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Yesterday was Labor Day, and Marc, Rachel, and I stocked up like locavorean squirrels for the winter. Well, that's what I thought the plan was. But 8 hours, 50 pounds of tomatoes, 15 pounds of cucumbers, 4 pounds of green beans, 2 cut fingers, and 1 slight burn later, we'd barely accumulated enough to get each of us through a fortnight. Our cumulative haul: 14 quarts tomatoes canned in their own juice, plus 1 quart and 4 pints tomato sauce for freezing; 5 quarts and 5 pints dill pickles; 3 quarts and 3 pints bread-andbutter pickles; and 8 pints dilly beans.
We spent a wad on our preserving: each of those lovely quarts of organic and locally grown Early Girl and San Marzano tomatoes — we separated them — which we bought from Lucero, ended up costing us about $7. Same for the pickles. And that's not counting the amount we gleefully splurged on equipment. As Marc said later, "I have a feeling that Muir Glen pays a bit less than $2 per pound for their tomatoes. These will definitely need to be cooked with respect."
The day did not go entirely smoothly. In retrospect, we should have started a long time before 1 p.m. In the first hour, while slicing onions for the bread-and-butters, I nearly took the corner off my thumb on Rachel's super-sharp mandoline. (Thank heavens we had finger cots.) I used my brand-new canning tongs upside down for a while. Our recipes from Ball's Blue Book of Canning turned out to be somewhat confusing and apparently inexact: despite carefully weighing our beans and cukes, we had lots of each leftover but no brine. The beans we ate with an improvised dill chevre dip, and the cukes I turned into an 11 p.m., extra-spicy dill mini-batch.
But somehow, even though I felt a little ridiculous, like we were staging an episode of "1900 Live-Work Loft" as another friend laughingly put it, all the trouble and expense seems worth it. I am glad to have a better sense of what goes into preserving food without refrigeration, and if there's ever an earthquake, will be in less of a pickle. (If you want to know in detail how to preserve tomatoes and dills, every local newspaper seems to have had a story last week, or you can read our new contributor Baklava Queen's recent blog entries about canning, watch this Flash tutorial at Ball's fancy canning website, or consult the USDA's National Center for Home Preservation.)
Plus, we had a lot of fun. Marc played a "Labor Day" mix CD with Woody Guthrie songs about unions, and then we took turns picking out music to cook to. As Rachel sorted the squishy, overripe tomatoes for sauce, she muttered about how I'd portrayed her as a "baby chef" and "expert canner" when she is neither. (She is at least one of those things.) Somehow, while the last 14 jars of tomatoes simmered in the two canners, we found the energy to throw together a delicious dinner: pasta with pesto (made ahead), insalata caprese and Little Gem lettuces, and caponata (a gift from the Ethicurean's Elanor, who did her canning last weekend). Marc contributed one of his drool-inducing desserts: a friend's pears poached in red wine, served with cacao-nib and buckwheat crepes and a wine-reduction sauce that was as thick and oozy as caramel.
They sure didn't eat like this in 1900. Except if only we could time-travel back and plant some Little Gem and basil seeds for them, they could have. September is an Eat Local Challenge month, with a special emphasis on learning to put up your own food for the winter. As is de rigeur for the three of us, 75% of our dinner came from nearby farms. Thanks to our labors yesterday, we'll be able to enjoy delicious tomato sauce in the winter, guilt-free.