Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Leftover Garden Peppers

I should have written about this last summer, but I had stepped away from the blog for a while. Between the wedding/honeymoon, then Sue moving in, this blog just wasn't a very high priority.

I just wanted to tell you a quick hint as to what to do with leftover garden peppers. And this applies to just about any pepper variety that you can grow. Basically I dehydrate them, then grind them into powder for use in many various recipes. I have a dehydrator, but this is NOT necessary since I did this for a long time before I had a dehydrator. You can simply use your kitchen oven.

Keep your peppers sorted by variety through this process. However, I put all mild/sweet peppers like sweet banana, bells, into one pile. I make a sweet-pepper powder out of all of these mixed together.

Cut the peppers into 1 to 2 inch pieces, I don't bother with skinning them first. For oven drying, set your oven to the lowest setting it will go, mine goes down to 170 degrees F. Place the peppers on some type of rack or screen that has holes small enough to keep them from falling through the holes. A screen works better than a cookie sheet because it allows air to circulate over the peppers better. Now place something that won't melt in the door of the oven to keep it cracked about an inch or so.

It will probably take you at least 12 hours for them to dry enough to grind. They need to be completely dry and crisp in order to be ground. Then grind them in a coffee grinder or food processor, even a blender will work. I use my blender because it is glass and the dry, hard pieces of pepper won't mar the glass like they do in my plastic Cuisinart food processor.

It's the same process with the dehydrator, drying them until they are totally dry and crisp.

Since I took the picture above, I have found some good supplies of decorative bottles and jars, and I also make labels on my computer. They look better and make great gifts this way.

I especially like the sweet-pepper powder. It adds a great pepper flavor to dishes but adds no heat.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Early Vegetable Gardening

I'm in zone 5, bordering on 6 and warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers have to wait until May, sometimes LATE May, to be planted. Our late winters are usually very wet also. But don't let this stop you from planting cool-weather crops nice and early. If I had to wait for the garden to warm up and dry out so that I could run the tiller, I would be waiting a long time.

I went out the other day, March 3rd, and planted two types of lettuce, spinach and Sugar Snap peas. If all goes at least halfway decently with the weather, I should be eating salad by the end of April or the firt week of May. Many people wait until they can run their tillers to start planting, but here is what I do.

Take a grass rake and clear the leaves and sticks from an area you want to plant. Then scrape the ground (it was pure wet muck when I did this) with the rake and loosen up the soil. You don't have to go very deep, I probably only loosened to about 1 inch deep, if that. Then scatter your seeds in a wide row, my rows were about 1 foot wide. While holding the rake straight up and down, LIGHTLY tamp down the area with the flat side of the rake.

I didn't have any dry, loose soil to cover it but tamping the seeds down in that rough soil should suffice. Just for a light mulch, I grabbed handfuls of some grass cuttings that were in a pile from the fall, and lightly covered the seeded area to give it a light mulch.

I have been doing this for some years now and it usually works well. I have even had snow on my spinach before, but it didn't harm it. I am a very competitive person and it's always fun to eat a salad from your garden at the beginning of May, but I make sure to tell my gardening friends that I did so! Yes, I like to rub it in. This is about the same time most people are thinking of buying their seeds, but you will be eating from your garden already.

Here is a picture of what the garden looks like right now. Yes, it is trashed and I have my work cut out for me. But I still was able to plant the other day on the back side of the garden where it is cleared somewhat.

This will be a fun picture to look back on later on this year, after I have everything cleared out and the veggies planted.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Homemade Extracts

I was making some homemade breakfast sausage and I decided to add some maple flavoring, which really topped off the flavor nicely. This got me curious as to whether it was easy to make flavorings and extracts or not. I did some research online and saw that it was really simple, it's just that some of them take a long time to 'brew'.

The first extract that I wanted to make was vanilla extract. The hardest and most expensive part of this is buying the beans. Wow! Forget gold, I think I am going to invest in vanilla beans instead. At best you can find them for about $1 per bean online. Locally I was finding them for $2-$3 per bean. I wanted to get a batch going so I sucked it up and bought 12 of them.

I made a slit down each bean the entire length of the bean. Then I put them in a quart jar about 3/4 filled with vodka. You can use rum also, I don't know that it makes much of a difference though (??) I don't drink any more, so this was the funny part of it all; sneaking into a liquor store hoping no one would see me! Ha! Then I put the jar into a place in my house that is away from extremes of heat and cold, and out of the sun. I shake it maybe once every day or two, but make sure you shake it at least once every week.

The recipes I saw online called for an aging period of anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months, and every one I saw had a different ratio of beans to vodka. I think that 3 months will suffice, and right now am at the 2-month mark. It's getting darker and getting a stronger vanilla aroma to it. If the darned beans weren't so expensive I would add a lot more beans to it, but again they aren't cheap. I have read that once you make a batch of vanilla extract, you can cover the same beans with vodka and make it again. I will see if this is true or not after I finish aging this batch.

Some of the extracts that don't take nearly as long and that I've completed now are lemon extract, orange extract and maple flavoring.
For orange and lemon extracts use one orange for every half-cup of vodka. You can slice the rind off, being careful not to cut any of the white pith, then finely chop it by hand or in a food processor. Or, as I did, rub the orange over a fine grater like this one that I have:

Then add the grated rind to the vodka/rum. After a week, filter the extract through a coffee filter or a piece of muslin and it's done. When my vanilla extract is done, this is all that I will have to do to it also.

I found this idea online about making maple flavoring and it is also easy. It's not a true extract, it is a flavoring, and to get the maple flavor you don't use a maple product at all. It surprisingly comes from something called fenugreek seed, which I got through, about $4 for 7 ounces of it.

For every 4 ounces of vodka, you will use 2 ounces of fenugreek. First warm the fenugreek seeds slightly in a skillet, but don't toast them as you would when toasting nuts. The fenugreek will become bitter if you heat it too much. You just want to warm them to release the flavor.

Next grind the fenugreek in a coffee grinder, food processor or something similar, into a fine powder. Pour the ground fenugreek and vodka into a glass jar, I used a quart canning jar. Store it out of direct sunlight for anywhere from a few weeks to 3 months. I found that it had a good smell to it after 6 weeks. Next strain the contents of the jar through a coffee filter or a piece of muslin.

I tried making almond extract but after a couple months it did not have much of a nut smell to it. I might try it again, but age it at least 3 months and see how that goes.

The bottles that I put the extracts in were hard to find without spending a lot of money, But finally I found these 1 oz. amber bottles for only .59 cents a piece at my favorite store of all time, Lehman's Hardware in Kidron Ohio.

However, I was not able to locate them on their website, and bought some on a recent visit there. Other places that carry some small bottles that would work are Joanne's Fabric, Hobby Lobby, and World Market had a few.

So I am just waiting on the vanilla extract, it should take another month. I have already given some of the orange and lemon extracts away to friends. One of them baked with the orange extract and gave it a big thumbs-up.