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.

Farm update: September 28

Aspens Fall

How are things in your world, friends? It’s officially autumn here, with clear bluebird days and crisp, cool nights; the destructive Pine Gulch fire, sparked at the end of July about seventy miles away, is thankfully entirely contained. Our neighboring orchards are nearly all harvested, and our task list is packed with tidying, organizing, preserving, cleaning and stocking up for what we hope is a very snowy winter.

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Hay for animal feed has to stay dry at all costs.

The winter feed for our alpacas and llama has been delivered and safely stored in our de facto hay barn. As this is our first year with the animals, we had to guess on quantities and are hoping that we won’t find ourselves out of hay in frigid January with no green pasture on the near horizon – in a situation like that, a hay farmer will be able to charge us whatever he wishes, and rightfully so. Our llama, Kingston, has already figured out that with some crafty contortionist maneuvering he can reach the fresh bales through the corral panels. Bless his tenacity, and his flexible neck.

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Gone to seed

We’ve talked a lot about saving seeds here at FQF, and since fall is definitely underway, they’re on our minds more than ever at the moment. In addition to all of our canning and preserving projects and other preparations for winter, collecting and storing seeds is a big part of our autumn task list.

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Collect your sunflower seeds before the birds and squirrels do!

We use the idiom “go to seed” to refer to someone or something that’s let itself go. It’s become messy or unattractive or disheveled or unkempt; it no longer appears tidy and neat. It’s obviously a phrase of agricultural origin, and this is the time of year when it takes on significance in the garden, as most annuals are coming to the end of their natural lives. In their quest to reproduce, the plants have gone to seed: typically they flower first, then the flowers produce seeds, which are spread by wind, insects, animals or human intervention.

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Lettuces are one of the easiest plant families from which to save seeds.

It’s unfortunate, truly, that so many gardeners are offended by the appearance of plants gone to seed, and especially in perfectly manicured suburban settings are likely to rip plants out at the first sign of flowering. Letting plants proceed through their natural life cycle teaches you a lot about botany and helps you become a better grower. Plus, if you’re careful and diligent, you can start building your own unique seed bank, which will both save you money and improve plant diversity.

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Many of these collected onion seeds have already been replanted for a fall crop.

Saving seeds is so much easier than many people think; annuals are typically desperate to present their seeds to any creature who might help disperse them, so collecting is often simple. In most cases, know that you need to leave the plants alone long past the point of edibility for the greatest success. I always abandon a few tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, tomatillos and cucumbers on the plants for as long as possible so that these internal seeds have plenty of time to mature, no matter how big or shriveled or overripe the fruits might get. (The exception here, of course, is if a hard freeze is forecast; you’ll want to bring all fruits in in that situation.) Greens often turn intensely bitter once they’ve gone to seed, but can be replanted quickly.

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Most of these Peregion beans are destined for the soup pot this winter, but a handful will be saved for next year’s crop.

Some seeds are obvious, because they’re the part of the plant we eat: think beans and peas. To collect these seeds, let the pods dry on the plant until they rattle; then shell, bag and label. Others can be trickier; lettuces often take a while to go to seed, unless the weather is very hot; once they do finally turn, the leaves will be bitter and almost crispy, but you’ll see dozens of tiny puffballs on the top of the plant, and these can easily be collected in a paper bag once they’re thoroughly dry. You’ll want them to almost crumble in your fingers when you try to harvest; if some of the little cottony puffs have already started flying away, you’ll know it’s a good time to harvest the seeds. I think lettuce offers the best return on seeds of any edible annual; each single plant will produce thousands of seeds.

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Don’t try to plant the little packets from your favorite pizza place.

Saving seeds from other edible crops can be a bit trickier. It’s no surprise that tomatoes, the garden’s high-maintenance princess, require more attention. Tomato seeds should be fermented before storage; this extra step actually creates a sort of antibacterial coating around the seed, offering an extra layer of protection. To ferment tomato seeds, simply scrape the seeds and their gel out of the tomato with a spoon; the flesh can still be eaten. Place the seeds in a small, shallow container and cover with just a little water. Let this mixture sit at room temperature for a few days until mold has formed. (Don’t be put off by the fragrance! That’s nature at work.) Once all the liquid has evaporated and the seeds are thoroughly dry, carefully separate the seeds with your fingertips, bag, label and store.

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Save seeds from the vegetables you love! And maybe even the vegetables you don’t love! Just in case there’s a pandemic!

Saving seeds is one thing, but storing them properly is just as important, if not more so. Never blend seeds from different vegetable varieties, unless you’re intentionally looking to create something like a greens mix. Store all seeds properly labeled in individual seed bags or envelopes, and always keep your seed bank in a cool, dark and dry location, away from bugs or insects. The wildfires decimating the West right now have forced a lot of anxious contemplation of what I’d save if we had to evacuate; I’ve realized that my irreplaceable seed bank is one of those items. Seeds matter. Self-sufficiency matters. And the ability to grow our own food – without the pernicious influence of megacorporations – matters the most.

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These arugula seeds have already scattered to the four winds.

Like so many other things in the early days of the pandemic, people panic-bought pretty much all the country’s seeds for their quarantine gardens. I’d love to know how many of these impulse seed purchases actually made it into the ground, and how many remain unopened in a forgotten Amazon shipping box in a dusty closet. Considering how quickly the seed companies’ inventory vanished this spring, seed saving has become more important than ever. If you grow anything at all – even if it’s just a pot of basil on a sunny windowsill – consider letting your plants go to seed so you can collect and save that seed. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that nothing about our food system is secure, and seeds are no exception.

This week in flowers: September 7

Slowly but surely, summer is giving way to fall – or winter, really, considering Tuesday night’s forecast. From a high today of just above 90, the thermometer will plummet sixty degrees to a projected hard freeze Tuesday night, and possibly snow, too. This shockingly early first frost (it usually occurs in the first or second week of October) is on-brand for the utter debacle that is 2020, and it will likely kill all of our tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, flowers and delicate herbs. None of these plants are even close to finished for the season, so our overall yields will be cut in half, at least. It’s a terrible, heartbreaking situation for any farmer, and we’re no exception.

At the moment, though, we still have lots of blooms on the farm, and it’s fascinating to watch the flowering plants shift with the seasons. Here are a few we’ve spotted recently (see blossoms from earlier this season here and here). After Wednesday morning, all of these will have vanished.

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Let’s learn about alpacas and llamas!

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It’s a creative remake of The Sound of Music.

Some of you may recall that we expanded the Quiet Farm team a few weeks ago. We now have five alpacas and one llama on our farm, and they currently spend the majority of their time grazing placidly on our pasture. We’re new to livestock, and are doing as much research as possible, and we thought you might be interested in learning more about our new residents, too.

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See you at the old watering hole?

First, what even are these odd creatures, anyway? Llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Vicugna pacos) are both members of the camelid family, along with their wild cousins, viçunas and guanacos. (Collectively, this group is known as lamoids.) Camelids actually evolved in North America; some of their ancestors migrated to Africa to become the desert camels we’re familiar with. Other ancestors migrated south to what is now South America and evolved into the llamas and alpacas we associate with indigenous tribes of South America. As bison were essential to the Native Americans, so were llamas and alpacas to the indigenous peoples. These animals provided food, fiber, grease, draft power, fertilizer, fuel, leather and protection.

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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: August 3

“This pandemic feels like a relay race and if that means that every once in a while, you need to break down and freak out, that’s fine. We can carry the baton for each other while we lose it, gather strength, and then carry on. The world seems out of control, but we can control our kitchens and the good things that come out of them. That’s something.”

-Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

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A daily harvest last week.

It’s reaching that point in the season when all of our hard work starts to pay off in abundance. Harvests now happen daily, rather than weekly or every few days, and a small bucket is required. Although the stars of summer – tomatoes and peppers – haven’t really come on yet, we’re swimming in greens, carrots, beets, onions, zucchini, fennel, kale and fresh herbs. It’s not going to be a great year for either winter squash or sweet peppers, much to our disappointment, and we fear that the squirrels have pre-harvested many of our potatoes. But we’re looking forward to cucumbers and fresh beans along with a (hopefully strong) tomato crop.

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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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This week in flowers: July 13

Friends, it’s truly a surprise anything is blooming right now, considering our punishing temperatures – high nineties every day! – and total lack of moisture. Also, please send tax-deductible donations to help pay our extortionate water bill. But! We do have a few bright spots of color around the farm that we thought we’d share.

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Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a member of the marigold family.

We planted a number of different flowers, including calendula and marigolds, in our raised beds to both provide visual interest and to attract beneficial pollinators. Although calendula doesn’t love our intense summer weather, most seem to be doing reasonably well and will hopefully bloom again in fall’s cooler temperatures.

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