Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems


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Prickly pear processing, South Tucson, AZ

The Prescott College 2012 Agroecology of the Arid Southwest course visited the Arizona Cactus Ranch near Green Valley, AZ earlier this summer and instructor Rebekah Doyle graciously invited me to tag along.

Prickly pear, Oputina engelmanii, is an amazing cactus plant. It is not listed in National Geographic’s “Edible, An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants“, but I assure you both the fruits (Spanish: tunas) and pads (Spanish: nopales) edible! I just bought Carolyn Niethammer’s “Prickly Pear Cookbook” and I can’t wait to try some of the recipes. There has been some interesting research on the health benefits of multiple prickly pear species extracts related to cancer, cell damage,  and diabetes.

Wearing “snake legs” because rattlesnakes love to eat the rodents that hoard the prickly pear seeds right under the plants.

Prickly pear fruit

RoyDan was brave enough to peel the fruits, I was too scared to touch them

Looking more delicious with the glochids removed, thanks RoyDan!

Sam loading the truck

Kevin rocking a hair net at the prickly pear processing facility

Me, not so much rocking the hair net

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Pickling adventures continued

I bought some pickling cucumbers at the Prescott Farmers Market earlier this summer. When I mentioned to Matt, one  of Jenner Farm’s managers also farming commercially as Rabbit Run Farms, that I had started a small crock of pickles he got a strange look in his eye.

He said, “I have 150 pounds of harvested pickling cucumbers, no cold storage and a 55 gallon food grade drum.”

I said, “It’s on!”

Eleanore, a brave agroecology student, volunteered her house for a pickling party. Eleanore and I processed all of the cucumbers and got the crock fermenting in her living room. She says she can hear the bubbles rising at night when it’s quiet. It’s been almost 4 weeks, so these pickles are close to ready for de-brining and additional processing. I can’t wait!

Me cleaning and prepping the fermentation vessel

That’s a lot of cucumbers

More grape leaves from the Prescott College edible campus gardens

Still a lot of cucumbers, soon to be a lot of pickles!

Turkey roasting bags filled with brine as a seal

Eleanore was very brave to have this fermentation vessel in her living room!

A note to anyone attempting large batches:

We had really bad luck with the 3 gallon turkey roasting bags that the USDA recommends to use for a seal for the long brine process. They kept leaking! Luckily we filled them with brine, so when they leaked, they did not disturb the salt content of the pickling brine. While troubleshooting, Eleanore and I removed 16 gallons of brine and replaced the turkey roasting bags with 2.5 gallon freezer storage bags and have had no additional problems with the seal. The brine we pulled off during troubleshooting smelled so delicious, like deli pickle juice, that I wanted to drink it. So I think this batch will turn out well. We’ll see soon enough.

Update: The pickles turned out great, and we sold a bunch of them as a fundraiser to support Sandor Katz’s visit to Prescott College for Food Day 2012.

I admit I'm looking a bit like a mad scientist here, but after waiting 5 weeks to see if we had pickles or a huge slimy mess that we would have to compost, I was pretty darn excited that it worked!

I admit I’m looking a bit like a mad scientist here, but after waiting 5 weeks to see if we had pickles or a huge slimy mess that we would have to compost, I was pretty darn excited that it worked!

Lactic acid fermented cucumbers after 5 weeks of fermentation

Lactic acid fermented cucumbers after 5 weeks of fermentation

Pickles waiting to be sold in delicious brine

Pickles waiting to be sold in delicious brine, they were so crunchy you could hear it when someone next to you was eating one!

Eleanore and Nicole selling pickles at Rabbit Run Farm's booth at market

Eleanore and Nicole selling pickles at Rabbit Run Farm’s booth at market


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Entomology at Jenner Farm

Earlier this summer in the agroecology course held at Prescott College’s Jenner Farm, a 20 acre teaching and research farm in Skull Valley, AZ, we had a visit from Dr. Neil Cobb, an entomologist from Northern Arizona University.

A beautiful day to study entomology at Jenner Farm

Neil Cobb shows Prescott College agroecology students members of many of the insect orders

Blister Beetles mating!


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It’s pickling season! A foraging adventure in the Prescott College edible campus gardens and Jenner Farm

Imagine my delight when visiting Rabbit Run Farms’ stand at the Prescott Farmer’s Market, I discovered that pickling cucumbers are in season. Matt and Sarah farm commercially on Prescott College’s Jenner Farm as part of a land sharing agreement in exchange for managing the farm’s ongoing research projects. I have been out at Jenner Farm most of the summer with the college’s agroecology program, but somehow failed to notice the cucumber plants. I am very excited to eat some of the fruits of Matt and Sarah’s labor, but first I’ll need to transform them into pickles.

I started with a foraging trip to Prescott College’s edible campus gardens, currently managed by Rebekah Doyle. Rebekah gave me a tour a few weeks back and showed me the grape plants growing behind the library. She said they could be used for making dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), but I needed them this time for a chemical they contain. This chemical inhibits the enzymes found in the blossom ends of ripe fruit that can turn lovely crisp pickles into a slimy mess.

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Harvesting grape leaves at Prescott College’s edible campus garden (Photo S. Jack)

I found this dill right next to my truck in the parking lot

I rushed home with my harvest and pulled out my 3 gallon crock. As much as I love these stoneware crocks, any food grade bucket will do the trick. I washed mine well and scalded it with boiling water, then lined the bottom with rinsed grape leaves and fresh dill.

One of my favorite and most useful wedding presents

The grape leaves and dill form the first layer in the crock

Next I rinsed and trimmed the blossom ends off of the cucumbers. This part of the fruit contains enzymes that can make this home food preserver cry. My first batch of long brine pickles was an unmitigated mushy disaster which I salvaged with the blender by turning it into pickle relish before canning it! Matt and Sarah were careful to leave a portion of the stem in tact which is very important to the pickling process and definitely something to look for when you are sourcing pickling cucumbers. Update: The next time around I will cut off less of the end. When I debrined the pickles, the cut end created a salt gradient where one end of the pickle de-brined faster (and was less salty) than the other. I’ve since read you can almost scrape the blossom end a bit with a knife without actually cutting the end off.

Remove about 1/8 inch of the blossom end, but keep the stem in tact

I packed these lovely fruits into the crock and then added spices and another layer of grape leaves. Then I made a 10% brine (1 cup pickling salt in 2 quarts water) and covered the fruit. I topped it all off with three 1 gallon food grade plastic bags also filled with brine (in case they leak). I learned this method from Sauerkraut Seth at Hawthorne Valley Farm a few years back, and it is now recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. It keeps air out, but allows bubbles of carbon dioxide produced through the fermentation process to escape, a perfect situation for pickling.

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Do I really have to wait a month to eat you?

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I still had some celery seed, dill and habanero left over from my community garden plot in Ithaca, NY

This lid will prevent floaters, all cucumbers need to stay in the brine or they will spoil

This seal will allow bubbles to escape, but keep air out

For more inspiration on making your own fermented foods, check out Sandor Katz’s books and great presentations he recently gave at Cornell University. and Ithaca, NY. (Update: and for Food Day 2012 at Prescott College).

For safety information and tested recipes for almost every type of food preservation, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

I’ll be open water bath canning these pickles either in their own high acid brine or in a vinegar and sugar solution in 4-5 weeks or whenever my crock stops bubbling.

Update: If you’re curious to learn more about lactic acid fermentation, Molly Beverly and I gave a workshop at a Slow Food Prescott meeting. Workshop begins after slide show at 0:57 mark.

Note: Light harvesting at the Prescott College campus edible gardens is available for students, staff and faculty of the college. More intensive harvesting for food preservation is available to Prescott College students, staff and faculty who volunteer in the gardens. The public is welcome to visit and be inspired to create their own edible landscaping.

“I eat local because I can”