High and Dry

In pioneer days this phrase referred to ‘where’ and ‘how’ to keep your musket and ammunition … and in her old family homestead (built in 1722) there is a little door, a cupboard really ... up near the ceiling to the left of the fieldstone fireplace built for that very purpose. But the Mountain Farmgirl isn’t talking about black powder here. She’s ‘high’ for another reason, and it’s all happenin’ right in her kitchen! Come find out why in "High and Dry" …

Yup, I’m feelin’ pretty high today. In fact, every autumn harvest, when I start putting food by in my pantry for the winter and for holiday gifts, I get a rush of adrenaline. It's like Aesop’s ant and grasshopper story, and I relate mightily to the ant (no doubt herself a Farmgirl), always feeling in control and on top of the world when I take our family’s preparedness to the next level.


Alas, my NH kitchen is not set up to the extent that it was before I became an innkeeper.  Back at our homestead in New York State, we had orchards and gardens, and access to the family farm, where the kids and I worked in the summers with Uncle Eddie.  My pantry was HUGE … a thing of beauty!!  A room in itself with floor to ceiling shelves for grains, home preserves and canned goods, (and a window seat to boot because it was my favorite place in the house), I also had a very large chest freezer in the basement, and an 8’ x 10’ underground root cellar.  Back in the days when Y2K loomed large on the horizon, the Farmgirl in me looked it squarely in the eye and laughed, defying it to “Bring it on!!”

Well, I’m not THAT prepared at present because my current home at the inn doesnt ‘have enough space, although I DO increase our gardens here year after year. However, my husband and I are having fun planning now for our ‘someday’ future retirement, in which we will come full circle ---  back to the days when we were college students and we read books such as “Five Acres and Independence”, the Robinson’s “Have-More Plan” and “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing … (and now, of course, books and magazines by MaryJane!).


While my hair may be boasting some definite “distinguished”-looking streaks these days, I don’t feel old, and ‘retirement’ is anything but imminent. In the meantime, I do what I can in the area of family preparedness, and look to the future when this Farmgirl-turned-Innkeeper turns back into a pumpkin and once again lives off the land.  I also satisfy this longing by doing NOW what I can in my kitchen … which is where this ramble started out!


Last week I was going through my storage building, and uncovered a gem of a find! Like an archaeologist discovering buried treasure, I found my old food dehydrator, and decided it needed a good dusting off and to be put back to work. Just thinking about it gave me a rush of energy! (This is where the ‘dry’ meets ‘high’, as in the title of this blog!).


My first ‘crop’ of dried goodies was to be sliced bananas, as I had a  large bunch in my fruit basket and they were ripening faster than I could add them to fruit salads or whip them into my morning blender drink. Also, I noticed that the local grocery had an overabundance of super-ripe bananas which they were about to remove from their shelves. I turned out to be in the right place at the right time, and a quick negotiation with the produce manager ‘yielded its fruit’ shall we say! I ended up with about 25-30# of these potassium-rich beauties for a song!

 


Although they don’t look as beautiful as their fresh counterparts, dried fruits and veggies have a lot going for them. For one thing, they take up a lot less room and will not spoil. Their long, slow drying time helps retain nutritional value that is otherwise boiled or baked away during other methods of processing and preservation. And if you can get an abundance of them at the peak of the season (or better yet, grow them yourself), they are usually pretty darn economical.


Dried fruits make a great natural snack which “sticks to your ribs” as my great-granny would say.  They also make wonderful gifts, not to mention beautiful ones! Not far from my food dehydrator out in the storage barn were box after box of my old canning jars in every size imaginable. HUNDREDS of them … maybe close to a thousand!!  (I never could pass by used canning jars that people were discarding!). A canning jar on the pantry shelf, full of summer’s bounty, was like ‘money in the bank’ to my way of thinking!  Well, little did they know it but some of those smaller canning jars were about to volunteer for active duty! As soon as I started filling them with soon-to-be-dried fruit … they were about to become beautiful, thoughtful, economical and delicious Christmas gifts! Add  a generous scrap of pretty fabric on the top, tie it on with raffia or some funky twine, add a little label, and you’ve created a gift that’s almost  “too purty to eat”! (but not quite!).


Before I could afford an electric food dehydrator – and certainly before these fancy heat-and-humidity controlled inventions existed—our pioneer mothers had other ways to dry foods for winter. In fact, when I was a relatively new bride myself, I couldn’t afford the Rolls Royce of food dehydrators I have today, and as usual, necessity was the mother of invention. I peeled, cored and sliced apples, for example, and hung the golden slivers on a dowel in the rafters of my farmhouse.  Similarly, I strung green beans with a needle and some stout thread, and hung them in the kitchen, adding color and decoration to this practical, down-home way of preserving the harvest. Old window screens, cleaned well and lined with cheesecloth also became trays for the sliced fruits and vegetables I wanted to dry. It took longer to dry them this way, to be sure, but what’s time when you’ve got plenty of it?  It’s an old fashioned trick as old as the hills that still works pretty well in a pinch.

 


MaryJane has a photo of a classic food dehydrator in her “Farmbook, Lifebook” on page 133 and 134, pictured below. Isn’t that a humdinger? It is a piece of art as well as a workhorse, I’m sure, and I’d trade my fancy, modern gadget for it in a heartbeat … but that’s just me! The truth is (much as this old-fashioned gal hates to admit it),   technology has quite a few benefits, such as a shorter and more thorough,drying times, which lessens contamination by flies and other insects who most certainly will want to join the harvest party. Also with modern dryers you can rest assured that the fruits and vegetables have the right moisture content when stored away, preventing mold from forming, which ruins the food.

 


If you’ve got a moment, I’ll take you through the process from start to finish, which is pretty easy and lots of fun. In the end (if you don’t eat them all yourself) you’ll have some really nifty jars of dried fruit to give to friends and family.  Here goes … we’re going to dry bananas today!   I started by collecting my own over-ripe fruit, and then negotiating with the produce manager at my local grocery store for a good price. After all, I was doing him a favor by taking away all these bananas he’d only have to throw out before they started attracting fruit flies.  As you can see, my ‘harvest’ was considerable! Next, I set up my drying trays with the tray liners, specially made nylon sheets which allow air circulation, prevent sticking and allow for thorough air flow between trays.

 


The only other tools I need are my cutting board, a knife and the ‘compost bucket’ for the banana peels. (Alas, in my case my ‘compost’ bucket was the garbage can… I cannot compost here in the mountains, because the black bears are as numerous (and much more of a nuisance) than rabbits. Not only do they get into my inn’s metal dumpster, but they bend the heavy metal lids 90 degrees to the perpendicular around the metal bars that hold the lids down!  The black bears here climb our trees (breaking limbs in the process), climb the fence into the tennis court, and have even walked right up to the front door of our inn at times. (We welcome all guests and are known for our hospitality, but this is ridiculous!!)  So, compost away  if YOU can, but that, unfortunately, is a pleasure I will have to forego until a later date.


Next, I slice the bananas into rounds about ¼” thick, and lay them fairly close together on each tray. As the moisture evaporates, the spaces around them will increase.  I personally do not use anything  on my dried bananas, such as sulphur or lemon juice to keep them from getting dark. I don’t mind the change of color that happens due to oxidation, because  the flavor of the sweet, chewy snack more than makes up for the discoloration ...  (Besides, if I wanted a white banana, I’d just eat mine fresh). If you’re using an electric dehydrator as I am, follow the directions that came with it, as each dryer is somewhat different. Some have varying time and temperature settings, and these will also change for the type of fruit (or vegetable) you are drying – as well as the weather (rainy days naturally take longer). For my bananas, for example, I set my food dryer control knob to 135 degrees.  I try not to peek too often, but of course, curiosity always gets the better of me!

 


After about 8-10 hours of drying time at this setting, my bananas seem just about perfect.  Test them for dryness; they should be slightly chewy without being moist.  When they are thoroughly cooled, I pack them in wide-mouth glass jars and secure the tops with a canning jar lid (after sampling them, of course!). The final touch is by topping the jar with a generously cut circle of pretty scrap fabric,; adding a label (do include the date), and securing it all with some sort of ribbon.  Voila …  banana-flavored ‘pennies’ from heaven, worthy of a blue ribbon at the county fair (where, by the way, I’m headed next week). I’ll see you there!

   


Until then, Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings,
(and try to stay ‘High and Dry’ in your kitchen!), from Cathi,
The Mountain Farmgirl


 

Comments

 
By: Nicole Christensen
On: 10/02/2012 13:09:13
Kathi, that's it...you have totally inspired me! I have yet to get a food dehydrator but have thought about it from time to time. I am definitely putting that on my Christmas wish-list! Love the idea of giving the dried fruit in pretty jars as gifts. Thanks for the inspiration! Your bloggin' farmgirl sis, Nicole (Suburban Farmgirl blogger)
 
By: Adrienne
On: 10/06/2012 07:55:10
I've had a pantry filled with canning jars of dehydrated fruit and veggies for years including dry goods like soup mixes, steel-cut oats, cereal, flour, beans, rice, pasta, etc. My kitchen is tiny (fits in a coat closet) so I have a separate shelf unit that holds 18 gallon jars on one shelf, two shelves holding 32 quart-size jars each and a shelf of assorted pint-size jars. I'd love to have a pantry like yours that's one jar deep but this will do. Now I have enough food for at least 90 days and that's a great feeling even in our mild California winters. Good for you on dehydrating!
 
By: Diana Henretty
On: 10/06/2012 07:55:55
Your story today is so inspiring.
We too add onto our gardens every year to grow more for us and to share.
In 2007, SWMissouri was hit with a ice storm that left us without electricity for almost 2 weeks. The storm taught us so many things, but also a fear of another ice storm coming and not being prepared.
When many in the town had to go to shelters, we were able to stay at home with our old cookstove chuggin along and solar lights going.
But being iced in and snowed in we couldnt even get out to go to the store
in town.
After that storm, I realized my best "fight against fear" and running out of things was to create a "ice storm pantry" to store everything we use on a daily basis in doubles.
I took a old record player cabinet and turned it into a small pantry filled with bottles of dish soap, laundry soap, toothpastes, even aspirin for emergencies.
Now thru the year I buy a couple things extra every time I shop and I am ready each year to face whatever winter brings.
Making a list to keep on the side of the little cabinet keeps me reminded of what is needed every year.
Thanks for all the uplifting ideas. Diana from the Ozarks
 
By: TJ
On: 10/06/2012 08:49:19
I'm totally hooked on dehydrating too! This year's new foray is into dehydrating greens... I've done a full GALLON of dehydrated kale, smushed into pieces about like you get in a container of dehydrated parsley from the spice aisle. That's alotta kale! :) But I'm using it in EVERYTHING... anywhere I'd use parsley, plus a handful tossed in almost any meat or bean dish.

Dehydrating maintains the maximum % of vitamins and minerals compared to other food preservation methods (freezing and canning) so it makes alot of sense!

Thanks for this neat post! :)
 
By: Heather :) :) :)
On: 10/06/2012 09:33:12
Oh, I really bow down to your talent for being able to put food up. That is something I definitely want to learn. We just have a regular kitchen, but it's a large open kitchen that shares space with the dining room. We don't have a designated pantry, BUT we do have LOTS and LOTS of cupboard and cabinet space that isn't being used since it's just my dad, myself, my aunt and the dog :) :) Oh, if I lived in your neck of the woods, I'd humbly ask you to teach me all you know :) :) Extra love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather :) :) :)
 
By: Nicki G
On: 10/06/2012 10:01:26
I had a "Ronco" food dehydrator years ago that I gave to my Mom when I moved overseas. When I moved back to the States Mom asked (sadly) if I wanted it back. I told her to keep it because she gets so much use from it. Then, during one of my treasure hunting trips to a second-hand store I found another "Ronco" dehydrator! In addition to the dried fruit I enjoy making my own beef jerky and fruit leather. Thank you for reminding me how much I enjoy the dried fruits all throughout the year.
 
By: bonnie ellis
On: 10/06/2012 18:08:14
Kathi: My husband built us a food dryer in the 70s. We have enjoyed fruit and vegetables since then. I'll admit that I would rather have nylon shelves than wire screening but ours still works. Thanks for telling the farmgirls about the fun of drying.

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir