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Homemade Baked Beans

Renee headshotsunny beach

We went to Santa Maria the other day. It's nice to be able to go to the coast, even when it's not hot. There's something about that great, big, huge ocean that soothes the soul. While we were there, I had to get some poquito beans. Now that we don't live up north next to Anna and Ed, I have no way of getting them except by mail order, which I'm not going to do. It's not that much of an emergency. Anna and Ed used to be our reliable suppliers, and we miss those two dearly.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I have to wait until there's a reason to make the journey and get some poquito beans where we're already going. So when we made plans to go to the area where they grow the beans, and where they got their fame as a side dish to the well-known Santa-Maria-style barbecue, I thought, "Well, let's get some beans while we're there!"

We drove around and then had a nice hike to the beach. On the way back, it was time to hunt up a grocery store that sold the beans. I felt that a local store would be more likely to have them than a big chain store. The first place we went to was the local Spencer's. I went directly to the dried bean section and was immediately disappointed. I'm not accepting this, I said, so found a clerk and asked, "Where are your poquito beans?" Sure enough, they did have them. They were just in the produce section and in bulk. I bought three pounds, and now I'm going to make baked beans.

Poquito beans are so nice because they don't turn to mush. They hold their shape. Below is my personalized recipe. My husband likes canned Campbell's baked beans, so I try to make them taste like that.


Serves 6


• 1 lb. dried poquito beans
• 1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, chopped
• 1/2 large onion, chopped
• 1/4 cup tomato paste or 1/2 cup tomato sauce
• 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
• 1/4 cup molasses
• 1 teaspoon dry mustard
• 1 teaspoon black pepper
• 2 teaspoon salt
Optional: reserved soaking water with chicken bouillon


1. Cover your beans with cold water and soak them overnight.


2. When you're ready to start, preheat your oven to 250 degrees F.

3. Put a 3-quart or larger, oven-safe pot over medium heat. (I use an enamel-coated iron pot like a Creuset. Mine is a Creuset knock-off that I found at a garage sale. It's a Martha Stewart brand, and it works fine and is a cute red. To make it work in the oven, I removed the original plastic knob and put on a metal knob. I used a drawer pull from the hardware store and fastened it with a locking nut.) A small, iron, Dutch oven would work, too.


4. Add the chopped, uncooked bacon and onion. Cook about 10 minutes, until the onions are nice and soft.


5. Now stir in the tomato, brown sugar, and molasses. Here's a hint: If you coat your measuring cup lightly with oil, the molasses will pour out cleanly, without sticking.

6. Drain the beans and save the liquid. We'll use that in a minute. Now, add the beans to the pot. Then add enough of the saved liquid to cover the beans. I add a teaspoon of Better Than Bouillon chicken bouillon to the liquid for added flavor. Vegetable bouillon would be great, too, and would make it vegan or vegetarian.


7. Increase the heat to high and allow the beans to boil. Now add the mustard, black pepper, and salt. Stir and cover the pot with a lid. Place the whole shebang in the oven and bake until the beans are soft. Check them after an hour passes to see how they're doing, and then on an hourly basis until they are the texture you like. I like them on the crunchy side, but you may like them softer.

This is going to be our dinner tonight with good sourdough bread and a glass of beer. Simple, nourishing, homemade food.

Uncle Carlos' Strange Carrot

From our Family's Album of Gardening Lore:

I found this clipping in my family album and thought it would be fun to share with all the Capper's Readers. I'm sure you all have oddly-shaped vegetable stories, too!

December 23rd, 1976


This strange-looking item was brought into the Time-Republican office by Mrs. Engelbrecht. It weighs three pounds. She stated at the time: "The strange, unusual vegetable is actually numerous vegetables in one. Mr. Seggebruch of Belmont Acres has a beautiful garden each year, and when he showed this strange-looking freak to me, I thought it would be interesting to have a picture of it in the Times. Last year, when he dug the carrots, he picked this one out to put back into the ground in the corner of his garden and see if he could reap some good seed from it. Well, it came up again this spring in a cluster of tops, but no seed. When it was time to dig again, this is what Mr. Seggebruch found. One huge carrot, cracked open in several places, and one can see many little carrots through those 'windows,' twisted and packed inside. A fantastic and unusual sight to behold. I am his sister, and that's the way it is."

What odd looking vegetables have you found in your garden?

A Baby's Bed

Renee-Lucie BenoitMy Aunt J has been cleaning out her attic. I wish I was there to help her. If I was, we'd go through the boxes and eventually discover something she forgot was there. Then we'd tell stories to each other about the thing we found and what it meant to our family. My Aunt J is the last of the children from my Grandma and Grandpa on my mother's side. She's got a treasure trove up there in that attic that she either inherited or was given by many of our relatives. For example, when I found the kraut cutter that had belonged to my great-grandfather that my dad had borrowed to make kraut, it was a momentous occasion. My dad's wife had passed, and we looked around for it in the old ranch house near Laurel, Iowa, and found it in the laundry room in good condition. It sure did evoke memories. When I look at an old piece, I can imagine the person who originally owned it and see them using it. This is our family's history personified in an object.

As for Aunt J, she found a baby crib up there in the attic.

She told me the babies that she knows for sure slept in it: Aunt Audrey, Aunt J herself, me, and her two daughters. That's four generations right there. She thinks some other cousins' kids used it, too, but she's not sure who. She's going to donate it to their local Historical Museum.

There's nostalgia in the flowers that were painted on the frame. They were painted by my mother when I was born.  I think of all the people in our family who are now gone. The baby's bed reminds me of childhood days swinging on the porch in the sultry Illinois afternoons. Picking blackberries in the gigantic patch between my grandmother's house and old Mrs. Roberts and trying not to get poked by the bushes. Having a picnic in the yard at my Aunt Leona's and riding the pony very fast through the corn rows.

 baby bed

I wish the bed was up to the safety standards of today. I would take it for my daughter's kids to sleep in. It's over 80 years old and in really good shape. Things were made better then, heavier, and in those days stuff lasted if you took care of it. Not like the modern plastic. No, it was solid wood, turned on a lathe by hand, painted by hand, made one at a time in the U.S.A.

Raisins — The Inside Scoop

Renee-Lucie BenoitWhen I was a little kid, my mother gave us raisins as a snack all the time. She knew they were nutritious, and the little boxes they came in were perfect for the lunch box. Later, my mother figured out that the little boxes were costing her more, and she started wrapping a handful of raisins in wax paper for our lunch boxes. We kids gobbled them up. We didn't give them another thought.

Picture-perfect Thompson seedless grapes being turned into raisins by the power of the sun.

Now that I am older and live in one of the premier raisin producing areas of the world — if not the most — I have found that there are things I took for granted about raisins and other fruit. I mention prunes as an example: I always assumed that a prune was a type of fruit, and you took a prune off the tree and dried it. Now I know that prunes are dried plums. In a similar way, I didn't realize raisins came from grapes, and I certainly didn't think they came from the same type of grape we ate fresh.

When we first moved to California's San Joaquin Valley, I saw grapes laid down on the ground on what seemed to be paper between the rows of the vines. What was this? Marty, my husband from Bakersfield, said "Oh, those are raisins." Raisins, I said? "That's the way they dry them," he said. That got my curiosity going, so then and there I vowed to learn more.

Fortunately, through my local CSA I found Three Sisters Organic. Three Sisters Organic/Soghomonian Farms is a third generation farm near Fresno. They grow table, wine, and raisin grapes. We visited the farm on a warm September day at the height of harvest. We pulled up to a clean, new office barn and were greeted by Johnni. Joe and Natalie joined us later.

Natalie, Johnnie and Joe

Johnni Soghomonian is the wife of Joe, whose father first farmed the land. Joe's father came from Armenia after making his way cross-country from Cuba and the east coast. He started with 40 acres. Then Joe was born, and the farm eventually grew to 60 acres. Joe's grandfather came from an area in Armenia where the climate and the agriculture are very similar to California's. So even though no one knows for sure, it seems very likely that they were familiar with grape-growing methods. So they started working diligently, and pretty soon they had the grapes, eggs, and chickens that they sold at the early farmers markets.

Years went by, and Joe met Johnni. They married, and today the farm is named after their three daughters: Christa, Celeste, and Natalie. Natalie runs the operation. We all sat at an antique table that came down from Johnni's grandmother. We talked about what it was like to run a small farm.

"You keep your back strong."

Three Sisters Organic/Soghomonian Farms is a successful farm because they live by one special rule: Don't spend tomorrow's capital. This is good advice for the rest of us, especially if we're contemplating or involved in a small homestead. Through hard work and dedication, the Soghomonians put their profits back into the farm and now have 600 acres. They went 100-percent organic in 1979 and were certified in 1982 (before it was fashionable). They did this because Joe was not pleased to find his fields devoid of animal and insect life. Things are much better being organic, even though in some ways they are harder. It's easier to be a conventional grower, but it's so much more gratifying to be certified organic. Customers are coming around to this way of thinking.

Natalie plants her grape vines in late winter or early spring after danger of frost is gone. The young vines are trained up stakes. After the vines are 3 years old, they get their first crop. At TSO, they grow Zante currents, Flame variety for table grapes and raisins, "natural" Thompson seedless for raisins, and Jumbo Thompson for table grapes and raisins. They also have wine grapes: Colombard, Grenache, Carignane, and Muscat. Ribier is their seeded variety. Another seedless is the Crimson varietal.

Natalie says: "Eat the seeds. There's a lot of nutrition there!"

Cover crops are planted in between the rows in winter and tilled under in late spring. The vines are pruned in winter to leave 4-5 canes.

Demonstrating where the cut is made when pruning

Then they take off the existing crop canes, leaving the remaining canes that will produce the next year's crop.

Handpicking is mandatory for the delicate grapes

The grapes are picked when the sugar tests at the appropriate level. They are picked by hand because of their fragility. To get the land ready to dry grapes to make the raisins, the soil is tilled between the vine rows to make it smooth and terraced slightly to the south so the slight slope of the rows catch the rays of the sun better. Also, vine rows are normally planted on a east/west axis to take full advantage of the direction of the sun.

Grapes are laid on poly paper on an east/west axis to take full advantage of the sun

When the grapes are picked and laid on poly-lined paper trays, they dry for 10 days to two weeks. The weather of the San Joaquin Valley is perfect for this, because there's very little danger of rain and there's little concern about ants or birds stealing a few raisins here and there. There's plenty to go around on 600 acres.

Folded poly trays are ready to be picked up

raisin bins
If you're bold like me, you blow off the sand and they taste good right now!

The dried grapes are shaken to get rid of the sand, and then they're washed and stemmed. Three Sisters only ships grade 1 (the highest grade) to be sold as table grapes. What is not selected goes to the making of the raisins. What little is left over after that goes to distilleries or cow feed, so nothing goes to waste. In addition to their own rigorous standards, their product is subjected to USDA inspection and a safety audit before and after processing. They are different from most growers in that they sell their products direct to the consumer or user. Most growers sell their product to packers so there is an extra step that results in the consumer getting a mixture from a lot of different farms. When you buy from TSO, you know you're getting products that only TSO have grown.

The other thing that they have is a unique custom pack where their raisins go to cold storage or are frozen the day they're packaged. With other methods, the raisins will sit out and dry even more. Doing it the way TSO does it results in plump raisins that have a lovely, moist texture. The raisins defrost on their way to the buyer, so they stay really fresh and consistent.

In addition to direct-to-consumer sales, the raisins are sold to the better bakeries for breads, cookies, and pastries, but grapes are also used for juice concentrate and canneries (think fruit cocktail, for example). I bet you didn't know this: all those brown raisins are from the green Thompson grape variety. Golden raisins are Thompsons but with sulfur dioxide added to keep them from turning brown.

I have a greater appreciation for raisins and grapes today. Go have some yourself and enjoy!

Three Sisters Organic/Soghomomian Farms
8624 S Chestnut Ave
Fresno, CA 93725

Easy, Low-Sugar Peach Jam Recipe

Renee-Lucie BenoitI'm pre-diabetic, but I still like sweet foods once in a while. The following recipe uses very little sugar, and it's super tasty. When you spread it on toast, for example, it tastes like peach pie.



• 4 cups chopped fruit (about 3 lb. fully ripe peaches; I use freestone peaches, but cling peaches will work, too.)
• 2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
• 1 box fruit pectin
• 1/2 cup sugar (you can use more if you like it sweeter; up to 2 cups)


• large canning pot with elevated basket rack that fits inside
• magnet to pick up sterilized flat lids
• rubber handled jar picker upper
• pint jars with lids made for canning
• jar funnel that fits the mouth of the pint jars
• potato masher


1. Bring the canner — half-full with water — to a simmer. In the meantime, wash the jars and screw bands in hot soapy water, and then rinse with warm water. Pour boiling water over flat lids in a saucepan off the heat. Let them stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain the lids well before using.sterilize

2. Peel and pit the peaches. I usually scald the peaches first for a minute or two, then I put them in ice water to make the skins slip off.



3. Finely chop the fruit. Measure about 4 cups of prepared fruit into a 6- or 8-quart saucepot. Add lemon juice and stir until well blended.

4. Mash the peaches until smooth or chunky (your choice; I like chunky).



5. Stir in the pectin. Bring to a full rolling boil (a boil that doesn't stop bubbling when stirred), stirring constantly.


6. Stir in the sugar. Return to full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly.

7. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with a metal spoon.


7. Ladle the hot fruit immediately into prepared jars, filling to within 1/4 inch of tops. Wipe off the jar rims and threads. Cover with the 2-piece lids, and then screw the lids on tightly.


8. Place the filled jars on the elevated rack. Lower the rack into the canner with hot water. Be careful. The jars are already hot, so there's only a little chance they will break. If you're using proper materials, there's almost no chance. The water must cover the jars by 1 to 2 inches (add boiling water, if necessary). Cover and bring water to a gentle boil for 10 minutes.


9. Remove the jars and place them upright on towel to cool completely. After the jars cool, check the seals by pressing the middle of lid with finger. If the lid springs back, the lid is not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.

Here's my yummy toast covered with jam.


Wildfire on the Homestead

Renee-Lucie BenoitWe were at a movie yesterday where there was a rancher herding his cattle across the road with a wildfire closing in. It reminded me of the days when we were at the ranch and we would watch anxiously as billows of smoke erupted in the hills above. Would the wind change? Should we evacuate now?

Today as much as ever, the specter of wildfire looms. When I kept my horses at a pasture outside a large metropolitan area, we were not safe from wildfires. Twice we experienced the threat, and twice we managed to escape. Those times marshaled us into coming up with a plan to escape should it ever happen again.

Here are my tips to help you decide what you're going to do:

Number one is preparation. Preparation means creating a defensible space around your homestead. Clear out all brush and combustible materials at least 100 feet away from buildings. Here's something remarkable: I've toured a few fire disaster scenes, and the thing is you'll see buildings burned to the ground right next to completely unscathed ones. What's the difference?

The difference is preparation. The buildings that escaped had defensible space. This includes no dead leaves on the roof; no firewood stacked next to the outside wall. Many homes burn because there is firewood right next to the front door on the wooden deck. This spells disaster if a wildfire ever strikes.

It makes a difference if the trees you have around your house are pine or hardwood. Hardwood resists burning. This is why resinous wood in your woodstove doesn't last as long as hard wood. The ignition point is lower than hardwood. If you have pine trees, trim them up as high as possible. Sometimes there will be a "crown fire," which is a hot fire that races through the tops of the trees. The fire burns right past your structures and leaves them alone. But not if embers from the trees drop on to your unprepared home.

This is what happens: The fire crew comes along and puts out any fire that is around your place. All seems well, so they leave. You've already been evacuated. When you come back hours later, your house is burned to the ground. What happened? Embers. Embers from a fire will lodge in non-obvious places (like wood piles stacked against the house) and not be noticed by the fire crew. They smolder, ignite, and everything goes bye-bye. Metal roofs are fire resistant. Composite shingles are the next best thing.

So let's say you're prepared. You don't have any fire ladders or combustible materials near your house or barn, and everything looks good. What's next?

Make sure your animals load in a trailer without a fuss. Panicked animals can be dangerous. It's actually true that you can wrap a cloth over their eyes and they will be calmer. I've heard that some people think it's good to let the animals loose to fend for themselves. This is a really bad idea. Maybe it worked on the Great Plains when there were no fences anywhere. I have heard of animals running back into a burning barn because that is where they think it's safe. The other problem is that loose livestock can get in the way of first responders and cause big delays, or animals might be hit by trucks. The best thing is to evacuate your animals. Have the back of your car ready to put your dogs in. Have cat carriers by the back door. If you have a few chickens, have a cat carrier for them, too, and a leg hook to catch them quickly. Have a plan for cows, goats, and pigs. If you can, have more than one escape route planned.

If it turns out you can't evacuate, have a shelter-in-place plan. At the horse pasture, we figured out which pastures were least likely to be chimneys for wildfire to roar up. Depending on which way the fire was going, we could choose the best pasture to take the horses. We also made sure our riding arena was completely cleared of combustible materials. Being dirt, it was less likely to cause a problem. We also had the large pond to retreat to, and we had halters for every horse and protective masks for the handlers, so we could make sure we could get where we needed to go without leaving anyone behind.

Be in touch with your neighbors. Everyone will be on-board to help those who need it. Make a plan with your neighbors. Will they take your livestock until the danger is passed? Make sure you're on the sheriff's call list so you can get early warning.

The last thing people realize is that in a wildfire there is a lot of smoke and radiant heat. Smoke and radiant heat can get you as bad as a direct flame. It can be hot, suffocating, and frightening. Sparks and embers will be swirling around everywhere, and it will be scary. Make sure you are prepared for this in case you have to shelter in place. You have to keep your head. If persons you're with can't keep their head and panic, it could be disastrous. If you have an agreed-upon plan beforehand, it will be easier to keep people from panicking.

Above all, listen to your first responders. Don't argue. Do what they say. If you think it's important for them to know things about your homestead, it's best that you tell them BEFORE a wildfire. They will make note of it in their reference materials.

Barn on fire
Photo by Fotolia/Andrius Vaišnoras

Have any of you ever experienced a wildfire personally? I would be eager to hear what happened.

Sun Dried Tomatoes

Renee-Lucie BenoitDrying tomatoes in the sun is the easiest way to preserve your tomato bounty if you live in a hot dry climate like I do. I live in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the relative humidity in summer hovers around 15%, and there are days upon days of cloudless sunny skies. The temperature is usually in the high 90s or low 100s, starting in June and going through August, so it's the perfect climate for dried figs, tomatoes, and raisins. Today, I'm going to show you how I dry tomatoes.

First, pick your fleshiest, least juicy, most tasty tomatoes. I chose Roma tomatoes. Around here they grow like gangbusters, and you'll see truckload upon truckload headed down the road for the canning factory. Trust me when I say you'll be eating Roma tomatoes grown in the San Joaquin Valley next time you pick up a can of tomato sauce or paste this winter when you're making your spaghetti sauce from scratch.

I can dry my tomatoes in one day out in the sun. I put them out in the morning and take them in at night, perfectly dried.

Chop your tomatoes into quarters, and then again, so you've got a sliver of tomato about a half inch thick. Scoop out the seeds and whatever pulp there may be. With a Roma there will be very little pulp. Lay them on a grid tray on a cookie sheet for safety (so they don't fall on the ground by accident. I also line my cookie sheet with parchment paper, but it's not 100% necessary. I just do it so my cookie sheets are easier to clean.) Space the slices so they don't touch each other. It's important for there to be air circulating all around so they dry faster.

fresh sliced

Then, using some kind of wire (I use some old fencing material I found laying around in our "not-junk" pile), make a wire cage that fits over your cookie sheet that also gives head room. This is to support the cheesecloth — which comes next — so it doesn't touch the tomatoes and stick to them. I attach a canopy of one layer of cheesecloth to the wire frame with clothespins, and then I set them in the full sun. The cheesecloth keeps flies and other insects or birds from destroying your handiwork.


If where you are is more humid, it might take more than one day. Just remember to take them in at night. The cool night air might cause them to get moldy, and that would be very frustrating. You may also try finishing them in a very slow oven (around 200 degrees).


When they're leathery, but not crisp, I put them in a jar and cover them with a good, quality olive oil. They'll keep like that for months in the fridge.

You can add herbs to the oil/tomato mix. Dried basil or oregano and garlic work really well. A little salt and pepper wouldn't hurt, but is not necessary as you can season your ingredients when you put them in a recipe.