Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Canning 101

Canning is something we can all get into.  You don’t need to have a huge garden to can fresh fruits and veggies.  Last week I posted a few tips and tricks to getting the best produce from your local farmers market.  Those fresh fruits and veggies are perfect to can for enjoyment all winter long.  

If you are new to preserving food, canning is a great place to start but it can also seem a bit intimidating.    There are so many books and websites out there to help get you started, and asking around your community will bring a wealth of information and maybe a few new friends!  I made two different batches of jelly over the weekend and remembered a few tricks you won’t find in the books.

First off, befor you even wash your produce, make sure you are ready to can from start to finish and you have plenty of time.  You never want to put a time limit on preserving food.  My kitchen is not set up well for canning (The sink and stove are separated by a large island) so I have to make sure I am completely prepared befor I get started or else I will be wasting a ton of time walking in circles.  I clear and wash the counters next to my sink and stove as well as the island.  I prepare my jars and rings in a bath of hot water in my sink and my lids in a small pot of hot water.  Make sure you prepare more jars than you think you will use.  I always end up with at least one extra jars worth of jam.  I also make sure I have all my tools out and ready for use.  Canning without all the special tongs/magnets/headspace ruler is certainly possible but buying a set of canning utensils is inexpensive and will take some stress out of the process.  

If you are making jams or jellies, you have some options on how you want it to come out.  Do you want large chunks of fruit or no chunks at all?  I prefer a smoother jam without chunks of fruit so I send everything through a blender or food processor befor I start cooking.  For a chunkier jam you can use a potato masher or spoon to crush up your fruit.  For a more Jelly type product you will need a cheese cloth type strainer to sift out all the seeds and chunks.  

This next tip is something I have not personally tried, but it has been mentioned by a handful of people that swear by it so I will share it with y’all.  As you are cooking your jam, add a tablespoon of butter.  This is supposed to reduce the amount of foam at the end of the process.  I don’t mind skimming foam off my jam befor ladling it into jars, I actually find it a little therapeutic. 

The final few steps of canning are best done with assistance but I have accomplished the entire process solo.  It is important that you only do one jar at a time, using an assembly line type process could compromise the integrity of your product.  Always put hot liquid into hot jars to avoid cracking your jars.  Take one jar at a time, fill to the proper headspace (your recipe will tell you how much headspace you need and it is important to follow these guidelines so your jars will seal properly), wipe off the rim so your lid has a clean surface to seal to, center the lid and screw on the ring.  Once all your jars are filled and closed, place them in your caner and process for the recommended period of time.  Some recipes require a pressure caner but a boiling water caner will work great for most recipes and it is much easier to start off using.  

My absolute favorite part of canning is at the very end.  I love to hear the *ping pop* sound of my jars sealing.  After your jars have cooled, press down on the center of each lid.  If there is any movement, that jar did not seal and the contents should be consumed as soon as possible.  For all your sealed jars, which are hopefully all of them, tighten the rings and store them in a cool/dry place.

All there is to do now is clean up your mess and enjoy your fresh jam all year long!  I have only had the opportunity to can jam and salsa on my own but I plan on doing much more as the season progresses and the years go on.  As I come across more tips and tricks I will be sure to share them with y’all, and if any of you have tips to share feel free to leave a comment.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Farmers Markets

Today is the first farmers market of the summer, for my little town at least, and I am uber excited!!  For the second year in a row I have failed to plant a garden so I have to rely on local farmers for my fresh produce this summer.  For those of you that may not have the space to grow your own veggies, or those like me that have the space but still manage to end up garden less, the local farmers market is the best place to get fresh fruits and veggies.  In this post I will share with y’all some tips on getting the best produce you can.

First off, everyone needs to realize that not all fruits and veggies are in season at the same time and all summer long.  When buying produce at the grocery store it is easy to forget that there are growing seasons for different plants.  Since the grocery can ship produce from all over the world, they are able to stock every fruit and veggie all year long.  At the farmers market, you will not find that same practice.  The fruits and veggies you see at the first market of the season will be very different than those you see at the last market.  With green houses becoming more prevalent on family farms, there will be a larger variety for a longer time but there will still be restrictions.  For instance, I won’t find jalapeno peppers at my farmers market until much later in the season but I can go to the local grocery store today and see an entire bushel.

When buying produce, don’t go overboard.  If you don’t plan to eat/can/freeze the fruits and veggies within a week, wait to purchase them.  Some fruits and veggies have a longer shelf life but most should be used within a week, or sooner.  Here is a great resource I found on on how long produce will last 

There are tips and tricks to buying the best produce at your market.  Look, feel, and smell every fruit or veggie you plan to buy (not necessary for berries and grapes but you want to get a good look at the bunch) to check for ripeness and any sign of spoilage.  Each different fruit or veggie has different criteria that should be looked at befor purchasing.  I got this list at and find it very useful.  While not every single fruit and veggie is listed, these are some of the more common ones. 
  1. Buy sweet corn early in the morning. Sugar converts to starch as freshly picked corn sits unrefrigerated. The sweetest corn should be purchased early and promptly refrigerated.
  2. Store tomatoes stem end up, as it grows on the vine. Tomatoes continue to ripen after picking, so don’t worry about green at the top, and never store tomatoes in the refrigerator, as they will quickly lose flavor.
  3. Your nose knows the best cantaloupe. Sniff the stem end – it should have a distinctive melon aroma.
  4. Check the bottom of the container when buying blackberries or raspberries. It shouldn’t be stained or moist. Berries don’t ripen after picking, so look for ones that are full and plump and don’t wash berries until you’re ready to use them.
  5. Cucumbers should be completely green on the outer skin. They begin to turn yellow as they age.
  6. Eggplant should be shiny and heavy for the size. Pass on wrinkled ones.
  7. Peaches, apricots and nectarines will continue to ripen after picking. Buy them at various stages of ripeness so you don’t have to quickly use all of them at once.
  8. Strawberries do not continue to ripen after harvest, so choose ones that are completely red all the way to the cap.
  9. Okra should be no longer than 5 inches to taste best. Long, large okra will be tough, so go small. Never wash the veggie until you’re ready to use it, or it will become shiny.
  10. Winter squash varieties keep well if stored in a cool, dry place. Look for ones with no cuts in the skin or soft spots.
Now is the time to start getting out to the farmers markets to buy your fresh produce.  If you follow these simple guidelines you will be in for a delicious summer.  And the freshest produce is the best to can so you and your family can enjoy your summer favorites all year long!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Summer Salads

Every summer I spend countless amounts of time trying to come up with delicious food that doesn’t require a lot of cooking.  I certainly don’t live in the hottest part of the country, but it still reaches 90 here in the middle of July.  I don’t know about y’all, but slaving in front of a hot stove on a 90 degree day is not exactly my idea of a fun time.  Anywho, over the years I have found some amazing summer salads that require very little cooking.  Some don’t require turning the stove on at all!!  There are the classic macaroni, pasta, and potato salads as well as a few new ones I have tried and loved.  Over the next few months I will share my favorite summer recipes.  I will start with a classic – 

Topher’s Pasta Salad

1lb Tricolored Rotini

2 Large Bell Peppers (I like one red and one green)

1 large Cucumber
1 Large Head of Broccoli
Cherry or Grape Tomatoes


Swiss Cheese

Cheddar Jack Cheese

Zesty Italian Dressing

Cook pasta according to directions on box.  Chop up remaining ingredients.  Toss everything together in a large bowl.  

I love this salad because it is super easy to make, my son gets to help, and it always tastes better the next day!

The brand of ingredients will change the flavor of your salad so try a bunch of different ones until you find what you like best.  The amount of dressing you use will also depend on your personal taste.  I like a nice moist, zesty pasta salad but you may prefer one that is drier or more or less spicy.  I also love to use veggies fresh from the garden or local farmers market.  Fresh vegetables taste fantastically better than produce that has flown across the continent. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Walk a Mile...

For this post I am simply sharing with y'all a few quotes from fellow fans of a wonderful group of women I am a part of.  These are not my personal thoughts, however I agree with both of these women.  They seem to be giving different sides of a similar idea but both women make some fantastic points. 

"She should stop whining and put her big girl panties on".
"She needs to get used to it!"
"She should stop complaining! She knew what she was getting in to!"

All of these things are what I hear far too often. So often we forget that none of us lead the same life and none of us have the same heart. None of us have the same relationships. None of us know what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. We all fight our own battles. We all deal with things differently. Most importantly, we ALL make mistakes. All of us here are going through, have been through, or are getting ready to go through a very long separation and that gives us all a bond more special than most. We know what it feels like to be so lonely we don't want to leave the house. We know what it feels like to ignore our friends calls because we just feel like a shell that is empty... With nothing to say. But we all know how to pick ourselves up and say no more. No more will deployment make you into this person you don't ever know. Get up, put your makeup on, even if its just to go to the grocery, or watch a football game at home. Don't let this beat you. Enjoy your life. And whenever you get the chance... Reach out your hand to someone who is struggling, that you may not understand, but you know they could use a friend. ♥ Steph

**Written by Steph, administrator at Operation Stand By Your Man**

"Many people will say "You chose this life, why complain about it". Being a person that loves someone in the military, we often are quick to judge that statement. I have heard people say, 'I never chose this life, I chose him, this just came along with the deal'. Well, I did chose this life. We all chose this life. Every single day we wake up. We stand beside the person we love, and loving someone is always a choice. It is not OUR choice to be HANDED the cards of distance, anger, loneliness, frustration, but we chose to DEAL with these hardships. We make a choice to stay with our love in the military even through nights of tears. When they miss important dates. When all you need is that one hug, but they aren't there. Some may say it's not worth it. Or they "couldn't deal with it". But we chose to keep going, we chose to keep loving and living. Why? In my opinion, because the choice makes you stronger. And when two people get stronger, so does their love. That final moment when you haven't seen your love in weeks, months, ect, and you see their face. You run and hug them and let out a HUGE sigh of relief. It feels like you have breathed new air. Love doesn't know barriers. Love doesn't know distance. I DO make a CHOICE everyday, and that is to love and stand by my love in the military."
**Written by an Anonymous fan of Operation Stand By Your Man**

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Duck Shelter!

I posted recently about the awesomeness of the new ducklings I brought home.  About a week ago I finally finished putting up their pen and they have officially moved out of my kitchen.  So far they are surviving happily outside and no predators have gotten to any of them.  And amazingly, none of them have escaped!  

But anywho, I figured I would share with y'all some photos of my duck pen that I am uber proud of!!

This was a super easy pen to build.  All I used were some good quality pallets, garden stakes to stabilize, cage wire, an extra piece of metal roofing, and gate hinges and latches.  The whole thing went up in a day with the help of my almost 5yo son and it keeps my 6 ducks contained and happy with plenty of room for more!  

At some point I will build a more permanent *coop* for the ducks but even if they start laying this year I wont have far to search for eggs.  This is a great little starter pen and I can spend lots of time designing and building the perfect housing structure for a small flock.  I also hope to get a small pond dug out befor winter so they have more space to swim than the tiny kiddie pool we are using at the moment. 

I will be sure to keep y'all posted on the progress of my ducks.  And if anyone is interested in trying duck eggs just let me know, I will be more than happy to share!