Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Canning: Tomatoes in their own juice

I was so happy to come home last night and find that my tomatoes had started to ripen!  This year has been a particularly bad season for tomatoes (really hot so that the flowers wouldn't fruit and then super cold so they won't grow and ripen in addition to fighting the birds for them), and before last night I'd only gotten maybe 5 tomatoes off of my 4 vines so far this year!  Here's last night's haul:

Don't adjust your screen--they are yellow with a few pink (Brandywine I think) and purple guys (Black Kirin?) in there, too.  Yellow tomatoes tend to be sweeter than red or pink tomatoes, and carry a higher sugar content and usually a lower water content. Purple tomatoes tend to be the most tart tomatoes.

Since I knew we'd never be able to eat all of these before they started rotting, and I just killed the last jar of last year's tomatoes when I made a chili two weeks ago, I knew these needed to be canned.  I use Ball's Blue Book of Preserving as my guide for all canning matters.

If you're interested at all in canning or freezing or dehydrating or even just some fun chutney recipes, I highly recommend getting acopy of Ball's Blue Book.  I think I paid $7 for mine a few years back, and refer to it constantly when I have a surplus of fruit or veggies.  I took a picture of my copy since it's relatively new; I would imagine the edition hasn't been updated yet...

The tools:
For this many tomatoes, I'm only going to get 4-5 jars going, so I don't bother using my huge canning pot.  I use a large sauce pot for skinning the tomatoes and a 5 qt stock pot for the sterilizing and processing of the tomatoes.  I fill them with water and set them on the stove (with lids of course) to boil before I tend to the tomatoes.

I also assemble my jars (5 in this case, but I only used 4 ultimately), new lids, rings, jar tongs (not sure what the real name is), canning funnel (not shown below), measuring/air removal tool, lid retrieving magnet, stainless tongs, and measuring spoons.

You'll also need an ice bath (I used a large bowl) and colander set up.  You can also do this in your sink if you like, but I like the be able to have the ice bath mobile.

It's also a good idea to get out the bottle of lemon juice and kosher salt at this time if you have the counter space.

So the first thing I do is is wash the tomatoes, take off the green stem if it's still there, and then mark an x in the bottom.  This really helps with skin removal.

Once the smaller pot is boiling, place a few (3 or 4) tomatoes in there.  This won't take but a half minutes tops to get the skins to start waving in the water.  Once the skin starts to separate, move the tomato to the ice bath you set up.  You don't want to wait, or you'll start to cook the tomato; you'll lose some of the flavor to the water and the mushiness will make the peeling difficult.

I made a video of how quickly this part goes, just in case you don't believe me

Once the tomatoes have cooled enough for you to handle them, start peeling.  Don't forget to take out the core, any blemishes, and as many seeds as you can muster.  I just put 4 or so slits down the side of the tomato and scoop of the seeds with my fingers.  The cleaned tomatoes look something like this:
Now, that you've cleaned and skinned all of your tomatoes, I bet the water in your processing pot is boiling.  Now's the time to sanitize your jars, lids, measuring tool, canning funnel, and stainless tongs.  I always put the jars in first as they take the longest and you'll need them first.  You can put the tongs in so that just the ends (that which touches the tomatoes) is in.  Leave them to process for at least 1 minute, and retrieve with the jar tongs.
I usually put the jars on a towel to cool for a minute (don't touch the lip or inside of the jars!) and then start preparing them for the tomatoes.  Don't sanitize the lids for too long, or the adhesive ring can melt and be ineffective.  These should be retrieved with the lid magnet, and left to dry face up on a towel or counter.

First, add at least 1 Tbs of lemon juice to each pint jar (use 2Tbs for a quart size jar), and a dash of kosher salt.  For these tomatoes, I used 2 Tbs per pint jar because they're sweeter tomatoes than most, and the acid must be high enough to ensure good preserving.  Also, use bottled lemon juice for this step and not fresh--bottle lemon juice has a constant level of acid (they make it that way on purpose) while a real lemon's PH level varies widely depending on variety, age, time of year, etc.
Now we start to add our tomatoes!
Put the funnel in the jar and stuff the tomatoes in the jar until you have about an inch (usually about where the screw top rings start on the jar).  Use the measuring tool's flat side (or a sanitized spoon or butter knife) to work any air bubbles out around the side of the jars.  Usually after I do this, I have to add at least a half tomato more to get to an 1/2 inch of head space (the measure between the lip and the top of the tomatoes) needed for effective processing.
Each one of those little stairs is a 1/4 inch!  It's really a great tool to have if you plan to start canning a lot.

If I need a bit more tomato to meet my head space requirement, I use the juice left from the tomatoes in my cleaned tomato bowl. Sometimes there's not enough, and then I'll grab a Tbs or so from the boiling processing pot.

Now we start to put the lids and rings on.  Make sure the lip of the jar is clean before you put the lid on by dabbing a towel in the boiling water and wiping the lip only, being careful not to touch the inside of the jar.  Place the lid on top (shiny side up), and then tighten the ring so that it just closes.  You don't want to tighten it too tight or air can't escape from the jar while boiling and will interfere with the vacuum needed for a good seal.

Put the jars in BOILING water.  Once all the jars are in, make sure you have about one inch of water above the tops of the jars.  I keep a hot kettle ready sometimes to help top it off and keep the water temp pretty close to boiling.  Bring the water back to a strong rolling boil and start your timers for 40 minutes (for pint jars like mine).
Be very careful when putting the jars in.  I don't want anyone getting burned.

After forty minutes, use your jars tongs to retrieve the jars, and set them on a towel or trivet or something that won't melt to cool.  They will need a few hours to cool down completely, but you might start to hear the lids popping after only a few minutes!  It's pretty fun even after a few years to hear them pop.  You may also hear a weird sucking noise as they begin to cool--and that's a good thing!  That means your vacuum is working.

One thing to look out for before putting the jars of tomatoes into storage:
*The lid didn't suck down all the way.  If you can press down on the lid and it pops back up, you'll have to reprocess the jar. (Use a new lid, wipe the lip down again, and boil again).

Two things to look out for before using the jars:
1. The lid pops back up. (I don't recommend reprocessing if the jar has sat for longer than a day.)
2. Any weird colors that pop up.  Black, purple, brown, green are not supposed to be there.  That means you got some bacteria or yeast in there.
Toss these jars immediately.  The $1 or $2 you save by using them is not enough to warrant a night over the toilet or poisoning your family.  Some icky things can live in improperly processed jars...

I've stored tomatoes for a full year with no problems and made some great dishes with them, too.  Store them in a dark, cool , dry place--your pantry!

Time requirements:
For newbies, set aside a few hours to get this all done for sure.  You might want to give yourself at least 4 hours.
I got this all done after I got home from work at 6pm, went into my garden for the tomatoes, canned them, cleaned up from it, and made dinner all the same time, all before 9pm.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sunday Morning Breakfast (but on Saturday): Banana Pancakes

Usually on Sunday mornings, the hubby and I go out to our favorite diner (Bob's in Roxboro) and get breakfast.  I get pancakes and he gets some sort of egg dish (depending on his mood) in addition to some great company from the staff and other customers. Since this weekend I would be visiting a friend in North Jersey and unable to make our normal Sunday sojourn, we decided to make Saturday our day for our big breakfast. 

Of course we woke up too late on Saturday morning to make it to the diner and get my husband to his class on time, so we decided to make breakfast ourselves. I made one of my favorites: Banana pancakes.

I'm a freak when it comes to pancakes, and have to use a pancake batter I make from scratch--it truly produces a MUCH better pancake at a fraction of the cost of buying a mix and is just as easy to make as from a store bought mix.  The recipe I use is adapted from the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, and I've modified a few things that I've found work better:

1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg (beaten)
3/4-1 cup milk (I start with 3/4 and add up to 1 whole cup depending on how the batter is turning out)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 banana
*If you'd like to use buttermilk instead of milk, use 1 tsp baking powder and 1/2 tsp baking soda

The equipment:
A frying pan or griddle
Measuring spoons
Dry measuring cup (for measuring and scooping)
Liquid measuring cup
Medium bowl
Spatula (not a rubber one)

First the dry ingredients:
I dump them all into a bowl (flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar) and whisk them together quickly before adding the wet.  This helps you not have to mix as much once you add the dry and avoid tough pancakes.

Then add your wet.  PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU BEAT THE EGG FIRST!  Again, this shortens the amount of mixing and helps you avoid the tough pancakes--a kiss of death in my eyes.

Only mix enough so that the ingredients make a batter.  There will be lumps, and should looks something like this:

*A smooth batter is an over-beaten batter and you will end up with less fluffy and possible puck like pancakes if you mix until smooth.*

I'm a big fan of butter for all things, and I do cook pancakes with a bit of butter.  Heat your pan or griddle first before adding the butter over medium heat.  If you add the butter and it burns, you just saved a pancake from death because you know the pan is too hot.  Mine just melts enough to swirl it around the entire pan before it starts to bubble like crazy.

Add scoops of the pancake batter using your previously used dry measure cup.  I usually go for 1/2-3/4 full as I like big pancakes, but you can do whatever size pleases you.  After a 1/2 cup of batter goes in, I slice the banana directly into the pancake and then drizzle a bit of batter over the top to seal it all in.

I find that adding fruit to the batter bowl is a bad idea: they tend to lump together and berries turn the batter purple or pink (depending on what you're using).

Then DO NOT TOUCH THEM.  Just let them be for a few minutes.  I promise they'll be okay.  You don't need to poke them, check them, etc. 

Once they start to dry around the edges and you get a good smattering of bubbles coming through, then you can check the bottom.  I like mine a bit more than golden brown, which ensures that my big pancakes are cooked in the middle, too.
Once you decide to flip, DON'T TOUCH THEM!  Leave them be for a few minutes, and please don't smush them down.  This is my pet peeve.  You're not helping them cook faster--you're popping all the bubbles inside that you just made and taking the fluffy goodness out.  After two minutes, check the bottom and if it matches the top, plate it.

Repeat the cooking process (you might not need more butter) until all of your batter is done.  With this batch, I got 5 huge pancakes out it, enough for at least 3 adults.

Now here's my secret--I make a warm syrup and butter concoction to pour over the pancakes in my pan.  I loathe cold syrup on my pancakes. 
*Please note that I don't know if this will work well with Aunt Jemima or other "maple-flavored toppings".  I only use the real stuff.  AJ might burn into your pan, since it's a different kind of sugar and ruin it.  Best to stick with real maple syrup anyway (in my opinion).*

Using your empty pan and its residual heat (burner off):

1. Add a bit of butter.  Like I said earlier, I love butter so I usually add in 1 Tbs per person.  To go with the above pancake recipe, I use just shy of a half stick of butter. Use more or less depending on what you like your syrup to butter ratio to be.

2. Let the butter melt for a bit, and then add in the syrup.  I usually add in less than 1/4 per person It may or may not bubble up in the butter (depends on how hot your pan is, really.)

3. Swirl your concoction around the pan until the butter is all melted.  You might have to turn the burner back on depending on how well your pan retains heat, but I rarely have to.

4. Dump into a gravy boat (if serving at the table), or directly onto your plate and enjoy!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Parent Cave: Organized & Ready to Go!

Though my full vision couldn't be realized in this room due to size, I'm still really happy about what we accomplished here!  After much tug-of-war, soul searching, bargaining, I have my own sewing area, and my husband has his own work space.  My saddest concession was that there isn't a couch in here like we had in our previous office incarnation, but she just wouldn't fit.  We've decided a bean bag chair would be a great compromise, and I love having the excuse to finally own one!

Here's how I organized all of my supplies:
First, I decided that one cabinet would be for sewing materials, and the other for all other crafting, cooking, junk I have.  The "closet" center still hasn't been fully realized, but that's where I'll be keeping my wrapping paper and other larger items.

The sewing cabinet was the biggest challenge, since I was literally combining about 7 different storage devices into one.  Even after a whole week being operational, I think hear some of Handel's "Messiah" every time I open a cabinet.  I used the top, middle, and bottom sections for different items.
The top is for fabric and patterns:
First I organized my patterns into a pattern box my grandmother gave me.  I haven't done anything fancy with them yet, but I anticipate needing to make dividers as my collection grows.  At this point, I've gotten them just organized in groups without any clear delineation: outfit "sets", coats, shirts, dresses and skirts, pants, mens, homegoods, and accessories.  The largest issue with this is that KwikSew patterns are an inch longer than all of my other pattern envelopes, so as I get more (and the box more crowded), I'll have to upgrade. 
This box is on the bottom shelf with my sewing machine feet and manual, rulers/straight edge, and a current project.
Then I divided my fabric by type; based on what I have I created some categories: linings, interfacings, and cuffs, cotton and cotton blends, and finally everything else (mostly upholstery odds and ends).

The middle section of this cabinet is drawers.  This was much more difficult to organize effectively, and will probably be revised as I use it more frequently.  The top drawer has three compartments, so I used those for zippers; sewing machine needles, bobbins, and oil; and various sewing tools (seam ripper, shears, paper scissors, pins, etc.)  The middle drawer is my notions drawer.  I did my best to separate by type so the ribbons, bias tape, lace, cords, and elastic are wound up on a bit of board or spool; then buttons (mostly in a ziplock bag, feathers, and beads are loosely organized behind that.  The bottom drawer is my "bra drawer"  I figured that since the fabric, notions, and other materials are so specific in this case they warranted their own drawer.
Below the drawers is a cubby, perfect for my books, which are organized in no particular order since I have so few.

The left cabinet is quite difficult to get pictures of, but here goes:
The top cabinet is being used for various pans and serving platters, Tupperware, etc. that I can't fit into my kitchen.  Not exciting, but useful.

I used the bottom cabinet for all of my knitting & crochet supplies.  I used the top shelf for current projects (or lost causes as I've come to think of them), needles, hooks, and books; the middle two for yarn (loosely separated between acrylic and "nice" yarns).  The bottom shelf is a costume shelf--Bob's ladybug Halloween costume and an inherited 70's jumpsuit from my grandmother, which I obviously used as a costume at some point in college. 

I even fit into it with my 5 months belly!

Like I said, this is still a work in progress, so I'd love to hear feedback on better ways to organize.

Coming up next is the desk itself--I'm still setting my my machine and new serger on my side, and trying to organize the computer and filing side so it looks nice on my husband's side.