Friday, September 19, 2014

Falling Into Fall

The equinox is just around the corner, and soon we will be heading toward the dark days. The chickens are molting rather then laying (Sally remaining our reliable exception, of course). The temperatures (especially in the early morning hours) are cooler, and though we are still several weeks away from frost, the garden has shifted from the lush greens and vibrant reds of high summer to the mellow golds and dusky purples of autumn. I am always sad to see summer go, but there are compensations.

Our very small pumpkin patch has produced a good number of heirloom Long Pie pumpkins this year. The vines have died back almost completely, and the fruits are curing in the waning hours of sunlight. Hopefully they'll have time to ripen to orange before frost.

Our Cherokee Trail of Tears beans are drying on the vines. The are a papery purple now, and I have been slowly picking them so we can shell them before frost. No rush on this project, though. They dry just as well on the plant as off, and they are nice to look at in the meantime.

Our butternut squashes are doing almost as well as the pumpkins, and look ready to pick. The nice part about the fall garden is that there's no hurry to pick veggies that go into storage as long as temperatures are above freezing. I will probably cut these from their vines this weekend, though, to take advantage of the warm sun for a final curing before they go down to the basement.

Our nasturtiums are still going strong, and their fiery orange seems to glow once they are in the afternoon shade. 

The Swiss chard is huge, and shows off some nice autumn color of its own. The chard will last for a couple months after frost if we cover it in a greenhouse tunnel. Although not quite as tough as spinach, kale, and mache, it's still a good, sturdy green for winter.

There are no ears of sweet corn left to harvest, but the drying stalks still look nice enough to leave in place as a natural decoration for the garden. I'm also leaving them to serve as a decoy, so no critters figure out that Tiegan's ears of popcorn are still available to eat in a different area of the garden. Those ears should dry on the stalks, and they aren't quite ready to pick yet--I'm hoping that between this gambit and Fletch's patrolling, she will end up with a decent amount of kernels to pop this year.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Car Maintenance

What's the worst part about owning a car? The maintenance. It's expensive. It's unpredictable. It's un-fun. So for me, the very best part of getting rid of our second vehicle is

Adjusting the car maintenance budget to reflect actual spending in this area.

Because actual spending is gonna be a whole lot less.

I should note that this is the time of year I go through every line item on our budget (because of course we have a budget, and you definitely should too) and use data from the previous year to inform our projected spending for the coming year. In our house, the fiscal year aligns with the new school year, because that's when we get our raises (you know, if our contracts have actually been negotiated on time and raises are a thing that year). So in September we use our new paycheck numbers to tally actual income, and we go through our previous year's actual spending to make the most educated guess on each budget line item for the coming year's spending. 

This is easily done with any type of banking software. We happen to use Quicken because it was free, but there are other choices, including probably your credit card or your bank's online system. Anyway, Quicken lets us pull reports of spending by category for a given time frame. Here's a shot of our 2013 spending on the cars:

Now, I don't actually categorize our car spending as well as I could: gas, registration fees, and repairs are all tagged the same way. So at budget time, I do have to go down the list and pick out the repairs from the gas. You can easily tell them apart, though, because they are the lines that are for a lot more than thirty or forty bucks a pop.

For us, it's pretty easy to see that most of our car maintenance dollars went into the fifteen-year-old Focus, so we are expecting some big savings in that area of the budget in the coming year. I'm padding an estimate for the future by allowing $1000 for my car (which is almost twice the amount that we actually spent on my car this past year, but I've always been kind of unlucky with cars--this will put us on the safe side). We'll also allow another $200 for the year on bicycle maintenance and repair, as they are about to get a lot more use. 

Even if you're not getting rid of a car (though maybe these posts will convince you to give it a go?), you might still have some potential savings in your budget if you didn't actually spend what you thought you would on your car (or in any area of your life, really). The trick is to keep track of the money, and then catch those savings when they pop up. For example, even if we kept our other car, but I noticed that we spent $300 less per year on maintaining it, I could scoop up that extra money and slide it toward our savings pile (to the tune of an extra $25 each month). That would feel pretty painless, and it would keep that money in the savings column instead of allowing it to sit in our checking account, where we might otherwise fritter it away on ice cream cones. Data is our friend, and tracking spending is really easy. If you're not doing it, give it a try.

Anyway, in our case, last year's budget for car repair and maintenance called for $232.50 per month. We're dropping that back to just $100 per month ($1000 for my car plus $200 for the bikes per year). If that ends up not being enough, we can always take it back out of our savings, but the past year's numbers point to that being the right amount. And it's a lot!

Savings per month: $132.50

Sunday, September 14, 2014

It's Fancy Jam Time

We're in the nineties, Mother. It's fancy jam time.
~Albert Brooks, Mother

This week was all about the jam-making. In edition to our first shot at grape jelly, we also made our first strawberry jam. Back in the spring (when most strawberries are coming in), I ended up freezing all the strawberries that we didn't eat, and figured I would eventually get around to making them into jam. And since I was already elbow-deep in the grape jam process, I threw another pot on the stove and got started on the strawberries on the same day.

Once again, I was looking to make this jam with as little sugar as possible, so that all the great strawberry flavor could shine through. To do this, I simplified Melissa K. Norris' recipe which, like the adjustments I made to the grape jam, used more lemon (for acid and pectin) and less sugar to achieve the jelling the jam needs to set up. Here's how I made it:

1. Gather the ingredients: 3 lemons, 8 cups of whole strawberries (frozen work just fine, but they should be thawed), and 2 1/2 cups of sugar. You also need canning equipment and jars for 2 pints' worth of jam. (We ended up with 2 pints plus a tiny 4 ounce jar.)

2. Zest all the lemons:

There's a lot of natural pectin in citrus rinds, and this recipe uses quite a bit of it. Most of the pectin is in the pithy white part is the rind, so I grated it way down to make the most of it.

3. Put the zest into a pot:

It's a lot! Then cut the lemons in half and juice them into the pot. I used a sieve to keep the seeds and most of the pulp out. 

3. Add the sugar and strawberries into the pot, and stir over low heat. Allow to slowly warm for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the strawberries end up well-coated in lemon and sugar:

This is a good time to mash the strawberries (unless you like whole berries in your jam). I used a potato masher for this.

4. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often to keep it from sticking or burning. Allow it to bubble and sputter until it sets--about 20 minutes. This time will vary depending on how sweet, pectin-y, and/or acidic your berries are, so it's a good idea to do the spoon test as soon as you think it's starting to thicken. (To do this, dip a metal spoon in the jam and see if it sticks to the back instead of sliding right off. As soon as it sticks in a solid coating, it's ready to go.) The idea is to cook the berries for the shortest period possible, so it doesn't end up tasting caramelized or cooked.

5. Follow all of your basic canning rules to fill hot jars, screw on fresh lids, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. 

Of course we tasted it the next day to see how it turned out. We opened the little extra one for a taste test:

It set well, and there are lots of nice chunks of berry in the jam. Perfect texture:

The flavor, like the lemony grape jam we made with it, is quite bright. I actually did not taste the lemon so much as a very strawberry-filled, but not too-sweet jam. I liked it a lot. Kirk, on the other hand, found it to be very lemony--he said we would have to label it as strawberry-lemon jam, since to him it tastes more like strawberry rhubarb filling than straight strawberry (which probably explains why I liked it so much). The kids preferred the grape jam by a long shot.

So in the future, I think I would try cutting the amount of lemon zest used in this recipe, and instead use our grape jam trick of adding the lemon rinds to the jam as it cooks down, but removing them before jarring. I think that using all that zest adds too much of the lemon's essential oils to the jam, when all you really want is the pectin. The zest and all its flavor stays in the jam this way, but more of the flavor might be removed along with the rind if we try the rind method next time.

On the other hand, I really like this strawberry jam, so maybe the kids should learn to make their own jam next summer if they prefer it fully sugared. Then we can have a strawberry jam cook-off, enter the jars for judging at the fair, and see who gets a ribbon.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Concord Grape Harvest

We're having a big year with the grapes. Not only did we finish the arbor, but we have also enjoyed harvesting at least a few grapes of each of our four varieties. Our best crop of grapes by far is from our Concord vines. Unlike last year's harvest of just a handful of grapes, this year we have had literal bunches. We've been snacking on the them in passing for a week or two, and this week I brought in a little over three pounds:

Too many grapes to eat before they go bad, so it's time to make grape jam!

As always, I checked the Ball Blue Book first, but then went online to try to find a lower-sugar version. The last time I made a no-pectin jam from the Ball Book, it was good, but too sweet. These grapes taste so good off the vine--musky grapey-ness, but also lots of floral notes and a touch of acidity--that I didn't want to obliterate their flavor with all that sugar. 

I found a low(er) sugar grape jam recipe at Epicurious, but I played with it to use even less sugar and a faster cooking time to try to maintain as much of the natural grape flavor as I could. Here's what I did:

1. Gather ingredients: 3 pounds of Concord grapes, 2 cups of sugar, 1 lemon. You'll also need to fire up the canner and prepare about 7 of those tiny, 4-oz. jelly jars. 

2. Remove the stems and add grapes to the food processor:

I left the few unripe green ones in the mix, to no ill effect.

2. Blitz the grapes to separate the skins from the pulp:

This doesn't take many pulses, and you want to do it in small batches to avoid the liquid rising too high and causing leaks.

3. Combine the juice of the lemon, sugar, and grape mash into a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking:

I also added the spent lemon rinds, working under the assumption that they would help add some natural pectin to the mixture, which would in turn help the jam set up without having to cook it for quite so long.

4. Boil for 20 minutes, still stirring and generally keeping an eye on the pot:

5. Remove from heat, discard the lemon rinds, and process the jam in a food mill to remove most of the skins (and seeds, if your grapes are seeded):

You can also press it through a sieve if you don't have a food mill. Either way, be careful with the lava-hot, sugary syrup.

6. Put the strained mixture back in the pot on the stove and boil it until it sets:

Though the Epicurious recipe suggested an additional 35 minutes for this, mine was done in just 10. (I attribute this to those lemon rinds, but that's just a guess.)

7. How do you know when it's set? That's the scary part of jam making. I tested it with a metal spoon: 

The idea here is that when it has enough body to hold together and stick to the back of the spoon, it's done. Because it's hot, it will still look pretty runny, but you just have to trust it.

8. Put the jam in jars, screw on the lids, and process in the canner for 10 minutes. 

That's it. I was very anxious to give it a taste test, especially since I had played pretty fast and loose with the recipe. Adjusting the pectin-sugar-acid ratio in jams is tricky, because you need enough of all three to make it set. But each fruit has a different amount of each naturally (and this can also vary based on variety, growing conditions, etc.)

So we held our breath and opened one the next evening. And took a spoon to it:

Whew! Good and thick--definitely jelled. On to the taste test:

The texture is perfect! The flavor is grapey and very bright. I wouldn't say it tastes lemony, exactly, but it has a pretty strong acidity to it. (The kids didn't notice the lemon at all, and liked the jam a lot, so maybe my perception is altered a bit by knowing the ingredients.) It's definitely not too sweet, so mission accomplished there. I think in the future I will try using just the juice of half the lemon, but still use the rinds. 

The funny thing is that I'm not actually a huge grape jelly fan. But since I expect to have a lot of Concord grapes to work with each year, we can keep experimenting to try to tweak this recipe to the perfect balance for the unique flavor of our backyard grapes.