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strawberries

an Amish Home Kitchen Garden

Near the farm stand and looking back toward the main road, you see a home kitchen garden of staggering proportions. A single Amish family plants and maintains this garden to feed itself and to stock the farm stand. I’m sure they spend an enormous amount of time cold-storing, canning, drying, and pickling produce to keep it through Pennsylvania’s cold winters.

My home kitchen garden is off to a horrible start this season on account of endless rain we experienced until mid May. I wasn’t able to plant anything because my garden soil was saturated. Seedlings I’d started indoors became leggy and weak, and I ended up planting lettuce on my deck rather than in my garden. Of course, just when the lettuce leafed-up, the rain stopped and temperatures soared into the 90s (Fahrenheit).

So, with my lettuce bitter and bolting, my brassicas failing, and my tomatoes and chili peppers still getting used to being in a garden rather than in seed-starting planters, strawberry season is upon us.

My Strawberry Panic

I grow enough strawberries for a bowl of cereal. So, I rely on local farmers to grow strawberries for me. As in every year, when the first local strawberries appeared at the farmers’ market, I cooked up strawberry shortcake and we had only that for dinner one night. Then life got in the way.

furrows in an Amish Home Kitchen Garden

You might be able to see slight depressions in the soil rows between the plant rows. This furrow reflects the action of horse-powered tilling. A horse can walk these soil rows, pulling tools that turn the soil and prevent weeds from getting established.

For two weeks, I had no time to process produce, and I feared strawberry season was slipping away. In fact, produce vendors at the local flea market had no local strawberries last Sunday, so by Monday I had worked up a lather about having missed out. I went in search of a farmer (with a farm stand) selling strawberries.

Believe it or Don’t

Where would you go if you hoped to find a farm stand with fresh berries? My thought: Amish Road. I’m not kidding (my son thought I was kidding); we live within about five miles of Amish Road. And… Amish Road runs through an area where several Amish families have farms.

The first farm stand I found was one road over from Amish Road, and it had strawberries. But strawberries quickly became a secondary issue for me. The farm stand sat behind a roadside home kitchen garden that would make most kitchen gardeners green with envy. Of course, an Amish family may grow enough produce to eliminate their reliance on grocery stores… and this family grows enough to feed themselves and to sell to passersby.

the house sits behind the home kitchen garden

That house at the far end of the kitchen garden isn’t the Amish family’s house. The white building on the left edge of this photo is where the Amish family lives. The farm stand is across the driveway from the front door of the house—I suspect so the family can work inside and emerge quickly when a car drives up to the stand.

The woman running the farm stand pleasantly told about hassles the rains had caused for them, and graciously gave me permission to photograph the garden plot. I couldn’t do the kitchen garden justice! It was at least 200 yards from one end of the garden to the other, and about 75 yards from side-to-side.

Simple Strategies for a Large Kitchen Garden

My photos reveal that the vegetable-to-weed ratio in an Amish home kitchen garden favors the vegetables. The reasons are simple:

  • Rows between vegetables are wide and a horse can easily walk there without stepping on the plants. So, periodically, the farmer hooks a horse up to a cultivator and the horse drags the cultivator along the rows.
  • Rows are very long. This lets a horse get up some speed while dragging its cultivator and it doesn’t have to make a whole bunch of quick turns. There’s poetic simplicity in being able to weed a year’s worth of peas in a single pass.
  • Mulch keeps the weeds down with almost no effort. In this case, the farmer laid down a long sheet of plastic and poked holes through it for onion sets. The onions have grown up through the holes while the plastic has smothered whatever weeds might have taken root.
bringing in hay

While I was shopping for strawberries, the Amish farmer was harvesting hay. It was an awesome load, and I couldn’t resist snapping a photo.

I love this kitchen garden and I admire the energy and intensity its Amish owners must have to plant it and maintain it each year.

 

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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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