Blackberries bring back a lot of memories for me. My Grandma Newt used to take us to Aunt Jan’s house, usually because I begged and begged to go see her beautiful buckskin gelding “Buck”, and the best donkey in the world “George”. I always got to sit on Buck, my sister always managed to get George, a point that would be (and still is) brought up to me throughout the years. – I got the horse and my sister got the ass. There has to be a photo somewhere of an ecstatic me on Buck and a happy but slightly miffed Lauren atop of George. Both were calm elderly creatures that were treated like kings and we always brought them apples and carrots and plenty of scratches for their ears and backs. They were well loved and lived to very old ages, both being 36 years old or more before passing.
Aunt Jan also had an enormous back berry patch. I could not reach the top of canes, and they had to be about 4 feet thick. We’d pick a quart or two and want to go make jam with Newt (because she makes the best jam). But what happened inevitably every. single. time. was Newt would come out and see so many unpicked berries…the biggest best berries left behind for the birds, which was simply not allowed. There was a reason they were unpicked, these berries were about 3 feet back into the impenetrable bramble thicket and grandma wasn’t satisfied until we pressed back there and became human pin cushions. By this time my sister had retreated to George and Buck and I was left picking the damned berries. At least I got to munch them as I went along, which one day came to a screeching halt when I popped a berry into my mouth and felt something cling to my tongue, panicking spit everything out but the thing was still stuck there, by now I’m totally freaking out so gather up the balls and I reach in and pull out a japanese beetle. Blackberries weren’t the same for years after that.
Sometimes blackberries begin to ripen at uneven intervals and the easiest way to accumulate the quantities needed for large recipes is to freeze them as they come in, and it couldn’t be simpler.
How To Freeze Blackberries:
Dry them on a towel you wouldn’t mind getting stained
Spread them one layer thick on a cookie sheet, and freeze 4 hours or overnight
Place in a freezer safe container of your choice
To use them after they’ve been frozen, measure when they are still frozen then allow them to thaw. Drain excess liquid and use in the recipe as directed.
Rhubarb is a fantastic low maintenance perennial garden vegetable that comes back every year stronger and more productive than the last. Grown for its tart petioles (leafstalks), rhubarb is most commonly considered a fruit in the United States and is typically used in baking. Use it to stretch strawberry preserves, add a little zing to savory dishes as a sauce, make a satisfying cocktail, or just wash it off with the hose and eat it straight out of the garden. As kids my sister and I would routinely sneak stalks from our aunt Brenda’s rhubarb plant. We’d sprinkle them with salt, plop down on her back steps and munch. It wasn’t until recently that I had ever eaten cooked rhubarb in any form, I’d turn my nose up thinking it was something to be crunched raw. But I’ve fallen in love with the unique flavor it brings to almost everything, especially pies.
To give your plants a great start select a well drained location that is seldom disturbed in the garden for your rhubarb to live– the plants will be productive for 5 years or many more. Mounds or raised beds amended with compost make the ideal home for rhubarb. Plant crowns two inches below the soil, at least 3 feet apart, and mulch them with straw to keep the weeds down. Ample space is needed as the plants will get quite large when mature. The first year after planting you wont want to harvest any stalks, as tempting as it can be. You want the plant to focus on growing a strong root system, not growing stalks. In the second year harvest for only 1-2 weeks, when the plant is in its third year you can harvest for 8-10 weeks and this is considered a full harvest. Only harvest 1/3rd of the plant at a time, taking too much can cause the plant stress and it wont be as productive. By August you should be leaving the plant alone so it can send enough nutrients to the crown to prepare for the impending winter months. When harvesting pull stalks from the crown – don’t cut them off. This action helps to keep the plant productive and healthy. Remember to remove the leaves before consuming as they contain high levels of oxalic acid which is toxic to humans. After 5 years of full harvest you can dig up the crown and divide it into 4-6 pieces, so long as each piece has a strong bud. replant the cuttings to revive your patch or give them to friends to spread the rhubarb love. Rhubarb is a hardy perennial, and doesn’t require mulching or any other sort of babying to make it through our tough Michigan winters, which is great because we all have enough to deal with as it is.
Sometimes you may notice in the spring that your rhubarb is trying to flower, as soon as you see flower heads, cut them back to the crown. Again, you want the plant to focus on being vegetative and making leafstalks for you to eat, not reproducing. I highly suggest spending a little more money for a propagated variety (Canada Red for example), these plants are started from splitting a crown, rather than a cheaper plant that was started by seed. Rhubarb started by seed is prone to bolting, (or wanting to go to seed) as soon as conditions are right you will see them forcing up flower heads and you will have to continually battle for petiole production. Stress can also cause your rhubarb to flower. Planting crowns too close together so the plants have to compete for space can cause even a nice variety to want to go to seed. Weeds should be kept down around the plants with the use of straw or grass clipping mulch. Also all patches of wild curly dock need to be removed from the area, since they are in the rhubarb family and carry many of the same diseases that plague rhubarb.
Preserving the harvest:
Preparing your rhubarb harvest for for preservation is crazy easy, and it’s probably one of my favorite things about it, simply…
Rinse and chop into 1” pieces
Arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet
Freeze 4 hours or overnight
Remove from cookie sheet and dump into freezer safe container of your choice
To use after freezing:
Always measure for your recipe while the food is still frozen, then allow it to thaw to room temperature . Drain excess water then use in your recipe as directed. This little tip makes all the difference when cooking with frozen produce.
For hundreds of years people have been salting, curing, and smoking bacon to preserve it. In the days before the refrigerator nearly all meats were cured in some way shape or form and it was common for households to have their own smokehouse. These days with the convenience of grocery stores, the art of home charcuterie has gone by the wayside in favor of paper thin, limp, boring bacon. The good news is it’s making a comeback with folks who want to take control of their food, and it is way easier than you think! With a few basic ingredients and a pork belly you have the chance to experiment with flavors and bite into some of the most delicious bacon that has ever graced your plate.
If you don’t raise your own pork, call or stop by your favorite butcher shop and ask for a pork belly. You may find that you need to place an order, but a few days wait is a small price to pay. I recommend a 5 pound belly for your first try. While you are at your butcher, ask them if they sell Pink Curing Salt (Cure no. 1 is what you will need for this bacon) This is what cures the bacon and it is necessary to ensure the safety of your final product. Some butchers will sell it to you in a 4 oz package, which is more than enough to cure a 5 pound pork belly. If you cannot find Pink Curing Salt in a store, you can easily find it online in any quantity you desire.
Pink Curing Salt is tinted pink to avoid confusion with table salt (Do not confuse with Pink Himalayan salt!) It contains sodium nitrite and sodium chloride which staves off food-borne illnesses like botulism & listeria. -You’re probably thinking ”aren’t nitrates supposed to be bad for you?”. According to the FDA so long as they are used in the correct amounts these nitrates are proven to be safe. You also may be thinking: “Why can’t I do this without nitrates?”. The recipes that say they are nitrate free utilize celery juice in the curing process. (Those gray nitrate free hotdogs at the store look really yummy don’t they?!) Celery contains naturally occurring amounts of nitrates, so they aren’t really “nitrate free”. Secondly, the amount of nitrates in celery isn’t standard. The nitrate levels in one bunch of celery can be different from the next due a number of factors: where it was grown, the nutrient level of the soil etc. all effect the quantity of nitrates it contains. This variance in nitrate levels is why I value the consistency of commercially produced Curing Salts when curing meats safely for my family. Unfortunately botulism is a horrible thing that really does happen, and I take it seriously.
I’m really excited to share my recipe for homemade meat candy…um…I mean bacon with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do. I also hope you will discover a new hobby!
Maple Bacon Recipe:
The amounts of Salt, Sugar, and Curing Salt are absent since the amount of these ingredients varies depending on the actual weight of your pork belly. BEFORE BEGINNING to ensure accuracy I recommend weighing all ingredients. I got a digital scale from Amazon for a very reasonable price. Head on over to this fantastic cure calculator to convert your pork belly’s weight from pounds to grams then simply enter the new number in the cure calculator to get accurate weights for salt, sugar, and cure, then continue.
One pork belly (about 5 pounds)
In a small bowl combine the following:
2 Tablespoons Ground Black Pepper
2 ½ teaspoons paprika
Cure no. 1
Rinse the pork belly with cold water, pat dry. Rub the curing mixture over the entire surface of the pork belly.
Place the rubbed pork belly in a 2 gallon zip-lock bag, rest it on a rimmed cookie sheet and pop it in the refrigerator.
Once every day flip the bag of pork belly to rest on its other side and give it a good massage. Repeat this process for 7 days.
On day 8 remove the pork belly from the bag and rinse it off in cold water and pat dry. Place it on a rack on top of a cookie sheet to catch any possible drips and return it to the fridge, uncovered for another 24 hours.
Smoke the now cured pork belly (I like to use maple or apple wood) until an internal thermometer reading reaches 150 degrees (it takes about 2 -3 hours, check it frequently)
While the bacon is still warm from the smoker, sprinkle it with a very light dusting of maple sugar.
Allow the bacon to cool completely in the refrigerator before cutting. It makes it a lot easier to cut. Cut to preferred thickness by hand or with a meat slicer. Package in desired amounts, store in freezer for future use.