Blog Archives

Managing a Suburban Harvest

By Rosie Kern


I live just south of the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico on half an acre.  This is a convenient halfway point for anyone who longs for a touch of country self-sufficiency but who may have a need to be near a larger population base for some reason.

The property is large enough for me to have a 50×60 vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive and chickens.  I enjoy organic gardening, canning and otherwise processing the foods I eat to enjoy all year.  The problem is that my harvest extends for a long time, but I don’t always have the time to pull down my canner!

Commercial farmers plant large areas and harvest everything at once – at the time they feel their plants have most of the produce at a perfect state of ripeness.  Then everything gets trotted off for processing.

In my garden I have 5 varieties of peppers, 2 types of tomatoes, green beans, lima beans, corn, cabbage, potatoes, onions, potatoes, peas, asparagus, broccoli, apples, pears, pecans, cherries, and a lot of herbs.   They do not all ripen at once.  (thank heaven)

Sometimes I can anticipate when a lot of one thing will be ready, but more often than not things will ripen in stages.  It is ridiculous to fire up the pressure canner for just a couple of quart jars!  Not to mention that sometimes other personal responsibilities or vacation will supersede the joy of cooking and processing.

There are a few ways you can handle this with your kitchen garden to make it easier and more efficient.

Tomatoes are one of my favorite items to preserve – they are so versatile! Salsas, soups, sauces – YUM!   The first luscious red fruits are sparse, but over time they pick up the pace.  I plant just a few of the large beefsteak type tomatoes, a couple cherry tomatoes and 7 or 8 thicker paste tomatoes.  Though the beefsteak and cherries are primarily for eating fresh, an overabundance of either can be added to the paste tomatoes when canning.

During those times when there are more ripe tomatoes than I have time to process, I will harvest and wash them, frequently cutting them into chunks and removing stems or spots.  Then they get put into a gallon sized Ziploc bag and plopped into the freezer.

Freezing at the peak of ripeness is a perfect way to build up enough of them for a good day of cooking and canning later on.  I leave the nutritious skins on because tossing them in a food processor pulverizes them beautifully.

Another vegetable than you can partially process then freeze for future use are green chile peppers. Chiles are normally roasted and skinned before being cooked or canned. If you have a couple hours you can pick the ones you feel are large enough and roast them on your BBQ grill.  You want them to puff up and the skins to brown and crack a bit – but don’t blacken them entirely!

You can grill at least a bucket full at a time.  First soak the peppers for 1- 3 hours in water, then fire up the grill to high and toss them on.  An option to turning them individually by hand is a grilling basket or rotisserie cage which allows you to turn them easier.

Take the roasted peppers and place them in a zip bag or other airtight container while they are still very hot and let them set in a warm place for a few hours or overnight.  This is called “sweating” them, which helps separate the meat from the skins.  Then plop them in the freezer.

Some people just leave them in the freezer until they wish to use them in cooking.  I don’t have enough freezer space to keep everything I harvest there so I process as much as possible by canning.  When you are ready to use them or can them you take them from the freezer to a clean kitchen sink.  Fill the sink with water and when they thaw out you can begin stripping the skins from the peppers by hand.

Wearing rubber or latex gloves is a VERY good idea as the capsaicin in the peppers will make your hands burn after a while. I usually heavily cream my hands an hour before donning the gloves as an extra precaution.

Once the skins, stems and most of the seeds are removed you can either process them whole, chopped, or make great tasting sauces with them.   I get heartburn from bell peppers and poblanos, but I have no problems with pimentos, cayenne or green chile.  As a result my homemade spaghetti sauce has a mild bite to it, which southwesterners appreciate!

Like most home farmers I love to pick my ears of corn just as they are fully ripe.  If some of them escape my notice they can start to dry out a bit…or sometimes a lot.  That’s ok. When I find those I just let them continue to dry out until I am ready to use them.  Then I shuck them and cut the kernels off and add them to homemade soups and stews.

If pollination has been spotty the corn cob may be partially bald. Rather than serve them on the cob I will cut the kernels off and freeze them.  You can also freeze full cobs, but it takes a lot of freezer space.

Potatoes can be left in the ground long after the tops die back.  A mild freeze late in fall won’t usually hurt the ones that have a few inches of dirt over the top.  Onions, carrots and garlic can just stay where they are all winter until I want to use them.

Broccoli is planted very early in the year – before the last frost date.  It can handle a bit of cold.  However it will create one big head per plant which commercial farmers harvest and sent to the store before plowing the rest of the plant under.  Personally I think that is very premature!   After I’ve harvested (and eaten) the main head I leave the plant in the ground where it will start to send out side shoots.  You won’t ever get another great big head, but the little shoots are great in salads and stir fry.

Cabbages are another plant that develop one huge head.  However, the leaves around the main head are also edible and can be snipped off at any time for cole slaw, sauerkraut, or cabbage rolls.

In many climates carrots, parsnips, turnips, garlic and onion seed can be planted in the fall just before the first frost.  Cover the beds in straw when nighttime freezes begin.  You’d be amazed how many of them will be pushing up early next spring and ripe by June.

Of course, if you just have too much food on your hands at any given time, neighbors and local foodbanks will thank you for it.  Giving away your extras makes a lot of friends!


Rose M. Kern is a New Mexico Master Gardener and the author of “Creating Microclimates for High Desert Gardening.”   She cans much of her home grown produce or cooks delicious meals in her solar oven.  For more information

Becoming a Solar Chef

When I was a kid, every summer the TV news folks would choose a very hot day to go downtown, spread aluminum foil on the County Courthouse steps and crack an egg onto it.  They then proceeded to tell jokes about how hot it was.  I don’t ever remember the egg getting cooked–but the image stayed with me. 35 years later I saw my first Solar oven.  It was sitting on the ground and contained a nicely browning turkey.

Solar Cookers have made a splash all over the world in the last 20 years.  In many countries of Africa, there are villages that have little in the way of firewood for cooking,  Sun Cookers, International is a non-profit group that raises money to bring sun ovens made from foil covered cardboard with oven roasting bags to these areas.  A pot of rice and beans placed into this arrangement will cook food for the family without the   women having to spend hours searching for a few small sticks of firewood or dried dung.

There is a town just outside Mexico City wherein the women’s association has built a large solar oven.  Panadaria Solaria is the name of their bakery, which supplies most of the village’s bread.

  A simple solar oven is made from lining a shoebox with aluminum. Paint the outside of a quart canning jar Black.  You can put hotdogs or water or anything that needs warmed inside the jar. Place the jar inside the box and tilt it towards the sun.  On a sunny day it should only take 15 to 20 minutes for it to be ready.   There are many plans for building oven sized solar cookers from cardboard or wood, and there  are  several kinds of  solar  cookers  that are considered to be  serious appliances.

The All American Sun Oven built by Sunovens International is one such  appliance.  It has petal-like reflectors and  tempered glass doors.  It can reach 425 degrees in summer, and even in winter will cook the evening meal – as long as there is sun!  The beauty of this one is that it folds up quickly, weighs only 21 pounds and is easily transportable.  It can be used during camping when the forest service won’t even allow camp stoves.

It contains a temperature gauge and a suspended platform that keeps food upright even when the box is tilted to   gather maximum sunlight.

A recent innovation in solar cooking is the solar tube cooker.  A long metal trough in which you place meats or vegetables slides into an evacuated glass tube.  The tube is held in a shiny metal sleeve which catches the sun and focuses it on the tube.  Temperatures can exceed 400 degrees allowing foods to be fried or baked.   The GOSUN company makes these in several sizes.  Some are small and portable, others are larger and made to be set on a table.

 There are also several parabolic cookers on the market—or made by innovative individuals from a multitude of materials.  They boast curved surfaces which reflect light toward a pot suspended at the point where the light is focused.  These can achieve higher temperature, and are very good for frying.  These are not as easily portable as the box cookers, but can quickly boil your morning coffee!

Other alternative solar cookers can be quickly put together in an emergency, though some make practical alternatives for daily use as well.  If you have bright sunlight you can place food in a dark crockery pot with a lid, set it inside an oven bag, then surround it outside with a shiny car window shade aimed at the sun.    An easy way of heating up lunch on a sunny day is to set any container on the dashboard of your car.  Make sure the car is pointed south with the sun hitting the windshield and the windows rolled up.

Although most of us in the United States  don’t have the problems faced by the women in Africa, there are several advantages in using Solar Cookers.  It reduces the amount of gas or electricity we use with regular stoves – lowering the utility bill.  It reduces the amount of heat we generate when using conventional stoves indoors – so our air conditioning does not have to blow out the heat – again reducing the utility bills.

Another difference is the source of heat.  A standard oven’s heat is generated at the bottom of the oven.  The Solar Oven fully surrounds the food, which is why you do not end up with food that is burned on the bottom.   The disadvantages of a solar oven is that it takes more time and is weather dependent.  But this means that the slow cooking enhances the flavors.  There is also the fact that it’s just plain fun and the food tastes wonderful.

You can  treat it like a crockpot.  Take something frozen and put it in a clear casserole dish.  Set the dish into the solar oven before leaving for work in the morning and point it towards where the sun will be at around 1 pm.  During the morning hours the slant angle of the sun thaws the food.  As the sun climbs towards noon it begins to cook, then when the sun slides to the west the temperature lowers to where it isn’t cooking anymore but it is keeping warm.  When you come home from work a couple of hours later the casserole is thawed, cooked and tasty!

Another aspect of using a solar box cooker is its versatility.  It can be used to sterilize water in an emergency.  It can also be used to dehydrate vegetables or process jerky—though that requires lower temperatures.  There is more specific information on that option later in this book.

Sun ovens can go anywhere.  One hot august day I was camping in the mountains of northwestern New Mexico.  The danger of fire was high and no one was allowed to start fires or even use a propane stove.  Around noon I set my sun oven up with a pot full of rice, beans and veggies.  As the aroma drifted through the campground I saw a forest ranger wandering around to ensure the rules were being obeyed.  He followed his nose to my campsite.  He saw the solar oven and with a grin, just shook his head.  Of course, I invited him to stay for dinner.

I wrote The Solar Chef cookbook originally in 2003 because I could not find anything on the market that discussed the flexibility of a sun oven, nor the wide variety of foods you can make.  The book is not all encompassing—its purpose to defy the limitations that some people assume are part and parcel when you cook food without using electricity, gas or flame.

Whether you bake chocolate chip cookies, meatloaf, cakes, roasts, snacks, pizza, or just about anything else, the flavor of anything solar cooked is enhanced.  It is as though the touch of the sun adds an extra blessing  to your meals!


To view a powerpoint presentation on solar cooking click here:  Solar Cooking Presentation



Suburban Prepping

Every decade has something big that upsets how most people prefer to spend their time – many times it is a weather event – hurricanes, tornados, tsunami, or massive blizzards for instance.  All of these cause us to hunker down and find ways to survive with home, family and fortune intact.   This time it is Coronavirus.

I read in the news and on facebook how people were panicking about hand sanitizer,  toilet paper and drinking water and heaven knows what else.   These are the times when it is good to know how things were handled before plastic water bottles and Charmin.

It is also preferable to use common sense instead of blindly running with the herd.  I was lately guilty of that one.  The tap water we have is really very tasty and well filtered – it is county operated.  As I passed Sam’s Club earlier today and saw the extremely crowded parking lot I was remembering that drinking water is always one of the primary items needed in emergencies and for a brief…very stupid…moment I thought about fighting the crowd to get some plastic bottles.

Then the spirit of Grandma Kern reached down from heaven and slapped me upside the head with visions of the shelves full of empty half-gallon and quart canning jars in my pantry!  DUH!   I got home, pulled them down and washed them out before filling them with tap water and a couple drops of chlorine bleach apiece then lidded and put back on the shelves.  (NOTE: always keep jars of water out of direct sunlight).  I now have 8 half gallon jars and 30 quarts of drinking water squirreled away in case of need.

As for wash water, I always keep my gallon bleach bottles and fill them with water.  They are stacked under a shaded portico near my well head to prime the pump with.  (I use well water for my gardens).  This is my primary stock for wash water if needed and are usually filled with well water, though people could use city water as well.

As for toilet paper…really?  Yes I have a case of it, but then I always buy it by the case because it is the most comfortable option.   In the old days there were outhouses where people tore pages from newspapers and Sears catelogs or large leaves to wipe with, but those tend to clog up modern toilets. Other options that even city folks can use.  I have a basket full of old clothes that have holes in them or are just worn out.  Cut them up into small squares and use them.  You can rinse them out and reuse if washed with bleach.   Old T-Shirts and bed linens work great.  Just don’t be a dunderhead and try to flush them down a toilet!

Lastly, hand sanitizer.  You can make some that is just as easy on the skin as the commercial stuff.  Mix 2 parts rubbing alcohol to 1 part aloe gel.  Aloe gel is in the stores, or if you have a monster aloe plant in the house it is fairly easy to strip the gel out.

How?   Harvest the thick flesh leaves and slice the spiny edges off then cut into pieces and place in a blender or food processor with a little water.   Whir it up good.  Place a strainer over a big bowl and dump the resulting goo into the strainer then go do something else for a couple hours.  When you come back use the back of a metal spoon to push down a little and get the last drops out.  Throw the discard on the compost heap (plants love it) and mix the goo up with the alcohol for instant hand sanitizer.

 NOTE: It can have a few floaty plant parts in it – that doesn’t hurt anything – just proves it did not come from a factory.

My personal motto in life is this:  Get ready for the maybe, then let it go.

Don’t let panic dictate your actions.  Think about what each kind of disaster could mean to you and yours personally and look into options for how to deal with it in advance.   Be confident in yourself and read some of those great magazines like Countryside, Mother Earth News, and Sustainable Living.  Even if you don’t do all the things in them all the time at least the knowledge that they can be done will be nestled in the back of your brain.

A Practical Environmentalist

“What are you doing?” I asked my daughter. After living with me for 13 years you’d think that she would automatically toss her aluminum soda can into the recycle bin. No, it was airborne and headed into the trash when the flash of sunlight on metal caught my eye.

Rolling her eyes she fished the can out and put it in the right place.

The Right Place. Sometimes I catch myself thinking about how much has changed – not just technology or building developments, but mindsets.   As I child I would not have thought about where I threw any can. As a child there were no soda cans, just bottles. Even then my parents did not purchase sodas for their kids, we drank water, milk or kool-aid. Hawaiian Punch was a treat served only on holidays.

In my parent’s youth everything was used, re-used and then torn apart and used some other way before it was ever thrown away. That was before advancements in technology turned us into a “throw away” society. Plastic was one of the biggest culprits. Suddenly you could make anything so cheaply that you didn’t have to bother to clean it up and use it again – just throw it away! Who cares – it’s only worth about a nickel and what’s a nickel?

About twenty years ago now it suddenly dawned on people here in the good ol’ USA that just maybe all that waste was bad for us. By us I mean not just the country as a whole but for towns and communities that don’t have any place to bury their trash, some places have to pay to have their garbage shipped to other places with smaller populations and more land.

Of course, at the same time we discovered that splitting the atom may have created huge new energy resources, but the process creates more garbage of a kind that can make people sick. Then there are the fools who want to live in the southwestern desert, but believe in their souls that they have the right to use as much water as they want so they can have a lush green yard.

Technology has spoiled us on a number of levels. You go to a grocery store these days and you can get any kind of fruit or vegetable at any time of year. You want fresh tomatoes in January, corn on the cob in April, young tender zucchini anytime…why not? So what if it takes a jumbo jet out of Hawaii plus a huge tractor trailer driving 1,072 miles to bring you fresh pineapple in Amarillo – it’s only a couple bucks at the store. Of course from picking to purchase it costs the world 9504 gallons of Jet fuel, and at least 180 gallons of diesel. That’s a lot of stinky stuff to dump into the air.

Like a lot of people I have absorbed all the statistics and come to the realization that we as individuals really do need to change how we approach everything from what food gathering options we have to how we dispose of waste. What bugs me is that the minute you mention that you save aluminum cans or recycle computer paper people automatically equate you with the wild eyed frenetic extremists who sit in trees and scream obscenities at passing loggers.

Applause to the radicals who bring attention to a problem – it is not how I prefer to live. They may draw attention to a situation, but it is the average citizen living in a community who will slowly and steadily change it. People need to look around and see what they personally can do in daily life to make a difference.

I am an inhabitant of the high desert regions. My home has just under an acre inside a small town. The community is large enough to have choices of waste disposal companies and I prefer to use one that recycles. Even so, before I throw something away I consider whether or not it can be used in some other fashion. I do eat out on occasion and I use the containers they provide for other things. Did you know that the small containers Kentucky Fried Chicken use for single servings of cole slaw make great butter dishes?

In my handbag you can usually find a small plastic food storage box-the kind you can re-use. If I know the restaurant’s leftover containers are Styrofoam, I pull my box out and use it instead. The water in my community is tasty. I run it through a filter and drink it rather than buying a lot of plastic water bottles. That does not mean I shun any use of the plastic ones, there are times when that is preferable to other options.

My husband and I prefer to buy locally, but if price differences are dramatically different we don’t have any prejudices about bopping over to Wal-Mart. My own organic garden and the local Farmer’s Market provide most of my vegetables, and I like to can and dehydrate my produce. The garden is on a drip system and I employ heavy mulching, so my water usage is much smaller than my neighbor with the lawn.

The most amazingly short sighted waste is in the area of clothing. People keep closets full of things they don’t wear, or if they’ve worn it once or torn it slightly they may throw it away! If something is torn, I pull out needle and thread and stitch it up – then wear it again! Twice a year I take inventory of what I have. If I haven’t worn it because I got too fat or don’t like it anymore I give it to charity. You can get some really great clothes at thrift stores – from those people who wore it once.

I own a total of six pairs of boots/shoes. Sass shoes has a very practical black leather shoe I can wear all day long in the office and be comfortable. They are expensive, but great. Once a year I buy a new pair. The old pair becomes my gardening shoes. The others are a seldom used pair of brown loafers, a pair of black pumps going on 9 years old, a set of tennis shoes, and some winter boots. There is a pair of cowboy boots somewhere in the back of the closet that I haven’t seen since 2003.

Creating a healthier environment starts in the mind. Look around and see what you can do in your own home to make a difference. Start small, but do it repeatedly until it becomes a habit.

Years later my daughter and I were at a friend’s house when her boyfriend chucked an aluminum can into the trash. We both flinched.