Butternut Squash – Versatile, Nutritious, Long Keeping, and Convenient Size Make It A Favorite

Fall has arrived and winter squash is available.  Butternut squash is one of my favorite winter squash varieties. I like it for a variety of reasons—versatility, nutrition, long keeping quality, and convenient size.

Versatility. It is delicious cooked, steamed, baked, roasted, sautéed and pureed and as such can be used in countless ways. The smooth texture of the butternut squash is a great addition to many sweet and savory dishes and can be used as a substitute for pumpkin in nearly any recipe.  During the fall and winter months, I keep butternut squash on hand continuously for pancakes, soups and stews, breads (yeast and quick), desserts, dips and spreads, shakes, and even pizza.  It can be eaten raw, but cooking the squash softens the flesh, making it easier to consume and digest.  Because squash takes on many different flavors, it is tastier when cooked but it is also a nice addition when grated raw and added to salads.

Nutrition. Butternut squash is very nutritious. The flesh is an excellent source of Vitamins A and C as well as a good source of thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and manganese. The seeds are packed with protein and heart-healthy fats making them a nutrient dense, filling snack. Even though it is a high-carbohydrate food, it has a low glycemic index, making it a smart addition to most healthy meal plans. It is also a great choice for people on low-fat diets as it contains almost no fat. Lastly, it’s a good source of dietary fiber; a 1-cup serving provides a fourth of our daily needs.

Keeping qualities.  If stored properly, butternut squash is a long-keeping squash lasting up to 6 months. For best results, squash should be stored in a cool, dry spot (50-55 degrees F) with relative humidity of 60-70 percent. Uncooked butternut squash should not be refrigerated.  If picked from the garden, it needs to be cured with warm temperatures and good air circulation for 10-14 days before storing. 

Peeled or cooked butternut squash should be refrigerated; it is good for 5-7 days.  Cooked or raw butternut can be frozen.  To freeze raw squash, simply cube or slice the squash and place in air-tight freezer bags for up to a year.  Cooked squash can be frozen in any appropriate freezer container. 

Convenient size. Mature butternut squash range from 1 to 5 lbs. The average butternut squash will be around 2 to 3 lbs. Since the skin is thin and the seed cavity small, there isn’t much loss. A 3-pound squash yields about 4½ cups uncooked 1-inch cubes. 1 cup cubed raw butternut squash weighs about ⅔ pound. A cup of raw butternut squash cubes yielded ½ cup of soft cooked cubes. Therefore, if a recipe calls for a can of pumpkin which is just shy of 2 cups, it takes about 4 cups raw cubed squash.

As a member of the Cucurbita moschata family, butternut has two cousins–cushaw and cheese pumpkin–that work equally as well, but their bigger size becomes a consideration.

For more about butternut squash, check out How to Select, Peel, and Use Butternut Squash.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

Boosting the Immune System

Health officials advise us each fall to get our flu shots.  The flu vaccine helps reduce the severity of flu symptoms and helps prevent against the virus. This year the flu shot’s importance has been heighten because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After getting the shot, the next step should be regular visits to your local grocery store to pick up foods that will continually boost your immunity.  It is important to note that NO diet or supplement will cure or prevent disease; rather a healthy immune system is a powerful weapon against colds, flu, and other infections.

There are several different vitamins and minerals that fall in the immune booster category. These booster foods can increase the number of white blood cells and enhance their function while helping to flush non-functioning cells from the body. Listed below are some key nutrients and the foods where they can be found.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C sits at the top of the immune boosters. It increases the production of white blood cells and antibodies which are key to fighting infections.  It also increases the antibody, interferon, which coats cell surfaces and prevents the entry of viruses. Besides helping with colds and flu, Vitamin C is a key element in fighting cardiovascular disease by raising HDL (good cholesterol) and decreasing blood pressure. Good sources of Vitamin C include: bell peppers (especially red peppers), citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, clementines, tangerines, limes, lemons), dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, sprouts), kiwi, papaya, and herbs (parsley, thyme).

Vitamin E

Vitamin E sometimes takes a back seat to Vitamin C but this powerful antioxidant is key to stimulating the natural killer cells that seek out and destroy germs, bacteria and even cancer cells. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it requires the presence of fat to be absorbed properly. Nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts) are packed with the vitamin and also have healthy fats. Other foods containing Vitamin E include: sunflower seeds, dark leafy greens (see Vitamin C), avocados, and sweet potatoes.

Beta-Carotene

Beta carotene is an antioxidant that converts to vitamin A and plays a very important role in immune health by increasing the infection fighting cells while decreasing the number of free radicals in the body. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant and helps fight cardiovascular disease by interfering with the way fats oxidize in the blood stream to form plaque. It is also known to aid in the battle against cancer and promote eye and skin health. Common foods containing beta-carotene include: naturally orange foods (carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, squash) dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, red leaf lettuce, turnip greens), cantaloupe, red and yellow peppers, and apricots.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3’s boost immune function by increasing phagocyte, the white blood cells that destroy bacteria. They also protect the body against damage from inflammation due to infection. Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E complement each other, working together to give a major boost to the immune system.  Omega-3’s are important to heart health by maintaining heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and improving blood vessel function. Foods high in Omega-3 include: fish and fish oil, canola oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.

Zinc

Zinc doesn’t get as much attention, but our bodies need it so that our immune cells can function as intended. However, too much zinc can actually inhibit immune system function so the RDA (11 mg men, 8 mg women) is sufficient. Shellfish (oysters, crab, mussels) is the best source of zinc.  Other sources include: red meat and poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains. 

Variety is key. Eating just one of these foods won’t be enough to help fight off cold, flu or other infections. Pay attention to serving sizes and recommended daily intake to keep things in balance. Beyond immune boosting foods, staying healthy also involves regular exercise, staying hydrated throughout the day, and practicing good hygiene to protect oneself from colds, flues, and other illnesses.

In light of the 2019 coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to note that no specific food, supplement, diet, or other lifestyle modification has been shown to protect one from COVID-19.  As with other infections, immune boosting foods will help with the fight.  Physical or social distancing, masking, and proper hygiene practices are the agents known to protect one from COVID-19. 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

Tell Your Story

Recently my granddaughter who lives in North Carolina started first grade virtually.  She was telling me how her online school works.  She seems to like it well enough, but she’d rather go to school.  As we were talking, she asked, “Did you go to school, Grandma?” 

“Yes, Grandma went to school but school for Grandma was very different!” which brought the conversation around to Grandma’s school days.  Since she reads well and is quite computer literate, she recently got an email address.  We agreed that I would write a short story daily telling her all about my school days.  The daily story telling has begun.  Each day I develop a story around a theme such as getting to school, recess, lunchtime, celebrating holidays, a typical school day, my classmates, etc. When I can, I try to add old photos that help tell the story. Since I attended grade school in a rural Nebraska one-room school, I am sure she must think I grew up with the dinosaurs!

While writing these little stories have been a trip down memory lane for me, psychologist suggest that sharing our stories with our grandchildren is an irreplaceable gift.  Researcher, Marshall P. Duke from Emory University has discovered that this shared information nurtures children emotionally and psychologically. Duke writes, “research shows that children who know a lot about their family tend to be more resilient with higher levels of self-esteem, more self-control, better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes when faced with challenges.” As we know these qualities are important for success in life.

So grandparents, tell your story.  Tell them about what life was like when you were growing up.  Tell them about the silly things you did.  Tell them about their parents growing up.  The stories can be written or shared verbally or told in drawings or pictures–anyway that you can express yourself.  All you need is love for your grandchildren and family and desire to open yourself up and invite them to enter your world.  If you don’t live nearby, get creative with Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, email, journals, or even old-fashioned letters.  Sharing stories will melt the distance into nothingness.

For more information on the value of sharing stories see HOW FAMILY STORIES CAN STRENGTHEN AND UNITE.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

Fun with Fondant

I’m not a cake decorator, but for as long as my children enjoyed a special cake for their birthday, I did my best to create a cake of their wishes.  I even took a cake decorating class way back when and mastered a few things with buttercream frosting.  Now I have grandchildren and after many years of not decorating cakes, I am back at it, having fun and learning new things!

Sometimes the grands just give me a theme for their cake and look forward to what my imagination creates.  Other times, they are a bit more specific. This year my 8-year old grandson sent me a picture. He thinks BIG and presently has his sights set on expensive race cars, specifically Lamborghinis’!  One look at the picture told me this wasn’t a buttercream frosting cake—I was going to have to learn how to cover the cake with fondant! 

I chose to make my own marshmallow fondant rather than make or buy traditional fondant.  Marshmallow fondant requires just three ingredients—marshmallows, icing or powdered sugar, and water.  It is inexpensive, fast, fool proof and tastes good!  Basically it involves melting down fresh marshmallows with a small amount of water and adding the powdered sugar to get the right consistency.  (Some recipes also include vegetable shortening.)  The recipe that I used can be found at the end.  Traditional fondant differs in that a marshmallow base is first made from unflavored gelatin, glycerin, butter, water, and corn syrup and kneaded with powdered sugar.

I had so much fun with the fondant!  Marshmallow fondant is almost like playdough—roll it, sculpt it, cut it, mold it.  I found some great tips and videos for handling fondant and covering a cake on the Wilton website. My adjustable thickness rolling pin came in handy for rolling the fondant to an even thickness for covering the cake.   I also found my silicon baking mat useful; I rubbed a small amount of vegetable shortening on it before rolling the fondant.  When it came time to pick up the fondant, it peeled up smoothly and easily. Fortunately for me, everything worked so very well; the cake came together beautifully and was the delight of a special little boy!

Because I had a little fondant left over, I researched how to properly store it.  While fondant is best used fresh, it can be stored and used at a later date. To keep the fondant from drying out, rub it with a small amount of vegetable shortening, wrap in plastic wrap, and store in an airtight, zip bag removing as much air as possible. Add a date and store in the refrigerator.  With proper care, it should be good for a couple of months; the greatest risk is getting dry.  I don’t know that I will be using it anytime soon for cake decorating, but it just might come in handy as an ‘edible’ clay for entertaining grands.

Freezing is not recommended as condensation in thawing could change the consistency and texture of the fondant.  Water begins to dissolve the sugar in the fondant and makes it sticky.  For the same reason, fondant covered cakes should not be frozen after decorating.  Further, condensation between the cake and fondant may cause bubbling.

Marshmallow Fondant
10 ounces marshmallows
3 tablespoons water
Approximately 6 cups icing/powdered sugar, sifted

Pour the marshmallows into a microwave-safe bowl, add the water, stir, and microwave in 30-second increments until the marshmallows are creamy and melted (2-3 minutes). Add the sugar and mix with a big spoon or hands.  After the fondant begins to come together, turn it out onto a well-oiled surface (I greased my countertop and hands with vegetable shortening) and knead, adding more icing sugar if needed, until it’s nice and smooth. To color, add paste or gel food coloring and knead to incorporate. Flavoring can also be added using a drop or two of food-grade essential oil.  This amount makes more than enough fondant to cover a layer cake or ¼ sheet cake.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

Aronia Berries – Old Fruit with a New Name

Aronia berry picking at Berry Hill Farms near Fertile, IA. Photo courtesy of Jaci Thorson.

Its aronia berry picking time in Iowa!  And if you are lucky enough to live near a pick-your-own aronia berry orchard, you are in for a day of fun and stained hands!  Fresh berries, juice and other aronia products may also be available now in some local grocery stores.

Aronia berries are not new to Iowa; they are actually indigenous to the state and were used by the Potawatomi Native Americans to cure colds. Formerly known as black chokeberries, rebranding of the less appetizing name of “chokeberry” has helped the native berry catch on and develop into what is now a big industry.  The berry’s new name comes from its genus, Aronia melancorpa. While grown throughout North America, the first US commercial cultivation of the berry bushes can be traced to the Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, where Andrew Pittz and his family planted about 200 bushes in 1997.   Since then, aronia production has grown and bushes have been planted in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.  Presently there are 300-400 growers in Iowa with small to large operations.  80 of these operations have been organic certified by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Arona berries at Berry Hill Farms near Fertile, IA. Photo courtesy Jaci Thorson.

These purple, pea-sized berries boast one of the highest antioxidant values ever recorded for fruits, superseding blueberries, elderberries, acai berries and goji berries, according to research published last year in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.  Also rich in vitamins and minerals, they have high levels of polyphenols, anthocyanins, and flavanols–antioxidants needed to fight free radicals–making them good at fighting inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and urinary tract infections.

While aronia berries are more astringent than blueberries, they can be eaten fresh or frozen.  Not many people eat them fresh. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth when eaten. They are a little less astringent after freezing but usually best processed into jam, juice or baked products where the aronia takes on a whole new taste of its own. To eat them raw, they are best used in smoothies, yogurt, ice cream or oatmeal. Berries, either fresh or frozen, can be used in any recipe as a substitute for cranberries, blueberries, or chokecherries.  They are also good added to pancakes or mixed with other fruits in a crisp or pie.  Other ideas include salsa, salads, beverages, cereal, pizza, chili, and soups.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides information on making jam from all berries.

So if you haven’t had an opportunity to try aronia berries fresh, frozen, or in another product, perhaps it is time to venture out and give these tart little berries a try!  They might make you pucker, but this superfruit will definitely add some health benefits to your diet.  And, chances are, this Iowa crop will grow on you!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

Clear Jel® vs Sure Jell

We get a lot of questions at AnswerLine about Clear Jel and Sure Jell.  Because their names are so similar there is confusion for two very different products.  Clear Jel and Sure Jell are trade names of two thickening agents used in canning and gelling, respectively.  In addition to having different uses, Clear Jel is not shelf-accessible to most while Sure-Jell is easily found among the canning supplies.  Let’s explore what these two products are and how they should be used.

Clear Jel®

Clear Jel is a waxy maize or corn starch that has been modified to resist break down under high temperatures and different pH levels.  Therefore, it is an ideal thickening agent and is widely used commercially.  Clear Jel is recommended for home canning of pie fillings as it will not break down as the pie filling is cooked in preparation for canning, heated during the canning process, and heated a third time as the pie is baked.  Products, including pie fillings, thickened with Clear Jel also freeze well.

Cornstarch, tapioca, or flour should not be used in canned pie filling.  These thickeners are not suitable because they tend to clump during canning and cloud on the shelf rendering the pie filling unappetizing and unable to thicken when baked.  Pie fillings made with Clear Jel also increase the safety of the products.  Because Clear Jel remains clear and does not clump, heat is better able to penetrate the contents of the jar evenly to kill bacteria and other contaminants during the boiling water canning process.  Jars of pie filling will keep the same consistency after processing, remain shelf stable for at least 12 months, and bake into a perfect pie by simply pouring the filling into a crust and topping as desired.  There will be no starch or flour taste in the filling.

There are two types of Clear Jel, Regular and Instant.  Regular must be used for canning.  Instant Clear Jel will thicken foods without heat; it thickens when liquid is added.  This makes Instant Clear Jel useful for thickening a room temperature sauce or dressing.  Regular, on the other hand, requires heat.  Regular can also be used for thickening fresh pies and everyday foods.  If preparing a gravy or sauce, mix Clear Jel with a small amount of water and gradually add to the hot mixture, stirring constantly.  Or, everything can be mixed together cold and then heated (stirring constantly) to thicken.  Regular Clear Jel can be used to replace cornstarch or flour as thickening agent in cooking or baking, but cornstarch or flour should not replace Clear Jel for canning.

While there is plenty of praise for Clear Jel, it is not readily available.  For those who live near an Amish grocery, it is likely available there.  The best source is to shop online to find a supplier.  Therefore, one needs to think ahead and allow time for purchase and/or shipping if Clear Jel is to be used.  Clear Jel is recommended, but not required for canning.  The thickening can be skipped with the filling canned without; when used, a regular thickener can be added as if preparing a fresh pie.

There is differing information on the shelf life of Clear Jel; most agree that in a tightly closed container, it should be good for 1 year in the pantry but some list up to 2 years. 

Sure Jell

Sure Jell is pectin.  Pectin is a type of starch, called a hetero-polysaccharide, that occurs naturally in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables giving them structure.  Most commercial pectins, made from apple pomace or citrus rinds, are sold as a dry powder or in liquid form.  When combined with sugar and acid, pectin makes jams and jellies develop a semisolid, gelled texture when they cool. 

Pectin is available in various forms for regular, low-sugar, and freezer jams and jellies depending upon the type of methoxyl used.  High methoxyl is the most common type and used for high sugar jams and jellies; it needs to be cooked to a temperature of 220 F in combination with acid and sugar to form a gel.  Low methoxyl is generally the type used for low- or no-sugar preserves as it relies on calcium (provided in the pectin package) rather than sugar to set or gel. (Liquid pectin is only offered in a regular version and is similar to the regular dry pectin.) Because pectins behave differently, it’s best to use the product listed in the recipe being used or follow the pectin insert directions carefully to assure success. 

Sure Jell and other pectin products are readily available where canning supplies are sold.  Sure Jell or other pectin products are not suitable for pie fillings. 

Powdered pectin can be kept in the pantry and is best used within a year; after that time, it may not perform as well.  Unopened liquid pectin is good for a year in the pantry; if opened, it should be refrigerated and used within one month (Still Tasty.com).

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

Safe Canning Amid Canning Supply Shortages

Gardens are at the height of production in the Midwest and food preservation is in high gear.  However, many home canners are finding the shelves stripped of canning lids, jars, pectin, vinegar, and the various spices needed for pickling and canning.  Even canners, pressure and water bath, are in short supply.  Like all other shortages experienced in this year of COVID 19, it is a matter of supply for an unanticipated demand along with a slow-down in manufacturing due to either worker safety or shortages of raw materials.

Jars.  While jars are in demand, canners may be able to find jars in storage among friends and relatives or in second hand stores.  If older canning jars are used, an inspection for nicks, chips and cracks before buying or using them is a must. A damaged or disfigured jar should never be used for canning food because they are not safe or they could break during processing, wasting time and food. While true canning jars are USDA recommended and preferred, the National Center for Home Food Preservation says that commercial glass pint- and quart-size mayonnaise or salad dressing jars may be used with new two-piece lids for canning acid foods (food that might be processed in a boiling water bath). However, one should expect more seal failures and jar breakage. These jars have a narrower sealing surface and are tempered less than Mason jars, and may be weakened by repeated contact with metal spoons or knives used in dispensing mayonnaise or salad dressing. Seemingly insignificant scratches in glass may cause cracking and breakage while processing jars in a canner. Mayonnaise-type jars are not recommended for use with foods to be processed in a pressure canner because of excessive jar breakage. Other commercial jars with mouths that cannot be sealed with two-piece canning lids are not recommended for use in canning any food at home.

Canning lids. Canning lids are designed for one-time use and should not be reused for canning.  The sealing compound becomes indented by the first use preventing another airtight seal. Screw bands may be reused unless they are badly rusted or the top edge is pried up which would prevent a proper seal.  Previously used canning lids can be used to top jars of freezer jam, homemade mixes, dried goods, and other non-canned foods. As long as the lids aren’t rusty, they’re fine to use again and again for any purpose that doesn’t involve canning.  The Jarden (Newell) Company, manufacturer of Ball products, says that their lids, unused, have a storage life of five years beyond purchase; therefore, if stored lids are in that range, they can be used.  Reusable canning lids like those made by Tattler or Harvest Guard may be a desperate alternative; they have mixed reviews by canners and are not yet recommended by the USDA. (A study on Tattler reusable lids began in 2013 at The National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Even with grants received in 2014 and 2015 for the study, it appears that the study is still ongoing as there have been no reported results.) If new lids are not to be found, give consideration to freezing or dehydrating rather than canning. 

Canners.  Canners are of three types, boiling water bath, pressure, and steam.  A boiling water bath canner is a large, deep pot or vessel with a lid and a rack used for high acid food preservation; if a new one can’t be purchased, a second-hand one is fine as long as it isn’t rusty or chipped.  A pressure canner is used for low acid foods and is either a weighted gauge or dial gauge type.  An older pressure canner may or may not be safe.  An older pressure canner should only be purchased or used if it is in excellent condition—no imperfections or warping with a lid that fits perfectly and locks easily. Pressure canners build pressure when they are used, and in extreme cases, could explode if the canner is defective or damaged. More importantly would be their ability to process food safely.  At a minimum, the sealing ring should be replaced and the gauge on a dial gauge type be checked by a trained professional.  Dial gauges on pressure canners need to be tested each year against a calibrated ‘master’ gauge. Weighted gauges do not need to be tested as they do not go out of calibration.  An atmospheric steam canner is newer to the scene and can take the place of a water-bath canner.  According to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers steam canners may be used safely to can naturally acid foods such as peaches, pears, and apples, or acidified-foods such as salsa or pickles as long as specified criteria is met; a steam canner is not recommended for low-acid vegetables and meat.

Pectin.  Some jams and jellies can be made without pectin.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation has information and recipes for making jelly and jams without commercially prepared pectin.

Vinegar. If the recipe does not specify a particular type of vinegar, white or cider vinegar may be used safely as long as it is labeled as 5% acidity or labeled as 50 grain. Apple cider vinegar will impart a different flavor and color when substituted for white vinegar. Specialty vinegars such as red or white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, balsamic, and other flavored vinegars should only be used when specified in a research-tested recipe.

Assorted Pickling Spices.  It may not be necessary to get fresh seeds and spices if there is some on your shelf.  Commercially prepared and packaged spices, stored properly, such as mustard seed, celery seed, dill seed, allspice, and cinnamon sticks, generally have a shelf life of 3-4 years.  Pickling spice is good for up to 3 years.  Spices do loose potency over time.  To test whether a spice is still potent enough to be effective, rub or crush a small amount in your hand, then taste and smell it.  If the aroma is weak and the flavor is not obvious, the spice should not be used as it will not flavor as intended.  Spices may be available from online sites when no longer available in local stores.

The right equipment (and vinegar) is a must to safely preserve food by canning.  Look to friends and family, online and non-conventional sources for help with acquiring supplies and equipment. Whatever is found, do carefully follow the suggestions contained herein to preserve safely.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

The Not So “Bitter” Truth About Eggplant

Eggplant, also called an aubergine, is now in season as a ‘fresh from the garden’ vegetable.  For many Americans, it is an underused vegetable even though it is highly versatile. It can be grilled, stuffed, roasted, and stir-fried and also used in soups, stews, curries, and kabobs.  Eggplant is nutritious, low in calories, fat, and sodium while high in fiber and nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, folic acid, Vitamin B6 and A.  Eggplants are also recognized as a source of phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants.  All of this “goodness” helps with maintaining good blood cholesterol, cognitive function, weight, and eye health and preventing cancer and heart disease.  As such it is a big component of vegetarian and Mediterranean diets; it is also a family favorite and we are fortunate to have a number of varieties in our garden to enjoy.

While this vegetable provides so much good, many shy away from it because they detect a “bitterness” in it or have heard that the fruit is bitter.  A young, freshly picked eggplant with smooth, glossy skin and intense color will have no bitterness whatsoever if consumed soon after picking.  Old or overripe eggplants or those that are off color or sit out for a while after being harvested are more likely to exhibit a bitter flavor.  Therefore, choose eggplants that are heavy, shiny and firm and avoid eggplants that are off-colored and/or do not exhibit a bright, glossy color. The seeds of a young, fresh eggplant are very small, so the flesh will not have accumulated the bitter compounds found in eggplants that have become overripe and rubbery. 

If bitterness should be of concern, there are some actions one can take to eliminate it.

Begin by peeling the skin to remove any bitter compounds present in the skin or between the skin and the flesh.

 “Sweating” an eggplant with salt will draw out the compound solaine, the chemical found in the seeds and flesh that contributes to the bitterness; it will also draw out some of the moisture making the eggplant more tender.  To do this, slice, dice, cube, etc the eggplant and sprinkle the pieces with salt.  (Canning and pickling salt is best, but any salt will do.)  Allow the eggplant to set for 30 or more minutes, rinse off the salt, pat dry, and continue to prepare.  Sweating an eggplant will also reduce the amount of oil it will absorb during cooking, too.

If salt is a dietary problem, another method used to remove bitterness is to soak the eggplant pieces in milk for 30 minutes prior to cooking.  Drain off the milk and prepare the eggplant normally.  Some feel that removing the seeds from the flesh is helpful.  This may be of some use in an older eggplant as the seeds enlarge with age thereby increasing bitterness.  To remove the seeds, slice the eggplant length-wise and use a spoon to scrap out as many seeds as possible.

In an ideal world, the eggplant is used the day of harvest and is fine on the counter short term.  For longer storage, eggplants can be refrigerated for about a week as long as they don’t get too cold or damp.  They should be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer in a perforated plastic bag. I find it helpful to also wrap it in a paper towel before placing in the bag; the thin skin is highly susceptible to moisture damage so the paper towel helps with that.  It can be sliced or cubed, then blanched or steamed, and frozen up to eight months for later use. 

Eggplant should be cooked as it has chemicals that can cause digestive upset if eaten raw.  Since the flesh discolors quickly, use right away after cutting.  Lightly sprinkling raw eggplant with lemon juice helps to prevent browning.  Eggplant is best cut with a stainless steel knife since carbon blades will cause discoloration.  Cooking in an aluminum pan also will cause blackening.  Eggplant fruits should be handled with care as they do bruise easily and those flaws quickly turn bad; a bruised eggplant will exhibit brown, corky flesh in the affected area. 

Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, same plant family as tomatoes and peppers.  There are many varieties of eggplant in numerous colors and sizes.  To learn more about eggplant, check out the eggplant fact sheet from the National Garden Bureau. (This site has fact sheets on other vegetables that may be of interest, too.)  Visit ISU Extension and Outreach’s Quickinars, 5-15 minute online lessons, of seasonally appropriate topics for the garden, food preparation and food preservation to also learn more about gardening and how to use garden produce.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

Exploring Portable Burners for Canning

AnswerLine gets questions each year about using a portable burner (hot plate) for canning.  Usually the question comes when a switch has been made to an electric cooktop from a gas range or when an electric-coil range is replaced with a smooth (glass) cooktop, either radiant heat or induction, and the way of canning needs to change to prevent cracking the cooktop, fusing the canner to the cooktop, or under processing of the canned product posing a food safety risk. 

Industry has answered the call for canners appropriate for induction cooktops with several options available.  That aside, consumers still have valid concerns about the weight of canners and the intense heat on the surface along with scratching if the canner is slid or drug across the cooktop.  When the options are beyond using the new cooktop or installing a second electric coil or gas burner range top, perhaps it makes sense to purchase a portable electric or gas burner.

Earlier this year, I, too, was exploring acceptable heat options for canning. While I have yet to purchase a new range, my 30-plus year old electric-coil range struggled last summer with the canner challenge; the struggle was sufficiently challenging to make me consider new options before getting into canning this year.  In addition, I know that when I make that purchase, it will likely be a smooth electric cooktop and my pressure and water bath canners will no longer work.  

The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) offers these guidelines for selecting a portable burner for canning purposes:

The burner must be level, sturdy, and secure. Look for enough height to allow air to flow under the burner, but not such that it will become unsteady with a full, heavy canner resting on it.

Look for a burner diameter that is no more than 4 inches smaller than the diameter of your canner. In other words, the canner should not extend more than 2 inches from the burner on any side.  For heating a typical 12-inch diameter canner, the coil must be at least eight inches in diameter. 

 – For electric burners, you want the wattage to be about equal to that of a typical household range large burner which is 1750W or higher.  The best portable heaters found run 1500W which are deemed to be acceptable.

– You want the burner to have housing that will hold up to the high heat under the canner for long heating periods, and not damage counter tops with reflected heat.

An outdoor heat source such as a gas grill is not recommended by The National Center for Home Food Preservation for various reasons; however, a portable burner can be used outside as long as it is in a location away from wind, yet well ventilated. 

In addition to advice from NCHFP, I found a lot of researched based information along with references at the Healthy Canning website.

Having read all the recommendations, I began to explore my options looking at commercial burners used in restaurants. While inexpensive, most home units are too light weight and have insufficient wattage to be considered for canning.  The commercial units seemed to meet the NCFHP recommendations and received the highest recommendations from canning and restaurant users.  My search narrowed to two models made/sold by the same company.  One had a cast-iron burner and the other a coil burner.  In the end I chose the one with a cast-iron burner knowing that it would take longer to heat and cool, but seemed to offer the most stability.

Recently my portable burner made its canning debut as a heat source to water bath a batch of raspberry jam.  It worked very well for this application.  The temperature was easy to control.  Because the jam recipe only made four half-pints of jam, I did not use the big water bath canner so that test is still to be made as I move into canning season along with the pressure canner.  Besides using the portable burner for my primary intended use of canning, it has come in handy to heat water for defrosting my downstairs freezer, keeping food warm for outdoor meals, and being that ‘extra burner’ when needed. 

While not an option for me, an electric water bath canner sold by Ball® may be a good investment for water bath only canners says Karen Blakeslee, Kansas State University Food Safety Specialist.  This is a stand-alone canner with its own heater/burner system much like an electric pressure cooker.  It can also be used to make soups or stews.  However, an electric pressure cooker is not recommended by the USDA or NCHFP for canning of any sort despite information one may find on various websites.

UPDATES: The portable burner that I purchased got a work out during the summer canning season and worked perfectly for all my pressure and water bath canning. Temperature control was easy and very consistent. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also think it reduced the amount of kitchen heat that comes with canning.

And, since this blog was written, a new option has become available from Presto. This company has developed a digital pressure canner, Presto Precise®. It is the first digital pressure canner that meets USDA home canning guidelines for safely processing meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other low acid foods. Further, it doubles as a boiling water canner for preserving fruits, jams, jellies, pickles, and salsa. It is also said to process more efficiently than processing on a high wattage burner or gas stove thereby reducing kitchen heat. It may be the future of home canning equipment. I certainly am intrigued.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

That DECK Job! Cleaning (and Refinishing)

I’ve had an ongoing project for the better part of a month—cleaning and refinishing our more than 30-year old wood deck.  We have a large, second story deck with two flights of steps that I had let cleaning and resealing go for a while as there was ‘hope’ and ‘promise’ that we’d be replacing the wood floor and rails with different materials to reduce maintenance.  For one reason (or excuse) or another, the project has not come about.  As spring came and time outside became more of our normal routine, I found myself knowing I couldn’t go another year looking at the disgusting discoloration and unsightliness.  If a new deck wasn’t to be, something had to be done—and I did!

I started by washing the deck using a power washer to remove as much dirt and debris from the surface as possible.  There are mixed feelings among “professionals” as to whether one should use a power washer.  Concerns suggest that using a power washer may force algae, molds, and fungus deeper into the wood, may cause undo raising of the wood making the deck surface rough, and remove the sealant.  In my case, I had little to lose in regard to removing the sealant and I was willing to take a chance on the other two concerns.  I was careful to use a fan nozzle and keep the wand at a 45-degree angle a foot away from the surface.  The result was amazing!

The second step was to do a thorough scrubbing.  Sometime in the past for a previous cleaning, I had purchased a deck cleaning product for this step; however, it was somewhat toxic and precautions had to be taken to cover vegetation, etc.  Having done so, I still experienced damage to vegetation from the runoff.  Not wanting to repeat history, I used a powered oxygen bleach solution suggested by Decks.com and a 3-ingredient DIY recipe (OxyClean™, Dawn® Dish Detergent, and water) from Bob Villa.com .  I had no damage to any vegetation and the cleaning solution did an amazing job along with my ‘elbow grease’ and a stiff deck brush.  While there are recipes using TSP and bleach, these products are not for me.

Between the power washing and the scrubbing, I found no evidence of the previous sealant so refinishing was definitely needed to preserve the wood, repel water and mildew/mold and block UV rays.  There are numerous products on the market and deciding which one was the best was a task in itself.  Due to COVID-19, all of my research was done online.  After a lot of reading and thinking, I chose a water-based, semi-transparent stain and sealant specifically recommended for older decks.  The cost was greater than using an oil-based product.  However, the cleanup was easy (soap and water), it dried quickly, and had virtually no odor and therefore no volatile organic chemical (VOCs) fumes.  The product was super easy to apply (I used the hand brush on-hands-and-knees method for better control) even though the old deck boards soaked the product like a sponge.  Two coats were applied leaving a flat, natural looking finish upon completion.  There was just enough product left to also spruce up the skirting, rails, and spokes.  Cleaning and refinishing took quite a bit of time as I had to pick my days and times; application of refinishing products should not be done during direct sunlight or wet weather. All of the time and effort spent was well worth it; we are really enjoying the new look of our old deck and hopeful that the resurfacing will last until the ‘promise’ is delivered.

My sister-in-law asked about cleaning a composite deck.  I referred her to the Decks.com website.  After cleaning, she still had stains that were bothersome which lead to the suggestion of trying an environmentally friendly product, Wet & Forget®.  I’ve used this product on our concrete porch and vinyl railing to remove stains and our brick siding to remove barnacles and other biological stains.  It is not an immediate acting product but over time, the stain gradually, almost magically, disappears.  The active ingredient in Wet & Forget® is Alkyl Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride, an ingredient that most consumers already have in their homes in the form of an anti-bacterial wipe or a similar product. (Unlike these products, Wet & Forget® contains a danger warning on its label because the product is a concentrate with 9.9% active ingredient. When diluted with water for application it is only 2% active.)  The product can be applied to a variety of surfaces safely.

Decks take a great deal of abuse from rain, snow, wind and sun. Although we can’t change the weather, we can prolong the life of our decks by regular cleaning and refinishing as necessary.  Regular upkeep will ensure a safe and usable outdoor space.  Sweep leaves and debris off the deck often to prevent stains and mildew.  A fall and spring cleaning is also recommended.  Don’t let safety issues—loose boards, wobbly rails, raised nails/screws—go.  Decks are a great place to enjoy the warm weather, entertain or just sit on the deck and read.

Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

More Posts

AnswerLine

Subscribe to AnswerLine Blog

Enter your email address:

Connect with us!

AnswerLine's Facebook page AnswerLine's Twitter account AnswerLine's Pinterest page
Email: answer@iastate.edu
Phone: (Monday-Friday, 9 am-noon; 1-4 pm)
 1-800-262-3804 (in Iowa)
 1-800-854-1678 (in Minnesota)

Archives

Categories