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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Canning, Recipes

Life Is Like a Bowl of . . . Blackberries

Picking wild blackberries requires some special preparations.  You have to be dressed properly, and you need the right equipment.  There are some rules to follow.  You have to accept the risks involved, but there are rewards, like blackberry cordial, blackberry syrup, and blackberry jelly.

Dressing down is must when picking blackberries:  your oldest jeans, a sturdy long-sleeved shirt that you won’t cry over if it gets snagged, a hat, thick socks, and boots or tough athletic shoes.  Why all these precautions?  Because there just might be no thornier plant than a wild blackberry.

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Where I grew up, on the northern California coast, two kinds of wild blackberries grow.  The true, wild blackberry is a small-leaved, thin, trailing vine that produces a small, sweet, yet tangy berry.  They are getting hard to find because the other “wild” blackberry, the ones I grew up picking and calling Himalaya blackberries, are taking over and choking out the original wild blackberry.  And it’s far too late to eradicate the Himalaya berries, so we might as well enjoy what they produce.  What they produce is twelve- foot-long runner canes armored with half-inch long, wickedly curved thorns, and large, delicious, sweet blackberries.  If it were possible to wear gloves while picking these blackberries, I’d recommend it, because just about every surface of the plant is lined with thorns, large and small, not just the canes.  The bearing spurs are covered with thorns, the veins down the middle of the leaves are lined with thorns, and each little berry stem is coated with them.  There is no way to avoid being scratched when you are picking these berries.  That’s one of the risks you accept when you decide to harvest blackberries.

As far as I can tell, these are the berries which grow in my garden, and therein lies a tale.  When we moved into our house 27 years ago, I found blackberry plants in the flower garden.  What gives? I thought.  I moved them into the garden proper along the fence and fought the roots in the flower garden (I still am digging them up!) while I tried to nurture the ones I’d transplanted.  They never really got enough water until I expanded the garden and began to water areas I’d never paid a whole lot of attention to before.  Suddenly, after 15 years of producing only a few small, sour berries I left for the birds, those blackberry vines took off.  Now they cover a twenty foot section of garden fence, and I pick between 6-10 gallons of berries from them every year, with a lot more going to the birds.

For a month, while the berries are ripening and I am picking, my hands look like I practice self-torture.  There’s no way to avoid it.  If I don’t get out early enough in the morning, before it gets so hot that I can’t tolerate a long-sleeved shirt, my arms look the same way.  And my legs.  So there’s one of the rules for successful blackberrying.  Pick while it’s cool, so you can dress properly.

The sturdy shoes are important because you may have to climb a ladder or step inside the patch to pick the best berries.  The best berries, the largest, sweetest, and ripest, are always just that step, that stretch, away.  It’s a challenge to try to get inside the patch without doing too much damage to it.  In the wild on the coast, nobody cares; there are so many berries, a little temporary damage doesn’t matter.  And if you want to see damage, just look at a blackberry patch after a bear has been through it!  But it’s a different call when you’re picking your own patch.  You don’t want to do anything to lessen the harvest next year.  So you need the right tools.

I already mentioned a ladder.  It’s an essential.  When I was a kid, we’d drag old boards to the patch and set them up like bridges, so we could “walk the plank” to the highest and best berries.  If I tried that now, I’d end up face-planted in the patch for sure, and believe me, a blackberry patch is no place to fall into.  Besides the ladder, a hook is useful, like this one.

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My handyman husband fashioned this hook for me last year.  It’s useful for bringing the fruiting spurs toward you to pick, so you don’t have to lean too far out over all those thorns.  (I also used it for picking apples from the top of my little tree last year.)  If you don’t have any wire handy, a straightened coat hanger will work.  And you need a bucket or a wide-bottomed bowl to put your berries in.  It’s important that your container have a stable bottom, because the worst thing in the world is to put all that effort into picking those delicious berries, just to have them spill in the dirt, or worse, in the middle of the patch where you can’t get to them to pick them up again.  Whatever you use to hold your berries while picking, if you can have both hands free, it’s a bonus.

When you are surrounded by plants which can protect themselves, and it’s amazing how blackberries do that, sending out huge, thick runner canes which grow over the blossoms after they’ve been pollinated, effectively creating a thorny fence fit to keep a princess from all comers, balance is key.  Obviously, physical balance is important.  Do not fall into the blackberry canes!

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But there’s another kind of balance, and it has to do with risk and reward.

As I said before, the biggest, juiciest, ripest, best berries are always going to be just out of reach.  You can try to go after them; you can even get a few of them, but at some point, you have to realize that some of them will remain out of reach.  Accept this.  If you don’t, bad things befall.  (There’s that word again.)  There’s a line between giving it your best effort and becoming obsessive.  I have stopped asking Dennis to help me pick blackberries because he simply cannot avoid the obsession.  He can’t let those very top, very best berries go.  He’ll chop his way through the patch if he has to, sacrificing berries now green which will be nearly as good as those few he can’t reach, just to get to the biggest ones.  He’ll waste a gallon of future berries to get a pint of the best.  I can’t justify it.  Sometimes, you have to let those berries go.  Leave them to the birds.  They’ll enjoy what you can’t reach, and the berries won’t be wasted.

Finally, if that perfect blackberry drops into your cupped palm, the one so sweet and juicy just the slightest pressure would have it bursting in your hand, there’s only one thing to do.  Pop it into your mouth.

It strikes me that picking blackberries is a lot like life.  You have to dress appropriately for the job, make sure you have the right tools, reach for your goals, but keep your balance and perspective.  Play by the rules, and you’ll be okay.  Go too far, and you’ll incur damage of one kind or another.  And you have to stop and enjoy the gift of the moment as well as the rewards of your labors.  You can see what kinds of things I think about when I’m out picking blackberries.

Here are two wonderful old recipes I’m delighted to share, and a hint about where to find another.  The first is a recipe my sister’s father-in-law gave me twenty years ago.  He had been making blackberry cordial from this recipe for at least thirty years before he gave it to me.  I have no idea where he got the recipe, but this stuff is delicious!

Tip’s Blackberry Cordial

9 cups blackberry juice

2 cups sugar

3 cups vodka or brandy

Bring blackberry juice and sugar to low boil and simmer for 8 minutes.  Cool for 10 minutes and add vodka or brandy.  Pour into clean bottles (brandy or vodka bottles work well for this) and cap tightly.  Stores indefinitely.

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The next recipe is one I’ve used for over 30 years.  It was given to me by a friend from the church we attended in Klamath, CA, for several years.

Ruth’s Blackberry Syrup

1 cup juice or crushed fruit

1 cup light corn syrup

1 cup sugar

Bring all ingredients to a hard boil; boil for 30 seconds.  Pour into hot, sterilized jars.  Process 5 min. in boiling water bath to seal.

This year, I plan to try replacing the corn syrup in this recipe with agave nectar.  To do that, I’ll reduce the sugar to ¾ cup, so the basic ratio would be 1 c. blackberry juice, ¾ c. sugar, 1 c. agave nectar.  This recipe works well with all kinds of fruit juices.  I have made it with raspberry and strawberry as well.  For strawberry, simply puree the fruit very finely but do not strain it.

For the best blackberry jelly without pectin and half the sugar, try Liana Krissoff’s “Old Fashioned Blackberry Jelly” in her book, Canning for a New Generation.  This jelly tastes amazingly fresh and fruity because the recipe calls for just enough sugar to sweeten, not overwhelm, the blackberry flavor.

I hope you’re lucky enough to find a patch of wild blackberries to pick.  For me, there is no sweeter fruit than a sun-warmed blackberry just plucked off that thorny stem.

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Canning, Recipes, Uncategorized

Pickles with Joel

It used to be pickles for Joel, because he likes these pickles so much.  My kids grew up eating home-canned pickles, jellies and jams, sauerkraut, green beans, all kinds of fruits, salmon, smoked fish, and venison.  But there were years in their adolescence when I was going to school, commuting 300-450 miles a week, and I didn’t do much canning.  My garden shrank to a couple of herb beds and 6 tomato plants each summer.  After Joel was married, he asked me to show him how to make the kosher dills he grew up loving.  “I’ll buy the pickling cucumbers, Mom, and I’ll help you,” he said.  And that’s how I got started making pickles again, with Joel’s help.

In time, I expanded my garden space and began to grow pickling cucumbers again.  Not a lot, because they take a lot of room, so I don’t make a lot of pickles.  Maybe only a dozen jars or so over the season, just enough to always have a supply on hand for family feasts or to put in tuna salad.  When my husband built my little greenhouse two years ago, I was able to start a big batch of pickling cucumbers for Joel, who by this time had his own garden.  Last year, for Christmas, I gave Joel his own water bath canner so he wouldn’t have to borrow mine (well, mostly so that I wouldn’t have to go over to his house to get mine back after he’d borrowed it).  He has made pickles and dilly beans, two of his favorite things, by himself, but this past week, I suggested a joint pickling session.  We’d returned from a short family vacation to the coast and found we both had cucumbers ready to pickle.  That’s how Joel came to be in my kitchen again, loading jars, and saying things like, “Oh, you pour boiling water on your lids?  I didn’t remember that.  I think I sterilized my jars, but I don’t think I gave it ten minutes.  I was in a hurry.”  So I guess it was time for another pickling lesson after all.

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Pickling cucumbers are easy to grow.  They need 4-6 feet of space in which to sprawl, though, so if your garden space is limited, it might be best to buy your cucumbers. You can buy pickling cucumbers at large grocery stores or farmer’s markets, so if you have a yen for a crunchy, homemade kosher dill, get a few cukes and give Joel’s favorite pickle recipe a try.  It makes the easiest and tastiest pickle I’ve ever come across.

Kosher Dills

Scrub cucumbers and soak for 1-2 hrs. in ice water bath before processing.  My mother always said this helps makes the pickle crisper, but I only do it when the pickles are warm from the garden.  If I’ve picked them and stored them in the fridge for a day or so, I sometimes skip the ice water bath.

Always choose the smallest cukes you can find.  They will make the crispest pickles.  But if, like me, you grow your own and a few get outsized on you, just cut them into spears.  They won’t be as crisp as the smaller ones, but you can just save the spears for chopping up in tuna and potato salad and the like.  I have also put a few spears into the food processor for a whirl when I wanted dill relish, for hamburgers, for instance.

Start water heating in water bath canner.  Wash jars and sterilize by boiling them for 10 min.  Keep hot in water bath canner while you finish getting cucumbers ready.

Dry cukes after ice bath and cut off blossom ends.  Pack hot, sterilized jars (either quarts or pints) with cukes.

Mix brine and bring to boil:  3 cups water, 1 cup vinegar, ¼ cup salt.

Pour boiling water over flats and keep warm on low heat.

To each quart jar, add 1 clove of peeled garlic, 1 head fresh dill or 1 tablespoon dried dill seeds, and ½ teaspoon powdered alum (for pints, use ¼ teaspoon alum and ½ tablespoon dried dill seeds in each jar).  (See note on alum below.) If you like spicy dills, you can add a serrano or jalapeno pepper to each jar as well.  I have also added whole peppercorns, a teaspoon per jar, more if you like more spice.

As soon as brine comes to the boil, ladle it over filled jars.  (Do not let brine continue to boil. It will boil the vinegar away, which will result in a weak brine, which can result in spoilage.)  Top jars with heated flats and clean rings.  Place loaded jars in canner and cover.  Boil for 10 minutes, starting timer after water returns to full boil.  (See note on processing time below.)

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Remove jars to clean towel. Place jars at least two inches apart to cool and do not touch them or the lids until they are completely cooled, at least 12 hrs.  If lids haven’t sealed (and you can tell if they have sealed if the dimple in the middle is indented, and if you can’t lift the flat by prying gently with a fingernail), you can refrigerate the jars.  Let unsealed jars sit in fridge for at least 1 month before opening.  Let sealed jars pickle for at least 3 months before opening.  If you live in a very humid climate, it’s best to store your jars with the rings removed.  Otherwise, they can rust onto the jar and be difficult to get off. Never stack your jars one on top of the other.  The seals can be damaged by the weight of the top jar.

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Notes:

Alum is a crisping agent.  It’s getting hard to find these days.  I used to get it at Safeway, but the last time I looked, it wasn’t there.  Not enough people are making homemade pickles these days!  I finally found it at WinCo in Reno last year.  In the meantime, I picked up some Pickle Crisp at our local WalMart store.  This is a brand of calcium chloride, another crisping agent which you use just like alum, adding it to each jar individually.  (Don’t use both alum and calcium chloride, use one or the other, and follow the directions on the jar for Pickle Crisp!)  I made four jars this last pickling session with Pickle Crisp to test it.  It should be a good test, because the cukes were pretty big, so if Pickle Crisp can help them, it will be a bonus.  It’ll be three months, at least, before I open a jar to taste them.  Other people add a grape leaf to each jar.  Grape leaves contain tannis which act as a crisping agent.  I don’t have access to grape leaves, so I haven’t tried this.  But here’s the deal:  If you get small pickling cucumbers, you will not need a crisping agent.  You can forego the alum or calcium chloride or grape leaves  altogether with this fresh pack, short process, “pickle in the jar” recipe.

Processing time:  Processing time refers to the time the food item spends immersed in a boiling water bath (or fully charged pressure canner).  That’s why you have to count the time from the moment the water returns to a boil after the jars go into the canner.  The original Kosher Dills recipe, which I got from my mother, who got it from a friend when I was a teenager, and which has been used in my family for 40 years, called for no processing.  That’s right.  You just covered the cukes in the boiling brine, slapped those hot flats on, screwed down the rings really tight, and put the jars away once they’d cooled.  The jars weren’t supposed to seal because the brine is supposedly acidic enough and salty enough to kill off any bad bacteria, and botulism needs an air-tight environment to germinate.  I ate pickles and sauerkraut made this way for at least ten years.  Then I had children, one of them with a sour tooth, and suddenly, this method didn’t seem so safe.

I have experimented with processing times, and I’ve read a lot of pickle recipes.  The least amount of processing time I’ve ever seen for a fresh-pack pickle is 10 minutes.  Last year, I made this recipe using processing times of 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and 15 minutes.  15 minutes results in a mushy pickle.  The 5 minute pickles were crisp and delicious, but I worried about letting my grandkids eat them, even though I felt no ill effects when I tested them.  The 10 minute pickles were also very good, with the spears a little mushier than those in the 5 minute jars, but the small pickles were just as good.  So I am processing all my pickles at 10 minutes this year, and my mind is easy about letting my little ones eat them.  The mind is a funny thing.

One last note about processing times:  If you live at altitude, you are supposed to add minutes to your processing times, depending on far above sea level you are.  Here’s a link that explains how much time you add based on what you are canning and your altitude:  http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/adjustments-for-highaltitude-canning.html.  I don’t do this with the Kosher Dills or my jellies and jams, so I suppose my 10 minute processed pickles are actually more like 6 minute pickles, but again, the mind is a funny thing, and I’m okay with it.  Go figure.

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