Preserving and processing hot peppers

Above: dried hot peppers

As we are still harvesting an abundance of hot peppers, we must think of ways to use up all this bounty before it spoils – or else preserve it for future use.

The easiest way by far to preserve hot peppers is drying them. This can be done in an oven, in a food dehydrator or outside in sunny weather. I don’t have a food dehydrator, so sun-drying and oven-drying are the two options I use.

To dry a batch of hot peppers, first cut them lengthwise and remove the seeds. Careful – wear gloves while handling, because those little capsicums can be treacherous. Place the peppers on a cookie sheet lined with baking paper.

If drying outside, cover the cookie sheet with metal wire, cloth mesh or anything else that will keep birds and insects away but still let sunlight get to the peppers. Place in direct sunlight and turn peppers over every few hours. This process may take several days, depending on the amount of light, degree of heat and humidity.

For oven-drying, place the cookie sheet with the peppers in the oven and turn it on a very low heat. Remember, you don’t want them to be roasted – you just want all the moisture to evaporate. Keep the peppers in the oven, turning from time to time, until they are quite dry and brittle.

At this point, your dry pepper slices can be stored in a tightly sealed jar, where they will keep for a long time. You can also pulverize them in a food processor and make your own hot pepper powder, which you can likewise store in a jar. This powder can be used for seasoning various dishes as is, or made into hot paste or sauce with some salt, fresh or dry herbs and olive oil.

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As this will probably be my last post before Rosh Ha-Shana, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish all my Jewish readers a very happy start of this new year.

Preparing for emergencies: water shortages

In my previous post, I discussed what we do during power shortages. Now let’s move on to a situation when the tap isn’t running.

Drinking water – always keep a supply of fresh water on hand for drinking and cooking. A little while ago, a new family moved into the neighborhood and one day when the tap stopped flowing we went to check on them. It turned out that the mother was alone in the house with a nursing baby and had no water to drink. The oppressive heat outside made her reluctant to venture out and ask any of the neighbors for water, so she just sat hoping that the problem would be fixed soon (it wasn’t, until the next day). I dispatched the older children to her house with a couple of water bottles, which were gratefully received – but you don’t want to depend on the kindness of others in such situations.

Flushing the toilet – we have three bathrooms in the house, so the water in the toilet tanks is generally enough for flushing for a day or two, but remember that you don’t have to flush every time (even if it goes sorely against your habits). When there’s no running water, I tell my kids – pardon the details – to only flush when they poop.

Dishes and laundry – the key word here is prevention. Running water issues can be unexpected (a pipe suddenly busting due to excessive heat, for example), so I try not to procrastinate when it comes to dishes and laundry. I do my best to wash dishes right after a meal, and clothes as soon as I have a full load. There are few things more annoying than leaving a sinkful of dishes overnight saying, “I’ll do this tomorrow”, and then tomorrow brings no running water.

Disposable dishes – plastic plates and paper cups are not very classy, economical or environmentally friendly, but when you have no running water for a day or two they can be a sanity saver. Besides, my kitchen cupboards are small and I simply don’t have enough plates for the whole family to keep using for two days straight without the possibility to wash them. I always keep a stash of disposable kitchenware to be taken out as needed.

The garden – this can be a serious issue. 48 hours without water, combined with a heat wave, can easily kill plants, especially those which don’t have deep roots. In such cases, I cover young plants. I also cover some of my garden beds with a mulch of straw to prevent moisture loss.

Finally, I save the water from my baby’s bath and use that for watering the plants. It isn’t much, but it can help tide some plants over until water flows in the pipes again.

I do realize, however, that we need a larger water container for our plants, especially now that our garden is expanding. We are currently planning to set up a greywater tank that will hold all the water from our showers, to use in the garden.tomato

A thriving garden can be killed off very quickly by a combination of heat and lack of water.

Water cisterns – several families in our neighborhood have water cisterns that provide, on average, all their water needs for up to two days. When other people have no running water, they carry on as usual – cooking, bathing, doing laundry – and hardly notice anything is amiss, except perhaps a little reduced water pressure. We are considering making an investment and installing such a cistern, which will eliminate nearly all water-related issues from our lives. The cistern will need to be set up above our house, so that the water runs down by force of gravity.

Electricity and running water are two things that, in the developed world at least, are considered so basic we usually take them for granted. When they are suddenly taken away, people are prone to panic. However, short-term power and water issues are easy enough to deal with, and need not disrupt your daily life – if you are prepared.

Preparing for emergencies: power shortages

Earthquake. Tsunami. Nuclear attack. These are the things that often come to mind when you think “emergency”. Fortunately, in most cases an emergency is something a lot more trivial – think a temporary power outage due to strong winds, or a blizzard that leaves you trapped at home for a couple of days. Or you just wake up one day to discover that your tap isn’t running, and receive a message that the water line won’t be fixed until tomorrow afternoon.

To put it simply, you know the world hasn’t ended and things will soon be back to normal, but for now you need to deal with this unexpected inconvenience that has come your way.

In the area we live in, the electricity and water lines are patchy and we often experience power shortages (especially during the winter) and water shortages (mostly during the summer).  This essentially means that every now and then, we will spend up to 24 hours without electricity and up to 2 or 3 days without running water. We have learned to expect these events and know how to prepare for them so they don’t turn into real emergencies. Here is how.

For power shortages:

Lights – we have emergency lights in the kitchen/dining room area, as well as plenty of candles and oil lamps on hand. When I think the power might go out, I light a fat beeswax candle in the bathroom as I head into the shower, even if the electricity is still on. You don’t want to find yourself groping your way out of the shower when it’s pitch-black – or try to maneuver when you’re bathing a baby and suddenly the lights go out.

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Above: candles on a rainy day

Heating – we have a gas heater which we connect in the living room. I close the bedroom and bathroom doors to keep the heat in one area, and we all camp out where it’s warm. Many people in our neighborhood prefer to use woodstoves instead, but we find that with gas, we can provide heat more quickly and efficiently.

Warning: heating with gas can be dangerous if you don’t provide some air circulation. I open the window a crack now and then when we use the gas heater.

Cooking – I always use a propane gas stove for cooking. It does have electric ignition, but can be also lit with a match. If needed, I can even bake flat bread in a pan on the stove. I just have to make sure, now and then, that we always have plenty of gas.

Food storage – the food in your freezer and refrigerator can usually survive a 24-hour power outage with relative impunity, depending on the temperature outside, your refrigerator’s insulation and how often you open it. Recently, when it was actually quite warm, the power was out for 27 hours, during which we have refrained from opening the freezer altogether. When the power was back, I peeked into the freezer and was very glad to find all the food still frozen solid. It helps to keep your freezer packed (stuff it with plastic water-filled bottles if you have some extra space) and make sure it’s well-insulated.

Backup generator – during our first winter here, we toyed with the idea of getting a backup generator, but eventually gave up on it as too expensive. Practically, surviving a day without power is quite possible and not very disruptive to your usual routine as long as you have light, heating and the ability to prepare food.

Going off-grid – this, of course, would be the ultimate solution to our problem. We are currently considering the option of investing in a solar energy system, which will free us from the power fluctuations and save us money in the long run. The initial cost is a little prohibitive, but the idea of generating our own energy is very appealing.

Stay tuned for part two: preparing for water shortages!

Growing food from supermarket scraps: update

Following my previous post on saving seeds from supermarket vegetables, I’ve decided to post an update. This week we have actually harvested the first tomatoes we’ve planted from seeds which came from a supermarket tomato. They sprouted and grew fast into little bushes which produced plenty of cherry tomatoes – which, though they didn’t exactly resemble the mother plant, were highly edible.

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Our melons, too, are ripening fast, though we haven’t actually tasted one yet. These were grown from seeds we had saved from an especially delicious store-bought melon, and kept for about two years.

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Bottom line: it is possible to save seeds from supermarket vegetables, though a reputable seed company will give you better reliability and variety, and higher germination rates.

The perils of peppers

This season we were blessed with a large quantity of hot peppers (all from only four thriving plants), so I’ve been busy making hot sauce inspired by the Yemenite hot pepper spread/dip called Zhug. I don’t really have a recipe; just throw a bunch of de-seeded hot peppers, a head of peeled garlic cloves, a bell pepper, some tomatoes, a generous splash of olive oil and salt to taste into a food processor and whip it all up. It makes a fabulous sauce\paste to add to stews, meat and fish dishes, soups, etc.

Unfortunately, it has been a while since I used fresh hot peppers, so I was careless and didn’t use protective gloves. The deception was in the delay: I didn’t feel any burning in my fingers until I was done cutting up the peppers. Then it hit with a vengeance.

Even more unfortunately, my kids, who like to get into anything that goes on in the kitchen, grabbed some peppers too – and touched their faces without even washing their hands. Ouch. It was a disaster – for the next hour, I was dealing with crying, hurting kids. My eldest sincerely advised me to throw the whole bunch of peppers away (“because nobody wants to eat something like this!”).

I’ve tried some of these remedies for stopping hot pepper burn, but nothing really helped us. The kids felt better pretty quickly. I had to endure several very unpleasant hours of burning sensation in my fingers, hands and any part that was exposed to the capsaicin in the hot peppers.

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Hot peppers: beautiful but deadly (well, almost)

Lesson learned: next time I work with hot peppers, I’m going to wear gloves and warn my children to stay away.

By the way, I wanted to let you know that The Practical Homemaker’s Companion is now available in a new, extended edition of 90 pages, with added content and photos – for the same price. Those of you who have already bought a copy and are sorry to miss the new edition, don’t worry – simply email me using the contact form, and I’ll send you the updated version. Also available in print. Disclaimer: as the printed version is in black and white, I can’t vouch for its photograph quality. Opting for color print would have made the book too  expensive, so I compromised in favor of price.

Incubators or broodies? Pros and cons of each choice for hatching chicks

If you are a backyard chicken owner, it is likely that at some point you will want to add new birds to your flock. You have, then, two main options: either you buy chickens or breed your own. The latter is more labor intensive, but also more self-sustainable and, I believe, very rewarding.

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If you want to hatch some of your own chicks, you may do so by using an incubator or placing eggs under a broody. But which is preferable? Well, in my opinion, both options have their pros and cons.

Read my latest Mother Earth News post to find out what works for us.

“It was in the second year of our chicken-keeping that we felt the desire to increase our flock by means of adding some new chicks. We wanted to observe the entire process, from egg to softly chirping ball of fluff to productive adult egg-layer. We also felt that a truly sustainable flock maintains itself, by addition of a new generation each year, without us having to buy new pullets to replace aging layers.”

Updated: read Part 2 here.

When little ones are sick

This week we’ve been struggling with a bout of flu that got all of the children in turn. As much as it pains me to see a little one sick, I consider this also an opportunity to slow down – which is especially important if I’m not at my best either – rest, unwind and do some quiet, enjoyable things there often isn’t enough time for:

Reading – listening to an interesting new story, or re-visiting an old friend of a book, is a soothing and relaxing activity that is perfectly suited for a day spent mostly in bed or on the couch. Older children can read quietly to themselves.

Crafts – drawing, stitching, beading and working with play-dough all stimulate the mind and creative senses without requiring too much physical exertion. Dress-up or building forts and hideouts with chairs and blankets are also fun.

Board games – pull out old favorites like Monopoly or Scrabble, or try something new. Forbidden Island is currently all the rage here.

Outdoor time – if the weather is nice, I see no reason to necessarily stay indoors. On the contrary, warm sunshine provides a cheering effect and may even help with nasal congestion. I do discourage sick children from “playing hard” – running, riding bikes, climbing trees, etc.

Outdoors we may also pick herbs to make medicinal tea and talk about their various healing properties, as well as of the importance of staying hydrated in general.

Fresh herbs from the garden make great tea for colds and flu

Movies – I like to restrict screen time, and especially so for sick children, because I find that prolonged staring into a screen is fatiguing, but a short cartoon or an educational video can be nice.

On days when the children don’t feel well, I usually dispense with school, but the girls may still choose to do some fun educational activities such as writing in their story notebooks.

The most important thing is to remember that this, too, shall pass. Slow down, allow everybody the time to rest and heal, and try not to mind the mess too much. There is always tomorrow for catching up with housework, gardening and lessons.