Category Archives: preserving

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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Filed under around the farm, autumn, homestead how-to, making things, preserving, recipes

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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Filed under autumn, homestead how-to, making things, preserving

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!


Filed under autumn, farmer's market, homestead how-to, making things, preserving, recipes, summer

Making Things: Lemon Frozen Greek Yogurt

It’s pouring rain today, but that won’t stop me from posting ice cream recipes! It has finally been acting like a proper summer here in the foothills… until today, that is, when we had a spectacular all-afternoon downpour that sent the chickens running for shelter and completely flooded the new duck pond I’d just finished building this morning (more on that later!) Of course, the rain is great for the seeds I planted, at long last, in my flower garden; and, really, it does cool things off ever so nicely. That’s the only catch: It no longer feels quite so much like ice cream weather — but in a few days things will heat up again, no doubt, and that’s where this recipe comes in!

So: my favourite new ice cream recipe, I think. Which is saying something, as I love love love making ice cream. My sweetheart gave me a super-duper electric ice cream maker a couple years ago for my birthday — boy, does he know me! — and I’ve been fascinated with the making of frosty confections ever since. Electric ice cream makers are genius, by the way; the old-fashioned hand cranked model has its nostalgic charms, sure, but how often do you actually feel like using the thing? Maybe once a summer? Fast forward to the ‘lectric version — just switch it on, toss in your ingredients, and let it do the rest. Et voilá: homemade ice cream whenever you like! On a whim! Got some extra strawberries? You know what to do!

Now, once you’re set up with your nifty machine, it can be tempting to go a little crazy with the ice cream thing. So many possibilities! But after a few rich, cream-heavy, custard based concoctions and complicated all-day recipes, you might be looking for something a little lighter — and simpler. How simple? Well, if you happen to have some lemon curd on hand, it’s just a matter of stirring together three ingredients and switching on the machine. No lemon curd? Don’t despair — it’s easy to make, and you can always buy a jar in a pinch…. but, if you have the time, absolutely do try making some from scratch! The recipe here comes straight from my dear friend Thea, who hails from the Magical Land of Lemons and Citrus, a.k.a. Penryn, California (a few short miles down the road from us, and a few very crucial degrees warmer in climate.) It’s absolutely heavenly folded together with whipped cream and dolloped on angel-food cake or with fresh berries, so by all means, do make extra. As Thea says, it lasts refrigerated for about a week — but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep everyone away from it for that long!

So, on to the recipes! The frozen yogurt is super simple and so addictive — it’s perfect for the summer party when you want to make something dressy for dessert but don’t want to turn on the oven or spend all day on it. And to top it off, it’s yogurt, after all; you could argue that it’s quite healthy. What are you waiting for? Whip up a batch and dig in!

Lemon Frozen Greek Yogurt

The measurements for this recipe are all pretty loose; no need to get out the measuring cups if you can eyeball an approximate 2/3 cup of lemon curd. I haven’t yet tried it with low- or non-fat yogurt, but I suspect it would work well with those, too. I do wish I had a better photo here, but as you can see, the ice cream was almost gone by the time I got out my camera!

• 3 cups (24 oz) Greek-style yogurt  (I use “The Greek Gods” brand, Traditional Plain style; you could use any full-fat Greek yogurt.)
• 2/3 cup lemon curd (see recipe below)
• 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar  (to taste, and depending on how sweet your lemon curd is)
• Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Stir together yogurt, lemon curd, and 1/3 cup sugar until smooth. Freeze in your ice cream mixer according to its instructions — it takes about half an hour to freeze in mine (an electric Cuisinart). Stir in lemon zest just before you turn off the machine (or stop cranking the thing, if you’re doing it the old-fashioned way!)

Scrape the ice cream out of the machine into a chilled bowl or container. Cover tightly and freeze for at least a couple hours before serving. For the best scoopability, remove the ice cream from the freezer a few minutes before serving. It’s lovely on its own, but if you’d like to gild the lily a bit, add a sprinkling of fresh blueberries, drizzle with honey and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Thea’s Lemon Curd

A very rich, tangy, egg-thickened custard great on toast, as a cake filling, etc.

• 4 egg yolks
• 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
• 1/3 cup granulated sugar (or to taste)
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
• Grated zest of 1 lemon (if you like)

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a small saucepan or the top of a double boiler. The double boiler takes a little longer, but it’s safer – you’re less likely to overcook the eggs or burn the custard, both of which are easy to do!

So, in your vessel of choice, add the lemon juice and butter to the sugar and eggs. Cook it over low heat (if you’re just using a pan, use the lowest possible heat!), whisking until the butter melts to get everything mixed well.

After the butter is melted, I usually switch to a spoon to stir with, since it’s easier to get into the corners. Keep stirring, frequently with a double boiler or constantly with a saucepan. Make sure to scrape the bottom and sides to keep it from sticking. The mixture will be frothy at first, but that will go away as the custard starts to thicken.

Cook it until it is thick enough so that when you lift a spoon out of it the back of the spoon stays coated, and you can draw a line through it with your finger that doesn’t go away. You don’t want it to boil at all (keep stirring!), but it often starts to bubble just about when it’s done. It will thicken more as it cools. You don’t want the custard to be lumpy, which happens if the eggs get overdone.

If you see a few lumps, you can pour the curd through a sieve. After that, add the lemon zest. If it’s not sweet enough for you at this point, you can add a little more sugar and stir it in too. Let it cool in a bowl with waxed paper or greased parchment sitting directly on the surface of the curd – this keeps it from forming a skin. Some people use plastic wrap instead.

Keep it in a jar in the fridge – it keeps for about a week, but it doesn’t usually stay around that long in my house!
Bon appetit!

Thanks, Thea, for the fabulous recipe!


Filed under making things, preserving, recipes, spring, summer

In the garden: Fava beans

Have you been to the farmer’s market lately? Cherries, raspberries, lettuce, the earliest peaches… it’s a feast for the senses! And among all those springtime delights, you may spot these giant, bulbous green pods:

What are they? Favas! Or Koukiá, as we call them in Greek. A remarkable-yet-remarkably-underappreciated bean. They are very easy to grow, they’re one of the first springtime vegetables, and they’re delicious — and yet, it does take some searching to find fava beans. I’ve seen them a few times in the grocery store (usually in very small quantity), but by and large, if you want to get your hands on some of these tasty legumes, you’ll have to grow them yourself or go to the farmer’s market. Life is hard, huh?

And as much as I love, love, love the farmer’s market — our local markets are fantastic — I’m all for the backyard plot on this one! Not only are favas simple to grow, they also have lovely sweetpea-scented flowers and, being a legume, they’re great for the soil. You can even grow them (or their cousin, bell bean) as a cover crop; just be sure to cut and compost or till them in before they start to bloom for the highest nutrient level.

See, they’re just such happy-looking plants! We plant the seeds in the fall, usually November or thereabouts, when the rains begin but it isn’t yet too chilly out. They grow all winter long, getting taller and taller — by harvest time, the topmost leaves (which, incidentally, are edible and tasty when young) are brushing my shoulders. We plant them in a block and fence the plot on all sides with chicken wire, about two feet high; it keeps hungry critters like rabbits away from the young sprouts, and when the plants get taller, it provides just enough support to keep them from falling over. Which they absolutely will, if you let them.

They’re also abundant producers. Our fava patch this year was about 6 by 8 feet, and we ended up with a tremendous harvest — I’m guessing 20 to 25 gallons of beans in the shell. Of course, there is one catch with fava beans: they’re mostly shell! The beans themselves are wrapped in a tough, spongy-textured pod, and it can take quite a lot of time to shell them if you don’t have help… so, like many things of this nature, it’s really best as a communal activity! Round up a few friends and make some lemonade — you’ll find it’s quite pleasant work that way.

Here they are, ready to shell. That’s just a small fraction of the crop! (And, yes, that bucket does say “for FOOD” on it, to distinguish it form the many other buckets for dirt, fertilizer, etc around here.) There are a handful of tricks for getting the beans out of the pod; I usually snap off one end, “unzip” the little strings along the sides, and then pop the shell open along its length. Everyone has their own technique:

Once you have the bean out of the pod, flick off that little “cap” on the end:

Annnnd, the final bean-to-shell ratio. Take heart — those empty pods will do wonders for your compost pile!

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Most fava-bean recipes will tell you to take the shelled beans, dip them in boiling water, and then shell them again, removing the peel that surrounds each individual bean. By the time you do this, you’ll be wondering why you even started in the first place — a bushel of beans will result in a handful! But the Greeks know that this is silly: why, after you’ve gone to all the work of growing those beans, should you throw most of your harvest away? Stew them up with some lamb and tomato, or blanch and freeze them ’til Summer to add to eggplant, zucchini, okra, and tomato with some dill — as long as you pick the beans while they’re tender, there is no reason you have to peel and toss that inner shell. You might want to for certain dishes, but it’s by no means a necessity! (An interesting bit of koukiá history here.)

Ragout of fresh favas with artichokes from Bob Roan and Teri Ueki, with our own dried tomatoes and spanakorizo (rice with spinach, Greek-style) …. mmm-mmm!

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Filed under around the farm, farmer's market, homestead how-to, in the garden, preserving, recipes, spring, Winter

Making Things: The Best Homemade Corned Beef Ever!

I’m a little bit obsessed with making things. Food things in particular. Especially the ones that we’re all used to buying from the grocery store. Bacon, olives, cheese, soda pop, marshmallows — they just turn up on the shelf, in jars and cans and packages, and that’s that — right?

Well, of course not; if you’ve ever planted a garden or cooked a meal you’re aware of that. Most of us (I hope) are. But what we are so often unaware of is the process that goes into making these things. And that’s what I’ve gotten hopelessly hooked on: the process.

When you start making things like cheese or sauerkraut or olives, you become immediately, profoundly aware that these foods weren’t developed simply because they are tasty or go well with a sandwich: They grew out of the age-old need to preserve seasonal foods for the rest of the year. That became particularly clear to me the first time I made a batch of cheese — I had never really thought of milk as a seasonal food, like strawberries or tomatoes, but it most certainly is. Hence, cheese.

(My obsession, so idyllically grounded in exploration of age-old foodways, took a diversion into frivolity over the holidays this year, when I found myself compelled to replicate Hostess Sno Balls — chocolate cupcakes, marshmallow coating, ground coconut, cream filling… the works. They were indeed delicious, although they took me the better part of three days to make! I would guess that the development of Sno Balls was probably in no way linked to the need for food preservation, though you know what they say about the indestructible nature of Twinkies…)

homemade sno-balls: worth the work? …yes. definitely.

Winter is a lovely time to dip one’s toes in the waters of Making Things — sweet cabbages abound at the farmer’s market for sauerkraut, citrus galore for lemon curd and candied peel, and the cold, wet weather make indoor projects all the more appealing. My current fixation: Corned Beef!

I made my first home-cured corned beef last year, and it looks to be becoming a new tradition around here. What with the horror stories surrounding “mystery beef” and the toxic qualities of nitrate/nitrite, store-bought corned beef looked to be a thing of the past at our St. Patrick’s Day table — and I couldn’t have that!

So, what to do? We checked out the pricey cuts at nearby natural-foods markets, but that seemed to be a bit much for what we thought of, up til then, as a bit of a novelty meal. I consulted a few cookbooks, found several recipes for home-made corned beef, and decided to give it at try. We went to our local butcher shop, picked out a nice beef brisket, and proceeded with the recipe. Five days later, bam — the best corned beef we had ever tasted! Fantastically flavorful, not too salty, spiced just so. A world apart from the store-bought stuff. We raved about it for days.

And the best part is: it’s surprisingly simple to make! A dry-rub of salt and spices is less messy than the usual pot-of-brine method, you only need to check on it once every day or two, and the ingredients (other than the meat) are likely things you have in your pantry already. This post is a bit late this year to have it ready for St. Patrick’s, but don’t let that stop you — it’s fantastic any day!

Best-Ever Homemade Corned Beef

Why “corned?” The name apparently derives from Old English: “corns” of coarse salt were originally used to preserve the meat. We’re using kosher salt, but otherwise, the method here is more or less the same as the one used hundreds — even thousands — of years ago.

Many recipes, as well as most commercial corned beef products, contain saltpeter (potassium nitrate) as a preservative and colour enhancer. This is what gives store-bought corned beef its bright pink hue, but it’s really not necessary — and a Google search will reveal hundreds of articles on the detrimental health effects of nitrates in processed foods. (Besides, saltpeter isn’t exactly something you can just pick up at your average grocery store, and it’s an ingredient in gunpowder! Yum, right?) The good news is that you can make perfectly fine corned beef without it, as we’re doing here.


• Beef brisket — ours was about 5 pounds
• 1/2 cup kosher salt
• 1 Tb freshly-ground black pepper
• 2 tsp paprika
• 2 tsp coriander seeds, crushed, or 1 tsp ground coriander
• 1 tsp mustard seeds
• 1 tsp powdered mustard
• 1/8 tsp ground cloves or allspice
• 2 large bay leaves, crumbled

(This is the spice mix I use — you can certainly vary it to suit your tastes.)

You will also need:
• a large plastic bag, such as a zip-top freezer bag
• a sharp bamboo skewer
• a baking dish large enough to hold the brisket

If you are lucky enough to have a local butcher shop, by all means buy your beef there! We used a lovely brisket from Longhorn Meats here in Auburn — they even cut it to order for us. Ask the butcher to trim off most of the fat, or trim it yourself before you get started. The salt curing tenderizes tough-yet-flavorful cuts, such as brisket; and, of course, it bears mentioning that if you’re going to put in the time and effort on a project like this, it’s worthwhile to start out with the very best ingredients you can find!

1. Combine all spices with the kosher salt in a small bowl.

2. Lay the brisket on a baking sheet, cutting board, or other work surface. With the bamboo skewer, poke holes all over the brisket, about an inch apart, clear through the piece of meat. Turn brisket and repeat on other side.

3. Sprinkle a handful of the salt rub over the brisket, and rub in thoroughly. You’ll want to sort of “massage” the salt into the meat with your fingertips. Repeat until both sides of the brisket are evenly coated, and all the salt mixture has been used.

4. Place the brisket in the plastic bag — you might need an extra set of hands to do this — and seal the bag, squeezing out most of the excess air. Place the bagged brisket in the baking dish.

5. Now, just park the dish in the refrigerator — and don’t forget about it! The salt will draw the juices out of the meat; turn the brisket every day or two so both sides spend equal time in the juices. We leave ours to cure for about five days. If your brisket is particularly thick, say two inches or more, you might want to give it an extra day or two.

When you are ready to cook the corned beef, remove it from the bag and soak in cold water for a couple of hours, changing the water once or twice. This helps to draw out the excess salt. You can now proceed with your favorite corned-beef-and-cabbage recipe — the farmer’s market is a great place to pick up the requisite carrots, onions, and potatoes.


Don’t forget the Guinness and soda bread

And the leftovers make a sublime sandwich — especially when paired with local marble rye and homemade sauerkraut!


Filed under farmer's market, homestead how-to, making things, preserving, recipes, spring, Winter

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.)

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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:

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