Time to Can Tomatoes

Canned Tomatoes

Canned Tomatoes

The garden is producing like crazy so it’s time to can tomatoes. There are lots and lots of tomatoes. If you visit the Queen D Ranch Gardening website you will see that we have ten varieties of tomatoes: Rutgers, Principe Borghese, Pantano Romaneso, Cuor di Bue, Delicous and several others. The Cuor di Bue are absolutely wonderful. Very little core, much meat and small juice cells, and a taste that is very impressive.

Tomatoes are very easy to can. Everything must be as clean as possible. Pay special attention to the rim of the jar. It must be completely smooth so that the lid will seal perfectly.

You can add seasonings to the tomatoes or not. I prefer to add dried herbs and spices. I add dried onion, a little kosher salt, a tiny pinch of black pepper, oregano or basil (never both) and if I have it, dried celery. Put those into the bottom of the jar.

A quart sauce pan with about 2 inches of water in it is a good size to use to blanch the tomatoes when only one person is canning. Get the water boiling then add tomatoes. For tomatoes that are 2 inches in diameter or larger, blanch for three minutes. For smaller tomatoes, blanch for two minutes. Start timing when the tomatoes go into the water.

About to be Canned

About to be Canned

When the timer dings, dip the tomatoes out into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Just slip the skins off. If you want to cut the tomatoes up, do it now, or just stuff the whole tomato into a jar. Leave one half inch of head room (that’s a little space to allow for expansion of the liquid when it gets hot).

When the jar is full, use a table knife to run down the inside of the jar. This will release any air pockets that have accumulated in the jar. Add a little liquid or tomato to the jar to adjust the head space.

Wipe the rim of the jar carefully with a dry, lintless cloth. Then put the jar lid on. Put the ring on but don’t tighten it down. Leave it fairly loose.

Put the jars that are ready into a canner with enough water in it to bring the water level to half the height of the jars when the jars are in the kettle. If you don’t have a bona fide canning kettle, use a large pot and put a dish towel on the bottom. When the water starts to boil, it will jostle the jars pretty well. The cloth will help to keep the jars from breaking.

Put a towel on a counter where the jars can sit for at least three or four hours undisturbed.

One word of caution. Handle the jars coming out of the canner very carefully and gently. Not only are you dealing with scalding water, but the glass is really fragile when it is over 200 degrees F. Many years ago, I accidentally tapped one hot jar against another and the jar I was holding exploded. Fortunately it was still mostly in the canner, but it could have been really bad. Just be careful with the hot jars.

Put the jars in the canner in tepid water. Turn on the heat and get the water up to a rolling boil. Turn the temp down just a little. Start your timer and process the jars for 15 – 20 minutes. The jars are ready to take out of the canner when you can see that the contents of the jar is boiling. Little bubbles will be coming up from the bottom of the jar.

Lift the jars one by one out of the canner and place on the towel on the counter. After all the jars are out, tighten down the jar rings as tightly as you can. Be sure, of course to use pot holders or dish towels to protect your hands. These jars are over 200 degrees F and will burn you in a heartbeat.

Store the jars in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks to let all the flavors in the herbs, spices and tomato blend together.

These make wonderful and well received gifts for holidays and family get-togethers.

Enjoy.

 

 

 

Sun Dry Food for Preservation

I got an email from WikiHow this morning that I thought was pretty cool.

We wanted to let you know that the article Sun Dry Food for Preservation that you started on wikiHow has been read more than 500 times. Having your article read by so many people is a great accomplishment. Congratulations!

Thanks again!

If you haven’t read it yet, now is your chance. And I got the local grocery store flyers this morning. White and yellow onions are on sale for 3 pounds for a dollar. Guess who’s going to be drying a ton of onions tomorrow!

Using Tough Meat

This is just a quick note about tough meat. We had an eye of rib steak last night that was so tough, it was hard to eat. There is more in the freezer and I’m debating what to do with it. I was thinking of slicing it thinly and cooking it until it yelled “uncle”.  These steaks are probably an inch thick but even so, they are going to be difficult to slice up. So I though you’d like to know my trick for slicing meat like this.

Using Tough Steak

Using Tough Steak

Partially freeze the steak — maybe an hour in the freezer — until it’s pretty firm. Get a good sharp knife and cut it up. Being partially frozen gives it more body and makes it easy to slice it even paper thin.

Happy cooking.

Photo courtesy Stock.xchng

Fresh or Dried?

I found a good example of what  you get when you dry produce, in this case onions, at home.

How to dry onion

Dried Onion

This product is 16 ounces/1 pound of dried onion. One pound of dried onion is the equivalent of 3.875 pounds of fresh onion. (Photo courtesy of Amazon.)

I live in southern New Mexico where onions are grown in vast quantities. In fact we have a varietal onion called the Mesilla Valley sweet onion much like the Vidalia onion grown in Georgia. When these onions are in season, we can frequently buy them for $0.20 a pound. That’s a sweet deal. But how sweet is it really?

On Amazon, three products showed up on the first page: the Harmony House one pound bottle of dried onion is $12.95 or $0.8094 per ounce, Kirkland brand has a 13.5 ounce bottle for $7.86 or $0.58222 per ounce and Frontier has the best buy with a 32 ounce deal at $13.20 or $0.4125 per ounce. To flip these numbers over into the price of fresh onions, the Frontier dried onions would cost us $1.7032 per pound of fresh onions. The Kirkland brand would cost us $2.40 per pound of fresh onions and the Harmony House onions would cost us $3.3419 if we purchased them fresh.

Certainly some value needs to be added for the time to peel, chop and dry the product. But this is where you save. By purchasing fresh onions at $0.20 per pound, one pound dried onion would only cost $0.78. That is one huge savings. Even if you purchase fresh onions at WalMart prices, say $0.88 per pound, you are still saving a lot of money. And here is how to do it.

 

Drying Onions Buy good, hard onions with a nice papery skin and no black mold or smut on them. Peel them and cut them into about 1″ chunks. Drop a cup or two at a time into your food processor and chop them up. You can chop them coarse or fine. I prefer them chopped a little on the fine side. That way, they dry crispier. When I put them into the food mill to make onion powder, they come out better. Spread the onion as evenly as possible on the dehydrator trays and turn on the dehydrator. It will take about two full days to get the onion as dry as it needs to be. Then store the onion in plastic bags or other plastic containers. Push out as much air as possible when you are using plastic bags.

Plastic soda bottles work pretty well for storing dried things. Be sure that the inside is very, very dry. The bottles are generally clear so you can see what is in them, they are durable and basically free. And it’s a great way to re-purpose something that would otherwise go into the landfill.

Here’s a little trick for drying things like herbs and spices that are fairly small pieces: At your favorite home improvement store, buy a piece of plastic window screening. Using your dehydrator as a pattern, cut out circles of window screen that will fit just inside the dehydrator tray. My dehydrator has a hold in the middle of each tray, so cut those out, too. Then just put the window screen on the tray. Now little bits of celery leaf and the little bits of onion will dry better and stay on the tray. The window screen is durable and washes up easily. I have even put it in the dishwasher and it does just fine.

Using Dried Onion Use dried onion in soups, stews and sauces that need to cook for a bit. They reconstitute from the liquid that they are being cooked in so the onion flavor is really enhanced. If you make your own beans, dried onion really packs a punch. Dried onion is also good in meat loaf, casseroles and home made scalloped potatoes. Grind it into a powder and sprinkle on steaks, hamburgers and any other food that will benefit from the onion flavor.

This gives you an idea of how much you can save by drying produce yourself. Tomatoes, celery, bell pepper, cilantro and parsley are all good to dry, too. Buy them in season at your local produce store and save even more.

The New Garden

This year’s garden is started. That means planning ahead to what is going into the freezer in a few months. I am really hoping for a big tomato crop this year. Last year was a disaster. But I made some big changes this year.

First, I put in a new watering system that I have high hopes for. It’s a drip tape that has openings in the tubing every 8 inches that acts like an emitter. They are not supposed to clog – ever (and we’ll see about that). It was extremely easy to put in. In researching this product, I found out that farmers just up the road have been using this same system very successfully for several years on acreage to water both field crops (alfalfa) and row crops (corn, cotton, etc). So I have high hopes. And so far, it’s working really well.

I’m trying some new plants in the garden this year, too, including artichokes and garlic. Both are doing well so far as are the turnips and green, yellow and Roma beans. Two years ago we grew some amazing casaba melons and they were absolutely delicious. The biggest melon was over 26 pounds. Those seeds are now growing and it will be interesting to see what we get. Everything we grow is from heritage varieties and we save back as much of our own seed as we can. Some people say that the yields are not as good with heritage plantings and that may be so. We usually get a ton of produce so I’m fine with the amount that we get. The flavor is always outstanding with the heritage plants. Hybrid sweet corn is sweeter than heritage sweet corn but I’m not a huge fan of sweeter being better. I like the corn taste first and the sweetness second.

We also planted quite a lot of Mammoth sunflowers. We have several plants last year that did pretty well and produced a lot of seed. The tall plants will help to shade some of the shorter plants that would otherwise suffer in the 90 plus degree summers that will being in about 60 days from now.

 

Freezing Mashed Potatoes

Freezing Mashed Potato

Freezing Mashed Potato
- photo courtesy DavidsPhotos

As you know from buying frozen french fries and hash browns, potatoes freeze really well. We love mashed potatoes but for just the two of us, it’s kind of a pain to peel, boil and mash just two potatoes for a meal. So I decided to make things easy on myself by cooking, mashing and freezing a bunch of mashed potatoes so we can have them on hand anytime we want them.

To start, I bought 30 pounds of russet potatoes. Not my favorite, but the reds and white rose were too expensive. At $2.89 for ten pounds, these russets were no bargain. Last week, the same market has some beautiful white potatoes for 99 cents for ten pounds. I should have bought about a hundred pounds. They would have kept until I could get them all frozen, I think.

Anyway, I’ve spent the better part of today peeling, cooking and bagging up mashed potatoes. It turns out that after peeling, you are left with 8-1/2 pounds of cooked potatoes. Who would have guessed that the peelings would weigh a pound and a half. The peelings went to the chickens, of course, who we delighted to have a treat in the middle of the day.

So did we save any money? I think we did. I found Larry’s frozen mashed potatoes at WalMart for $2.59 for 10 ounces. Definitely no bargain. That would be 26 cents an ounce. My frozen mashed potatoes cost 1.8 cents an ounce before processing. I ended with 25.5 pounds of mashed potatoes from 30 pounds of raw potatoes. I used 25 freezer bags at 5 cents each (WalMart $2.46 for 50 bags). I used one bag per pound.

Cost of one pound of potatoes:     29 cents
Cost of the bag:                                   5 cents
Cost of energy: (Don’ really know — Let’s say $2.00 for the whole batch divided by 25 pounds = 8 cents per pound.):                                         8 cents

Total:                                                   42 cents a pound or 2.7 cents an ounce

Not shabby. I’ll take that kind of savings everyday.

I thought that 12 ounces of potatoes in a package would be adequate but it didn’t look like quite enough so I wound up putting one pound per package. If there is a little left over, then I will have learned to put less in the next packages and the leftovers can go into soup or something. So from starting out with thirty pounds of raw potato, I will end up with about 25 pounds of cooked, mashed potato in 25 packages. Not bad. That means that for at least three months I won’t have to make any more potato for dinner other than the odd baked potato. We eat a lot of pasta, too, and kind of alternate with potato for dinner.

And you know what?? Pasta freezes great, too. Wow. I won’t have to cook for a year if I plan all this right. I’d better get back to work.

Summer Tomatoes

The garden this year was an abomination. I had only two tomato plants that produced anything. One was a Rutgers and the other my all time favorite, an Ace. There were enough tomatoes to make tomatoes with basalmic vinegar and basil plus a basketful more. I love canning tomatoes but there just aren’t enough this year to do a big canning. Is it worth it to put up one quart? Maybe.

Many times people can tomatoes and then there they sit for years until they finally get thrown away. Canned tomatoes are just wonderful to use like fresh tomatoes in salad. In the winter when there is nothing but the pink rubber tomatoes from the grocery store, these taste awful darned good.

Another way to use canned tomatoes is to stew them. Heat the tomatoes right out of the jar with celery, onion, some basil or oregano, salt and pepper. Whip up some home made corn bread and you have a rib-sticking meal that will warm your soul. (By the way, this is a great way to use the celery, onion, basil or oregano that you have dehydrated during the year. The flavors enhance as the herbs and spices rehydrate in the jar.)

I hate that winter is on it’s way now but at least we were able to have that taste of summer. And, of course, there is always next year.

Preserving Leftovers

We had a birthday party barbeque tonight with hamburgers and hotdogs with all the trimmings. There were only seven of us and we cooked for seventeen. To defend myself somewhat, three of the seven are teenaged farm boys — big eaters. Regardless of which, we found ourselves with leftover hamburgers, dogs, buns, etc.

If you haven’t already figured it out, I am not one to waste one single scrap of food. Included in our leftovers were sliced tomato, onion, roasted green chile, hamburger and hot dog buns, cooked hot dogs and cooked hamburgers. The cooked hot dogs and hamburgers can easily go into the freezer tonight and will revive (defrost) nicely for a quick burger or dog for lunch or an early dinner.

In our house, the green chile will probably last no longer than tomorrow’s dinner no matter what it is so no preservation problem there. Fresh tomatoes and onions do not freeze well but they freeze well enough to use in soup or marinara when cold weather sets in.

This is a little off subject but a good time to make a confession. When I trim celery, onion, parsley, cilantro and other vegetables (but not carrot because carrots make things too sweet), I put the healthy trimmings into a plastic bag in the freezer. When the bag gets full, I put about a quart of water in a stock pot and add the contents of the freezer bag with all the vegetable trimmings. I cook that down to about a pint. After straining out the trimmings, I use that stock for a soup base. It is amazingly good. The onion skins make the broth a beautiful, clear dark brown. Every batch has a little different taste but it is always delicious. Simply add some lean meat like leftover pork, chicken or beef, some noodles, rice or potato and you have a healthy, hearty, low calorie soup to warm your soul in the winter. Match that soup up with a glass of Merlot or Chardonnay and a big slice of crisp-crusted, hot, homemade bread and you have a meal fit for any king.

Ok. Back to tonight’s leftovers. Years ago, I had round plastic food savers with lids that  had three or four partitions (like cafeteria plates). As the week progressed and leftovers accumulated, I would add to the plate — Leftover meat in one partition. Leftover corn in another partition. Leftover mashed potatoes in the last partition. I think I had eight of these partitioned plates. These already frozen complete meals were almost free. And they were wonderful to pull out of the freezer, pop into the microwave and made it possible to feed myself and my daughter fast, healthy, preservative-free dinners.

Dinners like this turned out to be smoked turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans (usually from the garden). Or home made meat loaf, fried potato and cut corn or corn on the cob — also usually from the garden. Or fried chicken, french fries (home fried, of course) and beet greens.

I would love to be able to tell you that I am a total purist — “No preservative touches my lips!!!!!” But I can’t. I’m a sucker for a big pot of mac and cheese — the three for a dollar stuff loaded with BHT. I cannot resist canned black olives and anything canned comes with BPA which is a known carcinogen. Nonetheless, I will have my fingers in that can fishing out those delicious olives.

But what we have the power to do is to minimize the amount of preservatives that we expose our bodies and our children’s bodies to. We can easily cut our exposure by half.  And it doesn’t take all that much — just a little forethought.

1. Keep a coffee can or heavy duty plastic freezer bag in the freezer for vegetable trimmings and add to it often.

2.  Think about what you buy canned — will fresh serve as well when it’s preserved at  home without chemical  preservatives? Tomatoes bought cheaply in season and canned or frozen at home without preservatives? Or dried like tomatoes, onions, parsley or cilantro? Even dried potato. Read labels. There are commercial potato flakes that contain nothing but potato. I mean seriously — If you dry potatoes, why do you need to add a preservative?  READ LABELS.

3. A leftover pork chop or half of a beef steak can be used to create fried rice, seasoned green beans or omelet. We used lots of leftover meats for breakfast meat or omelet seasoning.

This is flavor that you nor your family can get anywhere but in your kitchen.

Another antecdote: We went to Golden Corral last Wednesday as a “treat” — to eat something other than Jesse’s home cooking. What a disappointment. The food was awful. It was overcooked, laced with MSG and extremely salty. I’m not allergic to MSG (mono sodium glutamate), but I am a little sensative to an excessive amount of the chemical. (MSG is added to food to open your taste buds and to enhance the taste of foods. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the food tastes good — if the food is not that good, the “not that good” taste is also enhanced. Ironically, MSG is almost never used in food that tastes good. Go figure.)

So here’s the lesson. If you and your children eat food with natural flavor, their taste buds will quickly be able to detect foods with added preservatives, even at an early age.

NOT feeding yourself, your family and/or your children preservatives takes some planning and some extra work. Is it worth it? I would say it is definitely worth it. It kept my daughter from suffering terrible skin lesions, pain  and acne as a teenager  from food allergies. Has it helped me personally? I can’t make that claim. I am 63 years old, I ride my horses 5 or 6 times per week and I can still rope a sheep. People say I look 50. (Girls, I am sorry to inform you that people lie through their teeth. I look my age and I’m proud of it. The alternative is being 6 feet under. Right?) But as of today, I am not diabetic, I do not have cancer and I have the heart of thirty-five-year-old. It could be worse.

I am such a fighter. Like you, I feel like government has made impositions on how I want to live and what I think my children and my husband should eat. Ultimately, I have the final control about what is going into my body and, hopefully, what is going into my childrens’ and my husband’s bodies. It’s not a huge revolution. It is very low key. But it is real and it means a lot to me. It meant a lot to me forty years ago. It means more to me today, I think. I appreciate the fact that the USDA wants to provide a healther environment to people who have no clue about what they are putting into their bodies. For those of us who study and care, we just need to be careful.

Back to leftovers — What  we leave over is still good, healthy food. If you have a husband that has a prejudice against leftovers, simply present them as home soup, casseroles or other homemade goodies. Tell him, “So go to Golden Corral and eat preservatives.” No. Don’t tell him that. He’ll do it. Just sit him down and tell him, “Here you go, baby. I made this special for you.”

Well, it works on my husband.

Equipment Needed for Freezing Foods

No fancy equipment is needed for preparing foods for freezing vegetables. However a vacuum sealer is a huge help because it keeps oxygen away from the food which improves the texture of the frozen food. Things you will need are

Freezer bags
Kitchen scale
Preparation space/work area
Sharp knives
Blanching pot or microwave
Freezer space

For freezing containers, I prefer freezer bags because it is possible to create a vacuum in the bag simply by heating the food to freeze, squeezing the air out of the bag and sealing. As the food cools, a tighter vacuum is created. As mentioned above, this effect is magnified with a vacuum sealer.

Kitchen Scale

Kitchen Scale

Blanching is heating and sometimes partially cooking a food prior to freezing. For example, to blanch green beans, get them all cleaned and cut up. I like to put them into a collander or wire basket and then drop that into a pot of boiling water. Leave them there for about three minutes. This process stabilizes the color and improves the texture of the food. If I don’t have a large amount of food to process, I use the microwave for blanching. Two quart bags of food take about three minutes in the microwave. Blanching does not work on fruit though. Do not blanch berries of any kind, apples, peaches, guava or apricots. I can’t think of a fruit that will withstand blanching.

Just a note here about freezing avocado — Remove the avocado from the skin. Before putting the pulp into a bag, put about a cup of water into a small sprayer with about a tablespoon of lemon or lime juice and spray the pulp. Then put it into a freezer bag, remove as much air as possible and freeze. The defrosted avocado is great for guacamole or avocado cheese cake.

If you’re not sure how a specific food will handle blanching and freezing, just take a small amount a test it. To test a quarter of a cup of food may take an hour to prep, blanch, bag, freeze and defrost. It is well worth the time. Use a scale to put a measured amount of food into a bag. Figure a can of corn is 12 ounces. Use that amount to figure what you need for one meal for your family.

And one last tip: Be sure you have enough freezer space. Make the most of your freezer space by flattening out the packages of  foods so that they stack well in the freezer.

Engage a Workforce

Over a century ago when the canning, drying and “putting up” of food needed to happen, women came from far and near to help their fellow sister prepare for the upcoming winter. We don’t really have to do that anymore. What fruits and vegetables we cannot get in season from our local growers comes from American-owned farms in Chile, Argentina and Brazil. We don’t really have much of an “off”season anymore.

canned-food

Canned Food

The exception is local foods. When a crop comes ripe, it is ripe and needs to get to market. Like our local green chile, when the time comes, we need to put up our chile or face buying Ortega canned chile for the rest of the year. That (locally speaking) is humiliating.

To take the sting out of spending the better part of a day doing your food preservation, consider this:

  1. invite girlfriends, mothers, sisters, etc., to come help put up the foods you have purchased for this purpose.
  2. Conscript your family, your children and spouse. Bribe with a pizza when the job is done.
  3. Barter with your neighbor – Tell him/her I’ll give you 10 pounds of squash if you’ll help me get my green beans frozen

While we don’t really need a reason or a holiday to get together, getting your food canned or frozen is a really good reason. Combine the event with a barbeque and get everyone involved.

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