It’s Homemade Salsa Time

makin' salsa

Each year, right around mid-July, I experience an interesting shift in perception. Fresh, local tomatoes go from being a precious commodity, good for little more than slicing, salting and eating, to something just a bit more mundane. I don’t feel the same pressure to focus on every tomato-y bite. I am suddenly free to transform them, to stuff them with spicy couscous concoctions or roast them for soup. I do so adore being rich in tomatoes.

Friday night, I returned home around 7:30 p.m., after two deliciously strong drinks with the Philly-based half of Doris and Jilly Cook. Hungry, but not inclined towards an organized meal (and with no one else to feed), I decided to turn the three remaining tomatoes I had from the previous week’s farmers’ market excursion into a quick batch of salsa.

homemade salsa fresca

I’ve taken to building quickly chopped half-salads like this straight into jars (saves on washing a bowl). I top a quart jar with a wide mouth funnel and drop the ingredients in as I chop. This jar received layers of cubed tomatoes, half a finely minced onion, 2 cloves of quickly crushed garlic, a roughly chopped handful of wispy cilantro (I got a huge bundle in my CSA share this week, I’m planning to make this soup with the rest), a minced pickled jalapeno (if you pickle them, then you always have them around for salsa emergencies), salt, pepper and the juice of one lime.

Once all the ingredients are in the jar, I cap it (tightly) and give a good shake. If the contents resist incorporation, just let it sit for five minutes and try again. You do need to leave the top third of the jar empty for the shaking to work. If you’ve filled it to a brim, you’ll need to enlist the aid of a wooden spoon. It’s good to eat after fifteen minutes of mellowing (although it gets even better overnight).

I like to eat it with crisp tortilla chips (who wouldn’t!) or just with a soup spoon, like a spicy, Mexican-inspired gazpacho. It’s good heaped on scrambled eggs and has the power to lift spirits and brighten days. Just make sure to store any leftovers in the fridge.

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Just a note about salsas like this. They are not cannable. Sadly, it’s impossible to capture the flavors of fresh salsas with our existing preservation techniques. However, there are a number of cooked salsa recipes out there that are appropriate for canning. Do a little searching and make sure to find a tested recipe that’s safe for processing and storage. You’ll find that many of them are quite delicious!

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Canning Book: Put ‘Em Up (+ giveaway!)

Put 'Em Up

One of the things I love most about the fact that canning and home food preservation is gaining popularity is how it’s meant an increase in beautifully designed, thoughtfully written and downright inspirational books on the subject.

Put 'Em Up

Take, for instances, Put ’em Up!, a new release by Sherri Brooks Vinton. The book bills itself as “A Comprehensive Home Preservation Guide” and covers not only canning, but also drying and freezing. And truly, after spending several days paging through this hefty number, I think she’s managed to cover just about everything you’d want to know on the subject.

Put 'Em Up

I’m particularly smitten with the line drawings they’ve used in place of illustrative photographs. Though I like a pretty food image as much as the next girl, I could see how they could be distracting when your primary goal is to convey deeply useful information in a crisp and intelligible manner.

Put 'Em Up

This isn’t to say that there aren’t any photos in the book. You’ll find pages like this at the front of each section, each featuring a number of quirky and colorful examples of what you could make, should you choose to pick up a copy.

Put 'Em Up

Don’t you just love this two-page spread on how to make fermented pickles! It’s just so helpful! As you can tell, I have something of a crush on this book. Call it my canning companion of the moment.

If you’re thinking that you’d like to make a copy of this book yours, leave a comment on this post. Tell me about your favorite pickle and do it before Tuesday, July 20th at 11:59 p.m. (I’ll be closing the comments at that time). I have two copies of this book to give away (provided by the publisher), so your chances to win are even greater than normal (and, if you don’t win, I’d still recommend picking up a copy. It’s less than $14 on Amazon).

Let the giveaway begin!

A Handy Helper for Speedy Pickling

pickling pitcher

Several years ago, Scott and I filmed an episode of Fork You about making risotto with our friend Jessie. We cooked in her kitchen and though the whole day was fun, there’s one part of that shoot that has particularly stuck with me. You see, Jessie had this pot that was the most brilliant thing ever for risotto making. It had a built-in spout, and instead of having a conventional pot handle, it had a heatproof handle that was shaped like one you would find on a pitcher. It made adding the stock to the risotto incredibly easy. It’s not untrue to say that I coveted this ingenious little pot.

I continue to think about Jessie’s pitcher-styled stock pot, now imagining how amazing it would be for pickle making, as it would make filling jars with brine positively breezy (and would mean fewer dishes to boot). I have searched high and low for something similar and have come up empty-handed. Until now.

pickling pitcher

Recently, while standing in a coffeeshop waiting for an iced coffee (my favorite way to combat steamy days), I took note of the pitchers they used for steaming milk. Stainless steel. Sturdy. Able to withstand the high heat of the steaming wand. Could this be the vessel I’ve been searching for? I ordered the biggest one Amazon carried and took it on a test pickling drive. It withstood the heat of my stove and made filling my jars so quick

Side note: I am beginning to be convinced of the idea that it’s always better to put the pickling spices directly in the jars, and not mix them with the brine. I get very inconsistent spice distribution when I’ve added them to the brine like I did for this picture.

The pitcher holds a bit less than 2 quarts, and you wouldn’t want to fill it to the brim, so it’s really only good for smaller batch pickling (say 4-6 pints). However, that’s much of what I do, so it works beautifully for me. If you pickle in similar amounts, consider adding this handy tool to your kit (do use a small pot holder when picking it up, that handle isn’t designed to be heatproof).

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All this week, Simple Bites is featuring canning tips, tricks, techniques and recipes. I contributed a piece on how to can whole tomatoes to the effort and a number of other bloggers have lent their canning talents and skills to that site as well. For those of you who just can’t get enough preservation information, please do go check it out!

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My latest piece in Grid Philly is available online, for your reading pleasure. I wrote up a trio of no-cook recipes as my way of helping people beat the heat. Leaf over to pages 30-31 of the digital edition and take a gander.

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More on Fruit Butters in a Slow Cooker

an array of jams and butters

There were so many questions about cooking fruit butters in slow cookers left on the blueberry butter post that I thought I’d talk a little more about how it works, how to do it and why it’s a great technique. I do apologize that it’s taken me so long to get this posted, but such is life.

How would you go about getting lavender flavor into a batch of blueberry butter?

In my experience, there are two ways to infuse flavor into a preserve without leaving behind bits of the original flavor element. The first is to steep the flavor element in hot water or simple syrup until it is sufficiently potent.

The second way to go is to tie up a few spoonfuls of your flavor element in a bit of cheesecloth and let that packet steep while the preserves cook.

The first technique is just fine if you don’t mind adding a bit of additional liquid to your recipe. However, in the case of butter, you’re already going to spend hours cooking the existing liquid out of your fruit, so it doesn’t make sense to add more. So with this recipe, I would have used the cheesecloth packet technique, tasting regularly to determine when I thought the flavor was infused enough.

This may be very elementary, but why/how is it considered a butter? Also, what is the difference between a jam, jelly, butter, etc.

A fruit butter is named as such because it mimics the smooth spreadability of softened butter. It is cooked low and slow for a number of hours, in order to evaporate the excess liquid, concentrate the fruit flavors and intensify the innate sweetness in the fruit. Thanks to this concentration, it typically contains a minimal amount of additional sweetener.

Jams are made with whole fruit that is cooked with sugar until 220 degrees (or thereabouts). The sugar to fruit ratios are high. Some jams contain additional pectin to ensure a good set.

Jellies are made with fruit juice, sugar and pectin. They are well-gelled and don’t have any bits of fruit.

Can you process the blueberries in a food processor instead of a Vitamix.

You totally can. Just make sure to pulse it, you don’t want to turn it into juice.

Can you do this in a newer slow cooker?

You certainly can do this in a newer slow cooker. Just make sure to mind it a little bit more closely so that it doesn’t scorch. Regardless of what cooker you use, just make sure to fill it at least three quarters of the way full. The heating coils in a slow cooker go all the way up to the top, so if you leave too much of the cooker empty, the top of the butter can burn while the subterranean fruit pulp doesn’t cook sufficiently.

What else can you make in the crock pot?

You can do all number of fruit butters in the crock pot. I’ve followed the same formula for sweet cherry butter, apricot butter, fruit butter and peach butter. Delicious stuff, all of it.

If you have any other questions about making fruit butters in a slow cooker, feel free to leave them in the comments section. I will do my best to reply!

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Canning 101 – Label Your Jars Promptly

unlabeled jars

For weeks now, I’ve been playing with an idea for this site. A series of posts, gathered under the header “Canning 101” that could become a resource for those who are new to canning and serve as good reminders for people who have been doing it for years. I’ve been keeping a running list in a little red notebook, jotting down topics as they occurred to me. Though the idea queue has been growing, I’ve been hesitant to start. I felt like I had to find the absolute right topic with which to begin, and my search for perfection has left me a bit paralyzed.

Then, this last Sunday morning, I found myself frustratedly rooting through the boxes of filled and processed jars that have taken up residence on my dining room table. I was looking for a half pint of Strawberry Rhubarb Butter. Unfortunately, as you can tell from the picture up above, my jams were criminally unlabeled, so finding that particular jar was a irritating treasure hunt. In order to find the right preserve, I had to hold each jar up to the light, tilt it and search out the signs of strawberry seeds (I still managed to bring the wrong jar with me to brunch that morning).

As I was going through the jars, trying to discern strawberries from cherries, I thought to myself, “I really need to write a post, emphasizing the importance of labeling processed jars promptly.” And so, in that moment, I knew where to start this series.

Labeling is a simple endeavor. When I’m doing it just for my own benefit, all I do is take a blue or black Sharpie to the lid and scrawl the name of the product and the date it was produced. When I want to be a little be fancier, I use a self-inking stamp I bought that leaves an impression on a sticker with room for the name and date. If I want something truly elegant, I get in touch with my friend Lelo and order some of her customizable labels.

However you do it, make sure to label the jars clearly and always date them (so you know just how old that applesauce that you’re about to eat actually is). Even if you’re certain that you’ll always be able to tell your blackberry jam from your blueberry butter, I promise you that you will eventually be proven wrong and you’ll find yourself wishing you had quickly labeled those jars.

Tune in next Tuesday for another installment of Canning 101.

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Canning Discovery Kit Winner

Canning Discovery Kit

Goodness. That was a popular giveaway, wasn’t it! Truly, an unprecedented response. I’m truly delighted to hear that so many of you are interested in getting started canning. For those of you who were hoping to win this kit as a way to get started canning, I’d encourage you to seek out this kit on your own or rig up a system of your own, because truly, there’s little that’s more satisfying that eating your own home-canned jam in January or February.

Before I announce the winner, I want to say a few words about the man who made this giveaway and so much of what appears on this blog possible. That would be my husband Scott. I make mention of him on occasion (mostly when referencing his slightly picky eating habits), but I don’t think I give him his due frequently enough.

He initially encouraged me to start this blog and has been an unflagging booster as I’ve invested more and more of myself in this little spot on the internet. This giveaway was his idea, he was the one who spotted this canning kit last month when we were in Lancaster, moved one into our cart, paid for it and suggested I give it away on this blog.

In addition to being an incredibly supportive spouse, he’s also a writer. If you’re thinking about starting a blog on either WordPress or TypePad, consider seeking out one of his most useful books. He also has two blogs, Scott Explains (where he show how to do useful technological things) and Blankbaby (an old-school personal blog).

But enough with the praise for Scott. You guys are here to hear about the winner. And, according to randomizer, our winner is #227. Congratulations Tricia, you’ve won the kit! Thanks to all of you who entered! I have another fun giveaway coming soon, so make sure to check back later this week.

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