A Helpful Pair of Extra Hands

Megan provided a helpful pair of hands for canning tomatoes.

Megan provides a welcomed pair of extra hands during Tomatopalooza.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a note on Facebook with an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The note was a from my friend Megan Schell Burcham, a beautiful young woman who just celebrated her first wedding anniversary. She asked if I would teach her how to can tomatoes and offered to help on her next available weekend. She’s a registered nurse at Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah, which means she doesn’t maintain bankers hours. She works long 12-hour shifts and commutes an hour each way. How could I refuse such a charming companion to join me during Tomatopalooza? After a few emails back and forth, we settled on canning whole tomatoes.

Whole tomatoes aren’t a pantry staple for me. I prefer sliced/diced tomatoes that I can open and pitch into the crockpot when I’m making homemade soups. One reason I prefer sliced tomatoes is that ultimately, I’m lazy. I don’t like to blanch the darned things. I’m perfectly happy to whip them around my food-processor after coring, thus using as much of the tomato as possible–especially the nutritionally packed skins. But for Megan, I was more than happy to roll up my sleeves and start blanching.

My usual source for tomatoes, Hillyard Field Organics, didn’t have any tomatoes this week. The heat has been dreadful on all the crops. So I went to the Farmer’s Market on a mission to find beautiful fruit, grown responsibly (if not organically), at a good price. We have several new vendors at the Downtown Farmer’s Market this year including a quiet young man who attends the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is leasing land from Paul of Earth’s Bounty (our favorite bread maker) to grow a garden and produce for the market. He’s been showing up with some lovely Vegetables.  A few weeks ago, we purchased purple heirloom carrots from him. I’ve only seen them in catalogs and on the internet, so I was eager to try them. I wasn’t disappointed –they were perfect.

When we arrived at his booth, he had a nice display of vegetables including purple hull peas, squash, and tomatoes. Since we’ve only put up a couple quarts of purple-hull peas, I decided that I couldn’t bypass his gorgeous pods. We purchased just over seven pounds. Then I asked him about his tomatoes. How many did he have? He glanced in the back of his truck and said that he had a good supply with him. Knowing that it typically takes 20 pounds of tomatoes for a 7-quart canning, I asked to purchase 20 pounds. But then I quickly changed my mind to 40 pounds because his tomatoes were perfect. The expression on his face was priceless as he reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a couple of boxes to hold our bounty. We told him that we’d go visit some of our other vendors and be back to collect everything.  We went on to purchase our bread, two dozen ears of corn, a couple pounds of onions, and a few other odds and ends. We took our stuff to the truck, then went to fetch our tomatoes and purple-hull peas. For the $50 he charged us, we walked away with three boxes stuffed with beautiful produce and we invested in a young farmer.  It was a win-win situation.

When we got home, I started getting ready for Megan’s arrival. I was thrilled to have the chance to spend some quality time with her. She grew up across the street from us in our old neighborhood. I loved watching her and her sister grow up. Their family were more than neighbors; they were all special friends. Now that the “girls” are married and busy with their careers, I don’t get to see either of them often. Facebook is just about our only method of communication these days.

Today wasn’t our first cooking adventure together, by the way. A few years ago, Megan and I spent a winter’s day making homemade chicken noodle soup together. She is avid cook and pastry maker who was raised to believe in sustainable living. You can see why we’re kindred spirits.

She quickly caught onto the art of ‘smooshing’ the tomatoes into the jar so that they are overpacked.

As I puttered around, I noticed a text message from my brother. His family and several of his in-laws were camping nearby and were going antiquing in Hazel, Ky. They would be passing by our neighborhood and wanted to stop in for few minutes. I quickly called him and told him that I would be thrilled to see everybody. Within 30 minutes our house was full of family–it was great. After they left, Megan and I got to work on the tomatoes and my beloved started shelling purple-hull peas. In between steps canning tomatoes, we helped shell peas. At one point, we all laughed when Megan realized the amount of peas that we had purchased; they just kept coming out of the box ready for shelling. It was as if the box were bottomless.

With a pair of extra hands, it didn’t take long to blanch, core, and get the tomatoes ready for cold-packing into freshly sterilized jars. As usual, I forget to add the 1t of salt and 2T of lemon juice to the first couple jars. So we had to dump them and start all over again, after getting them stuffed full. I believe in stuffing and stuffing and stuffing tomatoes (sliced/diced or whole) in jars and pulling the extra juice off, thus overpacking the jars.  Overpacking helps reduce fruit float and creates a more technically-correct jar. During the process, Megan mentioned that she used tomato juice for her husbands’ favorite dish. So we put all the juice we were pulling off into quart freezer bags (measuring 2 cups per bag) for her to put in her freezer. There were several bags, so she’ll have an ample supply of fresh juice.

I love it when its time to take the jars out of the canner. The colors are so vibrant.

Forty-five minutes after putting the jars into a water bath, we were all admiring the beautiful jars of whole tomatoes — that were pretty easy to prepare. I love how the seeds artistically arrange themselves. And of course all the colors of the tomatoes are stunning. We were quite pleased with ourselves.

I’ll take the jars over to her house later today, after they cool. Knowing her, she’ll use them to whip up something special for dinner. They’ll keep for years, just like the memories of our afternoon together.


Gardening, Canning, and a few Bloody Marys by Melinda Wall

Our next Tomatopalooza submission was from our friend Melinda Wall whose husband Russ, is an avid gardener, canner, and mixes a mean Bloody Mary.

Bloody Mary mix wait patiently for festive tailgate parties.

We’ve been married for 30 years.  For 29 of those years, my husband Russ has grown a garden. His first garden was a pretty big project, considering he was teaching, taking graduate classes, and coaching three sports. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and green beans. We were living in Frankfort, Kentucky, at the time. We rented a small house with a big yard, so the garden grew larger during the years we lived there.

We purchased our first home in 1986. Russ was thrilled with the size of the yard. It was perfect for a garden. And as an added bonus, the house had a root cellar in the basement. I could literally see visions of canning dancing ’round in his head. I, on the other hand, hoped that I would be working on canning days.

Soon after we bought the house, we found out we were expecting. With the baby due in late July, you would think that Russ would reconsider his plans for a big garden.  After all, with a new born to occupy our time, there wouldn’t be much available for gardening or canning.  But no, that summer he made the garden even bigger which meant mega canning.  After our son was born, my mother came to help.  When she left, I think she was glad to escape the chaos going on in our kitchen.  Russ canned everything that year– tomato juice, tomatoes, pickles, and green beans. He filled that root cellar up fast.

The night before our son was born, we had a whole crowd of friends show up to check up on us. I fed everyone dinner from our garden: green beans, tomatoes, fried squash, okra, and cucumbers in vinegar. We even had green onions that year.

We moved to Murray in 1989. We bought a house, and wouldn’t you know it, it had a big back yard with plenty of room for a garden. No longer satisfied to just grow the vegetables, Russ began starting his own tomato plants. Each spring, our dining room table would be covered with baby plants with a grow light hung on the light fixture.

Over the years the gardens have not been as large and the canning not as extensive, but Russ still manages to preserve a little of his tomato bounty. We have canned them, frozen them, juiced them, made salsa, soups, and sauces with them. I will admit I’m ready to quit dealing with them. Russ on the other hand, is always willing to do something when the big crop comes in. This past weekend, he made a batch of Bloody Mary mix (complete with vodka). His Bloody Mary mix always makes it to UK football games and to the SEC Basketball Tournament. If his Uncle Charles has a bumper year of corn, Russ will make a trek to Trigg County and pick up a truck full. That processing job is another story!

This year we are down to 13 tomato plants and nothing else. I guess we are downsizing after all these years!

Preserving a Slice of Today for Tomorrow Using Yesterday’s Methods by Gwen Taylor

Our fourth submission for Tomatopalooza was from Gwen Taylor of Paducah, Kentucky. She is one of the sweetest ladies I know. Her story touched my heart, as I often feel the spirit of my mother and grandmothers when I’m canning.

My friend Gwen Taylor with the many beautiful jars of tomatoes that she and her daughter Holly preserved together.

My daughter Holly called about at week ago and asked if we could set some time aside to can tomato juice.

“Just the way Memaw did because I want to learn this tradition,” she said.

While I don’t have a garden, but my sister does. So I called her and found out that she does not enough tomatoes for canning yet. I also learned that she still has plenty of tomato juice and tomatoes from the year before my mom passed away.

I reflected a bit on why I would even be hesitant. After all, every summer for as long as I can remember, I spent several days– long days in the kitchen with mom and her mom canning and freezing vegetables from the garden. Oh, how I miss those ladies who influenced my character so much!

When the big day arrives, my best friend, Lisa Grief co-owner of Wurth Farms, arranged for 60 lbs of tomatoes to be ready for me. The boxes were beautiful!

At noon, Holly and I begin our adventure into the world of canning! One approach, very different from mom and grandma’s approach, was taking things a little slower and embellishing it. That evening, I left for two hours to attend a meeting. When I came home, there was my bouncing baby girl still cooking away. She was on to the Salsa now;  apron on, knife in hand, and old country music songs playing in the background. I could feel my mom just as if she was standing in the kitchen with us. These were songs that she used to sing along to from Conway, Merle, and the Oak Ridge Boys.

I am so proud to have a daughter who wanted to continue our family tradition, reminiscing about all that my grandma and mom had taught me and some of the great times we had in the kitchen. We worked very hard and were very tired, but the satisfaction that comes from seeing the “pretty jars” of tomatoes that we had preserved made it all worthwhile!

This “preserving” is not only ensuring that we have tomatoes all year long, but it is also about remembering and honoring those strong women who came before us and passing that heritage on to the strong women who come after us.

Memories are made in the kitchen folks!

A Blessed Weekend by Denise Adams

Our third Tomatopalooza submission came from Denise Adams, a dear friend who got the chance to pass on her canning knowledge to her daughters.

Alexa proudly shows off the lovely jars that she, her sister, and her mother prepared.

My middle child, Alexa, came home from Lexington for a visit with a purpose of canning for our first time!  My mother is smiling down on us from heaven I am sure, as we are having an awesome time in the kitchen.  We both prepared with lots of reading and researching lots of home canning blogs and websites and the preparation paid off.  It is music to the ears listening to the little “pops”.  We are forever hooked and bonded over the heat and luscious smells we have created…even baking biscuits and eating our leftovers at midnight last night. Thus far:  10 pints of spaghetti sauce, 10 pints of peach preserves and 9 pints of plum jelly.

An afternoon siesta and then back to the kitchen 🙂

The spaghetti sauce Denise refers to is the Roasted Tomato and Garlic Soup that I often refer to in other posts, a recipe I learned from Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen.

Roasted Tomato and Garlic Soup
Click for recipe.

Pickles Anyone? By Rita Grace

The second Other Voices submission was from my sister, Rita Grace.  She is my rock, my expert, and she is a good sport about anything I drag her into.

A couple of years ago, my sister gave her husband an antique tractor for his birthday. It suppose to be for their ‘big garden’ on the farm. We all know its a toy.

It’s a bright Saturday morning and my dear sister has invited our cousins to MY house in a couple of weeks for a pickling party!  She has forgotten that that we’re about to start remodeling. I haven’t thoroughly cleaned the house for months– its a wreck!  I look around and decide cleaning can wait. There are cucumbers and tomatoes, fresh from our garden lying on the kitchen counter.  And they’re calling my name!

As I enter my kitchen, I realize just how much I harvested earlier that morning.  Frankly, I didn’t want to deal with any of it.  The past couple of weeks have been wonderful. With just enough vegetables to eat and not enough to preserve, we’ve relaxed and simply enjoyed life.  I am one relaxed lady and now there is a lot of work waiting for me. As I think about the fun my husband and I have had, I begin straightening up the kitchen, ignoring the vegetables.  Simply putting away all the unnecessary tools, ie, toaster, vacuum sealer, etc., improved things!

Then I stare at the cucumbers again.  My husband loves homemade pickles — he won’t hardly touch a store bought one. Knowing that cucumbers would soon be coming in with a vengeance, I begin to hunt for his favorite dill pickle recipe.  When I can’t find it, I recruit him to help me.  Together, we search the whole house and finally find the right cook book with the correct recipe.

With one eye on the cucumbers, I get out the ingredients for the dill pickle recipe and start measuring.  (I guess I’m making dill pickles today after all.)  Then I get the jars heating, along with their rings and lids.  Finally, I wash and trim cukes. Unlike my sister who considers a recipe as a suggestion, I follow the instructions to the letter.  Well, almost.  As I start filling the jars, I realize that I need more juice.  So I stop and make more liquid.  Within an hour, I have four pints of dill pickles, sealed, and ready for eating. More importantly, my kitchen is clean, and I feel a sense of success. Then I see the tomatoes…

The cousins are still coming, the house is still a wreck, but who cares?  We will be making memories and have pickles for our efforts!  I can’t wait!!

Dill Pickles
4 lbs (4″) pickling cucumbers
6 Tablespoon salt
3 cups vinegar ( I use apple vinegar)
3 cups water
1 cup dill seeds
21 peppercorns whole

Wash cucumbers; cut in lengthwise halves (I make slices, but lengthwise). Combine salt, vinegar and water. Heat to boiling. Pack cucumbers into clean hot pint jars. Add about 2 Tablespoons dill seeds and 3 peppercorns to each jar. Fil with pickling syrup to within 1/2 of jar top. Immediately adjust lids. Process in boiling water bath (212 degrees) 15 minutes. Remove jars from canner. Makes 7 pints.
Dill seeds do the seasoning

Freezing and Canning Cookbook by Farm Journal, Revised Edition, Prized Recipes from the Farms of America, Copywright 1973

Rita Grace is a retired foster care specialist. She began her career as a home economics teacher for the Hopkins County Board of Education before becoming an cooperative extension agent for the University of Illinois, then Purdue University. She and her husband enjoy gardening, preserving, and serve as technical advisers to Despite Everything. I can’t do anything without them.

One Decent Tomato by Rebecca Reynolds

Our first guest post was received from long-time friend Rebecca Reynolds, a Kentucky girl now living in Michigan. The post below was first featured in Michigan Blue Magazine.

As spring gardening approaches, my thoughts turn to you, Barbara Kingsolver. No, you don’t know me, but I have a bone to pick. You’ve set the bar too high. Not only did you and your family grow all your own food, but you also documented the entire year in your bestselling memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, complete with agricultural and environmental tips. Did I mention recipes included?

Except for olive oil and grains, if you didn’t grow it, can it, freeze it, dry it, raise it, or buy it locally, you didn’t eat it. Then, in your spare time, you and your husband bred and “harvested” Bourbon Red turkeys. Your college-age daughter tested all the recipes. Heck, even your grade-schooler raised chickens and sold eggs. Puh-leeze.

Oh, sure, I’m jealous of your successful year of sustainable living. But that’s not what annoys me. It’s your tomatoes. See, while you had a tomato crop approaching 400 pounds, I’ve spent a decade trying to grow one decent tomato. One. Decent. Tomato.

When Jim and I moved up north from tomato-growing heaven in Kentucky, we settled a mile and a half north of the 45th Parallel, on shady Main Street. Two words should immediately alert any serious tomato gardener: north and shady. See, tomatoes originally came from hot, sunny Mexico and Central America. And that’s exactly what they like: heat and sun.

My first few springs I started my plants from seeds. But in only filtered house light, these poor leggy seedlings listed pitifully toward the illusion of sun. I took to moving them from room to room, but to no avail. When I planted 6-packs from the garden center, I was again thwarted. My plants grew fine, but with only three hours of sun per day, nary a fruit ripened. And not even I can eat that many fried green tomatoes.

Next year found me with one perfect tomato plant in a wagon. So began the great Tomato Tour: two hours of a.m. sun in the front yard, three hours on the side, and a half hour of western sun in our backyard. Jim and I dutifully pulled the wagon back and forth. That is when we were home…when we remembered. It didn’t work. Finally I took to inviting southern friends up to visit. Y’all come. And, please, bring tomatoes.

So, whereas you, Barbara Kingsolver, had so many tomatoes you were literally seeing red, I’ve yet to see pale orange. But this spring’s different. Gal pal Susan has an organic garden on a sunny hill two miles south of the 45th Parallel, and Jim and I are joining her in working it. Yes, indeed, come September, I, too, will be canning and drying just like you, Barbara Kingsolver. Because, we both know, it’s just like Guy Clark sang: “Only two things that money can’t buy…true love & homegrown tomatoes.”

Recipe: Pull one decent tomato off the vine, rinse under tap water, roll up sleeves, and enjoy! Salt and pepper optional.

To learn more about Rebecca Reynolds, visit her website

Finding Balance

Carrots at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market Photo: Cheyenne Medlock

I took a break from canning this weekend.

Since the early days of this blog, I’ve been working overtime to preserve each season’s bounty. When the leafy greens of early spring were plentiful, I was juicing and freezing them. When the tender berries of spring arrived, I was making jam. Then when the first veggies of summer ripened, I preserved their sun-drenched goodness.

Tackling last weekends’ 90 pounds of tomatoes was the tipping point. At about 10:00 pm on Sunday night, I realized that I had missed hanging out with my kid, playing with the dog, or enjoying a day out on Kentucky Lake. I had also missed Inspector Lewis‘ premiere on this season’s Masterpiece Theatre’s Mystery.  It was time to regroup.

Friday morning, I did a quick walk-around in my garden.  The heat of the week had slowed down the cucumbers. The squash and zuchini were making their last attempts to set blooms. While my tomato vines were covered in green tomatoes, they were a few days from ripening.  Inside, my 7-day pickles were at their last stage. They needed to sit for three days. If I was going to take a midsummer break — this was it.

After work, we loaded up and headed to Memphis to see our favorite (and only) niece who attends the University of Memphis. After living there for three years, she knows Memphis like a native. She delighted us a foodie adventure tour to local dives complimented with frosty mugs of local beer. We had a blast. We even ran into some Murray friends who were in town visiting their son. We ate, we drank, we shopped, and we blew out a few cobwebs.

Today, I hear the lake calling my name. Thank goodness my 7-day pickles still need another day.