Friday, September 3, 2010

Thoughts on canning garden tomatoes

Yes, that does say "Hotsie Totsie"
Canning is process.  Enjoy the process and you'll enjoy canning. 

As we prefer to focus on what is enjoyable as a general rule, we are going to do just that.  Still, there are some critically important details to think about when putting anything into a can today that you hope to eat in good health months from now.  For those details, we encourage you to explore the University of Minnesota's detailed page on how to can tomatoes safely.  Read it twice.

Let's talk processes.
Each stage of the canning process offers a chance to enjoy the right here and now of life. For some, canning begins with a seed catalogue in February and thoughts of warmer days.  In an ideal world, the leisurely perusal of Seed Savers or Heirloom Seeds takes place over a bowl of pasta dressed with last year's harvest.  The fact is though that few of us have the space to plant so many tomatoes that we have enough to eat in season and can as well, so let's fast forward to the harvest when growers from across Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan are looking forward to greeting you at your local farmers' market. 

A week ahead of time:

You'll need quite a few tomatoes, 23 lbs for 7 quarts as you read on the U of M's extension page, so plan ahead for your budget.  It is true that farmers' will often offer a discounted deal at the end of a market day, but they will offer you a deal on what they have left, and not necessarily what you want.  Better to go to the market a week ahead of your canning day and talk to your farmer about your needs.  They are likely to offer suggestions on which varieties are fun, which they prefer, and they may offer a discount due to the volume you are purchasing.   With this one small act, you have accomplished many things: You know who is growing your tomatoes, you have committed to a day of canning next week, and you have learned about this season's growing conditions.  We told you the process is fun.

Fight the urge to overbuy and plan reasonably.  You will not can four bushels of tomatoes on your first attempt, or even on your fortieth, no matter how badly we (we mean you) want to have a cupboard full of summer goodness the day after you've canned. 

During the week:

Browse the web for specific instructions on materials needed.  Here is a site that does a nice job of presenting the details.   During the week ahead of your canning day, double check that you have all the required materials including the canning pot.  Make a list, check it twice.  Read this forum for a comprehensive overview.  Personal experience indicates that running out for additional jars, rings, pots, pans, salt or anything else when you are up to your elbows in prepped tomatoes is a part of the process that is better avoided.  Avoid it with a good plan.

Canning Day!

Gather a group of folks who share your enthusiasm.  It's possible to can alone, but working with friends is a guarantee that you'll have a group that wants to come together this winter to share in the next part of the process. 

Think through the process that you have detailed.  Again, once you have jars warm and clean, tomatoes peeled and juiced and herbs prepared, it's a real pain in the arse to have to stop because you are missing something.  The French must do a lot of canning because their term "mis en place" is the first term you should learn.  Roughly translated, "mis en place" means "everything in its place and a place for everything".  The precise translation is "line up your ducks", or maybe that's what Confit de Canard means.  Our suggested mis en place includes:

Jars - sterilized and kept warm either in the closed hot dishwasher or in a 200 degree oven.  Consider the size of your canner and the amount of jars you'll need.  Have enough ready to go before you start.

Canner - whether you will be using a pressure canner or a water canner, have the pot ready to go with as much warm water as needed.  Take fifteen minutes before you start to read the instructions carefully.

Lids - have a pot of water on the stove and the lids you'll need submerged and ready. 

Clean towels - The rim of each jar needs to be wiped clean to ensure a proper seal.  One paper towel will be used quickly.  Have a few ready to go.

Jar lifter.
Tools - Oven mits for hot cans.  A laddle for the tomatoes you will transfer into the can.  A glass of wine paired with the appropriate music.  A pitcher or something like a pitcher to pour the tomato juice and or water into the cans.  A few essential tools that might not be obvious include a jar lifter which serves to remove the cans from the hot water when cooking is complete and a canning funnel that allows you to pour the tomatoes into the jar cleanly.

Canning Funnel

Flavors -
Flavors so simple a child will love them.
Your mis en place will inlcude whatever you might want to add to the jars, but we advise you to think simple, bright, and clean.   Happiness is the smell of summer tomatoes on a cold day in February.  We suggest being as pure as possible in your flavors.  Garlic, herbs and spices can all be added to the sauce that you will make months from now and a clean jar of tomatoes will allow you to follow whatever mood you are in when the time comes.  A jar full of tomatoes flavored with other things might be wonderful, but do you want 8-12 jars of the same?  The only times we recommend tomatoes and lots of other flavors is in case of a family recipe that one knows to be delicious and in case of a cupboard already full of simply canned tomatoes.  The picture at the top of this post shows "Tomatoes with Hotsie Totsie" that we made last weekend.  Note that its a small jar as compared to the others.  This was an experiment that we did after canning more than a bushel of tomato and basil.  We'll see how it tastes this winter.  As the picture at right shows, a bit of basil fresh from the garden is more than acceptable in our book.

Tomatoes -
Last but not least we have to talk about your choice of tomatoes!  "Canning tomatoes" likes Amish Paste and Romas have a lot of flesh and not too much liquid.  They are not quite as tasty fresh as a Cheorkee Purple or a Paul Robeson, but they will be fantastic in February.  Whichever type of large tomato you select, you will want to peel each before canning.  We encourage you to can a mixed selection of cherries as well.  The colors and flavors are great fun to look at for the next few months and even more fun to eat.  Most of these choices should be made during the planning stage, and the always critical "talking to the farmer" stage.  Listen to what the folks at the market have to say and you'll be on your way to canned happiness.

Time to eat!

We suspect you won't need much help here, but we do suggest that you see the eating as a critical part of the process and one that should be shared with old and new friends.  You might use the opening of a can as an excuse to call some of the people who helped grow and can the fruit.  You might also take a can to a group of new friends - nothing says hello like summer in February.  Finally, we end with the suggestion that you should also be ready to simply open a can on a Tuesday night with nothing special going on.  Even if you pour it over some pasta while reading the newspaper, the fruit of your labors will be a wonderful reminder of the process, the flavors, and the people worth celebrating in your life. 


Damien and Mo

This was written for The Local Beet and appears on that site as well.  Thanks for the chance to guest-post, Beets! 

Mo Ferris has been canning on her days off from the restaurant she manages in Chicago and is a graduate of Johnson and Wales.  Damien Casten is the guy whose inability to stop ordering heirloom seeds led to the birth of Chicago TomatoFest. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Heirloom Tomato Madness at Custom House Tavern

Owner Sue Kim and new Chef Perry Hendrix have taken Chicago TomatoFest to a whole new level.  They are doing so many things to help us complete the garden at Central Park and 12th place, it's hard to know where to begin so allow me to present the meal I had there last week. 

To start, take a look at the menu:

That's correct - they have FIVE dishes featuring Heirlooms from which they will donate $0.50 for each dish sold to preSERVES.  Well, that is sure generous, and we love the fact that they are sharing the story of TomatoFest with every customer who comes in the door, but how is new Chef Perry Hendrix using these heirlooms.  Quite well, actually.

Gazpacho was my first choice.  Chef Perry uses a healthy dose of garlic and a touch of heat, both of which were balanced with small cubes of watermelon, and I think a bit of watermelon juice splashed in at the end.  The result was a run of flavors that complemented the tomatoes instead diverting from the flavor. 

Chef Perry's "Bacon" at Custom House Tavern.
Next up I went for the BLT, of course, and had the good fortune of wandering into the kitchen to see what Chef was up to.  The answer was surprising to say the least.  Once a week, an entire pig's head from Slagel Farms is delivered to the restaurant.  Chef Perry debones it and then wraps the remaining skin, cartilage and muscle into a tight roll.  There is enough muscle in the cheek to make for a far less fatty cut that I expected.  After it is wrapped, the roll is then preserved for a few days in what tastes like rosemary, rosemary and more rosemary.  As a fan of rosemary, I thought the flavor was a great addition.  Instead of having a smokey, more traditional bacon flavor, this is herbal and bright.  Fascinating.

Next up, thin slices are sauteed before they go into the sandwich which is constructed with a thick piece of brioche, which I would argue is critical to absorbing the mayo and the tomato juices that one hopes will run all over hands while devouring an in season BLT.  (Is there any other kind?)

And now we come to a critical juncture.  What sort of heirlooms are being used by this talented young Chef who is brand new to the Chicago scene?  Turns out he has selected (at least on the day I was there) the Cherokee Purple, one of the most delicious of all heirlooms thanks to its rich, dark sweetness.  Well played, Sir!

Put it all together and you have a BLT that makes the trip to Custom House Tavern a must-try destination for lunch in the loop these days. 

Go for the BLT and stay for the Heirloom Tomato Infused Vodka drinks. That's right there is more.  Pictures and details follow in our next post...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How to seduce a renowned food writer (and why your neighbor might be more important)

I scream, you scream, we all scream for the attention of a few national figures who drive forward the cause of good food. 

Well, screaming might not be what we do, more like try to share the passion we have for our small local projects with people who might in turn promote the efforts of our collaborators and friends.  In our case, we hope you might have read our "Open Letter to Ruth Reichl" posted a few days ago.   Happily, Ms. Reichl noticed too and in a Twitter exchange commented: @tomatofest Yes, I saw it, and was so sorry not to get there. I will definitely make it on my next trip to Chicago!

How cool is that?  I can imagine the garden party now...

Fact is though, as flattering as one person's attention might be, and we are flattered indeed that our project appeals to Ms. Reichl's sensibilities, what is more important is the attention of our friends and neighbors here in Chicago.  Our efforts to support a garden are for and about the N. Lawndale community in particular and the health of the city in general.  Without the work of our friends and nieghbors, who gathered in April to truck in compost and long before that to draw up the plans, the garden would not be a reality.   The preSERVES program is a test run to see if Slow Food Chicago, Neighbor-Space and communities can come together to tackle a garden at a time small pieces of the problems related to food supply, urban blight, and all the nasty issues that are prone to arise in food deserts, or anywhere else with a culture of take-out, convenience-first, nutrition-second eating.   The good work being done by these people will draw more and more people into the web of delicious, locally grown food, and that is worth celebrating.

It really is cool that two national figures have embraced what we are doing, but what is spectacular is the effort on the ground. 

Want to help?  You can, one bite at a time.  Join us for our Chicago TomatoFest Potluck on September 9th at The Honey Coop, and "Buy a sandwich, Build a Garden" over the next month at some of Chicago's leading restaurants.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Chicago's Highest Heirlooms

Chef Partick Sheerin and the team at The Signature Room on the 95th have agreed to join Chicago TomatoFest for the second year in a row!  Chef Pat signed the pledge and tweeted his asian inspired offering via @chefintheory earlier today:

Hickory smoked Bacon, heirlooms, kimchee aoili, steamed buns &summer veg salad for @tomatofest.

Chef Pat Sheerin being interviewed on
last year at Kendal College.
Chef Patrick Sheerin is a staple at the Green City Market and is a leader in the sustainable community in the Chicago food world, and of course, he is a phenomenal cook!  Take a listen to the interview Chef Pat gave to last year during Chicago TomatoFest here:

Stop by The Signature Room on the 95th  for the highest Heirlooms in Chicago and a stunning view of the city.

For reservations click here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An open letter to Ruth Reichl from an Urban Garden in Chicago (cc: Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA)

Dear Ms. Reichl,

So glad that the combo of the lake and spicy beef seduced you this morning.  As a small garden in "The Second City" I'm flattered that you, a national figure and prominent New Yorker enjoyed your stay enough to tweet your love for my city :  "Sparkling Chicago morning. Walking along the lake munching spicy beef bao. Mouth on fire. Love this city. Such swell food - so little time." (@ruthreichl)
Sweet Potatoes and peas at the preSERVES
garden in North Lawndale.

That you sought out something spicy probably means you visited Argyle St. and were walking along the beach near Lawrence, am I right?  Good for you for getting out of the loop and using your time to explore a slightly less beaten path.  Another national figure and prominent foodie from New York, Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, was in town this week and he too was initially drawn to the Asian flavors our city does so well on the north side too, tweeting  "Insane dinner at #bellyshack with my sister in Chicago. She knows where to go! My lord. Look out David Chang..."  (@joshviertel) 

Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel (left) with
Mr. Gerald Earles, Slum Busting Gardener since 1962.
I hear the food up there is wonderful.  Food's wonderful down here, south of 290, in North Lawndale too.  Seen from a car window travelling on Roosevelt Road, we look like a blueprint for the type of food desert in Chicago that NPR's Natalie Moore just profiled, but let me tell you, in mid August when my Crowder peas and Sweet Potatoes are so plentiful it takes a team to harvest, there is more hope than sand in my corner of town.  Come down next time your in town and meet Mr.and Mrs. Earles who have been busting slums with their gardens in this area since 1962.  Come meet Dr. and Mrs. Israel who are the current heads of the North Lawndale Greening Committee and who work with gardens, volunteers and families all around the neighborhood including at the Millennium Garden / Honey Coop space.  Come to the Chicago Honey Coop, where some of the city's best honey is produced by folks whose efforts and intentions go so far beyond food production.  Come to meet the people featured in this video tour of the area's gardens, which is worth watching more than once, especially if you've never met someone fighting to green a desert, one neighborhood garden at a time.  

Just come.  There is something special going on here in North Lawndale.  The people who have been defending the food traditions in their community for so long deserve a tweet or two themselves.  Next time you see Josh in New York, ask him about The Earles and all the other people he met, the stories they told, and the food they shared, then come see for yourself.  We'll save some sweet potatoes for you.


The preSERVES garden at 12th and Central Park in Chicago

Editor's note:

All proceeds from Chicago TomatoFest 2010 will go towards completing the garden at 12th and Central Park.  We aim to provide funds to build a shed and a fence and provide tools needed for upkeep.  Food grown in the garden is shared with the community by the North Lawndale Greening Committee with a focus on school lunch programs.  preSERVES is a program started by Slow Food Chicago in coordination with Neighbor-Space and the North Lawndale Greening Committee.  $0.50 will be donated by participating restaurants from every "Old School BLT" sold between Aug 23 and Sept 19th. "Buy a Sandwich, Build a Garden!"   Our annual Heirloom TomatoFest at the Chicago Honey Coop will be held on September 9th.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Homegrown Tomatoes

On January 14th in Chicago, the lyric "Winter without 'em is a culinary bummer" rings true a little more than I'd like.  Good thing it's just about time to find my seed catalogues and start planning Chicago TomatoFest 2010!