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.
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.
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.