Monday, April 30, 2012

Living With Loquats

Harvesting loquats from The South Tree, April 2012.
Anyone who's ever had a loquat tree knows that loquats can be both a blessing and a burden.  The trees are beautiful and bear an abundance of fruit with very little attention.

This is both the good news and the bad news.  When loquat trees bear fruit, they bear a lot of it.  And it will fall to the ground, courtesy of gravity.

Unless you have a staff of gardeners to rake your yard daily, you may find that the glorious abundance a large loquat tree produces soon becomes annoying.  And if you're anything like me, you feel guilty that you're not putting the fruit to good use each time you feel the soft flesh of a loquat squish into the soles of your shoes.

This year, I intended to harness that guilt – while harnessing the incredible energy of our two loquat trees.

In the past, my husband and I tried loquat jam and loquat cobbler, but it was hard work to peel a large quantity of loquats so I no longer consider any loquat recipe that requires peeling the loquats.

During this loquat season, I've made both loquat butter and loquat leather with mixed results.

If you don't live in loquat territory, you may never have heard of loquats.  I certainly hadn't until I moved to Southern California – where you can find them everywhere.  So in the midst of picking, seeding and pureeing my favorite fruit of the moment, I thought I needed to do some research on the mysterious origins of the loquat.

According to Purdue University's Center for New Crops & Plant Products, the loquat is indigenous to China and possibly to southern Japan, where it has been cultivated for over 1,000 years.   Loquat trees grow in temperate climates around the globe -- and in some intemperate climates as well.  In the 1700s, the colonial powers apparently discovered the deliciousness of loquats, because the fruit suddenly appeared in the greenhouses of the Royal Botanical Gardens in England and National Gardens of Paris – and then soon appeared in other outposts of the European empires. Exactly how they got to Southern California, it’s never made clear, but obviously the loquats like it here, since they grow in such abundance.

The university says that loquats are part of the rose family, Rosacae, surprisingly enough, and claims that trees can grow up to 30 feet tall.  I can attest that this is true – and perhaps is an understatement.  Our two loquat trees are each at least 30 feet tall, with no sign of stopping.

The loquat fruit grows in clusters and each loquat is supposed to contain one to ten large seeds in the center of the fruit.  (I've counted up to six seeds in the fruit from my loquat trees.)  The University web page does NOT point out one of the problems of the loquat’s large seeds. The fruit-to-seed ratio makes them a real challenge to clean.  It takes a lot of work to remove the large seeds for a relatively small volume of usable loquat flesh.

Purdue’s website (based on Julia F. Mortons’ Fruits of Warm Climates) says there are over 800 varieties of loquats.  I have two in my backyard, each a different variety, which I refer to as The North Tree and The South Tree.  After a bit of researching, I believe that The North Tree is a Japanese variety, known for pear-shaped fruit with pale-yellow skin and whitish flesh.   The web page says the fruit is juicy and "non-distinct" in flavor.  We refer to the flavor, more scientifically, as ranging from “blah” to “meh.”

The South Tree has fruit with darker skin, yellowish flesh, and its flavor is distinctly preferred by both wild parrots and 3-year-old girls.  I haven’t specifically been able to identify the variety, but it is quite possibly a “Placentia,” a Japanese variety introduced to Placentia, California in the late 1800s.  Placentia is a tiny town in Orange County, only 35 miles away, so it wouldn’t surprise me that the this variety would have been popular when our L.A. bungalow was being landscaped in the 1930s.
Loquats from The North Tree (top of frame) and The South Tree (bottom of frame), April 2012.

The trees bear fruit from April until May or June – or at least they do in California where I live.  Purdue University claims that freshly-picked loquats will keep for 10 days at room temperature, but at my house they decay quickly and I've found that it's best to harvest them on the same day I want to use them.

Loquats also have the distinction of being a delicious fruit with a poisonous seed.  The chemical inside the seed – hydrogen cyanide -- can break down into cyanide in the human digestive system, so caution should be used when selecting and seeding the fruit.  In addition, the fruit in large quantities is said to have a sedative effect.  Purdue University's Center for New Crops & Plant Products reports that a 5 year-old girl in Florida fell asleep and was difficult to awake after she ate 4 unripe loquats.  She was dazed immediately after waking, but within two hours had recovered and did not suffer any permanent injury.

After reading this bit of information, I'm no longer quite so excited about making loquat jelly, which needs to be made with slightly unripe fruit.  I’m just not that interested in a breakfast jelly that knocks out my children.  However, I am looking forward to making pickled (fully-ripe) loquats in the coming weeks.

As a food history geek, I can find myself lost for hours pursuing the minutiae of the loquat’s illustrious back-story (“Look, it’s also an expectorant!”)  But eventually I realize that I have to get around to that 8 liter bucket full of yellow fruit that could go bad.  And as fascinating as it is to explore the history of Eriobotrya japonica, it’s nothing compared to spreading home-made loquat butter on a piece of crunchy toast on a spring morning in Southern California.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Loquat Fruit Leather... Maybe Not

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm in the midst of taking a class to become a "Master Food Preserver".  This week we discussed food dehydration and I was so excited about the class that I went home with an Excalibur Food Dehydrator.  I was able to borrow the dehydrator for a week, which is good because my first attempt at dehydration was not a resounding success.
Loquats fill my kitchen on Wednesday morning, April 2012.
We have lots of loquats at our house right now and I hate to see them all go to the parrots, much as I love to see the happy parrots nibbling ripe loquats from the treetops.  So I decided to make loquat leather.

The process sounded so simple.  Wash and seed the loquats.  Grind them to a pulp in a food processor, add sweetener if desired, and spread in an even coating on beautiful Silpat mats that keep the mixture from falling through cracks in the drying trays.  Load the drying trays into the racks of the food dehydrator, set the timer, and walk away for four to six hours.
Excalibur fully loaded, April 2012.

When I returned after four hours, it was clear that my experiment was not going well.  I hadn't put enough loquat mash on the mats and my loquat leather had created a pattern that I can only describe as a "crack in the sidewalk" effect.  With no other option, I reset the timer for another two hours and tried not to think about what was happening on the drying racks.

After a total of six hours, I did get loquat fruit leather.  Three different versions, in fact.  I made a version from each of the two varieties of trees that grow in our yard.  I also made a third version sweetened with a mixture of honey and sugar.

When I removed them from the drying racks to begin the "conditioning process", none of the versions looked great.  They were all crunchy on the edges and a little gunky in the center.

Conditioning is the most fascinating and overlooked part of the process.  Simply put, "conditioning" means putting your dried goods into an airtight container for a period of time until the moisture content of each individual piece of dried food reaches what's known as "equilibrium".  The moisture content of each piece of food you dry will be slightly different based on it's relative thickness.  If you put a collection of recently dried foods into an airtight container together, the moisture content will eventually even out.  The pieces that were a bit drier will absorb moisture from the "wetter" pieces-- a process that benefits both the thick and the thin pieces.
Loquat leather before the conditioning process, April 2012.

I'm hoping that the conditioning process will work wonders on my loquat leather.  I gave my youngest daughter a taste of the loquat leather when it came out of the dehydrator and she loved it.  I also tried drying some orange slices while I was at it.  With all the rain we've been having, they aren't drying properly and I'm not sure they ever will.  Time will tell.

Two of my classmates are also trying to make loquat fruit leather this week.  I'm hoping one of them will have more success and I'll be able to post a link to one of their blogs in the near future.  In the meantime, I will try again, but I think I'll wait for the rain to stop before I head to the backyard to harvest more loquats.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Crazy for Preserves: MFP for Me

My first batch of loquat butter, April 16, 2011.
I'm five weeks into a 12 week class to become a Master Food Preserver and in spite of the somewhat odd title, I'm pretty excited about what that means.  For those of you unfamiliar with the MFP program, it's a class run by the University of California Coorperative Extension office.  (Yes-- that old government program does still exist-- and even thrives-- in Los Angeles County.)  The purpose of the MFP program is to train to teach LA County residents the basics of home food preservation so they can eventually teach others how to safely preserve their own food at home.

I'm honored to be a member of the third class of MFP students since the program restarted in 2011.  With any luck, I'll be a successful graduate of the program by June and I'll be able to help disseminate information about canning and other food preservation methods across Los Angeles County.  (Just in time for the LA County Fair.)

Before starting the program, I was unaware the the MFP program is research-based, meaning that all the information we give to the public needs to be rooted in academic and scientific research.  Although I don't always agree with the research-based government standards (mostly because I do things in the comfort of my own home that aren't considered "safe" by the US government), I'm comforted to have scientific information to guide my training.  I certainly don't consider myself a "Master" of preserving, but I do like the idea of using information gathered by real experts in the field to help others learn about food preservation.  After all, I don't want them to take MY word for it.  Thanks to this program, we have a large knowledge base created by people who have devoted their entire careers to this stuff and we should all have access to it.

For those of you interested in food preservation, here are a few links for resources I've learned about in my class so far.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides easy to understand information about basic food preservation methods.  They also sell one of the textbooks we use in our class-- So Easy to Preserve.  I've used this book to make marmalade and as a resource for my loquat butter recipe, which was pieced together from a number of different sources.  The section on hot water bath canning is especially good.

Please write to me if you preserve food at home.  I'd love to hear about your favorite recipes and greatest disasters.  I will be reporting on my own experiments from time to time, hopefully with more successes than failures, but you never know.  The best thing my FMP training has taught me so far is not be be afraid of failure.  According to my wonderful teacher Chef Ernest Miller, it's unlikely that my failures will poison anyone.  With this comforting bit of information, I will happily forge ahead.

Happy preserving!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Craziest Garden Tool You'll Never Need, But May Want

Williams-Sonoma has just introduced their new "Agrarian" line and it's incredible.  It says a lot about the popularity of the farm-to-table movement that a high-end kitchen supply company would launch a line of gardening and food preservation tools.  I'm excited that there's enough interest in the movement that it seemed economically advantageous to create a collection of chic garden tools. It might not be my cup of tea, but I think it's great that the market is large enough to support it.  Or at least Williams-Sonoma thinks so.

The line also has a selection of what they call "DIY and Homemade Kits" for people who are new to the make-it-yourself phenomenon.  In my opinion, the most amazing collections of products are to be found in the Beekeeping, Chicken Coop, and Vintage sections.

I'm sure my dearly departed grandparents are having a good chuckle up in the great garden in the sky as they peruse the newest Williams-Sonoma catalogue.  The idea that someone would pay upwards of $900 for a chicken coop on wheels would astound them.  And I'm pretty sure my Grandma Lutz would tell me I was just plain stupid for even considering the purchase of a $100 jam pot.

My favorite of the collection (so far) is the Sophie Conran Hand Sieve.  I'm a home gardener and I come from a long line of farmers, but I had to read the sales pitch to figure out that this tool was made for sowing small seeds.  I'm not sure why anyone would need this, but when I realized that all the tools in the Sophie Conran collection could be monogrammed, I was hooked.  Imagine the possibilities-- a monogrammed garden tool would be an excellent trophy, gift, or prize.  I bet garden clubs around the country will be buying them for past club officers as a thank you for their year of service.  And don't get me started on the also monogrammable copper hand fork, handcrafted by Austrian coppersmiths (retailing for $58.95).  It is a thing of beauty.  And in spite of what my grandparents (and my parents) might say about it, I do secretly want one.

While you're on the site, be sure to check out the Kombucha Growler Bottles and Vintage Beiergarten Table.  And if you get sucked into the vortex, be aware that they have free shipping until May 3, 2012.

Happy Shopping!