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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Preservation: Canning Tomatoes and a Blogging Machine!

Summer is gone, and September is officially here. The days are getting shorter, much colder in the morning and evening, and all together it's really starting to feel like fall. We've had a very cool summer, which makes it feel all the shorter. I just harvested my first tomatoes this week, but frost will likely come in three to four weeks. Short season aside, I can't complain about the success of my garden. I've enjoyed working on it this year, and it's taught me many valuable lessons.

1) Plant what you eat, and ONLY what you eat. We ate everything we grew, but we ended up buying a ton of potatoes, leeks, squash, and garlic from farmers twice a week at market. Next year, I plan to make room for all these, and hopefully more. :)

2) Every year, something grows really well, and something else doesn't. And there isn't much you can do about it. The onions I planted, whose success we all doubted from the beginning, are starting to bulge from the ground and will serve us for weeks once they're grown to size. The tomatoes I planted, the plants I have spent the most time making room for and caring for, have been stagnant in the record-setting cool weather.

3) There is something highly soothing about puttering in the garden. I don't understand it, but I always feel better after I've spent some time out there.

4) As I mentioned in this post, It's exciting and interesting to build your menu around what you have, rather than what you want.

4) It is extremely rewarding to watch something grow from next to nothing to a thriving, mature, useful state.


5) It is equally rewarding to know exactly what has happened to your food before it got to your plate.


Being satisfied with the gardening experience, and by accomplishing lots of harvesting and preservation goals, we feel better prepared for this winter, and hope to prepare for next summer in a more efficient way this winter. That said, I'm still trying to remind myself that we are smack dab in the middle of the season of bounty, and that I need to soak it up as much as possible before it slips through my fingers.

One of the reasons I started my blog is to help me see the bigger picture of my cooking, to help me become more aware of my habits and routines, and especially my ruts.

I usually start my posts by looking at the camera and seeing which photos have been sitting waiting to be posted. I was flipping through my photos and realized that the most recent photo I had of myself is from my contribution to Evan's Eat-a-Pie-a-Day project (I was very flattered by her comment! :D) , and that every photo in the month between then and now was of food. Flipping through those photos, I began to realize that I've been spending a heck of a lot of time photographing food and not blogging it. I also realized that I haven't been spending enough time documenting the growth of my little family and our lives here.

I'm working on the latter problem by photographing the *people* at my house, instead of the food. That means when these lovely folks stopped by I didn't get a single photo of the delicious dinner I cooked for them, and I don't regret it a bit.



The former problem will hopefully be helped by our family's latest purchase.......



That's right: MACBOOK PRO. Pretty.







I refer to it as the blogging machine. Tim refers to it as a chess machine. We both have been watching episodes of 30 Rock in bed on it, and thoroughly enjoying oursleves. Whatever you call it, we're loving it, and I truely think it'll result in more frequent blogging. Our main computer is in our cave of a basement, so I finally have the chance to blog upstairs, in the sunshine! Or I can blog in my bed, with the window open, and my dog at my feet.

SO! I hope to start blogging more than usual, and to enjoy it even more.

Oh yeah! The kitchen has seen some improvements recently! We hung some cabinets and mounted a microwave above the stove!

Here's a shot:



And here's me, blogging from the kitchen, using the camera. :)





The garden has been mostly the same since I last shared photos with you. We still have a good deal of beans and the onions are getting very big. Aside from three big ones that got canned earlier this week, the tomatoes are still green, but very big. We had a long streak of rain, but since things have dried and warmed up a bit, so I'm hopeful that we'll still get some of them before it gets too cold.

We've also been going to market as much as possible and eating tons of veggies. When I came to the realization that September was here, I panicked and bought a *lot* of tomatoes, at the coop and farmer's market. I canned them all, which added up to five quarts. I'm canning as many tomatoes as possible this summer because we ran out very early last year.

(This website has been very helpful)

So here's my method. No special equipment is required.

Even if you don't cook with tomatoes that much, or don't usually eat them fresh, I highly recommend having some on hand in winter, especially if you live in cool climates, but even if you don't. Tomatoes are best in the late summer, and if you can them you will be able to enjoy them in their seasonal best even when it's freezing where you are.

Canned Tomatoes

Begin by cleaning the tomatoes under cool water.




Core the tomatoes, then score them with an X on the base. This is where you'll peel the skin off. (If tomato skin doesn't bother you you're welcome to skip this step. I really hate having a nice sauce with big pieces of skin floating in it.)







Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for around one minute each. Then, plunge them into ice water for another minute before peeling them.





Meanwhile (or after you're done with the tomatoes and want to use the same pot) bring a large pot of water to a boil. Boil the jars, rings, and lids you plan to use for ten minutes. (I'm not good at guessing how many I'm going to use, so I always sanitize extra.)

Pull everything out and rest them on a towel.




Take a jar and put a canning funnel into the lid. This tool isn't aboslutely essential, but it makes the job much easier. (I bought a kit like this, which came with a jar lifter, too.) Using the funnel, shove as many tomatoes into each jar as possible, leaving a full inch open at the top. It's helpful to use a long tool to push them down.




Add to each jar

2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. salt, if desired

The lemon juice is absolutely necessary to assure the acidity is right to keep your food safe. (I accidentally left out this step, and have recanned the batch to be safe.)

Wipe the mouth of each jar, assuring that it's clean and dry to make a strong seal.

Place your lid on top and screw on the ring just snug, not too tight.

If you have one, put your jar rack into the boiling water. If you don't, at least put a small towel into the water to rest on the bottom of the pot. The metal bottom will get too hot and could crack your glass. Make sure you have enough water to cover all your jars (wait to add more until you have ALL JARS IN!:P) and don't be stupid and use a hand-knit rag with red yarn which will leak dye into the water. Like I did.





Process your tomatoes for 45 minutes if using quarts, then remove from the bath to cool. You should hear the *plink* sound of the seal pulling in as they cool, but you can also press down on the jars after they've cooled to check. If the lid moves up and down when you press, your seal didn't take. Take heart, they're not bad, you just need to eat them right away.


Congratulations, you now have delicious summer tomatoes that will survive the winter!




Here are mine, in their rightful place next to the pickled beets.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pickles: Three Ways, and More CSA Veggie Goodness

Normally, August in Iowa is a sweaty, buggy ordeal that tries my patience almost as much as February can. But oddly this year has been insanely (record-setting-ly) cool, so when the first hot breath of August air hit, we were more than ready. Like stepping outside after a solid 8 hours in air conditioning, this week's warmth has been more than welcome, even relished.
As the temperature outside rises, the harvest chugs steadily along. We are now knee deep in the best of the season: sweet onions, small potatoes, finally fresh garlic, and more green beans than I know what to do with. We've been picking up tons of stuff from the market, but our garden is really pumping out beans at the moment. Let me catch you up with how things are going around here!

You can see here that the beans have really filled out. I spend some time out there every two or three days and gather bowls full of beans.



I started two kinds of beans this year (as you may remember) and while they've both come up, the Dragon's Tongue beans have FAR out performed the Empress beans. They're a flatter bean, but I've really enjoyed them, and they are a heck of a lot easier to pick because, well, they're purple. See?



You'll see more of those guys later, but here's the rest of the garden. The onions are coming along *so* nicely. We are lucky to have part of our plot near the gravel driveway, which has made the soil more sandy,perfect for onions...




and carrots! I'm happily surprised that I got these carrots to come up. They're huge! In the ground-



And for scale (ok and cuteness) the first






and another



all cleaned up. like a jewel, huh? I'm dismissive of people who think plating of food is as important as taste, but we truly do eat with our eyes first, and I couldn't wait to take a bite of this guy.



so pretty, and very very tasty.

Here are some tomatoes, which are taunting me with their greeness. Cool summer has meant no tomatoes yet, but these will come around soon.






Here's a small color-coordinated garden haul of kale, red onions (I was desperate for onions this day. I'm letting the rest get full size to save over winter) lettuce, and tons of beans.




Another exciting garden-related development is my first attempt at seed-saving, snap peas. I laid them out to dry, and next year I'll plant them. :) This little gesture has made me feel connected to the most basic elements of agriculture in a more profound way than picking out seedlings or even starting seeds. This crucial step, getting next years seeds from this years crop, keeps our food sources independent and vital. (If you want to learn about modern self-destructing seeds and the slaves they make of farmers, watch Food Inc.)




Clearly my head has been in growing food at the moment, but this season forces me to look forward. I live in a state where the abundance of summer is short-lived, and the winter months seem so.much.longer than these fleeting summer ones. I've been working to take some of the extras in my kitchen right now and preserve them for those cold days.

Before I get to what I've been doing, my dear aunt Meg has shared more of her CSA genius. She has lots of fresh sweet corn and the moment and wants to keep it around for winter, so she's making use of her freezer.



First she got her fantastic husband to cut the kernels off the ears for her, using a serrated knife and angelfood cake pan. (What a man)



Here's how she cooked it- from 3 dozen ears (4quarts), 2 cups water, 1 cup sugar 2 t salt. boil lightly for 8 -10 minutes, cool pack to freeze(include the juices).

Then she aired them out and stacked on a towel and tray until they froze, just like I do with my raspberries.



Bagged and ready for the freezer.




Along with freezing, canning is one of many options for preserving food, and it's one that I like because I can do it without any special equipment.

It's important to know that certain types of vegetables are only appropriate for processing in a pressure cooker, namely those which have very low acidity. (e.g. green beans, potatoes, meats, etc.) I have slight ptsd with pressure cookers, since one exploded near me in my days at John's grocery, so I avoid them at all costs.

The good news is that high acid foods, like tomatoes, can be safely processed in hot water.

Another food that's always high in acid is any kind of pickle, so I decided to show you the pickles I've been making, and how you can make them yourself.

The most important part of pickling is having a very hot brine and soaking your produce in ice water before you start. I began with the traditional dill pickled cucumbers, and made some green beans in the same brine.

This is how I have my stove set up when I pickle. On the left is a huge container of boiling water, and the right is a container large enough to hold the brine.



That tool in the middle is used for lifting jars from the hot water, and I've found them to be more than necessary. I've canned without them, using tongs to lift the jars, but nearly dropping a boiling hot jar filled with boiling hot liquid scared me into buying this tool. It also came with a handy dandy lid lifter that helps pick up the lids from the bottom of the water.

The first step in the canning process is to sanitize everything you're working with by dipping your jars and lids into boiling water for a few minutes. This is where the lid lifter comes in handy. Sorry for the blurry photo, but you get the idea.




(If you have a dishwasher it may have a "sanitize" setting that works very nicely for this.)
Start by soaking your veggie in ice cold water.




Meanwhile, heat up your brine to just below boiling. This one is just vinegar, water, and pickling salt (which is extra fine to dissolve quickly) I used this recipe but started with 3 c. vinegar, 9 c. water, and 1/2 c. salt.

Fill your sanitized jars with whatever spices you want. I used tons of fresh dill, a couple cloves of garlic that I cut in half, and some premade pickling spice, which has bay leaves and all spice berries.



Shove the jars as full as you possibly can with cucumbers, and cover them with the hot brine. Be sure to leave at least one inch of space at the top.

Wipe off the edge of the mouth of the jar to ensure that there's nothing blocking the seal of the lid, then put on the lid and tighten the ring until it's just snug.





Put this into your boiling water and process for 15 minutes. Voila!





According to the recipe these have to hang out for 8 weeks before you can crack into them, and they can last for up to two years. This is a fantastic way to deal with the cucumbers that are flooding our market right now.

At the moment, we also have more beans than we know what to do with. Here's just one day's haul.




So, I repeated last year's idea of pickled green beans, but this time I used a recipe from Joy.




Icy beans.



Now I'm going to show you a little canning fail that I experienced. I bought a large box of vintage blue Ball jars for a very good price last year and tried out these beans with them. It's very important to use jars that are not cracked or chipped because the pressure of the water bath can make them explode. Apparently the seals on some of my jars didn't take, and you can really see the difference here:



Left, YUM, right, fail.

Always be sure your lids pop down when you can (you can test by pressing down on them. If they are stuck down you've got a seal, but if they pop up and down when you press your seal failed.) But the good news is that your beans are fine and just need to be kept in the fridge and eaten within a month or so.

I'm going to quote myself from that old post and remind you:

REMEMBER, ALWAYS store home-canned goods with the rings OFF. If the lid pops up it is a sign that air has entered the container and that food is probably not safe to eat. If you store jars with the rings on, you won't know if the lid pops up. You don't want botulism, do you?

The final pickle I want to share is beets. In my family, pickled beets have always been a part of our diet. I think they are universally loved because they're a very sweet pickle. I used this recipe, but didn't remove the spices. (That website is a fantastic resource, btw.)


The brine.




The sliced beets+onions.



All sealed up!



I've repurposed my seed-starting shelf as a jar-storing shelf. (The lights are on in this photo so you could actually see, but these jars should be kept dark and cool.)



Finally, some pretty flowers from the garden.



Gah! Apologies for the longest post ever.

Preserving foods is, like so many things, a trend that's starting to come back out of necessity, but I firmly believe that this is a part of how we have always and should always live and eat. We must make the most with what we have and prepare for harder times ahead.

I hope you're enjoying the season and encourage you to start thinking about the cooler months. Until then, happy eating!
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