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Monthly Archives: July 2009

New Potatoes & Peas from a Home Kitchen Garden

A bowl of hot New Potatoes and Peas goes well with just about any meal. As an omnivore, I especially like this dish with steak or pork—seasoned with onion powder, salt, and pepper and then grilled. New Potatoes and Peas can even satisfy as a main course.

Few meals I cook from my home kitchen garden excite me as much as New Potatoes and Peas. This is not a difficult dish to prepare, and it’s not a particularly brilliant assortment of culinary preparations. Rather, it’s a simple, traditional, hearty, and historical dish that I imagine gardeners have prepared for centuries.

My dad grew up eating New Potatoes and Peas, so my mom had to learn how to make them. Of course, I needed to learn how when I moved out on my own. I’m inviting you to participate in the tradition in hopes you’ll enjoy this fine dish as much as I do, and that it will provide you with further motivation to get gardening in the spring.

Red Potatoes & Peas from a Home Kitchen Garden

Use about a quart of new, red-skinned potatoes if they’re small, or, perhaps, five full-grown newly-harvested potatoes. Also, use about two cups of freshly-hulled peas. You’re not going to peel the potatoes, so scrub them thoroughly (I use a stiff-bristled plastic vegetable brush). Nothing spoils a serving of New Potatoes and Peas more than biting into a trace of residual garden soil.

Are There Peas in your Home Kitchen Garden?

I don’t grow a home kitchen garden for survival, though I love how homegrown produce decreases my grocery expenses. Mostly, I grow vegetables and fruits because they’re so incredibly better than their store-bought equivalents. Peas are among the most impressively better vegetables. In my hardiness zone 5b/6a neighborhood, these sweet, delicious garden pearls come ready in mid-to-late spring and last until early summer.

Sadly, my pea plants have given up, despite continued cool nights. That’s OK, because I need the space for winter squash and herbs, but I always lament the passing of the pea plants. For those who can still get garden fresh peas, please make up a batch of New Potatoes and Peas and tell me what you think.

If you’re using large potatoes, cut them into bite-sized pieces. I cut mine even smaller than traditional whole new potatoes which run an inch or two in diameter. Whether you cut them up or use whole potatoes, you must cook them before preparing the rest of the dish. Put them in a pot that is only half full with the potatoes in it; you’ll eventually finish the dish in this pot. Cover the potatoes with water and then, for the most authentic results, boil the potatoes until they soften but are not mushy. After the water starts to boil, I poke a cooking potato with a fork every three minutes or so. If the fork punctures the surface easily but the inner flesh is still firm, the potatoes are done. To be certain, lift one from the pot, cool it down quickly in water, and eat it. If it’s too crispy for your taste, let them cook a bit longer. To hold the potatoes until the rest of the dish is ready, pour off the hot water and leave the potatoes in the pot, uncovered.

The peas shouldn’t need much cooking. My mom usually didn’t cook them at all before adding them to the cream sauce (in a later step). I usually pour boiling water from the potatoes into a much smaller pot holding the peas and then boil the peas for three to five minutes. Don’t cook them really long or you’ll boil the flavor and character out of them. To hold the peas after cooking, pour off the hot water and fill the pot with cold water. Set the peas aside.

What Are New Potatoes?

Potato plants aren’t lovers of frost, but you can plant potatoes a few weeks before the last frost date in your area. If you do that, and you plant peas about the same time, the potato plants are likely to have made little potatoes by the time you’re harvesting peas.

These small potatoes would become full-grown potatoes if given the chance. However, when you harvest “new potatoes,” you sacrifice the plant (though I’ve heard that if you plant in a potato tower or box, you can harvest young potatoes from below and leave the plant to continue producing through the summer).

You don’t need to grow your own to get good new potatoes. However, shop at a farmers’ market or a growers’ market if you want the best. For New Potatoes and Peas, look for red-skinned potatoes that are one- to two-inches in diameter. It’s OK to get larger potatoes; I do it all the time and have never been disappointed. Often it’s hard to find small potatoes, but if you find this year’s red-skinned potatoes of any size, they’ll make the dish authentic.

Melt four or five tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan while slicing up a medium-sized onion (or half of a large Spanish onion). I like big chunks, but feel free to dice your onion. Sauté the onion over medium-high heat until the chunks become translucent. You’re going to make roux (flour and butter mixed), so add one tablespoon of flour for each tablespoon of butter you melted in the first place.

Toss the onions in the flour and stir it around until the flour soaks up all the butter in the pan. If the flour and butter mixture is runny, add more flour until the roux is just shy of clumping… but don’t panic if it clumps; you’re fine as long as you can mix in all the flour that you’ve added.

Finally, add milk (traditionally, you use cream… and by all means go ahead if you don’t mind the fat), stirring constantly until the milk gets very hot and the mixture thickens. How much milk to add? Roughly, add three-to-four cups of milk. Start with less, heat till it’s thick, and add more milk if the mixture is too thick. The sauce should stick to the onion chunks and “give” like thin pudding; it shouldn’t run off the spoon when you scoop it out of the pan and pour it back in, but it shouldn’t be so thick that you could cut it with a knife.

Recipe? Sorry… No Recipe

I’m afraid I don’t have a recipe for New Potatoes and Peas. I make up each pot depending on how many diners I expect, how many peas I have, and how many potatoes. The illustrations show the steps with enough explanation that you should be able to improvise adequately. I followed my mom’s recipe once, and the results were nothing like what mom used to make. Follow the instructions in the figure captions, and you’ll know how to succeed every time.

Take the onion sauce off the heat and pour all the water off the potatoes. Put the pot of potatoes on the hot burner and immediately pour in the onions and cream sauce. Quickly strain the peas and add them to the pot. Stir it all together as it heats, and add salt and pepper to taste.

 

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Strawberries from a Home Kitchen Garden

Jam that you make from fresh-picked strawberries is noticeably better-tasting than store-bought jam.

Strawberry season is running out in my home kitchen garden; I may have berries for another week. As we do every year, we’ve consumed a lot of strawberries this spring… but it wasn’t enough. I want to extend my relationship with strawberries throughout the year. One way I do this is by making jam.

Jam is a combination of fruit, sugar, and pectin. Pectin thickens when you cook it, but it doesn’t impart color to whatever you add it to. Consider: if you thicken juice with cornstarch or flour, you create an opaque pie filling. If you thicken the same juice with pectin, you create jelly.

Pectin exists naturally in fruit… but rarely in great enough amounts to make the fruit’s juice jell. Traditionally, you add an enormous amount of sugar and extra pectin to fruit juice, cook it, and the juice gels. That’s what we’re doing in this blog post.

Read the instructions that come in the box. Follow them! Minor deviations won’t cause problems (an ounce here-or-there), but if you miscount cups of sugar or fruit, you may not like the results. The strawberry jam recipe that came with the powdered pectin I used called for the following: 2 quarts of washed and capped berries. ¼ cup of lemon juice. Seven cups of sugar. One package of fruit pectin. An optional tablespoon of butter. Also, note that you’ll need a large pot in which to boil jars, a small pot in which to heat lids, a medium pot (about a gallon capacity) in which to cook jam, a large spoon, measuring cups, a canning funnel (though you can survive without the funnel), tongs (to lift things out of boiling water), and a canning jar lifter (again, I managed without one for years). Oh, it’s wise to have a pot holder or a dry towel on-hand as well as a damp (but clean) dish cloth.

Before I start making jam, I rinse the jelly jars and put them in a large pot of water on high heat so the water will boil. I put a matching number of canning lids and bands in a smaller pot of water, and I heat that on low so the water gets very hot without boiling. It can take 30 minutes for the pot of jars to start boiling, so I often take a break while the water heats. The pectin I’m using claims to produce eight cups of jam… so I heat enough jars to hold ten cups, in case the estimate is low. Eventually, however, you need to mash the strawberries. I use a rusty potato masher, and I smoosh the berries into small pieces; large chunks are hard to spread on sandwiches.

Jelly or Jam?

Measure the sugar into a bowl before you start cooking the fruit! Ideally, use a bowl you can dump with only one hand; you’ll add the sugar to the cooking jam a bit later and it’s nice to have one hand free so you can keep stirring as the sugar goes in. The pectin I use calls for seven cups of sugar for a single batch of strawberry jam.

Often, people I talk with about jam and jelly ask, “What’s the difference?” Quite simply: you make jam using juice and chunks of fruit, you make jelly from juice with all the fruit pulp strained out of it. From the perspective of the jam-maker, jam and jelly are nearly identical: once you’ve prepared the fruit or the juice, you follow the same steps to cook it into jam or jelly.

The single greatest aide to success at jam-making is to buy a box of powdered fruit pectin, open it, read the instructions it contains, and **follow those instruction**. Until jam- and jelly-making comes automatically to you, don’t mess with the recipes. Using more or less sugar, changing the cooking time, or using too little or too much fruit all can affect the finished product quite noticeably. Too much sugar and over-cooking can result in jam that comes out of the jar in one piece. Too little sugar and under-cooking can result in jam that runs rather than spreading.

I measure five cups of mashed berries into the cooking pot. Then I add a quarter cup of lemon juice (yes, I use the bottled stuff) and the packet of pectin. The pot goes on the stove on high heat and I don’t stop stirring until the jam is done. Cooking works like this: 1. Stir until the mixture boils. 2. Pour in all the sugar at once and mix it in. 2b. Add a tablespoon of butter if you believe it will help keep foam from forming. 3. Stir until the mixture starts boiling despite the stirring activity. From that moment, boil the stuff for exactly 60 seconds. Watch it carefully because it may want to boil over. On my electric stove, I turn off the burner after 15 seconds of boiling, and leave the pot in place. There is always enough heat in the burner to keep the jam bubbling for 45 more seconds. When that minute of boiling ends, remove the pot from the heat. In this photo, you can see the large (covered) kettle in which jars are boiling, and the smaller pot that contains lids and bands heated just below boiling.

The pectin box contains specific instructions for making jam or jelly from most common types of fruit. Harvest or buy fruit accordingly, and make sure you have the necessary equipment on-hand before you start.

Preserved from a Home Kitchen Garden

Jam made at home from fresh fruit, will keep for a year or longer when you can it properly. Heck, without canning, my mom stored jam on a shelf in a dark closet for a year, and it always tasted fresh. That was in the days when the FDA said it was OK to seal jars with melted paraffin.

Canning jam and jelly is stupid-easy: once you’ve screwed the band onto a jar, set the jar upright in a deep pot of boiling water for ten minutes. Then remove the jar to a towel on the counter and let it cool. With the high-temperature cooking and the ten-minute boil, your jam will be germ-free… and it already contained so much acid and sugar that almost nothing could have lived in it anyway.

I can 12 one-cup gift jars of each type of jam or jelly I make. We give the one-cup jars as gifts to teachers, hosts at dinner parties, golf professionals (at the course where I play), and other acquaintances. It usually takes at least two batches to make 12 cups, and whatever is left over, I put into pint jars for us to eat through the year.

Foam Snack from a Home Kitchen Garden

Even when I add butter to my cooking jam, the jam produces a lot of foam. I pull the foam across the surface of the jam and skim it off with the spoon. I didn’t get a great shot of that through the steam coming off the jam, but here’s what it looks like on its way to my mouth after it cooled down for a bit. It surprises me that no one sells jam and jelly foams in jars. It tastes great, and you could dramatically increase the amount of product you get from your raw materials.

When you’ve removed most of the foam, fill the hot jelly jars, put on the hot lids, screw on the hot bands, and set the jars in boiling water for ten minutes. The canning funnel helps keep jam off the rim of the jelly jars; if you get any jam there, wipe it off before you apply a lid. With the lid on and the jar upright, screw on a band.

To get a band “finger tight,” I pick up the jar by the lid (usually I can handle the lids and bands while they’re hot, but a jar of hot jelly would take my skin off) and quickly grasp the jar with a pot holder. Then I screw the lid down tightly – not bodybuilding flex tightly, but I take up all the slack I can while twisting with just my hands.

Upside Down Jars

As mentioned earlier: immediately after filling the jars, put them, upright, into a pot of boiling water so the jars are completely covered. Ideally, use a canning rack or a canning pot with a rack to keep the jars off the bottom. If you don’t have a canning rack, you can sink a cloth napkin or dish cloth in the water and pin it to the bottom with the jars. Leave the jars to boil for ten minutes, then remove them to cool, upright, on your counter. After the tops seal (you’ll hear them pop) and the jars are hot but not too hot to hold, flip them onto the bands and let them cool further until they are warm but the jam is still liquid. Flip them back upright to finish cooling. If you don’t flip the jars this way during cooling, the fruit will likely float making the top layer of jam very chunky while the bottom layer will be more like jelly.

Homemade is Best

We’ve been told that the strawberry jam we make is noticeably better eating than store-bought jam. What’s more, we usually have peach, pear, and black raspberry jelly; and strawberry, sour cherry, and fruit punch jams in the larder. Most of these are never available in our local grocery stores. When you have a lot of homemade jam and jelly on-hand, you find ways to use it that people don’t necessarily think of when you say “jam.” For example, I’ve mixed black raspberry jelly into homemade chutneys and marinades with great results. The delicate flavor of pear or peach jelly comes through when you grill it on chicken or fish.

From time-to-time, I’ll jot down ingredients lists when I cook with jam or jelly, and share the results on this blog. In the meantime, if you can still harvest fresh strawberries from your home kitchen garden… or you can buy them in your neighborhood, make some jam and extend strawberry season through the year.

I created a step-by-step video that shows how to make strawberry jam. Please follow this link to Your Small Kitchen Garden if you prefer video instruction over the written word.

 

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