Don’t store your cucumbers in the fridge

Image courtesy of UC Davis. Photographer: Don Edwards

Just in time for cucumber season, some news that surprises me. Did you know that you should store cucumbers at room temperature?

Credit for my enlightenment goes to UC Davis. (May I just say bless UC Davis for all the good it does?) In this case I’m referencing their department of Post Harvest Technology. According to them, cukes should be stored at room temperature. If you do feel the need to put them in the fridge, they can tolerate up to 3 days of cold storage if they are used soon as they are removed from the refrigerator.

Seems that cucumbers are susceptible to cold injury if held more than 3 days at temperatures lower than 50F/10C. Signs of cold injury are wateriness, pitting on the outside and accelerated decay

Another factoid: Cucumbers are sensitive to ethylene gas, which is put off by some ripening fruits and vegetables. So for longest storage, don’t keep your cukes near melons, tomatoes or bananas.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are also damaged by cold, so keep these on your counter as well.  I’ve highlighted cucumbers in this post, because I think most people refrigerate them as a matter of course–I did, at least. Whereas its more common, I think, to leave tomatoes to ripen on the counter. If you want to read up on any particular fruit or veggie, see the fact sheets linked below.

UC Davis Fact Sheet on Cucumbers

Index of all their many fact sheets

“Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste” — a handy .pdf chart to print out and hang on your fridge.

Four Ways to Preserve Prickly Pear Pads (Nopales)

For my final project in the Los Angeles Master Food Preserver Program I attempted to see how many ways I could preserve the abundant pads of the prickly pear cactus that grows in our front yard. Of course they are best fresh, but I like them so much that I wanted to see if I could preserve some for use later in the year. Incidentally, I prepare them fresh by first cutting them into strips and boiling them for five minutes to remove the mucilaginous texture. After boiling I pan fry them and serve them with eggs. It’s a meal that comes, except for the salt, entirely out of the yard. What follows are the methods I used to preserve those tasty pads.

Dehydrated
I removed the spines, cut the pads into 3/4 inch strips and boiled them for one minute. I then marinated them for ten minutes in soy sauce and dried them until brittle in an Excalibur dehydrator at 135º F for a couple of hours. Prepared this way they actually taste a bit like beef jerky. You definitely need to spice them–when dried plain they have a bit of a dirt note in terms of taste. Next year I plan on trying some more dried “nopalitos” with some different marinades.

Frozen
Once again, I removed the spines. cut them into strips and boiled them for one minute. I then packed them in to freezer bags. Freezing is the best method in terms of taste and nutrition. It’s easy and it works great.

Pickled
I used the this okra recipe from the National Center for Home Preservation for my pickled nopalitos. They turned out very tasty.

Pressure Canned
Prickly pear is sold canned both in water and with a small amount of vinegar.  Unfortunately there are no tested home canning recipes for pressure canned prickly pear pads (this needs to be rectified but is difficult in an era of reduced funding for Extension Services). I used a tested recipe for okra and consumed the product immediately as I don’t trust my own untested pressure canning recipes. The results were acceptable but not exciting–basically they tasted like canned vegetables and had a slightly mushy texture. If I had a tested recipe to work with, that used a small amount of vinegar, perhaps the processing time could be reduced, leading to a crisper result.

Lastly I should mention that I’ve dried and made jelly with the fruit in previous years. If you’ve got a favorite way to preserve the pads or fruit please leave a comment.

Remember to Label Those Jars!

“Label, label, label!” This was one of the most important lessons I learned in my Master Food Preserver training. You’ll note, from the jars above, that I’m not very good about this. When were those jars canned and what’s in them? I have no idea. They were probably the result of some late night canning frenzy two years ago. At the time I probably thought to myself, “I’ll label them in the morning.”

Not only should the jars be labeled, but it would also have been nice to have some notes on the recipe I used and where the fruit was sourced from. To this end I’ve started a preservation diary in a useful program called Evernote.

Perhaps I should get a tattoo on my forearm that says, “Label, label, label.”

Three Days of Earth Oven Building Compressed Into a Short Video

We just finished a three day earth oven workshop taught by Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher. Many thanks to all who participated: Laurie, Brian, Leslie, Jenny and Connie.We’ve got to let the oven dry for a few weeks before we put on the final coat. But it’s basically finished. The base is made with traditional adobe bricks and the dome is cob.

Don’t worry, we’ll explain the process in future blog posts. Right now we’re too exhausted to write about it. In the meantime, please enjoy our highly compressed video version of the past three days.

Should Reuseable Bags Be Washed?

Root Simple’s stylish new norovirus shopping bag.

Kansas State University’s humorously named Barf Blog has been following the story of a norovirus outbreak related to a reusable grocery bag that sickened 13 members of a soccer team. Norovirus, incidentally, is the most common foodborne illness–when you get food poisoning or the “stomach flu,” odds are that it’s probably norovirus.

So should you wash your reusable bags to prevent norovirus? It’s probably a good idea but, according to Barf Blog, there’s not a lot of evidence about the question–just one study on the matter.

In fact it’s not clear if the bag in this 2010 incident was to blame or the fact that the bag, stuffed with food, spent some time on the floor of the bathroom where, “viral particles likely floated over from the toilet.” Yuck! No wonder the Barf Blog folks avoid potlucks.

So how do you dodge norovirus? Food safety professor Doug Powell, writing for Barf Blog has this list of factoids and suggestions:

1. Norovirus can spread infection through contact with surfaces and objects contaminated by aerosolized particles.
2. Noroviruses are highly contagious, even in low concentration, and the viruses spread efficiently from feces and vomit by direct and indirect contact.
3. Noroviruses are the leading cause of endemic diarrheal disease across all age groups, the leading cause of foodborne disease, and the cause of half of all gastroenteritis outbreaks worldwide.
4. Whenever possible, ill persons should use a separate bathroom to reduce the potential for spread of the virus. Notify family members or cleaning staff about the need for thorough disinfection of surfaces.

There goes my business plan for a combination bathroom/salad bar at the airport! But it does seem like washing hands should be a higher priority than washing reusable bags.

Using Kosher Salt for Making Pickles

Naive me, I purchased a box of Morton’s kosher salt for a pickling project. I thought that kosher salt lacks the anti-caking agents that cause cloudy and sediment filled jars of pickles. No blue ribbon for me at the county fair:

Morton salt has anti-caking agents. But I can follow them on Facebook (why I would want to do that would be the topic of another post). Diamond Salt, on the other hand does not have anti-caking agents:

So, when pickling, be careful selecting your kosher salt–some contain anti-caking agents, others do not.

Another precaution when using kosher salt in food preservation projects comes from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension’s guide to Homemade Pickles and Relishes (pdf):

Kosher pure flaked salt requires special care if used for pickling. Flaked salt weighs less per volume than canning and pickling salt, so you need about 50 percent more—11⁄2 cups of flaked salt equals about 1 cup of canning and pickling salt. If you use kosher salt for fermented pickles, you must weigh out the proper amount.Weigh out 73⁄4 ounces (220 grams) of flaked salt, and you will have the equivalent of 1 cup of canning and pickling salt.

This same publication also notes how easy it is to find pickling salt and how hard it is to find kosher salt. It’s just the opposite here in Los Angeles.

So what kind of salt do you use for pickling and fermenting? What’s the easiest to find where you live?

See the University of Wisconsin’s other tested food preservation recipes here.

Loquat Leather Recipe

Our neighborhood is full of loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) trees. For years I’ve been trying to figure out a way to use them. Loquats, a warm climate relative of the apple tree, produce tons of fruit all at once that do not keep well fresh. Thus the need to preserve the fruit. Unfortunately, they are also a chore to process–small large seeds and skins that are difficult to peel. They also vary widely in quality, since many in the neighborhood are probably seeds planted by birds and squirrels rather than grafted specimens.

But at last, I’ve found a use for them that’s repetitively low-labor and yields a tasty result: loquat leather. Here’s the recipe I came up with:

2 cups loquats (no need to peel)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons agave syrup
1 teaspoon triple sec

Remove seeds. Place loquats in a blender with the lemon juice, agave syrup and triple sec. Dehydrate at 135º until, as the Colorado Extension Service puts it, “translucent and slightly tacky to the touch, but easily peeled from the pan.”

Tips: Chef Ernie Miller suggested using a blender is rather than a food processor for this recipe. Also, try to spread the puree thicker towards the edges of the dehydrator sheet and you’ll get a more uniform result. Finally, the triple sec is optional, but some sort of flavor addition gives your fruit leather a more “adult” taste.

Fellow Master Food Preserver trainee Emily Ho is working on a loquat soda syrup and has also made some loquat jelly.

A Lacto Fermentation Kit Made With a Canning Jar

Chef Ernest Miller gave all of us in the Master Food Preserver class a very clever lacto-fermentation kit he designed and sells at the Farmer’s Kitchen in Hollywood. As a class, we’re all making a batch of sauerkraut.

Made out of a Le Parfait canning jar with a hole drilled in the lid to fit a fermentation lock, I already know this handy device will replace the large ceramic crock we have used in the past for pickle and kraut making. Chef Ernie’s clever fermenter has a number of nice features when compared to my crock:

  • The fermentation lock will mean fewer mold problems 
  • A small canning jar inside the fermenter keeps pickles below the brine level
  • Transparent glass will let me see what’s going on with the fermentation without having to open up the fermenter
  • Coming in a 3 liter and 1.5 liter size, these canning jar based fermenters will take up less space in the kitchen than my large ceramic crock

You can buy one of these kits and get a bite to eat at the Farmer’s Kitchen, a non-profit restaurant which supports nutrition education programs and job training for Hollywood’s low-income residents. You can also easily make one yourself.

Before we conclude with a shameless cute cat outtake from the lacto-fermenter photo session, take a moment to leave a comment on your favorite fermentation vessel.

How to Roast Your Own Coffee in a Stovetop Popcorn Maker

Thanks to the Institute for Domestic Technology, I learned roast my own coffee at home in a Whirley-Pop Stovetop Popcorn Popper. It’s a simple, if smokey, process.

You heat up the popper on your stove top over a medium/high heat and dump in 10 ounces of green coffee beans. The beans we used were ordered from Sweet Maria’s who carry a wide selection of high-end beans at inexpensive prices.

The only trick with the Whirley-Pop coffee roasting method is adjusting the stove burner. You’re shooting for “first crack,” the point when the beans pop kind of like popcorn. at around the 6 minute mark. Mine took a little bit longer on the first attempt, but after a few roasting sessions I’m sure I’d get the right burner setting. After first crack the beans quiet down for a few minutes. The next thing you’re listening for is the “second crack.” As soon as those beans start making noise again you dump them on a cookie tray to cool down. That’s really all there is to it. Sweet Maria’s has a pdf sheet with more detailed Whirley-Pop instructions as well as a review of other home roasting methods.

Our instructor at the Institute class, Ian Riley, suggested storing the beans at room temperature in a reusable valve bag (freshly roasted coffee beans out-gas CO2).

Unlike many home “artisinal” food methods (we probably need to retire the “a” word), home coffee roasting saves money and you get a much better product than store bought coffee.

Of course quitting coffee would also save money but you’ll have to ask Mrs. Root Simple about that one–I’m an addict.

If you’re in the LA area, you can take Ian Riley’s home coffee roasting class at the Institute for Domestic Technology. I also teach a no-knead bread class at the institute as part of Foodcrafting 101.

3 things to do with citrus peels

Waste not, want not! Our  recent post on Candied Grapefruit Peel yielded some interesting comments, and at the same time Erik made a discovery about citrus. Thus, three things to to do with your rinds:

Idea #1
Readers Terry and Barb both commented that they soak citrus peel in vinegar to make citrus infused vinegar to use for cleaning, and in Barb’s case, as a deodorant. This is an excellent idea. Infusing vinegar with cleansing/disinfecting herbs, like lavender or sage, is something I’ve known about for a long time, but don’t do, in practice. I’m too lazy. Instead, I scent my cleaning vinegar with essential oil. But we always have citrus peels laying around in piles, and the simplicity of the citrus idea is so a peeling that I had to try it. (ouch! stop throwing things!)

I filled one jar with orange peels and covered it with vinegar. After only a couple of days it started smelling really nice. Now it’s about a week old and doesn’t seem to be getting any more potent, so   I’m going to strain it off. In a second jar I’m trying an experimental blend of orange and thyme. Like citrus, thyme has excellent disinfectant qualities, but I’m not sure how its scent will blend with the orange.

I suspect our cleaning vinegar is going to smell like citrus from now on out.

UPDATE: I’ve been using orange-peel vinegar for a while now and the only drawback is that it is tinted yellow. If you spray a light surface and forget to wipe afterward, it will leave yellow stains behind. Not true stains–they wipe up easily even if they’re long dry. This isn’t a big problem because generally I am spraying and wiping, but once in a while I’ll find yellow droplets in spot I forgot to wipe.

This, of course, disqualifies this spray for carpet cleaning. (And plain vinegar spray is a great thing to use to clean up pet accidents on carpet.)

Speaking of pet accidents, I realized this first when I found a yellow spray at the base of our bathroom sink and immediately though young Trout had taken to spraying. Cryeth the cat: “O! Unfair! I never did such thing!”

Idea #2
A reader named Chile sent us this link to an old Cuban recipe for candying grapefruit pith. As you know, grapefruit pith can be quite thick. If you have some separate use for the peel or zest, you can cut the leftover pith into cubes and candy it with cinnamon. She says it’s really good!

Idea #3
Erik has learned that you can make pectin out of citrus rinds and membranes. Like apples, citrus is quite rich in pectin. This is a really good use for under-ripe, not so tasty oranges. Here’s a how to link: Wedliny Domowe. The same link also has instructions for making pectin from apples. It’s all about local sourcing, after all. An oddity of living where we do is that it is much easier to come by citrus than apples. At least for now.

On a related note, we also know that you can make clear, citrus flavored jelly by boiling organic citrus rinds in water, then straining off the solids. The resulting liquid is citrus-flavored and pectin-rich. Add sugar and you have citrus flavored jelly. It’s tasty, we’ve tried it. But unfortunately, we don’t have a recipe. If you happen to have a recipe, please share!