Drying Chilies

My husband and I like to travel a lot, and wherever we go, we find new varieties of peppers. In India alone we found Lal Mirc, Bili Mirc, Ganesh, a little fiery short pepper from Assam, and a long fruity red pepper with less heat. In Roswell, New Mexico, while my husband was checking out the UFOs, I was headfirst in the hardware store buying every chile seed they had. So what do we do with all that? Well, we chop them over eggs, we pickle them, we make lots and lots of fiery colorful hot sauce, we roast them, sweat them, peel and seed them and eat that, we stuff them with potatoes and cheese, we massage sore muscles with the infused oil of them, and we dry them.

String ‘Em Up

Stringing peppers to dry

Lal mirc

This is really easy. Choose thin-skinned chilies like cayenne for room-temperature drying. Pick only ripe, colorful ones. Get some thread- button thread is nice- and a big needle. Make a sloppy knot at the bottom. Run the needle through the hardest part of the green calyx at the top of the chile- not the stem as it will split, and not into the pepper. At the bottom of the stem where it is thick and the needle has a harder time getting through is where you want to be. For the first chile, go back around and run your needle through the knot at the bottom of the thread, where I told you to make it sloppy. That way the thread runs around the stem and it won’t pull through. Now just keep threading the chilies on, making sure the thread doesn’t tangle around the stems. Make it as short as you like but not more than 2 feet- that gets cumbersome. Hang it up in a decorative place where it won’t get knocked down.

Thicker Chilies

Stringing peppers to dry

Stringing peppers to dry

I noticed that some of my dried chilies tended to have mold inside them when I opened them.  I remembered that I had dried them in the greenhouse, which becomes an oven in summer, but gets cool and damp at night in the fall. Also, notice that chipotles, which are made from a ripened  jalapeno-like pepper, are smoke-dried. I got some amazing ones in Roswell- fantastic mole/fire-butter recipe to come eventually. Aha! So thicker peppers must be dehydrated in a really hot place, like my attic, or a smoker. The attic works perfectly as long as the weather is warm, but the improvised smoker -it remains to be seen. I smoked them with sassafrass leaves in my closed grill with a low heat, then slit them and put them in the dehydrator. We shall see. I did not string them because the last time I tried that the string burnt and the peppers fell in the fire….

To Trim or Not to Trim

At the top you may decide to tie some cornshucks for decoration. Get clean ones from the inside of the husk, tie the string around them, and shred, trim and fluff them so they make a nice top. I have sort of stopped bothering with that. I just hang them all over the house. They are pretty, and you can add them to food any time you want.

Make Your Own Chile Powder

toasting dried peppers

toasting dried peppers

Eventually I  take them down, dust them off, break them to release the seeds, toast them lightly by stirring in a dry cast iron pot, and throw them in the blender to create my own chile powder. I never have to buy it. The challenge is actually to grow chiles that are mild enough to get plenty of flavor before the heat becomes too much.

Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.

Equipment

Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.

Processing

I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.

 

Harvesting Garlic: That was Easy!

garlic plants

Garlic sits all winter growing slowly. Very trouble free

In September and October my nieces and nephews helped me plant the garlic cloves from the previous year’s harvest into the rows pictured, and in June/July, without having to buy one head of garlic all year, we are ready to harvest the crop. If I sound smug, I shouldn’t be.  Many’s the onion maggot we have dodged only by the grace of God. I can’t say enough how important it is to make sure you leave three years between allium plantings in the same spot. That’s about all you have to do. I hardly even weed them. So here we are.

You should check them when the tops start to go yellow. This is generally in late June, but watch it because it varies, and you don’t want to leave them too late. The bulbs will get loose and not store as well, and it will be harder to clean them up, which matters especially if you plan to sell or barter them.

garlic harvesting

from left to right, good harvest, late harvest, really late harvest, hardnecks.

Feel down to the bulb and see if it is large and well formed. Pull one up and use it uncured. It is delicious, and you will be able to judge if the bulb is still growing. Softnecks will have a flabby feeling in the neck.

Softneck garlic

Softneck garlic, nice and tight and easy to braid.

Here’s where you need your spading fork I mentioned in the article on tools. If you just yank on the garlic stem it’s liable to break, and you need the stem for hanging or braiding. Stick the tines about two inches back from the stem, step on the back of the fork and push down about three inches, rocking if you have to. Grab the stem with one hand and push back on the fork handle with the other. The bulb should come up easily if there is no rot. (If it comes apart when you dig it out of the ground you will probably smell the slightly sweet smell of rotting garlic. That’s another story.) Tap and shake the bulb gently to get rid of extra soil, lay it in the row and do the next one. A child can be very helpful in this wonderful and satisfying job. By the time you are done with the digging, the soil on the roots will likely shake off pretty well. I have heard people say to leave them in the garden to dry for a few days (and I’ve done it) but to me that is asking for trouble. You could get sunscald on them which will lead to rot. I spread mine to dry and cure for a few weeks in the shed. To be honest, until this year I always spread them on top of the car cover of my father’s 1955 Morgan, but he gave it to my sister, so now I have to set up a real rack. We made some tables out of two by fours and covered the tops with ratwire instead of wood. Ratwire is welded galvanized wire screen of the kind people put on the bottoms of their screen doors, squares about a half inch, to prevent animals from busting through mosquito screens. It is great for greenhouse benches.

Watch drying garlic carefully. In Maryland two weeks is the time it takes me to cure my garlic. If you leave it too long the tops can get too brittle to braid well (on the softnecks). When you are ready to make it into bunches or braids, clean off the extra leaves next to your compost pile. The outer ones will shatter and come off easily.  Then pile as much as you are working with in a basket and carry it somewhere comfortable to work. Leave what you aren’t going to do today on the rack. I once piled my whole crop in a pile and I am convinced it spread onion maggots. I could be wrong.

The Scourge; Onion Maggots:

If you do smell that sweetish funky rotting garlic smell, you have onion maggots. I had some mold on a few bulbs this spring but it didn’t smell the same at all. Identify as best you can which heads are infected by the softened cloves and the smell, and peel those cloves.  Actually this is pretty easy to do because the rot moistens the skins so they pop off very easily. Don’t get grossed out; you worked hard for this good garlic and you need to keep those little worms from taking it from you. Trim damaged cloves and use as soon as possible. Preserve undamaged peeled cloves in glass jars of olive oil in the refrigerator. Use them for cooking. The flavor changes over time in oil in a way that is fine cooked but is different from regular raw garlic. People do dehydrate and powder garlic, and that keeps forever and is useful for cooking, but I haven’t gotten into that.

Two Groups of Garlic

There are softneck and hardneck garlics. Softnecks have a soft neck like an onion, and hardnecks have a hard stem in the center of a radiating bunch of cloves.

The softnecks are fun to braid. As soon as your garlic leaves have dried but there is a little moisture left by the bulb so it won’t just break, it’s ready to braid. First rub off the dirtiest layers of outer skin on the garlic, and also the stem. You want it to look like Martha Stewart did it, -and it will! Get about 4 feet of jute twine and tie three big heads of garlic together with one end of it. Start braiding them, keeping the twine in the braid for strength, and add a head to each turn. I will put photos in when I do it. It’s like French braiding.  When you have done about two feet of heads, it will be getting heavy. To finish the braid, stop adding garlic, and braid the dried tops with the twine in it out to the end. Tie it off with the twine, bend it over into a loop handle, tie it off again, and make a twine loop as well. Now you have several options for hanging it. Go over the braid with scissors and neaten it up- trim the dried roots off. loose bits of skin, etc.

I have tried braiding hardnecks but it is awkward. Last year was the first year I grew them. They grew really well. I actually bought cheap garlic on sale at Wallyworld and planted a lot. Each tiny clove makes a nice big head of garlic. I cleaned off the outer, dirty skins, leaving plenty of tight, satiny white skin protecting the garlic, bound about 8 into a neat bunch with twine with a loop, and trimmed the stems to an identical length. I hung them and gave them to people. They looked nice, but not as nice as the braided softnecks.

garlic braidStorage: Mine are hanging all over the kitchen, but honestly, you should look for a cooler place to store them if you expect them to last until next summer. The dry heat of a house will dry them out over a year. Oddly enough the ones I hung on the back porch seemed unaffected by damp or freezing, and kept well. The ones on display sprouted and dried by spring. The elephant garlic kept better because of its size but was a tad spongy by the end. Possibly they would do well in a root cellar.

Garlic is a really good food which stores well and isn’t a lot of trouble to grow. Try it!