Harvest Season

So sorry about the long delay in posting – we’ve been busy!  Summer was a blur of full-time work (for me) and trying to keep up with the garden (for Jason).  But for the last two months we’ve been trying to deal with the fruits of our labor – quite literally.  Now we really understand the concept of harvest season.  I will try to show the sheer vastness of our harvest in photos.

We grew four types of dry beans (as well as two types of fresh green beans).  When the bean pods were dry we picked them and brought them to the house, then we shelled them into this pan, then we sorted them into containers by type.  I should not have written “we”.  Jason did all this almost single-handedly over many hours and many days.  There are many, many more than this photo shows.  Shown here: Sarah running her hands through the beans – it feels great!

Here is a typical truckload in September: six crates of tomatoes, one of yellow summer squash, and another crate with cucumbers and winter squash.  We were happily inundated with tomatoes all late summer, but unhappily inundated with summer squash.  I sold a few at the farmer’s market, but many of them became chicken food.

What to do with too many tomatoes?  I ate them all summer and early fall literally for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between snacks.  Every day.  In October I finally reached my limit.  Jason canned like crazy.  He also dried them in the oven and packed them in oil (cherry tomatoes), and…

Made

tomato

paste!

  It

is

so

sweet

and

delicious!

The pear tree went crazy this year.  In the spring it bloomed before the apple trees did, and our bees (we have a hive) absolutely covered the whole tree.  It was humming!  As a result, we got a bazillion pears!  They’re more problematic to deal with in quantity than apples, since they ripen and rot so quickly.

But

boy

were

they

delicious!!!

Sarah

helped

us

by

climbing,

picking

and

eating,

of course!

We wound up with seven crates of pears!  And we couldn’t even reach the pears in the top 1/4 of the tree!  We wound up making pear butter, pear sauce, canned pears and dried pears.  How did we dry the pears, you ask?

I’m glad you asked.  I must toot my own horn about this one.  Thought it up myself, I did!  We have some very hot days in September and October here in California, and I’ve been wanting, but too lazy to build, a solar food dryer.  Instead, I realized how hot it gets in our attic and found that we have a pile of unused window screens leftover from the old windows we switched out.  We also happened to buy a mandolin (the slicer, not the instrument) for $3 at a yard sale across the street.  Combine all these and you get a perfect way to dry pears!  They came out delicious.  It worked so well I’m also drying apples as I write these words.

We also harvested three crates of potatoes, which are now being stored in the apple shed with the winter squash and the apples.  And one last half-crate of pears that refuse to ripen.  Jason fixed up the apple shed by emptying it of junk, replacing all the screens and putting new wood on the floor where hungry animals and rot had taken their toll.  The apple house is really supposed to be for apples only, and the potatoes and squash will wind up in the new root cellar when it’s finished.  The root cellar will have to be a blog all of its own – stay posted.

The peppers finally ripened, all at once, in late October.  We have a combination of sweet yellow and red, as well as a couple types of hot.  We made a big fry from sweet peppers and sweet onions and had wonderful fajitas, with lots of leftovers.  The rest of the peppers are in the fridge.  Both the sweet and the normal onions are still in the ground.  Don’t know quite what to do with all the sweet onions, since they will not store well.  Our plan for the normal onions is to hang them in the attic and under the stairs and use them all year.  Any suggestions for what to do with the sweet?  Caramelize and can them, somehow?  Our freezers are full, so it will have to be a canning solution…

Most recent harvest, late October: some parsnips and kale, a pile of pumpkins and winter squash, and the last of the cherry tomatoes (with a couple of peppers thrown in).  The rest of the parsnips are still in the ground, but will be stored in the aforementioned root cellar.  The kale we’ll just leave in the garden to continue growing.  Most of the pumpkins are sugar pumpkins for eating, but we wound up with three for carving for Halloween: two from a volunteer plant!  The closest yellow round thing in the photo is a mini-watermelon from “Sarah’s” garden.  It was ripe, but not fantastically sweet.  We won’t bother with that again next year.

As though I didn’t have enough to do, I convinced my neighbor to make jelly with me out of her Concord grapes.  It turned into a saga.  She harvested all the grapes, but half of them rotted before we could coordinate our schedules to make the jelly together.  The non-rotten half wound up being 21.5 pounds of grapes!  We followed a recipe I’d found online, which said no pectin was needed and it would thicken in 20 minutes.  Turns out it took 5 hours.  In retrospect, I should have just given up after an hour and run to the store for pectin.  Instead, I stirred that darn jelly for hours during 80 degree weather!  Here is Sarah happily helping at the beginning of the grape jelly saga.  Needless to say, her interest flagged as time wore on.  Anyway, my neighbor and I made 23 jars of jelly, but she would only take 3 jars!  What on earth am I going to do with 20 jars of Concord grape jelly?!?

And then, of course, the apples.  As you probably know, we have a whole orchard full of them.  I’m not actually sure how many trees we have – somewhere around 40.  We started harvesting in September and have been flat out ever since.  And we’re not done.  We had three weekends in a row when folks came to visit and helped us make cider!  First our friends Paula and John (pictured) who taught us how to process chickens last year, then my great friend Luisa and her daughter and daughter’s friends, then Jason’s aunt Margurite and uncle John from Massachusetts.  We have given away a few gallons and the chest freezer could only hold 10 gallons of cider this year (it’s full of 1/2 a lamb and 1/2 a pig we got from a nearby ranch).  But we have many more apples to press – yikes! Where will we put it?!?  Time to make more hard cider, clearly.  I also need to make apple sauce and, as I mentioned, am drying some too.  The “perfect” apples (few and far between) will remain in the apple shed for eating throughout the year.

I am currently in negotiations with someone who is raising turkeys locally; I’m hoping to trade 10 gallons of cider for a Thanksgiving turkey.  Wish me luck!

Sorry the post was so long, and so long overdue!  But thanks for reading!

– Lizzy

Sarah and her watermelon

Hard Times

We finally racked our last batch of fermented (hard) cider last week. All in all it was a pretty good first season, considering we had a surplus of apples and, initially, no clear idea what to do with them.

At first we just assumed we’d be making plain old cider. Fortunately, we have the perfect mix of varieties for the job: Red Delicious for sweetness, Newtown Pippen for tartness, and Bellflower for, well…okay, I don’t know what the Bellflower contributed. I’m sure it added something, though. At the very least it looked cool next to the others.

There they are in the above picture. That’s the Bellflower on the left. It’s a softer apple, easily bruised, with lemon-yellow skin and an oblong shape.

And yeah, we had a lot. You can see how six years of no pruning or spraying resulted not only in small, spotted and misshapen fruit, but also so much of it…

Generally speaking an afternoon’s picking would fill a trash barrel and then some.

I think that we went apple-picking four or five times over the course of the season. Ultimately we wound up with maybe thirty gallons or so of fresh pressed apple cider – and that’s after tossing apples that either failed to live up to our low standards of edibility or went bad in the lag time between picking them and pressing them (sometimes we’d pop a few bushels in water and then not get to the pressing for a couple of weeks. Oops).

Neighbors were kind enough to give us a bunch of clean, empty gallon jugs for storage. We also bought a couple dozen gallons of spring water just for the containers.

Most of the gallons went straight into the chest freezer. A few we gave away to neighbors or contractors, and, of course, we drank a couple ourselves. That still left a lot of cider. What to do with it?  Well, turn it into booze of course!

Making hard cider isn’t really difficult. In fact, with just a few small steps any average cider or juice, even store-bought, would probably ferment. If you really want to kick-start the process, however, the addition of yeast and sugar does the trick. It’s the yeast eating the sugar that, essentially, makes the cider “hard.”

The tricky part is sterilizing everything before getting started. That includes not only the fermentation tanks (called “carboys”) and measuring equipment but also the washed Corona and wine bottles we had set aside for the bottling (though those wouldn’t be necessary until much later).

Apparently keeping everything sterilized is a pretty big deal. Once the cider, yeast, and sugar are mixed up and funneled into the carboys it will sit for several weeks. You can imagine, then, how any small impurity, microbe or germ could contaminate the whole jug and sicken the heck out of any poor soul who has the misfortune to drink it.

Anyway, Lizzy measured out the sugar while the yeast was blooming in a dish of warm water. We also added yeast nutrient (probably not necessary, but we figured it couldn’t hurt), and pectic enzyme (this breaks down the pectin, which can become cloudy as the alcohol level rises).

When Lizzy was finished with the measuring we added the yeast mixture and funneled fresh cider into the tanks.

Then the carboys were fitted with special rubber plugs, into which were embedded plastic air-locks. The locks allow the gases to escape while keeping any airborne impurities from getting in. Floating on a small bit of water or vodka (which is sterile) inside the air-lock is a tiny plastic cap that bobs up and down with every rising bubble. This process, while fun to watch, is notable for another, more important reason: the yeast is converting the sugar to alcohol. Yippee!

The fizzing and bubbling lasts only a few days. After that the trick is to just be patient and let the stuff sit – it’ll take a few weeks for the scummy solids (called the Lees) to settle into the bottom of the carboy. The cider on top will be clear, with only a bit of color. At this stage it’s not unlike white wine in both looks and, surprisingly, taste.

Then it’s time to rack. Racking basically means siphoning the clear, alcoholic cider into cleaned and sanitized bottles. Now I don’t know about you, but while I’ve often heard or read about people siphoning gas out of someone’s car I’ve never really done the thing myself. Frankly, it seemed pretty complicated. In truth it’s as low-tech as you can get: you put the tank of cider on a counter top, lay out your empty bottles on the floor below, stick one end of a rubber tube in the carboy on the counter and the other end in a bottle, and let gravity do its thing.

Well, more or less.

We added a little sugar into the beer bottles in order to have sparkling cider (whatever yeast is left will eat the sugar, creating carbonation and – who would’ve thunk it – more alcohol). The cider in the wine bottles we kept uncarbonated, or “still.”

Of course the bottles have to be capped and corked. We got our cappers and corkers at the brew store and they’re pretty cheap and easy to use.

We only have two, three-gallon carboys, so we can ferment only six gallons at a time. We fermented three times, with a total of five gallons (for some reason we only filled one carboy during one of the rounds). I never got a picture of all of our bottles, but if you take the amount in the above picture and add to it the bottles in the picture below…

…you get a lot of cider. But it’s not as if we can start cracking these suckers right off the bat – no, it all goes into a cool, dark place to age for at least six months. We’ve tasted a couple of bottles (to make sure something dreadful hadn’t occurred), and they definitely improve with age.

Our first batch was racked in October, so we’ll be drinking some of them soon. I can’t wait!

-Jason