Fermenting, Uncategorized

Kombucha for Chickens

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Some of you will think I’m crazy.  But I’ve tested my theory several times, and each time I’ve found it to be true.  When I give my chickens a little kombucha several times a week, their eggs are almost completely clean. When the kombucha is withheld for several days, the eggs get poopy.

First off, some folks might not know what kombucha is.  Kombucha is fermented tea.  It’s fermented with some particular strains of bacteria.  You can make kombucha at home using raw, unflavored kombucha purchased in a health food store or obtained from someone who makes her own kombucha.  If you are interested in doing that, here’s the link I used to start my kombucha and SCOBY.  (The SCOBY is what grows in the kombucha.  The kombucha is the fermented tea that you drink.)  Kombucha is probiotic, very good for your gut.  And presumably, for a chicken’s gut.  Did you know they actually make probiotics for chickens? Yeah, that’s a thing. Some people buy probiotics for their chickens.  Some people feed them yogurt regularly.  I feed mine a little kombucha several times a week. And they love it.

I make my kombucha with green or white tea, mostly.  I have not ever given my chickens any kombucha made with black tea, because I want to keep the caffeine levels as low as possible.  Kombucha generally contains about a third of the caffeine in the tea it’s made from. Green or white tea contains less caffeine than black tea, thus the kombucha made from green or white tea contains less caffeine too.

Now, I’ve done a little research, and caffeine is apparently toxic to chickens (as it is to dogs). You’re not supposed to give them chocolate, tea bags, or coffee beans (I don’t know why anybody would, but nevertheless, you shouldn’t.)  However, many people do allow their chickens access to freshly brewed coffee grounds dumped in the compost pile, and these folks report no ill effects from the chickens eating the coffee grounds.  From what I understand from my reading, minute amounts of caffeine in things like spent coffee grounds doesn’t seem to hurt them.  I think small amounts of kombucha is probably the same. (You’re also not supposed to let chickens eat apple seeds, but mine ate windfall apples in the orchard all last fall. And when they eat an apple, they don’t leave anything but the stem.) So I think we can use an ounce of common sense here along with the kombucha.

I don’t give my four chickens a lot of kombucha at any one time, and I give it to them mixed with some scratch grains.  I put the scratch, about 1/3 cup or so, in an old pan, and pour on about a tablespoon of kombucha, or enough to just moisten the scratch.  I swirl and toss that around to coat all the scratch in the kombucha, and I let it sit for a minute to absorb the kombucha while I’m getting out their laying pellets.  I feed those separately.  They get the scratch/kombucha supplement about every other day.

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How was it that I began giving kombucha to my chickens in the first place?  In the summer of 2015, I was trying fermented feed for the chickens, for the probiotic effect, and I was using kombucha as a starter, mixing it in with their pellets and scratch and letting it ferment for 3 or 4 days before I gave it to them.  But with colder fall temps, fermenting the feed in the unheated pumphouse wasn’t working.  And it was another task when I really didn’t need another task. Then I thought, why bother with all that?  I have lots of kombucha, and it is easy to make more if I need it.  I could just keep a jar of it with their feed to mix with their scratch.

I did a little reading, noticing that many people reported giving their excess kombucha SCOBYs to their chickens, and I’ve done that too.  The chickens eat them like worms. No one reported any problems, and the SCOBYs retain quite a bit of kombucha in their layers. So I figured, why not?

I started noticing, a week or so after I began the kombucha regimen, that the eggs were clean.  Not just cleaner, but clean.  Rarely did I even get a little streak or smear of poop on an egg.  The majority of my eggs were pristine, like they’d been washed.  The change was noticeable, because they were pretty poopy before.  So I had nice, clean eggs all fall and into the winter.

In late winter, I came down with a bad case of influenza.  The old-fashioned stuff.  I was sick, really sick, for over a month.  During that time, Dennis took over feeding the chickens, and I hadn’t told him about the kombucha.  Didn’t even think about it until I was well enough to scramble myself an egg.  And then I noticed that the eggs were poopy again.

I told Dennis about the kombucha/scratch combo, and he started doing it.  Within a couple of days, the eggs were clean again.  No fooling.

Since then, we’ve had chicken minders for a week or so, at least three times, while we were gone on vacation.  I never tell them about the kombucha or ask them to do it because I don’t want the chickens getting too much kombucha. You never know how well people are actually listening when you tell them how to do something. Each time when we’ve returned, the eggs are poopy.  And each time, after a few days back on the booch, the eggs are clean again when I gather them.

The last time we left, the neighbor boy who was minding the chickens put a half-pan of dry scratch in the run for the hens so they had 24/7 access to it, something I never do, but it proved one thing to me.  It’s definitely the kombucha, not the scratch, that’s keeping those eggs clean.  I’d had a slight, niggling doubt about that, but this time was the clincher. I had poopy eggs for two days after we got back, until those chickens got some kombucha back in their systems.

In the first picture below, you can see that the eggs are very clean.  I don’t wash my eggs until I use them, if I need to wash them.  (If you have backyard chickens, you know why, but for those who don’t:  the reason you don’t wash eggs until you want to use them is that when the chicken lays the egg, it comes out with a protective coating that seals the shell and prolongs the life of the egg inside.  Store-bought eggs are washed, and they have shorter shelf lives than unwashed backyard eggs.) In the second photo, I’ve tried to take a close-up of the only egg in this carton (gathered over about a week’s time) that has any sign of poop on it.  It’s just a faint dark smear (not the reddish speckles–that is just pigment in the shell), and might not even be poop.  It could just be a smear of dirt from a chicken foot.  This is typical for my eggs when the chickens are getting kombucha at least three times a week.

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Kombucha for chickens makes cleaner eggs.  I don’t know why.  I could speculate, but I don’t know enough about the anatomy or digestive system of a chicken.  I just know it works.

 

 

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Canning, Recipes

All-Natural Cinnamon Pears in Brown Sugar Syrup

Although my mother never canned her pears with cinnamon candies, I remember eating some that someone else had canned.  They were a pretty, rosy color, but awfully sweet.  I’ve never been fond of overly-sweet, and I’ve become less so the older I get.  I usually can my pears in a light syrup, and a couple of years ago, I tried a recipe I found online, pears in a brown sugar syrup with ginger matchsticks.  (You can find that recipe, and several others that I still like very much, on my Pears, Pears, Pears post.) Gingered pears sound good, right?  Well, they were, the first year.  Typically, home-canned fruit is good for years (and yes, I’ve eaten fruit ten years in the jar that still tasted good, so I know whereof I speak).  But after the first year with the gingered pears, I found that the ginger didn’t taste good, and I didn’t like the flavor of the pears all that much either.  But I really liked the brown sugar syrup for a couple of reasons that I’ll go into below.

I didn’t have time to go out and forage like I normally do, so I didn’t think I was going to can pears this year. But when I was gifted some pears by my brother and sister-in-law this week, I decided to try something a little different.  I already knew I was going to use the brown sugar syrup, and here’s one reason why.  I like the flavor of the brown sugar with the pears, kind of caramel-y.  But the other reason has to do with darkening of the fruit.

I always treat my pears before canning them, with either acidulated water (about 3 tablespoons of lemon juice to a half-gallon of water), or with Fruit Fresh.  If I use Fruit Fresh, I use about a tablespoon to a half-gallon of water.  This works well to prevent darkening for a while, but I am so slow these days with any task requiring any manual dexterity (my hands are badly damaged by arthritis), the fruit still darkens a bit despite the pretreating.  Brown sugar syrup hides any darkening.  The fruit looks pretty in the jars, pretty in a bowl, and tastes delicious.  So, a brown sugar syrup it is.

At this point, I have to interject a comment about a tool.  Years ago, I found this little gadget in a box of kitchen tools in an antique store.  I’m always trolling through those, looking for old vegetable peelers.  (My favorite peeler is in the picture below.  The old ones are so much sharper than the kind you can buy now.)  I picked up the unfamiliar tool and looked and looked at it, wondering what it was.  And then the shape told me.  It is a pear corer.  Pears can’t be cored on an apple corer.  They are too soft, and the shape is wrong.  I’ve only ever been able to do it properly with a small paring knife like the one in the photo, and it is so hard on my hands.  I bought the pear corer and stashed it in a drawer and forgot about it.  I found it last winter when I was boxing up the kitchen cabinets and drawers in preparation for the kitchen remodel.  I made a mental note to try it if I did get any pears to can this year.  And I’m here to tell you, be on the lookout for one of these.  It worked beautifully!  After I cut the fruit in half lengthwise, the narrow end of the corer scraped out the blossom scar on the bottom and removed the strings that run down to the core from the stem.  (Canning books tell you remove them because they will darken in the jar and look unattractive.)  The large end scoops out the core like a melon baller.

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Now, back to the syrup.  As I was looking up the processing time for pears in my old Ball Blue Book, my eye lit on that old recipe for Cinnamon Pears using the cinnamon candies.  I’m not a fan of adding artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives to my home-canned foods, but cinnamon pears sounded so good. And then a light bulb flashed on above my head.  Why not add cinnamon sticks to my brown sugar syrup?

But, here’s the thing.  You can’t can cinnamon sticks in anything in a hot water bath process, and I’m not even sure it would be safe to can them in a pressure canner.  I knew that if I was going to infuse any cinnamon into my syrup, it was going to have to simmer for a while.  So I made up my light syrup (2 cups of brown sugar, light or dark, to 1 quart of water), added five whole cinnamon sticks (unbroken, to keep any small pieces out of the pears), brought it to a boil, and then simmered it until I was ready to add the pears to briefly cook them for a hot pack.  My syrup ended up simmering with the lid on for at least an hour.  When I needed to make another batch of syrup, I just reused those same cinnamon sticks.  (And I saved them and put them in the freezer to add to a batch of chai kombucha I’ll be making in a week or so.)

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The pears I was canning looked green but were sweet and tasty, and I think I could have gone with an extra-light syrup (1 cup of brown sugar to 1 quart of water). And before you wig out too much about the sugar in the syrups that you can fruit in, remember that sugar is a preservative, and if you are canning enough fruit to last for a couple of years (I usually do), it’s better to use a light, rather than extra-light, syrup.  If your fruit is tart (like the red plums I did last year in extra-light syrup), a light syrup is better.  As a young friend of mine recently found out, canning fruit in water results in a not-so-tasty product that has a much shorter shelf life.

Here they are:  pears in brown sugar and cinnamon syrup.  I’ve already opened the little jar to taste, and need I say it?  Well, yeah, I have to. YUM! Sweet, but not too sweet, with that caramel flavor of brown sugar and the warming spice of cinnamon. As for the cinnamon, five sticks gave a cinnamon flavor, but not very strong.  Next time, I might put in a couple more.  If you do, let me know.

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Oh, and don’t throw away that delicious syrup.  You can add it to selzer water for a fabulous spritzer.  (That’s what I did last night, after my canning session.) For a cocktail, I think a shot of rum with a little of that syrup might be really good.  You could add fizzy water to that, too.  Or you can reduce the syrup and put it on pancakes or waffles.  Mmmm.  I might do that with the syrup I saved from the little jar.

As a bonus, I saved the pear peelings and cores for a small batch of pear vinegar.  I made some a few years ago, and it was one of the best vinegars I’ve ever made.  If you’re interested in vinegar-making, see my Waste Not, Want Not post.

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Main dishes, Recipes, Side dishes, Uncategorized

Mediterranean Farro Salad

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Farro, also known as emmer wheat, is an ancient grain.  I bought some organic farro a while back, and have been developing the recipe for this salad through trial but not error—all iterations were delicious. Farro is high in fiber, protein, some minerals, and B vitamins. While it is lower in gluten than other types of wheat, it does still contain some gluten. (If you want to try a gluten-free version, I think quinoa would work nicely with the salad ingredients. Brown rice would probably also be delicious.)  Farro is nutty, with a firm, slightly chewy texture. For more about farro’s nutritional value, here’s a link:  https://draxe.com/farro.

I really like this salad for several reasons.  It’s one of those dishes that’s really versatile and can be served cold or at room temperature, so it’s perfect for potlucks and outdoor summer  suppers. The recipe below has Greek influences, but I’ve also made it with Italian flavors, and it’s equally delicious that way.  I also like the fact that it is can be a cold, main vegetarian dish or a side dish.  This variation is meatless, but it would be easy to add some cold roasted chicken or lamb, or even a bit of grilled flank steak to increase the protein (in which case you’d want to chill it and keep it cold until serving).  Add some baby spinach for more veggie content.  Or how about some grilled or roasted marinated eggplant?  Fresh zucchini cubes or slices?  Grilled zucchini planks, ribboned? So many possibilities!

And now, to the recipe/s!

Mediterranean Farro Salad

3-4 cups cooked farro (approximately)

1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced

1 red, yellow, or orange pepper, diced (or a combination of all three colors is pretty)

¼ cup red onion, diced

½ cup sliced Kalamata olives

½ cup diced sun-dried tomatoes (or fresh grape tomatoes, halved, or diced Romas)

½ cup crumbled feta cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (optional)

1/3 cup Greek salad dressing (see link below)

First, cook the farro.  What follows are the package directions for the farro I bought.  There are different varieties of farro, so be sure to follow the directions on your package if they are different than these.

1 cup farro grains (makes 3-4 cups of cooked farro)

3 cups lightly salted water (1/2 teaspoon sea salt is what I used)

Bring water to a boil, add the farro, bring back to a boil, reduce heat to medium low, and partially cover with a lid.  Cook farro, stirring frequently, for approximately 30 minutes, or until all water has been absorbed.  (At my altitude, it takes 40 minutes.) Remove from heat and allow to cool.  Stir occasionally while cooling.  While the farro is cooling, prepare salad dressing and salad vegetables.

I used this simple recipe for Greek salad dressing, and I really liked it:  http://www.simplyscratch.com/2010/11/my-big-fat-greek-dressing.html. You’ll probably have all the ingredients you need already in your pantry.  A garlic clove, dried oregano, salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil.  Delicious!

Combine the cooled farro (it doesn’t have to be completely cool, just cool enough to avoid wilting or cooking the veggies), vegetables, feta, herbs, and salad dressing.  Mix thoroughly, cover, and cool completely in fridge.

Before serving, stir salad up from bottom to redistribute any dressing that might have drained to the bottom of the bowl and taste.  If you want, you can add more salad dressing, but you don’t want your salad to be oily, so don’t go overboard.

For an Italian variation:

*Omit cucumber.  Add a cup of roasted or grilled eggplant cubes.  (This can be marinated in Italian salad dressing after cooking for more flavor.)

*Omit feta cheese.  Substitute cubed fresh mozzarella.

*Omit mint.  Add a bit of fresh snipped basil instead.

*Omit Greek salad dressing.  Use Italian salad dressing instead.  My Italian dressing is essentially the same as the Greek dressing, except for acid I use red wine vinegar instead of lemon juice, and I use dried basil along with the oregano, and pinch of dried thyme.

*Omit sun-dried tomatoes and use fresh grape or cherry tomatoes, halved, or seeded and diced Roma or Italian tomatoes. Any fresh tomato would be fine.

*Omit Kalamata olives.  Substitute sliced or halved ripe black olives.

*Add a sprinkle of parmesan cheese for that quintessentially Italian flavor.

Happy summertime eating!  If you come up with any variations of your own, I would love to hear about them.

 

 

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Recipes, Side dishes

Wheat-free Cornbread, Improved!

8/14/2016:  I just discovered the unpublished draft below in my posts folder.  This is the recipe I have used for the past couple of years, and I like it very much better than the previous one, which included coconut flour.

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I’ve been tweaking my wheat-free cornbread recipe. Corn contains gluten, and if you have celiac disease, you may be sensitive to corn gluten. That’s why I’m no longer calling this cornbread gluten-free. I am not sensitive to gluten; I simply have cut way, way back on the amount of wheat in my diet. I am still not completely wheat-free, but I’m getting closer all the time. When I decided to cut out wheat, there were many family-favorites I was afraid would fall by the wayside. Cornbread was one of them. Cornbread is woven deep into the food history of my family, so it was not something I was willing to give up. I just had to learn how to make it without wheat flour.

In a previous post, I shared my wheat-free cornbread and cornbread stuffing recipes in a Thanksgiving dishes post. Here’s an updated version of the cornbread recipe. I’ll be using this version of wheat-free cornbread in my cornbread stuffing this year, along with cubes from a new bread recipe I’ve been using and will share after Thanksgiving. For now, wheat-free cornbread.

Wheat-free Cornbread

1 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour blend (I use Bob’s Red Mill in bulk from Winco)

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons ground flaxseed

1/3 cup sugar (I’ve been using organic coconut palm sugar)

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

4 eggs, beaten

1/3 cup oil (any oil you would use for baking is fine)

1/3 cup milk or buttermilk

 

Mix dry ingredients. Mix wet ingredients; mix into dry. Grease a 9-inch cast iron skillet, pour in batter, and bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. Or grease 12 muffin cups, fill half-full, and bake for 13-15 minutes at 425 degrees. Remove from oven and cool five minutes, remove from muffin pan to rack (or from the skillet to a plate on a rack) to finish cooling. May be served warm.

I’ll be making a double batch of cornbread so we can have some with a bean soup for dinner on Wednesday night. The leftovers will be set out to dry overnight and then will go in my cornbread stuffing. And yes, the stuffing goes right inside the turkey, despite what the Food Network people say! It’s my family’s favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal.

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Desserts, Gluten-free, Recipes

Blackberry Cobbler

Update 8/19/2016:  For a delicious gluten-free version, scroll to the end of this post.  Dennis agreed with me that the gluten-free version was as good or better than the original!

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I rediscovered this old recipe, written down more than thirty years ago, when I unpacked some of my cookbooks and recipe files from the box I’d packed them in at the start of the kitchen renovation.  This dish was a potluck staple of my former pastor’s wife in Klamath, Joyce Fleshman.  I’ve tweaked it just a bit, substituting butter for margarine (we all baked with margarine back then before we knew how bad for us it was), and adding a splash of my homemade vanilla.  I also substituted organic, whole-wheat pastry flour for all-purpose flour.  And this coming week, after I pick berries again, I propose to make this recipe with the Bob’s Red Mill bean-based gluten-free flour that I use so often.  I’ll let you know how that turns out, but I’m sure it will work, as I’ve subbed it for all-purpose flour in other recipes like this.

Usually when I make cobblers, I make a soft, sweet biscuit dough to top the hot fruit, which has been mixed with sugar and some kind of thickener, cornstarch or tapioca.  I made one of these a couple of weeks ago, and it was good, as always.  But somewhere in the back of my mind was the memory of this other cobbler that I always loved when Joyce made it all those years ago.  When I found the recipe, I was really eager to try it, and the dish lived up to my memory.  The batter for this cobbler produces a more cake-like texture, and as it bakes, it makes layers in the pan, with the berries in the middle layer, separating the two cake layers.  The fat in the pan produces a crisp, shiny surface.  It’s really good.

Joyce’s Berry Cobbler

½ cup (1 stick) butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 cups milk (whole is best for baking)

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

4-6 cups of ripe blackberries (Use lesser amount if your blackberries are super ripe and rendering juice.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Put the butter in a 9X13 inch baking pan and place in oven to melt.  While butter is melting, mix together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder.  Beat in milk, eggs, and vanilla until mixture is smooth.  Pour batter over melted butter in pan, mix in slightly, swirling batter through butter with a spoon.  Sprinkle berries on top of batter evenly.  Bake at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes, or until bottom layer is set when tested with a sharp knife.  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Note:  The berries sink to the bottom or middle as the batter rises and the cobbler bakes.

The cobbler may need more baking time if your berries are very juicy, or you use the larger amount of berries.  I live at about 4500 feet, and it took about 50 minutes in the oven at 350 to get the bottom layer of the cobbler set.  Baking this at a lower altitude will probably take less time, so keep an eye on it.

We ate this warm out of the oven with ice cream the first day, and oh, baby.  It was very good cold with whipped cream the next day.  My granddaughter, who loves to bake, helped me pick the berries and make the cobbler, and she was a fan after she tried the dish.  For me, eating it brought back a lot of memories of church potlucks with good friends when my kids were little, and of Joyce, whom I loved.

Gluten-free version:

For the wheat flour, substitute same amount of gluten-free flour  (I use the bean-based flour from the bulk bin at Winco, which is Bob’s Red Mill).

Add 2 teaspoons xanthan gum to dry ingredients.

Follow directions as above.

This version might take an extra 15 minutes or longer to bake.  The texture is slightly different, more like a sponge cake crumb.

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Canning, Recipes

Jailhouse Jam

Dennis and I picked apricots last weekend, and I’ve been making jam, pie filling, and canning apricot halves.  This is a good fruit year for our high desert valley, and all the old apricot trees around town are just loaded.  The fruit is small, because these trees are neglected, but it is good.

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We picked at three places in Susanville this year:  the old, historic Lassen County Jail, the old Superior Court building, and at a private residence.  We had picked at the old courthouse and then moved to the old jail and were picking there when a passerby told us about a house that had been foreclosed on a month before which had an apricot tree hanging over into the alley.  “I’ve been picking every day,” she said, “but there are just so many!  You should come over and pick there.”  How nice!  We thanked her and said we’d check it out.  And we did end up picking a few there because they were easy to get to and nice and ripe.

We had one other interaction with a passerby that was amusing and dismaying at the same time.  When we were picking at the old courthouse, a group of three young people, perhaps in their twenties, walked by.  One of the young men stopped and asked quite politely, “What is that in that tree?” The fruit was all over the ground, and if you’ve ever eaten an apricot, it was obvious what it was.  But I told him, and I told him how good they were.  “Huh,” he said, and looked a little mystified, as if the idea of picking food off a tree, as opposed to picking up a package of it in a grocery store, were a new one to him.  That might not have been what he was thinking, but I have encountered that sort of perplexed attitude in the young toward foraged food.  But just maybe he’d never actually eaten an apricot before.

We came home with about 40 lbs. of apricots.  I want to share my apricot jam recipe in hopes that others will be inspired to pick and preserve this abundant fruit.  (If you’re not going to make it yourself, I have some for sale to local buyers.  You can see all the varieties of jams and jellies for sale at www.gardenforestfield.com/jeanies-jams.)

This recipe was adapted from one in Lisa Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation, a canning book I highly recommend.

Ingredients:

3 lbs. of fresh apricots

1 ½ cups sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

For a small batch, start with 3 lbs. of fresh apricots.  This will make about 5 half-pints of jam.  If you want to make a larger batch, double everything in the recipe, but make sure you use a larger enough pot to prevent boiling over.  Get your jars washed first and heating in your water bath canner while you work on your apricots.  The jars should be sterilized for 10 minutes in boiling water before you add the jam and process them, and it takes a while to get a big canner full of water to the boil.

I love making jam with apricots because it is one of the easiest of stone fruits to work with.  You don’t have to peel them, and they are freestone, which means the pit doesn’t cling to the flesh but comes away easily when you halve them.  So the first step to making apricot jam is to wash, halve, and pit the fruit.  Also cut off any dark spots from skin or flesh, because this jam is such a pretty color, you don’t want any dark bits to spoil the look of it.  Always cut away any moldy spots from the skin, if there are any.  If you find mold inside the fruit, around the pit, discard that piece of fruit, for it will taint your whole batch.

The next step is to dice the fruit.  You can do this by hand, but my hands don’t work very well anymore, so I do it in a food processor, pulsing until the fruit is chopped.  Don’t puree it.  The apricots cook down a lot, so a few bigger pieces are fine.

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Put the chopped fruit into a large, stainless steel or enamel-coated or porcelain pot and add 1 ½ cups sugar and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  I usually use freshly squeezed lemon juice, but I have used bottled in a pinch, and it doesn’t seem to change anything, so it’s your choice.  Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly, then reduce to medium and continue to cook for about 25 minutes.  Stir frequently to prevent sticking, but you can walk away from this for a few minutes at a time.  As the jam thickens, I start reducing the heat bit by bit so it doesn’t blurp all over me, the wall, the counter, and stove.  It really burns if it blurps on your skin, so wearing clean oven mitts while stirring is a good idea.

The trickiest part of making this jam is how to tell when it has cooked enough.  Apricot skins contain enough pectin to make a soft-set jam, but it won’t set hard like a jelly.  I use the plate in the freezer method to tell if the jam has cooked enough.  At the beginning of the cooking time, I put a small plate or saucer into the freezer to chill.  When the cooking time has expired, I start testing the jam by dropping a small dab from a spoon onto the chilled plate and putting it back in the freezer for one minute.  After that minute, I test the dab of jam by pushing it with my finger.  If it feels thickish and has a bit of wrinkle on the surface when it’s pushed, it’s ready.  But that’s not the only thing I look for.  When jam is ready to jar, it takes on a very glossy look.  It thickens, of course, but the glossy surface is a key for me.  As you watch the jam cook, stirring it frequently, you’ll see this glossiness develop.  The gloss in combination with how it behaves on the plate tells me when jam is ready to go in the jar.  Reduce the heat to low and keep the jam at a simmer while you fill the jars.

Fill the sterilized jars with simmering jam to within ¼” of the rim.  (Do use a canning funnel and a good ladle.  It will make your life so much easier.)  As you fill each jar, wipe the rim with a damp cloth or paper towel, and put the flat and ring on, tightening the ring only hand tight.  Place the filled jar in the boiling water bath and move on to the next jar.  This ensures that your jam doesn’t cool off too much before you start your processing time.  When all the jars are full and capped and in the canner’s rack, lower them completely into the boiling water and put the lid on the canner.  You should always have enough water in the canner to cover the tops of the jars by at least an inch when they are completely submerged. It will probably take a couple of minutes to bring the water back up to boiling.  Don’t start timing until the water is boiling.  At sea level, this jam only needs to process for 5 minutes.  I add processing time because my elevation is over 4000 feet.  Always adjust your processing time for your altitude.  There’s a handy altitude chart at https://www.freshpreserving.com/altitude-adjusting.html.

When the processing time is finished, use jar tongs remove the jars to a towel-covered surface to cool and do not touch them until they are completely cool.  Don’t push on the lids.  You’ll hear pings and pongs as the jars seal, but when they are completely cool, it’s a good idea to remove the rings, wash away any spillage, and test the seal on each jar by prying gently with your fingertips.  If the lid didn’t seal, refrigerate that jar and eat it first.  If you fill the jars to the correct level and clean the rims thoroughly before adding the flat and ring, you shouldn’t have any problems with failure to seal.

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This jam has no commercial pectin or preservatives in it, other than the sugar and lemon juice (both of those are somewhat preservative), so it should be enjoyed within a year or so.  It will be good longer than that, but I’ve noticed that mine tends to darken a bit on the surface of the jam after a year.  It still tastes fine, but just isn’t as pretty in the jar.  I always, always write the date on the top of the jar flat with a Sharpie before I put the jam away.

I hope somebody out there will go pick apricots and make some jam!  As for me, I’m on to making pie filling for the freezer, canning apricot halves in light syrup, and dehydrating some halves for quick snacks.  I do love apricots!

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Remodeling the Kitchen

Countertop Resolution

As you may know if you read my last kitchen renovation update, we asked The Home Depot for a partial refund on our countertops, because of all the mistakes made by U.S. Granite, the company contracted with Home Depot to cut and install the countertops.  I asked for a 50% refund.  I didn’t think I’d get that much, but I didn’t figure they’d give me what I asked for, no matter what the amount was.

My letter to The Home Depot detailing all the mistakes and delays in the installation process went first to the customer complaints person at the Northtowne Home Depot in Reno.  She forwarded it to her store manager, who didn’t have the authority to grant such a large refund.  (The refund would have amounted to about $1900 if they had given us 50%.)  She had to bump it up to the district office.

At that point, everybody went on vacation.  And after we got home from vacation, the district manager went on vacation.   We finally called after two more weeks and were told we should have an answer in a few days.

It was pretty plain they were stringing the thing out, hoping we’d get tired of it and settle.  And that’s what basically happened.  After a month of waiting, the district office manager said she’d refund us $1000.  If we refused that offer, we’d have to deal with corporate.

Dennis didn’t want to deal with corporate.  I didn’t want to deal with corporate.  Neither of us wanted to bring a small claims court case.  We just wanted to be done.  And they knew it.

We decided to accept the refund offer of $1000.  It’s a little less than 30%, if my math is correct, which is unlikely.  But it’s enough.

I have to add that all the people we actually spoke to at the Northtowne Home Depot were polite and sympathetic and took our complaint seriously.  Nobody tried to brush us off or deny what happened to us.  I appreciate that.

That concludes the Home Depot/U.S. Granite ordeal.  The kitchen renovation isn’t finished yet.  Because of the months of delay, we weren’t able to move on to installing the microwave or backsplash or finishing the wall in our proposed timeline.  All that stuff was supposed to be done by spring, so we could move on to other things that need doing outside. And now it’s summer, and we’re involved in all the big summertime projects that have to get done outside in dry weather, like renovating the old house on our property that we call “the barn.” It has to be re-roofed and re-sided and critter-proofed this summer.  But we’ll get back to the kitchen in the fall.

There’s nothing quite like DIY, is there?  But at least when you do it yourself, you know the quality of your own work, and if it’s not right, you’ve got nobody else to blame, and nobody else to resent.  I’d rather be in that situation than fighting with so-called professionals to do a job right after I’ve already paid them.

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Garden and Greenhouse

A Lesson From the Garden

I haven’t written about the garden this spring for a couple of reasons.  One, we’ve been so busy with the kitchen renovation that I got really behind in the garden.  At least a month behind, or more.  The other reason I haven’t written much about the garden has to do with this new lesson I’ve been learning.

I have always been a goal-oriented, task-conscious person.   I have been a working toward a series of goals my whole life, it seems.  I’ve achieved many, although not all, of them.  I think it’s important to have goals, to set tasks and follow through.  This is one definition of responsibility, and I believe in fulfilling one’s responsibilities. But lately, I have been learning a new kind of lesson in my garden.

The lesson is this:  Do what you love, but not to the point that it hurts you.  Or in other, more concise but overused words:  Listen to your body.  This might seem an obvious statement, but to many of us compulsive-gardener types (and other compulsive types), it can be a revelation.  I realized last summer that doing what I love was hurting me.  And I don’t mean just temporary pain.  I mean what I was doing, overworking myself in the garden, was contributing to the worsening of an ongoing problem.

My profile page for this blog mentions my disability.  (I really hate that word, but what else can you use?)  I’ve spent most of my life ignoring the fact that I have severe scoliosis, which is curvature of the spine, for those who don’t know.  My spine is shaped like an elongated, backwards S.  My whole torso has been twisted and shaped by the curving and twisting of my spine, and in fact, doctors and physical therapists have told me that most likely my inflammatory problems in joints and bones in the rest of my body can be traced back to the dysfunction of my spine.

I resolved when I was twelve years old not to let scoliosis define my life.  It might shape my body, but it wouldn’t determine who I would be.  But at sixty years old, I’ve learned that’s nonsense.  Of course something so consuming defines one’s life!  How can it not?  But what I’ve also learned is that this kind of shaping doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

I believe that every life is a conversation or negotiation between body and spirit (and mind and heart and maybe some other things as well.)  There’s a verse in the Bible that I’ll take out of context.  “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  I find much truth about myself in that short sentence.  My spirit is willing to stay out all day in the hot sun and pull weeds until I can barely move my legs.  In my head, I LOVE doing that!  I love taking a messy patch of ground and making it neat and tidy.  But my flesh is weak.  My body simply can’t take that kind of abuse any more, and it should never have been subjected to that kind of abuse.  If the body is a temple of the spirit (taking another verse out of context), then it should be cared for.  In that negotiation between body and spirit, both should have a voice and be listened to.

So last fall, I resolved to cut back in the garden.  This meant that I wouldn’t plant enough tomatoes to can or make salsa this year.  I have plenty left over from previous years.  I wouldn’t plant green beans to can.  I have some in the pantry still. I wouldn’t plant potatoes, because I shouldn’t be digging to plant them or digging to harvest them.  I wouldn’t plant cucumbers because I don’t need pickles.  I wouldn’t plant pumpkins because I still have pumpkin puree in the freezer.

It was much harder this spring, come planting time, to stick to that resolve, but I did it.  I only planted ten tomatoes (instead of twenty-five), two peppers (instead of a dozen), and a few winter squashes.  I planted more cantaloupes than usual for eating fresh because they are so easy, but half of them died for no reason I can tell.  That’s the garden taking care of me when the spirit overcame the body, I guess! I didn’t even plant any carrots because I had heirlooms go to seed and reseed. I did plant a lot of cabbage, and between the little brown slugs and the deer getting into the garden through a gate left open, I only have three plants left, so I won’t be making any sauerkraut.  God and the garden taking care of me again, presumably.

As for weeding, that’s another negotiation.  Spirit says, “Get out there and get those weeds pulled before they take over the squash and tomatoes!”  Body says, “You can do a little today, and little the next day, and you’ll get it done.  And if you don’t, what’s the worst that can happen?”  Spirit says, “Duh! They’ll take over the garden!” Then mind intervenes and reminds both body and spirit that an integrated, semi-wild garden is a good thing for plants, birds, bees, and other pollinators.  Yes, mind has a voice to heed too.

Day before yesterday, I weeded the squash patch.

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I thought I was setting a realistic goal.  Spirit thought so.  Body thought so.  Mind thought so. I only pushed myself a little to finish it, and then later my knee told me that was a bad idea.  (It would have been really nice if my knee had told me to stop before I was finished, but it didn’t.)  Yesterday, I heeded the lesson.  Spirit really wanted to get the whole tomato patch weeded.  Body said, “Remember your knee?  Do half.”  Mind concurred. So I did half.  And today, I finished the rest of the tomato patch.

It took three days to do what I would once have pushed to do in a day (or less). And the world didn’t end, and the weeds didn’t take over.  And my knee feels okay, and the rest of me doesn’t feel too bad either.  That’s progress.

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Remodeling the Kitchen

Letter to The Home Depot

The following is our letter to The Home Depot requesting a refund. I know it’s long, and I don’t care.  We lived through three months of chaos and stress, so they can darn well read about it.  

After all the problems we’ve had the with the countertops we purchased from Home Depot more than 3 months ago, we really thought somebody would call, either from U.S. Granite, who was contracted with Home Depot to fabricate and install the granite countertops, or from Home Depot, who took our money (almost $4000) and contracted to provide the countertops we purchased.  But it’s been over a week now since the third set of countertops was finally installed, and no one has called to find out if we are satisfied with a job that went wrong so many times, we’ve almost lost count. We are not satisfied, and we are requesting a partial refund.

So, let’s run it down.

We sat down with a salesperson and our measurements at the Northtowne Home Depot in Reno in early March to work up a plan for the countertops.  We found some granite samples we liked and were advised to go to the granite supplier, Dal-Tile, and choose a particular slab of granite from which our countertops would be cut.  We did that the following week and chose a slab that Jeanie loved.  We then called Home Depot and sealed the deal with credit card information.  Within a few days, the company who would do the fabrication and installation of the countertops, U.S. Granite, called us to set up a templating appointment. The templater would digitally measure our space and encode it in a program that would then be fed to the cutting machine.

March 29, 2016: Templating proceeded with no problems.  The cabinets were brand new and newly installed, with no old countertops or anything to get in the way.  We were supposed to have countertops within a couple of weeks.

April 15, 2016:  Our countertops were supposed to be installed.  The appointed time came and went.  Jeanie finally received a call from the installer who said he would be there late in the afternoon. He never showed up, after we’d gone to the effort of moving the stove, the cutting boards that were our makeshift counters, and the essentials that we needed for cooking, and we’d covered the floor with heavy paper again to protect it from the workboots that tend to pick up gravel and mud outside and bring it in.  The installation was rescheduled for the following Monday after we called U.S. Granite’s manager to tell him that his installer never showed.

April 18, 2016:  The installer showed up bright and early and installed the countertops.  Not only did he not bring the brackets to secure the dishwasher to the countertops, he also did not adequately prepare to contain the dust produced when he cut the stone so that the sink could be set in the sink base counter.  Because he didn’t use any kind of containment procedure (like tarping) and because all he had to remove the dust was a wimpy shop-vac, we had rock dust throughout the entire house! Even worse, stone chips and rock dust coated our brand-new cabinets and all the contents inside. We spent hours on a step-ladder cleaning the cabinets and removing the contents, which all had to be washed before they (dishes, etc.) could be used.  The installers were wearing dust masks.  We, the homeowners, had no protection whatsoever from that dust, and we are still breathing it because it permeated every nook and cranny in the house.

But Jeanie loved the granite of the countertops.  This is a quote from her blog, written the next day:  “I got so excited when I saw the first top in place, and that was before the dust was cleaned off.  I love the granite I chose with its beige and gray background, black veining, and dark red flecks.” We were so happy with the granite choice.

However, after the installers had left and we tried to put the stove back in its space, it wouldn’t fit.  That was when we discovered that the countertops had been improperly installed, with one countertop overhanging the stove space by about 3/8”, which threw off that entire side of the kitchen.

After repeating ad nauseum to the manager of U.S. Granite what was wrong and what needed to happen next (either moving the countertops or recutting them), we were told another set of installers would come and look at the problem.  In the meantime, during all his measuring to figure out what went wrong and how it might be fixed, Dennis discovered that the bullnose overhang was different on all five pieces of granite.  None of them were uniform.

April 25:  A new set of installers showed up to move the countertops so that the stove would fit.  The countertops were moved, and the stove still did not fit.  Moving the countertop didn’t solve the problems.

The following week, the templater returned to check his program and discovered that the fabrication shop had miscut the bullnose depth on the slabs, and that was why they didn’t fit.  At least 3 of them would have to be recut, but U.S. Granite was hoping to get off cheap by not recutting all 5 of the pieces.

May 13: We drove back to Reno and looked at another granite slab, the second slab.  We didn’t like it as much as the original slab we’d chosen, and we were worried about the color, but we were told that because it had been raining, the stone had darkened, and that it would lighten up as it dried out.  It should match up, they said, when it dried out, with the pieces that were being left in place.  (One of those pieces was also miscut, but U.S. Granite  thought they could move it out away from the wall enough to leave it in place, although that would have made it difficult for us to properly set the backsplash tile.)

May 20:  The installers returned with three new pieces, the sink base countertop, the piece that abutted both the sink base and the stove, and the piece on the other side of the kitchen to the right of the fridge.  They installed the piece to the right of the fridge, and our concerns about color were immediately reawakened.  The new piece was substantially darker and browner than the original piece on the left side of the fridge, and it was very noticeable.   “It’s been raining,” the installers said.  “It’ll lighten up when it dries out.”  However, the new sink base piece and the piece next to the stove still did not fit.  The installers took the new pieces out, and we were left again without countertops on that side of the kitchen.  Dennis had to put our old laminate countertop back on so that he could hook the sink up again, so we would have water.

Within a week, the new countertop had dried out and was obviously not a match to the two original pieces that had been left in place.

May 28:  The templater returned to check the measurements once again and brought template cutouts to put down and try to determine the source of the problems with fit.  One of the problems was that U.S. Granite had not cut the sink base and stove section in one piece as had been originally laid out; rather, they’d cut them in two pieces (probably trying to save money), creating the necessity for a seam, and they simply couldn’t get edges and cuts to match up that way.

June 3:  We drove back down to Reno to see another new slab, the third.  This time, the slab had been set up in the fabrication shop at U.S. Granite.  It was dimly lit, and when we compared the piece of the original slab that we’d chosen back in March with the newest slab, we couldn’t tell if it was much darker than the piece that we loved and that we’d planned as the crowning glory of the new kitchen, or if the lighting was so bad, we just couldn’t see it clearly.  But what could we do?  Because of repeated mistakes by U.S. Granite, the countertop installation had been delayed for 3 months!  We told them to go ahead and cut new countertops.

June 6:  The countertops were installed and finally fit.  But to our dismay, the color was much darker than the original slab we’d chosen, with far more brown and beige in the background than the white and gray that Jeanie loved.  We had chosen the backsplash tile based on the original slab with more white and gray tones.  And now the backsplash tile does not coordinate nearly as well with the new countertops as it would have with the first slab we chose and paid for.

During this process, Dennis had to take out and then put back in and replumb the kitchen sink four times.  The dishwasher had to be taken out twice, and it marred the brand new wood floor we’d just installed.  The brand new cabinets were damaged on the top edges where the countertops were pried up twice!  We had to move kitchen paraphernalia so many times, we lost count.  And we are still trying to get the rock dust from cutting two sink holes cleaned up.

Dennis missed 5 days of work to be in the house when the installers and templater were here.  That is a significant loss of income.  We had to make two extra trips to Reno to look at slabs after our original choice was mis-cut and improperly installed.

Jeanie is disabled, and the stone dust mess in the house created by the first botched installation is more than she can cope with and clean up, not to mention the fact that it created breathing problems for days.  We need a professional cleaner to come in and thoroughly clean the house and carpets to remove the rock dust, which will be expensive.

For all of the above reasons, we are asking for significant refund from The Home Depot for our countertops.   This is to compensate us for the excess work, cost, time delays, and stress of this job which was botched not once, but twice.  So much for the dream kitchen; so much for the gorgeous countertops and coordinating backsplash.  We didn’t get what we paid for, and we feel cheated.

We trusted The Home Depot to contract with competent, reputable dealers and installers; in fact, that was exactly why we chose The Home Depot for this job.  We have been sadly disappointed.  Jeanie has chronicled this whole process on her blog (www.gardenforestfield.com), and we hope to be able to report that The Home Depot did the right thing and compensated us for what their contractor put us through for the past three months.  If The Home Depot does not do the right thing, that’ll be reported too, and not only on the blog, but on every review site online.

We hope to hear from someone at The Home Depot shortly about our refund.

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Remodeling the Kitchen

Hot Under the Collar

You know that saying.  You’ve probably said it.  But trust me, you have no idea what it really means unless you are a post-menopausal woman who’s just heard her husband blamed for a problem he had nothing to do with.  I am still mad!

We went to Reno today to the stoneyard, where we approved another pair of slabs.  As those of you know who’ve been following the kitchen renovation saga, the first time the granite countertops were installed, it turned out they were not cut to measurements, and they were incorrectly installed.  I don’t know who is to blame.  I do know that U.S. Granite, the company contracted by Home Depot to fabricate and install the countertops we purchased from Home Depot, tried to cut their losses by creating new pieces, from a new slab, for just three of the countertops.  They left two pieces in place.  And not only did the new countertops for the sink base and over the dishwasher still not fit, all the new pieces were several shades darker than the original pieces that were left in.  That is not what I paid for, and that is not what we are going to settle for.

We were told when we chose the second slab that the new pieces would lighten up as they dried out, which they did.  But because those pieces were cut from a different block of granite (from the same mine in Brazil) than the pieces cut from the first slab, they were very much a mis-match in color.  That means that the countertops for the whole kitchen, both sides, have to be re-cut.

After we approved the newest slabs today, we talked with the scheduler/manager of this branch of the company.  He seems a nice young man, but I was very upset with him today.  He mentioned that they are going to send the templater down again with thin wooden templates cut out to the measurements the templater took originally with a digital camera and program that encodes the information so that it can be fed to the cutting machine digitally.  That sounds good.  Then this nice young man says, “And you’ll sign off on the templates, and then we’ll come back and set the stones.”

Whoa.  I am nice, but I am not stupid.  I held up my hand.  “What do you mean, sign off on the templates?  Then if there’s a problem with the countertops, you’re absolved of responsibility?  I don’t think so.”  I told him straight out that we were not signing off on anything until the job was done and inspected for quality control.  And I told him a few other things, such as whatever crew he sent down to this job had better have the right equipment to control the stone dust, because I already have it all throughout my house, and I don’t need to be breathing it or cleaning up any more of it.

He said, “Well, we have to make sure that no one is moving slabs and causing a problem.”  What? It turns out the installer told the manager that Dennis had moved the slabs, and that was what caused the problem.

That’s when I got really hot under the collar.  “Honey,” I said to this youngster who could have been my son, “there is no way this man was moving those slabs around.  You know yourself how heavy they are.  You think he has one of those suction thingies they use to move those slabs hiding out under his tee shirt? There was no moving of slabs by anyone but your installers, so don’t let anybody tell you different.”  I must have sounded like his mother, because he backed down on that point and on the idea of us signing anything before the job is done.  And it had better not come up again.

Believe you me, Home Depot is going to get an earful from me tomorrow morning.  I am still steaming.

 

 

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