Category Archives: autumn

Celebrating

orchard walk

kicking things off with a wander through the orchard

Last-last weekend was our annual Harvest Party — the seventh one, and now a bona-fide tradition here at the Ranch! Each year, after our harvest and market season is over, we round up a bunch of friends for an afternoon of celebration (and potlucking and farm-touring and homebrew-tasting and campfiring and…) We say it every year, but this year’s party really was the best one yet!

party_people

Left: friends Paula, Tony, and Adolfo. Right: Mikail (in his BH Ranch t-shirt!) and Phyllis 

My dear friend Antonio De Lucci  took these gorgeous photos of the festivities, and I’m so glad he did — I never manage to snap enough! He perfectly captured the afternoon, drenched in golden sunlight.

orchardwalk2
polaroids

And look, real honest-to-goodness Polaroids! At left: the tipi presides over the gathering (with a giant woodpile at the ready for campfire time when it gets dark). Right: yes, we really did haul out the gigantic vintage punch bowl for pear-pomegranate punch, made with our own pear juice. Who says you can’t be fancy just because you’re out in the orchard?

tom

Tom, leading the tour

Punch bowls aside — the orchard, of course, is the real star of the party! Everybody finds a glass of something and heads out for a tour before dinner.  I always feel like the farm just loves having all these people wandering around, admiring the Arkansas Black apples still on the trees, tasting grapes under the arbor, and taking turns to duck into the little wine cellar.

winecellar

And then it’s time for dinner — a fabulous potluck! One of the things I love most about this party is that it’s a rare opportunity to bring together all our friends from various spheres… farmers, musicians, beekeepers, radio DJs, artists, teachers, foragers, endurance runners, and homesteaders all sit down together with homemade food and drink, and it’s such fun to see all the unexpected connections and conversations that come up!

party_people2
Somehow, no matter how many people show up, there’s always the perfect number of haybales to sit on, and the big table magically expands to fit every last delicious dish.

marmalade
 Above: our neighbour Elizabeth brought pear marmalade and pear butter that she made from our fruit!

tony

Clockwise from left: photographer Antonio De Lucci; heirloom-variety table grapes under the arbor; last rays of sun in the orchard.

T and J

A sweet photo of my dad and me (with an impressive array of home-brewed libations on the table — in addition to the pot-luck, there’s always a hearty brew-luck going on!)

fire1

Come dusk, I did manage to get out my camera and snap a few photos of the campfire. Marshmallows appear, Tom produces a bundle of fresh pear twigs perfect for toasting sticks, and everyone gathers around the crackling flames as the crisp chill of a fall evening settles in.

night

It’s been another marvelous season, with great farmer’s market days, wonderful customers and friends, some of the most beautiful fruit we’ve ever grown, and yet another fantastic party to celebrate it all! Thanks to all of you for supporting our “little family farm that could” — we’re so grateful to have you as our community. Wishing you all a bright and beautiful Autumn!

Many thanks to Antonio De Lucci for the photos! Check out more of his work at antoniodelucci.com.

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Foto Friday #2: All Things Autumn

For your Friday… a sampling of Fall photos from around the farm!

Ok, I’m definitely growing this gorgeous heirloom Indian corn every year now. It grew ten feet tall, produced beautifully, and the colours were stunning — turquoise, lavender, mauve, periwinkle, neon yellow, brick red… I can’t wait to grind it into cornmeal for “homegrown” corn bread!

The heirloom apples practically pose for pictures. As do these little pears…

Everything is picked by hand… we’d have it no other way!

Auntie Maryann takes the farmer’s market seriously! (Not too seriously.)

The ladies on the veranda:

Cosmic Cosmos!

The Black Arkansas apples are almost ripe… yep, must be Autumn at last.

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Chili Power!

With the weather cooling and rain threatening, we’ve been in a frenzy of preserving lately! The peppers did especially well this year, thanks at least in part to the sun-shades we made by attaching empty chicken-feed sacks to the wire cages with clothespins. We usually lose half the fruits to sun scald, so it’s especially satisfying to have found a solution. Of course, the flip side is that we have twice as many peppers and chilies to deal with!

Last year I made some scrumptious pickled roasted peppers, and we put up pints and pints of pickled jalapeños, but with so much to do before the weather turns, we’re turning to speedy, simple methods this year to preserve everything in sight. I thought I should crawl out from under my heap of peppers for a few minutes to share some of my favourites!

Roasted Peppers for the Freezer

So simple, so good. You can do this with any amount of peppers, from just a few to a bushel full, and with just about any variety as well. Heat a gas grill to high, toss on your peppers, and grill, turning occasionally, until all sides are blackened and blistered. They’ll look dreadfully burnt; this is what you want! (If you don’t have a gas grill, you can do this in the oven as well — spread the peppers on a foil-lined sheet pan and pop them under the broiler.)

When the peppers are blackened on all sides, transfer them to a bowl and cover with a plate or some foil. Allow to sit for at least half an hour — the peppers will “sweat” in their own steam, loosening their skins. You can use them fresh, or freeze them to enjoy all winter long…

To freeze, spread peppers on foil-lined baking pans and place in the freezer. When they are completely frozen, transfer to zip-top freezer bags or containers. (This keeps the peppers from freezing into a solid block, as the tend to if you just toss them straight into the freezer bags without individually-freezing first.) Label everything right away — pepper varieties may look totally different fresh, but its often near-impossible to tell the anchos from the pimientos when they’re all black frozen blobs! To use, thaw the peppers, peel off the skin (running them under warm water makes this a snap), and remove the seeds.

Pimientos are divine when roasted — their firm flesh is ideal — but poblanos and even jalapeños are also excellent. We made smoked roasted jalapeños by wrapping apple twigs loosely in foil and placing on the grill directly over the flame — when the twigs start to smoke, add your jalapeños and close the lid. Check and turn them often, though, as small peppers can burn quickly. This method gives them just a hint of extra smokiness, and they make fantastic salsa, especially when combined with tomatoes roasted the same way! Just peel the chilies and tomatoes, add a bit of chopped onion and a pinch of salt, and whiz in a food processor until blended.

Thai Chili Paste

Thai chilies are one of my favourites to grow — they’re scorchingly hot, but once you get past that, they have a wonderfully fruity character. And one little plant will grow more chilies than you know what to do with! Fortunately, they lend themselves to preserving in several simple ways…

For chili paste, you’ll want either all red or all green chilies. Remove the stems and put them in a food processor. Add some sea salt: for every cup of chilies (packed), we use about a tablespoon of salt. That sounds like a lot, but trust me, you’re not going to eat this stuff by the spoonful! Process until you have a smooth paste, adding a few drops of water at a time if necessary. (Confession: I actually have one of those little “As Seen On TV” Magic Bullet machines — long story — but it is dynamite for making chili paste!)

Transfer the paste to glass jars and store in the refrigerator or freezer. And here’s the cool thing: refrigeration actually tames the heat of the paste, allowing the flavours to “bloom” and to stand out over the searing heat of the fresh chilies. The paste keeps up to a year refrigerated, longer frozen; try a spoonful in curries, chili, you name it!

You can go all-out and turn this into Thai-style curry paste, too: add ginger, garlic, shallot, lemongrass, cilantro, a dash of oil, and cut the salt back a bit as well. Scoop balls of paste onto waxed paper, freeze, and transfer to freezer bags or containers. (Don’t forget to label, or you’ll be racking your brain trying to figure out what these weird blobs are — cookies? — when you find them in the back of the freezer a year later….)

Oh, and of course there are always

Dried Chilies!

The easiest of all, especially if you have a dehydrator or a sunny day outside! Thai chilies and other small, thin-walled peppers are best for this. (Avoid whole thick-walled peppers like Bell, Pimiento, or Jalapeño peppers; they can spoil before they dry completely.) Anchos are another great drying pepper — pick ripe, glossy-red fruits, and make a slit down one side if you want them to dry a little faster. You can also string chilies with a needle and thread (through the stems) and hang them by the fire or in another warm spot.

Well, that’s enough to keep me busy for a few days — and enough chilies in their many forms to keep us warm all winter long!

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Foto Friday: Comice Pears

These Comice pears looked so lovely, lined up on an upturned lug box, catching the golden afternoon light, that I had to go fetch my camera before the sun sank an inch further. (Then they went promptly into a batch of pear bread pudding!)

The nice thing about pears is that there are so many varieties — we begin the season with Bartletts, bright and juicy, then wait for heirlooms like the breathtakingly beautiful Conseiller de la Cour, and finally harvest the late-season varieties like Comice and Winter Nellis. According to my grandfather, the winter pears used to be carefully packed for storage in wooden crates, nestled in straw. I just might try that this year with a few of the “Nellies” we picked yesterday…

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Making Things: Apple Cider

Autumn is here at last — there’s a lingering chill in the air, even on the sunniest days, and the soil is cold and damp. Time to plant fava beans and garlic, onions and cover crops, before it gets too cold for the little seeds to sprout. But first, it’s time for something that seems to be becoming a fall tradition for us: apple-cider making!

Cider-making is one of those things that are best done with company; we team up with our friends Paula and Eric, who have a beautiful little cider press. Last weekend we hauled 400 pounds of apples over to their backyard, where we spent a lovely morning chopping and crushing and pressing apples… and of course talking and cider-tasting and swapping mushroom-hunting and mead-making tips. Paula and Eric’s yard is completely entrancing, with their handmade ceramic sculptures tucked among the trees and bushes.


Pressing apple juice isn’t complicated, but it does take work! Friends Donna and Tom join us to help as well. We start by chopping the apples into quarters, so they run easily through the hand-cranked crusher. Sounds easy enough… until you calculate that there are several thousand apples sitting there in those lug boxes. And that’s just step one!

A mixture of Black Arkansas, Green Scrumptious, John’s Delicious, and Granny Smith apples gives a well-balanced juice, both sweet and tart.

Tom, Eric, and Tom run the crusher

Next, we dunk the apple chunks in a bath of citric acid and water to keep them from browning. The apple chunks then go into the hopper, where they head down the chute to the hand-cranked crusher. They’ll emerge at the bottom as a coarsely-ground mash, ready for pressing.

The crushed apples are then pressed to expel the juice. As fresh as you can get! The pressed-out apple mush piles up quickly, though the volume is far less than the apples we started with… we’ll add some to the compost, and give some to the chickens. The juice goes into clean jugs; Paula and Eric make delicious hard cider with most of theirs. We’ll make some cyser (cider mead) and freeze the rest for later.

Left: the hand-cranked crusher. Right: the leftovers.

Hard work, yes, but fun work, too — and ever so satisfying to go from this…

…to this!

When we finish, Paula conjures up a fabulous lunch, complete with  toasted homemade bread spread with homemade cheese and topped with dried cherry tomatoes. (Somehow, I neglected to take a photo of that!) We raise glasses of bubbly apple-pomegranate cider toast a good day’s work, and good friends, and all the bounty of Fall. Cheers!

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Brandied Pear Bread Pudding (and Pear Brandy, too)

So many pears! This is the time of year when we pick pears, carry pears, polish pears, sort pears, pack pears, sell pears, dry pears, eat pears…. every single day. It’s a short season, though — just about a month, really — so by the time you’re feeling slightly tired of pears, it’s almost time to start missing them. And that, to me, is precisely the joy of seasonal eating: nothing gets old. And everything, every bite, is wonderful. Which brings me to today’s recipe.

As soon as the weather begins to cool ever so slightly, it’s time to make my favourite brandied pear bread pudding — simple and cozy and delicious, the kind of recipe where every ingredient shines in its own right. Needless to say, it starts with good ingredients: a dense, crusty loaf of country-style French bread, or a rich challah; perfectly ripe pears; whole milk and fresh eggs for the custard; and, if you are lucky enough to have some in your pantry, pear brandy. We’ll get to the recipe in a moment, but first, about that brandy….

We always get a kick out of bringing one of these pears-in-a-bottle to the farmer’s market and setting it somewhere on our table. It never fails to set people to talking — and to tossing around all kinds of wild speculations on just how that pear got in there. “Did you light a match in the bottle, like with an egg?” “I know, you put a pear seed inside!” Of course, the real explanation is quite simple…. any guesses?

Growing a pear in a bottle (shhhh, it’s a secret!) is amusing enough on its own, but the real fun starts when the pear is ripe, and you fill up the bottle with brandy. The sugars and flavour of the fruit infuse the alcohol; we let the bottles sit for a good 6 months before opening them. Pear brandy makes a lovely after-dinner drink, and it’s a sublime baking ingredient. You can make a just-as-good, if not quite so spectacular, version by setting a ripe pear in a mason jar and topping it off with brandy. For this recipe, you can use regular brandy if you don’t have pear brandy ready-made, or even omit the brandy altogether. It lends a subtle and compelling warmth to the pudding, and the smell as it bakes is absolutely divine. I highly recommend the leftovers (should there be any) for breakfast!

Julia’s B-H Ranch Pear Bread Pudding

•  6 to 8 Bartlett pears (I like a mixture of firm-ripe and soft-ripe)
•  8 to 10 slices firm country-style French bread or challah
•  1 3/4 c milk (I use whole milk)
•  3 large eggs, beaten
•  2/3 c sugar, or a little less if you like it less sweet
•  1/4 c pear brandy (see note above)
•  1 tsp vanilla extract
•  1 tsp cinnamon
•  1/2 tsp nutmeg
•  1/4 c butter, melted and cooled a bit
•  1/4 c chopped walnuts (optional)
…and a deep 9″ square baking dish.

Preheat oven to 350°. Peel, core, quarter, and slice the pears into bite-size pieces. Slice the crusts off the bread and cut the bread into 1-inch cubes. Put the pears and bread into a large bowl and toss to mix.

Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, brandy, vanilla, and spices in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in the butter. Pour this over the bread and pears in the other bowl, gently stir/fold to coat everything evenly, and let stand for 20-30 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Turn the mixture after 10 to 15 minutes, being careful not to over-mix; you want the bread pieces to remain as intact as possible.

Pile bread mixture into a buttered baking dish (it will be very full; press gently to make it all fit.) If you like, sprinkle chopped walnuts over the top. Bake in a water bath at 350° for about an hour, or until set. (Check with a toothpick or the point of a knife.)

(To make a water bath: set the baking dish inside a larger baking dish, making sure there is room on all sides. Set the nested dishes on the oven rack and carefully pour boiling water into the outside dish, so that it fills one-half to two-thirds of the way up the inner pudding dish. If you fill it too high, boiling water may splash into your pudding, so don’t get too close to the rim of the inner dish. See the photo below if any of that sounds confusing… and don’t skip this step, as the water bath will keep the custard from curdling as it bakes. )

You may need to tent the pudding with foil if it looks like it is browning too quickly — if so, remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so of baking so the top gets nicely crisp. Serve with lightly-sweetened whipped cream (with an additional dash of pear brandy mixed in, if you like) or vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!

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Making Olives — Part Two

Being Greek, our family has made olives for generations. I have vivid memories of sitting in the wine cellar on chilly winter evenings, dunking into Papu’s gigantic ceramic crock with a long-handled ladle; fishing out briny, bright-green and scrumptious homemade olives, and (occasionally) eating so many as to spoil my appetite for dinner. Water-cured olives (see previous post) are a bit simpler to make, but lye-cured olives have a particularly rich, almost buttery flavor that make them well worth the extra effort. And, really, it’s a much shorter process than the weeks of soaking-and-draining necessary for water-curing; you’ll just need to set aside a day or so when you can tend your olives every few hours.

In the olden days, everyone around here would use Lewis Lye for making olives. Nowadays — at our local hardware store, anyhow — our friend Lewis has been replaced by a product with the rather alarming name of “Rooto.” It’s sold as a drain cleaner, and costs three or four dollars a bottle (plenty for several batches of olives.) Just make sure whatever kind you buy clearly specifies “100% Lye” or “sodium hydroxide” on the label. If it doesn’t, or if there are any other ingredients in the product, don’t buy it; go to another store and try again. Look for lye in crystal form — liquid or flakes may measure differently and throw off the recipe.

It goes against everything your mother, grandmother, and kindergarten teacher ever taught you to put something called “Rooto” — found in the drain-cleaner section of the hardware store — in (or even near) your food, and, yes, you should use caution here. Lye is nasty stuff, as the riot of warnings on the label will inform you. Read those, okay? Make sure that you only use glass, plastic, stainless steel, ceramic, or wooden containers and utensils for this project, as some metals can react with lye to produce hydrogen gas or poison your olives. It’s also highly corrosive, and can cause serious burns to skin. Treat it like bleach, and act accordingly: don’t touch it with bare hands, and if you are accident-prone, wear goggles and gloves to be safe. A short list of things that should be kept far away from lye:

• Aluminum, tin, and galvanized metal containers and utensils
• Skin and eyes
• Food (other than the olives, of course)
• Children
• Pets
• Clothing
• Anything you really value

All that being said, there’s really nothing to be afraid of when it comes to making lye-cured olives. Just use common sense and caution in handling the lye, and follow the directions, and you’ll be just fine. All the lye gets washed out of the olives by the time you finish them, so they are quite safe to eat — and you’ll be in good company with the Scandinavians and their lutefisk, or the Native Americans and their hominy, or even the Germans with their pretzels… (hey, olives aren’t the only food you can make with lye! Just don’t get carried away with the experiments.)

You’ll need mature green olives for this recipe. To make sure olives are ready to be picked, give one a squeeze; a milky white juice should show. A tree will usually have olives of various stages of ripeness on the same branch, so if there are some red or black fruits on the tree, their greener neighbours are probably mature enough to be picked.

Olive trees are often planted for their looks; these are the trees that spangle the sidewalk with smashed purple fruits come autumn. The next time you spot an olive tree heavy with fruit, ask its owners if you might pick a bucket or two — chances are, they would be only too thrilled if you would please take the entire crop, far, far away, and do with them whatever you like, just get those foul little things out of our yard… so, of course you must now call all your friends and have yourselves an olive-making party!

Lye-Cured Green Olives

That gigantic olive crock has gotten a little too cracked and pitted from so many years of lye and salt (not to mention age itself), so this year I’m using a five-gallon food-grade plastic bucket instead… it works just as well, even if it isn’t quite so nice, and will do the trick until I can find another crock (ideas, anyone?) Whatever your container, fill it about half full of olives — in this case, about 2 1/2 gallons of fruit.

This is a combination of my grandfather’s and uncle’s recipes for lye-cured olives. The lye soak takes anywhere from eight to twelve hours or longer, so plan carefully when you will start it. If you put your olives in to cure at 9 in the morning, they should be ready to rinse before bedtime; if you start them in the afternoon, you may be up all night checking them. After you have done a few batches and have an idea of what to expect, you could start them in the evening, let them soak overnight, and rinse them in the morning. Be sure to set up near a garden hose with household water, away from plants or lawns, preferably on gravel or pavement that you don’t mind getting a bit stained temporarily (the lye darkens everything it touches, but this should eventually wash away.)

ingredients and supplies:
• Mature green olives (once again, even size and ripeness is important; you want them all to finish curing at the same time)
• 2/3 cup lye (100% pure)
• 2 1/4 gallons cold water
• Two ceramic, glass, or plastic containers — five gallons is a good manageable size — one for olives, the other to mix lye and brine in
• Lid for container, or piece of plywood or similar to cover
• Wooden, plastic, or stainless steel long-handled spoon and tongs
• Old washcloth or other small piece of fabric (white or undyed; colors may leach)
• Colander (plastic or stainless)
• Rubber gloves (and goggles if you like)
• Garden hose with household/potable water
• Stainless steel knife

Rinse and drain the olives; place them in the bucket you want to make them in. Pour 2 1/4 gallons cold water into your mixing bucket, and sprinkle the lye over the surface. Use the long-handled spoon to mix well, being careful not to splash. The lye will sink to the bottom and form a crust; be sure to scrape this up and dissolve it thoroughly into the water.

The lye will heat the water as it dissolves; if you start with very cold water, it won’t be too warm for the olives (you don’t want to cook them.) If the outside of the bucket feels warm, check the temperature — it’s OK if the mixture is below 70°. Otherwise, allow it to cool before proceeding.

Pour the lye solution over the olives and stir. If you have extra lye solution left, pour it down a household drain — never near plants or down a storm drain.

For the first hour, stir the olives every fifteen minutes to prevent them from blistering in the lye. After that, stir every hour or two. Cover the surface with a washcloth or other piece of fabric; this will keep the olives from darkening with air contact. (Use the tongs to position the cloth.)

After about four hours, fish out one of the olives with your spoon, rinse it well, and slice it open to the pit. You’ll notice a ring of yellow-green flesh around the outside, while the inside will be a creamy white. The yellow area is where the lye has penetrated, while the white has not yet been reached — eventually, you want the entire inside to be yellow. Check a couple olives again after six hours, and continue to check every hour after that.

The yellow areas will darken to brown with air exposure, making it easier to see how deeply the lye has penetrated. The olive on the left has been in the solution for four hours, while the one on the far right is almost finished, after nine hours. This batch of olives took about 9 1/2 hours total to soak; when the olives start to sink, instead of float, you’ll know they are almost done.

As soon as the olives are completely yellow inside — check three or four of different sizes — carefully pour off the lye solution, wearing rubber gloves. (We covered the top of the bucket with a large colander and inverted the entire thing.) Rinse several times with clean water, until the water is no longer brownish.

Now that the lye has leached the bitterness out of the olives, you’ll need to leach out the lye. This can take several days to a week, depending on your method and the size of the olives. We stick a garden hose all the way to the bottom of the bucket, set it on a slow trickle, and place the bucket lid or a piece of wood ajar on top to keep out leaves and curious critters. If you don’t want to leave your water running, you could also just fill the bucket with water and then change the water several times a day; this method may take a bit longer. Either way, give them a stir once in a while, and slice into an olive occasionally after a day or so to see if it still feels soapy or slippery inside.

When the water no longer looks brownish, yellowish, or pinkish — after at least several days — slice open an olive and carefully taste it. When you can no longer detect any lye (it has a soapy taste), drain the olives and mix the brine:

Fill your mixing bucket with water — as much as you used to mix the lye, in this case 2 1/4 gallons — and add salt, stirring to dissolve thoroughly, until an egg (unboiled) floats in the brine, with a dime-size area of shell showing above the surface. Pour brine over olives and allow to set for at least several days before eating; you may wish to rinse the olives or soak them for a few hours in water to remove some of the salt before eating them. They may be portioned into pint mason jars and marinated with oil, vinegar, and/or whatever herbs you like — my uncle John makes fantastic olives with garlic and lemon, and oregano or thyme, or even chilies would also be delicious. Keep marinated olives in the refrigerator; your regular olives may be stored, in brine, for months in the fridge or even just in a cool place. (If the olives in brine start to feel a bit “slimy,” drain them and add a new batch of brine; the olives are good as long as they remain firm in texture.)

* * *

Making lye-cured olives isn’t scary or dangerous or even all that complicated — it just takes a bit of caution and patience, and the results are well worth every bit of work that goes into them! The UC Extension publication “Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling” has plenty of information on lye-curing olives, including safety tips and instructions for canning or freezing your olives. It can be downloaded for free here: http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/Olives/8267.aspx

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