30 August 2010

Family recipe Monday: let the canning begin: herb jellies

Still life with basil: last year's haul of wild plums

If you have been keeping up with the saga of the new building, you may be thinking that this is no timne for me to be writing about canning. It's true: we cut the ribbon this coming Wednesday, September 1. I will post more on that as soon as the long week is over.

But canning can't wait forever. The produce season up here is short, and it is coming to an end. So many things are happening simultaneously: new building, new semester, new course to teach, family in town....and more canning. I am hoping that we get another bumper crop of wild plums and apples this year. In the meantime, we are finding treasures at the farmers' market. Best find yesterday: the first of the year's pears and perfectly ripe raspberries, which will make a pie or cobbler to feed the aforesaid visiting family.

Here are some recipes for herb jellies. The herbs are coming in, too, and these make sweet and savory jellies with pure gem colors. The possible combinations are endless. If you've got others, please share them. I don't worry too much about the food coloring unless the jelly looks off-putting. It all tastes wonderful.

Mint jelly

6 lb. apples, stemmed and chopped
6 cups water
3 cups sugar
¾ cup fresh mint leaves, crushed
2 T lemon juice
2 drops green food coloring

Combine apples and water in a large Dutch oven; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 to 25 minutes. Strain apples through a jelly bag or 4 layers of cheesecloth, reserving 4 cups juice. Discard pulp. Combine reserved juice, sugar, mint, lemon juice and food coloring in Dutch oven. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring frequently. Boil until mixture reaches 220* F on candy thermometer. Remove from heat and skim off foam. Quickly pour jelly through a sieve into hot sterilized jars, leaving ¼ ” headspace. Cover at once with metal lids and screw bands tight. Process in boiling-water bath for 5 minutes. Yield: 4 half-pints.

Note: If you don't normally use a candy thermometer, it's a good time to learn how to do so, unless you prefer uncooked freezer jams. Jellues need to be cooked and clarified, and can be very touchy.

Basil jelly

6 lb. apples, stemmed and chopped
6 cups water
3 cups sugar
2 T chopped fresh basil leaves
2 T lemon juice

Follow directions as for mint jelly (above), substituting coarsely chopped basil and omitting food coloring.

Rose geranium jelly

4 cups apple juice
8 drops red food coloring
1 1¾ oz. pkg. powdered fruit pectin
5-½ cups sugar
7 fresh rose geranium leaves

Combine juice, food coloring and pectin in a large Dutch oven. Quickly bring to a rolling boil, stirring frequently. Add sugar and return to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Boil 1 minute, stirring. Remove from heat and skim off foam. Place 1 rose geranium leaf in each of 7 hot sterilized half-pint jars. Quickly pour jelly into jars, leaving ¼ ” headspace. Cover at once with metal lids and screw bands tight. Process in boiling-water bath 5 minutes.

You can use this one with any of the "flavored" geraniums.

Rosemary jelly

1 ½ cups white grape juice
8 drops red food coloring
½ cup water
8 drops yellow food coloring
3-½ cups sugar
3 T fresh rosemary leaves, crushed
1 3-oz. pkg. liquid fruit pectin

Combine all ingredients except pectin in a large Dutch oven. Quickly bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Cook 1 minute, stirring. Add pectin and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture returns to a rolling boil. Continue boiling 1 minute, stirring. Remove from heat and skim off foam. Quickly pour jelly through a sieve into 4 hot sterilized half-pint jars, leaving ¼ ” headspace. Cover at once with metal lids and screw bands tight. Process in boiling-water bath 5 minutes.

Sage jelly

1 ½ cups apple cider
¼ cup chopped fresh sage leaves
½ cup water
6 drops yellow food coloring
3-½ cups sugar
1 3-oz pkg. liquid fruit pectin

Follow directions as for rosemary jelly (above), substituting coarsely chopped fresh sage leaves.

Thyme jelly

1 ½ cups white grape juice
3 T fresh thyme leaves, crushed
½ cup water
8 drops red food coloring
3-½ cups sugar
1 3-oz pkg. liquid fruit pectin

Follow directions as for rosemary jelly (above), substituting crushed fresh thyme leaves.

Herb-juice jellies

2 T dried herbs
3 cups juice
6 cups sugar
1 bottle liquid pectin

Combine dried herbs and juice. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let steep 10-15 minutes. Strain and add water to make 3 cups. Add sugar and bring to a full rolling boil. Cool one minute. Add pectin and return to hard rolling boil. Pour jelly into sterilized jars and seal immediately. Makes approximately 8 half-pints.

Juice-herb combinations

Tomato-lemon thyme
Apple-rose geranium

Happy Monday. Save everything you can.

P.S. for those who asked: we kept the kitten.

27 August 2010

Good day in the Badlands

The Wall near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Badlands National Park, with tipis

I don't have time to leave work these days, not with all the preparations for next week's grand ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building. But I had a meeting with friends and colleagues at Badlands National Park today. This is not an onerous drive. It's 75 miles. You can get out there in under an hour via interstate, or just over an hour on the blue highways.

Or it can take you 3 hours to cover the territory by meandering all over the landscape on the tiny unpaved roads chasing storm clouds, rainbows and wildlife.

It was spectacular. Fall is starting, no matter what the calendar says. The grasses are brown and red, the cottonwoods are turning yellow, the meadowlarks and killdeer are wildly restless. Afternoon storms change the light in a million different ways every minute. The angle of the light has slipped lower; summer is over up here. The winds are cooler. I cannot remember when I last watched every minute of a 2-hour sunset.

I came home, unlike my camera batteries, fully recharged and ready for the week ahead. Not trying to set any overland speed records worked wonders. I did have time, after all. Here's hoping you enjoy the scenery, too.

First signs of fall

Sign in Scenic, SD

Gate, Scenic

Pteranodon sculpture, Scenic

Distant Badlands, Sage Creek Road

Bison and prairie dog

Badlands in early fall colors

Storm clouds rolling in

Badlands sunshine and shadow

More storm clouds over Interior

Holy Rosary church, Interior

Presbyterian church, Interior

Jail, Interior, undoubtedly not in use

Welcome sign, Interior

House, Interior, with spectacular light

Yet more storm clouds

Double rainbow, Conata

More sunshine and shadow

Clouds and light, Sage Creek

Storm cloud sunset

23 August 2010

Family recipe Monday: let the canning begin: melon pickles

August on the prairie. Feel the heat?

For the first time in three years, we broke into triple-digit temperatures on Sunday. Classic August: the heat is on, the farmers' market was bursting with produce, and the Central States Fair has started. We may check out the quilting and canning displays later in the week, when the cold front predicted for tonight brings the high back down to the 70s.

I realize that our friends and family in Texas are howling with laughter at our wimpiness in the heat. Don't forget that we could have our first snow as early as five weeks from now, if last year is anything to go by.

So we are stocking up on the fresh produce and hauling out the canning gear in earnest. The jars and spices are back on sale at the feed store. I bought a pint of chokecherry jam at the farmers' market and will report on the taste as soon as the biscuits are done. You have to have biscuits for a jam taste test, after all.

Canning in August is counterintuitive--no one wants to work on a hot day in an even hotter kitchen. The older girls knew that this was the right time, though, and that the work could not wait, especially pre-refrigeration. Anything that could be preserved was canned, smoked or salted. Out here, berrying was (and is) in full swing.

I'm especially intrigued with melon pickles. I've seen more varieties of watermelon rind pickles up here in three years than I ever had before. It takes a truly gifted cook to figure out how to make an apparently inedible rind or a very watery, juicy fruit into a splendid preserve.

The cantaloupe pickles are new to me, and they are amazingly good. Here you are preserving the cantaloupe flesh itself, not the rind. Heed the warning about selecting non-mushy cantaloupes, though.

Cantaloupe pickles

3 firm (not mushy) cantaloupes
4 T pickling spices
1 cinnamon stick
3 cups cider vinegar
2 cups water
4 cups granulated sugar

Seed and peel the cantaloupes. Cut into 1” cubes (about 12 cups). Tie the spices and cinnamon into a double layer of cheesecloth. Place in large nonreactive pot along with the vinegar and water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes over medium heat. Remove from heat; add melon ands let stand for 1 ½ --2 hours, tossing occasionally. Add the sugar and stir well to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes or until the cantaloupe becomes slightly transparent. Pack the melon into 4 sterilized pint jars, making sure there are no air pockets in the jars. Cover with the hot syrup, leaving ¼“ head space. Seal and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

Watermelon pickles are just the opposite: you can't really save the flesh (so eat up!), but the rind makes a lovely, savory, translucent preserve that goes well with anything just off the grill. There are  dozens of recipes for watermelon pickles: here is my favorite. Note that, in all watermelon pickle recipes, the green outer rind is peeled and discarded. You can't save everything, but you can come close.

Ginger watermelon pickles

White part of rind from 1 small watermelon (~5 cups)
4 T salt
6 cups water
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tsp. whole allspice
1 tsp. whole cloves
4 cups sugar
2 pieces preserved ginger, sliced thin
2 cups white vinegar
1 3” piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 lemon, thinly sliced

Peel outer green skin off whole water melon and cut watermelon into wedges. Cut off white rind and reserve pink flesh for another purpose. Cut white rind into 1” pieces and put into a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and add cold water to cover. Soak overnight for at least 12 hours. Drain in a colander and rinse well with cold water. Place in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to boil and boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain in colander. Combine remaining ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook 10 minutes, then add rind and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 1 hour or until the rind is clear. Remove the fresh ginger. Ladle pickles and liquid into hot sterilized jars, leaving ¼ ” headspace. Divide lemon slices and spices among jars. Top with lids and screw bands tight. Process in boiling water for 10 minutes. Store in cool dark place.

Give these until at least November before you open them. You'll love the aroma in the cold months. Happy Monday, and stay cool.

16 August 2010

Family recipe Monday: let the canning begin: vinegars

Upland sandpiper on the move

Fall migration has started. The birds that were moving north in April are already moving south. People have been hearing shorebirds, like our upland sandpiper, flying over in the twilight and calling to each other on their long journey. The blast-furnace heat of the past weeks is subtly cooler, and the days are just perceptibly shorter. The fall semester is two weeks away, as is our grand opening of the new building. The birds are not alone: this is a time of moving and transition on all fronts up here.

And, just to add to the hectic pace of moving, it's time to start saving the summer magic for the cold months. The summer harvest is in full swing. It looks like another bumper-crop year for wild plums, apples and raspberries. We'll try to make a trip to the fair at the end of the month, where I will be checking out the canning and quilting shows. It's like going back in time 50 years. I'll be setting up a little canning expo of my own at home over the next couple of months.

One of the easiest canning techniques is the preparation of herb, fruit and vegetable vinegars. This is the right time to get these done so that they can mature nicely for holiday gift-giving. Start them now and let them sit for a few months while you look for the perfect gift bottles. Preserves are like casseroles: Make them so that you can keep some and share some. By December, these will have a lovely color and shine.

Basic herb vinegar

 Add 1 cup of fresh herb or spice or 1/3 cup of the dried version to each quart of cold vinegar. Leave for 5 to 6 weeks to develop flavor. Then strain the vinegar into clean bottles and add a fresh twig of herb for show. Cap tightly and store.

As the base you can use any of several vinegars--white, wine, cider or malt. The white vinegar will let the flavor of the herb or spice shine through. Other vinegars add their own characteristics to the end product.

If you want flavored vinegar in a hurry, simmer vinegar and spices for about 20 minutes. Pour into bottles and cap. It’s ready for use without waiting for it to mellow. Care should be taken so that the vinegar is not boiled or it will destroy the acetic acid in the vinegar that is essential to preserve the herb foliage.

  • Dill-garlic-black peppercorns (use on salads and fish)
  • Oregano-garlic-red chiles (meat marinade)
  • Tarragon-lemon peel-cloves (fish and green salads)
  • Bay leaves-juniper berries-allspice (beef marinade)
  • Mint-lemon-garlic (use to baste chicken and fish)
  • Mint-cider vinegar (great for fruit salads)
  • Thyme-red chiles-garlic (meat marinade)

Ten-herb vinegar
Lemon balm

Use 1 tsp. of each herb per quart of vinegar with the exception of rosemary and thyme. These herbs are very strong, so use in small amounts (a pinch).

Basic fruit vinegar
1 lb. fresh fruits or berries
1 quart distilled white vinegar

Sort fruit, rinse and drain in colander. Cut large varieties of stone fruits into ½” sections. Discard pits; peeling is unnecessary. It is not necessary to pit plums and sour cherries. Transfer fruit to a large glass container and, using a potato masher or hands, crush fruit to release juices. Blend in vinegar. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Store in a cool place for 3 to 4 weeks, stirring every day. Line large glass bowl with a pillowcase and pour in the fruit and vinegar. Gather up 4 corners of fabric and knot onto a broomstick handle. Hang mixture over a bowl overnight to allow vinegar to drain; do not squeeze fruit mixture. Preheat oven to 300* F. Discard drained fruit. Measure vinegar: 3 T sugar for every 2 cups of vinegar. Place sugar in a baking pan and warm it in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, pour vinegar into a large wide pot that is no more than 8” deep; vinegar should be no more than 4” deep. (Keeping vinegar shallow expedites boiling process, which preserves the color.) Place vinegar over high heat and warm. Stir in warmed sugar and quickly bring to a boil. Boil 3 minutes to prevent fermentation. Pour into a clean container and let stand overnight. Add appropriate garnish to sterilized bottles. Slowly and carefully decant vinegar into bottles. Discard sediment remaining in container. Cap or seal bottles. Store bottles in a cool dark area until ready to use.

  • Peach-ginger: 2 oz peeled ginger, cut into ¼ ” slices to basic peach cider mixture.
  • Blueberry-mint: 1 lb. of blueberries to 1 cup of fresh mint.

Onion vinegar
6 large Texas or Vidalia sweet onions, peeled, chopped
1 T salt
1 T sugar
4 cups white vinegar

Place onions, salt and sugar in a large clean crock or glass jar. Heat the vinegar in the microwave about 2 minutes on High (100%) and pour over onion mixture. Cool and seal. Store in a cool dark place for 1 to 3 months. Clarify by pouring through a coffee filter. Pour into decorative bottles and add fresh or green onion to each bottle. Seal and label. Yield: 4 cups.

Happy Monday. Save up the summer to light up the winter.

15 August 2010

A few scenes from the summer of 2010

Things that somehow never got posted throughout the summer....

Grebes at their floating nest on Seavey Lake.

Yes, I did say "floating."

And, yes, I did say "nest." This was in early July: the grebelets have hatched and grown quickly since then.

Hexagon quilt from the Rapid City quilt guild show. To put it in perspective: this is a miniature quilt, 1' square. You can see how tiny the hexagons are. Feel like an amateur yet? I do.... 

Butterflies swarming Gene's chair at Iron Creek campground. There were dozens of them on him and the chair all day.

Hotel sign in Custer.

Mountain bluebird at Iron Creek.

Nice pose.

Brewster in his low-life T-shirt. He was being treated for a minor skin problem, and this helped keep him from scratching it. It also lowered his IQ, never impressive in the first place, by 20 points or so.

09 August 2010

Family recipe Monday: mystery side dishes

In going through the family recipes for the Simple Gifts cookbook, we found a few that have us stymied. This is not hard to do, admittedly. Recipes are very much like an encrypted history of their time and place, and, without the key, one is left wondering what is going on. If you are collecting family recipes and the oldest cooks in the family are still around, get them on video talking about their recipes, for goodness sake. I wish that we had. Instead, we have strange questions that no one in this crowd has been able to answer.

Lubbock First Methodist Church Hawaiian rice
2 cups uncooked rice
4 cups water
2 tsp salt

Cook and set aside. Sauté in 3 T butter or oil:
1 medium onion, chopped fine
½ cup chopped celery
1 package frozen, chopped broccoli, thawed
Salt to taste

Add 1 can cream of chicken soup, 1 can of milk (approximately) and 1 small jar Cheez Whiz to the sautéed mixture and blend into a sauce.

To serve:
1. Pour sauce over rice.
or 2. Mix sauce and rice.
or 3. Place in baking dish in 350* F oven for about 19 minutes.

Question 1: What the heck makes this recipe "Hawaiian?"
Question 2: What is its connection to the church?
Question 3: Isn't "19 minutes" oddly specific?

It is a puzzlement.

Mystery dish (it has no name)
1 lb. sharp cheddar cheese
1 small can green chiles
1 small can ripe olives
Dash black pepper
3 T vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 T sugar
Dash hot sauce
1 small can tomato sauce
½ cup cooking oil
1 small minced onion

Mix and let set overnight. Bake at 350* F.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Question 4: What the heck is this dish? It doesn't even have a name, and we have no idea what the results would be.

Fry 4 slices bacon crisp. Remove from pan. Add chopped onion and sauté until golden brown. Remove. Add 1 ½ cups rice; sauté 2-3 minutes, stirring until heated and slightly brown. Add 2 T salt, 1 small package frozen peas, 3 T parsley flakes, 2 ½ cups chicken bouillon or beef consommé, and 1 cup water. Add bacon and onions. Stir well. Cover tightly. Simmer over low flame for 1 hour--mixture should be dry.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Question 5: OK, we can see that this is basically a rice casserole, but how do you pronounce its name, and where did that come from?

2 cups beans
5 cups water
5 cloves garlic
2 T olive oil
1/8 tsp cayenne
1 tsp sea salt

Put in oven at 200* F until tender.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Question 6: Can a recipe get any more basic/cryptic than this? It's not one of the oldest ones, calling as it does for sea salt, cayenne and olive oil....but it's amazingly terse on the details.

If you have any insights into the Six Questions of the Mystery Recipes, please drop us a note. Happy Monday.

08 August 2010

Lacreek NWR

Young ferruginous hawk on his mountain

It should have been another errand- and chore-filled day up here. There is more than enough to do on both the professional and personal fronts. Weekend time is precious. We have three weeks left to complete the first phase of the move to the new building and to get ready for the big ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication.

In theory, I should be making the most of every minute with Getting Things Done Now.

In practice, we got up early this morning, left the phones at home, and drove down to Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge for a day of meandering down the smallest backroads imaginable and looking at the wildlife, buildings and achingly beautiful vistas.

Eastern kingbird sneering at the photographer

We needed the scenery, the abundance of bird calls and the near-total absence of electronic and traffic noises. Lacreek NWR is at the northernmost range of the Sandhills, just south of the White River Badlands, a pocket wetlands habitat in the High Plains. It was a Civilian Conservation Corps project, as many refuges were, established in 1935. It is in every sense an oasis.

Original sign, as posted at the Lacreek NWR site.

We had never been there before, and we found that it soothed frazzled nerves better than anything else we might have done. The phones and the errands and the chores waited for us, for once.

Here is a selection of eye candy from the day. Enjoy.

Church on Pine Ridge Reservation.

Abandoned cabin.

Technicolor beehives.

Lacreek NWR marsh.

Great blue heron.

Common nighthawk.

Scenic, SD.

Sign with many, many interpretive possibilities, most not suitable for a family blog.

Sign at our friend Kenny's ranch. Yes, that is a pteranodon and that is also a mosasaur on top.

Sign, Martin, SD

Yellow-headed blackbird

Q: Why did the sharp-tailed grouse hens and chicks cross the road? A: Better you should ask, why did it take them 15 minutes to do so? First you get everyone lined up....

...then you get everyone crossing in random order, back and forth....

...then you finally get them in place.

Splendid summer vistas are all too rare these days. Enjoy.