Category Archives: Putting Up

Simmins? (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Fourth”)

Recently I took Caleb on one of our long rambling walks to a small pond where he likes to splash around. When we reached the pond, Caleb trotted up to say hi to a woman who was sitting on her cooler next to the water with a spinning rod and a plastic container full of night crawlers. Immediately he was distracted by a little pile of fried pork rinds she had spilled on the ground next to the night crawlers, and delighted (he is a Southern Urban Forager, too), he helped himself.

In the middle of my apology for my dog’s doggielike behavior, the fisherwoman interrupted me:

“Simmins?”

“Uh . . . I’m sorry?”

“Are those simmins?” She pointed to the plastic grocery sack I had in my hand, full of soft, bulging, oozing golden fruit.

Oh! Yes, they are!” I replied, suddenly understanding that she meant my persimmons.

I offered her some and she reached into my sack and took a handful. I warned her to brush them off before eating them because I had picked them up off the ground underneath a tree that was dropping them like crazy, but she just gave each one a quick blow and popped them into her mouth, spitting the seeds onto the ground. She smiled at me.  “We used to eat simmins when I was a little girl.”

I used to eat persimmons when I was a little girl, too. There was a tree across the road from our house, right next to where the school bus let us off. Before walking home in the fall, I’d go over and give the tree a good shake, then gather up what fell and cram them into my mouth. You had to be careful, though. An unripe persimmon will turn your mouth wrongside out.

Eating a ripe one, though, is like eating the flesh of the autumn sun — dense and spicy-sweet, almost warm. The persimmons that grow wild around here are nothing like the Japanese ones you see at markets. They are soft and easily mooshed — too soft for commercial transport. But that’s what makes them so delicious.

On this day I gathered up about a quart and a half from a tree we came across during our walk to the pond. I probably got as many stuck to my shoes as I got into my sack — the ground was layered with rotting ones, and my feet slid around as I gathered. It’s a good year for persimmons. The old wisdom is that a persimmon isn’t ripe until it has been frostbit. But that isn’t true — we haven’t had temperatures below 55 yet and I found plenty of ripe fruit.

I wished the fisherwoman good luck, and Caleb and I set out for home with our bounty. Then I made a run of persimmon-orange jam. I rinsed the earth off the fruit and ran it through a food mill. Even then, the milled flesh was the consistency of cake batter.

In a pot I combined it with sugar and orange juice and added a dash of nutmeg. I cooked the whole mess down until it was so sturdy it practically stood up in the pot. Then I filled five jars and processed them in a hot water bath for about 20 minutes.

Won’t this be a delicious layer in some kind of tart?

**Important note if you try this yourself: Alone, persimmons are not acidic enough to prevent botulism. The orange juice should give the butter enough acidity to make it safe to can without refrigeration, but just to be extra-safe I decided to make this a “freezer jam,” which means the sealed jars will stay in the freezer until opened, then they will live in the fridge until the stuff is gone — which probably won’t take long!

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A Hill of Beans

Beans have so much going for them. They are very easy to grow. There are countless varieties. Countless ways to preserve them and prepare them. Combine them with a grain and you have a perfect protein (which is great for vegetarians). Like all legumes, they gift the soil with nitrogen.

And they are tasty!

Because some areas of my garden are relatively new and the soil could use some help, I planted lots of beans this year. I generally like bush varieties. I planted two rows of blue lake bush beans because they aren’t stringy and two rows of nickel French fillet beans because I love the delicate flavor and crunch of those skinny little beans (and they aren’t stringy). I also tried interplanting more blue lakes with my sweet corn, mimicking the old Native American “three sisters” concept of planting beans, corn, and squash together (my butternut squash went in off to the side of the corn and beans). This works because again, the beans give the corn nitrogen they need, and the beans also help stabilize the corn plants, which tend to blow over easily.

Then one Saturday afternoon in the spring I was listening to one of my favorite NPR programs, The Splendid Table, and the host was interviewing the author of a book about beans about his favorite beans. He mentioned the yellow Indian woman bean, an heirloom variety of a shelling bean that when cooked, he said, is “weirdly creamy.”  And like many heirloom vegetables, it comes with a cool back story—that the yellow Indian woman bean was grown and passed down for generations in a Swedish family that settled in Montana, where it is now commonly found in Native American communities. He also said it was very prolific.

Of course, I had to have some. I searched around and found that Seeds of Change sells the beans by the packet, so I ordered some (big mistake — one of my perennial complaints about Seeds of Change is that they are so chintzy with their quantities, yet what a price tag! I barely got enough to plant a row and a half. I should have ordered a pound of them from Rancho Gordo).

But it’s been a fun first foray into drying beans. I harvested about a pint of the beans, most of which I will save and plant again next year, in hopes of increasing my quantities. That’s another cool thing about heirlooms — saving those seeds! To harvest drying beans, you wait until the pods have turned brown on the vine. then you shuck them and stick the shucked and already-dry beans into the freezer for a few hours to kill any lingering fungus, then you just store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Easy!

In the meantime, my blue lakes and nickel Frenches have been coming in. Some I have cooked and eaten fresh (here is my favorite recipe), and I spent several hours yesterday canning beans. You need a pressure canner for beans. Because beans are a low-acid food, the high temperatures achieved in a pressure canner are required to kill the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which thrives in a low-acid environment and causes the deadly botulism. My pressure canner belonged to my mother, who got it from my paternal grandmother, who got it from her next-door neighbor right here in Decatur decades ago. My canner has come full circle.

I followed the directions in the Ball Blue Book of Home Canning (the basic instructions haven’t changed since my grandmother’s 1932 edition). After a five-minute boil of the five pints of beans, I packed them into the hot, sterilized jars and covered them with the water from the boiled beans, leaving about an inch of head space. Then I sealed them inside the canner, turned up the heat to get a flow of steam going through the valve for about ten minutes. Then I closed the valve to raise the pressure to ten pounds (that’s 240 degrees). Then using the heat on my stove to control the pressure level, I processed the beans for 20 minutes at a steady 10 pounds.

And aren’t they pretty? I added in a handful of yellow wax snap beans I received through my CSA, and I love the contrasting effect in the jars — like a little sprinkle of confetti. Months from now, when the days are short and I am longing for summer, I’ll open a jar of these and cook them long and low with a little hunk of peppered bacon I keep in the freezer. Or maybe I’ll toss the jar into the slow cooker with some tomatoes, potatoes, onions, chicken stock, a cube of frozen pesto, and whatever else I might have in the fridge or pantry at the moment for a batch of vegetable soup.

Please pass the cornbread!

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“I don’t believe I said.” (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Third”)

My dad is more than happy to tell you the story of the eighteen-inch wild brown trout he caught during the green drake hatch. He delights in talking about the beautiful but apparently untouched pool he spotted on the last day of a camping trip. He grins as he describes the visions of that “honey hole” that haunted his thoughts for the next several days, until he finally went back to it around dark-thirty, waded in knee-deep, cast a line, and in no time had caught (and released) that big’un. He will even show you the pictures.

Just don’t ask him, “Now, where did you say that hole was?”

Because he will say, “I don’t believe I said.”

I know how he feels. For years during the early summer, I looked forward to walking over to a brambly but abundant patch of blackberries on the side a road near my house. That spot has given me untold pints of jam. But last year, heartbreak. Someone — more than one someone, I think — had gotten there first and cleaned it out. And then later in the year, someone else came through and bushwhacked the brambles, and that was the end of my blackberry patch.

All year long I grieved my loss. It just seems ridiculous to me to buy blackberries when they grow prodigiously all across the South, but a thicket of wild, publicly accessible blackberries in the city is a rare and beautiful thing. So you perhaps can imagine my joy when, on a long ramble with my dog one day this past spring, I discovered a new patch — this one bigger and more abundant than my old one, harder to reach, and less likely to get mowed down. At this point the berries were tiny, hard, and green. But there would be gallons upon gallons.

Over the next several weeks I kept an eye on “my” spot. I visited frequently to see how the fruit was coming along. I wanted to greedily, jealously guard it from other blackberry hounds that might coming sniffing. And then early this morning, I went back with a sack. In an hour and a half I had picked more than a gallon of berries, and there are plenty more to come. Best of all, I saw nary another soul prowling around my patch. May it stay that way.

This may be my honey hole.

I will give you a jar of jam at Christmas. I will make a blackberry cobbler and joyfully share it with you. I will pour you a tiny glass of blackberry cordial to sip. But don’t ask me, “Where did you say you got those berries?”

Because I don’t believe I said.

This may be an extraordinary year for my newfound secret patch, because by all appearances, 2010 is the Year of the Fruit. Regular visitors to this blog have read my rhapsody on the strawberry and my ode to  mulberry pie. Today I made 22 jars of blackberry jam using basically the same method that I used for the strawberry jam. With the two cups of berries remaining, I riffed on a blackberry cordial recipe with vodka, sugar, cloves, and a cinnamon stick (in eight weeks or so I’ll let you know how that worked out).

Then there are the peaches, which I did actually buy during my very slow road trip last week. I picked up five pounds of Fort Valley, Georgia’s, best from a roadside farm stand. I have heard it said that due to a magic season of atmospheric forces, this year’s peaches are the earliest, most plentiful, and best-tasting in many years. I have to agree. Many I just ate standing over my kitchen sink so that I could rinse my chin afterward. Several wound up in two batches of ice cream — one for Father’s Day, the other for the Sunday night gang.

And oh, the cherries! Over Memorial Day weekend, my family gathered at our mountain homestead in Rabun County, Georgia. On Saturday afternoon, my father, niece, and I walked down the hill to check out the fruit trees that we planted about thirty years ago (I have a hazy memory of being in that orchard with my parents and brother digging holes, placing root balls, and watering by Coleman lantern on a very chilly autumn night.) There amidst the apple and pear trees, blueberry bushes, and grapevines (all holding promise of great things to come later this season) were two cherry trees absolutely loaded with fruit. The birds were none to happy with us for pulling down limbs and loading our sacks with bunches of cherries, but there was plenty for all. They looked like grapes growing on those branches. I took home maybe five pounds of cherries and made cherry-almond-chocolate chunk ice cream for the Sunday night gang, added cherries to some chicken salad, then the rest joined the strawberries and mulberries in the freezer for concoctions later on.

Here are 41 seconds of Dad and me at the cherry tree.

Still to come are the figs and blueberries growing in my yard. It will require some stealth to get to them both before the birds do. But that’s a whole nother story.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

Good strawberry growing advice sometimes sounds a little bloody and violent: “Kill the mother.” “Pinch the babies.”

Last spring I put in 25 or so strawberry plants. I pinched the babies. That is, I picked off every single blossom before it turned into fruit. This, I have been told, strengthens the plants and ensures more vigorous production in future years. So I resisted the temptation to let those blooms turn to berries and instead rejoiced in the way the plants almost instantly began to spread. Forming off of runners—tendrils that shoot out from the mother plant and form new leaves—offspring plants sprung up in circles around each of the mother plants.

You see what’s coming, right?

Pinching the babies paid off in spades. In the past couple of weeks, I have harvested a pint to two pints of strawberries a day. What I didn’t eat immediately while standing there in the patch, I brought into the house, rinsed, hulled, and froze. I also made two batches of jam and two batches of strawberry ice cream.

Two weeks after the strawberry bacchanalia, production is slowing down. I’m getting a half-pint daily—but these later-season berries are also much sweeter and more flavorful than the earlier ones.

Next year the volume won’t be quite as outrageous. The year after that will be even less impressive, as the strawberry plants’ three-year cycle winds down. And this is where killing the mother comes in. Time to man up, strawberry growers.

After their second year of production, you dig out the original plants and leave the offspring that are only in their first year. They will continue to produce and send out runners. Then you take them out, too. That keeps the plants reproducing themselves and bearing fruit.

And that’s how you get strawberry fields forever.

About that jam. I washed and hulled about two quarts for my first run. These berries were so ripe they were almost rotting. Perfect. I mixed them with tons of sugar and boiled it until it had thickened (you can use fruit pectin — Sure Jell — to speed things along but I had time to do it the old-fashioned way).

I then ladled the  jam into hot, sterilized jars, put hot, sterilized lids on the jars, and processed them in boiling water for ten minutes.

Then I took them out and placed each jar on a towel on the counter and waited for my favorite part:

Do you know that sound? That is the sound of hot jars forming a vacuum and pushing the air out of the 1/4-inch of space between the jam and the lid. It is the sound of reassurance that the air-free jars of jam will keep indefinitely on a shelf in time for the holidays.

It’s  worth noting that the recipe for strawberry jam in my grandmother’s 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of home canning is not that different from the one in my 2003 edition.

Did someone say strawberry ice cream? In fact, my friend Cyndi asked for some for her birthday, which was last Sunday. Since it was a special occasion, I spared no riches and made an egg custard base for the ice cream. And instead of using vanilla extract, I started with the actual bean, which I split open and scraped into a saucepan of milk and cream and simmered.

I added in eggs and sugar and cooked it until it had thickened. Then I drained the strawberries, which I had sliced and let sit in lemon juice and sugar, and poured the sweet juice into the custard, and I let the whole thing chill in the fridge thoroughly.

I added in the strawberries and then put the custard into my wonderful Cuisinart ice cream maker to churn for about a half hour. Here is the result.

And here is what a bunch of deliriously happy strawberry-eaters looks like. Not that you didn’t already have an idea.

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Cilantro Mountain

What do you do with a mountain of cilantro?

First, you make pesto (with some fresh chives, mint, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, salt, pepper, and lime juice). Some of this you will freeze in an ice-cube tray.

Then you make an enormous batch of guacamole.

Then you get creative, and you swirl the cilantro pesto into some homemade bread. It works beautifully.

Yet you’re still left with half a mountain of pesto and more to come. Other ideas?

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A good yarn

Some weeks back, I reported on my feeble attempts at learning to knit. It wasn’t an easy start, but I am beginning to appreciate the zen of the craft. Once you figure out the pattern, it transcends thought. There is a grace and rhythm that visits your fingers, and all you do is relax and let them take over. And then you wake up, and you have a hat.

Entangled in texture and color

Or maybe three or four or more. Once I figured out the nifty hat trick, I lost all self-control. Partly it was the yarn. I love a good yarn. I found this super-bulky woolly stuff in great colors on sale, so I bought piles and piles of it. But I had a reasonable justification: this coming weekend is the Rabun Rendezvous, the big annual fundraiser for the Rabun Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a wonderful natural resource conservation organization that my family has been involved with for nearly twenty-five years. Every year I try to come up with some interesting and creative items for the silent auction — a gift basket, some homemade goodies, one year I contributed two dozen eggs. This year, it’ll be hats and fingerless gloves.

Energized by my purchase, I started giving my creations names: a red hat was “Ruby,” a green child’s hat is “Li’l Peahead.” Then I began mixing and matching colors and bestowing flyfishing inspired names: “Riparian,” “The River,” “Hemlock Grove.”

"Keepin' Warm Kit"

I decided I needed to put together a couple of gift baskets. One is called a “Keepin’ Warm Kit,” and it includes a bundle of fatlighter (courtesy of my dad, who found it in his yard and split it up so it’s just like the stuff they sell at L.L. Bean), hot chocolate, some spicy cheese straws and a jar of homemade green tomato relish to go with them, and a knit wool cap. The other is “Sweet, Spicy, Savory”: the muscadine jam I made this summer with plain cheese straws (the “sweet”), homemade roasted tomatillo and tomato salsa with chips (the “spicy”), and more of the green tomato relish with some rosemary crackers (the “savory”). Bounty from the Southern Urban Homestead.

"Sweet • Spicy • Savory"

I still want to make a few more hats — I can probably turn out two or three before the weekend: “Foam is Home,” “Out Past Hiawassee.” And I’m making fingerless gloves to go with some of them (I actually sold a pair of those recently to a very gifted artist friend whose studio is not heated). I am trying hard not to turn into Madame Defarge or one of those sweet but dotty ladies with cats and a house full of precious knitted objects.

That’s why I keep giving things away. I am blessed with understanding friends who have accepted my slightly eccentric creations.

The Rabun Rendezvous is this Saturday, January 23, at the Dillard House in Rabun County. The Dillard House smokes a whole pig, and we’ll pick at it starting around 5 p.m. Come on up and join us — there’s a ton of good stuff on the auction and raffle tables, incredible food, fabulous entertainment, and a superb program.

Friend with slightly eccentric creation

Plus, you’re supporting a grassroots organization that does great work cultivating the next generation of  stewards of our region’s trout fisheries and conserving, protecting, and restoring its treasures.

And you’ll definitely hear a good yarn or two.

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Giving summer for Christmas

Our old family friend, the pressure canner

Most of my canning supplies — my standard canner, my jar lifters, my pressure canner, my 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Food – belonged to my mother. Before the pressure canner was my mother’s, it was my paternal grandmother’s. Before it was hers, it belonged to her next-door neighbor. And since I now live in the house that belonged to my father’s parents for more than fifity years, that pressure canner has come full circle, from Decatur to Rabun Gap then back to Decatur.

This to say that despite its rustic reputation, canning and preserving food has never been just a rural thing. The US Department of Agriculture encouraged urban homemakers to put their Victory Garden bounty up especially during wartime. (An aside: my friend Elizabeth Engelhardt, now a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing up a fascinating book on the subject of southern food and gender titled A Mess of Greens, in which she touches on the girls’ “Tomato Clubs” of a century ago–can’t wait to read it!)

Muscadine jam (purple), green tomato relish (yellow), and roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa (red)

The locavore movement has recently brought about a resurgence of interest in home canning amongst my generation. I was delighted to learn that my next-door neighbor, who is my age, asked for some home canning equipment for Christmas this year. For years, though, I have been giving her my canned goodies for Christmas — pear butter, apple butter and apple sauce (none this year — the apples and pears come from my dad’s trees, and the deer got most of them); fig jam and preserves; pickles.

This year, I’m giving muscadine jam (the CSA vines were bounteous), green tomato relish (made from my green tomatoes and cucumbers, along with Vidalia onions and CSA cabbage), and some of that roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa. It’s the summer harvest at its ripest peak, sealed and delivered for the holidays. The gift of summer flavor and color on these chill, bleak, brief days.

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