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Canning Tomatoes (as easy as I could make it)

Okay, so despite a previous attempt being enough to resolve me to never do it again, I was seduced by the $13/half-bushel canning tomatoes at the local farmstand, so I took the plunge and tried it.

Last time I did tomato sauce, which involved endless food mill time  (it was my first time using the food mill–I do not like it, Sam I am! Glad I only paid $12 on ebay for the thing, because I really dislike using it!) and even more endless cooking down time, and which in the end still didn’t give me the result I wanted.  So this time I took it easier and just did plain old Chunky Canned Tomatoes.  Nothing added except a little lemon juice and red wine vinegar (because I ran out of lemon juice).  I’ll do the adding at the other end, when I cook. has very good and easy directions for tomato canning, as do a few more places–at this point I feel comfortable enough canning that I do improvise slightly as long as I make sure safety measures (long enough processing time, sufficient acid content) are followed.  So here’s what I did; total 2  hours with kids scurrying around and one barfing dog to deal with during that time, and the last 45 minutes was just waiting for the jars to process. The reason I improvised was that I wanted something bigger than diced tomatoes but which would already have cored and seeded the tomatoes before canning them.  And I wanted something that would have the tomatoes packed in their own juice, not water or juice-purchased-elsewhere.  And trust me–this method makes a LOT of its own juice!

Jenn’s Easy Canned Tomatoes

Put the canning pot on to boil FIRST.  It’s a big sucker, and if you have a gas stove, it’ll take forever.

Put 7 or so quart canning jars in the dishwasher AT THE SAME TIME.  And lightly simmer the lids, and follow whatever jar prep processes you like to follow.

Washing the tomatoes: Since these were not organic (even though they were local), I did definitely want to wash them.  I filled half the sink with soapy water and the other half with clear.  Swished them around in the soapy water, scrubbed them a bit, shifted them to the clear water.  Rinsed out the soapy half and filled it again with clear cold water. (I didn’t use much soap; if you’re worried about rinsing, hey, rinse more!)

At this point, you’ll want to have ready:

  • Big pot of boiling water
  • Big cutting board and sharp knife
  • Sink or MASSIVE bowl with cold water and ice cubes
  • bowl for tomato skins and stems
  • bowl for seeds and juice (what you’re discarding or doing something else with)
  • bowl or pot for tomato pieces (what you’re canning)
  • Lots of cleaning rags or paper towels.
  • Clothes you don’t give a crap about, or a good apron, or both

When the water’s at a full boil, put as many tomatoes in as you can reasonably fit and let them stay for maybe 3 minutes. (I went 5 once for a batch and it didn’t hurt anything.) During this 3 minutes, add a bunch of ice cubes to the clear cold water sink. Then remove the tomatoes to that icy water immediately to keep them from cooking more.

At this point, honestly, I just used the tomato-skin water as my canning water, but if you chose to you could put new water on to boil right about now.

At this point the skin should slide off easily. Cut the stem end off, slide the skin off, and cut the tomato horizontally in half. Squeeze the seeds and inner juice into a separate bowl, and then squish the tomato pulp itself into your pot. (Oddly, this isn’t as gross as it sounds.) Continue this process until your pot is full or you run out of tomatoes. (I didn’t use my biggest pot and needed two batches. Live and learn.)

Put the pot of tomatoes on the stove and heat, and let it simmer for just a few minutes.

Into each quart jar, put a tablespoon or two (opinions vary–go with 2.) of lemon juice.  This removes any doubt about the acid level of your tomatoes. Spoon tomatoes into quart jars, stir or “bubble” them down to make sure you don’t have air pockets,  and add a little more juice from the pot as needed to fill them to the right head space level.  I got just under 7 quarts of tomatoes, so one of my jars is very juice-heavy; I might just make tomato paste or something out of it, I don’t know.  Place lids on, screw rings on lightly (“finger-tight,” is what they say), and process for 45 minutes in a hot water bath.

(And as usual–please do your homework on safe canning procedures– is a good site, and I have listed a bunch of others at The Green Phone Booth. I am not a nutritionist, a doctor, or even a proper foodie, and I don’t even pretend to play one on the Internet. Consider this the disclaimer.)

I also, by the way, didn’t want to dispose of all that lovely tomato juice–I strained the seeds out (and it’s unbelievable how many seeds I did successfully get out of those tomatoes!), boiled it down a bit so it was less watery, and ended up with about a quart and a half of nice, fresh-tasting tomato juice.  If you like tomatoes but don’t think you like tomato juice, give this stuff a try–it tastes simply like fresh tomatoes, and comparing it to anything I’ve gotten out of a bottle at the store is like comparing fresh summer peaches to the canned “cling peaches in heavy syrup” ones you get in the canned fruit aisle. I didn’t do the “proper” canning procedure with it, just the highly suspect “open kettle” method we’re not supposed to use any more, because I plan to drink it all within the next week or so anyway. (See the Food In Jars blog for other things not to do when you’re canning, and other handy Canning 101 tips!)

Made chili with one quart, just to see how they did: delicious.  Very very good.

Only weird thing, probably because I didn’t cook them down enough beforehand–in the couple of days after sealing, the “head space” has increased quite a bit; they aren’t even close to full now. I’m assuming the tomato stuff just sort of broke down, and the air trapped inside the tomatoes is no longer inside but outside them, which means they won’t keep as long in the jars; I should have simmered them longer…(That’s okay–the way I use tomatoes, I’ll be lucky if they make it to November). Also, I was victim of the apparently very common issue of the water separating from the pulp, which mean I had an inch of sort of unattractive yellowish water at the bottom and the tomatoes at the top; it’s not a big deal, according to the sites I checked, and once I shook them up again after the jars cooled it hasn’t re-separated.

This was easy enough and tasty enough that I would do it again and probably will next year, maybe going for a full bushel (14 quarts in the end) instead of this year’s half bushel (7 quarts)–my canner holds seven quarts at a time, so that would basically be two full batches, probably more like 3-4 hours total.


When the Pickles are Pickled

Okay, over the past few weeks I have made a few pickle attempts, various veggies and stuff that I’d put up in jars and brine, to sit and, well, pickle.

Tonight I broke open all three to see how they turned out, and how they tasted; last week we tried one of the others.  In general, a fairly successful set of experiments–going three for four, anyway.

By far the most successful experiment was the spicy zucchini pickles.  Bright, spicy, sweet, absolutely lovely.  I wanted to just stand there with the jar and eat them all.  I want to go buy more zucchini to make more.  And more. (And wouldn’t this be the year my garden decided to be stingy and deny me any giant green behemoths? This would be the perfect recipe for the big tough suckers that have grown too much to just sort of eat.)  I altered the recipe a little, choosing not to peel or seed the zukes and making them in spears instead of chunks–but it worked just fine. It’s a sweet-spicy recipe that reminds me a lot of the spicy watermelon pickles my mom used to make every once in a long while.  Really lovely. (Beware using too many cloves…they will make your tongue numb.) But totally, totally, try these!

The caponata I made two weeks ago also had a little time to let the flavors blend and meld–and they blended into a really awesome condiment that didn’t really taste like any of the individual ingredients but had a lovely taste of its own. Verrry nice. I could get used to eggplant if it’s in stuff like this.

I also had made a very impulsive sweet pickle relish recipe from The Art of Preserving…or sort of .  With pickles I’m not as worried about following recipes exactly.  The recipe called for apple cider vinegar and bell peppers…I used white vinegar and carrots instead.  Chopped up a mixture of cucumbers, half an onion, and a few carrots, put them into a half pint jar.  Made a brine out of white vinegar, 1.5 times that amount sugar, 1/8 that amount salt. Into the jar with the veggies I put a teaspoon or so each celery seeds, mustard seeds, and half a teaspoon of allspice.  Poured the brine over it. Processed in a water bath. I had some on a hot dog tonight; it made a very creditable relish, a little crunchier and fresher than traditional relish, but that may be because it only pickled for a couple of weeks; I’ll try it again in a month or so. (Yeah, I know, the seal’s broken now, but it should still keep for ages.) It’s good. And I know exactly what went into it–no weird ingredients, none of that bizarre radioactive-looking dye that turns it such an improbable shade of green (or sometimes almost turquoise–is that only Chicago where that crazy blue-ish pickle relish turns up?)…just fresh nice veggies pickled in my own brine.

The least successful attempt was just ordinary pickles, in my own pickling spice and brine.  They aren’t bad, but they also aren’t anything to write home about.  Which goes to teach me that I really ought to stick with recipes someone else developed.

I never thought of myself as a pickle person…but I could get used to this.

In a Pickle

So when I went out to check the garden before we went out of town, in addition to the bumper crop of baby eggplant (delightfully ironic that the one veggie thriving in our garden is the one I don’t like very much), I also found a few stunted and sad cucumbers–they are weird, there is this sort of “bulb” of happy cucumberness on one end, and the other end looks like a stunted gherkin.  I also had about half an inch of white vinegar left in the old container which I wanted to get rid of.

So I figured, what the heck–Picked them, cut them into wedges, and made a small jar of pickles.  And chopped up another with some drying-out baby carrots and the remainder of an onion, changed the brine a little, and made some sweet pickle relish.  I know I’ll be the only one eating these,  since my family doesn’t like pickles, so the one tiny jar thing is probably pretty good.

Basically, pickles are much easier than I thought they were, and less scary in terms of bugs getting in. (After all, vinegar and water solution is what I use to scrub my toilet, so it stands to reason that the stuff is fairly bug-unfriendly!).  You heat vinegar and some salt (or vinegar, salt, and sugar) almost to boiling. While it’s heating, you pack your veggies and whatever “pickling spice” you’re using into clean jars (I sterilize them if I’m not planning to do the water bath, which I didn’t have time for this time), and then pour the vinegar solution into the jars and seal them. Really simple.  Explore the internet on your own for a gajillion varieties and possibilities–I’m still basically using the ones from The Art of Preserving, although I’m futzing a lot with the spice combos listed there.

Anyway, it’s cool to have something fairly easy to do with veggies that would otherwise be rotting in my crisper drawer!


Another recipe from The Art of Preservingfor which I’ll respect the copyright and not reprint it here.  But I still recommend the recipe (and the book!) and have fairly good faith that you can find an online caponata recipe online somewhere and doctor it to your liking.

Caponata, for the uninitiate and non-Sicilians who might read this (I’m not Sicilian either!) is an intense eggplanty relish-condiment-pasta-saucy-thing with capers and tomatoes and all kinds of good things.  We are going out of town soon and I needed something to do with my ready-to-pick eggplant harvest, and this seemed like a good bet.

A note: the recipe in this book was developed to be acidic enough for water bath canning–as I’ve said before, unless you know you’re using high-acid foods or an established recipe, don’t improvise and assume your own variations are safe for this purpose!  I’m even a little leery of this recipe, because despite the half cup of vinegar and high proportion of tomatoes, it also has onions and lots of eggplant, so I will probably keep it in the fridge. (The danger is botulism, which grows in warm moist oxygen-free environments like the inside of vacuum-processed jars. Fridge temperatures should be low enough that it can’t multiply and, like, kill you. Unlike other contaminants, it’s odorless and tasteless, which is what makes it so scary. Usual disclaimer: do your own homework, don’t automatically trust anything I say and assume I know what I’m talking about.)

Anyway, I’ve seen all kinds of caponata recipes–eggplant and capers seem to be key in all of them, and most have some tomatoes, but after that they are all over the map.  Some have cinnamon and unsweetened cocoa (think mole), some have carrots and celery, some have zucchini (or use zucchini instead of eggplant), some have green or black olives.  This particular version includes eggplant, tomatoes, onions, pine nuts, capers, and kalamata olives–it’s intense and salty and I expect once the flavors have time to meld it’ll be amazing.  (It also, because of the water bath thing, may be a bit more sour and acidic than other recipes, because it has to be.)

I was also delighted to discover that this time (I came up short in the plum jam recipe in quantity, and it took much longer than the recipe suggested it should) I got exactly the yield the books said I should get (3 pints), and it took pretty much exactly the amount of time it said it should take.  I processed it in the water bath (but am storing it in the fridge just in case, because I’m paranoid and saw that episode of Criminal Minds where this woman died of an extreme case of chemically engineered botulism) and it vacuum sealed beautifully.  Got the head space thing right this time too. I hope this lives up to its promise…because it looks delicious.

What shall I preserve next?

Nectarine Raspberry Preserves

Okay, the other day I related my canning adventures…Today I broke into the nectarine preserves. (By which I mean, I opened them, not that I busted the jar or anything.)

Oh. My. God.

Unfortunately, I didn’t even use anything like a proper recipe–I started with the one from The Art of Preserving, and then kind of improvised from there. (By the way, improvisation is something to be wary of in home canning in a water bath, which can only be done with high acid foods.  I sort of went on the theory that if you can make preserves out of raspberries, and you can make preserves out of nectarines, then combining the two shouldn’t be an issue, right?  As usual, the disclaimer: please don’t read this blog, decide to do what I did about pretty much anything, and then blame me if you get sick. Do your own homework! I’m a musician, not a CDC worker.)

Just for those who are not canning-obsessed: Jam is a process that causes the fruit to break down and gel, either from its own natural pectin or from added commercial pectin. Jelly is like jam, only strained and clear. Preserves are pieces of whole fruit suspended in syrup, and actually a lot easier to make because you don’t have to worry about jell points and stuff.

Nectarine Raspberry Preserves

  • Pit and quarter–or eighth–about 3 lbs of nectarines. (This was a pain in the tail, because the pits all split open.)
  • Place in a non-reactive metal bowl with about 3 cups sugar. Let sit overnight in fridge.
  • Here you have choices: most intelligent non-lazy recipes tell you to drain off the syrup from the fruit and boil it for half an hour or so, and then to re-introduce the fruit for another ten minutes. I found only one recipe that told you to just dump it all in a pan and boil it for 30-40 minutes or so, so naturally that’s the one I used, because I didn’t feel like getting my strainer all sticky.
  • Five minutes before the end, throw in a cup of raspberries, 2 tbs lemon juice, and a splash of brandy.
  • Using a slotted spoon, divide the fruit among 5-6 sterilized half pint jars. (More or less.) Fill with syrup to about a quarter inch from the top. (Leaving the head space is important.)
  • If you have enough leftover syrup, pour this into another half pint jar or so; otherwise just save in the fridge.
  • Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Wow.  I mean, just, wow.  You could probably do this without soaking the nectarines overnight–and this does make for a runnier syrup than you’d have if you drained and cooked it down before adding the fruit, or if you didn’t soak them–but the syrup is one of the best parts, so I am happy to have it.

And by the way–if you don’t feel like fussing with the hot water bath, just make the stuff and refrigerate it. I can almost guarantee it won’t go to waste, because it’s seriously delicious. imagine this over vanilla ice cream…(or yogurt, I guess, but ice cream would be my choice.)…or in a shortcake kind of situation…or in a trifle…

I am imagining those things too…while I sit there with the jar in one hand and the spoon in another.

Seriously, you gotta try this stuff.

Preserves, Pickles, and Sauce, Oh My!

This is the one where Jenn went a little crazy with her canner.

I stopped at a local produce market a friend has been trying to get me to for about a year, but I never quite managed it…and I am hooked.  For under ten bucks I got out of there with 6 pretty zucchinis, 4 lbs of beautiful firm Roma tomatoes, a bunch of nectarines, and a couple more things, I don’t remember…

All of the above are now preserved in Ball jars on my counter.

I made Tomato Basil sauce from The Art of Preserving, which I reviewed at The Green Phone Booth yesterday.  I made spiced zucchini pickles that were just too intriguing to pass up (and besides, I had the ingredients around–most pickle recipes require celery seed and turmeric, neither of which I had in the kitchen; cinnamon sticks and cloves I had.) I made a nectarine-raspberry preserve that’s a hybrid between a couple of other recipes; since fruits like that are high acid, I’m not worried about spoilage and botulism and stuff, so I felt okay messing with the recipe a bit.  And a special, today-only bonus: there was a whole lot of leftover syrup after making the preserves, so I canned a jar of that too. (And put the leftover half jar into the fridge.)

Verdicts so far: Despite my love for tomatoes and my new-to-me-ebay Foley food mill, I don’t see tomato sauce as something I’ll be knocking myself out to produce on a regular basis, BPA in commercial can linings or not.  It takes something like 45 lbs of tomatoes to produce maybe 7 quarts of product, and it’s just too damn much work.  All those who make this happen on a regular basis–I salute you.  But I don’t think it’ll be me.  I only got about a pint and a half of sauce out of my mini-recipe, and one of the jars didn’t seal–I think I need to start leaving more head space in the jars, I underestimate how much expanding room the food needs when it heats…

The pickles I won’t know for a week, since part of the deal with pickling is that, well, you have to let the food pickle.  They look and smell fairly amazing, though.  Got three little half pints and one bigger pint; the small ones may be gifts.  If I know anyone who likes spicy zucchini pickles. 🙂

The preserves look lovely–they are this gorgeous swirl of orange and red, like some exotic sunrise.  I overfilled those too, but they sealed okay, I believe. (I’ll check it out tomorrow when they’ve cooled, to be sure. ) Got I think one pint and two half-pints out of that, and another half pint of syrup.

Still have the four jars of plum jam from last week.

None of these were huge batches; if I’m going to go all fubar on a new project, I’d rather do it on a smaller amount of produce, you know? Still, it was a very labor-intensive few hours, although I did find it helpful, as long as I paid attention, to move things in and out of the water bath without having to reheat the whole damn pot of water every time I had a new batch.  That part worked okay.

But this is so very cool…I love having a new skill, and I love knowing that even though 6 days before a 2 week vacation was probably not the best time to buy a buttload of produce, it will all survive till we return and beyond.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some nectarine-raspberry syrup out of the jar and then go to bed…