How to Juice Prickly Pear Fruit

Joseph working the thrift-store mill

I always know it’s prickly pear fruit season when questions start coming in on a recipe I did for a prickly pear fruit jelly. Unfortunately, the mucilaginous and seedy texture of the fruit makes it difficult to work with. The only tested recipe I could find, for a prickly pear marmalade in the Ball Blue Book, says nothing about how to seed or juice the fruit.

With the assistance of two fellow Master Food Preservers, Pure Vegan author Joseph Shuldiner and restaurateur Stephen Rudicel, we tested two ways to juice prickly pear fruit: an electric juicer and two hand cranked food mills.The food mills worked the best.

We simply burned the spines off the fruit over a stove burner and quartered the fruit (no peeling necessary). Then we tossed them in the food mill, turned the handle and got lots of delicious juice. The electric juicer ground up the seeds which gave an off-flavor to the juice. The electric food mill was tough to clean. Pictured above is one of the food mills we tried, a simple model from a thrift store. We also used a Roma Food Mill, which worked even better but, of course, costs more money.

Joseph and Stephen, intent on The Cause

We intended to make jelly with our juice but Stephen suggested prickly pear juice cocktails. The rest of the afternoon was somewhat of a blur, but thankfully I was sober enough to write down the recipe. I’ll share that tomorrow.

What Mountaineering Accidents Can Teach Us About Food Preservation

Would you eat pickles made by these two?

Each year the American Alpine Club publishes a book detailing all the mountaineering accidents in North America. The club’s goal is simple, as they put it, “to help you learn from the mistakes of others.”

I’ve often thought that the same approach should be applied to many of the activities we love in the homesteading movement, especially food preservation. Now, I think that home food preservation is very safe. Indeed, it’s much healthier than eating commercially processed foods. But I find mistakes to be one of the best ways to learn. In the case of food preservation, like mountaineering, I’d prefer to learn from the mistakes of others rather than experience them myself.

As it turn out, food safety scientists do keep a close eye on, especially, botulism. With the increased popularity of home canning there have been a few botulism outbreaks in recent years. Botulism is very rare, but you definitely do not want to get a case of it (just read about the symptoms and treatment here if you don’t believe me). Periodically, the Center for Disease Control publishes a review of all the cases. The last one looked at botulism incidents between 1990 and 2000.

The CDC’s botulism review is informative. The majority of cases in the US are related to traditional meat fermentation practices of the Inuit in Alaska, compounded by the inappropriate use of modern materials such as plastic and glass. The leading cause of botulism in the lower 48 is, however, improper home canning. All incidents were low-acid foods, such as asparagus, canned without following proper procedures. I suspect most of these cases were people using a boiling water bath instead of a pressure canner. Other home cases involved storing low acid foods at room temperature (which is just plain dumb).

Four cases that stand out are related to storing garlic in oil at room temeprature. The National Center for Home Food Preservation now recommends the following if you want to preserve garlic in oil:

Garlic-in-oil should be made fresh and stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or lower for no more than 7 days. It may be frozen for long term storage for up to several months. Package in glass freezer jars or plastic freezer boxes, leaving ½-inch headspace. Label, date and freeze.

The take home from the botulism review is that the problem is rare and that home food preservation is very safe assuming you follow standard procedures, most notably using a pressure canner to can low acid foods. None, zero, zilch of the incidents were related to high acid foods such as jams and jellies.

Now go pickle something (and you won’t need a pressure canner to do that!).

What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

  • Fermentation
  • Beekeeping
  • Soil Fertility
  • Human beings

Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.

How To Ice Glaze Fish

Frozen fish
Photo by Portable Soul

Ice glazing is a process of creating a thin layer of ice to help preserve foods, usually chicken or fish. Ice glazing prevents freezer burn and helps preserve texture and flavor. The big processors do it, but it can also be accomplished at home.

To ice glaze fish you need to do some pretreatment. You dip fatty fish in an ascorbic acid solution. Lean fish are pretreated in a brine. Once treated, you then put the fish in the freezer. Once frozen solid, you take them out of the freezer and dip them in ice water and put them back in the freezer. You repeat this process until there is a thin later of ice around the fish. Alternately, you can use a lemon-gelatin glaze. Full instructions for ice and gelatin glazing can be found on the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, an excellent resource for reliable, science-based recipes.

Ice glazing is a somewhat laborious process, so it’s probably best reserved for that special catch. If you’re in a hurry you can just freeze fish in a solid block of ice but, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, this will result in poorer quality. But it’s better than just throwing fish in a plastic bag to dry out in the freezer.

Thanks to fellow Master Food Preserver Jake Mumm for this tip.

How To Dry Food With the Sun

Drying Apricots in Southern California–early 20th century style.

Dehydration is one of my favorite food preservation techniques. Drying food concentrates flavor and is a traditional technique in our Mediterranean climate. Best of all, drying food is one of the best applications for low-tech solar power. In many places, you can simply set food out under cheesecloth to dry in the sun.

But there’s a catch to sun drying: humidity. Food dries best when temperatures are above 85º F and below 60% humidity. If you live in a desert, humidity isn’t a problem. But in most other places in North America it’s simply too moist to set food out under the sun. It will rot before it dries. In Los Angeles, due to the influence of the ocean, it’s slightly too humid most of the year for sun drying to work well.

But there’s an easy way to overcome humidity: convection, i.e. hot air rises. Most solar dehydrators take advantage of the passive movement of hot air to lower humidity enough to dry food. Here’s a couple of solar dehydrators that harness this simple principle to dry food without electricity:

Continue reading…

Sandor Katz to Speak in Los Angeles

“Fermentation fetishist” Sandor Katz will be leading a hands on workshop here in Los Angeles on Wednesday September 19, from 7-10pm at:

Community Hall of Holy Nativity Church
6700 West 83rd, Westchester/LA 90045
$25 prepaid, $30 at the door – supports the ongoing work of the Environmental Change-Makers

Autographed copies of The Art of Fermentation available for $25

Space is limited — Reserve your spot now!  Your check holds your place.
RSVP at http://envirochangemakers.org/events.htm

Guilt Free Ice Pops

Orange blossom ice pops from Homestead Survival

This could be the year that the ice pop becomes the new cupcake. I’m sure some Brooklyn hipster is just about to debut an artisinal ice pop cart pulled by heirloom draft dogs.

Cynicism aside, what I like about ice pops is that, unlike other desserts, you can make them with either small amounts of sugar or no sugar at all. All you need is a ice pop mold and a freezer. What follows are a few links to recipes for healthy ice pops, perfect for those hot August days:

As to how I make them, I’ve got some old Tupperware type ice pop molds that I’ve used for years. Pure simplicity. Take note Brooklyn hipsters: the paletas may be the new fixie. Start training those draft dogs.

Barley Water

Being an American, barley water is not part of my mental landscape. Perhaps it was big in the U.S. back in the Victorian era, but it seems to have faded from our national consciousness. Indeed, if you’re one of our American readers, you may be asking now: what the heck is it? My fellow Americans, barley water is a drink made from barley, lemon and sugar, known to be cooling and refreshing in the summer and perhaps somewhat healthy.

Meanwhile I do know that it is more popular in other parts of the world. I’ve seen it sold in bottles in Great Britain, and from the Internets I can see it’s known in Ireland and Australia. What say you, Canada? I’ve had unsweetened barley water in a can from a Japanese supermarket, and I believe unsweetened barley water is a health drink all the way from India to Japan. And of course, there’s hot and cold roasted barley tea in those parts, too.

Health claims for barely water vary depending on how and where it’s made. It has been used as a pap for infants, as a balm for digestive systems, to sooth sore throats and to cure UTIs, to promote lactation, and even to combat high blood pressure. This is all fascinating, but I’m just making it as a summer drink.

There’s lots of recipes for barley water on the web, and most of them seem to produce something very like lemonade, i.e. they are made with lots of citrus juice and sugar. But I found an old recipe in Google books (unfortunately I lost the source) which made a  mild, barely sweet drink. I cannot say this is at all representative recipe, but I like it precisely because it is so mild–more in the family of cucumber water than lemonade, if you see what I mean. I also like it because there’s no cooking involved. I offer it as an alternative.

 After I share my recipe, I’ll give some tips for finding your own barley water path.

I hope our readers will chime in and tell us where they’re from, if and how they make barley water, and whether they use it as a health drink, or just drink it for fun.

Mild, Not-So-Sweet Barley Water

2/3 cup uncooked barley (pearl or hulled)
4 cups (1 qt) boiling water
1 lemon
1 Tablespoon of sugar or other sweetener
A quart Mason jar

  1. Rinse the barley well, as you’d rinse rice. If you don’t, the finished drink looks even more like dishwater than usual.
  2. Put the rinsed barley into a quart-sized Mason jar.  
  3. Peel the yellow skin (not the pith) from one half to one full organic lemon with a zester or vegetable peeler.  Put the zest into the jar with the barley. You can go ahead and add a squeeze of lemon juice at this time, but I find I like less lemon flavor, so only use the zest.
  4. Add 1 Tablespoon of sugar.
  5. Pour boiling water over everything, filling the quart jar.
  6. Let the mix sit on the counter until it cools, about an hour. Then strain the liquid into another container and refrigerate. Drink when cold. Makes a quart.

Variations and notes:

–There are a million recipes for barley water out there. The most common cooking methodology, though, seems to be a short simmering of the barley in the water, instead of the soaking technique I’ve outlined above. A 20 to 30 minute simmer seems pretty standard. This will yield a more cloudy liquid. After straining the mix is flavored to taste with lemon juice and sugar.

–Longer simmering times result in a more viscous liquid which contains soothing properties and some vitamins. This is what they fed invalids and babies in the old days.

–Similarly, the more barley you use in proportion to water, the thicker and more barley-flavored the result.

–How much lemon and sweetener you want to use is entirely up to you. The recipes run the gamut from having no sweetener to super-sweet.

–Variant flavors include using other citrus flavors, like orange and lime, as well as ginger and mint.

– It is important that you remember to rinse the barley. I found swishing it in a bowl through a couple changes of water enough, but I’ve also seen it recommended that you rinse it with boiling water, and several recipes asked you to bring the barley and water to a boil for five minutes, then pour off the dirty water, replace it with clean and continue cooking.

–Pearl barley is barley that has had the bran scrubbed off of it. It’s what I find around here in grocery stores. Hulled barley is less common, but if you have access to a good health food store you should be able to find it. It’s more nutritious than the pearled kind.

–You will have leftover barley when you make this drink, but it need not be wasted. If you use one of the cooking methods, you’ll end up with a bowl of cooked barley. If you follow my recipe and just soak it, you’ll need to finish the cooking. Cooked barley can be dressed up many ways–it can become a nice snack (with salt and pepper and Parmesan cheese) or breakfast (with honey and fruit). Cooked barley can also thrown into stews or folded into breads. I just found an interesting barley cake recipe that I just might share soon, if it works.

Some other recipes you might enjoy:

A post explaining why barley water is ancient history (with recipes!): http://blog.kathrynmcgowan.com/2010/09/13/barley-water-an-ancient-refreshing-drink/

A Chinese barley water: http://www.noobcook.com/lemon-barley-drink/2/

Super citrus barley water: http://www.thekitchn.com/old-school-cooler-barley-water-122687

Why You Should Have a Thermometer in Your Refrigerator/Freezer

While I’m tempted to buy lots of kitchen gadgets (a male disease, I think), I know that to do so with a kitchen as small as ours is a foolish and costly pastime. One gadget that I picked up recently, however, has proven very useful: a refrigerator/freezer thermometer.

Freezers should be kept at 0ºF (-18ºC). At that temperature most frozen foods will keep for a year. The refrigerator should be below 40ºF (4.5ºC). (Source: Food Safety Advisor)

After picking up an inexpensive thermometer, I discovered that our old fridge/freezer was simply not keeping low enough temperatures. I made the mistake of replacing it with a used fridge, which also did not maintain low enough temperatures. Nor did the loaner fridge, provided to us by the shop that sold us the used fridge, keep low temps. Thankfully we were able to return those units and buy an inexpensive new fridge which works just fine. The moral here was that I should have listened to the advice of a friend of mine who owns a restaurant who told me that you should buy used stoves and new refrigeration. Stoves are easy to fix, but fridges, often times, are harder to keep running.

So why don’t fridges come with a built-in thermometer? How else can you know the temperature?