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Drying peppermint for tea

2 Oct

I was given a lovely peppermint plant for my birthday. In the 2 months since then it has grown extremely quickly. So much so that it has reached the limits of the pot and needs a good trim back.

I’ve found that I need more peppermint leaves that I first imagined to make a decent pot of tea, so while the plant is prolific I thought it was a good opportunity to harvest as many leaves as possible for storage. That way I can cut the plant back hard, I’ll get a good supply of tea, and the plant will have room to re-grow.

I cut the growth back as hard as I could with a pair of scissors, putting the leaves into a large bowl of water to soak. That way any dust and debris will wash off along with any lingering bugs. I plucked off any damaged leaves and discarded.

I spread the leaves out in my dehydrator and put it on the lowest setting (35 degrees). I believe that a low oven will do the same thing, but I haven’t tried it. You could also just hang whole springs out in an airy place, or peg them onto a clothes airer.

My dehydrator was from Aldi. Once a year or so they have them for sale for $40.

Well worth the price considering you can also dry fruit, vegetables and herbs.

After the mint leaves were dry (about 8 hours or overnight) I simply stripped the leaves off the stems and put them into an airtight canister. Make sure that they are completely dry before you do this or it will go mouldy.

You will need at least a heaped teaspoon of dried leaves for a pot of tea.

It re-hydrates back to the lovely fresh green colour it started as.

Strawberry Season’s A-Comin.

22 Jul

It might be barely past mid-winter, but the days are getting longer and warmer and my strawberries know it. Despite the neglect they have been shown they are starting to flower. For weeks I’ve been trying to find time to clean the plants of their dead material, to divide the plants and replant the runners. I finally got the opportunity on Friday while the big kids were at daycare.

If you pay your strawberry plants absolutely no attention since Summer, this is what they will look like by winter. Covered in dead leaves and runners, they are desperately trying to flower but will never thrive.

I spent a few hours out there with scissors, snipping the dead material out close to the crown of the plant. Jodi describes the process really well here.

Some of the planters also needed new soil, so I repotted with potting mix enriched with rotted cow manure and divided the plants. Each crown generally needed dividing several times. I didn’t actually have enough polystyrene boxes to replant all of my plants, but after I was finished they looked like this:

I’ve had most success in the past when I’ve used weed matting around the plants, but I’ve run out, so sugar cane mulch will have to do this time.

The remaining plants I ended up planting out into Bed B. They probably wont get enough sun there, but the space is otherwise un-utilised, and maybe they will smother the creeping oxalis that is rapidly taking over – I can only hope.

After I was finished I was left with a fair quantity of runners, which I will give away to friends and family.

Now in the absence of my own strawberries I’ve been enjoying some amazing organic ones from Queensland lately.

Pim Mens grows them in the Glasshouse Mountains and despite the hefty price of her amazing fruit my fresh produce supplier sells 800g tubs of her second quality berries. These are actually as good as most 1st quality berries you buy in the supermarket. They are perfect for making jam.

Jodi is also my inspiration for jam making. She convinced me to shun pectin/jamsetta and embrace slightly runny jam. Seeing as I was always forgetting to buy the jamsetta, it was impeding my jam making anyway. Since reading Jodi’s advice I haven’t looked back.

Both times I’ve made strawberry jam I’ve done it in batches of a little over 1.4 kilos – the weight of the berries from two 800g tubs of seconds once trimmed of the stalks and bad bits. A testament to the quality of the ‘seconds’, huh?

I washed the berries in the sink, then cut them into large chunks.

I then placed the berries into a large pot with half the weight of the strawberries in sugar (approximately 700g) and the juice of a lemon. I stir it around to mix thoroughly and let it sit for 10 minutes to release juices. I then add in the 2 lemon halves and start heating the pot on medium heat, stirring regularly.

I then cook for 30-45 minutes, by which time the strawberries will be broken down but still somewhat chunky. At this stage the jam will still be slightly runny when cooled, but still fine to spread on toast etc. If you cook it longer then the fruit will start to lose its fresh flavour, but the jam will be more ‘set’.

Once you have cooked the jam, remove the lemon halves and ladle it into clean jars. I then close them and place into another large stock pot. I fill the stockpot so that the water comes up to the level 1 inch above the top of the jam jars, then bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes. This will kill any nasties and allow you to safely store the jam in the cupboard until required.

Pretty, isn’t it? I assure you that it’s also delicious. Now I’m ready for my own berries – bring on Spring!

Pesto for storage

12 Feb

The basil took a while to get started this year but we’re definitely in the swing of it now. Today I had to trim my plants because they had gone mental, so it was time to make some pesto for storing into winter.

Pesto stores for a little while in the fridge if you cover it in olive oil, but this isn’t going to get you through to next summer. The jars you buy in the supermarket are pressure-preserved, so the pesto has had the life cooked out of it before you even open the jar. It isn’t suitable for water-bath bottling because it isn’t a high-acid food.

So freezing it is!

There is much debate over whether pesto should be frozen with or without the parmesan cheese, or even whether it should be frozen at all. Undoubtably, pesto that you have made fresh before serving is going to be superior to anything defrosted, but if the choice is between home-made and frozen, store-bought or no pesto at all, I know what I’ll be choosing.

As I’m constantly nattering on about, Little D has a milk allergy so this solved the cheese debate for me. I made the pesto without the parmesan, and I’ll add it upon defrosting. I can make his portion with soy-based parmesan substitute, and it also gives me the flexibility to use it in other dishes, like a coconut-milk based pesto ‘curry’ that the kids really enjoy.

My basil offcuts amounted to 8 firmly packed cups of washed, trimmed basil leaves. I started with Linda’s recipe, but found that I didn’t have quite enough pine nuts, so I just cut that back. It seemed to work. I omitted the parmesan cheese:

  • 260 grams of lightly toasted pine nuts
  • a cup, packed of basil
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • salt to taste
  • Olive oil to blend

I found that I had to toast the pine nuts in batches because 260 grams of organic pine nuts are really expensive. I know it’s easy to burn pine nuts when you are toasting them, and I didn’t want to send $30 of pine nuts literally up in smoke!

All the ingredients went into the blender (I really need a food processor!) until smooth and combined.

I packed one jar with the pesto and covered with a layer of olive oil. I put that in the fridge for use over the next 2 weeks.  The remainder I froze in ice cube trays covered in plastic wrap. Once frozen, I’ll pop them out into a zip lock bag and vacuum seal. It’s really easy to defrost 1 or 2 cubes at a time and add the freshly-grated parmesan cheese.

My 8 cups of leaves made 1 (sacla-sized 190gram jar) of pesto for the fridge and 2 1/2 ice cube trays for the freezer. It will stretch further than normal because it gets bulked up with the cheese.

I may have to make another batch in the autumn, but I think this will get us a good way through the year.

Cottee’s ain’t good enough for me

5 Feb

After hearing about how Australian citrus growers are doing it tough, I thought I’d buy a bag of Australian-grown organic oranges for juicing. Sometime during the week it occurred to me that I could make this fruit stretch further by making cordial from the juice instead.

Orange Cordial

3kg bag of oranges (juiced) This made 1.75 litres of juice.

1.75 kilos sugar (equivalent weight to juice)

1.75 litres of water (equivalent to juice)

finely grated zest of 2 oranges

1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid (not needed if you keep the cordial in the fridge)

I started by juicing the oranges, which came to 1.75 litres of juice. I then put the same quantities of sugar and water into a saucepan and heated until the sugar dissolved. You can now add the juice and zest, or if your kids are like mine and don’t like the pulp, you can strain the juice at this point before you add it to the pan. Add the citric acid, mix well and pour into glass bottles.

The cordial can now be kept safely in the fridge for up to a month.

I wanted to store the cordial in the cupboard and I wanted the shelf life to be greater, so I water-bath processed the bottles. Do this by putting them into a large stockpot or preserving unit (needs to be very deep to accommodate bottles) and covering with water. Latest safety guidelines say that the water should cover the tops by at least an inch, but the water only reached the shoulder of my largest bottle. I’m sure it will still be fine, but I don’t want to recommend that method to anyone.

Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for an additional 20 minutes. You can then remove from the water and let them cool. Make sure that all bottles vacuum-seal correctly once cool (the pop-top on the lid will pop down). If they have sealed correctly, they should store for a reasonable length of time in the cupboard.

The cordial can then be made up with water according to your preferences for strength.

Using organic oranges and sugar bought from a small independant grocer meant that the product costs quite a bit more than Cottee’s cordial ($11 for the oranges and approx $5 for the sugar  for just under 4 litres of concentrate) but there are definietly no artificial colours or flavours, and I’m comfortable with citric acid as a preservative.

If you bought conventionally-grown oranges and sugar from Aldi, you could whip this up for cheap as chips.

This has the potential to get very dangerous…

25 Jan

I’ve been on a bit of a preserving run of late. After bottling the tomatoes the other day and feeling pretty pleased with myself, I’ve been reading,  and thinking of other possibilities. Our family eats a lot of jam (hence P’s diet), and so that really is the natural progression.

We are off for the long weekend to a farmstay, and I ordered too many nectarines for the week. They will be past their best by the time we get back, so I thought I’d make some jam out of them. I’d been reading Rhonda’s blog and it really didn’t seem too hard, so tonight I thought I’d give it a go.

I cut up the nectarines, some white, some yellow (about 2.4 kilos) and put them into a large stockpot with about half their weight in sugar. That seemed like an awful lot to me, but looking at various recipes it seems that that is actually a low-sugar jam!

I also added half a large lemon – I squeezed the juice into the pan then added the skin to the pot too.

I added a little bit of water to allow the sugar to start to dissolve, then put it on medium heat, stirring regularly.

The mix eventually came to the boil and I used a potato masher to break down the chunks of fruit to a reasonable consistency. I didn’t want to puree it, but I didn’t want it to be awfully lumpy either. Tasting the mix I decided it needed another sqeeze of lemon juice, and I also added a tablespoon of vanilla bean paste (with the lovely little seeds).

As I cooked the mix down it became thicker and the colour darkened. I chose not to use pectin in this batch because apparently nectarines are naturally high in pectin, especially under-ripe nectarines, and a few of the fruit were a bit under ripe.

Once I was happy with the consistency of the jam once it had cooled on the spoon, I took it off the boil and started ladling it into clean jars. This is where my inexperience really showed. Jam makers have these really cool funnels for the purpose, but I was trying to co-ordinate a ladle, jars of varying sizes and scaling hot fruit and sugar!

It filled at least twice the number of jars as I expected, so had to move onto a few less than ideal jars with labels still attached. I cleaned the stockpot and filled it with the jars and water (covering the jars). I brought it to the boil and held it there for 15 minutes or so, ensuring that they’d seal properly and be safe to store.

I may just need a few more jars for future jams – I can tell that this is going to be addictive. Heelloo Diabetes!

Harvest Monday – 23rd January 2012

23 Jan

I was a bit lazy with my harvesting this week. Some things are overdue but still sitting on the vine, bush etc.

1 Lebanese Eggplant

First up are the Lebanese eggplant.  I have loads of these on my 9 plants. I only harvested one this week, which I used in a warm vegetable pasta. The remaining truckful are getting bigger, and I’m not completely sure what the best size is for harvesting.

10 Golden Nugget Pumpkins

My golden nugget pumpkins are slowing but still productive. I harvested 10 this week, but let them get slightly larger.

2 Crystal Apple Cucumbers

I think I’ve neglected the cucumbers. Instead of training them up the trellice I’ve let them sprawl out along the ground. I think they have succumbed to some mildew and are looking a bit shabby. I picked 2 large crystal apple cucumbers this week, but I’m not enjoying their bitterness.

500 grams Dwarf Bush Beans

The dwarf bush beans are powering along. I’ve harvested approximately 500 grams this week, with no signs of slowing. Tonight they featured in a chicken and coconut curry, and I ate another serving (on their own) during the week when I was cooking only for myself. Steamed green beans are pretty much all I need for dinner when it’s only me to please.

A couple of tomatoes

The tomatoes are coming along. I’ve only harvested a couple this week, but I can see that the plants in the front bed are setting loads of fruit and the potted tomatoes are showing more promise. Here are some friends of mine, checking out the low-hanging fruit this afternoon.

First cob of corn

The corn is teasing me. I’ve planted several blocks and the main block is huge – much taller than I am, but the cobs aren’t so big. The silk is definitely starting to die off and I take it that that is a sign, but I harvested one cob during the week and it was still white like young corn. The kernels are definitely developing, so I don’t think it’s a pollination issue, but I guess they just need more time. The cob I harvested was delicious, despite its immaturity.

This one is more of a potential harvest, or a ‘should have’ harvested. This is the first of the okra – I blinked and it was huge. I think next year I need to grow a few more plants, because I’m not harvesting enough at once to make anything worthwhile.  Maybe I should keep this one for seeds 🙂

Tomato Canning

Today a few friends came around to preserve a box of tomatoes that I bought from a roadside stall yesterday. I’ve love to say I grew them myself, but alas, I think it’ll be April before I have an excess.

Here is a jar just before I put it into the Fowlers Vacola preserving unit.

We started off canning the tomatoes whole, then discovered that it was hard to pack them tight enough that way. In the end I was mostly quartering them.

My box of tomatoes filled 15 600ml jars (Fowlers #20 and #200 jars). Only 14 fit into the preserving unit, so I think I’ll be using the remaining jar shortly so I don’t need to can it properly.

After the water bath they are considerably less vibrant, but hopefully more sterile.

This post links up to Daphne’s Dandelions. Head on over there to see what else people are harvesting across the world.