Monthly Archives: September 2013

Homemade Cider: Selecting the Right Apples

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Cooler temperatures and shorter days usher in fall.  Sure, I love summer and the bounty that it brings, but there is something special about autumn.  Not only does it signal the beginning of the end of the harvest, but it heralds in a drink that I associate with crisp days, bonfires, and hayrides.  Yes, I am talking about apple cider.

cider press hopper

cider press hopper

Whether you buy yours from at a farmers’ market or at the local grocery store, great cider is a beverage worth seeking out.  Or if you are fortunate and have your own cider press, it is worth spending an afternoon or two turning apples into cider.

But before we delve further into apple cider, I will clarify the difference between apple cider and apple juice.  Yes, there really is a difference.  Apple cider still has sediments from the pressing of the apples and is usually made from a variety of apples.  This is generally in the form of apple pulp and/or perhaps a bit of apple skin.  These sediments in no way negatively impact the flavor of the cider.  They are in fact what help give apple cider its unique taste.  Apple juice is the result of the sediment being removed from the liquid and juice is typically made with just one variety of apple.   The flavor tends to be a little less distinctive, but still tasting of apples.

After much research and speaking with numerous apple growers, great cider boils down to the apple itself.  Ideally, by blending at least three apple varieties, you can create a cider with a wonderful, complex flavor.  Now don’t worry.  If you only have access to just one type of apple, you can still make a very tasty cider, but it won’t have the depth of flavor that a blend will provide.

Fuji apple

Fuji apple

There are three areas that apples fall in.  Sweet. Tart (sharp).  Aromatic (bittersweet).  Examples of sweet apples include: Red Delicious, Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, Gala, and Fuji.  Examples of tart apples include: McIntosh, Northern Spy, Granny Smith, Jonathan, Pink Lady, Gravenstein, and Winesap.  Examples of Aromatic apples include: Newton, Cortland, Spartan, Empire, and Jonomac.  While these three lists are not complete given that there are hundreds of apple varieties across the country, this will give you a good starting point.  If you happen to be at an orchard, ask them which varieties they would recommend blending to produce a great tasting cider.

If you have access to multiple varieties, by all means, please use apples from those areas.  A good starting point is to equal amounts of sweet, tart, and aromatic apples.

Now that you have an idea of which varieties to use, it is time to talk quantity.  If you buy apples by the bushel, a rule of thumb is that one bushel of apples can produce 2 – 3 gallons of cider.  Fresh cider does not have a long shelf life at room temperature.  It is best consumed shortly after pressing or it should go into cold storage, such as the refrigerator.  If you have plastic containers, you can move your cider to the freezer for longer term storage.

So friends, I encourage you to visit an orchard or go to a farmers’ market.  Ask questions, purchase a variety of apples, and you too, can be enjoying the amber liquid that tastes of autumn.  Cheers!

Anticipation…Making Homemade Ketchup

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homemade-tomato-ketchup-cr-pmWho doesn’t love ketchup?  This ubiquitous red sauce was the go-to condiment for burgers, hotdogs, and fries amongst my friends and family.  The distinctive shaped bottle graced most tables and just about every picnic.

Now fast forward about 25 years.  I am in the midst of canning season with a surplus of tomatoes.  Frankly, the thought of canning more quarts of juice and sauce does not appeal to me.  What else can I make?  I need inspiration.  So I  gather all of my canning books and flip through the pages.  After an hour of scanning recipes, there it is.  Wow.  Such a great idea.  Ketchup!

heirloom tomatoes

heirloom tomatoes

From that fateful evening, I have been making ketchup ever since.  The taste is fresh, bright, and so much more flavorful than what I used to buy at the grocery store.  And folks, if you can tomatoes, you can make ketchup.

Over the years, I have continued to tweak this recipe.  While I enjoy a nice tomato base, I also like the slight bite of vinegar, sweetness of orange juice, and some assorted spices/seasonings.  Please feel free to adapt the recipe to fit your own personal taste.  But regardless of how you adapt the recipe, please use fresh tomatoes.  Do not used store bought canned tomatoes.  The metal cans impart a ‘tinny’ flavor which will negatively impact the taste of the final product.

sauce reduced by half

sauce reduced by half

Tomato Ketchup

  • 2 Tbl. olive oil
  • 6 lbs. heirloom tomatoes, blanched, seeded, and skinned
  • 1 white onion, skinned and diced
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 C. white vinegar
  • 1/2 C. orange juice (fresh squeezed is best)
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne powder
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/3 C. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt

Place a large stock pot on the stove set to medium heat.  Add the olive oil.  Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan.  Next, add the onions and sweat for 5 minutes.  Stir in garlic.  Sweat for another 2 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, mix well.  Lower to the heat to a simmer.  Stir in the remaining ingredients.  Allow to cook down until the volume is reduced by half or until you reach your desired consistency.  (I like a thick ketchup and so I reduce the sauce by more than half.)  As the sauce cooks down, increase the frequency of stirring.  You do not want to scorch your ketchup.

When desired consistency is reached, remove pot from heat.  At this point, I use an immersion blender to get a uniform texture of the sauce, blending away any large chopped pieces of tomatoes or onions.  Pour sauce into sterilized jars.  Adjust lids and rims and process for the length of time necessary for your elevation.  This recipe makes 3 pints.

I generally triple this recipe.  Not only do we have enough for our home, but homemade ketchup makes a wonderful gift that your friends will relish.

Large Batch Processing: Tales of a Home Canner

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A garden’s bounty is one of the true pleasures in life.  With time and effort, seeds you sow in April and May become mature plants rewarding you with produce later in the season.  And later in the season it is.  As we draw near the end of September, we are still blessed with a wonderful tomato harvest.

fresh minced garlic

fresh minced garlic

Tomatoes wait for no man.  To truly capture the flavor of summer, what can’t be eaten fresh should be preserved to enjoy during the fall and winter months.  And if you have a large garden(s), that means that you have more than a couple of pounds to preserve at a time.

Through out the fall and winter months, we enjoy our stuffed shells, lasagna, bucatini, and spaghetti.  These are hearty meals made more flavorful by using our own pasta sauce.  And while the ingredients may vary based upon what we grow, the basic ingredients remain the same: tomatoes, assorted fresh herbs (thyme, basil, and oregano), garlic, and salt.  These few ingredients make one of the most sublime flavors around.  But in order to achieve sublime, time becomes an invisible ingredient.

Now while some folks out there may blanch their tomatoes and then freeze them with some herbs for use as pasta sauce later, I am old school.  A batch of sauce generally starts with 40 pounds.  Why that quantity?  Well… that is what will fit in my 12 quart stock pot.  And if I am going to take the time to can, I want more than just a few pints to show for my efforts.

To be successful with large batch processing, preparation is key.  Otherwise you may feel that the task is too daunting.  To make the task of processing a large batch more manageable, I always start preparing the day before.  Here is a basic checklist of items that can be done in advance:

  • Gather jars, lids, and rims.
  • Peel all the garlic.
  • Gather all canning tools: ladle, jar lifter, food mill with pestle, and funnel.
  • Harvest fresh herbs.
  • Dice onions.
  • Fill the water bath canner (I have a 31 quart electric water bath canner).
  • Harvest and wash tomatoes.
tomatoes in a vintage food mill

tomatoes in a vintage food mill

As I begin the task of prepping 40 pounds of tomatoes, I mentally prepare myself to spend the day in the kitchen.  My style of pasta sauce truly takes a day to prepare.  As I blanch tomatoes, I scoop them up and place them in my grandmother’s food mill and set about the tasks of pressing the juice and flesh with the wooden pestle.  The skins and majority of seeds are left behind.  (Personally, I do not like the texture of tomato skins in a sauce and I have found that tomato seeds can add a bitter note to the final product.)

Multitasking is key to the day of processing.  So as tomatoes are blanching and being run through the food mill, I prepare the preserving pot, otherwise known as my 12 quart stock pot.

The 12 quart pot is placed on the stove over medium heat.  A generous quantity of olive oil is poured in (enough to thoroughly cover the bottom of the pot).  Once the oil is hot, I add the diced onions (and sometimes carrots which add a sweetness) and sweat them for approximately 5 minutes.  Next, I follow up with a garlic lover’s quantity of fresh garlic (minced).

As tomatoes go through the food mill, their resulting juice and pulp is placed in the preserving pot.  Depending on the types of tomatoes used, you may have quite a bit of tomato juice.  Don’t toss that out!  Put that in the preserving pot along with the tomato pulp.

I keep a bowl next to the food mill.  All skins and seeds go into this bowl as well as any other vegetative scraps such as onion skins and carrot tops.  This saves numerous trips to the compost bin.

reduced pasta sauce

reduced pasta sauce

Here is where time factors in as an invisible ingredient.  Good sauce takes time to make.    Since I am a fan of thick pasta sauce, it generally takes about 7 hours to slowly cook down the sauce to the desired consistency.  It also takes time for the flavors to meld so that the herbs, garlic, and other ingredients come through rather than just the taste of tomatoes.

What I have found in my experience is that the flavor of the sauce when it goes into the jar is the same flavor when the jar is later opened.  This means that I have to ensure that I am satisfied with the taste of the sauce before jars go into the water bath.  As the sauce reduces, I periodically taste the sauce (always use a clean spoon… no double dipping).  If there are certain ingredients such as garlic and basil whose flavors are weak, I add more, keeping ingredients on the counter next to the preserving pot.  This saves me trips to and from the refrigerator.

pasta sauce ready for pantry

pasta sauce ready for pantry

Approximately 1 hour prior to the sauce being reduced to the desired consistency, I turn on the water bath canner.  Note: since this is a 31 quart canner (volume of water it will hold), it takes some time to bring that much water to the boil.  If I follow this format, the water bath canner generally comes to a boil when the sauce is ready.

Large batch processing takes time.  There are no short cuts.  Skipping steps results in a thin and weak flavored sauce.  Dedicate yourself to making the best sauce possible and allow yourself the luxury of spending a day in the kitchen.  Your patience will be rewarded!