Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Peach Salsa Canning Workshop

Summer is upon us, and the arrival of heat signals the advent of fresh fruit. However, the fruit won't be around for long, and what better way to extend the flavors of the summer than through canning? During the July canning workshop we will be making peach salsa. This salsa has it all--it's sweet, tangy, spicy, and flavorful; it will also be made with local peaches.

The class costs $20 (payable in advance of the class date) and includes a print-out of basic canning instructions and the recipe, and a jar of the peach salsa. The class is appropriate for any level of canning enthusiast.
The class will take place on Saturday, July 2nd from 1:30-4:30 PM. Although the original location of the class was EarthFare's community room, due to their event on the same day, the class will be held at my house. Please email me for more information.

The class will be capped at 12 people; you must reserve your space in the workshop through purchasing a "ticket" through the PayPal link (you do not need a PayPal account to buy). Also, RSVP to me, the instructor, to let me know you're coming. Space in the workshop is not guaranteed if you have not reserved your spot. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Small Batch Sour Cherry Jam

Earlier this month, when we were picking strawberries, I noticed that the pick-your-own place also had a few cherry trees. It's been over twenty years since I've picked cherries, but I have very distinct memories of my mother buying a bucket of cherries from the market in Dushanbe, and gathering the family in the kitchen to prepare and process them for jams and compotes. I was pitting cherries by the time I was four or five years old--sour cherries, mostly, as their sweet counterparts weren't valued for preserves, but for eating out of hand. I remember being quite fond of eating the sour cherries fresh then too, despite finding them a bit too tart for my present tastes. Sprinkled with even a little bit of sugar--which actually helps draw out the fullness of the sour cherry flavor--they are exquisite.

So when I spotted the cherry trees, I knew that I would be back to pick the cherries; and once I tasted them while picking, I knew that I wanted to make something simple, with just a touch of sugar. By the time I finished making boozy cherries, I had just over two pounds of un-pitted cherries left for this beautiful, low-sugar jam.
Sour cherry jam in the front, boozy cherries in the back

Sour Cherry Jam


  • 4.5 cups pitted and mashed sour cherries
  • 1.5 cups sugar, divided
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1.5 teaspoons Pomona's pectin*
  • 1.5 teaspoons calcium water (mix included in pectin box)


1. Prepare jars, canner (or a medium pot, as this is a small batch of jam), and cherries. I started out with just over two pounds of fruit, and by the time they were pitted and mashed in the preserving pan, I had about 4.5 cups.
2. Add half a cup of sugar, lemon juice, and calcium water to the cherries in the preserving pan, stir to combine, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
3. Meanwhile, mix up the remaining sugar with the pectin in a medium bowl; set aside.
4. Cook the cherries on medium heat for 15 minutes; you want the cherries to fully release their juices, but you don't want to overcook the fruit. While cooking, skim off any foam that may form.
5. Once the jam has the desired consistency, add the pectin and sugar mixture, and bring the jam to a rolling boil for two minutes. If you want, check the set of the jam; my jam has a medium-firm set, but I think that this would be great even as a sauce, if you want to omit the pectin.
6. Pour jam into sterilized jars, leaving 1/4" headspace; wipe the rims and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

Approximately 2 pints.

Is this jam worth the trouble for such a small batch? Absolutely. It's much more sophisticated than a simple strawberry jam, and unusual. This past weekend, in addition to the drunken cherries, I also made a sweet cherry-rhubarb jam, and I can safely say that the sour cherry jam is my favorite of all.

*Sour cherries have a higher pectin content than sweet cherries, so I kept the amount of pectin quite low.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Homesickness one way, wanderlust the other

Here's a poem by Galway Kinnell from his book Imperfect Thirst; it's from the section "Sheffield Ghazals." I remember reading this poem three years ago and becoming instantly implicated in its language--it's what a good poem does to a person, makes complicity. Kinnell does not adhere to the ghazal form strictly, but uses it as a sort of guide; this is especially evident in the maqta, where he names himself--partially to claim credit for the work, but also to deeper involve himself in the poem's events.

Driving West

A tractor-trailer carrying two dozen crushed automobiles overtakes a tractor-trailer carrying a dozen new.
Oil is a form of waiting.
The internal combustion engine converts the stasis of millennia into motion.
Cars howl on rain-wetted roads.
Airplanes rise through the downpour and throw us through the blue sky.
The idea of the airplane subverts earthly life.
Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely anywhere on earth.
A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.
Erratic Mercurys and errant Cavaliers wander the highways.
The girl puts her head on a boy's shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway--sick to stay, longing to come up against the ends of
           the earth, and climb over.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Making Polenta

Vegetable stock and polenta
In the last month or so, we've been eating a lot of greens: the arugula and turnips have done incredibly well in our community garden plot, and once the CSA season began, we started getting spinach, chard, mustard greens, three different kinds of kale, and more arugula. This sudden abundance has challenged our creativity--we've made curries (both Indian and Thai), used greens in pasta, had wilted greens as a side, but still sometimes had more greens than we knew what to do with, and wanted to expand our repertoire. Every now and then, we'd buy pre-made polenta in the plastic sleeves, at about $2.50 per pack. Matt would
Garlic scapes and green onion
slice it up and fry it in a pan with garlic and olives, adding the greens at the end, and wilting them--and it makes for a very good light lunch or appetizer. And then one day, I had an epiphany: the "grits" (also known as coarse-ground cornmeal) sold in the bulk section of our coop is polenta! I don't know why it took me so long to realize this--maybe because I don't like grits (something about the mushy texture), and have never associated squishy grits with the crispy-on-the-outside and savory polenta. Whatever the reason for my previous oversight, I'm glad that I've made the (mental) leap because polenta is incredibly easy to make and so cheap!
Quick sautee in olive oil and salt

Adding stock
Not only is polenta cheap, but versatile, too. The spices and the liquid ingredient can be varied according to the occasion. What I had on hand were green onions, garlic scapes, and vegetable stock. (Remember when I said that I "wasn't thrilled about canning the stock?" I take it back. I've used up almost all of the seven quarts of stock--some has gone into soups, but my polenta discovery will have me using stock much more often, for sure.)

The basic thing to keep in mind about polenta is that the liquid to grain ratio is about 3 to 1; you could use water for the liquid, and as long as the polenta is organic and good quality, the final result would probably be wonderful. As I was making this particular polenta, I kept thinking of the flavor combinations that I could make in the future; sun-dried tomato and basil (or oregano); cilantro and jalapeno; pumpkin and thyme...
Polenta gets pretty thick; keep stirring!

Allowing the polenta to firm up
All this talk about polenta, and no recipe yet. What can I say, I got carried away contemplating it!


  • 2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
  • 2 garlic scapes (or a clove or two of garlic), minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil (or other herbs)
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 2/3 cup of water (as needed)
  • 1.5 cups polenta/ corn grits/ coarse-ground cornmeal
Sauté the onions and garlic scapes in olive oil for a few minutes, just until they're starting to cook. Add the salt and herbs, stir to combine flavors; pour in the stock and bring to a steady simmer over medium-high heat. Once the stock is simmering, add the polenta in a slow and steady stream, and stir constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula for 25-30 minutes. As you're stirring, be sure to stir from the bottom of the pot, as the polenta will become quite thick quickly--and you want to both keep it from burning and keep it cooking for the full time, or else it will be too gritty. Add as little as 1/4 and as much as 2/3 cup of water during the cooking process--the polenta should be quite thick, but not too thick to stir effectively. At the end of the cooking time, taste and adjust spices; take the polenta off heat and transfer into a greased 8"x8" (or a 9"x9", depending on how thick you like it) baking pan, and allow to cool for a couple hours.

After the polenta cools, you can slice it and store in an airtight container for up to a week, refrigerated. As I mentioned earlier, to fix it, just fry some up with more garlic, onions, and greens. You can also decrease the recipe and use 1 cup of polenta for 3 cups of liquid, but (personally,) I like a thicker slice of polenta.

Polenta is also something that is often sold locally, and thus could be a delicious platform for an almost all-local meal.

Weekend Project: Potstickers

I love potstickers. Actually, I love all kinds of dumplings, steamed buns, and pretty much anything that is a savory filling in dough. I like making these things, too--there's something great about the process of making the dough and the filling, and shaping the potstickers, steamed buns, pies, etc. It usually takes a few hours for everything to come together, but the resulting food is usually enough to eat several times. Every few months, I set aside a half a day or so for the process; the previous time (a few weeks ago), I made kimchi-filled steamed buns--we liked them so much, there was barely any left over after dinner. I'd never made steamed buns before, and mine were far from pretty, but they were so good! I also like that I could make the dough for them myself, whereas with potstickers, there's just no way that I'm willing to roll out quite so many perfect circles of dough.

Yesterday, Matt and I worked on potstickers with three different fillings--one was tofu and green onion; another had king oyster mushrooms and buna-shimeji; and the third was a mix of mushrooms, napa cabbage, and green onions. We'd gotten the vegetables on Saturday in our CSA share, and although I had wanted to make kimchi, I realized that we still have some left from our last batch; the potstickers took more effort, but I'm glad that we've made them. We also made a batch of the steamed buns with a couple of the different fillings, and put everything away into the freezer for later.

I like doing this--putting away food for later; it's probably why I became so enthusiastic about canning so quickly. And canning paved the way for making more things like this... Not only can I make things that taste so much better than what I can get at the Asian market, but I can also use up the local ingredients that we get from our CSA basket.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Urban Land Scouts--Composting with Worms

This past Wednesday at Beardsley farm, the Urban Land Scouts had their penultimate meeting of the series and learned how to make worm-bins out of five gallon buckets.  And although I'd known about composting with the help of worms for a while, I've never really bothered to do it--after all, we have a (somewhat successful) compost pile. Why bother with the worms, I thought? Actually, that's not true, and that's not what I thought at all. Earlier in the spring, I tried to make a worm bin out of buckets, and failed; I knew my failure by the worms' determined escape from the home I had created for them. I abandoned the project and released the worms back into our compost pile, not really reflecting on my failure until now.

At the workshop we learned that if worms are escaping their home, that means something is not right in their environment; we also learned that it is necessary for worms to have some sort of moist bedding--we used soaked newspaper shreds--to be happy. (After all, as Shannon reminded us, "A dry worm is a dead worm." The picture is of her showing us how to make the bedding.) It is exactly this bedding that I neglected to make in my earlier attempt, although I knew that worms love to eat half-composted fruits and vegetables and need a little shovel-full of dirt in their habitat.

I still feel a little strange taking worms out of their natural habitat and keeping them in a bin in our kitchen; however, now that I know that this type of worm thrives on food scraps, and would soon die off  if put into the garden bed (as was soon to be the fate of the worms we dug up from Beardsley's compost), I feel a little better.

For some reason what was most surprising to me was that Shannon was handling the worms and the compost without gloves, and so lovingly! She would take a mostly rotted apple, break it apart and show us how the worms love its moist environment. She instructed us to feed the worms in our bin by burying the food scraps somewhere beneath the bedding, and as squeamish as I started out the workshop, I think that I will be ready to do this in a day or two. After all, it's just worms, and my own food scraps, and newspaper--all things that I decisively handle.  Make soil with the help of worms!
Inside the worm bin--see the worms?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Plans and Provisions

Same soup, a couple months ago.
In a few weeks, Matt and I will be spending nine days in Louisville grading the essay portion of the AP Literature exam. We love the city--it's not too big, but still has things to do, and really good restaurants that we've come to like over the last few years. We go to Louisville at least a couple times a year because Matt's parents live in Ohio, and Louisville is just about the halfway point between there and Knoxville. 
ETS, the testing agency that hires teachers to grade the AP tests, pays for much of the stay--the hotel and some lunches are covered. However, the lunches are often not suitable for vegans, and from what Matt tells me, if there is anything vegan, there's not much. 
In the last couple of years, I've stayed behind at home and eaten raw for ten days or so; this year, I'm glad to have been accepted to be a grader. Because we're both going to be there, I want to be sure that we have food to take up with us. This is where our pressure canner comes into play: I'm planning to make and can a couple different soups, so we can take jars of soup with us--they won't need refrigeration, and a jar is just the perfect amount for lunch. Today I made the lentil soup that has been a favorite for the last few months. The batch made nine pints. I'm still getting the hang of the pressure canner (it's only the second time that I've used it), and it was a stressful couple hours to get the pressure canner ready, sealed properly, venting, and to the right pressure to can the soup. All the jars sealed incredibly well, and the Tattler lids are especially concave, indicating a very strong seal. Matt's going to try one of the jars of soup for his lunch tomorrow, but a good few or the others will be packed away and awaiting the trip north. 

There have been a couple times that people have expressed surprise and dismay at the cost of our pressure canner; nonetheless (and despite having used it only twice so far), I think that it is more than a worthwhile investment--it will last us a lifetime, and it will be so useful! I love that I am able to can soups with it, and to have those jars in reserve for when we need them. Yes, it takes a good bit of extra time to plan ahead, but to me it is worth it. I think many people forfeit such things in favor of spending money on other things, or sticking to convenience--after all, it's much easier to buy soup in cans; but good quality and organic (vegan) soup is expensive (whereas the soup that I made today cost at most seven dollars or so). The main issue, too, is time. Xan expressed it best in a recent blog post, "When I tell people about this [in my case, canning], the near-universal response is awestruck (sometimes patronizing) admiration, followed by the statement 'where do you find the time' or 'well, that's great, but I don't have time for that.'" There is always time if people want to make time for things; I know that I'm mostly unemployed for the summer, but last summer, when I was working a shit job full-time, I still found time to can almost every other day in July and August. And speaking of (mostly) not being employed over the summer--it was a choice on my part because I knew that I could trade a few months' income for the ability to be at home and to have the full summer season to volunteer at Beardsley and other farms, and to be canning. It's a different way to make provisions, not using money, but using skills and connections.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Re-examining Stewardship

A little while ago, as I was in the process of writing the essay on stewardship for the Urban Land Scouts blog, I was talking my ideas over with Matt, and he said, "When you talk about 'stewardship,' you're still talking about a hierarchical relationship of people to everything else--nature, resources, animals. I realize that it's not within the scope of your essay, but you should think about what 'stewardship' really means." I've been thinking about it ever since then, and thought that I'd share some of my thoughts with you.

To me, stewardship has religious connotations--in the sense that stewardship is the equivalent of dominion over plants and animals, as dictated by a higher power. Of course in that sense, stewardship still implies responsibility and a more heightened sense of awareness. However, it still definitely describes a system where people are overlords of everything else--nature, animals, resources--just using everything, but more responsibly, perhaps. If a steward is "a person whose responsibility it is to take care of something," there is the implied power given to people; it does not necessarily mean that people should be consistent, or doing everything within their power to make the environment better, through sustainable and responsible practices. (You see how difficult it is to shift from our normal way of thinking? I'm having trouble even wording this...)

What I mean is that even when adopting the notions of stewardship, we believe ourselves to have the most control, to have the best solutions for the troubles that we create in the first place. The solution of retaining power, but using it a little more responsibly only sounds better; but how much does it really accomplish? If stewardship just reaffirms the rather unnatural position of human superiority, how do we re-order our thinking to make ourselves a part of nature, rather than an entity superior to everything else? How do we get to a point where it's not even a matter of instituting stewardship, but a matter of maintaining a close correspondence with nature, recognizing ourselves as a part of it?

When I visited Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center last month, Bill, the grounds manager, talked about a different way of living in the world. Everyone at Narrow Ridge lives off the grid, uses composting toilets, small wind turbines, and solar panels, collects rain water for bathing and uses spring water for drinking. They also live in sustainably-built houses--most are straw-bale houses, others are built from the trees growing right there on the land. Bill explained that they view technological advances as part of the natural processes, and utilize them to benefit both them and their environment. I keep thinking of ways that I could occupy a more fitting role; I know that veganism is a part of it--I'll keep you posted on other things as I discover them.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Where can we build/ the house of spring

It's just the second week of May, but it seems like the seasons have sped up--it's already quite hot out. As my friend Katie said, "Sweat begins [now] and doesn't end until October." And I, at a later point, replied that I feel like I haven't been hardened off properly, and can't get used to the heat if it comes on so suddenly. Even if it doesn't feel like it, here's a poem by Laura Kasischke for

The Second Week of May

What will we buy with Judas's money?
Who will live in Hitler's house? What

shall we do with this veil stolen

from the murdered bride, this
blanket lifted from the sleeping child?

I will buy candy, says the sweetheart.
I will grow here, the primrose sings.

The lightness of silk in the perfumed breeze, soft
as cashmere, pale pink.

Where can we build
the house of spring,

the one built
on a clear conscience, the one
in which no innocent

civilian has ever been killed?
Yes. Imagine.
Every day
a clean kitchen, every night a Puritan's pillow.

But it's May, and the lilac
whispers to the wisteria,
Whose shadow shall I wear
this year to prom? Whose

white scarf sewn from a virgin's last breath is this?

(From Gardening in the Dark)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Community Garden Plot

 Because we are renting this house, we can only do a limited garden in the back yard; even though our landlord is very supportive of my gardening efforts, I just don't know how long we'll be staying in Knoxville. And I don't want to put in a full garden just to leave it behind in a year.

However, I am ambitious, and want to grow so many different things. This is where the community plot at Beardsley farm comes in. In addition to providing produce for those in need, Beardsley also provides over twenty garden plots for people in the neighborhood, and others in the area who would like to garden, but don't have the space. Or people like me, who would like to expand on their existing small garden spaces.

The community garden plots are tilled every fall and spring, amended, and turned over to the gardeners. So far, ours has been doing pretty well; we're growing broccoli, radishes, turnips, carrots, and arugula. I had also put in some chard and beets, but those were mysteriously pulled out (cleanly and completely) last weekend; as distraught as I was at the loss, I understand the hazards of having the spot open to the public. And besides, because of the rains, I've only been visiting the plot twice a week. This means that everything has been growing relatively maintenance-free, and maybe the chard and beets are just the price to pay for all this.

Yesterday, when we went up to water the plot, I put in a few Black Valentine beans and more arugula.  I'm looking forward to visiting my plot and seeing how everything is doing when I volunteer at Beardsley.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Urban Land Scouts--Saving Seeds with John Coykendall

Yesterday for the Urban Land Scouts workshop (level 7), the scouts had a chance to spend time with John Coykendall, the master gardener at Blackberry Farm.

John has been collecting heirloom beans for over four decades, and knows an astonishing amount about the history of the various beans that he's tracked down. Some of the beans that he's acquired were guarded by families for generations; one of the field peas that he showed us dated back to the 1790s! Not only did the beans have fascinating histories, but they were also very beautiful. I'd been wanting to see (and grow!) Christmas Lima beans for a while now, and John had some of those, along with at least a dozen other varieties of beans and peas.
John also brought a few different gourds and explained about the various different uses for them. Before there was Tupperware, gourds were used for storing salt and sugar; they were also used as bowls and dippers. But I digress. What I loved the most was to hear John talk about the seeds.

In these days when produce is hybridized to withstand exceedingly long transport--as so many plants and vegetables are bred to create tougher, more uniform-looking fruit and seed--we are losing genetic diversity.
Not only that, but if we shop at most supermarkets, what we often buy--and get accustomed to--is bland, flavorless produce whose main goal is to arrive at its destination unbruised. Or we become used to just a few different kinds of grain, legume, or fruit, and don't even know about the value and taste of the hundreds of other varieties. I know that when I was canning apple sauce last fall, I was surprised to learn that some apples are better for sauce, while others are best for cider. And it's the same with beans: we know so few varieties, when there are still so many in existence!

This is why the conservation of heirloom seeds is so important--it preserves diversity and a wider genetic base. It keeps the history of our food alive; it keeps food important in ways greater than just sustenance. As the Urban Land Scouts were gathered around to begin the meeting, John Coykendall looked around the circle and said, "This is going to be the future of seed-saving--it's going to be you, and people with such interests."

I walked away from the day with a good bit of knowledge about seeds--for example, I learned that saving seeds of hybrid plants is no good, as the offspring will likely develop undesirable traits of one of the parent plants; this means that the Sungold seeds that I'd saved earlier are no good (and maybe it's for the best that those tomato plants got pummeled by hail). I also walked away with a pocket full of beans. I sat down when I got home, and sorted them--I have a couple of most of the types of beans and peas that John brought. They'll be good for the next 4-5 years, with at least a 50% germination rate, and I'll try to grow a few of them, maybe even this summer. The good thing is, even if I have one or two of the beans, I can grow them, and have more than enough seeds for the following year.

I hope to have the pleasure of John Coykendall's company again soon; he may be coming back to Beardsley next year, and I just might make a trip to Blackberry Farm to follow him around for a while. If you have a chance to spend some time with him, I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Strawberry Season

I knew that it was going to rain today, and so I made time to go down to The Fruit and Berry Patch to pick the first (for me) strawberries of the season. Here in East Tennessee, strawberries have actually already been around for a couple of weeks, but I've been resisting buying them, even at markets, saving myself for the enormous satisfaction of picking them myself. So yesterday afternoon, putting down ungraded papers and leaving the landlord in the middle of fixing a window that was broken during last week's hail storm, I went to pick strawberries. I think this is the first time that I've ever been berry-picking alone. When I started out, I was alone in the strawberry field--it was mid-afternoon, and the sun made the berries practically radiate that ripe strawberry smell. It was a wonderfully sweaty and gratifying experience; I picked ten pounds of berries, most of which are already designated for various projects.

After I learned how to can (only a year and a half ago?!), and then canned barbecue sauce in the fall, strawberry jam was my first spring project. It turned out fine, but it wasn't anything to write about (and I didn't, in fact); it was runny, and a little over-cooked, and a little too sweet for me. I liked it fine, but I think there's still a jar of it left. So I took it upon myself to try and make a strawberry jam that would translate the true flavor and excitement of the berries that I love so much. I looked to other bloggers for inspiration, and can say that the first strawberry jam of the season--strawberry-rhubarb jam--was a great success.
I didn't have a lemon on hand, so I substituted the lemon zest in the recipe with orange zest. This jam came out still tart, and even though I had slightly less rhubarb than the recipe suggested, it came out wonderfully. I can't quite tell that the rhubarb is in the jam, but the strawberry flavor somehow seems more genuine--maybe it's the sharpness of the rhubarb that carries it through.

I have some strawberries macerating in the fridge, awaiting another jam project; strawberries--I now know--signal the beginning of the full-swing canning season. After strawberries, the blueberries, blackberries, peaches, and plums come rolling in, one right after the other. And I'm looking forward to it all.

If you're looking for something to do with all these strawberries that are going to be pouring in for the next few weeks, and need a little guidance with canning (or if you would just like to try a new recipe), you can sign up for one of the upcoming canning classes--there's one next Saturday. Let me know if you are interested, and please--spread the word to your friends. There's very little that is more exciting than opening a jar of home-canned strawberry jam, and being reminded of the wonderful flavor of fresh-picked strawberries during the month of November!