Dried Tomatoes

A few years ago I was browsing a local thrift store and saw what looked like a dehydrator.  It was marked $3.80 but they were having a sale that day on yellow-ticketed items – 50% off.  I decided at $1.90 it was the worth the risk that it wouldn’t work.  I know, I know, I shouldn’t have spent so much – what can I say?  I was in an extravagant mood that day.

Since then it has sat on a shelf because I never had anything I needed to dehydrate.  But, with tomatoes coming into the house by the bucketload, and a bumper crop of apples this year, we decided to pull it out and see if it works.  We loaded up all four trays, plugged it in and voila – away it went.

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Pictured is a variety of heirloom tomatoes: Cherokee Purple, Red Siberian, Italian Roma and German Green.  Yep – those green tomatoes are completely ripe and if you closed your eyes while eating, you’d never guess they are green – they taste just like a ripe, red tomato.  (However I don’t know if I’ll grow them again – I lost a lot of them, rotting on the bush while waiting for them to turn red.)

Hours later – around 16 hours in fact – the tomatoes were fully dehydrated and were placed into canisters.

Although we could save and use them in cooking, we are treating them like a candy treat – they are so sweet and delicious that when looking for a snack, its easy to grab a handful and munch on them.  I suspect there won’t be many left by the time I might want to use them in cooking.  We also have a jar of dried apples to snack on – another delicious, healthy treat.

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Canned Spicy Pasta Sauce

When our tomatoes started ripening in sufficient quantity to preserve, I looked up recipes for canned pasta sauce.  For the first batch, I dutifully followed a recipe that called for skinning the tomatoes (place in a pot of boiling water until the skin cracks, then plunge into ice cold water and the skin will peel right off), then sautéing with onions, peppers and any other ingredients, then pureeing in batches in the food processor, then putting back in the pot to simmer and reduce.  Those directions didn’t sound too bad until I actually implemented them.  It took all day!!!  It takes a LOT of tomatoes to make a batch of sauce so washing and skinning and chopping and sautéing and pureeing in batches was a lot of work, mess and time, and by the end of the day I was exhausted and wondering if it was even worth it.

Since then I’ve made several batches of pasta sauce and crushed tomatoes and while I’m glad to have the shelves full of things we will actually use this winter, I still felt there had to be an easier way.

So this weekend I decided to try something new.  No research I did suggested it as a viable alternative but I tend to test boundaries and don’t always take “no” for an answer until I’ve thoroughly tested the hypothesis for myself.  What I learned this weekend is that there IS an easier way to make pasta sauce – and I will never make it using those “tried and true” recipes ever again.

After washing the tomatoes, all I did was cut out any bad parts and the core, then place them in the food processor.  In addition to the tomatoes, I had picked 50 assorted hot peppers – mostly Jalapeño and Cayenne with a few Banana Peppers – and some onions.  While chopping the tomatoes, I also cut the tops off the peppers and peeled the onions.  But rather than dicing, I threw the vegetables completely whole into the food processor.  Each time the processor bowl was ¾ full, I zapped it until the veggies were pureed, then poured the puree into a stock pot.  When that stockpot was almost full, I pulled out a second and continued pureeing the raw veggies until the second stockpot was also full – which coincidentally was also when I pureed the last batch of veggies.  I didn’t time it but my sense is that it took about 30 minutes to fill 2 stockpots full of puree.  Yes, the skins and seeds were in the puree.  So what?  More nutrition and fiber, yes?

The stockpots simmered for several hours until they had reduced to pasta sauce consistency.  I then combined them into one pot so that I’d have a burner available to start heating the water in my canner.  Once the canner was ready to go, I added ¼ teaspoon citric acid to each jar, filled them with the hot sauce and processed them (water bath) for 35 minutes.

This was SO much easier than the previous method.  Although the veggies went into the stockpots raw, they cooked while they simmered.  No need to dice, sauté, puree and THEN put back in the pot to simmer.  I saved a lot of time dicing, by jumping straight to pureeing.  And once the veggies were in the pots, all I needed to do was give them a stir each time I walked through the kitchen, but otherwise, I was free to do other things while they reduced.

After the jars were full, I found we had about another jar’s worth left over, so our dinner last night was pasta with freshly made sauce over it.  It was SO good.  HWA went back for three servings!!!  And here’s the other thing: I’ve never seen “spicy” pasta sauce for sale at the grocery store.  But, as you can imagine, with 50 hot peppers in it, this batch of sauce is pretty darned spicy.  Now I’m wondering WHY none of the commercial sauce makers make theirs spicy.

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Garden 2014

My summer has been a busy one – hence the infrequent posts.  My veggie garden for this year started back in November of last year with a plan.  Being a computer geek – or is it nerd? – I subscribed to an online resource called Plan Garden (www.plangarden.com) to lay out my garden for 2014.  There was a bit of a learning curve, but once I had figured out a few things, I enjoyed the ability to plot a garden on my computer screen.  I started by laying out the designated area, then creating garden beds within the patch, each bed 4′ wide, with a 2′ walkway in between.  The plot is 16×40, though the fenced area includes a 4′ walkway around the perimeter.  The entire area allowed me to create 7 beds, each of which is 4′ wide by 16′ long.

Next I added the plants.  The beauty of using a planner is that it automatically fills in how much space each plant will use when full-grown.  I can add plants individually or in rows and if planting a row, all I do is add a row to a particular space and it will then tell me how many plants I will need to start and at what spacing.

While creating my garden online, I also did a lot of additional research into things like companion planting.  Each article I read provided me new information that resulted in moving plants around in my plan.  For example, I learned which vegetables do well planted close together and which “do not play well with others” and should be left by themselves.  I rearranged and rearranged again, trying to make sure every plant was going to be happy not only in its location, but with its neighbors.

In the past my garden space was limited so I planted only those items my family could eat.  Flowers held no value to me because they are pretty but otherwise useless.  Or so I thought.  An article on attracting beneficial insects changed my mind and I rearranged my garden yet again to accommodate flowers that were likely to attract the insects I wanted, both to pollinate my veggies and to eat the harmful bugs.

My final draft looks like this:

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The planner suggested when to start planting seeds indoors.  In February I started seeds in newspaper pots.  I created mini-greenhouses and each morning carried my seedlings outside to take advantage of the sun, hauling them all back indoors at night to protect them from the cold.  The last frost date for our area was May 1st but Mother Nature has a sense of humor and we had our last frost on May 2nd – a few days after I’d planted out quite a few of the seedlings, thinking surely the cold weather was behind us.  I lost a few seedlings in that frost but many survived.

Since May, my garden has grown.  I’ve battled squash bugs and potato bugs, caterpillars of all kinds, blister beetles, and grasshoppers galore.  Most recently we’ve been visited by tomato hornworms.  Each pest has been countered by our efforts which involve picking them off manually since we don’t like to use chemicals in our garden.  I lost all of my zucchini plants to the squash bugs, but a few weeks later I replanted and, having spent themselves destroying the first crop, the bugs have not returned and the second planting has done well.  Too well.  This weekend I carried in two zucchini so heavy my kitchen scale only said “Error” when I tried to weigh them.  You see, I hadn’t checked the plants for two whole days so it was really my own fault they grew so big.

In spite of the bugs, the garden has exceeded my wildest expectations.  We’ve apparently had the right amount of rain at the right intervals and our harvest has been amazing.  Every couple of days we go and pick bucketfuls of tomatoes and the preservation of them will be the subject of a new post in a few days.  While harvesting tomatoes this weekend, HWA suggested next year we should plant fewer of them.  However in a less productive year, I might need this many plants just to keep us in fresh tomatoes so I’ll happily chop and peel and can this year’s crop and hope next year will be as good.  When we are eating our spicy pasta sauce this winter, I think I will be very glad I expended the efforts over the summer.