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Getting it done: world’s easiest tomato sauce

In the words of Elizabeth, if there is only ONE THING that you are putting away for the winter, it should be tomatoes. Here’s her advice on how to get it done.

My Ukiah

When I research recipes for preserving food, I find so many refined options. And by refined, I mean complicated. They call for a long list of ingredients and a zillion steps. While I appreciate that these exist, and that people exist who like to make them (people that I wish would feed me their delicious creations), I’m just not that kind of cook. I like to take 50 lbs of tomatoes and turn it into 10 quarts of sauce in 2 hours.

I believe that these complex recipes overwhelm many people, making them feel like they couldn’t possibly put up cans of food worth eating. To those people, I have some refreshing news: NONE OF THAT COMPLEXITY MATTERS. Sure, you still have to follow the rules to safely preserve the food, but what’s inside those jars doesn’t have to take hours to prepare.

Ingredient lists are suggestions at best. I’m…

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Preserving Food, Part II: How to can everything

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The second installment by sisterwife Elizabeth, pictured here with me at the Mendocino County Fair this weekend. Because sometimes we are not in the kitchen and also, you are never too old to get your face/body painted.

 

Painted faces at the Mendocino County Fair

Preserving Food, Part II: Can It!

Canning is not as hard as people think it is. It can be time consuming depending on what you’re making, but it’s not a difficult process. I didn’t even start canning by myself until this year, but I already feel like a natural.

Last time, I wrote about making pickles. To make those pickles shelf-stable, follow these simple directions. (Not short, but simple.) Note that some foods are not safe to process in a water bath and need to be done in a pressure canner to be shelf-stable. Always check a recipe (or three) to find out if what you want to make is appropriate for the water bath method.

Equipment for Canning

You will need:

  • A big pot
  • A canning rack or something that fits in the bottom of your pot (a round roasting or cooling rack often works). This is to protect the jars from the bottom of the pot and reduce the possibility of them exploding.
  • Some Mason/canning jars (Ball, Kerr, Golden Harvest)
  • NEW canning lids (lids must be new or the seal might not form)
  • Rings to adhere the lid to the jar (can be old)
  • Jar tongs

Here’s how you do it. This applies to everything, not just pickles.

1)     Prepare a water bath. Take your biggest pot and fill it so that the jars will be covered by at least 1 inch of water. Put the canning rack in the bottom, cover, and bring to a boil.

2)     Put all your lids (not the rings) in a small saucepan with some water, and turn it to low heat. This loosens the rubber and helps form a better seal. These should sit in hot water for at least 10 minutes, but keep an eye on them – you don’t want them to boil.

3)     While the water is heating up, prepare the pickles. Note that many recipes instruct you to first boil the jars – you certainly can do this, but as long as the jars are clean it’s not necessary since they’ll be boiled (and therefore sterilized) momentarily. (There is some wisdom to the idea that hot jars are less likely to crack/explode in a boiling water bath, but often by the time I take my jars out of the hot water and fill them, they’re cold before I put them back in anyway.)

Canning marathon

4)     Once the jars are filled with goods and you’ve added the brine (see Part I), use a chopstick to try to dislodge any air pockets. Add more brine if necessary.

5)     Remove the lids from the saucepan (I have a little magnetic wand, but you can just drain them). VERY IMPORTANT: Before you put the lids on the jars, wipe the rims with a wet cloth. If there’s anything on the rim, it might prevent a seal. (Vinegar probably won’t mess it up, but sugar definitely will.)

6)     Place the lids on the just-wiped-clean rims, add the rings, and tighten until they’re on pretty well but not so tight that your grandma couldn’t get them off.

7)     Turn the heat on the water pot down so it stops boiling. This will help you not get burned.

8)     Using jar tongs, gently place the jars in the pot. It’s okay if the jars touch, but you don’t want them to be so crowded that they won’t be able to move a little under the boiling water. If you have more jars to can than room in the pot, just do a second round.

9)     Bring the heat back up to high, cover, and wait for it to boil again.

10)  Once the water is boiling, set the timer. Some recipes will tell you 10 minutes, some 15, some 20 – I usually do pickles for 15, but you can do a quick Google search for whatever vegetable you used to check the recommended time. (Fruit and bigger jars take longer.)

11)  When the time is up, remove the lid and turn off the heat. Leave the jars in there for 5-10 minutes (if you take them straight from boiling water to room temperature, the jars are more likely to break).

12)  Remove the jars using tongs. I always line them up on a towel on my counter. Wait for the delightful “ping!” noise that tells you a jar has sealed. (This sound never gets old.)

13)  A few hours later or the next day, press down on the tops of the jars. If they don’t bounce back, congratulations! You made shelf-stable food. Remove the rings and gently lift the jar off the counter a few inches by the edge of the lid just to make sure the seal is good. Store without the rings (so they don’t rust) in a cool, dark place. Conventional wisdom is that these are good for a year, but I’ve had 2-3 year old canned goods that were just fine. Always inspect newly opened jars with your eyes and nose when you open it. If it looks fine and smells fine, it’s fine. Do not open jars with bulging lids – this is a sign of botulism, which is very rare. This is a good resource for more on canning and food safety.

14)  If the lids do pop back when you press down, it’s ok! Just stick them in the fridge. There are many reasons a seal might not form, and none of them means the food is bad.

Mexican-style pickled carrots

If you have jars that break during the water bath, that’s a bummer but it’s not the end of the world. It happens sometimes, usually due to a scratch or other imperfection in the glass. It’s only ever happened to me once. All the other jars of food are still perfectly good, so remove them, let the rest of it cool, and then deal with it like you would any broken glass.

This might seem like a lot, and at first it IS a lot. Think of it like playing Risk or Settlers of Cataan or some other complicated board game. The first time, it’s better to play with someone who’s done it before. But after a few times, you know exactly how to play and probably even feel comfortable teaching others. Also like a board game, canning is a lot better with friends.

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, and if you live in Mendocino county, come over any time for a lesson. I’ll also be teaching a canning class in Ukiah in September.

You can contact Elizabeth at her blog, My Ukiah.

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Preserving food, Part 1: How to make refrigerator pickles (no canning necessary)

The recipe below was graciously provided by my canning mentor and sisterwife Elizabeth, also author of the My Ukiah blog. I have been making another version of this recipe which involves lacto-fermenting the pickles before putting them in the refrigerator. Will share that soon. But for now, let’s start with the most basic of the basics (which is great if you’re afraid of canning, like I am). 

Preserving food doesn’t have to be hard. I recommend starting with pickles because:

1) They’re easy to prepare and hard to screw up

2) The brine is mostly vinegar so acid isn’t a problem

3) They’re delicious

4) You can pickle everything

First, pick your recipe. There are a million books and websites to choose from. The most important thing from a food safety perspective is having enough acid in there to prevent bacteria from growing, which is not a problem given that pickles are packed in brine. For non-pickle preserving, most fruits are naturally acidic enough, though surprisingly tomatoes are not. This is a pretty simple fix and most recipes tell you to add lemon juice.

Refrigerator full of pickles

Right now I have jars of pickled zucchini, carrots, beets, radishes, eggs, and yes, cucumbers in my fridge. You can skip the canning process by putting pickles right in your fridge. They don’t last as long and they aren’t great for carrots which benefit from being cooked, but they’re ideal for zucchini which do not like the heat (key ingredient when pickling zucchini: cumin). It also make for an extra crunchy cucumber pickle.

There are lots of variations on pickles, but here’s a basic recipe:

  • Whatever vegetable you’re pickling (or fruit, though I’ve made enough gross pickled fruit to shy away from it at this point)
  • Apple cider vinegar and water in a 1:1.25 ratio (many recipes call for 1:1 – it’s up to you).
  • About 1 tsp salt for every cup of vinegar. (Most recipes call for canning salt but I always use sea salt. Also, some call for up to 1 TBSP/cup, so use more if you like saltier foods.)
  • Whole peeled garlic cloves
  • A mixed pickling spice or any combination of bay leaves, mustard seeds, whole black peppercorns, whole allspice, coriander seeds, and dill seeds. (For sweeter pickles, you can also use cinnamon sticks and whole cloves, and add 1/3 C sugar to the brine for every 1 C vinegar, or more if you like really sweet things.) (NOTE: California laurel is a lot stronger than standard culinary bay, so use 1/3 to ½ of a leaf in each jar instead of a whole one.)

Combine the water, vinegar, and salt in a pot and bring to a simmer. Cut your vegetables however you want them (slices or spears, or even whole). Drop 1-2 cloves garlic plus the spices you want in the bottom of clean ½ pint, pint, or quart jars (I usually use pints and use 5-6 peppercorns, part of a bay leaf, and sprinklings of everything else). Pack your veggies in, including thin slices of onion if desired. Sometimes it’s easier to lay your jars on their sides and pack them horizontally. You want to leave about ½ inch of clearance between the top of your veggies and the top of the jar.

Once your jars are filled, pour the hot brine over them, leaving ¼ inch headspace at the top of the jar. I use a wide-mouth funnel so I don’t spill, but you could also transfer the brine to anything with a pour spout.

Refrigerator Pickles

Assuming these are refrigerator pickles, close them up with a lid and a ring and stick them in the fridge. Most pickles will be ready in 24 hours, but will continue to get better after a few days.

Zucchini refrigerator pickles

In the interest of CYA/safety, most recipes say pickles only keep for about a week in the fridge. That is ludicrous! Some pickles will keep for months. If you find that your pickles are getting too strong, simply dump out half the brine and replace it with water. (Same goes if it’s too salty.)

Tune in for Part II on how to actually can these suckers.


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Mama Ellen talks about family and food

My family has had a couple weeks of sleeplessness, grief and gratitude. My beloved Gramps passed away on the eve of our sixth month of this project. I’ll write about him when I’m ready, but for now, here’s what my mom had to say.

She is such a powerhouse I rarely get to surprise her. Her 55th birthday was July 5th, and she spent is burying her dad and flying home. She got up and went to work the next day. When she got home, I was there with dinner. Characteristically, she first cried, then put me right to work, and we made farm budgets over dessert. Also characteristically, in spite of all her other work, she took the time to write this. The warm practicality, grace, fierce love and strength of our matriarchy speaks through her, let it wash over you.

Listen.  This is what it sounds like in a family where love rules:

 

It sounds like someone running dishwater while in the background your daughter, light of her grandpa’s heart, sits with your stepdad of 33 years, holds his hand and talks quietly to him.

 

It sounds like settling the dining room with no one else around when your stepdad speaks suddenly out of the silence, saying to you, “I’m sure gonna miss you,” and you run to him, take his hand and say, “I will miss you, too, for the rest of my life.  But I promise always to take you with me.”

 

It sounds like kids running up the stairs, waking the patient, but he doesn’t mind.  It sounds like kids always saying yes, always minding, always ready for a smile or some tears.  It sounds like grownups remembering that kids need both, to learn how to make love rule in a family.

 

It sounds like the laughter of lunatics, of people too tired to carry on who are carrying on anyway, and the absurdity of it all is like a drug in the system – bracing and mildly hallucinogenic.

 

It sounds like voices singing “Happy Birthday” – badly but wonderfully – five days before the event because you are flying home in the morning.

 

It sounds like your stepdad’s last words as he sits with the remnants of the birthday cake: “Fortunate.  Fortunate.”

 

It sounds like the quiet voice of your sister saying so calmly, “Come kiss Papa now, and thank him – he is passing.”

 

It sounds like the noise your mother makes as he looks into her eyes and she sees that he is gone – the saddest, most lost sound in the world.

 

It sounds like your own voice cancelling your flight.

 

It sounds like the telephone ringing – again, and again, and again.

It sounds like your mother, strong matriarch in a family of strong matriarchs, inquiring after the needs of others.

It sounds like a well-earned 21-gun salute, on your real birthday this time.  It sounds like the beautiful voice of a daughter speaking a poem selected long ago, and like your own voice singing the song of good-bye – and not wavering even though everything inside of you is wavering and shaking.

 

It sounds like the turboprop taking off directly after the ceremony and discharging you into the welcoming party of husband, daughter, and kids smiling and shouting to share the surprise as they sweep you into their arms.

 

It sounds like a daughter’s voice on the phone, wondering where you are as you pull into your own driveway.  It sounds like her laugh when you realize you are talking to her on your cell phone and looking at her truck in your driveway.

 

It sounds like all of the million things we have to say to one another over a beautiful meal, delivered to an exhausted and soul-weary mom – fresh from the living earth, prepared by loving hands. 

 

And it looks like this:

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And this:

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A family where love rules is made up of people who truly see one another, hear one another, and serve one another.  It is a family where the greatest single value is authenticity, beginning with the food we feed one another and the love in our voices when we serve it.

 

These are the ways we learn to inhabit our own lives.  These are the moments we realize that truly we are fortunate.  Fortunate.


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Learning How to Cook – Some Wise Words

Had to share this post by our friends at Mendocino Organics. When people ask us for recipes we are usually speechless; all of our cooking pretty much follows method number four, based on what is seasonally available and on hand. Thanks, Mark Bittman for validating that we have reached a certain level of culinary genius.

Mendocino Meats

We can’t help it, but we have a thing with Spanish cuisine right now. The climate is similar to our’s, and we both have Spanish blood running through us. Last year, we borrowed and watched all the episodes of Spain…On the Road Again. Who can resist Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Bittman, and Claudia Bassols on an eating road trip through Spain, and a theme song sung by Willie Nelson? Fortunately, there is a companion book to the show, including recipes and cultural notes about the places they visit.

Flipping through the recipes of fried eggplant, cordero lechal, and images of jamon, there’s this great transcript of a conversation between Mark Bittman and Gwyneth Paltrow when they were visiting the Alhambra. There’s a bit of the conversation that is actually really poignant in the current conversation about getting back to eating locally and seasonally, and ultimately about…

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