Friday, July 25, 2014

~ Blueberry - Basil Vinegar ~

 I see at the grocery stores all of the time gourmet salad dressings that are 'some sort of fruit vinaigrette'.  They are typically more expensive, and since I've had a decent amount of blueberries this year, and I want to simplify and cut back on what I buy and what I put in the recycling bin, I thought I would give this vinegar a try.  It can be added to oil, garlic, dijon mustard and basil any time to make a nice salad dressing or glaze for meats.

So here is the process:  I followed the recipe from Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving.

I added 4 cups of fresh blueberries with 1 cup of white wine vinegar to a glass container with a fitted lid.  This is very important since this will take up to 4 weeks to make!  Just crush the berries.  The recipe said lightly, I may have crushed them a bit more, but still looking pretty intact.

I picked about 1 cup of fresh basil, and tore the leaves, then crushed them to release the oils in the leaves.  I have a few varieties growing, I used a bit of each.  It smells really good!  Ball recommends using a mortar and pestle to crush the leaves. I don't have one yet, so I used a ceramic bowl and the back of our ice cream scoop.  The idea is just to crush the leaves, it doesn't have to be fancy.

Next, I added the crushed basil leaves and the zest of a lemon to the blueberry/vinegar mixture along with 3 more cups of white vinegar.

This is what it will look like once everything is mixed up.  It doesn't look great, but it will start to brew!  I have it sitting on the back of my kitchen counter with the lid firmly attached and a dark towel covering everything.  It needs a cool, dark environment to blend the flavors without spoiling.  The back of my countertop is under a corner cabinet and is pretty dark back there, so I figure I'll remember to stir it every two to three days as the recipe recommends. I can't wait to try this.  After it's the strength I like, I'll strain and can the vinegar to keep for future use.  I really can't wait!

I've wanted to do something like this for years, but have always been hesitant to use 4 cups of precious blueberries which I'll later discard.  I have enough already frozen this year, and have decided to focus on freezing for muffins, cakes, and pancakes, instead of jellies.  I'm going to try my hand at grape jelly later this summer, and elderberry, my all time favorite, so making this blueberry-basil vinegar seems like an adventurous idea!  It will take up to 4 weeks, so this will be an exercise of patience!  I'll keep you posted!

Here's the recipe:  (It's on page #276 if you already have this book!)

 ~ Blueberry - Basil Vinegar ~

4 cups blueberries
4 cups white wine vinegar, divided
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, crushed
Grated zest of 1 lemon

In a large glass bowl, combine blueberries and 1 cup of white wine vinegar. Lightly crush the blueberries with a potato masher.  Add the remaining 3 cups of vinegar, crushed basil and lemon zest, and stir to combine. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand in a dark, cool place, ideally 70 to 75 degrees F. for up to 4 weeks, stirring every 2 to 3 days.  Taste weekly until the desired strength is achieved.

After the desired strength is achieved, prepare canner, jars and lids.

Line a strainer with several layers of cheesecloth and place over a large stainless steel saucepan.  Strain vinegar without squeezing the cheesecloth. Discard cheesecloth and residue.  Place saucepan over medium high heat to heat vinegar to 180 degrees F.

Ladle hot vinegar into hot jars, leave 1/4 inch headspace.  Wipe rim and center lids on jars.  Screw the bands down until resistance is met, increasing to fingertip tight.

Place jars in canner making sure they are completely covered with water.  Bring to a boil and process for 10 minutes.  Remove canner lid and let sit for 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

Variation:  If you wish to keep fresh whole blueberries in the vinegar, add 1/4 cup fresh blueberries to the mixture before ladling into jars.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

~ Zucchini Fries ~

I grew up eating fried zucchini, but we were at the grocery store a few weeks ago, and they had samples of zucchini fries.  My daughter loved them and begged for me to buy some.  I reminded her that our garden zucchini would be ready to harvest soon, and we would try our own hand at making them.  The results were very good...two thumbs up from my daughter.

 It started with this little guy.  Well, really this squash is about the size of my hand and oddly shaped.  We had a good bit of drier weather and it formed more like a large lemon.  It's a cross with most likely a Cozelle Zucchini and a pumpkin.  I wasn't sure how it would taste, so I decided to cut it open tonight and see what was inside.

I'm pretty sure it's crossed with a pumpkin.  It was heavy for it's size and the seeds were pretty large and dense for a zucchini.  It tasted wonderful, a nice sweet and firm flesh.

I decided to scoop out the seeds with a spoon and cut it into wedges at first, then I got the idea to give zucchini fries a try.  I cut them about the size of a larger steak fry you would get at a restaurant, but you can really cut them any size or shape you like.

We mixed up an egg wash of two eggs and about 1/4 cup of milk  My daughter was around, so she was happy to help with this.

We dipped them first in a breading mix of about 1 cup of seasoned bread crumbs, 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup cornmeal.  I'm guessing at these proportions since we measured in 'handfuls', thinking one handful was about 1/2 cup.  So, starting with the freshly cut zucchini, we dipped in the bread crumbs, the egg wash and then again the bread crumbs to get a nice coating that would stick to the zucchini.  A friend of mine told me a few years ago that she adds corn meal to her fried green tomatoes to give a little extra 'crisp'.  It did the same for these fries!  No extra salt is needed, the breadcrumbs have plenty of flavor, and the marinara sauce for dipping has great flavor too!

We heated a cast iron skillet with vegetable oil, I think we used canola to cover the bottom of the pan, and let the oil get hot, then place the zucchini fries in the pan and let them cook about a minute on each side.  These cook up pretty quickly, and that nice golden brown color is what you are looking for.

I should have snapped a photo of the finished fries before I let them take them to the table!  Once they were there, it was pure eating!  We served them with a side of warmed marinara sauce.   We make our own sauce, so this part of the meal was largely from our garden!

When I was a kid, my mom would fry up the left over breading like hush puppies for us kids to eat.  It was a rare 'treat' but we loved it.  Our leftover batter tonight was mostly breading, so I cooked it up as a treat for our dogs.  They loved them!

So there you have more delicious and fun use for all of your zucchini abundance.  Enjoy!!

~ How I Garden Organically ~ :)

 To garden naturally, without use of synthetic pesticides or herbicides, I guess is how to describe organic gardening.  For me, it has simply been how I have always gardened.  Both of my parents gardened, and did so organically their entire lives, for my mom, it was simply the love of gardening, for my dad, especially in his younger years, it was for food...mainly potatoes!  Both loved and appreciated the taste of fresh, clean food.  As a kid in the '70's, we were the only family in the neighborhood to have a compost pile, huge garden, pigs, and occasionally a sheep to cut grass in the summer and food for the winter, and this is before we moved to our farm!  Now, I start my own seeds.  It takes a bit of extra work, but the end result is plants that perform better than the nursery plants I see and have bought to fill in over the years with plants I lost in early spring.  I have found that replanting is better than buying a transplant because my tiny transplants I started from seed, even later in the planting season, have outperformed the nursery plants.  It's happened time and time again, so I no longer feel the pressure to stop at the nursery to buy tomato or pepper plants I lost to frost.

Here are some pictures of my garden this year.  So far, so good!

Volunteer Roma tomato growing in my garden.

VOLUNTEERS!  They might be my favorite plants!  The Roma tomato above sprouted up in my sugar podded peas row, and as with volunteer plants, I decided to leave it.  I find that volunteers in general, grow better than the plants I grow from seed and transplant and baby for a couple of months before they head to the garden. This plant, right now, is about 3 x 4 ft. in width, and loaded with tomatoes!

Johnny Jump Ups, or Violas, have intense color to brighten up any space.

Sometimes plants have a funny start.  I had a packet of Johnny Jump Ups I bought a couple of years ago from Seed Savers Exchange and forgot to plant (we all do that, don't we?).  After nothing came up after about two weeks, I replanted some habanero pepper seed I saved from the garden last year.  About four or five of the Johnny Jump Ups came up with the peppers, so I planted them in the garden among them.  They are growing great!  So are my hubby's habanero's. Also, I like to dot my garden with flowers.  They look pretty, plus are good for the bees, wasps, and butterflies that visit the garden. Johnny Jump Ups, or Violas, often come back year after year, a bright and happy little plant.

Young bush beans.

 Earlier in the season, I planted my favorite, sugar podded peas.  I followed with these bush bean mix from Botanical Interests.  This is a snapshot from a few weeks ago.  I've had the same problem with both the peas and beans at the farm garden this year: some critter LOVES the young leaves and the flower blossoms, and has eaten every single one!  My fault for not getting marigolds planted in there sooner, but I found a solution for both crops, which has worked for the peas and now working for the bush beans:  floating row covers!

This is how I keep groundhogs, rabbits, and deer from eating the blossoms off of my bush beans.
 No need for traps, or buying something expensive to combat the groundhogs, rabbits and deer here.  Covering the entire row (s) and simply anchoring with a rock or fallen tree branch here and there has stopped the attack!  I don't know if they are scared of the row cover, or the simple barrier is enough for them to seek snacks elsewhere, but it works, my beans are full of flowers now!  This double row is a mix of three different gourmet filet beans.  I can't wait.  :)  Also, it may not be the prettiest, but newspaper, black plastic, which I save and use year to year, pulled weeds and cardboard boxes are great mulch!!  A gardeners best friend is mulch, and all is reused materials.  I hold down the newspaper with bricks and rocks, no short supply of those around here since my dad was a bricklayer, and southwest PA is full of fieldstone!  I add pulled weeds and grass clippings over the newspaper as the season progresses, and then I can remove the rocks as needed.  I always find that I have to prop something up or hold something down, so I pile them into a very visible pile at the end of the rows when I don't need them because it stinks to trip over a random rock into crops I've worked hard to grow, and these aren't something that I want getting caught up in the tiller or mower, so keeping them visible as plants grow is very important.

My sweet peppers just starting to flower.
Peppers!  I grow several varieties sweet and hot, not only for fresh eating out of the garden, but we make our own salsa, and about 1/3 of our salsa ingredients are peppers!  I also freeze whole or halved peppers for stuffed peppers in the winter, and dehydrate the colorful peppers into strips and store them in a canning jar, they add great color to stir fries and enchiladas without out paying an outrageous price for colored peppers, and by doing this, I know the food going on my table throughout the year.

Colorful Beet Mix from Seed Savers Exchange.  
Beets!  I don't really care for the taste of beets, although I am determined to make myself like them, and I do like the golden beets roasted and I like the young beet tops in salads.  But beets are probably one of the easiest and prettiest crops to grow in the garden!  The colors of the foliage is intense!  It's so gorgeous, nothing really bothers them, other than weeds, and I have some friends that do love both fresh and pickled beets, so it's something I'm happy to grow and share!  I think sharing the bounty of the garden is important, since gardening feels more like a community event to me.  People will always talk and ask about my garden. I like that, and always hope the taste of pure, fresh food from the ground, not a grocery store shelf, will encourage others to start their own gardens.

Volunteer tomatillo's.
Last year, I planted tomatillo's for the first time, my hubby saw a salsa recipe with tomatillo's, and said he would like to try it.  I had already price tomatillo's in the grocery store, and the price was outrageous, and they seemed to sit there for a long period of time, since not too many people use tomatillo's in Pennsylvania on a regular basis, so I suggested he wait for the salsa and I would grow them in the garden.  I planned on planting the purple tomatillo's this year, but time is always short, and by the time I got around to planting them, I thought it was too late.  I was wrong.  These came up in my garden as volunteers.  I'm pretty sure I pulled the first round of them that sprouted because I had weeded this area sometime in early June.  Long of the short, we went on vacation, and when we got back and I got to weeding this area again, what do I see?  Yellow tomatillo's coming up in force!  This picture again is from a couple of weeks ago, they now are starting to flower!  Someone had told me they self seed, and they sure do!!  This is an heirloom variety, so they will be true, we will have yellow tomatillo's again this year!  Hint, hint...tomatillo salsa makes a wonderful green sauce for chile rellano's or enchilada's!

One of many volunteer squash from last year.
Have I said I love volunteers?  Well, here's another!  I had many volunteers sprout this spring.  This one in particular was in my front flowerbed.  I kept some there, and am harvesting regular Cozelle zucchini right now, but I also took some out and transplanted them into my farm garden.  This one, taken from near where the Cozelle's are growing, is a smaller, bright green globe shaped squash.  I love happy surprises.  The color of this little guy is so intense, and it should be ready to harvest in a few days.  I  can't wait~

Habanero Peppers saved from seed growing nicely in my garden.

The great thing about these habanero's is that they are from saved seed.  Well, I actually didn't save the the early spring, I noticed many intact peppers atop the black plastic in the garden.  They were paper thin, maybe thinner by March, but intact.  I could see the pepper seeds inside, and they were right where I planted the habanero's  last year, so I knew they couldn't be anything else.  On a whim, I picked some of them up and took them home to see if they would grow.  They did, and with great germination too, one pepper yielded about 48 seedlings!  Hot peppers, just like the sweet, take awhile to take off here, they need the heat to grow.  They looked pretty scrawny for awhile, and even in this picture, still a bit small, but the summer heat is their friend!  These same peppers taken a couple of weeks ago, are about twice the size now.

Colorful beets and Cozelle zucchini from the garden.
June in the garden here, harvesting amounts to root crops and summer squash mainly. Other crops are taking off to grow, and are heavy with fruit for an August harvest. Lettuces and herbs too.  I plant lettuces and leafy crops in a shaded area of the garden which is cooler, so I don't have as much bolting going on in the summer heat.

Volunteer Yellow Bush squash.
My kids have their own raised beds in the garden.  Last year, my middle daughter had a wonderful green squash, a zucchini/pumpkin cross, that was the most wonderful squash we've ever eaten.  This year, my youngest daughter has a volunteer Yellow Bush patty pan squash growing.  I picked four beautiful squashes off this plant yesterday evening.  They are so pretty, and my daughter loves the patty pans, so I'm happy that it decided to grow in her garden!  Both of my daughters also grow cantaloupe and cukes,  plus the youngest is growing cabbage for a fall crop.

Yellow apples growing on a tree in the side yard.
One huge surprise for me this year!  These apples are growing on a tree in an area of the side yard from an old orchard that was planted in an area that was really to wet for apple trees.  Over the years, they have all died out, but somehow, this has survived.  I thought last year it was dead, but I looked down in that area a few weeks ago to see this...apples!  We have several apple trees up on  the top of the hill on the treeline, some very old, some my mom planted 35 years ago, so I guess even those trees are old, but somehow, this tree pollinated!  The closest trees are on the other side of the farmhouse, and on top of the hill, the closest being about 100 ft. away!  I"m happy, I have a blueberry jam recipe that calls for tart apples to thicken the jam, so I think these will be perfect.  Last year, I made several pints of applesauce from the apples up on the hill.  It was so delicious, I can't believe I didn't make applesauce years ago!  I guess with the kids being younger, and me thinking applesauce was more complicated that it was, it was something I didn't tackle!  Fact is, applesauce is one of the easiest things to make and can for the winter!  So easy!  I have always canned tomatoes, and that does take up a bit of time, but applesauce is so easy, it's no problem fitting that into the schedule.

I mentioned blueberry jam.  So many years ago, 35 years ago, maybe more, my mom planted blueberries in the other side yard opposite the apple tree orchard.  She planted early, mid season, and late variety blueberries so as to get a longer crop.  Well, about eight of those plants are still alive and fruiting!  I have gotten a very good blueberry crop this year, have made muffins, coffee cakes, blueberry pancakes, frozen a bunch, and plan to make some blueberry jam with a bunch I picked last week and this week.  These plants are in severe need of pruning, I think I will prune half the bush so I still get fruit next year, and then follow with the next half next year. A few of the bushes look terrible, but they have leaf growth, so those I'll probably give a harder pruning.  Of the eight plants, five are still fruiting nicely!  Not bad for very old bushes!!

My tomatoes are going strong, as well as my Big Max pumpkins have pumpkins forming, my pole beans are starting to take off, I'm planting a fall crop of lettuces, peas, beans, cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, kohlrabi, and flowering cabbage, just to keep things pretty!  Mulch is my best friend.  Keeping ahead of weeds makes for healthier plants, which makes the plants be able to resist attacks of fungus or bugs.  I still fight with slugs and cabbage worms, and as I've said, floating row covers are working great for me. They may not look so great as people glance from the road into my garden, but the end result is getting a nice healthy crop.  I don't mind sharing some of my crop with the critters, that's just nature, but they tend to be rude dinner guests and eat everything in sight!  Next order of business...teach the critters some manners!!  :)

Do you have any gardening questions?  I have gardened my entire life, and have found solutions to keep from having to use chemical fixes.  Nature takes care of nature.  If you are patient and committed, there is always an answer in nature, and often closer than you think!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Lettuce Project: ~ Another Way to Use Tuna....Tuna Cakes ~

The Lettuce Project: ~ Another Way to Use Tuna....Tuna Cakes ~: My brother gave me a huge restaurant sized package of tuna that he bought in bulk  I was happy to take it, my family really likes tuna, but...

~ Our Incredible and Super Cool Air Tent ~

 When I was a kid, I grew up in a large old farmhouse that didn't have air conditioning.  It was all fan power to keep cool in the summertime!  We were inventive kids and would make 'air tents' by draping a light bedsheet over top of the box fans and weighting them down with anything we could find to be sure our 'roof' didn't fly off!  It was actually a happy and fun childhood memory which I passed down to my kids a few years ago.  We have central air in our house, but honestly, I try to use it as little as possible.  They have perfected the art of building an air tent.

Whereas I used rocks, cups, knick knacks or whatever I could find around the house as a kid to weigh down my tent, my daughter came up with the ingenious idea of tying the center of a twin sized top sheet around the handle on our box fan.  Why did I never think of that for all of those years?!?  Anyway, good thinking!  She made an afternoon out of this, so she brought in the raspberry air freshener she bought for her room.  She built this in the corner of the room next to the couch, a corner curio, and a side chair.  Perfect placement, perfect construction!

She even supplied snacks while we hung out in there!  Lemonade, raisins, peanuts, and homemade granola bars and chocolate chip cookies. She also had a pitcher of water behind the chair along with the drinking cups.

 I gladly crawled in to hang out, but Dad didn't want to, so he asked my other daughter for a cookie.  She reached her hand in for the handoff.

The handoff of two chocolate chip cookies!

Our pets had to check it out too. Max, our lab/collie/shepherd mix was the only one to come all the way in and stay for awhile.  He's about 50 lbs. but thinks he's a lap dog~

Our kitty cat Emma came in but swiftly went back out.  I guess the fans made too much noise.  We were afraid that afterward she would jump onto the top of the air tent and come crashing down, claws open and all, but she didn't.  Thank goodness!

Our German Shepherd Megan, came to investigate, but decided to hang out outside instead.  She's probably too big to get in there with us anyway!   She's a good girl.

This is the ingeniousness of tying the center long end of the bed sheet to the fan handle.  There is no flying off of bed sheets, or being clunked with some heavy object that would have otherwise weighed down the tent!  And this picture is taken in 3-D...a function I didn't know existed on my camera until a couple of days ago!

Anyway, go and make an air tent and gather some snacks or a magazine or book and spend a bit of time just relaxing.  You'll be glad you did...time slows down a bit in an air tent!

~ Another Way to Use Tuna....Tuna Cakes ~

My brother gave me a huge restaurant sized package of tuna that he bought in bulk  I was happy to take it, my family really likes tuna, but I've never had so much at once in one package that once it was opened, I needed to use it.  I've never frozen tuna before, so after we had the usual tuna salad (which my daughter made herself and it was quite delicious), I needed to find another way to use it because I didn't want it to go to waste.  Here's what I came up with.  Tuna Cakes.

I started my search on and found a recipe for tuna cakes.  I liked the idea, so I read the recipe and the reviews.  Some reviewers noted that while the recipe as is tasted good, it lacked texture, so I decided to add some veggies to the mix, and changed a few other things around also.

~ Spicy Tuna Cakes ~

3 packages of tuna (drained if you are using canned tuna)
2 medium sweet potatoes, cubed, cooked until tender, and drained
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 Tablespoon minced onion or 1 finely chopped medium sized onion
3/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
A dash of pepper
A dash of paprika

First, prepare the dipping sauce in the recipe below and set in the refrigerator while preparing the tuna cakes.

Place cubed sweet potatoes into a large bowl and mash with a fork
Next, combine all ingredients to the sweet potatoes in the large bowl and mix until everything is incorporated.  Heat a large cast iron skillet and add about two teaspoons of oil (I use olive) and heat on medium high heat. Once the pan is hot, decrease the heat a bit.  Add tuna cakes and cook about 1-2 minutes each side.  These cook up quickly, so stay nearby so they don't burn. Transfer to a serving plate and set aside as the rest of the meal is prepared.  They heat up very nicely in the microwave if needed.

~ Dipping Sauce for Spicy Tuna Cakes ~

1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/8 cup Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/8 teaspoon chili powder

Mix mayonnaise, mustard, garlic, and chili powder in small bowl and set place in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

I made a side of zucchini from our first two zucchini's harvested from the garden!  Delicious!  Super fresh zucchini has a light sweet taste of corn.  I love it!  We just pan fried this in just a bit of honey butter, only about 1 or 2 teaspoons for two medium squashes.  This filled a large skillet.

I finished off the meal with a side of  Spanish rice I had in the pantry.  I often make our own rice, and stay away from the packaged stuff, but sometimes when time is short, I'll pull one of these out if I have any on hand.  I really need to not do that though, since the salt content is high in these packaged rices.  This morning, I'm feeling that salt in the form of puffy ankles!  Extra water today, and I have to come up with a plan for making a spice mix to use with our bulk uncooked rice!

The dipping sauce was a very nice touch to the tuna cakes, I would recommend making it.  There isn't much heat in this recipe either, even though there are hot pepper flakes and chili powder.  The tuna tones it down very nicely, just leaving a hint of heat.  You can add more hot pepper if you like.  I like things milder, my hubby likes things hot.  The compromise in this house is to make most recipes milder, and he can add extra heat as he likes it.  My kids ate this too without complaint, dipping sauce and all!  Enjoy.

Until next time...have a nice day!!  :)