Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Canning pies

 I've been canning cobbler for a while, and we've been enjoying eating it, but this week I got the idea to try canning pie.  I still had a few bags of apples from this fall's harvest that I hadn't gotten canned yet, so I decided to experiment with some of them.

First I peeled and cut up the apples and mixed them with sugar, cinnamon, and flour.  I used about a cup of sugar, a Tablespoon of cinnamon, and half a cup of flour, and stirred that together first, then stirred it into the apple pieces.

I mixed up pie crust.  I used 4 cups of flour, a scant teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of sugar, which I stirred together.  Then I put in about half a cup of coconut oil (which is solid like shortening at our room temperature.  You can use shortening or lard if you'd rather) and a quarter cup of butter (you can use margarine, or just use shortening for this too).  I have a pastry blender but I never use it.  I just grabbed a sturdy table fork out of the drawer and mashed the coconut oil and butter into the flour until it was all even.  I had to turn the bowl a few times and stir some of the flour to the center so I could get it mashed in with the oil. 

When it was all evenly crumbled into the flour I poured in one cup of milk and 1/4 cup water.  I stirred it until it was mostly a blob of dough.  Then I used my hands to work the rest of the flour into it, packing it like a snowball instead of kneading it, though I did have to squeeze and work the dough ball some to get it all smooth and even.  They say if you knead or work pie crust dough too much you'll have hard crusts.  I wasn't sure it mattered in canning, but I tried to do it like I would for a regular baked-in-the-oven pie.

Now for the fun part.  I used wide-mouth pints because they have nice straight sides and I figured I could just run a knife around between the jar and the crust, and slide the pie right out.  I measured the diameter and circumference of the jar.  3 1/2" by 8".  I rolled out some of the crust and used a measuring tape and a stick to cut the dough to the that size.  I flattened a disk of dough and put it in the bottom of the jar.  Then I laid the crust in the jar, rolled around against the sides.  It immediately buckled and I had to use my fingers to mash it back against the sides.  I quickly spooned in some of the apple filling, packing it just a bit to work the apple pieces down in against each other, without packing it too tight.

I decided the heck with rolling it out.  I just took pieces of dough and flattened it some in my hands, then pressed it against the jar sides, working up from the bottom.  I mashed the pieces together to make a solid crust all the way around the jar, then put the apple filling in it.  Then I made another disk to put across the tops.

I didn't think to get a picture with the filling in the jars, and no 'top disk' of crust on them.  The three jars to the left are filled and have the crust on top.  The one on the right has the crust mashed against the sides, and I'm about to spoon the apples into it.
When I had all the jars filled I put a dab of butter on the top crust.  You can see that in the center of each jar.  I was already wiping rims and putting the lids on when I thought to take a picture.  The lids are in the pan to the right.  They had been simmering on the stove to soften the seals while I filled the jars.  Next they went into the pressure canner.
Apples by themselves can be canned in a water-bath canner, but I wasn't sure about a flour-based product like pie crust.  So I went ahead and used my pressure canner.  I canned them for 15 minutes (once the weight started jiggling) at 10 lbs. pressure.  We are at 3,500' of elevation, so I always can at higher pressure than people who live at low elevations.  If you're under 1,000' of elevation you could can this at 5 lbs. pressure.

These are the finished pies.  There were seven but we ate one and we gave a jar to our daughter and grandkids.  I didn't take this picture until this morning.  These definitely need to be labeled because I can see myself pulling one off the shelf and thinking "What in the world is THIS?"

Like I said, we ate one.  It had cooled a bit but was still warm.  I slid the knife around between glass and crust and confidently tipped it over the plate on the right.  The filling plopped out onto the plate.  I had to nudge the crust, then it fell out on top of the filling.  Oh well, I shrugged.  I divided part of the crust and part of the filling onto each plate.  My husband made hot cocoa and we sat down to enjoy an evening snack.
The filling was a tad sweeter than necessary, and since it was still warm, it was a bit syrupy.  It had soaked into the crust somewhat, but the crust wasn't really soggy.  It was like all of the crust was "the bottom crust", and not like the flaky top crust would be.  It was delicious.
Next time I try this I'm going to drain the apples better.  As I peel and cut them I drop the pieces into a big bowl of water with a crushed vitamin C tablet in the water to keep the apples from turning brown.  I'm also going to add a bit more flour for thickener. 
I also think if the pies were completely cooled they would thicken more.  Then I could dip the jar in hot water to help loosen the crust from the jar, since I can't get a knife under the bottom 'disk' of crust.  I'd still run a knife around the side to make sure it was loosened.  I had imagined a cylinder of pie sliding out onto the plate, which I could then slice. 
We're not very picky around our house.  Most of our family and friends have thought this would be cool.  Some have turned their noses up and thought I should just can the apples and make the pies 'fresh' as we want them.  But I think this is great because if we've worked hard all day and I'm tired, I have instant pie ready to serve.  If we go to town (60 miles to town) I can take our own healthy food to eat and bring along a pie.  They would be great for camping, or on long trips.
Some people freeze extra pies, but right now we don't have a freezer.  If you've read my other posts you know that our refrigerator died a few weeks ago.  We were using a small 'college' freezer after that, but now it's cold enough outside that we've unplugged it for the winter, as we do every year.  We have solar electric power and the days are too short and cloudy in the winter for running a refrigerator, and nature provides refrigeration for about 6 months up here. 
I have frozen pies in the past and I think that my canned pies are pretty similar to what you get when you thaw a cooked-then-frozen pie.  My mom would make up pies and freeze them without baking them, and the crust and filling were always kind of watery when she'd thaw and cook them.  I'm sure other people have had more success with that, because I see frozen pies for sale at the grocery stores.
Please leave comments or questions below, or email them to:
(and be patient.  I get so many emails it takes a while to answer everyone,
especially this time of year.)
Thank you


Monday, October 20, 2014

Preserving Vegetables, Grains, and Beans

Dave and I have finished and published our third book together.  The first two are "Preserving Meat, Dairy, and Eggs", and "Preserving Fruits, Nuts, and Seeds".  It took months of research, experimenting, and writing, and dozens of emails flying back and forth between Montana and Texas, but it was a fun project. 
Here's the blurb for the book from the Amazon website:

"There are a lot of books about food preserving but what sets this book (and the first two of this series, “Preserving Meat, Dairy, and Eggs” and “Preserving Fruits, Nuts, and Seeds” is that each food and all of the methods for preserving that particular food are described in their own chapters.
In Part I of this book it begins with vegetables and works it's way through each vegetable in alphabetical order. Then on to Grains and then Beans (legumes). All methods of preserving that work well with each food are explained along with directions for the preparation and processing of that food. There is also information about what doesn't work and why.
In Part II it explains the preservation methods and how to do them, and what you'll need for: Canning, Dehydrating, Freezing, Salting, Brining, Sugaring, Smoking, Pickling, and Fermenting, as well as some not-as-often heard-of methods: Ash, Oil, and Honey for food preservation.
Everything is something that the authors have personally done or tried, or in a few cases, spoke to someone who had. Both authors have been preserving food for about half a century, first as kids helping their parents, and then as adults (and parents) preserving food for their families. 
The authors live on opposite ends of the country (North and South) and bring some of their own regional flavor to the book, making it interesting as well as informative."
If you already own the first two this will round out your collection.  We hope it's a useful and helpful book.
Please leave comments or questions below, or email them to:
Susan (and Dave) 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Solar Cooking

Chili in our solar cooker
Four years ago we got some unexpected money for Christmas and we thought about what we could buy with it that would make us more self-sufficient.  We browsed around on the internet and came up with the idea to get a solar oven.  We knew they weren't hard to make but it seemed like a treat to be able to just buy one.  We found a solar cooker called the "Hot Pot". 
I looked today and I don't find it on Amazon any more, but here's a picture I took when we first got it.  I did find it on other sites, so here's a link to where I did find it for sale on the internet: Hot Pot Solar Cooker.  I don't know anything about this website but it looks legit.  The folding reflector is laying on top of the box. 
And here's looking in the box.  It consists of a large glass bowl, a black metal inner bowl (separate from the glass bowl), a glass lid, and the folding reflector.
I left this picture sideways to try and keep the print legible, since the picture got smaller when I turned it up right.  It shows a diagram of how the black bowl nests in the glass bowl (which they call the greenhouse!), and the lid goes on top.  This all sits in the reflector after it's unfolded.
One of the first things we made in it was chili.  On the table by the can opener is a bag of dried peppers.  To it's left is a bread bag of dried tomato slices.  In the bowl, starting with the bottle of olive oil on the left and going clockwise, there is dried chopped onions, chili powder, home-canned ground venison in the jar, a can of kidney beans, and a can of tomato paste. 
I stirred it all together in the black bowl, cold, and set it in the glass bowl and then in the reflector. Two hours later it was too hot to stick my finger in it.  I let it cook for about four hours, turning the whole thing, reflector and all, about once an hour to keep it facing
directly at the sun.  Since the meat and beans were already cooked this was probably
safe to eat as soon as it was hot enough to enjoy.
Next I made chicken and dumplings on another day.  Since we didn't have a refrigerator most of my meat was canned, unless we'd been to town that day and had fresh meat.  For this chicken and dumplings I used a jar of home-canned chicken (cooked and deboned before canning) and made it up in a "white sauce", or gravy.  I added diced potatoes, carrots, peas, and onions, and seasoning salt.  Then I put it in the solar cooker.  After it was good and hot and bubbling (about two hours later) I mixed up biscuit dough and plopped balls of it into the 'soup' and put the glass lid back on.  It took an hour for the 'dumplings' to cook.
Here's the chicken and dumplings, all finished and ready to eat!
Next I made spaghetti.  I used canned ground venison for the meat, so it was already cooked.  I added tomato sauce, herbs from my garden, chopped onions, and uncooked spaghetti noodles.  I broke the noodles into pieces about 3" to 4" long to fit them down in the bowl and work them into the water.  I wasn't sure how this was going to turn out!

Three hours later the spaghetti was done and the noodles were cooked to perfection.

Then for some reason I got the idea to spoon cornbread batter over it and bake it.
It's better with chili than with spaghetti, but the cornbread did indeed cook, and after we lifted it off the spaghetti and ate it on the side, it was a good meal.
More experimenting.  This is beans and rice.  The beans might have been old, but they never got completely soft.  They were on the grainy side.  I added chopped tomatoes and peppers and spices, and it was a decent meal.  Now when I do beans I boil them on the stove for two minutes, then shut them off and let them sit for an hour.  Then I put them in the solar cooker for the rest of the day and they come out fine.  But soaking them overnight and then putting them in the solar cooker did not work as well.  I will try it again with fresh beans some time.
Cream of potato soup.  This came out fantastic!  I peeled and cut potatoes and carrots into small cubes, and 'cooked' them in chicken broth for about an hour.  Then I added chopped onion and celery, and salt, pepper, and a pinch of garlic powder.  A couple hours later I took it out of the solar cooker and stirred in a bit of cheddar cheese until it melted.  It was delicious!
Black beans, with chopped onion and tomatoes in it.  We added 'biscuits' on top and cooked it, after the beans were done.  It was a good, hearty meal.
One day I was baking bread and I was looking for a warm place to set the dough to raise.  I got the idea to set the bread dough, stainless steel mixing bowl and all, into the solar cooker and set it in the doorway in the sun.  No reflector.

The temperature was perfect and my dough raised beautifully.
I could only do one dish at a time in our solar cooker and by the time side dishes heated, the main dish was cold.  So I thought... why not make a solar cooker patterned off the one we bought, sort of.
I found a box at the grocery store that already had the front cut out.  I got out a glass bowl with a lid, and a blue enameled bowl, to make the "greenhouse" part.  I used aluminum foil to cover the box.

Here's the covered box, and there's some carrots from our garden.

I cut up the carrots and put them in the bowl.  I agonized for a few minutes about whether to add water or not.  I did add water, thinking that maybe it would transfer the heat better among the carrots.  I needed to cook them, not just 're-heat' them.  Since then I've re-heated carrots and other vegetables in there with no water, but I've never tried to start with raw vegetables and cook them with no water.  It would probably work without water, and maybe just take longer.

I had potatoes cooking in the 'real' solar cooker while the carrots cooked in the homemade
solar cooker.  When the potatoes were done I mashed them and added butter, salt, and milk.  We put a dusting of salt and a little butter on the carrots.  My husband's grilled pork chops were the main course for this meal.  All it cost us to cook this meal was the charcoal in his grill.
On days when we have company and I can't use the picnic table for my solar cooker I have set it on a chair within our garden fence.  I go out there every now and then, and turn it a bit at a time to keep it facing the sun
When we're 'boondock' camping in the desert of southern Nevada in our home-made uhaul truck-camper the wind can get really bad.  Sometimes I have to set it back in out of the wind because the folding reflector will start bending and leaning.
There are dozens of solar cookers and solar ovens for sale, and you can find plans all over the internet for making and using this free source of cooking heat.  Some of the youtube videos are very helpful in showing step-by-step directions.  Library books are another source of pictures and descriptions, if your library has books for self-sufficiency or homesteading-type books.   And I just showed you how I made one for free. 
Here's a couple of quick links if you just want to just zip over and look at some:
Cooking with the sun is fun.  It's kind of like "cheating", to get something for 'free'.  Of course, you have to buy or make the oven but after that all it requires is a sunny day.  Keep in mind that the times I gave for how long MY food took to cook might not be the same for you, or even for me each time I use my solar cooker.  The outdoor temperature can play a small part in it, but the intensity and angle of the sun makes a bigger difference.  If it's a very-clear fall day and the sun hasn't slid too far down on the horizon it will cook faster than on a hazy day in July.  The middle of the day is the best time to use the solar cooker.  Let the sun get up for a couple of hours and plan to be done before it starts down toward the western horizon. 
Please leave comments or questions below, or email them to me at
Thank you!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Practicing what I preach.... my fridge died.

I've lived most of my adult life without refrigeration.  But a few years ago we added a few more solar panels to our small array and decided we had enough to run a small energy-efficient refrigerator.  We bought a 10-cubic foot refrigerator from Home Depot, and we put it on a shaded porch where it would be out of the sun during the day, and during our cold Montana nights (even in summer), it wouldn't run much after dark when it would only have the power from our battery bank after the sun went down. 

Just took this picture, with the flash since it's dark outside.  This is the fridge that just
died.  That's a magnet on the freezer door, from the sporting goods store.

We had some problems at first since it didn't like our inverter. My husband could talk at length about different inverters and sine waves and modified sine waves and so forth, and about the electronics on newer appliances and how delicate they are.  The bottom line for me was that we needed a different inverter.  A neighbor had just replaced theirs with a bigger one and the older one was the right kind of "waves" that my husband thought would work better for the refrigerator.

He rewired our solar power system and put the refrigerator and a few other things on that inverter, and left the rest of the house on our old inverter.  All went well for a few years.

I thought in the back of the mind that milk wasn't staying as cold lately as it should be.  Friday I went to put something in the littler freezer and I thought "huh, some of this stuff doesn't feel that solid", so I turned the freezer up a little bit. 

The next day, Saturday, we went to town in the morning and among other errands we picked up groceries.  When we got home and I went to put the food away, the first thing I did was open the freezer to put in the bags of frozen mixed vegetables I'd just bought.  It was barely cool in there and everything was partially thawed.  I opened the fridge compartment and felt the milk carton.  It wasn't very cold either.

My husband put a thermometer in the fridge and in the freezer.  He tried a few other things, such as unplugging it for a while, then plugging it back in.  He pulled out the manual and went through the trouble-shooting section.

I pulled out canning jars and got busy.  I started with all the meat, vegetables, and broth that I had stored in the freezer.

Here's the jars on the counter, and a pan (right) with the bags of meat and bags of vegetables.
I had just chopped up an onion and distributed it among the jars.
I added vegetables, meat, fettucine noodles, and salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and a bit of powdered dried spinach.  Then I rain it through the pressure canner.
Then I lined a cake pan lid with parchment paper and spread sour cream on it to dry.
I lined some dehydrator sheets with parchment paper and spread cottage cheese on them.
In the upper left corner you can see shelf brackets where I have two of the drying pans sitting.  The top one is the cake pan lid with the sour cream on it.  The bottom one is cottage cheese.  This is behind our woodstove. That cement board on top of cement blocks leaning against the log wall is to keep our log wall from getting too hot.  The black thing running up the right side of the picture is our stove pipe.  Food dries quickly there behind the woodstove.
The other sheets of cottage cheese are in the oven drying.  We have a propane range with a pilot light in the oven, and it keeps it warm and dry in the oven.
One of our sons gave us a small fridge his father-in-law had picked up at a yard sale for $20.  It's just a little square cube, but it holds a couple gallons of milk, the cheese and butter, and a few packages of meat that I stuffed in it's little (and already frosty) freezer. 
It's also out on the porch and not running much with our 35 degree nights and 50-ish days.  Not all small fridges are low-watt but fortunately this one is only 135 watts.  We plan to have it emptied and shut off in a couple weeks.  We don't have enough solar over the winter, and by then "nature's refrigerator" has kicked in up here in cold country.
I had just stocked up on butter and cheddar cheese because they finally ran a good sale.  I had planned to freeze the extra pounds of butter, and use up the 2-lb. block of cheese before it got too old.  But now I've rounded up several half-pint jars and I'm going to can up the butter and cheese in those jars tomorrow.  Fortunately the ketchup, mayo, parmesan cheese, and eggs are keeping just fine in the little cooler.  I open it at night and set everything out on the table on the porch so the cold nights chill it good.  First thing in the morning I set it back in the cooler and close it, and set it on the floor with a blanket around it for insulation. 
We'll wait until spring to decide if we want to try a refrigerator again.  Propane refrigerators are expensive and way out of reach for us.  So it would have to be a small, energy-efficient fridge again.  But we might have the same problem again with the electronics being fried by the variances in voltage and sine waves and other issues that come with a solar power system.
But that doesn't bother me.  After all, life without refrigeration has been the norm for me for years, and besides...I wrote the book on "Life Without Refrigeration"! 
Hmmm... some humor... I guess like a bake sale to raise money, I could put my book link here and raise money for a new refrigerator!  Might have enough by spring!  :D
Please leave questions or comments below or email them to me at:
 Here's the dehydrated cottage cheese after it dried.  It crumbled into pieces, which I crumbled further and put in a pint jar.  The 16-oz. carton of cottage cheese that I dried ended with a little over half of a pint jar of dried cottage cheese.  It only took over night to dry, but I ended up leaving it on the racks until late afternoon because I was busy. 
To re-hydrate it I put some of the dried cottage cheese in a bowl and add a little water and keep stirring and mashing at it with a spoon until it's creamy and mixed.  It's not as tasty at 'room temperature' so you can mix up a small bowl and set it in the fridge to chill if you want.
The sour cream came out well too.  It's like dried white frosting in texture and appearance.  It rehydrates well, just like the cottage cheese.  A bit in a bowl and keep adding a few drops of water at a time until it's the consistency you want.

Garden reflectors to scare birds away

This might not be the best time of year for this, since garden season is pretty much over in most parts of the country.  But we opened a can of hot cocoa today and I went to store the foil top with the other ones I keep for my garden, and I thought I should make a post about it. 

Under the plastic lid on a lot of beverage powder cans are these foil inner lids that are pulled off and thrown away when a person opens the can.  Several years ago I started saving them to use in my garden to scare birds away from things like strawberries, raspberries, and cherries.
They all have pull tabs on one side, as you can see in the pictures.  The one on the left is a foil-type one and I have to punch a hole in the pull tab in order to run a string through it and tie it to my plants.  The one on the right is a harder metal and has a tab with a hole already in it.
Sometimes I just use yarn, string, or baling twine through the holes and tie them on the plants in ways that a slight breeze will cause them to flutter.  I have also run a rope the length of a row of plants and ties these foil 'reflectors' every few feet onto that rope.  They flutter and the bright reflections scare birds away and protect the fruit, and I don't have to worry about getting netting and spreading it.  Around here the birds can clean out a whole crop if you don't do something.
If nothing else, maybe knowing about it now can allow those who want to try this to start saving those lids.  It doesn't matter what size they are, so you can save them off of any size can. 
Please leave comments or questions below, or email them to me at