Homestead Hack #4: Van Dried Tomatoes!

There is a point in the growing season, that it almost feels as if the tomatoes will never ripen. The plants sit, loaded down with green globes, waiting for something, of what you’re not sure. You check every day, peering into each bush hoping to find the red gems inside, but to no avail. Then finally, they start and before you know it, you are inundated with tomatoes. This is a good thing. Tomatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables in the garden: they can go on sandwiches, in salads, canned whole, chopped or crushed, cooked down into sauce, juiced, frozen, processed into an endless array of condiments, the list goes on. And for each culinary use, there is a specific tomato that breeders and gardeners have selected for over the years.

At my house, we eat what we can fresh, and turn the rest into chopped tomatoes or sauce for pizzas and soups later in the year, and likewise, we always grow a couple of varieties of tomatoes: big hearty ones with few seeds that are great for slicing and chopping that break down well in sauce, and smaller cherry varieties ideal for snacking and salads. Unfortunately, this year, due in part to a very wet spring, our cherry tomatoes did not fare well, luckily we had planted a number of Black Vernissage as a test crop, and while not a cherry tomato per se, they are on the smaller side with most fruits smaller than a golf ball and for all intents and purposes, they eat just like a cherry.

spiced.jpgMaking sauce, while enjoyable the first seven quarts, can become something of a burden, especially when it’s 95°F outside, and you are filling the already hot kitchen with more heat and steam. And let us be serious, no one is really salivating when it comes time to crack open a jar of sauce; it is an excellent addition to a dish, but you can not snack on it by itself. Of course, we add some of our cherry-types to sauce for additional flavor, but we also like to turn many of our cherry tomatoes into a healthy garden snack that can last well beyond a tomatoes natural shelf life: sun-dried tomatoes. It may be up for debate as to whether or not these actually qualify as sun-dried tomatoes, but that is neither here nor there, the fact of the matter is they are a delicious snack and exceptionally easy to make.

This year we used our Black Vernissage, but because of their larger size, we had to cut them up into quarters or even sixths; when using typical marble size cherry tomatoes, we only cut them in half. Once cut up we toss them in a bowl with some spices. Sometimes we will stick to traditional Italian flavorings, and other times we attempt more exotic flavors – a personal favorite is salt, cocoa powder, cayenne and olive oil – but whatever flavorings you choose, make sure to use salt and olive oil as these ingredients help speed the drying process and mitigate potential mold growth. Once the tomatoes are thoroughly coated, they are laid out – so as not to touch each other – on old dehydrator trays, or cookie sheets, or whatever is easily movable and available. Sometimes with juicier tomatoes, it is better to start them on solid trays so the juice does not drip to the surface below. Once everything is laid out, I put them in my van.

tom-car.jpgYes, you read that right. In the summer, my van works as the ideal solar oven. I put the trays on the dashboard and let the sun do the work. If you have vents (like I do in my man-van) you can crack them, or you can just crack the windows a little, but some air flow is vital. After the first day, when most of the dripping juice has evaporated, I will move the tomatoes onto some aluminum screen that I have set aside just for this purpose, or you can use the screen inserts from a dehydrator if they are not in use elsewhere. Do not stack your trays and make sure they are laid out in the full sun. The olive oil and salt help keep mold at bay, but so do the heat, sun and air flow. I have also found that turning the tomatoes over so the skin side is facing the sun after the first day helps to speed drying. The whole process takes two to three days, depending on the weather, but it is important to check them often; believe it or not, they can go too long and then they not only become too hard to chew, but they can actually burn.

sun dried tom handsOnce cured, we try to get them in jars with rubber gaskets before the kids eat them all. They make great additions to salads and pastas or simply as individual snacks, and they make your car smell garden fresh!

Homestead Hack #3: Paint Your Tools!
Homestead Hack #2: Steam Your Eggs!
Homestead Hack #1: Label Your Eggs!

 

Homestead Hack #3: Paint Your Tools!

If you’ve had any metal outdoor tool for a while, you’ll know that eventually the shiny factory sheen starts to fade and the metal begins to pick-up a dingy, brown, earthen hue. You might also be wise enough to know that that dingy brown is almost the color as the dirt and leaf litter that covers the forest floor. I’m not sure about you, but if there is one thing that annoys me to no end when I’m out cutting firewood or digging around in the garden, it’s misplacing a tool mid-job because it’s lost among the leaves and dirt. And, as an aside, it can also get a little expensive. So how do we fix this issue? (Other than being overly pre-cautious and slowing the whole process down to put tools in the exact same spot mid-job…). Spray paint! A sweet bright vibrant splitting wedge will ensure you’ll have a hard time loosing it ever again. It works well for garden tools like shovels and hoes, and don’t forget the the always necessary but ever so small chain saw tool!

Paint Tools
Brighter is Better!

Homestead Hack #2: Steam Your Eggs!

Homestead Hack #2: Steam Your Eggs!

Steamy Eggs
Steamy Eggs!

A couple of weeks back, I mentioned labeling your eggs as they go into the carton. This hack is another egg-tip for you chicken minded – or other avian friendly – folk. In a blind taste test, I have zero idea as to the differences between a farm fresh egg and a store bought one. To me, they all taste the same. When I can tell the difference is when they’re hard boiled. I can’t actually taste the difference, but when it comes time to peel them, the distinction is clear: an older egg sloughs it’s shell easily and cleanly, a farm fresh egg is impossible to peel uniformly and half the egg white ends up still stuck to the shell. (If you’re curious as to why this happens, you can read about it on Popsugar.)

So what do you do when you want a hardboiled egg for a snack when you’re bucking logs? You could keep a carton of eggs you let “age” in the back of the fridge but that requires planning. The better answer: steam them. I’m not entirely sure where my wife read about it, but ifyou steam fresh eggs for 20-25 minutes, you’ll be able to peel them just like the well seasoned eggs you buy at the grocery store, but without all the planning! (And don’t forget to write a big old “HB” on them. No one wants to peel a non-hardboiled egg.)

Homestead Hack #1: Label Your Eggs!

Homestead Hack #1: Label Your Eggs!

Another repost. I have since read that a number of folks leave their eggs – with the natural “bloom” still on the shells – on the counter top until they are ready to be used. I guess you could still use this trick, but I am going to stick with putting my eggs in the fridge for now.

If I had to guess, I would imagine that the most common farm-type animal among homesteaders would have to be a chicken. More and more they can be found in urban settings and it seems that everyone knows at least one person with chickens, and with chickens come….eggs! Before long, you will realize you have too many chickens, but do not have the heart to put them in the freezer and you will quickly find yourself inundated with eggs. I know we have had 4.5 dozen eggs in our fridge a few times in the summer months when laying is heavy. Unfortunately, (I found this out as a kid) even with the best egg-rotation schedules, once you start acquiring lots of eggs, there is a chance one of those eggs might have been sitting in the fridge for too long and you will only figure out it is too old when you go to crack it open – which is certainly less than enjoyable. You could label your cartons – as I know many people do – but then you end up with at least two cartons that are not full. I do not know about you, but there is not room in my refrigerator for half-empty egg cartons.

The solution: Label Your Eggs! On the Good View Quarter, before each egg gets its bath in the sink, but before it goes in the carton, it has its laid-on-date scrawled on top. All of our eggs have a date on them. It helps conserve space, and it helps let us know which eggs are freshest, and which ones might be best hard boiled. We like to use pencil. I’m sure ink from a pen would work fine, but pencil seems the safest choice than then say, Sharpie.

Labeled Eggs