Q: We had tomatillos growing in a community location, but they were ripped out early because it was thought they were poisonous prior to cooking. Are there precautions to growing tomatillos?
A: The tomatillo, otherwise known as the Mexican husk tomato, can be eaten both raw and cooked. It is a staple in Mexican cuisine, seen primarily in green sauces such as salsa verde. The tomatillo fruit is surrounded by an inedible, paper like husk. As the fruit matures it fills the husk, which turns brown and often splits open by harvest.
When planting your garden, it is important to note the tomatillos are highly self-incompatible, meaning it takes two or more plants for proper pollination. Isolated tomatillo plants will rarely set fruit. Several cultivars are available; sweeter purple and red varieties as well as more tart green and yellow varieties.
Ripe tomatillos will keep refrigerated for about two weeks, longer if the husks are removed and the fruit is placed in sealed plastic bags. They may be frozen whole or sliced.
Q: I made a recipe that called for stock but I used broth. What is the difference?
A: Many recipes use stock or broth. Is there a difference? By definition, a stock is made from meat and bones. It may or may not have other ingredients such as vegetables and seasonings, known as a “mirepoix.” Typically the vegetables are roughly chopped and include onions, carrots and celery. The bones add body to the liquid. When it is chilled it will become thick. Stocks have a fuller mouth feel and richer flavor, due to the gelatin released by the bones during their long simmer. Stocks should be used when a sauce is to be reduced significantly or when clarity of the final result is preferred.
Broth is made from meat, vegetables and seasonings. The primary flavor is from the meat. It will also have a thinner consistency. Broths can be substituted for stock when the body of the liquid or clarity isn’t important and when the liquid will be thickened by addition of a starch.
Q: I am interested in freezing my garden produce and potentially some freezer meals, what do I need to know?
A: Freezing food is easy, convenient, and the least time-consuming food preservation method. But freezing food is a science because of the chemical and physical changes that occur over freezer storage time.
Freezing does not kill bacteria, it only slows down the growth of bacteria and slows the enzyme activity which can affect the quality of the food. Freezing will affect the texture of any food because the water in the food expands and breaks cell walls. This results in softer products, especially in fruit. Quality is also affected by fluctuating temperatures during freezer storage. Foods may thaw slightly, then refreeze and ice crystals form on the package. For best storage, keep the freezer below 0°F, this helps retain vitamin content, color, flavor and texture.
Freshness and quality at the time of freezing affect the condition of frozen foods. If frozen at peak quality, thawed foods emerge tasting better than foods frozen near the end of their useful life. The freezing process itself does not destroy nutrients. In meat and poultry products, there is little change in nutrient value during freezer storage.
Color changes can occur in frozen foods. The bright red color of meat as purchased usually turns dark or pale brown depending on its variety. This may be due to lack of oxygen, freezer burn or abnormally long storage. Freezing doesn’t usually cause color changes in poultry. However, the bones and the meat near them can become dark. The dulling of color in frozen vegetables and cooked foods is usually the result of excessive drying due to improper packaging or over-lengthy storage.
Enzyme activity does not harm frozen meats or fish and is neutralized by the acids in frozen fruits. But most vegetables that freeze well are low acid and require brief, partial cooking to prevent deterioration. This is called “blanching.” Blanching slows or stops the action of enzymes that can cause loss of flavor, color and texture. Blanching cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color and helps retard loss of vitamins. Blanching also wilts or softens vegetables and makes them easier to pack. Blanching time is crucial and varies with the vegetable and its size. Underblanching stimulates the activity of enzymes and is worse than no blanching. Overblanching causes loss of flavor, color, vitamins and minerals. Be sure to look up instructions on blanching times for all vegetables. More information can be found at: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/uga/uga_freeze_veg.pdf
Q: I would like to can soups for this winter. Is that an acceptable practice?
A: Vegetable, dried bean or pea, meat, poultry, or seafood soups can be canned. Be sure to use ONLY ingredients that are recommended for canning. Do not add noodles or other pasta, rice, flour, cream, milk or other thickening agents to home canned soups. If additional ingredients or thickening is desired, those variations should be made when the jar is opened for serving. If dried beans or peas are used, they must be fully rehydrated first. For each cup of dried beans or peas add 3 cups of water, boil 2 minutes, remove from heat, soak 1 hour, heat to boiling, drain.
Each vegetable should be selected, washed, prepared and cooked as described for a ‘hot pack.’ Meats recommended for canning should be covered with water and cooked until tender, then cooled and the bones removed. Next, combine all solid ingredients with hot water, tomatoes or broth, bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Salt can be added to taste, if desired. Do not fully cook the soup before filling jars; the canning process completes the cooking at the same time it eliminates harmful microorganisms.
Jars should only be filled halfway with the mixture of solids. The rest of the jar is filled with the hot liquid leaving 1-inch headspace.
Vegetable-based soups are usually mixtures of low-acid ingredients and they need to be pressure canned. Water bath canning is NOT sufficient for canning soups. The extra heat in pressure canning is needed to destroy the spores of Clostridium botulinum (the microorganism that causes Botulism).
Process the jars in a pressure canner according to instructions in the table relevant to your altitude, pressure canner type and jar size. Please see the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s publication on soups at http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_04/soups.html for more information and specific processing times.
Q: I am concerned that the heating/cooling bills in my new house are going to be through the roof because I have an old single unit with manual thermostat.
A: About 3 percent of the U.S. population is using a tablet or smartphone off site to manage “smart” thermostats at home. While smart thermostats are among the newest technologies for energy efficiency, it is possible to see savings with programmable and manual thermostats with a little extra effort. You will see the most savings by adjusting the thermostat and leaving it for 8 to 10 hours, according to research available from U.S. Department of Energy. The research has also shown that the most savings, as much as 10 percent per year, is seen when the thermostat is turned up or down a particular number of degrees.
For greatest savings in the summer, set up the thermostat about 7 degrees Fahrenheit (F) during the day and 4 degrees F at night, considering the base temperature is between 72 F and 74 F. Closing window coverings to keep out the sunlight during the day could also help increase home energy savings. Ceiling fans can benefit home energy savings in the summer months, by circulating cool air through the house. A bathroom or range fan can be turned on to control heat and humidity. Don’t use heat producing appliances such as the dryer or oven during the day, but rather use those at night, if needed.
Turning the thermostat down 8 degrees F in the winter is recommended, when gone or during the night. Window coverings should be left open on sunny days during the winter, as the sunlight can help warm the inside of the house.
If updating a furnace or air conditioner and getting a programmable thermostat, rebates are often available from electric companies and equipment manufacturers. Not only do you save on the cost of the new air conditioner or heating unit, you also then would save over time. Furnace and air conditioning units generally last about ten to fifteen years.
Q: It is time to make lots of jams and jelly in my house, but I want a lower sugar alternative. Can I use honey?
A: For a successful jellied product, a proper ratio or fruit, pectin, acid and sugar is needed. Sugar serves as a preserving agent, contributes flavor and aids in gelling of products. Cane and beet sugar are the usual sources of sugar for jelly or jam. Corn syrup and honey may be used to replace part of the sugar in recipes, but too much will mask the fruit flavor and alter the gel structure. Use tested recipes for replacing sugar with honey and corn syrup. Do not try to reduce the amount of sugar in traditional recipes. Too little sugar prevents gelling and may allow yeasts or molds to grow. You can visit the National Center for Home Preservation for how to’s and tested recipes on a variety of jelly or jam products at www.nchfp.uga.edu/how/can7_jam_jelly.html. Happy Canning!