Category Archives: Uncategorized

Food Preservation: Dehydrating

A couple months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of food preservation is even clearer to me. More people are gardening now, and learning how to make that harvest last is so empowering. In past blogs, I talked about food preservation generally, then focused on nutrition issues. This time I will look specifically at one technique: Dehydrating.

Drying is the oldest known method of food preservation by humans, dating back at least 14,000 years. It was applied to meats, fruit, herbs, eggs and more. This method works by removing moisture from the food, historically using air, sun, wind or smoke, which stops microorganisms from growing in the food (Water is Life, remember!).

I’ve dried herbs for a long time, but I only expanded to other foods a few years ago after coming across one of those small circular electric dehydrators at Good Will. I have also recently circled back to another group of foods that can air dry. I’ll discuss all of these.

Calendula Blossoms

Air Drying Herbs

I’ve dried herbs for making infusions, salves and oils for a couple of decades now. Herbs generally are low in moisture already so I didn’t need added electricity. When I worked at Mill Valley Farm in Stratham NH we added dried herbs to our products one year. The owner of the farm built screened racks to set up in his attic. It was uncomfortably hot for us up there, but worked beautifully. On my own, even in tiny apartments, I had great success laying out my nettles (Urtica dioica), red clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense) or calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) in a paper bag (to avoid direct sunlight hitting them) and hanging that in a sunny window or putting the bags in the car.

Electric Dehydrators

My First Dehydrator

But for foods with higher moisture content, I needed a more active approach. A friend of ours built a number of solar dehydrators, which probably work great in a dry environment. However, here in humid New England, the process took too long, and molds started to move in before we got out enough water.  (Anyone reading this have a solar option that works in New England – I’d love to hear about it!)

So, when I found the electric dryer, it was my chance to give that a try. I figured I could dry anything, but I didn’t know if I would like the end product or have a good way to use it. So, I just started experimenting, trying: kale, collards, summer squash, eggplant, tomato, radish, snap beans and any seedless fruit I came up with. Not everything was a hit. Here’s what I now know I like:

I Made Raisins!

-Fruits. I’ve long been a big fan of dried fruit, raisins and much more. To me, dried fruit usually tastes even better than the unprocessed fruit does. Often what I find commercially is from far away, like papaya and mango. Doing it myself gives me the opportunity to expand my options with what I can grow here: peaches, pears, hardy kiwi and more. I made my own raisins last year – delicious! A friend just shared dried watermelon with me – amazing! I look forward to trying persimmons and pawpaws once those are established here. The learning curve with fruit centers around how to dry it enough to be unfriendly to microbe growth, but still moist and chewy. At least that’s how I like it – you can try it and discover what you like. It can take a full day, depending on how small you’ve cut it up and what the weather is so start early!

Dried Kale

-Leaves. Kales and collards have been a great success. I cut out the stem and cut the leaves into pieces, which can be dry in just a few hours on a good drying day. They could be eaten as is, but I tend to put them into soups, stews, and braised vegetable dishes. They re-hydrate nicely.

-Tomatoes. Everyone knows about sun-dried tomatoes, and I think doing it in the dehydrator tastes just as good. At least that’s what my partner says since tomatoes don’t sit that well with my stomach. He can pop them into his own bowl of soup, or have them on his side of a pizza, or toss them in his salad bowl or pasta dish.

-Other. I will usually dry other items if I happen to have a lot. Last year I did some summer squash and radishes. For us, if we don’t end up loving them, we can always share them with our goats!

Drying Peaches in the Excalibur

Once I was sure I liked it, I bought myself an Exacalibur Dehydrator, complete with thermostat, timer and fan for air circulation and later add stainless steel trays. Less fussing (moving the trays around, turning over the food) is needed with this model and I get a more consistent end product.

Usually when I am drying, the weather is hot and humid so I am lucky to have a screened porch where running the dehydrator won’t add heat to our house. Ideally, I will set it up on a sunny morning so it’s working when there is the most heat and least humidity already.

Popcorn, Sunflowers & Winter Squash

Expanding My Air Dry Options

As my available garden space expanded, I wanted to try new things, especially long lasting staple crops like drying beans and grains. Not many people grow these for themselves, I think because the processing seems daunting. It did to me at first. But I came to realize that at the home-scale I could do much of it by hand.

These are crops that start drying on the vine or stalk, then just need some time in a relatively dry, airy place to finish up. We have a high ceiling in our living room and strung some rope for suspending corn cobs and paper bags of beans. Once dry, I can remove the dried pods from the beans or twist the kernels off the corn which sitting by the fire watching something fun. I now grow 6 varieties (there are SO many kinds!) of dried beans (True Red Cranberry, Jacob’s Cattle, Good Mother Stallard, Pinto, Turkey Craw and Dolloff), popcorn, and dent or flint corns for grinding into cornmeal. We already had a grain mill since I have been grinding grain for myself for years. I tried to grow wheat one year, but the

Dried Beans

birds harvested it for me. I will try again – maybe even this year! The sunflowers are for the chickens in mid-winter. I especially love the beans… this is a plant that feeds the soil while providing a yield, will climb up a fence for easy later harvesting, and is full of protein – a super-food-crop in my opinion!

What I love about drying is what a long shelf life these foods have (if you keep them dry) with no added energy after the initial processing. I don’t have to worry about a power outage like I do with my freezer.  Also, the prep time is not as extensive or heat generating as canning or freezing can be during our hottest season.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Food Preservation: Nutrition

I have practiced food preservation for years, loving how it helps me eat local food year-round and practice permaculture principle 2: Catch and Store Energy. Writing more about preserving was already my plan before we entered this new coronavirus world of social distancing and grocery store shortages. Now, it seems even more relevant.

Our July 2019 Veggie Garden

I don’t think we are in great danger of running out of food. But, I do think the safety of shorter supply chains and of avoiding stores is appealing, the health benefits from real, nutritious foods can only help us, and that people taking stock of what they truly need and rely on is leading to a new appreciation of food

A Few of my Favorite Seed & Plant Catalogs

growing. Seed sales are booming, CSA memberships are selling out, and garden plots are in demand. It follows that soon, how to use and save what is grown will be the question.

Before looking at specific techniques for preserving in detail, I want to address the issue of possible nutrient loss in preserved foods.

The belief that raw plant foods are ideal is currently popular. I was taught differently. Years ago, driven by my own health problems and by environmental and ethical concerns, I researched human nutrition and experimented with a number of different diets. I can say that vegan, low-fat, and raw veggie diets only further worsened my health. But, along the way, I was lucky to discover some people who helped me learn and make choices that have served me well, especially brilliant Wise Woman Susun Weed, and The Weston A. Price Foundation.

I learned that animal products are generally best raw but not plants. Plants treated in some way to break their tough cell walls makes the nutrients, especially minerals, that they contain much more accessible to their animal consumers (that includes human animals). This is supported by looking back at how our ancestors ate, and at current research.

Plant Cell Walls

Cabbage

The basic idea is that the thick cell walls of plants hold in the nutrition we need.

Our teeth cannot break the cell walls, and our digestive juices are not strong enough to do so either. We didn’t evolve an internal cooking (fermenting) system, like ruminants have, so, if we want to get value out of plant foods external “cooking” methods become necessary.

When I say “cooking” what I am referring to are any ways that break those cell walls. Heat is one way – roasting, baking, grilling, etc. Other options are freezing, drying, lacto-fermenting, and covering in oil or vinegar (think salad dressing). You can actually see this process happen, when a crisp bright piece of kale turns limp and dark in your soup, when the lettuce starts to look weird and slimy sitting in the dressing a long time, when your frozen blueberries warm up and, well, are just not the same as fresh. These are all clues that you can now really benefit from eating these!

Carrots, filled with carotenoids!

Minerals & Vitamins

Minerals are elemental rocks which can have different forms but can’t be destroyed by anything in your kitchen.

Vitamins, especially antioxidants, are often enhanced by cooking. Research has shown this with lycopene, carotenoids and ferulic acid. Vitamin C is a less stable compound so will break down more easily, with heat, exposure to light or time. However, Vitamin C is in a lot of plant foods – not just citrus – and much does remain after cooking.

Cooking In Water

One reason people became worried that cooking meant less nutrition may be because of this fact: if you heat a plant in water, the freed nutrients can leach into the water. If you are a drinker of Nourishing Herbal Infusions you will also understand this, as we rely on the long, hot water treatment of the herbs to move those compounds into the water. Here’s the key – the nutrients haven’t been destroyed but transferred into the liquid. That’s why for herbal infusions we squeeze out the herbs and compost them then drink

Braising Garden Veggies

the liquid only. If you boil veggies and throw out the water – yeah, you’ve wasted a lot. So make sure not to do that! We prefer oven roasting in olive oil, and also braising on the stove top with oil and a little water. Whatever liquid is left we make sure to ingest as well.

What About Enzymes?

Dr. Pottenger’s research did show that the enzymes in raw meat and raw milk aid our digestive process, which is why raw milk is more easily digestible. However, the enzymes in fruits and veggies are mostly destroyed by our own bodies because we don’t need them.

Elderberries in the kitchen

Safety

There are a number of constituents found in plants that are toxic or anti-nutritional to us which cooking deactivate, like oxalic acid in spinach, and cyanide-inducing glycosides in elderberry and phytohaemagglutinin in kidney beans.

Uncooked veggies aren’t useless to us – we get fiber, and some of the vitamins and minerals they contain. But at a time when we are worried about feeding the world and many well fed people have specific deficiencies, it seems we should try to get the most we can from what we eat.

Harvest!

The good news in terms of food preservation is that most of these techniques also offer us more bio-available nutrition. The research shows that some methods of cooking and of preserving keep certain nutrients better than others which is an argument for a diversity of tactics. In my next posts I’ll go over the varied options we have for keeping our harvests year-round.

I do know that there are wildly differing opinions, experiences and even conflicting research results out there.  I’ve shared here my own experience and what I learned from people I trust for you to consider and make your own best choices for yourself!

2 Comments

Filed under Food Preservation, Gardens, Permaculture principles, Uncategorized

2019 On the Homestead

Garden in July

We just finished up our most productive season on our homestead yet, a year that showed how abundant permacultural systems can be. The bounty also kept us very busy with picking, drying, freezing, canning, and root cellaring.

Winter in New England provides a natural space to review, reflect and plan ahead. During the rush of the growing season, it’s a struggle just to keep up with daily chores. I’m grateful for the down-time that lets me practice the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Some of what I note I can’t necessarily plan for – such as how much rain we get – but other information will change what I do – such as I planted too many bush beans for what we need or what my back feels good about.

I’ve begun to think of our years here less as numbers and more by conditions. Like, 2018 was the Year of Rodents & Clouds and 2016 was the Year of Drought. This year, 2019, stands out to me as the Year of Enough Rain, Weird Nectar Flows & Overabundant Veggies.

Last year’s review focused on the gardens. Here I will expand that to include our animals and other projects.

Let me begin again with speaking to problems, starting with the issues I identified in my 2018 Review and how I fixed them or saw them evolve.

Seedlings in April

Starting Seedlings

Having learned from my 2018 reflections on our seedling trouble, I did go back to a commercial blend. I found a company called Organic Mechanics that has peat-free seed starting mixes, so at least I was able to address that ethical issue arising with these mixes. It still came in a plastic bag. It worked well, though, so I got off to a good start with lots of healthy new plants.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Fewer Chipmunks Mean More Strawberries!

Rodent pressure was SO much less this year! It’s basic population dynamics – if a group grows beyond it’s ecological limits, it will crash. After 2018’s nearly unbelievable numbers, we had our easiest year yet dealing with chipmunks, squirrels, and voles, our usual competitors. I see this with insect pests and diseases often as well. It’s why I take my time and observe carefully before reacting, especially with any kind of drastic intervention.

We did have a groundhog appear mid-season, hanging out in our lower garden. We failed to figure out how it was getting in and out of the fenced area so we had some damage – it loved my broccoli and cauliflower plants and took bites out of many of our winter squash in that section. Honestly, for a groundhog, it was well-behaved to only make that much of an impact. It just kept me holding my breath for the day I’d go down to devastation! I’ve exhaled mostly by now.

Healthy Cucumber Vines in August

The cucumber disease that I and many others were affected by in 2018 was not a problem this year. In fact, I had way more cucumbers than I felt ready for! Luckily, the chickens and goats are fans of the overgrown ones. The only change I made from previous seasons was to space the vines far from each other around the garden, making it harder for disease to spread. I’m not sure that mattered, though, as so many others reported great yields from their cukes. I think it was a problem that came and went by factors larger than we control.

Pulling Parsnips

Roots

After a few years of germination problems with carrots I seem to have found the right combination for success. First, I planted later. Although carrots, beets and parsnips as “cool season crops” are happy to grow in cool weather, they don’t necessarily germinate well in cold soil. Especially since I am a committed mulcher, seeding carrots in March meant weeks before seeing them, and keeping them consistently moist that long was tough. So, I waited for some warmth and exercised patience, which I really needed given what a cold spring we had. It was May 26 when I finally seeded the root crops. I also put up a shade cloth over the carrots to keep them from drying out as the sun strengthened. It worked! In fact, my carrots came up

Carrots for the Root Cellar

thickly, and it had been years since I had needed to thin, so my first planting had it’s share of weird twisted, multi-legged roots from being crowded. I was on top of thinning the later plantings which gave me gorgeous results and 195# just of carrots to eat and pack in the root cellar.

 

Labor

The one big problem we experienced this year was a labor shortage. This should not have surprised me, as it is a very common problem on farms. When you are putting a lot of work into a product that is comparatively undervalued financially, there are going to be problems, even with the many labor-saving techniques used in permacultural systems. Steve needed to take more off-farm work this summer, leaving me to do more than I expected and than I was really up for. Any real solution to this needs to be addressed at a societal level, but, meanwhile, I am going to have to rethink some of my choices and be more realistic about my time. I am a great solar-powered, renewable resource, but have my energy limits!

Good Soil, Big Plants

Success in the Gardens

At this point we have about one acre out of our 7 in garden beds full of organic matter, built from the countless truckloads of reclaimed resources we have brought in since we moved here in 2008 (seaweed, coffee grounds, manure, hay and wood chips). The majority of the beds are planted in perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, berries and fruit trees, most still too young to be very productive. Between the young trees, and in our 3,300 square foot sheet mulched main garden, we plant our annual crops.

Peaches!

With the regular rain, low rodent numbers, and the soil we’ve built, it was a great year for growing. The trees are also becoming mature enough to begin to bear and we had our first real harvest of peaches, 219#, juicy and delicious.

Here are the veggie and fruit numbers, hopefully presented in an useful way (feedback on that welcome!):

Alliums – garlic – 165 hds; garlic tops – 161; leeks – 96#

Beans & Peas – 96.75# snap beans; 17.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 11.5#

Brassicas – broccoli – 3.75#; brussels sprouts – 12.5#; cauliflower – 3#; kale/collard – 29#

Celery – 1.5 #

Corn, popcorn – 9#

Cucumber – 195.5# (ack!)

Eggplant – 70.25#

Greens – lettuce – 9#; nettles – 3#, beet greens – 1#

Herbs – basil – 6.25#; dill – 1#

Melon – 21.5#

Potatoes – 166.5# (from 22# seed potatoes, a solid 1 to 7.5 ratio)

Roots – beets – 30.25#; carrots – 195.25#; parsnips – 38#; radishes – 82

Squash – summer – 53.75#; winter = 686#

Tomato – 55.75#

Fruit:  beach plums – 1#; crabapples – 12#; currants, clove – 16.75#; currants, red & white – 21.5#; elderberry – 1#; grapes – 12#; honeyberry – 3 ½ cups; jostaberry – 3.25#, nanking cherry 1/4#; peaches – 219#; rhubarb – 15#; strawberry – 20.5#

This bounty kept us eating well and was preserved to last for months to come.

Bees Making Honey in June

Bees

My two hives from 2018 came through the winter strong, ready to take off in the spring. It was a slow start with the chilly weather, but once they had the opportunity they were wonderfully productive. Usually we have a dearth (lack of nectar) in July, but this year that did not happen. Instead, they just kept on filling their combs, to the point that we pulled honey in order to avoid towering hives toppling over, or late season swarms. I also split the overwintered hives to create two more, plus a small nucleus hive. Strangely, though, the fall nectar flow never came. I have no idea why. I gave them back some of the honey frames I’d pulled plus some sugar syrup and hope they were able to build up enough of a population to survive the winter.

We were able to take 165# of honey, so despite the weird season, I consider it a good one.

Goats

Goat Kids: Zan & Jayna

We had another year of healthy, happy goats, including two successful births in the spring. All four kids were sold to other homesteads with natural goatkeeping practices. We helped Gagnons Mountain Homestead start their herd with Luna’s little girl, Jayna, and her whethered brother to keep her company. We love helping others get started, especially folks we resonate with on animal keeping.

I have been milking three animals since the spring, this year’s moms, Cocoa and Luna, and 2018 mom, Lily. We brought in 107 gallons of milk over the course of the year, most of which I turned into yogurt, chevre cheese, and mozzarella.

Young Dominique Chickens

Poultry

All went smoothly with our Dominique chickens. From the incubator and one broody hen we raised 41 chicks, some of which we added to our own flock, some of which we sold, and some of which we harvested to eat. We added to our number of move-able chicken houses and yards to keep the growing birds protected but rotating pasture. It is tricky to make the structures strong enough to withstand predators but light enough to actually move.

Day Old Ducklings

Our Indian Runner duck flock had some turnover this year. We still had our “old grey duck” from the first batch we brought home back in 2012 but she was showing her age. Over the winter she had seemed arthritic, walking stiffly at times. I thought it kinder not to ask her to go through another cold season. We really liked her and her big blue eggs and wanted to keep those genetics in our flock. So, I put her and our drake together by themselves for a week, took her seven eggs, and put them in the incubator. We find duck eggs much harder to hatch successfully so were delighted when six of them hatched out 28 days later! And, in a poignant, bittersweet coincidence, Old Grey curled up in the pasture the following day and peacefully died, probably not – but maybe on some level – knowing that she had

Our Current Duck Flock

completed her basic biological imperative to pass on her genes to a new generation. Four of those ducklings did turn out to be female and are now part of the flock!

At that point, though, our drake became too related to everyone else in the flock to breed from, so we are ordering some spring ducklings from Sand Hill Preservation Center to add new genetics to our operation.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,683 (140.25 dozen) chicken eggs; 593 (49.4 dozen) duck eggs; chicken meat about 100#; duck meat about 5#.

Other Homestead Projects

Packing Parsnips for the Root Cellar

The root cellar is up and running after about 7 years of intermittent work! This is a free-standing cellar since our house doesn’t have one. Lots of rock moving and masonry was involved, slow and heavy work. We also continued to expand the orchard and garden areas enough that I can order about 10 more trees for spring planting.

Looking Ahead

And now it’s time for me to do an inventory of our seeds and send in my order to Fedco, as well as orders for trees, bees, and ducklings. Now is also the season to find new and interesting ways to cook and bake all the food we have put up from this abundant year, and thus enjoy eating what’s still fresh and completely local. Watch for me to get back to the topic of food preservation in coming posts.

Happy 2020 – it’s a year of auspicious anniversaries including the 100th year of US Women’s Suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day… we’ll see what it brings for us all, on the homestead and beyond!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Chickens, Ducks, Gardens, Goats, Honey Bees, Permaculture principles, Poultry, Soil, Uncategorized, Weather