Queensland Blue Pumpkin Butter

I’m not always a fan of using the freezer for food preservation.  Maybe one day, if I have a chest freezer and some more space, but for now there’s just not enough room to really make much use of it.  Right now I use it for meat and fish, frozen bags of cooked greens, a few jars of pie filling and this pumpkin butter.

Pumpkin butter is epic.

Pumpkin butter deserves as much space in the freezer as it needs.  It is totally worth it.  If you’ve made pumpkin butter before, I’m probably preaching to the choir, but if you haven’t ….  you need to go get a pumpkin.  It’s like pumpkin pie in a jar.  I usually use it instead of plain pumpkin puree to make pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin lattes that are about a million times better than anything from Starbucks. (Did you know that most “pumpkin spice lattes” are just lattes with nutmeg and cinnamon? There’s really no pumpkin involved in most of them.  Try something like this instead.)queensland blue pumpkinMaking this made me really think about how ridiculous it is to measure out  specific amounts of ingredients for recipes since no two vegetables taste exactly the same.  With the wide range of varieties available from seed catalogues and at farmers markets, it makes so much more sense to learn the general method for a recipe, taste it as you go and adjust accordingly.   Last fall, I made pumpkin butter with sugar pie pumpkins and it took about four times as long to reduce down to the correct thickness and had a stringy, mushy texture that needed a lot of pureeing and reducing.   Not only did this year’s batch cook much faster since the flesh of this variety is very firm and dry, but the pumpkins also had so much flavor on their own that I really didn’t need to do much of anything to get the rich, luscious pumpkin taste that the finished product should have.

My favorite winter squash varieties have very firm, dry flesh that is dark yellow or orange, very flavorful and great for both savory and sweet recipes.  Buttercup, kabocha, jarradhale, and queensland blue are my current standbys, but if you look at winter squash section of the Baker Creek Seed catalogue, you’ll see there are about another ninety varieties and by no means have I tried them all. pumpkin butterHere’s the deal:  this is an easy recipe because it’s just going in the freezer.  You might find some pumpkin butter recipes in older cookbooks that say it’s safe for water bath canning, but it’s a lies.  I guess the USDA used to say it was okay but changed their minds.  The current guidelines say that pumpkin butter isn’t safe for water bath canning OR pressure canning.   (Did you really catch that if you’re skimming this?)

PUMPKIN BUTTER IS NEVER SAFE FOR CANNING. NOT IN A WATER BATH AND NOT IN A PRESSURE CANNER EITHER.

As much as I love to question authority, I’m not a scientist so I’m just going to follow the rules.  Marisa from Food In Jars has a thorough explanation over on her website here.  If you don’t have a freezer and are desperate for something that can go in a jar, SB Canning has a recipe for faux pumpkin butter that’s safe for water bath canning.

Step 1: Roast a pumpkin

To do this, poke a couple holes in it with a knife or a toothpick.  Put it on a cookie sheet. Put it in the oven at 350 degrees.  (You’ll know it’s cooked when a knife slides into the flesh easily – OR- if you press on the skin with your finger and it feels soft and gives to pressure – OR – you see little bubbles of caramelized sugar coming out of those holes you poked earlier.  Or all of those things. Maybe that’s obvious, but at my first kitchen job, it took me about three months to get the hang of properly baking potatoes.  Just so they were cooked through, like a normal baked potato, and not raw in the middle. Don’t make fun of me, it’s true.)

Step 2:

Wait for the pumpkin to cool off.  Then cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and set them aside for other projects.  The cooked flesh should come apart from the skin pretty easily at this point.  Put the flesh into a large, nonreactive pot and discard the skin.

Step 3:

Add the seasonings, puree, and cook on low heat until the mixture has thickened.  This variety of pumpkin is going to make a puree that’s already quite thick, so it won’t take all that long, about 45 minutes. Since this flesh is so dry, I found that it worked well to use a cup or two of apple juice as part of the sweetener.  It enhances the flavor and adds enough liquid to make it possible to puree everything with an immersion blender.

Ingredients to add:

  • apple or pear juice
  • brown sugar, honey or molasses
  • white sugar to taste
  • cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, fresh, powdered or candied ginger, cardamom, whatever you want really…

I added apple juice, molasses, white sugar and some cinnamon and cooked the puree for another hour on very low heat, stirring it more often as it got really thick.   It ended up tasting perfect, just like eating pumpkin pie.  If you’re unsure about the seasonings, just add a little at a time and keep tasting it.  I added more white sugar than I originally thought I’d need, but if you just keep adding a little and tasting it eventually the flavors will lock in just right and really sing.  At this point, you should step away and stop messing with it or the everything can get muddled and weird.

Step 4:

Transfer the pumpkin butter to tupperware or jars and store in the freezer. Remember to leave about 3/4″ headspace on your jars and not to screw the lids down too tight or they’ll crack as they freeze solid.  pumpkin pieDON’T FORGET: Now that you have pumpkin butter made, you can whip up a pumpkin pie in about three minutes. The instructions are in this post from last year. 

I Love Winter Gardening: Greens & Sausage Gravy

When I first started keeping a vegetable garden, years ago, I was mistakenly under the impression that you only can grow things in the summer, between the frosts.  Once I realized that you can grow vegetables year-round here in Northern California, I really fell in love with winter gardening.  There’s none of the concern about high temperatures and keeping everything watered,  and winter vegetables are quite happy to soak up the fog, rain and frosts, requiring almost no maintenance from me. There are a whole array of vegetables that have the potential to overwinter: all of the dark leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, all of the alliums….  Between all of these vegetables and the winter squash in the pantry, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to eat out of the garden all year round.

Here at our farm, we grow lots of dark leafy greens.   I like to harvest them very small, as mixed baby braising greens.  I’ve found that if I plant them out into the garden during September or October, they have plenty of time to get established and start growing before the days get really short.  I’ll keep planting through the whole winter, but greens planted in December or January won’t really do much of anything until the days get longer, maybe late February. A few of the Black Dog Farm Winter Greens, clockwise from top center: Wild Harvested Miner’s Lettuce; Blue Curled Scotch Kale from Baker Creek Seeds; Toscano Kale from Johnny’s Seeds;  Scarlett Frills from Johnny’s Seeds; Red Chidori Kale from Territorial Seeds; Red Russian Kale from Baker Creek Seeds

So yes, we have a ridiculous amount of kale floating around the farm for the winter months.  One of my favorite ways to use it is in this really simple, fast meal.  There’s nothing all that revolutionary about this; it’s just mashed potatoes, steamed braising greens, and some delicata squash, all topped with sausage gravy. If you’ve ever felt ambivalent about kale, though, this is absolutely the way to go.  I eat a lot of kale and every once in awhile, my stomach says:

Those people are right.

This is foul.

If I eat any more kale, I’m going to die.

All it takes is the teeniest smidgen of sausage gravy to make a huge pile of steamed greens go from boring and gross to the star of the plate and completely convince everyone at the dinner table that it’s worth eating.  The other reasons I like making this? It comes together in just 20 minutes, it uses very few ingredients so I don’t need to have 900 things in the fridge to make it, it uses seasonal produce from the garden, and it has a way of perfectly walking the line between feeling healthy and filling.  (Sure, you can serve this exact same meal with fried chicken, which is awesome, and I’ve done many times, but that’s another dinner).

I don’t really feel like necessary to write out full recipes for this, so let’s do it this way….

Greens & Sausage Gravy, or My Feet Hurt But I Still Want Something Good For Dinner

cook time: 20 minutes

The components of this meal:

1. Mashed Potatoes: I’m sure however you make them is fine…

2. Steamed Braising Greens: maybe with a crushed clove of garlic thrown in the pot.  I don’t steam them very long, maybe 10 minutes,  just until they’re tender.  If you’re working with older greens, or tough varieties like collards, you’ll obviously want to cook them longer.

3. A Side Vegetable From The Garden: that’s delicata squash up in the pictures, sauteed in olive oil, but in the summer it might be sliced tomatoes, or a cherry tomato salad.

4. Sausage Gravy: I already wrote out the recipe I use in this post back here, about grinding homemade breakfast sausage.  There are a bunch of pictures and instructions for how to make good sausage gravy if you don’t know how.  For a fast week night meal, the only notes I would add onto that recipe is that you can substitute milk for the stock if you don’t have it on hand.  (And that you don’t need to grind your own sausage for the gravy to be good, just look for a basic flavor of ground pork breakfast sausage, not something with…. maple syrup, or hot peppers in it.  That might make weird gravy).

Gardening To-Do List, Late April

I’m working hard at waiting for paint to dry right now.  Our lovely little barn has gotten quite the facelift for 2011, but unfortunately paint just doesn’t dry the way that I want to…. which is instantly. Until then, there’s a bed frame in the driveway, mattresses in the kitchen, boxes and other junk strewn basically everywhere. The second that paint is dry, the project is finished; all we have to do is move the furniture back in.

With every second that ticks by, a surge of “holy shit I have so much work to do” is welling up in the corners of my brain. It is that time of year, after all. So, while I wait for paint to dry, I think a to-do list is probably in order.  This list is inspired by the Garden Chore posts from Margaret Roach’s blog, A Way To Garden, which I have found to be very helpful in the past. Every gardener’s to-do list is going to be a little bit different, though, and mine is more centered around growing food and less around perennials and ornamental plants.

When I was just starting to grow vegetables and flowers, a seasoned farmer told me that the goal is  to plant and harvest constantly, with some sections of the garden in the earliest stages of growth, others ready for harvest, others growing, and others waiting to be planted.  “A good farmer is always planting,” she said. It was a lightbulb moment. I used to try to have my garden be completely planted at the beginning of every season, but I’ve realized that having everything is a state of organized chaos and disarray means that it is a more productive farm. There are always flowers and vegetables to harvest and there are always new plants to replace them with.

alcosa cabbage, ready for harvest

MAINTENANCE WORK AND SPRING CLEANING:

  • Weedwack all of the borders in the gardens before the spring weeds go to seed.
  • Inspect fences for holes and repair as needed.
  • Inspect irrigation system and repair as needed.
  • Clean out foliar sprayers, watering cans, and barrels used for mixing compost tea- a mild bleach solution and elbow grease seems to work well.
mustard greens

VEGETABLES:

  • Harvest winter vegetables now (cabbages, greens, carrots, beets, etc.). Cook, preserve, barter or sell to clear the way for summer planting.
  • Fertilize growing spring vegetables that are a month or so away from harvest (peas, lettuces, more carrots, beets and greens). I use an organic liquid seaweed fertilizer (any brand will do) or make compost tea.
  • Inventory starts for summer vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, summer and winter squash).  We grow some from seed in the greenhouse and I fill in the gaps with starts that I get from friends or buy at the farmers market.  Cucumbers and squash can also be direct sown in the garden after the frost date.
  • Fertilize plants in the greenhouse- they are usually getting quite large by this point, and may not be able to get enough nutrients from the soil in their little containers.  I foliar spray with a high-nitrogen fertilizer if the leaves on my starts look too yellow or pale.
  • Plant carrots, beets, and lettuce in the garden before the weather gets too hot.
summer squash start in the greenhouse
sweet peas, ready to go to the market in bouquets

FLOWERS:

  • Spring flowers which may have overwintered are blooming, which is fantastic (calendula, sweet william, sweet peas, pansies). The sweet peas smell divine and will go to the market on opening day.
  • Early season flowers that were seeded in weeks ago should be popping up by now (bells of ireland, poppies, calendula, love-in-a-mist, etc). Weed beds to keep the space open for the delicate seedlings and fertilize if needed.
  • Flower starts in the greenhouse will probably need some fertilizer, just like the vegetables do.  Varieties will vary greatly from one garden to another, but in our greenhouse I have marigolds, zinnias, celosia, and much, much more.
sweet william
celosia starts in the greenhouse

HERBS:

  • Tender spring growth is perfect for rooting cuttings from plants like rosemary, lavender and sage. Never taken cuttings before? Here’s how. 
  • Overwintered herbs (mint, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, etc.) should be growing nicely by now. Use the abundance of fresh growth for pestos, as filler in flower bouquets, mix into quiches, toss into pasta dishes, mix into jellies.
thyme

FRUIT TREES:

  • By this time of the year, trees should already be pruned.
  • Clear weeds from the base of the trees.
  • Inspect irrigation and repair any leaks.
  • Plant any remaining bare-root trees before the weather gets too hot (it’s late by now, they will need extra water to make sure they get established properly).
  • In a few weeks when the weather starts to really stabilize and get warm, plant out any citrus trees.
Cara Cara Pink Navel in the greenhouse

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY…. THE COMPOST PILE:

  • In these last few weeks before planting time, I turn the compost pile several times to try and really get everything going in there. The composting process often slows down significantly during the winter (since it’s cold outside), but once the temperatures warm, everything should return to normal. Before you planting date, break down the pile and pull out finished compost to till into beds.
  • If you have particularly hot compost, you may want to spread and till the compost into garden beds now so you can water it a few times and let it sit for a week or two before planting time.  (“Hot” means high in nitrogen; anyone using lots of chicken manure will have this issue. Or blessing, depending how you look at it).
  • Have questions about composting? Martha has a really good slideshow here (big surprise.)
butter lettuce in the garden
wildflower
calendula
bleeding heart in the greenhouse

… and in case anyone forgot, since that was a long to-do list:

  • Enjoy the spring, and the sunshine, and the wildflowers. Try not to work too hard. Don’t worry about perfection, just have fun.
parrot tulips

A Gardening Question

I got an e-mail this morning with some questions about starting your own tomatoes from seed.  I thought I’d share this info, since it pertains to so many backyard gardeners. Not everyone has money or space for a greenhouse or grow lights, and it’s important to learn how to adapt using whatever materials you have on hand.

the tomato seedlings in question

Hey Caroline,

The first tomatoes I planted are already about 2 1/2 – 3″ tall and are starting to get the second set of leaves. But I have the impression that they are leggy. The stem seems very tall in my opinion. How do I recognize if they are leggy? I can send you a pic of then and could you please tell me if they are and if so, what to do with them?


thanks!!!

These little seedlings in the picture are a bit leggy.  The tomato in the lower right hand corner of the picture is doing the signature ballerina stretch, as you can see by the long, thing, graceful but delicate looking stalk.  When the plants are older, the distance on the stalk in between each new set of leaves will be quite long on a leggy plant and very short on a plant that has received enough light.  There are several things that a gardener can do to remedy the situation:

1. Greenhouses are always ideal for starts, at least from what I’ve seen.  That way you can make use of the ambient light from the sun and you won’t have to worry as much about hardening off the plants when it comes time to plant them outdoors.  That being said, not everyone has a greenhouse, and you definitely don’t need one to grow your own seedlings.

2. Light is key: Your plants should be in the sunniest, warmest area of your house.

If you have the money or space, hang a florescent grow light over the seedlings to augment natural light.  There are a huge array of grow lights available, but a simple 24″ florescent fixture with two bulbs will work fine. If you get a light, you’ll need somewhere to hang it from, and it doesn’t need to be the ceiling.  Metal shelving like you might have in your garage or pantry is easy to hang lights from using some lightweight chains and S-hooks .  Simply hook chains onto lights, loop the chains over the shelf that it’s going to hang on, and use the S-hooks to hook the very end of the chain back onto itself below the shelf.  Most hardware stores carry rolls of rope and chain that they will custom cut for you in the store.  This method is easily adjustable as the plants grow and it’s very sturdy, but you can also use rope or a variety of other materials that you may have lying around the house.  You don’t need shelves, either.  One year, I attached eye-hooks to the bottom side of our very nice wooden dining room table, and then hung my light under the table.  The tomatoes were happy, but my boyfriend was less than thrilled.  It worked really well though!

If you don’t have access to a light, just remember that if it happens to be sunny and warm outside for a few days, but it’s safe to plant the tomatoes in the ground yet, you can always carry the tray outside for the day to give the little ones some light.

3. Point an oscillating fan at the little seedlings, even though they look so delicate. I’m talking about whatever kind of fan you might have lying around; just place it about a foot from your tray of seedlings, turn it on low and point it at the tomatoes (or any seedlings, for that matter).  They will blow all over the place and stop growing for about a week, but their delicate stalks will get stronger and healthier.

4. Take special care to plant leggy tomato starts very deeply when it comes time to put them in the ground. If your starts still look leggy when it’s time to put them outside, gently tear off the bottom leaves and plant the seedling so that most of the main stalk is below the soil, leaving only 3-4″ of the stalk above the ground.  All of the stalk that is below the soil line will sprout roots, resulting in a very strong, sturdy tomato plant.  Remember to break apart your roots when you transplant! It’s actually always a good idea to transplant tomato plants using this method, but it’s more important when the plants are lanky and have a long, thin stem.

5. Just remember, tomatoes are very resilient and you should be able to work with whatever you have when it comes time to plant them outside.

It’ll be summer before we all know it…