Accidentally Cooking

Documenting my mistakes in the garden, kitchen and pantry


Cherries on the Cheap

With all the pick-your-own madness infecting my home this summer, There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned yet: Cherries. I love cherries, but let’s face facts: They’re not always easy to find in good qualities, they can cost an arm and a leg, and considering how fragile they are the pick-your-own thing is almost unheard of. At least, that’s the way it is in my area. Imagine my amazement then when we found bags of sweet dark cherries at the grocery store for 1.99$ per pound! Normally we see prices around the 4.50$ range. For that price, FUHGEDDABOUDIT! 1.99$ is so good in comparison that we bought 6 pounds. Next year, if we can get a similar deal, we’ll buy even more.

We also picked up a cherry pitter at Williams Sonoma, the only kitchen gadget store in the mall near the play area. It’s kind of sad the criteria we use to pick stores when we’re out shopping as a family. If the munchkin isn’t happy, none of us are happy.

First things first, we stuffed a pint jar with pitted cherries, topped it off with light rum and let it steep for about two weeks.  Looking back I’m wishing we used vodka instead; but the resulting liquor has a great cherry flavor and works wonderfully in rum cocktails. Three words for you: Crimson cherry mohitos. Next year we may attempt a similar concoction with vodka.

We made a lot of cherry jam too. We made a normal batch of cherry jam following the directions on the Sure Jell low-sugar pectin packet. Then I made a batch without pectin which I cooked down into more of a “compote” than a “jam”. Finally I tried the pectin-free thing once more, but this time I got nervous and didn’t cook it enough. This last batch tastes amazing but is a little bit more syrupy than most jams. I still like it on toast and biscuits, you just have to be careful where you drip.

Shown in this picture, from left to right: A quart of cherry pie filling,
a half-pint of no-pectin cherry jam, and two half-pints of peach jam and vanilla peach jam.

Since these cherry jams were among the first things I canned we ended up giving away many of them, as well as many of the first jars of peach jam, as gifts. I enjoy them so much myself, and I know other people have loved receiving them as well, so next year I plan to make much more of the stuff.

The whole experience has convinced me to get a cherry tree of my own, and next spring I plan to do exactly that. There are lots of hard decisions to make about what variety of tree to get, but I’ll write about all those things when it’s closer to spring.



Pick Your Own Peaches and Apples

We’ve got two pick-your-own orchards within a few minutes drive, and we’ve visited them several times this summer. Next year I plan to go even more. The first one, Shady Brook Farm seems to have fewer selections but does have a market and a nice playground to keep the munchkin occupied. The other one, Styer’s Orchard has many more trees and more varieties, but no market and not a lot for the kid to do besides pick fruit. There are other orchards a little bit further away that we haven’t been to before but I expect next year we’ll do a little bit more exploration.

We picked lots of great yellow peaches and made a few batches of peach jam to share with family. We also picked up 10lbs of white peaches early in the season and those ended up being a disappointment: Not ripe enough, not flavorful enough and spoiled too quickly.

All told I made two batches of regular peach jam, one batch with a little bit of vanilla extract mixed in (the small things can make all the difference!) , and two quart jars of peach halves in light syrup. The ones in syrup are already gone, Dana having turned them into a fantastic cobbler.

This picture shows four of the things I’ve canned so far, from left to right: a quart of cherry pie filling, a half-pint of a no-pectin cherry jam, a half-pint of peach jam and a half pint of peach vanilla jam.  I’ll talk about the cherries in a later post.

My takeaways from this peach season are that white peaches and late-season peaches gave me some real trouble. I’ll keep that in mind for next year.

Mid September now and apple season is in full swing. For our first trip out we picked up about 10lbs each of Honeycrisp and Gala.  The honeycrisp we like for eating out of hand, the gala have turned out to be one of our favorite varieties, both for cooking and eating if there are any left. I put up three pint jars of gala applesauce and two pint jars of gala apple halves in light cinnamon syrup. The sauce is already gone and the halves in syrup are looking mighty tempting. Next year I plan to get many more of both these varieties, gala especially.

Last weekend we picked up an apple pealer/corer/slicer contraption and to celebrate we picked 30lbs of Jonathan apples. These apples are decent and plentiful but we definitely don’t like them as much as the Gala. The first 10lb bag turned into apple sauce, and 5 cups of that immediately turned into a gorgeous Caramel Apple Jam. This recipe turned out a little sweeter than I would like, but it’s a great starting point for me to try new things next year.

The second 10lb bag of jonathan apples was peeled, cored, sliced and boiled down for a few hours into a nice apple butter. The flavor was good but I didn’t get the consistency as thick as I normally like.

This picture shows four apple products I’ve made already. From left to right we have gala apples in cinnamon syrup, jonathan apple sauce, apple butter, and caramel apple jam.

The last 10lb bag of jonathan’s turned into three quarts of apple pie filling. I normally use Stayman Winesap apples for pie, like my mother and grandmother before me. Those don’t ripen for at least another week or two, so I wanted to test the recipe with the jonathans. The results are not bad at all, and I’m looking forward to making some pie!


I Can’t Grow Peppers

Around March I bought a couple packets of seeds from Home Depot, some biodegradable starter pots and some seed sprouting potting mix. We picked the seeds carefully, and only stuck with varieties that we actually wanted to eat. We had a few tomato seeds, catelope and a mixed variety of hot peppers. I planted a few of each, watered diligently as per the various instructions, put them next to the closest thing we have to a sunny window, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I would estimate that about half the seeds didn’t sprout, mostly the tomatoes, and of those that did the mortality rate was high. Most of what did sprout didn’t grow, and died shortly thereafter. In fact, by the time planting time came around we had only one plant viable enough to transplant into the garden: A sad little sprout of an unknown variety of hot pepper.

We panicked and ran back out to Home Depot to buy some replacements.  I wrote about this batch in a previous post, so I won’t go into any more detail here.

The pictures below show two plants as of mid September: The one remaining mystery pepper that we started from seed in March, and a pre-sprouted Serrano pepper plant that we purchased around early May. See if you can tell which is which:

GUESS WHICH ONE IS WHICH. Take your time. I’ll give you a hint: the Serrano is the big one and the crappy little turd pepper is the crappy little one with the one stupid pepper. And don’t let the similar scales fool you, I’m zoomed in pretty close on the turd plant. It’s about 6 inches tall total, the serrano is about 2 feet and very bushy.

Here’s the Serrano from a different angle, showing just how fruitful it has been in comparison:

The Serrano is kicking butt. The little turd pepper is, as I’ve said already, a different story.

And it’s a very sad story. This pathetic little crap of a plant hasn’t hardly grown at all all summer long. It has maybe a dozen leaves on it, has produced zero fruit, hasn’t grown vertically more than an inch per month, and ranks up among the biggest disappointments in my entire life. Actually, it hasn’t produced exactly zero fruit, the picture clearly shows a tiny little pepper trying to grow. This is the first, and it’s already mid-September. Sometimes I imagine that it’s supposed to be growing some big variety of pepper like a Poblano and it makes me laugh. Seriously, LOOK AT THAT PATHETIC LITTLE PEPPER! Look at it. What the hell is wrong with this plant? I planted it right next to the Serrano so the soil quality should be identical. I planted it carefully. I watered. I fertilized. It has plenty of sun light. All the other peppers grew great. The soil pH is almost at a perfect 7, nitrogen is high enough that the tomato plants nearby practically exploded into a mini rainforest, and this stupid turd plant refuses to grow.

If I knew what cultivar of pepper this was supposed to be, I would vow never to grow it again. I’d sneak into other people’s gardens where I knew it was being grown and I’d hit those with a stick. But I don’t. Your peppers are safe, for now.

I’m going to wait a couple more weeks before I pick the stupid little turd pepper. I’ll eat it, if it hasn’t been eaten by the bugs already. If it is a poblano I’ll jam a few grains of rice in there and pretend to enjoy the world’s smallest chiles relleno.


2012 Summer Garden Results

Early in the spring I dug up a pretty big plot for my first garden. It was about 6×7 feet. I dug up all the grass by hand, turned all the dirt over by hand, sifted out the rocks by hand. I picked up a few bags “Garden Soil” from Home Depot and mixed those in too. Sometime after the last frost in April or May (I don’t remember exactly when) I put in a selection of plants:

  • 2 big tomato plants labeled “Heirloom Beefsteak” with a picture of big juicy tomatoes on the tag
  • 1 “Cherokee Purple” tomato plant, that was supposed to yeild big purple fruits
  • 1 “Mr Stripey” tomato plant with a festive picture of yellow and orange striped tomatoes
  • 1 Cherry tomato plant (I don’t remember the name of the cultivar)
  • 1 Serrano pepper plant
  • 1 Cowhorn pepper plant
  • 1 small thai pepper plant (claimed to be an ornamental but the little peppers tasted good and had a zing to them)
  • 1 Cantelope plant
  • 1 Cucumber plant
  • 1 stupid little mystery pepper.

I planted the cantelope and cucumber plants close to the edge of the garden and encouraged the vines to grow out into the surrounding lawn to avoid crowding. The tomatoes were probably a little closer together than they should have been and a few times over the summer I had to go out and do a little pruning to keep them from bunching and encouraging enough air flow. The pepper plants had their own little corner, but towards the end of August the remaining tomato plants were starting to invade and threatened to choke the peppers to death.

I say “remaining tomato plants” above because a few weeks ago I totally hulked out and smashed a few of them to death, chopped them into pieces, and angrily tossed those pieces into the compost pile.

How did my first garden as a first-time homeowner turn out? Not well.

The cucumber grew aggressively and became a huge unruly plant in only a matter of weeks, but it seemed like fruit didn’t set until a little bit later than usual. I got one decent sized cucumber off the vine before it got totally consumed by some kind of disease. Early on the plant was covered in little bugs that looked like yellow lightning bugs. I didn’t pay them any mind at first but after the plant started getting obviously sick I looked them up: Cucumber beetles. They don’t cause too much harm themselves but they are a transmission vector for nasty things like blight and cucumber mosaic virus. Great. I cut off the vines that were completely diseased and tried to salvage the last few cukes, but they all turned yellow and had a real spongy feeling. Since I didn’t know what they were sick with, the vines and all the cukes ended up in the trash instead of the compost. What a waste.

The cantelope, despite being right next to the cucumber and susceptible to many of the same ailments, didn’t seem to get any disease during the summer months. It set it’s first fruit later than the cucumber did (not until early August did I see the first ones). At it’s peak it had about a half dozen cantelopes growing, but none of them got very big. Only three of them got anywhere near ripe, and all of those three split open after a late August rain storm and were inedible. I didn’t get a single bite of cantelope for all my efforts, but at least this plant looked healthy enough to compost. Silver linings!

The two beefsteak tomato plants I got grew to be huge bushy monsters, but something was missing: Tomatoes! The two of them, despite being the biggest plants in the garden, didn’t set a single tomatoe until mid August, and the ones it did set were small, ripened extremely slowly, and were prone to splitting. By the beginning of September we had only gotten two small tomatoes from these two plants combined, and there was nothing on them worth waiting for so I went completely crazy and ripped them out by the roots. I also said some cursewords and kicked some things.

The weird purple tomato plant produced more tomatoes, but they also ripened extremely slowly, were prone to splitting and the vines always had a sickly look to them. We got one or two off this plant and there are still a few more big green ones on the vine that might be waiting for until the end of the season. The weird yellow-and-orange tomato plant progressed similarly, producing maybe three or four through the season worth eating. I ripped this one out at the same time as the beefsteaks, because there was nothing on the vine that I expected to be ripe and edible before the end of the month.

The cherry tomato plant was the standout star. Despite being in the same exact soil less than a few feet away from the other poor performers, it’s produced a pretty large crop of very sweet and tasty little tomatoes. At some points we had so many cherry tomatoes that we didn’t know what to do with, that we started making all sorts of things that typically required some larger volumes of tomatoes: salsa, bruchetta, pasta, etc. Encouraged by this performance, I fully intend to grow more cherry tomato plants like this next year.

This picture shows the huge clusters of tomatoes I still have on my little cherry tomato plant. In the background you can make out one of the larger “Purple Cherokee” tomatoes starting to ripen. These are the only two tomato plants that I haven’t ripped out in an angry rage.

The Serrano and Cowhorn peppers both grew well and produced good crops of peppers. We don’t eat a lot of peppers (Dana doesn’t really eat them at all) so I had the good problem of having more than I knew what to do with. I mixed up a few small jars of pepper relish, have a few cowhorns hanging up to dry, have a jar full of serranos in vinegar to make hot sauce, and have plans to make some pepper jelly with the ones on the vine right now. I’m letting this next crop of Serranos ripen fully and turn red before I make the jelly.

This picture shows the cowhorn and serrano pepper plants right next to each other, with several from each plant ready to be picked. The cowhorns are on the left. The serranos are pickable now, but I want to wait a little longer for some of them to turn red.

The little thai pepper plant produced a crapton of beautiful red peppers, but they were too pretty and too much effort to harvest so I’ve left most of them on the vine. It’s a gorgeous plant, but I probably won’t grow this one again because the peppers are too small and just don’t have enough kick or flavor to make the enterprise worthwhile.

I’m already using this information to help plan out what tomato varieties I want to grow next year, now we just need to get through the long winter months!