Dried Okra? I Need This in My Life!

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We got out first dehydrator as a gift when we lived in Florida a few years back. I don’t know the brand name, but it was one of the “most recommended” ones on Amazon and came complete with a jerky maker, fruit leather maker, and more. We successfully dried one batch of apples (and ate them all while watching TV one night). From that point on though, nothing seemed to want to dry, no matter what setting we used or how long we left it.

When we moved, we gifted the dehydrator to my sister’s husband who only wanted it for the jerky maker. We were going though a dry spell (no pun intended) on food preservation anyway and it was just taking up space. At the time, we thought we’d never want or need another one, simply because our track record with dehydrating foods was so lackluster, but a few months ago, we watched a video on dehydrating okra.

Okra? Yes!

It was so fascinating to us that we wanted to try it. So we asked the only person we know with a dehydrator – a person who also happened to have grown 70 okra plants this year – to try it for us. I’m sure Angie’s mom spent a great deal of time drying okra for us, but by the time it arrived in the mail (it got lost), moisture had gotten to it and the okra was molded. It was time for Plan B.

We searched garage sales and thrift stores for a dehydrator but none were to be found, so one afternoon, I started looking on Amazon. The woman in the okra video was using a machine that had no temperature settings. It was plug-and-play, so to speak. Part of me thought, this thing can’t work. How’s it going to know the difference between drying apples and herbs? But, the decision was made when I saw the price of the dehydrator. We got an open box bargain for $30.

We don’t often buy new things and we’ve been limiting our online purchases this year (to cut down on packaging and our carbon footprint) so we waited until we needed a few other things before buying the dehydrator. Now you may be thinking it’s pretty silly to spend $30 to try something weird, like dried okra, especially when you can use your own oven as a dehydrator, and I don’t disagree. If we lived anywhere else, I might trust our oven to heat something for hours at a time but I firmly believe our oven is possessed. Once it came on in the middle of the night and would not turn off. Another time, simply turning it on blew the fuse. Though maintenance has fixed it (and even replaced it once), it still sounds like there’s an electrical fire waiting to happen in the wall every time we turn it on. And the apples we tried to dry, under careful supervision on 170 degrees, burnt to a crisp in 2 hours. Yet, it took more than 2 hours to cook two stuffed peppers a few weeks ago – on 350 degrees!

Minimalists, we may be, but when we have a plan to make use of something, we have no issue with getting it. So we did. Which leads me once again to do something I don’t normally do – recommend a product.

We bought the Presto Dehydro, a super simple 4-tier dehydrator. You literally layer the fruit or veggies you want to dry, put the lid on, and plug it in. The drying times in the book are fairly accurate. Though okra wasn’t on the list, it took about 7 hours to dry.

Was it worth it? Oh yes! Dried okra tastes like air-popped popcorn and makes a wonderful snack.

But that wasn’t the end of our drying adventure. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we’re in the midst of dumpster season. The grocery store next door is tossing out good stuff with a vengeance and we are out of freezer space already. The dehydrator has been a lifesaver. So far, it has saved the lives of 20 pounds of bananas, 10 pounds of strawberries, and 10 pounds of apples. (We also dried 5 pounds of mushrooms, though they did not come from the dumpster.)

Unlike our other dehydrator (or even the expensive one that Angie’s mom owns), this machine returns a quality product, time after time. I love the fact that there’s no temperature setting. There’s no guesswork, no trying to determine whether 140 degrees is best for apples or 150 degrees. I can’t say it enough – you plug it in and let it go. At first, we set timers to check on things as they dried but then, we quickly learned that plugging it in right before bed resulted in perfectly dried fruits by morning. The temperature of the Dehydro is approximately 165 degrees.

Herbs are easy too. We dried a tray of fresh dill (on parchment paper) in the time that it took us to do the evening dishes – about 30 minutes.

Another thing that bugged me about our other dehydrator was the space that it took up in storage. This unit is larger but takes up less space because the trays nest inside one another and the unit can sit sideways in the box.

What about energy consumption? Our electricity rates are about 1/4 lower than the national average so it costs approximately 6 cents an hour to run our dehydrator. The national average is 7.2 cents. The bigger savings though comes when you compare the dehydrator to the oven. It costs 24 cents an hour to operate our oven. That means that we get 4 hours in the dehydrator for every hour in the oven. Not bad!

But, you want to know what really made the whole purchase worth it?

We took Addison to the Tennessee State Museum last week and walked over to the Nashville Farmer’s Market for a picnic lunch. That morning, Angie had packed her a little cup of dried bananas and strawberries. It was her first time to try them and her face lit up when she did. As she reached for more, she looked up at us and said, “I need these in my life.”

She’s four years old.

Where on Earth she picks up these things, I don’t know, but in this case, I couldn’t agree more. For as good as the okra turned out to be, there’s nothing in this world more tasty than a crispy dried strawberry chip. You really need to try it. You may find that you need them in your life too!

Dumpster Dreams Low-Sugar Grape Jelly

A couple of weeks ago, Angie and I were out for a walk around the perimeter of the two shopping centers next door. We often take this 2.2 mile route when want to get a little fresh air but don’t feel like driving to the park. Though we usually put dumpster diving on hold for the summer (hot dumpsters stink and food decomposes way too fast for our liking), it was a cool morning so we decided just to take a peek in our favorite bin as we passed by. Guess what we found! Grapes!

Not just any grapes and not just a handful of half-squishy ones like we usually find either. These were premium non-GMO specialty grapes – Candy Dreams grapes to be exact. These small, deliciously sweet grapes taste like a plum married a blackberry and had a baby the size of a marble. The first thing my niece said when she tasted them was that they would make an excellent wine. The first thing our great niece said was, “more, please!” These little bites of fruit candy cost $2.99 a pound inside the store and we got them for free.

There were cartons and cartons of them in the dumpster. We could have gotten them all but it’s hard to carry that many grapes, without a bag, when you’re walking; so we settled for a full cardboard tray and two containers. We figured by the time we cleaned them up, we’d have maybe a few pounds of edible grapes. Boy were we wrong!

We started with 14 one-pound cartons. When we finished removing the stems and bad grapes, we still had 14 pounds of grapes. Less than 1/4 cup of the grapes were bad. They were all in near perfect condition, so I have no idea why they got tossed. (Actually, 99% of the time I have no idea why this stuff gets tossed, which is why we try to rescue what we can.)

What does one do with 14 pounds of grapes that taste like candy? Eat them, of course. And make jelly.

We’ve been dying to try our hand at jelly-making but strawberry season was slim this year and our blackberries are still too young to produce enough to make more than just a cobbler. With 14 pounds of free grapes, we had no excuse not to try. So we did.

I read a lot of recipes online but couldn’t find one that I liked so Angie and I made up our own. We started with 8 pounds of grapes. Instead of boiling and crushing them, we used our Nutri Ninja to blend one pound at a time into juice. We strained the juice through a fine mesh strainer to remove the skins. In total, we had 12 cups of grape juice. Most recipes I found said that it’s best not to make that much jelly at one time, so I divided the juice into three batches.

First I measured out 4 cups of juice into a pot, added 1 1/4 cups of filtered water, and 1/4 cup of lemon or lime juice. We used both -2 batches have lemon, 1 has lime. I brought that to a boil while Angie sterilized 2 pints and 1 half-pint jar.

I let the juice boil for 10 minutes before I added 1/4 cup of organic cane sugar premixed with a box of Sure-Jell for low/no sugar recipes (this is the pink box). I brought the mixture back to a boil, then added 2 cups of organic cane sugar*. Once I got it back to a rolling boil again, I cooked it for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Once I took it off the heat, Angie ladled it into the hot jars and we processed them in the water bath canner for 10 minutes. It takes about 24 hours for them to fully set.

*Note – most jelly recipes call for copious amounts of sugar. These grapes are sweet enough that a smaller amount will work just as well, with the low/no sugar Sure-Jell. You can also use stevia, honey, or maple syrup. One of our batches is a mix of 1 3/4 cups sugar and 1/3 cup maple syrup. 

From 8 pounds of grapes, we made 6 full pints and 3 half-pints of what we’re calling Dumpster Dreams Grape Jelly. It turned out to be a beautiful shade of purple, somewhere between wine and mulberry, with a super spreadable consistency. How did it taste? Delicious! We opened one of jars made with lime juice and the maple syrup/sugar mix for lunch today and made the best PBJ I’ve had all week!

We’re pretty happy with the results and even happier not to have to buy jelly for a while. This will save us a nice chunk of change since we eat PBJs like they are going out of style and usually buy our jellies from the Farmer’s Market at a cost of $5-$6 a jar.

Do you have a favorite jelly recipe?