Real Food Pantry Tricks: a freezer full of ratatouille

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A satisfying winter diet filled with veggies can be a challenge….

Sometimes, I need something warm, filling and rich that’s not soup. Something comforting and velvety in texture that can help me resist my cravings for calorie laden dishes like macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes.

Yesterday we talked about what a flexible ingredient ratatouille is.  Today I want to show you my favorite lighter recipe and how doubling up each time I make it is one of the ways I preserve summer veggies for winter.

I found my ratatouille salvation in Martha Rose Schulman’s great cookbook for beginners, Light Basics Cookbook. Sadly, this book is out of print – it’s packed with gems, tips and tricks – particularly to those new to the kitchen. But, used copies are still available and Martha keeps a helpful online archive of her recipes, so all is not lost.

Here’s Martha Rose’s recipe for her less caloric version of ratatouille.

Except for one thing. Martha’s online recipe leaves out one slightly fussy step that makes the book version of this recipe such a treasure. Sure, you can skip it and your ratatouille will still be good, but why stop at good when you can have fantastic?

It’s only slightly fussy and the difference is well worth the effort.

The trick is reduction.  Making use of the power of reduction is one of the little-mentioned secrets of Kitchen Greats. Simmering a sauce until the water evaporates concentrates the flavor and thickens the sauce without adding flour or thickeners. It takes just a little more time and attention, but can boost a recipe from good enough to amazing.

A  reduction intensifies the flavors of my rustic fruit pies. Pan seared meat served with sauce made from reducing the pan juices and an added liquid is rich and elegant. I don’t love floury gravy for my beef stew, brisket or short ribs either. Instead, why not remove the meat & veggies to the serving dish and reduce the sauce?

Of course, you could finish by adding a knob of good butter which only makes the whole thing more plate-lickingly good…

So, how does ratatouille benefit from a reduction? Simple. After cooking, place a colander over a  large bowl. and dump the ratatouille into the colander.  The juices will drain into the bowl.

Transfer the juices to a saucepan and return the ratatouille to the casserole.

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Heat the juices to a simmer. Try to keep your boil as gentle as possible – the harder the boil, the faster the reduction, but also the more the flavor is altered by temperature. A slower simmer preserves the flavor.  And, any seasonings will intensify after being reduced so adjust to taste after the reduction, particularly the salt.

Reduce by half over medium-high heat, add your knob of butter if you wish (I wish you will), then stir the reduced juices back into the ratatouille.

This is a dish that is even better made the day before.  For best results, cook and refrigerate overnight.  Next day, serve at either room temperature or warm.

On seasoning ratatouille:  I admit that one reason I didn’t love ratatouille at first is because it tends to be heavily herbed/seasoned. Call me crazy, but I really don’t care for that.  Late tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion have more than enough flavor without and some fresh basil added just before serving is just right for me. So, if you feel the same way or just don’t have the thyme and/or oregano, don’t let that stop you. The flavor without is every bit as delicious.

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If you’re going to make one ratatouille, why not make two and save some for later?

When you’re done, take your leftovers, measure out the size you would be most likely to use at one time (if you aren’t sure, go smaller). Two cups per bag is my preferred amount.

I prepare quart freezer bags by labeling them,  rolling the tops down and standing them up on the table.

You may be wondering, so here it is: there is no way to know in advance exactly how many bags you will need, so label cautiously. You could label after filling, but it’s really hard to write on jiggly filled bags and messy & difficult for marker to adhere to frozen ones.

Carefully measure your rat into the bags, squeeze any air from the bag, seal and lay flat on its side on a baking sheet or flat plate.  Carefully stack your bags so each lays perfectly flat.  Place the stack of filled bags into the freezer, keeping as straight and level as possible.

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Freezing the bags flat on their sides on a plate or baking sheet is an important detail.  Skip it and the weight of the liquid will cause the contents to sink around the freezer racks.  The bags will become entwined around the racks, then freeze that way making it impossible for you to remove them from the freezer or stack them neatly.

Don’t ask me how I know this…

Next day, when your bags are frozen solid, you can stack them upright to save space. Plastic organizers and large freezer containers help keep everything tidy, visible and help you squeeze more in.

The more tightly packed your freezer, the more efficiently it runs. 

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Do this all summer and you’ll have a virtual library of preserved “books”.

What kinds of garden goodness is in my library? Pumpkin puree, fresh tomato sauce, squash, ratatouille, roasted beets, beet greens, cantaloupe puree, shredded zucchini, rendered lard and plum pie filling.

What’s in your freezer library? Any delectable secrets? Do share…

10 reasons you need a freezer full of ratatouille

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Last call all ye wannabe preservers.

Soon enough, we’ll be forced to choose one of our off-season options for our veggies. If you’ve been a busy preserver Ant, your winter veggies are already tucked away in jars, freezers or root cellars.

If not, you Grasshoppers can still get something put by if you hit it now. As in today.

And, if you think you would never eat vegetable stew on a regular basis, you need to work on your biggest kitchen tool of all; your brain. Not because you’re not smart, but because we’re usually too rushed to the take time to consider familiar things more deeply.  When we do, we often find there’s usually a lot more “there” there. At least it is with this vegetable stew.

The key to becoming a Jedi leftover-ninja is stocking your pantry with flexible basics.  Ratatouille is a chameleon of a staple that freezes up nicely and does lots of useful tricks:

  • Use ratatouille in omelets or frittatas
  • Pizza topping: puree to your favorite degree of chunk, add a pungent accent like capers, olives, anchovy, or hot sauce, top with grated cheese and yum.
  • Blend and use as a sauce for pasta, fish or meats – add cured black olives, nice!
  • Switch up your salad: serve room temperature ratatouille drizzled with vinaigrette over a bed of greens
  • Dip/sandwich spread – pulse in a food processor and add one or more pungent flavors like mustard, vinegar, capers or hot sauce.
  • Soup base: puree until completely smooth, then thin with your favorite stock. After that, throw in whatever else or absolutely nothing. Need I mention cream?
  • Quiche – mixed with egg, Gruyère, Parmesan and milk and baked into a crust. Mmmm, old school fast food…
  • Quesadilla – schmear Rat topped with shredded cheese between two tortillas & toast until crispy. What kid questions the Quesadilla?
  • Hand Pies/Empanadas – mix some with beans and cheese and tuck into a circle of dough. Bake or fry, or even better, tuck some uncooked into the freezer for a quickie later.
  • Quick, comforting, simple main dish: warm Rat served over cooked pasta, grain, polenta, gnocchi or noodles tossed with a little butter or oil. Top with a grated pungent cheese.

Don’t believe me? Even Thomas Keller says so.  Check out his post on the LA Times sharing some of the ways he uses ratatouille. He says:

“With a little imagination, a pot of ratatouille can be a door opening onto a whole world of dishes.”

See?  Tomorrow we’ll get busy with my favorite (lighter) ratatouille recipe and a system to make sure your freezer is filled with ooey, gooey, summer-vegetable goodness all winter.

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Today?  I just want you to think about how seriously this can make your winter better and figure out how you’re going to get your paws on the ingredients.

This is a call to action… I hope you’ll accept the challenge.

Already on board the Ratatouille train? I’m dying to know how you do Ratatouille – let us in on your ratty secrets by commenting below…

hay there!

hay bales

stocking the pantry

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Hay is for horses, right? Horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and more types of livestock than I can think of in a quick minute. Yet, like bees, as crucial as it is to our food supply, most people don’t know much about hay nor do they care to.

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I mean, what does a bunch of tall grass, mowed, packed into bales and fed to livestock have to do with our high-tech busy lives anyway?

Food prices have been creeping up for a while now, mostly by prices staying the same while the boxes and bags quietly shrink. Do they think we don’t notice?

Here’s the  funny thing about farming cause and effect: the price impact at the grocery store is slow to follow a disastrous farming event so when prices go up, we don’t remember why.

Maybe we tuned out that farming story on the news – nothing to do with us, right?  Or, what worries me more, many farming events aren’t covered on major news outlets at all.  When they are, reports are at best brief, oversimplified and skewed towards Big Ag as if alternative methods did not even exist.

This void of information about such a crucial piece of infrastructure we cannot live without is frightening.  I know farming isn’t as fascinating as the Kardashians, but honestly, it is a pretty action-packed and intrigue-filled industry once you start doing a little reading. Here’s a good place to get started. It’s  one of my favorites packed with  beautiful and memorable photos and essays.

Fatal Harvest Image

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And all ye Pittsburghers, guess what? There’s a copy at the Carnegie Library. You are using our amazing public library system aren’t you?

Once again in Pennsylvania, it’s hay time. Of course things have been dry as a bone for weeks. But, now that it’s time to mow my hay, Murphy’s law is coming on strong. Rain, dark skies and spotty bad news on the weather channel.

Last year, the first time I ever remember such a thing, we had no second or third cutting of hay. That may not mean much to you, but many years, some farmers get as many as four cuts in a season. Around here, you can count on at least two cuttings with the second & third cuts being generally considered the best quality.

What’s a cut? It’s one harvest of mowing, raking and packing the hay into tight bales. If you’d like to know more, here’s a good post explaining some of the intricacies of making hay from Baum Farm in Vermont.

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My neighbor Mike mowing hay

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Last year, after being mowed once for first cut, the drought-stunted regrowth was so thin, mowing and bailing wasn’t worth the price of the gas needed to get the tractors and equipment out. Hayfields were producing a fraction of their usual generous number of second and third cut  bales. If you missed first cut, you were out of luck.  And guess what? We missed first cut.

Remember Business 101 when we learned about supply and demand? Supply goes down, demand goes up. When demand is high and supply low, prices go up. So it is with hay, corn and soy at the moment.

For this farm,  hay prices this past winter were at least five times higher than the winter before.  What that means to you is that animals who eat hay, corn and soy and use straw for bedding increased their cost of living by at least five times if not more. It’s only a matter of time before that fact begins to show up in the grocery store.

You probably didn’t pay too much attention to the drought talk on the news because rainy summer days spoil your fun and prices on items like pork, hamburger and chicken stayed stable or even went down this winter.

How can that be?

Mainly because farmers were busy dispersing their breeding stock – animals farmers normally would never part with – into a buyer’s market to stop the fiscal hemorrhage of having to purchase feed for the winter. You had plenty of hamburger because expensive-to-feed dairy cows were being “retired” way before their time.

Now, herd sizes are lean. There will not be as many cows, pigs and chickens. And prices for hay, straw, soy and corn are still higher than ever and farmers are scraping the bottoms of their coffers to hang in for another growing season.

A third challenging growing season in a row will have harsh consequences.

Back to basic supply and demand, groceries are bound to go up again. Milk, eggs, cheese and meat will be creeping up.  In the butcher shop where I work, our largest chicken supplier went out of business without warning. Chicken prices have suddenly jumped from $3.09/lb for boneless, skinless chicken breasts to $3.89/lb and chicken tenders cracking the four dollar mark. In one week.

Big difference.  What does this all have to do with my tiny farm?

Like many small farmers, I don’t have my own haymaking equipment, and rely on neighboring farmers to cut and bale my hay. Last year, my farmer didn’t get my first cutting mowed in time, and I just told you there was no second or third cut.

So, I had to purchase hay.  It was a real blow, let me tell you. And I am well aware that I was one of the lucky ones. Out west it was much, much worse.

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My hayfield: cut, soon to be raked & baled

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Not a total bust –  grass did rebound in the fall and the hayfield kept the cows fed well into the winter so I did not need to feed dry hay for as many months.

Since the thrifty Devon cattle eat nearly half the amount as some other breeds, I also didn’t have to purchase as much or find super-rich and super-expensive special quality hay, and the cows as usual stayed healthy, fit and satisfied on simple, ordinary first cut dry grass hay.

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the experts conduct a tasting: their verdict? Three hooves up

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So we survive to do it again this year. Today, the hayfield is tall and thick and ready for harvest.

And, as much as I appreciate a good spring rain, this week, our fingers and hooves are crossed for some nice, dry, sunny, breezy days.

What’s happening with food prices where you live?

Update: Hay’s in! Thank goodness because if you live in Pennsylvania, you know we’ve had rain nearly every day for over a week, and more to come. We made it by the skin of our horns, and yield is still a bit lower than usual, but the hay is beautiful. We will be buying a bit more, and/or making second cut, but the larder won’t  be bare. Whew!

M is for cream pie

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This post is brought to you by the letter M

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Don’t be mad letter C, I know I wouldn’t have cream, coconut or cantaloupe without you. But mMother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day all start with the letter M. And, they all happen in the second half of the Month of May.

Something special my mother really likes is coconut cream pie. So I make coconut cream pie for her birthday. See?

Anyway, I’m really appreciating the Food 52 site lately. And this recipe from em-i-lis for coconut cream pie was, though I didn’t know until I found it, something I’ve sorely needed.

Not too sweet, rich and creamy with a dense, real custard filling – no gelatin, tapioca or other textural trickery. Pure, true and perfectly coconut. Thanks em-i-lis & Food 52 for making my day.

Even better? There’s a two-fer in this recipe. A homemade version of sweetened coconut flakes that’s so much more delicious and healthy than store-bought sweetened coconut. If you never ever make the pie, do yourself a favor and make the toasted, sweetened coconut.

I had no idea how many things were in need of a sprinkle of toasted coconut…

Bob's Red Mill coconut flakes

This is not a paid ad, I swear…

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Thanks too, Bob’s Red Mill for these amazing unsweetened coconut flakes. I like a rustic, chunkier texture which I realize not everyone will prefer, but these larger flakes toasted are unique and special.  If you favor a more delicate, finer grind, Bob’s has that too.

I know. Coconut is not local to western Pennsylvania.

While I’ve dramatically cut down on my dependence on non-local products, I still live in a world where lemons, oranges, almonds, avocados, olives, bananas and coconut are everyday items and they are sometimes impossible for me to resist too. Nor, as long as they are produced in a fair and clean way, do I see any reason I should.

Moderation, man. Moderation.

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Cantaloupe from last summer’s garden, pureed and frozen

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So, inspired by my coconut cream pie success, and cleaning out the freezer to make space for this summer’s booty, how could an idea be any more perfect than this: cantaloupe cream pie?

Em-i-lis’ recipe can easily be adapted for any pureed fruit, as long as the thickness of the fruit puree is right.

Aiming to match the texture of the coconut milk called for in the recipe, I took four cups of cantaloupe puree from the freezer and reduced it to about 1 1/2 cups, which worked out perfectly.  It doesn’t have to be exact, just pudding-thick.

Then, I followed the recipe exactly, except for these changes:

  • I replaced the coconut milk in the custard recipe with my thickened fruit puree
  • I did not add fruit puree to the whipped cream. I did use the sugar
  • I did not add flaked coconut to the cantaloupe custard
  • I kept the toasted coconut garnish since I thought it went well with the cantaloupe, but may not suit all your fruit flavors. It does add a nice texture
  • I used my favorite butter crust recipe, though em-i-lis’ crust method is pretty intriguing. If you try it, do come back and let us know how you like it

Success! Now I have a flexible, mix & match cream pie method for the juicy fruit bonanza  coming soon.

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 no weepy, runny fillings or soggy crusts need apply

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Peaches, plums, berries, cherries, pumpkin, squash… hurry up and get here already!  How about you? What’s your favorite cream pie?

lard have mercy: wonderous fried pies

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Old school fried pie – proof that pleasures can be coaxed from hard times

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Garden & Gun, I’m mad at you. And, after I’m finished hugging you, I’m going to give you the cold shoulder for a while.

Why? Fried pies, that’s why. As usually happens, this idea planted itself in my brain a while ago when I discovered April McGreger’s posts on Grist(dot)org.  Her Farmer’s Daughter brand is the ultimate dream for me – local traditions and history transformed into all kinds of award-winning deliciousness.

As much as we’d like to believe, it’s not usually high-minded sacrifice that gets us to mend our evil environmental ways, it’s decadent deliciousness. And what’s so amazing is that almost without exception, what’s best for the environment and kindest to the animals is the most extra-ordinarily tasty too.

Anyway, I’m talking fried pies here, don’t let me wander off. April posted this about her authentic fried pies in her blog and I’ve been carrying that around in my head ever since. But, April sells pies. And I want to make pies. Authentic ones.

I need a recipe.  Lucky for me, Garden & Gun shared this article about Joe Trull’s fried pies. And it’s just what I’d been looking for. The recipe gives tips & tricks to make your pies as authentic as can be.

Why did it take me so long to get around to fried pie-making?  Lard, that’s why. I didn’t want to fry my pies in Crisco or vegetable oil, I wanted the real, traditional deal. And, until I got my hands on some true leaf lard, I just wasn’t inspired. Note: if lard isn’t your thing, no problem. The recipe calls for high quality vegetable shortening, so you can do it too. 

Guess what? I’ve got leaf lard! Leaf lard is made from the fat surrounding the kidneys – it’s more delicate in flavor and texture than back fat and perfect for pastry. These pies do not taste one bit piggy.

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Leaf Lard: I used lard in the crust and as the frying oil. If you prefer shortening, go for a non-hydrogenated brand like Spectrum.

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The fat came from my own pig and I rendered 5 pounds in my crock pot – it’s not difficult at all and it’s been an amazingly useful ingredient.  If you’re interested in giving it a try, here’s a step by step tutorial from the Fat Queen herself, Jennifer McLagan. If you haven’t already, you should really check out her book Fat – it will turn your beliefs about animal fats inside-out.

See, one of the usually missing points in the debate about the affordability of sustainably raised meats is fat. We are in the habit of paying for yet throwing away all the fat from our meats then going on to purchase other commercial highly processed and/or expensive fats.

In the day, the fat carefully collected from your pig was just as important as the meat.  Prior to WWII, Lard was the most common source of cooking fat in the US. We were sold on commercial, processed fats by advertising campaigns promoting commercial fat sources as an improvement in healthfulness and hygiene, which is a post for another day.

Turns out that the fat from well raised animals – not commercial lard sold on grocery shelves – is the healthier way to go.

I’m determined to make the most from every bit of my pigs – when you get close to the source of your food, you’ll see. Every wasted scrap is an arrow to my heart.  I am not kidding…

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Rhubarb on the left, plum on the right. Note the too-thick crust on the rhubarb. Good but heavier and doughier.  1/8-inch thick is perfection…

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I tried a couple local riffs on the filling. First I went with rhubarb. I still had a pound of last fall’s rhubarb chopped and ready in the freezer. Of course, strawberries aren’t in season yet here yet and I didn’t have any of them in my freezer,  so the rhubarb went solo. It was super-tart, but without any sunny lemony-ness. Good, but not great.

If you’re a lover, don’t let me rain on your rhubarb parade, I think it’s me. I just don’t love rhubarb, and my rhubarb is the green type which only makes it more unlovable.

I hit the jackpot with some plum pie filling I put up last summer. Now, this is important. Fried pies need a filling that’s not too wet – some use dried fruits, some sweet potato and others fruit butter.  Keeping that in mind, I strained the fruit from the juice and used a generous two spoonfuls of mostly fruit to fill my pies.

Joe shares several tips in the article, mainly the thing about the not-too-wet filling, the importance of maintaining proper oil temperature and heaven help me, rolling the finished pies in a mixture of sugar and orange zest.

But I also found the dough thickness to be very important too. The 1/8-inch recommended thickness is perfect. The dough wants to be thicker, and it still tastes good that way, but the result is doughier and tougher. And you do have to pay attention while frying. The pies can burn quickly.

You must think all I eat all day is candy, cookies, cake and pie. And some days, that may be true. Hey – it’s one of the perks of being a grown-up, right?  But there is a reason I’m attracted to pie.

In the quest to make total use of every scrap of everything I grow here, pies both savory and sweet are a good trick to know. They’re universally loved and relatively cheap; it’s no accident that every culture has one version of pie or another.

I ask you: Who doesn’t like pie?  What’s your favorite way to eat things in crust?

More pie please:

rustic apple pumpkin pie
mile-high pumpkinsnap pie
rustic rhubarb tarts

building your real food pantry: plan for a tomato workhorse you can count on

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Fresh from my garden tomatoes, onion and garlic ready for oven-roasting

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For a girl forever bawking about eating what’s in season, you might think what I’m about to share with you is a little out of whack.  Originally, like everyone else, I thought this would be a good topic for later in summer when tomatoes are front and center.

But recently, while writing this for A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, it struck me that now actually is the perfect time to talk about putting up tomatoes.

What?

I’m not kidding. Now is the time to start planning what you’re going to grow in your garden and/or how much preserving you need to do to fill your pantry with the basics you’ll need for the following 12 months.

If I wait to talk about it until you’re drowning in tomatoes,  I’ll be too late to be much help.

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A staple in my kitchen – tomato passata. like puree, only better

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Over the years, I’ve pared down my pantry needs to actual needs rather than whimsical wants.

I used to can cooked sauce, whole tomatoes and other more specific items like salsa or ketchup. Each pantry item involved a sweaty day in the kitchen and its own set of ingredients & procedures.

Now don’t get me wrong; I actually love that sweaty day spent in the kitchen. But today, I prefer one  multi-purpose workhorse item like this versatile recipe for tomato passata, rather than several specific items like different sauces & salsa.

What’s a workhorse recipe?

  • Seasoned as little as possible to let the flavor of the ingredient shine and for greatest kitchen versatility later.
  • Useful in a variety of ways and with little meal-time fussery. I still want to be able to cook super-fast from jars and cans – you know, the American way.  I just want my jars and cans to be ones I filled myself with ingredients I feel good about.
  • A flexible preserving process.  I often interrupt in the middle if necessary, break things up into 2 sessions and/or scale it up.  I need a recipe that’s not too persnickety.

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Home-made sauce in a jif, quickie childhood favorite cream of tomato soup with no processed ingredients and my very favorite ketchup

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Tomato passata is a recipe from my tattered and stained favorite River Cottage Handbook #2; Preserves.  The author, Pam Corbin, makes  passata to use as a base for all sorts of soups, stews and curries. Check it out here. 

I admit I had no clue what passata was, but now I wonder how I ever lived without it.  This one simple to make item is all I need to make a few of my often served favorites:

The beauty of making my ketchup from passata is that I can do it later in the season when the kitchen’s not so hot and I don’t have so many other pressing projects competing for my time. Plus, I’ve already done half the work, so it hardly takes any time at all.

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Holy-wow do I like this ketchup…

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Being the heirloom/heritage breed type, I grow my own, so it’s time to order your seeds to be sure to get the varieties you want and be sure to get the seeds started on time. How many plants will I need to make enough passata for the year?

I use about one quart of passata every two weeks, so I’ll need about 26 quarts. Each quart uses approximately 4 ½ pounds of fresh tomatoes, and a good heirloom variety tomato plant in Pennsylvania can yield approximately 9 pounds give or take. There will be some fudgery at first since everyone’s experience will vary, but this is a good place to start.

So, to keep me in passata for a year, here’s my tomato math:

26 (quarts of passata) x 4.5 (pounds of tomatoes needed for 1 quart) = 117 pounds of tomatoes.

117 (pounds of tomatoes) ÷ 9 (estimated pounds yielded per plant in my area) = 13 plants.

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Now, calculate the same way for your canned whole tomato needs then round-up to be sure to have plenty of fresh eating tomatoes and for sharing with your non-gardening friends.

I like to have at least 20 plants minimum for my two person household, though I’ve been known to attempt as many as 40.

Now, maybe the growing part is not for you, and I’m not here to tell you any different, although I admit I wish you’d consider it. Farmer’s markets are full of farmers growing all sorts of heirlooms and organics. If you belong to a CSA you probably get swamped with tomatoes in the summer, or maybe you have a great grocery selling locally grown produce.

No? Well, you can fix that by finding a local grower here.

Okay, you have no excuse for not at least trying this once, even if  just to say you did. I’m pretty confident once you get spoiled with a home-made pantry, you won’t want to go back to store-bought ever again.

What’s your  favorite tomato workhorse? 

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This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

a simple, sweet holiday gift idea

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What’s this?  It’s Apple Gack!

Apple Gack?  You know, just another colonial culinary tradition tossed aside and forgotten for no good reason.  Old time New Englanders called it apple molasses, apple cider jelly, or apple cider syrup.

But Apple Gack isn’t just a quaint novelty – it can be an affordable culinary workhorse like honey and maple syrup. It’s a great solution when you want a more natural and affordable sweetener.  And, even sweeter, it’s one you can create easily in your own kitchen without stinging bees and maple sugaring.

Fortunately, the Slow Foods Ark of Taste has the good sense to included Boiled Cider & Cider Jelly on their list of endangered foods worth preserving. To learn more, visit their site for a brief and entertaining history and links to the few commercial producers still selling this bit of culinary history.

Here’s a little of what Slow Foods has to say:

“Boiled cider became an important homestead product in colonial New England (and elsewhere, as European settlers pushed west). During the American Revolution, it was one of the indigenous sweeteners, like maple syrup, which could readily be produced on the farm and that did not need to be imported, like brown sugar and molasses, which came via trade with British plantations in the West Indies and were thus associated with the African slave trade. Like maple sugar, it represented a local, seasonal, and economical option for many inland or “hill” farmers, many of whom did not live close to the main coastal or riverine trade routes.”

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The reason I’m more than a little excited about apple molasses is that in my quest to use ingredients from my own farm, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is sweeteners. They are either from exotic ingredients, unsustainable farming or corporate sources or require unattainable home kitchen procedures.

But guess what I have plenty of here in Western Pennsylvania?  Apples!  All shapes & sizes!

And guess what I’m completely capable of doing all by myself with equipment already in my kitchen? Boiling and spooning into jars.

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This is so simple, I can’t even truly call it a recipe. It’s somewhat adjustable depending on your personal preference and how you will actually end up using your molasses. I want to bake with it, so I wanted mine thick, like molasses.

If you prefer, you can leave it thinner and use it as a syrup, a concentrate for apple-y sparkling sodas and a secret weapon to boost your apple pies into legendary status.

The goal is to reduce your cider to 1/7 to 1/10 its original volume, depending on whether you want a liquid syrup or a more molasses-like consistency like mine.

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While I would have loved to have made this from apples harvested from my own trees, if you recall, this year, there were noneAnd even if there were, my chance to beat my four-legged apple trolls is slim at best.

Bling in the Apples

So, I turned to my neighbors at Apple Castle for some of their yummy cider. I have a fairly large stainless stock pot, so I went for two gallons.  If your pot isn’t so large, I’d recommend sticking with one gallon, at least the first time.  The gack does have a way of foaming up and doubling in size, and boiling over would make a pretty nasty mess.

I took it slow, bringing my cider to a simmer and allowing it to boil for several hours. The more you try to do at once, the longer the process takes.  It doesn’t require much supervision, but you should be around to give it a stir and a skim regularly, and the end requires your full attention.

Your apple molasses will develop a deep caramelized flavor and beautiful, rich amber color. Mine took several hours, and from two gallons of cider yielded a quart of syrup.

I can’t wait to use it to sweeten a big pot of beans this weekend, I’ve enjoyed it as sweetener in my tea, and I’m baking cookies with it later today. Use it as you’d use honey, molasses or maple syrup.

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Package it up into holiday jars or bottles, and wa-la!  A useful, unique handmade holiday gift money can’t easily buy.

What would you make with apple molasses?