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.

 

My Husband Gave Me A Manual Hydraulic Woodsplitter; Better than a Vaccuum Cleaner….

Since we heat with wood and have his and hers chainsaws, you would think we would have his and hers axes, mauls, and wedges. (Here is a link to that exciting article, entitled Women and Chainsaws.) However, my husband pleads his back. After a lifetime of seeing men I care about hurt their backs and walk around like giant commas, I am completely traumatized by the thought of masculine back pain, to the extent that I worry about any man who lifts anything at all. I’m somewhat aware that many men have healthy backs and can lift great burdens with ease, but the emotional wounds are there, and I have in fact developed a regime of hot pepper back rubs, etc. which we go into the moment my husband winces and freezes.

So I don’t mind splitting wood. After a day of it, however, my arms hurt. We have looked at various splitters. Power splitters look great, but for me, since I was doing all right without one, they are expensive, dangerous, require either fossil fuel or electricity, which makes us dependent, and they can break down. I thought about renting one for the weekend and going through a mountain of rounds (what an unsplit piece of wood is called) all at once. We never got around to it though. We bought a Smart Splitter that acts by dropping a wedge that slides down a pole (a slide hammer), but I don’t know what kind of wood that splits. Not our locust, for certain. The guy in the picture looks like he could split wood by spitting at it so maybe it’s me.

best hydraulic manual wood splitter

Work the levers like ski poles

What we like is the Wel-bilt Horizontal Manual Hydraulic Log Splitter – 10-ton (Sportsman’s Guide) that works by building hydraulic pressure with levers that you work like ski poles. One is attached to a larger cylinder, so it’s the smaller gear, so to speak. Once you can no longer move that, you use the one on the right, until the wood splits. There are some limitations; the log can’t be very short or  very long, but for most fireplaces and stoves it’s fine. Really gnarly complicated pieces of wood are sometimes easier to do with the ax. It splits wood 20 inches across, even wet, but some really huge logs I’d rather start with a wood grenade. And I can’t split ash logs with it. The splitter starts making popping noises and I worry I am hurting its back….

hydraulic manual wood splitter

The wedge

Lay the splitter on its back where you plan to use it (it is pretty  heavy) and insert the poles into their sleeves. Ready to use. Turn the knob by your feet to the right until it stops. Put a piece of wood on the splitter and slide it up against the wedge. Start working the poles. The ram will slowly rise and press against the close end of the wood. It will get hard to move the left lever. Switch to just the right lever, which adds pressure in smaller increments. Eventually you will hear a pop and the wood will crack. Keep going until it either falls into two pieces or is open enough for you to pull it apart with your hands. Sometimes I have to smack it with an axe. Release the pressure by turning the knob counterclockwise. The ram will slide back in. If it jams, as it occasionally does, jar the splitter by kicking the log or tossing it over on its side. It will release. If the log just isn’t splitting, split it in half by hand and continue. Smaller pieces are easier. Probably a power splitter would have fewer problems with ash, for example- some of them almost look like they could stack your wood for you, but using the manual hydraulic splitter is way easier than having to split a whole rack of firewood with a maul and wedges, and if you get bored you can pretend you are skiiing!

hydraulic manual wood splitter

There may be a few splinters holding it together at the end

Saving Lettuce, Coriander and Arugula Seed

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

You can go buy some seed in a packet and go ahead and toss your spent plants in the compost pile, but if you have the room and the patience to let your plants mature, you can save your own seed. Will it come true- will the new plants be like the old ones? Depends if you used a hybrid seed, if there are other varieties it could cross pollinate with, and if it is likely that it did.

I have a speckled romaine that comes from romaine and some red lettuce I grew that crossed, probably Red Sails. I like it. My own quasi Forellenschuss. I have just cleaned seed from a Brune D’Hiver French heirloom lettuce plant that was all by itself in the greenhouse, so probably it didn’t cross. I plan to save seed from the cool Baker Creek Rocky Top mix and see what happens. Life is too short to just grow one lettuce a year so you can save pure seed. Luckily I only have one kind of arugula. It volunteers in my garden all year long, but it is fun and easy to save.

Let your plants bloom and go to seed. This is actually good for your garden because you attract beneficial insects. I also find that the dreaded Harlequin beetles

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

will stay on flowering brassica crops and leave leafy crops alone, if pressure is not that high, It’s also pretty. Endives are in the chicory family so they have pretty blue flowers. Once the seedheads are dry enough for the seed to “shatter;” fall into your hand when you crush the seed head, you’re ready. Get a big clean bucket and cut the tops of the plants into it. Sometimes I just pick the tiny dandelion looking heads of the lettuce into a little bowl. If you pull up the plants it is easy to get crumbs of soil in with your seeds. This is fixable but extra work. Set the bucket somewhere  to dry if there is any flexibility in the plant material.  When you are ready to clean the seed out, crush the seed heads so the seeds fall into the bucket. Discard the stems. At this point I generally transfer the seeds and chaff to a light mixing bowl.

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula and mustards drop a lot of seedcases. The seed settles so you can actually pick most of that off the top and compost it. You should do this outdoors. Put a wide bowl on top of a sheet in a place where there is  a light breeze. Holding the other bowl about 2 feet in the air, pour it into the bowl on he sheet. You will see that the chaff falls at a different angle from the seed, and even that different colored or sized seed falls differently. You will soon get the knack of winnowing- humans have been doing this for thousands of years- and won’t need a sheet any more. Look through your seed, blow on it to remove last bits of crud, check it for dirt and insects. Light seed will tend to blow away, leaving you with the best seed. Crush a seed with your fingernail to make sure it is dry enough to store. If you put moist seeds in plastic they will mold. Let is sit out in an open bowl until you are confident that it is dry enough to store. It’s less critical if you are using a paper envelope.  Put it in an envelope, label and date it, and put it in your seed file.

With lettuce I tend to sit with my morning coffee and pick off seed heads, then crumble them into a small bowl. The fluff comes off as you rub it between your fingers. You can then go outdoors to winnow out the fluff. I just pour it into my palm, pour it into the bowl, blow on it, and play with it until I have a few teaspoons of clean seed to put away; enough to seed several hundred lettuces. Some people knit.

The next seed I will be saving is cilantro. It makes a lot of seed, and guess what- that is coriander seed! You should never have to buy that from the store. It’s too easy! I use a lot of that for Indian cooking, like this fabulicious venison curry, inspired by lamb vindaloo but not,

venison curry

venison curry

and it is so good for you! This keeps me from being too sad when the cilantro bolts. Speaking of which, it is now cool enough for me to go back out and seed some more cilantro. Later.

OK. I forgot to take pictures. I cut off the dead cilantro plants, carried to the shed, and let them sit on a rack out of the rain for a few days. Then I put them on a sheet and crumbled the seed heads to make the little round seeds come off. This left me with a lot of broken up dead plant material which went right in the compost. It rolled into a bunch on the sheet and I picked it up together. What was left I poured off the sheet into the big mixing bowl. I took a smaller bowl- no particular reason, – and went outside to winnow. I crumbled the seeds against each other to break off little stems, and rubbed them to get tiny chunks of dirt to become dust which is easy to winnow out. I poured the chaffy seeds from one bowl to another, holding the bowls up in the slight breeze. The chaff poured off to the side while the heavier seeds poured straight into the bowl. Eventually I had to resort to blowing, swirling, etc., and the dust was clinging, I wonder how hard it would be to get them dry if you washed coriander seeds. I poured them into a couple of small jam jars and labeled them.

How to Use a Solar Clothes Dryer

laundry clothesline

Pin overlapped edges so laundry doesn’t blow up and down the line.

OK, this is probably offensive. I apologize to folks who are appalled that I would write a post on hanging out laundry. But here’s a sad fact. Many people who come to my house and ask what they can do to help me have no idea how to hang out clothes. They are used to just popping it in the dryer. On a sunny, breezy day, yet.

I like a dryer as much as the next girl if it is wet and cold out. I love to put on clothes warm from the dryer when it is cold in our bedroom. Dryers even remove a certain amount of lint from black clothes and leave bath towels soft and fluffy. Dryers are great for drying and fluffing pillows and down jackets.

But dryers suck immense amounts of power, which is expensive and bad for the environment, unless you have high tech solar panels or wind turbines. And you don’t. If you did, your lights would probably dim when you used the dryer. Plus drying laundry in the sweet air and sunshine makes it smell nicer, and bleaches and disinfects your clothes. Therefor if you have dark clothes that are liable to fade, dry them on a hanger in the shade.

OK, first you need your low tech solar clothes dryer. Read the rather apologetic post. Once you have all that in place, continue. If you can’t be bothered, make like a camper and hang your laundry on bushes.

While the Sun Shines.

OK, you can dry laundry in cold weather- I have peeled frozen laundry off the line and taken it indoors for a final fluff and dry- at least it saved some dryer time. But basically, if I see a nice sunny, breezy day, I think it would be fun to do some laundry.

hanging laundryObvious Logistics.

Take your laundry out in a basket with your pins in the bag I described how to make in the last post.

Clothespins bag

The bag gaps open so you don’t have to fight to reach the clothespins

Give larger items a good snap to shake out wrinkles as you hang them. My line is long and sags in the middle, and I don’t care to prop it up with a long, wackly pole, so I just hang short things in the middle. Long things like sheets, jeans, and overalls go at the ends. Thin things like sheets and shirts can be held overlapped with one pin. hanging laundry (2)This isn’t because I am too cheap  to buy pins, but so that the wind won’t blow everything up and down the line. You should try not to pin two thick things together as it will leave a wet spot. Just grab something thinner as you hang up the clothes.

hanging laundry

pull out pockets if it’s chilly

Thick things like jeans should be hung by the waist, because when I hang them by the hems, the water drips down into the thickest part of the jeans that are hardest to dry. Pull out the pockets. Shirts should be hung by the corners so the wind bellies them out like a sail; it blows the wrinkles out and you can hang socks and underwear in the space where it sags down in the middle. Dress pants I hang creased by the hems, but I suppose they would be just fine tossed in the dryer for 5 minutes with the very dark lint-loving clothes and then hung up. Dresses I hang by the hem so they belly out in the wind and dry without stiffness or wrinkles.

Fragrant and Clean

Curtains, sheets and pillowcases are obvious. If you only hang one thing, it should be your bed linens. The smell of air dried sheets is so wonderful! You will even sleep better! But you really should dry your socks and underclothes in the sunshine. The sun’s rays are free, non-toxic bleach and disinfectant. You can hang them facing backwards so they don’t look too public if your clothesline is in a place people can ogle knickers, -if you know such people. And one nice thing is that if you used to feel you needed to buy laundry detergent with perfume, you won’t need to anymore. God’s sweet air is nice enough.