Do It Yourself: Sea Salt

We live on an island and often benefit from our proximity to the ocean by harvesting seaweed and compost for the garden, digging clams, and gathering  rose hips and wild asparagus that grow untended on the beach. A few weeks ago I found myself buying 8 oz of sea salt for $3.00 at the grocery store and thought hey, ocean!  And then I went down to Beach Road Beach for 6 gallons of really clean seawater. harvest seawaterI also did some research online. According to various blogs and agriculture sites (and for once, Wikipedia wasn’t all that helpful) six gallons of seawater should produce six cups of salt via evaporation. That seemed like a very high concentration to me, but turned out to be quite accurate.

I chose shorefront with no sewage outflow or houses nearby and a fast-running current. Water from a shallow bay might contain more salt, but is more prone to contamination. I initially forgot that water weighs 8.3 lbs per gallon but remembered pretty quickly when I realized I was downhill from the car with a container that would weigh >50 lbs when full. I finally put the large container up by the car and schlepped buckets up the ridge to fill it. You’ll want your water source to be convenient to your transportation.

Strain the water through a sieve to remove bits of debris and sealife. Don’t empty the container all the way when you pour it into your cooking pot to avoid any sand that has settled to the bottom. It helps to rest the water container on something sturdy above the level of your cooking pot to pour it off. I used a honey sieve to strain the water into a 5 gallon restaurant pail.

pouring off If you can possibly avoid it, don’t do this inside! Boiling off six gallons of water took a full day – actually two half days of diminishing sunlight – over a wood fire, and that’s a lot of water vapor to add to the interior of your house. I used a 5 gallon lobster pot a refilled it when necessary but I imagine any non-reactive pot or bucket would do. If you have to use a smaller size, try for as much surface area as possible to encourage evaporation.

kettle on the fire I lit a wood fire in my cinderblock grill using slightly punky firewood that the mice have been living in that I don’t want to burn in our woodstove. I only kept the fire going during daylight hours, currently 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. here in Downeast Maine, and it took two days to reduce 6 gallons of seawater down to about 4″ of what looked like clear water and a cup of chunky tan sediment swirling on the bottom of the kettle. At that point I took it off the fire because I was afraid I’d scorch the pot.  Boy, was I disappointed!

The remaining water was very salty to the taste, but even the steam coming off the kettle was salty – I didn’t see how it was going to produce 6 cups of salt. I dumped what was left into a large glass baking pan, per directions on the web, and figured I had nothing to lose by letting it evaporate the rest of the way in the house. The next day it had dried enough to appear opaque and slushy, and then crystals started to form. I broke up the slab with a potato masher periodically because the top dried out first.

pan o'saltNow, a week later, I have 5 1/2 cups of large crystal sea salt that has dried quite white like the dish I pulled out first so that we could sample it. It tastes like salt, of course, but there’s also a little extra “ocean” flavor somehow, probably due to the lack of processing. My neighbor describes it as “smoky”. All in all, a good experiment – would try again!


Adventures in ketchup

Summer 2012 was a tomato year for the garden. Hot and dry, hot and steamy, hot and drenching rain, and hot again for another week – and we have oodles of tomatoes. All the varieties I planted did well: cherry, plum, modern and vintage beefsteaks. The only heartbreak will be all the fruit still green on the vine as we approach the inevitable frosty nights of October.

green tomatoesMaking ketchup requires a lot of tomatoes and a long cooking time. I had bushels of tomatoes ready to go but I don’t like keeping steaming pots brewing on the stove for long periods of time. Our small house heats up easily, especially when the weather turns hot and humid, so I decided to haul out my big cast iron pots and cook a batch over a wood fire in the yard.

I suggest using the Blue Book recipe for ketchup. I started with two gallons of thick tomato puree and doubled the recommended amount of spices. In the two cheesecloth bags below are whole spices including: coriander, celery seed, cloves, stick cinnamon, yellow and black mustard, bay leaf and dried Chipotle peppers from the Fruit Basket in Grand Junction, CO. (These peppers are incredibly fragrant – thanks, CherieBeyond! You’re also my proof that we’re not actually stuck on this island because you made it to Colorado – and back.) The recipe also includes good cider vinegar, brown sugar, salt and anything else you feel like throwing in to make it distinctly your own. Why yes, I did add a cup of bourbon, funny you should ask.

spice bagsThis was my first experience using cast iron over a wood fire and wow, that’s a lot of energy. I loaded a gallon of puree, the additional recipe ingredients, and the spice bags into the pots and the mixture came to a rolling boil almost immediately. I could have started with a lot less fuel and ended up adding much less wood to keep it going than I thought I’d need. It took a little over two hours (stirring occasionally) for enough water to steam off and leave a nice, thick batch of ketchup with a distinctive smoky taste. This is how I’ll make my end of season tomato sauces from now on.

pots over the fire


Peach nectar night

This will be a very short post, because there are a lot of peaches waiting on the kitchen counter that aren’t going to can themselves.

Last year I experimented with a few different ways to preserve the bounty from the Red Haven and Red Baron peach trees in the front yard. Of the 15 bushels (yikes) that we didn’t give away or eat fresh I froze some in white grape juice, made plain and brandied canned whole, canned pie filling, jam, and conserve. Summer 2010 also produced a tremendous harvest of Beta grapes and I eventually gave up on making grape jelly and canned them as juice instead. We really enjoyed the juice, and making concentrate was an efficient way to store vast quantities of produce. It also made killer popsicles.

Tonight I decided to make peach nectar and it was so successful that I think I may just turn everything into juice concentrate for the foreseeable future. Home made V8! Pear nectar! Harry Potter pumpkin juice – well, maybe not.

I pitted and then cooked the fruit lightly in a cup of lemonade and 1 C of sugar, just enough to soften it and bring out the juices. Then I put it, skins and all, through the food mill. The mill strainer that I chose made a fairly clear juice, although you can see that the amount of waste is fairly small. Next batch I’ll use a slightly larger hole and see if that produces a thicker “nectar”.

This was a successful experiment. Very tasty, and the entire process took less than two hours and only a cup of sugar. Now – Bellinis all around!


Angelica, known in my grandmother’s garden as “Holy Ghost”, is a tall biennial plant with large lobed leaves, greenish white flowers, and fluted stems.

The stems are traditionally candied and used like citron in breads and holiday cakes. Angelica is a very generous plant, seeding itself all around my garden. I’ve always wanted to take advantage of this abundance and candy some myself. Last fall I took the time to research recipes and found that the stems are harvested in the spring, when they are still bright green and tender.

Last week I picked a plastic grocery bag of stems, or about 2 lbs. I trimmed off the leaves and cut the stems in random lengths as none of the recipes I read seemed to specify size. They didn’t specify much of anything, actually, and differed wildly on how long to cook the raw plant material, how to dry it, and what it should look like when finished. I’ve simplified the process because no way am I boiling anything in sugar syrup for four days, and my adaption seems to have worked just fine.

Make a 2:1 sugar syrup by mixing 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, bring to a boil and stir until dissolved. Dump the stems into the syrup and simmer for 20 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool and set for 24 hours. I let it go from one night to the next.

Remove stems from syrup and allow to drain on a rack. I used a cookie rack with a pan underneath. I dried the stems in a very slow oven (250 degrees) for a few hours. It rained for almost the entire month of April here, and the drying part might work for you without an oven if the weather cooperates.

When the stems were solid and cooled, but still tacky, I put them in a ziplock bag of granulated sugar and left them overnight to soak up as much as possible. Then I stuffed them into canning jars, where they look pretty cool – all bright green and shiny. I have two jars in a canning cupboard and one in the freezer, to see which one preserves the color and texture best.  I’m going to try out a recipe next week, and I’ll let you know how it goes.


Grape juice

Grapes grow very well in the poor soil and harsh climate of coastal Maine. Our season is too short to ripen some of the classics, like the real Concord grape that made huge hedgerows of  fragrant fruit at my parent’s home in Connecticut.  Fortunately, there’s Beta. From the Fedco catalog:

Originated by Louis Suelter (pronounced Sool-ter) in Minn, 1881. Beta was named after his wife and is pronounced Bett-uh not Bay-tuh. Old standby, excellent for juice, jelly and jam. Decent eating off the vine when completely ripe. Medium-sized black berries in moderately compact to loose clusters. Early to bloom, early to ripen. Vigorous healthy productive vines extremely hardy to zone 3.

Our Beta vine is almost 20 years old and the multiple trunks are as big around as my wrist at the base. Last year I bought two more Beta and a Somerset seedless with “medium-sized loose clusters with small sweet ruddy reddish-golden fruit” for variety. I’ve been making grape jelly all these years, but the vines produced so much fruit in 2010 that I made a dozen quart jars of juice for variety. (As a bonus, the juice is much easier to can.) We broke it out for the first time last night and that’s it for me – all future grape harvests are going to juice. It’s AMAZING.

From the Blue Book:

Wash, crush and measure grapes. Add 1 C water* to each gallon of grape mash. Heat mixture 10 minutes at 190 degrees – do not boil. Strain through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. For a greater yield (if you don’t mind a little cloudiness or sediment) twist the bag to squeeze all the juice out.

Now the BB instructs you to let the juice stand 24 hours in the refrigerator, ladle it out into another pan (being careful not to disturb the sediment) and strain it again. If you, like me, are short on refrigerator space, big pans, and patience during harvest season you can skip this step. The juice will still be incredible and probably have even more nutrients. On the other hand, if you’re looking to enter your flawless grape juice at the Blue Hill Fair, by all means strain away.

Measure juice. Add 1 – 2 C sugar to each gallon. Reheat to 190. Ladle hot juice into hot jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Adjust two piece caps. Process pints and quarts 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

This makes a concentrated juice and we cut it half and half with seltzer.

* The BB always assumes you have clean fresh well water available. If you’re using chlorinated water you may get a better result if you let the water stand in an open pitcher for a day before using.

Peaches, peaches, peaches, PEACHES

While we were away for a week in Canada, our peach trees were busy ripening their fruit. The weather has been hot and dry, so I lost about 1/2 a bushel to the ground and the red squirrels. That leaves about 2 bushels for canned pie filling, Peach Brown Veronica, peach puree (canned for Daiquiris and ice cream this winter), frozen peach slices and mmmmmmmm, oven jam.

Peach Oven Jam

Wash and then dunk the peaches, 5 or 6 at a time,  in a large pot of boiling water for about 45 seconds. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and let them sit in a bowl of cold water until cool enough to handle. The skins should slip off easily. Slice the peeled peaches into a bowl and add 1 tsp of lemon juice and 1 Tbsp of sugar for each batch of 5, and stir.I sliced up almost a bushel of peaches for this batch, but any amount is fine.

If you like, save the pits. They haven’t been processed and should sprout. I’m planning to plant a row in a distant part of the garden to see what comes up.

Next break the fruit into a uniform consistency in the wide setting of a food mill or a food processor. It shouldn’t be mushy. Add one C white sugar and 1 Tbs of lemon juice for every four cups of peaches (this is easy to do in the bowl of a food processor). Pour the mixture into a buttered large, heavy oven proof pan or several (I use two Crueset casseroles) and bake in a 300 degree oven for 1 1/2 – 3 hours, depending on the depth of the pan and water content of the peaches. Stir every half hour or so, more toward the end of the cooking time. The jam should darken in color and become almost translucent at the edges – like pie filling. My Blue Book says the mixture should “round on a spoon”.

Fill sterilized jars with the hot mixture and process 10 minutes in a steam canner. You could reference the Blue Book for regular kettle processing time. This recipe makes a wonderful, full bodied jam for toast or biscuits, but it’s also great on ice cream, as a cake or pie filling or drink mix. And a full stock kettle of peach pieces will net about 5 pints of jam – a fairly efficient way to store a lot of peaches.

Next, we’ll have to do something about the tomato situation.

Buoys, or not.

Today I went down to Southwest Harbor for a concert. The Southwest Harborites were also celebrating the annual Pink Flamingo festival (the lawn ornaments are considered native fauna) and the Coast Guard base was having an open house so it was a high time on the village main street. I took the back road down to Clark Point and stopped at this stand to buy a jar of pear jam.

The sign is quite well designed, with the whole positive/negative space thing going on, and “Antiques” is spelled correctly. What happened to “bouys”? Curse those pesky diphthongs!

I bought a jar of pear jam. I’ve tried to make it myself, and could possibly make gallons of the stuff from the Seckel pear tree’s bounty, but my trial batches were gritty and insipid. This jar from Maine’s Own Treats has a nice clear color. The contents list includes: Pears, Sugar, Applesauce, Apple Juice and Pectin. Applesauce sounds like it might be the secret ingredient. We’re going to try the jam out tomorrow on Sunday waffles and then I’ll decide if this combination is worth another experiment.

I like the “We’re Open” sign, too. There wasn’t a soul around – what changes when they’re closed?