REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Understanding how long preserved foods are “good”

I started Can-Do Real Food after working part of one growing season at a farm and becoming aware for the first time just how much food never even reaches people who want to eat. Farmers regularly pull aside veggies and fruit that are imperfectly shaped or start aging while new produce is being harvested. Consumers want the best looking stuff, of course, so farmers are used to feeding their imperfect items into the compost pile or as additives to chicken or pig food.

While I take responsibility for reducing food waste once it gets to me, I very much understand that the volume that ends up in my compost pile instead of my stomach is a teeny tiny amount of waste compared to other places along the food supply line. However, I still want to reduce that as much as possible. After all, I am also wasting my money to purchase food if I have to throw it away! One way is to be aware of those dates that are stamped or written on all commercially prepared foods and to understand them. Then you can apply the same concept to your own home-preserved items, whether they are frozen, canned, dehydrated, smoked or fermented.

One of the conundrums as a commercial food processor was that I had was to determine WHICH standard to use: “use by” or “best by”. There are NO guidelines from the government other than the mandate I use something!

“Use by” implies that the food is unsafe after that date. I know I stopped my youngest from pouring out a half-empty gallon of milk because the “use by date” had passed. You can imagine the “mean mommy” experience that required him to actually sniff (okay, it smells okay) and TASTE (do I have to? YES!) to teach that there is no magic event that instantly occurs that makes something bad at a specific date.

The mayo I purchased a month or so ago has a Best By date with plenty of time to use in other households but we don’t use mayo much……..

A word here that expiration dates on medication also has some wiggle room but I am not an expert on this. If you wonder if you can take something that “expired” 5 years ago……ask! A pharmacist is a good resource.

Back to food. I preferred to use “best by”. In the first season when I learned to can I put up some carrots. I dated my jar and never reached for it until a couple of years later when I was making soup and thought carrots would be a good addition but had none in the frig. I checked the seal….good. I looked at the contents inside the jar. The color was appropriate and there were no little bubbles of gas in the liquid, so far so good. I opened it….no bad aroma. So far all signs show it is SAFE to eat.

But when I put a fork in to pull a carrot out, it dissolved immediately into an orange cloud. It was certainly past the BEST time to enjoy it.

So, since then I put the date on the lid with what it is. (I am long past trying to convince myself I will remember what that jar of bluish-purple color jam is or which spice mix is in that tomato mix in that jar.) I put new jars behind any older ones of the same recipe when I store on my shelves. That way, the older stuff SHOULD be used first.

And remember, share. Seriously, if you have not eaten that jar of peaches that you put up in 1999, please toss it. If it’s from 2016, open one and if it is okay, plan how to use them. And do not make more until you do!

Our State Fair award-winning instant soup…and here is the one in MY cupboard, showing a best by date of last July. I know that means I prepared the mix in June from the pumpkins’ harvest in the fall of 2018. It is dry and good for at least 5 years or longer. That is one of the joys of dehydrated foods.

So, bottom line: besides the fact that this shows one more advantage that dehydrated foods hold longer safely than canned products, most are SAFE to eat beyond the date on the container, but the texture may be diminished the longer you move from initial processing.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Sharing the Wealth

I started another Facebook group called More With Less a few days ago and invited about 25 of my friends. We now have over 100 people, many I don’t know personally, who have joined us in the effort to offer tips of all kinds and funny things to help us all get through these unusual times. Join us.

My husband posted an easy recipe to make glazed donuts and opined he wished I would make some. So, anyone who knows me appreciates that I like to bake. I have a sweet tooth. This is an ongoing issue and my weight exhibits my hobby. Over the past few years, I made a decision to stop baking so often and started only baking when we were planning to go somewhere for dinner or having guests here. (I dropped 50 pounds but that was not the only change I made.)

Homemade Glazed Doughnuts (Krispy Kreme glazed donuts) Best Donuts ...

So the ONLY way I will attempt to make those donuts is if I will share output…because heaven knows I have no off button and would eat more than a reasonable person without this addiction would.

So that got me thinking about all food preservation end results. The recipe ALWAYS gives you more than you need to eat at one time. I’ve collected a lot of recipes to consider for Can-Do Real Food and they might produce 2-12 jars. Super! Two jars are perfect for immediate use and shelf storage, but once you get above that, you just don’t need that much jam. Pasta sauce is another story.

My point is, plan that once you get into preservation, you will have a partner to trade with. Neither of you needs to prepare 100% of your own food need. In fact, I would love to pair up with someone who has skills I have not perfected, like fermenting. I could make pickles but I just don’t. So, it would be fun to trade. And perhaps your food partner could be the grower of the garden and you preserve for that family and YOURS.

Each winter a group of people has gathered in the Carnegie Room at the McMinnville Public Library for a swap session. Over the years I have enjoyed other people’s apple cider, jam with fruit I never have been able to access and a few other vegetable concoctions. I even scored a small container of homemade deodorant! My point is that while a swap session is out of bounds right now, an arrangement with one of two other friends can lighten the load and allow for sharing the surplus above the amount you prepare that you can reasonably expect to eat.

Long Beach Food Swap: A Place to Trade the Handmade, Homegrown ...

I’ve read with a bit of discomfort that some people eat home-canned items that might be 5 or 6 years old. There are ways to be mostly certain that the food is safe to eat, but if you preserve the amount you do eat and only preserve those items in high quantity that you know you will consume, you can keep your home pantry to a reasonable amount. Over producing leads to storage space issues AND increases your risk of food decaying in QUALITY over a long time before you might eat it.

I’ll talk more tomorrow about those “expiration” dates on commercially packaged foods and how to think about them safely.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: What’s in the Crisper Drawer?

Just because I have been a commercial food processor whose mission is to reduce food waste does not mean I am innocent. Oh Lord, no. I wrote about my own fuzzy scientific experiments in the containers in the back of my frig before. But this is shameful because now, going to the supermarket to get more food is WORK. I need to gain more respect for the food I bring into this house for us to eat. Perhaps you do too.

So here is a photo of my crisper drawers before we used some of it for supper prep. Let’s talk about what to SAFELY do with tired veggies.

First, see that blue plastic “apple” shaped item? That is a tool used in a lot of commercial kitchens to absorb the gas that decaying produce emit, thereby theoretically slowing down rot. And, even tho it looks like it has not worked, it can….if I just replace the pellets inside…….. I picked this gem up at the Fancy Food show a few years ago. Only food professionals can attend and it is an amazing event held each January in San Francisco and in June (not this year probably) in Manhattan. So, when I keep the pellets inside refreshed, my produce in my crisper drawers last about twice as long as without. And you can buy it too, but we should not need to.

Those carrots embarrass me., but I’m owning up to their current state because I know I am not alone with this issue. I picked up 4 carrots (these will keep well, I thought) 3 weeks ago, and I already had 4 carrots. They do not keep forever, and the older ones are just at the point of no return. Tomorrow I will make another soup and the good ones will go in cut up and yes, we will get more carrots the next shopping. But not 8 and I will plan to use them.

And that is the key. Check your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Plan your menu for the week and then make a list of those items AND THE QUANTITIES you need for that week. That way you won’t buy fresh stuff you will not use.

Make Shopping Lists

Then check the pantry again to look to add a couple more items from that master pantry list to expand your spices, or your pasta selection or some other shelf safe item that can help you make the best of what fresh you can keep……in good eating order.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: The easy way to preserve: dehydration

I learned to can shortly after I moved to Oregon. Yup. I’ve only known how to can for about 6 years. There are people who live among us who have FORGOTTEN more about canning than I will ever learn. As wonderful as canning is as a method to preserve foods we enjoy eating, I quickly learned how much easier it is to dry food for safe storage and later use.

The point is to remove moisture, thereby eliminating mold as a destroyer of food. This can be done using the sun (yeah for our Oregon sunny summers), the oven (at its lowest setting) or an electric dehydrator.

I picked up my first dehydrator at a yard sale for $10. By the time I opened Can-Do Real Food the next summer I had learned some basics and was ready to plop more money down for the higher volume I would need to produce for the business. My family went in together and bought my first one as a Christmas present. Over the years the Excalibur machines have come down in price considerably and by watching sales, you can get one for under $300. The type of machine makes a difference for larger volume drying….the fan and temperature selection options can make a significant difference in the time needed. I found a timer was nice and I actually found the analog dial easier to use than the electronic models.

I purchased several books about dehydration but stopped needing to look for any more after I read the introduction to Dried and True by Sarah Dickerman. Not only did the intro provide a tip that would make my life easier, but the book also provides something I have not seen elsewhere: a chart that explains how to prep each kind of fruit or veggie or meat and how long it can take to dry and what it should feel like at that point to be safe. For someone who is self-learning without a mentor, a chart like that is SO much more helpful than the typical “dry until finished” in most other books.

So, what can you dry for later enjoyment??

Image result for fresh and dehydrated apples compared

Fruit: Not only can you dry cut pieces of fruit for simple snacking, but you can also puree fruit and dry as leather for a fruit roll-up. You can season the fruit or leather with spices like cinnamon, or even add other fruits for a combined flavor, as I did when I made applesauce roll-ups with blueberries. Commercially prepared dried fruit usually has added sugar which is not needed. Like anything else you prepare at home, you can control the ingredients.

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Basil

Herbs and Greens: These have to be the fastest things to dry!! In a couple of hours, you can take fresh herbs from your garden and dry them for later use in the year when fresh herbs are no longer available. I have dried greens like kale for use in soups, spinach to add to a veggie or chip dip.

Image result for dried zoodles

Zucchini: okay…..you grew it and it has now overrun the garden. You heard about how prolifically squash plants produce but come on already!! Well, you can make zoodles for year-round gluten-free pasta substitute enjoyment. Shredded zucchini can be stored on shelves in the equivalent of the 2-cup measures you have been saving in your freezer for year-round zucchini bread. Free up that freezer space! I also developed several soup recipes with zucchini (and a canned marmalade….and that was a pleasant surprise).

Pumpkin Powder (FRX1178)
Pumpkin powder

Winter Squash: Pumpkin or squash puree can NOT be safely canned but it can be dehydrated so you can add liquid when you want to use it. Can-Do Real Food has a fantastic instant soup recipe with butternut squash and pumpkin that won best in Dehydrated Division at the State Fair in 2016. That recipe was developed from one submitted for inclusion in a community cookbook The Wild Ramp (Huntington, West Virginia) produced. So, while ingredient quantities have to be figured out carefully, whole-food recipes CAN be converted into dehydrated mixes.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: The joy offered by the supermarket roasted chicken

Oh roast chicken: how many ways can we use you? Whether you buy it already roasted at the supermarket or grab a whole chicken there and roast it yourself at home, the zero waste person can get MULTIPLE meals out of one 3-pound bird.

Roast chickens at a Paris marche (open-air market)

First, roast chicken with roasted veggies. Set the oven for 350 degrees. If you have an uncooked chicken, clean it (yes, you really need to wash it) and then season it. That can be done simply with some dry herb mixture your family enjoys or even a liquid cooking sauce. Veggies should be cut into fairly similar sized pieces and also sprinkled with some seasoning. Roast for 45-60 minutes. There are many many many recipes online if you need more specific info to get started.

Second, trim all meat off the bones. Place meat in a sealed storage container in the frig (to use within 2 days) and prepare to make broth. You need a large saucepan or dutch oven. Add the bones to the pot. Cut up an onion. Wash and peel a couple of carrots and slice them in. Cover with water. Bring to a boil and then turn down to a slow simmer, covered, for two to five hours (YES! The longer the deeper the flavor!) Add washed and peeled small diced potatoes or pasta or rice, salt and pepper and other seasonings. Veggies will be cooked in another half hour and you have some soup to enjoy!

Third, those meat trimmings. Adding chopped onions for tang, green or red peppers for crunch, maybe walnuts if you are leaning towards something different, and then mayo or your favorite salad dressing for a salad or sandwich filling.

Does anyone have more suggestions???? Add them below in the comments.

Being Prepared

Here in Oregon we are not concerned about what Hurricane Dorian will do to us.  Our weather may be doing its seasonal shifting with more clouds and some rain expected over the next week, but nothing a slow sweep on the windshield can’t handle.Image result for weather oregon rainfall

I’m reading my Facebook feed and seeing friends along the east coast are in a state of readiness. One guy in the Virginia Beach area had been planning a week’s vacation on the Outer Banks and believe it or not, he is complaining his vacation was ruined. He also mentioned he has his house prepared for whatever would have come his way including making sure his generator has fuel.  He knows he got off lucky this storm.

source: The Washington Post

Another friend in Nova Scotia made a simple observation which I want to repeat: “Whether the experts are right about this storm or not, there’s one thing I do know. The time you spend being preparing for it is nothing compared to what you might have to spend if you don’t.”

Let’s look at that for a second. 

Image result for rail and I-84 closure in columbia gorgeHere in Oregon’s Willamette  Valley we have seen the effect of snow and of wildfire in the Columbia Gorge close the railroad line and I-84. With no transportation moving in that corridor, store inventories decreased a bit, but not badly because we are not isolated. We still could get shipments from the south, from California and beyond.

Imagine just for a moment if those lines are also restricted. Whether it is caused by some trade war or some earthquake.

Now, consider what you have in your house right now that you can eat.

Next consider what you have in your house right now to eat if you have no power for your refrigerator or your cooking.

Now, start preparing a bit. We’re heading into winter. We’re heading possibly into a recession.

I can’t teach you prepper tricks, but there are plenty of websites and youtube videos that can. What I can do is remind you that an alternative cooking source (your grill, perhaps) and a 2-3 week supply of shelf-safe food will go a long way to making sure you and your family will stay fed. Shelf safe food is found in cans, bottles, and plastic bags. Canned and dehydrated foods like Can-Do Real Food makes can provide easy meals and snacks.

Image result for stock your pantry From now until the downtown farmers’ market closes in October,   Can-Do Real Food will be preparing our Loaded Pasta Sauce and dehydrated meal mixes and soup including our Moroccan Tangine Meal Mix, Vegetarian Tortilla Soup, Kale and White Bean soup and more. We currently have jams, cooking sauces, salsas, and snacks, as well as some Mole Meal Mix.

Stock your pantry. And, if we have a normal year with no devastating emergencies, GREAT!!!

 

Mid March Madness

The weather is gorgeous today, reminding me in just 8 weeks I will be at full speed between picking up produce from the farms, spending time in the kitchen canning and dehydrating, and then at the weekly farmers’ market on Thursdays in McMinnville.  The market is expected to start the very beginning of May, but my first harvest usually falls to the end of June, so until then, it is time to clear what we have in the freezer and to mix up our dehydrated veggies and herbs.

A few years ago when I started getting into selling the dehydrated offerings I needed to  identify packaging that would keep the food safe and provide at least a year of tight seal for longer storage. The options were plastic…plastic….and plastic.G dried foods.JPG

I’m pretty involved in Zero Waste McMinnville; it was a natural extension of the food waste reduction we have as part of our mission of Can-Do Real Food. As I learn more about how plastic has taken over our lifestyle, I have been searching for a new alternative packaging for the dried foods.

And while there are some new options this spring, there still is nothing that is workable. I will keep looking, but we will need to keep using plastic.

The bags I use all have zip-lock closure, so after I heat-seal the top of the bag, it is still closable with the zip lock after you open it. As such, the bags can be re-used and since they are good heavy plastic, I hope you will rinse and save them for personal use.

Which Diet?

Recently we had a friend living with us who has diabetes and it made me realize how fragile our systems are when we stray into areas where we react or don’t deal with certain items that are available to eat.  I thought it is time to mention that Can-Do Real Food fits into any number of diets.

Preservative Free

Can-Do Real Food has a couple of tag lines and the one that will help you relax is “Nothing artificial added”. What preserves our food from spoilage is the sugar in the jelly recipes and the low pH (using lemon juice or cider apple vinegar) in our savory canned recipes. The dehydrated foods are dried either to a “bend” (like the fruit roll-ups) or a “snap” (used to powder the item for easy mixes and quick rehydration.

Because we don’t add preservatives, our foods are safe to eat but will taste best if eaten within the time frame indicated on the label. Canned goods are “best by” 13 months after preparing. Dehydrated foods are presented in bags that are rated for five years but I have noticed that some fruit roll-ups prepared over a year ago taste fine but feel dryer.   I use “best by” dates instead of “use by” or “good until” because the food is perfectly safe to eat afterwards, but again, the best taste or texture diminishes over time.

Image result for preservative free food logo

Low Carb

Whether it is South Beach (the diet we followed while our friend was staying with us) or some other low carbohydrate diet, Can-Do Real Food fits in. Some foods that are vegetable based are without any doubt, allowed. Others, like the fruit snacks, need to be eaten with moderation.

 

Salt Free

We add no salt to any of our canned recipes. In fact, the decision to do that had an interesting side effect when we resubmitted our best selling canned Loaded Pasta Sauce for food processing approval the second year. We added zucchini to the mix (after all, we deal in farmer surplus and anyone who has ever grown zucchini knows how much of a surplus a plant produces) but we also removed the sugar and salt from the recipe. The original recipe had been given to us by a chef and we realized he might have been working with  the kinds of tomatoes that you find in supermarkets in the winter…picked under-ripe to red up during travel, the sugar in the recipe helps with the subdued flavor, as does the salt.  A few customers complained the pasta sauce was not as good but once we suggested they add salt to taste, they once again were happy.   “Add salt to taste” is now on that label.Image result for salt free foods

As we have developed the dehydrated Pasta Sauce, even I realized it has to have salt for better flavor.   Chatting with our backpacking experts made us aware how much salt people doing intense exercise need, so we are adding salt to the dehydrated mix.  If you are on a salt-free diet, do not eat this product.

 

Vegetarian/Vegan

 

We can assure everyone that there is no meat, no eggs, and no dairy in our products. First of all, we do not have a license to work with meat. To add a chicken flavor to our dehydrated Tortilla Soup or beef flavor to our dehydrated Hearty Borscht soup we use culinary yeasts with those flavor profiles. Culinary yeast is an ingredient that is usually marked as “natural flavorings” on labels. Our labels will tell you “culinary yeast”. Image result for vegetarian logo

The ONLY exception (and we’re not sure it will be offered this year) is our popcorn flavoring mix because that has included dehydrated butter or cheese when we made it in the past. It sold well, so we want to make it again, but currently not available.

 

Gluten Free

We’re not a bakery so this is pretty easy. The ONLY recipe that has been altered to stay gluten free is the dehydrated Tortilla Soup where we provide a small snack size baggie of corn tortilla chips to break into the hot prepared soup.

Image result for gluten free logo

GMO Free

As mentioned right above, we use corn chips instead of flour tortillas in the Tortilla Soup mix. We use only organic tortilla chips.  In addition, one of our farm partners, Bethel Springs Farm, is certified organic and everyone else we purchase surplus produce from grows in the organic style with no conventional spraying or GMO seeds. Image result for gmo free logo

Kosher/Halel

No, we’re not certified kosher or halel, but neither do we include any restricted ingredients in any of our foods. Not having a license to process meat, we stick to fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts in our kitchen.  So, you’re level of comfort with this category depends on how strict you observe the religious dietary rules.

 

If you have any questions about any ingredients, please contact me at BethRankinOR@gmail.com or message me on our Facebook page.

Chocoholics Unite!

Okay, I admit it. You don’t even need to twist my arm or apply any pressure. I am a chocoholic.  If there were membership cards to a group that does not want self-help, I would carry one for this. 

So, Can-Do Real Food works with local farmers but I managed to soothe my chocolate need by making chocolate ice cream sauces with fruit. Last year I made small batches of ice cream sauce with raspberries, strawberries and cherries. This coming season I will be making, upon request from my Farm Partner Beach Family Farm, a blueberry chocolate ice cream sauce.

Last year’s  challenge was to find a quality chocolatier in the area. The Willamette Valley is pretty spectacular with its vast array of crops, but chocolate is not grown here. The best I can do is to find a local producer. Last year I found Creo Chocolate. in Portland.  They have a direct Free Trade relationship with cacao growers in Ecuador.  Creo roasts the beans and prepares chocolate in a variety of flavors. We like to use the 73% chocolate in our recipes because it is dark but has a bit of sugar added, which means we don’t add any other sugar to those recipes. 

When the Straub family at Creo challenged us to develop a mole sauce we were intrigued. Mole, which means sauce, is used throughout Mexico and it seems like every grandmother has her own recipe.  I had my first taste of chicken mole on a visit to Texas about 21 years ago. While I was disappointed a bit that it does not scream “CHOCOLATE!!” I think it might have been weird to eat a chocolately piece of chicken. The chocolate, however, does an amazing job mixing with the peppers and tomatoes and other ingredients and making my taste buds very happy.

When we got this request we of course had to do some field work and ordered a lot of chicken mole over the next few weeks at a number of Mexican restaurants in the area. Every single one was different!  They all were yummy, with variations of sugar and heat. We made our first batch in the Test Kitchen with 100% chocolate but decided the little bit of sugar in the 73% seemed to offer more enjoyment. For the heat we aimed for something on the light side of medium; people who like more heat can always add it.

The new challenge was to prepare a mole sauce that would be food safe. Our commercial kitchen is set up for small batch processing and does not have the kind of canning equipment that would provide a safe canned product. (We’ve also tasted the large national brand for mole sauce and prefer a fresher taste.) While it would be easy to open a jar and pour it all out, if someone is going to prepare chicken mole, they are planning to cook, so we realized a dehydrated mix would work fine!

So, Can-Do Real Food is pleased to announce the first of several new dehydrated recipes that will tempt your palate this season. Mole Sauce!

The mix will prepare enough to feed 4 people.  You will need to have 2 pounds of boneless chicken (breasts and/or thighs) and 1.5 cups of chicken broth. We provide a simple recipe on the package. It is also feasible to use other proteins besides chicken. The mix can be hydrated with vegetable broth also. Have fun and let us know how you enjoy it!

And watch for other new dehydrated mixes this season as the harvest progresses. We have some amazing things we cooked up in the Test Kitchen that our Partner Farms tasted this past January and approved. Now we just need to wait for the main ingredients to grow!

Turning Two Oops into a Pantry Feast

A funny thing happened last week on the way to preparing the matza ball soup for the Seder. I used the wrong chicken.

I’ve talked about “Know Your Farmer” so it probably won’t surprise you to know I have a farm where I get my eggs. They used to raise meat chickens but have gotten out of that last year. However, as their older birds no longer produce eggs, they are processed and frozen as “stewing” chickens. Perfect for making soup! I ordered some from her and we had three in the freezer.

The first oops happened when I asked my husband to grab a chicken and I didn’t notice until it was already defrosted that it was not one of the stewing hens. It was a large roaster so it served my immediate need but the next oops occurred Sunday when my husband used one of the stewing hens for supper…..and he did not stew it. It was, to put it mildly, hard to chew.  We ate vegetables that night. LOL

That chicken and one more from the freezer then went into the soup pot yesterday and I made a boatload of broth. It simmered all day to develop a deep flavor.

This morning I got out my canning supplies. First I used my hot water canner to sanitize the jars I would use. Then, filling a bunch of pints, I then pressure canned broth so we could have it on the shelf to grab for meal preparation.

While that was processing, I then stripped the meat off the bones and made up a chicken pot pie mixture with onions, carrots, celery, green beans, and a whole bunch of herbs and seasoning. Then I sanitized quarts in the hot water canner and got 3 quarts of pot pie mix, 1 quart of soup (the remainder of the pot pie mix with more broth) and 3 more quarts of chicken broth. I STILL had some broth left over so it went into the freezer.

We prefer to can broth instead of freezing it for a couple of reasons. First, it takes up freezer space which is needed for the meats we buy from local farmers and other items in the freezer, like my ice cream maker bowl…all necessary for happy living here. Secondly, when the broth is frozen you have to plan ahead in order to defrost it to use it. Sometimes our meal planning is more ad hoc and frozen broth ends up forgotten.

From left to right: pot pie mix, soup, broth

Knowing how to can food safely was something I learned three years ago. Hot water bath canning was enough of a challenge but pressure canning had that horrible “explosion possibility mystique” that I needed to overcome. Now, no big deal. And it becomes a joy when I look at my home pantry and see that I have a ready supply of food that I have preserved. This is food that I know the contents and there are no preservatives or additives we don’t want in our diet.

Do you want to learn how to can safely at home?  Let me know. I will be planning a canning lesson in May and will be interested if there is interest.