Little Things That Show Your Progress In the World of Being Self-Sustaining

Every now and then certain projects bring more than just a checkmark on our inventory or accomplishment lists. Yesterday was one of those projects for us. We collect eggs every day and we have rabbit meat put up in the freezer and we often harvest foods from the garden to add to our pantry. Yet it was yesterday’s harvest that made us feel that we are beginning to turn the corner to being successful at what we do. About a year and a half ago Val directed and our sons built a grape arbor in our back yard. We love the arbor and my sons enjoyed promptly hanging a hammock to sleep in! But yesterday was a banner day for us. We harvested the first of our Muscadine grapes off our arbor!     arbor

It was exciting to taste a few – they are incredibly sweet! Gosh – so much better than the almost tasteless ones we often purchase.  But we had a plan for these grapes yesterday – jam! Ultimately we hope to harvest enough to make homemade Moscato wine but that will be another year or two before our vines produce enough for that project!   grape harvest

Making the jam was easier than you would expect. The hardest part was sitting and picking apart the grapes to remove seeds. It isn’t as difficult as it is time consuming but Valentino and I have a great time working together in the kitchen and I find he always manages to surprise me with another story of his childhood – even after all these years! Yesterday was no different as he shared another tale. His sister had decided one year that she wanted to recreate how wine was made in the villages many years ago. He was about 14 at the time so agreed to help her. She found a large half barrel used to stomp the grapes in and her son and Valentino began the task. They found it was extremely cold so she had them use VERY clean rubber boots instead of being barefoot and they stomped away! Once all crushed, the grape juice was put aside to ferment naturally and soon enough they had wine!   picking seeds        seeds

Well, we meanwhile finished picking the seeds and then I rinsed the seeds well and left in a strainer to drip. The seeds will be spread out on a towel and left to dry —after all if our vines should die, we will want to be able to plant more! Seeds will also prove to be a great barter tool some day. Then a large canning pot was set on the stove to bring water to a boil and to heat the jars. Another pot was used to heat the rings and lids for the jars. This softens the seals on the lids so that they seal tightly after.    lids

cooking    no lids

After we finished removing all the seeds we chose to use our grinder attachment on our Kitchenaid mixer and minced all the grapes and skins. This gave us a fairly uniform mix to then cook. We added no water but used all of the pulp, skin, and juice to which we added almost 6 cups of sugar and 4 tblspns of pectin. This was all cooked at a strong boil stirring constantly to prevent burning or sticking for about 20 minutes until we could see it beginning to firm up and cook down. Then the hot jars were filled to within a ¼ inch of the rim. I wiped the rims with a hot water rag and then again with a vinegar rag to be sure the rims were clean. Lids were placed on followed by the rings finger tightened. I then water bathed the jars for 15 minutes after the water returned to a boil. I absolutely love listening for the ping of each jar when removed from the pot signaling a perfect seal! I know these jam jars won’t last long with our family – and they will taste twice as sweet because they came from our own garden!       Jam

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One of Those Easy Canning Recipes with No Waste!

images   This weekend I had a fun time making a couple of great items for the pantry. I started out wanting to can apples for apple pies. So I researched and found a simple recipe or two online and then worked it out to be what our family would enjoy. Most of the online recipes called for yellow food coloring – something I choose not to use. I purchased 28 pounds of Fuji apples. These are a nice sweet apple with great texture – bonus was the beautiful color they maintained through the canning process.

The recipe was a simple one so my husband and I worked as a team this time around. He sat and peeled all the apples and then used a handy apple slicer gadget that also cores them. All the slices were dropped into a large pot holding some water along with a healthy dose of Ball Fresh Fruit Protector to keep the apples from discoloring. Some folks use lemon juice (which works well) but I was going to be adding more lemon juice to the recipe.

Now before I give the recipe, I want to give you a warning/disclaimer. Many folks do not believe in using corn starch to can – because it thickens sauces, it is considered by many to be too dense a product to safely can (much like pumpkin is also thought of)—some folks therefore recommend using a product called Clear Jel which you find in some specialty grocery stores or online. Proceed with this understanding then that not all consider cornstarch safe! Do your own research on this!

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Recipe:

21 qts, peeled cored apples (20 lbs approximately before)

13.5 cups sugar

3 cups cornstarch

30 cups water

9 tbspns. Lemon juice

6 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. nutmeg

3 tsp. salt

Mix everything except for lemon juice and apple slices in big pot. Bring to boil and then cook until thick and it bubbles.  Turn off heat – add in lemon juice.

Pack apple slices into hot sterilized jars. Pour in syrup – leave a good inch of head space – DO NOT overfill or the jars will leak during processing and not seal! Make sure to remove air bubbles, wipe rims with hot cloth before putting on lids. Process in boiling water bath 10 minutes. Any leftover syrup can also be canned to use for pancakes and waffles!

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Now before you rush out to make this – consider one of the basic rules – not to waste if we can use it! I now had lots of apple peels and cores from my 20+ pounds of apples. I put all of them in a big pot and covered with water – enough to cover by about 2 inches over the peels. And I boiled them awhile until I had a nice juice. I strained all the apple peels and cores and ended up with about nine to 12 cups of juice! For my next step I grabbed my Ball recipe books and compared to some other recipes for apple jelly. This was a first for me as I usually make jams and marmalades but had never done only a jelly. This turned out to be easier than I realized and something I will enjoy doing often! It seems a lot of folks online suggest simply buying juices to make their jelly instead of the original methods of boiling fruit and straining several times (the main reason I never attempted   to make jelly!) I broke my juice down into two batches for ease in handling. For every cup of juice, I added ¾ cup of sugar. For every 2 cups of liquid I also added 1 tbspn. of lemon juice. Per the suggestion in the Ball recipes I also added a small bit of butter to prevent foaming but this is very optional. This was all brought to a boil – I used a jelly thermometer to test – it should reach approximately 220*. I tested the jelly by the spoon/ice method – a small amount of jelly on a spoon dipped to a bowl of ice to cool it rapidly. Tilting the spoon sideways, the jelly should “sheet” – sliding off the spoon, not running   off. Then I filled my hot sterilized pint jars. Next rims were wiped down using a hot cloth before setting on lids and rings. As always the lids and rings are set in hot water while cooking jelly so they too are sterilized and ready to use. The hot water also aids in the lid rubber to seal properly. Process the jars in a hot water bath 10 minutes. Let jars cool. Jelly usually sets up fairly quickly but often can take a day or two to gel. Any jars that did not   seal can be put in refrigerator to use immediately!

So now you realize you still have a pot of cooled down  apple peels and cores left. What to do with them now? You could add them to that compost heap I’m sure you have for the garden but I chose to use them by feeding the cores to my rabbits and my chickens had a feast on the peels! See – I told you – prepping is supposed to be fun, not something to make you stress! But I do have one confession to make here. I do stress –because my family enjoys all this food so much that it seems I am working twice as hard to keep up with their favorites!!!!

Necessary Work Made Fun

Every now and then we need to do certain chores as we prep and store that can be boring or time consuming or just plain not fun. I hate anything that makes me more stressed so I’m always on the lookout for ways to avoid more stress. Because I hate stress and how it makes me feel, I’m sure most of you look for ways to avoid it too. After all the whole point of being prepared is to be able to face most trouble stress free! Just like an insurance policy should make you feel a bit less stressed, I like to think of my food storage as food insurance!

Anyway back to the point here – one of those horribly not fun jobs is to take inventory of the food supplies or to sort things into logical order in the pantry. So as I was taking count today, I decided why not label things. I keep sharing jars of food here and there and I hate to always be explaining the contents, use by date, and most important to remind everyone to return my jars and rings!

I happened across some great labels online at the pickyourown.org – and then went searching for some more.

label 1        label 2      I also ended up designing a few more of my own. The labels were made to fit some of the commercial labels you can purchase and print but I tend to be frugal (color that cheap 😉 ) so I simply printed mine out gray scale and used wide tape to put on each jar. Now I have no more questions about expiration dates – and these look cuter than indelible marker on the lids! So have fun with your preps – if worried about no electric some day, print out s few batches and store away! But have fun – don’t stress!

Pickled Eggs

1013685_4469983006691_966949435_n               One of the easiest projects I have undertaken is to make pickled eggs. I know. I know. I’m not a big fan of these either but I have four sons and a husband along with sundry friends who LOVE pickled eggs. LOVE as in can sit and eat a dozen or two in a sitting if you let them. That’s not including the granddaughters who also enjoy them. So….. it was meant to be. I would have to pickle those eggs in spite of myself!  The big surprise was how easy it was and how happy it made these men! The hardest part was the peeling the eggs part! Go figure?

So here’s how it’s done:

20130626_092955          Set the eggs into cold water that you salted fairly heavily. The salt forces the water to boil at a higher temperature. Bring the eggs to a hard boil for just a couple moments and then cover tightly and shut off the burner. Let the eggs sit in the tightly covered pan for 35 minutes. Believe it or not, the eggs will be perfectly hard boiled. Then cool the eggs done by covering in water and ice. While the eggs are cooking, bring 2 ½ -3 cups of vinegar to a boil – added to the vinegar is 1 tbs. of mustard seed, 1 tbs. dill, a couple cloves of garlic, 2 tbs. of hot pepper flakes, and about 12 – 14 slashes of a hot Louisiana sauce. Some folks like their pickled eggs really spicy and add jalapeno peppers. These do not turn red like some of the commercial pickled eggs do. If that is important to your group, either add red dye as most of the commercial sources do – or as the old timers used to do, add beet juice left over from pickling beets! I used a half gallon size Ball Canning Jar which held 2 dozen large eggs for me. Put a bit of the brine with the garlic cloves into the bottom of the jar. Then pack in all of the eggs. Fill the jar with the hot brine. Make sure that you use a rubber spatula to release any air bubbles. That’s all there is to this except to then set the jars in the refrigerator and let sit for about 1 week so the eggs pickle! We opened one of the jars tonight – I doubt that jar will last until tomorrow! It received all the appropriate complements!

Managing Time and Money For Less Stress

20130605_094051     I have been a bit quiet for awhile due to some time needed elsewhere. That made me realize that I should take a few moments to talk about the stress levels we are all facing here. Many of us have been experiencing an overload factor thanks to news, political fiascoes, and world events such as reading about food restrictions along with toilet paper limits in Venezuela. All of these combine for those into prepping as one big red flag telling us to prepare! Take that along with a healthy dose of weather calamities such as the OK. tornadoes and impending hurricane season here and we feel a “perfect storm” brewing – that watched pot is going to boil over soon if we cannot find a way to safely lower the temperature! For many the desire to garden is being replaced by frustration as snow in May with freezing temperatures or constant rain elsewhere is wrecking havoc with the gardens and seedlings struggling to survive. Then let’s all read about honey bees being decimated and we add another level of stress and tension! Sooooo….

       Take a deep breath, brew that cup of calming tea (no liquor – it will not calm you right now… hehehe!) and we can chat. Prepping is like insurance. When that bill comes in yearly and you realize what a chunk of change it takes to have homeowners or renters insurance and car insurance, the blood pressure usually goes up a notch or two. The we remember we take care of this in smaller bites along with the mortgage or rent payment (no gulping here) or in monthly or quarterly payments. That may not make it totally better but it is more manageable for most folks – few of us write that one big check to the insurance agent once a year! This is how we need to approach our prepping, how to make it fit in without causing us more grief. Very few of us can honestly believe we are prepared to face every and any threat we may face. That should not translate to a do nothing attitude but rather to realize if we put a bit by to help alleviate a bit of an unexpected bill, we can usually manage better than having nothing set aside.

20130605_093925       20130605_093956       This is true of our time as well as money and preps. There are times to focus on yourself and realize that no one can do 100% by themselves and go at a full out pace 100% of the time. It is important to take time to step back every now and then, to let yourself recharge. Maybe not listen to the news for a few days – or maybe like myself you have a need to do some additional research and reorganizing in order to be better prepared.  I was fortunate enough to be gifted with a copy of a great old book that has a wealth of information on more stuff in one book than anyone can believe. In addition I worked on adding lots more information to my notebooks that I had reorganized into more easily navigated sections. My ultimate goal with my notebooks will be to develop a table of contents that helps with that process. One of the other projects was canning more food items. Let me discuss this in terms of time management. Actually this will also apply to managing expenses too!

It can be difficult to find time to spend a whole day or two or three to can foods for your pantry. We often need to do that as harvest time comes along and we have bumper crops of food that may or may not be available all year long. But often we have a lot less time free to spend in a kitchen all day. I have found that like this week it is better to find two or three hours available to do smaller projects instead. So this week I spent a couple hours making pickles. I didn’t go out and  buy 200 lbs. of cukes. Instead I took 15 pounds of cukes and made a couple smaller batches. No fuss and easy clean up while they were processing. I harvested a small batch of jalapeno peppers and made 2 pints of pickled peppers. In less tah a half hour I added to my food pantry. Jar by jar, pound by pound the shelves get filled and we have a sense of calm knowing we are adding to our “insurance”. All of this was done after work each day, taking only a small bite of time so that I was not overtired or overworked. While bread was baking one afternoon, we roasted a sheet pan of garlic at the same time. Ten minutes later we used a one cup food processor/blender to grind them and then added them to a cup of butter, stirred it all by hand a few moments and had a jar of roasted garlic butter at a fraction of the cost of buying a specialty butter. Butter is too dense to safely can so this jar is kept in the refrigerator to have handy to make garlic bread whenever the craving hits! We didn’t make 50 pounds of butter, just one that took less than 20 minutes from start to finish while cooking bread. Again a stress free project instead of creating more stress!

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Remember all of this is to lessen stress, not increase it or overwhelm ourselves! Pick and choose what needs to be a priority versus what can be cut back on to manage time better. If it means stepping back and then stepping forward as I do with my writing, choose to do what works best in your life. Prepping should fit into your life as part of your habit, but not to the point of consuming you so that everything else gets ignored. If you end up with high blood pressure from stress, you won’t survive to need those preps. Have fun with what you do. If you don’t like to can, find other foods to put up. No one says you have to be the master at everything so find someone to share those tasks with. Maybe barter your sewing skills for some home canned foods if need be. Or perhaps you’re a mechanic who can barter for food storage. Be creative in ways to manage time and stress!

Mama DiCrocco Cans 250 Pounds Roma Tomatoes!

DSC_3711       This is not something I would recommend for everyone but I managed to cook up 250 lbs. of gorgeous Roma tomatoes and then can the marinara sauce all within a 24 hour period. This marathon event came about because a friend fell in love with a jar of my sauce I gifted her with! She recently went through some pretty extensive (read that horrifically painful) back surgery so I was willing to do anything to bring her some joy – and relieve a bit of stress for her. At the same time it was a blessing for me to be able to accomplish adding to our own food pantry! But I promise you as you can tell from the photos, I was one very tired mama at the end!        DSC_3740

DSC_3761           Her kitchen is a beautiful large one with a professional 6 burner gas stove top and vented that made cooking a pleasure. Dear Val and she and her mom chopped tomatoes for me coring them first and then chopping into smaller pieces. We prefer our marinara with the tomato skins and in small chunks however if you want, you can at this point run them through a blender to eliminate chunks for a smoother sauce. You can also run the sauce through a blender later when you go to use a jar. Val also chopped about 20-25 pounds of large onions. Then I was ready to begin cooking. I started cooking the first 50 pounds of tomatoes the night before in order to have some sauce ready to start canning right off the bat in the morning. That’s because we like the sauce cooked on slow for about 4 hours before actually canning it.           DSC_3787              DSC_3803
In a large pan I sautéed about 6 large ladle full of chopped onion. Naturally I use a good olive oil (but not the extra virgin – that is for salads). As they reached the translucent stage I added about 4 large cooking spoons (the big stainless ones used for cooking) of minced garlic. We are on a low salt regimen so I plan on about ¼ teaspoon of sea salt per quart jar. Each 50 lbs to tomatoes yields between 26 and 30 quarts of sauce depending on how long I allow it to cook down. Next step is to add several tablespoons of oregano and basil with one or two of parsley to this mixture. The tomatoes should be cooking in a larger pot at this point – it is important to stir them almost constantly to avoid sticking and burning. All of this is then added to the tomatoes and allowed to cook for a few hours!     DSC_3778        DSC_3716            Next step is to have all the canning jars sterilized by boiling in hot water. Lids and rings should also be in hot water.

DSC_3734         Using a wide mouth funnel, ladle the hot sauce into the jars bringing the level to just at the edge of the jar neck. Be careful to not over fill or the jars will not seal correctly later. Next comes a very important point to remember. When our grandmothers canned, the tomatoes were more likely to be more acidic than now. Americans especially wanted ours bred down to having less acid. Therefore either use a tspn. of lemon juice or a ¼ tsp. of citric acid. This is important to prevent spoilage after using a hot water bath canning method. If foods aren’t acidic they must be pressured canned for safety’s sake. Ball Canning Company sells a nifty little plastic tool made to push into the jars to be sure there is not trapped air. The little saw tooth steps are also used to measure the fill height of the jars when canning. Pretty neat tool that will not chip or scratch the jars like a knife might. At this stage I use a clean towel dipped in boiling water – not dripping – to wash edges of jars, the neck of them, and any drips on outside of the jars. The food on the top edges would prevent sealing and lead to spoiling. One last step is to then go over each jar edge again with a towel dampened with white vinegar – again to be sure edges are clean. Then place the jar lids out of the hot water onto tops of each jar, then finger tighten the jar rings on – don’t over tighten these. The put the jars into the boiling hot water being sure that they are fully submersed because water does boil off and they must stay covered under the boiling water for 45 minutes.
DSC_3792         I have empty counter space covered with terry towels to protect the jars and counter and lift each jar out carefully. Leave a bit of room around each jar so that they have air circulating around them evenly – do not place directly in front of a fan or under air vents or the jars may explode from such a sudden air temperature change. You will begin to hear the wonderful pings or pops of each jar as they seal! Val and I enjoy this step feeling very proud that each one seals so completely!        DSC_3791
Towards the end of our marathon I stopped long enough to feed our granddaughter and my friends two children and our husbands some great pasta and marinara sauce – to the bravos and complements of course! Because it was a school night, we packed our car back up with all our big pans, canners, and the last sixty pounds of chopped tomatoes. Back home I finished cooking sauce that evening and then canned it all in the morning. Our final count was 125 quarts of marinara! We did discover one big problem in all this. Even though my friend and I split this bounty, it is not nearly enough for our pantry – everyone has been eating it already and I suspect we will be running out way too fast!     20130429_145400

Dehydrating Oinions

One of the neatest things I found via Craigslist this year is a new to me Nesco Dehydrator! The person selling never used it so sold it to me with trays and extra liner trays. This particular model has temperature controls so that you can designate what you are dehydrating.My dream wish list includes the pricier Excalibur unit but this is a great middle model. Last year I purchased our first dehydrator that worked okay for many of our herbs but it didn’t allow for temperature control. The heat source was located as a coil on the bottom without the stronger fan power that the Nesco gives. The Nesco has the fan motor with heat at the top of the unit and blows the heat throughout and also has a drip tray located at the base! This is a bonus benefit for doing wetter items such as the onions.

After canning all of the marinara sauce this past week, we had lots of leftover onions. We set aside about 20 pounds for cooking later and used about 25 pounds in the marinara. That left quite a few still making dehydrating a good choice. We chopped about 5 onions with a small paring knife and used the older dehydrator – the onions looked almost burned or overcooked and the pieces were too large. We used the grinder attachment to our Kitchenaid Mixer on several onions. This seemed to squeeze a lot of liquid out – they were very wet. Using the fruit roll-up trays that came with the Nesco dehydrator, I spread the onion paste out thinly and patted each tray with a paper towel to absorb more of the liquid. Then we ran the dehydrator for about 18 hours. They dried to a soft golden brown and the aroma was incredible! One good decision we made was to run the dehydrators outside on the patio under one of the roof eaves. They were protected from any rain but the heavy aroma of the onions was dispersed more easily rather that having it linger inside the house! That next day we peeled the dried onions off the trays and put in a jar – we got a yield of about 1 pint – almost like an onion powder when I broke it up to put in the jar with a desiccant to keep them dry.  DSC_3807 DSC_3804

Our second run we used a small chopper/blender – it holds about 1 cup of chopped food and retailed for about $10 at Wal-Mart. This handy little item minced the onion but we did not end up with all the liquid mess of the grinder. Again we spread this all over the trays and ran it about 15 hours. This batch was just perfect for what I wanted. After taking it off the trays – it literally lifts off in big pieces that then break apart as almost like onion flakes. These are perfect for adding to homemade sauces, soups, or sprinkling on meats or mashed potatoes! They retained the beautiful aroma but are a soft golden brown in color – really pretty! It may seem work intensive but in reality it was about 20 minutes of work to chop and spread — and about 10 minutes after to break apart and put in a jar. We finished up with  2 quarts of dehydrated onions! This is an easy stress free project that gives peace of mind to add to the food pantry!   482435_4227910195022_379127322_n