Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sometimes I Spend All Day Processing… Food!

Yesterday was one of those days where I'm processing from the first cup of coffee until my knees ache from being on my feet all day. I worked 15 hours, with only a 15-minute break for supper. (Boy, did bed ever feel good.)

For years now my niche in the Sandhill food scene has been processing—putting up what we lovingly grow. Food is a central theme of my community's life, and preservation for the months ahead is an important part of the agricultural rhythm. As it's generally easier to find folks who enjoy working in the soil than those who prefer time at the stove & sink, people are happy to have my support at the tail end of the cycle.

In the northern hemisphere September is harvest time, and every now and then there's a convergence where everything needs attention at once. Yesterday was one of those days. (We have a chalkboard in our processing kitchen where we coordinate schedules, so the space isn't double booked. Ann wrote for yesterday: "Lots of Stuff—Laird.") So here's what a busy food processing day looks like at Sandhill:

1. Tomatillos
We had one 5-gal bucket of fresh tomatillos, plus a 2-gal bucket of roasted ones in the freezer. I had pulled the frozen ones the night before, roasted the fresh ones, roasted some hot peppers & garlic to accompany them, and made up a batch of tomatillo salsa. Yield: 36 pints.

2. Tomatoes
Although it's been a disappointing year for nigthshades in general, we nonetheless had six buckets of tomatoes on the floor of our walk-in cooler, awaiting my minitsrations. This was straight-forward canning. Yield: 15 quarts of pulp; 15 quarts of juice.

3. Peppers
We had four buckets of hot peppers and one of sweet peppers. I pulled them all out and took advantage of the surplus labor available on a rainy day (we've had 5+ inches the last 36 hours with more expected; while we're completely soaked and the rivers are surging out of their banks, it's nothing compared to Galveston) to have them diced. By the time the tomatoes were done I had 22 quarts of chopped peppers ready. I plopped these in a pot with honey, vinegar, and salt, to start them cooking down on the way to becoming hot pepper relish—it's piquantly sweet and guaranteed to make your nose run. Because it takes hours to boil down, I needed to get that started by mid-afternoon to have any chance of completing it before midnight. Yield: 29 pints.

4. Peaches
Visiting ex-member Chris Roth had worked up some windfall peaches and wanted to know if I could can them (since I was in the ktichen anyway). So I brought them into the queue. As soon as a burner opened up, I got the pot on the stove, corrected the sweetening, added irish moss to thicken the consistency, and ran them through the hot water bath. Yield: seven quarts and one pint.

5. Grapes
Jacob, our newest member, had boiled down some Concord grapes (a good year for them, by the way) the day before and extracted the juice. He further cooked that down
in the main kitchen to make a syrup, and asked if I could can it for him. I took a breath, and told him to bring 'em on over. Yield: seven pints.

6. Horseradish
Sandhill has been making it's own prepared horseradish (for retail sale on the farm and at area fairs) for about 25 years. As I was grating the roots (which had been dug and cleaned the previous two days) I had a chance to reflect on how many times I've done this. As the main person who handles horseradish at Sandhill, I typically make 10-15 gallons per season. Since 10 gallons equals about 80 lbs, and I've been doing it for a quarter of a century, I did the math and was awed to realize that I've made about a ton of prepared horseradish. Now there's something for the Acachic Record..

There is no secret to making it—it's just grated root, mixed with vinegar (and a bit of honey and salt to extend the hotness). What you're paying for is for someone else to cry. On the homestead, there is nothing more noxious than the gases released from grating fresh horseradish. My eyes tear constantly and if I get too big a whiff at one time, it triggers my gag reflex. Peeling onions is only a mild irritant compared with prepping horseradish. Commerical workers wear gas masks; I just do it on the front porch and hope for a stiff breeze. Yield: 102 half-pint jars.

By the time we had the horseradish jarred and labeled, it was time to return my attention to the pepper relish. About 10:15 pm it was thick enough to put it into jars. Blissfully, it was my last canning for the day, and I was able to turn the gas off and extinguish the lights by 11:10. My last sight of the processing kitchen was the 30"x72" wooden work surface completely covered with my day's labor—and that doesn't count the horseradish, which isn't canned and was already safely stowed in the walk-in fridge.

Of course, I had a tremendous amount of help in getting all this done. There were untold hours involved in growing, harvesting, cleaning, and prepping various things.
And in a couple instances, I was only finishing off others' work (such as Chris' peaches and Jacob's grapes). In short, it was a team effort (which is the core feature of community life) and I love the choreography of sequencing the foods so that I can keep the pots and stove fully engaged—and still get to bed the same day I got up.

At the end of the season it's tremendously satisfying to see the root cellar shelves filled with food you've touched, in the fullest sense of that word.

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