Category Archives: vegetables

Canning tomatoes

My friend W is taking classes to become a Waldorf teacher. It’s an amazing curriculum based on Rudolf Steiner’s philosophies about childhood development. For kindergartners, Waldorf teaching emphasizes learning by doing seasonal activities–this teaches the kids that life is a cycle and humans have developed rituals to connect them to the seasons. Children at that age like to feel like there is a plan, that there is a consistent thing going on.

I can’t help but to feel the same way about canning tomatoes. Going on three years now, Bill and I make our pilgrimage to the lovely Blue House Farm, where our friends Ned and Ryan grow the best dry-farmed tomatoes ever. Since the tomatoes aren’t watered during the summer, the flesh is quite sturdy and the fruit taste is concentrated. Once canned, the tomatoes remain whole and, dare I say it? taste better than the fresh fruit. It’s some kind of alchemy, canning.

This year, Bill went to Pescadero solo (I had to work) in October and picked several buckets and boxes of tomatoes. Enough to share with our friends even. And so I began the ritual, once again, of putting up a year’s worth of tomatoes (about 52 jars, one for every week). This year was different in that I used the pressure canner for about half of the jars. My friend W came over and we processed tomatoes late into the night. She even stayed up until 2am and ended up sleeping in our guest room.

Usually I do water bath canning. I sterilize the jars in the oven, then pack as many raw tomatoes into the jar as possible. I top off the jars with leftover jars of already processed tomatoes from the year before, or make a tomato juice by putting a bunch of the less than perfect tomatoes into the blender. Then I add lemon juice to the tomatoes (just to make sure they are acid enough and to retain color), screw on the lids, and process for an hour and a half. Yes, that takes forever. Even with a huge canning cauldron, I can only fit 9 jars.

Enter the pressure canner. Same exact process with the jars, except I don’t *have* to add the lemon juice. The temperature gets to 250 degrees, so any botulism is killed by this high temp. I closed the lid to the pressure canner, let it vent steam for about 10 minutes, then put on the stopper and process for 15 minutes. Then another 15 minutes to let the canner lose pressure. So, effectively, the p.c. cuts the processing time in half. And it gives me peace of mind.

But how do the tomatoes taste? you ask.

Bill and I did a blind taste test and found that…drum roll…the p.c. canned tomatoes taste better, more tomatoe-y, richer, and more perky. Of course the water bath toms are great too. The canned tomatoes are wonderful pantry items to use in soups and stews, pasta sauces, pizza sauce.

But the real show-stealer this year was some slow-roasted tomatoes from our garden. I picked all those pesky cherry tomatoes–the sungolds, the currants, the volunteers–drizzled olive oil over them, then stuck them in a slow oven (230) to cook for a few hours. The result is a candy-sweet, smoky tomato paste. Some people might call it a confit. This I jarred up and canned as well. It works great to add a small jar of the oven-roasted tomatoes to a regular jar of tomatoes to make pasta sauce. As a pizza sauce, these slow-roasted cherry tomatoes are the best thing ever. Next year I plan to roast the dry-farmed tomatoes as well. Every year, the tomato canning process is being perfected. It is wonderful to learn something new while keeping the ritual intact.

Virtual farm tour

Sorry for those of you who missed the last farm tour. It was nice to meet some new folks and see old friends. I’ve got a gun to my head to finish a writing project, so there won’t be a tour in August. Plan on a Friday in early September.

In the meantime, here’s the farm report.

The bees I caught last year are doing really well. There seems to be lot of activity, though I was worried about the queen’s laying pattern last time I did an inspection (which was awhile ago–I hate bothering them). The swarm caught this spring in Alameda has died out. The queen never started laying and it all went to hell. I partially blame myself because I had this really jankity brood box with very funky frames.

The garden is in that awkward mid-summer phase where the greens are done but the tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet. Luckily there is something to eat because it’s summer apple season. One of our neighbors comes in and picks them, which pisses Bill off, but I’m resigned–and even a little supportive–of the lot pillagers. Times are tight in the ghetto and the more fresh food I grow, the healthier the people around here will be. In a nod to my hippiedom, I’m growing corn and sunflowers, crops I usually don’t pursue. However, I have a reason! I do like sweet corn. And, the goats will very gladly eat the corn stalks. So it’s a multi-use plant. Similarly, goats like sunflower leaves and seeds.

The chickens on the deck are getting big, and I’m almost ready to set them loose outside with the big girls. They’ll get their asses kicked, but after a day or so all will be well. They’ve been flying off the deck and into the street, which is no good, so I’m getting motivated. The big white fella is Edith’s soon to be boyfriend. By the way he’s been puffing up lately, I’m fairly sure he’s a male.

Finally, the deck rabbits are getting plump from eating the windblown apples. They’re approaching their 3 month old birthday, which means it’ll be time for rabbit rillettes soon.

Freaky vegetables

What do you do if someone invites you to Mondavi’s Taste3 conference? You go.

There’s the food. The wine. The big ol’ schwag bag. There’s a mulberry tree at Copia that, right now, is raining down dark juicy berries. No one seems to be picking them! There’s a great thrift store in Napa. But even better than the fine wine, the lobster dinner at Mumm where everyone got their nice clothes dirty with butter and lobster drippings; the complimentary coffee, tea, chocolate and shoes–there were some of the most eloquent, poetic, funny, slightly mad people who really care about what they’re doing. Dan Barber gave a talk about why he won’t use foie gras anymore (not for the usual reasons). A photographer named Laura Letinsky, who takes haunting photos of…leftovers, gave a presentation that got my slow-moving brain thumping. Jennifer 8 Lee confirmed my love of Chinese food as the all-American food. It was great. And then I returned hom, back to the vegetables in my garden.

Finally, the cabbage, which has been so slow growing, are starting to form heads. The first to be ready is this Melissa. Crinkly. Somewhat addled with slugs and a few earwigs. Delicious when grated with apples from the tree (the Anna apples are now ready), tossed with rice wine vinegar and walnuts.

The zucchini is out of control, as usual, but early this year on account of the pig manure. This is the vine of the Ronde de Nice zuchini, a round zucchini that volunteered out of the porcine poo
pile. I’ve harvested about a thousand of these small guys with their blossoms still attached. This vine looked weird, though. Thicker. There were flower buds coming off the vine. Not normal. I followed it to its trailing end. My heart stopped. It became a club footed monster. The vine thickened to almost 6 inches thick, like some crawling prickly pear cactus. And at this monstrous terminus was an almost vaginal cluster of flowers and fruit all riddled together.

I gasped. I have never seen this before. There were *so* many fruit in one space. A gold mine of zucchini. Was it the pig shit? Is it some mutation caused by extra fertile soil? Something deeply wrong with my eco-system? I don’t know. I harvested a few of the zucs for dinner, and when I carried them into the house, I couldn’t help think that the zucchini plant reminded me a bit of Taste3–a many headed vine, a delectable banquet, a marvelous freak show that makes for some fond summer memories.

Making plans

Spring’s the season for scheming. I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about root vegetables. Why didn’t I plant more beets? Then Bill’s been planning various summer-time trips–a bike ride to Bolinas, a trip up to Seattle for my mom’s 65 (!) birthday.

It’s also time to plant a victory garden on the lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall! I’m doing research for a story about heirloom seeds and got myself invited this weekend to a seed-sowing party in West Oakland. We planted and transplanted veggies to be featured in a victory garden in the front lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall. I don’t want to give away all the secrets of the project, but I’ll tell you that I planted several types of amaranth, peppers, and tomatoes.

The idea for community-focused vegetable production has been a fairly long-standing tradition in America. In the 1890’s, the mayor of Detroit first advocated growing community gardens. Growing your own veggies made a lot of sense during the Depression, too. When WWI hit, war gardens sprouted up all over America. The idea being the troops needed the food from the farms, so ordinary citizens should grow their own for their tables. During the Second World War, victory gardens were popular. During the 1940s, all over the country, including urban areas like SF, NYC, Boston, Philly, cities played host to demonstration victory gardens to inspire citizens to grow their own food. For the whole story, check out an article from Tea and Cookies in Edible SF about the project.

City Slicker is donating the know-how and their greenhouse; Seeds of Change the seeds (all heirlooms); the City is hosting the spot; Garden for the Environment is coordinating the whole deal, and a group of artists at Future Farmers are adding the artistic touches. It’s going to make SF proud. Now if only Oakland would do the same!

Spring is also harvest-season. Today’s NYTimes had a photo spread of vegetables gone wild in kitchens–here are mine. They are new potatoes, fava, young garlic (garlic press), artichokes (one enormous plant gave us 30 ‘chokes), in the jar are newly-ready olives, finally brined and palatable six months after picking. Enjoy spring!