Preserves, Pickles and Relishes

How To Can Tomatoes (My Way)

pint jars of canned tomatoes

The clear liquid at the bottom of the jars is juice that separates because the tomatoes are basically raw when canned. Shaking the jars mixes it in (see jar on the upper left).

When it comes to canning tomatoes, I’m a total piker compared to some people I know, never mind our pioneer ancestors.  But I do manage to put away 15 to 20 pint jars by the time the season ends.

The tomatoes within are in two forms: whole with chunks in juice (basically raw when they go in the jar) and Intensely Delicious Roast Tomatoes. Having recently reminded you yet again about the roasted ones, I feel that version has been amply covered.

But I’ve never described my method for plain old canned tomatoes – probably because I wouldn’t make them if I didn’t have to. Between the roasted and the frozen, we have a better preserved tomato ready for any cooked tomato need … except one: stewed tomatoes, winter comfort lunch supreme, which must be made with home canned tomatoes.

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Preserving the Tomato Harvest

harvested tomatoes, sorted by variety

Bill is looking at the Olympics. I’m looking at the tomatoes, deciding which ones to freeze next.

It may seem a bit early to go all harvesty on you, but the first big flush of Hudson Valley tomatoes is usually the best for both quantity and quality, so that’s the one it makes sense to put up.  The season of need will be upon us sooner or later (probably later, the way the weather’s been going lately), no matter how hard that is to imagine when it’s 72 degrees at dawn.

Equally unimaginable: canning – or at least extensive canning. I make an exception for Intensely Delicious Roast Tomatoes, but the bulk of our haul is a big reason I love the freezer.

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Green Tomato and Lime Chutney – because we have frost at last

Choosing the date for “first frost”  is always tricky – do I count a tiny brush of wilt on the lowest dahlia in the lowest spot? Or do I wait for the day when the basil turns black, summer squash – what’s left of it – goes transparent and the zinnias are no more?

snapdragon bouquet

Goodbye to all that.

Either way, this year “first frost”  is now in the record books.

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Tomato Savings Time

farmstand tomatoes

A recent sighting at Schoolhouse Farm, in Warren, Maine

We grow a lot of the food we put by for the winter, so most of the relevant posts here start in our own back yard. But as I was just saying on the radio, you don’t need to have a garden to take advantage of seasonal abundance; there’s plenty of it at farm stands and farmers markets. And it’s a bargain. When the fields are yielding full tilt, locally grown produce is not only far more delicious than the stuff in the supermarket, it’s also far less expensive.

Seasonal, however, is the magic word; if you want to eat well in the winter you have to stock up when the stocking is good. It’s easiest if you have a big freezer but even if your freezer is small and already full of pizza and ice cream, saving great produce for winter is not difficult.

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Cherry Season – a Memory, and a Recipe for Real-Deal Brandied Cherries


By real deal I mean the cherries are fermented in the hooch, not simply given a quick bath.

Sweet cherries, before and after the full brandying treatment

Sweet cherries, before and after the full brandying treatment

Most popular recipes for brandied cherries require only combining the fruit with brandy and sugar.  Couldn’t be easier, and it’s delicious after sitting around for only a couple of days. Then after you put it in pretty jars and age it a while the cherries turn leathery and the liquid tastes just like cough syrup.

I made a lot of this stuff myself before I discovered that if you take the longer route, using less brandy and letting the mixture ferment, you end up with two good things: a fortified spirit that resembles port and firm, slightly velvety cherries that taste like themselves except for being drunk.

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Eek of the Week – and a recipe for Prunes in Armagnac.

I love the deep smoky sweetness of prunes – less cloying than dates, more rounded than apricots – and am a sucker for things like devils on horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon), spiced roast duck legs with prunes, and prunes soaked in Armagnac, one of the world’s best instant desserts, especially over ginger ice cream.

But most of the time I snack on them plain, which presumably makes me the target market for

the newest in prune packaging

the newest in prune packaging

Plastic canisters filled with individually packaged prunes, each prune in its own private wrapper. What a brilliant idea! Why carry snack prunes in a dedicated plastic sandwich bag, using it over and over, when instead you could be making a big contribution to your local landfill? As a bonus, you get to pay almost twice as much for exactly the same prunes.

That’s hard to believe, but having been stewing about this for some time I checked again yesterday and sure enough: Bulk conventional pitted prunes from Adam’s in Poughkeepsie, NY –  $3.50/lb. Individually wrapped “Ones” from the Stop and Shop roughly 1.5 miles away – $ 2.99 per container, aka $ 6.83/lb.

Ok. The recipe for PRUNES IN ARMAGNAC, a duo invented in Southwest France, famous for both pruneaux d’Agen and the ardent spirit that could be described as Cognac with balls. Read More…

Choosing Good Eggplants (and making them into Caponata, the ultimate vegetable preserve).

Many people grow eggplants, but after long years of struggle I am no longer one of them. Two reasons:

1). Eggplants need warm nights as well as warm days. This means our garden on the Maine coast is not a hospitable environment, eggplant-wise.

2). Eggplants have a short window of peak splendor on the plant. Pick them too soon; they’re undersized and bland. Pick them too late; they’re seedy and bitter. So although the plants do pretty well down at the place in the Hudson Valley, I can never count on being there at the optimum time.

freshly harvested eggplants

freshly harvested eggplants

But in order to make caponata, the delicious Sicilian conserve of eggplant, capers and olives in thick sweet and sour tomato sauce, it is necessary to have eggplants. Off to Beth’s Farm Market “All Produce Sold Here is Grown Here,” right down the road in Warren, Maine (I’ve never asked, but as you drive up you see many huge greenhouses which may well be relevant).

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Intensely Delicious Roast Tomatoes, for now and for winter.

Autumn Beauty Sunflower

people waiting for something besides food, please be patient. I’ll be with you in a minute, but right now

It’s Tomato Time!

although only because we have two gardens. The plants in Maine are pathetic – it was just too cold, too dry for too long when they were young. But the tomatoes in New York. Omigosh.

tying tomato plants to supports

Bill ( 5’ 9 or so)  in the tomato patch. Note the naked bases, disease-prevention at work.

heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella, with lettuce leaf basil

heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella, with lettuce leaf basil

The summer classic, with Pruden’s Purple (red), Malakhitovaya Shkatulla   (green), and Hillbilly Potato Leaf (yellow with red streaks)

They’re all different sizes, as usual, but a larger number than usual are larger than usual

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Hot then cold, dry then deluginal then dry again; it’s been a difficult spring. But this year the Northeast is having an excellent morel season, so there is definitely something good to be said, namely

Blonde morels, Morchella esculenta, get ’em while you can.

The place to get them is in open woodlands or hedgerows, where the soil is alkaline. They frequently keep company with dead elms and dying apples (and poison ivy, I’m sorry to say.)

Bill Bakaitis photo
Morels in a typical habitat. Look to the left and back of the one in the middle to see more. They hide.

Field cleaning ( shaking out bugs, trimming dirt from stems) is essential, and it can be enough if the morels are growing through matted leaves or thick new growth. But a lot of them are in sandy spots or open ground where dirt has splashed up. Always carry a separate bag or basket to put the dirty ones in, so they don’t contaminate the rest.

The little heap at left in front are the dirty ones from this expedition. The little heap at the right is trimmings. Morels last a long time in the fridge if you trim off anything nasty before you put them away, loosely wrapped in waxed paper so they can get air without drying up.

When you get this many, they will dry up before you can eat them all. We used to do this on purpose, threading them on string and hanging them in the greenhouse. Morels are thin fleshed and dry quickly, concentrating the flavor. But for the last decade or so we’ve been mostly stewing them in butter and storing them in the freezer. They keep better texture that way and are much more versatile.

Putting Food By


(so you can eat locally all year long)

Upstairs: Food Historian Sandy Oliver keeps winter squash under the bed. Bottom of the linen closet is also good; just don’t forget they’re there.

Downstairs: An unheated basement ( 35 to 45 degrees) , a second refrigerator ( or the back of the one in the kitchen) is almost a root cellar. Things to keep in it from harvest to spring: Beets, Carrots, Cabbages, Onions, Wine, Beer, Cheese.

In a cool back bedroom or similar: Potatoes. They like to be cold, but not quite as cold as other roots.

In the pantry/ food cupboard:

Dried: Wild bolete mushrooms, wild or cultivated agaricus mushrooms, tomatoes, shell beans.
Canned: Applesauce, fruit spreads, ketchup, tomatoes, roasted tomatoes for instant sauce.

In the garden: lightly mulched Parsley and Kale will survive until a very hard freeze (@ 26 degrees); the more slowly it gets cold, the more cold they can take. Chard, Brussels sprouts and Broccoli raab aren’t quite as hardy but still can stand – indeed benefit from – repeated light freezes. Many gardening and country food books, including some of mine, suggest leaving beets and carrots in the ground under a heavy mulch and then harvesting as needed. It works fine if you don’t have voles.

In the freezer: Wild mushrooms (morel, chanterelle, sulfur shelf, blewit, hen of the woods) sautéed in enough butter to be a sauce for the pasta, baked potato, winter squash or other starch that is then dinner; Toasted almond pesto or other pesto to use like the mushrooms ; Berries; Whole tomatoes for soup and sauce; Full-meal soups like Minestrone and Corn chowder, Harvest Vegetable Stews like corn, squash and pepper/ tomato, pepper and onion/ snap and shell beans with summer squash. Chickens. Your quarter of a local lamb, pig or steer, divided into the cuts you’ve ordered. Make an inventory and keep it near the freezer!( along with a pen on a string for crossing off)