Category Archives: Preserves

Saving some for later: bye bye tomato season…

canned tomatoes

Every year, I eagerly await tomato season. Tomatoes, along with watermelon and corn, are a few things that makes summer (my least favorite season) entirely bearable for me, much like how Christmas sees so many people through the darkest part of winter.

I have a mad crazy love affair with dry farmed early girl tomatoes. I’ll buy pounds of them at the farmers’ market and savor them throughout the week, slicing them and eating them raw (or sometimes, with a sprinkle of sugar, a guilty pleasure)…or making them into soups, or sauteeing them with garlic and olive oil and basil and tossing them with pasta…or eating them with fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar…the list goes on!

pasta with tomatoes and basil from the garden

Some people have their preferred dry farmed early girl tomato vendors–there’s, for instance, a rivalry between Ella Bella and Dirty Girl. Foodies like to debate between these two farms. I’ve done my own taste tests–but find them both so very delectable. I tried them side by side and found Ella Bella tangier, saltier…and Dirty Girl sweeter. I preferred the Ella Bellas that week. But then the next week, the tomato tastes changed again, and I found myself preferring Dirty Girl tomatoes. I presume things like the sun, temperature, soil…all the things that make up “terroir” influence the tomatoes!

dirty girl vs. ella bella

Nevermind, they’re delicious! And I will a dry farmed early girl from most any farm.

And then later on in the season, if I’ve planted early girls (like I did this year) in the garden, I’ll start eating my dry farmed early girls straight off the plant. Mrmmmm. Nothing beats a tomato fresh off the living vine. That burst of umami, the kind that tells you about every ray of sunshine that ever hit that plant and made it happy. THAT taste hits your tastebuds. It makes my toes curl with pleasure.

I had the first black krim heirloom tomato off my plant last week (yes, it’s a late bloomer) and it made me ecstatic too. Next year, along with early girls, I’m definitely planting another black krim…and will plant a momotaro to boot. Dry farmed early girls, black krim, momotaro, and odoriko are my favorite tomatoes.

tomatoes and basil

It’s officially Autumn now, my favorite time of the year. But even my favorite time of year is not without its sadness–for tomato season will soon hit its close. If you’re lucky like I am, you live in an area where that season doesn’t close for at least another month.

But even so, it’s time to think ahead. Yummy stews and crisp apples and cool and refreshing breezes lay ahead of us.

And we’ll miss the tomato. I’ll miss the tomato. Especially dry farmed early girls.

And I’m determined, this year, to not miss it TOO much. So–Connie and I got together and canned some tomatoes today.

We’re novices at canning tomatoes. I figured that even if we made mistakes, we’d make them together and have lots of fun on a balmy Autumn Sunday. We met up at the farmers’ market, where we bought about 10 pounds of tomatoes: San Marzano and dry farmed early girl tomatoes. (We also hit Blue Bottle coffee and fortified beforehand). The tomato vendors got visibly excited when we mentioned we’d be canning–they had some tomatoes in flats hidden in the truck! They could sell them to us at a discount! Then balked when we said we needed only five pounds of San Marzano.

Now WHY, we thought would we want more than 5 pounds of San Marzano tomatoes (we got another 5 pounds of early girls)?! Isn’t that an AWFUL lot of tomatoes to begin with?

canning tomatoes

Ha. We found out later, as we skinned the tomatoes and then began filling the jars. 10 pounds of fresh tomatoes does NOT make many cans of tomatoes (for us: 2 quart jars, 5 pint jars–split between two people). This may be obvious to many of you–I feel your scoffing! But it wasn’t obvious to us, two first time tomato canners. So be warned: if you want to can tomatoes and make it worth your time, you’ll want to can at LEAST 20 pounds of tomatoes.

And get the juiciest, sweetest, saltiest, most flavorful tomatoes you can find.

You’ll also want LOTS of pots of water (including a very deep, large pot for the water bath–larger if you’re using quart sized mason jars as you want the water to be at least 1 inch higher than the jars). You’ll want a huge pot to do the water bath. You’ll want a small pot in which to simmer the lids. You’ll want a medium pot in which to blanch the tomatoes (for easier peeling). You’ll want a smallish/mediumish pot to boil water or tomato juice (for filling the jars). LOTS of pots. LOTS of water.

And you’ll want LOTS of mixing bowls–to hold all the tomatoes, to rinse them, to peel them, to separate out the juices. Wear an apron.

water bath

I don’t think you need a lot of specialized canning accessories–but I do think the jar grabber is a necessity (it helps you grab those jars as you submerge them in the BOILING HOT water bath, and when you retrieve them from the BOILING HOT water bath). Before I got a jar grabber, I used a regular kitchen tong and a silicon mitt, and believe me, it was WAY too precarious a process and the canning gods were smiling upon me that day, as I did not have one mishap.

And the other thing you’ll need is some lemon juice–to bring the acidity up so that you reduce the chance of spoilage, and also to keep that gorgeous red colour. (We used the pickyourown website as a canning guide).

Our canning adventure had a good dose of giggles, as we realized, halfway through, how we really ought to have bought at LEAST twice as many tomatoes. Oops! We looked sheepishly at all the empty, sterilized jars (yes, I discovered the “sanitizing” setting on my dishwasher, and we are fairly certain it did a job similar to an autoclave–whew!)…and were like, oops. We won’t be using THOSE! Ahem. *sheepish grins*…giggle.

Nevermind the costs.  While the jars were in the water bath, we quickly calculated up the costs: approximately $10 for the jars (but we used only half so it was about at $5 investment)…$25 for the tomatoes…about $3 for the lemon juice/lemons…divided by 7…we spent over $5/jar.  Spendy.  Costwise, this project would only make sense if you were canning tomatoes out of your own garden.

I thought I might be sharing some of these canned tomatoes–but methinks that might not be happening, given the tiny yield. :)

But there’s something I realized that I’d definitely be doing again, go forward: I’ll be having a friend over to do future canning. My previous adventures in canning preserves have been solitary affairs–more meditative than anything. But I definitely prefer a raucous social mien around the canning! Connie and I had fun snacking during the lulls, eating a Keitt mango by the pool when the jars were safe, boiling in a water bath.

The jars are cooling now, as we keep our fingers crossed that the jars will seal properly and the lids will not budge. And I look forward to that winter day when I open a jar and get a taste of those dry farmed early girl summer tomatoes.

The prettiest pickles: beets

time to eat pickled beets

I did not grow up eating beets at all–it is a vegetable that has found its way into my life in just the last decade. And beets and I–we have just “clicked.” I love beets. I love it in Iraqi beef stew, and just recently I have discovered and fallen in love with beet pickles.  The firm flesh, with the ever present sweetness just makes me dizzy with pleasure–and I am in love with its bright magenta color.  (though of course I love other variations like golden beets too).

I first had beet pickles at, I think, Oliveto restaurant (or was it Chez Panisse?). It’s hard to remember where I was in the faze of tastebud delight–the tang of pickling combined with the sweetness of the beets was just so heavenly. And so I went on the search for a good pickled beet at the store.

But alas, I could not find pickled beets among the cornichons, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, and other items that can be pickled. Where were–the BEETS?! At one point, I found some pickled beets at the Union Square farmer’s market in Manhattan, but they weren’t the pickled beets that I remembered and the thought of traveling home with them was too daunting at that chaotic moment.

Union Square Farmer's markets

It was, I realized, up to my kitchen to produce some pickled beets. I planted some beets in my garden, misjudging my own patience…and waited for them to grow. They got to about 5 inches high when I couldn’t stand it anymore! I wanted–nay, NEEDED pickled beets now!

Beets

I went to the store and bought some beets. I looked up some pickling recipes. And thus, I began making some homemade pickled beets.

Pickling beets is a bit time consuming, but also fairly simple. You make the pickling marinade, and let that sit over night. The next day, you boil the beets, peel and chop, and then let them sit in the pickling marinade over another night. And then in my case, you have them for breakfast the next morning!

Of course, I’ll break it down into smaller steps for you.

The majority of the “cooking” in, and complexity of, pickled beets, happens in making the pickling marinade.

making the pickling marinade

But even that is quite straightforward–throw everything in a pot and simmer away! The ingredients include pickling spice, which you can buy off the shelf, but something you can also easily assemble yourself. Mine was a combination of cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, whole cloves, allspice, a slice of ginger, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds. I would add fennel seeds and cardamom in the future. You can vary the above ingredients to some extent but basically, throw equal parts of each to create a pickling spice mixture.

Pickle marinade

Of course, pickling spice alone does not a pickling marinade make!

Here are the ingredients as a whole:
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon pickling spice (above)
1/4 onion, halved and sliced into rings
3 bay leaves (not California)
3/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/4 bunch fresh dill (or more)
3 beets (1 lb without tops)

pickled beets in progress!

DIRECTIONS:
Bring all ingredients except beets to a boil in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Cover and simmer 30 minutes.

Cool marinade, then chill, covered, 1 day to allow flavors to develop. Pour through a fine sieve into a bowl.

Cook beets in a saucepan of boiling salted water until tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Drain and cool. Slip off skins and cut into 1/2-inch pieces.

Stir together beets and marinade, then marinate, covered and chilled, 1 day.

pickled beets!

Canning

homemade strawberry jam, originally uploaded by c(h)ristine.

This summer, I read my share of posts on jam: Tea and Cookies posted throughout her summer about various jams (ah, the travels she took to wonderful berry kingdoms!)…and here on Muffin Top, Eric posted about jamming as comfort activity and Connie posted a wonderful write up of sour cherry jam.

How could a girl resist falling in love with the idea of jamming? At first, I read with awe about jamming, something I saw as akin to alchemy. Sterilize jars, lids, make jam, boil jars in canner, seal…so many steps, so many having nothing to do with cooking! It was…MAGIC. And if it were to go wrong, it would be TRAGIC (as bad magic tricks go). I was intimidated.

But in the end, my desire for homemade jam overcame any intimidation I felt.

I wrote emails to Tea and Eric. Tips, got any tips?
1. Don’t cut down on the sugar–and Tea’s post on her sad strawberry saga was particularly insightful. Don’t double the recipes either. Pectin can be picky.
2. To pectin or not to pectin? As I conducted my research, I found that there is an “anti-pectin” camp, and another camp that sees nothing wrong with using pectin (the thing that makes your jam jell). Martha Stewart is in the no-pectin camp, because I found none of her ercipes included pectin. If you’re making jam with a low-pectin fruit, you want to go with pectin. If you’re making jam for the first time, you want to go with pectin. You may want to go with a low-sugar pectin (I did, and it turned out GREAT). You may also go with Pomona’s Universal no-sugar pectin, too, if you are adverse to sugar. I tried it. I prefer the low-sugar pectin brand.

Um, those are basically the tips.

I used the recipes for blueberry and strawberry jams on pick your own. I am in LOVE with canning!

And now I’m eyeing a bag of locally grown tomatoes, and want to can tomaotes, too. What can be better than to pop open a can of tomatoes in the middle of winter, when all the tomatoes are gone?

Canning–a combination of alchemy, crafts (yes, it’s like doing crafts) and pragmatism (after all, it is a way to preserve fresh produce for much later). The thing is, I keep eating the jam–what will I have by the time winter comes?

In a jam

So I didn’t get around to making a batch of puff pastry last weekend… I decided that it was just too hot. Although I was able to make batches of short crust, pate sucre and galette doughs, and I’ll be making a batch of pie crust tonight, puff pastry would have just been too finicky. Plus, I just didn’t feel like dealing with four plus hours of rolling and folding. Only the French would come up with a dough as convoluted (and glorious) as puff pastry. Instead, I turned my attention to the produce I purchased this weekend.

Sour Cherries

Since the season is ending, I stocked up. Sour cherries don’t keep for very long, so I decided to try my hand at preserving them in pickles and jam. I’ve never actually tried canning before, but the process is fairly simple: sterilize some mason jars in boiling water, pour in the prepared food, seal the jars (the bands can be reused, the lids can’t) and sterilize the sealed jars in boiling water again (cover them with at least an inch of water). Keep the bands and lids in hot (not boiling) water, and dry them and the jar rims when you’re ready to seal. The jars need to be sterilized for fifteen minutes each time.

For the jam, I used David Lebovitz’s no-measurement/no-thermometer recipe. It’s pretty simple – I won’t repost it here, because he explains it much better than I can, but I will add that for each pound of fruit, you will produce about a cup of jam.

I adore charcuterie, so when I read in Chez Panisse Fruits that pickled sour cherries made an “irresistable” accompaniment to pate, my curiousity was piqued. This recipe is even simpler than the jam: Trim the stems of 2 pounds of cherries down to 1/2 inch, (do not pit them) and distribute them in sterilized jars. Boil 4 1/4 cups of white vinegar with 1 1/2 cups of white sugar, 4 cloves and 6 peppercorns for three minutes. Pour hot brine over cherries, seal and sterilize, then let them stand in a cool, dark place for two months. I have another 59 days to go before tasting, so we shall see.

A couple of side note: These recipes can be used with regular cherries, too. In general, when selecting cherries, be sure to pick unblemished fruit with the stems still attached. Mold and rot usually start at the “empty” hole.

Fennel-Onion Confit

This was one of those happy coincidence where I was flipping through a cookbook (Bouchon), and saw that I had all the components for a recipe in my fridge. I even had skate wing to serve with it. It’s pretty easy, too. Slice one or two trimmed and cored fennel bulbs into half-rings, and slice 1 medium yellow onion into sticks. Over medium heat, whisk a quarter cup of water with 6 tablespoons of butter until melted. Add the sliced fennel and onions and salt, along with a bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, then cover with a cartouche. Check and stir every 20 or 30 minutes, making sure that the liquid is reducing and the vegetables are softening, without browining. After about two hours, turn off the heat and allow to cool in its own liquid. Rewarm the confit, and stir in a quarter cup of chopped nicoise olives and 2 tablespoons of chopped Italian parsley. This is excellent with seafood – I had it with pan fried skate wing and tapenade – or on its own.

A bouquet garni is a cornerstone of French cooking. You take 2 or 3 cleaned leek greens and tuck 2 branches of Italian parsley, 6 branches of thyme, 2 bay leaves and 6 peppercorns within, tying with twine. I like to trim the top and bottom (making sure not to trim off the herbs within, though trimming to bottoms is okay) so that it’ll fit in the pot. I’ve taken to preparing a few at once, so I can use them in the days ahead.

A cartouche is a parchment paper pot lid. It traps heat and moisture while allowing liquids to reduce at a more controlled pace. Take a square piece parchment and fold into sixteenths. It should form a skinny triangle. Measure the triangle against your pot lid’s radius, and trim at the bottom. Snip a small hole at the top (apex of the triangle). Unfold et voila! You have a cartouche fitted to your pot.