Monday, August 30, 2010

Some Pepper in my Pie

I'm finally arriving at the magical place where I no longer have bushels of stuff laying around that need prompt attention. What a nice feeling to know that the shelves are full, and anything I put up from here on out is just icing on the cake.

Many years ago, a man was giving our family a tour of his vegetable garden. He pointed out some hot peppers he was growing and said "Those right there are so hot you can't even eat them." I quietly asked my mother why then you would bother to grow them? We both had a chuckle and found it quite funny that this man was growing something that he did not want to eat. That was twenty-five years ago, when I could not have dreamed that I would one day have a garden with a hot pepper row. When did hot peppers become so popular? Many wives with gardens seem to grudgingly put aside some small space to grow hot peppers to satiate their husband's tastes for them. "I don't really care for them, but..." said one friend, while nodding towards the little trees of jalapenos.

Now I am not much of a heat-lover myself when it comes to food. I like to actually taste the food and not worry about my mouth being on fire. But in the past few years I have come to enjoy growing a variety of peppers that have found a place in our pantry. These are just a few I have tried:

Serrano: Wonderful in salsa and Mexican dishes. High producers, so get ready to have plans for them in advance. I water-bath can them whole in a vinegar based liquid and the Mister eats them in his salad. I also process them the same way diced for recipes. These are so versatile.

Jalapeno: Another versatile pepper with high yields. Diced or stuffed, it's easy to find creative ways to use these. These come in varieties with different heat levels. I grew a mild variety last year that even I could eat. Our favorite way to eat these is to roast them in the oven, peel off the skins, and then can for future nacho toppings. Roasting any hot pepper really brings out the flavor. Jalapenos are also a key ingredient in my hot pepper butter, which is a sandwich spread.

Cayenne: When a recipe calls for red pepper, that ingredient is simply a pepper such as these dried out and ground to a powder. So when I grew these one year, that is exactly what I did with them. With a needle and thread, I strung them through the stems and hung them in a dark, dry place. Months later, I pulled off the stems and took out the seeds before grinding them up.

Ancho: This is the first year I've grown anchos. I have a chili recipe that calls for ancho chili powder, but once I saw the price of it in the store I passed! So I plan to dry these and grind my own ancho powder. My first string is now drying.

Hungarian Wax: Sometimes called Hot Banana Peppers. These were a surprise plant that I didn't grow on purpose. I'm canning these whole to be sliced up for sandwiches, or in anything that can use some medium level spice.

Habanero: Another surprise pepper, and since my plant has yielded only a few, I do not yet have much experience with them. But these are supposedly very hot, so maybe that's a good thing.

Some tips in working with hot peppers:
  • Always wear gloves when working with hot peppers. Your hands will burn for days if you don't.
  • Don't bother to freeze hot peppers. You can freeze them, but they won't retain much taste nor any of their heat.
  • They make lovely jar decorations in your kitchen. That is the only reason you need to can them.

Finally, my favorite pepper of the season isn't hot at all. I love when the sweet green bell peppers turn red and become abundant in late summer. This gives me a chance to make my favorite roasted red peppers in vinegar and olive oil. With slices of fresh garlic for seasoning, these are something I really look forward to eating on slices of warm bread in the winter. It's a bit of a time intensive project, involving roasting and peeling peppers, so I won't post the recipe here but will be happy to share if you e-mail me.

I would love to hear some more ideas for using peppers, and also what varieties of peppers my readers love to grow?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Horsing Around...

My friend MaryAnn asked me to write a guest post for her blog, and I was terribly flattered and excited to do so. I love reading her remembrances, and often find myself caught up in the moment when she recalls tough situations or terribly funny circumstances. Having just had the run in with the loose pony last week, I chose to share about my horsey beginnings. You can read it here.

An Unexpected Afternoon

Harvesting tobacco

It's not often we have any unplanned excitement on trips out of town. We like to plan carefully and make the most of our limited time. The main plan for our recent trip to the county was for the Mister to sell a few pieces of old farm equipment at a show, where there would also be a small reunion with family and friends. Also, I would squeeze in a little shopping on the side.

On our second morning, my Mister went on ahead to the tractor show, and I made plans to run a few errands and meet up with him later. I had just left my favorite bulk food store and was only a couple miles north when I encountered a black pony loose in the road. The spirited little mini pony was actually trotting after the cars, with no owner in sight. Without thinking, I immediately pulled off to the side of the road and jumped out of my car to chase the pony back into what I hoped was the right pasture. Fortunately, pony had a clue and followed all my cues back to the gate. When I stopped to catch my breath, I turned around to encounter a little boy of about 4 years old on a bicycle.
"Is your mom or dad home?" I asked.
"My dad is at work."
"Could you tell your mom that the pony got out?"
"He always gets out."
"Well, go tell your mom."

A woman's voice thanked me from an open garage and I waved a "you're welcome" as I headed back to my car. But everything changed in an instant when I discovered that my car door was locked. All the doors were locked. And my key was in the ignition, my pocketbook on the front seat, and phone too. I could have died right then and there realizing that in my haste to get the pony out of the road, I locked the car door. So in a fit of embarrassment I walked into the garage where two women were hard at work doing apple sauce. Of course, they immediately lent me a phone as I apologized for interrupting their canning session, and pony-mom apologized for the loose pony that caused it all. After a couple calls, roadside assistance was on its way and I was invited to wait on the cool porch. Mother and older son discussed fencing options and why said pony was not in his stall. Meanwhile, a sign near the porch advertising tomatoes for sale and a small table filled with brilliant heirloom varieties encouraged tourists with New York license plates to wave at me, assuming I was a quaint woman selling tomatoes outside my house. If only.

Interrupting applesauce day

For what seemed like an eternity (but was more likely thirty minutes) there was no sign of the roadside assistance truck. A lunch invitation was extended and that is where I got to know Verna, and her mother Naomi. I gave Naomi my name and told her where I was from, and like the well-seasoned Mennonite connection pro that she was, she immediately produced familiar names and mutual acquaintances. Naomi also had a lot of ideas and opinions which she was not at all shy about sharing, and I found her candor refreshing. After lunch, Verna insisted that I not help her clean up, and her beautiful little daughter followed me outside to wait with me for the truck.
"Did you know you had locked your door?" she asked sincerely.
"No, definitely not!" I laughed.

Later on, after roadside assistance had gotten me back in my car and my good-byes were said, I went directly to our section at the farm show to tell the Mister of my unusual afternoon. I told him about Verna's warm hospitality, and Naomi who knew so many of the same people we knew, and the Mister pondered "What are the odds...?"

Frankly, the odds were pretty good. I'm just sorry I didn't get a picture of the pony that started it all.

Kinzers, PA

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Last year was not a good tomato year, so I'm very excited that this summer has offered up a bountiful crop of sweet goodness. Some of the heirloom varieties I planted have been big performers. I've been busy with all kinds of tomato projects- salsa, sauce, juice, and just plain canned tomatoes. Of course they went in my canned vegetable soup, and on the table for supper just about every night. I even tackled ketchup, which I hadn't done in years. Ketchup by the way, is quite easy. It's just time intensive while you are waiting for it to cook down. (Oh, and I don't want to hear any one-upsmanship comments about being busy mining your own salt. Okay, Beth?) Anyway, this is a perfect opportunity to share one of my favorite tomato recipes with you. It's something insanely easy, but with a lot of flavor. We look forward to this easy bruschetta every year, either as a snack or part of a meal. It doesn't get nearly the respect it deserves. Although we like salsa too, prepared fresh with garden tomatoes, this is even better.

2 cups cherry or plum tomatoes, halved or coarsely chopped
1/4 cup diced red onion
3 T olive oil (extra virgin)
1T balsamic vinaigrette
3 T fresh chopped basil
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients and season with salt, pepper, and tarragon. Eat on toast rounds or use on fresh bread. For fresh bread, brush bread with a little olive oil, then toast and add topping.

And don't forget last year's Tomato Ricotta tart
here. Another good use of healthy tomatoes.

I had hoped to write a longer post, but we are busy getting ready to head out to Lancaster for a few days. It won't be relaxing, but it will be fun, and I hope to have some pictures to share when I return. Meanwhile, I hope you are all enjoying your summer and finding time to behold God's creation during this magical time of year.

Photo: Spring 2010, somewhere in Eastern PA

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Seeking the Saturday Evening Feeling

Some of my favorite times are any Saturday evening after the grass is freshly mowed, the gardens are watered, and the dishes have been washed and put away, when a calm lull descends over the end of another week. You still might hear the quiet hiss of a garden hose running, or smell one last treat baking in the oven, but a finality to all we have accomplished sets in. As the sky begins to darken, our hearts and minds turn to readying ourselves for worship and making sure that our homes are in order (or at least not in chaos) for the following day. There is something comforting about a Saturday evening devotion, giving the Lord our full attention after the work of another week is done. It doesn't feel like an end, but a calm beginning. The week does not begin with a dive into rushed productivity, but actually begins with rest. Every day is a blessing, but I love a Saturday evening. I recently read somewhere that "Home is a time, not a place." I wonder how true that is, or whether it is always the case? Now I wish I could smugly tell you that a Saturday evening at my house means no wash on the lines and a freshly swept porch. Alas, that is rarely the case. If you define the word "rarely" as never. The most I can hope for right now is that all the tomatoes are picked, the kitchen counter is clean, and I have some idea of what I'll be wearing on Sunday morning. But it still feels like everything I love about that night and permeates me with the satisfaction of a well-lived week. This might be because it's so hard to find time during the busy season to find time to relax, so I value quiet moments even more. After all, even if you are not growing a garden or putting up food during the summer, you are still facing travel plans, family reunions, guests, picnics, summer Bible school...the list goes on and on. None of these things are any burden at all, but it does make it more of a challenge to find some stillness in the fury of activity. Here are a few ways I've tried to make time to get some added rest...

A planned day of sewing.
Yes, there was nothing more relaxing than spending an afternoon in air conditioning along with one of my UFO's and watching as the pieces come together on a no-rush sewing project.
Some of you may remember the charm pack I posted about here. When I saw this pattern for the Country Charm Table Runner I knew instantly it was the right idea for that pack. Will my love affair with blue and yellow ever end?

Please pardon the wrinkles. As you can see, this has been pieced but is not yet quilted.

Making root beer. Just mix and wait! I love a nice cool root beer float in the summer with home brewed root or birch beer. If you haven't tried making root beer before, it's the perfect time and temperature.

Finally, amusing myself with silliness.

photo courtesy of E.H., who shares my sense of humor.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wisdom from the Farmer's Market

Esther at her day job. Ephrata, PA 2008

There are still many fleeting memories in my head of holding on to my mother's hand (or maybe my grandmother's) while the older women shopped for fresh produce and good deals at the farmer's market. The smell of fresh peaches, corn, and baking pies at some of the places where we shopped the most still haunt a long buried corner of my mind which reignites every summer. Many of these small, family-owned farm stands were places that I took for granted until they started disappearing, replaced by subdivisions and mass market grocery stores. But I'm glad to see that there are still so many places where local farmers take pride in growing and selling the freshest of the fresh. I will shop them first right up until the last pumpkin is sold, and then return as soon as the doors open again in the spring. Farm markets offer a greater selection of things than I could ever reasonably grow in my small garden, and at pennies for what it would cost me too!

Here are a few snippets of wisdom I have gathered over the years from shopping directly from the grower:

Know your prices. Sometimes this means shopping around, going to a few markets without intending to buy anything. You just want to check out the going rates on things, and see who is offering the lowest prices. This way you can set your compass and know what items are worth at any point in time. You would be surprised how much prices can differ from less than a mile down the road. Don't be afraid to do this by phone either. My husband has told me some very funny stories from when his family owned a farm market in which the owners of other markets would discreetly call around to find out how much the competition was charging for things. If they can do it, so can you!

Beware the high-pressure sales person. This is someone who had a bumper crop of something, and if they can't move it, then it's going to rot. You are the target. Be firm in reminding yourself what you came to buy, how much you wanted to spend, and whether or not the "deal" they are offering is going to be worth your time. Will you eat it before it goes bad? Do you have all day to freeze it? If not, can you give it away to someone who needs it? It could work out in your favor, or you could spend an already busy today fooling around with bushels of overripe tomatoes due to your inability to say no. (Yes, that actually happened to me once!)

Shop late in the day. Prices go down as the end of the day nears, because produce that's been sitting at a stand all day has a short life. Sellers know that it's better to sell at a steep discount than to not sell at all and have something go to waste. A few months ago, a farmer gave me several quarts of strawberries for free because it was nearing the end of the selling day and the berries were getting soft. I didn't care that they were soft. I took them home and mashed them up to make jam.

Ask the price. This was a technique I came across by accident, mostly due to my dyslexia and inability to notice signage. I would ask what the price of something was, and before leaving discovered there was a sign I did not see that had a higher price on it. Now why would someone tell you something costs less than what they are advertising? A couple of reasons. They would rather someone purchase it than have to haul it back home. Or maybe It's not selling well at the advertised price. Or perhaps they recognize you as a regular customer and just want to make you feel like you are getting a special deal. Which brings me to the next point...

Become a regular. I'm always amazed and somewhat flattered that the farmers I buy from seem to lower their prices "just for me" as the season goes on. This is just another way of thanking you for being a good customer and making sure you'll come back next year. Consistency does seem to pay off.

So. Is anyone else getting any good deals at the farm markets?


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