Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bountiful Blessings

After having such a short growing season last summer, it's been such a blessing to have the garden producing so well this year.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

(Almost) Free Heat

Even though it's the hottest month of the year we are thinking about keeping warm. Before we know it the snow will once again fly. So, before it gets cold enough to the point we need to heat the house, we need to collect 5 to 6 cords of good firewood.
We used to purchase North Idaho Energy Logs which are like a giant version of the wood pellets one would run through a pellet stove. They were a good deal in comparison to running our electric forced-air furnace but in the last few years the price was driven up along with lumber prices during the building boom. Curiously though lumber prices have dropped the price of these logs has not.
Fortunately for us a couple years ago our neighbor had 50 acres of his land partially logged which left huge piles of downed trees that were deemed "unmarketable" by the logging company and left to be burned. Also, the logging equipment damaged some trees which eventually resulted in many "standing dead" timber. He was going to hire a crew to have all of this cleaned up and burned.
Maybe it was a little opportunistic of us but we suggested that he let us do the clean up and our pay will be the firewood we salvage. This will be our second year harvesting and in this slow economy it has been such a blessing to have access to all this firewood.
Like the title suggest, this wood heat is not exactly free. The material cost are obvious: chain saw oil, gasoline, the oil that is mixed in the fuel and this season a new chain for the saw. It is also very time consuming. Thank God we don't have to spend more than a couple minutes drive time to get there since it adjoins our property. It's takes around 4 hours to collect a 1/2 cord of cut wood if nothing goes wrong with the chainsaw
It is hard work to say the least. Greg cuts and I load the truck. Usually this involves me using a wheel barrow to get the wood to the truck so I can load it. Even Emma and Bentley are tired from playing in the woods by the time we finish a half days work.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Yes, You Can Can!

I know, it sounds a little too much like Obama's campaign slogan for my comfort, too. But in this case I'm referring to canning not "hope and change". I want to make this country a better place not by redistributing the wealth but by encouraging you to try canning. With this tough economy folks are getting back to basics by trying to be more self-reliant, growing their own food and finding things to do that bring the family together without costing much money. Canning your own jam is a activity that fulfills all these things.

We first took up canning well over ten years ago. I bought a dozen Kerr half pint canning jars, read the instructions and suggested uses that came with them, got scared, and promptly placed them in the pantry and forgot about them. I start a lot of new activities that way unfortunately.

The next year though we were fortunate to have a friend that invited us to come and pick raspberries at their place as much as we wanted while they were on a two week vacation. Needless to say, we picked a lot of raspberries, gallons of them. But what to do with all of these berries? We were eating bowls of them and there are only so many pies and desserts you can make so close together in such a short time.
Suddenly I remembered the jars that I had buried in my pantry and opened them up again to read the information that came along with them. I was amazed at how simple it was to make jam. We could do this! And so can you! I'm not going to post specific recipes for canning jam because all you need to do is purchase a package of pectin (my favorite brand is Kerr) and open it up. Inside is all the recipes and step-by-step directions for making homemade jam and jellies. Ball has a great site for recipes and all their canning products.

I'm going to break down the steps in this post and give you some tips that I have learned from over a decade of canning. Here we go:

1) Prepping your jars and lids: Check the edges of your jars by carefully running your finger around the edges. If you find any chips on the edge do not use them because you may not get a proper seal or vacuum in your final product. Wash all of your jars, lids and rings thoroughly in soap and water or run it all through the dishwasher. Either way is fine. I always prepare one more jar than the recipe calls for. If you yield a little more than expected you'll have that extra jar all ready to fill.

2) Sterilizing and heating your jars and lids: The directions in your pectin box will tell you to heat your jars and lids submerged in water at 180F degrees but do not heat your lids in boiling water. You can float a candy thermometer in the water to monitor the temperature. I am using a large stock pot with a canning rack in this picture but a large Dutch oven works as well.

Your rings do not need to go in this water bath since they will not be coming in contact with the food. Keep your jars and lid in this hot water until it's time to fill them with jam or jelly.
3) Prepping your fruit and adding the pectin: Depending on the fruit, the directions will vary but do follow them. Most fruit will require either chopping or crushing and some will require the addition of lemon juice, too. You will be adding the pectin at this point if you are using a powder pectin. Stir it in. If using a liquid pectin the addition order will vary somewhat but do follow those directions that came with the pectin!
4) Cooking the fruit: In most cases the recipe will require that you heat the fruit over medium high to high heat while constantly stirring to a full boil and then add a specific amount of sugar. It is helpful to have the sugar nearby, premeasured in a container such as a bowl instead of adding it to the boiling fruit and pectin mixture cup by cup.
5) Cooking the jam: Now with the heat still on medium high to high, stir the sugar into the fruit/pectin mixture and keep stirring. To reduce the amount of foam that forms you may add a 1/2 teaspoon of butter at this time. The mixture will quickly return to a boil. Keep on stirring and time one minute. As soon as one minute is up, remove it from the heat. Skim any foam that may have formed on the surface of the jam.

One word of caution, during that minute that the jam is boiling be careful of what splatters out of the pot. I generally have on long sleeves and something on my feet. This is definitely NOT the time to any youngsters underfoot.
6) Filling the jars: Now you can start filling the jars. It is very helpful to have a canning funnel like the one pictured here. Using kitchen tongs, lift out one jar out of the hot water and fill it to a 1/4 inch from the top. Using a clean damp cloth, wipe the top of the jar so there is no residue of jam. Place the lid on top of the jar and place on the ring and hand tighten.
7) Processing the jam: Once you have all your jars filled, sealed and sitting on the kitchen counter, heat the water to boiling. After a rolling boil is achieved gently return the filled jars to the water using the kitchen tongs to lower them in. If the water level gets too high bail some of it out until the jars are covered with an inch of water. Now that all the jars are in the pot back the heat down until you have a gentle boil. Place the lid on the pot. Most recipes call for 10 minutes of processing for jams and jellies but you may need to adjust for the altitude you live at by adding time. There is a chart for this in your directions that came with the pectin.
8) You're done!: Once the processing time is completed carefully remove the jars to cool on a towel on the counter. As they cool you will hear the buttons on the top of the lids pop. This is the sound of success! After they cool completely run your finger across the buttons on the lid to make sure they are pushed in by the vacuum formed in the jar. If you have any jars with the buttons protruding on the lids, place those jars in your frig and use them first.

I do hope that everyone gives canning a try. Jam and jellies are a perfect place to start. Before you know it you will want to try pickling which really isn't any more difficult than canning jam.