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Ask Jackie Online
By Jackie Clay

January 24, 2007
Jackie Clay
Jackie Clay answers questions on any aspect of low-tech, self-reliant living.
Click Here to learn how to Ask Jackie a question.

Butchering ducks

I have three male ducks with no ladies to entertain them so I figured we might as well eat them. But I have never butchered a duck before (have done chickens). Is the process the same?

Gail Erman
Ermanzoo1 at juno.com

Yes, you butcher a duck about the same way you do a chicken, but sometimes they pluck a little harder. I soak mine a little longer in hot water so the feathers release easier. But unless you are roasting the duck and want a nice golden skin, I skin a duck, rather than pluck it because the pin feathers are sometimes tough to get out.

If you do want to keep the skin, pluck all the feathers you can, then heat up an old metal pail full of boiling water and add a bar of paraffin or two (depending on the size of the duck) and continue until it melts. It floats to the top. Then you dip the duck into it, by the feet, a couple of times, letting the paraffin coat the skin and leftover feathers. It works best to have the water just cooling down so the paraffin sticks better.

Then with the duck waxed, let it cool until the wax is tough, then peel the wax off, with the pinfeathers stuck in it. This works pretty good.

— Jackie

Canning chili beans

I wanted to thank you for giving me the courage to try canning more than just “tomatoes and green beans.” I have now tried most jellies, preserves, relishes, fruits, vegetables, and meats that my husband and I would eat. I still want to try canning cheese.

The question that I have for you is this: do you have a recipe for canning “chili beans”? I can all of my dry beans; black, pinto, northern, kidney, but still buy chili beans to add to my chili. The ingredients on the can are, beans, water, tomato paste, seasoning (chili spices, salt, onion powder, garlic powder), salt, soybean oil.

If you have any suggestions I would greatly appreciate it.

Marcia Speltslambert
Clay City, Indiana

Yes, you can certainly can chili beans. I would skip the soybean oil, though. Any oil makes the possibility of lids not sealing more probable. Simply make up a big batch of your chili recipe, to taste. Simmer it until the beans are just tender. Then dip them out with the sauce to fill your jars to within an inch of the top of the jars. Process for 60 minutes at 10 pounds pressure (unless you live at an altitude above 1,000 feet and must adjust your pressure to suit your altitude; consult your canning manual for directions).

This makes tasty beans that are ready for your recipes, at a moment’s notice, without all the preservatives and other chemicals that are found in most store brands.

— Jackie

Canning pesto

Can I water-bath can pesto, or must I use a pressure cooker? How do I generally know if a food is acidic enough to use water-bath canning? It will be cilantro-walnut pesto.

Kate Woomer-Deters
Raleigh, North Carolina

I don’t think you should can pesto in a water bath canner. Although walnuts may be water bath canned, cilantro, being a “green,” needs to be pressure canned as it is a low acid food. Foods that are acidic enough to water bath process are fruits, including jams and jellies, pickles of all kinds, tomatoes and tomato products WITHOUT meat or many other added vegetables. When in doubt, read your canning manual for directions.

I have never canned pesto. Have any other readers successfully done this?

— Jackie

Turning crystallized honey back to liquid

I bought a large jar of honey and it has already started to turn sugary. How can I turn this back to a liquid form?

Allene Hoff
61439 at bellsouth.net

Honey is easy to return to a liquid state. All it needs is gentle heat. You can either put the jar in a pan of water on low heat on your stove or else put it in a warm sunny window. I keep a jar of honey on top of the warming ovens of my wood kitchen range. Not only does it stay liquid, but also nice and warm, too.

Of course I suppose you could also microwave it, but I use my microwave as little as possible; wouldn’t even have one but Mom likes some things heated up in it.

— Jackie

Using hay for mulch

I would like to get some hay for mulch. I’m sure the hay has been sprayed with commercial grade sprays for various stuff. If I put this on my ground, will it cause my ground to be contaminated with “bad stuff”?

Shelley Henderson
Coulee City, Washington

I really doubt if your hay has been sprayed with anything. I’ve been around hay farming all my life and I’ve never known a farmer to spray anything on his hay that would be “bad.” Most farmers use nothing at all. Not because they are concerned with the environment, but because of economics; hay really doesn’t benefit from any spraying. Now corn or soybeans...

One problem I’ve had with using hay for mulch is that if the hay is mature, or if weeds in it are, you dump a bunch of viable seed, along with that nice hay, right in your garden. Make sure the hay you use has been cut early enough that there aren’t any seeds in it. Clover and alfalfa aren’t bad, but timothy and wild hay can be a problem. I once used barn chaff and not only mulched my garden but turned it into a hay field, by mistake. It took two years to get rid of the hay that sprouted from my mulch. And that mulch was a foot deep.

I switched to using straw, which is the left-over stalks from harvested grains, for mulch because it is much less apt to start a growing crop in your garden.

— Jackie

Going off-grid

I am interested in how you run your computer—you just use a generator—how expensive is this and what size is necessary? I lost my mom a year ago and my son and I are now on the family farm, with two large houses. We are still on the grid with mine but are thinking about taking hers off and trying to transition ourselves that way. Two issues plague me, one being I do like to use the computer there as I am an ebay seller, which means a landline phone and some electricity. The second is leaving some minimal lighting on just because of theft, etc. I have wondered about rigging up some solar powered outdoor lights that would appear to be coming from a window at night. Any suggestions?

Susan Gaiser
Sixmile at adamswells.com

Instead of pulling the plug from the grid, I’d suggest becoming able to live without it, and staying hooked up, then slowly work towards a goal of becoming independent with your energy. Cut down energy uses and costs; get rid of gadgets that require electricity; use a clothesline to dry your clothes. Usually it is much cheaper to stay hooked up, when electricity is available, unless you can afford to go whole hog into solar, wind, or another alternative power source.

We are a long way off the power lines, so we make do. Now we have a propane fridge, no freezer (but in the winter when things freeze outside in coolers), a 12 volt pump to provide house water pressure from a storage tank. And we run a generator in the evenings. At this time, I work on my computer.

For our uses, a 5,000 watt generator is more than adequate; it runs our house lights, our submersible well pump, our propane dryer tumbler, my desk top computer, David’s TV and video games, and the barn lights. A gas generator of this size costs about $600 but will not last for years and years with constant usage. A good China diesel generator will cost about $2,500 or more and will last much longer without breakdowns. We use about a gallon of gas for the generator every day in the summer when we use it only for power tools and the well pump to water the garden. In the winter, when the days are so short, we use more; up to 3 gallons an evening. As we buy batteries for backup, we will dramatically cut our winter usage.

I am not hooked up to the Internet. We plan on eventually going more wholly solar and wind powered, with a battery backup. But like everything else we do, I have to go slowly because of finances. When we are more set up, I will still be very frugal with my power usage. It all costs you. For instance, I am switching all of our lights, a few at a time, to compact florescent bulbs. A bulb that gives you the same light as a 100-watt bulb only uses a very few watts to provide the same lighting.

Some folks I know who live off grid use a laptop with satellite Internet access. It is pricey, as is running a generator extensively.

Yes, if you do take your Mom’s house off grid, you can use solar powered lights at night. But you will need to buy the more expensive lights, as those walk and drive lights give only a glow, not real light. And how will you provide heat and water to her house? If you plan on shutting it off entirely for the winter, be sure to drain all the water lines and toilet or they will crack and break. Most types of heat require electricity to run; either ignition or fans. We use wall-type propane heaters that need no electricity. But the initial cost is not cheap.

We have lived much more primitively and done fine with it; actually enjoyed it very much. But it is not for everyone. We did have a generator, but only ran it once a week to do laundry and watch a VCR movie or two. For lighting, we used propane and kerosene lamps and candles.

Our water came from a spring located above the cabin, gravity fed to it, underground. We had a propane fridge and no computer or video games. At night, we did puzzles by lantern-light, listened to music, or read.

Self-reliance is a process; a goal. And it is a goal well worth working for. Cutting energy costs is a good place to start. Good luck.

— Jackie

Canning cobbler

My husband and I have subscribed to BHM for many years and we especially enjoy your section on canning. We feel as we know you as we followed you and your family in your moves around the country and we grieved with you and prayed for you when we read about your husband passing away.

I am 43 years old and about 10 years ago, my dad introduced me to the “lost art” of canning. He taught me how to can tomatoes, green beans and black-eyed peas. But thanks to you and BHM, I have canned hamburger meat, roast, homemade pork sausage, chili, stew, spaghetti sauce, and a variety of nuts including walnuts, pecans, and almonds.

My husband and I live in the Texas Panhandle and know that inclement weather is possible at any time, so we have taken steps in order to be prepared in an emergency or natural disaster. As you can imagine, we have been the brunt of many scoffs and laughs.

For years, I have canned sweet breads and cakes for our own consumption, but this year I decided to give canned cakes as Christmas gifts to my husband’s co-workers. In the process, I decided to can some cobbler. I used the same recipe I have used for years for baked cobbler (1 stick of melted butter, 1 cup of prepared biscuit mix, 1 cup of milk, and a couple of cups of fruit), but the end result was not what I had expected. It tastes great, but the crust got over done and it is kind of doughy. Any suggestions you have to can cobbler would be appreciated.

P.S. I am not sure where you lived in New Mexico, but we have a cabin in Angel Fire, New Mexico and we would like to extend an invitation to you and your sons to come visit us anytime you would like to return to the “Land of Enchantment.”

Diane Heath
Diane.heath at amaonline.com

I have also canned many cakes but have not canned cobbler. I have also been scolded by experts who have now decided that canning sweet breads and cakes is not safe under home conditions. So I cannot advise people to do this now. (The basic no-no is that the flour makes the food too dense for the heat of the processing to evenly penetrate and that some bacteria might survive.) I’ve done it for years and have not had a problem, but then people have water bath canned green beans (whew, not me!) and have survived.

We lived east of Angel Fire, about 30 miles east of Springer or 32 miles west of Clayton, then back north a couple of miles, right in the middle of the high plains. Thanks for the invitation. We loved New Mexico and the people in it.

— Jackie

Canning pickled fish and growing in poor soil

How did you get to be so smart? I’m impressed and inspired by you. I have a question about canning whitefish (or other species). Ideally, I would like to have a product very similar to the pickled herring you can buy in stores. I’ve seen several recipes for something like pickled fish, but they’re not truly “canned” (they don’t last in the jar for a long time). And I’ve also seen recipes for canned fish, but they’re just plain and simple without the pickled part. Any ideas?

Secondly, I need some help in learning how to turn my raw land into something farmable. My land is mostly a mixture of exposed ledgerock and seasonally waterlogged boulderfields. The soil, where it exists, is very thin. It would probably be easier to farm on the moon, but I want to “grow where I’m planted,” What are some resources available to me?

Brian Strom
Ely, Minnesota

I got so “smart” mostly by working hard and reading and asking knowing folks. Ask my 16-year-old son how “smart” I am! Okay, canning pickled fish; here’s a recipe for pickled pike that you might like. The kind of fish doesn’t matter, of course.

1 large pike or several smaller fish, cut into fillets
2 onions, sliced
1 tsp whole black pepper
1 tsp whole allspice
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 lemon, sliced
white vinegar
1 Tbsp capers

Cut fillets into small pieces; barely cover with water. Add onions, pepper, allspice, sugar, and lemon. Boil until fish is nearly done, then add vinegar to double amount of liquid remaining. Boil till done; add capers and seal in hot, sterilized jars. Process in boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.

It sounds like you could use some nice raised beds. We just made several here at our place on our rocky gravel ridge. Yes, we did have to buy dirt; screened black dirt by the dump truck full, but that’s a one-time investment and gave us instant growing areas. Our friends, Jim and Jeri, have some made of large truck tires and others made from used railroad ties, which ours are. I’ve also just used logs hauled in from the woods. They’ll last about five years before starting to rot, but another couple before you’ll have to replace them. That’s not bad, for free.

As the raised beds are used, I work in rotted manure and compost to keep the soil rich and nice. You’d be surprised at how much you can grow in them; enough to eat, as well as put up for winter. Good growing!

— Jackie

Hickory syrup

I have been researching different sources for syrups and learned that hickory trees may be tapped and the sap boiled down (same as maple). I have also heard that another type of syrup can be made by boiling the bark of the shagbark hickory and adding sugar. I am very interested in trying a batch of this shagbark syrup, but I’ve been unable to find a recipe. I’ve looked for recipes on the Internet but with no luck. I figured if anyone out there knows how it’s done, you would.

Christopher Scott
Henderson, Tennessee

I’m sure you can boil hickory sap down for syrup. The only problem is that many other alternative syrup saps need so much boiling down in order to obtain syrup because the sugar content in them is much less than in sugar maple sap. It becomes labor intensive. If you want hickory-flavored syrup, simply simmer a batch of crushed hickory nuts in a heavy sugar syrup (sugar and water). Then strain the syrup just as it is beginning to thicken, removing the nut pieces. Continue boiling the flavored syrup until it is a thick as you wish. This will give you the flavor without the hours and hours of work collecting gallons and gallons of sap to be boiled down to a pint of syrup.

— Jackie

Test tomatoes for acidity

I read something on the web about testing your garden soil for acidity

http://www.tengeneza.com/tips_hints/acidalkali.htm

Essentially, it said: Test your garden soil for acidity by mixing one cup soil with two cups water, then stirring in 1/4 cup of baking soda. If you have a volcano erupting in your container, your soil is very acid. If you just have a little fizz around the edges, you have a minimally acidic soil.

It made me think of something else. They say now that some tomatoes aren’t as acidic as they used to be, and you have to add vinegar when you can them. Was wondering if you could test tomatoes for acidity by sprinkling some baking soda on them. If they had acid, it would react as vinegar does and make visible foam or bubbles. I didn’t have any fresh tomatoes, so I sprinkled some on some of my home canned spaghetti sauce, and it did fizz. It fizzed pretty good.

I just thought if a person was growing a particular type of tomato and didn’t know if they needed to add vinegar to can them, maybe you could just test one with baking soda and then you’d know how to do the whole batch... Add a teaspoon or vinegar or not. Or if you got a good buy on big cans of store bought tomatoes and wanted to use them to make something else, like spaghetti sauce, this might be a viable test to know whether or not you could re-can them. What do you think?

Penny Hermsdorfer
Sandyville, West Virginia

It may sound good, but nah. Not a good idea. While it might give you an idea of how acidic your tomatoes were, it won’t give you a close enough idea as to just how acid they are. If you don’t grow the tomatoes and know you’ve chosen an acidic variety (which most older varieties are, as well as many modern hybrids), it’s safest to add the lemon juice or vinegar. If those big #10 cans have been canned, either the tomatoes were acidic (which most commercial tomatoes are) or they added vinegar on processing, so you can safely re-can them using them for spaghetti sauce, chili, etc., without fear.

All tomatoes are acidic to a certain extent. But of course some are more acid than others and these acidic tomatoes are the ones we choose to can if we aren’t using added vinegar or lemon juice. Even the lower acid tomatoes would make the baking soda fizz. Even low acid tomatoes are more acid than your most acid garden soil (one would hope).

— Jackie




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