This blog post is going to be a lot about * me, and I.* (**dreaded personal pronouns) I am not entirely comfortable with that, but it is a personal blog, after all. Plus, I have had some little victories lately and I want to celebrate them.
WordPress notified me the other day of my second blogging anniversary! I began blogging in 2014 with the onset of maple sap season. It’s that time of year again and we have thus far gathered about 30 gallons of sap. In 2014 we managed to make quite a bit of syrup. Not so much in 2015, and despite our best efforts we had some crystallization of the syrup after we decanted. We’re curious about what this year’s kooky weather patterns will do to us, but so far so good. The temperatures over the weekend were well above average, day and night. The week before that we were way below average and very snowy. Now we are settling into a more typical pattern for this time of year: above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. This is most conducive to sap flow.
I have worked these past two years to improve my photography and better understand my camera. When I look at my photo of sap from 2014,
and the one from this year,
I am encouraged. I have done a lot of reading and experimentation, taken some tutorials and a class, and think it has all helped. It’s far easier these days for me to get the shot I want. I still have to take a lot of exposures, and there are still times when I goof and forget stuff, but I’ve graduated to full manual mode and the histogram is my friend. When I forget to properly set my ISO and white balance, I can usually “fix it in post” which is Adobe Lightroom.
Last year one of my “promises” was that I would knit a sweater. I did not get to that sweater in 2015. This was mostly due to needing to complete a huge cable knit throw that I started way back in 2013.
I often struggle with following through on personal projects so it was kind of thrilling to be able to finally give the throw to my mom as a gift.
The sweater is proving to be a challenge, but I’m enjoying learning how to shape a garment while knitting in the round. Again, I had to do a lot of research to familiarize myself with various terms and techniques, but it’s going OK. It’s got a head-hole and armholes and they are in more or less the right spots, so I’m pleased.
Another milestone: I was recently very honored and excited to be contacted by the Granville Garden Club about some photos I took for my post Day of the Daffodil. They asked permission to use some of them on their web page and very kindly offered to link to my blog. P&P has gotten several referrals from their site, which is great because gardeners are generally really nice folks.
Finally, here are a few photos from a class I took during which we hiked in local parks and just shot pictures of whatever.
It’s August (!!) and gardens and fields are overflowing with produce. Today’s Farmer’s Market was swarming even though the Market Master had only just rung the opening bell. Vendors baskets were stacked high, but not for long. As I stood in line to pay for some Kirby cucumbers I watched people snatching green beans by the huge handful from a bin beside me until it was nearly empty. My own little tub of dirt has already yielded a few tomatoes and the basil is thriving. Our CSA share is also generous, and I’m now having to scramble to use all of it. This is our third year with a farm-share, and I feel like I finally have some good resources for making sure our fruits and vegetables don’t go to waste. Our farmers work really hard to grow food for us and it kills me when it spoils before we can eat it. This post is about tools and skills that have helped me immensely in my quest to eat local and make the best use of our CSA and Farmers Market purchases.
Steam and Drama
My canning odyssey started last summer when my husband surprised me with 25 pounds of rapidly ripening peaches. When we had eaten our fill and shared all we could we were still left with a lot of fruit, and it was dead ripe. I had no choice but to bust out the Ball Blue Book and put them up. Long story short, I had every burner on my range going–one pot for the water to scald the skins off the peaches, one giant, scary boiling water bath for the jars, one sauce pan to simmer the jar lids and one to boil the syrup for the peaches. It was a hot night in August and I was a sweaty, cranky, jittery mess. My beige suede clogs have permanent blue stains from peach peels falling upon them. The yield was just 5 quarts, but the seal on one blew out so we refrigerated it immediately and kept it as our personal stock. The verdict? Totally. Worth. It. My mom got a jar as a Christmas gift and enjoyed it so much that she decided to gift me with a Ball Auto Canner in the hopes that all the steam and drama of last summer would not put me off canning again. I have also been exploring small batch canning using Marisa McClellan’s book Preserving by the Pint as my guide.
The Ball Auto-Canner
(Note: I have not been compensated in any way by the manufacturers of this product, nor is this an endorsement. It’s an account of my personal experience with it and a summary of the reviews I have read, in my own words. The Auto-Canner is fairly new to the market and I hope to give information to other home canners who are curious about it.)
The Auto Canning System is innovative in that it employs water, steam and pressure in a closed system to reach the temperatures necessary for successful water bath canning without the large amounts of water and energy. It should be noted that this device is NOT A PRESSURE CANNER. You cannot preserve low acid foods using the Auto Canning System, (which I will refer to from now on as the ACS). While I am pleased and impressed with my ACS thus far, it has some pros and some cons.
Pros and Cons
I consider the small amount of water required by the ACS to be a huge positive, and not just because it conserves a resource. It takes far less time to sterilize jars and process the food. The sterilization/pre-heating cycle is around 12 minutes and the processing times for the recipes I have tried were around 25-35 minutes. It is also not necessary to simmer the jar lids in a separate pot. That’s one less thing on the stove. The unit does vent some steam but the kitchen stays cool so, yay!
One possible drawback to the ACS is its size. It’s as tall and wide as the biggest canning pot, but with a relatively small capacity (6 half pint or 4 pint or 3 quart jars at a time). If you are a longtime canner who puts up a lot of food for your family every year, the ACS is probably not the best fit. If you are an apartment dweller with little storage or counter space, it might not suit you either. It’s a good fit for my experience level and small household. I was able to carve out a place to store it in my laundry room.
The ACS comes with a really nice jar lifter and metal rack (canning necessities) and a cookbook with recipes and meal planning guides. The book has lots of information on water-bath canning. The manufacturer strongly recommends that you only use the recipes they have developed, tested and published in their book and online. I totally get it because it’s a food safety thing, but I noticed in a lot of the product reviews people seemed disappointed in the number of recipes available. I am too, a little. (I mentioned before that I have this absolutely wonderful book on small batch canning and I had hoped I could make some of the recipes using the ACS, but alas…. More on that later.)
That being said, I have tried two recipes so far; one from the book that shipped with the unit (Bread and Butter Pickles) and one from the Ball Canning website (Blueberry Jam, reduced sugar version). The pickles are still curing, so I’ll have to get back to you on those, but the jars sealed with no issues, and that is great. I used the amount of cucumbers the recipe called for and had too many by far, and ran a little short on the brine. This may be due to my inexperience, and haphazard jar packing. The Blueberry jam recipe called for what I thought was a lot of pectin, and the set was a bit firm, but the jam was still spreadable and had good flavor and color. Next I’m hoping to try the Applesauce, Pears or Dilly Beans.
One last thing about the ACS that is a con is its cost. At about $300, it’s a big investment and you will have to carefully consider if it is the right tool for the job. I was lucky to get mine as a gift. A few online reviewers also got theirs as wedding and holiday gifts. It’s not something I would just go out and buy to experiment with canning. Many people probably already have tools in their kitchen that they could use to start canning, and decide later whether to buy more.
For me, intolerant of heat, and scared of 16 quarts of water at a rolling boil, the ACS was a great gift. I’m hugely thankful for it. It is my hope the manufacturer publishes more recipes. Maybe the author of the lovely book I’m going to talk about next will team up with them!
Preserving by the Pint
Preserving by the Pint, by Marisa McClellan, is my current favorite cookbook. I’ve read it cover to cover and I love both the recipes and the photography. It makes canning approachable and glamorous. I’ve tried two recipes and have had success with both. “Zucchini Butter with Fresh Thyme” is a delicious spread made with that ubiquitous summer squash. It does not need water-bath processing and can be jarred and stored in the fridge for about a week. “Dilled Carrot Spears” allowed me the opportunity to try out some small batch canning in my stock pot. They are delicious and pretty too.
I had a couple of large, beautiful bunches of carrots from my CSA farmer–more than I could eat out of hand and I don’t love cooked carrots so these crunchy pickles were an ideal solution. I also appreciate the section with detailed information about the author’s favorite canning tools and what the reader can find in their own kitchen inventory to get started with water-bath canning. The recipes are very hip and a great reminder that pickles aren’t just cucumbers and jams aren’t just for toast.
A couple of other books that I love and think are must-haves are the Ball Blue Book, published by the Ball Corporation and Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. Vegetable Literacy is another book I have read cover to cover and re-read portions of often. It lists many familiar vegetables and a few unfamiliar ones by their botanical families and provides both information and recipes for each. My favorite is the Garlic Scape and Walnut Pesto. I make it each spring and sneak spoonfuls of it from its container in the fridge when no one is looking. The Blue Book Guide to Preserving covers everything from water bath canning and pressure canning (very different) to freezing and dehydrating. It’s inexpensive and well worth the read when you’re ready to try canning or any other method of preserving your garden bounty. I relied on it when I canned (those peaches) for the first time ever and it did not let me down.
You like to browse the tables at country auctions, to wander through antique malls and to peruse eBay listings. You’re thinking of jumping into the world of collecting but don’t know where to begin. Once, I was like you. Now my husband will gladly tell you I no longer face that dilemma. Truth is, collecting doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive or consume your life. If you have three of anything, it’s a collection. I’m not talking Chippendale chairs or Faberge eggs either. It could be seashells, or vintage postcards. The important thing is that it’s something you love. These suggestions were inspired by a recent trip to the Rural Society Antique Show and Sale at Warwick Farm.
Ephemera. This is just another word for old paper things like photos, postcards, magazine ads, posters, etc.
Items like this are usually affordable and easy to bring home, frame, and incorporate into your decor. Look for subjects that interest you. Perhaps you’re all about fashion, food, travel or old tractors. It’s all out there for you to find, and much of it is in excellent condition.
Vintage Textiles. These also tend to be inexpensive and include such things as flour and feed sacks, old tablecloths, quilts and afghans.
Of course, some quilts and samplers can be quite pricey depending on age and condition but it is still possible to find a good bargain if you keep a watchful eye out. Also look for ways to repurpose your finds, like these clever feed-sack pillows.
Old cast iron cookware. If you’ve priced the new stuff lately, you will appreciate what a good deal you can get at an auction or antique shop.
With patience and some elbow grease, you can clean a pot and re-season it and it’s just as good as new, possibly for pennies on the dollar. There are a lot of resources on the internet for learning how to recondition old cast iron and care for it. My husband and I have actually found some pretty amazing stuff over the years. Avoid pieces that are severely rusted or deeply pitted.
Vintage Flatware and Serving Pieces. This is becoming a trend. I’m seeing lots of it used by food stylists in their photo shoots and I’m charmed.
Old plates and glassware are good choices for collectors too. It’s really a matter of maintenance. If you want shelf pieces for display the field is wide open. If you want to use your finds, look for things that will stand up to repeated washing and drying and the usual wear and tear. Keep in mind that silver and silver plate need polishing and should not be put in the dishwasher. This could be the reason so much of it shows up at sales and goes for a song. People just aren’t that into polishing silver these days. My mom actually discovered that the very best way to keep the shine on her silver was to use it every day and wash it immediately after use in hot soapy water.
Yard and Garden Items. Admit it. You need topiary trees, chalk-ware guard dogs and a wing chair upholstered in moss.
Other less quirky choices are flower pots and salvaged architectural pieces. At the sale, I found a great old McCoy Pottery strawberry pot. Almost anything can become a trellis or a plant container. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box with this one.
A while back I made a promise to myself that I would explore the trails at the beautiful county park that is just a few minutes from my house. Promise kept. A very interesting and diverse group including a wonderful guide from the County Park District and a professor from a local college set out Saturday morning armed with cameras and copies of Wildflowers of Ohio by Robert L. Henn. Here is some of what we saw. I’ll ‘fess up that I have a new lens for my camera and I’m not quite used to it yet. I’m trying to practice shooting with a wide open aperture and a shallow depth of field and it’s very tricky to get the focus just so, especially with a stiff breeze stirring the flowers.
And a special guest appearance by…
In addition, at the end of the hike I was given a “Single Report” from Project Budburst (link here) so that I can go to their site and document my observations about any single plant of my choosing in my area on one specific day. The observations of all who take part will be stored in a database for analysis by students and scientists. It sounds like a really interesting project that may uncover some trends that have gone heretofore unnoticed. If you wish to participate you can register and log in and the report forms may be found as pdfs under the Observing Plants pulldown menu.
I wish I was a better gardener. My mother and father were good gardeners. They mulched and weeded and composted and pruned and their garden was a beautiful little retreat. My mother in law spent many hours tending her flowers and herbs, patiently working away. It was the thing she missed most when she injured her hip and was unable to bend or kneel. That’s a big reason I wish I really loved gardening. To have the sound mind and body and the earth to plant are such gifts. I have envied a neighbor’s large vegetable plot, thriving and meticulously looked after, yielding veggies for canning and preserves to last the winter. But I just don’t love gardening. I’ve really tried but the weeds, the heat, the digging in hard clay soil, and the insects just put me right off it.
I’ve tried various approaches to gardening at our house. My first attempt was perennials—plant once and they return year after year. They deliver greatest impact for least effort, right? I planted what were supposed to be dwarf hostas under some lilac bushes that shaded our front porch. I put coneflowers and black-eyed Susan (Echinacea and Rudbeckia) under my kitchen window, along with a magnificent Siberian iris, some Asiatic lilies, some day lilies and a few coral-bells. Many have done well … too well. The poor lilies and coral-bells try to grow but get stomped by the now overgrown iris, Echinacea and Rudbeckia. The removal of the lilacs that shaded the hostas has resulted in them growing to mammoth proportions in the spring, then burning in the summer sun. I hadn’t counted on this. The gardening periodicals tell me I must now divide my perennials and hostas and move them all to more favorable locations. Well, that just sounds like work, which is precisely what I was hoping to avoid.
Lately, I’ve had a little more success with gardening, but it’s been largely due to compromise. I’ve admitted to myself that the commodious, tidy and productive vegetable garden with the zero weed and insect population is probably a pipe dream. Instead, I have switched my focus to containers. They give me a smaller, more controlled growing environment but still are pretty. I can also grow things to eat, which is nice because I really like to eat. I can buy perfect loamy soil. My biggest foible with containers is my inattention to their water needs, but I have even found a workaround for that—succulents!
My favorite container this summer is a small succulent collection built on the container gardening design principle of “the Thriller, the Filler and the Spiller.” This just refers to the use of a dramatic vertical plant (thriller), a fluffy, bushy plant (filler), and a trailing or cascading plant (spiller) all in a single pot. It can be a large pot or a small pot and any plants with similar moisture, space and water requirements are fair game.
In my container the thriller is Senecio mandraliscae (the pointy blueish thingie), the filler is Aeonium “Blushing Beauty”, and the spiller is Rhipsalis capilliformis or “Old Man’s Beard” (the bright green seaweedy looking thingie). They are all succulents and live very happily together. They seem to like the hot sunny edge of my concrete porch and a little shower once in a while and that’s about all they want. And, I never, ever cease to be amazed at the variety of colors and textures in the succulent category!
It’s Friday evening and the wine has been poured. There’s laundry in the washer and the dryer and a backlog of dirty dishes. The bathroom is topsy-turvy with cleaning in progress and the cats are hungry and underfoot. Then my husband discovers the bees have swarmed.
Could it be our fault? There are many theories on why bees swarm. We haven’t been “working the bees”–periodically checking on conditions inside the hive, and adding boxes when necessary so it can expand. We just like to watch the bees come and go, and figured the unusually cool summer and our late start on the hive would not be conducive to a swarm. We were incorrect. Now we must hive the swarm.
What is a Swarm?
Bees swarm when a new queen is born and leaves, with her workers, to seek other quarters. A swarm looks very intimidating, with literally thousands of bees clustered in one place (in this case the branch of a fruit tree.) The bees are protecting the queen while they wait for a scout to return and direct them to a new home. If there isn’t a beekeeper with a hive this might be a hollow tree, like in the Hundred Acre Wood. 🙂 Luckily for us, we have a box and some frames at the ready. It’s also a cool evening and the sun is setting so it’s not likely the bees will take off while we suit up and prepare the new hive. We have had swarms fly away before we had time to don bee suits.
He carries the bees on the branch to the new box and plops it right in. We lid the box, weight the lid to keep varmints out, and give the bees a Boardman feeder of sugar-water to get them started. And that is how you hive the swarm. At least in this case, the conditions were perfect for a successful hiving. We hope to make some improvements to the box and the site in the near future, but for now it’s back to our other chores. Tonight when things settle down we’ll watch those beekeeping videos we laid aside earlier this summer and try to learn how to be more attentive beekeepers so our bees don’t all fly away.
Yesterday was an exciting day for us. We drove about an hour north to a bee yard and honey processing facility in Ashley Ohio to pick up our very own four pound box of honeybees.
My husband has been a beekeeper, on and off, for about 10 years. We have only harvested honey once in all that time, preferring just to have the bees around for pollination of our fruit trees. This year he decided to start a brand new hive, with all new boxes and frames. The hive, purchased from Rossman Apiaries, was ready to receive the bees when they arrived. The first task when hiving bees is to prepare a 50/50 mixture of granulated sugar and water (dissolve the sugar in hot tap water and allow to cool thoroughly).
The sugar-water goes into a spray bottle and the box of bees is sprayed liberally with it to calm them. Inside the box is a tiny cage where the queen bee is kept while the bees are in transit.
The queen cage is removed and hung inside the hive between the second and third honey frames. Also in the box is a can filled with heavy syrup that feeds the bees during shipment. When the can is taken out the bees can be emptied into the hive.
A pile of them is poured right on the queen cage to keep the queen warm. The rest of the bees are dumped somewhat unceremoniously into the hive. It’s important to continually spray the bees with their sugar-water solution so they remain fairly docile and willing to settle into their new abode.
When most of the bees are in the hive, the transport box can be placed on the ground. The rest of the bees will hopefully enter the hive of their own volition. The hive is then lidded, and a Boardman feeder is installed.
A Boardman feeder is just an inverted mason jar full of the same sugar and water mixture used to spray the bees during hiving. The Boardman feeder is especially important if hiving in the early spring when there is little pollen available for the bees to forage. Later on in the season, it can be removed.
Amazingly, my husband was not stung during the entire hiving process. Italian honey bees (the variety we keep) are generally gentle and only wish to go about their business. They don’t sting unless seriously threatened, and they will give fair warning if they believe they are threatened. If you approach a hive or a swarm and you are bumped by a bee in flight, consider yourself warned and back off. If you run across a swarm of honeybees on your property and you don’t know what to do, call a beekeeper, never an exterminator. It’s usually possible to hive a swarm.
Some Beekeeping Resources:
Rossman Apiaries–beekeeping supplies for commercial beekeepers, backyard beekeepers and hobbyists.
It’s finally syrup! This weekend the simmering of 45 gallons of sap culminated in about a gallon and a quarter of pure maple syrup. We hardly know what to do with ourselves now that we don’t have to gather sap, or keep the stove going. Here’s the last leg of the journey, in words and pictures
A hydrometer will tell us when the ratio of sugar to water is correct. This instrument has been our best friend these last couple of years. Rather than having to determine when the syrup begins “sheeting”, we take a reading with the hydrometer. We no longer have as many problems with sugar falling out of solution and crystallizing in our syrup jars. (Not a tragedy, but not pretty, and the sugar is really hard to remove from the jars.)
The sap, now very nearly syrup, boils on the gas range. Notice the dark color, and the fine, dense foam. We’ll test it’s specific gravity and if it’s ready, pour the sap through a filter into a six-quart stockpot.
The filter resembles one for coffee, but thicker. It removes the small impurities we have not been able to skim off the top of the sap as it foams. These impurities can also cause sugar to crystallize in the jars. We then ladle the syrup into wide mouth half pint and pint mason jars, which we lid and label.
The hot syrup will form a vacuüm in the jars, and the lids will pop as they become concave. That’s how we know they are properly sealed and safe to store. We’ll keep these jars in a cool dark place until we want one. They can last for many months if stored correctly, but must be refrigerated once opened.
And that’s the (abridged) story of syrup.
Have some maple trees? Want to make some syrup? Here’s where we get some of our stuff:
www.Leader Evaporator.com—Spiles, filters, and hydrometer, and pretty much anything else you would ever need for hobby or professional syrup production.
Well, it’s 25 degrees outside this morning, and we’re boiling….sap. At last.
This is phase two of three; phase one being the collection of sap and phase three the finishing and decanting. Our “evaporator” is a wood stove and a stainless steel steam tray liner from a restaurant supply company.
We simmer a gallon or two at at time until we have no more sap to add. Our vessel is small and deep, so it’s a slow process. We know it’s time to finish when there is just a couple of inches of liquid left, and it begins to form a dense foam. Then we proceed to the kitchen range where we boil some more and test the syrup’s specific gravity with a hydrometer. Then we decant.
In anticipation and celebration of this year’s batch I created a label for our jars. Or maybe I’ll make hang tags for presentation…not sure.
One of the most fun things about making our own syrup is giving jars as gifts. Delighted recipients always have lots of questions. It’s a great conversation starter. Some of our neighbors have even been curious enough to start tapping their own trees. It seems like the interest in maple sugaring has really grown over the last several years. In any event, we’re having a blast.
Every February/March for quite a few years my husband has gathered sap and made a small batch of maple syrup. A number of farms in our vicinity produce large quantities of syrup for sale, as does the local Kiwanis club. An arboretum to our south has a sugar shack and an evaporator and offers a self guided tour through its sugar grove. The only slightly surprising thing about all of this is that we are in Ohio.
Change is Good
This is very special… It is not like the pancake syrup from the market
The first time I consumed real maple syrup was when I was 11 or 12. Somebody, probably my grandparents, visited Vermont and returned with a half pint of the stuff. My father made a point of telling me, “This is very special, and expensive. It is not like the pancake syrup from the market. A lot went into its making.” Also, “It’s perishable, and needs to be refrigerated after opening.” to reinforce that it was to not to be carelessly spoiled. I’m not sure what I thought at the time, except that is was indeed very different from the maple flavored syrup I was used to.
I was, perhaps, disappointed at first. It was certainly sweet, but kind of thin, and bore hardly any resemblance to what was offered to me on pancakes and waffles since I was little. It must have made an impression on my parents though, because from then on pure, real maple syrup replaced the “maple flavored pancake syrup.” These days, I simply cannot abide anything else, especially since my husband and I are so fortunate as to have our own. I have also developed a tremendous appreciation for the time, effort and skill required to create real maple syrup.
Down to a Science
Thanks to many years of experimentation, my husband has this all pretty much down to a science. Moreover, there’s never really been a bad batch. It’s just been a matter of finding the equipment, and a technique for gathering and boiling sap that fits his busy schedule and works with what we’ve got; a wood stove and a gas range.
Today, I went out with him to document what he has been doing so successfully. To start, there’s some equipment that must come from specialty retailers, i.e., the spouts (taps) and the drill bit to make the hole in the tree. Most of the rest of what he uses is available at hardware stores and/or restaurant suppliers.
I won’t go into great detail at this point about the various methods for collecting sap. I’ll just describe what Lance uses, and why. The sap buckets are a clever adaptation of the ubiquitous 5 gallon paint bucket. Why? Because he only wishes to gather sap at certain intervals. The paint buckets are the only container that can handle the volume of sap that a maple tree may yield during those periods. Caveat: the buckets must be purchased UNUSED, and be squeaky clean.
Next, a proper hole must be made in each bucket to accommodate the tap. A pair of specially modified washers provides enough tension for the bucket to hang securely from the tap, but still be upended to dump the sap into yet another bucket for collection. Hint: washer modification requires access to a drill press. If you are able to check and collect your sap several times a day, you certainly can use the traditional galvanized metal buckets, which are smaller and require less tinkering. If you’re really serious, you can use the tubing and cistern collection method favored by our local farmers and the arboretum…more on that later. My husband worked out his method because of his particular circumstances, and because he’s a natural problem solver.
The rest is relatively simple: drill hole, insert tap, hang bucket, wait, collect sap, then repeat until there is enough to make what you consider a decent sized batch. You will likely see sap begin to flow as soon as you tap your tree. We (my husband) usually can gather 60-80 gallons and produce anywhere from a gallon and a half to two gallons. I intend to go into greater depth about the process of maple syrup production (small and large-scale) in future posts. For now, we’ll just wait to see what’s in the buckets.