Jul 30, 2014

10 Common Canning Myths - Debunked!

Home canning isn't difficult. But perhaps because it's evolved over the years, there are many myths associated with it. If you're afraid to can, or you just want to become a more expert canner, check out these common canning myths - and the real facts behind them.

Myth 1: There's no way I'm home canning anything. I'm not going to risk making my loved ones sick  - or evening killing them with botulism!

The Facts: Modern canning is quite safe as long as you follow a modern canning book, like The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving or the guidelines at the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP). The steps are simple and when followed completely, you won't get botulism. (If you've read some recent news stories about home canners getting botulism from their home canned food, please note they did not even come close to following proper canning guidelines! Don't skip steps. They are there for a reason.)

Myth 2: I can in an oven. My grandma did it, so I know it's safe.

The Facts: Oven canning is not safe, and never was. This is because the oven doesn't get the food hot enough to kill all the bad bugs.

Myth 3: Butter is totally safe to can.

The Facts: Dairy products aren't suitable for home canning. Learn more here.

Myth 4: Canning lids contain BPA - a chemical I don't want in my diet.

The Facts: Ball and Kerr lids are now BPA free, as are Tattler lids.

Myth 5: It's okay to store my jars with rings on them. It's also okay to stack jars one on top of the other during storage.

The Facts: Both are highly discouraged; here's why: When you leave the rings on canning lids, or when you put something on top of the jars, those jars may unseal - then reseal themselves. This can result in spoiled food - but you won't be able to tell it's spoiled (unless it happens to grow mold or take on a strange smell - which may or may not happen). On the other hand, if you leave the rings off and don't put anything on top of the jars, if they happen to unseal, you'll know about it! The lids won't be able to reseal because there will be no pressure on them, so it will be obvious there's a problem with the seal. (FYI: It's not often that canning lids come unsealed, but under the right conditions, like exposure to too much heat, they may.)

Myth 6: There's no need to boil or simmer lids. They get sterilized during canning, anyway.

The Facts: The purpose of simmering (not boiling) canning lids is not to sterilize or clean them. It's to heat up the rubbery part so it will properly seal the jar. So yes, you do need to simmer them before placing them on jars.

Myth 7: It's okay to can vegetables in a water bath canner. My grandmother did it all the time!

The Facts: There was a brief period where some put up vegetables in a water bath canner. But that was before we knew as much about food poisoning as we do now. In addition:

* People rarely died from this unsafe type of canning because after they opened the jar of canned food, they boiled the vegetables to death. This killed all the bad bugs - but it also made the food mushy and removed much of the nutrition from it.

* We now have bacteria and other bugs in our environment that grandma did not.

* Even in Grandma's day, this was risky. It just isn't worth the risk - especially when you can easily can vegetables in a perfectly safe, easy to use pressure canner.

Myth 8: I don't put my jams, jellies, or tomato products in a canner. I just sterilize the jars, put the food in, put the simmered cap on, and turn it upside down. It seals fine!

The Facts: This is the traditional method for canning jams and jellies. However, a quick 10 minute boil in a water bath canner makes the food safer to eat. It's not difficult or time consuming, so why risk making someone sick with unprocessed jams and jellies?

As for tomato products, it's very risky not to process them in a canner. When you cook tomato sauces and other tomato products on the stove, they don't get hot enough to kill bad bugs.

In addition, modern tomatoes may have less acid in them than old-fashioned tomatoes; lower acid means a greater risk for food poisoning, unless the tomatoes are processed in a canner. In fact, some experts recommend only canning tomatoes and tomato products in a pressure canner, to reduce the risk of illness even further.

Myth 9: I can make up my own recipes to home can. I don't have to follow a recipe that's been tested in a laboratory for safety. After all, the canned foods we buy in a store aren't made from "approved" recipes.

The Facts: First, the commercial canning process is entirely different from home canning. And yes, commercially canned recipes are tested for safety - the recipes just aren't shared with the public and are only safe with commercial canning methods.

That said, it's possible to create safe jam recipes, as long as you understand the important balance required to make jam or jelly. In addition, there is some leeway when it comes to soups, as long as you understand density and that some foods just aren't appropriate for canning. However, it's wise for new canners to stick to approved recipes, such as those found in the Ball canning books or on the NCHFP website. In addition, you may wish to check out the books Putting Up and Putting it Up More by Steve Downdey, which explain the process cottage canning businesses use to come up with their own recipes. (Be forewarned; these books are controversial because they set forth not home canning guidelines, but guidelines used in commercial kitchens.)

Myth 10: I always sterilize my canning jars and lids. It's the only safe way to go!

The Facts: It's almost never necessary to sterilize jars and lids before filling them with food. That's because the canning process itself sterilizes them. Learn more here.

Jul 28, 2014

Why Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables are Important

Not long ago, I was on a gardening forum where someone asked if it was okay to eat produce with holes in
it. "My family says no, because bugs have been eating it," the man typed. This received a variety of replies, but only one respondent typed what I was thinking: "Well, if you don't want to eat veggies with holes nibbled in them, you can go and buy some poison, sprinkle it on your food, kill all those nasty bugs, and you'll have 'perfect' little veggies to eat."

* * *

Last year, my mom- and sister-in-law attended a class on orchard keeping. At the beginning of the class, the teacher asked everyone to come forward and choose an apple from a box on his desk. When every student had done so, all the perfect-looking apples were gone, and all the imperfect apples - those that were misshaped or had worm holes - were left in the box. "Until this changes - until people start choosing and buying produce that's less than perfect, organic food will not become the norm," the teacher said.

* * *

Did you know that in the U.S., 40 - 50% of all food that's ready for commercial harvest never gets eaten? Some of this is due to modern methods of harvesting - machines that don't take corners well, for example. (Which, incidentally has lead to a rise in the biblical practice of gleaning - not a bad thing!) But a good portion of that is food that's misshapen or otherwise considered imperfect - for example, carrots with two or more roots - and are just thrown away.

* * *

Last week, I saw an encouraging news story. In France, one supermarket chain is putting an end to this kind of food waste - and helping consumers reduce their food bills, too. They are taking all that imperfect produce ("inglorious fruits and vegetables," they call them) and putting them on their shelves at reduced prices. And the French are eating them up! So much so, the chain is having trouble keeping enough "inglorious" produce in stock.

And while the news story doesn't mention it, the acceptance of less than perfect produce opens the door wide to more - and more affordable - organic produce. Why? Because organic practices lead to more bug nibbles - and because an item like a perfect-looking organic apple takes many more man hours to produce, and therefore costs much more than conventionally grown apples.

What do you think? Are you willing to eat imperfect food in order to end food waste and make organic more affordable?

Jul 23, 2014

Teaching Children to Not Interrupt

All children need to learn to respect others. One way they can show lots of respect is by not interrupting when others are talking. I have an easy - yes easy! - and practical way to teach children how to avoid interrupting taught to me years ago by a preschool teacher.
Step 1: Explain to your child why interrupting is so disrespectful. It's best to do this when you're both rested and in a good mood - and before your child starts interrupting. Cuddle, look your child in the eye, and use a friendly tone of voice. Explain that interrupting is just like saying "Nobody else matters. I'm the only person who matters right now."

Step 2: Explain the Interrupting Rule. When your child wants to speak to you, but you are speaking to someone else, they should say nothing, but put their hand on your shoulder or, if they can't reach your shoulder, you arm. You will then place your hand over your child's as a silent way of saying, "I know you want to speak to me. Give me just a moment, please." Maintain this position; then, within in a minute or two, stop and ask your child, "Thank you for waiting, honey. What do you need?"

Step 3: Explain that if you're having an important phone conversation, one that can't be interrupted, you will warn your child before you get on the phone. In such cases, your child will have to wait until you are off the phone to speak to you - unless there is a true emergency. (Be sure to define this, because usually a child's idea of an emergency is different from an adult's. I tell my children that if someone is dying, bleeding a lot, or gets burned, that is an emergency.)

A few other tips:

* Set a good example. If you interrupt others, your children will notice and conclude that interrupting is no big deal.

* Once your kids know that interrupting is disrespectful, they will tell everyone - adults and kids - this new-found information, often in a way that others will find rude. Teach your children never to yell "I was talking first!", but to instead politely and calmly overlook the interruption. With siblings, this will be harder to accomplish, so you may need to teach your children to quietly and politely say, "I'm sorry, but I was speaking first. May I finish?"

* Don't neglect to memorize some Bible verses about the importance of respect. For example:

"Do to others as you would have them do to you." Luke 6:31

"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother' (this is the first commandment with a promise), 'that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.'” Ephesians 6:1-3

 "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." Philippians 2:3

"Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor." Romans 12:10

Jul 21, 2014

Make Your Produce Last Longer

"My produce always goes bad before we can eat it all," I overheard a woman complain to her friend. "I spend all this money on healthy food, and most of it gets wasted!" She's not alone. Experts estimate Americans throw away 14 - 25% of their food, costing the average family $1,365 - $2,275. This is tragic, considering an estimated 842 million people worldwide don't have enough to eat.

What can you do to end food waste in your household? Check out the tips below. (And be sure to see the other articles I've written about food waste, too.)

"And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples,
'Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.'” 

* Buy only what you can reasonably expect to eat before it goes bad. Even if it means extra trips to the farmer's market or grocery store.

* Keep one drawer in the fridge for fruits, and another for veggies. Never store them together because many fruits release ethylene gas - —a ripening agent that makes veggies rot faster.

* Don't refrigerate bananas, garlic, apples, winter squash, potatoes, or onions. Tomatoes tend to turn mealy in the fridge, too. (Be careful to keep onions and potatoes apart, since onions hasten the demise of taters.)

* Freeze certain veggies. On shopping day - or perhaps the day after shopping - chop up produce you'll use for cooking, like onion, green onions, herbs, and sweet peppers. Pop them in a freezer bag, and you won't have to worry about them going bad.

* Use up the most perishable items first. For example, snack on bananas before you start in on the apples. You'll also want to plan your meals so the most perishable foods get used up first.

* Learn to use up just-about-to-spoil produce. You can make smoothies with them. Or freeze them. Or dehydrate them.

* Don't store countertop produce in a hot or sunny location. Keep them in a cool, dark location and they will remain fresh longer.

* Immediately remove produce that's overripe or spoiling. For example, if you keep an apple that has a spoiled spot in with the other apples, it will hasten the spoiling of them all.
I wouldn't want to have to do without my Progressive Keepers.

* Use Progressive International Keeper containers. They really work! There is a water reservoir at the bottom of the containers, plus adjustable venting - and all the information you need for correctly storing produce is right on the container itself. (Some people also swear by Tupperware Fridgesmart containers.)

* Don't wash fruits until you're ready to eat them; experts say water decreases fruit's life by 40%. Some people swear by rinsing them in vinegar and water; I've never tried this becauee I find fruits and berries last a long time in my Progressive containers.

* Remove ties and rubber bands before storing.

* Don't stuff fridge drawers. If you let produce have a little room to breathe, the food will last longer.

* Place plastic wrap over the stem end of bananas. Some people claim separating them makes them last longer, too, but I haven't found this to be the case. And while you're at it, buy green bananas and let them ripen on the counter. They'll last many more days this way.

* Consider whether it needs ripening. Avocados, tomatoes, stone fruits, mangoes, melons, pears, bananas, and apples, will continue to ripen if you leave them on the counter. Citrus, berries, grapes, and bell peppers will not ripen on the counter and will spoil quickly there.

* Buy from local farmers. The food is fresher than what you buy at te grocery store; therefore, it stores longer at home.

* Don't toss it just because it looks bad. With heads of lettuce or cabbage, remove the outer leaves and you'll find fresher leaves inside. Cut away bad spots in fruit, eat the rest.

* Compost! If all else fails, compost spoiled produce to feed the soil in your yard! Also, if you have critters (like chickens and rabbits) that can eat produce, it's fine to give them wilty, dry, or otherwise unpalatable produce - but never give them anything that's rotten.


Jul 16, 2014

Attracting Bees to Your Garden - and Dispelling Some Bee Myths

I know everyone keeps talking about the decline of bees - but if you could come visit my garden, I think you'd believe they've all come to live here! The truth is, there are a lot of misconceptions about bees. But the good news is, it is very, very easy to encourage bees to come to your yard - which benefits not only the country's bee populations, but also how productive your plants are.

Misconceptions about Bees, Pollination, and Colony Collapse

When you mention pollination to most people, they think of honeybees. But there are other pollinators (ants, bats, birds, butterflies, wasps, and more) - and honeybees aren't the only type of bees that pollinate. In fact, honeybees aren't even native to North America! Honeybees don't even know how to pollinate certain plants, like tomatoes and eggplant, and are really bad at pollinating others, like blueberries, pumpkins, and cranberries. To top it off, honeybees have a long history of illness and death in North America. They are just not designed for this environment, and are quite delicate compared to native bees.

And not only are our native bees much more hearty, they generally don't live in colonies - and they aren't suffering colony collapse. This is a great thing in general, but it will require commercial farmers to think in more old fashioned terms; instead of trucking in colonies of honeybees for pollination, they will have to consider how to attract native bees to their farms. (For more information about honeybee colony collapse and native bees as pollinators, please read "As Honeybee Colonies Collapse, Can Native Bees Handle Pollination?" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison website and "Are Native Bees Suffering the Same Colony Collapse Disorder as Honeybees?" at BayNature.)

From No Bees to Bees Galore!

So now you know the world isn't coming to an end because all bees (or pollinators) are dying. But there are still good reasons to encourage bees (native and honeybees) in your yard.

When my husband and I first moved into our house, we had virtually no beneficial insects and very few bees. Some of this was surely because there were very few plants to attract them. But once I started gardening, things didn't get much better. I was using chemicals in the garden - making it a place that wasn't hospitable to bees and other beneficials. But as soon as I stopped using chemicals (see below for more info on this), I noticed a change within about six months. Ladybugs began staying in our garden, for example, and bees started appearing regularly. Today, the beneficial insects are at an all time high in my garden - and there are bees everywhere! Here's what I do:

* I no longer use any chemicals in the garden - with the rare exception of a carefully controlled use of Roundup on invasive weeds that will completely overtake the garden if I don't spray them. I always try old fashioned methods of eradicating weeds first, and I treat all diseases (extremely rare in my garden) and pest infestations organically, usually with manual methods.
* I make sure to feed the soil with compost and organic mulch. Healthy soil makes healthy plants, which results in plants that resist disease and pests - and attract bees and other beneficials.

* I try to rotate crops. This is extremely difficult in a small garden, but I do my best because I know it helps keep plants healthy.

* I plant things just for the bees and other beneficials. Borage has made a tremendous difference in my garden. It's very pretty, can be eaten by people (I don't eat it, though), self-sows itself every year - and the bees absolutely flock to it. Other plants the bees really love include butterfly bush (though this is invasive in some parts of the U.S., so be sure to contact your local extension office before planting), lavender, and sedum. Other plants bees love include: basil, sage, thyme, chives, and oregano that are allowed to flower, sunflowers, asters, dandelions, clover, lilac, cosmos, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, bachelor buttons, bee balm, honeysuckle, wildflowers native to your area - and of course they will love all your flowering edibles, too. Give them lots of variety.
Sedum "Autumn Joy"
* You can also create a place for bees to drink. A bird bath with stones in it is a nice choice.

Bee Killing Plants?

You may have seen something online about plants from Lowe's testing 51% positive for bee-killing pesticides. This is a bit unfair to Lowe's, because they get their plants at the same places almost every store gets their plants. But you can avoid buying chemical laden plants by shopping at local nurseries where you can ask - and get knowledgeable answers about - growing methods. Or just grow your plants from seed. Check out Starting Seeds - which is free - for instructions on how to do this.

Butterfly bush
Worried About Getting Stung?

Yes, I think about this; we have bee sting allergies at our house. But even with all the bees in my yard, I don't get stung. I am mindful of the bees - for example, I don't push past the borage to look for fruit on the squash plants. But I weed and water and so on - and the bees are so busy doing their work, they don't pay me any mind. Maybe they even see me as a collaborator in the making of the garden...who knows?

Jul 14, 2014

Kristina vs. Knife. Knife Wins.

So I was going about my Sunday as usual, feeling really tired - but also excited to pull the first pattypan squash out of the garden and share it with my hubby at dinnertime. Then I decided to try slicing and grilling the squash. I got out my new, truly sharp chef's knife and began cutting the squash into thick slices...when, OWEEEE! I cut myself. Not just that - I cut the tip off my pinky finger.

There was so much blood, I couldn't tell if bone was exposed. A bit panicky, I told my daughter to run outide and fetch daddy. She must have looked quite panicky, because my husband raced in awfully quick. Long story short, I couldn't get the bleeding to slow down, so my husband took me to the emergency room. By the time a doctor actually saw me, the bleeding had nearly stopped. ("It bleeds and bleeds and bleeds when you do this to yourself," the doc said.) Fortunately, I didn't expose any bone. But because I entirely cut off the tip of the finger, leaving no flap of skin, they couldn't do stitches - so they bandaged me up, gave me a tetnus shot, and sent me home. It's gonna take quite a while to heal completely, and they tell me it will hurt a lot.

Right now, it's not painful...but keeping it dry while housekeeping - and typing with any kind of speed - isn't easy.

So...please be patient with me. Posting might be slower because my typing is sooooo much slower.

As for the knife...I suppose I'll use it again. But I doubt I will ever slice pattypan squash again!

Jul 11, 2014

Chocolate Zucchini Cake Recipe

I use lots of healthy zucchini recipes  (#1 and #2 are what my family craves most!), but sometimes I like to splurge. I'll make zucchini chocolate chip cookies for the kids (they LOVE them; you'll find the recipe in A Vegetable for Every Season) or I'll make chocolate zucchini cake. Oh yes. It's yummy. Here's the recipe. You're welcome.

(NOTE 07/29/14: Long time reader Tereza Crump had a ton of crooked neck yellow squash, so she tried this recipe with them. She says the result was delish! She used 1 cup of butter in place of the oil, and she recommends "you grate your veggies in the finer grater. I...grated the veggies on the coarser side. You could see the veggies when you put it in the batter. I was afraid that it would be seen once the cake was baked. Not so! But for safe measure, if you have picky eaters, grate the veggies on the fine grater." Thanks, Tereza!)

Chocolate Zucchini Cake Recipe

1/2 cup milk*
1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar*
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour (or 1 cup whole wheat flour and 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour)
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil or melted extra virgin coconut oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
2 cups zucchini, grated (about 2 medium zucchini)
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and lightly flour a 9x13 in. baking pan; set aside. Combine the milk and vinegar and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the sugar, butter, and oil. One at a time, add the eggs and beat until blended. Beat in the vanilla extract.

4. Pour about a third of the flour mixture into the butter mixture, beating just until blended. Add about a third of the milk and vinegar mixture (which should now look lumpy) until just blended. Repeat two more times, until all the flour mixture and milk and vinegar mixture is gone.

5. Fold in the zucchini.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top.
Bake 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 15-20 minutes; serve warm.

* If preferred, replace the milk and vinegar with 1/2 cup of buttermilk.

Jul 9, 2014

No Fail Lemonade Recipe

Lemonade is one of summer's most refreshing drinks. But please don't buy the powdered stuff in a can. (Have you read the ingredient list?! Plus, it doesn't taste like real lemonade!) Making lemonade is way too easy for you to waste money and health on store bought. Just use this no-fail lemonade recipe, which tastes just like Simply Lemonade.
No Fail Lemonade Recipe
3/4 cup to 1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water + 3 - 4 cups cold water
4-5 large lemons

1. Begin by juicing the lemons until you have 1 cup of juice. Set aside.

2. Make a simple syrup: Pour the sugar and 1 cup of water into a saucepan placed over medium heat. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat.
The sugar-water combination before stirring and heating.
The sugar-water combination when the sugar is completely dissolved.
3. Pour the simple syrup into a pitcher. Add the lemon juice. Add 3 - 4 cups of cold water, depending upon how strong you want the lemonade to taste. Stir well.

4. Refrigerate for at least a half hour before serving.

Easy peasy!