Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ghost birds

Wood ducks are like phantoms.  They are here and suddenly they are gone.  They land in the water with hardly a sound, and as soon as they see me they take off.   I scared up these two and they landed again at the far end of the pond. 

Yesterday I spied a group of 8 when I was in the sunroom.  Like the blue herons, they can see my movement in the sunroom and will bolt if they do, so I have to move slowly.  These are all juveniles.  The males have not yet developed their mature plumage, that will be next spring.  There has never been a nesting pair on the pond, but for the last few years the juveniles have been hanging around here in late summer after they leave the mother.  It's not a very good picture, at the limits of the camera's zoom and through the window.

This morning they were back, but this time only 7.  They seem to have a good time dipping in the aquatic vegetation and feeding.  I finally had to go into the garden and off they went.  This winter I plan to put up a nest box at the upper end of the pond.  I love to watch them and it would be great to have a nesting pair in the pond.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Canning tomato sauces, observations and rants

Last Sunday I canned marinara sauce for the first time, using the boiling-water canning method.  Tuesday I canned a batch of salsa, a sauce that I've made numerous times.  As a former research chemist, I see a number of inconsistencies or just plain poor guidance in many of the established recipes.

First, just to touch on several points about boiling water canning:
  • Boiling water temperatures will kill all fungi, molds, and bacteria.  It will not kill bacterial spores, specifically botulin spores.
  • A high acid liquid will prevent those spores from germinating and multiplying.  For these purposes, high acid is a liquid with a pH of 4.6 or less (the lower the pH, the more acidic).  That's why you don't need to use a pressure cooker when canning high acid foods.
  • When it comes to acidity, tomatoes are on the cusp.  Most tomatoes have a pH less than 4.6, but a few do not.  The University of Illinois tested 55 varieties of tomatoes and found that 15 of them had a pH higher than 4.6.  The tomato pH depends on variety, ripeness, and many other factors.  Bottom line, you really shouldn't take a chance when canning tomatoes, the odds will eventually work against you.
The accepted guidelines for acidifying tomatoes is:  One TB of lemon juice per pint (Real Lemon, etc), or two TB of vinegar per pint.  The lemon juice is diluted to 4.5% citric acid, and the vinegar is standardized to 5% acetic acid.  Citric acid is a stronger acid than acetic acid, that's you don't need as much.  The salsa recipes that I have found usually call for more acidifier, often two TB per pint, and will caution you to never add any additional peppers, onions or spices.

I've come to the conclusion that so much lemon or lime juice is simply not necessary, and small changes in the recipe are not problematic.   Peppers and onions have some acidity, although not as much as tomatoes, so they really aren't going to change things that much. But the real reason not to worry is because the lemon juice that you add actually contains more acidity than the tomatoes, so small changes in the composition of the salsa will not affect it's pH much at all.  From the research that I've read, a recipe that calls for two TB per pint has so much margin of safety built in that you could use as much pepper and onion as you do tomato, and the salsa would still have a safe pH.

Then there's the question of whether you must use a standardized lemon juice like Real Lemon or if you can use, well, real lemons (or limes, which are the same acid-wise).  I used fresh lemons in the marinara and fresh limes in the salsa.  This blogger tested a number of lemons from the supermarket and found they all had an acid content of 4.5% or higher, most quite a bit higher.  It makes sense, because a company will dilute the product to a consistent acid percentage, all they have to do is add water.

So how much acidifier did I add?  For the marinara, a little bit more than one TB of lemon juice per pint.  For the salsa, 4 limes gave me 5 ounces of juice, or 10 TB for 7 pints, which works out to about 1.4 TB per pint.  My salsa gets a lot of peppers.  Over a pound of roasted sweet pepper was blended into the tomato base, and a pound of jalapenos were cut up and added, as well as a large onion, so a little extra acidifier can't hurt.  I put the lemon or lime juice straight into the simmering pot.  Citric acid is a crystalline solid and isn't going to boil off.  Vinegar is another matter, the smell will tell you that the acetic acid is boiling off, so it should be added directly into the jars.

If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into the acidity question, I wrote a post several years ago that does that.

Finally, a general gripe about the canning recipes available.  Most of the salsa recipes call for a processing time of 15 minutes for pints.  The recipes for tomato sauce or marinara sauce that I've found in the Ball Blue Book and other places call for a processing time of 35 minutes for pints.  Is there something I'm missing here?  Because both are basically pureed tomatoes, without skins, that are hot-packed into the jars.  One gets basil, the other gets peppers.  Has anyone even thought about why a marinara needs to be boiled twice as long, or have the guidelines just become accepted doctrine?  I processed both of them for 18 minutes.

8/20/17 - Right now I'm making some marinara sauce.  It started with 12 1/2 pounds of tomatoes.  After removing the skins and green cores that probably leaves about 11 pounds.  The tomatoes will be reduced by boiling by about 1/3, enough to make 7 pints, which is 7 pounds of sauce.  Boiling down the tomatoes concentrates the acids.  The predominant acids in tomatoes are citric and malonic, both of which are solids.  They won't boil away.  In short, boiling down the tomatoes concentrates the acidity.  This is another factor that hasn't been investigated to my knowledge, at least there is no mention of this in the canning guidelines that I have seen.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Monday August 14

The word of the week is tomatoes, lots of 'em, and then there's doing something with all those tomatoes.  Early last week I picked some nice Better Boy and Pink Girl slicers.  Since there were more on the windowsill,  I gave these away.

Then it was time to pick the sauce tomatoes.  Actually they weren't as ripe as I like, but an animal of some sort was damaging the fruits in low-hanging clusters, so I picked them and set them in the sunroom for a few days.  It left it's teeth marks in this one.  Maybe an opossum or raccoon?

Most of the sauce tomatoes are Plum Regal, with a few Roma VF on top of the pile.  I grew the Plum Regal because it is supposed to be blight resistant.  It's also very productive.   I read some taste tests on the internet that weren't very positive, but I think it's a decent flavored tomato, with a good bite that tells me it's high in acid, a good thing for a canning tomato.  There's about 12 pounds here:

Sunday I canned marinara sauce for the first time.  I used about 10 pounds of tomatoes, thinking that was plenty for 7 pints of sauce, which is what will fit in the boiling water canner.  Well it only filled 6 pints.  To get the sauce to the right consistency, a lot of water has to be boiled away. 

A few beans were picked, about a pound and a half in small pickings over last week.  The good news is that the beans are on the rebound from the Japanese beetles.  This morning I picked a nice batch of Providers and Musica, which will go on next week's total.

And yes I'm getting zucchini again after a month's absence. This is the second one from this plant.  All this went into a stir fry.

To see what other people are growing, head on over to Our Happy Acres and check it out.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Status report - August

It's getting late into summer, and I'm seeing the usual assortment of things doing well and other things in decline.   I think this is the time when a lot of people, seeing a vegetable garden that looks more ragged than green, throw up their hands and walk away, maybe collecting the remaining tomatoes.  However with some maintenance the garden can continue producing for several months.  Today I walked around the beds and snapped some photos to show what's going on.

The strawberry pallet planter.  For a while the deer were sneaking in from a side where they never had ventured in the past, walking between the deck and the pond to get to the strawberries.  Thank goodness that has stopped and the plants are looking better, although not robust.  Now I have to think about how to protect them over the winter.

The second zucchini plant.  The squash bugs have found it and today I removed spent foliage that was thick with the nasty little critters.  I'm not a huge fan of summer squash, but I like to have some.  The first plant produced a few squash and died.  I planted this one on June 17 and it has given me one squash so far.   Next year I will definitely plant a heirloom squash like Cocozelle.

The Victoria rhubarb, planted this spring.  It got huge, 4 foot across, but after the hailstorm it was never the same, and the leaves are dying soon after they are set.  I'm hoping it shrugs this off.

Parsnip seems to be doing well.  This is either Javelin or Lancer, can't remember.

After the last of the sweet corn was picked, I cut it off at the base to clear the way for the winter squash.  I've had a lot of problems with winter squash this year and it's off to a late start, but finally it seems to be growing and setting squash.  It takes about 2 months for a squash to mature after it is set, so there should be time to make some squash.  It looks like they have shaken off the bacterial wilt.  It's great to walk by the squash in the morning and hear the sound of bumblebees.

Raspberries.  We'll what can I say.  They contracted fungal diseases last year so I cut them down to the ground last autumn.  The Autumn Bliss on the right appears to be recovering but the Caroline plants are not doing so well.  There will be a few berries to snack on while I'm out in the garden, but no desserts.

Pole beans.  They were hit hard by Japanese beetles this year, especially at the top of the trellis.  The worst of the onslaught appears to be over.  The Musica beans on the right appear to be recovering better than the Fortex.   I'm hoping to be 'back in beans' again very soon.

The pickling cucumbers look to be finished, but the lone slicing cucumber I planted late is still trying, bless its little cucumber heart.  Burpee's Burpless, I believe.  It has set one cuke which looks a little misshapen and a bit under the weather.  On end of the bed are 2 rows of bush beans that have just come up.

Finally, the tomatoes and peppers.  This morning I removed about a wheelbarrow load of foliage from the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini.  Mostly from the tomatoes, just to remove spent foliage and suckers and allow more air to circulate.  I can't tell that I've done anything - it's still a jungle in there. It's getting so thick on the pepper side of the bed that I have to crawl on my hands and knees to find peppers.  I really shouldn't complain.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Monday August 17

It's been a very good week in the bean patch.  With the exception of the pole beans, which have experienced a slow down, most everything is doing very well.  After a number of very bad years for tomatoes, this year is proving exceptional.  I harvested these Pink Girl slicers before they were fully ripe.  An animal, most likely a rabbit, had gnawed at the lowest tomato on the vine, so I picked the 'low hanging fruit' and put them in the windowsill.  The tomato on the right is a small Better Boy.

The burlap bag with Kennebec potatoes was emptied.  Not a great yield but the quality is good.  Best of all, no vole damage!

After drying in the sun for nearly 2 weeks, the Pontiac onions were ready to take inside.  Next year I'll have to seed more since the seedlings did not transplant well into the beds.  And I'll definitely have to grow the Red Tropea onions again.

It's also a great year for eggplant and I've been looking for ways to use the bonanza.  I've been making eggplant omelettes (eggplant with eggs) and found they are very tasty in the morning.  The Bride eggplants, being long and thin, work perfectly.  I peel the skin, slice them in half lengthwise and cook them in a covered pan until soft.  The sliced eggplant is placed on the omelette after the eggs set up, then the whole thing is folded and flipped.  A garnish of chive, okra or sweet pepper and the day starts off nicely.  

The Silver Queen sweet corn ripened last week, and Friday I picked a batch for freezing.  The ears are not as nice as Bodacious, and it's not a sugar enhanced corn but it's still very good.  This is my first year growing sweet corn, and it seems to me that the Silver Queen has a bizarre growth habit of sending up secondary stalks from the base of the plant.  These stalks try to form an ear but don't succeed in making a fully formed ear of corn.  The small ears on the right were deemed not suitable for freezing and targeted for immediate consumption.

The 'backup' summer squash that was seeded in mid-June produced it's first squash.  The first plant was lost after a few squash were picked, and it's nice to be 'back in the squash' again.  Next to the squash are a Bride eggplant, Millionaire okra and a sprig of Genovese basil.  The squash is a mystery squash, supposed to be an Italian squash like Cocozelle but looks more like a modern F1 hybrid.

All of the above went into an Italian vegetable stir-fry in the Breville wok.  The cubed squash and Andouille sausage get about a 5 minute head start, then the eggplant, sliced onion, okra, basil, oregano and thyme are added and sauteed at medium-high heat until softened.  A sliced paste tomato is added and stirred for another minute or 2, the heat is turned off and the whole affair is sprinkled with grated Parmesan.

Sunday was salsa-making day.  First I rounded up the peppers from the garden.  On the left are the mystery peppers, which were supposed to be hot Bulgarian Carrot peppers but are actually sweet peppers.  At the top of the picture are 2 Carmen peppers, and just below them are 3 Magyar paprika peppers.  At the bottom are Jalapeno and ripe Fish peppers.  (I really need to refinish the grill stand this winter).

Since it was looking like a shortage of hot peppers I went to the Bloomington farmers market on Saturday and picked up some jalapeno peppers and a few habanero peppers, in case they were needed.  The jalapenos that I bought are jumbo-sized, something I'm a bit leary of in the vegetable world.   I found their heat a bit lacking, so I grilled them along with the sweet peppers, in the hopes that the steam generated inside the peppers would extract the heat from the seeds into the surrounding meat.  The hot peppers from the garden were cut up fresh and put in the salsa. 

I usually grill the sweet peppers and, after deskinning and deseeding, add the pepper flesh to the tomatoes and blend.  I've found it makes a richer tasting salsa.

The tomatoes were gathered up.  These are the Mountain Magic and Black Plum tomatoes, almost 6 pounds.

Also some Roma VF tomatoes, just over 2 pounds. 

After several hours of grilling, boiling, deskinning, deseeding, chopping, slicing and dicing I was rewarded with 7 pints of canned salsa plus 1 pint of refrigerator salsa (the canner can fit only 7 pints).  That seems like a lot of work.  And yes, I added a habanero to the sauce.  The heat seems about right but it's too early to know for sure.

Total for week 37.5 pounds:
Potatoes 2.7 pounds
Onions 10 pounds
Eggplant 1.3 pounds
Okra  0.3 pounds
Beans 0.7 pounds
Corn  7.1 pounds
Summer squash 1.1 pounds
Sweet peppers 1.5 pounds
Hot peppers 0.4 pounds
Slicer and salad tomatoes 9.9 pounds
Paste tomatoes 2.6 pounds

To see what other gardeners are getting, head on over to Our Happy Acres and check it out.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The year of the tiger

Tiger swallowtail that is.  OK, I used a gimmick to get your attention, guilty am I.  It's been nearly 10 years since these butterflies have been seen in such numbers.  I don't know why animal populations ebb and flow, sometimes dramatically, but that is what they do.  And this is one of the most spectacular butterflies in this region.  They are drawn to Joe Pye Weed and some other weeds that I haven't identified, all of them tall with purple flowers.  This one was hanging around the sage plant, possibly attracted to the fragrant oils in the leaves.

Plant diseases also ebb and flow, and the why's and how's are mostly a mystery.  For the last several years the tomatoes have succumbed to a host of diseases, mostly (I believe) early blight and leaf spot.  This year they are virtually disease free and astoundingly healthy.  The Mountain Magic and Black Plum tomatoes are well out of the top of their cages, about 8 feet tall.

On the south side of the same bed, peppers and eggplant are growing.  It's a good thing the tomatoes are tall because the ancho peppers and sweet peppers are about 5 feet in height.

The eggplant, as usual, is under attack by flea beetles.  I've found that the mixture of insecticidal soap and Neem oil that has been effective against aphids and scale on the apple trees also works on the flea beetles.  I like it because there are eggplants constantly growing  and this spray is nontoxic.

I plan to can a batch of salsa this weekend.  I'll use whatever tomatoes I can pick.  To make 7 pints, which is what my canning pot will hold, I'll need about 8 pounds of tomatoes, plus sweet and hot peppers.  The refrigerator salsa that I recently made was just hot enough, so I picked up a few habaneros at the farmer's market for this batch.  The sauce tomatoes will be ripe soon and they will go into a batch of marinara sauce.  I'm really impressed with these Plum Regal plants - that is quite a cluster of tomatoes approaching ripeness.

A disease that I haven't seen for nearly 10 years is bacterial wilt on the cucurbits.  The last infestation started on the cucumber plants then spread to the squash.  Ultimately all the squash were lost.  The plant will recover in the morning but wilts at the end of the day.  It gets progressively worse until the plant is lost.  This butternut squash is a goner and was pulled up yesterday.

 I was asked if this might be the borer.  It's not likely.  With its thin, hard stem the butternut squash is mostly impervious to the borer and that is the squash that the wilt has been killing.  Another plant, a buttercup squash, was looking wilty for a while and I was sure it was a goner, but it now looks like it is recovering.   If you look closely at the squash in the background you can see a few wilted leaves.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that the wilt does not destroy the squash crop. 

What can you do about bacterial wilt?  There is no treatment for it, although suppressing the squash bugs and cucumber beetles reduces the chances of the plants being infected.  You just have to hope that the plant has the resources to fight it off.  The best way to help the plants fight off disease is to provide them the conditions for optimal health - the full array of nutrients, soil with lots of organic matter, and sufficient water if nature doesn't provide enough.  Beyond that, the gardener is mostly at the mercy of the unknown.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Monday, July 31

It's the end of July and the tomatoes are finally starting to produce, including the slicers.   I picked the first PInk Girl and Better Boy tomatoes.  The Pink Girl has a very nice balance of flavors, excellent really.  I've been harvesting Mountain Magic and Black Plum nearly every day and putting them in salads, sliced in half.  Sunday there were finally enough tomatoes - 3 pounds - to make the first batch of salsa.
That's a mix of Black Plum, Mountain Magic, and Roma VF.  The Romas have been dropping to the ground when they turn a little bit red, not an endearing habit for sure.  I've been setting them on the picnic table to ripen, so I haven't actually picked any sauce tomatoes yet.

Along with the tomatoes, enough peppers to make a batch of refrigerator salsa.  The large pepper is Carmen, the next largest is supposedly Bulgarian Carrot, and the small peppers are Jalapeno and Fish, both hot.  I say supposedly because Bulgarian Carrot is orange and hot, and this pepper is red and sweet, with zero heat.   I expect to suffer hot pepper shortages when making the next batch of salsa, and will find myself at the farmers market buying some chilis. 

The sweet peppers were roasted on the grill, and after removing the seeds and skin, they were blended into the tomatoes.

This small batch of salsa gives me the chance to fine tune the recipe.  I don't mind a salsa that's a little too hot, but a salsa that's not hot enough is a waste, in my opinion.  This year's Jalapenos, Burpee seedlings, are much hotter than in year's past.  These were the first red ripe Fish peppers, and they are definitely hot, probably 2 or 3 times hotter than the Jalapenos, so I'm hoping that the salsa will be up to snuff.  The Bulgarian carrot is a disappointment however.  Here's the final product:

The Fish pepper is a strikingly handsome pepper.  With it's striped foliage and bush-like habit it could easily be an ornamental plant.  Although not shown in this photo, the contrast with the ripe red peppers just adds to the esthetic.  It was grown on the East Coast for use in fish dishes.

What is probably the last batch of Vertina cucumbers was picked.  They are now fermenting in a crock on the kitchen counter.

More beans.  Production from the pole beans has slowed down quite a bit.  They have been under attack from Japanese beetles and a small green 'bug' that feeds on the bean.
The Jimmy Nardello peppers and Millionaire okra continue trickling in, enough to add to stir-fries.  Eggplant has taken a break this week but I expect another wave to begin any day.

Lastly, some carrots.  I'm not a huge carrot fan but do like them for soups and stews.  I'm not sure what variety these are.

For the week:  Beans 2.7 lb, carrot 1.6 lb, cucumber 3 lb, okra 0.3 lb, sweet pepper 0.9 lb, hot pepper 0.3 lb, tomatoes 6.2 lb.  To see what other people are growing, head on over to Our Happy Acres.