Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dehydrating Herbs

I am having great fun with my Excalibur brand food dehydrator.

Have you ever grown something that looks and tastes so good, you want to preserve that goodness for the long term? My mint grows beautifully in the spring, for example, but I know it will look cruddy when the summer heat hits, or after it flowers. But right now it's gorgeous.

I took a great class on dehydrating taught by my friend Lanette Lepper through the Virginia Urban Homesteaders' League. Until then I had always thought of dehydrating most foods as a last resort. But her class, especially tasting the samples she brought, opened up a whole new world for me. I discovered that dehydrating is one of the oldest, safest, most economical, and most nutritious methods of food preservation known to humankind, and that many foods actually taste better after dehydration.

I had tried dehydrating a few years ago using a cheap dehydrator and discovered I didn't have the patience for it. What I learned in Lanette's class is that an Excalibur will save the time and trouble of swapping out trays to keep the drying even, it has a thermostat that you can set, and that certain models are big enough that you can use them to make yogurt or proof homemade bread in. I was hooked.

So far I have successfully dehydrated bananas, lots of stawberries, some strawberry and mulberry fruit rolls, vegetables like kale and arugula from my CSA from Farm Chicks Produce, and lots of fresh herbs. The herbs taste amazing and are 20 times better than anything you can buy in the store. Here are some pictures from my efforts at drying herbs, including sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme, mint, dill, and lemon balm, today.

Preserve your mint when it looks most inviting!
Lemon balm ready to dry on a tray of the dehydrator
The 9-tray Excalibur has so much room, you can even make yogurt in it!

The Excalibur comes with a great manual and a starter recipe book. But not everything is best dehydrated. Basil, for example, loses a lot of its flavor when dried. Some foods rehydrate better than others. But I am finding this process useful enough that I plan to keep it up. I can't wait to enjoy my own mint in the smoothies I make this summer and in the mint herb teas (tisanes) I will enjoy all winter long.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Berry-Picking: Backyard Fun, Life Lessons, or Both?

Picking Berries is Best in the Morning Shade

The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.  --Epicurus

Today I went berry-picking, right in my own back yard! In the summer I like to make smoothies from Stonyfield Farm non-fat organic yogurt, frozen berries, a little juice or almond milk, and various flavorings, especially mint from my garden.

Due to the antioxidant or flavonoid properties of the berries, and perhaps due to rising fuel prices, the price of the frozen berries I like has gotten high. I have therefore started planting blackberries, fig trees, huckleberries, paw paws, and other "easy" fruits and berries for my region. I am a teacher, so I will use some of my time in the summer to pick and preserve these backyard treasures. In the meantime I may find time to go to pick-your-own places at local farms, which is a terrific way to save money and support local farmers at the same time. I also get some local berries and fruits as part of my family's weekly farm share from Farm Chicks Produce.

But my most rewarding source of fresh berries comes from trees that have been growing on our property for years. We ignored them, almost as though they were a nuisance, until I finally realized the berries they produced were not only edible but truly delicious. The trees are, in fact, black mulberries, Morus nigra, as far as I can tell. Now that I realize how easy it is to pick and freeze these, I pick all I can during the few weeks of the year when the berries are available. Best of all, the purple-black berries are nutritious and a source of those sought-after antioxidants that make the price of blueberries, for example, so ridiculous these days. Besides smoothies, I also like them in muffins, plain, or mixed in yogurt. Their flavor is a little tart, but pleasantly so.

Berry picking is not just a way of saving money. It's a time for reflection and for communing with nature. I love the sound of the birds singing and of my backyard hens softly clucking to each other, or the sight of a native bee among the leaves, seeking pollen from the mulberry flowers. Today I was reflecting about the myriad life lessons I have gathered along with the mulberry fruit:

  • Be gentle. Bruise the fruit or break a tree limb, and you wll regret your haste.
  • Be persistent. Berries that aren't ripe yet need a revisit in a couple of days, or sometimes even a few hours. Frequent sessions will fill your freezers, but neglect the job, and you will find your potential harvest lying all over the ground.
  • Plan ahead.  It is easy to make cuttings or grow more trees from cuttings, and then you can share them with your neighbors.
  • The grass isn't always greener elsewhere. Why pay the supermarket for something like berries, when fresher ones are growing on your own property?
  • Be thankful for what you have.
  • Use the right tools for the job. The right ladder can make a trip to the backyard even more productive, and the right pail (see picture below) can keep you from spilling your berries all over the ground. I learned this the hard way.
  • Things go better when your foundation is firm. Plant your ladder securely before you start climbing.
  • Don't overextend yourself. One needs to keep a certain balance in life.
  • Look at things from different angles and perspectives. It's amazing how shifting your position a few inches in any direction--up, down, or sideways--can cause you to see opportunities you couldn't see before.
  • Waste not, want not. Backyard chickens are great for this. If too many berries have fallen to the ground, we can fence our laying hens with them for an afternoon. They will gobble them up, fertilize the trees a little with their manure, and gobble up any ticks or other bugs they can find in the understory. Then they turn all they found into nutritious eggs, all while having a grand time! It's a win-win.
  • There are pluses and minuses to everything. Besides getting a little dirty and sweaty, there are greenbriers, poison ivy, and occasional ticks to watch out for. Overall, though, the experience is more than worth it. 
  • Setting a little time aside to pick berries is really setting aside time for yourself.
  • The best things in life really ARE free!
I wish more people would unplug from their computers, video-games, and television for a while and go berry-picking, even in their own back yards. They would discover the beauty of the natural world around them and be healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually for it. I know I am.

A good ladders is helpful, but it's a long way down!