Rhubarb Three Ways (Part 3: Canning)

The second way we explored preserving rhubarb at this week’s Food Preservation Drop In was to can some rhubarb chutney.

In the past I’ve canned rhubarb butter, which is basically just stewed and sweetened rhubarb that we use on cereal. This year I wanted to try something new, so I adapted a rhubarb chutney recipe from the wonderful book The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest. The downside of the recipe is that not all of the ingredients are seasonal or available locally, but I figured I would give it a shot. If I like it, next I’ll try adapting it to use all local ingredients.

Rhubarb is a high-acid fruit, which means it’s safe to can it using a boiling water bath canner (as opposed to low acid foods, which must be canned using a pressure canner…for safety, always understand the acidity of each of the ingredients you wish to can and follow recipe directions). In the case of this chutney recipe, a lot of vinegar is also used, which adds to the acidity.

Recipe (fills approximately eight 1/2-pint jars):

2 oranges
2 1/2 pounds rhubarb, washed and cut (it’s a pet peeve of mine when recipes mix and match volume and weight in their instructions. Not having a food scale handy, I had to guesstimate my quantity of rhubarb)
5 1/3 cups firmly packed light brown sugar (I used honey instead, to taste, which ended up being about 2 cups)
4 cups cider vinegar
2 cups golden raisins (I swapped out the raisins for dried cranberries)
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
12 whole allspice berries
12 whole black peppercorns

  1. Grate zest from oranges
  2. Peel orange, remove pulp and membranes, and chop coarsely
  3. Combine rhubarb, oranges, sugar, vinegar, raisins and onions in a saucepan
  4. Tie the spices in a cheesecloth bag and add to pan. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring regularly.
  5. Simmer uncovered until thick, about 1-1 1/2 hours, being careful not to burn it (which I managed to do). Remove the spice bag (my bag managed to fall apart, and I ended up having to scoop out the spices as best I could).
  6. Ladle into hot, sterilized 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Cap and seal.
  7. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner (adjusting time for your altitude…12 minutes in Regina).

In general, canning is less energy intensive than freezing, but it still uses a lot of energy and water. An advantage of canning over freezing is that once it’s preserved, you can store it without cost and without the fear of losing your food in a power outage. You can also reuse jars and screw rings from year to year, though you must always use new lids, which is an ongoing expense.

To can foods safely, it’s important to understand the science of it, which has evolved over time. The way your grandparents canned foods is not as safe as today’s best practices, so make sure you’re using instructions and recipes from an up-to-date, reputable source. Canning isn’t hard once you’ve got the know-how and had some practice. But if you do it wrong, it can be lethal, so don’t take chances!

Part 4: Drying Rhubarb

Part 1: Sourcing & Harvesting Rhubarb
Part 2: Freezing Rhubarb

Rhubarb Three Ways (Part 2: Freezing)

At the first of our weekly Food Preservation Drop Ins we focused mainly on rhubarb, and explored preserving it three different ways: frozen, canned, and dried.

Freezing is the most energy intensive way to preserve food. It also involves the ongoing cost of electricity and the constant potential of power failure (unless you’re off the grid). As someone who once lost the entire contents of her freezer while away on holiday, I never take for granted that relying on frozen food is always a calculated risk. 

That said, freezing is an easy and convenient way to preserve food. And rhubarb is one of the easiest things to freeze. It’s as simple as washing the stems, cutting them into pieces, and putting them into an airtight freezer bag. However, some sources recommend blanching it first, to halt the development of enzymes and help retain colour, taste, and texture. I’ve never blanched rhubarb before, but this time around I decided to try it, to compare the quality to non-blanched frozen rhubarb.

In general, my blanching method of choice is steam blanching: it protects against vitamin loss, and is easier, faster, and less water intensive than boil blanching. To steam blanch rhubarb, boil some water in the bottom of a steamer pot, then add a steamer basket full of rhubarb chunks and cover. Leave to blanch for 90 seconds and then plunge the rhubarb into cold water to stop the cooking process.* Transfer it to a freezer bag, suck out as much air as possible, seal it, and add it to the freezer! Don’t forget to label the bag with the contents and date Even better, add it to an up-to-date inventory list of all your frozen goods. This will help you manage what’s in your freezer and use up older stuff first.

*Because things never work out exactly as planned, my steam blanched rhubarb experiment was compromised! Immediately after putting it on the stove, it started to hail and I had to run out to the garden to cover what I could, leaving the rhubarb to steam blanch longer than called for. Not only that, but I hadn’t prepared my ice water, and so had to settle for cold tap water to stop the blanching process! All that to say that food preservation is always an experiment, so just keep trying and learning from your mistakes (safely, of course)!

Part 3: Canning Rhubarb
Part 4: Drying Rhubarb

Part 1: Sourcing & Harvesting Rhubarb

Rhubarb Three Ways (Part 1: Sourcing & Harvesting)

The inaugural Root & Branch Food Preservation Drop In happened yesterday! The idea is that I will be preserving whatever is in season every (or at least most) Wednesdays from 5:30 to 7pm for the duration of the growing season. Folks are invited to drop in to help and learn about different ways to optimize seasonal, locally grown produce for year round local eating independence from corporate agribusiness.

Week #1 concentrated mostly on rhubarb, though we also explored asparagus (which is covered in a different post). I wanted to demonstrate a variety of ways to preserve this hardy perennial, so I chose three different forms of rhubarb preservation: freezing, canning, and drying.

The first step in preserving any food is to find the best and freshest source. This doesn’t mean you need to grow it yourself, though it’s wonderful to be able to step outside and eat and preserve your own homegrown food straight off the plant. If you don’t have your own garden, the next best thing is to share and exchange with friends and neighbours who have more than they need. Many people that grow rhubarb wind up with more than they need, and you’ll also come across it in the darndest places (like in my favourite local park the Art Park, which is located at the corner of 11th Ave. and Halifax St. in Regina).

If you must buy rhubarb, do so directly from a local farmer at the farmers’ market or a u-pick, or purchase it from an independent business that sources local, seasonal produce directly from local farmers. In any of these cases, you’re able to get the produce as soon after it’s been harvested as possible. This way, it will be tastiest, most nutrient-dense, and you’ll be supporting your local food economy.

I’m lucky enough to have two decent-sized rhubarb patches growing in my urban backyard (and a couple more out at the farm), so I was able to start preserving immediately after harvesting it!

When harvesting rhubarb, twist and pull larger stems out at the base of the plant. Leave smaller stocks to keep growing for later harvests, and always leave some of stocks for the plant to keep growing. Don’t harvest rhubarb in its first season, and only harvest a few stems in its second season. Cut off the leaves, and remember that they’re poisonous! Compost them, or experiment with making a natural pesticide from them. For more detailed info on harvesting rhubarb, go here.

Part 2: Freezing Rhubarb
Part 3: Canning Rhubarb
Part 4: Drying Rhubarb

Why food preservation? And why now??

In Saskatchewan, where most of us have just barely got our gardens planted, it might seem early to start thinking about harvest time. But actually, now  is the best time to plan how to manage the bounty that promises to slam us over the next few months! This next few weeks is like the calm before a storm: while our seeds sprout and our little plants get established, all we can do is watch, water, weed, hope for good weather, and scheme for how to use the coming onslaught of fresh seasonal food.

Here are some tips for making the most of the coming harvest:

Update your definition of local eating. In a place like ours, where the growing season is short, it’s easy to assume that eating locally is only possible for a few months of the year. But actually, with a bit of knowledge and planning, Saskatchewanians can eat our own local foods all year round. Not only that, but we can reduce our carbon footprints dramatically by learning how to eat what we grow in February as well as July.

Learn the best ways to preserve seasonal foods:

  • Learn which preservation techniques are best for different foods. For example, why freeze root vegetables when they can keep for months in cold storage?
  • Hone your food preservation techniques and learn new ones. Maybe you’ve experimented with freezing foods, but haven never tried canning them. And maybe you’ve heard about fermenting or dehydration, but don’t have a clue how to start.
  • Learn from parents, grandparents and older neighbours, who often have decades of valuable experience they’d love to share.
  • But also keep in mind that some wisdom has changed over the years. The science of canning, for example, is significantly different now than it was in your grandparents’ day. Make sure you have up-to-date information about safe food preservation techniques.
  • Consider taking a class in your community…oh wait! Like the one Root & Branch is offering on June 23, 2012!

Get to know your seasonal foods. Knowing when different foods become available helps you make the most of when they do!

  • Ask at your local farmers’ market about what will be coming available in the next few weeks, and plan preservation activities accordingly.
  • Ask about buying in bulk, which can often be more affordable. Farmers sometimes even have “seconds” that may be a little less pretty or uniform, but which are perfectly good for canning or freezing. Or at the end of the market they might be happy to get rid of what they weren’t able to sell for a little less.
  • Get to know how long the varieties in your own garden take to mature, so you can make time to preserve them when they’re as fresh as possible.
  • Keep good garden records, so you can learn from your own experience year to year.

Think about the materials you’ll need. Many food preservation techniques require little to no special equipment, but it pays to get organized before you’re drowning in food. Remember that foods preserve best when they’re at their freshest, so make sure you’re ready to go when the produce is!

  • Some materials are harder to find at the height of the growing season. For example, supermarkets often run short of canning lids at the height of summer.
  • Some materials will be more affordable during the off-season. For example, you’re more likely to find a good deal on a canner or dehydrator in February than in August!

Don’t make food preservation into an exercise in overconsumption! Just like everything else, it’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking you need to buy a ton of new things to take up a new hobby or learn a new skill. Fight the urge!

  • Look for used equipment at garage sales and thrift stores. As they wind down, older people often get rid of perfectly great equipment (e.g., canners, jars, etc.) at reasonable prices.
  • Don’t be shy to share equipment. Food preservation equipment isn’t the sort of stuff that’s in constant use, so why not borrow from a neighbour, or go in on equipment with a friend? For example, my mom and her friend wanted a steam juicer, which cost nearly $200 new and would only be in use a couple months out of every year. So they bought it together!

Treat food preservation like an art form. It’s no wonder that artisanal cheeses, breads and preserves are all the rage. Craftspeople who perfect food preservation skills are true artists, and food preservation offers all of us the potential for wonderful creative expression. Just as nothing in the world compares to the taste of a tomato picked fresh from the garden, there is nothing more satisfying than enjoying your own fermented sauerkraut, making fresh pasta from your own homegrown wheat, or sharing your own fruit preserves with friends and family!

Want to learn more about preserving your own food? Join Root & Branch at our Food Preservation 101 Workshop on June 23, 2012 for a broad, hands-on introduction to freezing, canning, fermenting, drying and using cold storage to preserve your own seasonal food.

Food Preservation 101 (a Root & Branch workshop)

Saturday, June 23, 2012 – 10 am to 5 pm*
Heritage Community Association (100-1654 11th Ave, Regina)

$100 (includes the food that you preserve: fermented sauerkraut, canned tomatoes and dried fruit)

Get ready to make the most of this summer’s harvest! This full-day, hands-on workshop is geared towards people who want to increase their food sustainability year round by preserving more of their own locally grown, seasonal food.

Learn everything you need to know to start canning, freezing, fermenting, drying and using cold storage to preserve your food!

We will cover:

–       Freezing fresh food for maximum taste and freshness

–       The basics of food fermentation, from vegetables to dairy

–       Canning techniques and safety for fruits, vegetables and even animal products

–       How to keep food fresh for months in cold storage

–       Drying foods for long term use

Space in this workshop is limited, so please contact Nikko Snyder to register and arrange prepayment: phone (306) 209-8552 or email info@root-and-branch.ca.

* Lunch break 1-2 pm (lunch not included). Can’t make the date? Contact us to arrange a home workshop, Splurge Party or Lunch and Learn.

Don’t abandon Regina’s proposed cosmetic pesticide ban!

ImageAfter its April 2012 recommendation to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides in the city of Regina, the city’s Environmental Advisory Committee is now abandoning its original recommendation after pressure from business and stakeholders.

Pesticides can cause health issues in adults and children, including cancer, reproductive and nervous system problems. As an individual citizen and small businessperson in Regina, I am deeply concerned with our city’s determination to place the health of the pesticide and lawn care industries above the health of our children and communities. I’m so concerned, in fact, that I decided to start a petition against the City’s decision to back down from its original recommendation.

On Thursday, June 7 at 5:30pm, the Environmental Advisory Committee will meet again. Please sign this petition (or come to Thursday’s meeting at City Hall) to let our municipal leaders know we want to see Regina move in the direction of other progressive communities and ban the use of cosmetic pesticides.

Prepping the front yard garden

Leaves on cardboard waiting for some vision

To optimize the small urban lot we live on, we’ve decided to try gardening the front yard this year. We’re building on the success of last year’s Lasagna gardening experiment to hopefully make a drab front lawn into a lush edible landscape!

Shaping leaves into beds

It started last fall when Shayna covered the lawn with cardboard to smother the grass. Then, as autumn leaves fell they were piled onto the cardboard to wait for spring.

Over the past couple of weeks, I raked the leaves into raised beds and then added a layer of peat moss on top. My intention is to add another layer of leaves, followed by a mixture of peat moss* and compost on the top for planting.

Last year our Lasagna/sheet mulch garden used mostly spoiled hay and aged manure. So this year we’ll be able to compare leaves and a peat-compost mix to see if there’s any notable difference in how the garden grows.

And though the cold rain/sleet/hail/snow persists, I aim to get some spinach, radishes, lettuce and maybe even peas in the ground this weekend.

More pictures to come as the project evolves!

The basic garden layout

*Peat moss isn’t my preferred material, since mining peat bogs isn’t necessarily the most sustainable practice. However, our own compost production is still in progress, so for now this is the best option we can afford.

A layer of peat moss
Lined with old bricks for that extra je ne sais quoi

Amaranth dreams fulfilled over breakfast

Amaranth bed

I’ve been enjoying amaranth as a cooked cereal for years. The tiny seeds are tasty, pack a complete high protein punch, and are fun to eat. (At our house, meals with amaranth somehow manage to inspire song and dance!) Plus, it’s been in cultivation for more than 8,000 years! So last spring, when we finally had enough space to do so, we decided to try incorporating amaranth into our home garden.

With no experience and few resources on growing grain amaranth on a home scale, we just started trying things. For starters, we planted it in two separate spots: in its own little bed of roughly 10 square feet, and as a fourth sister in our Three Sisters garden. I also covered my bases by starting some seeds indoors and direct seeding the rest. (The direct seeded plants quickly caught up to the transplanted ones.)

Amaranth, the fourth sister

The seed is so incredibly tiny that it was impossible not to plant it too densely. And since I have a compulsive resistance to thinning, the amaranth bed remained overcrowded for the duration of the summer. But it didn’t appear to mind too much. In fact, the amaranth seemed to adapt itself to whatever situation it found itself in. In the Three Sisters garden, where it was planted sparsely, the plants bushed out. In the amaranth bed, where everyone was overcrowded, the plants grew straight and thin and tall. Regardless of its circumstances, the amaranth remained unfazed. (That said, I will certainly thin it much more heavily this year.)

Amaranth harvest

In addition to being easygoing it was also beautiful, making it a favourite in the garden. As the plants developed, I figured out that the seed would eventually form out of the Dr. Seuss-like flowers that were emerging. When the flowers began to dry out, I could run my hand up them, causing seed to fall out gently.

At that point we clipped off the flowers and laid them out on a sheet until we could get around to threshing them. I tried a few hand-threshing techniques until I settled on simply rubbing the flowers against a metal screen and into a big plastic bin. Then I winnowed the seed by pouring it from one plastic bin to another in a relatively gentle breeze (too strong and it would have blown the infinitesimal seed away along with the chaff).

Amaranth ready to cook and eat

And there you have it. From our tiny square footage of amaranth we wound up with a few meals worth, plus enough seed and confidence to expand our production this year. Feeling precious about our limited supply, it took me all these months to work up to eating some. But this morning we finally cooked some up and ate our homegrown amaranth with homemade granola, homemade yogurt, home preserved peaches, and homegrown and home preserved crabapple sauce. Delight!

Some interesting & helpful amaranth information:
Growing Amaranth & Quinoa (Salt Spring Seeds)
Amaranth Grain & Vegetable Types (ECHO)

Back on the horse: growing onions & peppers from seed

Hot pepper seedlings

Having had limited success starting onions and peppers from seed, I regrouped and got a good start on both this year. We rigged up some grow lights on a rickety old utility shelf in our otherwise dark and inhospitable basement, and I planted seeds early, putting in four varieties of onions and five varieties of peppers before the end of February.

Though I did start both onions and peppers from seed last year (for the first time), a variety of factors worked against me to result in a lame harvest. For one thing, I wasn’t home for about four weeks in March/April, which made it impossible to start seeds early. As a result, I didn’t start any seeds at all until the middle of April, which seemed fine for some things (e.g., brassicas) and disastrous for others (e.g., peppers, onions, and eggplants).

When I did finally start last spring’s seeds, it was without supplemental light or heat: we were living off the grid and the tiny plants had to survive with only the sun coming through my south facing windows. Again, some vegetables seemed unfazed by the cool temperatures and lack of extra light. But the peppers, which like warm soil (21-29 ºC) in which to germinate, didn’t like it at all, and a couple varieties I tried had an almost zero germination rate! The ones that did sprout took a few weeks to do so, and by that point it was practically time to transplant the runty little things out into the garden.

Baby onions & leeks.

Last year’s onions faired even worse. Onions need a long growing season, and they start to create their bulbs when the days are long enough, regardless of how big the plants are. Essentially, my attempt to start onion seeds indoors in April in Saskatchewan resulted in very cute (but totally useless) miniature onions that didn’t do anything at all.

By contrast, this year we’re living back in the city and on the grid for the winter, which is an incredible luxury when it comes to getting a jump on the gardening season. I planted onions on February 20 and peppers on February 26, and set them under our new grow lights. Three of the four types of onion germinated within a week without trouble, though unfortunately the Amish Bottle onion has done virtually nothing. (My seeds were from last year and onion seed isn’t known for storing well, so I’m not too surprised.) My Early Yellow Globe, Perennial Bunching and American Flag leeks are growing happily, to the extent that it may almost be time to trim the tops for use in salads!

Ugly but functional seed-starting unit.

Having had such trouble getting my peppers to germinate last year, I wanted to baby them as much as possible this time around. Since we don’t have heating mats for under the seedlings, we set up a very makeshift system of wrapping the shelf in blankets and setting a space heater inside. Though ugly, the added warmth resulted in peppers with excellent germination in under two weeks! That’s already an incredible success compared to last year.

Not being a big fan of sweet peppers, my energies this year are focused on growing hot peppers exclusively: Black Hungarian, Matchbox, Grandpa’s Siberian Home and Hinkelhatz. Our personal goal for this year is to make a reasonable facsimile of Frank’s Red Hot from our own home pepper supply…there will be updates on that down the road!

Happy growing!

Happy International Women’s Day (Interview with Vandana Shiva)

Listening to this truly inspiring human being speak about food, sustainability and humanity is a wonderful way to celebrate International Women’s Day!

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