Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Canning, gardening and food storage

Summer is over.  I'd cry if I wasn't so tired of gardening and canning!  I wrote to a friend earlier this week that I've been praying for frost so I can quit with the garden but I was just kidding!

I've had amazing success with my garden this year and considering the dry weather this summer I feel truly blessed that it did so well - and most of it happened by accident.

We poured on the mulch all summer - load after load as we cleaned out the chicken coops.  In some places the mulch is now several inches deep and as a result I didn't water my garden all summer after the initial few days when the plants and seeds were put in.  I am as surprised as anyone that the garden was as lush as it was with no water. We did get minimal rain off and on - more than eastern Ontario for sure.  I am excited about the possibilities - one less chore to do in the hot summer and less stress on the well when things are already low.

I've read many people's accounts of moving to the country to take up gardening and raising livestock. With no prior experience the common theme is their oft repeated tales of woe and just how difficult it is to do what seems like something straightforward.  They are right - overwhelming-completely-totally RIGHT.  This is our third summer on the farm for those of you who are counting.  The first summer didn't count in the gardening-department  because we arrived in late June and didn't do anything except moan at the weeds and deal with settling in as a family.  I did spend some time getting the garden ready for the following year - after all I HAD gardened before and knew to some extent what was needed.  Last year's garden was better than I deserved for all the weeds and we did manage to dig out most of the tree stumps, overgrown perennials, rocks, old pots and garbage before the fall.

This spring as I've mentioned before we dumped load after load of manure on the garden and tilled it in.  I planted about half the total space knowing there were more tree stumps to dig out and shrubs to move in the other half.  Again I have been blessed beyond what I deserve in garden bounty.  

There are still beans producing out there and I wish for my conscience sake they would die because really-and-truly -I don't want any more!  I would give them away but the bean pods are bursting with beans and they don't look very appetizing. I planted two 45 foot rows of beans - that may have been a few too many!

The tomatoes are in the same category.  Oh MY - tomatoes everywhere.  I've been picking and canning them for weeks.  I still have several pails of green ones to deal with and I'm not sure what I will do with 100 quarts of green-tomato-whatever but waste-not-want-not.  I am going to try hanging some of the plants upside-down in the garage and see if they will ripen there.  My tomato cages were a complete and utter failure as I suspected they would be.  The patch was a jungle of vines and there was no way to pick without standing on some of the tomatoes no matter how carefully I walked. Next year I'm building wooden trellis' so the plants will hopefully grow UP instead of fall over.

My green pepper plants looked amazing - the leaves were shiny and green and healthy looking but production was not so great - I think because we added too much manure.  We got less than 1/4 of the peppers I was hoping for so we went to the pick-your-own pace nearby and picked 2 bushels to chop and freeze for the year.  My own would have been cheaper but considering the grocery store price of nearly a dollar each my two bushels with 70 - 80 peppers in each was a bargain at $41.00.  

Freezing peppers is my favorite way of preserving them.  It takes several hours of washing and chopping but for 40 bucks I won't buy another pepper for cooking for the year.  Someone asked if they could be used in salads - not the fresh kind as they come out of the freezer mushy but they are great for stir fries, casseroles or soup.  My Mom came over for coffee and she got drafted to help chop - thanks Mom!  Dehydration is another common way to store peppers but I am not as fond of them as frozen so in the freezer they went!

I didn't grow potatoes this year but I caught some really great sales at the grocery store a few weeks ago and I decided to can some.  Because they are low acid they require the pressure canner of course - aren't they pretty?  Wonderfully simple meals almost ready to eat!

Potatoes are best if stored in a cold cellar but we have not been able to figure out YET how to keep the basement cool enough for them to last - last year all the potatoes rotted in record time.  I've got a few ideas but I am running out of time - again!

A friend came for a quick visit yesterday to pick up her chicken order - hi Nina!  We chatted in the sunshine about healthy food and the effects of GMO on our food supply, backyard chickens, pesticide free gardens and free range eggs.  I was cooking up some turkeys to can and had another pot of tomatoes simmering on the stove to can later in the day while a basket of peppers muddied the floor.  I have three canners and various pots and pans and dirty dishes in the kitchen while the dining room table is covered with canning jars, baskets of squash, notebooks, cook books and my "canning bible".

Seriously - who lives like this??!  At a time when most people my age are looking at being empty nesters, decluttering and simplifying because it's just the two of them I've gone the other route completely!  I am making life MORE difficult and collecting equipment at an alarming rate.  I bought out the dollar store of canning lids the other night - 120 boxes...I'm sure some people think I'm crazy.

I am perfectly sane - most of the time.  So why am I doing this?  That is THE question.  There's more than one reason.  

That was in 2005!  

  • I'm concerned with our food supply and how it is being taken over by big companies who are more interested in money than what is good and healthy for us to eat.   
  • "People are fed by the FOOD industry which pays no attention to HEALTH and are treated by the HEALTH industry that pays no attention to FOOD." Wendell Berry
  • I like knowing exactly what I'm eating - there are no pesticides, herbicides or GMO in the food I preserve myself because I don't spray and I use organic and heirloom seeds..
  • I am concerned about situations - once unheard of - all over the world where economies are failing and cutbacks are resulting in more and more people needing public assistance or who are eating out of dumpsters.  I think that many of us in developed nations can barely imagine that life could ever be like that here - I'm sure the people in Greece and Spain once thought so too. 
  • Our just-in-time delivery systems and long food chains from miles away are all just one crack from disaster.  Why are we eating apples from California when we grow them in Canada anyway???
  • I was a home schooling Mom for many years and the desire to learn has never gone away - call me a romantic fool emulating Laura Ingalls Wilder!
There are many reasons to be concerned - practically NONE of which I can do much about but taking care of my family as best I can by growing and preserving healthy fruits and vegetable and free range meats and eggs IS something I can do.  Some of you don't have room for a huge garden but you can support small farmers and buy locally grown, pesticide free produce, meat and eggs.  I challenge you to see what you can do to take some further steps to protecting your own food security.

I could think of many more reasons but I have to get back to canning the turkey and the great recipe I found for pickled green tomatoes!

So what are YOU gonna do about it?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Food Storage: Packing pails for long term storage

As I've written many times before - I am a firm believer in food storage.  It's an insurance policy that covers one of life's most basic necessities - our daily food.

There have been many times in the past where we have had more-month-than-money and having food storage made life much easier.  It also allows for a quick meal when company comes unexpectedly or a helping hand when a friend is in need.

We have close friends who are going through a traumatic situation right now.  It has effected 
their finances and one of the biggest issues was money for food.  Even a small amount of food storage would have amounted to one less thing to worry about in the midst of crisis.

I see food storage as a multi-faceted or layered system.

I've written about having a large pantry - just extra of what you normally eat in the way of canned or boxed food right in your kitchen cupboards.  That's layer one.  

In my mind the next step or layer two is to  begin purchasing items on sale and keeping a supply of those items that exceeds what would fit into your kitchen cupboards by developing a secondary pantry - in our house it's called "Mom's Grocery Store".  These stores include store bought products, frozen items and all the items I have been canning over the year.  Most shelf stable items have a 1 to 3 year best-before date and include things like peanut butter, canned soup and cereal. These are items that need to be rotated regularly and be things you eat on a regular basis.  Grocery stores have a FIFO system - it stands for First In - First Out.  In other words you need to put the new items at the back of the shelf and eat the older ones first.  More on that in a later post!

The third layer is long term storage.  There are some items that if properly packaged (and some not even properly packaged) have incredibly long storage lives.

Indefinite Storage Life Items:

Raw Honey
White Sugar

30 Year Items:

Hard Grains (Whole)
Flax Seeds
Kamut kernels
Wheat kernels
Spelt kernels
Oats (whole or rolled)
Beans and Lentils

and many more with differing storage life spans!

Maybe the first question is WHY you would want to store food for 30+ years.  This goes back to food insurance.  Any item you store should be something you already eat on a regular basis or something that should be introduced to your diet because you KNOW it's good for you.  If you can't eat wheat because you are allergic to gluten you will need to store something else of course and that's why lists of what to store are not always helpful - it will depend on your families needs.  

By preparing to store some of these foods you can essentially pack them and forget about them for a long time - kind of like the insurance policy on the house that you don't think about until you need it.  It could be used next year or 20 years from now with next to no nutrition lost.

The next question is HOW to store these items long term.  I took advantage of a great sale on rice and red lentils this summer and bought several bags of each so I could store them away for  the long term.  Rice and lentils will store for a very long time on the shelf or in your kitchen cupboard so this method just extends the life span by protecting it from three things.  Bugs, Oxygen and Moisture.

If you've ever had pantry moths - OH MY - you will know that some food items come from the store with bugs included. You don't actually see the bugs because they are more likely eggs at the point of purchase and flourish into armies of creepy crawlies in your cupboards.  To prevent or rather circumvent the bugs life - freeze everything.  This is a good idea for small bags of dried goods that you use on a daily basis too.  Freeze for three days and allow to come to room temperature before continuing.  

The next step is to accumulate some food grade buckets.  There are many articles written on which buckets are food grade and why this is important. I am using Home Depot buckets in the pictures above and there is some controversy about the food graded-ness (my word!) of the buckets so I wouldn't store food straight in the bucket.  Recycled buckets from a restaurant or bakery are usually a safe bet and sometimes you can get them for free.  The buckets main purpose is to protect the mylar bag from puncture and keep the product dry.  The pail on it's own is not enough to prevent oxygen from slowly degrading the food so a pail liner made of mylar is required.  The mylar bag used for this purpose is a thicker version of the mylar that those shiny birthday balloons are made of.  The most commonly available thickness is 5 mil.  They come in different sizes - a 5 gallon size that fits a 5 gallon pail is the most common but smaller sizes are available too which allows you to store multiple items in one bucket while keeping them separate.

The mylar bags are available from several online sources such as Briden Solutions.

While filling the pail shake the bucket or bang it gently on the floor to make sure all the nooks and crannies get filled.  Lentils don't bother me but some grains like wheat are dusty and aggravate my allergies so be sure to do it in a well ventilated place and if you are especially sensitive you might consider wearing a mask or at least taking an allergy pill before you begin!

Once the pail is filled close to the top - leave some room for the rest of the bag to fill the pail - you need to add oxygen absorbers.  These are also available online from the Briden Solutions. A 5 gallon pail generally requires approximately 1000cc. Something like rice has less air space while pasta would obviously have more so more O2 absorbers are needed. They are sold in different cc's but 500cc is common - so 2 per bucket or three if you're like me and want a little extra insurance.  I also use the shop vac to suck out as much air in the bag as I can before I close it up.  I forgot to take a picture of that step.

I usually do several pails at one time so I fill them all with the grains or beans or lentils and iron them  (using a board to press the iron against) most of the way shut - leaving a 4 inch gap.  Once all the buckets are at that point I go back and add oxygen absorbers as quickly as I can - this is where my kids come in handy.  The O2 absorbers begin to work as soon as you have them out of the package so you want them to be in the mylar bag and sealed up quickly as possible - in about 20 minutes.  If you have extra absorbers and aren't going to use them all at once place them in a canning jar with a tight fitting lid or in a small mylar bag that has been sealed in the same manner as the large bags.  This will stop the absorbers from absorbing more oxygen than is in the jar.   A friend gave me a great idea - using a hair straightener to seal the pails.  I haven't been able to find one at a thrift store yet but it's on my list!

When I'm finished sealing the bags I let them sit for a day before I put the lids on the buckets just to be sure the O2 absorbers have pulled a good vacuum.  Don't forget to label the pails - before you close them up - or you may end up with mystery buckets that you'll have to open to figure out what's in them - ask me how I know :)  The great thing about mylar is you can carefully cut the sealed portion and reseal if necessary.

Now you just need a place to store them. An area with a fairly stable temperature like a basement or spare bedroom is ideal.  Keeping them in a garage or other outdoor area where the pails are exposed to high heat in the summer and then cold in the winter is not as good and will result in the contents not lasting the maximum amount of time and degrading the nutrient content.  The pails should also NOT be stored on a concrete floor where they could wick up moisture - even through the plastic pail.  Care should also be taken NOT to store them near chemicals that could eventually filter through the pail and compromise the air quality possibly (over a very long period of time) crossing the mylar barrier.  Those are pretty common sense tips - I wouldn't store my cereal beside a gasoline can either!

Although food stored this way will last for a very long time it is far better to store foods that you use and eat on a regular basis.  Have some of these grains or beans in your pantry so you don't have to open the pails for your every day meal plans.  If you're going to store wheat then use wheat in your every day cooking and baking.  Learn to bake bread from scratch so if/when you DO need to use it you won't have the added stress of trying to figure out what to do with it. 

This is just one way to add to your families personal food insurance.  What have you done to prep today?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Food Storage - What? This Again?

Yes folks, it's that time of year again.  Our gardens are giving us produce at an alarming rate or the farmer's markets are offering food at incredible deals, or even the local supermarkets are now practically giving away local produce.  Whatever your source of food, it's the perfect time of year to stock up and put some away for harder times.

I've gone over this a few times, but the site continues to grow, and I have to assume that some of these members are not only new to the site, but new to prepping.  Therefor, I will sometimes go back over a topic and restate some of the basics, and hopefully offer some new insight.

As I mentioned, it is the time of year when there are a lot of great sources for cheap, or at least more affordable, food to take advantage of.  There are lots of ways to put food up for the coming times such as freezing, canning, dehydrating, smoking, the list goes on, but let's not forget to rotate our supplies.  Remember to use up or at least rotate into next use, any food items that you have on hand now.  Keeping things as fresh as possible not only makes storage food more palatable, but gives a better nutritional value as well.

Don't go out and buy twenty cans of Spam if you don't like it, or have never tried it.  Thinking that you will eat it if you have to is a sure way to make a disaster situation even worse.  Store what you eat and eat what you many times have you heard that line?  Well, maybe not enough, so there it is again.

If you haven't heard of Jack Spirko or The Survival Podcast (and even if you have) why don't you follow this link and have a listen.  He is able to go into much more detail about it that I can here. 

Enjoy this time of year and take advantage of what nature (and farmers) are offering.