Saturday, August 29, 2009

What to Do With Overflowing Tomatoes? Can Them or Make Salsa for a Cold Winter Day!



Last year I taught myself to can tomatoes. I was a little intimidated because – as my Aunt Libby was only too happy to tell me at a cousin’s wedding in June – botulism is a painful way to die. However, I am happy to report that I have lived to tell the tale to the rest of you. Also, my friend Mary from Louisville told me about her aunt who last year bought her first can of tomatoes in 44 years of marriage. Seeing as how I am a task and goal oriented kinda girl, a dream of not buying another can of tomatoes for 50 years has become my latest obsession. Trust me, this will reduce my salt intake considerably since I use at least one can each week to make pasta sauce or as a base to soup.

I tried to find the bible of food preservation: Ball’s Blue Book of preserving, but, alas, last year it could not be found. I had to order it directly from the company and it took six weeks (or more) for delivery. (I had the same experience when I bought a copy for Mary at Christmas). In the interim, I bought The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food by Janet Chadwick via Amazon.com. This is a very good book, but it only covers freezing and hot water canning (which covers tomatoes, jams and fruits). There are no directions for using a pressure cooker (which is necessary to can non-acidic foods, like green beans and soup stocks). Happily for all of you readers, Kroger’s now carries Ball’s Blue Book on East Main Street in the seasonal aisle for a whopping $6.50. There are also lots of good websites.

Anyway, last year I canned tomatoes, pickled peppers (via directions from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UC Davis and from the Maryland Cooperative Extension), green beans (via directions I obtained on the internet from Kansas State University) and peaches as well as making strawberry preserves and fuzzy-navel marmalade (via the UGA recipe at www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can_07/peach_orange_marmalade.html). For that matter, a good website for this sort of information is the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia at www.uga.edu/nchfp, which also sells its own book on the subject. Finally, I froze a lot of green beans and zucchini via directions from The Ohio State University Extension office on Human Nutrition at http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/pdf/5333.pdf. This OSU site has great information for freezing all sorts of food, from asparagus to potatoes, to tomatoes. See http://ohioline.osu.edu/lines/food.html#FOODP.

On Wednesday, Mary asked me how many pints of tomatoes I had “put up” this year in 2009. I finally counted last night: 33 pints of tomatoes, plus 1 pint of pasta sauce and 6 pints of salsa (plus at least a dozen pints of green beans, a dozen pints of peaches, plus lots of fuzzy-naval marmalade, raspberry jam, blueberry jam and strawberry preserves). I still have at least a month of tomato harvests to go this seasonJ

You should get detailed instructions from a book, but to give you an idea of what is involved with “cold packing” tomatoes, you will need to sterilize the mason jars in a large pot of boiling water. (Do not sterilize the lids in boiling water or you could jeopardize the integrity of the wax seals. Merely soak the lids in seriously hot water until you need them). I use the same pot to sterilize and heat the jars that I will ultimately use to process the filled mason jars. You will need another, smaller, pot of boiling water to drop tomatoes into for about 1-2 minutes (depending on the size and ripeness of the tomatoes). Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes from the boiling water to a large bowl of ice water. Then, you will remove the core and rub the skins off the tomatoes (which is very easy if the skins have already split).

You have two options now. I usually chop them up, but it is faster to can them whole or in quarters. Then put the tomatoes in a fine wire colander (over a nice bowl) and smash them a bit to separate the flesh from some of the juice. Take your slotted spoon and scoop the tomatoes into the hot mason jar. (In the meantime, collect the tomato juice and make yourself a Bloody Mary cocktail with vodka, Worchester sauce and tobasco while you complete the rest of the process so you won’t resent the rest of your family for hanging out in cooler parts of the house watching television. Save the rest of the juice for tomorrow’s breakfast or freeze it for later use).

Before the jars and tomatoes cool down, fill the mason jars and smash them down a bit to remove air bubbles. Depending on the amount of natural juice you left with the tomatoes, you may need to fill the jar (to no more than 1/2 inch from the top) with boiling water from your tea kettle. You will also need to add at least 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each pint (and 2 tablespoons to a quart) in order to increase the acidity of the jar. Make sure that the lip of the jar is squeaky clean and not specked with tomato juice or parts. Put on the two piece lids (i.e., the top and then the screw on-part). Once you have exhausted your supply of tomatoes or mason jars, you will then put the filled jars into the large pot of boiling water. Make sure that the water covers the jars by at least two inches. You will boil the water and jars for 45-90 minutes depending on how you filled the mason jars (i.e., with boiling water or natural tomato juice). Be sure to have a grate in the bottom of your pot to keep the jars from breaking or exploding. You may also need to turn down the heat a bit if the boiling water gets a little crazy and starts popping the lid off the pot.

Note: I recommend keeping lids on the pots of boiling water to cut down on the steam in the kitchin. Also, while the jars are processing in the boiling water, this is a good time to make that cocktail I mentioned, clean up the giant mess in your kitchin and run all of those tomato skins to your compost bin.

After the requisite time has passed, turn off the heat and remove the jars from the boiling water. This can be tricky if you don’t have a special jar lifter. If you drop any of the jars before they cool, you will have damaged the seal and may need to reprocess. Let them sit there for at least 12 hours before moving them. Remove the screw on part of the lid and put the jars in a dark, cool place until you’re ready to cook.

I prefer canned food (in glass mason jars) to frozen because I don’t have to plan too far in advance (i.e., to thaw out the food). Some people add a little citric acid or salt to each jar in order to preserve color, etc., but I do not. Some people also remove as many of the seeds as possible, but I do not because I like the flavor they add. (Although this is a great time to harvest seeds from your favorite tomatoes so that you can plant them next year. I put them aside in little jars and then rinse them in the fine mesh collandar when I'm done canning or even the next morning. (If you don't rinse them, you risk mold). When the seeds have dried out, I put them in little coin envelopes and label them).

When you’ve harvested as many tomatoes as I have (with close to 50 tomato plants in my three gardens), you have to get creative. I have also made my favorite pasta sauces and then canned any excess (which keeps perfectly until I need it again a year later). This year I also learned to make and can salsa. It turned out so much better than expected that I will share the recipe with you. I’ve already started opening mason jars of salsa because I found the salsa to be addictive.

Spicy Salsa

Onions: Take a medium sized onion or lots of small onions (preferably from your garden), chop them and then throw them into a medium sauce pot. Do not turn on the heat yet. Red onions are recommended, as are scallions, but any will do in a pinch.

Lime Juice: I pour ¼ cup over the onions to marinate while I process the rest of the ingredients. I prefer more lime juice than vinegar, but you can decide how much of each you want.

Cumin: Sprinke to taste over the onions.

Tomatoes: I process the tomatoes like I’m going to can them and then throw them whole or in quarters into my blender until the blender is filled to the top. I then coarsely chop them and pour them into the fine wire mesh colander (which, of course, is set over a bowl in order to collect tomato juice for cocktails and breakfast).

Jalapeno and other peppers: I canned a lot of peppers last year. This was lucky for me because I somehow forgot to grow any jalapenos this year. When you pickle a variety of different peppers in the same jar (which I did last year), they all become a little spicy. I puree the peppers in the blender after processing the tomatoes. For the first batch of salsa, I used about 5 jalapeno peppers, but last night I used a pint of a variety of picked peppers from the same jar (including bell, banana and jalapeno). Yum Yum. You can decide how spicy you want your salsa. Note: bell peppers have a lot more vitamin C then other peppers.

One handful of corn kernels.

One handful of black beans.

¼ cup of fresh chopped cilantro (or as much as you really like).

¼ cup of cider or red wine vinegar.

2 cloves of chopped garlic.

Sprinkle on red pepper flakes to taste.

Bring your salsa mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and then simmer for 10 minutes. Fill your mason jars, leaving at least ¼ inch headspace. Process in a boiling hot water bath for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the jars and let them sit for at least 12 hours before you put them in a cool, dark place.
Makes 2-1/2 pints

Enjoy!!
Editor's Note: FYI. Kroger's is now liquidating its supply of mason jars. As of Labor Day weekend, a dozen wide-mouth pint jars were only $3.00. I can't turn down a bargain like that.

Friday, August 28, 2009

SACG Loves Our Bees















This is really just a shameless excuse to post some cute pictures of bees and sunflowers from the SACG and my back yard. However, we love our bees at SACG and planted lots of flowers in April and later months in order to roll out the welcome mat. We believe this contributed to the fantastic productivity of our garden (and all of the goodies we've been able to harvest, from strawberries, to beans, to tomaotes and zucchini).










Some of the flowers also attracted golden finches to the SACG, but they do not sit still for pictures like gorging bees.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

SACG Welcomes Cats to Our Garden






Visitors to the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden are likely to notice that there are a lot of cats who live in our neighborhood. The very first time I visited the snow-covered Garden in February with Farmer Bill, a black kitten tried to adopt me. When we broke ground on the Garden on April 18, a mother kitty was moving her kittens from the building next door (presumably because we made so much noise). Many of the neighbors have two or more cats in their household.


Some of the cats like to sneak under the Garden gates and sleep in the relative safety of the Garden - particularly in my corn or under Alysha's tomato cages.

The Dispatch ran an article this week about how to keep cats out of your garden. I can sympathize because my own cats like to sleep on flat dirt and don't really care about my seedlings which they end up crushing during their cat naps. They've also turned some garden beds into litter boxes. However, at Stoddart, so we haven't had any unpleasant "surprises" in the Garden and we welcome the cats (which presumably keep down the rodent and bird population). Although they like to hunt butterflies, they also hunt pesky grasshoppers.

One kitten in particular lives next door and is unusually friendly. She loves to be petted -- even by children. Alysha's daughter, Sarah, even lies down with the kitten in the shade. She (the kitten) cries when she is not receiving our undivided attention. Very cute. It followed me around when I mowed grass on Saturday. Another beautiful black-and-white tuxedo cat spends a lot of time with us, too.

Last night, while I was watering our pumpkins, I heard someone ask if I was the Garden Manager. I looked up and found my friend Mary from Louisville. She had been in town on business and surprised me by showing up at the Garden unannounced. (Mary was the one who had the idea for the pumpkin patch). I showed her around the SACG and the Bexley Community Garden and she was duly impressed with what we had accomplished in just a few months. Like everyone else, she fellin love with Alysha's crazy tomatoes (and grows crazy heirloom tomatoes of her own in Louisville). I would list the names (if I remembered them), but some of them are obscene:)

Alysha brought Max and the irrepressible Norah with her last night to help water and harvest. (This can be a race this time of year with it getting darker earlier and earlier each night and we have only received 1/2 inch of rain for the entire month of August). As you can see from the pictures, Norah really enjoys her mother's garden plot at the SACG.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Too Much Garden Bounty? Ratatouille to the Rescue!

If you have ever found yourself having too much of a good thing at the same time (i.e., tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and eggplant), then ratatouille can be the gardener’s best friend. While tomatoes can be canned or frozen, peppers can be pickled and zucchini can be frozen, it can be difficult to successfully preserve eggplant. However, ratatouille – a vegetarian stew popular in the Mediterranean region of Europe -- freezes very well and can be a welcome surprise on a cold winter evening.

In my Ohio world, my Mediterranean eggplants do not ripen until September – months after my zucchini has given up the ghost. However, asian eggplants taste the same and ripen simultaneously with zucchini. Then, it’s only a question of whether any of my bell peppers turn red in time (or I have to cheat and buy them at the grocery).

I have four different recipes for ratatouille, from The Silver Palate to Moosewood, but here is the gist:

Equal parts chopped eggplant and zucchini (although some recipes call for more of one than the other. You can use your discretion). On Monday, I used 8 small eggplants and then chopped up an equal amount of giant zucchinis from my refrigerator. Some recipes call for cubing the vegetables, but I like them in strips.

Other Ingredients:
Two green bell peppers, sliced.
Two red bell peppers, sliced.
Olive Oil
Garlic
½ cup chopped Parsley
¼ cup chopped Bail
4 tablespoons chopped Oregano
Medium Onion chopped
6 cups of chopped tomatoes
Red wine (optional everywhere but my house)
½ cup Tomato paste (although I usually omit this because I hate the thought of not making it from scratch).

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium high heat. (I use my giant wok since I make so much, but you can use a smaller pot if you make less). Add the wine if you’re in the mood.

Add the eggplant, stirring occasionally to keep it from burning, until it is soft. (Try not to let it disintegrate or you can lose that eggplant flavor and texture). Some recipes call for baking the eggplant first, but what’s the point of dirtying another dish when this works as well? I usually chop up the zucchini and peppers while the eggplant is softening in the pan.

Add the chopped peppers and stir.

Add the chopped basil, parsley and oregano and stir. (If you grow majoram, I find it adds a nice je ne sais quois to the stew).

Add the zucchini and stir (which can be a challenge if your pot isn’t big enough).

Chop the tomatoes while the stew sits there and softens.

Add the tomatoes and stir until warmed through. Word of advice: if you don’t strain the tomatoes first, your stew will get very soupy.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Turn off the stove and serve over rice.

I usually serve myself one portion and then -- after I’ve had my dinner and the stew has cooled down a bit -- divide the rest among 6 plastic containers and put it in the freezer for a winter dinner or lunch when I don’t feel like cooking. (You can add the rice to the bottom of the containers now or wait to add it after microwaving your stew in the winter).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bexley Area Community Gardens Welcome ACGA Visitors on Saturday



On Saturday, community gardeners from across the nation visited four Bexley area community gardens as part of the American Community Garden Association national conference being held at nearby Franklin Park Conservatory. The ACGA hosted several garden tours for its visitors, including tours of new community gardens and nearby church gardens.

The New Garden tour started at the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden. Alysha, Betty and Maxcine joined me in welcoming about fifteen visitors in the morning from places as diverse as Anaheim, California; Camden, New Jersey; Burlington, Vermont; St. Louis, Missouri; and Atlanta Georgia, as well as their guide, Christine Nohle (owner of the former Urban Gardener in the Short North). The tour presented an opportunity for experienced community gardeners to advise new community gardeners through their early growing pains.

They were extremely friendly and supportive of what we had accomplished. Like many other visitors, they were fascinated by the height and shape of Alysha’s tomatoes (especially the beefstake tomatoes). Some of them each took a tomato with them in order to harvest the seeds for their own gardens next year.

At Stoddart, they asked about the following issues and provided the following suggestions:


* Suggested that we attach a 500-gallon water tank to the downspout of a nearby vacant building to collect rain water which will sustain us through the dry season (especially if we were to expand). It could be decorated with graffiti from neighborhood artists and kids.
* Asked about our policies and procedures for expelling gardeners;
* Suggested that we begin charging at least a small fee from each gardener in order to create a fund to buy more compost and to give them a feeling of ownership in the Garden’s success;
*Suggested that we increase the size of the raised beds for the pumpkins and to add compost to where the tentacles grab the ground;
* Suggested that we apply for grants in order to purchase common tools for the neighbors who do not own their own;
* Suggested that we apply for a grant to pay for environmental pollution testing;
* Asked about whether I keep regular “garden” hours so that gardeners know how to reach me;
* Asked about our many sunflowers;
* Discussed the pesky construction debris lying immediately under the soil.

At Bexley, Barb, Mike and Mike’s girls welcomed them in the morning. They discussed how to overwinter the garden, adding compost, allocating work, children’s gardens, the lovely new benches and planting more flowers to attract bees.

After the Bexley Community Garden, the new garden tour then visited the new garden at the Governors’ Residence. The Church Garden tour included the Christ the King garden on Livingston Avenue.

I wish I had a better picture as they toured each part of the Garden, but they kept me so busy that I was unable to take a picture of anything other than the first two visitors coming off their bus in front of the Stoddart Garden.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Stoddart Garden Welcomes New Gate Sign




As previously mentioned here, the Stoddart Avenue Garden has been extremely blessed with the support of many creative and hard-working gardeners and other supporters. When I arrived last night, I discovered that Dwain had finished painting a new sign for our front gate and it greeted me when I pulled up my car to the Garden. Although Dwain wasn't around to pose with his latest creation, it's a very nice addition to the Garden -- just in time for the ACGA convention starting this week. It's certainly a vast improvement over the sign I painted in April (when I couldn't find another most artistically inclined volunteer).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bexley Area Gardens Clean Up For ACGA Convention.



On Saturday, at least two of the Bexley area community gardens cleaned up in anticipation of the annual national convention of the American Community Garden Association. Three Bexley area Community Gardens (Stoddart Avenue, Bexley and Christ The King Church) will be visited during the convention as well as the new garden at the Govenor’s Mansion. (You can read more about the Christ The King Garden in the April 22, 2009 posting here at Christ The King Church Has Community Garden on Livingston Avenue near Bexley ).

At Stoddart Avenue, Alysha, Beth & Mike and I weeded the paths and pulled weeds from some of the plots (as well as our own) beginning at 9 a.m.. Mari weeded the fence rows and I weeded the alley (and better organized the stone curb). Mitch will be planting a Rose of Sharon bush. I brought donuts and Alysha brought coffee.

As reflected in the picture, a significant number of the Bexley gardeners -- including Alysha, Ginny, Barb, Amy, Lisette, Rebecca and Don (and their minions) -- helped clean up the Bexley Garden starting at 10 a.m. They refreshed many of the mulch paths and pulled weeds out of the abandoned plots. (In fact – for those of you who did not show up -- we reassigned the abandoned plots to gardeners who were there). Don used Alysha’s gas-powered weed-wacker and cleaned up the fence rows. Since I had already refreshed the mulch paths around my plot last week, I created a new map of the Garden reflecting the assignment of plots (to the extent that this information could be re-created). I’ll post the map soon on the Garden’s Message Board. Everyone should contact me to fill in any blanks and first names, identify ASW, and to identify the mysterious DAL who has abandoned his/her tomatoes and peppers to weeds.

While we weeded the Garden, our aspiring Eagle Scout was building our benches. The Bexley Garden will receive its first four benches later today. Anthony Murdock built and financed them as part of his Eagle Scout Project. We will have a seating area in the shade on the west side of the Garden (which will make a good place to hold meetings) and one on the east side of the Garden.

For Bexley gardeners who missed the clean up party, there is still work to do. You still need to replenish the mulch around your plot. (There is a shovel and wheel barrow in the Garden for you to use and the mulch pile is on the northeast side of the Garden). You should weed your plot (and the paths around your plot). If you have bare spots, consider planting beans in your plot. Beans sprout quickly and will put needed nitrogen into the soil. Free seeds are under one of the containers at the east gate.