Putting up with friends

RSS readers might not display the flashy Pictobrowser slide show below, so click through if you want to see us do the can-can.

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.

12 Responsesto “Putting up with friends”

  1. Nice photos. I am only in my second year of perserving, but I had some thoughts. Remember that you can reuse your jars next year and every year until the jars break or you stop canning! Same for all the equipment, so your costs should go down in the future. Also, to keep costs down you can ask farmers to bring you seconds or go to a pick-your-own. Better yet, grow them yourself if you can.

    Last night put up some home brewed grape juice with concord grapes that I am excited to try this year.

    A pickle will never taste the same again.

  2. Amanda says:

    Yes! Your tomatoes floated too!

    The Ball Blue Book doesn’t mention floating produce, so I got nervous that maybe I’d done something wrong. I found a line about it in an ancient copy of Stocking Up — all it said was that it meant my simple syrup was too heavy and to make it lighter next time. Since I hadn’t canned my tomatoes with sugar syrup, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it.

    Anyway, sounds like quite the adventure. Thanks for sharing the photos.

  3. Robyn M. says:

    Commendable effort! Yargh! I’m in year #2 of canning/preserving as well; I’m beginning to branch out into freezing & lacto-fermentation.

    A suggestion: try contacting local farmers directly about buying canning goods in quantity. E.g., through my CSA, I can get 20# of canning tomatoes for $6, 25# romas for $8, a bushel of green beans for $20 and a bushel of pickling cukes for $13. Waaaay cheaper, organic, local & totally yummy.

  4. Emily says:

    I was all set to can my huge tomato crop this year, then got no huge tomato crop. :( I thought about buying tomatoes to can, but after looking at the price of organic tomatoes and all the work, I’m less charged up about the idea. Especially since Eden Organics is local to me (southern Michigan; all their tomatoes come from about a 100-200 mile radius) – $2/lb suddenly looks like a very fair price for tomato products.

  5. Joanne says:

    What a wonderfully inspiring post. The photo alone is great! We’ve not managed any canning yet – every batch of Heirloom tomato soup I’ve made has been slurped up by the household tomato fiends. When prices start to come down on Hierloom tomatoes (usually next month) I hope to start freezing some for the winter… but perhaps I’ll can some.

  6. You guys are freaking adorable! Unfortunately canning will never happen in our tiny kitchen. sigh

  7. Henry says:

    Nice work! Those jars are beautiful.

    I just finished making elderberry jam from elderberries I picked today on the side of the road near my house. I have no idea what I’m doing, but since I heard the pings I think I’m safe.

    For next year, the Perry Family Farm (organic) in Fremont has pick-your-own tomatoes at a bulk rate.

  8. Kim says:

    Great job! I’m a little shocked at the price per can you quoted, but I guess that will go down as you reuse the cans. Canning is going to be this weekend for me! This year is my first for canning. Earlier in the summer, I canned a bunch of local cherries, though. Fun! I enjoyed the cherry pitter more than one probably should.

  9. sam says:

    you haven’t removed your screw bands! That’s the best bit – it smells like success!

  10. korinthe says:

    My salsa floated too — no simple syrup there.

    A dehydrator dispatches tomatoes with much less effort requires on the cooks’ part (I’ve tried both). But then you need a vacuum sealer — wait, you have one! — or freezer space for the dried tomatoes. Mine are packed in a jar right now, but not vacuumed, and I’m not quite certain I trust that.

    Congrats on your canning success. It blows my mind to think of canning that much and starting at 1 pm! Especially considering all the prep time. At least you had each other’s help.

  11. Great job, all of you! I’ve definitely got to plan such a canning party at my place (or a friend’s) next year.

  12. Thanks for all of the comments.

    Sam — For me the most rewarding sign of success is the little “ping” sound when the jars seals. I love that sound! And also love that it is unpredictable. I actually leave the bands on my canned jars because if I take them off it means that I would need to put them somewhere else, which would increase the level of chaos in my already unruly kitchen.

    korinthe — having three people was critical in finishing the canning job, and even then we were quite a bit behind schedule. Being disorganized and making things for the first time didn’t help…

    The labor music that Bonnie mentioned is a “Tribute to Woody Guthrie” made up of live recordings from two benefit concerts held to raise money for Woody’s medical expenses in 1968 and 1970. The line-up is amazing: Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan (with a barely under control band), Odetta, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and more.