Guest post from Ohio: Seeing red

Bonnie here: At the end of June I sent out a call for new Ethicurean contributors outside the U.S. coasts, and I'm pleased to say that at least three people have emailed me made it through our rigorous application process. Our latest writer, Jennifer, hails from the Midwest and is an avid cook and locavore. Please give her a hearty welcome so that she'll share more tasty tales of her kitchen exploits; in my editorial opinion the Ethicurean has become a bit dry and heavy lately, like a vegan bran muffin, in our obsession with the Farm Bill mess.

About Jennifer aka The Baklava Queen: From the vantage point of her native northeastern Ohio, she reports that local food is alive and well... and really always has been. Growing up, Jennifer learned to appreciate fresh produce in season thanks to the family garden and trips to local farms, and now with a farmers' market practically on her doorstep, she has made a more conscious effort to seek out local sources for many of her cooking ingredients. When she's not keeping the world safe for government documents at the library where she works, she blogs about her cooking adventures at Rolling in the Dough and will be deeply grateful when the preserving season gives way to the baking season.

Seeing Red

For those who live by the harvest seasons here in northern Ohio, August tends to be the peak of activity, when many fruits and vegetables ripen in overwhelming quantities, flooding gardens and markets with their abundance of colors and tastes. In my childhood, August meant plates full of fresh sweet corn and juicy red tomatoes – not to mention the last push of canning and freezing before my mother (a teacher) and I both returned to school.

Now on my own, I find I don't have quite the same luxury of time, but I still know it's the prime time of the year for sweating over a hot stove to preserve summer's bounty for the coming winter. And given that I can't resist colorful, fresh, delicious local produce raised by farmers I've come to know and love at the market, I can't help but load up my bags and basket with food that requires my immediate attention if I'm to enjoy it later in the year.

Earlier in the summer, I preserve food up for later in smaller, easier-to-handle chunks: blanching and freezing some vegetables, making small batches of jam, pickling. But come August, I'm usually knee deep in tomatoes, and there's no escape but to fire up the stove and start canning… again and again.

This year, with almost every fruit and vegetable coming into peak season an average of two weeks early at my local farmers market (can you say "climate change"?), I've been awash in tomatoes since late July, and I expect the parade to continue well past Labor Day. I've already canned about 5 pints of salsa (a mere pittance), tucked a few small jars of oven-dried tomatoes into the refrigerator, and whipped up a two-and-a-half quart batch of vegetable-laden spaghetti sauce – and I have yet to tackle plain tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes. That's a lot of tomatoes, and a lot of work – especially daunting of late when the temperatures outside have hovered in the 90s with heat indexes rising higher yet. It’s almost enough to make me want to turn on the air conditioning … a serious temptation for someone who doesn’t mind being called a “crazy tree-hugging enviro-nut”!

Why do I do it? Why do I chain myself to the stove, hovering over pots of boiling water, chopping and peeling and cooking until my back screams for mercy and I'm dripping with sweat and I feel like I may never be dry or cool or rested again?

I do it partly out of tradition. My grandmother grew up on a farm and rode out the Depression as a young teacher before getting married and starting a family during World War II. Influenced both by her upbringing and the war-era propaganda, she raised an enormous garden every year (up until she died) and preserved the vast majority of what she harvested, filling her root-cellar shelves with jars of fruit, vegetables, and preserves that never seemed to dwindle. She passed her skills on to my mother, and I grew up learning how to do the same. When I fire up the canner in my own kitchen, I feel them both hovering over my shoulder, reminding me of what to do, what to add, and, by all means, "don't drop that jar!"

That tradition of economy, self-reliance, and working with the seasons goes against today's consumer mindset of everything being available whenever we want it, regardless of the labor and resources that go into it. Call me counter-cultural if you will, but I find I appreciate the food more when it's my labor that helps me enjoy it throughout the year, even if it means that for a few months I eat the majority of my vegetables out of jars or freezer bags.

But I also do it because I like to do things that make me feel like I'm part of a vital community. Now that I no longer have a garden of my own and rely on the local farmers' market for all my summer produce, I want to be sure that I buy plenty in order to support the farmers – and then preserve almost all of it so that I can get through the lean months without buying too much additional produce. I find more pleasure in opening a jar of home-canned tomatoes that I originally bought from the bright-eyed family with whom I've shared a number of conversations or from a crusty older fellow whose produce is often hidden beneath surprisingly exuberant bouquets of colorful flowers, than in those anonymous tomatoes tossed into my basket at the supermarket. It makes cooking so delightful when I can share stories about the origins of the food.

I certainly have more confidence in the quality of my food when I get to know the people who grow it, their growing practices, and their care for their share of the earth. A handful of farmers who show up at the local market have gone through the organic certification process, but even those that haven't usually report that they don't spray their fruits and vegetables or do so only as needed. They can all tell me the life cycle of their produce and how it was all grown and handled.

In the past several months, my frustration and anger has grown with every new report of disease outbreaks and product recalls resulting from the recent surge of food safety snafus. Thanks to the lack of federal funding for safety inspections and regulatory enforcement, food-processing giants have little accountability compared to the farmer who knows me by name, looks me in the eye, and sells me her fresh produce week after week.

So yes, given all that, I'd rather put my own effort into stockpiling a fair share of local food for the winter than rely so heavily on what the supermarket can provide. It's not a difficult task; after all, the government can manage at least one agency well enough to offer sound guidelines on canning and preserving. But believe me, I know it's a lot of unromantic effort, as others have so eloquently written. In this summer heat, I sometimes dread the thought of the seemingly endless back-breaking work of preserving the bulk of the food I've hauled home from the market. Skinning, chopping, cooking quart after quart of tomatoes, filling jar after jar, one hot water bath after another – it's an exhausting cycle that has to be repeated many times in order to have enough jars stashed away. And I'm lucky: I'm not trying to preserve enough food to feed even a small family, and I have the time in which to do all of this.

But those tomatoes in the market are so tempting, and even in the steamy heat of my kitchen, I can conjure in my mind's eye a cold, snowy night and a warm, comforting dinner packed with those tomatoes… and I remember why I work so hard to keep summer tucked away in the pantry.

(Image of 1946 U.S. Department of Agriculture poster courtesy of the University of North Texas Libraries' Digital World War Collection.)

7 Responsesto “Guest post from Ohio: Seeing red”

  1. Pat Anderson says:

    I have an allotment garden in Toronto. This spring, I purchased 8 heirloom tomato plants from a local organic farmer. My harvest is starting: I've got two different types of paste tomato, some Caspian pinks, and Black Cherry tomatoes. I think I'm going to freeze the paste tomatoes as they ripen until I have enough to make a big batch of tomato sauce (to be flavoured with my equally organic basil).
    I look forward to eating the produce fresh and frozen in the middle of February.

  2. I've been told that freezing tomatoes is a great way to postpone some of the work until later, and the way things are going this summer, I may have to try that. I've never done it before, though, because my freezer is usually getting close to full by now. Thanks for the reminder!

    I'm quite jealous of your Black Cherry tomatoes... I grew those two years ago, and they were delectable! I ate most of the crop right in the garden.

  3. Peter aka Nosher of the North says:

    I also have tons of tomatoes. I haven't yet gotten into canning, but I'm getting closer to investing myself in it with each pile of fresh fruits or veggies that lands in my kitchen.
    For now I am freezing all my berries on baking sheets and then storing them in bags in the freezer. i will use them in cakes, muffins, oatmeal, and smoothies all autumn and winter.
    We've been eating tomatoes every day, as often as possible. Sliced next to our morning eggs or quickly sauteed with leftover grilled veggies and pasta for a quick and easy dinner.
    I have already made one large batch of my own modified gazpacho recipe, and since we polished it off in 3 days i will make another batch tonight...

    hmmm....canning.....

  4. Maya says:

    It's nice to see some cooking again on the Ethicurean, but I was hoping for a recipe. So, Miss BQ, how do you make your tomato sauce? And do you freeze the jars afterward, is that why you leave space at the top?

  5. Peter, it's definitely worth making the investment in canning equipment if you're growing your own food, participating in a CSA, or "suffering" from Low Sales Resistance (my problem) at the farmers' market. Freezing is great, too, but I find my freezer is never quite big enough, so I pick and choose what gets canned and what gets frozen.

    Maya, my apologies for not including a recipe. Because I do freeze the pasta sauce (since I don't have a pressure canner and am unwilling to flirt with botulism), I just throw together what I have on hand. The basic outline, though, would be to saute onions and peppers until lightly browned, add garlic, then toss in vegetables and herbs (I used eggplant, carrots, a little zucchini, basil, and oregano) for a light saute before adding tomatoes (I skinned and crushed mine first). Let it simmer at least an hour.

    I also added a bit of salt and pepper with the onions, a splash of balsamic vinegar with the tomatoes, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, and my secret ingredient, about a teaspoon of espresso powder. (If I'd had some red wine around, I'd have added some of that, too.) For a forgiving recipe like this, I season to taste, so go with what works for you.

    And as an added note to those who may not be fully comfortable with canning, I poured the hot sauce into quart jars, leaving the head room for expansion in the freezer, and I covered the jars and set them in the refrigerator for a FULL 24 hours before transferring them to the freezer. It takes that long for the sauce to cool all the way through, and if you rush the hot food to the freezer, you'll end up with a broken jar and completely wasted sauce. (I've done this... twice. I was NOT happy!)

    Again, my apologies... I'll be sure to include a recipe the next time around!

  6. I realized after typing all that that I didn't give the proportions of the vegetables, which is what you might have been asking? Here's a rough estimate (again, vary with what you like and have on hand):

    1 large onion
    1 bell pepper
    4 cloves garlic
    1 Japanese eggplant
    a dozen baby carrots (OR 2 regular carrots)
    about 2 qts tomatoes

    And my mistake, I didn't put zucchini in this batch. Next time!

    Does that help, Maya?

  7. Charlotte says:

    I did an interview a couple of years ago with Rick Bayless and he told me that he freezes tomatoes whole all the time. You can just pop them in ziploc bags, freeze them, and then if you want to skin them before using, run the frozen tomato under a little cold water and the peel comes right off. He makes salsas all winter with local Illinois and Wisconsin tomatoes. They get a little soggy when they thaw, so they're not great for salads, but for salsa or sauce, they're great. I did this a couple of years ago when I had a glut, and it was fun to whip up a tomato sauce in January with my own produce.