January 29, 2022

January cold snap, three jars didn't seal

 We're coming to the end of a most unusual January for us, weather-wise. Our local weather guru maintains a fact-filled website that I frequently consult. According to years worth of data, our average January temps hover at 30F. We won't hit the mark for 2022. It's been cold. Our high today was 22F. It's still much, much, much better than January of 1994 when we saw a record low of -21F. 

Yes, I'm ready for our traditional January thaw, even if it's not arriving until February. 

My project of the day was canning another batch of chicken along with four pints of stew beef chunks. I have a Presto 23-quart canner that will process eighteen pints at once so I planned accordingly. I also FORGOT to get a picture, so I dipped into the files for an old one of Chicken Under Glass, as we refer to it. 

All four pints of beef sealed, as did eleven of the chicken. Three jars did not seal, and those jars had Harvest Gold lids. Was it because of that brand lid? Three other jars with the HG lids sealed just fine. I can't say I've had any trouble with HG lids, so did it have something to do with the cold weather? It's something I'll keep an eye on and track. 

Those three jars were not lost. I let one of them cool and set it in the fridge to chill and I'll make a batch of chicken salad for our lunches this coming week. The other two jars went into filling for baked chicken pies. I made two pies and we had one for dinner. The other is in the freezer for another meal down the road. The remaining filling has been bagged, labeled, and frozen for use over toast or biscuits before winter is over. A failed seal rarely means lost food. Sure, I had to toss today's menu out the window, but not any food. It's all good. 

But I am going to research the temperature thing because you never know. If it possibly can have an effect on the jars sealing, I'll avoid canning when it's this cold. It's just one more thing to learn on this journey. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)

January 18, 2022

Love, love, love lemons!

The spousal unit does not share my love of lemons. I can get away with adding a bit of lemon to different dishes, but there is a dearth of lovely lemon goodies in the freezer.  

No lemon cookies, no lemon cake, no lemon muffins, no lemon curd for scones, no lemon lush for dessert. It's a sad thing. 

But there is hope! I bought a cheap bag of lemons and ran them through the freeze dryer

It was a simple exercise. I sliced the lemons on the mandolin, saving the odd end peels for zest. The run took about seventeen hours, and I put the lemons in two quart jars and vacuumed sealed them, one with an oxygen absorber for longer storage, and one without for more immediate use. The odd peels are vacuumed sealed in a pint jar at the moment. Come the weekend, and daylight, I'll run them the chopper to make zest and put that in an even smaller jar to use. 

This coming summer, I'll have lemon slices to add to water along with a slice of ginger and a spring of mint for a very refreshing summer treat. Planning ahead and having those things you frequently use on hand in the panty is the whole point behind all my "prepping." What I didn't know is that it would end up being such fun!

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)

January 16, 2022

Leftover soup? Freeze dried it!

Have you noticed how people love to spout statistics at you like you're to blame for whatever it is they're talking about? Me, too. And this is NOT that. It's about not wasting the grocery budget, not feeding the world on the 20% of food gone bad the average household tosses out each year. 

The food that goes bad in my fridge will not feed the world. It won't feed anyone, especially me because that fuzzy stuff growing on it is a deal-breaker, in my opinion. 

But, I digress...

Several years ago the spousal unit and I pledged to make a concerted and serious effort to plan our meals in such a way that we didn't throw as much food on the compost pile. We eased into it by deliberating cooking more to make enough for two meals and then freezing one. That will always work for us, but there are some things that do not freeze well, such as bean soup. Bean soup turns to mush when thawed. 

Now the question is will it be mush when reconstituted after being freeze-dried? It may be a while before we find out. As this was leftover bean soup, it was perfect for the experiment to find out. 

Along with the bean soup, I did several trays of eggs. My complaint about the eggs is that the Mylar bags that came with the Harvest Right freeze dryer are large enough to hold two dozen freeze-dried eggs. I need to get smaller bags as there are only two of us in the household. It will be a while until we dip into that pouch, and I think the solution will be to transfer the eggs to a Mason jar once the bag is opened. I can then vacuum seal the jar. 

We have a new "normal" when it comes to the foods available to us. The grocery stores, even Walmart's grocery, now lack the variety we've become accustomed to. We'll be fine because we have a new way of thinking, and more importantly acting on the steps necessary to have food security. 

I never thought there would come a day when I worried not about being able to purchase food items, but actually finding food items to purchase. It's been a sobering two years. 

We remain thankful for the position we're in. We've worked hard all our lives, worked hard to live debt-free, and we can do things like purchase a freeze dryer and work to secure our future. 

Nothing is ever easy, nor is it free. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)

January 9, 2022

Seven jars, seven seals, seven meals

I'm calling it a success - seven jars, seven seals, seven meals. The first canning project of 2022 is complete. 

Last January, I canned vegetable soup and we opened the last jar back in mid-December. In 2021, I followed the Ball Book closely, but this year I went just a tad rogue. I had several small baggies of leftover veggies in the freezer and those, along with a small baggie of frozen diced potatoes, were added to the mix. That's really not much of a transgression. Because I add small bits of beef to my vegetable soup, the quarts have to process for ninety minutes. Beef and potatoes both require the ninety-minute process time so it's all good. 

We're in the waiting phase now. Tomorrow morning I'll wash the jars, test the seals, and put the jars on the shelf. It may seem strange, but if a jar would happen to not seal, or come unsealed, you have twenty-four hours before you need to throw the food out. So in the morning if a jar has unsealed, guess what we're having for dinner? Just put the jar in the fridge and reheat it when we're ready. But I don't think there will be any problems. Each jar was bubbling when I pulled them out of the canner and each jar sealed almost as I set it on the counter. There was no siphoning, either. 

Canning is both time-consuming and labor-intensive. I don't try to rush through any of it, so from start to finish, this project took five hours. This was the first time I used the weighted gauge "jiggler," which did seem easier than relying on the pressure gauge. The pressure gauge still worked so I was able to determine that the jiggler kept the internal pressure level at ten psi without any intervention from me. I brought the water to almost boiling, put the lid on the canner, and set my stove to where experience has taught me is the "sweet spot" for pressure canning. I allowed the canner to vent a steady stream of steam for the required ten minutes and set the jiggler in place. I watched for the jiggler to start jiggling, which coincided with the pressure gauge reading ten psi. I then set the timer for ninety minutes, and simply monitored all was proceeding as it should. 

My only concern was the amount of steam the jiggler allows to escape to regulate the pressure. My canner calls for three quarts of water to be used to process under pressure. I paid a fair amount for the canner, a Presto 23 QT, and I did not want to run it dry. I didn't need to worry. Several inches of water remained when the batch finished. 

I doubt I'll ever stop learning about home food preservation. Methods are improved and new products make the process easier. It may not appeal to everyone, but for me, it's a simple country pleasure that reminds me of my roots. And I like that. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)

January 8, 2022

Harvest Right Freeze Dryer - up and running

Good idea? Bad idea? 

Money well spent? Waste of money? 

For better or for foolishness, our Harvest Right freeze dryer has arrived and is set up in my basement laundry room. This is not where it's going to live on a permanent basis. It's going on a sturdy cart fitted with an extra piece of countertop from the outdoor kitchen project. I need my counter space for folding clean clothes. 

We got the medium-sized unit and as the photo attests, it's still rather large and takes up a fair amount of space. It was simple to set up and get running - a real relief since I was on my own to do it. Cousin Dave helped get it into the house, but I needed to read the manual before I hooked it up. The manual is clearly written, and it helped to watch the YouTube video produced by Harvest Right. 

Our system has the Premiere pump, and it does run quietly. We can't hear it run and the master bedroom is directly above the laundry room. Not a problem.

So far I've only done small batches of fruit, but I'm pretty comfortable with the machine and feel ready to move on to bigger projects. Nothing I'm doing to learn the operation of the unit will be a financial loss if I mess it up. I'm excited to move on to meal projects, concentrating on those things that can't be pressure canned such as pasta and rice meals. 

Will the machine actually ever pay for itself? I'm not sure. We'll have to do a lot of freeze-drying to recoup $3,000. Is recouping the money the goal? Not really. I think the real benefit of the freeze dryer will be in the convenience of having different foods safely stored and at my fingertips. 

We've all experienced issues caused by the breakdown of our supply chain. Twice now our local grocery has not had milk. I have powdered milk in the pantry, but along with the store not having milk, there was no cream or half-and-half for our coffee. If I can freeze dry half-and-half so that all we need do is drop a pellet into our cup, that would be good. 

There are more than supply chain issues to consider. At this point in time, we have enough income to keep up with inflation. That could change at any moment. Having food stores on hand could make the difference between eating and not eating. It's something we worry about as we get older. What if we can't get to a store? Getting older is all about new worries and taking steps to avoid issues. 

Some of the fruits I've processed are strawberries, mango, raspberries, and dark cherries. That freed up freezer space for two half-gallons of milk. Tomorrow's project is freeze-drying bananas and apples and possibly trying a small amount of half-and-half. I have silicone molds that look to be a good size for creamer pellets. It should be interesting. I'll keep you posted.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)

January 7, 2022

Right on time in 2022

Living rural as we do, my family is comprised of weather watchers. We watch for trends and cycles, and we know that the first week of January is typically when we get our first measurable snow. Right on time, Mother Nature brought us a bit over six inches. 

The official forecast was for one to three inches, but this weather front was tracking in from the southwest, turning north along the Blue Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. The spousal unit and I figured it would be more than three, but we didn't think it would be almost seven inches.

Everywhere I look the world is white and beautiful. Before long, when the sun rises above the mountain, it's going to be dazzling. That may not be such a pleasing thing when I go out and hop on the John Deere 1023 to clear the lane. The wind is picking up, too, and this snow is very powdery. It's blowing off the trees in whirls of mini-blizzards.

I hear people bitch about snow, how they hate it. They fail to see it as a simple country pleasure. A woman I've known since I was eight years old moved to Florida ostensibly to get away from winter weather and snow. It's a lame excuse. You can run from geography but not yourself. I have a different take on the "barrenness" of winter.

Looking out the windows of my sunroom office, I see the green of many holly trees and the neighbor's pines. The trees stand straight and tall, not slumbering, but preparing. The blanket of snow hides what is happening with the daffodil bulbs and its chill tells the bulbs to get ready. It has brought needed nitrogen which will melt into the soil to feed green growing things. The air has been cleansed of dust and allergens and smells clean. High up in the trees, the squirrel nests are full of little furry bodies that will emerge with the sunshine and race about on those branches cleared by the wind. The snow on the roof will melt and fill my cistern which will in turn water my summer garden. I could mention all the birds, but we have a red-tailed hawk in residence and the little birds, wisely, have mostly abandoned us - for now.

No, I don't mind winter or the snow.  Snow is the first harbinger of the coming spring, an early emissary we fail to acknowledge as such. I see its promise all around me, a promise it keeps every year. I can't imagine not being here on the manor to accept that promise and reap its rewards. And so I am grateful for the snow. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)

January 2, 2022

What's next? Do I have a plan for 2022?

stock photo

This time of the year just about everywhere one goes on the web you can find a recap of the year just past and "resolutions" for the year so recently begun. 

I typed that sentence and sighed. Surely that means something. 

I'm not in a good place about the year just past. I turned in my letter of resignation and then allowed myself to be talked into staying on with several concessions. It's my own fault. Now I'm dealing with an unhealthy attitude about what has been a rather good job, one with an excellent pension plan and health plan. Nevertheless, my official contract expired on December 31, 2021, and hell will freeze over before I sign a new partial year contract. In fact, with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 wreaking havoc in my community, I may be exercising a few of those concessions starting Tuesday. 

Now is the time to consider the plan for 2022. 

IS there a plan?

There is a plan. I will be eligible for Medicare and that is the only remaining hurdle to jump to retire. The cost of health insurance was the determining factor for continuing to work. Retirement will happen.

I have seeds purchased and have the calendar posted as to when I need to plant them according to variety. The garden corral worked great last summer and I learned a great deal. 

The spousal unit is researching small vans to serve the dual purposes of transportation for him and the ability for us to do some overnight trips, stealth camping if necessary. I hope to record some videos of our "adventures" and post them on YouTube. 

My three-tiered pantry is up and running. The last item to cross off the list was the purchase of a HarvestRight freeze-dryer. Once retired, I'll have the time to do some serious meal preservation. We'll eat well on our sojourns in the van.  

I've been a published author for twenty years and I will continue to write. At what level I'm not sure. My focus has been on prepping for retirement and the future. Once I'm settled in, I hope the joy of writing returns. The hot summer afternoons will be the best time to hole up in my office and compose prose. 

And then there are those individuals I want to reconnect with. Working for a living pulled us in different directions. I take some of the responsibility for not calling them, but the phone works both ways. I plan to reach out and see what happens. 

Those are my plans not only for 2022, but for a few years to come. I realize I have a big life change ahead and I'll give myself a little wiggle room on how fast I hop on the phone or on my computer. I think the first thing I need to do is RELAX. I'll have to learn how to do that because I'm not sure it's a skill I possess. 

So there it is in black and white. I've written it out for the world to see. There's no going back on it. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)