Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Garden in July

 Heirloom Tomato Copia

Gardening has been a bit different this year for me. It was really slow going in the beginning because of insect pests. I lost a lot of veggies. Some I replanted, others it was too late. This is the first year I have no beans, which is weird, but they all got eaten. What is growing is doing well, though, and the harvests are good, for which I'm grateful.

The Yellow Pear tomato is like a monster. I really should clip it back, but I just hate doing that. It is spilling out of its cage on every side, and has taken over all the walkways around it. My favorite is to just pick them off the plant and eat them, warmed from the sun. Oh, so good! 

The Swiss Chard is keeping me in leafy greens for my green drinks every day. I just go out and cut five or so leaves. Sometimes I steam it too. Swiss Chard is ever faithful. It's also what spared the rest of my garden. The earwigs finished off my lettuce and then moved down to the chard. They stayed down there, and I was able to replant in the lettuce squares. Then, the chard was able to grow faster than the earwigs could eat, so the problem subsided.

Sugar Baby Pumpkins. These are pie pumpkins, and I'm trying the vertical approach this time. I have two plants and they both seem to be doing fine.

A baby pumpkin!

A back view of the behemoth tomato plant.

The San Marzano tomatoes are my biggest triumph this season. I had to replant from seed three times! The first time I had started the seeds inside, but put them out when it was still a bit too cold and they didn't make it. The second two times, I just stuck seeds in the ground, in the center of my cages, which were already in place. Talk about an act of faith! You really never direct sow tomatoes! But they all germinated and grew! I lost three of them to insects and replanted those, but again, success! I had no idea if there would be enough time for them to mature. The plants are definitely smaller, but they are setting fruit beautifully. San Marzano tomatoes are known to be the very best paste tomatoes in the world, and I love them. I will make as much sauce as possible, and it looks like I'll be starting soon!

I only have one yellow squash and one zucchini plant that survived the insects, but that has been plenty. They seem to give me a nice harvest and then rest for a week or so before putting out more. It's been a great relationship.

And the zucchini plant is ginormous, having branched off in three different directions all over the garden and yard. Part of the plant dies and a whole new section is born!

One of Conor's chores this morning was to go pick Pear tomatoes. (I wish he would help me eat them too, but I'll settle for the picking now.) He ended up filling that entire bowl and didn't even get them all. So, now I figure out what to do with them all!

Gardens are so great for children!

So, it's not the prettiest garden this time, and I do love pretty gardens, but I am so thankful for the food we are being blessed with. And thankful for long, forgiving southern California growing seasons.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Jam is Done!

I love canning season every year, but I was especially excited about this season because I had some new canning cookbooks with recipes I was excited to try and because Ball released the limited edition Heritage blue jars, and I thought they were pretty.  I'm a simple girl. (Turns out they're really much prettier when empty, as many jams appear green or brown in them, but oh well.)

My favorite new canning cookbook is Food in Jars, which you see above, tabbed to the hilt. I love the unique flavors, and I love that each recipe makes a small batch, so you can try lots of different flavors and not be bogged down with too much of anything. I heard about this canning book from Marisa's blog of the same name, which I've been reading for about a year. I accidentally bought two copies of the book from Amazon and gave one to my friend, Luisa, who also had delicious results. It was from this book that I made two of my new favorite jams, Nectarine-Lime and Cantaloupe-Vanilla. Amazing.

If you want some more resources, I also love the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving; The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves (I got the Strawberry-Orange and Mango-Lime recipes from this book); Jam On: The Craft of Canning Fruit; and Canning for a New Generation.

Every week I watched the grocery store ads for low prices on in-season fruit. Sometimes there was one fruit that I stocked up on, and other weeks it seemed like everything was at the lowest price all at once.

So, I got busy!

The Nectarine-Lime is one of my new favorites. It is so refreshing! Definitely one I will make every year.

One of the reasons I like working with nectarines is the fact that they don't need to be peeled first. I hate peeling fruit. But on the day I had to process the peaches (and it turned out that I bought way too many peaches!) Lyndsay was home, and offered to do it for me! 

Since jam has to be made in small batches, it took three batches of jam to use all the peaches. This was the day I had dedicated to jamming. I had fruit overflowing everywhere that had to get processed.

It was much easier that the peaches were freestone, instead of clingstone. Dicing them up was a breeze. I thought it fascinating to find a few of the pits cracked open with the seed inside. Both peaches and almonds belong to the Rosaceae family, and the seed inside definitely gave that away. It looked just like an almond, splitting out of its skin.

Here are the three batches of Peach Jam I made that day. I'd already made a previous batch two weeks earlier, so we definitely are set with Peach!

This was a new surprise, though: Cantaloupe-Vanilla Jam! I never knew cantaloupe could be made into jam, but it is incredible! Like the cookbook says, it's reminiscent of the most exotic creamsicle. This makes a very tiny batch (3 half-pints). So, so good!

After about six hours of jamming, the kitchen was sticky! I try to be very diligent about cleaning as I go, and I had a good system down for clean-up and prep in between batches (we made 6 batches that day), but at the end, I scrubbed down the stovetop, tossed the burner grates into the dishwasher, and put Conor to work mopping the splatters from the floor.

Here is the jam we made that one day:

And the next day, I thought, "I'd better pull out all the jam I've done this summer to see how we're doing."

Turns out, I think we're good.

And here's a picture with the few remaining jars from last year, which thankfully, are all flavors I didn't make this year, so they just add to our variety!

Yes, I think there's plenty of jam to last the year, with enough to share.

The next morning, we baked some loaves of whole wheat bread and got to tasting it all!

Let the famine come!

Jam Totals for 2013:

10 pints + 2 half-pints +1 quart Peach
3 half-pints Cantaloupe-Vanilla
1 pint + 3 half-pints Mango-Lime
4 pints + 2 half-pints Nectarine-Lime
4 pints + 1 half-pint Plum
3 pints Strawberry-Orange
4 pints Strawberry
4 pints Strawberry-Vanilla
5 half-pints Apricot-Vanilla
3 pints Apricot
6 half-pints Strawberry-Maple Smooch

1 pint Apricot halves

(From 2012, I have Mango-Raspberry, Orange-Plum, Raspberry, and Blueberry left.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

So I Bought Some Strawberries

Every July, strawberries drop in price (I got them for $0.88/lb) and I load up for the year's canning. We love many different flavors of jams, but my kids never tire of strawberry. And, they prefer it on their peanut butter sandwiches. But I also wanted to try some new recipes that I'd found in my canning cookbooks.

If you're new to canning, do not be intimidated! The process is pretty much the same, regardless of fruit or flavors. And it's pretty hard to have a total failure.

I found a recipe for Strawberry Maple Smooch in the Ball canning cookbook. It is a naturally sweetened sauce that can be spooned over desserts, oatmeal, or yogurt. I wanted to give it a try, and I definitely had the strawberries to spare.

First I washed the berries.

Then I pureed them in the food processor. This is not what you'd usually do for a jam. For jam, you'd probably chop them into small pieces.

To the puree I added some apple juice, maple syrup, and a touch of lemon juice.

And then it was heated to a boil.

The smooch was then ladled into jars,

lids were attached,

and finally it was processed in a water bath.

Easy peasy. The unfilled jar I popped in my fridge so I could try it out. (I did not process that jar.)

A bowl of oatmeal with Strawberry Maple Smooch and even more strawberries made for a delicious breakfast.

With the rest of the strawberries, we made some other jams. I taught Conor to hull the berries for me and he got pretty good at it! Amazing how teaching a child even a simple task can boost confidence.

This one was Strawberry-Orange Jam, and oh, my goodness it smelled so heavenly! I am SO excited to try this one out.

While the Strawberry-Orange was cooking, I cut up more strawberries and prepared them to macerate in the fridge overnight with the sugar and vanilla beans. This was for Strawberry-Vanilla Jam, and it also smelled so divine.

Finally, we used the food mill (Conor's favorite jamming task) to process the rest of the berries for Seedless Strawberry Jam. Just the basic strawberry jam, mostly for sandwiches.

I ended up buying 25lbs of strawberries this year. We are set! Plenty were eaten fresh, and some were frozen for smoothies. Nothing like putting up the bounties of summer to enjoy all throughout the year!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mani/Pedi Kit

I was really stuck about what to give Lyndsay for her 19th birthday. I didn't have a ton of money to spend, but I wanted the gift to be something personal, and something useful.

One of my resolutions this year was to do all my own pedicures (and manicures, but I always do those anyway). I bought a set of tools and learned to use them, figuring that a couple of at-home pedicures would pay for them. Well, Lyndsay loves to do her nails.  She changes her polish frequently. The other thing Lyndsay loves is saving money. She loves to be treated to a pedicure or manicure, but doesn't spend her own money to get them. And since I'm not going for me, I'm not taking her! She's been using my supplies, and I thought it would be a good idea to put together a kit for her (which is much more inclusive than what I have, but I love putting kits of anything together). She can easily tote it back and forth when she is traveling.

I bought the box at Joann Fabrics. I had a 40% off coupon. I like that it has the three layers that can each be separated.

In the top layer, I put all of her tools. Everything she would use for both hands and feet. Well, except the clippers. I thought about putting those in the other layers, but then decided to keep all the tools up here.

The second layer is for hands. (Mostly. I do use the cuticle remover gel on my toes.)

The third layer is for feet.

She could tuck a polish or two in there, if she wanted, to tote her supplies downstairs here at home, or over to a friend's apartment.

She likes it quite a bit, and I want her to be proficient at caring for her hands and feet. Mani-pedis are such a nice treat, but they should be a luxury, not a have-to. And good girls always know the difference.