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.

Wintery Day Is Just Right To Stay Inside and “Chill”

Morning greetings of winter white out the door--Lyons, Kansas.

Morning greetings of winter white out the door–Lyons, Kansas.

Just like family get-togethers and exchanging presents, snowstorms seem to be a tradition of every Christmas holiday visit I make back to my home state of Kansas.  This morning we woke up to a couple inches of the white stuff on the ground, with even more swirling around in the air.  The snow itself made for a pretty scene outside, but the cold blast of 7 degrees when I opened the door was more than what I’d call “brisk.”

The first thing I had to do was sweep a path on my sister’s patio and then out on the grass for Annie to take a “go.” Finally, she did, at lightning speed.

With the snow still coming down most of the day and the cold wind zipping at the skin, other than re-sweeping the doggy paths, I haven’t wanted to venture out.  It was just the kind of day to keep the house cozy by using the oven to cook up the pork roast and sauerkraut we got yesterday in preparation of a cold day.

Tonight the forecast is for 5 degrees, but I’m sure that the blankets and quilts on the bed will keep me–and Annie–warm.

Swept paths for a little dog to make a quick run outside.

Swept paths for a little dog to make a quick run outside.

Annie stays near--or on--a warm lap on these cold days.

Annie stays near–or on–a warm lap on these cold days.

Chocolate Bar Nostalgia On My Birthday

When I was a kid, on my birthday, I'd get to take a box of Hersey candy to school to distribute to my classmates and teacher.  All these years later, I decided to try a repeat and pass them out to all the others at work.

When I was a kid, on my birthday, I’d get to take a box of Hersey candy to school to distribute to my classmates and teacher. All these years later, I decided to try a repeat and pass them out to all the others at work.

Holiday Road Trip and Day Trips To Boot–All Made for a Great Winter Break

Wind turbines of the Smoky Hills Wind Farm line the wintery horizon in pastures along the Lincoln and Ellsworth county line, not far from Wilson Resevoir.

A wet, grey afternoon with some unexpected early hours off from work make it a good time to try out one of my Christmas gifts.  I received a set of silicon baking pans, so the square one is being used for brownies–mix-type–with a lot of goodies added.  We’ll see if I pack them up to share at work.

I can hardly remember a better Christmas since I was a kid back in the Santa Claus days.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, maybe mostly because I was prepared and things went as planned.  I even enjoyed the shopping and wrapping gifts, which sometimes I find tedious.

With the car all loaded the night before, Annie hopped onto her place on the passenger seat, and we headed out the morning of the 23rd for Kansas.  Even at the more than 11 hours (mostly stops for gas and a dog walk here and there), the drive wasn’t that bad.  The weather was mild and putting the car on cruise for long stretches of the interstate made the drive almost easier than my two hours each week day of commuting to work.

Needless to say, it was one of those Christmases of too many presents and too much food, what with a table-filled buffet spread at my sister’s and her kids and families.  Then the next day we headed off to my brother’s, the second year in a row that I was together with my two brothers and sister for Christmas dinner.  Until last year, there were a good many years in between that for one reason or another we all hadn’t gotten together for the holiday.  I think we all realize that we are a pretty lucky group that have our health (yeah, we all have a prescription for high blood pressure, but, hey!) and get along well to boot.

I headed back to Houston on the first day of the new year, but before that I spent some relaxing day drives with my sister as part of what I would say was one of the best vacations for a long time.  One of my goals during the trip was to load a cooler with some Kansas cured meat.  I like to go back to the very store that I went to with my dad when I was a kid and pick up smoked sausage.  Back in my tag-along days, it was called Klema IGA; now it’s Wilson Family Foods, in Wilson, Kansas.  The store hasn’t changed all that much, but it’s still a good store for a small town.  I wish I could have broad back some of the fresh meat from the cooler because there’s no comparing  it to plastic, no-taste stuff I find in the big name super markets out here in the suburbs.

Another place we like to go is Brant’s Meat Market in Lucas, Kansas, about a 20-mile drive that passes by Wilson Resevoir, which is much more impressive to me these days than it was when I passed by it back when I was a college kid going to and from a summer job.

Locally, it's called Ralph's Ruts (Rice County, Kansas). This is one of the few places where you can still see the Santa Fe Trail, which was dug out by the thousands of teams of wagons that passed through in the 1800s.

Geese feeding in a field near Odin, Kansas. These are part of the large numbers of ducks and geese that stop annually at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area not far away.

The parking lot at Meridy's Restaurant in Russell, Kansas. The buffet is loaded with mounds of fried chicken, homemade mashed potatoes, and gravy that rival Mom's. It's basically a "have-to" on every Kansas trip. (It's right off I-70 if you're making a trip through western Kansas.)

Over the several day trips, we didn’t go but a county or two away from my sister’s house in Lyons, Kansas, but each outing held a new discovery or re-discovery in the central part of the state where I grew up.  My car brought back with it some dried Kansas mud from some of the few dirt roads that had not but a few days before been plowed clear of snow.  I can say that even though I’ved lived a good long time outside of Kansas, I’ve still got some of that same dirt in my blood.  (I’ve got other photos that I wanted to include, but WordPress is kicking my butt right now as I try to insert them.)

This old limestone schoolhouse has been empty and looked the same since I was a kid riding by on the school bus. This is one of the landmarks I was looking for on a day trip filled with memories. This was also the road that kicked up all the mud onto the sides of my car.

The train still passes by the local wheat elevator in my hometown of Dorrance, Kansas, pretty much the way it has for many years.

Happy Holidays to All from Trip to the Outhouse

All of the Christmas cactuses are blooming at the same time this year, giving me time to enjoy them before taking out on the road.

The year is quickly coming to an end.  I’ve got the car almost packed, and in the morning, I’ll add the last few items and stick Annie in the co-pilot seat for our annual Christmas road trip to Kansas.

Although the mostly interstate drive can get long and monotonous, I’m ready for a change of scenery and a break from work for almost two weeks.  I’ve even enjoyed getting out to the malls to do Christmas shopping this year.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been organized and know exactly what I want to get for people, so I don’t do that much wandering from store to store trying to figure out what I might be looking for.

I even washed and cleaned out the car today for its first long trip, and I’m anxious to see whether I can make it through Oklahoma without having to buy gas.  That is not one of my favorite states (you might guess why), and I don’t like to spend any more money there than I have to.

Oh, my.  Am I being a Grinch? 

I hope that I will be more inspired to write here in the coming year.  Somehow 2012 may be a better year.  I’m optimistic about it.

I know here in the last few months I haven’t given those who might pass through this blog much to read.  In a minute, I’m going to pack the camera in the car in its special corner; keep your fingers crossed that there will be road trip photos!

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2012!

A LGBT Pride Month Story: And A Couple of T-Shirts That Were Saved from the Dumpster

This T-shirt from 1979 came from one of the dances put on by Gay Services of Kansas, at the University of Kansas.

Another hot Sunday is already upon us, and later on, when the driveway gets a bit shaded, I’ll tend to one of the planned weekend chores–washing the car.

The last time I was ready to do the same task, I pulled out a basket of car-cleaning supplies, which I had dumped under the work shelves in the garage when I was moving into my house, a year and a half ago.  In the basket, I discovered three old T-shirts, which I had saved for many

T-shirt from The Hide & Seek Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado--a souvenir from New Year's Eve 1979.

years for sentimental reasons in the bottom of a chest of drawers.  But like many items whose value changes when a person is making a move, these once nostalgia-filled keepsakes were turned into rags.

The funny thing is that afternoon, I did wash the car with them, even the grimy wheels.  But as I finished my task, and the car was looking all slick again, I decided that these shirts still meant something to me; I wasn’t ready to toss them all wet into the trash dumpster.

One of them–a bright red one–is a souvenir from a trip in 2000 to Chile.  It’s from the Capel Pisco Distillery in the Elquí Valley.  You haven’t lived if you’ve never had a Pisco Sour!

The other two–one black, the other, now a dingy white–are much older.  Unfortunately, the sleeves are cut off and long slits run down the sides, which was part of the look in the early 80s to go with the two pairs of parachute pants that I had.  With a red pair and a black pair teamed up with the slitted shirts, I had four different options to choose from to go out clubbing!

Actually, I had gotten the T-shirts when I still lived in Kansas, so it was probably about three years before I dismembered the sleeves here in Houston.

I got both of the shirts when I was a grad student at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.  (Read more about that here.)  One of them is from one of the dances that the KU gay group used to have in the Student Union.  A bunch of us from K-State would pack ourselves into cars and make the 90-minute drive (more if there were pit stops) from Manhattan to Lawrence.  Though there was a lot of KU-K-State rivalry on the football field and basketball court, the boys and girls didn’t have any time for that on the dance floor!  This shirt came from the 1st Annual Summer Fling, put on by the KU group, Gay Services of Kansas, in 1979.  The KU-Lawrence LGBT community has done a good job of chronicling its history, part of which can be found here, where I verified that my shirt was from 1979.

The other T-shirt is a memento from a road trip I took with a K-State friend to Colorado Springs over the holidays of that same year.  We spent New Year’s Eve at a place called The Hide & Seek Complex, which was the biggest club I had been to up to then.  I don’t remember so much about the physical features of the disco, but I do remember the fantastic pyrotechnic show that shimmered down from the top of Pikes Peak, which we viewed from the patio of the club.  (The Hide & Seek Complex lasted for many years.  From what I can see, it must have closed about eight years ago.)

I also remember meeting many military guys from Fort Carson and a couple from the Air Force Academy itself that New Year’s Eve at that club in Colorado Springs.  Even though it was just a few short years since I had been in the Air Force myself,  I remember thinking, “Oh, if I only knew then, what I know now.” 

Actually, I had a much better situation for coming out, surrounded by college friends, who were basically doing the same thing.  We could, for the most part, enjoy the process with a lot of support from each other, not a situation I could have had in the military.

I guess that’s why I can’t use these T-shirts for car washing; the significance that they have is just too much.  And rather than shove them back in a drawer, I have a room with a lot of my keepsakes on the walls.  Put in frames, they’d go perfect there.

A Christmas Road Trip, Digging Up History, and a Garden for the New Year

It’s a little late to say it, I suppose, but “Happy New Year” to anyone who slips and falls upon this page.  This is the first post of the new year, as other interests, including just lying around, have gotten in the way of writing.

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions, but on January lst, I felt motivated to plant a “winter garden” in my little plot behind the garage.  There were already several pepper plants still producing from last summer and a couple of tomato plants that I planted in November with several tomatoes on each; now I’ve set in 80 red onions and 10 shallots (let’s see), a couple of rows of yellow beans, and several varieties of lettuce.  It’s been a rainy evening here, with more than an inch already, so this moisture should get everything going.  Although the thermometer has read 29 or 30 on several occasions, everything down inside my back yard seems to have been protected.

A few days before Christmas, I loaded up the car, and with Annie for a co-pilot headed up to Kansas for the holidays.  Even with quite a number of short stops for gas, dog walks, and grab-and-go food, we made each way in between 11 and 12 hours.  Both driving days were grey and dreary, and coming back took longer because we ran into rain and, of course, more traffic coming into Houston. 

Driving that far in one day is always a bit grueling, but stopping to stay somewhere along the way just never seems worth it, and it’s always so good when I arrive up there, and just as good when I get back home.

The Christmas festivities carried on over several days, of course, with a lot of presents and too much, but really delicious, food and goodies.  Even though Mom is now gone, almost every one of her kids and grandkids (including in-laws) seems to enjoy cooking and is pretty good at it as evidenced by all the variety.

My sister and I are both history buffs, and whenever I get back to Kansas, we take some kind of road trip to “the old stomping grounds.”  The beauty of the mostly treeless, somewhat stark, rolling plains of central Kansas, where I grew up, always amazes me.  When I was living there, it was something I couldn’t see.  Another noticeable thing is that life is changing; there are fewer and fewer small farms, and you have to drive more and more miles between farmsteads where someone actually lives.  And thus, the small towns, and even not so small ones, are losing population.  Some of the smaller places will soon be just a spot on the road.  This is not something new, though; if you look at the census numbers, the decline in rural counties in Kansas started as far back as the 1920s.

We had a good drive, though, taking us back down memory lane, and finding answers for some of the questions about places that we had been talking about.

The Smoky Hill River from the Dlabl Bridge southeast of Wilson, Kansas. We encountered this new bridge after taking a scenic sand road north from Holyrood.

An old tombstone with German inscriptions in the tiny Immanual Cemetery southwest of Wilson, Kansas. The Smoky Hills can be seen in the back.

One of the markers that were erected to show the route of the Butterfield Overland Despatch (sic) that followed the Smoky Hill Trail through Kansas. Down the draw from this marker is the spot where I believe the Hick's Station was located.

Rolling farmland (winter wheat in the foreground) surrounds my old hometown of Dorrance, Kansas.