Friday, August 30, 2013

Chili from homegrown peppers

Last year I made some chili using ancho peppers that I grew in the garden as well as other peppers. But I did not make chili powder from those peppers.

I had set aside some of that batch of chili and frozen it, then forgotten about it.  A few weeks ago I dug it out of the back of the freezer and reheated it.  It struck me that this was really good chili.  The broth had a richness and depth to it that can't be found in chili made with grocery store powder.

The other thing that got me thinking about chili were the ancho and pasilla peppers in the garden, now a mahogany chocolate color.  These are the pasilla peppers, a variety called Holy Moley, nearly a foot long.  I grew them last year but they weren't even close to this quality and size.

The ancho peppers are just as nice this year.  There's some confusion about the difference between an ancho and a poblano pepper.  They are the same pepper.   Green it is a poblano and ripe it is an ancho.  Some people believe that the ancho is the dried pepper.  I think that is because you hardly ever see the green poblano dried, it is used for chile rellenos.  I don't think that drying a green poblano will make it an ancho because it is still a green pepper.  Anyway these are the anchos with some red bullhorn peppers in the background.

Well, back to that chili that I dug out of the freezer.  I couldn't remember just how it was made, probably because I drink beer when making chili, and a long preparation can involve a number of beers.  It just seems like the right thing to do.  What prodded my memory was something else in the freezer from last year, a bag of dried ancho peppers and a bag of dried New Mexico chilies,which are Anaheim chilies, bought at the grocery store.

Here's how I think I made the chili as the veil of fog slowly dissipates.  I dried the ancho peppers in the dehydrator, but not brittle dry.  The store bought Anaheims were already dried to a leathery consistency.  If you've bought some of these you know what they are like.  I found some recipes for making chili powder on the Net.  Cumin powder and garlic usually go into the mix.  The recipes I found called for toasting the ingredients on a cookie sheet in the oven or on a cast iron skillet then grinding to powder. 

I wanted to forgo the toasting and grinding steps because I believed that can drive many of the flavors out of the peppers.  Instead of making powder I froze the chilies then finely chopped them with a chef's knife.  The leathery peppers chop easily while frozen, in fact the pieces can fly everywhere if not contained.  The  chopped chili flakes, along with cumin powder and garlic substituted for chili powder.

This morning I harvested the ripe chilies and began to dry them.  I should have grown some Anaheim plants also but you know what they say about hindsight.  Since today is very hot and sunny I put the peppers on the drying screen to start the drying process.  I'll dry them in the sun today and possibly tomorrow then finish drying them in the Nesco dehydrator.   

By mid-afternoon the chilies were already wrinkling up on one side.

They were turned over for the remainder of the day.  I'll post an update on the chili experiment once the first batch of chili is prepared.  Cheers.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday August 26

Maybe I'm overdoing it with the snap beans.  Last week I picked over 4 pounds of beans.  The Kentucky Wonder pole beans finally starting producing steadily, and the patch of Roma II bush beans hit their peak production last week.  It's a relief that they have slowed down.  I froze most of them and made a pot of beef stew with Kentucky Wonder beans, which hold up well to extended cooking.  I've harvested more beans - almost 17 pounds - than tomatoes so far.

Here's some of what was picked last week.  This picking is mostly Kentucky Wonder beans: 

Roma II beans, okra, cucumber and a bullhorn pepper:

And the potato harvest, discussed in the previous post.  The potatoes are Kennebecs and Red Pontiacs.

This hornworm is covered with eggs from a parasitic wasp.  Now that it's paralyzed I'll leave it alone so it can hatch out many more wasps.  They find the caterpillars before I do.

Tally for the week:  snap beans 4 lb 3 oz, pepper 6 oz, cucumber 13 oz, celery 6 oz, potatoes 45 lb 9 oz.   Weekly total 52.3 pounds, for the year 189.9 pounds.  This week the garden surpassed the total harvest for 2012. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Digging up the spuds

When to dig up the potatoes was a hard call this year.  There was still a lot of new foliage and a lot of dead foliage too.  Who knows what is going on in the ground?  Last year there was some damage from a subterranean rodent, a mole or vole that had taken to gnawing on the potatoes, but the parsnips bore the brunt of its assault.

But first the potato box.  I built a potato box in the spring, modeled after the Henley potato box.  The growing strategy was to plant seed potatoes near the bottom then keep adding dirt or compost or something as the shoots reached up, covering them, meanwhile directing some of the shoots out through holes in the side of the box for sun exposure.  The hoped for end result would be potatoes growing the length of the shoots and a bonanza of spuds.

This was the box shortly after it was planted.

This is the box shortly before the siding was removed last week.
And here is the harvest.  Two pounds 3 ounces. 

The box was dismantled into its component parts and the idea consigned to the compost bin of history.

Wednesday evening I began digging up the potato bed.  Half of the bed was planted in Kennebec, a russet variety, and the other half in Red Pontiac.  Starting at one end the soil was first loaded into a wheelbarrow until it was full, then soil was shoveled into the excavation behind it (if that makes any sense).

It didn't take long to realize this was going to be an outstanding potato harvest.  After digging about one quarter of the bed the 5 gallon bucket was already half full of nice sized potatoes.

There's something about turning over the soil, carefully of course so no potatoes are speared, and finding them with practically every turn of the shovel.

By the time I was finished it was nearly dark, the mosquitoes were in full attack mode and I was sweating in the humidity.  But what a haul it was.  I put them all on the drying screen and left them there for the night.  This morning I took their portrait.

A gardening book advised that it is better not to wash freshly dug potatoes.  I separated the reds from the whites, brushed off what dirt I could and weighed them.  The larger potatoes were put in file crates and set in the closet in the spare bedroom.  The smaller potatoes were washed and put in the cupboard. They will be used first.  I'm thinking potato salad. 

The bed produced 25 lb 12 oz of Red Pontiacs and 19 lb 13 oz of Kennebecs.  Including the harvest from the potato box that is about 47 1/2 pounds of potatoes.  The bed encloses 39 square feet, so the yield was over a pound per square foot.  I'm certainly happy with that yield.

I think I'm done experimenting with different potato varieties.  No variety of storage potato that I've tried comes close to the Red Pontiacs for yield, keeping quality and flavor. That is the variety that works in my little spot in the world

Monday, August 19, 2013

Monday August 19

Another good harvest week.  Well it should be a good week, it's August, and this has been a very good year for growing things.  There's been almost no rain for several weeks, which is typical for August.  About every three days I set up the electric pump near the pond, string out the hoses and give everything a good soaking.  I start out watering the vegetable garden, then water the flower beds and any brown areas in the lawn, then come back to the vegetable beds for a second pass.  It takes about an hour and a half.  I read that pond water is the next best source of water for plants after rain water.

Something is picked nearly every day now.  I've been picking Kentucky Wonder, Provider and Tendergreen snap beans.  Beans have been beautiful this year, not much disease and no sign of the bean beetle.  There's also some San Marzano tomatoes, okra and a Genovese summer squash in this picking. 

A few more Supersonics to eat.  They are a great tasting tomato.  All the Cherokee purple tomatoes that set initially have been lost, but the plant has regained vigor and is producing more blooms.   With some luck it may still produce a few tomatoes.

More beans and okra. I froze some okra, just blanched the whole pod. The large cucumber is a Diva, the smaller one is Picolino.

Sunday the first Roma II beans were ready for picking.  This bean is my favorite bush bean, productive and delicious.  The two big blocky sweet peppers are a Burpee's variety called Cabernet.  The seed packet had about ten seeds in it for $2.49 so it must be a recent development, and it is a real winner.  Burpees describes it as a Lamuyo type pepper.  It looks like a short Marconi, with high shoulders.  Delicious thick-walled pepper, tasty, few seeds, each weighed about 8 ounces.

The pimento type pepper is Lipstick, and the long pepper is a bullhorn pepper.  The large peppers were grilled, skinned and deseeded to go into the next batch of salsa.

For the week:  potatoes 2 lb 1 oz, snap beans 3 lb 5 oz, summer squash 21 oz, okra 16 oz, tomatoes 30 oz, cucumber 23 oz, eggplant 8 oz, and peppers 25 oz.  Total 13.1 lbs, total for the year 137.6 lbs.  To see what other people are growing see

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday August 12

This is the month when vegetable production peaks while the plants begin to show a decline.  The older leaves are yellowing and showing the rusts, black spots and other fungal diseases that take their toll.  Some plants, like the Provider bush beans I planted in May, have started another round of production even though they look pretty awful.  The foliage may not be perfect but the plant already has a root system and vascular system in place, so it is still capable of making some nice beans.

I've been picking beans nearly every day and freezing most of them.  I can eat snap beans nearly every day.  Here's most of what was harvested this week, and I believe it's in chronological order.   

More Millionaire okra.  I'm picking the okra much smaller now.  I was holding off picking the small pods, thinking they just needed to size up a little more.  But in a days time they would go from small pods to oversize pods that were a bit woody.

More beans, eggplant and a single tomato.  The round beans are either Provider or Tendergreen.

Cucumbers had stopped producing for a while, but with the warm weather a few more ripened.  These beans are mostly Kentucky wonder.  The summer squash, Genovese, is intensely crowded by the much larger acorn squash.  That's a good thing because in the little space it has it produces one or two squash a week, not five or six.

I was waiting on the next batch of tomatoes to fully ripen on the vine, but one morning I found this one about 20 feet from the plants.  I suspect a raccoon.

I picked the tomatoes that day and put them indoors.  In a few days the peppers will be ready and I'll make another batch of salsa.

On Sunday more stuff.  The lone Silver Queen okra stands out. 

The Silver Queen okra plants are like small trees now, about five feet high with thick trunks.  They haven't produced nearly as much okra as the Millionaire plants in the SWC's, but right now they are thick with buds and I expect a flush of production soon.  They have thick walls and make excellent okra pickles.

For the week:  beans 2.9 lbs, cucumber 2 lbs, eggplant 1.2 lbs, okra 0.9 lbs, summer squash 1.9 lbs, tomatoes 6.6 lbs.  Weekly total 15.6 lbs, yearly total 125 lbs.  To see what other people are growing see   

Friday, August 9, 2013

Canning salsa and pH

Last weekend I canned salsa for the first time.  In the past I’ve made some refrigerator salsa, so the acidity was not so much a concern, but this time there were enough tomatoes and peppers to do the hot water bath method.  I wanted to know how much lemon juice to add to the salsa to make it safe.  I wanted to use enough but not a huge excess.  The publications about canning salsa by state extension services conveyed a sense of extreme caution:  better to add way too much vinegar or lemon juice and for gosh sakes don’t ever change the non-tomato components by one iota from the recipe or grave consequences may occur.

Well I knew I did not want to use vinegar as the acid component.  I like vinegar pickles, but prefer the taste of citrus in salsa.  One recipe that called for vinegar cautioned that you could only exchange an equal amount of lemon juice for the vinegar, but I remember reading that lemon juice is about twice as acidic as vinegar, which seems to indicate that half the amount of lemon juice can be substituted for vinegar, something pointed out in other publications.  All the extensions seem to operate from an overwhelming fear of litigation. 

I did a little research.  Not a lot.  I wasn’t searching the peer-reviewed nutrition journals.  Google was my research tool.  But I did find some interesting information.

First a word about pH.  It’s a logarithmic expression that represents the hydrogen ion concentration in water or aqueous medium.  The lower the pH the more acidic.  The important thing to remember is that something with a pH of 4 is 10 times as acidic as something with a pH of 5, and 100 times as acidic as something with a pH of 6, in other words a difference of one pH unit is actually a ten fold difference in concentration. 
Vinegar contains acetic acid, usually adjusted to 5%.  The acid in lemon juice is mostly citric acid.  By regulation the lemon juice in bottles is required to be at least 4.5%.  Both acids are weak organic acids.  This means that only a small percentage of the acid molecules in a solution actually dissociate, which is when the positive hydrogen ion breaks off the molecule.  A strong acid like HCl will completely dissociate in water.  What they all have in common is the production of hydrogen ions.

What is a hydrogen ion?  Well a hydrogen atom is the simplest atom, just a proton and an electron.  When the positive hydrogen ion breaks loose from a citric acid or acetic acid molecule, it is simply a proton breaking loose from the acid molecule, leaving behind its electron.  It's believed that a loose proton attaches to a water molecule to form a hydronium ion, H3O+.  That is the essence of acidity in water - protons breaking off the mother molecule and attaching to water.  Of course chemists have made the concept of acidity much more complicated with esoteric theories that are mainly useful to chemists but that’s another story.   The essential concept of acidity is what is useful here.  Acidity has profound effects on the chemical processes of life.
Both acetic acid and citric acid are weak organic acids.  Citric acid is stronger than acetic acid, in other words a greater percentage of citric acid molecules will give off a proton compared to acetic acid.  Which is why you don’t need as much citric acid as acetic acid to achieve a certain acidity.
So what acidity is a safe acidity for boiling water canning?  Boiling water will not kill some bacterial spores, but sufficient acidity will keep them from growing.  From what I’ve read the safe threshold is a pH of 4.6 or less.  Somewhere somehow somebody came up with that number, and I'm guessing that there is a built in safety margin with that pH.  Tomatoes have a pH of around 5, not quite acidic enough, so some acidifying agent must be added. 

Of course all the canning recipes published by the state extensions will caution you that the other ingredients in salsa – peppers, onions, herbs and spices – are not as acidic as the tomatoes, so YOU MUST NOT DEVIATE FROM THE PROPORTIONS IN THE RECIPE or the salsa may not be sufficiently acidic (and you may get sick or worse).  I sensed a lot of overkill here, and my experience as a bench chemist informed me that small changes in the non-tomato ingredients in a salsa that is predominantly tomatoes will have little effect on the acidity of the salsa.  Surely someone with some math skills and a bit of common sense can keep their salsa at a safely acidic level. 
I found a study called Safe acidification of salsa for home boiling water canning from the Foods and Nutrition department at the University of Georgia.  For some reason this group seemed to believe that it was necessary to bring the pH of the salsa to around 3.8, which requires 4 tablespoons of lemon juice per pint.  Some quick calculations on the old Texas Instruments scientific calculator told me that a pH of 3.8 is over six times as acidic as a pH of 4.6, the threshold pH.  I guess they wanted to make sure that the salsa would be sufficiently acidic no matter what ingredients were used.  Their recipe called for 200 g tomatoes, 200 grams other ingredients and 60 milliliters lemon juice (4 tablespoons) which works out to about a pint of salsa.  Their research showed that you could use the ingredients in any combination, even leaving out the tomatoes, and the addition of that much lemon juice produced a pH of about 3.8.  In other words, nearly all the acidity in the salsa came from the lemon juice. 
This publication by the North Dakota State University extension, Why add lemon juice to salsa before canning? has a lot of useful information.  First of all they tested the acidity of different varieties of crushed tomatoes.  The pH ranged from 4.95 to 5.20, but most tomatoes were about pH 5.  Then they tested the pH of salsa made from the same varieties before and after the addition of lemon juice.  Guess what, the pH of the salsa before adding lemon juice was actually slightly lower than the pH of the tomato pulp.  Not much lower but lower, indicating that the additional ingredients really have little effect on the acidity (onions and peppers are also slightly acidic but not as acidic as tomatoes).  The addition of lemon juice brought the pH down to a range between 4.14 to 4.30, well below the 4.6 threshold.  It looks to me like the 4 tablespoons of lemon juice per pint used by the U of Georgia group is gross overkill. 

But there’s a fly in the ointment here.  The NDSU paper never said how much lemon juice was added in the study.  They recommend adding one tablespoon per pint, but their own recipe in the same paper which makes 16 pints of salsa calls for 2 cups of lemon juice which works out to 2 tablespoons per pint.  
I went back to the acidification curves from the Georgia paper, where they added lemon juice in increments to tomatoes, peppers and onions and then tested the pH.  Interestingly they never did an acidification curve for the salsa, just the components so I considered the tomato pulp the same as salsa.  To compare apples to apples I converted everything to percentages.  A tablespoon of lemon juice per pint works out to 3.12%.  In the Georgia study 5 mL lemon juice in 100 mL Roma pulp, the lowest amount tested, works out to 4.8% lemon juice, about 1.5 tablespoons per pint.  That amount produced a pH of 4.2.  A salsa with a pH of 4.2 is 2.5 times as acidic as a salsa with a pH of 4.6.   Looking at the titration curves and estimating the lines between the points it looks like a tablespoon per pint gets the acidity to a pH of about 4.4.  To be solidly on the safe side it seems to me that a minimum amount of lemon juice should be 1.5 tablespoons per pint.  The take-home message is this:  there is considerably more acidity in a tablespoon of lemon juice than in a pint of tomatoes.    

That leaves one other question:  Do you really have to use the bottled lemon or lime juice? The canned salsa recipes stress that the bottled version has a consistent acidity, whereas real lemons or limes will not, so you should always use the bottled lemon juice, according to them.  Of course real limes or lemons will taste better.  To answer that question there is a post Real Lemon versus ReaLemon by Linda Ziedrich, who has a chemistry background.  She titrated some ReaLemon made from concentrate and found that it tested at 4.9% citric acid, exceeding the federal standard of 4.5%.  She also found a study that tested the acidity of lemons from Florida and California, and the range was 4.53% to 7.3%, all of them exceeding the standard.  Then she titrated a supermarket lemon: 6.0% acidity.  It looks like a fresh lemon will provide at the least the acid content of the bottled stuff, and even if one lemon or lime is below the standard it is very likely that by using several lemons or limes the average acidity will be greater than the standard.  Given that one and a half tablespoons of bottled lemon juice brings a pint of salsa to a pH of about 4.2, even if a lemon or lime was a bit below the standard 4.5% acidity there’s enough margin of safety that it would have little effect.

So here’s how I made my batch of canned salsa, which is how I’ve made it in the past except for the acid component.  First I processed the tomatoes, Supersonic and San Marzano, getting 8 cups of pulp.  Red sweet peppers were grilled and then de-skinned and de-seeded.  From that I got 2 cups of pepper pulp.  This stuff would be fantastic layered on hummus.  The two pulps were combined in a blender.

I cut up two medium onions and sweated them at low heat in a pan coated with a little oil, long enough to remove the pungency and added them to the mix.  Garlic, parsley, and oregano were chopped and added.  For hot peppers I used one jalapeno and one serrano, deseeded, for each pint.  I also threw in a tobasco for the batch.  

Then there’s the acid component.  I like the taste of lime in salsa.  Two limes gave up 3 oz of juice.  The batch produced six pints of salsa, so 3 oz works out to 1 tablespoon per pint, the amount recommended by the NDSU publication.  Just to be on the safe side I added 1.5 oz of the bottled lemon concentrate, for 1.5 tablespoon per pint.  Anyway that’s how I made the salsa.  In a few days there will be enough tomatoes for another batch.  This time I’ll buy more limes and use more serranos.  (Those are refrigerator okra pickles next to the salsa).

I hope you find this information useful.    

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Aug 5

A very productive week.  I've got to decide when to dig out the spuds.  Most of the older vines have the various fungi and blights that older vines get, but there is a healthy growth of new vines too, and that means more potatoes are developing.  I've never seen this happen before but it's probably due to the mild (and pleasant) weather we've had this summer.  The mole has been conspicuous in its absence, something I correlate to the occasional appearances of the large rat snake around the property. I don't think anything is damaging the potatoes right now, so I'll wait a little longer.

There was okra.  There's always okra.  I'm harvesting okra nearly every day. Two more quarts of okra were cold pickled with some jalapenos and serranos thrown in the mix.  I'm convinced that hot canning in a boiling water bath will reduce the okra to a gelatinous mush so I'm going the cold pickle route.  If the okra harvest turns into a deluge I'll start freezing the pods whole, but it seems that the refrigerator pickles should keep a few months in the refrigerator so for now I'll keep on pickling.

A batch of tomatoes ripened all at once.  Supersonics and San Marzano.

The Tendergreen and Kentucky Wonder beans started producing.  The first patch of Provider beans planted in mid-May have gotten a second wind and are producing again. I'm not sure if I like the Tendergreen beans.  They are an excellent bean but the plant is too viney and they tangle up, which makes them a real pain in the arse, and lower back, to pick.

Finally a batch sweet peppers was ready to pick.  The large peppers are Corro di Tosa Rossa (apologies for any misspellings), a bullhorn pepper new for me this year, and the ones that look like pimentos are Lipstick.  I liked Carmens a lot better and will go back to growing them next year.

More beans and jalapenos.  Sweet peppers, hot peppers and tomatoes means salsa.  Sunday I hot canned some salsa for the first time, but that's another post, one where I'll try to talk about canning acid foods from a chemistry perspective. 

The onions were moved into the pole barn a week ago.  It was time to remove the leaves from the onions and get them ready for storage, if I could only decide where.  Anyone know where you can get mesh onion bags?  For a brief while I entertained the notion that I could braid onions and garlic, to the point of downloading a tutorial.  When I read it I found out that the author assumed that the reader actually knows how to braid something.  Off came the tops.  They weighed out to 21.8 pounds, and with the yellow onions picked several weeks ago nearly 24 pounds of onions total.  Now I get to post yet another picture of my onions. 

Can't forget the garlic, nearly a pound on my first attempt.  Not much yield but it is good.

For the week:  okra 1 lb, beans 2 lb 11 oz, tomatoes 6 lb 7 oz, peppers 2 lb 3 oz, eggplant 12 oz, garlic 14 oz, and onions 21 lb 13 oz.  Total for the week 35.3 lb.  With this harvest the yearly total goes past one hundred pounds.  Here's the spreadsheet for the year to date.  Onions have moved into first place in pounds produced, cabbage is hanging on to second place with cucumbers running third, but those rankings will change quickly.   You can click on the pic for a larger version.
To see what other people are growing go to  Declare your independence from the industrialized food system - grow your own!  

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Usually the hottest month, the weather has been more than pleasant.  The local weatherman said we just had 8 consecutive days that did not reach 80 degrees (27 C).  With the low humidity it's been great weather to get things done or just relax and do nothing.  Production from the garden is already much better than last year, when the growing season began early but then turned into an epic heat wave and drought. 

What's truly amazing this year is the lack of serious insect problems.  Flea beetles appeared on the eggplants a few weeks ago, but by that time the plants were already well established and able to shrug it off.  So far I've found one egg mass from the squash bug on the underside of a leaf, which I destroyed.  I haven't yet seen a single squash bug in the garden.  The Japanese beetles are causing some damage to the tops of the pole beans, but not much.  Their numbers have been down for three years now.  So far no cucumber beetles, Mexican been beetles or hornworms.  The cabbage worm did a little damage but a few sprayings of Bt has kept it under control.  And so far (knock on wood) no sign of damage from the borer.  I think this is what happens when the first morning of spring registers 15 degrees F.

Most of the problems have been of the microbial sort, wilts and various fungal diseases.   Hardest hit have been the cucumber plants and tomato plants, although the pathogens haven't stopped either, just slowed them down.  I've found that the Diva cucumber can usually shake off these invaders and continue producing.  Shortly after I took this picture I removed diseased foliage, something I should do every day but don't.

The biggest disappointment this year has been the tomatoes.  The Cherokee purple plant is only going to produce a few tomatoes, fighting a losing battle with fusarium wilt.  The San Marzano plant is small compared to most tomato plants.  I could have put two plants in a cage or grown them on another kind of support, as they will not get to the top of the cage.  The Supersonic plant is loaded, so loaded that the stems came off the supports and fell down, spilling a lot of semi-ripe tomatoes.  At least the stems didn't break, but are curled in an 'S' pattern.

As long as the stems don't break it should be fine. For some reason the tomato plants and some of the pepper plants set a very large number of fruit at the bottom of the plants early on.  In hindsight I should have pruned off a number of these fruits so the plants could put more energy into developing and produce their fruits higher up the stem throughout the summer.  But all those early tomatoes and peppers looked so good that I couldn't bring myself to do that.   

Of course there's another project going - it's summer after all.  One of the joists in the deck was rotting due to a water trap next to the beds.  I'm removing all of the deck boards, slow work as I try to avoid damaging them. I'll install a new joist and fix the water problem, and while the boards are off clean and stain them.  Well there's still a place to sit and drink a beer, but not for long.