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An Asian pear a day….

October 18th, 2010, by Erin

I probably wouldn’t be working at North Star Orchard if it weren’t for the Asian pears. It’s true – they’re what drew my attention to this farm years ago at Philadelphia farmers’ markets. I’m not the only one; they truly have a cult following. I’ll often open my mouth to answer a question about them at a market, only to have another customer standing nearby answer enthusiastically for me. I’ve heard about Asian pears shipped away to kids at college who are yearning for a taste of home, and about some that are shipped each year to relatives in Europe. I know my parents won’t let me in the door at Christmas-time if I don’t bring pears along.

So many people love them, but they’re still a bit of a mystery to most. What are these things? These “apple pears,” “Korean pears,” “sand pears,” “salad pears,” nashi? Well, “apple pear” is misleading; they really have nothing to do with apples, except that they share a plant family (Rosaceae). What they actually are is another species of pear, Pyrus pyrifolia, that has been traditionally grown in Japan, China, and Korea. You’ve been eating them for weeks (if not years) now, so I don’t have to tell you what they taste like, or about their characteristic crunch. Unlike “European” pears, Asian pears are picked ripe and ready to eat – none of that guesswork about when it’s reached its moments-long window of peak ripeness before turning to unpleasant mush in the center. Keep them in your fridge loosely in a plastic bag and they’ll keep for weeks. (Especially good to know this time of year when the CSA’s ending!)

Perhaps the Asian pear fervor is only unusual in this country where fruit generally serves as a sort of placeholder. We’re not accustomed to great flavor, but rather a healthy something to tide us over or fill a lunch bag. Most of us grew up on inoffensive-at-best apples and identical-looking bananas, definitely nothing to get excited about. In Asia, however, where these pears come from, they’re served as a special treat or gift or shared around the table after a meal. Here, as well, I sense that Asian pears are treated as something special. If nothing else, the price inspires a bit more awe than we’re used to affording a piece of fruit, and reflects the hours spent hand-thinning the crop as well as their fragile nature.

All season long I’ve been looking forward to learning more about these pears and their traditional uses, and I have to confess, I haven’t been too successful. There still isn’t that much information out there, readily available on the information superhighway (in English anyway). I was, however, able to find a bit on their usage in traditional Chinese medicine. From Kitchen Medicine Cooking Medicine, a blog about Food, Herbs, and Philosophy from Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine:

“The most common Kitchen Medicine in the East for the lungs are Pears. Pears are cooling and moistening which in moderation is how the lungs like to be. Not only do pear’s cool energy counteract the heat building in your lungs with infection, but their viscous moist quality is a natural lubricant for the mucous membranes of the lungs, with expectorant qualities, too.

Bite into a ripe pear. Compare with a ripe Apple. Pears have a viscous quality. This is a moistening characteristic that targets the lungs and nasal passages, and makes them excellent food this time of year, raw or cooked.”

Appropriately enough, I was fighting off a cough as I did my research, and it took longer than it should have for me to realize that I should get up off the couch and go steam some Asian pears. I highly recommend this recipe (adapted from Nina Simonds’ A Spoonful of Ginger), even if you’re feeling 100% healthy. Once cooked, the texture of Asian pear is remarkably similar to cooked European pears.

For anyone who’d like to dabble in the world of pickle making, Asian pears can also be used in kimchi. I’d recommend using Olympic, a Korean variety with a little more crunch and tart flavor. Another Korean cooking technique I learned: use Asian pear to marinate and tenderize beef in recipes such as bulgogi and galbi.

Also, one of the nicknames for Asian pears, “salad pears” makes a great suggestion – they go fabulously in salads, providing a sweet and crunchy counterpoint especially to bitter or spicy greens. Finally, online success – a search easily turns up a number of Asian pear salad recipes…

from New York chic (good luck sourcing the mâche outside of Union Square!): Morimoto’s Asian Pear Salad … to a tasty way to balance out bitter endive or escarole: Endive and Asian Pear Salad … to something like this, which comes pretty near my idea of food perfection: Asian Pear and Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese.

All of these suggestions, however, are contingent on any Asian pears lingering beyond the moment you take them out of their bag. The traditional way to eat a North Star Asian pear is, after all, to simply eat it, as soon as possible, caution to the wind with juice flying, a bit of the mystery still intact.

Schnitz!

October 4th, 2010, by Erin

The phrase “dessert apple” may have become a bit obsolete. Nowadays, the combination of words conjures up images of pies, crisps, apple dumplings – sweet things that involve apples and follow a meal. An apple on its own is about the healthiest thing you could eat, right? Not dessert at all! But really the phrase really just means an apple that you would want to eat raw and fresh without first cooking, baking, or pressing it. So, really, pretty much everything that we grow at North Star is a “dessert apple.” Some are good for cooking as well, as the line between cooking and eating apples is not well defined in the U.S.

So, what’s with the name? I’m guessing that it hearkens back to an era when apples were synonymous with cider, and if you weren’t drinking your apples, you were likely drying or cooking them (or drying them and then cooking them). These apples were distinct from the ones popular today, with an unpalatable flavor or texture when raw. So, historically, for the masses, an apple that you would want to eat out of hand would be something of note. All those apple trees Johnny Appleseed planted? They were for pressing cider (which was, of course, the hard stuff), and the apples would have been too astringent and bitter to eat whole or unfermented. This is due to the prolific nature of apple genetics; plant an apple seed and you’ll get something dramatically different from its parent. So since Mr. John “Appleseed” Chapman was planting seeds, except for the one in a million, he was necessarily planting cider apples. In An Apple Harvest, Frank Browning and Sharon Silva explain: “If apples are nearly everywhere in the New World and the Old, they are not all uniformly delicious. Of the six thousand or so identified varieties, only a few hundred are good enough to be swallowed. Most are little green knots, their scant sugars drowned in bitter acid.” Furthermore, while American nurseries of a hundred years ago offered hundreds of varieties of apples for sale, today you’d be lucky to find upwards of thirty easily available. (These stable varieties are propagated by grafted cuttings rather than seed.) Some of those varieties gone by the wayside are the ones traditionally used for drying, which would have had an unpleasantly dry texture.

However, apple drying is not limited to those varieties; you can dry any number of dessert apples as well, and it’s a great way to spread out the harvest without taking up precious refrigerator space. Then you can snack on them as is all winter, or soak them in water or cider and use them in place of fresh apples for baking. There are several methods for drying (or “dehydrating”) apples. Fruits of all kinds have been dried in the sun since prehistory. Another of the oldest methods is to simply peel and core them and string them up whole in a warm drying room. Slicing them into rings speeds up the process. With the advent of modern ovens and specially-built food dehydrators, apple (or pear) rings can dry as quickly as overnight. Basically, the idea is to expose your food to warmth and air movement to lower its water content. If you live in a warm, breezy arid climate, you’re all set. But say it’s summer or fall in Pennsylvania, then you have a little less control over your drying conditions, and you’ll probably want to move your drying operation inside, and crank up your oven or dehydrator.

I currently have a top of the line ‘Excalibur’ dehydrator on long-term loan, and the Excalibur and I have been spending a lot of quality time together lately. I’ve got a routine down – about a half an hour to forty-five minutes in the evening peeling and slicing, run the dehydrator all night while I’m asleep, awake to a warm, apple-y smell rising from my kitchen, turn off the machine for the day, check on the fruit when I get home from work, and then run it a few more hours if anything needs more time. Home-scale dehydrators run the gamut – from the “Snackmaster” at around $40 to the “Excalibur Deluxe” topping out over $200. If you’re in the market, you’ll want to look for one with a thermostat and a fan.

Or, if you’re using your oven, put the fruit first onto wire cooling racks, cotton fabric, or cheesecloth, then onto your oven racks. If you use baking sheets, you’ll need to turn the fruit, since the air flow can’t travel through. Keep the oven as low as possible – no higher than 145°, or if your oven doesn’t go that low, turn it to “warm.” You might need to prop the door open a bit to encourage air circulation.

Either way, the process is pretty simple. Whether or not you peel the apples is up to you. The thickness of your apple slices also depends somewhat on you – how chewy or crispy you want your apple rings to be, and how long you want to spend drying them. In some scenarios, with some fruits, it might take up to even a few days. You do need to remove a certain amount of the water content to prevent the fruit from spoiling. Various sources say as dry as a raisin or until the fruit feels dry and leathery on the outside but slightly moist inside. If you’d like more of an “apple chip” just let them dry longer. If you’d like you can “pretreat” your apple slices – not with sulfur like commercially dried fruit – but with lemon juice and/or honey. This helps to keep your fruit from browning, but I’ve never really found this to be a problem. Dunk your fruit in lemon juice, a honey-lemon dip (1 cup honey: 1 cup water: the juice of one lemon), or a honey syrup of ¼ cup honey in 2 cups of hot water.

As you’re drying you’ll want to check in on your fruit from time to time, to turn it, or to remove any fruit that’s dry (it won’t all be done at exactly the same time). The amount of time needed varies widely with temperature, thickness, variety, etc., but I’ve found that overnight at about 135° is generally sufficient for most of the fruit I’ve dried. For more detailed instructions, check out http://www.pickyourown.org/apples_dried.htm which includes instructions on how to use your car as a dehydrator!

(For some great old fruit drying pictures: http://www.fruitfromwashington.com/History/fruit_prep.htm)

Resources:
An Apple Harvest by Frank Browning and Sharon Silva
Preserving Summer’s Bounty by the Staff of the Rodale Food Center

Welcome to the Inner Circle

September 27th, 2010, by Erin

There’s a word farmers use to describe the more unusual, rarefied varieties we get a kick out of growing: esoteric. The assumption is that such varieties are appreciated only by other plant geeks and hard core foodies (a word which has an unfortunately negative connotation in my mind – what’s wrong with caring about your food?). The cultivation of such esoteric varieties implies an impractical search for flavor, for the forbidden fruit, the holy grail of the garden.

I’ve always liked the word ‘esoteric,’ and could easily picture what it meant, in farming terms, but I wasn’t quite clear on its precise definition. So I looked it up:

Esoteric adj. a) intended for or understood by only a chosen few, as an inner group of disciples or initiates (said of ideas, literature, etc.) b) beyond the understanding or knowledge of most people; abstruse

(abstruse?!?… “abstruse adj. hard to understand; deep; recondite”… recondite?!?… “recondite adj. Beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind or understanding; profound; abstruse”)

This definition isn’t quite what I was expecting, but it leaves me with the dissatisfaction I was predicting it would. I say it’s not fair that the pursuit of really good flavor is limited to the chosen few. Shouldn’t we all enjoy our food? There is the conundrum that something cool inevitably loses its cachet once it’s gone mainstream, but I think that’s where the local food movement can step in. If small farms were well-supported enough so that the farmers had a bit more breathing room (with their time and finances) and could play a little, they could discover and cultivate all the unusual things that were well-suited to their microclimate. And differences in climate and ecosystem as well as appropriate scale would set natural limits to the spread of certain varieties and foods. So each farmers’ market, CSA, or local food store would have its own unique varieties (say, didn’t that used to be the case, once upon a time, but not so long ago?) We can all be in the inner circle – in our own foodshed.

This sounds like a great scenario to me. It’s a goal of many farmers I know (a few of us at North Star included) to grow things they truly enjoy growing (and eating!). There is, however, often a sort of tug of war between productivity and livelihood on the one hand and passion and creativity on the other. We can all relate to this, right? The need to make a living often leads us to do things that we don’t love to do, even if we’re not compromising our morals by doing them. Planting anything is a gamble, and the first rule of intelligent farming is to have a ready market for what you’re planting. Whether or not those new oddball crops will sell is anybody’s guess. The fruit CSA ameliorates this situation a bit, by providing an infrastructure in which we (the farmers) can grow unusual varieties and have a ready market for them, and you (the consumers) can try new and amazing things without going on a wild goose chase to find them. Just by signing up, suddenly, you’re in that inner circle, and the esoteric is becoming a bit more recognizable.

First-timers walking up to our market stand or checking out the list of varieties that North Star grows won’t see many familiar faces. No Red Delicious, no McIntosh, no Granny Smith…. I think there’s one Fuji tree out there somewhere, and a number of HoneyCrisps for the enthusiasts. But Hudson’s Golden Gem? Esopus Spitzenburg? Adams Pearmain? A season or two, and these are old friends. And you CSA members get first crack, because the small amounts of the unusual varieties go right into the fruit shares.

“But what’s with the wacky names?” you might ask. Many are heirloom varieties, others are new varieties bred for disease resistance, some are North Star originals, some just needed naming – they might be a “numbered variety” (still being tested and not yet or not ever named and released for commercial distribution) or they might be a “mystery variety” that was shipped incorrectly by the nursery. Some of these varieties received the death sentence of “commercially unviable.” But viability looks a little different when you’re growing on only 15 acres, handling fruit by hand, and sending apples to market days after harvest. It also helps to have informed customers who appreciate a variety of flavors throughout the season. It might be humanly impossible to grow all of the hundreds of varieties possible in our southeastern Pennsylvania region, but with the inner circle on board, we can certainly try!

As American as apple….pandowdy!

September 19th, 2010, by Erin

Could someone please tell me where the expression “easy as pie” came from? Pies are not easy. Like all skilled tasks, pie baking takes practice and repetition, usually a mentor of some sort, and a magic touch doesn’t hurt either. We’re talking about a very temperamental process that can be thwarted by humidity.

A life goal of mine is to make a good pie. Consistently. I’m getting there, but usually people of my generation are impressed with a pie of any caliber, so long as it’s made from scratch. Bumbling along on this assumption, I made a peach pie last season to take to a Backyard Fruit Growers’ meeting and potluck. Upon arriving, I discovered that there was some stiff competition in the pie department. I also learned a thing or two about the demographics of your average Backyard Fruit Growers attendee. Let’s just say there were some ladies present who had many long decades of pie-baking experience on me. They’d presumably had a lifetime of access to fruit fresh from their very own back yard, and they knew what to do with it. Humbled, I returned to my cookbooks and began my study of pie crust anew.

Now that fall is in the air, it’s time to bake. If you’ve got a solid pie crust up your sleeve, now’s the time to flaunt it. If not, don’t despair. There’s a whole world of baked goods out there waiting to be explored, and anything that involves fruit, a bit of sugar and butter, and arrives warm out of the oven will be more than appreciated. In fact, all those other baked fruit creations in the cobbler family are just as authentic to the heritage of our mid-Atlantic region. Pie, whether of the fruit, vegetable, or meat variety, is a solidly European creation, predating the cobbler by a few hundred years. It was when pie reached the far side of the Atlantic Ocean that it underwent transformation. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, “without the resources of brick ovens… colonial cooks often made cobblers – also called slumps or grunts – and their cousins, pandowdies, in pots over an open fire. In these types of pies, a filling made of fruit, meat or vegetable goes into a pot first; then a skin of dough is placed over the filling, followed by the pot’s lid. As cobblers cook, the filling stews and creates its own sauce and gravy, while the pastry puffs up and dries.”

It also seems that pies and their kinfolk, before the late 19th century, were served with all meals and at all times of day. I point proudly to tales of pie breakfasts in my own family history and take this as an invitation to shed any last shred of guilt about eating peach cobbler for breakfast. I invite you to do the same.

So, here’s an incomplete inventory of all the things you might do with fruit, flour, sugar and butter. (I’ll leave the gluten-free, vegan, or any other finagling up to you.) I’ve included a sample recipe for each, some of which, for fun, are quite old. Luckily, while recipes and techniques may fade from style, the ingredients remain the same, so revive away…

Brown Betty
From The Joy of Cooking: “Nobody remembers who Betty was, but a brown betty is both layered and topped with sweet buttered crumbs. The crumbs should be dry, so that they will absorb the juices in the middle and bottom layers and remain crunchy on the top. (For homemade breadcrumbs, dry sliced bread in a 225°F oven until firm to the touch and crisp, about 1 hour. Let cool, then break up the dried bread with your hands or chop with a knife into about 1-inch square pieces. Crush with a rolling pin to produce a fine meal or process in a food processor.)”
Apple Brown Betty

Buckle
From The Joy of Cooking: “A buckle is another type of cake with fruit folded into the batter before baking and a generous crumbly streusel topping. The cake buckles, or crumples, in spots from the weight of the topping before the batter sets, creating pockets of caramelized sugar and butter.”
Almond-Plum Buckle

Clafouti
From In The Sweet Kitchen: “Easy, fresh, light, very country, but also very elegant, clafouti is a traditional rustic Provençal dessert somewhere between a baked custard, a light pancake and a cakey soufflé. Traditionally made with cherries, clafouti is also wonderful made with apricots, berries, fresh figs, pears or even peaches or apricots…”
Black Plum Clafoutis

Cobbler
From The Joy of Cooking: “Cobblers are simply deep-dish single-crusted fruit pies; the crust is usually on the top, though occasionally it is on the bottom. Cobblers used to be made with pie dough, but a sweet, rich biscuit dough is more common today. For a tender crust, do not overmix the dough; stir in the liquid quickly and knead gently a few times to form the dough.”
Apple Cobbler

Crisps, Crunches, & Crumbles
From The Joy of Cooking: “These simple and popular desserts consist of sweetened fruit – usually lightly thickened to produce syrupy juices – baked with crumbly toppings of flour, butter, and sugar and sometimes oats, cookie or cake crumbs, nuts, and spices. For a crisp, the flour, butter, and sugar are mixed together like pie dough before the liquid is added, and the mixture scattered over the top like a streusel or crumb topping. An approximate ratio of three parts fruit to one part topping makes a perfect crisp. A crunch is fruit sandwiched between two layers of sweetened, buttered crumbs; it is served cut into squares, like bar cookies, but is a bit more fragile. Keep the butter cold for crisps and crunches and handle lightly to assure that the toppings will be both crisp and tender… Crumble is the British name for a crisp or crunch with oatmeal in the topping.”
Harvest Pear Crisp with Candied Ginger
Plum Crumble

Dumplings
From The Joy of Cooking: “Any pie dough, puff pastry, or biscuit dough can be used to make fruit dumplings or turnovers. Dumplings are formed by gathering the edges of the dough up around the filling like a purse or pouch; the resulting packets may be baked or boiled. (The texture of baked pastry contrasts particularly nicely with the filling.) Turnovers are made by folding the dough over the filling and can be formed in any size from miniature to large. The dough can be made well ahead and kept chilled until ready to use. These little ‘pies’ are best eaten the day they are baked.”
Apple Dumplings

Galette
From The Penguin Companion to Food: “… a flat, round cake; the word being derived from galet, a pebble weatherworn to the shape that is perfect for skipping…”
From The Joy of Cooking: “A galette – or in Italian, a crostata – consists of a flat crust of pastry or bread dough covered with sugar, pastry cream, or a thin layer of fruit… They are, in effect, dessert pizzas. Since galettes are baked on a flat sheet rather than in a pie or tart mold, they may be made in any shape that appeals to you. If the filling is juicy, bring the edge of the crust over the filling to catch drips; otherwise, simply double up the crust edge, then crimp or flute if you wish.”
Apple Galette

Grunts & Slumps
From The Joy of Cooking: “Grunts and slumps, both descended from puddings cooked in pots over the fire, are steamed fruit topped with dumplings. Grunts are steamed in a mold inside a kettle full of water and inverted when served; the result is something like a warm fruit shortcake. Slumps are cooked in a covered pan and served dumpling side up in bowls – more like a hot, sweet soup or stew under a dumpling… Grunts are best steamed in a soufflé dish, but pudding molds or heatproof bowls work as well; metal molds are not recommended, as they may overcook the fruit and impart a metallic taste. Cook slumps in stainless-steel, enamel cast-iron, or glass saucepans, but make sure the vessel has a tight-fitting lid to contain the steam. If the pan is uncovered before the dumplings are done, they will collapse into toughness.”
Apple Slump

Pandowdy
From The Penguin Companion to Food: “An old-fashioned deep-dish New England fruit dessert related to cobbler, grunt, and slump. Sliced or cut apples or other fruits are tossed with spices and butter, sweetened with molasses, maple syrup, or brown sugar, topped with a biscuit-like dough, and baked. Partway through the baking time, the crust is broken up and pressed down into the fruit so it can absorb the juices. This technique is called ‘dowdying’. After the crust is baked, it becomes crispy. Pandowdies are served warm with heavy cream, hard sauce, or a cream sauce flavoured with nutmeg.”
Apple Pandowdy

And if that isn’t enough to inspire you, take heed:

“It is utterly insufficient (to eat pie only twice a week), as anyone who knows the secret of our strength as a nation and the foundation of our industrial supremacy must admit. Pie is the American synonym of prosperity, and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.”

from The New York Times, 1902

(In response to an Englishman’s suggestion that Americans should reduce their daily pie eating to two days per week.)

Sources:

Regan Daley, In the Sweet Kitchen
Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food
Kim O’Donnel, “American as Cobbler,” (A Mighty Appetite: August 11, 2006), The Washington Post
Irma S. Rombauer et al., The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking
Linda Stradley, What’s Cooking America.
Vintage Recipes

Low-Hanging Fruit

September 13th, 2010, by Erin

When I gave one good friend the news that I was going to be working at an orchard, he laughed at me. Not to disparage my choice of career in agriculture, but because I’m short. I told him: that’s what ladders are for! And it’s true – there’s nothing I can’t reach with the use of a ladder or the Brownie (the hydraulic lift built for orchard use). Sometimes, I think it’s even helpful to be small – I can squeeze between crowded branches or the the wires in the trellis system, climb under limbs and find all of the lowest fruit. But, yes, usually, it would be to my advantage to have several more inches to work with or the coveted long fingers and wide handspan of the natural-born apple picker.
Royalty in hand
Today I felt especially diminutive in the orchard. To be honest, I felt like I was in a cartoon – a small character in a world of magical, supersized fruit. I was picking the Royalty apples in the young orchard. The advice I got before I headed out to pick: Use two hands for the big ones! The Royalty apples are freakishly large, some weighing in right around 2 lbs. They’re more than a meal; they’re an entire pie. Royalty is a large apple to begin with, but the trees in the first few years of production give especially large fruit. Last year, we dubbed them “SuperRoys” and separated out the largest to appeal to customers who go for that sort of thing.

Notwithstanding my 5’3″ reach, even the Royalty trees – topping out as some of the tallest apples after three seasons in the ground – can be mostly harvested from the ground. This might defy your image of an apple orchard, but commercial apple trees these days tend to be shrinking. The trend toward dwarfing rootstock means that apple trees might top out at 10 or even 6 feet. Every grafted apple tree has two components: the rootstock and the scion. The rootstock controls the size of the tree (as well as many other qualities), and the scion contributes the variety (eg Royalty, Gold Rush, etc.). A smaller tree means that it’s easier to reach (less ladder work), but also, as with most agricultural research of late, the development of these dwarfing rootstocks is an attempt to increase productivity. To produce apples, you need sunlight. The most sunlight reaches the outside edges of the tree, and there’s less and less light as you travel toward the inside of the tree. This shaded interior is what one of my teachers fondly referred to as the “zone of firewood production” (as opposed to fruit production). Smaller trees have less “inside,” with more outer edge relative to interior than larger trees, thus they can produce more apples per acre. (This is an oversimplification of some pretty complex interactions, but you get the general idea.)

At North Star, the youngest orchard is at the home farm near Cochranville. The apple trees are noticeably more dwarfed than the apple trees at the two other leased properties the farm grows trees on; in fact, their size and resultant weaker root system means that they require a trellis to withstand the strongest winds. Most of these trees are on “Bud 9″ rootstock, which means that they’re 30% the size of a standard tree and will offer a crop only two to three years after being in the ground. (Officially, that’s Budagovsky 9 in the tradition of naming rootstocks after the research station where they originated, and then shortening them to a confusion of M’s, MM’s, Bud’s, and random numbers.) At North Star, the apple trees in this orchard are in their third year and producing a surprisingly large crop for such young trees. At maturity, we’ll keep them at about 12 feet tall and continue to see a lot of apples in the first tier of branches that’s easily reached from the ground.
Orchard from tractor seat
Maybe the orchard is a cartoon world after all – shrinking trees, gigantic apples… An orchard is not a wild place; it’s very much shaped by the human touch. From breeding to grafting to pruning, the trees themselves are human (co)creations. The orchard at large is also engineered, the tree spacing carefully considered for optimum production, the rows and alleyways designed around the tractor the way Los Angeles was designed around the automobile. It’s a planned endeavor every step of the way, a conversation with Mother Nature, but one where she always gets the last word.

(Rootstock info from The Apple Grower by Michael Phillips)

Memories of Peaches

September 1st, 2010, by Lisa

(Submitted by CSA Member Beth M.)

They have captured the sun of high summer,
All reds and golds and sticky warmth.
And their fragrance stirs a blood memory
Of things I’ve never learned but always knew.
The knowledge of my mother, and her mother,
And generations before,
Who had to save the sun of summer for winter’s stingy light.

As the sweet aroma fills the room, they come to me–
These woman who share my blood
And my need to hold back the dark.
I feel their presence — their hands guide mine,
I see my eyes in their eyes, feel their hearts in my chest.
Their hands know these tasks and their touch is true and sure.
I abandon myself to the memory of this work that I was born knowing.
I am cradled in the arms of this unending line of women
As we work together to preserve the sun.

When the days shorten they will come again,
Because I have preserved their memory,
Along with these peaches,
To nourish myself in winter.

Canning 101

August 30th, 2010, by Erin

This week, a bit of a tutorial. Have you ever contemplated canning as a way to save some of your seasonal harvest for the forty weeks of the year when there’s not a fruit share?

If so, you’re not alone, as going homesteader is hip these days – or so I gather by a recent article gracing the front page of the weekend Philadelphia Inquirer on “21st Century Homesteading.”

Among other pastoral pursuits, the article highlights home canning: “Chris Scherzinger, general manager of Jarden Home Brands, maker of Ball and Kerr home-canning supplies, reports a 60 percent increase in sales from 2007 to 2009, the biggest hike since the 1970s. ‘The economy is certainly a factor,’ he says, ‘but so is the growing interest in gardening and fresh food.’” A poke around the internet turns up enthusiastic blogs such as (Philadelphia’s own) Food in Jars and Tigress in a Jam These are not your grandmother’s canning resources, with recent recipes such as Nectarine Preserves with Summer Savory and White Pepper and White Peach Sauce with Vanilla.

Well, if you’ve never tried canning and you’re interested in giving it a try, canning peaches (straight up, nothing fancy) is a great place to start. Forget Labor Day, or Back to School, the real harbinger of the end of summer is the peach finale. Just a few more weeks, folks, so get ‘em while they last. This realization set me in a bit of a panic this week, dropping everything for an afternoon or two so I could “put up” my personal stash of peaches for the winter.

Peaches are “easy” because they’re a high-acid food that you can raw pack. Translation: you can process them in a hot water bath (you don’t need a pressure canner), and you can pack them into jars without cooking them first, which saves you a step and some extra dirty dishes. Basic canning is not difficult; it just takes time and the ability to follow directions. The big concern in canning is preventing botulism. We can see, smell, or taste many problems caused by microorganisms in our food (moldy bread, spoiled milk), but this is not the case with botulism, and it’s no joke. The tiniest amount of botulism is deadly. But good news: it simply can’t survive in a high-acid environment, and this includes peaches. If this is your first time canning, please review the basics and make sure you’re being safe at the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning or the Ball canning jar site, which has a useful FAQs section.

The best peaches to use are ones that are firmly ripe, probably about two days after you bring the fruit share home. Yellow or white or a mixture, it’s up to you. I found that about 6 medium peaches or nectarines fills one quart jar. You’ll want to prepare a syrup, which will help the peaches keep their shape, color, and flavor. You can use sugar or honey; I used a honey syrup that consisted of 1 cup honey to 3 cups hot water, and this amount was enough for six quart jars. The proportions for your syrup are flexible – even using water would be safe. For a light sugar syrup, combine ½ cup sugar with 2 cups water. For a heavy sugar syrup, combine 2 cups sugar with 2 cups water. Or you can choose any quantity in between.

Things you’ll need:
canning jars with (new) lids and screw bands*
a large pot big enough to hold your jars plus a few inches of water above them
a small pot large enough to contain your lids
a medium pot for boiling your syrup
a ready supply of clean dish towels
a skinny rubber spatula
peaches
sugar or honey

* You can reuse proper canning jars and the screw bands, but you should always use new lids. I prefer the wide mouth jars because they’re easier to fill and to clean. Either pints or quarts will work.

Things that are nice to have:
a canning rack (holds your jars in place during processing)
a canning funnel
canning tongs
a kitchen thermometer
several mixing bowls
lemon juice
whole spices, such as cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, or cloves

Step by Step:

1. Fill your large pot with your clean, empty jars and add enough water to cover them with about two inches of water. (Note: when the jars are filled, the contents will displace some of this water.) You can use a canning rack to hold your jars in place, or, if not, a trick I learned from the Italian grandma of a friend of a friend: cushion your jars with towels. You don’t want the jars to hit each other or the sides of the pot. Start heating the water. It’ll take awhile. You want to bring the water to about 140°, or when tiny bubbles just start to appear on the sides of the jars. Do not let it come to a boil at this point.
2. Place your new lids and screw bands in the small pot. Cover with water and bring to a simmer. Then just leave them in the hot water until you’re ready for them.
3. Make your syrup, and start heating it. You’ll need it to be at a boil when it’s time to fill your jars.
4. Prepare your peaches. You’ll want to slice and peel them. You can blanch the peaches in boiling water to help remove the skins, but I find that when they’re nice and ripe, it’s just as easy and less mess to simply peel them with a knife. I’ve found that a small, serrated knife works best. I like to cut the peaches into eighths or even smaller, so that they’re easier to pack into the jars. As you cut them, you can drop them into a bowl of water to which you’ve added a teaspoon of lemon juice to prevent them from darkening.
5. Pack your hot jars with the peach slices. If you’d like, you can add whole spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, or cloves. Pack the fruit in as tightly as you can, then top it off with your boiling syrup, leaving a ½ inch of headspace between the liquid and the rim of the jar. To remove any air pockets, run your spatula around the inside edges of the jar, and correct the amount of liquid if needed to maintain that ½ of empty space.
6. Carefully wipe the jars with a clean, damp cloth; you especially don’t want any food to be left on the rims of the jars (where the lid meets the jar), or it will prevent a good seal. Place the lids on the jars and gently screw on the bands.
7. Place the jars back into the water bath. Be careful that the water hasn’t reached a boil while you’ve been filling the jars – a drastic temperature difference could make the jars crack. Make sure that there is two inches of water over the tops of the jars. Cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil (this can take awhile).
8. As soon as your water boils, set a timer: 30 minutes for quart jars, 25 minutes for pint jars. Make sure that the pot stays covered and the water stays at a full boil and completely covers the jars for the entire processing time.
9. When the time is up, turn off the heat. I like to let the jars sit in the water bath for a good ten minutes; if you take them out immediately, the contents can leak out of the lid, ruining your seal. Remove the jars to a wooden rack or onto a counter covered with a few dry towels, to prevent cracking. Let them cool, untouched. Check them to see if the center of the lid is down and stays down when you press on it. If so, your jar has sealed. If not, you should reprocess your jar, keep it in the fridge, or throw it in the freezer.
10. Enjoy your peaches sometime in midwinter, when the last apples have been eaten and the fruit CSA seems like a distant memory. It might be a far cry from feeding your family all winter from a cellar-full of jarred goods, but it’s one small, satisfying step towards being a bit more involved in your personal food system.

If this piques your interest, and you’d like to learn more, a few good places to start are Preserving Summer’s Bounty by the Rodale Food Center (where I got most all of this information) and The Complete Book of Year-Round Small-Batch Preserving: Over 300 Delicious Recipes by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard, which is geared toward someone canning in rather small batches in the home kitchen.

Comments or questions? You can contact me at northstarerin@gmail.com.
Past, present, and future writings posted on my blog (link to: http://fruitsunheardof.wordpress.com/)

The “I Can Control Mother Nature” Share

August 24th, 2010, by Lisa

Most CSAs in this area offer vegetables, but there are also a few which offer meat, eggs, cheese, and fruit. I’ve even heard of a grain CSA, although that’s nowhere near us.

In the midst of CSA signups this spring, I received an email from a member stating that he’d like the “I Can Control Mother Nature” Share. Well, that statement gave me the chuckle I’m sure it was intended to give.

But what a concept, eh? The “I Can Control Mother Nature” Share would see us all getting exactly what we wanted when we wanted it. No worries about spring frosts, hail, or droughts. No concerns at all about biennial bearing issues. Taken to the extreme, it could mean getting Asian pears or heirloom tomatoes all year long….wow!

In many ways, that sounds like a mighty good idea. I can conceive of gorging myself on gage-type plums, nectarines, and Gold Rush apples day after day, year-in and year-out. For veggies, it would mean Swiss chard daily. I’m as addicted to each of those as I am to coffee.

My coffee addiction I can feed every day, usually with the same brand, although I do try new ones from time to time; they’re always Fair Trade certified and/or locally roasted. I’m currently SO into One Village Coffee, which I purchase at the Upper Merion Farmers’ Market, that I’m trying to figure the best way to source it over winter when market is done. I look forward to those two (or three) cups a day (morning and mid-afternoon) not only to feed my caffeine addiction, but as a comfort-food type of thing.

It’s kind of the same feeling I get when I eat some of those favorite fruits of mine, or eating my ‘green of the day’ (either kale, Swiss chard, arugula, mustard greens, or spinach). To me, they not only taste good, but they act as comfort foods to my soul. (Hey, better having mustard greens than Twinkies as a comfort food!)

But while the “I Can Control Mother Nature” Share sounds mighty appealing, I think I would tire of it. Part of the delight of eating locally-grown foods is the variety and the somewhat limited supply. It’s the surprise you get when the nectarine you just bit into is so gosh-darned sweet, juicy, and flavorful it hurts your brain….only to find out that the next one you bite into is even (impossibly!) better. It’s the first bite of a Hosui Asian pear of the year, when you realize that you absolutely forgot just how freakin’ good they are, because it’s been 10 months since you last had one. It’s digging into a plate of Swiss Chard that is so flavorful and addictive you’d swear the plant had been injected with MSG.

Sure, it would be great to be able to eat all of your favorites all of the time. But the ‘wow’ moments would wane. You wouldn’t experience that anticipation of waiting for the start of November because you know that’s when the Gold Rush apples would be coming on. Summer might not seem quite so fantastic if you could eat heirloom tomatoes and local sweet corn all year long. While I look forward to my routine two (or three!) cups of coffee a day, they don’t give me that sense of anticipation and sheer joy that eating seasonal food does.

As a farmer, I would certainly enjoy the “I Can Control Mother Nature” concept in many ways (the ability to turn off hail or hot weather would be a blessing). But as an eater, I’d like to keep things just the way they are!

An Apple Expose

August 23rd, 2010, by Erin

You didn’t hear this from me, but the farmers’ market scene is a bit of a performance. I don’t say this to question quality or integrity, but rather to point out that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. What you see on a Saturday morning, or in your CSA bag, is only the cream of the crop. That produce had to go through a lengthy audition process to make it out on stage. Only the highest quality produce makes the cut.

Behind the scenes is the not so glamorous side of agriculture: dirt, rot, bugs, and the tedious work of sorting through all that. In the packing room, we speak a language of “ones” and “twos,” “firsts” and “seconds.” The firsts are what you see, the seconds (as in “second quality”) find some other home – it might be apple cider, Asian pear butter, or the employee fridge. (Come to think of it – as a farmer, I don’t know that I’ve eaten “first quality” produce in nearly a decade, and I’m no worse the wear for it…) If there were such a category, I suppose the number threes would be the produce that doesn’t even make it to the sorting table. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, fruits and vegetables will eventually go the way of all the earth, and they’re not all going at the same rate.

Peach 'Third'

Peach 'Third'


As a result, there’s more time than you might imagine spent in sorting, grading, and schlepping fruit around. Some things are “field-sorted” or graded as they’re picked. Others, like apples, are brought into the barn, and then sorted in a separate process. We spend hours at the grading table, giving every piece of fruit a once-over before it goes into the cooler. One or two of us feed apples into one end of the grader where rotating brushes give the apples a bit of a polish. They roll out the other end where one or two of us are inspecting each and every apple before it goes into a wooden crate. If we’re really cranking, there will be a fifth person to expedite the whole process and just move crates around as needed. If we were growing for the wholesale market, the station would also be outfitted with a sizing mechanism to sort the apples in increments down to the 1/8 of an inch. (And if we were really fancy – electronic sensors, computer software and digital imaging would take the place of human touch.) “Too small” apples would be rejected and the rest would be priced according to size. At North Star, there is still such a thing as “too small,” but since we’re selling directly to our customers, we can include more of those apples that are the perfect size for a quick snack or for a child. Sorting criteria fluctuate with the variety. “Too small,” “too green,” and “too ripe” can look entirely different depending on the apple variety.

While other points on the agricultural continuum, from planting to eating, have been glamorized or merely familiarized, this whole intermediate step that can include sorting, grading, washing, bunching, packing, stacking, loading, and unloading is nearly invisible. These are less captivating tasks, I know, but the only image of this sort of work that I can conjure up from the common imagination is that one “I Love Lucy” episode. You know, the one where Lucy and Ethel try out a job in a chocolate factory? . They’re at the conveyor belt, and the chocolates keep coming faster and faster… Well, I have those moments, too, when apples are spilling out of the sorter, faster than my brain can make the decision “one or two?” But, unlike Lucy, I can flip a switch and make them stop. (And, unlike Lucy, I don’t get to eat chocolate!)

In a world where the vast majority of our agriculture is out of sight and out of mind, there are, unfortunately, a number of invisible sectors in our food system. Joining a CSA is a great way to bring your food source a few steps closer. But you’re still not there on the farm with us day in and day out to see how we spend our time. Just like with any job, whether you’re creating spreadsheets, preparing annual reports, or sorting apples, there’s the mundane and nitty-gritty work that keeps everything rolling. And, behind the scenes are glimpses of some truths that used to be common sense to folks. Farming, like life, isn’t all number ones and sweet-smelling peaches. That whole “one bad apple spoils the bunch” business didn’t come from nowhere! And, hopefully, we’ll find it before it gets to you.

Melts in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hand

August 16th, 2010, by Erin

If I’ve learned one thing picking fruit so far this season, it’s that if you complain to your co-workers who are working in the vegetable garden about having to eat too many peaches (to test for ripeness) they will not be sympathetic.

Aside from tasks like hitching the tractor (which is hard in a completely different way) picking peaches is probably the hardest thing I’ve done yet at North Star. Now, some of you may think that it’s just softness that determines if a peach is ripe. I’ve watched you squeezing all the peaches at the farmers’ market, trying to find the ripest. (You know who you are… I bet you’ve probably learned not to bother squeezing the peaches at the supermarket. You might try bouncing them off the floor, though!) For a few reasons, firmness alone is not how we determine ripeness in the orchard. For one, all your peaches would be dented – with dents that matched my fingerprints exactly.

OK, so color, then? Ripe peaches have a lovely red blush, right? Wrong again. Like firmness, color can be an indicator, but it can also fool you. The other day one of my coworkers happened up the peach row to bring me my water jug (which had apparently thrown itself off the trailer as I drove away on the tractor). It was her first time in between the rows of peaches this season, and she stopped a moment to look around. “Are these like 90% ripe?” she asked, studying the red-violet peaches hanging all around her. I told her that, no, I had actually completely finished picking that section. The trick with color is that it’s the undercolor you’re looking for – the color that develops behind that red blush. In other words, the background color that can range from cream to pale yellow to deep orange, depending on the variety. And the clincher is the color beneath that little stripe across the stem-end of the peach that is shaded by the branch – which of course you can’t see until after you’ve picked the peach.

But to complicate things even further, breeders have been working toward a peach with more and more blush and less and less undercolor. As Lisa explained a few weeks back in a North Star blog post, “In heirloom or old traditional varieties of peaches, the little bit of red blush they developed was a sign of ripeness. So, as people grew to equate ‘red’ with ‘ripe’ on a peach, fruit breeders did their darnedest to breed peaches that were as red as possible before ripening. To this end, we now have countless varieties of peaches that are practically all red, with little yellow (or white, in the case of white peaches) showing way before when they are truly ripe and ready to be picked.” Try staring at those for a few hours, trying to distinguish ripeness by color alone, and you’ll go a little cross-eyed.

Really, though, I’m working with a whole set of clues as to ripeness when picking peaches – firmness, color, size, degree of fuzziness, shape, and placement on the tree, all of which vary with variety. But the definitive factor is taste. Which means that I may be forced to take a bite (or two) out of a whole lot of peaches on a given picking day. Which, even if they’re still a little crunchy, is an occupational hazard that I’ve decided I can live with.

But you might still be wondering, along with many of our uninitiated farmers’ market customers: If your peaches are picked at the right time, then why are they still so hard? I like to think about it like M&Ms – “melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” right? (yeah, right!) Well, our peaches soften on your counter, not on the tree. When picking, we put so much effort into identifying those indicators of ripeness in order to make sure that the peaches have fully ripened (i.e. the sugars and flavor have fully developed) but they have not yet fully softened. This way, you get the peaches home in one piece (no fingerprints to speak of, mine or yours), and they’ll actually have a better texture when allowed to soften off the tree.

There’s a lot of science behind this ripening process – enzymes, metabolism, respiration, climacteric, non-climacteric, ethylene, starches converting to sugars… to be honest, it still befuddles me a bit, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it all. But the important thing is that, science aside, I still know what a good, ripe peach tastes like.

So, moving on to something special to do with those peaches once they’ve softened up for you…

If you want to go the traditional route, here’s what I’m convinced (with all due respect to the grandmas of the world out there) is the best peach cobbler recipe on the planet (Sweet Georgia Peach Cobbler), discovered in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few years back.

Or, for the less traditional route, grill them! I know this suggestion might raise a few eyebrows, but I have tried it, and it is fabulous. And, as one of the other market vendors gleefully announced the other week as she headed off with her white peaches, “I’m going to grill them. Because then you don’t have to make a pie!” It can be as easy as halving the peaches and throwing them on the grill until you see grill marks and smell caramelizing sugar, or you can go one step further and top them with vanilla ice cream or your favorite dessert sauce.

Or for something even easier, add peaches to something bubbly. White peaches and Prosecco are the key ingredients to the classy Bellini cocktail. Or, use whatever red or white you have on hand.

North Star Orchard • Ike & Lisa Kerschner
Email: Lisa@northstarorchard.com • Phone: (610)-593-0314
3226 Limestone Rd. • Cochranville, PA 19330
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