Friday, August 19, 2011

Adventures in Canning

And they're off!
It's official - I don't have babies anymore.  Truth is, I haven't had a baby for a long time but I've been living in denial and everyone has just been too nice to say anything.  But, Evan turned 5 on Tuesday and he started Kindergarten today.  Charlotte started first grade and Catie entered third grade yesterday.  There's just no way to pretend all this isn't happening.  Do you think that's why we got a puppy?  A subconcious desire to fill the empty nest?  Distraction is a good thing.

So, I'm taking on a new distraction - canning.  Our fig trees have produced a bumper crop of figs seemingly overnight (and there are more coming) and I've been taught yet another lesson about farm life.  When the fruit is ready, you better be ready, because it's not going to wait for you to research what to do with 300 figs.  Figs ripen fast and they get over-ripe fast.  And the birds and squirrels and chickens all love figs so I'm in a race with them as well.  To make matters worse, figs don't ripen once you pick them, so you can't pick them early.  AND, they only last, fresh, 2-3 days after picking, so there's really not much time to "fig"ure it out.  I know, sorry.  

Turns out there's quite a lot you can do with fresh figs.  If you've never had a fresh fig - get your hands on some.  I'd never had them outside of Fig Newtons and frankly, that's the same thing as never having had one.  Fresh figs are delicate fruits, gently sweet with a texture unique to itself.  There are tons of seeds, but they're tiny and rather than being gritty they simply impart a slight graininess that is really pleasant.  Figs can be canned whole or sliced, made into a honeyed tea compote, dried, baked into cakes and made into fig butter and preserves.  Lots of fabulous stuff.  I don't have that kind of time so I'm just picking one thing.  I'm going to attempt to make fig preserves.  

I've never canned anything before - ever.  My mother canned vegetables.  I remember her putting up green beans for winter.  I'm sure she did other vegetables as well, but for some reason it's the green beans I remember.  It always frightened me a little - the big pressure cooker, all the sterilized jars and tongs and lids, laid out on clean towels.  It was like a surgical procedure and I stayed out of the way.  She never, as far as I know, made preserves.  I have a vague recollection of tomatoes.  But, the point is, I have no previous personal experience or even first hand observation experience with this task, so this should be interesting.

First - sterilize the jars and lids.  In days of yore, you had to boil them.  Lucky me, I have a dishwasher with a sanitize setting.  I'm doing small jars of fig jam (4 and 8 oz).  I am planning to give out jars of fig jam to everyone I know because I'm THAT confident that this is going to turn out wonderfully.  And if not, at least each person will only have to throw away a small jar of it, right?

Next, I chopped up the figs.  Based on the numbers of figs needed for one batch, it looks like I'll be making about 4 batches of jam.  I'm going to need more jars.  I didn't chop them very small because they'll obviously break down when cooked and it would be great to have a little chunk
of fig here and there in the jam.  According to my research (asking Brendan) there's no need to peel the figs.  But, Brendan's never made preserves either so we'll see if that was good advice.

Figs are low in pectin (which is sort of like gelatin and makes the jam set up) so you have to add it, either by mixing in a high pectin fruit or powdered pectin.  I went with powdered because the last thing I need around here is more fruit!

I was really surprised at how quick and easy it was to make the jam itself.  Why haven't I ever done this before??  For those of you playing our game at home, here's the recipe:

Fig Jam
4-5 cups chopped figs (wash gently with cold water, de-stem and remove bottoms)
1 pkg pectin (I used the regular kind but you can get no-sugar pectin)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice
6 1/2 cups sugar

Mix pectin with 1/4 cup sugar.  Put chopped figs, water, lemon juice, and pectin/sugar mixture into a pot and bring to a boil.  When at a full boil, add the remaining 6 1/4 cups of sugar.  Stir well and bring back to a boil.  Boil hard for 1 minute then remove from heat.  Use a cold metal spoon (keep it in ice water) to get a small sample of jam.  Let it cool for a couple of minutes and see if the consistency is what you wish.  If not, add more pectin (1/5 pkg or so) and bring back to a hard boil for 1 more minute, then test again.  Once desired consistency is reached, let stand for 5 minutes then stir well.  Ladle into hot, sterilized jars and top with rings and lids.  Place full jars into a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  Let cool overnight.

I made the first batch of jam last night - 16, 4oz jars.  15 of them sealed properly, but one did not.  This is not a huge problem.  It just means that jam needs to be eaten now rather than put up in storage.  Brendan and I tried the jam this morning and it was really good.  The color is a transparent reddish pink and the flavor is perfectly figgy.  It will be wonderful on biscuits or scones - yum!

View of pieces of fig in jam
Waiting for their water bath

The verdict?  Making jam is super easy and you should all try it.  I will warn you that it is hot work and I do mean absolutely miserably hot.  The jam is cooking, the jars are hot, and there's a gigantic pot of boiling water on the stove.  I was drenched by the time I was finished last night but steam is good for your skin, right?  Also, when the jam is at a full boil, it can bubble and pop like a volcano and hot lava is a pretty good analogy for what boiling sugar feels like on your skin - so be careful about that.

Based on the first batch, I will have 48 jars of jam by the end of today.  I hope y'all like jam because a lot of you will be getting some soon!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dogs and Deja Vu

Brendan has been lobbying for a puppy since the day we closed on the farm.  If it were up to him we'd have six dogs and they'd be sleeping in bed with us.  I have steadfastly refused his pleas, arguing that we need to at least install an invisible fence before getting another dog.  I also point out that we have a history of acquiring naughty dogs.

Sadie is our current dog.  She's a seven year old standard collie and is generally well behaved but for a few exceptions.  Sadie chases deer and we are lousy with them so she has lots to chase.  This wouldn't be a problem if she'd give up the chase when reaching the boundary of our property but she will keep up pursuit into the woods or into the neighbors horse fields or worst - across the road.  She's also a highly accomplished barker.  She alerts us to the arrival of guests, the presence of the deer in the field, the "escape" of one of the children from the house, and any and all transgressions of the cat.  It's a high pitched bark that will pierce your very soul.  However, the deer chasing and barking are nothing compared to her real talent - food stealing.  All unsupervised food is fair game but children are her preferred target as they frequently hold food in one hand and look the other way.  Just last weekend, she tried to take a slice of pizza away from a 21 month old visitor.  The baby fought back, holding tightly to her dinner, which resulted in her being dragged from her chair onto the floor in the ensuing tug of war.  The child, despite tears, was fine.  The dog won the contest and was subsequently locked in the kitchen.  

Sadie, though, is an angel compared to our previous dog, The Mighty Quinn.  Quinn was found along with his brother (Coolidge) on the mean streets of Washington, DC.  Brendan and his then roommate, Sam, adopted the puppies - a mix of black lab and great dane.  A noble idea, but since the guys were both chefs who worked 15 hour days, often six days a week, they were never home to properly train the dogs.  It also didn't help that they lived in a run down townhouse on the VERY shady side of Capitol Hill that they didn't care about.  So, the guys let the dogs run amuck in the house.  Quinn's destructive abilities are legendary.  Before he was six months old he ripped up several sofas, ate drywall and chewed countless chair legs and shoes.

Quinn as an old man
Brendan and I moved in together after getting engaged and Quinn moved in with us too - all 135lbs of him.  Changing the destructive aspects of his behaviour proved beyond us.   He ate a mattress, more drywall, and another couch.  He could open the refrigerator and I once came home to find that he had pulled a carton of eggs out and had a feast.  He ate an entire roast chicken, bones and all.  We had to keep our trash can top secured with bungee cords.  He was a bully at the dog park.  He once managed to clear an entire room after Brendan fed him sausage balls.  While I was driving 40 mph, Quinn climbed out of the open rear passenger window and tumbled head over heels onto the road and into oncoming traffic.  Luckily, the cars were able to stop.  I jumped out of the car, expecting him to be seriously injured.  Quinn, however, stood up, shook, walked calmly back to the car, and jumped in.  His masterpiece of destruction came just two weeks before our wedding when Quinn opened the closet door, pulled down my cathedral length train and ripped it to shreds.  I came home to find him lying contentedly among the remnants of tulle and seed pearls.  He's lucky he survived that day.  I spent the next Saturday with my fabulous mother in law to be, making a homemade replacement veil.  One of my fondest memories of Susan is that day when we sat on her living room floor hot gluing pearls to the veil.  And it turned out beautifully.  To make up for all this, Quinn was an awesome dog.  He was devoted and protective and funny in ways that only dogs are. He was so large that he would sit on the couch much like a human.  Bottom on the couch, front legs on the floor.  He slept with us, not curled in a ball, but with his legs fully extended, so that he pushed us to the very edges of the bed.

When our oldest daughter, Catie, was born, Quinn was freaked out.  He didn't like that we were constantly carrying something and would jump up, trying to get the bundle we were cradling.  Her cries were a new sound and he didn't like them.  He would have never intentionally hurt her, but his head was larger than her entire body and so when my parents offered to have Quinn come live with them, we accepted.  Brendan drove Quinn to the NC state line to meet my parents, crying the entire way.
Enjoying the woods

While living with my parents, Quinn ate yet another couch, some more drywall and a garage door.  He destroyed a screen door during a thunderstorm.  He was terrified of thunderstorms.  He could open gate latches so my parents padlocked the gate.  He ate the chain link fence itself in order to escape!  He ran out into the road and was hit by a truck.  That time, he didn't get up - my Dad and brother had to load him onto a trailer that was hitched to the riding lawn mower to move him.  The vet said a smaller dog would have been killed.  Quinn recovered but had arthritis in his shoulder from that point on.

The larger the dog, the shorter their life span and dogs Quinn's size have an average life span of 9 years. Quinn lived to the ripe old age of 11.  When he was too weak to get up and no longer wanted to eat, the vet recommended that he be put to rest.  My father went with him and held him til he passed, crying the entire time.  Quinn was a good dog and we were all devastated to lose him last fall.
A gentle giant with the kids
I know Brendan loves dogs but I also know who ends up taking care of the dogs while he works 80 hours a week.  I don't want a puppy.  I did want a new kitten (SO much easier to take care of).  So, when I saw on a local chatlist that a woman had found two kittens near her house, I emailed her to see about getting one of the kittens.  Unfortunately, she said, she'd just found a home for both kittens the day before but she still had the puppy.  Did I know anyone who wanted a puppy?  Apparently the country road she lives on is a common dumping ground for unwanted animals and when she finds them, she keeps them until she can find them new homes.

I told her I'd ask around to see if I knew anyone who wanted a puppy and could she tell me a bit about it?  She sent me a picture of this for pete's sake.

And so now we have a puppy - Jasper.  He's about 10 weeks old and shows a great proclivity for destruction.  In just 10 days, he has chewed through two dog leashes, put a hole in a dog bed, gnawed on a kitchen chair leg and destroyed several dog toys.  He's chewed on several shoes, torn a hole in one of Evan's shirts and chases the chickens every chance he gets.  He doesn't like thunderstorms and he can find any tiny scrap of "people" food that may fall or be unsupervised.  He's only about 18 pounds right now and we're not sure how large he'll be.  We can see several different breeds of dog in him - lab, border collie, some sort of hound, maybe some terrier?  His final size will depend on what he got from which breed.  He'll certainly not be anywhere close to as large as Quinn but I have a feeling he'll make a name for himself in the naughtiness department.

Earlier today, Brendan said that he knows Jasper is his own individual.  However, he's feeling a bit like Jasper is Quinn, come back to us in miniature form.  A foundling black puppy with a penchant for destruction and a fear of thunderstorms.  Dog deja vu, I guess.  Welcome home, Jasper.