Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Homemade Apple Butter: Part One

When you've had a good year in the garden, you often can't come close to using up all the produce you've grown. You can try eating Swiss Chard for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but even then you could end up falling behind an overly enthusiastic plant. It would be a real shame to waste this perfectly good food, so when faced with this situation, we turn to preserving, meaning canning or freezing.

Now, as we've well documented, this hasn't been a particularly stellar year in our garden, what with the moving process, the small space allotment we had, and the combination of theft by others and neglect by us. But just because we had a small harvest doesn't mean that everyone else in central Iowa did. One of the many successful growers in our area this year was Iowa Orchard, a neat little fruit oasis in the middle of the Des Moines suburbs.

We're a little ways beyond apple season here in Iowa by now, but we did our best to take advantage of it while it was going on (from July to October, per Iowa Orchard's website). We picked up several pecks of apples over the fall, many for fresh eating, but one peck of Cortlands was specifically earmarked for apple butter.

If you've never had apple butter, first of all, give it a try; it's delicious! But secondly, it's a fruit butter, which is a lot like a jam, but spreads much easier. You can make and preserve it at home with a few simple tools, as long as you follow the right procedure. That is of the utmost importance, since improper canning can make you quite sick or even be fatal. You can follow our process here as a general concept, but make sure you have a trusted manual to ensure you follow the right safety procedures. A good bet is the Ball Blue Book, which we used for our recipe here. Just be careful, and home canning can be perfectly safe.

With that disclaimer stated, the first step in making apple butter is basically to make homemade applesauce, or a nice apple puree. Our recipe called for four pounds of apples to make a half dozen jars of apple butter. We weighed our peck to be about 10 pounds, and it ended up making 14 jars (two separate batches), which is about the same proportion. These needed to be peeled and cut into pieces, which you can do by hand... Unless you have an Apple Master!

It peels!

It slices!

It dices... er, cores!

Our Apple Master was a find at the local TJ Maxx, which made it a reasonable bargain, especially considering that we planned to continue making apple butter in our futures. It helps, but it's not necessary; you can just peel with a knife and then cut into pieces. The apples went into a big pot with 2 cups of water per 4 pounds of apples, where they simmered on the stovetop until soft, somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes maybe. You'll be able to tell when the apples soften, so you likely won't need to time it.

Next we put the softened apples into our second gadget of the process: a food mill. This step could be done in a regular food processor, but it doesn't work quite as well. If you plan to make apple butter semi-regularly, we'd recommend you invest in the food mill. It basically presses the apple slices through a grate in the bottom, which also serves to strain out any skins or tough parts that didn't get Apple Mastered away. A food processor wouldn't have that filtering ability, plus there's the danger that it's too powerful - liquefying the apples instead of making a puree. And it's just so much fun, in an old-fashioned kind of way, to crank away at the apples and watch the mush drip through the bottom.

If you want to make your own applesauce, congratulations, that's pretty much what you've got here! It hasn't been seasoned in any way, and it's still a little too squishy to spread onto toast, so it needs a little more work to become what we want. Come back next time and we'll show you the rest of the journey, where it transforms from puree into the thick, amber goodness of apple butter. We'll also break out the canner, and (very carefully) pack it into shelf-stable jars we can enjoy for months to come. See you then!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What it All Boils Down To

Mo' fat, mo' flavor.

These four simple words, spoken by Chef Ryan Dowie, quickly became a catchphrase of sorts for those of us studying under him. If he threw a full stick of butter into a pot during class, a chorus of "mo' fat, mo' flavor" would quickly resound from the audience. But maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves...

A good starting point would be to introduce Chef Dowie and explain how the heck we even know who he is. As far as we last knew, he's the head chef at the Waterfront Restaurant in Des Moines, and a part-time instructor at the Iowa Culinary Institute, part of the Des Moines Area Community College. DMACC, as it's known, has a fairly highly regarded culinary program, to the extent that there's a waiting list to even get in to the degree program. Fortunately, they also offered a one-semester seminar course to casual, "non-career" chefs. Last fall, Greg took the class.

Over the course of the semester, we moved from the basics, through soups, salads and breads to the various meats and more, learning the proper preparations for each. But one of the most lasting lessons occurred in the early weeks of the class, and it came in handy again tonight.

Any ideas what we're making out of this? Let's see: bay leaves, pepper, thyme, celery, onions, garlic, carrots, and... a bunch of empty shrimp shells? That's right, baby, we're making stock!

Homemade stock is great - it's as versatile as the boxed stuff, but you get to control exactly what goes into it, so no MSG, preservatives, or other junk. Plus it tastes so much better, and it's a breeze to make. We'll often make chicken stock with leftover carcasses; shrimp is a little less common, but we had been saving shells from several meals-worth of shrimp. Shells come free with the shrimp, so it seems a shame not to use them for something.

The first step is to chop up the vegetables. The good thing here is that the chop can be pretty coarse, since it will be simmering for quite a while (even more so with chicken and beef).

Some folks will just throw these into a stockpot with boiling water, but we prefer to sautee them about 5 minutes or so first. It releases some of the flavors, and it's how Chef Dowie taught it, so who are we to argue? We sauteed in butter, but you could use an oil if you prefer.

We also sauteed the shells for a bit, to start releasing some of their flavorful oils.

 We did this for maybe a minute or two, then added two quarts of water, plus the 2 bay leaves and a small palmful each of pepper and thyme. We don't add any salt at this point, because it's easy to overdo it. As the stock cooks, liquid evaporates off, so the salt could get really concentrated. It's best to just salt at the very end, once the stock is pretty much done.

Then comes the really easy part of making stock. Bring it to a boil, lower it to a simmer, then go watch an episode of your favorite TV show! Well, you can do whatever you like to fill that time, but you're free for about an hour while the stock does its thing, pulling flavor from the ingredients into the liquid.

About this time, you'll probably start to notice that your stock is becoming fragrant, and has taken on a much richer color. Yum! Seeing soup in your future? Only a few steps to go. Now we need to filter out the pieces. All their flavor has gone into the liquid by now, so they're pretty much used up (and ready for the compost bin). We strained through a cheesecloth and a mesh strainer. Be sure the bowl you're straining into is big enough to hold all the liquid.

And there it is. Just over an hour, and we've gone from discarded shells to a lovely shrimp stock. We're not planning to use it immediately, so we poured ours into a couple of freezer containers for another day.

Now we're all set to make a shrimp bisque sometime, possibly a gumbo, or maybe some sort of seafood risotto. The possibilities are almost limitless. And it'll feel good to use, knowing we made it ourselves.

This same basic procedure will work for any sort of stock, though the simmering times will vary. Veggie is the shortest, from about 30 to 45 minutes, chicken should go for a few hours, and beef is kind of an all day project. We hope you'll keep this idea in mind next time you're peeling shrimp, or have some leftover bones!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thinking Outside the (Big)Box

If you were to take a walk through the produce department of your local grocery store, you'd probably find neatly stacked (I would know, I used to stack them -Greg), perfectly uniform towers of various different fruits and vegetables. Apples and oranges, carrots and cucumbers. But unless you're at a specialty grocer, you might not find something that looks like this:

Any ideas what this guy could be? Well, don't feel bad if you don't know; we hadn't heard of delicata squash either until our friend Sarah did a squash taste test a few weeks back and declared delicata the winner. The delicata is frequently referred to as a winter squash, like butternut or acorn, but it's actually more closely related to the zucchini. It came highly recommended, and like other squashes is chock-full of fiber and nutrients like potassium, magnesium and vitamins B & C. With this knowledge in mind, we made a point to keep an eye out for delicata as we shopped.

Fortunately for us, Gateway Market in Des Moines frequently sources produce from local suppliers, and we were able to pick up a few delicata squash that were grown in Murray, Iowa, just about an hour from home. You might remember our adventures in squash cooking haven't been terribly reliable lately, so we decided to keep things simple this time around. It doesn't get much simpler or more classic than slicing in half and removing seeds, throwing in a few pats of butter and some brown sugar, then roasting at 350 F for about an hour. And the result looks so delicious, doesn't it?

Once the squash were cooked, Stacia scooped out the flesh while Greg pan-seared up a couple of pork chops with some rosemary and thyme and whipped up a quick pan sauce. Altogether, it made for a delicious, hearty dinner, perfect for a chilly December evening.

This is one of the most exciting things about growing your own food or shopping locally grown produce. The variety is virtually endless, far beyond the handful of options that are commercially produced. If you go to the store, you'll find tomatoes, but if you leaf through a seed catalog, you can find literally hundreds of different kinds of tomatoes, all with different characteristics: size, shape, color, flavor, texture, etc. Growing food in the garden puts all those choices into your hands, for unrivaled culinary freedom. And you just might discover a flavorful new squash you've never tried before.

When you're able to find such interesting, high-quality ingredients, a simple preparation can lead to a really tasty meal!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Breaking It All Down

This is going to be a totally rotten post. Ok, maybe it's just the topic that will be rotten. A few posts back, we told you about that lovely pastel compost bin made of dumpster fodder. Now it's time to talk about filling it up, and letting it rot.

First, a couple of composting basics. Compost is formed by the process of decomposition. During this process, bacteria that are found in nature feed on organic materials and turn them into humus, a fluffy, crumbly dark brown soil-like material that improves soil structure and moisture retention. Our goal then is to create an environment that will allow these bacteria to thrive. So what do the bacteria need? It's actually pretty simple: food, water, and air.

There are two basic types of food that any compost pile needs, commonly referred to as browns and greens. Browns are carbon-rich ingredients like dried leaves, cardboard, sawdust, wood chips, etc. Greens are nitrogen-rich ingredients like kitchen scraps, grass clippings, garden weeds, used coffee grounds, etc. A good compost bin needs the right mixture of both of these food sources. Bacteria really feast on the green material, but they need a good balance of brown material to keep the pile aerated. A pile with too much "brown" material won't decompose very quickly, but a pile with too much "green" material can get stinky. It may take some practice to get the balance right, but many internet sources suggest a ratio of 2:1 green to brown material by volume is a good starting point.

Greens: weeds, kitchen scraps, mushy Jack-O-Lanterns, and coffee grounds.

Browns: Shredded fall leaves.

The water part of the equation is much simpler. Don't keep the pile sopping wet, but don't let it dry out either. A good compost pile should be as moist as a wrung out sponge. Some people cover their compost bin with a tarp or scrap of carpet during the hot summer months to keep it from drying out.

And the final ingredient is air. You'll remember that we liked the used shipping pallets because they would allow air to flow between the slats. A good supply of air will allow your pile to grow lots of aerobic bacteria. These bacteria will quickly break down the material into fluffy humus and leave a pleasant, earthy smell. If the pile doesn't get enough air, the decompostion will be slow and you can start to notice a stinky rotten odor, caused by anaerobic bacteria. One of the best ways to incorporate air into your compost is to turn the pile with a pitchfork. The more often you turn a compost pile, the faster it will break down. It's a good idea to turn the pile at least every 7 to 10 days.

So there's the rundown of how to make compost. We've got to thank the folks over at Home Composting Made Easy for our rotten education. If you're interested in starting a compost bin of your own, you should definitely check our their website.

But how are we doing so far? Well, it could be better. We're pretty happy with our initial ratio of browns and greens, but we haven't been diligent about turning the pile or keeping it moist. We could probably also increase our bacterial growth if we added more material to the bin. We'll keep working at it, and we'll be sure to post more updates along the way!