Category Archives: Putting Up

I am the Supreme High Goddess of the Temple of Meat.

Urban homesteading is, in part, about independence—learning skills that will decrease your reliance on systems and entities you abhor. But sometimes it’s about interdependence. And lucky for me, I have an amazing bunch of friends. Friends with superpowers, in fact. Beer-making, meat-curing, bread-baking, food-pickling superpowers.

A few weeks ago, my good friend Shannan (who is definitely invited to live at my house during the Zombie Apocalypse, because she makes bacon jam and can build useful, pretty things with wood and tools) formed a new obsession—meat curing. She read and researched and imagined and fantasized, and she posted her meat musings on Facebook. Pretty soon, there was a long thread amongst three of four friends about the hows and whys and wherefores of charcuterie, and the only thing holding them back was the where. While a closet will do in a pinch, what you really need, it turns out, is a basement, kind of humid, dark, good air circulation.

That’s when I chimed in. Since my Sweet Feller set up his brewery in the basement kitchen, things have gotten much more clean and organized down there. In fact, there’s a shower down there that isn’t hooked up to plumbing at the moment. It’s the perfect space to cure meat.

So Shannan, who is fiercely organized and determined once she sets her mind to something, set up a Doodle calendar so we could find a date for  meat hanging. She happened to mention, just in passing, that she had made some bacon jam recently, and would we like to taste it? (Of course we would!) I had visions of eating bacon jam by an open fire, so I suggested we start a blaze in the fire bowl in the backyard. Which brought about the suggestion of marshmallows. Then s’mores. Then s’mores with bacon jam. With John’s homebrew. (Like I said, superpowers.)

I had recently placed an order for blue dove oyster mushroom grain spawn and thought I might start the spawn that same afternoon with my friend Connie (maker of homemade tempeh — yep, superpower), who split the grain spawn order with me. The spawn didn’t arrive in time, however, but I told Connie she should come on over, anyway, since there was bacon jam and charcuterie. As it happens, she had recently come into a wild boar ham, so she was interested in attaining curing skills, too.

So here we all were—Shannan, Jen, Connie, Rachel, John, and me. Shannan had salted and seasoned a hunk of pork belly with salt and pepper, rosemary, and a bunch of other stuff and let it sit in her fridge for a week until it was firm to the touch. She wrapped and tied it in cheese cloth.

Today she brought it to my house. I had put a suspension rod over the top of the old shower stall for her use, and there it hangs. We discussed air circulation (she judged it to be adequate), temperature (just right), humidity (also good), and light (it’s quite dark in there once the light is out). She will check in on it every few days over the next several weeks to monitor its drying. Once it has lost 30 percent of its weight, it’s pancetta. All of this was just fine with me, on one condition–that she address me as the Supreme High Goddess of the Temple of Meat. When she had agreed to that, I gave her a key to my basement.

Then we moved outside into the backyard, where John had the fire going. We passed around the Charcuterie Bible and talked recipes, superpowers, and other possible things we could learn from and teach one another. Connie had brought a beautiful loaf of homemade bread, and Rachel walked in with two jars of her pickles. We opened the bread-and-butter pickles and ate them on top of slices of bread with bacon jam. Then we washed them down with John’s IPA and honey porter. A.Maze.Ing.

Bacon jam s’more. Photo by Shannan Palma

(Also amazing, it turns out, are s’mores with giant super-sized marshmallows, dark chocolate, and more bacon jam. Shannan burned her hand with a melted bit of marshmallow, but she finished her s’more before treating the burn. That’s how good they were.)

Jen’s happy meat clap

While I am secure in my status as Goddess of the Temple of Meat, Jen really is the Meat Goddess. Over the weekend, she bought a wine refrigerator on Craig’s List brand-new for practically nothing.

Duck prosciutto curing in wine fridge. Photo by Jennifer Kuzara

It’s perfect, she says, as a meat-curing chamber. She also owns a 19th-century cast-iron sausage press, and she has been using this baby for years to make savory goodness. It took no time at all for her duck prosciutto to go right in to its new chamber. When Jen talks about these things, she gets a rapturous look on her face and does a happy meat clap.

These are the people you want to know anytime, because they are so cool, but in an apocalypse, you really want their skills and knowledge. That is why we are calling today Session 1 of the Apocalypse Academy. Today we covered meat curing. And next time, we grow mushrooms. When it’s the End of the World As We Know It, we’ll feel fine.

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A More Cordial Relationship

About a year ago I reported on a number of significant flops in my urban homesteading efforts—one of which came to be known as the “blackberry rude,” because my attempt at a blackberry cordial was such a spectacular failure.

I am pleased to report that the half-liter of blackberry rude that has been languishing on a shelf in my basement has been restored to cordial status. This happened last weekend at a reception I attended. The caterer, the marvelous Star Provisions under the leadership of the fabulous Anne Quatrano, served a blackberry cordial. Of course, I had to try it.

I watched the server pour a splash of black-blue liquid into the bottom of a short glass over a handful of ice and top it off with seltzer. He then added two fat, juicy blackberries speared on a toothpick. He handed it to me and I sipped–cool, sweet but not too sweet, refreshing. Also, yummy vodka-soaked blackberries. Let me tell you, this is not Marilla Cuthbert’s cordial.

I told the server my tale of woe, and he explained that their cordial was merely a blackberry-vodka-sugar concoction. I thought my mistake had been adding the cloves, which had resulted in the cough-syrup flavor (although the Sweetie has said all along that he likes the flavor).

But then. What if I gave my blackberry rude the seltzer treatment, along with a squeeze of lime juice? And maybe a sprig of mint? Or lovely purplish Thai basil?

The next day I gave it a try. And guess what? Not only is it not cough syrup, but it is downright delicious! I served it up to the sweetie and a visiting friend.

Then I remembered what I had done earlier this summer with my blackberry hoard, and I opened a jar of a blackberry-bourbon-maple syrup and gave it the same treatment. Even more delicious, because it’s bourbon! This is especially exciting because iI also preserved whole blackberries in this concoction, thinking they would be great on ice cream and cheesecake or really any ole cake. But now I think I will also add a couple of boozed-up berries to the drinks.

I don’t know if this is actually true, but I feel like I have invented a cocktail. It needs a name, however. Suggestions?

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The Meantime

We are in the meantime, it seems. The beets are gone, I’ve pulled my next-to-last carrot, and the kale bolted two weeks ago. The summer garden hasn’t quite gotten to the point of explosion quite yet. I am awaiting the day the tomatoes and figs ripen, the cucumbers reach pickle size, and the green beans start to pile up in my refrigerator.

In the meantime, here is what happens. The Georgia peaches are early and plentiful and delicious this year, so I bought about ten pounds of “dent and scratch” fruit at the Decatur farmer’s market a few weeks ago and made peach rosemary jam. I just made regular ol’ peach jam and simmered a few sprigs of rosemary with it, then took out the sprigs before filling the jars. It goes on the shelf next to the strawberry basil jam I made last month.

With the mild spring and early summer weather, I have switched to knitting cotton–easier on the hands and lap. I found some organic cotton on sale and bought a bunch of it, and my first project was this pair of vests for some friends who had twins a few months ago.

My Sweetie had a birthday recently, and with shameless self-interest at heart, I got him a beer-making kit. I’m hoping this will become a long-term skill and passion. Today he started his first batch of IPA. We have talked about setting up a little brewery area in the basement (which is already equipped with sink and stove), so this will become a weekend project after this first batch is finished.

Here in the meantime, whilst we await the garden bounty and the brew, my meager flower garden has been generous. Here is what is on my kitchen table today: Coneflowers, zinnias, butterfly bush, hydrangeas, gardenias, marigolds. Glorious eye candy.

In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but weed, water, and wait. Fortunately, there is an inflatable pool here that makes waiting just about my favorite thing to do . . .

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Southern Urban Homestead FAIL

Typically I am pretty good about owning up to my disasters. It’s a whole nuther thing, however, to own up to them on a public blog. But I’ve decided, as a character-building exercise and to show that perfection is not the goal in this ongoing quest of mine for balance and bounty in the city, to fess up to some of my most spectacular flops. I hope you enjoy them and won’t think less of my skillz.

Blackberry Rude (as opposed to “Cordial”)

Last year I went crazy with the blackberry picking. I made jams and cobblers and stuck some in the freezer for fruity desserts at the holidays. And I still had about a half gallon of berries left, so I decide to steep them in some vodka and sugar with a few spices. I had visions of Anne of Green Gables and the delicious raspberry cordial she mistakenly served to her bosom friend, Diana, in a chapter titled “Diana is Invited to Tea with Tragic Results.”

Tragic results indeed. Eight weeks later I strained the blackberries out of the liquid and bottled it all up. It was so pretty–dark reddish purple and clear in the jars. I was imagining creative cocktails, ice cream concoctions, and just some tasty sipping. What I got, however, was cough syrup. Ew. I think I just overdid it with the cloves. They overpower the flavor. I can’t bring myself to dump it all out (that was good, expensive vodka), so let me know if you have a cold. I have a  home remedy to share.

The Soap with Ugly Dead Things In It

I really should stay out of Michael’s stores. I accidentally come home with all sorts of little fake crafty things that are unnatural and useless, such as the glycerin soap making kits, complete with blocks of glycerin and cute little plastic molds in the shapes of hearts and stars. It was supposed to be easy: melt the glycerin and pour it into the molds. But no. I had to make it a little more complicated by adding some herbs and essential oils.

Maybe my mistake was using fresh herbs. Because guess what? Glycerin soap does not preserve lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary as fresh green, succulent leaves. No, the sprigs of lovely shrivel and turn brown, emanating dark, gooey halos suspended in the hardened soap. Best to leave the soapmaking to those who know what they are doing.

Persimmon Poo

When I gathered the persimmons from a nearby tree last fall, I had a vague idea in my head about persimmon butter. Finding nothing helpful in my home canning and preserving books, I googled around and learned, first off, that persimmons don’t have enough acid to be canned without growing yourself a healthy crop of botulism. So I settled on freezer butter. And here is why googling can be bad for your health: I took a recipe here and a recipe there, made some substitutions, added some spices, took a few calculated risks and short cuts. Cooked it down, put it in jars, processed it, stuck it in the freezer.

The day I concocted this mess, my parents were visiting. I showed my father one of my jars of persimmon butter. My dad is typically a poker face, but when he peered into the jar, well, let’s just say his look betrayed his skepticism. “That looks interesting,” he said. A few weeks later I opened the freezer and pulled out a jar of “persimmon butter.” Rather than the brilliant autumnal gold I was expecting, it had turned sort of brown–a bad sign I chose to ignore. I thawed the jar and opened it. The substance within had shrunk away from the sides of the jar and thawed into a dry, solid chunk of you-guessed-it.

  

  

Do Not Neglect The Cucumbers

Generally I am a successful cucumber grower. I make nice, fluffy, generous hills and enrich them with buckets of compost. I mulch deeply and water often. I make lots and lots of pickles. This year, I got cocky. My cucumbers, I told myself, would know what to do. So I made a few hills, stuck the seeds in, and proceeded to neglect them.

What I got was an infestation of squash bugs that chewed everything I had planted to a withered crisp. I saw the first few appear and instead of picking them off and dusting with diatomaceous earth, I decided my historically vigorous cukes would fight the good fight and win . . . simply by virtue of being my cukes. But no, the squash bugs won, and I got no cukes this year. Here is what they looked like. Try not to cry.

A few careless mistakes, a few risks gone bad, a few lessons learned. But there are no morals to be drawn here. Just laugh, please, and if you happen to figure out persimmon butter, please share your recipe.

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Jam Fusion

Every year about this time, fruit ripens all around me. I’m a longtime jam and butter maker: strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, fig, apple, pear, among others. It’s a basic concoction of fruit and sugar and sometimes a splash of lemon juice.

It’s always delicious, but it’s pretty much fruit and sweet. Last summer, though, a friend gave me a jar of raspberry-balsamic jam. I loved the piquant tang behind the fruit, and I realized the creative possibilities that I had not even begun to explore. So when the pears came in with the fall, instead of straight-up pear jam, I added some fresh grated ginger to the bubbling fruit, and voilá! Pear-ginger jam.

My friend Beth from New England came to visit that October. Beth has one of the most adventurous palates of anyone I have ever known (and one of these days I’m going to get her to write a guest blog post on some of her ice cream creations, which are amazing), and she is a discerning cheese lover. So I requested that she bring some cheese from her beloved cheese shop, and for several days she and I wolfed down cheese with giant dollops of the pear-ginger jam, the perfect complement. I sent her home with a big jar, which, she reported, didn’t last long.

With that success in mind, when the strawberries came in in May, I did some research and came up with a recipe for strawberry lavender jam. Fusing these flavors take a little longer because you actually have to allow the strawberries and lavender to macerate together in sugar for hours—24, in my case. You layer the lavender on top of the strawberries and pour sugar on top, then chill. They look like they’ve been sitting in snow—really quite lovely. Then you add some more lavender to the pot when you boil the fruit and sugar, and remove all the stems before processing in jars in a hot water bath. My kitchen was incredibly fragrant, and the resulting jam is nuanced and delicious.

Now the blackberries are coming in, and I got  brave and made up a flavor combination on my own. A fan of cardamom paired with other fruits, I added a teaspoon of this unique Indian space to nine cups of blackberries and six cups of sugar. It’s a delicate, complex fragrance at the moment, while it’s boiling away on the stove, and I can’t wait to sample the result.

I’m interested to know what other interesting fusions have successfully wound up in jams, jellies, and preserves. Readers, please share your experiments and recipes!

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“Sauce and Butter, that’s my plan . . .”

A blog entry in song and pictures

I got a peck of apples from the Georgia hills,
I made a pie and I ate my fill –
So ripe and sweet, it’s a shame to toss ‘em;
Guess it’s time to applesauce ‘em.
Sauce and butter, that’s my plan;
Why? Because I can.

– “Because I Can,” from Redbud Winter (2007)

 

Addendum: Looky what Southern Fried Curry did with her applesauce!

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Honeyslingers

I love the idea of beekeeping — of a happy, humming hive right there in my backyard, providing honey, beeswax, and busy pollinators not just for my garden but for my neighbors’ gardens, as well. But the natural processes of bees and honey production, I admit, have always been daunting and mysterious to me.

The hazmat-suited gnome examines a frame from a super

Until, that is, this autumn when my friend Patrick, a lifelong beekeeper who lives up in my native Rabun County, Georgia, invited my family (primarily my six-year-old niece and me) to help him extract honey from his hives. Avril has been apprenticing with Pat since last year. All suited up and looking like a gnome in hazmat, last fall she helped him smoke the hives in order to open them up and examine honey production levels for the year. Patrick made sure she understood exactly what she was doing, too. He gave her a beautifully illustrated book that explained the architecture and social order of the hive, the role each different type of bee plays, how a queen is made, how they make honey, and how we come along and harvest it.  At the age of five, Avril knew more than I did about honeybees.

By the time we arrived at Pat’s house for the extraction party in late September, I had done a little bit of remedial work to catch up with Avril (Pat and I recently had spent several hours together on a driving trip, and he very patiently explained things to me and answered my questions). Pat had prepared us: wear old clothes, an apron, and a bandanna over your hair; bring some old shoes you can easily slip on and off; prepare to get sticky! He had already “robbed” the hives and brought the supers — those are the boxes that look like drawers — into his basement, the floor of which was covered with heavy plastic. Each one had a dozen frames full of honeycomb, and each cell of the comb was full of honey.

Patrick shows me how to use the hot knife to remove the honeycomb caps

My task was to take a hot knife (sizzling hot! The electrically heated knife burned the wax and honey and filled the room with smoke if I moved too slowly) and slice the caps off each side of the honeycomb cell. Then I would help Avril load the frame of open, oozing comb into the extractor.

The extractor is a giant drum that contains a basket that holds the frames vertically within, so that they sit radially from the center point. A motor turns the basket inside the drum, and the idea is to use centrifugal force to sling the honey out of the comb. Pat told us that old-timers call this device (which used to be hand-cranked!) a “honeyslinger.”

Avril loads open frames into the extractor

Avril’s job was to run the extractor. Once we had loaded it full of frames, she’d start the motor turning slowly, then gradually crank it up until the drum was shaking with speed. I opened a tap at the bottom of the drum to allow the extracted honey to drain into a bucket.

The just-extracted honey was full of bee-parts, leaves, and other bits of nature that has found itself fixed in the gluey gold. So as it drained out of the extractor, Pat sent it through several layers of filters to catch the non-honey stuff.

Another tap on the bucket allowed Pat to fill the one-pound jars. Avril capped each one, and I wiped off any residual stickiness before placing the jars into a case. All told, Pat harvested honey from nine full hives this year.

Then we removed our sticky shoes (honeyslinging is a messy job!), washed our gooey hands, and sat down to label each jar. That’s when Patrick surprised us. He’d had a special label made up just for Avril, with her name. Because she had seen the process through from the very beginning last year, he said, this was her honey. Avril and I each left with a case of honey of our own — hers with her own special label!

Blossoms on a sourwood tree

A word about Pat’s honey: his bees gather the nectar of the sourwood tree, which only grows in sufficient quantities to produce honey in the southern Appalachians. The smooth flavor of sourwood honey is as prized as the famous Tupelo honey, and like Tupelo, sourwood does not crystallize. Avril and I (and indeed, my whole family) have been completely spoiled by the flavor of sourwood. I use it daily in my coffee; have mixed it in ice cream, salad dressings, and marinades; drizzled it on a big hunk of fresh homemade bread. Most other honeys simply are inferior.

And sourwood honey is part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, meaning that it is considered a “heritage” food—unique in flavor, sustainably produced by methods handed down over many generations, in danger of disappearing. The ranks of sourwood honey producers are dwindling, and Pat is keeping an important tradition alive. I remember as a child visiting Mr. Neville, a beekeeper in Rabun County, to buy his sourwood honey. After Mr. Neville died, I found out during our extraction party, Pat acquired much of his equipment.

Now that I, too, am an apiary apprentice of Patrick’s, I have plans to install a couple of hives in my own backyard in the next few years (I’m still learning first!). But in Decatur, I will never be able to achieve the flavor of the sourwood I so treasure.

I brought home an extra case or two of Mr. Pat’s sourwood honey and am selling it for him for $6 (plus shipping, if needed) a pound. Contact me if you are interested in purchasing some. And in case you need more persuading, here is a little video testimonial Avril and I filmed.

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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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Filed under Feasting, Foraging, Putting Up