Ask Jackie by Jackie Clay Issue 109

Ask Jackie
By Jackie Clay

Issue 109
Jackie Clay

To Ask Jackie a question, please Click Here to visit her blog.

Preserving chestnuts

My chestnut trees are loaded with chestnuts this year and I would like to know how I could preserve some of them for winter use. Can you can chestnuts? I thought I read something somewhere about canning chestnuts but I can’t remember where or how.

Marion Calhoun
Everett, Pennsylvania

Yes, you can can chestnuts and other nut meats. And it’s quick and easy, too. Just peel your chestnuts and lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet in your oven. Slowly roast them at 250° F, turning them to prevent scorching. Use two or more pans to make a good big batch for canning at one time. You want all the nut meats hot for packing. Pack hot into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch of head room at the top of the jar. Use either pint or half-pint jars only. Process the jars at 5 pounds pressure for 10 minutes (unless you live at an altitude above 1,000 feet and must adjust your pressure to suit your altitude, if necessary; check your canning manual). You’ll note that this pressure is different from the usual 10 pounds that most other foods are processed at.

You can also process nut meats in a water bath canner, but do not fill the canner with water higher than the shoulders of the jars. This is one of the only foods that this applies to; most foods have the water level at least 2 inches above the jar tops. But you want absolutely no moisture to enter the jars or the nut meats might mold. " Jackie

Making lye for soap

I just celebrated my eighth summer living in the country. This past May I added cows to my farm, and I plan to slaughter one this coming spring. I would like to make homemade soap from the steer fat as mentioned in (a previous) “Ask Jackie” section. The recipes I have require lye, which is no longer available in most stores. Do you have some recipes that don’t need this ingredient?

Barbara Berghoff
Bunker Hill, Illinois

I know it’s hard to find lye at local stores, although some still carry it. Lehman’s Hardware still carries it. You can also go the whole route and leach your own lye by taking a wood barrel and drilling a hole near the bottom, then adding a layer of fist-sized rocks with a wide layer of hay over that (it filters out the ashes), then adding wood ash nearly to the top of the barrel. You pour fresh water carefully into the top and it runs down through the ashes, through the hay and rocks which keep the hay off the bottom of the barrel. The resultant lye runs out a non-metal spigot put into the hole you drilled and into a non-metal holding container.

When lye is strong enough, a fresh egg will float with a bit above the water. If the egg sinks, the lye is too weak; pour it back through the ashes again. If it floats very high, it’s too strong; add just a bit of fresh water and try again.

I’ve never made soap without lye, either store-bought which is more convenient or with homemade, which is more self-reliant. " Jackie

Making lye soap

You mentioned homemade lye soap in the September/October 2007 issue (#107). Please share how to make it.

Rosilyn Couturier
Phoenix, Arizona

Soap is very easy to make, but like most things you do have to be careful and watch what you’re doing. The great thing about making soap is that a big batch, which you usually make anyway, will last a long time, even when you grate it and use it for your laundry. To make soap, first render your fat. Grind it, then heat it gently until it becomes liquid, straining off any bits of meat or debris. You can make soap from any amount of fat, but like any recipe, there are certain amounts of lye, fat, and water that must be used to get a good, useable product.

Keep in mind that lye burns and the fumes are strong enough to make your eyes water and your lungs burn. So be careful not to splash the lye about, have all young children and pets out of the area, and make your soap in a well-ventilated area.

There are many different “recipes” for soapmaking, and here is one that is very basic. The soap won’t be “gourmet” quality, but it’s easy and quick to do.

Have your soap forms ready. I use shallow boxes, like the kind that canned pop comes in. Or cut down your own boxes. Line them with heavy plastic sheeting. You can also use any non-metal bowl, disposable plastic carton, etc. Grease your molds with petroleum jelly to get the soap to release easier when it hardens.

Slowly stir 1 can of lye into 5 cups of cold water in a large enameled pan with no chips. Never use lye with a metal pan of any kind; it about eats it up. There are real strong fumes at this point, so don’t hang over the pan. I use a wooden spoon to gently stir them together. It will heat up as the crystals dissolve. When they are all dissolved, cool the lye water to 70-75° F " lukewarm, but use a thermometer to make sure.

If your fat is tallow, instead of pig fat, only cool the temperature to 90-95° because tallow (venison, beef, and sheep fat) melts at a higher temperature than pig fat (lard).

Heat 10 cups melted fat to 120° (pig) or 130° for tallow. You want the lye water and the melted fat at close to the ideal temperatures when you mix them.

Pour the melted fat slowly into the lye water and stir round and round (don’t go back and forth or you’ll splash) till the mixture gets about like honey. Expect it to take about 15 minutes. The soap is ready to pour into your molds when your mixing spoon will stand upright in it without tipping over.

When it’s ready, quickly pour the mixture out into your molds and work it until it’s pretty flat. Don’t worry if it’s a little dark; it bleaches itself out in a few days. The longer soap cures, the harder it becomes. In about 2 weeks it should be just about right to take out of the molds. At this point, you can easily cut it into bars with a stout wire or an old knife.

I grate a bar of older homemade soap with an old cheese grater for laundry soap. If you want to use it for dish soap, I’ve had better luck by making soft soap out of the grated pieces by adding boiling water enough to melt the soap into a thick jell. This really works well for dish washing. The dishes come sparkling clean. But don’t expect it to bubble and be like dish detergent; it’s not. But when you wash your dishes with hot water and rinse them well with hot clear water, you’ll be amazed at how nice it washes. " Jackie

Habañero jelly

My habañero peppers went crazy wild this year. I’ve been dehydrating them, then grinding to a powder. I have well over a quart and a half of the powder. Probably enough for the next 10 years. They are still coming on strong so I wondered about trying hot pepper jelly. Can’t find it in my Ball book or any other. Do you know of a recipe for habañero jelly? Or perhaps any use for them? (Besides regular cooking.)

Dani Payne
Rose, Oklahoma

Sure Dani, here’s one habañero jelly recipe you might like. You already know to use gloves when handling these fire-breathing peppers!

10 ripe habañeros
3 large orange bell peppers
9 oz. liquid pectin
1-1/2 cups white vinegar
7 cups sugar

Remove stems, seeds and membranes from all peppers. Use gloves. Put peppers and vinegar in a blender and whiz till smooth. Combine pepper puree and sugar in an enameled pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring frequently to keep from scorching. Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth into another pan. Add pectin and bring to a full rolling boil while stirring. Boil one minute and ladle into hot sterile jars. Process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes to ensure a seal.

If you like your peppers hot, you might try making cherry jelly with pie cherries or wild cherries and simmering a couple seeded, de-membraned habañeros with the juice and sugar as it’s boiling. This makes a real spicy, fruity jelly dip for chicken or fish, and also a good fruity glaze as well. I make this with jalapeños because my crew doesn’t like their “hot” that hot! " Jackie

Chickens in the city

I live on the outer edge of the city; backyard is fenced in by 6-foot high privacy fence, neighbors on two sides, none in back or ever will be. I have a space in rear corner of yard about 12′ x 12′ that I would like to put chickens in. We use approximately 2 dozen eggs a week.

Which chickens are the quietest, best layers, and how many do I need? I was thinking 4. No rooster allowed, too noisy.

I really don’t want to use laying mash because of hormones and other additives. Will the hens lay sufficiently without it?

Richard L. Anderson
Savannah, Georgia

Any of the heavy breeds are quite docile and calm, especially cochins (but they aren’t as good an egg layer as, say Buff Orphingtons or Rhode Island Reds). Hens are pretty quiet, as a rule, singing and clucking as they go about their business. The only time there’s noise is when they lay an egg or something is chasing them; then they’ll loudly cackle and squawk. Most heavy hens will lay an egg a day during the spring and summer, then taper off to maybe an egg every other day during the fall and winter (if you keep a light on for them for a few extra hours during the short-day period). But realistically, there are just days they don’t lay, especially during the two molting periods they go through every year. So you have to take this into consideration.

You don’t need a rooster unless you want to hatch eggs and need fertile ones.

Yes, hens will lay without laying mash. I don’t feed it to my hens and they do fine. But I do give them plenty of greens, year-around, house scraps, and goat milk when I have it. Hens will lay more on laying mash, but will have a longer useful life without it.

Be sure your neighbors will not be against your new project. Perhaps a promise of fresh eggs every once in awhile (your extras) would make them more agreeable to having chicken neighbors. It often works that way. " Jackie

Canning book for beginners

I am getting interested in canning, but having no previous experience, I need a good place to start. I have an old book printed in 1956 that details canning methods, but is it sufficient for modern-day canning methods? If not, can you recommend a good book or two on the subject? A basic search on yields dozens of possibilities and is somewhat overwhelming for a novice like me.

Lana Flavies
Peckham, Massachussetts

I wouldn’t recommend a 1956 canning book. There have been some changes since then. For instance, there are now low-acid tomatoes that weren’t around back then. And some practices that were previously thought of as “safe” have proven unsafe.

A good, easy-to-read, cheap canning manual is the Ball Blue Book. It is a paperback and available at most local hardware stores and even Wal-Mart.

I promise you you’ll love canning your own food. It is so easy and the foods taste so much better than store-bought foods do. Especially if you can what you raise yourself! It’s always so exciting to me, even after canning for more than forty years, to pick a mess of beans and have them canning merrily in only half an hour. Now that’s fresh! " Jackie

Brined dill pickles

I have been successfully fermenting sauerkraut just using canning salt and cabbage without a recipe. I tried fermenting cucumbers, but ended up with a slimy mess. I know there are many recipes using vinegar and cooking. But, I remember my parents buying a pickle at a grocery store where they fished one out of just a wooden barrel full of brine. I remember they were crisp and tasty, with no vinegar taste. I would appreciate it if you could provide a recipe. By the way, I have found that one head of red cabbage in a bucket of green cabbage will turn the entire batch red (chopped up and fermenting of course).

Bernard Falkowski
Merlin, Oregon

What you are referring to is brined dill pickles. But even these have vinegar; just not as much. To make brined dill pickles, you’ll need (roughly):

10 pounds 4 to 6-inch cucumbers
6-8 bunches fresh dill
1-1/2 cups canning salt
2 cups vinegar
2 gallons water
6 cloves garlic (optional)

Wash and drain cucumbers. Remove blossom end; leave 1/4 inch of stem. Place a layer of dill in a clean crock. Add cucumbers to within 4 inches of the top. Combine salt, vinegar, and water; use pickling salt. Ladle over cucumbers. Place another layer of dill over the top and garlic, if desired. Weight cucumbers under the brine with a plate and a clean weight.

Store container in a cool place. Let cucumbers ferment until well-flavored and clear throughout. Check periodically for scum. If it forms, skim as necessary. Keep the pickles under the brine. You can can the pickles in about 3 weeks. These pickles will usually keep in the crock until they are eaten. But if they are allowed exposure to the air, they will rot. So most folks go ahead and can them up. To do this, remove the pickles from the brine. Strain the brine and bring it to a boil in a large kettle. Pack the pickles into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom. Ladle hot liquid over pickles, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. " Jackie

Small ears of corn

I had a nice little patch of corn this past year. The corn was tasty, but my ears were really puny and small. How do I get bigger and better corn for my work? Maybe I didn’t water them enough? And at what point should I stop watering the plants from above and just water the rows and furrows without getting the plants themselves wet…or doesn’t it matter?

Ilene Duffy
Gold Beach, Oregon

Corn is a hog. It is a lush plant and it likes plenty of water and also plenty of fertilizer. In our new garden area, next to the old one, there was an area about 20 feet by 10 feet that was new and I didn’t get any rotted manure on before I tilled and planted the corn. My whole corn plot was about 20 feet by 50 feet. The manured part of that plot grew tall plants with large cobs. The unmanured end grew short corn with runty cobs. That was my problem. Corn likes nitrogen, which will burn many other garden plants. Sometimes I’ve hauled relatively fresh manure and side-dressed the corn rows and had excellent corn. (It also kind of mulches the roots, as well, holding in the water.)

I really don’t think it matters which way you water corn. I’ve done it several ways and it didn’t seem to matter. The leaves are built like funnels to run water down the stalks to the roots. Pretty smart of the corn plants, huh? Sort of self-watering. The thing to do is to make sure that the roots are getting at least an inch of water every other day when the plants are growing quickly and setting ears (providing the weather is hot and it’s not raining).

Did you plant a variety of sweet corn that you’ve had luck with before? I’ve known folks that bought Golden Bantam sweet corn and were disappointed when the plants were really short and the ears small, compared to most modern varieties of corn. I always read the plant descriptions in the catalogs as to plant height and cob length/number of rows per cob. I figure that big cobs on big plants, with plenty of rows per cob, equals more corn for my work.

Another tip is to plant at least four rows, even if they are kind of short rows; make a block rather than a row or two that are longer. Corn is wind-pollinated and you want that pollen to land on the corn silks, not on a patch of beans next door to the corn row. Poorly pollinated corn ends up in misshapen cobs (kind of “C” shaped), with missing kernels at the tip or even down the row.

I hope this helps; corn is so much a part of the garden and everyone needs a successful crop! " Jackie

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