Sunday, August 10, 2008

Vegetable Choreography

It's canning season!

Though we're a week or two behind our normal schedule (due to the cool, wet spring), the momentum is building. The buckets of fresh produce are accumulating in the walk-in cooler. Just this morning I saw cabbages (both red and green), okra, tomatoes, tomatillos, apples,
green beans, collards, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, leeks, onions, peaches, and even a few peppers (both hot and sweet). Two days ago we processed 20 bags of sweet corn. Abundance.

Sandhill is a community which emphasizes food self-sufficiency and now is the time of year when we need all oars in the water. My niche in all this: an acidified foods specialist. That means I concentrate on foods that have a high enough acid content that they can be canned in a hot water bath instead of in a pressure canner. That's tomatoes, salsas, pickles, jams, and all manner of condiments. Over the course of the next two months we'll produce a year's supply of all these things—plus some to sell as specialty items at area fairs and festivals. This is the time of year when we start to refill the root cellar shelves in earnest, preparing for the winter to come.

One of the things I like best about food processing is the challenge of using the food and facilities efficiently. To illustrate what I mean, let's talk tomatoes, one of our staples. In addition to preserving tomato pulp and juice (about 200-250 quarts of each), you need to sequence all the condiments using tomatoes:

1. Barbecue sauce comes first, because the onions are ready before the tomatoes and the hot peppers are ready afterwards (barbecue sauce uses lots of onions, and no peppers).

2. Next comes straight tomatoes (because the peppers are still not ready).

3. Once the peppers come ripe, it's time for tomato salsa. In anticipation of this day, we've frozen cubes of fresh cilantro back in June (fresh frozen is totally superior to dried). By August all the cilantro has gone to seed (which is coriander) and you can't make delicious salsa with anything other than the tender green leaves.

4. If the tomatoes are strong, we'll make some ketchup. If they're weak (which will probably be the case this year), we'll defer ketchup and keep canning pulp and juice.

There's an art of knowing how many tomatoes you're likely to get in late August in Sept, so that you don't put too many early tomatoes into BBQ sauce. One year I got that wrong, and people grumbled about the paucity of pulp all winter (never mind the surfeit of barbecue fixings).

When it comes to using the kitchen efficiently, the trick is knowing when to start heating the raw chopped tomatoes so that they're hot when the pot gets full. Our basic working unit is the 5-gallon pot, so you have to think on that scale. (We used to cook down our tomatoes to get a thick pulp, but that takes forever. Now will simply press a strainer into the hot pulp—being careful to not let the rim drop beneath the level of the boiling pulp—and ladle juice out as soon as it fills the well of the strainer. We draw off about half the volume in juice, and the remainder is pulp that's good to go. )

Meanwhile I've started another 5-gallon pot for a water bath and can put the juice right into that. Quarts of tomato juice need to be in boiling water for 10 minutes; quarts of pulp for 45 minutes. Typically I'll have two water baths going and one pot of tomatoes (to separate juice and pulp). When I have everything in rhythm, I can fill jars at the same speed I'm canning and keep all the burners going. I can generally can six 5-gallon buckets of fresh tomatoes in about four hours, turning out 21 jars of pulp and 14 quarts of juice, plus two additional gallons of juice to drink fresh.

It's a dance. Can you hear the music?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your blog about canning. I canned tomato juice, green beans, dill green beans and pickles this summer. My 13-year-old granddaughter helped me one day, and she said, "I didn't know pickles came from cucumbers!" Wow. It just goes to show how removed some young people are from knowing the origin of their food. Thanks for the tip about freezing the cilantro. I will try that next year. My husband raises Red Wolf tomatoes that are an extremely meaty heirloom tomato. I would recommend it for a great slicing tomato.