cooking, farming, gardening, Herbs

Dehydrating Herbs Pays Dividends All Year Long

If you are anything like us, you are always looking for ways to add more growing space.  A few years ago we found a great way to add growing space and beautify our outdoor living space at the same time.  We started using containers on our deck and in our pool area.  We can grow almost anything in containers, but our favorites are herbs. Growing herbs in containers allows us to have fresh herbs for cooking right outside our back door.

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It is amazing how productive even a small pot of herbs can be.  It is important to have good soil and water often.  Every night we clip a few leaves for dinner.  It was not long before we realized that these little marvels produced more than we needed.  It was time to learn a new skill, preserving herbs.  After some research and weighing the pros and cons of each, we settled on dehydration.  This method was quick, simple, and easy.  We already owned a dehydrator so the investment was zero, and this method used much less space than hanging them to dry.

We waited for our basil and oregano plants to have an abundance of leaves, which would allow us to harvest and still leave enough leaves for the plant to flourish.  We then harvested the largest leaves of basil with a scissor.  We also used scissors to snip the longest stems and leaves of the oregano, sort of like giving it a haircut.

We then placed the leaves on the trays of our dehydrator in a single layer keeping the leaves from touching to allow for good air circulation.

img_3288 The basil lays out nicelyimg_3285

The oregano is a bit unruly

 

We then set the dehydrator to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and let the dehydrate for 24 hours.  Our house smelled faintly like an Italian restaurant and we waited patiently for the results.  It is important to let the herbs fully dry or they will not keep, so this is a step that cannot be rushed.  The should feel kind of like tissue paper and fall apart easily when crushed.

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The dried herbs were then placed into a bowl and then crushed.  We removed the stems from the oregano before crushing.

img_3296 The last step was to put the herbs into a mason jar for safe keeping.

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Herbs preserved in this way will last for more than a year, and there is something about a mason jar full of anything that appeals to us.  Opening the jar in the middle of winter and inhaling that amazing aroma takes you back to warmer days and excites you about the upcoming spring, even if it is months away.

Preserving herbs in this manor was one of the easiest things we have ever done on the homestead.  We are able to dehydrate pesticide and herbicide free herbs every other week from just 6 pots on our deck.  We make so many big plans on the homestead, but sometimes it’s the littlest ones that pay the biggest dividends.

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cooking, farming, gardening, homemade, homesteading, kale, recipes

Freezing Kale, The Test of a Marriage

Why would freezing kale for the winter be a test of a marriage? Let us explain….

We live in the Northeast and our winters can be very long, and for an anxious gardener, it can be tough mentally. So as soon as possible, we like to get our hands dirty and get our cold weather crops in the ground, those that can tolerate a cold spring and even a little frost, such as spinach, collards, broccoli, some lettuces and of course, kale.

We jumped on the kale bandwagon a few years ago. We were curious about this proclaimed “super food”. We already loved spinach and all the ways it can be used, so why not try kale? It was love at first bite. We use kale in many ways, sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil, raw in salads, creamed kale, used to stuff pork loin and venison roasts (see our recipe for Kale and Sausage Stuffed Venison), mixed in our morning eggs, the list goes on and on.

Back to the marriage thing. Kale is just one of the vegetables that grows in abundance and gives you more than you think one little plant could. So, on an early June day, the question came, “Do you have anything I can put all this kale in?” I was a little frightened, but I suggested one of our large coolers as we have used a big cooler in the past to clean kale. So happily my husband went about his business picking kale and not one, but two, coolers arrived on our back deck and were full to the top!

Uh-oh, now the work of preserving begins, and the test of our marriage. We have a very traditional marriage here on the homestead, and not because we think each other has a place, but because we both enjoy our responsibilities and do them well. He loves everything outdoors and she loves to cook, preserve food, and take care of the house. It just works. But, an overwhelming amount of kale can be stressful to anyone!

The first step is to fill the coolers (sink or large bowl, whatever your cleaning vessel is) with enough water so that the kale floats. Give the kale a little agitation with your hands and leave it alone for at least 10 minutes. What happens is that any dirt, which is heavier than the kale, will fall to the bottom of the cooler. This trick also works for lettuce, broccoli, etc.

After the dirt has settled, the cleaning and stripping process begins. Get yourself set up with three large bowls. One for the un-cleaned kale, one for the leaves and one for the stems. You will see later that nothing goes to waste on a homestead.

Grab the kale stem by where it was removed from the plant and slide your other hand down the stem. The leaves will come off easily. For some of the bigger leaves, there is a secondary thick stem-like vein that will run through the leaves that we also remove.

Because of the overwhelming amount in this kale harvest, we decided to process it in small batches. It helps with keeping one from going “kale blind”. Once your cleaned kale bowl is full, it’s time to move to the kitchen. We were lucky, it was a beautiful June day so all of the cleaning could be done outside.

On your stovetop, bring a large pot of water to a boil and on your counter have a large bowl of ice water, a slotted spoon (or our favorite tool for this job is a spider, which is used for frying) and a colander for straining excess water.

Once the water is boiling, drop about two large handfuls of kale in the water and push it down with your spoon to immerse. In about five seconds, yes only five, the kale will wilt and become the most stunning shade of green. That’s your cue to remove it with your slotted spoon or spider and put it immediately in the ice water. This method is called “shocking”, which stops the cooking process and keeps that beautiful green color.

Once ice cold, transfer the kale to the colander and our trick here is to weigh it down with a small, but mighty, cast iron pan to aid in removing any excess water as we are not trying to make kale ice cubes here. Additionally, once the excess water is strained in the colander, we also hand squeeze bunches of kale to remove any remaining water.

The kale is then transferred to a large cookie sheet lined with wax paper, placed in one layer. Put the cookie sheet in the freezer for about 30 minutes to just set the kale enough to put in a zip top freezer bag or vacuum sealer bag. The pre-freezing helps with not making that giant kale cube. Trust us on this one, that mistake has been made. Label your bag, put in your slightly frozen kale, and before sealing, press out any excess air to keep away that dreaded freezer burn. Whenever you need, just grab a bag out of your freezer and take out a handful.

Remember all of those stems……fellow homesteaders know, nothing ever goes to waste!

It’s that easy, just time consuming, and hopefully, once you have spent your entire day processing two large coolers full of kale, you will still be married, and love your spouse for all his or her hard work. I know we do, especially next winter when we are enjoying the fruits, or vegetables in this case, of our labor!

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Homesteading is more than growing things

two branches homestead

Many times when talking about the homestead we get so caught up in talking about gardening or our farm animals, that we forget about another way that we feed ourselves.  Hunting and fishing provide a wonderful way to provide extra meals for our family.  Every year my sons and I harvest deer and a fair amount of fish.  We are as passionate about hunting and fishing as we are about homesteading.  I don’t think a weekend goes by that we don’t hunt or fish.  Time spent with your family in any pursuit is always rewarding, but hunting and fishing provide moments that are unforgettable.  My son and I will tell stories about the deer we harvested or the fish we caught, but never about how many tomatoes we picked.  An adult deer will provide 50 lbs or more of high quality protein for your family.  When you fillet a fish…

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gardening, Home Brewing, homemade, homesteading

The Best Father’s Day Gift Ever, Hops!!

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Many years ago on Father’s day, I received one very special gift.  It was a gift that would keep on giving.  No it wasn’t a membership in the “jelly of the month club”, it was a small Columbia hop plant.  I had brewed beer for years and always fantasized about growing my own hops.  I say that it was the gift that kept on giving because hops are perennial and come back every year.  I began to do some research and soon found out that hops can grow more than 20′ tall in a year. I would definitely need to build a hop trellis, and I also had to pick a location where they could grow year after year.  Hops are also deadly to dogs and cats, so I needed to keep them away from our pets.  I constructed a trellis from landscaping timbers and secured it to the ground with guide wires.  The wires would also serve as the place where the hops could climb.  I prepared the soil with peat moss and composted manure and planted my hops. IMG_5781

I was amazed at how fast the vine grew, sometimes more than a foot a day.  It curled its way up the wire and reached the top of my 16′ trellis quickly.IMG_6100

The vine then began to branch out and formed the beginnings of hop cones.  We stripped the leaves from the bottom few feet of the vine to prevent mold growth.  As the cones formed, I began to contemplate all of the delicious beer I would be brewing.IMG_6772

When the cones are fully formed, they will be full of lupulin inside.  It is a sticky yellow substance.  As I checked for ripeness, I smelled that familiar aroma.  Hops are ready to be picked when they sound like tissue paper being crushed.  We picked our hops and dried them on a screen, turning them twice a day. IMG_3139

After a few days we packed them in vacuum bags and put them in the freezer for future use.  Harvesting hops is a joyous occasion and it is customary to drink a beer when harvesting.  Hops have become a fun addition to the homestead and because they do not require replanting each year, they cost us almost no money to grow, just like our apple trees and vineyard.  We usually brew beer in the winter and adding our own hops to a recipe gives us a wonderful sense of satisfaction. Picking up a handful of your own hops and sniffing them makes you feel like a master brewer for a day.  Growing these hops will always remind me of that Father’s day, and I hope that bine(what the hop vine is called) and memory lasts as long as I do. So if you are a dad, drop a hint. If you have a dad, you now have a gift idea.  And when you brew your first batch of beer be sure to send one my way.

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