Tuesday, July 29, 2014

You've come a long way, baby

Is there a pepper in the house?
The pic above is the raised bed I first photographed in The Lazy Man's Raised Beds.  If you look carefully, you can see evidence of that bed under the nasturtiums, mustard, dill, cilantro, garlic, chives, marigolds, basil, radishes, and, oh yeah, peppers in the pic.  The raised beds have done their jobs, as have the companion herbs - my pepper harvest is off the charts. No so much the radishes, which is fine, as I dislike them anyway. I only added them because they cover the ground quickly and I don't like to weed. Tossing them all on the mulch pile was no loss.

But the thing I'm not sure about is the flowers.  As you can see, the nasturtiums on the left and the marigolds on the right (both in front and back) look good. They seem to be thriving in this cramped and mixed environment.*  But I'm not sure I'm sold on their companion-plant, insect-repelling ability.

The last couple weeks have been pretty dry.**  And I have noted a pretty good invasion of the neighboring horseradish, both by cabbage moths and grasshoppers. The former I've taken to using for tennis practice, while my chickens are enjoying the tasty crunch of lots of the other. Still, I have both good and bad bugs in this bed and especially in my tomatoes. Bugs are not eating the fruits, but every tomato I pick is covered with black bug poop.

I don't know that I ever expected the mix of plants to keep the bugs out completely - I know enough about online 'expertise' to reduce my expectations of promised results considerably.  Nor do I know the answer to the critical question of how bad the bugs would have been without this companion planting.  And while I have been tempted a couple times this week to break out the Sevin Dust and nuke the bastards, I have not done so yet. If only because, if I don't figure out pest control now, it's not going to be any easier in future years.***

So we'll be watching carefully to see if the bugs chewing my leaves actually do any damage to the harvest. Given that I'm already harvesting apples, pumpkins, and other things I had not expected to touch until September, those bugs just might be too late to the party anyway. What a shame.

* Diversity, FTW!
** Not Huck dry, but pretty dry compared to the wonderful spring where it rained seemingly every other day.
*** Plus I have a mother lode of dragonflies out there that I don't want to kill.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Prunus Americana

This is not the hand of a giant.
I bought a bundle of American plum trees from the state extension service a decade ago or so.  While they were mostly intended to make a hedge row, I figured at the time that any fruit would be a bonus.* While not a huge fan of plums, I had hit a clearance sale on them at Wally's the prior year and had made some at best marginal jam from them. So I looked forward to redeeming myself 7-10 years hence.

As you can tell from the picture, American plums are not the same plums you'll find on your grocer's shelves.  Prunus Americanas are little bitty things, the biggest about the size of a quarter. It takes a whole bunch of them to make a batch of anything.  But the good news is that they taste even better than the fat, juicy plums you get elsewhere. You just have to pick a lot more of them. Luckily for me I have a bumper crop this year, possibly because I prunused the crap out of them this spring in an attempt to keep them from hedging in my driveway.

That they are not as juicy as other fruits might limit their utility.  It's hard to make jelly without juice, but that's what we're going to try first - once I finally manage to pick enough to cook up a batch.**  Should that fail, we'll have to go back to the old standby: plum honey jam.

Even if it turns out that jam is their only use, they are still a worthwhile tree to add. I think the price I paid when I bought a bundle was on the order of a buck a tree if I bought 25.  They grow like crazy, though not always where you'd like.  They make a great hedge. They're hardy.   And even if I decide not to make anything out of them for myself, I suspect they will provide enough of a distraction to my bird population to keep them out of the grapes.

* You might be surprised at how effectively the first purpose defeats implementing the second.
** In the meantime, I have a cookie sheet in the deep freezer.  Anything that I'm going to cook but do not have enough of presently (tomatoes, grapes, blackberries) goes on the cookie sheet until frozen and then is added to freezer bags.  Grapes I put in there because I'm tired of being jumped by spiders while separating them.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where to Live XIII - Green Living in Tan Country


One thing odd you might notice about the above map from Visualizing Economics is the extent to which it corresponds to the map of US population density. The DC to NY corridor, one of the most heavily populated areas in the nation, is also among the highest in income, as is San Fran, Chicago, and Denver. So one might be tempted to think that if one wants to live well, then high population density areas are the places to move. After all, one can live 50% better on $90k than $60k, right? It's just simple math.

Except that it's not.  I remember as teeny little programmer flying to NYC to do some software installation and to train users on how to use a dialup modem. 2400 baud, baby.  The thing that stuck with me from that trip was not that NYC smelled just like the first diaper of the morning,* but that a software guy with whom I was talking told me his one bedroom apartment cost $1500 a month. At the time I lived in a newer 5-br house on acreage that never came close to $1500 a month, even with interest rates twice what they are today.  Yes, he made twice the money I did.  And I lived better by just about any objective measurement.** He paid more taxes, far more rent, more for food and transportation - I thought at the time that I could have lived just as poorly as him on half of what I made.  It's probably not true, but it's not wholly false, either.

What has that to do with SHTF? Plenty, actually.  While it's great to have a high income, if you live in an area where ordinary costs eat that income up, all you have at the end of the day is bragging rights over your redneck competitors. And when income disappears, those costs remain, dragging hordes of indebted, high-maintenance people underwater very quickly.  While prices will (because they must) eventually adjust to reality, it is harder for costs to fall than rise: every government program is geared toward making your life more costly.*** 

But where income is already low, it has less room to fall, so to speak.  People are used to getting along with less cash, but they have more real assets they can fall back on and fewer people competing for them. As food prices continue to rise, backyard gardens in tan areas expand, but they still needn't be guarded.

Our current income structure is wholly supported by cheap energy and financial shenanigans, and when those end, income will become less important than access to real assets. Those assets are not only better in tan areas, they are generally cheaper as well. If you can manage a green income while living in a tan area, you can gain control of plenty of worthwhile assets in short order. Besides, if you want to live twice as well as everyone around you, that's easier to pull off among wrestling fans than among fans of Cats anyway. 

* There are plenty of better reasons to hate NYC, and the same thing could be said of New Orleans. Which had better food, too.
** I didn't have Broadway next door and he did.  For some reason, both of us counted that as a win.
*** For example, the government creates 'affordable housing' not by allowing house prices to fall, but by propping them up while subsidizing loans on those houses for people who cannot afford them at the new, higher prices.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Guess what's ready already?


These are Frontenac grapes, a cold-weather variety I picked up some years ago at a Fleet & Farm in central Minnesota.  I'm not sure why they are already turning from Packers to Vikings; I mean, 2014 training camps aren't even open yet. Maybe it's just that they are used to a shorter growing season - things really got kicked off here in April while my dad still had snow at the cabin in northern Packerland.

But I'm pretty sure I know why they're so small: I neglected both of these vines while I was pruning everything else back in January.  I intended to get to them, really I did.  But sometimes things don't work out.  As a result, both vines are crawling with grapes, but you need about three of them to make up one of those awesome California grapes you see at Walmart. Each bunch is about 6" from top to bottom.

I haven't decided what I'm going to do with the yet.  I still have bit of grape jelly from last year and the Concords, which are better for jelly anyway, look to be producing a bumper crop.* So if I need to make more jelly, I'll probably use those.  Wine is a possibility, and I ordered some appropriate yeast tonight and may try a gallon or so.  But for now, I separated them and put the purple grapes in the freezer.  A few more nights of picking and I'll have close to 10 pounds, I suspect. That's enough to make pretty much anything.

Suggestions?

* I just hope I get to them before the birds do.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Making Jalapeno Jelly

I used the smallest jars I had.
It must be a Southern thing.  Several people in the past week, upon hearing that I already had a bumper crop of jalapenos on hand, asked if I had made any jalapeno jelly from it.  I had never heard of such a thing.  Cherry jelly, apple jelly, grape jelly, sure.  But jelly made of hot peppers?  Of what use could such a concoction possibly be?

Apparently it does have some utility: people pour it over warmed cream cheese and dip Wheat Thins in it.  Then they eat it.  No, really.

So with that in mind, let's make some.

We'll need:
  • 15 medium-sized jalapenos. That hardly made a dent in my crisper stock.
  • 2 cups of apple cider vinegar.  This is not regular vinegar, so choose wisely.
  • 6(!) cups of sugar.  Good grief! I got Type 2 diabetes just reading this recipe.
  • 2 3-oz bags of liquid pectin. I have plenty of regular (i.e. powdered) pectin on hand, but since every recipe I saw demanded liquid pectin, I coughed up a few bucks and bought some.
I  The good news is that making this jelly is easy. Really easy. 
  1. Cut the tops off the peppers and toss them. Blend up the remaining pepper parts with 1 cup of vinegar until all the chunks are gone.
  2. Add your pepper smoothie and the other cup of vinegar in a big pot.  A really big pot.  You need a BIG pot. B-I-G. Did I mention you need a big pot?  Add in the 6(!) cups of sugar and bring it to a boil.*
  3. Boil it for pretty hard for 10 minutes.  At the same time, get your hot jars ready.
  4. Drop in your 6 oz. of liquid pectin and boil it for another minute.  Now it's done, and it's gonna gel fast, so ladle it as fast as you can into your jars.  This recipe promises to yield 2.5 pints - I used 10 4 oz. jars because, not knowing if I would ever actually eat jalapeno jelly, I figured small jars are easier to give away. It fit perfectly.
  5. Open-boil them for 10 minutes.  Poof! You're done.
Thoughts on the final product:

I've never seen a recipe gel as fast and thoroughly as this one.  I swear, by jar three I was trying to ladle around huge translucent chunks that had already gelled. I wish my cherry jelly gelled like that.

Using 4 ounce jars might have been a mistake.  Three of the ten did not seal properly.  You have to get the headspace perfect on such small jars, and with the gel coagulating as fast as it did, that was tough. Too tough for me.

Then I tasted it.  Hmmm... you might think that a recipe made up of nothing but jalapeno peppers, cider vinegar, and a buttload of sugar might look like the first, smell like the second, and taste like the third.  But brother I'm here to tell you that you would be exactly correct.

Maybe jalapeno jelly is an acquired taste. That just means that if this Minnesota boy has to eat it all himself, in 2020 7 4oz jars will suffer the same fate as 2008's pear butter.**  It's not that it tastes bad, it's just that it doesn't taste like something I'd eat voluntarily. 

To be fair - both to the recipe and to Southern culture - I have a box of Wheat Thins and a block of cream cheese on hand, so I'm going to try it as I guess it ought to be eaten.  Unless I am really pleasantly surprised, I suspect 7 Southron friends are going to get nice little green-flecked jars in their Christmas baskets this fall.   

Just sayin'.

* As soon as it comes to a boil you will understand the capital letters.
** I wonder if chickens get heartburn.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Where to Live XII - Virus and Vector Edition

A couple articles this week reminded me that location is good for more than just keeping zombies at bay:
UNITED NATIONS – Health ministers from 11 West African countries began a two-day Emergency Ministerial meeting in Accra, Ghana, Wednesday amid concern the outbreak of the Ebola virus that began in Ghana could spread across their region as an uncontrolled pandemic...
and
[The Telegraph] The world could be "cast back into the dark ages of medicine" where people die from treatable infections because deadly bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, David Cameron has warned... Overuse of antibiotics for minor infections has resulted in bacteria becoming resistant to medicines.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time and evolution before those diseases we conquered so effortlessly during the past century developed an end-around to modern medicine. "For every action..." and all that.

But it's not even really flus and infections that ought to concern us, at least not on an SHTF scale.  Sure, the Spanish Lady flu* of the 1920s killed 50 million people as it burned its way around the world, but that was a world of nearly 2 billion people.  It was nothing like the great plagues of Europe, that killed sometimes half the people over very large geographic areas.

And they say Ebola ought to concern us, though only 500 people have died from it in its current outbreak, 1/100th of 1% of those killed by Spanish Lady. While Ebola is a headline disease, it's not really a story, I don't think. At least not yet.

No, after meandering through the disease stories of the week, it was this one that I expect to see cause real trouble sometime in the perhaps near future:
A controversial scientist who carried out provocative research on making influenza viruses more infectious has completed his most dangerous experiment to date by deliberately creating a pandemic strain of flu that can evade the human immune system.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has genetically manipulated the 2009 strain of pandemic flu in order for it to “escape” the control of the immune system’s neutralising antibodies, effectively making the human population defenceless against its reemergence...
This is not a rant against science any more than it is a rant against the Japanese or Wisconsin, it's just a recognition of the fact that if something is possible, someone** is going to do it. And they are not terribly careful with their creations. That means that eventually a manipulated disease is going to get out of a lab, perhaps accidentally, perhaps on purpose. It might even be a sexy cross of influenza and Ebola. And it's going to rip through the world's population.  This flubola will be designed to spread quickly and perhaps even to do the most possible damage to humans that you can imagine. It might be released by the Russians in a bid to depopulate Ukraine, it might be created by the Klan to finish off Africa, who knows? And who cares, for the results will be the same...

So when it does happen, where should you be? Where should you live?  Before he was reined in by his handlers, Vice President Extraordinaire*** Joe Biden let the truth out of the bag: don't be anywhere where lots of other people are in close quarters. Not subways, not planes.  I would add, not in a city with a million people sniffling and sneezing all over water fountains, buffets, and restroom door handles, either. 

When a perfect virus-and-vector is released into the world, there are no guarantees it won't come your way, no matter where you live, no matter what you do.  But there are reduced odds.  And as with any number of other threats, the best place to avoid a pandemic is to be where lots of infected people aren't sneezing all over the egg rolls.

* apparently it kicked off right here in good old Kansas.  You're welcome.
** probably someone in a lab coat, in all fairness. That is why I expect that, once the world finally recovers, the mere wearing of a lab coat will be a capital offense.
*** The thing about Biden is that he always tells the truth.  At least when he knows it, which is seldom.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Making Jalapeno Hot Sauce

That's not a frying pan.
Jalapeno Week continues with a new concoction. This one is a recipe from the Barefoot Kitchen Witch* with minor modifications and a hat tip to the Nerdy Survivalist.

So now that we've eliminated the impression that there is any originality to be found on this blog, let's make some hot sauce.

We'll need:
  • Jalapenos, sliced into 1/4" rings. I used 36 or so.
  • 1 TBSP of olive oil, maybe more.
  • 1.5 TSP of salt.
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced. I used fresh.
  • .5 cup of  onions, minced. I used freeze-dried onions, reconstituted.  Yes, I have lots of freeze-dried food around. Shut up.
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 cup of distilled white vinegar
Step 1. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan, then drop in the peppers, salt, garlic, and onions. You'll need enough oil to get a good fry going, so if you have to add more, feel free. 

Step 2.  Saute those suckers so they are nice and brown on the sides. This is going to give our sauce a fried flavor to go with the pepper flavor.  After 5 minutes, cut the heat. If most of the peppers aren't browned, turn the flame on high and hit them again until they are.

Step 3.  Now, transfer the whole shebang to a sauce pan, add the water, and boil it hard for about 20 minutes. Remember what I said about jalapenos getting mushy from cooking? Here's where you get to see if I was lying.  

Step 4.  Now that everything is soft and mushy, put it in the fridge until it's cooled.  I left mine overnight because I hate waiting for stuff like this. Besides, wrestling was on.

Step 5.  Break out the blender.**  Pour everything in but the vinegar in and hit the lowest blend setting.  Now, ratchet it up one button at a time until the mix is nice and smooth.

Step 6. We're going to add a little bit of vinegar, both for acidity and to take a little of the edge off.***  So while it's grinding, pour in a little bit of the vinegar. You'll notice that every time you do, the mixer will speed up and might splash a little. If you're not careful here, you'll get jalapeno juice in your eyes.  That's bad. Keep pouring until the vinegar is all in and the mix is smooth.  You should not see any seeds at all if you are blending fast enough.

To the freezer with ye little ones!
Step 7.  Jar it up.  I put a couple small jars in the freezer and the rest in the fridge.  Since it's so easy to make, there didn't seem to be any reason to can it for long-term storage.  And I'm not big on canning sauces anyway.

Thoughts on the results: had it on tacos tonight, and I'm glad to report that it packs quite a punch. Plus it pours easily. When added to the pickled jalapenos we made earlier, they made for a spicy taco to be sure. But even though the sauce and pickled jalapenos have almost the same ingredients, the sauteing of the peppers here adds a depth to the flavor that pickled jalapenos alone lack. So I definitely recommend making both if you can.

If I had to pick just one, I would take the sauce. It's that good.

* Cool name, Bro Sis.
** You can use a food processor if you wish. Barefoot Kitchen Witch did and then she had to strain it because she had seeds left in the mix.  I will leave no seed behind.
*** Remember what we said about horseradish. It works the same way.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Making Cherry Jelly

This is what Rogue does to cherries.
I know I promised it was Jalapeno Week, and we'll get back to that, but I figured that I'd take tonight in a wholly different direction, just in case Five Boys' Mom started her diet again while we weren't looking.  So tonight's concoction is cherry jelly, using a scalable recipe from Food.com that looked promising.

The first thing I noticed was the madness of its measurement system.  It's rather odd, because most people will say, "I have x lbs of cherries. How much jelly can I make?" This recipe begins at the end, by asking how much jelly you wish to make.  That would not be so bad, except that the amount you will make is proportional to the amount of juice you have, which is dependent upon the amount of water you add to it, which is inversely proportional to the unknown amount of juice your unmeasured cherries will make, and you can't discover how much water you need until you cook your cherries, which demands the water up front.  I just threw in half a cup to start and figured I'd add more if I needed to round up.  That seemed to work well.

These are the cherries she didn't get.
Jelly is different from jam. Whereas jam is essentially the whole fruit, seeds and all, mashed up with a medium like sugar or honey, jelly will have none of that. Jelly is more like a science experiment: fruit juice, pectin, and sugar heated to such a state that the ingredients will form a gel at room temperature.  That makes it more complicated than jam and a little more fussy, but it's not all that hard to make if you follow the steps. It's just science. So let's make some.

The first thing we need is juice, so I took about a half gallon of cherries - all the ones that Rogue had not already cooked into my fat ass delicious pie, and plopped them whole into a pot, along with the aforementioned half a cup of water. Basically, I wanted enough water that I was not sauteing the cherries, but not enough to make cherry-flavored gruel.  Cook them all for 10 minutes or so and then mash them with a plastic potato masher.  The idea here is to separate the meat from the skins and pits, so be careful using a metal masher, which might cut open a few pits if you hit them right.  Once everything is separated into a good mash, then it's time to introduce it to the jelly strainer.

Fracking operation, commence
The jelly strainer is just a hanging bag with holes in it. Juice goes through the holes, pits and skin don't.  Except it's never that easy, so once the juice stops flowing I generally take a plastic spatula and perform a little fracking operation on the leftovers.  Slowly push the spatula down through different spots to the bag and you'll release more juice, probably increasing your take by 20%.  The amount of juice is going to determine how much jelly you make, so you'll want as much as possible.  Besides, everything left in the bag goes to the chickens, and mine already eat plenty good without depriving myself of jelly.

That operation is essentially the same with any jelly you want to make. In fact, if you really want to make jelly, you can skip the entire preceding paragraphs and just open a big bottle of Welch's grape juice.  What follows will work with that or just about any juice.  So anyway, we have juice; let's make jelly.

I fracked about 3 1/4 cups of cherry juice, so we're going to add 1/4 cup of water and pretend that we had 3 1/2. That will let us follow this recipe without scaling.

1. Put the juice in the big pan, along with a cup of water and a whole box (1.75 oz) of pectin.  I actually have a 10# jar of pectin I bought on ebay for the cost of 10 1.75 oz boxes, so bust out the scale and let's pretend I overpaid for a box of pectin.  Bring that sucker to a boil. A real boil, not one of those sad sack bubblers that disappear when you stir them.

2.  While you're bringing it to a boil, get your canner boiling as well.  You can use the small 8qt one if you'd like, because you'll be using half-pints and smaller jars.  I used the big one just because it was not put away from last time. I'm lazy like that. Sue me.

3.  Once you have a good rolling boil going in the juice, add 4 1/2 cups of sugar. That's a lot of sugar, I know, but most jellies are about equal parts sugar and juice, so if that bothers you, stick to jam where you can reduce the sugar or substitute honey or something else.  I actually prefer jam, but this recipe is what it is so let's get on with it.

4.  Bring it to a boil again.  Now this will be a different kind of boil.  The last boil was a tame if playful boil.  This one will use the second you're not looking to jump out of the pot and gel your entire stovetop for you.  So keep an eye on it. As soon as it bubbles up to the top of the pot, stir it like mad and set your timer.  One minute is all you need. Stir, baby, stir.  Then cut the heat.

I hope one of the lids doesn't seal
5.  Ladle it into hot jars leaving 1/4" of headspace. That's not much, but on small jars it's all you'll need.  Wipe the rims, screw the lids down, and drop them into a rolling boil for 5 minutes.  Pull them out, and you're done.  

It's a pretty fast operation, all told.  I made the juice last night and left it in the fridge overnight, so from juice to jelly tonight took less than an hour.  I ended up with about 40 oz of jelly, as you can see, plus a little bit extra that I shared with Molly because she was #3 in "three's a crowd" tonight. Sometimes a kid needs warm jelly on french bread with Dad.

It was possibly the best jelly I've ever made.  I was a little worried about the high sugar, as I'm not a fan of overly-sweet concoctions, but because my cherries tend to the sour side the balance was magnificent.  I'll need to hide these jars in the pantry to ensure that last year's apply jelly gets eaten first.  And there is no danger, none, that they will suffer the same fate as 2008's pear butter.