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In the garden + in the kitchen

As summer marches onward, exiting (thankfully) a brutally hot July, I can’t help but be struck by all the ways Nature finds to surprise us (like the random Black-eyed Susan that sprouted up next to my apple tree — I don’t grow Black-eyed Susans, so its seed must have been deposited by a winged passerby).

From tomatoes going into crazy production overload after a bit of rain to a stray cucumber plant sprouting up in the tomato patch, pumping out little pickling cuke after pickling cuke, Nature’s been keeping this gardener on her toes all season.

The best surprise, I think, was my lettuce experiment. A seed packet ordered late in the Spring growing season was further delayed as it hopscotched around the country, lost, on the back of some truck. Its arrival coincided perfectly with the start of the July heatwave, long after most gardeners’ lettuces were well-established, if not already tossed into salads. Starting lettuce seeds outdoors in 95°F temps is insane.

And therefore right up my alley.

I planted one row of Tom Thumb lettuce seeds and built a sort of sun shelter over them using row cover material. I watered them every day — every freakin 95° day … which was all of them — for 3 weeks. Nothing. {Shrug} It was a few cents worth of seeds and a good experiment. I kept the shelter in place anyway and went about my summer gardening b’iness.

And then, last week, I peeked underneath. And, well, you’ll see.

Have you ever grown potatoes? It’s a riot. The plants grow crazy tall and lush, all the while doing unseeable, magical things underground. When the greenery dies back, you go on the hunt, on a potato treasure hunt, where every scoop of dirt yields pressies of all shapes and sizes. One potato planted in the spring sprouts dozens of potatoes late in the summer, and all must be dug up from underground, sometimes amazingly deep. Just when you think you’ve found them all, another surfaces.

It’s magic.

Of course, not all surprises are fun, like walking out to the garden and finding an entire plant drooping and browning from disease — literally overnight. (I view this as Nature’s way of reminding me that we’re all just her bitches, and if she doesn’t want to grace me with San Marzano tomatoes for homemade sauce and paste this year, well, she’s not gonna.)

I can’t complain, though. Nature did gift me with a bounty this year — despite the heat and horrible drought — and most nights I move from garden to kitchen, savoring the miracle of edible jewels pulled forth from mere dirt.

You’ve already been bored by seen my tomatoes — I’ve been freezing and canning as much as possible (and I have some tips, if you make it to the end of this post — buck up, we’re almost to the pictures!). But there’s more than tomatoes — let’s take a peek:

I do love making varietal tomato sauces — there really is a difference from sauce to sauce, and they’re so pretty on the shelf. Some years, the sauces get frozen in small batches rather than jarred, but this time around, I had pounds and pounds of Brandywines and Purple Russians (and last week, Black Cherry tomatoes), enough to warrant a canning session all their own. (Coming soon, yellow tomato sauce, from the amazing Blondköpfchen cherries shown above (Blondköpfchen is German for “little blond girl”). Yellow tomatoes are usually very mild — almost bland — but this cherry is quite flavorful and will make a wonderful sauce.)

But I’ll cut right to the chase here. I have had a sort of love-hate relationship with canning tomatoes. Making homemade tomato sauce:  {muah!}Freezing homemade tomato sauce:  {muah! muah!}.

Canning?  {Sigh}

That is, until The Kitchn published this little tip last year for peeling tomatoes that rocked. my. world: wash the tomatoes, cut out the core, freeze, thaw … and watch the tomatoes fall right out of their skins. I can’t rightly express how awesome it is to cut out that boiling water/blanching step. (Please don’t mention food mills … I have a thing … and let’s just leave it at that, okay?)

Even better, this freezing method means that if your tomato crop ripens in fits and spurts, just keep a bag of frozen tomatoes going, adding to it until you have enough to cook up. (Or keep the tomatoes frozen for fresh sauce over the winter.) Brilliant.

I don’t count myself among canning veterans, as I’ve only done it for 4 or 5 years, but for the newbies among you, here are some tips to avoid the hard-knock mistakes I made at the beginning.

  • Find a reliable collection of recipes — I mostly stick to my Ball canning books, although I did purchase Food in Jars’ new book (she cans for a living, so she knows what she’s doing). I’m not likely to trust canning recipes from a random source. Although botulism is rare, it’s deadly, and I just don’t want to take the chance. Experimentation is for the expert canner who gets her recipes tested for acidity levels. Adding an onion to a tomato sauce recipe that doesn’t call for onion can throw off the pH balance to the point where the sauce will spoil. Don’t be afraid to can, but don’t be careless, either.
  • Don’t underestimate the amount of tomatoes you’ll need. Recipes generally give ranges, because it will depend on how juicy they are (the juicier the batch of tomatoes, the less sauce it will yield, once the liquids have cooked off). See all of those gorgeous Purple Russian tomatoes above? Those cooked down to fill a mere 750ml jar, whereas a slightly greater amount of Brandywines easily filled two 750ml jars, with some leftover to freeze. You won’t know for sure until you start cooking and by then, it’s too late to retrieve more, and you cannot safely process a half-filled jar. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up short and had to freeze the sauce instead.
  • Before you start, plan out your burner usage. You’ll need the largest burner for the canning pot, and at least two other burners, one for a smallish pot of simmering water to sterilize the lids and seals, and one for the sauce itself. (I sterilize the jars in the canner, a habit I picked up when I was still blanching tomatoes to peel their skins.) Whenever possible, I try to make two batches of sauce at once to save time, so my fourth burner is used for the second batch of sauce.
  • Depending on your stove and the size of your canner, the water in the canner could take a long time to come to a full boil, 20 minutes or more. Make sure you turn on the heat in plenty of time — you don’t want to be waiting around for the boil while your sauce slips past its prime canning point.
  • Keep plenty of clean towels (and paper towels) on hand — cooking and canning tomato products is a splattery, messy business.
  • Pull out all of your tools ahead of time — all of them, from the canning rack to the lid magnets to the jar lifters to the air-bubble-popping chopstick to the funnel — and wash them in hot, soapy water. When the heat hits the fan, and everything startscomingtogetheratonce, you’ll be glad you did.
  • Accept your limitations and prepare for them as best you can — this is a weird but exacting process that many of us do not do on a regular basis, and therefore lack muscle memory. Allow for it. Breath deeply, don’t stress out. Keep yourself organized. I have a weird mental glitch where I tend to forget to add the lemon juice to the jars (a, um, critical step). Now, I put the lemon juice bottle where it will be right in my way when I go to remove the sterilized jars from the canner. I curse the bottle every time that it’s in my way, but I haven’t once forgotten to add the juice.
  • Be respectful of super hot glass. Invest in thermal gloves that are easy for you to maneuver in. (I like ‘Ove Gloves — your mileage may vary.)
  • Keep the surfaces that the hot jars will touch free of puddles of cool water and chilled temps. If possible, always set the jars on a wood board (which tends to be temperature neutral) or folded towels. Cool water + hot glass = heat shock = stressed glass = eventual crackage.

Summer produce will begin winding down soon — I hope you’ll try your hand at preserving. It’s psychically energizing to open a jar of summer tomato sauce, or blueberry jam, or dilly beans, or bread-and-butter pickles, smack dab in the middle of blizzardy January.

Karen xo

P.S.: If you just can’t get enough of SoupAddict, you’ll be thrilled/indifferent/despondent to know that I now write for the Huffington Post. My first recipe, Bananas Foster Creamsicles, appeared this week! Squee!


Thursday 30th of August 2012

Comgrats on the new writing gig! And having enough of the little cherry tomatoes to can sauce with them? Your garden rocks!


Saturday 25th of August 2012

How exciting about HuffPo!! Well done, you! And what a treat to get a peek into your garden, looks like it's been a very successful season.

Rocky Mountain Woman

Friday 24th of August 2012

I canned everything in sight for years while my kids were younger. It seems like a waste for just little old me, but I do Crab Apple Jelly every year and I freeze tomato sauce and I roast and freeze peppers.

I am going to try and make wine, maybe next fall. I figure even if it doesn't turn out, I'll have some wonderful vinegar!

Lovely shots, don't you just love this time of year?

Sprigs of Rosemary

Friday 24th of August 2012

I've nearly forgotten the lemon juice step myself -- until I did exactly what you did. Now it's right in my way. (I'm canning sauce as we speak/write/read. Where were you about the tomato skins two hours ago?)

Caralyn @ glutenfreehappytummy.com

Thursday 23rd of August 2012

Congratulations!!! and potato "hunting" sound like fun! yay for you! :)