When Life Hands You Lemons…

There was a terrible late-summer storm in my city this week. Several inches of heavy, wet snow fell, bringing down decades-old trees all over the city and decimating gardens. I found myself with a sudden harvest of very green, very frozen heirloom tomatoes. Something had to be done with them, and quick, before they started to get soft.

We’re not a relish-eating family, so that was out, and I’d already made about 9L of salsa so that was off the table as well. Coincidentally, a friend had just that morning gifted me with some yellow zucchini from her garden, because she had more than she knew what to do with.

Brandywine tomatoes and Brandy's yellow zucchini.
Brandywine tomatoes and Brandy’s yellow zucchini.

I come from a long line of picklers. Pickling is what we do.

This hangs in my dad's kitchen. h/t my sister for her badass crosstitch skills.
This hangs in my dad’s kitchen. h/t my sister for her badass crosstitch skills.

I found instructions for pickling green tomatoes online and, as I do, set about to make the recipe my own. This comes together really quickly, but looks crazy fancy. You give a jar of these to someone and they’re going to be hella impressed, and that’s before they taste them.

Pickled Green Tomatoes and Yellow Zucchini

  • 3 lbs green tomatoes, sliced into sandwich slices
  • 1 lb yellow zucchini, sliced into thin rounds
  • 6 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
  • 2.5 cups sugar
  • 2 T sea salt
  • 2 t celery seeds
  • pinch cayenne
  • Bernardin Pickle Crisp or similar food-grade calcium chloride
  1. Mix vinegar, sugar, salt, celery seeds and cayenne in a large pot and bring to a simmer.
  2. Add tomato and zucchini slices and heat on med-low for 5-7 minutes or until tomatoes become slightly soft and translucent.
  3. Add the recommended amount of Pickle Crisp to the bottom of each of your hot, sterilized jars.
  4. Using tongs, carefully layer slices of tomato and zucchini, alternating for visual effect (I found two slices of tomato to one slice zucchini worked perfectly).
  5. Top up each jar with hot brine, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.
  6. Slide a knife down the edges of jars to release trapped air bubbles.
  7. Place heated lids and clean rings on jars.
  8. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Yields 8 half-pints.

These can be enjoyed as soon as 24 hours after preparation, and can be stored for up to one year.

Right? Right??
Right? Right??

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Slow-Cooker Spicy Tomato-Mango Ketchup

Tomato canning season is underway. In my house, tomatoes are the single largest canning endeavour of the year, and I buy more of them by weight than anything else. I always can with Romas – they’re high in acidity, not too watery and have great flavour. This year I’ve done right around 200lbs, and I’ll need another 20-30lbs to finish making everything I need for the year.

About three-quarters of that goes toward tomato pasta sauce. This is a staple for my family. We eat it at least once a week, as a part of various pasta dishes, as a pizza sauce, in the slow cooker with chicken thighs, and the list goes on and on. I can’t eat commercially jarred sauce anymore. Homemade is just so much better.

Here’s the thing about tomatoes. Tomatoes are a labour of love. You bring them into the house, box after box after box, and then spend a good amount of time staring at them in disbelief, thinking holy shit, what have I gotten myself into? Then you get to work. You blanch, peel, squeeze and repeat. The boxes don’t ever seem to get less full. It’s three a.m. and you’re still canning tomatoes. Your nails are stained yellow and brittle from the acids, and your kitchen is an absolute disaster.

Take special note of the splatter on the floor.
Take special note of the splatter on the floor. That’s basically all over my kitchen right now.

But at the end of it all, you have these amazing, fresh-tasting tomato things, and once you open the first jar, you realize that all the hard work was worth it.

While the tomato sauce always makes me go, “Yum, I love this stuff,” when I cook with it, the following recipe elicits a “holy crap, this stuff is frickin’ fantastic!” And the best part is, the slow cooker does most of the work while you sleep!

Slow Cooker Spicy Tomato-Mango Ketchup

10 cups peeled, squooshed Roma tomatoes
8 cups mango
2 cups onion
8 cloves garlic
1.75 cups honey
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 T + 1 t mustard powder
2 t Herbamare
1 t ground cloves
½ t cayenne
1 t chipotle spice
1 t smoked paprika

  1. To prepare tomatoes, heat a large pot of water to boiling. Add whole tomatoes, removing into an ice bath once skin has split. The skins will now slip off easily. Cut off stem end and squeeze the peeled tomato to remove inner juice and seeds. Measure out ten cups of the tomato that remains.
  2. In a large pot, combine tomatoes and mango. Heat until juices start to come out, then add onion and garlic.
  3. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently for 30 minutes on med-low.
  4. Using an immersion blender, roughly puree the mixture, then process with a food mill, discarding the solids.
  5. Return the pulp and juice to the pot and add the other ingredients.
  6. Transfer to a slow cooker set on low and leave it uncovered overnight (10 hours).
  7. The next day, pour ketchup into clean, sterilized half-pint jars and process for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath. Makes 6 8oz jars.
Here is the slow cooker, labouring away while I lay dreaming of a time when my kitchen is spotless.
Here is the slow cooker, labouring away while I lay dreaming of a time when my kitchen is spotless.

I’ve done a lot of fiddling with this recipe over the last couple of years to get the balance of sweetness, acidity and spiciness just right, and this year I think I’ve made the best batch yet. If you don’t like a lot of heat, you can omit either the chipotle or the cayenne, but not both! Best served on top of smokies or bratwurst, alongside scrambled eggs, thick-cut homefries or hashbrowns or with homemade mac and cheese.

Please don't email to tell me those aren't Romas. I know. I used every last one in the house to make the ketchup, so these are from my garden.
Please don’t email to tell me those aren’t Romas. I know. I used every last one in the house to make the ketchup, so these are from my garden.

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A-Foraging We Will Go!

Summer. It’s my favourite season. I’m an avid gardener – in fact, most of my front yard has been given over to vegetables and fruit. A trip down the front walk to the car is never complete without snatching a couple leaves of lettuce, a ripe cherry tomato or a sugar snap peapod, or plucking a carrot from the earth to munch on. Having my own little Victory Garden, as they were called during World War II, gives me an intense sense of satisfaction.

The neighbours like it because I give them free organic veggies.

But being a city dweller, there’s only so much I can do with the land I have, so from time to time, I head out into the wider world to forage what I can. Lindsay and I have been doing this together for years, and I’m always surprised by two things: first, how many edible things there are all around us, and second, that more people don’t take advantage of this.

By far the easiest thing to forage for in our city is berries. We have two spots that we hit up every year, one for saskatoons and another for nanking cherries. And this is no u-pick farm with tidy rows of shrubs. We’re scrambling down hillsides, waist-deep in thickets to find these.

Lindsay picking saskatoons. We also found currants!
Lindsay picking saskatoons. We also found currants!
Okay, 'beside the tennis court' is not exactly bushwhacking.
Okay, ‘beside the tennis court’ is not exactly bushwhacking.

The highlight of our annual foraging date is always the rare white nanking cherry bush. There’s only one that we know of, and its fruit is precious indeed.

So mysterious.
So mysterious.

Saskatoons are a versatile berry that can be made into jam, pie filling, juice and anything you might use blueberries for. Nanking cherries, because of their small size, are difficult to pit so I only use them to make juice with. I add the juice to my morning smoothie; Lindsay adds it to gin.

Juice concentrate (red jars) and white nanking cherry jelly (centre bottom).
Juice concentrate from red and white (centre bottom jar) nanking cherries.

Edible things are all around you, if you keep your eye out. Depending on where you live, you may also find tree fruit, mushrooms, greens, wild grapes and more. Lindsay and I even found asparagus one year. My husband says in Saskatchewan, swiss chard grows in the ditches beside the highway. In the Shuswap area of BC, where my parents live, raspberry canes are everywhere, and I’ve seen roadside blackberries in Vancouver. Sometimes, foraging is as simple as knocking on a neighbour’s door and asking them if they’re planning on using all the apples on their tree this year. And plants you’ve seen around your entire life may be a food source you never knew about! The cattail has several edible parts, and I’m sure there’s a dandelion somewhere near you right now. (Please always ensure you have correctly identified a plant before consuming it.)

So, what do you like to glean from the land?

Nanking Cherry Juice Concentrate

  • Any quantity of nanking cherries – as much as you can pick! The cherries can be frozen prior to using as well.
  • Sweetener, if desired (unsweetened juice can be tart. You can also add a small amount of a sweeter fruit instead – Lindsay adds a cup of saskatoons to roughly 10 cups of cherries.)
  1. Wash the fruit in cold water, removing stems as needed.
  2. Move them into a pot and add about half an inch of water. Heat on medium.
  3. Once cherries are simmering, reduce heat to low, mashing occasionally with a wooden spoon or potato masher.
  4. Simmer until liquid has been reduced by a third.
  5. Remove from heat and ladle the liquid into a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. I squeeze the bag to get a bit of pulp into the juice.
  6. Return strained juice to pot and heat to a boil.
  7. Pour into clean hot jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (pints or quarts). Don’t forget to adjust processing time for altitude!

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Zen and the Art of Canning – About Nicole

There’s something intensely satisfying about standing in front of shelves and shelves of goods you preserved yourself. Or tasting a recipe you threw together on a whim and realizing it’s fantastic. These are only a couple of the reasons why I can, but they’re the two that stand out the most for me as we come up on the beginning of the produce season here in Canada. It won’t be too long until the first tender spears of asparagus start poking through the soil, after all!

Canning is more than a hobby for me. Putting up my own food has become an integral part of my personality. I like knowing that even if catastrophe happens – we find ourselves without an income or there’s an extended power outage, I still have plenty of food put by to feed my family. I like knowing that it came from local farms and producers, and that I inspected every ingredient for freshness. And maybe more than anything, I like the quiet mindfulness my mind sinks into when I’m canning – almost a meditation – where I can let my mind run free as my hands perform the same motions over and over. That escape from the everyday burdens of life, deep into my imagination, is where I often wind up finding ideas and solutions for another facet of my life – writing. The two are not so dissimilar: like any art form, both involve creation, hard work, a great deal of learning and practise and in the end, something you can be proud of.

Far from leaving me exhausted, spending hours – days even – in this state is rejuvenating, and always leaves me looking forward to the next time (although at the end of blanching and peeling some 150lbs of tomatoes, I often swear I never want to see another nightshade again). Canning is what I do to relax. The fact that you get delicious food out of it is just a bonus. And those jars sure do look pretty all lined up like that.

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Earl Grey Spruce Tip Jelly

A friend told me recently that she uses spruce tips to make jelly.

This was pretty much the face I made.
This was pretty much the face I made.

But then I got to thinking about the giant spruce tree in my backyard, and decided to give it a try. Harvesting them was easy. I enlisted the boychild as my helper and together we picked about six cups of the small, tender tips. I chose only the light green ones that still had their sticky, papery cover at the end, which I removed. We also were careful to not take all the tips from the same spot, in case the tree ended up lopsided ten years down the road.

Don't they look like little green fox tails?
Don’t they look like little green fox tails?

A warning: there are going to be spiders. Decide in advance how comfortable you are with that. I decided I was not very comfortable, and spent quite a bit of time shrieking and flinging spiders off my hands while the boychild rolled his eyes at me. There are two steps to making spruce tip jelly. First you have to make the juice.

  1. Measure out six cups of spruce tips. Make sure all papery ends are discarded.
  2. Rinse the tips and chop them roughly.
  3. Dump them into a large pot and add 7 cups of cold water.
  4. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the tips simmer for 30 minutes. The spruce tips have a faint citrusy aroma, and it was while I was sniffing the steam wafting from the pot that I knew what I wanted to add to enhance the basic flavour of the jelly.
  5. Remove the pot from the heat, and with a tea infuser, steep three tablespoons of Earl Grey looseleaf tea in the pot for 4-5 minutes.

While the tea was steeping, I tried to think of a joke that would end with the punchline “Spruce Wayne,” but the best I could come up with was “who is the forest’s favourite superhero?” which is a pretty sucky joke. Once your juice is ready, the second step is to make the jelly. I use Pomona’s Pectin, but another low-sugar pectin would work as well. The instructions that follow are for using Pomona’s.

  1. Strain juice through a jelly bag or cheesecloth, and measure out 4 cups into a clean pot.
  2. Add 4 tsp of calcium water to the juice, and heat to a boil.
  3. While juice is heating, measure out 1.5 cups sugar and mix with 4 tsp pectin powder.
  4. Once juice has reached a boil, stir in sugar and pectin and return to a hard boil, stirring vigourously.
  5. Remove pot from heat and ladle juice into sterilized jars. Wipe rims and place lids.
  6. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (add 1 minute for every 1,000 feet above sea level).

Makes six half-pint jars of a very complex-flavoured, yellow topaz-coloured jelly.

Like so.
Like so.

I was honestly terrified that this wouldn’t turn out. The weirdness of the ingredients made it impossible to imagine in advance how the jelly would taste, but after my first taste, I’m totally sold on it. It’s the perfect accompaniment for high tea with crumpets, or if you’re not quite that high-brow, toast and a nice cuppa.

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