Home-canning Tomatoes Brings on the Nostalgia: Here’s a Recipe To Start Your Own Memories

Just made home-canned jars of tomatoes fresh from the garden--mostly Purple Cherokees, filled in with plump grape tomatoes.

Just made home-canned jars of tomatoes fresh from the garden–mostly Purple Cherokees, filled in with plump grape tomatoes.

I thought I probably wouldn’t can tomatoes this year. Last year, I hadn’t.  Because of the still dry conditions, except for the grape tomato, the plants didn’t produce much at all.  Also, this year I only set in seven plants: three Purple Cherokees, three hybrids that bear pretty large fruit, and another grape tomato.

If you want a plant that continues bearing for a long time and lets you almost daily grab enough tomatoes for your salads, I recommend planting grape tomatoes.  With just a couple of plants, you can harvest daily the same amount of tomatoes that you will pay $2.50 per container (or more) at the super market.  Of course, if you want the big, beefy slicing tomatoes that go great in a sandwich, there is none better than the heirloom Purple Cherokee; though even the hybrids picked fresh from the garden are nightly tasty.

Nothing better than a juicy tomato straight from the patch behind the garage.

Nothing better than a juicy tomato straight from the patch behind the garage.

With the rain this year, my tomatoes have been doing well, but with the onset of higher temperatures, the big tomatoes are no longer setting on.  I’ve already shared with friends, so more of the tomatoes getting ripe at the same time, I decided to look to see (Don’t you just love this redundancy!) if I had all the necessities for canning tomatoes.  It doesn’t take much: jars, lids, rings, and several pots for water.  I also have real canning tongs; something we didn’t have out on the farm.  Some say you have to have a pressure cooker for canning, but I do it the way my mom did, just using a big kettle with a lid and have always had good results.

The recipe is pretty simple, but I dug out the recipe card, one of many that I have in my mom’s handwriting.  Her distinctive writing and the whole process itself brings back a lot of good memories of helping with the canning when I was a kid out there on the farm in Kansas.

So the process (it’s really more of a process than a recipe):

Fill 3 pots with water and put them on the stove to simmer.  You’ll need 2 smaller pots, one to scald the jars and one to blanch the tomatoes.  You’ll need another pot big enough to hold the filled jars for the actually canning.  I have one that will hold 6 pints or 4 quarts.

I sanitize the jars by dipping them in one pot of boiling water.  You can also do this in the dishwasher or by pouring scalding water into and over them in the sink drainer.  Let them drain on a towel on the counter.  Then put sealing lids in the water to sanitize and heat up.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water and put it in the sink.  Turn the jars right-side up and put them near the sink in order to have them ready for the tomatoes, once peeled.

Start dipping clean, washed tomatoes into the hot water in the other smaller pot, one or two at a time.  Leave them for about 20-30 seconds.  Use a big slotted spoon to dip them out of the pot and plunge them into the ice water for just a few seconds.  The skins should peel off easily.  Use a paring knife to cut out the stem areas and any blemishes.  Now fill the jars with the peeled tomatoes.  Smaller tomatoes can go in whole; larger ones should be cut into halves or quarters.  As you fill the jars, gently push down the tomatoes with your fingers to eliminate air pockets.  Fill the jars to approximately 3/4 inch from the top.  Make sure that no tomatoes will be sticking up against the lid.

Now add salt to each jar:  1/2 teaspoon for pints, 1 teaspoon for quarts. (Some recipes also suggest adding a spoonful of lemon juice.)  Next, wipe all around the rim of the jar with a clean, damp cloth to remove any tomato bits, salt, or liquid.

Now remove the lids from the simmering water with a spoon or tongs.  Be careful; the lids will be hot!  Put the lids on the jars and screw on the jar rings.  The rings should be tight, but not necessarily muscle-man tight.  I twist the lids on as tightly as I can and then loosen them back just a tad.  Remember that the rings are there to hold the lids on during the canning; they really aren’t what is actually sealing the jar.

You’re ready to put the filled jars into the big pot of simmering water.  How much water to start with is always a guess, but you want the water to cover the jars by about an inch once you have them all in the pot, so don’t overfill.  If I need more water, I just pour some from the pot that I used for sanitizing the jars.  Use the canning tongs to carefully stand the jars in the pot.  My mom always placed a dishcloth on the bottom of the pot for cushion, but I don’t do that.  Cover the pot with its lid.  The jars of tomatoes will cool down the water a bit, so turn up the heat until the water gets boiling again and then you can let the jars simmer.  Mom’s recipe says 20 minutes for pints and 30 minutes for quarts.

Don’t mess with the jars in the pot.  The first year I canned tomatoes, I got worried seeing air bubbles coming out of the jars, but that’s just part of the process and what makes the vacuum to help the jars seal.

When the cooking time is up, lift the jars out of the pot with the canning tongs, and place them on a cloth on the counter to cool.  Once again, don’t mess with them.  Just let them sit until cool.  As the jars begin to cool down, you will hear a “ping”.  This is the final sealing of the jars.  After the jars are completely cool, test the seal by gently pushing down on the center of each jar lid.  If there is no “give”, that means the jar is sealed.

In the rare case that the lid easily moves up and down, that means the jar isn’t sealed.  At this point, you have two choices, start the canning process over with a new lid and 20 more minutes of cooking time, or put the jar in the refrigerator and use the tomatoes within a few days.

Making home-canned tomatoes is one of the least involved canning processes.  Whether you can just a couple of jars or a couple dozen, there will be a lot of satisfaction in preserving some fresh produce from your own garden.  Then some cold day in the fall or winter, you’ll have the special treat of opening a jar to make your favorite spaghetti sauce or chili with tomatoes that still have that home-grown flavor, something that the store-bought just doesn’t give.

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Early in the Year But Plants and Seeds Are in the Ground

Planted on February 9th, these small tomato plants have a long way to go before they begin producing, but they seem happy to be in the ground and out of their small containers.

Planted on February 9th, these small tomato plants have a long way to go before they begin producing, but they seem happy to be in the ground and out of their small containers.

This is my sixth year of living in my house, and one of the reasons that I wanted a home with a yard was to have a vegetable garden.  The overall yard space isn’t so large here, but I’ve made a space behind the garage for a small plot, and every year I’ve planted tomatoes and some other veggies.

I had thought about not putting in a garden this year and had delayed tilling up the plot.  However, one day this past week, I had some extra time and decided to get out the tiller, spread the compost that had been brewing, and dug up the garden space.  I hadn’t really planned to  plant anything that day, but with the sun so warm I dredged a few rows and dropped in carrot and beet seeds.  Later, I went to Lowe’s in search of some other items, but wouldn’t you know it, out in front wwe racks of vegetable plants, and I couldn’t resist looking at the tomato plants.  I ended up getting seven: a grape tomato that wouldn’t stop producing last year, three hybrids, and three Purple Cherokees, which are one of the tastiest tomatoes.  I don’t always get good results from the heirloom tomatoes, but if they produce, they are worth the effort.

Here's hoping this small Purple Cherokee tomato plant will produce some tasty fruit in a few months.

Here’s hoping this small Purple Cherokee tomato plant will produce some tasty fruit in a few months.

I also got turnip and radish seeds, and even though, the sun was starting to set, I got the tomato plants set into the ground, putting bone meal and manure down into the holes first.  There was still enough room in the little garden, so I added several rows of turnips and one of radishes.

February is a good time here to put in the root vegetables, but many think it’s too early for tomatoes.  I’ll take my chances by putting them in early.  Once it gets hot here, the tomatoes may bloom, but they stop bearing.  If, by chance, the weatherman predicts a late frost, I’ll cover up the tomato plants.  We’ve had a few nights below 32, but those temps haven’t done much to the flower beds or potted plants.

Anyway, having the photos here makes a way to keep a record and we’ll see how the garden grows!

Hakurei Turnips: First Garden Take of the Spring

Hakurei turnips just pulled from the garden (2-17-14)

Hakurei turnips just pulled from the garden (2-17-14)

Two or three warm days make it feel like spring is here.  The grass is noticeably greening up.  Even here in southeast Texas, where the temps normally come back up after a few cold days of cold, we’ve had a long winter of bundling-up.  I know our mostly in-the-50s days and down-in-the-30s nights are not that bad compared to those in some other parts of the country.  I spent a good many years lasting through cold Kansas winters, so I can appreciate not having to scrape windshields and scoop off driveways these days.

The below 30s and accompanying freezing rain and sleet we did have on a couple of occasions have interfered very little with the veggies that I planted at the end October out in the small garden behind the garage.  The perky leaves of the mix of greens and the glistening tops of the carrots and turnips seem to be almost showing off here in the middle of February.

The carrots and the traditional purple top turnips probably won’t make for some time, but this next weekend I intend to cut a batch of the greens for a wilted salad.  This evening, though, I couldn’t resist pulling up four of the Hakurei turnips.  Right now, some are about the size of a big radish.  They are sweet and crunchy with just a little bite, as I verified by munching them down once they were washed and the tops nipped off.

I get most of my seeds on line from Johnny’s Seeds.  I don’t mind giving them a plug because I’ve gotten the seeds very quickly and the packs are a lot fuller than those you get at the big box stores.

I’m eating a lot of store-bought veggies these days, but it’s sure fun to have a bit of the home-grown taste of these turnips.

Spring Blooms Brighten Up an Early Saturday Morning

The first amaryllis to open sings a spring song and is backed up by a chorus of bright day lilies.

The first amaryllis to open sings a spring song and is backed up by a chorus of bright day lilies.

Spring mornings can be delicious, especially if they fall on a Saturday.  After the much-needed rain of this past week, this morning was a good one to take a peek at all the plants in the backyard, which I did early this morning, getting my slippers and cuffs of my fleece pants wet from the dewy grass.

These tiny cherry tomato blooms foretell more good things to come.

These tiny cherry tomato blooms foretell more good things to come.

Giant salvia ready to attract bees and butterflies.

Giant salvia ready to attract bees and butterflies.

Delicate green pea blossoms await the morning sunshine.

Delicate green pea blossoms await the morning sunshine.

These fire spikes have made it through the cold months and continue to liven up the yard.

These fire spikes have made it through the cold months and continue to liven up the yard.

This angel-wing begonia brightens up the patio year after year.

This angel-wing begonia brightens up the patio year after year.

Starting Small, But Finding Way Back into Quilting

Several already pieced strips and a lot more blocks wait to be sewn together to make the top for a postage stamp quilt.

Several already pieced strips and a lot more blocks wait to be sewn together to make the top for a postage stamp quilt.

Though the computer-slash-sewing room still is todo un desmadre, after getting one of my machines serviced, I’m back at piecing together a quilt top.  Since I moved to my house, I’ve really only used my sewing machines for a couple of small tasks, even though one of my reasons for buying my house was to have a room that I could set up with tables for my two machines and be able to work on projects comfortably.

The first postage stamp quilt hangs above a stand full of my collected treasures and helps brighten the dining room.

The first postage stamp quilt hangs above a stand full of my collected treasures and helps brighten the dining room.

I decided that to get back into the groove, I’d go back to one of my favorites–a postage stamp quilt.  I made several of these small, wall-hanging quilts a number of years ago when I was making quilts regularly. Then a small puppy came into my life, and three-and-a-half years ago, I moved to my house, and taking care of the inside and outside of my house became became more of my free time focus.

Now I’m fully settled in my house, and most of the rooms in my house organized and decorated pretty much as I want.  Maybe too, there’s only so much TV to be watched while hopping from site to site on the internet.

Therefore, I’m once again getting the feel of manipulating the cutting wheel to make the pieces and coordinating my foot on the pedal and my fingers near the needle to join the small fabric squares.

I once again dug out Color from the Heart by Gai Perry, one of my favorite quilt books.  This book taught me a great deal about various aspects of using color in quilts by making small quilts like the Color from the Heartpostage stamp quilt.  After making one of these small quilts that uses 2-inch blocks following the pattern and instructions from the book, I improvised on the design to make several others, which I gave to some of my friends.  I would never let go of this book, which was published in 1999, but I see that it’s still available online.

There are ideas and techniques that I’ll have to review and maybe relearn, but getting the blocks pieced into strips is already moving along.  Hopefully, it won’t be long until a small quilt top will be complete.  Then I can move on to layering and even doing the actual quilting!

Another "project" quilt made from Gai Perry's book hangs over the bed in the guest room.

Another “project” quilt made from Gai Perry’s book hangs over the bed in the guest room.

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Even Without Much Rain, Delicious Veggies Coming from the Garden

Another evening's garden pickings: lettuce, peas, turnips, and a few green onions.

Another evening’s garden pickings: lettuce, peas, turnips, and a few green onions.

On this last day of the month, another front came through this afternoon bringing in a cool spring wind from the north, but March is hardly “going out like a lion.”  Though we’ve had other storms come through, not much precipitation has come with the wind.

Despite the lack of much rain, the little garden behind the garage has been producing fresh vegetables for supper.  The turnips, especially, have been delicious, whether raw or cooked.

The beans I’ve planted haven’t come in very well, and i don’t know whether I will fill in with more.  In reality, fresh, store-bought beans taste pretty good, and there’s no bending over to pick them.

Green peas and turnips sautéed with some bits of green onion, all fresh from the garden, make for a delicious veggie dish for supper.

Green peas and turnips sautéed with some bits of green onion, all fresh from the garden, make for a delicious veggie dish for supper.

“I Didn’t Just Fall Off the Turnip Truck . . .”

The evening's garden pickings--a batch of lettuce and several crunchy Hakurei turnips.

The evening’s garden pickings–a batch of lettuce and several crunchy Hakurei turnips.

I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, but this is the first time that I’ve ever tried growing turnips.  Based on the Harris County Extension Planting Calendar, I planted turnips, lettuce, peas, and carrots in November, and of all of these, the turnips seem to be doing the best.

They came up thick, and I didn’t thin them, but I reckon I will be doing that as I pull up some to eat.  The tops are full and green, and cover the roots, which are basically trying to push themselves out of the ground.

I planted a hybrid turnip, called Hakurei, which I ordered online from Johnny’s Seeds.  Overall, I like this seed company and feel like I’m getting better quality and more seeds to the packet compared to what I get at the neighborhood big box stores.  Of course, with the shipping the cost is going to be more; however, Johnny’s Seeds has a fast turnaround on the order; I’ve usually gotten the seeds in my mailbox just a couple of days after I placed the order.

These Hakurei turnips are crunchy and have a mild flavor.  I also like a turnip that has a bit of a bite, so next fall, I think I’ll plant the traditional purple-top as well.

Last evening, I also picked some of the lettuce that I had planted at the same time as the turnips.  A lot of lettuce had gotten washed out with the rains in December and January, so what was left had gotten mature and stemy.  I decided to make wilted lettuce (recipe here) and try using some of the turnip tops too.  Even with the combination of flavorings of fried bacon, sugar, and vinegar, the greens were just too tough to make a good salad.

This morning I’ve been out in my little patch pulling up chickweed and caging tomato plants, some of which I grew from seed and some that came up volunteer from the compost I had tilled in last fall.  The best tomatoes I’ve ever grown are Purple Cherokees, so I ordered these and another called Green Cherokees from Johnny’s Seeds.  I’m just learning to get the plants started and then transferred into the garden.  We’ll see how well my little transplants do!

Though my three rows of turnips aren’t that long, I’ll have plenty for snacking and salads for quite a while this spring.  After they are done, in their place will go okra, which I haven’t had great luck with in the past couple of years.  But okra is really only happy in the hot summer sun, and I probably have been trying to plant them too early.