Saturday, September 27, 2014

In Praise of The Excalibur Dehydrator and The Preservation of Tomatoes

September is the time of year for processing, processing, processing tomatoes.  Pick your weapon: the canning jar, the freezer bag, or the good ol' dehydrator.  I have to admit, after sweating over the stove canning sauce, I have to sing the praises of the ease of dehydration.

I love the idea of solar dehydrators and I think our south facing kitchen window is prime real estate for some "solar drying add on" that could be extended out the window in sunny weather.  But, I digress.  As far as electric dehydrators go, we have a great one.  The Excalibur, a gift from my mom, has been a workhorse when it comes to drying tomatoes.  It costs maybe about 40 - 50 cents per 12 hour drying cycle or so, using about 400 watts.  I can tomatoes and tomato sauce as well, but in terms of little work for big return, drying tomatoes is very rewarding.

Jaune Flamme.  A bit juicy for drying but I'll take it any day, any way.  So delicious!

Dried Tomatoes
A few things I've learned when drying tomatoes...

1) Variety matters.  Meatier, drier tomato varieties are better than super juicy varieties.  Common sense, I know.  Any variety works though, and will, eventually, dehydrate to a nice, leathery state.    A few varieties that I have tried and really like for drying include my favorite, Juliet, and a new trial this year, Heather.  Juliet is like a large grape, slice in half and dry, and Heather is a blocky, tennis ball sized tomato with not so thin skin, easy to slice and not much juice.

Juliet.  My go-to drying tomato.

2) Rotate!  Rotate the trays 1/2 way through.  I find at about 130 degrees a full load of tomatoes dries in 12 - 16 hours, depending on how thick I slice them.  I check every 6 or 8 hours and remove the dried ones and put the "not-done-yet" ones back in.  About 1/2 way through, I rotate the drying trays 180 degrees since the heating fan is in the back of the unit, the back 1/2 of the tray dries first.  Overall drying in the Excalibur dehydrator is much more even than the round models with a heating element in the bottom.

Excalibur dehydrator.  Comes in 4, tray, 5 tray and 9 tray models.

3) Dream Tomato Sauce is easy.  This involves rehydrating some dried tomatoes in hot water and then pulsing in a food processor with olive oil and herbs.  Pasta. Parmesan.  Sigh.

So, when your boiling water canner makes you tired just looking at it, consider dehydration!  I think this type of appliance would be a perfect thing to share between households, since it does cost a nice chunk of change.  I know this sounds like an ad, but trust me, I am getting no kickbacks for endorsing the Excalibur.  It's just simply the queen of the dehydrator lineup.

Dried and Fresh, together.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

What's Happening in the Fall Garden?

Last weekend I presented a workshop at The Mother Earth News Fair called Ecosystem Gardening For Edible Crops.  It was a lot of fun, and the gist was how to have a productive food garden using no sprays while encouraging a healthy ecosystem of critters to keep your garden in balance.  It went really well, and I find it fitting to find our garden now teeming with Praying Mantis upon my return.  I found a pregnant one hanging out in the flower beds, and another that hangs out above our screen door, laying the smackdown on stink bugs.  It's neat to see nature at work.  (And a little gruesome.  The stink bugs are definitely still alive as the Mantis chomps away).

In other news, there is definitely a "favorite nesting box" that all chickens try to pile in together.  Luckily they can usually manage to fit two chickens over a pile of eggs without breaking any.  They all seem to be coming along nicely and they are laying very well.  The 2 Delaware hens (one at Garden Dreams and one at home) have taken the title of "loudest and bossiest".  The picture below shows a White Rock and a Partridge Rock.  I am enjoying both breeds a lot.

The fall salad greens I planted a few weeks ago are doing fantastic.  I ordered a jig to bend 1/2" EMT (electrical conduit) to make low tunnels to cover the greens for winter.  The jig, entitled Quick Hoops Low Tunnel Bender, was on sale at Johnny's Selected Seeds, and I already have the EMT so order it I did.  I'll let you know how it works and put up some pictures as that project progresses.

On the winter squash front, 30 Young's Beauty pumpkins have been harvested from 4 plants (plus a few that already went to the chickens) and are developing their hard storage skin by sitting out in the sun.  The Delicata squash also did quite well and I think the yield from 2 plants will be quite good.  The Waltham Butternuts are all still hiding under the vines so I have no idea how many are there.  I'll likely hunt them out soon to make sure they are in good shape for the undersides not to rot, though it has been quite dry with very little rain.  Looking forward to a winter of squash eating!

"It's my nest box."  "No it's my nest box!" "Ok we can share."
Misato Rose fall radish, carrots, and 2 Beedy's Camden Kale plants 

Delicata squash

Fall salad greens: lettuces, arugula, baby kale, mustard and mizuna.
Fall salad in a beautiful egg basket my mom gave us
Praying Mantis catching and eating stinkbugs as they try to come in the door.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Itty Bitty Garden Fence and Free Ranging Hens

I've been letting the hens out to free range when I have been working in the garden the last few days.  I constructed a little 2' high wire and tpost fence to keep the hens out of the garden. While they could easily hop the fence, they seem to have enough to keep them occupied outside it that they have not bothered yet.

Itty Bitty Fence 
Free Range Birds
"That's supposed to keep us out?  As if!"

I can't remember where I saw this root protection tip to foil chicken's claws
Hiding in the berries.  A favorite activity.
Mid Day Mix
How we do nest boxes
Tupperware dust bath: Peat moss with a little diatomaceaous earth and wood ash from the fire pit mixed in