffin for a cold morning's breakfast. The warmth of the spice profile on this reminds me of the spiced peach slices I would get in Amish country in Illinois. I tried this one right away as I thought it did not set up correctly. While the set is a bit soft compared to most of my other fruit jams, this is nothing out of the ordinary. My peach always sets a bit loose compared to other fruits. I guess the pectin of the over ripe peaches you get in California farmer's markets must contribute to this, but I would not trade the flavor of the fully ripe peaches for the pectin of less ripe ones.

A new addition to the canning recipes this year was one I found in a Martha Stewart Living magazine. I decided to try out her recipe for bourbon poached peaches. It smelled delicious, and the combination of vanilla and my personal favorite, Jack Daniel's whiskey, made for a good combination. I have not tried any of these yet, but I am looking forward to some peach pancakes. The excess syrup for this recipe tasted wonderful, and I wanted to try to cook it down into a pancake syrup. This turned out to be somewhat disastrous. With the high sugar content, and my patience wearing thing, I tried to cook it down way too fast. I ended up making essentially a hard candy that I then canned into jars. I did not realize the error of my ways until the next day. I tried tipping the jars over to see their wonderful syrup ready for pancakes, but it was solidified in the glass. It almost took a jack hammer to get my jars back, but with enough hot water and elbow grease, I was back to having usable jars.

In the end, I had four jars of wonderfully poached peaches and no jars of pancake syrup. I made sure to cut up the vanilla bean into enough pieces so each jar got one. I hope that this does more than look pretty; I hope it creates an intense flavor of vanilla. I could see this recipe being a great accompaniment to vanilla ice cream or any number of cakes whether they be chiffon, pound, or angel food. As soon as I get a jar open and a good opinion on the recipe, I will also post back with a Follow Up Friday.

I also canned some straight up peach slices and spiced slices. It is a nice change of pace for me to crack open a jar of these summer fruits when in the dead of winter. Having a slight allergy to citrus fruits means that eating seasonally can sometimes be an itchy affair. While I love citrus fruit and do eat it quite often, I can only indulge so much. I have a feeling these will as usual come in handy, especially with that margarita made from peach canning liquid recipe floating around the internet lately.

While peach canning season is most likely over for you all, I thought I would just show off what I was doing all those days when nothing was getting posted up on the blog. I have my work cut out for me this week. I, like everyone else I am reading lately, am headed into a week of apple canning. There is sauce and pie filling to be made. Someday, this will include fresh pressed ciders, but until we have a house this will only be a canning dream. I am also excited to try out a new jelly recipe that is apple based. If it turns out how I am envisioning it will, I will have another thing to reside in the half pints.

There is so much to do, and with holiday crafting on the horizon, I am trying to get as much into every day as I can. Things on the agenda today include weeding the garden plot, hopefully some personal sewing, as well as some holiday crafting... yes I really am going to start in October this year! Then there is the matter of preserving the bushel of apples sitting in the kitchen... For now though, I am off to the garden to make sure all is in order there. As usual, so much to do and seemingly no time to do it in.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wordless Wednesday - Indoor Cucumber Plant

People thought I was crazy for trying, but here is the first cucumber growing on my indoor cucumber plant. Not the right conditions for it to grow, but the resiliency of plants is amazing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sighs of Contentment

I know that I keep promising to post to the blog in a regular fashion as well as roll out some new content, but things have just been so crazy. I feel like things are finally starting to get to a point where I can post here more regularly again. I think Juila of What Julia Ate sums up perfectly what I am feeling lately in this blog posting. I feel like I have so many plates spinning that something has to eventually be cut out or the whole delicate balancing act will fall to the ground. Lately it has been the blog that has crashed to the ground. Yet in amongst the crazy spinning, I have wanted to add more things and have been doing so. I have picked back up my cross stitch work and added working on a needle turn applique that I tried to learn at Chaos Wars this year. It was a great class taught by a dear friend, and it made me feel so guilty that the beautiful class piece was sitting there unfinished. There are gifts to be made for tomorrow's birthday celebration, and the up coming holiday crafting season as well. It all starts to feel overwhelming. The garden is humming along, but it is a new thing on the routine that needs constant care and looking after. Then there is the growing list of things to read and knowledge to obtain, dance lessons and being in shape for those strenuous classes. I hate to sound like a complainer, but it seems like there is so much to learn in this lifetime and just so little time to complete it all. I guess fall always turns my thoughts to this as the days become shorter and things begin to die off and go into winter modes. I am striving harder to get organized and make it all work, and I think I am making headway. I mean... here is a blog posting after all! I was also inspired this weekend after the mini Maker Faire to get back to creating and stop worrying so much about the small details... yes read that as house cleaning. I hope to have a canning update for you tomorrow, and I am adding to the schedule a wordless Wednesday. There are always too many pictures and, forgive me fellow 826'ers, but sometimes too little time to write as I would like. Look for Follow Up Friday's as well. I will go back to old projects and give reviews on how things turned out or updates on progress. I am hoping this will also help me stay on top of completing things. Thanks for sticking with me through the inconsistent writing and promises for things that don't ever seem to materialize. I thank you for checking back and reading.