A Hard Nut To Crack

As I talked about in the post last week, black walnuts are in season and abundant this year!   At our last home, we had access to just a few black walnut trees on a neighboring property.  Now we’re on a property with dozens and dozens and dozens of black walnut trees, with thousands of walnuts laying in the driveway rotting and dead spots all over the front yard from the tannin in the husks.  This year we decided we needed to figure out SOME way to make use of those nuts to prevent both waste and a big mess, but as you know, black walnuts are difficult to both clean and crack.  But I think we hit upon a few good ideas this year, both for the cleaning and the cracking.  All you’ll need is a cage/trap/perforated metal containment of some sort and a power washer.

We gathered about 15-5 gallon buckets of really grossly-ripe walnuts from the front yard and dumped them 1 bucket at a time into an old live trap.  It was clean, don’t fret about it.

My darling husband set the power washer to the strongest spray setting and turned it on the walnuts, rolling the cage from front to back every minute or two to ensure all the nuts were receiving the full brunt of the spray.  (Pardon the blurry picture…there was gunky overspray splattering everywhere!)

 

 

After approximately 5 minutes of power washing, the nuts were clean and we spread them on a sheet to dry in the grass.

 

 

So step 1, the cleaning, is done.  Now onto step 2, which is far more difficult.  For the past 14 years, I’ve tried numerous methods for cracking black walnuts.  I’ve tried the small handheld versions you find at Walmart and broke about 3 of them.  Tried a mallet.  Tried a brick.  Used a vise.  Ran over them with my Jeep.   Some of the methods worked, some of them failed miserably, most of them resulted in mangled black walnuts with glass-like shards of walnut shell crushing the meat that had to be picked out in miniscule bits.  Yes, it IS that hard to crack a walnut shell.  I seriously don’t know how the squirrels do it.  This year, my husband decided it was time to take the plunge and invest in a quality nutcracker to harvest all those expensive nuts!  And oh did he find a good one!  We love the Master Cracker for Black & English Walnut, Plus Filbert Nut/hazelnut, Pecan, Macadamia, Chestnut- American Made!

If you’ve ever tried to crack black walnuts, you KNOW how difficult the process is but this cracker is so easy to use, my sweet Petunia did it one-handed without breaking a sweat.

So here are some of the features that we like.

  1. The grip is rubber-coated, so it’s comfortable to use, even after a hundred walnuts.  It’s also easy to wipe clean.
  2. It has a large wooden base, approximately 5X20 inches, so you have a very secure surface to work on that won’t slip and slide around.  I love that I don’t have to clamp this to a countertop or bolt it to a work table.
  3. It has interchangeable cracker cups, so you can crack small nuts like hazelnuts right up to large, tough black walnuts.  There is literally no nut you can’t crack with this cracker.  Except a coconut, possibly.
  4. It has a heavy spring so the lever-action feels very secure.  There’s no slop or play in the handle, is what I’m saying.
  5. The ratcheting action of the handle allows it to crack even the hardest nuts with almost no force required.  A child can use this cracker with no problem.
  6. It’s American-made.  Love that!  Apparently there’s a very similar Chinese-made product that costs far less…but as with most things,  you get what you pay for.  Check on youtube for a side-by-side comparison and you’ll see what I mean.

I think my only “complaint” is that I wish the base had a more durable finish for cleaning up afterwards.  It appears to have a rubbed-oil finish, but a gloss would make it easier to wipe up any black walnut mess!  Not that that interferes with the function of the cracker, just saying.

Now I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not cheap.  This model runs over $100, but given the price of black walnuts at the grocery and the fact we have thousands of them wasting in the front yard, it was a sensible purchase for my family.  This cracker will most likely pay for itself in just a year or two, especially given how much I love black walnuts!

I don’t do product reviews often, and when I do, it’s only for products that really work well and save me time and labor.  This cracker does both, so I’m very comfortable recommending it for those of you looking!  Til next time!

 

Posted to SimpleLifeMom Homestead Blog Hop.

Waste Not – Soup Broth

Let’s continue in our “Waste Not” series with one of the simplest, most nutritious items you can possibly make in your kitchen…soup stock!  Homemade soup broth is the ultimate in resourcefulness, nutrition and flavor, if you ask my opinion…and when you read how incredibly easy it is to make it at home, well, you’ll never buy that bland boxed stuff again, I promise you.

Here are the some of the benefits of making your own:

  1. It’s free.  Consider the veggie peels, cores and tops that you throw away every time you cook.  Consider those beautiful meaty bones and the flavorful fat you remove from cuts of meat and toss in the trash.  That’s free nutrition, my friends.  They may not seem like much, but trust me, it adds up quickly if you make an effort to save it.
  2. It’s nutritious.  When you simmer those veggie peels, fats and bones for hours (or use an Instant Pot LUX60 V3 6 Qt 6-in-1 Muti-Use Programmable Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice Cooker, Sauté, Steamer, and Warmer) you are leaching every possible bit of vitamins, minerals and beneficial fats that you can from what would be scrap.  In previous generations, simple soup broth was a home remedy for every kind of tummy trouble and weakness following an illness or childbirth.  And it’s an easy way to add a boost of nutrition to soups, stews, cooked grains.
  3. It’s delicious!  There is a huge difference between homemade broth and the stuff you buy in the boxes at Walmart.  In simple dishes like chicken soup, the taste difference is remarkable.  It adds a layer of flavor, creating that “old-fashioned” flavor that we recall so fondly from our grandmother’s cooking, a flavor that you simply cannot achieve with boxed broth or bouillon cubes.
  4. It’s easy.  While the simmering of the broth takes a good long while, the labor involved is pretty much nill.  I keep gallon-sized ziplock bags in the freezer ready to receive scraps and when that bag is full, I make broth.

 

Here’s how you do it!

To make a simple veggie broth, all you need is a good quantity of veggie scraps.  (Approximately 1-to-4 ratio is best; 1 cup of scraps to 4 cups of water.)  Carrot peels and tops, onion peels, celery leaves and stems, garlic peels, bell pepper cores and stems, the green tops from leeks, lettuce leaves, kale stems and herbs like parsley, bay leaves and chives.  Pretty much anything can go into broth, but you’ll want to avoid starchy veggies (potatoes) as they’ll make your broth cloudy and strong-flavored veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts) as they can be overpowering in the stock.  Following the 1-to-4 ratio, simmer the scraps, herbs and water for about an hour or til the veggies are absolutely limp.  Allow it to cool and then carefully pour the broth through a strainer into quart freezer bags and lay them in the freezer flat to freeze.

 

Quality meat/bone broth from scrap is just as simple, though it takes a bit longer.   I use the carcasses from roasted chickens or turkeys, or the bones from steaks, ribs and roasts to make broth.  (If you don’t use cuts of meat that result in a large quantity of bones, that’s okay!  Simply drizzle several pounds of chicken wings, beef knuckles, ox tails, ribs or any other inexpensive boney meat with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees til very brown, approximately 1 hour.)  Now, take those beautiful roasted bones and add them to your stock pot with onion peels and a couple “glugs” of apple cider and water to cover.  Simmer the bones for several hours.  You’ll notice that thinner bones like chicken wings will begin to be pliable and rubbery (that’s good!) and that much of the marrow will have cooked out of the beef bones (that’s good too!).  Don’t rush this step; the longer the broth cooks, the better the flavor and more nutritious it will be.  Alternately, you can pressure cook the broth in an Instant Pot for an hour or on a low setting in a crock pot for 12-18 hours.  When the broth has simmered for the appropriate amount of time, allow it to cool, pour through a strainer and freeze flat in quart-sized freezer bags.  You can also freeze the bits of meat that cook off the bones; they make great additions to soups!

To use:

When you’re ready to use your homemade stock, simply thaw it, season to taste with salt and pepper  and use it as you would commercially prepared stock.  Use it as a base for soups and stews, use it to replace water when cooking rice, barley or potatoes or simply season and enjoy it in a mug to sooth a head cold, queasy tummy or sore throat.  It’s also a delicious tea or coffee replacement when you need a mug of something warm but don’t want the caffeine.

BONUS!

As a total bonus, homemade veggie and bone broth can also be pressure canned to be made shelf-stable and ready in your pantry in a moment’s notice!  For the veggie broth, simply pour the finished broth into prepared Mason jars, leaving 1 inch of headspace and process at 10# of pressure for 20 minutes/pints or 25 minutes/quarts.  For the bone broth, you need to allow the broth to cool completely so that the fat congeals on the top.  Remove the congealed fat, heat the broth to a boil then pour into prepared Mason jars leaving 1 inch of head space.  Process at 10# of pressure for 20 minutes/pints or 25 minutes/quarts.  Gotta love those bonuses, my friends!

I hope you’ll try your hand at making homemade soup broth.  As I’ve shown you, it’s simple, nutritious, delicious and FREE!  Don’t throw those scraps away!  Reap every bit of nutrition you can out of the food you paid good money for—-Ma Ingalls would approve!!  Til next time, my friends!

 

Posted to the Simple Life Mom Homestead Blog Hop

 

Easy Homemade Baking Extracts

 

Homemade baking extracts are a simple, 2-step process!

It’s early October and you know what that means?  It’s time to start considering Christmas gifts in earnest!  I love making baking extracts for gifts; poured into a cute container with a pretty label, it’s a gift my foodie friends are sure to enjoy.  Honestly, there is no simpler or more inexpensive gift you can make that will be so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed each year than homemade baking extracts.  And with the varieties of herbs and fruits available, the possibilities are limited solely to your imagination.

Let’s get started with vanilla, lemon and cinnamon baking extracts.

As with most extracts, with vanilla you need only 2 ingredients:  quality vanilla beans and a potent alcohol.  I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked the first time I shopped for vanilla beans.  I thought OH LARDY as I researched brand names, country of origin and price.  Especially price.  But as with most things, you can have quantity or you can have quality.  Go for quality.  You’ll taste the difference in the finished project for certain.  Here’s a link to a good quality, fairly priced vanilla bean:  Vanilla Products USA 10 Grade A Prime Gourmet PNG Bourbon Type Vanilla Beans ~5″ (12.5 cm)  Now moving on to the alcohol, for most extracts, a plain, inexpensive vodka is all you need; with vanilla extract, brandy, rum or bourbon are quite nice too.  It just adds another layer of flavor to an already delicious product.  To make your homemade vanilla extract, add 2 vanilla beans for every 4 ounces of alcohol, so for a standard fifth of liquor, you’ll need 10 vanilla beans.  Split the beans from top to bottom exposing the seeds, place the beans in a large bottle or quart Mason jar, add the vodka or bourbon and add a lid.  Set in a cool, dark place, such as inside a kitchen cabinet for at least 6-8 weeks (though longer is better!), giving it a good shake every few days.  When Christmastime rolls around, pour your vanilla baking extract into a cute 4 ounce jar with a single vanilla bean (for presentation) and add a pretty label.  There’s one baking extract done!  Let’s move on to the next!

Lemon baking extract is as easy as the vanilla, but far less expensive.  For this baking extract, you’ll need 2-3 organic lemons and a fifth of inexpensive vodka.  Wash your citrus well then carefully peel the fruit with a paring knife or veggie peeler, taking extra care to avoid the white pith.  (It’ll turn your extract bitter.)  Stuff the citrus peel into a quart jar, cover with vodka and let sit 6-8 weeks, giving it a shake at least once a week.  If you’re gifting this extract, pour the finished product into a pretty jar, label it and it’s ready to go.  Now if you’re exceedingly clever, you can mix the lemon extract with a simple syrup for a very passable limoncello.  But I’ll leave that project up to you.

Last up, cinnamon baking extract!  For this extract, you need 3 inch cinnamon sticks and again, inexpensive vodka, though bourbon would probably be delicious here too.  For a full fifth of vodka, you’ll place approximately 18 cinnamon sticks in a Mason jar and pour the alcohol over it.  Allow it to sit and steep for 6-8 weeks, shaking it up once a week.  If/when you pour the cinnamon baking extract into cute, gift-sized bottles, place a fresh cinnamon stick in the bottle…it just makes a very pretty presentation.  This cinnamon baking extract is fantastic for adding to cakes or cookies, flavoring whipped cream or just added to a favorite coffee for a fantastic kick of flavor.

Not everyone is going to want quarts of flavored vodka sitting around the house, (that’s a LOT of baking extracts!) so let me break this down into smaller, more manageable portions that you can share or keep for yourself!

Vanilla Baking Extract

2 vanilla beans

4 ounces of vodka, brandy, rum or bourbon

Lemon Baking Extract

peel from 1 lemon

4 ounces of vodka

Cinnamon Baking Extract

3-3inch cinnamon sticks

4 ounces of vodka or bourbon

But don’t stop there!  Use that extra vodka or bourbon to make mint extract (1/2 cup of fresh leaves to 4 oz vodka), coffee extract (2T of crushed whole beans to 4 oz vodka), berry extract (1/2 cup muddled berries to 4 oz vodka), orange or grapefruit extract (peel from 1 fruit to 4 0z vodka), coconut extract (1/3cup shredded, unsweetened coconut to 4oz vodka).

I know some of you don’t like the idea of alcohol in your food and home, and I totally appreciate that, so there’s a non-alcoholic option for you!  Vegetable glycerin (VG) makes a very good, alcohol-free baking extract.  Following the same recipe, use VG in a ratio of 3 parts VG to 1 part water.  For the small bottles we just discussed, you’d use 3 ounces of VG and 1 ounce of water to 1 lemon peel, 3 cinnamon sticks or 2 vanilla beans.  Make sense?  Here’s a link to a quality, Kosher vegetable glycerin: Glycerin Vegetable Kosher USP – 1 Quart (43 oz.)

If you plan on gifting these extracts this Christmas, I encourage you to try some pretty bottles like these
(12 Pack – 4 oz. Amber Glass Bottle with Lid for Vanilla Extract, Perfume, Oils, Light-Sensitive Liquids, Refillable Boston Round Bottle from California Home Goods) as the amber glass and tightly-sealing lid will protect your finished product.

And to top it all off, peruse our dear friend Pinterest for cute, free printable labels.  I think these and  these are perfectly adorable for our homemade vanilla extract and I’m sure there are others out there for various other extracts as well.  Give it a try and tell me what you think, sweet friends!

Filling The Pantry

We’re in the height of food production season here in central Ohio and already the pantry in my old farmhouse is beginning to fill and fill quickly.  We’ve finished with pickles and jams for the year, and green beans and tomatoes are just beginning to pick up.  Within the next 2-3 weeks, my kitchen will be filled with the constant humming, splashing, clattering, hissing and pinging of full-scale food preservation and I must tell you—I rarely feel more productive than I do during that time span!  There is nothing more satisfying to me than to see my grandmother’s old Mason jars filled with fruits and veggies that will nourish my children through the long, gray winter.  You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy Mason jars—and that’s almost the same thing!

In a normal year, I put up an average of 500-600 quarts of food and in an exceptional year, 800-1000.  It will vary greatly based on what’s left in the pantry from the previous year, which crops my garden grows in abundance and whether I’m able to trade, barter or buy with other local gardeners and farmers.  But that hasn’t always been the case.  I remember very clearly my first pantry; I was 20, living in my little second story apartment and I canned strawberry preserves.  I was never so proud of a dozen Mason jars in my life!  Now with a husband and 2 tweens in the house, those dozen Mason jars of jam wouldn’t last us more than a few weeks, but it set me on a path of planning ahead and using what was available during one season to supply the rest of the year.

And that’s all it comes down to, friends; planning.

There’s exactly one generation between me and family members who survived World War II, the Great Depression, coal miner’s strikes, joblessness, devastating weather…and they survived by planning ahead and practicing common-sense preparedness.  Blessedly, we don’t have to worry about those things so much now.  Now we wonder about rioting, hacking that can wipe out bank accounts, contaminated food and nation-wide recalls.  Having a full pantry of local or homegrown food provides a necessary layer of security in what was, is, and will always be, a topsy-turvy world.  And practicality aside, our grandmothers understood the value of taking a raw ingredient and turning it into a quality, wholesome product that nourished both body and spirit.  We’ve lost that understanding, but we can learn it again!

If you’re new to the ideas of gardening and food preservation and you’re considering taking the plunge in 2018, let me give you a word of advice:  Start thinking about it NOW.

Look at your eating and spending habits and determine where you could make the biggest impact.  Are tomatoes a staple in your home?  Jams?  Pickles?  Does your family eat green beans 3X/week?  Those are excellent places to start your food preservation adventure.  But don’t stop there.  Do you LOVE specialty salsas?  Make your own.  Are food allergies a concern in your home?  Make your own products and eat with confidence!  Do you love giving handmade gifts during the holidays?  No one is going to refuse a jar of your homemade apple butter!  (I once traded homemade apple butter for a treadle sewing machine, but that’s a different story!)

This is also prime time to consider the necessary equipment and education.  There’s a yard sale on every corner this time of the year and Mason jars can be found for little to nothing.  (I pay no more than $3/dozen and frequently far less.)  Farm stores such as Rural King and Tractor Supply will be clearancing their canning supplies to make room for holiday items, so take advantage of those discounts!  Local extension offices and farm stands frequently offer food preservation classes at low cost -or free- and this is also a perfect opportunity to visit your local farmer’s markets to get to know the people growing food around you.  Check the discard bins at your local library for inexpensive canning books.  Order online catalogs to familiarize yourself with the various types of tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers and herbs.  And if you’re going to try your hand at gardening, begin preparing your garden spot by killing off the grass and enriching the soil with compost.  This is no time to be idle, my sweet friends!

I know this may seem like daunting first steps to those who have no experience in gardening and food preservation, but we’re going to take this one little bite at a time.  In the coming weeks, we’ll break each of those bullet points down so you can confidently look ahead to the 2018 growing/canning season.  Til next time!