Food Preservation

Our First Goji Berry Harvest!

We planted four young Goji Berry plants this Spring on the farm. I intend to plant a lot more, but I wanted to test them out first. All four plants lived, but one of our Goji Berries was attacked by a Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata). I thought this was odd, because I thought Tomato Hornworms only eat tomatoes and peppers.

A few weeks later, the plants started to produce fruit. I was excited to finally eat a fresh berry. I had only ever eaten dried fruits. Well… it tastes kind of like a green pepper. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was not sweet at all. Our farm intern and I were talking about the flavor and then recollecting the Tomato Hornworm attack. I did a quick search, and sure enough, Goji Berries are related to tomatoes and peppers.

Goji Berry, also known as Wolfberry, are one of two closely related plants, Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense. These plants are in the Nightshade family (Solanaceae); I think I knew this fact at one time, but I entirely forgot it. But it was very interesting that with the caterpillar attack and the flavor of the fresh berry, we were able to place this plant into its botanical family.

I gave the fruit some more time to mature, and they did get a bit sweeter, but not much. I can see why no one sells the fresh berries. It’s not that they are not edible, but they are not that enjoyable. If I was very hungry, I could easily eat a few handfuls of fresh Goji Berries. But I wouldn’t seek them out.

There are a few named varieties of Goji Berry that have been developed, and they are reported to have a sweeter flavor when fresh. I will have to do some more research!

However, drying the fruit intensifies the sweetness. It changed the rather boring fresh fruit into a much sweeter, almost nutty, raisin flavor. They are quite good dried, and this is what I have done with all our Goji Berries this year.

Okay, so this is not a huge harvest, but it’s a start!

 

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American Mountain-Ash Berries

A few weeks ago we traveled to northeastern Vermont to visit family. This was an incredibly relaxing vacation for us. And I had the opportunity to finally try a fruit that I had only previously read about… berries from the American Mountain-Ash (Sorbus americana). This small tree is related to the European Mountain-Ash, and these trees are also commonly known as Rowan. I’ve written more about this genus in a previous article.

We happened to be in Vermont in the middle of September, and this appeared to be the peak time for Mountain-Ash berries this year. As we drove the small country roads and boated on the lake, I could see the clumps of bright red, almost glowing, berries growing on these small trees. I grabbed a bucket and some kitchen shears before we got on the boat one morning, and we found an overhanging tree covered in fruit.

Note that Mountain-Ash berries are not eaten fresh. They are very bitter and high in tanin, and they honestly do not taste very good. But birds love them fresh, and they serve as a great cold-season food for birds as the berries hang on the tree long into the Winter. I have found some reports that the fresh berries contain a substance (parasorbic acid) that is potentially nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys); however, this substance quickly breaks down into a harmless substance (sorbic acid) when the fruit is cooked or dried. The fruit was used by natives of North America as a medicine and food. Meat was dried and ground into a powder along with the dried berries and often mixed with other ingredients for a Winter or travelling food source that was high in protein and Vitamin C.

Excited to find some Mountain-Ash!

We had to harvest from the boat. The kids were excited to help… but quickly lost interest when they noticed the fish!

Mountain-Ash berries grow in large clumps which make harvesting pretty easy. I just clipped the clumps with some kitchen shears and tossed them into a bucket.

In about ten to fifteen minutes, we had a five-gallon bucket almost two-thirds full of loosely packed clumps of berries. Harvesting was significantly easier than cleaning. But cleaning was easy if not tedious. I spent a few hours sitting on the back deck pulling the stems off berries, tossing bad berries, and flicking off the variety of insects that make their home on the American Mountain-Ash. This was relaxing work, and my oldest son enjoyed helping out… volunteered on his own to help, even when I took some breaks!

My oldest son volunteered to help me sort and clean the berries.

Not a bad haul for 10-15 minutes of harvesting!

Mountain-Ash Berries!

There may be an easier way to really clean the berries, and I’ll share it if I find it. The berries had a lot of dust and debris on them even after the initial cleaning. I washed them all in the sink, draining them in a colander. I then took one cup at a time and tossed them in a bowl of clean water. Many of the bad berries and leaves and dried flowers floated to the top and could be easily picked out. This final cleaning took about another hour. I then spread all the berries in a thin layer on some kitchen towels on the counter to dry. The next morning, I packed all the berries into quart ziplock bags and ended up with about a gallon of berries. I packed these bags into my carry-on bag for the flight back home to East Tennessee. The TSA employees were just a little curious about what were in the the little ziplock bags!

We ended up with 4 quarts of berries.

Back in Tennessee, I decided to experiment with the berries in a variety of ways: mead, cordial, jam, and tincture. I’ll briefly describe the purpose and methods I used for each.

American Mountain-Ash Mead: Mead is a fermented honey drink also known as honey wine. When mixed with fruit, a mead is technically called a melomel. I used 3 pounds of a local honey (1 quart) for this 1-gallon batch of mead. This will give a nice medium-bodied mead. Less honey will be lighter and less sweet. More honey will be heavier, thicker, and more sweet. The Mountain-Ash berries are very high in tannin, and this adds a dryness to the wine, similar to a dry red wine such as a cabernet sauvignon. The fruit will also give additional and unique flavor to the mead. I boiled a half-gallon of water then stirred in the honey until it was all dissolved. I put the clean berries into a previously sterilized, 1-gallon glass jug, and I poured in the almost boiling honey water. I then filled the jug the rest of the way with just boiled water. I capped the jug with a rubber stopper (as seen in the photo below) and let the jug rest until the water cooled to about room temperature. I then pitched (poured in) the dried brewer’s yeast that I had in my garage. Ideally, I would have used a champagne yeast, but I didn’t have it on hand. I replaced the rubber stopper with a plastic airlock that allows the fermenting mead to release gas without allowing outside air, and contaminants, into the mead. The mead is bubbling away as I write this, and it will probably will do so for a few weeks before I transfer it to another jug to age.

Mountain-Ash Syrup: A syrup is basically any concentrated liquid (tea, juice, etc.) that is sweetened with sugar, honey, or any other sweetener. The purpose of a syrup can be for flavoring or medicinal. Often used as a way to make herbal teas or decoctions more palatable. There are number of medicinal uses for Mountain-Ash berries. Because they have a high Vitamin C content, they were traditionally used to prevent scurvy, especially considering that the berries stay on the tree long into the Winter. Mountain-Ash berries are very astringent (drying… due in large part to their high tannin content), and were also used for anything that involved swelling or irritation (upper respiratory infections and sore throats, diarrhea, boils, etc.). Additionally, it was commonly used as a “digestive” to aid or stimulate digestion. From a medical perspective, I believe that this probably helps increase gastrointestinal motility, but I have no evidence for this yet. However, because Mountain-Ash berries have also been used as a mild laxative, I believe this makes sense, at least theoretically. This syrup was pretty easy to make. I added about 1/2 cup of water to a quart of berries and simmered them until the berries were very soft, about 20-30 minutes. I used a potato masher and smashed all the berries. I poured this mashed fruit into a fine colander and let the juice drip out. I could have left it drain overnight in the refrigerator for a very clear juice, but I didn’t want to wait so I pressed the mashed fruit to quickly express as much juice as possible. This resulted in a cloudy juice. I heated this in a small, clean saucepan, and I added honey to this to make it quite sweet, but not overly so. I store this in the refrigerator, so I am not too concerned about spoilage. I will likely use this syrup as a flavored sweetener to a hot cup of tea this coming Winter. It has a very bitter flavor, but there is a nice, aromatic fruity flavor behind it. I enjoy a nice bitter drinks like a strong IPA beer or coffee, bitter greens like endive and radicchio, and semi-sweet foods like grapefruit and dark chocolate, so the bitterness in Mountain-Ash is rather nice, if not rather strong.

Mountain-Ash & Apple Jam: I have read that Mountain-Ash/Rowan berries pair well with sweet and tart fruits like apples and cranberries. Well, I didn’t have any cranberries on hand, so I used apples. This was a simple jam recipe. I used about 1 cup of table sugar, 1.5 quarts of Mountain-Ash berries, and 3 apples (I think… it may have been 4. They were Honey Crisp if I remember). I added all these together and simmered them for about 30-40 minutes. I let it cool just a bit, then I put the mixture into a blender and pureed it. Some people will use more sugar, but I didn’t want to mask the flavor of the berries. It has a similar but sweeter flavor to the syrup above, but be warned… it is very tart and bitter! Since I made just a small amount, I decided to store the jars in the refrigerator instead of doing a hot water bath.

Mountain-Ash Tincture: Tinctures are a medicinal product created by soaking a plant, mushroom, or animal product in alcohol. These are simple to make. I poured about a pint of berries into an old port bottle I found when I was living in Portugal. I topped the bottle off with Vodka. I will let this set for weeks to months. I have tested it after about a week, and it is strong stuff! Not just the Vodka… a lot of the tannins come through, at least so far. They may mellow a bit. One thing people may do to make tinctures more palatable is to add honey to the tincture. This would then be called an elixir. If the flavor doesn’t mellow, then I will probably be doing this.

 

From left to right: Mountain-Ash Mead, Mountain-Ash Syrup, Mountain-Ash and Apple Jam (three jars), and Mountain-Ash Tincture

 

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First Autumn Hard Freeze and Making Sauerkraut

Technically, a “hard freeze” is when there are at least 4 consecutive hours of temperatures below 25°F (-4°C). This is important to gardeners, because a hard freeze will kill most annual plants.

Autumn temperatures here in East Tennessee are not very predictable. We had a few mild frosts over the past couple of weeks, but no hard freezes. Then we had a forecast for temperatures dropping to 19°F (-7°C). I noticed this with only about 1 hour left of daylight.

So our current WOOFER (Jacob) and I went out to the garden with baskets and scissors and knives to harvest what we could before the cold could destroy it.

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Sunset and the hard freeze was fast approaching, and I just didn’t think about taking any photos of the garden before we started harvesting. In fact, this is the only photo I took while outside.

We have been at our farm for about 18 months, and we finally put in our first annual vegetable garden late this Summer. I say “we” very loosely, because although it was done with my guidance, almost all the work was done by one of our other WOOFERS, Marianne.

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We piled the harvest on the kitchen table.

 

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We had numerous varieties of cabbages we were testing.

Our hope is that this annual garden will be in place for many decades, maybe longer depending on how many generations use it. It was a project we wanted to get done last year, but so many things got us distracted. As with many things on a homestead and farm, late is better than never.

We finally got the garden in place, but it was just a bit later in the season than we were initially planning. The kale and Swiss chard did just fine, but our broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts did not have enough time to mature before our cold weather started slowing their growth. Our cabbages didn’t have enough time to develop a full head, but that’s okay… even a partially formed head of cabbage is still edible. It may not be great for long term storage, but it is plenty good enough to make sauerkraut!

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None of our broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts had a chance to mature due to late planting, but all the other plants did really well.

 

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We had some loss due to caterpillars, specifically the cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni), but this was pretty minimal.

 

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We also had a couple of varieties of kale and Swiss chard. We blanched and froze most of the chard and the Nero Di Toscana Cabbage (aka Tuscan/Lacinato/Dinosaur Kale). Here is my mom about to be buried in greens!

I’ve written about making sauerkraut in the past:
My First Attempt at Making Sauerkraut and My New Sauerkraut

Since these first attempts, I have made many batches of sauerkraut. Here is how I make it…

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We started with the entire plant. We separated the cabbage leaves from the main stem. We did not have any tight heads of cabbage. This was due to planting too late before cold weather set in. We removed the central vein from the large leaves (like the one pictured in the bottom right).

 

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We grew Tronchuda or Portuguese Kale (Couve Tonchuda). This kale was mixed with the outer, thicker leaves of the cabbage to make one batch of sauerkraut.

 

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We used a food processor with the slicer attachment to speed up the slicing! Here is a photo of another batch of sauerkraut using the inner cabbage leaves (what would have been the heads of cabbage).

 

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I used to measure my salt based on the amount of cabbage I used; however, now I just sprinkle a small amount of salt on the sliced cabbage as I go and adjust based on taste.

 

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After I sprinkle the salt, I then mix and squeeze the sliced cabbage until the juice is literally squeezed out of it. This is a third batch of sauerkraut made from only Hilton Chinese Cabbage, a Napa-type cabbage that grew great for us this year.

 

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The sliced, salted, and smashed cabbage is added to a crock. This sauerkraut is made with Aubervilliers Cabbage, Charleston Wakefield Cabbage, Glory of Enkhuizen Cabbage, and Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage.

 

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The cabbage is pushed down level and then covered with some whole cabbage leaves… remember to save these at the beginning!

 

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Cover the whole cabbage leaves with a plate or lid or, if you have it, a specifically made crock weight. This allows for even distribution of weight to push down/compress the sauerkraut.

 

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I use a gallon bag of water to weigh down the lid and sauerkraut. This weight pushes down the sauerkraut forcing the cabbage below the brine.

 

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The crocks of sauerkraut fermenting! I usually check the next morning to make sure the fluid has some bubbles in it… showing signs of fermentation. Then I let it rest for about 5 days before I start taste-testing it. Once it is as tangy as I like, then I will transfer the sauerkraut into mason jars and put them in the refrigerator. 

 

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