What I did with those 90 pounds of tomatoes

I’ll admit: the first time I canned tomatoes, I felt empowered. Like a woman who could save the world, in a pinch, with her preserved foods.

Save the world, I say — with SIX! QUARTS! of TOMATOES! (picture the recently-awakened Dr. Evil, in one of the Austin Powers movies, making his demand for ONE! MILLION! DOLLARS!). Yes, immediately after that empowerment, I was a little dumbfounded at what a big box of tomatoes actually looks like once canned.

I wondered: was it worth the effort?

But then I spent all of last winter making tomato soup, and spaghetti sauce, and realized that there was a noticeable, even significant difference between the flavor of a soup made with home-canned tomatoes versus store-bought. Add to this the fact that I’d love to avoid BPA-laden cans altogether, and it seemed that the whole canning thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

So this year I bought an extra box, bringing my total up to 90 pounds (the jury’s still out on whether I’ll go for yet another 30-pound box — the jury being made up of 75% myself and 25% my husband, who is likely now trained to panic whenever he walks into the house and smells simmering romas, as he knows I will be preoccupied with sloshing tomato juices for the next 12 or so hours).

But it’s just. So. Hard to stop.

To give perspective — you can look at this list and choose to be either impressed/jealous or surprised/disappointed at the yield. From 90# roma tomatoes, I now have:

  • 6 quarts marinara sauce (two have already been eaten, after having not sealed on my and Suzanne’s first attempt at pressure-canning).
  • 6 quarts thin tomato juice/broth (leftover from straining chopped tomatoes before cooking down).
  • 6 quarts stewed Italian-style tomatoes
  • 6 pints tomato salsa
  • 10 quarts diced tomatoes (in the two “dueling canners” above, as diced tomatoes can be either water-bath or pressure-canned — I plan to compare the flavor of both!)

…aaaaaaaand that’s it. Looks nice stacked up in my stockpiling warehouse basement — but the jars are so precious, I wonder if I’ll be afraid to use them.

In other news — I have a super-fun giveaway planned for next week. Be sure and check back, especially if you’re interested in learning more about fermented foods.

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Want to get set-up for canning? This is the water-bath canner I use, pictured above-left (cheaper, and a great intro to canning). For a step up in complexity, or to can lower-acid foods, this is the type of pressure-canner I use (above-right).

 

Do not taunt Happy Pressure Canner

It’s been baby steps, really.

It all started with an innocent batch of freezer jam. Jars, purchased for their cuteness, held runny strawberry jam, my first-ever batch, frozen until ready to consume.

Then came water-bath canning. I sneaked sideways into that venture — using an old stockpot as a canner, jars of crock-pot apple butter sitting directly on the bottom, I was officially canning before I could think too hard about what I was doing.

And then I started getting gadget-happy. I graduated to stainless utensils, and invested in a good, on-sale enameled water-bath canner. It was still fun and games until I bought my first case of tomatoes, and let’s just call those a gateway drug to pressure canning. Because it starts to get tricky with tomatoes — what with their new-variety acidity levels, etc. — and worlds of possibility would truly open up, if only you had a pressure canner.

But isn’t a pressure canner the equivalent of a stick of dynamite, handed to a toddler with a lit match between his teeth, standing in your kitchen? Isn’t it just so easy to blow you, your house, and perhaps your entire city to smithereens with one wrong move with a pressure canner? I mean, so-and-so’s grandmother lost her finger in a pressure-canning accident, right?

Is any amount of home-canned tomato sauce worth that risk?

Well, I was just dying to know. So I did something very characteristic of myself: I waited until I acquired a pressure-canner for free to find out. My mother-in-law had a Presto dial-gauge canner (similar to this new one) that had rarely been used. She decided there was a much better chance that I’d use it than she would, so she passed it on. And then, I refused to do anything with it* until a friend who’s taken the Master Preserving Class could come to my house and show me how to use it.

Because I’m just so daring that way.

And so I spent Tuesday in the company of uber-gracious Suzanne, who traded her vast pressure-canning knowledge,** her time, and her kind listening ears (I sort-of had a morning of emotional vomiting — she totally didn’t sign up for that) for a smoothie, a few dilly beans, and a spoonful of cashew butter. Seems fair, don’t you think?

Wanna know what I learned yesterday? I learned that pressure canning just isn’t that scary. That — while you should follow directions carefully and pay attention to what you’re doing, it’s not rocket science. A pressure canner is basically a big pot with a lid that has a good seal on it. When it gets really hot, it builds pressure inside. The dial (on my version) tells you what pressure you’re at, and if it gets too high, you just turn off the heat (not ideal, because you have to start over, but explosion-free). I learned that pressure-canning is often much quicker than water-bath canning, and causes less heat in the kitchen. That the biggest risk you run is not losing a digit, but losing a canner-load of food. Which would totally suck. But still — not dismemberment.

I also learned, when my husband phoned mid-process from Portland, that there’s no shortage of euphemisms when it comes to pressure canning. My canner has a petcock, for crying out loud.

Long story short: with the exception of one hiccup that caused 2 jars not to seal, I now have 4 quarts of pasta sauce and 4 quarts of tomato juice, ready for storage (those jars of juice accomplished solo!). I’m no master, but I’m no longer afraid. I have dominion over the pressure canner — it is not a weapon of mass destruction. Might I go so far as to say — the pressure canner is my friend.

I’ve come a long way, baby.

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* I did do one thing with it, solo: I took it to my local county Extension office to get the gauge calibrated — something you’re supposed to do each year, to make sure your canner is operating at the right pressure.

** The Master-Preserving Class is FORTY HOURS of classes. I think that’s the equivalent of a PhD in canning.

 

The Hip Girl is coming!

So in case you haven’t heard, the Superbowl is in two weeks, and Indianapolis will be hosting it for the first time ever.

Needless to say, the town is in a bit of a tizzy. For some reason, my impression of our beloved town during this process is one of a small-town grandmother tidying up her house in preparation to meet her grandson’s flashy new fiancee. It’s kind of adorable.

Adorable, of course, until late next week, when I won’t be able to leave my house for the bumper-to-bumper stretch limos everywhere.

Until then, though, there is a lot of fun stuff going on in a city that usually shuts down for the month of February. While most sports fans are gearing up for the Super Bowl Village, the wannabe femivore in me is most excited about the arrival today of Kate Payne, author of The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking — the witty and approachable how-to book that acts as a resource for everything from beginner gardening to non-toxic stain removal to preserving the farmer’s market bounty, and all on a budget. In short, it’s the book I wish I had written, and likely would have, if I’d ever learned all that stuff and thought to write it down.

She’s also a proponent of thrifting. Which obviously means we were twins separated at birth (nevermind the fact I’m 10 years her senior).

Kate was brought to town by my friend Suzanne, founder of the Indy Food Swappers, and all-around sharp, funny and delightful person. She brain-child-birthed the idea of a Super Swap — a food swap in conjunction with the Super Bowl — and since Kate helped establish the Food Swap Network, a site that offers community and shared information with other food swappers around the country, she seemed the ultimate guest.

So if you’re in Indianapolis, and interested in food, crafts, etc. on a budget, you should check out the events page for the week. The party starts tonight with an online chat with the author at 8pm on the Indy Star website, and the rest of the week includes canning/craft demos galore and a television appearance. This all leads up to the big day Saturday: the Super Swap, with informative sessions by local gardening and food-swapping gurus during the hours before the magic happens.

The events are being hosted at a variety of venues all over the city — and I believe most if not all are free. The actual Food Swap on Saturday is free, but a reservation is required, and spaces are limited. If you come, please introduce yourself — I’m new to swapping, and could use some moral support (I’ll be the one who is late, frantic-looking, and offering a measly spread on my section of the table).

Oh, and speaking of food, and the Super Bowl: my friend Erin, of the blog Indy Restaurant Scene, has compiled a great list of local restaurants to visit if you’re in town (or just downtown) for the game and related festivities. I couldn’t have written a better guide if I’d tried — Erin knows her restaurants, and gives objective and honest reviews. She has done our city’s guests a great favor — with her guide we’re one step closer to being ready to welcome all the flash.

Now, if they could just keep that Farmer’s-Almanac-predicted ice storm away, we should be ready to get the party started. If not, at least the Giants and Patriots are used to it. Dress warm, Tom and Eli.

 

 

 

 

On being a paranoid canner

Homemade Salsa (optional canning instructions) via KatySheCooks

Take my recent google search, after opening a jar of my first home-canned marinara sauce a couple weeks ago:
Can you taste botulism?”

Really. Google anything about home canning, and see if what you read doesn’t run a gamut between self-sustaining off-gridders praising a lost art of our grandparents and sterility-obsessed risk-avoiders who think home canning is akin to Russian Roulette. You can either find a recipe for canning that’s been used “by [so-and-so’s] grandmother and great-grandmother and they never got sick!,” or you can find the stats for people the CDC estimates die every year from eating contaminated home-canned foods. Take your pick which one you want to base your preserving decisions on.

I am not risk-averse. We drink raw milk in our household, which according to some forums should be punishable as child abuse. I will cut the mold off hard cheese and consume the rest of the block. I even eat a raw egg each day (because I know my egg farmer and know his chickens are healthy and happy!). All of these practices are considered riskier than eating sterilized food. But eating something that tastes fine and then ending up paralyzed was a scenario that — I’ll admit — kinda freaked me out.

The question mark looming over my marinara was that I used a water-bath canner, and failed to add extra acid to the tomatoes (in the form of citric acid powder or lemon juice). Since modern-day tomato varieties have been bred to be less acidic, they are sometimes not the right pH to be water-bath canned without some risk of bacteria growth. Botulism. You may not taste, see, or smell it. It does horrible things to people. Google told me about every single one of them.

So the answer for my head-full of doubt was to boil the heck out of it. Half an hour at a rapid boil in a covered saucepan should kill botulism. We all ate it, and have lived to tell about it.

But I don’t want to feel the need to do this every time I open a jar of home-canned tomatoes. I also don’t have a pressure canner, and am not ready to buy one. So I’ll be adding the safe-guarding citric acid to future jars, or just sticking to something safer, like tomato salsa.

Why is it safer? Because it has a ton of vinegar already in the recipe, making it safe for water-bath canning, keeping the sealed jars at a pH that inhibits bacteria growth. As a bonus, salsa has a higher jar yield from a starting quantity of fresh tomatoes than sauces. So to get 8 pint jars of salsa, I started with just 10 pounds of roma tomatoes. I like that math.

This is a classic tomato salsa, spiced with cumin and garlic, on a heat scale somewhere between medium and medium-hot. We are a family of heat wimps, so next time I make it I might use fewer jalapenos (I used a 1/2 cup for this batch). But other than that, for my first attempt at canning salsa, it was pretty near perfect.

Full of flavor, with nary a chance of bacteria-induced paralysis. That’s my kind of canned good.

This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, via GNOWFGLINS.

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Recipe: Tomato Salsa (for canning)

Recipe adapted for quantity and ingredients from this recipe at Preserving Traditions. The adjustments made included decreasing the amount of pH-raising ingredients like onions and peppers, and the lemon juice was replaced with an equivalent (not equal, as more vinegar than lemon juice is required for safe acid levels) amount of apple cider vinegar (for those rightly concerned with the pH of the salsa for canning purposes).

: yields about 8 pints

Ingredients

  • 10 pounds roma tomatoes
  • 2 1/2 cups diced white onion (about 1 1/2 pounds)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup finely chopped jalapeno peppers (seeds and ribs removed)
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar (this is my favorite brand)
  • 4 tsp table salt
  • 3 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Fill a very large stockpot with water, and bring to a boil. Have ready a large mixing bowl filled with ice water.
  2. Drop tomatoes into the boiling water, adding only as many as will float in a single layer. After 30 seconds, transfer tomatoes to ice water bath. Once cool, slip the skins off the tomatoes and discard. Repeat until all tomatoes are peeled.
  3. Seed the tomatoes by cutting in half along the equator. Squeeze each half gently to remove the seeds and extra juice (discard).
  4. Chop the peeled/seeded tomatoes into a dice, and add to a large stockpot over medium heat.
  5. Add remaining ingredients to tomatoes, stir well, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, or longer for a thicker salsa.
  6. Ladle hot salsa into hot, sterilized canning jars. Water-bath process pints for 15 minutes. Let cool completely, and check seals. Store in a cool place for up to a year.

 

Tomato Salsa for Canning on Punk Domestics

Crock-pot Apple Butter

After last year’s last-minute teacher-gift debacle just before the holidays, I vowed to be more prepared in 2010. Because as much as I love going to thrift stores, I don’t particularly enjoy scouring all of them in the metro Indianapolis area in a 24-hour period  in order to find adequate vessels for holding homemade tea blends. In the end, last year’s gift-giving went ok, excepting the loss of hair (I pulled it out) and emotional energy (it was The Holidays, after all).

This year, I’m rocking it. I’m so on top of things, I’m honestly waiting for the ball to drop; looking for ways it can all go wrong. One scenario involves my walking to the basement to bring up the jarred gifts to wrap, and none of the jars are sealed anymore (can that happen? anyone?). In another nightmare fantasy, a house fire consumes the jars, and their contents and glass explosions feed the flames (because, if my house burned down, at the very top of my worries would be the botched teacher gifts).

But the jars. They are filled with homemade apple butter. After my first (somewhat) failed attempt, I made a second go, inspired by my friend Jane’s crockpot recipe. I am still tweaking the spices in my recipe, but each batch has been delicious, and quite worthy of a jar. Since fruits are acidic enough to be safely water-bath canned, no pressure canner is necessary, and the canning is a breeze. The very best part is the price: I bought 40 pounds of apples (“seconds” — which means they’re not very pretty, but make great apple sauce and butter) from our local orchard (Wilds Apple Farm) for $20. From that investment, I’ll probably end up with 18 pints of apple butter and a dozen or so quarts of apple sauce. That’s a twenty well-spent.

There are a couple of catches. As far as equipment, a food mill makes your job a lot easier. Mainly because it relieves you of the necessity of peeling or coring your apples. If you don’t have one, you can still make wonderful butter, but you might have an acute case of carpal-tunnel to go with. Probably a worthy trade-off, in the long-run. If you can the jars*, it’ll help to have a canning kit and a very large stockpot. This recipe uses sucanat (“SUgar CAne NATural” sold under brand name Rapadura, or in bulk at a health food store), which lends a slight molasses-y flavor and allows the finished product to be completely free of refined sugars.

* If you don’t want to bother with canning, you can simply freeze the apple butter in jars or bags; it’ll last a few weeks, once thawed, in your refrigerator.

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Crock-pot Apple Butter
(a marriage of recipes from The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook and Jane Moore)

makes about 3 pints, with some leftover

  • about 6 pounds apples (any variety — seconds are cheaper and work great)
  • 2 1/2 cups sucanat (Rapadura) or combination of white and brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup apple cider, apple juice, or water
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (raw, unfiltered is best)
  • 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves

Wash apples well (peel and core if you won’t be using a food mill), and cut into small chunks (I quarter the apple, then cut each quarter in half). Fill your crock pot with the apples.

Add the rest of the ingredients, cover, and turn on high. Let cook for one hour, then turn heat down to low, and cook for another 8 hours (remove lid during last hour of cooking). Can stir occasionally, but it’s not necessary.

Let cool, and run mixture through a food mill (I use the biggest grated screen first, then run it through again on the medium-grate).  If your apples were already peeled and cored, you can simply mash with a potato masher, or for smoother texture use a hand-held stick blender or food processor.

For canning, use a water bath process for 10 minutes (I bring the apple butter back to a simmer in a stockpot on the stove before pouring it into hot jars).

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This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted by GNOWFGLINS, A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, Sustainable Eats, and Culinary Bliss.

Ugly apples

I wonder if this is what most apples used to look like. Back when all apples were wild, or if planted in one of Johnny’s orchards, unsprayed by chemicals that would conveniently kill the bugs and worms that leave their marks, providing our grocers with only unmarred, shiny, symmetrically-plump fruits.

I remember being a kid, and seeing drawings in books of an apple with a worm poking out its smiling green head. It was so horrifying and disgusting to me, and my thought was that it must be a really horrible thing, to bite into an apple and find a worm. But I also knew that it had never happened to me, and I also had never heard of it really happening to anyone I knew. I thought of that friendly worm as a freak, semi-fictional work of nature — good for the book illustrator, but not real.

Last summer, when I was first introduced to the apples at the market, I naively assumed that they weren’t sprayed. The farmer who sold them also sold other pesticide-free produce, and since so many of the vendors at the market advertise as organic, I thought surely these apples were the same. But when I finally asked, I was told that no, they spray them. That they have to — that you just can’t grow apples in Indiana and not spray them. I believe him, if for no other reason than the fact that he seems to have integrity in all other areas of his farming. And he knows what we (his customers) expect. We expect beautiful apples.

And I buy them, in great quantity. They are local, and the spraying occurs very early in the season, so they are a low-spray apple of sorts. And we eat them, skin and all, and they are delicious. But when it comes time for applesauce and apple butter, I peel them before I cook them, thinking that, since the skins won’t be a part of the final product, I might as well remove them to rid the sauce of as much pesticide residue as possible. I have no scientifically-based evidence that this is helpful for an apple sprayed in early-season, but it’s just a hunch. A hunch, and kind of a pain.

Last week, during my first apple-butter-canning adventure, I was reading some of the wonderful prose that precedes the recipes in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook (this cookbook is classic Kimball, friends — I love it):

Marie Briggs put up dozens of 1-quart Ball jars of apple butter every fall. Most of the apples were small wild apples with spots and not a few worms, but these were trimmed off or cut out before cooking. The apples were collected in large empty grain sacks, which were strong enough to hold more than one bushel at a time. When the bags got too heavy, the kids would drag them across the ground all the way to the side porch. We used to slather Marie’s apple butter on a thick slab of just-toasted anadama bread after a cold November afternoon spent grouse or deer hunting.

So this past Saturday, as I picked up my CSA box from the Homestead Growers stand at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market, my eyes landed on a few crates of apples that looked about like those Kimball described. The sign said they were certified organic, and the farmer said the trees were on their land, and they’d never thought about selling them before but thought they’d bring them to market to see how they’d do. I bought 10 pounds.

This week, for the first time, I’ll make applesauce without peeling (or even coring) the apples. Instead, I’ll chop them, looking closely for worms, cook them down with a little sugar and lemon juice, and run the whole sweet sloppy mess through a food mill, catching all the skins and seeds and tough spots. This will not only make my job a little easier, but will also give us our very first jars of homemade, certified-organic applesauce.

Sometimes, an ugly apple is a beautiful thing.

Productivity returned, canning ensued.

I woke up Saturday and needed a sweater. At my usual Saturday morning social hour shopping trip to the Farmer’s Market, half the people were wearing fleece jackets. I kinda wished I had one myself — but did raise a suspicious eyebrow at the teenage girl who donned a sweater, a wool cap, earmuffs, and a thick blanket wrapped about. That, girly, is just drama.

By mid-morning, I’m sure everyone was hanging up their jackets. But it was a windy, gorgeous day — a high of only 72º. Between that and the start of college football season, my drought-weary soul was given a shot of epinephrine. I was wired, and ready for work.

On the list for my project-loaded weekend was a harvest of produce to “put up.” I use those quotes because I’m not yet familiar enough with the undertaking to use the phrase with any sense of confidence. I had beans, roma tomatoes, cucumbers, and okra.

We still receive a good bit of mail addressed to the previous owners of our house. Thankfully, they just moved a few doors down — and also thankfully, they don’t mind if I flip through their magazines before walking them to their rightful owner. Just last week I was perusing the current issue of Southern Living that landed in my mail slot. It just so happened they had a little blurb on pickling okra.

If you’re not from the south, you might not have eaten pickled okra — and if not, you should get your hands on some. The edible part of the plant is a beautiful seed pod that once inspired an identity of mine — but since the pod is mucilagenous (er… slimy) I only eat it three ways: tossed into a gumbo, fried, or pickled. Most of the goo becomes unnoticeable in each of those preparations.

Though I’d eaten it many times, I’d never pickled it myself (ok, I’ve never pickled anything and canned it). But it was easy as pie-in-a-storebought-crust — the biggest challenge was coercing a massive pot of water to boil. This method of canning only requires a water bath — meaning, once you sterilize and pack your jars, you submerge them fully in boiling water for 10 minutes to seal. You need two really big pots, and a jar lifter (purchased in a $6 kit from Walmart).

If you’re not ready to try your own before tasting the vinegary morsels, I’ve got three jars that’ll be ready in about a week. My okra is your okra.

Well, maybe just one.

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Pickled Okra
(adapted from a recipe in Southern Living)

  • two big stockpots, one tall enough to hold pint jars upright with 1″ water to cover
  • jar lifter
  • 3 (1-pt) canning jars
  • 1 lb fresh okra
  • 3 small fresh jalapenos, (can sub red pepper flakes)
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 tsp dill seeds
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups water (filtered if you have it)
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 2 Tbsp sugar

Fill larger pot with enough water to cover pint jars by 1″.  Bring to a boil.

Place jars and lids in second stock pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil to sterilize. Simmer while prepping other ingredients.

Bring vinegars, water, salt, and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan.

Remove jars from simmering water, and place on a cutting board. Pack okra into hot jars, filling to 1/2″ from the top. Add 1 pepper (or 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes), 1 garlic clove, and 1 tsp dill seeds to each jar. Pour hot vinegar mixture over okra, filling to 1/2″ from top.

Wipe jar rims, and cover with metal lids. Screw bands into place (snugly but not over-tight). Lower jars into boiling water, adding water if necessary so that jars are covered by at least 1″. Bring water back to a rolling boil, and let boil 10 minutes.

Remove pot from heat, and let jars sit in water for 5 minutes.

Carefully remove jars from hot water, and set on cutting board. Cool 12-24 hours, testing the seal by pressing the center of each lid (if jar lids don’t pop, they are sealed). Store in a cool dry place for up to one year.

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Pickled Okra! on Punk Domestics