Canning, Recipes

Apple Butter: Autumn in a Jar

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I am an apple butter fanatic.  I love the stuff.  No, I LOVE the stuff.  I learned to love it, as I did so many other things, because my mother made it.  I would like to say that I learned to make apple butter at my mother’s knee, but that isn’t true.  The truth is, I had to teach myself to make apple butter because before I thought to get my mother’s recipe, she was gone.

I searched Mama’s recipe box, which came to me some years after her death.  The recipe wasn’t there.  I searched my recipe box, which she started for me when I married.  It wasn’t there.  I turned to the Ball Blue Book that she gave me when I married (along with my granite-ware water bath canner and Presto pressure canner that I still use).  Mama thought of her Ball Blue Book as her canning bible, as I do, so I thought she’d probably used one of the recipes in the book.  I thought I knew which one, as she always started with applesauce that we had cooked down and rubbed through the big cone colander ourselves.  I knew that after one disastrous scorching incident, she had always cooked her apple butter down in the oven.  Reducing the apple butter in a low oven keeps it from scorching.  And oh boy, does it make the house smell good!  But when I had that first batch going in the oven, something didn’t seem right.  It didn’t smell quite the way I remembered.  After cooking it a few hours to meld the spices with the applesauce and sugar, I gave it a taste.  And it definitely didn’t taste like Mama’s apple butter.

At this point, I was going on memory alone, since I no longer had any of Mama’s apple butter to compare.  But I added spices, and I got something that first year that tasted closer to what I remembered.  The next year, I started with less sugar, because I knew Mama’s tastes, and they were similar to my own.  Both of us have always preferred tart to sweet, and since apple butter sweetens as it reduces, I knew I could start with less sugar and add more if necessary.  The second year’s batch was much better, much more like I remembered.  Every year, I’ve refined my recipe, until now I have something that tastes like my mama’s apple butter every time.  So here it is, and here’s to you, Mama.  Thank you for everything, always, and in this particular instance, thank you for apple butter.

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Spicy Apple Butter

6 quarts unsweetened applesauce

¼ cup lemon juice

2 cups sugar

2 ½ tablespoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon cloves

Mix all ingredients together in Dutch oven and bring to boiling over low heat on stovetop.  Place uncovered in 300 degree oven and bake, stirring occasionally, until reduced by about half.  (See note below on cooking method.)  Butter will be thick and dark brown.

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Taste during the cooking process and add sugar or additional spices to taste.  Be careful of cloves—it’s a very strong flavor that can overpower the other spices.

When the butter has reduced so that it will mound on a spoon, it is ready to be canned.  Prepare jars and boiling water bath; sterilize jars in boiling water bath for 10 min.  Bring apple butter to boil on stove top over low heat, and watch out for spitting.  Fill sterilized jars with boiling apple butter, leaving ¼ inch head space.  Process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath.  (Use altitude chart for elevations above 1000 ft.)  Yield:  about 6 pts.

Rule of thumb for yield:  Whatever amount of applesauce you start with, you’ll get roughly half of that in apple butter, so 6 qts. of applesauce yields about 6 pts. of apple butter.  You’ll get a little more or less, depending on how far you reduce it.

Cooking methods:  Lots of people cook their apple butter down all day or overnight (or all day and overnight) in a crock pot.  You can do this.  It will reduce.  But it will not have the same flavor as apple butter cooked down in the oven.  Oven-roasting produces that deep, dark, rich flavor and a color like melted chocolate.  Crock pot cooking cannot match that flavor, although it is more convenient and energy efficient.  I usually make applesauce during the day, then cook my apple butter all night in the oven.  Sometimes I lower the temperature to 250 degrees if I think I will not be canning the apple butter very early in the morning, so it doesn’t over-reduce.  Always bring the butter back up to boiling on the stove top before putting it in the jars.

Apple butter is wonderful on biscuits, on cornbread, and on freshly-baked bread, but it also elevates a piece of toasted store-bought bread to new heights.  My children loved apple butter and peanut butter sandwiches and took them to school for lunch.  It’s also delicious spread on pancakes before the maple-syrup pour, or stirred into a batch of pancake batter for some spice and texture.

To me, apple butter is the quintessential fall flavor.  It’s autumn in a jar.  It’s also a sensory link to my mother.  When I make apple butter, I can see Mama bending over the oven, her round face flushed with heat and delight, stirring, tasting, approving.

All original text, photographs, and the apple butter recipe are copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without the author’s permission. 

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Canning, Desserts, Recipes

Pears, pears, pears!

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I’ve done it again.  I’ve scavenged too much of a good thing.  (For more on my scavenging habits, see the post “Scavenger.”)  This time, it was pears.  I haven’t canned pears in years; now I remember why!  But I was inspired by some recipes I saw made up online, so I put the word out on my community Facebook page that I was looking for pears to can.  And folks generously responded.  Three people, and later a fourth, let me know I could pick their pears.  As I always do, I’ll be bringing something back to them when the pear craze has left me.  As of this writing, I have spent four days working with pears.  The photo below shows some of the pears sitting underneath the dining room table (which is covered by my husband’s grandmother’s hand-crocheted tablecloth).

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The first recipe, pear mincemeat, comes from Tina Harrington’s Facebook page, Cooking on the Sagebrush Sea.  I don’t know where she found it.  I found a similar recipe in my 1981 Ball Blue Book, which my mama gave me when I was married (along with a water bath canner and pressure canner).  The Ball recipe, however, calls for vinegar, and Tina says she doesn’t like the vinegar-based mincemeat.  I was so glad she talked me out of the vinegar, because after I made her recipe, I found it hard to imagine how adding vinegar could improve it.  The beauty of pear mincemeat is that you don’t have to peel the pears.  Simply core them and chop them in the food processor.  This is the perfect recipe for very ripe pears that wouldn’t peel and can well in halves, or for too-green pears that wouldn’t have enough flavor to can.  I made pear mincemeat out of the first box of ripe pears.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day One

Pear Mincemeat
7 pounds pears
1 pound raisins
1 whole lemon
1 T each of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice
1 tsp. fresh grated ginger
6 3/4 C sugar  (or less, to taste: for a double batch, I used 9 ¾ cups)

In a food processor with a blade attachment, chop the cored and quartered pears, the raisins, and the whole lemon (ends and seeds removed). Add the spices and sugar and cook about forty five minutes until it’s thickened. Process in water bath canner for 25 minutes, leaving a half inch headspace.  This can be done in pints or quarts.  A quart is enough to make one nine-inch pie.

As usually happens when I decide to make a recipe I’ve never made before, I didn’t have enough of something I needed, in this case, raisins.  I live 14 miles from town, and I didn’t have time for a raisin run, for crying out loud!  So I taxed my brain and came up with a substitute.  Last year, I dehydrated some prune plums I was given, and I left them in the dehydrator too long.  They are so dry and hard, it would take teeth and jaws of steel to chew them, and even then, I’m not so sure.  I stuck them in the freezer last fall while I tried to figure out what to do with them.  Ta-da!  I got those babies out, rehydrated them in some warm water while I cored pears (and yes, rehydration was necessary because even the food processor blade couldn’t chop them otherwise; I’d already tried that) and then drained the prunes and added them to the mix in the food processor.  The flavor is excellent.  If I make this recipe again, I might sub in prunes for half the raisins on purpose.

Day Two

Pears in Dark Ginger Syrup, and other good things

The next batch of recipes comes from Rebecca, the Foodie with Family.  With twenty pounds of pears, I made her three-in-one pear recipes.  It took me all day to peel that many pears, and I worked in batches because I didn’t want the pears I’d already peeled to darken.

Rebecca’s recipes are so smart for several reasons.  First, they use up all the ingredients you use to prepare the pears.  How many times have I looked at the water I’ve used to treat the fruit for darkening and thought, look at all that good juice going to waste!  Well, with Rebecca’s recipes, it doesn’t.  It’s turned into “juice” and canned, and it tastes really, really good!  Her pear halves in dark ginger syrup recipe is smart because even though you dunk the pears in a lemon water bath (which becomes “juice” when you’re done), if you are slow, like me, your pears will still start to darken a little before you have enough ready to can several jars.  The dark ginger syrup takes care of that.  It’s made with raw sugar (or light brown sugar if you don’t have any raw or prefer not to buy it) so it’s dark, and it hides the little bit of browning that would otherwise show through a clear syrup made with white sugar.  And the ginger is delicious.

That syrup is so good, you just have to can up what’s left over after you’ve canned your pears.  I usually have syrup left over after canning fruit.  I save it and use it again if I’m going to can more of that fruit, or sometimes I use it in a different fruit (like using the syrup left from canning Purple Prince plums to give a little color and more flavor to white peaches), but sometimes it sits in the fridge and spoils.  Now I have two sealed jars of dark ginger syrup which I can open up and further reduce, if I so choose, for pancakes and waffles, or I can add it to any number of fizzy drinks or mulled wine, or I can drizzle it over ice cream or pie.  So smart!

And finally, the “juice.”  I made a double batch of pears in dark ginger syrup, so my acidulated water was extra juicy.  I had a few pears that were really darkened, so those were the ones I left in the water to cook up the juice.  I saved the pulp from the juice for pear butter, which I was making the next day with the pears that were too ripe or too compromised by bruising and bugs to can in halves.  I got a quart and a pint of juice, beautiful stuff, and a cup left over to start off my pears for pear butter.  For somebody like me who has a thing about cutting down on waste, Rebecca’s recipes are so welcome.  I hope you’ll check out her Three-in One pear recipes.

I would add one thing to Rebecca’s three-in-one pear recipes to make them four-in-one.  Pear vinegar!  Yes, save those pear peelings.  Let them age and brown in a bowl (covered if you have a fruit fly farm in your kitchen like I currently do) while you work with the pears.  Then, when you’re done with everything else, put your pear peelings (and cores if they aren’t wormy) in a large, clean jar, and cover the peels with distilled water.  Don’t overfill the jar! Pears ferment quickly, so leave several inches of head space.  Put the jar on a plate in case of spillage while fermenting.  Cover the mouth of the jar with some breathable fabric, secured with a rubber band or twine, to keep the fruit flies out, and stir every day.  In 6-8 weeks, you’ll have pear vinegar.  See my previous post, “Waste Not, Want Not,” for more instructions for making fruit scrap vinegars.

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Finally, pear butter, which took two days.  My hands were so tired, and the right one so swollen from canning three-in-one pears the day before, that the final box of very ripe, bruised, and worm-damaged pears had to be processed simply.  Pear butter was the answer.  It could have been pear sauce, but I knew that I would be so slow in getting the pears cut up that they would darken more than I’d want for sauce.  So butter it was, since it cooks for a long time and darkens as it cooks.

I had to core most of these pears because they were wormy.  I think the best way to do this is to quarter them; then, with a paring knife, it’s easy to cut out the core and any bad spots.  For pear sauce or butter, there’s no need to peel if you’re going to run them through a strainer.  If you have perfect pears, no worms, there’s no need to core, either.  Just quarter them (or cut them in chunks if they’re very large pears) and get them into a large pot with either water, apple cider or juice, or pear cider or juice, about half an inch, in the bottom of the pot.

I had some of the pear “juice” left from processing pears in dark ginger syrup the day before, about a cup of it, and that went in the bottom of the pot to keep the pears from sticking until they started to render their own juice.

Don’t turn the heat under the pot on high.  The pears will scorch to the bottom.  Use a medium heat and stir frequently, as in about every five minutes.  If your pears aren’t juicy, you may need to add more liquid, but don’t add any more than is absolutely necessary to keep your pears from sticking, because for pear butter, you’ll have to cook out all the liquid you add, and then some, to get the thick, rich consistency of a fruit butter.

I don’t recommend peeling your pears before you cook them because the pectin in the skin helps give the butter a glossy look and thicker consistency.  It’s best to buy a strainer or simple colander and pestle (this one came from an antique store for $8!) and rub them through to remove skins and cores.  It doesn’t take long, and it’s a good workout for your arms.

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I had the best help with this one.  My grandkids came over after school and helped run the cooked pears through the chinois (or cone colander, as I grew up calling it).  They enjoyed a bowl of pear sauce as a reward while I added the sugar and spices and put the sauce on to cook down into butter.  (Then we went out to the garden and picked apples, so you can guess what the subject of a future post will be.)

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Day Three

Pear Butter

11 lbs. ripe pears, cored if necessary, quartered, cooked until soft, and strained to remove peels and cores. (I had about 6 qts. when cut up and cored, 4 qts. sauce after cooking and straining.  If you want to stop at this point and can pear sauce, simply follow the directions in any canning book for canning applesauce.  For pear butter, keep going!)

To strained pear sauce, add:

2 cups sugar

1 T. cinnamon

2 t. nutmeg

1 t. cloves

1 t. allspice

1 t. fresh grated ginger (or ½ t. dried, powdered ginger)

The amount of sugar and spice you add is really according to individual taste.  I don’t like things very sweet, and I do like them spicy.  Taste your sauce/butter after a few hours in the oven or crock pot.  If it isn’t sweet enough, add more sugar.  For this recipe, I started with one cup of sugar and added another cup about halfway through cooking.  That was perfect for my taste.  But you might like things sweeter or not as sweet as I do, so start with less and add more as you go.  The same with spices.  If you don’t like a lot of spice, reduce the amounts given here and taste, adding more if you want it spicier.  Be careful with cloves.  It’s a powerful flavor, and one that I love, but if you use too much, it will overpower the pears and the rest of the spices.

Bring all ingredients to a simmer over medium heat in a large, oven-safe pot.  Bake in 300 degree oven until thick and reduced by one-third to one-half.  You can do this in a crock pot; many people do, but I don’t think the crock pot gives the same flavor that roasting in an open pan in the oven does.  But it’s up to you which way you want to cook your butter down.  I don’t recommend boiling it down on the stove; both pear and apple butters are prone to scorching when cooked on the stove top, although it is faster.  Typically, I cook my butters down for about 18 hrs, part of that time overnight, when I’ll lower the temp on the oven to 225 degrees.  Then when I get up in the morning, if it’s not quite ready to can, I’ll raise the temp back up to 300 while I get the canner and jars ready.  Usually, it’s ready by then.  When the butter is thick and dark and tastes rich and spicy, and it will mound in a spoon, it’s ready to can.

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Wash jars and start water bath canner heating.  You will need about 5 pt. jars for this amount of pears, if you have reduced the butter down by one-third to one-half.  I always prepare a few extra jars, just in case.  Some fruits are larger, heavier, and juicier than others, and some people get impatient and don’t reduce as much as they should!  Always sterilize your jars in your boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes before adding the butter to the jars.  Bring the butter up to boiling on the stove top.  This is a thick product, so leave ½ to ¼ inch headspace in the jar.  I leave ½ inch.  Seal with heated flats and rings and process in boiling water bath for 10 min. if below 2000 ft. elevation.  Consult an altitude chart for adding time for higher elevations.  This recipe makes about 5 pts.

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The flavor profile of this pear butter is very similar to that of the pear mincemeat, but without the lemon of the mincemeat, and with a smooth, buttery texture.  Spread this stuff on homemade bread or biscuits, and it’ll be heaven in your mouth, honey.  I guarantee it.

Altogether, I spent 4 days processing about 40 lbs. of pears.  There are still a few green ones left that will slowly ripen in the box.  I might make a pear crisp if we don’t eat them all out of hand.  But not right away.  For now, I’m just going to gaze at those jars of pear mincemeat, pears in dark ginger syrup, dark ginger/pear syrup, pear juice, and pear butter, and anticipate all the pear goodness we’ll get to eat this winter.

All original text, photos, and the pear butter recipe are the author’s own work and are copyright protected.  You may not copy or reproduce in part or in whole without the author’s permission.  

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Recipes, Side dishes

Bear It

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I returned yesterday from four wonderful days at the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference in Cedarville, CA.  At the reception on the first evening, I offered everyone a taste of something I made a few weeks ago, and which I was a bit nervous about sharing:  bear liver pate.

But this story actually begins back in August when my husband, Dennis (I think I must call him The Mighty Hunter from now on, MH for short), shot a bear with his bow.  Yes, that’s right, with his bow!  No dogs, no gun.  Anyway, we have an “eat all of what you shoot” policy around here, and we like bear liver, but it’s a lot for just the two of us.  So I started looking around for things to do with half a bear liver, which weighed in at about 1.5 lbs.  I thought of pate, and I thought surely someone would have made bear liver pate and posted a recipe online, somewhere.  Surely.  But no.  I couldn’t find a single bear liver pate recipe.  So I started reading other pate recipes and decided that yes, I could adapt a recipe.  Whether or not it would taste good?  Well, we’d just have to see.

I made the pate (recipe to follow) and tasted it.  And nearly swooned.  Oh boy, is that good stuff.  But I had to try it out on the MH.  (Remember him?  The guy with the bow?)  And he approved.  Of course, he’s a bit like Mikey and will eat anything, so I was still a little nervous about it.  I put most of the pate in the freezer, and waited for my dear foodie friend, DeAnna Beachley, to arrive the day before the conference.

I picked DeAnna up at the airport in Reno, and by the time we got home, we were hungry enough to eat a . . . no, I won’t say it.  I had pulled one of the pate mounds out of the freezer that morning and put it in the fridge to defrost.  We had a satisfying little repast of pate, almond flour crackers I’d baked the day before, a hard cheese called Hirtin, cherry tomatoes from the garden, cream cheese and jalapeno jelly.  And to go with all of that, a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.  To my great relief, DeAnna’s reaction to her first bite of pate was a lovely little moan, and an “oh, that’s good!”

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I felt reassured by her response to the pate, but still, I was nervous about serving it to a bunch of writer folks at the conference.  I put the pate on the paper plate provided, surrounded it with crackers, and went to the kitchen to get a knife.  By the time I got back, they were already digging into it with the crackers.  Judging by what was left on the plate at the end of the evening and the comments I received during the event, I think the bear liver pate was a hit.  So here’s the recipe.

bear pate empty plate

Bear Liver Pate

1 lb. bear liver (about half a liver, after cleaning and de-veining)

1 med. onion, sliced

3 cups water

3 tablespoons sherry

¼ cup chopped onion

¾ cup softened butter

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper (freshly ground is best)

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch of cinnamon

In a medium saucepan, combine water, trimmed liver cut into 1-2 inch chunks, and sliced onion. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and cover. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until liver is cooked and tender. Remove from heat, drain, and discard onions. Also remove and discard any hard portions of the liver.

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Place cooked liver in a blender or food processor, and process until smooth. Add chopped onion, sherry, butter, salt, black pepper, and spices; blend well. Form pate mixture into a mound (it helps to butter your hands), and place on a serving dish. Chill for 1 hour before serving.  This will make a large mound or about 16 servings.

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Instead of making one large mound, I lined three small bowls with plastic wrap, pressed the pate into the bowls to form it, then wrapped it securely with plastic wrap.  I chilled the pate in the bowls until firm, then removed the pate from the bowls, still wrapped tightly, and stored them in a plastic freezer bag in the deep freezer.  They can thaw overnight in fridge before serving, or for several hours at room temperature.  The pate needs to soften a bit before serving.

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As I was leaving the conference and saying my farewells, I spoke to a young man whose reading I’d particularly enjoyed.  I told him so.  He said, “Thank you.  I really enjoyed your bear liver pate.”  Although I didn’t read this time, I suspect if I had, he’d have thought my pate was better than my poetry.  Well, some things (like bad puns) you just have to bear.

© All material in this post (photographs, text, recipe) are copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any fashion without the author’s consent.

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Canning, Recipes

Scrappy

Continuing the theme from last week of finding ways to use “waste,” this week’s post is again about using scraps, this time, meat scraps and vegetable peelings.

My garden is completely organic, so I never hesitate to use any part of a vegetable I’ve grown, including the peelings.  I read once that the two crops which are most heavily sprayed with pesticides are apples and potatoes, which makes me really glad I grow both in my garden, and I can use the residues of processing and preserving–peels, cores, etc.–in other ways.

I also try to find ways of using the scraps of meat left from trimming up our wild game.  This past week, Dennis and I had to make room in the freezer for his bear, so I decided to turn last year’s venison into this year’s ready-to-eat meals.  I thawed out most of the venison, and since I’d wanted to make jerky as well, Dennis sliced up enough round steak to fill 7 dehydrator trays and 2 cooling racks in the oven.  It got a quick marinade in some teriyaki sauce and then onto the trays.  In the process of slicing the meat, Dennis trimmed quite a bit of silverskin and fat off of it, and of course, there was meat in the trimmings as well.

“What do you want me to do with this?” he said, indicating his growing pile of scraps.  I immediately thought, stock.  I made a huge batch of stock last year from this deer’s bones and canned it, and it was really good.  (We subsequently picked the meat off the bones and made an enormous pan of venison enchiladas.)

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The rest of the thawed venison was going to be cubed for soup.  The recipe called for browning the meat and adding the seasonings and vegetables, then covering with water, bringing to boil, and then filling the jars and processing for 90 minutes.  How much better it would be, I thought, to cover the meat and vegetables with stock.  And what better way to use those meat scraps from the jerky?

Here’s the key to good stock:  roast the meat and vegetables first.  I don’t remember when I first learned to do this, but probably from making chicken soup out of roast chicken carcasses, and stretching how many meals I could get from one chicken, back when I was first married and had babies.  Roasting adds flavor and color to the stock.  You won’t get nearly as much flavor, and no color to speak of, if you just dump your scraps into a pot of water.  So to start this stock, I put a whole bunch of limp celery and hairy carrots from the fridge down on two baking sheets.  I added three quartered onions, distributing them between the two sheets.  Then on top of that, I spread out the meat scraps.  I drizzled all that with a little olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper, and into the oven it went at 425 degrees to roast until it was good and brown.

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After browning, the scraps went into a big pot.  I threw in a handful of fresh thyme, two sprigs of fresh hyssop, and a big bay leaf.  I covered this with water, brought it to a boil, and kept it at a low boil for a couple of hours while I went out to dig potatoes and pull carrots for the soup.

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When the liquid was nice and brown and the scraps and vegetables were tender, I strained it off through a colander.  There is no added coloring in this stock, nothing artificial.  Look at that color!

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Because this stock was going immediately into a soup or stew, I didn’t double strain it.  I did cool it and skim off the little bit of fat that rose to the top because I wanted to can my venison soup, and I didn’t want the fat rising to the top of the jars during processing and spoiling the seals.  If I were going to process the stock by itself, the way I did last year, I’d have strained it again through cheesecloth after cooling to get more fat and particles out of it.

I looked at that pile of meat and veggies in the colander, and I thought, I wonder if you’ve given all you have to give?  I dumped the scraps back in the pot, covered them again with water, but only half as much as I’d used the first time, and put them back on the boil.  This second batch of stock was not as dark, nor was there as much, but I was glad I’d made it when I got all the soup ingredients together in my 13-quart stockpot, because the first batch of stock wasn’t quite enough to cover 5 pounds of meat, 3 cups of onions, 12 cups of potatoes, and 6 cups of carrots.  I ended up using all the stock I’d made.  I canned 7 quart jars of soup/stew, with a couple of quarts left over for dinner.

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I tasted the meat scraps after they’d been boiled again, and there was no flavor left in them.  I suppose there was protein, and I racked my brain to think of some way of using them that would be tasty, but at that point I was too tired to come up with anything.  So the scraps went out to the woods with Dennis the next day, where they will feed some other critter, maybe a bear.  (If we put such things in our trash at home, the resident bear strews all the garbage all over the driveway.)

It was a long day of cooking and canning (I also made 7 quarts of venison chili and canned it) but since I had fresh potato peels from my new potatoes, I decided to try something I’d read about on Facebook.  I pressed my potato peels between paper towels to get the excess moisture out, then scattered them on a baking sheet.  I drizzled them with a little olive oil, maybe a tablespoon, and sprinkled with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper, and a little onion powder.  Then I put them in the oven at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes and stirred them once.  I almost forgot about them, and a few got a little dark, but oh boy, are these things good!  Better than potato chips!  It tickled me to use something I’d have thrown in the compost otherwise.  As far as nutrition goes, most of whatever a potato has is in the skin, but unfortunately, that’s also where most of the pesticide residue is on commercially-grown potatoes.  Not mine!

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I saved the carrot peels from my garden carrots, along with the cut ends of the onions, in a freezer bag for the next batch of stock I’ll make, which will probably be bear stock.  I’ve got a bear in the freezer to cook up over the winter!

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Canning, Fermenting, Recipes

Waste Not, Want Not

I grew up with that adage.  We had very little, so it was important not to waste what we did have, although I can’t say that as a child, I never wanted anything.  However, with those lessons in my pocket, I’ve learned to make things with what I once would have thrown away.  This post is about a couple of those things:  fruit vinegar and pectin stock.  And I’m not talking about steeping fruit or herbs in store-bought vinegar.  I’m talking about making vinegar from scratch.

For years, I threw away the apple peelings and cores from my applesauce and apple pie making.   I didn’t throw them in the garbage; they always went in the compost pile.  But still, I wasn’t utilizing them as I’ve since learned to do.  I’ve learned to make vinegar, really good vinegar, with my apple scraps.  I’ve also learned that other fruit scraps make delicious, exotic-tasting vinegars as well.

Apple is my basic vinegar-making fruit.  I use a lot of apple cider vinegar.  I like the taste of it for salads and in cooking, fruity and slightly sweet.  The idea that I could make vinegar from my apple scraps lit me up like a Christmas tree.  I made my first try in 2009, with peelings and cores from the first good crop of apples from our little tree in the garden.  That first batch of vinegar was rich and dark and delicious, and I was hooked.  I’ve experimented since then with other fruits as well:  peach, plum, grape, and blackberry.   Here’s the easy process for making vinegar from fruit scraps.  There are more difficult ways to do this, and you can add ingredients like sugar, but why bother when this method works reliably?  First, the basic instructions for apple, and then some tips for making other fruit vinegars, and finally, apple pectin stock for jelly-making.

Apple Scrap Vinegar

Allow your apple peelings, cores, and scraps to brown for several hours.  (This is convenient, because if you’re like me, you’re making applesauce or apple butter or apple pie filling, which is why you have the peels in the first place!)  Wash out a large jar and fill it with browned apple scraps. Don’t cram or crowd the jar but fill within a couple of inches of the neck; cover scraps with distilled water if your water is chlorinated.  Cover the jar with several thicknesses of cheesecloth, nylon tulle, or any other clean, breathable fabric you have on hand.  Secure the cloth around the neck of the jar with a rubber band, or if the fabric is not too thick, the ring portion of a 2-part canning lid.  This keeps fruit flies out of your vinegar-to-be.  Place the jar on a plate to catch any overflow during fermentation.

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You can leave the jar on your counter, on a shelf in the cupboard, anywhere out of direct sunlight but where you will remember to stir it every day.

And that’s it.  Stir it every day.  Let it sit.  In a few days or a week, you’ll notice some bubbling.  If you filled the jar a little too full, it might even bubble over onto the plate. If so, clean up the plate and outside of the jar, stir down the contents, and replace the cloth on top of the jar with a clean one.  (The only fruit that caused overflow for me was grapes, and I filled the jar too full to handle the amount of fermentation.)

In a week or so after fermentation begins, a grayish scum will begin to form on the top of the liquid in your jars.  This is the “mother” or “mother-of-vinegar” and it looks nasty but is just part of the process.  It’s hard to believe that this scum is what makes that beautiful clear amber liquid, but it does.  If any scraps float to the top of the jar and become moldy, fish them out.  But don’t let a couple of moldy scraps freak you out, because as the vinegar acidifies, it kills off any mold.  After a few weeks, you’ll begin to notice a vinegary smell coming from the jar.  You can stop stirring at this point and let the acidification process work.  When it smells good and strong, usually at least a month or maybe two, it’s time to taste.

Stir the jar once more and then strain the vinegar from the apple peels by pouring it all through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a clean glass bowl.  Let the peels drip for a couple of hours to get all the liquid off of them.  You can mash a little—it’s fine.  Don’t worry about any small particles still left in the vinegar.  You’re going to strain again, later.  When the vinegar has settled, pour a small amount into a spoon and taste it. It should taste strongly acidic and just slightly sweet.  If it isn’t strong enough, pour the vinegar back into the jar that held the peels and cover it once again with the cloth.  (You don’t need to put the peels back in the jar, just the vinegar.)  Let it sit for another week or longer, until the taste satisfies you.  The vinegar will continue to acidify as long as it has air because it is a living organism.  The “mother” will probably re-form.  This is a good sign that your vinegar is alive and working and will be very healthful when you begin to use it.

When the vinegar is strong enough to suit your taste, prepare your bottles.  These must be glass, and should have plastic or rubber stoppers, not metal.  (I use old olive oil bottles, lemonade bottles, any glass bottle with a plastic stopper.  Olive oil bottles with metal caps lined with plastic work fine.  Do not use cork.)  The bottles and stoppers should be washed in hot, soapy water and then immersed in boiling water for 10 minutes.   This sterilizes the bottles and will allow your raw vinegar to keep indefinitely.  (I just used up the last of my 2009 batch, and it was as good as the day I bottled it.)

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Strain the vinegar through several layers of cheesecloth or nylon tulle.  Pour into cooled, dry bottles and stopper tightly.  If you bottled your vinegar in clear bottles, it’s best to store them away from light.  Do not worry if the mother forms in the bottom of the bottles.  In fact, if you wish to, you can save the mother and add it to your next batch of vinegar the following year, speeding up the fermentation process.  Some people swear by the health-giving properties of mother-of-vinegar.  One sufferer from rheumatoid arthritis told me that the mother was helpful for reducing inflammation when applied to the joint.

You can follow this basic process with any fruit scraps to create exotic vinegars.  I have successfully made both peach and grape vinegars from peach peelings and grape skins leftover from jam-making.  With peelings from peaches that have been scalded to remove the skin more easily, it’s important to also add a few scraps, the bruises work fine, to the jar.  Scalding kills some of the enzymes or bacteria that start fermentation.  It might also be helpful to add a little sugar to the jar.  This year, I added a tablespoon of organic palm sugar to a quart jar of peach peelings to jump start fermentation, and it seems to have worked well.  Grapes will ferment readily on their own.  Make sure to give them a little extra room in the jar.  Currently, I also have plum pit vinegar and blackberry vinegar started.  For the plums, I used the pits of Santa Rosa red plums that were left from jam-making.  They are not freestones, so there was quite a bit of flesh left on the pits.  I put all the pits in a large jar and covered them liberally with distilled water.  This jar has developed a mother on top and is smelling like vinegar.  I started this jar on August 8th.  For the blackberry vinegar I started last week, I crushed two cups of my blackberries in a quart jar with a wooden spoon and covered them with about two and half cups of distilled water.  I also added the dregs, about two teaspoons, of two bottles of red wine, just because it seemed like a good idea.

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Always use distilled water for vinegar-making.  One year, I forgot to buy distilled water prior to apple processing day, and I didn’t have time to run to town to get any.  I used tap water.  I learned why I shouldn’t use tap water.  We have good well water, but it is hard, with a high mineral content.  The vinegar worked just fine, but the minerals caused it to be cloudy.  It took two years in the bottle to clarify, but it tastes good.

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What to do with the leftover peelings after the vinegar has drained away?  Now they go to the compost pile.  If I still raised chickens and pigs, they’d get a treat, but instead, I’m feeding the worms that feed my garden.  There’s small-scale environmental justice for you.

Apple Pectin Stock

I also use my apple cores and apple peelings for apple pectin stock.  Apples contain large amounts of natural pectin, which is why they used to be added to other fruits to help get a thicker preserve.  Crabapples in particular are rich in pectin, and there were many fruit and crabapple blends to be found on pioneer pantry shelves.  Besides crabapples, green apples contain the most pectin; so a good pie apple, like Pippin, Granny Smith, or my favorite, Gravenstein, will also make the best pectin stock.  Convenient, yes?  Apple pectin stock can be added to fruits that don’t have enough pectin on their own to set up in a jam or jelly, or fruits which must be peeled before preserving, such as peaches or mangoes, thus affecting the set.  Apple pectin stock is easy to make.  Here’s how I do it.

As the cores (and peels, when the vinegar-making jars are full) come off the peeler (we use the kind that peels and cores and slices at the same time), I drop them into a pot with acidulated water.  This is just water with several tablespoons of lemon juice added.  You can use bottled lemon juice for this, no need to squeeze fresh.  The lemon juice helps to keep the cores from browning.  Some browning is inevitable, but you don’t want your pectin stock brown if you can help it because it will darken the color of any light-colored fruit you add it to for jelling purposes.  Put just enough water in the pan to cover the cores, and as you have to add water, add a tablespoon more lemon juice for every couple of cups of water.

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When the pot is full, and you’ve cored all your apples, bring the pot to the boil and cook for about 20-30 min., or until the cores are tender.  Then strain the liquid through a fine-mesh wire strainer lined with a couple of layers of cheesecloth, nylon tulle, a tea-towel, a jellybag, or an old cotton pillowcase that you’ve dedicated for this purpose.   The liquid will be beige or a pale brown, and slightly viscous.  It will look and feel slick.  That’s what you want; it’s how you know you’ve extracted the pectin from the cores and peels.

When the liquid has all drained through, stir it and then it can be packaged for the freezer in 1 or 2 cup measures.  I use quart ziplock storage bags for this.  I lay them out on a cookie sheet in the freezer until they have frozen hard and flat, then gather them into gallon storage bags before I stash them on the fruit shelf.  This way, I have pectin stock all ready for next spring and summer’s jelly-making.  I add it to diced peaches for peach jam, and it sets up beautifully.  I’ve added it to wine for making wine jelly.  It can be used as a substitute for commercial pectins whenever the peel of a fruit has to be removed before jam or jelly-making.  Today, I used it for making jalapeno jelly, as pictured below.  I was surprised by how clear the jelly came out.  The color of the jelly comes from the nine  Santa Rosa plums I added instead of food coloring.  The plum skins also helped add pectin to the ingredients of the jelly, which have no pectin on their own.

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I love being able to use something I once threw away, like fruit scraps.  To me, finding a use for every bit I possibly can is wise stewardship of the resources I’ve been blessed with.  When I use my scraps, I’m respecting the earth that grew this food.  I’m giving thanks to the God who made me capable of picking, preparing, and preserving this food.   And I know that what I’ve made is healthful because I know exactly what went into my vinegars and jams.  No GMOs in this stuff!

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