Preserving season

Fresh, local fruit is one of the great joys of living where we do.

There is much to be done outdoors – plant garlic, collect seeds, tidy irrigation – but there is much to be done indoors, too. We are in the height of harvest season, and every available surface in our house is littered with canning jars, dehydrator trays and other preservation projects in various stages of completion. Our goal is to eat locally as much as possible, and in the dark months of winter and early spring, that means we eat from the pantry and freezer – but only if we’ve done the hard work in advance.

Homemade fruit leather makes a perfect healthy and portable snack.

Obviously, no one has to preserve and store the harvest any longer, and many would think the extra work we do this time of year is preposterous. Preservation is a dying art, because we live in a magical world where any food we might want, in season or not, is available with a single click. Also, most of us don’t grow our own food, so there’s even less incentive to preserve. Where our great-grandmothers might have been obligated to can their summer vegetables in order to have anything to eat in winter, we most definitely are not. And preserving can be tedious, time-consuming work. Why, then, go through all this extra effort?

Shredded zucchini, apples and carrots are portioned and frozen for easy muffins.

I preserve food for a lot of different reasons, but first and foremost I want to know what we’re eating. The modern food processing industry uses an arsenal of complicated, sketchy ingredients and technologies to store food in cans and jars, and I don’t want these unnecessary additives in our food. We also work really hard to grow food, and if we can’t eat it while it’s fresh, it seems a tragedy to just compost it – a huge waste of our time and effort, plus a lot of water. Preserving our own food also saves money – a single jar of high-end organic salsa could easily cost $7 – and though preserving takes time, it’s always worth it in darkest February when we’re able to eat something that tastes at least a little like summer. I also preserve because it allows me to make things that I’d never find in a store, and I can customize these foods to our own tastes. Fiery, garlicky fermented hot sauce? Pear-chocolate jam with crystallized ginger? Roasted red pepper and fennel confit? Applesauce made from just fresh, local apples and no added sugar? Making anything from scratch is about regaining some control over what we eat, rather than just blithely accepting whatever the big food companies choose to produce as cheaply as possible.

We dry, can and freeze our local peaches.

Preservation takes many forms, and to get the best results it’s important to understand the different methods and how they might affect the end product. Many people don’t think of freezing as preservation, but it’s certainly the most common nowadays. Like all preservation techniques, freezing alters the texture of food, so while it works well for some foods (most fruit freezes beautifully) it’s not great for others (lettuces and greens turn to mushy slime). We live in the heart of Colorado’s stone fruit region, so we freeze a lot of fresh peaches, cherries and apricots. If you find an amazing sale on fresh berries or another fruit you’d like to preserve, wash the fruit well and spread it in a single layer on a baking sheet. Once frozen solid, transfer the fruit into zip-top bags. This technique helps keep the fruit separated, rather than frozen together into one unusable chunk, and makes it easy to incorporate into smoothies, baked goods or jams. And while frozen vegetables get a bad rap, they’re frozen at the height of ripeness so are a much better choice than fresh most of the year. Plus, they’re priced really well! I’d rather eat frozen peas than starchy, out-of-season “fresh” peas any day.

Most of our peppers and tomatoes end up in salsa and hot sauce.

Water-bath canning is another common and easy preservation technique, and one that I use most frequently. Hot, sterilized glass jars are filled with salsa or jam or applesauce, or a million other foods, then the jars are vacuum-sealed in a pot of boiling water to create an airtight anaerobic environment where potentially harmful bacteria cannot survive. Canning works well for certain foods, but those foods need an acidic pH – not all foods are safe for water-bath canning – and in Colorado, at least, it’s imperative to adjust for altitude. Only use tested recipes for water-bath canning, and don’t create your own concoctions unless you have a reliable pH meter and a clear understanding of the science. Water-bath canning is definitely the most time-consuming method of food preservation, but if correctly processed the jars will last at least a year in a cool, dark, dry environment, and no electricity is required for storage.

In our climate, fresh herbs dry perfectly spread out on sheet pans.

We grow a lot of herbs, and those need to be preserved, too. Many people recommend using a microwave or dehydrator to dry herbs; while those methods might be necessary in more humid climates, in a high-plains desert the herbs simply need to be spread out and left alone. Plus, all the flavor in herbs comes from their delicate essential oils, and cooking the plants, even at a relatively low temperature, will remove most of that flavor. I collect my herbs in bunches and hang them to dry, or simply spread them out on a sheet pan. Once the herbs are dry enough to crumble, I remove the stems and crush the leaves into small labeled jars. As with all spices, dried herbs should be kept in a cool, dark and dry place, and used reasonably quickly.

Homegrown dried tomatoes add bright flavor to pasta and salads.

We also have a big nine-shelf dehydrator; it’s in service year-round for making yogurt, but during autumn it’s also regularly used for drying tomatoes, peaches and apples, plus making fruit leather. The dehydrator is far more efficient than an oven, and it’s easier to maintain the low temperatures required to dehydrate foods without rendering them too crunchy or dried out to eat. I’ve learned through trial and error that the dehydrator requires a lot of supervision – I’m constantly rotating the trays and removing pieces that are thoroughly dry – and I’ve had some loss due to mold, because I hadn’t removed enough moisture. If you’re doing a lot of preserving, however, a quality dehydrator is well worth the investment. Like canned goods, properly dehydrated foods don’t require electricity for long-term storage; since the water is removed, dehydrated foods are light and portable, making them perfect for camping, hiking and on-the-go snacks.

The before-and-after of our fiery fermented green hot sauce.

Finally, we also ferment foods. We love spicy foods and condiments, so much of our fermentation efforts go into hot sauces and kimchi. One lesson I’ve learned over the years is only to preserve the foods that our household will actually eat, so sauerkraut and pickles no longer earn a place in our pantry. While I do make “pickled” jalapenos for use in sandwiches and on pizza, fruits and vegetables that have been brined in a vinegar solution like those peppers aren’t truly pickled. Remember the mercantile store pickle barrels of yesteryear? Those are true lacto-fermented pickles, and they’re no longer considered food-safe for a variety of reasons. “Cheating” with vinegar isn’t actually pickling, but mostly accomplishes the same end result.

So pretty! But please don’t store your canned goods in the sun like this.

If you’re going to tackle any preservation projects, make sure you have the time, the space and the equipment required. Know the science and the rules and have a clear understanding of the end result you want to achieve, and the best method to get there. Also remember that preservation doesn’t make bad food good, so while you can definitely use cosmetically imperfect seconds, never use overripe or spoiled produce. Preserving the harvest might require a substantial investment of time and energy, but sourdough toast with bright, sunny peach jam, or piping-hot tomato soup with a swirl of pesto, on a cold winter’s day makes all that effort worthwhile.

How to make kimchi

A couple of years back, we all got really into probiotics. In the simplest terms, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms – bacteria and/or yeasts – in our surrounding environment and within our bodies that help keep us healthy. Since so many of us are regularly on antibiotics, which kill off both good and bad organisms indiscriminately, it makes sense that our bodies would be deficient in helpful bacteria. The rise of serious digestive-related disorders, too, indicated that our microbiome was in serious trouble.

Many of these health issues can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of food we eat is completely, totally dead. I don’t mean dead in the literal sense, like how we turn a sad CAFO pig into even sadder pork chops, but dead in the sense that all life has been processed out of it. Instead of eating slightly muddy carrots, freshly dug, we eat “carrot chips” and drink “carrot juice,” which have been subjected to high-heat processing and irradiation and a million other complicated techniques, rendering that carrot into what Michael Pollan would call “an edible food-like substance.” It’s no longer actual, nutritious food; we’ve just been told it is.

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The zucchini chronicles

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This is only one day’s harvest!

(…or the courgette chronicles, for our English audience.) By now we’re likely all familiar with the time-honored adage about how rural residents only lock their cars in July and August, because that’s when a fiendish neighbor is most likely to deposit a bag of overgrown and unwanted zucchini on the passenger seat. It’s an apt joke, however; anyone who has grown summer squash knows that it absolutely has a mind of its own. One day, there are tiny flowers on the plant; not even twenty-four hours later, it seems, zucchini the size of baseball bats have taken over the garden. If not carefully monitored, these plants can become unmanageable very quickly.

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Please, someone, tell me what’s wrong with this zucchini plant?

I always think of zucchini (like my beloved kale) as a self-esteem boost for the gardener. It grows well in just about any conditions, needs little care and produces voluminously and reliably. Interestingly, this is the first season I’ve struggled with zucchini – of seven plants, four look like the photo above: small and stunted with initially green leaves that turn crisp and brown without growing larger. The plant keeps putting on new leaves, which promptly die; no blossoms or fruit appear. All of the seven plants are from the same seed and in the same bed and none are planted where squash grew last year; I’ve never seen anything like this. Are they diseased? Attacked by a mysterious pest? Why are three plants growing perfectly? If any experienced gardeners want to weigh in on this unexpected quandary, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Farm update: July 20

“Still, I cook. We need to cook, after all, to nourish ourselves and those around us. We need to cook to feel better, to make others feel better, to get along. I may begin the process in weariness, but as often as not I end it in surprise and triumph, happy at least to have made something delicious, to have shared it with those with whom I shelter.”

-Sam Sifton, The New York Times

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No longer trendy but still delicious.

One of the cruel ironies of being a farmer is that when the vegetables really start rolling in, it’s way too hot to cook. Plus, after twelve hours working in the blazing sun all we want is chilled watermelon and ice-cold beer – not exactly a balanced diet. Enter the quiche! Long a mainstay of stuffy, boring women’s luncheons, quiche is hopelessly out of fashion but so well-suited for hot summer months, especially when fresh eggs, vegetables and herbs are in abundance. I always bake first thing in the morning (the house doesn’t need any help heating up later in the day), and quiche is perfect warm, cold or at room temperature. It has a reputation for being terribly unhealthy, but loaded with broccoli, spinach, peppers and herbs, with just a little egg and sharp, savory cheese to bind it all together, it’s an ideal summer staple. Let’s bring quiche back!

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Farm update: May 11

It’s hot, dry and windy out here, and feels more like late July than early May. We seem to have skipped straight from a parched winter into an equally arid summer, missing the soft green lushness of spring entirely; the peas and radishes survived frost damage only to turn bitter and pithy from sun scald. Last year we had rain almost every single day in May, and this year it’s unlikely we’ll see any. Early reports indicate that the mountain snowpack is melting far too quickly, thanks to this premature summer, and our primary focus these days is on keeping all of our plants irrigated. Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently.

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Our gated irrigation pipe at work. 

All of our irrigation water comes from snow on the Grand Mesa. When the snow thaws each spring, the snowmelt makes its way down the mountain through an intricate series of ditches, headgates, creeks and pipes. We’re focused this year on regenerating our pasture, so have started flood-irrigating our land to see what grows. Later this season we’ll remark our pasture (cut channels that direct the water) and hopefully seed it with perennial grasses, too. Eventually we’ll use the land for rotational grazing, likely a grass-fed steer or two. Flood irrigation requires a lot of work – the water has to be “moved” by opening and closing valves and gates along the pipes – but it’s the system we have, so we’re learning how to use it to the land’s advantage.

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The sourdough bandwagon

Here’s what N and I have learned in the five-odd weeks since this madness really kicked off: the things we’ve been doing for years – growing food, baking bread, keeping chickens, buying only secondhand, cutting our own hair – are exactly what all of America seems to want to do right now. Listen up, everyone: we’re cool and we’re on-trend and we are probably influencers too. We’re going to call ourselves influencers, anyway. We’d like to influence you to bake sourdough, mostly because no one can find any yeast yet people still really, really like fresh bread.

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Really, what’s better than fresh bread and good butter?

I’m not at all surprised by the gardening and the bread baking, truly. People have extra time on their hands and want to do something both purposeful and satisfying, plus spring has arrived in most places and it’s a pleasure to be outside. But the sourdough thing? That did take me by surprise, as sourdough has a reputation for being so tricky and difficult and obsessive and a little weird because people name their sourdough starters and refer to them as pets. But then of course all of the country’s commercial yeast disappeared somewhere so it’s only natural that everyone would turn to sourdough, and people also need new pets in this time of isolation, kind of like Wilson in Castaway, so it all sort of makes sense.

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Kitchen substitutions

A lifetime ago, N and I worked and lived on boats. We worked on fancy boats and not-so-fancy boats and were often at sea for days or even weeks at a time, traveling from southern Florida to the Caribbean, or across the Atlantic to make quick landfall in the Azores before an intense Mediterranean charter season. Being at sea meant no quick runs to the store, no online grocery delivery, and so I grew adept at using the ingredients I had on hand and figuring out what substitutions I could make.

It turns out that this skill comes in handy in our new world, too. Americans are cooking and baking more than ever – which is fantastic! – and more often than not, we’re doing so with a limited selection of ingredients, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks and unnecessary hoarding and other factors. So it might be useful to learn some simple kitchen substitutions, which will make you a better cook and a better baker both during quarantine and once things return to “normal,” whatever that might mean.

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Farm update: February 24

Greetings! We are currently stuck in that awkward phase between winter and spring. Some days it’s all teasing warmth and perfect blue skies, and some days it’s bleak and grey with icy, biting winds. Most of our snow is gone, though we expect (and hope for) one or two more storms, at least. It’s a changeable season, but spring is definitely in the air and we’re starting to hear more songbirds and see new growth everywhere we look. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently.

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A prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) in one of our towering cottonwoods.

We still haven’t captured a photo of our shy Northern harrier, seen regularly hunting mice in our pasture on sunny afternoons, but N did snap this lovely photo of a prairie falcon. The prairie falcon is about the size of a peregrine falcon, but with a much different hunting style (low swooping over the ground, rather than rapid dives). Unfortunately for the songbirds we’ve been hearing, much of the prairie falcon’s winter diet is the Western meadowlark, but we hope this one will focus more on our ground squirrel population. As with all falcons, the female is substantially larger than the male. Continue reading

How to make hummus

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It’s no secret that we here at Quiet Farm are big fans of the humble bean. We’ve discussed this before, of course; beans are high in protein and fiber, both of which help keep you full longer and keep your digestive tract functioning properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat, beans make a terrific whole-food alternative (unlike many of the processed soy patties now masquerading as meat). They’re cheap, easily available, store forever in the pantry, simple to cook and often local; it’s no wonder I make a pot of beans every three or four days.

Today, though, let’s talk hummus. There are a few foods that I firmly believe will always be better when you make them yourself – for me, that’s granola, yogurt and hummus. Of course you can easily buy all of these things at the grocery store, but hummus is surprisingly expensive for what it contains, and it will take you all of ten minutes to make a batch. You might find yourself making a batch once a week. And it’s so simple that hopefully you’ll read this entire post before realizing that I managed to avoid giving you a recipe…because hummus is more of a concept than a true recipe.

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