Essex Farm Note
Week 36, 2013
The topic is abundance again, but today we’ll cover food instead of flies. It is canning season. I feel an urgency in my bones this time of year, a rush and hustle, inherited from our hunger-driven ancestors. We nearly had a frost last night, my bones say, and the larder is not yet full. Get to it. I know this urge well now and I also know that acting on it can cause some stress. Nobody wants to be up until midnight on a weeknight, trying to finish canning the hundred pounds of tomatoes they hauled home. This only causes tears. I know. And I also know I’m not alone. On Friday afternoons I have been hearing snippets of conversation among members who are delighted but also overwhelmed by the volume of the goodness coming out of the fields this time of year. Those of you who are new to the share don’t want to miss out on anything, and those of you who have been through a few seasons are rushing to get the good stuff put up. I thought I’d share my own system of triage, which I use to prevent harvest season breakdowns. Take what you like from me, and share your own tricks with others, especially the newer members who are going through their first season.
1. The freezer is my best friend. I find actual canning time-consuming, messy, and a little nerve wracking on the food safety front. Plus I’m all about efficiency of scale, and always disappointed by how little one can do in one batch on the stove. So most of the produce I put up goes into the chest freezer in our basement. If it is well stacked, the freezer can hold an amazing amount of food, and if the vegetables are already chopped and blanched, you are on your way to a fast and easy meal in winter or early spring. That said, if you have canning questions, our own Barbara Kunzi is a wonderful resource. She’s a certified master canner.
2. With one or two annual marathon exceptions, I use the same rule at harvest season I use for cleaning closets: don’t take on more than you can finish in one hour. The last thing you want to do is exhaust yourself. And if you don’t have an hour, don’t fret. There is nothing wrong with simply eating seasonally from the farm. There have been years when I’ve put up exactly nothing, and we still get to spring without going hungry or getting bored in the kitchen.
3. Prioritize the items you know you will use and your family will love. For us that would be: tomatoes, raspberries, herbs (especially cilantro, frozen with oil in cubes), salsa, jam. I’d have sweet corn on this list too, if the crows hadn’t gotten it this year.
4. Tomatoes are my first priority, because I use a lot of them, and I’d rather avoid the BPA-lined cans from the store. I use three different methods for putting up. The first is called lazy mama style. It is lightning fast. Simply core and halve the tomatoes. Put them on the stove in a big pot with a little water or tomato juice in the bottom so they don’t burn. Cook only until the tomatoes begin to break down. Then use a good immersion blender turned up to 10 and zap the heck out of the whole pot. This cuts the tomato skins into tiny bits that you (almost) won’t notice when you cook. Ladle into wide-mouthed pints and freeze. I did fifty-six pints last weekend in about forty minutes, including clean-up. The disadvantage to this method, of course, is that you are freezing a lot of water – it takes up freezer space, and uses a lot of jars. But you can reuse the jars indefinitely (BUY YOUR OWN JARS! DO NOT USE THE DAIRY JARS!!) and I find it pretty space-efficient to stack them in their boxes in the freezer. I have more freezer space than I have time, in any case. And this method yields a very fresh-tasting product. Use as-is in cooked dishes that call for fresh tomatoes, or cook them down further when you use them to make sauce.
Our neighbor Ron uses a modified version of lazy mama style. He does what I do but lets them go a bit longer on the stove, just until the solids begin to separate from the very watery liquid. Then he presses down on the solids with a strainer and takes out most of the very watery liquid, maybe a quarter of the entire volume. Then blend and freeze.
My second method for tomatoes is kind of the opposite of the first in that there is very little water being stored, but it’s a bit more time- and energy-intensive up front. This is for the little plum Juliette tomatoes we have in the share. Halve them, put them on a baking sheet cut side up, drizzle with a little olive oil, and cook them in a low oven until they are shriveled and partly dried. (You could do this in a dehydrator, too, but I tend to want bigger volumes than is practical in the dehydrator.) Then freeze them in zip-lock bags. These are so sweet our children eat them like popsicles. I keep them handy in the kitchen freezer and use them in dishes that want a more concentrated tomato flavor or a pop of color.
My third method, new this year, is cherry tomato jam. I don’t do a lot of it because we don’t need a bunch of sugar in the house, but the tomatoes are so easy to harvest and the jam is fast and simple to make. For every pound of sungolds, I use a cup of sugar, half brown and half white. (I might try less sugar next time.) Cook until the jam gels on a cool plate, and refrigerate or freeze in jars. A quick internet search will yield a dozen interesting variations on this idea, using ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, lemons, or savory items for cherry tomato chutney. Note: both Juliette and sungolds tomatoes are now pick your own, with no limits on how many you can take.
Outside of the kitchen, the whole crew is hard at it, making second cut hay, getting the last weeds from the ground, harvesting, harvesting, harvesting. If the urge to put up food were not sign enough, the farm is telling us it’s fall. First leaves are turning. This year’s pullets are starting to lay. The dew is heavy and the mornings cold. The pony is getting her winter fur, and it’s time to put the ram in with the ewes. Another season is beginning to set. Send warm thoughts to hold off frost as the corn ripens, please. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this back-to-school 36th week of 2013. Find us at 518-963-4613, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the farm, any day but Sunday.
-Kristin and Mark Kimball