Zucchini Chips

Probably like you, I had an overabundance of zucchini this past summer, and I was on an endless quest to find different ways to cook the little (sometimes not so little) courgettes.

Zucchini gone wild

Uh-Oh. Big zucchini – BIG ZUCCHINI! This one was apparently hiding from me for a few days!

Zucchini muffins, zucchini bread, deep fried zucchini, roasted zucchini with parmesan, zucchini lasagna…

Yeah… you get the picture.

I actually read somewhere on a gardening blog that you should only plant ONE zucchini for every two people, lest you have too many to store.  I planted two.  I just couldn’t live without zucchini, and after I lost all my zucchini plants to squash mosaic virus a few years ago, I have planted at least two zucchini every year since then, one as a back-up for just in case.

Um-Hmm.  Then this happened…

homemade zucchini chips

The plants grew lush and full, and I was soon harvesting that many (above) zucchini almost every other day!  It reminded me of the great zucchini invasion of 2014…

too much zucchini

Then I saw a recipe for oven dehydrated zucchini chips.

“Seriously?” I said to myself, “is this the holy grail of good tasting, good for you snack foods?”

Almost.  On further reading, I saw that olive oil was involved.  Don’t get me wrong… I adore olive oil!  I just wanted to see if I could make a chip without oil and save a few calories.

If you know me, you know I absolutely adore experimenting in the kitchen, and my dear hubby is the best guinea pig ever!  So I dove in.

First, I used my handy-dandy mandolin to slice up the pretty green squash.  Easy enough.  Except, I will say, as my experiment with zucchini chips progressed, I found that the fresher the zucchini, the harder it was to get perfectly Sun Oven dehydrated zucchini chipseven slices.  The zucchini that had already spent a day in the refrigerator didn’t tend to crack or chip off as easily. Strange, but true.  However, you don’t want to wait more than a day or so from harvest to slicing, or the zucchini can get limp, and that makes slicing with a mandolin harder, if not dangerous!

I started out slicing the zucchini on the thin setting because I figured this would make the crunchiest chips. Well, at least I thought it would.

The sliced squash was laid in a single layer on parchment and sprinkled with my dry homemade taco seasoning (I got the recipe HERE), then placed into my SunOven.  I left the glass door of the Sun Oven slightly ajar so that the moisture could easily escape, and directed the oven just slightly off of direct sunlight.  Why?  I wanted to dehydrate the chips, not cook them!

Dehydrated zucchini chips

Zucchini chips just placed into the oven. You can see the temp gauge is right at 150, which is where it stayed most of the time.

They were done in about 2 hours, and they were good!  Not the best chip I had had in my life, but they were good and didn’t taste at all like zucchini.  The taco seasoning pretty much stuck to the chip, I assume because I sprinkled it on the chips as soon as I sliced them, so they were still pretty wet.  Aha!  See… no oil is needed!

Just a bit too thin. And the thinner they were, the faster they cooked…almost too fast!

But they were just too thin.  They were crunchy, but only the first bite into the chip was crunchy.  You see, first I got the crunch, but then I got a melt-in-your-mouth when you don’t really want melt-in-your-mouth kind of feeling. Harrumph! Besides, there was no way this chip would hold up to even the thinnest dip.

But the flavor was great!

One thing I noticed, also, was that the thinner chips dehydrated A LOT FASTER than the thicker chips.  Yeah, I know, Duh… but what I mean to say is that it dried exponentially faster!

So, I sliced some more zucchini on the medium setting this time, and with this batch I sprinkled on some Lawry’s Roasted Garlic Salt (my new favorite seasoning).

Yes, yes!  So Good!  Perfectly crunchy, and thick enough to use a light dip. And again…no oil!  I also tried a batch using just sea salt and then another batch with salt and black pepper.  Meh.  The truth is, the zucchini has such a mild flavor that you need stronger seasoning on the chips. So far, my favorite zucchini chip flavor is the Lawry’s Roasted Garlic Salt.

But, now I have a new quest… I need to find more flavors for my chips! I will spend some time this winter gathering recipes for chip flavors (please help), and then experiment again next summer when I have another over-abundance of zucchini. No oil zucchini chips

I would like to find a recipe for a homemade dry powdered ranch dressing mix to try as a flavoring for these chips.  I saw a recipe for this a few years ago, using powdered milk and other spices, but alas I did not save it and can’t find it anymore.

Sea salt and black pepper chips.

I wonder if it’s possible to make a nacho chip with homemade ingredients, or even sour cream and onion? Maybe barbeque? Perhaps you have a good homemade recipe for one of these flavors or maybe you have another suggestion?

 

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Strawberries Gone Wild!

I love strawberries and would eat them every day if I could.  Alas, strawberries are at the top of the list of the “Dirty Dozen”, and so I try not to buy any that aren’t labeled as organic, which means they are usually more expensive. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that I grow my own!

When I was a child living at home, my father always grew strawberries in our backyard… way, way back in the backyard.  I would help him pull weeds and trap slugs, but generally, strawberry growing was his hobby.  Now that I look back, I realize it was the solitude he enjoyed while gardening, and I must have been quite the pest!  My poor father was truly drowning in estrogen, having three daughters and no sons, and I am sure he enjoyed his quiet time away from his three incessantly chatty daughters!  😉

Mouse trap for organic pest control

Everyone likes strawberries… unfortunately!

The first year growing strawberries up here on our homestead, the harvest was just okay. Between the birds, the banana slugs, voles and the mice, we had a hard time getting any of the harvest for ourselves! And, since we didn’t actually live here yet, we had to rely on some automatic sprinklers to water the berry plants, and unfortunately no all the plants got the water they needed.  We planted Ozark Beauty and Quinault Strawberries, because those were the two varieties we found at our local nursery. That winter I covered the bed with a thick mulch of pine needles and oak leaves.  It worked and the strawberries came back thicker than they had been the previous year. But again, we had problems with critters.

Last spring I added some Seascape strawberries from The Sustainable Seed Co., along with the Ozark and Ouilette strawberries, to a new, raised bed.  I have been extremely happy with this “new-to-me” variety.  The Seascapes are fairly large with a very sweet flavor, and produce a fairly heavy crop in the late summer.

Nice!

This past winter, instead of applying the pine needle and oak leaf mulch, I used a frost blanket over the raised strawberry bed.

When I pulled it off this late winter, I was surprised to see some new growth already! Although the pine needle and oak leaf mulch had worked well, I was worried that so much organic matter might be harboring some pests, like the huge banana slugs that we encounter up here from time to time.  Well, the frost blanket actually did a better job, and I was able to check under it on warm winter days to see if there were any critters under there.  Since it kept the strawberry plants frost free and it was easy to lift the blanket to check for slugs, this is something I will certainly use from now on.

Even though I had been cutting off a lot of the “runners” so that I would have larger plants (and more strawberries) in the long-run, the plants continued to put out the runners, even in the fall.  And run they did, everywhere, apparently even during the winter under the blanket!

Strawberries gone wild!

After taking off the blanket off this spring, I saw that I needed to thin out a lot of the plants within the bed and also alongside the bed. In fact, some of the strawberries tried to set roots into our log retaining wall!

Silly plants!

So, here we were with quite a few “extra” strawberry plants.  Since I don’t have my permanent beds made yet, I had to find places to tuck the new plants. Once the permanent beds are done (another year away) I will be able to re-home these new plants into their forever beds.  And by that time, the original strawberry plants will be past their prime.  Strawberries produce best during their second year, and then usually decline in production after that.  But the runners are their way of renewing and giving us new plants.

Isn’t nature cool?

To keep out the birds, Ray built this great bird netting structure for me.  When I need to harvest the berries, all I have to do is throw the netting up over the structure to get into the bed.  It works really well.  Also, having the bed raised seems to deter at least some of the banana slugs.

We have been reading lots of books and have attended a few seminars on companion planting and land use, and realized that some of the new strawberry plants would be perfect in the pepper bed, because not only do the strawberry and pepper plants “like” each other, the large strawberry leaves would shade the soil around the pepper plants, keeping the soil a bit cooler and helping to reserve water.

I also have had a cute terracotta strawberry pot that we brought up from our previous home in the valley.  I had planted this with herbs years ago and it didn’t work very well.  So, since I had so many new plants, I decided to try the pot again.  So far, so good!

What have I done with all my strawberries?

Well, my dear husband and I just adore sliced strawberries with cottage cheese for an evening dessert.  It tastes like strawberry ice cream!

I also wanted to try out my Sun Oven as a dehydrator, and thought I would try out a batch of strawberry fruit leather.

First I washed and hulled the strawberries, then whirled them up in my little blender.

Next, I added some of our delicious honey, about 2 tablespoons, and set the pot on the stove to simmer.  The strawberry/honey pulp simmered for about 20 minutes and reduced in volume by about half.  Now the pulp was a bit thicker and didn’t spread so easily.

I placed some parchment paper on my cookie sheet and poured the pulp on.  Perfect.

Unfortunately, while carrying the pan to the Sun Oven, it tipped a bit and the pulp spread out a little more than I had planned, but I went ahead with the process anyway.

The Sun Oven worked great!  With the glass door propped open, it stayed at about 200 degrees, which was perfect!  Once I could lightly press my finger into the top of the thickest part of the pulp and nothing smooshed out, I knew the pulp was now fruit leather. You can also see that the fruit surface looks like leather!

I placed the pan inside on the table so the leather could cool down, and once it was cool, I used scissors to cut the leather into strips.  Don’t take off the parchment paper!   Now that the strips were cut, I was able to roll each one up, and then place into a glass mason jar for storage.  

That’s it!  Easy, peasy!  Nature’s candy!

Next week I am going to make some peach leather from my oldest son’s peaches.  Can you believe he already has ripe peaches?

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Planning for Canning

One of the wonderful surprises I have had over the last few years pressure canning meat, fish and poultry, has been the convenience of using these foods when preparing breakfast, lunch or dinner.  At first I was nervous using a pressure canner, as we have all heard the stories about how they blew apart from too much pressure during grandma’s days.  I was also frightened that I would kill my family with the deadly botulism malady.

I am glad to report that I just don’t worry about those problems anymore.  I am very careful to follow each recipe from a reputable source exactly as written, I have become more familiar with my pressure canner, and follow every food precaution known with regard to cleanliness, temperature and cross contamination.

Because of this, I have been canning a lot of salmon, chicken and beef.  I bought a kindle book about canning beef called (of course) “I Can Can Beef”, written by Jennifer Shambrook, Ph.D. Her instructions are simple and direct and follow the Ball Canning Book almost exactly.  But the book goes much further into the subject, in that she lists quite a few recipes just for the canned meat.  I was so impressed with this book that I bought her other books, “I Can Can Chicken”, “I Can Can Beans” and “I Can Can Ground Beef”.

Pressure canned beefWhen I found Zaycon, the company from which I buy all my bacon, chicken and ground beef, I found that canning the meat was a very easy and convenient way to prepare what I had purchased.  Once the jars had been processed and the seals confirmed, I had shelf stable protein that did not need refrigeration or freezing!  Living off grid, this is a very important feature, as refrigerator and/or freezer space is oftentimes limited. If you haven’t heard about Zaycon, click on the Zaycon button on my sidebar!  If you order from them, I will receive a small “finder’s fee”, which will not increase your cost in any way.  It’s their way of saying “thank you” to me for spreading the word about their wonderful company.

You can see in the picture below some of the items I canned this past year on my working pantry shelf, which used to be the bottom bunk bed in our travel trailer.  I store the bulk of my canned goods in our cargo container, and go “shopping” there when I need to replenish the working pantry in my trailer.  As we build our new home and live part-time in the trailer, this is where I do most of our cooking.My Canning Pantry

Yes, I know.  As much as I talk about a self-sufficient lifestyle, I do have some store bought items on the shelf, also.  Guilty  😉

However, if anyone can find me a copy-cat recipe for Rice-A-Roni pilaf that actually tastes like the original… Please Share!  We love this as a side dish, but even better love adding the prepared mix to our chicken soup!  I also like making my own pasta, but unfortunately I don’t have enough space in my tiny RV kitchen to make batches of pasta, nor do I have the time while we are busy building our new home.

What I have found is that one pound of browned ground beef fills one pint jar, hence one 10 pound portion of ground beef will fill ten pint jars of processed ground beef, so one order of Zaycon ground beef (each order is 40 pounds) will fill 40 pint jars.  Since we use, on average, two pint jars of ground beef a week, one order will last us about 20 weeks. So, it would follow that if I want to can enough ground beef for a whole year, I would need about 2-1/2 to 3 full orders of ground beef from Zaycon.  Hmmm….  that probably won’t work for me right now.  First – I don’t have enough room in my small RV refrigerator to keep the second and third order of ground beef cold while I process the first batch. Second – My All American pressure canner holds only 19 pint jars at a time, so it would take two full batches in my canner to process almost the ground beef.  Since it takes at least 5 or 6 hours to heat, process and cool down my canner for each batch, it would take two days to get three batches of canning done. Whew! That would be a lot of work! However, I could process 38 pounds in one day – two full batches or one order of Zaycon ground beef – and that would almost get us through about half a year.

The same goes for the chicken.  Zaycon sells their chicken breast in 40 pound lots.  I usually can the chicken breast in chunks either by itself in pint jars, or with onions, celery, carrots and broth for a home-made chicken soup, in quart jars.  The chicken breast can be used in lots of Canned Chickendifferent recipes including stir fry, chicken enchiladas, Pad Thai, etc.  To the chicken soup I add noodles or the aforementioned Rice-A-Roni.  Seriously, if you know of a good copy-cat Rice-A-Roni pilaff recipe – Please let me know and I will be ever so grateful!  Ten pounds of chicken breast, cut into 1 x 1 inch chunks – raw pack – will make about 12 pint jars. When making soup, I don’t pack as much chicken into the quart jars so that there will be enough broth to cook the pasta or rice or other fresh vegetables when I am serving it, so ten pounds of chicken will usually make about 16 quart jars of soup for me.  We go through an average of 1 pint of chunk chicken and 1 quart of the chicken soup per week, so one 40 pound order of chicken breast works out to about 30 pints of chunk chicken and 20 quarts of soup per order.

As spring is quickly approaching I am starting to plan my vegetable garden, with an eye toward canning and/or freezing the produce to last at least one year.  That is my goal right now – one year.  I have read that one should actually have enough for two years, just in case of crop failure, or other disaster, but right now that would be just too overwhelming for me.  This has been quite a challenge for me, and I am still learning what works for me and what doesn’t. The problem is that I have to improve my gardening skills before I can be sure I will have enough food for a year.  😉

Last year I planted Kentucky Wonder beans and they did an amazing job.  Not only did we eat fresh green beans twice a week for a few months – July, August and September – I was also able to preserve 24 pint jars of green beans.  But it wasn’t enough.  I am already down to my last several jars of green beans and we still have at least three months before I can expect to get more from my garden.  So, I will have to plant more beans this year.

Bald faced hornets in my beans

I have trellised the bean plants to make it easier to reach the beans. So much easier (and safer) than a ladder.  Though these beans produced very well, I want more!

How many more?  Well, I figure if I want to have 3 dozen jars of beans, which would give us one jar per week during the non-producing months, I would have to plant half again as many beans as I did last year.  But if I wanted to have 4 dozen jars, I would need twice as many plants.  Therefore, I am going to plant twice as many plants because we really love

green beans pressure canned

I like to raw pack my green beans when I pressure can – it is so much easier and the final product isn’t much different that hot pack!

green beans.  We eat them plain as a side dish, cold in salads, thrown into stews and buried in casseroles.  In our family, the more the better!  Last year I planted cucumbers among the green beans, as well as the Chinese Red Noodle Beans.  While I love pickles, and the noodle beans were a fun experiment, I am going to use the entire side of the raised bed for green beans this year.

My black beans also did fairly well.  Out of the 9 plants that I had, I got about a quart of dried black beans.  The black beans shared the raised bed with the green beans, cucumbers and noodle beans, but were planted on the opposite side, which seemed to work well.  The black beans were a bush bean and didn’t interfere with the vining green beans.  The book “I Can Can Beef”, explains how you can fill up you canner with simple jars of either plain or chili beans.  Say, for example, you are canning 10 pints of ground beef.  My pressure canner holds 17 pints, so I have room for another 7 pints.  Why not fill those 7 pints with beans, which only takes minutes to do.  You will spend the same amount of energy processing the canner but have seven jars of delicious beans to add to your pantry!  I processed my black beans and got 9 pints of beans.  We need more than that, so I will also double the amount of black bean plants this year. Maybe triple!

These are the black turtle beans I grew last year. These are very tasty, can well, and as a bush bean doesn’t take too much real estate in the garden, but is well worth the effort.

My other garden vegetables I plan to grow and can include potatoes, carrots, beets and chili peppers.  You can see on the picture of my working pantry that I have four small jars of chopped peppers.  These worked out great when making chicken enchiladas, chili beans, meatloaf, etc., but sadly, those didn’t last long at all!

canned chili peppers

My fire roasted diced and canned chili peppers

The small size of the jars was perfect for adding to recipes, however, so I will continue canning peppers in that size, it’s just that I didn’t have enough. We had six Anaheim Chile plants last year.  Along with eating them fresh (mmmmmm… BBQ pepper poppers!) I want to have at least two dozen of these small jars for next year, so I will need to plant at least 12 Anaheim Chili plants this next year.  We also had two Ancho Poblano peppers that didn’t produce very well.  I wanted the Ancho Poblano because they would be great for Chili Relleno, but alas the plants just didn’t do as well as I had hoped.  So this year I will grow only Anaheim Chiles as my hot pepper.

My carrots?  They didn’t do well.  I ended up with little three inch long bunches of carrot flavored fuzzy roots.  I’m not sure what I did wrong, but I need to improve my carrot growing skills because I want to be able to can carrots also.  Not sure what happened to my potatoes this year, but they also suffered.  Alas, there is always another year!  🙂

These are the cherry tomatoes that I grew last summer. They were oh so good!

And the tomatoes?  I need more tomatoes.  The canning type to make sauces, pastes and chopped tomatoes.  Last year I grew both cherry tomatoes and paste tomatoes.  We ate the cherry tomatoes fresh and I canned the paste tomatoes.  I had two paste tomato plants and that wasn’t near enough to supply my pantry shelf.  This year I am going to grow two cherry tomatoes for fresh eating and probably a dozen paste tomato plants.  I will have to keep some space in my freezer for the tomatoes, because I like to throw them in a bag I have in the freezer and then process the tomatoes into sauce in one large batch, rather than several smaller batches. You can see that process HERE.  I haven’t tried making my own ketchup yet, but if I have enough tomatoes this year, making ketchup will be one of my new experiments.

It will be interesting to see how these changes in my garden will effect my canning this year.  Until we are able to move into our new home, canning will have to continue being done on my outdoor propane burner.  This presents a challenge, sometimes, because I have to plan my canning days around windy days, which can effect the flame of the outdoor burner, and therefore the canning process.

So, here’s to a new season of gardening, harvesting, canning and learning.  I hope my pantry will be still overflowing at this time next year.

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My New Elderberry Plants

Elderberry syrup, Elderflower pancakes, Elderberry wine…

Do I sound like Forrest Gump – “fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, shrimp fricassee…”?

A couple of years ago Ray and I attended a class on making medicinal tinctures; one of them being an elderberry syrup/tonic.  Since then, I have been wanting to have my own Elderberry plants. Elderberries have become very popular lately as they are one of those “superfoods” that contain anti-oxidants, flavinoids, vitamins and minerals.  And they taste good, too! The berries can be purchased online, but they can be a bit pricey!

Elderberries

This is one of our local “native” elderberry plants. There are quite a few of these bushes along the road we travel to get to our favorite fishing lake. It is just loaded with elderberries!

After learning all about elderberries and where they grow, we discovered that native elderberries grow all around us!  In fact, last year snapped off a sprig of a native bush and tried to get it to root.  It didn’t.  I think I got the sprig at the wrong time of year.  🙁

Since we really wanted some of our own Elderberry bushes and my expertise at rooting woody stemmed plants is obviously lacking, I purchased some Elderberry plants online from Stark Bros. Nursery.  We bought two varieties – York and Nova – for better cross pollination. The plants themselves were cheaper to buy than a couple of pounds of dried elderberries purchased online, so this was one of those “no brainer” purchases!  I still want to try getting a sprig of the local native elderberries to root, but I need to do some more research on how to do this before I try again.

When the box arrived from Stark Bros., I was quite impressed with the size of my new plants.  The stalks were ¾ to an inch wide at the base!  Unfortunately, it was evident that the delivery service may have been just a bit rough with the package, as several new, tender shoots had broken off the main plant.

Hmmm…  I thought.  What if I stick these new shoots in soil?  Since I had some pots and potting mix on hand, I stuck the shoots into the moist soil and waited.

It didn’t take long!  Two of the three shoots rooted, so hallaleuja, I now have four plants!  I still want some of the wild ones, though.  After all, variety is the spice of life!

growing elderberries

These elderberry plants are just gorgeous when they bloom!

We planted the Elderberries where they get strong morning sun but dappled shade in the afternoon, and all four of them grew very well.  The two mother plants soon had beautiful white blossoms.  The blossoms had a faint sweet smell and attracted quite a few different pollinators.

growing elderberry plants

You can see that the beautiful white blossoms fall off as the berries start to develop.

The berries came soon after.  I had about six fairly large clumps of berries on each plant and by September the berries got heavy enough that the plant stems started drooping.  Because of that, and because of the amount of deer mice, rabbits, wood rats, moles, voles and bears (oh my) we have on our property, I figured I had better pick the berries as soon as they looked ripe, which meant that I picked only two or three berry clusters at a time.

When I saw that my berries were ripening, I figured I had better start doing some research to help decide what I will do with them. First I found this post about making Elderberry Tincture, which is what made me want the elderberry plants in the first place, and this post on how to make Elderberry Wine, and this recipe making Elderberry Syrup!

What did I do with the berries?

Since I didn’t have a whole lot of them, (they are very young plants) I decided to dehydrate most of them to use at a later date.  It took only half a day to dehydrate the first and second batches of elderberries.

elderberry dehydrating

Dehydrating my first batch of elderberries. It doesn’t take long!

It was funny how much the berries shrank!  Holy cow, I started out with about 2 cups of berries and ended up with less than one half cup!  But, I am sure when they are reconstituted, they will taste just as lovely.  Or perhaps I will just include them in a granola bar recipe I’ve been wanting to try.  The seeds inside the berries make them crunchy, which is great!

Maybe I will throw a handful of the dehydrated berries into yogurt! Hmmm… elderberry ice cream?

I am waiting for the day we will have enough elderberries to make a batch of elderberry wine, but of course, I will need a lot more elderberries to do that.  (Sigh)

My second harvest of elderberries. I know it doesn't look like much, but remember, we just got the plants this year!

My second harvest of elderberries. I know it doesn’t look like much, but remember, we just got the plants this year!

Today I harvested the last few bunches of elderberries and made a small coffee cake.  Of course, I cooked it in my Sun Oven!

elderberry coffeecake

Elderberry coffee cake, cooking in my Sun Oven! With some of our own bee’s honey slathered on top, it was absolutely delicious!

It was delicious.  The berries are reminiscent of blueberries, but the small seeds inside give just a little bit of crunch!  It’s wonderful!

elderberry drying

Haha – this is my little pint jar of dehydrated elderberries! Who knew they would shrink up so small!

So, that was the extent of our elderberry harvest this year.  Since I didn’t get much in terms of dehydrated berries, I will probably hoard them over the winter.  Now I understand why the dehydrated berries cost so much!

However, with my four plants and with hopes of being able to root some native elderberry plants, I am sure to have an adequate amount of elderberries in the future!

Do you grow elderberries? Do you cook with elderberries?  Do you have a favorite recipe for a medicinal tonic using elderberries?  I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below!

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