The harvest continues here on the island as the temperatures gradually drop and the season changes before our eyes. Summer is really over now. The maple and alder trees are dropping their autumn leaves and the baring limbs stand in stark contrast to the deep green backdrop of the thick coniferous forest behind our house.
I’ve been busy putting the garden to bed for the winter. The last of the tomatoes have been picked, despite still being as green as grass. They will ripen gradually over time, set out on the counter in the cool laundry room at the back of the house. The garlic has been planted in between the rain storms and I finally got around to picking the last of the apples yesterday, filling a large box with lovely crisp, tart-sweet, yellowish green apples from our orchard.
Garlic being planted with organic fertilizer in shallow trenches.
In my last post I wrote about my drying experiments using excess produce from the garden along with the heat from our woodstove. At least one reader indicated interest in the process, so I thought I would share a few more details of my current pastime.
The old Fisher woodstove is located in the kitchen/living area of our home. At this time of the year the fire within burns steadily in order to keep our island home cozy and warm. Above the stove there are a series of nails set into one of the beams that run the length of the ceiling, as well as a few small hooks screwed into the ceiling itself. The drying racks are simple wooden frames, measuring about 2 by 24 by 28 inches, each covered with a piece of ordinary window screen (available at hardware stores), stretched and stapled or tacked to the four sides of each wooden frame. My partner made these, but recycled window or picture frames could easily be used instead.
In order to make the drying racks safe for food, I cover the screen with a layer or two of gauzy cheesecloth. The screened drying racks stack one upon the other and the whole tower of racks is suspended from the ceiling hooks by lengths of cord attached through drilled holes at each corner of the lowest rack in the stack. The cord should be about 18 inches long so that the racks can be raised or lowered as necessary to be closer to, or farther away from, the source of heat.
Ripe, unblemished fruits are then washed, dried and sliced with a sharp knife. I leave the fruit unpeeled as I prefer it this way. The slices of fruit are laid out on the cheesecloth covered racks which are then hung one upon the other from the ceiling hooks. After 24 hours, I turn the fruit over to help it dry evenly. After another 24 hours of gentle, steady heat, the fruit should be dry enough to store. The slices should be almost crisp in texture, but some will remain slightly chewy. It is a good idea to place them in a loosely covered bowl or in a closed paper bag for a day or two after drying, mixing them up a bit every now and again in order to help even out the texture of the final product.
In the case of apples, I use a neat mechanical slicer designed especially for the purpose to slice the fruit into one continuous spiral. These spirals of sliced apple are dried by being threaded onto a long, thin piece of split cedar which is then suspended between two ceiling hooks over the woodstove. The spirals of apple can also be threaded on a length of heavy string or cord suspended above the stove in the same way. If I want to use the racks for drying the sliced apples, I make a vertical cut through the entire closed spiral, thus creating a stack of individual apple slices. If you do not have a mechanical slicer, you can simply remove the core from the whole apple (use an apple coring tool if you happen to have one), and then slice the apples into individual rings using a sharp knife.
The thoroughly dried fruit slices may then be stored in airtight jars in a cool, dry place such as a pantry cupboard. Alternatively the fruit, once dried, may be placed in plastic freezer bags and stored in the deep freeze.
I have successfully dried apples, pears, tomatoes and wild mushrooms foraged from the forest floor. The fruit makes a good, sweet snack, to be eaten out of hand or cut up in oatmeal, granola or baked goods. Dried tomatoes can be used in pasta, on pizzas, or in any recipe calling for sun-dried tomatoes such as hummus where they add an intense savoury goodness. Dried mushrooms can be reconstituted in hot water to cover, then used in any recipe calling for fresh mushrooms, but I use mine by tossing a handful of the dried mushroom slices into a tomato or meat sauce or stew where they help to flavour the sauce and to absorb excess moisture.
Other fruits and vegetables could also be dried in this manner: plums, cherries, peaches, apricots, squash, peppers and beans all dry well. I also dry herbs such as mint, oregano, rosemary and basil, tied in bunches with twine and hung from the nails above the stove. These I use in cooking or as tisanes over the winter when fresh herbs are not available in the garden.
If you do not have a wood stove, you could try using a radiator, a gas oven with a pilot light, an electric oven turned on low or perhaps even an airing cupboard for your own drying experiments. You could even dry these things outside in the sunshine on a warm and windy day; or if you happen to live in the desert!