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Whirlwind Summer

The last few weeks have been, in my book, a more or less perfect whirlwind of summer. While I don’t love the extreme heat and humidity that sometimes comes with the Pennsylvania summers, we’ve had a nice balance of warm sunny days and brief bouts of thunderstorms to break the heat when it starts to get out of control. The garden has been thriving for the most part, although due to our late start we haven’t yet been able to harvest anything besides herbs. The most successful has definitely been the lavender! I’ve been drying the buds and plan to use them for a blueberry-lavender jam.

Speaking of jam, this year’s preserving endeavors started out unexpectedly rocky, when not one but two batches of the strawberry balsamic thyme jam I blogged about last time completely failed to set. I’ve made this jam before with no trouble, and although I did less jam-making last year than usual, I couldn’t imagine I had lost the skill entirely. After doing some reading online, I noticed several bloggers mentioning that they had observed a decline in the performance of Certo pectin, and recommended the Ball brand pectin instead. For my next batch, a vanilla-rhubarb jam with Earl Grey tea, I tried the Ball pectin instead, and sure enough it set up perfectly! So, I consider myself back in the game. Today I made strawberry rhubarb jam, and I have plans for honey-pickled kohlrabi with the rest of the spring harvest from my father-in-law’s garden.

Our livestock is growing steadily. The pigs rooted up their beautiful grassy pen in no time, but they don’t seem to mind! They have a shady shelter and food and water available in plenty, and once a day we bring them some treats in the form of kitchen scraps. When it’s hot and dry, we make sure they have a muddy spot for a wallow to keep cool and protected from the sun. The ducklings are fully feathered and getting quite big, and enjoy nibbling at the grass or playing in the baby pool we keep in the barnyard. The chicks have outgrown what I like to call the “dinosaur” stage of gangly awkwardness. The ones not raised by our hens are getting braver and venturing outside more. The young roosters are starting to crow, which is an exercise in hilarity at this age! Their little voices cracking is both adorable and humorous.

That’s mostly the gist of what’s been going on around here, but we’ll have more news when my in-laws get back from their vacation!

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Yes I Can!

Although I’m still a mediocre gardener at best, we have the good fortune to have a master gardener in the family: my father-in-law! When our gardening exploits go awry, he keeps us well supplied with all sorts of fresh produce – enough to eat, and often even enough to preserve as well. Strawberry season is at hand and that’s usually the first batch of preserves I make for the year.

My favorite go-to recipe is this one for strawberry jam with fresh thyme and balsamic vinegar. I adapted it a little to follow the directions for liquid pectin instead of powdered, since that’s what I had on hand. Luckily, the recipe is basically the pectin-box recipe with vinegar in place of lemon juice, and fresh herbs added, which makes it easy to adapt to your favorite type of pectin. Just start with your fresh ingredients,

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cook as directed,

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process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes,

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and allow to set!

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I only learned how to can a few years ago, from my mother-in-law. I was pretty nervous, since it seems like most stories about canning involve how cumbersome and difficult it is. Once you know the basics, though, it’s really not too bad! Setting up your workspace with a good flow is one of the most important things. I cook my jam on the left side of my stove, and fill my jars on the left side counter. Then I process the jars in the water bath on the right side burner, and set the jam off on the right side counter to set.

The other most important thing, for me anyway, is to use a candy thermometer to make sure your jam hits the crucial temperature of 220 degrees Fahrenheit. Simply boiling for one minute as the recipes generally recommend isn’t always enough to be sure. Experienced makers of jams and jellies can sometimes tell by looking whether the jelling point has been reached, but I find it beneficial to check the temperature and be sure. I made plenty of batches of “ice cream topping” from jam that failed to gel before I did some research and learned that little tidbit. My favorite site (and book) for canning advice is Food in Jars – check out her Canning 101 series for lots of great advice!

This is my husband Avery’s favorite recipe, and he looks forward to it every year. I’m hoping to make some more to give away as holiday gifts as well. We’re pretty well out of last year’s jams and jellies, so there is plenty to be made this year!