Think for Yourself


Jam and Jelly made without a water bath.

Jam and Jelly made without a water bath.

Can you think for yourself? Or do you rely on experts to tell you what to do?
Clear back in 2011, shortly after this blog began, I wrote a post on making jams and jellies without a water bath. You can read it here: but in summary, I said that after a careful review of the latest research, it was clear to me that a water bath didn’t gain you anything except (maybe) a tighter seal. Therefore, I wrote, you could safely disregard the latest recommendations, which say water baths of at least five minutes are required for jams and jellies. That post has generated more than 10 times the comments of anything else on the blog. Most recently, a reader commented that she had been practically assaulted for saying she didn’t water bath jams and jellies in an online cooking forum.
I think this is a great example of two important concepts. The first is the concept that A: the latest science is always the best stuff and B: science is always accurate, honest and without bias. The second concept is that we should always take the opinions of “experts” over our own, even when our experience contradicts the experts. The thing is, neither of those concepts is true.
Let’s take point A. Science supposedly progresses over time, with the most recent research building on previous research, like steps in a staircase. In reality, the latest science often rests on previous findings that in many cases were flawed. Today, perhaps more than at any time in history, much of our science is also tremendously biased in the form of political correctness or swayed by what the funders want it to say. Which leads us to B. Research results can be swayed by bias, the desire for job security, advancement or scientific prestige, political correctness and money. Research is expensive, and in many if not most cases, the people funding it have a vested interest. They don’t want to pour money down a rat hole, they want the researchers to find something that lets them sell more medicine, herbicides, pesticides or increase the prestige of the university so it can get more grants or charge higher tuition, etc. The number of drug researchers, for example, who perform studies funded by drug companies and who are also paid by those same drug companies before, after or while performing the research is quite high.
John P Ionnadis is a Professor of Medicine and of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University School of Medicine and a Professor of Statistics at Stanford University School of Humanities and Science. About 10 years ago, he wrote a paper titled, ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.’ Here’s what he says in the abstract: “There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”
Don’t take his or my word for it; if you want to know about flat-out falsified data, you can look up H. Zhong, T. Liu, and their co-workers at Jinggangshan University, Joachim Boldt, Malcolm Pearce, Teruji Cho, Yoshitaka Fujii (fabricated data in a record of 172 papers!), Kazunari Taira, Jens Förster, Dong-Pyou Han, Eric Poehlman, Anil Potti, Karen M. Ruggiero, Weishui Weiser. By the way, despite the names, many of these researchers are Americans, so don’t blame bad research on foreigners. Or check out the drug Vioxx; manufacturer Merck hid data on heart disease risks for years after the drug came on the market, resulting in between 88,000 and 144,000 new cases of heart disease in the US.
Now, let’s move on to the second concept. Take the jam and jelly issue. I’ve been making jams and jellies for at least 40 years. I have never used a water bath. Nor did my mother, nor did my mother-in-law. In fact, when they started out, the standard way to make jam and jelly was to seal the jar with paraffin. Between the three of us that’s well over 100 years of empirical experience. Empirical, for those unfamiliar with the term, means “based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.” No one ever got sick from our efforts. When I cleaned out the cellar 30 years after my mother died, the seals on most of the jars were still good and the foods had no signs of spoilage (I did not, however, eat any of them). I think I can make a reasonable deduction that a water bath isn’t going to gain me anything.
Please note the date! This picture was taken in 2015.

Please note the date! This picture was taken in 2015.

Robert Heinlein once said, “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”
Notice that he doesn’t even include the option of listening to the experts…

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Seed-Saving Time!


Mammoth Melting Snow Peas going to seed and drying on the vine.

Mammoth Melting Snow Peas going to seed and drying on the vine.

The tail end of the summer is a good time to think about saving seeds from annual plants. I think many people are afraid to make the attempt because they think it’s complicated and you need to be an expert. If that’s the case, why do you think your garden has so many volunteer plants each spring? Remember, plants were reproducing themselves long before humans came on the scene. All we’re doing is making sure we have next year’s crop in the bag.
If you want to become a seed-saver, I think the absolute easiest plant to start with is beans. First, they’re self-pollinating. You can be reasonably assured that the seed you’re saving for next year is really Blue Lake. Second, beans are very productive, so there will be plenty for the table as well as the seed jar. Third, to save seeds, you simply let the last set of beans sit on the vines until the pods dry and turn yellow. Pick the dry pods before they get rained on, take the beans out of the pods and put them in storage containers, label and store. Peppers are another real easy one: take a fully ripe pepper, cut it open and gently scrape seeds onto a plate. When fully dry, package, label and store. Wear gloves for hot peppers or be very, very careful to wash your hands the minute you’re done – you don’t want pepper juice in your eyes.
Rattlesnake pole bean; the dried seeds look a lot like a pinto bean.

Rattlesnake pole bean; the dried seeds look a lot like a pinto bean.

Lettuce is another crop that readily goes to seed (which is why it’s hard to grow summer lettuce; the stuff bolts to seed in a New York minute when temperatures are high). I particularly like to save seeds from lettuce plants that will germinate and grow in my hot summers, even if they don’t get too big. That way, I’m selecting for heat resistance, and in a cool spring, the plants will still do fine. Lettuce flowers look like tiny dandelions, and are followed by the same sort of puffball seeds. Since they’re tiny, it’s a little hard to tell when the seeds are ripe. When the puffball starts to look a little ragged, it means some of the seeds have let go because they’re ripe. That’s when I cut off the seed stalk. Put the seed puffs in a shallow bowl indoors and let them dry for a week or so, then gently pull the seeds out while holding them over the bowl. Package, label and store.
Mixed lettuce in the shady bed. Lettuce reseeds so readily, you can just toss the plants down in the next spot where you want to grow lettuce and let them have at it.

Mixed lettuce in the shady bed. Lettuce reseeds so readily, you can just toss the plants down in the next spot where you want to grow lettuce and let them have at it.

Tomatoes take a little more effort. Choose a fully ripe, ready to eat tomato. Scoop out the pulp, juice and seeds from the inside of the tomato and put them in a jar or glass with a lid (don’t add water; dilution slows fermentation). Let them sit for about three days so the seeds begin to ferment. This removes the sprouting inhibitors contained in the gelatinous material inside the tomato. Store in a warm (70 degrees) place and stir several times a day. Pour the seeds into a larger container and add water; stir to separate the viable seeds from pulp and bad seeds. Generally speaking, viable seeds will sink. Dump out the water and glop; repeat at least twice. Pour the seeds into a strainer, shake off as much water as possible, then dump onto a paper plate or some paper towels. Let dry for five or six days at room temperature, stirring several times a day to prevent clumping. Treat eggplants much like tomatoes, with two exceptions: you want over-ripe post-mature fruits, and you don’t need to ferment the seeds. Package, label and store.
There you go – next year’s garden is on the shelf.

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Old-Fashioned Cooking: Cream Soups

This celery is a bit stronger-flavored than the store-bought stuff, but it's great in cream of celery soup.

This celery is a bit stronger-flavored than the store-bought stuff, but it’s great in cream of celery soup.

In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
If there’s a perfect ranch wife meal, it might be soup. Endlessly versatile: some sort of liquid as a base; veggies (always including onions and usually including garlic); meat, cheese or eggs for protein; and rice, noodles or potatoes for starch. Soup is also very useful when you’re trying to cook with the seasons. Spring is cream of asparagus, summer is cream of tomato, fall is cream of squash and winter can be cream of carrot or kale. Soup can be made with leftovers. For that matter, it’s one of the best ways to use up leftovers, and soup itself makes a good leftover – make a big pot and eat from it for several days. Even the male of the species will be well-satisfied with a thick, meaty Tuscan kale soup loaded with sausage, or potato chowder to which the canny ranch wife has added bacon or chorizo.
Cream soups are a good way to use up all that nice thick cream supplied by the family milk cow. Cream soups are also good for camouflage. When you’re trying to get a kid (or a recalcitrant husband who thinks greens stop with lettuce) to eat something exotic like lacinato kale, a cream soup often entices them into experimentation. Add some well-buttered corn bread, biscuits (cream biscuits are another way to use up all that extra cream, and they freeze well, so you can transfer them straight from freezer to oven) or garlic bread. While the soup doesn’t freeze well once the cream has been added, the base typically freezes just fine unless it also has potatoes in it. You can take pretty much any cream soup recipe to the point where the veggies are not quite fully cooked, chill and freeze in meal or cup-size portions. When you want soup, defrost the base, bring it to boiling and stir in cream. I particularly like to use that method with asparagus. The stalks are often a bit chewy if just steamed, but cooked and run through a food processor, with the usual additions like onions, they are easily frozen for cream of asparagus soup. I save the cooking water from the asparagus tops to add to the stalks, which intensifies the flavor.
Although chowders can be cream soups, the reverse is not true. Chowder almost always means the inclusion of potatoes, while cream soups may be made with a flour/fat/milk base (officially called a roux) or have no additional thickening beyond the cream. If you want to store a chowder in the freezer, put in everything but the potatoes and cream. Cook until the vegetables are about five minutes short of fully cooked, cool and freeze. When you’re ready to make the chowder, cut potatoes into eating size chunks, cook until just soft in minimal water. Meanwhile, bring the defrosted soup base to a simmer. Once the potatoes are cooked, drain (save the water for bread-making), add to the soup base and give it good stir. Take off the heat and stir in cream; it should be just eating temperature.

Cream of Kale Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
About one pound Lacinato kale, chopped
1 cup dry white wine (optional; replace with water to which you’ve added a tablespoon of vinegar or more chicken broth)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 cup heavy cream
Grated cheese for garnish

Heat a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat. (You’ll need a pot big enough to hold all
the kale before it wilts down.) When hot, add the oil, then the onions, and season with
salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for ten minutes, or until the onions are soft.
Add the kale, season with salt and pepper, stir, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Remove
the cover, stir in the wine/water and stock, and bring to a simmer. Cook at a gentle simmer for
about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the kale is extremely tender. Carefully puree in small batches in a blender or food processor, or using an immersion blender. (If you’re freezing, stop at this point, chill and put in freezer containers. Thaw, heat to boiling and add cream.) Otherwise, add the cream and heat slowly to serving temperature.

Cream of Broccoli Soup
4 celery ribs, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
2 bunches broccoli, trimmed and coarsely chopped (about 8 cups)
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
1 pint heavy whipping cream

Process broccoli, celery and onion in food processor until in small bits. Saute vegetables in butter until tender. Add the broth, garlic salt and pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 5-7 minutes or until broccoli is tender. (If you’re freezing, stop at this point, chill and put in freezer containers. Thaw, heat to boiling and add cream.) Reduce heat to low. Stir in cream; cook 5 minutes longer or until heated through.

Zuppa Toscana Crema (Tuscan Cream Soup)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound Italian sausage
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
4 cups chicken broth
3 small russet potatoes, thinly sliced
2 cups kale, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Brown the sausage in olive oil over medium heat until no longer pink. Add the red pepper flakes, garlic and onion and cook, stirring often, until the onions are translucent and the garlic is fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken broth, potatoes and kale (or hold the potatoes and use the technique above to freeze the soup base for later). Bring the broth to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat, stir in the cream, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into soup bowls and serve.

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