Kraut, Melons, Cauliflower and Pickles

The farm and the farm kitchen are both busy around the clock this time of year. My efforts are almost entirely spent indoors at this juncture while Dave is trying to keep ahead of things in the fields. It is a nice division of labor, but I feel pretty lucky to be in the air conditioning (it is now really hot and humid!) while working over hot stoves and ovens during the day…an advantage I know my farming ancestors didn’t have. I also spend a huge amount of time cleaning up the mess I make…both dishwashers run each day and often more than once in addition to the pile of pots and pans I wash by hand. Here is a shout out to my friend Jill whose mother knitted some dish cloths for me as a kind gesture in return for some veggies. They are quite special since they also represent my kitchen colors and are so useful! Thanks for the clean up help, Jill! IMG_6702So why is it so busy? Ask the fruit flies…by the way, are they a protein? They are certainly annoying us in all our spaces right now! UGH! Perhaps one reason is because we have already far surpassed the 2013 harvest in terms of pounds of produce (yes, if you didn’t know it before this, take note, we weigh everything and record each item’s weight each day) and it is significant to also note that the last harvest recorded for 2013 was on December 28th and it was 2 pounds worth of cool season items including carrots, kale, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, lettuce and radishes.

As of this morning, we have harvested 1710 pounds of fruits and vegetables vs. 1654 for all of last year! Of course, if December is our cut off date, we have more than 4 more months of harvesting to do, so watch out! You might ask, “Did we plant more crops or were they just more productive?” The answer is mixed and may need some analysis from Dave but I would like to give some credit to the bees and their help with pollination. We put in the same number of tomato plants as last year but used slightly different varieties and already have (at 462lbs) more than 120 pounds over last year with the season not finished yet. I would venture to say that with the unusual cool temps the last month or so, this hasn’t been a spectacular summer for tomatoes, so go figure!  We eat fresh tomatoes morning, noon and night and give them to friends and family but I also process them by roasting, freezing and canning in a variety of forms which are currently represented by 94 pint jars in the pantry as well as dozens of dried and frozen bags of red fruits that will keep us thru the winter!

There are several new items to report on this year. One is the sauerkraut from our cabbages which was in progress the last time I posted. The brined cabbage fermented for nearly 5 weeks in one of the big crocks until it was time to pull the plug and process it. As per the instructions from the UMN website, I put all the kraut in a large pot with its brine and brought it to a boil and cooked it before loading it into jars for processing. I put these into 8 wide mouth pint jars and hope this will satisfy our need for sauerkraut for the year!   IMG_6710The melons are also coming in now and they look wonderful but we do not anticipate the numbers we had from last year. The fruits are smaller so far but taste simply wonderful. I started cutting up the cantaloupes today and have many watermelons as well.  The fruity smell of ripe melons has invaded the kitchen in the last couple of days. IMG_6734But that wonderful aroma was king for a short time…until we harvested the cauliflower this morning and started to process it. Cauliflower is actually a cool season vegetable, normally demanding about a 60 degree growing environment, but it has thrived this summer so far in our fields until now…when the current heat prompted us to get them out of the fields pronto. Darn, we should have done a better job of tying up the outer leaves over the heads to keep them from the sun, but once you do this you have to keep the water from the tops in order to keep the rot away. So, we do not have perfectly bleached, white heads but they are still nicely formed and look pretty good. We harvested over 37 pounds of them this morning and I got to work processing them right away. (Why wait…that is what you get with grocery store items that have been waiting around forever!) One practically needs a machete to harvest this plant since the stem that supports the head is about 2 inches in diameter and is about as sturdy as a copper pipe. I took a razor sharp knife that Kate gave me when I went out to harvest and needed it the rest of the day while whittling away the outer core from the heads as I processed.  IMG_6738First stop was a good soaking in the galvanized tub.  My research said this is helpful to get the insects to crawl out of the nooks and crannies. Oh, boy, did they ever start to crawl out! Ugh, but that is what you get when you don’t use pesticides!IMG_6732The best way to keep cauliflower is to use it immediately or to freeze it and so that was my focus today. After several soakings in the tub outdoors, I brought it into the prep kitchen sink and put it into a salt solution to brine. No need to really brine this veggie, but again, the books said this helps to get the inner critters out! It seemed to work.IMG_6735 I then cut it up into pieces and blanched it in batches. After blanching, it goes into an ice water bath and then onto towels to dry before storing in the freezer in zip lock bags. This is about 1/4 of the 37 pound harvest since I ran out of ice and will have to resume the processing later today and again tomorrow! My question after all this is done, how much cauliflower do we need for next year?IMG_6736Call me the pickle lady, but I’m still pursuing new ways to make good pickle recipes. I think I have a pretty wonderful sweet pickle recipe already in hand since everyone’s remarks about it have been more than positive, but I recently decided to try the fermented sweet pickle recipe that I found while researching the sauerkraut, etc. This process has been a royal pain in the A. I hope it produces something undeniably wonderful since it has caused me days and days of crazy, sticky work which I DO  NOT think my smart ancestors would have tolerated! This is how it has been going….

I started with 12 pounds of cukes and put them in the 3 gallon crock with a little bit of prep…i.e. washing and cutting the blossom end off. Then I had added the recommended boiling brine solution and then changed it out every other day for several days. After this, I’ve followed the process of adding a boiling vinegar/sugar syrup solution and exchanging it every day which has been the real challenge. To be a bit more clear, the first day of the vinegar sugar routine, you simply boil the ingredients along with a spice package (here is my pickling spices which I added to a mesh bag).IMG_6714Here is the sticky mess boiling away on the stove top before adding it to the sliced cukes. IMG_6719 The part of this that is a pain is that the cukes are extracted each day from the syrup and rinsed while the syrup is RE-BOILED, along with the spice bag and some additional sugar before being reunited in the crock. Think of this as a boiling hot, sticky mess and you will understand why I’m not too happy to deal with this recipe as this process is repeated for 7 of the 14 days. This recipe better produce some superior sweet pickles! I’ll let you know soon!

In the meantime, we are enjoying the other fermented crock pickles and I started a second batch of those in order to use some of the 300+ pounds of cukes! These are pleasing to nosh on next to our lunch sandwiches. IMG_6701 I wish I had some news to report on the bees, but this is a quiet time for them…and thankfully for us. There is not much interaction at this time of year since they do their thing on an independent basis but Jurgen and I will get back to supervising them this weekend.

Mid Summer Harvest and Rain…Finally!

No, we didn’t fall into the abyss as many are starting to wonder. We have just been busy, busy, busy with all sorts of activities here at Seven Oaks. I even had to re-read the last post or so to see where I had left off with the summer narrative. Although I was complaining about the cool summer and the lack of tomato ripening, the tables have turned and we are now in the lovely state of being inundated with beautiful tomatoes and other summer crops!  The rain situation has been sparse for more than a month. We had a small amount of rain yesterday and are now experiencing a measurable downpour, the results of which I will report later but thank goodness for this much needed rain! Our gauge said we had over an inch by noon and since it continued raining most of the afternoon, I’m hoping we had twice that amount!

Just about every day is a 20lb processing day for tomatoes and my goal is to stay just ahead of Dave’s harvesting. When he brings in nearly 40lbs a day (which he did at least one day last week) that means I have to double my efforts to keep on track. Of the nearly 1380 lbs of produce we have harvested YTD, the tomato crop (at 333lbs as of yesterday)  is daunting but we are delighted with this volume so I’m doing everything I can to (no pun) to deal with these precious fruits.

Although I’m canning much of this volume, I must admit that I’ve joined the hordes of folks who are dehydrating their tomatoes these days. Here is what I did recently to keep up with the volume. I quartered and cored a bunch of beauties and sprinkled the tops with a slight shake of sea salt.  IMG_6655I can’t get as many trays into the dehydrator since these pieces are taller than slices of other items I’ve dried so far. photo 45

These lovelies turn out like this and just make you want to gush with joy! IMG_6704My sources, printed and on line, tell me this method of preserving tomatoes is far out pacing the canning process. I can see why since this was relatively easy to do. But, I’m a bit old fashioned and I also have the equipment and the know how to process tomatoes in a variety of ways so I continue to do so. I have been canning our harvest into diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and pasta sauce with really great success this summer. I am pleased to have the equipment to do this as well as ample space but it is time consuming to do so. I start in the morning with 20 lbs of tomatoes like this. IMG_6657 I wash, quarter and core them and dump them into a very large pot to cook down on the stove. They boil for 15 minutes before I put them through my food mill to separate them from the skin and seeds.  IMG_6667Then I put the results back on the stove to cook down to a thickened sauce. This takes hours and hours of stirring to keep the mixture at a fast simmer/boil without scorching the bottom. Last weekend, my friend Joan came over and we produced TWO batches which required 3 large sauce pots to stir at once! We did this as well as bottled the honey…more on that later. IMG_6693The outcome of approximately 20 lbs of lovely, ripe tomatoes is only 6 pints of nice, thick sauce. But oh, how wonderful it is to open a jar during the winter months and use it in one of our savory dishes! Besides drying and canning the tomatoes, I’m also roasting them at every chance I get.  I do this most often with the cherry tomatoes and sometimes in conjunction with other veggies or just by themselves. I’ve invested in multiple half sheets in order to do this in my convection oven simultaneously. IMG_6647The results are lovely and get frozen, flat in gallon bags or eaten for dinners over rice or pasta.

IMG_6649Tomatoes aren’t our only game this time of year. I’m also trying to keep up with the green bean harvesting. This I do mostly with freezing. Dave harvests pounds and pounds of these and brings them to me in these trays. So far we are just under 40 lbs. IMG_6648I stem them and blanch them in boiling water for 3 minutes before cooling them fast in an ice bath. IMG_6615Then I let them dry a bit on towels. IMG_6618Before bagging them up for the freezer. I use a straw to suck out the air of each bag before putting them away. These are wonderful all winter long when the ghost of anything green is a faint memory! IMG_6619We are pretty excited to have lots of cucumbers again this year to turn into our favorite pickles. It was really fun to have the pickle tasting bar at the wedding but I’ve gotten serious admirers since then who think the sweets are pretty special. That encouragement is just what I need to continue to experiment and so I have! I’ve made spears this year with great success! They are pretty darn easy to do. You cut them as such… IMG_6638 proceed with the initial brining….IMG_6639play the Tetris game with them to load them into the waiting jars just so (really, this is a hot potato game since the spears at this stage are piping hot!)IMG_6640And then process them as normal! Yeah, spears!IMG_6641So what, you might ask, is happening with the fermented pickles of 2014? Remember, oh so long ago when I was loading up the crocks with whole pickles to turn into sour pickles?  Well, thanks for asking…they just came into their own recently! I’ve been tending them for about 4 weeks and the aroma when I lifted the crock lid was something I wish I could share with you! There is an intense dilly-ness about them! Part of the process tho, is to skim the surface of any scum every couple of days. I don’t think I could have been any happier to do this since it was a sign that everything was on course! IMG_6611These have been worth the babysitting time! I decided this week that they were ready and tasted one with great fan fare and approval. I took them from their crock and washed them thoroughly. IMG_6700Then I loaded them into the quart jars. These can be kept for 4-6 months in the refrigerator just as is, or processed in a hot water bath to be kept longer in the pantry. I decided to do a bit of both but I changed the instructions just slightly. The UMN instructions at this point said after packing the pickles into their jars, to take their brine and boil it and then then cover the pickles with the hot brine and process. This I did, but found the brine to be just way too salty for our modern tastes. So I re-rinsed the pickles and added boiling water to their jars to process. The pickles now have plenty of their brine-y flavoring to hold their own in the sour pickle world! IMG_6701In other news, we are eating the few peaches that we kept on our trees and although smallish, they are delightful! These are Red Havens. IMG_6668These are not our only fruits to be harvested. Strawberries are a recent memory but the blueberries continue to surprise me and are still producing in two of the varieties as we are now over 65lbs for the year. We plucked the first watermelon from the fields and it looks like a wonderful specimen with more to come as well as cantaloupes which will be plentiful in the next month or so! photo 23There are so many things to be excited about this year but before I get to the bees, let me just report on our two newest crops that we are gaga about! Here is our first ever cauliflower! One in a long row of them! The industry is a bit better about blanching the heads and we are working on that but I feel a little photosynthesis won’t ruin the taste!IMG_6660And Brusselss sprouts! These are not going to be ready until the fall, but oh, how exciting it is to see these little buds forming on the branches! I will research ways to preserve both of these cruciferous vegetables!IMG_6663So, we take and we take from the earth, all these lovely fruits of our labors. But it is so important to give back which is what we are doing now with our composting. Our two barrel composting unit has been overloaded with goodies in the past month or so and it was time to unload it and re-distribute the wealth. It is relatively easy to do with this composting model to open the mouth of it and crank it out and over a wheel barrow. The  smell of it was invigorating!  IMG_6602 Here is Dave distributing in the rich compost into the plot where were just harvested 200 lbs of potatoes. Its like a little thank you note to the field. IMG_6606

As always, last but not least, is the bee report. Thank goodness this is a relatively quiet time for the bees. We harvested and extracted the mid summer honey and then gave the bees some space. At my last posting, I was pretty darn excited to report that the very first bees at Seven Oaks had produced 36 pounds of honey which I extracted at Jurgen and Helen’s house one day. The thrill of getting your own honey from bees you have been caring for is unmeasurable! So, it is natural that bottling this same honey was pretty exciting as well! I have been researching jars for this purpose and ordered up some candidates from a company outside of Chicago. Think about the process of getting a 36 pound bucket of honey into little 7oz jars!!! There is a method for this and it is done with a bucket that has a spigot for this purpose. I borrowed one from Jurgen while he was out of town and proceeded last weekend to transfer the bucketful of honey to my little jars. It wasn’t nearly as much of a sticky of a mess as I anticipated. IMG_6687And I’m now the proud mama of 59  jars of beautiful honey from Seven Oaks Farm! Creating labels for these will be my next project!  IMG_6697And finally, just a note here to remember my dear mother-in-law, Margaret Sauerhoff who passed away last week. She was an amazing woman who I enjoyed knowing through the last 37 years. I can’t begin to list all of her  wonderful traits here since there are too many but I must say she was a wonderful person and I’m so honored to have been so welcomed by her into the Sauerhoff family!