Home Food Preservation Resources

I’m honored to have been included in this year’s class of the Los Angeles Master Food Preservers, a program offered by our local extension service to train volunteers to teach food preservation in under-served communities. I thought I would share the textbook resources from the class as they are an excellent set of reference books for your homesteading library. And many are available for free online. Like all information from the extension service system, they are research based.

First off is So Easy to Preserve a large collection of recipes, everything from canning to dehydrating, all carefully tested and in line with current U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety recommendations. The book is put out by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension.

We also will be using the Complete Guide to Home Canning, put out by the USDA and available for free online. Lastly, there’s the classic Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, a reliable introduction to the subject.

In addition to covering food safety issues, I like these carefully researched food preservation guides for their reliability. If I’m going to commit the time to doing a food preservation project I like a reasonable chance of success. While we learn from our mistakes, I’d prefer to have a few more jellies and a few less accidental “syrups”.

You can connect with the Los Angeles Master Food Preservers on Facebook and via their blog.

Top Tasting Tomato Varieties

Sakura Honey, image from the Master Gardeners of Frankly County

It’s the time of year to start figuring out what tomatoes to plant here in the northern hemisphere. How about using taste to decide? The Master Gardeners of Franklin County Pennsylvania do a taste test every year. Here’s the top ten from last year’s results:

1 Sakura Honey
2 Red Pearl
3 Five Star
4 Principe Borghese
5 Old Brooks
6 Arbason
7 Fabulous
8 Heritage Hybrid
9 Cherokee Green
10 SX 605

The top three (all grape varieties) are available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. See the full results of the taste test here.

Also, if you’re still looking for inspiration, review the comments on our recent giveaway post. Folks left their favorites there, and their regions–it’s a treasure trove of climate-specific information. We should make a chart out of it our something. 

Link thanks to Ken Druse’s Real Dirt Podcast

Some Thoughts on Mead

I’ve had mixed success with making my own mead. One batch I made was OK and a few others tasted, as Mrs. Root Simple put it, “like a desperate white wine substitute for a zombie apocalypse.” Last year I attended a mead tasting put on by America’s first homebrew club the Maltose Falcons. Somehow I neglected to blog about it, so better late than never, here’s what I learned:

  • If you want decent mead you have to brew it yourself. We tasted a lot of homebrew meads along with commercial meads.  Many of the homebrew meads were excellent. All of the commercial meads tasted like camping fuel. I was, frankly, surprised that anyone would go to the trouble of labeling, distributing and selling some of the awful store bought meads we tasted. I tried yet another horrible commercial mead at the natural foods convention I blogged about on Monday.
  • In my opinion, the best homebrew meads at the tasting were carbonated. The carbonation helps accent the aroma of the honey that can sometime get lost in a flat mead. 
  • The best meads split the difference between dry and sweet. Too dry and you get that boring white wine taste. Too sweet and you’ve got cough syrup. Choosing the right yeast can strike that balance.
  • I’ve had good luck with a Narbonne Wine Yeast called Lalvin 71B-1122 Yeast.

  • I really enjoyed the orange blossom honey based mead my friend Steve Linsley made. Perhaps I’ll prod him for the recipe and post it here one of these days.  

Have you made mead? If so, how did it go? What kind of honey did you use? Have you tried the recipe in our book Making It?

Vital Farms: Pasture Raised, Organic Eggs at Whole Foods

Image from the Vital Farms blog.

Over the weekend I attended the Natural Products Expo West, a massive health food industry convention. Yes, indeed, Fabio was in attendance selling some sort of powdered supplement and I may have seen Ziggy Marley packing up his own bottles of “Coco’Mon” coconut oil. Such are the indignities one encounters on the downward arc of a career in reggae music or romance book cover modeling.

Out of the nearly 2,000 exhibitors of, frankly, health food store junk food, one stood out: Vital Farms, purveyors of eggs from pasture raised hens. The overwhelming majority of eggs in this country are laid by chickens crammed into small cages or, arguably worse, crammed into big sheds.  “Free range,” “cage free” and “organic,” mean absolutely nothing. What makes Vital Farms different is that the eggs they sell were laid by chickens who live outside, during the day, on pasture. Their spokesperson offered to let me tour the farms they contract with, something that, I doubt, any of the big egg producers would offer.

The Cornocopia Institute gives them a “five egg (exemplary)” rating, citing their rotational grazing methods, abstinence from the practice of beak trimming and year round outdoor access for the hens. Vital Farms contracts with several farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. Their eggs are available nationwide at Whole Foods and they have expanded into meat chickens.

Now, hopefully, I can recover from the spectral celebrity hallucinations induced by downing hundreds of free samples of things like pro-biotic frozen pizza (I’m not making this up) and caveman power bars. Perhaps a pasture raised egg omelet will wipe away my açaí berry hangover.

Thanks to Dale Benson for suggesting attending this event and for driving, spending a half hour finding a parking space and pointing out Ziggy Marley or someone who resembled Ziggy Marley packing up those bottles of coconut oil.

Cooking With Heritage Grains: Sonora Wheat Pasta

Once you start working with heritage grain varieties it’s hard to go back to the few choices in the flour aisle we have at most supermarkets. I managed to get my hands on some Sonora wheat a few months back and have been experimenting with it ever since. Traditionally used for tortillas, it’s also great for pancakes and bread. Yesterday I made pasta with Sonora wheat using a recipe by Whole Grain Connection founder Monica Spiller. You can find the recipe and others on sustainablegrains.org.

To make this eggless pasta, all you do is combine heated water, Sonora wheat and salt and run it through a pasta maker. The result? A pasta with a pleasing nutty flavor and a beautiful light brown color.

Rules for Eating Wheat

Antebellum-Style Graham Wheat Flour from the Anson Mills website

Much of the bad press surrounding wheat in recent years is well deserved. Wheat and grain allergies may be some of the most common allergies known to medicine. I strongly suspect that the cause for these allergies may be in the types of wheat we’re growing.

Let’s start with some history. Humans have eaten and tinkered with grain genetics for at least 30,000 years, well before the development of what we now call “agriculture”.  But with each change in wheat genetics came new, unexpected outcomes. Those changes greatly accelerated in the last one hundred and fifty years.

  • In the 19th century farmers moved away from growing soft wheat varieties and shifted to hard wheat, which performs better in mechanized roller mills. 
  • In the mid 20th century Norman Borlaug launched the green revolution by developing new wheat varieties.
  • And now, Monsanto and Bill Gates are anxious to bring us genetically modified wheat. 

The problem? When you make radical changes to a complex system such as wheat genetics you risk unforeseen consequences, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans”. The unforeseen consequences may be the large percentage of the population with wheat allergies. I’ll admit that this is a hunch of mine not based on any peer reviewed study. But scientists have identified at least 27 potential allergens in modern wheat and researchers are looking at simpler forms of ancient wheat such as Einkorn to see if they have fewer allergens.

So what can we do to prevent wheat based black swans? I think we need a wheat equivalent of Michael Pollan’s food rules, so here it goes:

  • Acknowledge our ignorance in the face of the great complexity of nature. Thus, we should be conservative when it comes to plant breeding. Saving seed and developing local varieties are a good thing. Genetic modification is probably a huge risk. 
  • Breed wheat for flavor and disease resistance not shipability and ease of mechanical harvesting.
  • Our markets should have at least as many flour varieties as flavors of soda.
  • We should be willing to pay a little more for a higher quality flour.
    • Eat whole grains rather than refined grains whenever possible. The nutrients and substances we remove from whole grains to make refined white flour may contain substances that prevent allergic reactions.
    • Support local farmers who are growing older forms of grain (soft wheat such as Sonora and ancient wheat such as Einkorn). If you can’t find something local, mail order your flour. 
    • Consider growing grain at home as part of a rotational strategy in your garden. See Lawns to Loaves for inspiration.

    One source for interesting flour by mail order:

    Anson Mills

    If any of you know of other sources for heritage flours (either brick and mortar or mail order) please leave a comment.

    Is Modern Wheat Killing Us?

    Wheat field, Froid, Montana, 1941. (Library of Congress image)

    It’s been a bad decade for grains. Between publicity about grain allergies and fads such as the Atkins and paleo diets, a lot of people are shunning wheat, rye and barley. At a panel discussion this weekend sponsored by Common Grains I heard Monica Spiller of the Whole Grain Connection and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills make some compelling arguments that will forever change the way I see grain. It was, no exaggeration here, a paradigm shifting discussion. Some of the questions Spiller and Roberts raised:

    • Could modern hard wheat varieties, bred for the convenience of industrial agriculture, have the unintended consequence of increasing allergic reactions? Are older varieties healthier for us?
    • What have we lost in terms of flavor when we decreased the diversity of grain varieties?
    • Is sourdough bread a pro-biotic food? Could some of the allergy problems associated with bread be related to commercial yeast strains and the way commercial yeast processes sugar?

    I’ll spend the rest of this week taking a deeper look at these issues, including some practical suggestions about what we can do in our kitchens and gardens to bring back heritage grains.

    Is This Egg Good?

    From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

    When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

    Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

    If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

    What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.

    A Sonora and Kamut Wheat Field in Los Angeles County!

    Sonora wheat

    The Los Angeles Bread Bakers, of which I’m a co-founder along with Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler, have teamed with farmer Andrea Crawford, of Kenter Canyon Farms, to plant what I think may be the first wheat field in Los Angeles County in many years.

    Wheat used to be widely grown here, especially Sonora wheat, a drought tolerant variety originally bought to the Southwest by the Spanish. Along with Sonora, we planted an ancient wheat variety called Khorasan, better known under the trade name Kamut. An American airman obtained Kamut from a street vendor in Cairo in 1949. Researchers are studying ancient wheats like Kamut to see if people with wheat allergies can tolerate them better. We purchased both varieties (certified organic) from the Sustainable Seed Company.

    Discing the field

    The field was prepared by discing it with a tractor. We sowed the wheat by hand and then covered it temporarily with shade cloth to keep the birds out until the seeds germinate. The seeds were watered in with an overhead sprinkler, but the plan is to pray for rain. If it turns out to be a dry year, monthly waterings will be necessary.

    Mark, Andrea and Nathan sowing.

    Andrea plans on sowing in some red poppies to help keep the weeds down. If all goes well, a harvest party (get ready to thresh and winnow!) will take place when the grains mature. Sign up for the LA Bread Bakers Meetup (free to join) to find out when the harvest fest will take place.

    The wheat field covered with shade cloth.

    Speaking for the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, we’re really excited to be a part of this agricultural experiment. A big thanks goes out to Andrea and her son Nathan who have made this possible. We’ll post some updates on the blog as the field progresses.

    Note: A quick clarification because we’ve had some questions. The poppies that Andrea plans to plant are not Somniferum poppies (that’s a different kind of cash crop!). They are red poppies, also called Flanders poppies, Papaver rhoeas.

    Hay Boxes or Fireless Cookers

    Illustration from The Fireless Cook Book

    Mrs. Homegrown here:

    Jessica from Holland sent us a letter recently praising our work, but very, very gently scolding us not including the hay box, a groovy old energy saving technology, in our book. We do stand corrected! And her enthusiasm for hay boxes has reignited our interest, too.

    We actually considered hay boxes for Making It, but didn’t end up building one for a variety of reasons, including just plain running out of time. But I have to admit one of the primary reasons was that natural gas here is really inexpensive, so the cost savings of starting and finishing a pot of soup on the stove, vs. starting a pot of soup on the stove and finishing it in a box, just wasn’t compelling enough for me to make a lifestyle change. This is a silly excuse–water is also inexpensive here, but I’m obsessed about saving that resource. I guess a lot of what we choose to do just comes down to our various quirks and passions.

    I’m thankful to Jessica for reminding me of the hay box. I believe that my New Year’s resolution will be to meditate on the sources and real costs (in terms of the environment, human health, etc.) of gas and electricity, and work on new ways to conserve energy. The hay box, or fireless cooker, may be one of these strategies.

    What the heck is a hay box?

    Sorry if I’m leaving some of you out of the loop. A hay box aka fireless cooker is a very old fuel saving technology, which perhaps has its origins in Scandinavia.  It is simply an insulated box that you put a hot pot of food into, and leave it all day (or all night) to finish cooking. It’s the forerunner of the crockpot.

    This cooking technique isn’t limited to hay boxes. The same concept is used by people who put oats and boiling water into a Thermos at bedtime and enjoy the finished oatmeal in the morning, or by campers who wrap their sleeping bags around a cooking pot so they’ll have hot food when they get back to camp.

    As far as I can tell, no one is selling fireless cookers made in the old style, but they are quite easily fabricated at home–or improvised in emergencies. However, if you are in a buying mood, a very similar technology exists in something called thermal cookware. These are essentially giant Thermoses–I’m including a link to a random example of one on Amazon here.

    Why would you want to build a fireless cooker?

    • To save time at the stove
    • To have food ready when you get up, or come home from work
    • To save energy, because you’re a do-gooder.
    • To save energy, because energy is expensive/unreliable where you live.
    • To learn this technology well so you’ll know how to use it in case of emergencies. (A fireless cooker combined with something that can boil water, like a camp stove or a rocket stove, would be a great combo for any emergency, long or short.)

    Okay, so how do you build one?

    It’s really simple. You’re just insulating a pot. There are many ways to do it, including simply bundling the pot up in a bunch of quilts. But if you’re going to do this regularly, you probably want a more stable system than that. You’ll want to build a box.

    First, though, you should probably start with your pot and build from there. This technique works best when the pot is full, so you’ll want to choose a soup pot/dutch oven sort of pot that is the right size for you and your family. It should have a lid, obviously, and should be made of something can come and go off the stove top–i.e. no ceramic.

     Once you’ve chosen your pot, you’ll need a box to keep it in. This box should allow enough space for at least 4″ of insulation all around your pot. (We’ll talk about the insulation next.) So the pot height/pot width plus at least 8″= the minimum dimensions of your box.

    The cooker could be anything sturdy with a lid, but the tighter built, the better. A big cooler would work great. I’ve just had a crazy inspiration that one of those newfangled ottomans that are hollow inside for stashing away your junk when company comes would also work nicely!

    You can make a “two holer” if you want to have the ability to cook more than one dish at a time. In that case you might be able to build one in a hall bench or a big toy chest or trunk. If you can’t scavenge anything, you could build a wooden box with a hinged lid. A well-insulated, box-style solar oven can do double duty as a fireless cooker, too. Whatever you choose, the box should have a lid that either latches or can be weighed down so it closes securely.

    If your box is not built pretty much airtight–say it’s pieced together out of wood–you should seal it up before you insulate it. In old manuals they recommend gluing a layer of  paper all over the interior. You might choose to use tin foil or a Mylar space blanket. A space blanket would help reflect heat no matter what your box is made of.

    Then you need to choose an insulating material.

    Early 20th century options, as per old books:

    • Hay or straw, cut fine
    • Sawdust
    • Wool (they mention this is the best material)
    • Southern moss
    • Ground cork (it seems fruit used to be shipped in this!)
    • Softwood shavings (“excelsior”)

    Contemporary recycled options:

    • Styrofoam or foam. Carving a pot-shaped hole into a block that fit your chest would be the best, but scraps could work, too.
    • Shredded paper. At last, something to do with all those bills!
    • Cotton or polyester batting taken from old pillows or quilts. 
    • Wool in the form of cast off sweaters and blankets, perhaps shredded?
    • This might sound nuts, but if you cut down a bunch of weeds, let them dry and chop them up, they would work as well as hay. Straw has that nice hollow stem construction which probably holds heat better than hay, but some weeds have the same sort of stems.
    • Note: I’d discourage using fiberglass insulation for safety reasons. It’s nasty to work with and you don’t want to risk any of it getting in your food.

      Fill the box up all the way with insulation. The box should be filled to the top, but the material shouldn’t be packed so tightly that there’s no airspace. Tiny air pockets are where the magic happens.

      Next, make a permanent nest for your pot in the box by hollowing out a pot-shaped hole in the insulation material. Line that hole, as well as the top surface of the insulation, with a one big piece of fabric. Secure that fabric to around the edges of the box with staples or something. That will allow you to lift the pot in and out easily and will also keep bits of insulation out of your food.

      The final insulation step is to make or find a cushion sized to fill all the empty space in the box from the top of your pot to the closed lid. It should be fat enough that you have to use a little pressure to close the lid. There should be no open space at the top of the box. And again, the lid must latch or otherwise secure tightly. In the image at the top you can see the two cushions that come with that set up.

      It’s often easier to understand something just by looking at pictures. If you do an image search for hay box, you’ll see lots of them, many improvised quickly. Whereas searching fireless cooker brings up more antique images.

      A fireless cooker from a 19th century German catalog, image courtesy Wikimedia.

      Cooking with the Hay Box

      Okay, this is all very theoretical for me because I haven’t done it yet, but this is what I know, and I hope those with experience will comment to help us newbies out.

      The cooker is perfect for anything you’d associate with a crockpot, like pot roasts and other stewed meats, soups and stews and chile, bean dishes and also hot cereals, polenta, whole grains and rice.

      First, it’s pretty much impossible to offer up exact cooking times. It’s going to vary by both quantity of food and the construction of your box. In short, you’re going to have to play with it.

      But the gist of it is that you start your cooking on the stove. If, for instance, you’re doing an initial saute, you’d do that first, then you’d add all your ingredients and liquids and bring it up to a simmer (for how long may vary by recipe–the old cook book I’m consulting most often recommends 10 minutes boiling on the stove for meaty dishes, but if I suspect for non-meat things you could just bring it to a boil and then take it off immediately) then move it to the box to finish cooking. A good box should hold heat for 8 hours. The actual cook time will be less–how much less will vary by dish. But it will not burn or overcook and it will keep warm until you’re ready to eat.

      I’ve heard that in general you would use less water than with stove top cooking because there’s no evaporation.
       
      Here’s some of Jessica’s tips:

      Suggestion: put the beans/lentils/wheat/rice/peas in a thermos flask together with the absorbable amount of boiling water/stock. Do this in the morning. In the evening you have a thermos with still warm and well-cooked food. With just a few seconds of boiling water. Think of the hours per month that you can turn off the stove and still have warm, cooked food!
       …

      It works fine with other things as well:
      Eggs: put pan with eggs and boiling water in, take out of hay chest after 10 minutes (or more, or less, depending on your experience.
      Vegetables: take out of hay chest after 110 to 125% of ordinary cooking time. Experiment! Don’t use a lot of water.
      Stock… why not?


      It even works with things like meat balls and chicken wings. Have the meat on high fire until the outside develops the right crust or color, then keep in hay chest for xx time until inside is ‘done’,

      Mr. Google can lead you to various resources on this technology, but my favorite resource so far is this old book: The Fireless Cook Book by Margaret Mitchell (1909), which is actually both a construction manual and a cookbook–a wonderful crusty old cookbook with recipes for things like Mock Turtle Soup. You can read it online at Archive.org, or download a pdf or even as an e-reader file–for free!

      Do you have any recipes, tips or techniques to share? Please do!

      An obligatory nanny-state warning: If food drops below 140F (60C) for an hour or more, bad bacteria can move in. You might want to take the temperature of your food when you pull it out of the box and see where it is. If it has dropped below that temperature, put it on the stove and rewarm it to at least 165F(74C).