Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pass the “Peas” Please

Crisp, tender sugar peas combined with new potatoes make a tasty dish that signals the beginning of a bountiful garden.  English or hull peas are equally delicious.  With careful processing, peas can be preserved to be enjoyed throughout the year.
English or hull peas, snow peas, and sugar snap peas are the most readily available types in Pennsylvania.  All can be frozen and the hull peas may be successfully canned in the pressure canner.  Peas will have the best quality if canned or frozen the same day as they are harvested.

Snow peas should have a firm crisp pod that is flat with the seeds inside being small and immature.  If the peas inside the pods are fat and visible, the pods will be tough and stringy.  Remove the tips and the string on the side just before freezing.

Sugar snap peas differ from the snow peas in that the pods look like the green hull peas and the peas inside are fully developed.  Sugar snap peas have two strings that should be removed before cooking.

Freezing Peas:  When freezing snow or sugar snap peas, work quickly preparing small batches at a time.  Sort peas by size because the blanching time is dependent upon the size of the pod. Blanch peas to fix color and to preserve flavor and nutrients.  Blanch small podded peas 1 to 1 ½ minutes, medium peas 2 minutes.  Blanch one pound in one gallon of rapidly boiling water.  If it takes more than one minute for the water to return to a boil after adding the peas, you need more water or less food.  The peas will cook and be less crisp if it takes longer for the water to return to boiling.

After blanching long enough for heat to penetrate to the center of the peas, remove quickly and immerse in ice water just until chilled.  Avoid soaking the peas.  Drain thoroughly on toweling.  Individually quick freezing works best to keep this type of pea crisp.  Spread in a single layer on a tray and freeze until solid.  Then package in a moisture, vapor proof container.  Snow or sugar snap peas frozen in mass will take longer to thaw and cook, and will loose the crispness usually desired with this vegetable.  Label and freeze up to one year at 0°F.

Green hull or English peas should be harvested when pods are filled with young, tender peas that have not become starchy.  Wash and shell the peas; blanch for 1 ½ minutes in boiling water; drain and chill in ice water.  Drain well.  Package, leaving ½-inch headspace.  Seal and freeze.

Canning peas:  If peas are canned, they must be processed in a pressure canner.  Because peas are dense, pack them loosely (either raw or boiled) into hot jars and cover with boiling water allowing 1-inch headspace.  Process pints and quarts 40 minutes at 11 pounds pressure in a dial gauge pressure canner or at 10 pounds in a weighted gauge pressure canner.  Large peas over 1/3-inch need to processed 10 minutes longer.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Drying Strawberries

Before refrigeration, homemakers dried berries to use throughout the fall and winter.  Because the flavor of berries is concentrated when dried, they make a good snack—few may be left for other uses.  Strawberries are easy to dry and yield excellent results.

To dry strawberries, select one of the sweeter varieties that are firm, ripe, uniform in color, and free of defects for best drying results.  Wash the strawberries and remove caps.  Berries may be cut in half lengthwise or sliced about ¼ inch thick.  Dry skin side down to prevent sticking to the drying racks.  Sliced berries will dry faster but the cut side may stick to the rack. 

Turning the berries over halfway through drying helps to prevent sticking.  Small berries may be dried whole.  However, they will take longer to dry because the skin reduces area for moisture evaporation.  The ideal drying temperature is 130 to 140°F.  Use a dehydrator or dry in an oven if you are able to set the oven temperature low enough. 

The drying time depends upon the size of the berry pieces, exposure of air to cut surfaces, temperature, air circulation, and method of drying.  Berries may take anywhere from 9 hours for small slices to 36 hours for whole berries.  When sufficiently dry, strawberries should be pliable and leathery with no pockets of moisture.  If desired, berries may be dried further until almost crisp.  Unlike other fruits, strawberries should not be rehydrated because they will lose their firm texture.

Store dried strawberries in an air tight or a vacuum sealed container to avoid rehydration from humidity in the air.  Dried berries will maintain excellent quality if stored in the freezer.

Besides snacking, sprinkle dried strawberries on dry or into cooked cereal; use them in puddings, ice cream, milk shakes, or yogurt.  Add to pancake or muffin batter or into quick breads.  Combine with granola for a one-of-a-kind treat. 

A variation of drying strawberries is to make strawberry leather.  Refer to the blog entry on making “Strawberry and Other Berry Fruit Roll-ups.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Asparagus


One of spring’s favorite vegetables, asparagus, is so delicate that it requires special care.  Start by selecting young tender spears that are firm, straight, uniformly sized and with closed, compact tips.  If you grow your own asparagus, harvest spears when they are 4 to 10 inches long.  Harvest spears at least every other day to prevent spears from becoming fibrous.  It is best to cut asparagus spears below the soil level.  Discontinue harvest when spear diameter becomes less than 3/8 of an inch.

White or blanched asparagus is grown by shading the spears with mounds of soil or mulch so that sunlight never reaches the plant.  White asparagus is more fibrous than green asparagus and has a stronger, slightly bitter flavor.

Fresh asparagus needs to be kept cold to preserve its tenderness and natural sweetness.  Asparagus is best eaten or preserved the day it is purchased or harvested but will keep up to 3 days if refrigerated.  Wrap it in a damp cloth and store it in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator.  Some people prefer to place bundled stalks upright in 1 inch of water in a glass or measuring cup in the refrigerator.

Freezing Asparagus
Prepare asparagus by washing thoroughly and sorting into sizes.  Snap-off or trim at least ½ inch from the bottom of each spear—where the stem begins to toughen.  Remove scales with a sharp knife.

To freeze asparagus, cut into even lengths to fit containers.  Water blanch small spears for 2 minutes, medium spears 3 minutes, and large spears 4 minutes.  Reduce blanching time for shorter pieces.  Cool promptly, drain and package in plastic freezer bags, freezer jars, plastic freezer boxes, or vacuum package.  No head space is necessary.  Seal and freeze.  Spears of asparagus may also be individually frozen before being packaged; this prevents it from freezing as one mass.  In its fresh state, asparagus has a high water content.  As it freezes, the water changes to ice crystals causing the cells to break down.  As a result, frozen asparagus may seem less firm than other frozen vegetables.

Canning Asparagus
Asparagus is a low acid vegetable and must be processed in a pressure canner to be safe.  To can asparagus, prepare the asparagus as described above for freezing and cut into 1 inch pieces or leave whole.  To hot pack, cover the asparagus with boiling water; boil 2 to 3 minutes.  Pack hot into hot jars, leaving 1 inch head space.  One-half teaspoon salt may be added per pint if desired.  Fill jar to 1 inch from the top with boiling hot cooking liquid or water.  Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims and adjust lids.  For a raw pack, pack the raw asparagus tightly into hot jars, leaving 1 inch head space.  Fill jars to 1 inch from the top with boiling water.  Process hot or raw packed asparagus in a dial gauge pressure canner at 11 pounds pressure or a weighted gauge pressure canner at 10 pounds pressure for 30 minutes for pints and 40 minutes for quarts.  (Make pressure adjustments for higher altitudes.)  The long processing time and high temperature produces a softer product than fresh asparagus.

Pickled Asparagus
Many recipes for pickled asparagus are available in magazines and on the internet.  Not all have been research tested.   Keep in mind even pickled products will only be safe if enough vinegar has been added to increase the acidity.  Pack the asparagus loosely so that adequate vinegar is in the jar.  Avoid adding large amounts of other low acid flavoring ingredients such as onion, garlic, and peppers.  Make sure you are using vinegar of 5% acidity.  Asparagus pickles must be processed in a boiling water bath for safety. Use a scientifically tested recipe such as the one below. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Inventory and Discard Canned Goods

Submitted by: Martha Zepp, May 2012

Recently the plumber was working in my basement when he said he never wanted to eat home canned food because he saw so many black moldy jars of food stored on open shelves in basements.  He figured that they were years old and, probably correctly, figured that they might not be safe to eat.  I walked over and pulled out a jar of pears and a jar of green beans from storage boxes on the shelves I use for canned goods.  He quickly said, “They look good enough to eat!”

The point of this little story is that it is important to inventory your canned goods each year putting older foods where they will be used first and discarding foods that have spoiled (hopefully there are none) or have discolored to the point you will not use them.  Most canned goods will maintain their quality for up to one year.  If they have been canned using USDA recommendations, they will be safe as long as the seal is not broken.  However, the quality (firmness, color, and flavor) of the product does deteriorate over a period of time.  Therefore, plan to can only the amount you will use within one year.  There really is no point in canning all the beans in the garden if they are going to sit in a basement for several years and end up being thrown out later.

Remember canned goods stored in a cool, dry, dark place will keep their quality best.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Freezing Strawberries

Sweet delicious strawberries that ripen in your garden or are available from local produce stands provide the best flavor.  Freezing is by far the most popular method of preserving this nutritious little bundle of flavor.

Berries can be frozen with or without sugar.  To freeze whole berries without sugar, wash, cap and drain the berries.  Tray freezing will prevent the berries from sticking together.  Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet or jelly roll pan and freeze until solid—an hour or two. Then transfer them to plastic freezer bags pressing out as much air as possible. The expansion of frozen water in the berry will rupture its cell walls causing the berry to soften when thawed.  Therefore, they taste best when eaten in a slightly thawed state with a few ice crystals remaining.

To freeze whole, sliced or crushed strawberries in sugar, add ¾ cup sugar to 1 quart (about 1⅓ pounds) strawberries.  Stir until most of the sugar is dissolved and let stand for 15 minutes before putting into containers.  Soft sliced berries will yield sufficient syrup for covering if the fruit is layered with sugar and allowed to stand 15 minutes.  Allow adequate headspace so that syrup does not expand and overflow the container when the berries freeze.  Allow ½ inch headspace for berries packed without added sugar or liquid.  Allow 1 inch headspace in wide top containers (¾ inch in narrow top pints and 1½ inches in narrow top quarts) when packing in juice, sugar, syrup or water, or the fruit is crushed or pureed.

Artificial sweeteners may be used to freeze berries, but they do not provide the beneficial effects of sugar such as color protection and thickness of syrup.  Use the manufacturer’s directions to determine the amount of artificial sweetener to use.  Artificial sweeteners can also be added after the berries are thawed.

The more quickly berries freeze, the higher their quality will be and the smaller the ice crystals will be.  The desirable temperature for storing frozen foods is 0°F or lower.  To facilitate more rapid freezing, set the temperature control at minus 10°F or lower about 24 hours in advance.  Place packages in contact with the freezer surfaces in the coldest part of the freezer.  Allow a little space between packages so air can circulate freely until the berries are frozen; then store the packages close together.  Never freeze more than 2 pounds of berries per cubic foot of freezer space.

Frozen strawberries can be used to make jam, but some planning ahead will yield the best results.  Unsweetened berries work well because all you need to do is thaw the fruit completely before crushing and measure as usual.  Do not drain off excess juice.  If you sweeten the berries to freeze them, record the amount of sugar added because the amount of sugar in the fruit must be subtracted from the total amount of sugar in the jam recipe.  The method of combining ingredients when using liquid and powdered pectin differs.  Therefore, when using pre-sweetened berries, you will need to use liquid pectin to make cooked jam in order to have the jam set properly.  This is not a problem when making freezer or no-cook jams.  Slightly under-ripe fruit contains more natural pectin than ripe fruit.  Freezing a combination of ripe and slightly under-ripe berries—about ¾ fully ripe and ¼ slightly under-ripe —will provide the best mixture for jam.

Look for more preservation recipes for strawberries and other berries are on the Penn State Food Preservation web site.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rhubarb


Rhubarb is the vegetable that is enjoyed as a fruit.  By itself it provides a unique tart flavor.  Unlimited possibilities exist for combining rhubarb with other foods to create delicious sauces, pies, cakes, cobblers, muffins, and even jams.  Most foods prepared with rhubarb can also be frozen.


Although fresh rhubarb is at its peak through May and June, harvesting can continue through the summer if plants have adequate water and don’t wilt from the intense heat of July and August.  The quality is best if it can be pulled from the garden and used before it has a chance to dry.  Choose rhubarb stems that are bright pink, crisp, and free of disease or insect damage.  Pull the stems from ground level instead of cutting them.  At any given time, harvest less than one-third of the stalks from any one plant.  Rhubarb leaves are poisonous and should never be eaten.

Canning. To can rhubarb, select young, tender, well-colored stalks.  An average of 10½ pounds is needed per canner load of 7 quarts; an average of 7 pounds is needed per canner load of 9 pints.  Trim off leaves.  Wash stalks, and cut in ½ to 1 inch pieces.  Use the hot pack method of canning for rhubarb.  In a large saucepan, add ½ to 1 cup sugar for each quart of fruit.  Stir to coat rhubarb with the sugar.  Let stand until juice appears.  Heat gently until mixture boils.  Fill jars immediately leaving ½ inch headspace.  Remove air bubbles.  Wipe jar rims.  Adjust lids and process pint or quarts in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes at altitudes 1000 feet or below.  (Process 20 minutes at altitudes of 1001 to 6000 feet and process 25 minutes above 6000 feet.)  Note:  It is not safe to add any type of thickening to rhubarb before canning because the starch will interfere with the transfer of heat to the center of the jar during processing.  If you desire a thicker rhubarb sauce, add a little cornstarch, tapioca, or modified starch when you open the jar prior to serving.

Freezing. Rhubarb freezes well. Rhubarb can be packed into containers or freezer bags raw or pre-heated.  Raw rhubarb gives a good quality product without added sugar.  According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, heating rhubarb in boiling water one minute and cooling promptly in cold water helps retain color and flavor.  (Cut stalks in lengths to fit freezer containers or bag before heating.)  This step is similar to blanching vegetables.  Watch the time closely as overcooking will cause it to lose its shape.  A dry pack simply involves putting either raw or blanched rhubarb into containers without sugar leaving ½ inch head space.  Individually quick freezing also works well with dry pack rhubarb.  Spread a single layer of cut rhubarb on trays, freeze until firm (1 to 2 hours), then put in air tight bags or containers. 

Rhubarb may be frozen with sugar or syrup if desired.  For a sugar pack, mix 1 part sugar and 4 parts rhubarb and allow to stand until sugar is dissolved before packing into freezer containers.  A syrup pack involves covering the rhubarb with syrup made by combining 1 cup sugar with 2 cups water and allowing adequate head space for expansion—½ inch for pints and 1 inch for quarts in wide top containers.  In general, up to one-fourth of the sugar may be replaced with corn syrup or mild flavored honey.  When cooking with rhubarb that is frozen in syrup, remember to include the sugar as part of the recipe.

Freezing already cooked rhubarb dishes saves time when serving.  Plain sweetened sauces or those thickened with tapioca or ThermFlo® freeze well.  Making a large recipe, using part of it immediately and freezing part for future use saves food preparation time.   Breads, cakes, cobblers, and some pies freeze well, but don’t freeze rhubarb custard pies.

          

Important Temperatures for Food Safety


Temperature is one determining factor in the safety of home preserved foods.  Most bacteria, molds, and yeasts grow best at room temperature.  As temperature is decreased, the activity of bacteria is slowed down.  As temperature is increased, an increasing number of bacteria are killed. 

 Processing foods in a boiling water bath will kill most bacteria, molds and yeasts.  However, in an attempt to survive under stressful conditions, some bacteria will produce spores, a seed-like product, that can survive the temperature of boiling water.  When temperature and growing conditions improve, these spores can germinate producing a toxin.  This is especially dangerous in the case of Clostridium botulinum which produces a toxin that affects the central nervous system and may cause death.  Besides its need for room temperature, Clostridium botulinum needs a low acid environment in the absence of oxygen in order for its spores to produce this deadly toxin.  Canned vegetables and meats provide that environment.  That is the reason for using a pressure canner to process low acid foods.  Pressure will increase the temperature inside a canner to above the boiling point of water.

Note that the temperatures described below are based at sea level.  As altitudes increase, it is necessary to increase the length of processing time to process foods in a boiling water bath and to increase the pounds pressure in a pressure canner. Below are important temperatures and temperature ranges to be aware of.

240ºF. — Bacterial spores are destroyed in low-acid foods
240ºF. — Low acid foods processed in pressure canner at or below 1,000 feet
212ºF. — Boiling point of water.  Processing temperature for high acid foods in boiling-water bath at or below 1,000 feet
180-212ºF. —  Temperature at which molds, yeasts, and some bacteria are destroyed in acid foods
140-180ºF. — Growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts slowed, but may allow survival of some microorganisms
40-140ºF. — Active growing range of molds, yeasts, and bacteria
50-70ºF. —Storage temperature for home canned and dehydrated foods
32ºF. — Growth of some bacteria, yeasts, and mold slowed
0 to -10°F. — Ideal freezer temperature

Friday, May 11, 2012

Is It Jam Or Jelly?

What's the difference between jam and jelly? Jelly, jam, preserves, conserves and marmalade are all fruit products that are jellied or thickened to some extent.  Traditionally they contained adequate amounts of sugar to serve as a preservative agent.  The difference is in the way they are prepared, the proportions of different ingredients and the method of cooking.

Jelly is a clear product firm enough to hold its shape when turned out of the jar, but quivers when moved.

Jam is a thick, sweet spread made with crushed or chopped fruits. The pieces of fruit are very small. Jams tend to hold their shape but are less firm than jelly.

Preserves are small whole fruit (such as cherry preserves) or uniform-size pieces (such as peach preserves) cooked in a clear, slightly gelled syrup. The fruit should be tender and plump.

Conserves are jam-like products that may be made with a combination of fruits and often contain nuts, raisins and/or coconut.

Marmalades are soft fruit jellies containing small pieces of fruit or peel evenly suspended in the transparent jelly.  They often contain citrus fruit as in orange marmalade.

While not truly a jelly or jam; butters, honeys and syrups are other fruit spreads made by cooking fruit and/or juice and sugar to the desired consistency.

Fruit butters are made by cooking fruit pulp with sugar to a thick consistency.  Spices may be added.  Perhaps apple butter is the most common example.

Honeys and syrups are made by cooking fruit juice or pulp with sugar to the consistency of honey or syrup.  They are much thinner than the other spreads.

Find recipes for jams, jellies and other preserves at the PSU Food Preservation Web Site.