Friday, July 29, 2011

Wine making adventure: mostly plum

Someday, I shall have enough fresh fruit of one kind to make a single-fruit wine. Until then, I make "mostly x" wines. In the hall closet I have mostly apple, mostly cherry, and mostly orange. This time, I had 18 pounds of plums picked from my own tree (one of those dark purple ornamnetal plums) and from a tree on my family's rental property. I also had 6 pounds of elderberries foraged along the riverbank. I had these all chopped up and frozen in gallon ziplock bags, as it wasn't quite enough fruit for a 5 gallon run. I like my fruit wines very fruit-forward, although not very sweet. Some winemaking sources say that a subtler, grape-wine-like wine can be made with other fruits if the fruit-to-water ratio is low. I don't want my fruit wines to taste like grapes, I like them to taste like fruit. I planted grape vines this year for when I want grape wines.

Anyway, the final contribution to my wine was made by my friend Gloria, who bought me a flat of delicious cling peaches. I used 3 pounds of the peaches to round out my wine. Here are the frozen plums and elderberries ready to go, just so you get the idea of how much fruit is required for a 5 gallon batch.

Different fruits vary widely in acids, tannins, and sugars. When I mix fruits in a single batch of wine, I break it down as if I'm making individual gallons when I'm hunting up recipes. There are some very good winemaking books. The Way to Make Wine by Sheridan Warrick and The Home Winemaker's Companion by Gene Spaziani are good ones, particularly if you want to make grape wines. They don't take fruit wines very seriously, but they give a lot of information about the technical process. They can also make winemaking seem intimidating. That is why I also like The Joy of Home Winemaking by Terry Garey. She really takes the intimidation out and also treats fruit wines as a valid beverage in their own right, not as if they are a poor man's alternative to good grapes.

Of course, practically speaking, fruit wines are my alternative to wine grapes. Brew shops sell fresh, frozen, and concentrate wine grapes, but it is expensive, particularly in 5 gallon batches. In summer and fall, a lot of people give fruit away because they have so much.

So, once I know what kind and how much fruit I have, I turn to my favorite online winemaking recipe source, Jack Keller. He can be relied upon to have a recipe for just about any crazy fruit you may have. He had several for plums, elderberries, and peaches. I chose a recipe for plum wine, which called for 6 lb of fruit, a recipe for peach wine which called for 1 lb of peaches, and split the difference between his two recipes for elderberry wine, one calling for 3 lb fruit, one calling for 10. Essentially, I pretended I was making 3 gallons of plum wine, 1 of peach and 1 of elderberry. Why? Well, the plum wine called for added tannin, but the peach and elderberry wine didn't, as those fruits contain enough naturally to produce a balanced wine. Peach, on the other hand, needed relatively little added acid blend, but plum and elderberry needed more. I think treating each fruit separately creates a more balanced final wine.

So, my final, cobbled together recipe looks like this:

17 lb plums
6 lb elderberries
1 lb peaches
11 lb sugar
6 1/2 ts acid blend
3/8 ts tannin
5 ts yeast nutrient
5 ts pectic enzyme
1 packet wine yeast

All the fruit is chopped up, excepting the elderberries which are very small. If you have time, freezing the fruit helps break down the cell walls and makes the yeast's job easier, but it's not necessary.

If you take only one bit of information from this post, it should be this: For a five gallon carboy's worth of wine, you will need a larger than five gallon bucket for your primary fermentation. Helpful people at the brew shop will tell you this and try to sell you a 6.5 gallon bucket when you buy the carboy. Don't be stubborn and figure you can get a cheaper 5 gallon bucket elsewhere. Yeast create a lot of fizz. Think of the head of a pint of beer, then imagine it in a smaller glass. You don't want wine fizz pushing up and over the top of your bucket and all over your floor. Many wines are made with very colorful fruits that are hard to wash away. Just a thought.

Anyway, at this point I put my strainer bag into my 5 gallon bucket (don't be stubborn!). Bagging the fruit makes it much, much easier to remove after the primary fermentation is over. Dump in the fruit:



and plums, which were still frozen. All this fruit made my bucket very full. Doesn't look like I'll need much water. So, I brought a large pot of water to boil, and added the sugar. Normally, you would only boil about half the water you need along with all the sugar, and pour it over the fruit and add the rest of the water cold. Hot water helps start to draw the juices and flavors out of the fruit, but the pectic enzyme can't be added until the mix is room temperature. But I had a lot of fruit which was still frozen, so it cooled down quickly. Once I determined that the mixture was cool enough, I added all the other ingredients except yeast. Properly speaking, the recipe should also include a crushed Campden tablet for every gallon of wine. That kills off any errant strains of yeast or bacteria present. I forgot, so I'll see what happens. Cover the bucket with a clean kitchen towel to keep out dust and flies while allowing airflow.

After giving the pectic enzyme 12 hours to do its job (and also allowing the sulphur from the Campden tablets to dissipate somewhat), you can stir in the yeast. After a day or two, the mix will be very bubbly, which pushes the fruit up to the top of the bucket. It will smell a little like wine but look pretty gross. Like this.

Every day, preferably twice a day, you will need to stir the floating fruit back into the liquid. This allows the yeast to keep working on it. Being exposed to air away from the yeast, like the fruit on the top, can give other bacteria a chance to get to work on it. Periodic stirring allows the yeast to colonize and defend every bit of the fruit. Yeast is very good at keeping bad bacteria out of its domain. In a week or so, when the fermentation has slowed down a bit, I will pull out the bag of fruit. Usually I just let it drain and toss the contents. This time, since there was so much fruit, I will press as much liquid out of the must as possible. As it is, I had almost a liter of water-sugar syrup which didn't fit into the bucket to begin with, then I pulled out two liters of juice to avoid overfilling my bucket. Even adding that back in after pulling out the fruit, I will probably be left with less than 5 gallons of liquid to put in the carboy. The difference can be made up with plain water or wine.

I'll post an update when I transfer this batch into the carboy. After that, it's mainly waiting.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Harvest Monday July 25

This was a hectic week. Harvests happened, but not many pictures were taken. The most substantial product of the yard was this SUV on Sunday morning. You can read more about it in detail here. The story involves one parked SUV, one truck with a sleeping driver, and an innocent mailbox. No one was seriously injured (apparently not even the driver, though I imagine he'll be bruised).
One of the two container-grown potato plants got too hot/dry and died. I did salvage about half a pound of tiny new potatoes from it, though. I also picked 3 lb, 14 oz of squash and 2 and a half pounds of tomatoes. You can see those, at least, below, along with farmers market peaches, destined to become a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce.
That brings my totals to

2 lb 14 oz greens
60 lb oranges
13.5 oz kumquats
13 lb cherries
14.5 oz radish pods
8 oz peas
6 lb 12 oz tomatoes
10 lb 2 oz squash
14 oz garlic
4 lb 1 oz new potatoes
2 oz herbs
2.5 oz onions
1 lb 5 oz ornamental plums
16 lb cultivated plums
4 lb elderberries

Friday, July 22, 2011

Seeds: Making and Saving

I think seed saving is very important. For one thing, It's cheaper. The majority of money I have spent on this garden has been for seeds. (The next-highest expense was the $100 or so we used to put up the fence that separates the vegetable garden from the rest of the yard to keep the dogs out). Granted, I do prefer the interesting heirlooms from seed catalogs, which are more expensive, over the cheaper hybrids on the rack at my local hardware store. Now that I have these heirlooms, however, I can save the seed myself and have enough for myself and to share with others for years to come. There is a lot of good seedsaving information online and in books, but I'll share a quick example for saving tomato seed, since tomatoes are so popular with backyard gardeners.

First, needless to say, you have to have seed to save. That can be tricky. In short-season areas, it may be difficult to get mature seed before frost hits and kills the plants or rain comes and makes the drying seed mold. In hot climates, we have a different problem. High heat and pollen don't go together.

Obviously, some plant pollens like high heat more than others. Peppers and tomatoes have pollen that is viable at higher temperatures than, say, cabbages. But even hot-weather vegetables have their limits.

According to a gardening guide published by Colorado State, "Tomato pollination is temperature dependant. If nighttime temperatures drop below 55 degrees, pollen fails to develop and flowers that open the following morning will not set fruit....If the daytime temperature reaches 90 degrees by 10 a.m., blossoms that opened that morning abort."

When I was harvesting the first of my tomatoes, the ones I was so happy to find with few seeds, I didn't consider the temperatures. We'd been having temperatures veering wildly between periods of cold nights and days in the triple digits while those tomatoes were forming. This resulted in smaller tomatoes with few seeds. Now, our weather has settled to what I will tentatively call "normal" as you can see below.

I am also getting larger and seedier tomatoes, as the flowers are being pollinated more thoroughly. It still seems to hot for beans, as I am seeing many bean flowers yet no bean pods. I am collecting more varieties of cowpeas, including the lovely and reliable yardlong bean, since Vigna unguiculata can flourish in higher temperatures than Phaseolus vulgaris. I will also be trying the drought and heat tolerant tepary bean, Phaseolus acutifolius, next year.
What can be done about it now? I notice that flowers are more likely to set fruits in denser plantings, where I assume the shade and humidity keep the temperatures down. So tighter plant spacing may help. Also, I think rigging up a light shade cover might help.

Anyway, here is how I save tomato seeds. I process seeds in a small batch because I don't need thousands of seeds for next year.

The good news is, tomato plants don't need any special treatment to produce seeds (radish plants, for instance, have to be kept in the ground much longer to allow them time to flower and set seed, and they need to be staked to keep them from falling over. They get big). Nor do you have to do anything special with the fruit. It's already ripe with mature seeds.

The bad news is, tomato seeds are covered in a substance that inhibits sprouting. The plant intends for the tomato to fall off and rot before the seeds sprout. For the most successful germination next season, we should mimic that process.

Start by scooping the seeds out of several ripe tomatoes, into a small container. I use a cup measure. You can use the remainder of the tomatoes for something else. Like salsa. Mmm. Anyway, add a little tap water to the slurry in the container. Just a bit. You want a soupy mixture. Now, you're going to let this mixture ferment to break down the germination inhibitors in the tomato gel around the seeds. Cover the container loosely (I stick mine in an unsealed plastic baggie) and make sure it's labeled with the variety you're saving. Set it someplace you won't forget it. You don't want to forget it.

After a couple of days, the mixture in the container will get moldy. It looks gross. This is why you don't want to forget it and find it next month.

Now, add some more water to the container and swish it around a little. The scuzzy stuff will float, as will any nonviable seed. Mature seed will sink to the bottom. Pour off as much scuzz as you can. Then dump the rest into a fine-mesh strainer and rinse the seeds well under running water.

Then spread the cleaned seed out to dry. I like to use paper plates for this. Label the plate, too, so you don't get the seeds mixed up with some other variety (this may provide one more level of insurance against a significant other throwing the plate away). When the seeds are completely dry, they can be stored. If you're not sure whether they are dry enough, leave them out longer. Improperly dried seeds mold. A fully dried seed should snap if you bend it, but few tomatoes have seeds large enough to bend.

Congratulations, you've just saved yourself at least $2.50 on a pack of tomato seeds next year. More likely, you've saved several packs worth of seeds and now can share them with other gardening friends, exchange them for seeds you don't have on GardenWeb's seed exchange, or even sell them through organizations like Seed Saver's Exchange. Seeds vary in their longevity - onion seed is notoriously shortlived - but tomato seeds can last 5 years or more if you store them somewhere cool and dry. Now you'll never have to worry about your favorite tomato variety being bumped out of production by something trendier.

Don't laugh, it happens.

A note on hybrids: Most gardeners are aware that hybrid varieties don't "breed true" - the offspring will not be the same as the parent plant. Most books and articles add, "so hybrid seed is not worth saving." If you are the inquisitive sort, this is complete bunk. It is true that hybrid plants will not produce identical offspring (although seed companies have been known to label true-breeding, open pollinated seeds "hybrid" to discourage seedsaving and encourage customers to buy new seed every year), hybrid tomato plants will still produce tomato seeds. If you grow out the seeds next year, you will be greeted with several different types of tomatoes. You may like one of these new types better and you can develop your own new variety from that plant. Or one of the types might be very similar to the original tomatoes and you can develop your own open pollinated version of the hybrid tomato. For an excellent explanation of this type of plant breeding, see Carol Deppe's Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harvest Monday July 18th

This was my best harvest week so far. The tomato plants and the squash vines are churning out a decent take almost daily. I have a lot of tomato plants this year because they managed to survive all the things that went wrong.

Below are the maroon tomatoes that are close to being my favorite variety this year (they tie with the funny bell pepper shaped ones). Unfortunately, neither variety reached me with a name. I will still save seeds.

I don't have a picture of the squash I harvested, but here is a simple dish I made with a couple. I sliced them into thin rounds and fried them in a little bit of butter and a sprinkle of seasoned salt. They were excellent. (The mystery object on the plate is a little onigiri, heated in the pan with a splash of soy sauce.) I had this for breakfast and call it Silver Dollar Squash.

Most of the tomatoes I picked got dried. I leave them rather juicy and store them in the freezer. They will be lovely memories of summer all winter. I want to try a bread dough with chopped dried tomatoes and rosemary. Mmm...

I also did some foraging. I stop by some unused land to gather forage for my rabbits. One place is along a chainlink fence that separates a sidewalk from a steep river bank. Wild grape grows over the fence, and the rabbits like that. Then I noticed that elderberry bushes also lean over the fence. I couldn't resist. I didn't gather enough for straight elderberry wine, but I will add these to a blend.
This is what they'll be blended with. These plums come from an apartment complex my family owns. Ideally, fruit for wine should be perfectly ripe. I am not the best ripe-plum picker, probably because I prefer to eat plums with a little crunch left to them (I know, it's practically sacrilegious). So if you make wine, don't follow my example: pick your fruit perfectly ripe. I also picked some little plums from my ornamental plum tree (one of those with dark purple leaves). It produces dark red plums about twice the size of a cherry with a wonderfully intense, tart-sweet taste. I would absolutely make a wine exclusively from them if I could ever gather enough.

My total for the week:

ornamental plums: 1 lb 5 oz
cultivated plums: 16 lbs
elderberries: 4 lb
tomatoes: 3 lb 3 oz
squash: 3 lb 4 oz

Which brings my total for the year to:

2 lb 14 oz greens
60 lb oranges
13.5 oz kumquats
13 lb cherries
14.5 oz radish pods
8 oz peas
4 lb 4 oz tomatoes
6 lb 4 oz squash
14 oz garlic
3 lb 4 oz new potatoes
2 oz herbs
2.5 oz onions
1 lb 5 oz ornamental plums
16 lb cultivated plums
4 lb elderberries

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Harvest Monday July 11th

This will be a summer of tomatoes. They were the only species not squished by falling grow lights, slurped by slugs, nibbled by bunnies, or attacked significantly by any of the other insect pests I had this year (notably stink bugs and aphids, which I treat by wishing I had chickens). I am hoping for a bumper crop eventually to can and dry. In the mean time, the main producers are two unnamed, smallish-fruited tomatoes that I will probably save seed from and grow next year. I've been grazing off of them for a couple weeks now. Mostly I just quarter or halve them and toss them in a skillet with whatever else I'm cooking.

I also make my family and coworkers eat them raw and report back. I am not a fan of plain, raw tomatoes. Yuck. But I'd like to know what's tasty for seedsaving or sharing.

I decided that the haul above (about 8 oz) qualified as enough to dry. They are in the dehydrator now. I love dried tomatoes. Most of them are the funny, bell-pepper shaped, cherry-size tomatoes that I got from a seed mix. They are very meaty little guys, with few seeds and little gel. That's great for me, since I love tomato sauces, salsas, and dried, all of which favor a dryish tomato. I will definitely save seed. The trouble is there are so few seeds inside. Still, I am determined and will name them and offer them next season.

(As an aside, I am willing to trade seed for any plant I list on this blog, so long as I am able to save them.)

Friday night I realized I didn't have anything to make for my box lunch Saturday. Unfortunately, I had cleaned out the ripe tomatoes in the afternoon and gave them away. I did have some chard and a young onion. I thinly sliced the stems and the onion and sauteed them with a couple of peppers we had left from our last farmers' market trip, as well as some pickled daikon and kohlrabi (also from the market), finished off with a little soy sauce. The greens were roughly chopped and stirred into some rice and quinoa along with the last of the sweet pickled kumquats from Mom's tree.

It was an odd meal. Swiss chard is not my favorite, although it's beautiful. I will grow it again (I have a lovely strain of purple-leaved chard that didn't get planted this year). I may try just eating it in soups and the like in winter, then feeding it to the bunnies over summer. I don't like it well enough for the light sautes of summer fare.

Finally a few more tomatoes and some 8-ball squash went into a pan with some sliced chicken breast and a splash of red wine vinegar. That's summer food at its best.

I do really love this squash. It doesn't seem to have the pithy texture that even young crookneck or zucchini have. Even at the size of a softball, this squash keeps a firm, smooth texture and the seeds are barely noticeable. The bad news is, it's a hybrid. I will try to keep some seeds in hopes of breaking it into an open pollinated variety, but it is growing in my front yard, where large squash tend to get stolen.

If I can't save seed, I may break down and buy it from a company. It's that good. Maybe someone's already dehybridized it in Seed Savers Exchange.

This week, I harvested:
14 oz tomatoes
1 lb 8 oz summer squash
5 oz chard
2 oz onions
3.5 oz garlic

which brings my totals for the year to:
2 lb 14 oz greens
60 lbs oranges (the wine is looking fabulous, by the way)
13.5 oz kumquats
13 lb cherries
14.5 oz radish pods
8 oz peas
1 lb 1 oz tomatoes
3 lb summer squash
14 oz garlic
3 lb 4 oz new potatoes
2 oz herbs
2.5 oz onions

Not bad for only my second year of gardening.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Rabbit Feeding

I don't feed my rabbits pellets. Rabbit pellets, like dog food, are fairly recent on the scene and animals have done fine without them for thousands of years previously. Also, rabbit pellets must be purchased.

Instead, I feed my rabbits good quality hay and assorted greens and vegetables. With ten rabbits instead of two, I find that my yard does not provide enough greens for the bunnies. In addition to what my own property supplies, I forage for them on empty land (caveat: to be entirely on the legal side of the fence, you have to have permission from the property owner to do this, even if you are technically removing invasive weeds).

In springtime, the pickings are easy. In the Central Valley, where we live, springtime runs from about November to March. It's been summer for a while, no matter what the calendar says. Plus, most landownders plow the land in late spring as the weeds start to dry out. Pickings now are slimmer.

Favorites at this time include wild grape as well as the weeds below.

This is purslane. As a succulent, it contains a lot of water, which helps keep bunnies hydrated in hot weather. Also, people can eat it, though I haven't tried.

In the center of the photo above is sow thistle. It starts growing early in the year and is going to seed now. However, the plant stays green even while the seeds are ripe (unlike the trusty mustard family plants the rabbits were eating earlier in the year).

This is prickly lettuce, the forebears of our familiar salad green. They are also starting to go to seed at this time, though they will dry out as their seeds ripen. The bunnies especially seem to love the flower buds at the top of the stalk.

Chicory is a relative of the dandelion, familiar and also beloved of bunnies. I find chicory difficult to identify until it flowers. It has beautiful blue flowers, unlike anything else growing in this area right now. It will bloom through the summer, so I am looking forward to harvesting more of it for the bunnies. When it flowers, it sends up long, leafless stalks for the blooms, with the leaves as a clump at the bottom. Since the rabbits like the leaves best, I pull the whole clump.

These greens help augment what I feed the bunnies out of my own garden, like squash leaves, late radish leaves, dandelions, grasses and clover.

Harvest Monday July 4th

I have summer squash (Pool Ball Hybrid) and assorted tomatoes coming in now. I call them assorted because most are from a mix of seeds I received from I love the flavors of summer food. I sliced up the squash and tomatoes, as well as some chicken breast, sauteed it all with a little olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Divine.

Totals this week:

Summer squash: 1 lb 8 oz

Tomatoes: 3 oz.