Canning, Recipes

All-Natural Cinnamon Pears in Brown Sugar Syrup

Although my mother never canned her pears with cinnamon candies, I remember eating some that someone else had canned.  They were a pretty, rosy color, but awfully sweet.  I’ve never been fond of overly-sweet, and I’ve become less so the older I get.  I usually can my pears in a light syrup, and a couple of years ago, I tried a recipe I found online, pears in a brown sugar syrup with ginger matchsticks.  (You can find that recipe, and several others that I still like very much, on my Pears, Pears, Pears post.) Gingered pears sound good, right?  Well, they were, the first year.  Typically, home-canned fruit is good for years (and yes, I’ve eaten fruit ten years in the jar that still tasted good, so I know whereof I speak).  But after the first year with the gingered pears, I found that the ginger didn’t taste good, and I didn’t like the flavor of the pears all that much either.  But I really liked the brown sugar syrup for a couple of reasons that I’ll go into below.

I didn’t have time to go out and forage like I normally do, so I didn’t think I was going to can pears this year. But when I was gifted some pears by my brother and sister-in-law this week, I decided to try something a little different.  I already knew I was going to use the brown sugar syrup, and here’s one reason why.  I like the flavor of the brown sugar with the pears, kind of caramel-y.  But the other reason has to do with darkening of the fruit.

I always treat my pears before canning them, with either acidulated water (about 3 tablespoons of lemon juice to a half-gallon of water), or with Fruit Fresh.  If I use Fruit Fresh, I use about a tablespoon to a half-gallon of water.  This works well to prevent darkening for a while, but I am so slow these days with any task requiring any manual dexterity (my hands are badly damaged by arthritis), the fruit still darkens a bit despite the pretreating.  Brown sugar syrup hides any darkening.  The fruit looks pretty in the jars, pretty in a bowl, and tastes delicious.  So, a brown sugar syrup it is.

At this point, I have to interject a comment about a tool.  Years ago, I found this little gadget in a box of kitchen tools in an antique store.  I’m always trolling through those, looking for old vegetable peelers.  (My favorite peeler is in the picture below.  The old ones are so much sharper than the kind you can buy now.)  I picked up the unfamiliar tool and looked and looked at it, wondering what it was.  And then the shape told me.  It is a pear corer.  Pears can’t be cored on an apple corer.  They are too soft, and the shape is wrong.  I’ve only ever been able to do it properly with a small paring knife like the one in the photo, and it is so hard on my hands.  I bought the pear corer and stashed it in a drawer and forgot about it.  I found it last winter when I was boxing up the kitchen cabinets and drawers in preparation for the kitchen remodel.  I made a mental note to try it if I did get any pears to can this year.  And I’m here to tell you, be on the lookout for one of these.  It worked beautifully!  After I cut the fruit in half lengthwise, the narrow end of the corer scraped out the blossom scar on the bottom and removed the strings that run down to the core from the stem.  (Canning books tell you remove them because they will darken in the jar and look unattractive.)  The large end scoops out the core like a melon baller.

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Now, back to the syrup.  As I was looking up the processing time for pears in my old Ball Blue Book, my eye lit on that old recipe for Cinnamon Pears using the cinnamon candies.  I’m not a fan of adding artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives to my home-canned foods, but cinnamon pears sounded so good. And then a light bulb flashed on above my head.  Why not add cinnamon sticks to my brown sugar syrup?

But, here’s the thing.  You can’t can cinnamon sticks in anything in a hot water bath process, and I’m not even sure it would be safe to can them in a pressure canner.  I knew that if I was going to infuse any cinnamon into my syrup, it was going to have to simmer for a while.  So I made up my light syrup (2 cups of brown sugar, light or dark, to 1 quart of water), added five whole cinnamon sticks (unbroken, to keep any small pieces out of the pears), brought it to a boil, and then simmered it until I was ready to add the pears to briefly cook them for a hot pack.  My syrup ended up simmering with the lid on for at least an hour.  When I needed to make another batch of syrup, I just reused those same cinnamon sticks.  (And I saved them and put them in the freezer to add to a batch of chai kombucha I’ll be making in a week or so.)

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The pears I was canning looked green but were sweet and tasty, and I think I could have gone with an extra-light syrup (1 cup of brown sugar to 1 quart of water). And before you wig out too much about the sugar in the syrups that you can fruit in, remember that sugar is a preservative, and if you are canning enough fruit to last for a couple of years (I usually do), it’s better to use a light, rather than extra-light, syrup.  If your fruit is tart (like the red plums I did last year in extra-light syrup), a light syrup is better.  As a young friend of mine recently found out, canning fruit in water results in a not-so-tasty product that has a much shorter shelf life.

Here they are:  pears in brown sugar and cinnamon syrup.  I’ve already opened the little jar to taste, and need I say it?  Well, yeah, I have to. YUM! Sweet, but not too sweet, with that caramel flavor of brown sugar and the warming spice of cinnamon. As for the cinnamon, five sticks gave a cinnamon flavor, but not very strong.  Next time, I might put in a couple more.  If you do, let me know.

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Oh, and don’t throw away that delicious syrup.  You can add it to selzer water for a fabulous spritzer.  (That’s what I did last night, after my canning session.) For a cocktail, I think a shot of rum with a little of that syrup might be really good.  You could add fizzy water to that, too.  Or you can reduce the syrup and put it on pancakes or waffles.  Mmmm.  I might do that with the syrup I saved from the little jar.

As a bonus, I saved the pear peelings and cores for a small batch of pear vinegar.  I made some a few years ago, and it was one of the best vinegars I’ve ever made.  If you’re interested in vinegar-making, see my Waste Not, Want Not post.

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Canning, Recipes

Jailhouse Jam

Dennis and I picked apricots last weekend, and I’ve been making jam, pie filling, and canning apricot halves.  This is a good fruit year for our high desert valley, and all the old apricot trees around town are just loaded.  The fruit is small, because these trees are neglected, but it is good.

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We picked at three places in Susanville this year:  the old, historic Lassen County Jail, the old Superior Court building, and at a private residence.  We had picked at the old courthouse and then moved to the old jail and were picking there when a passerby told us about a house that had been foreclosed on a month before which had an apricot tree hanging over into the alley.  “I’ve been picking every day,” she said, “but there are just so many!  You should come over and pick there.”  How nice!  We thanked her and said we’d check it out.  And we did end up picking a few there because they were easy to get to and nice and ripe.

We had one other interaction with a passerby that was amusing and dismaying at the same time.  When we were picking at the old courthouse, a group of three young people, perhaps in their twenties, walked by.  One of the young men stopped and asked quite politely, “What is that in that tree?” The fruit was all over the ground, and if you’ve ever eaten an apricot, it was obvious what it was.  But I told him, and I told him how good they were.  “Huh,” he said, and looked a little mystified, as if the idea of picking food off a tree, as opposed to picking up a package of it in a grocery store, were a new one to him.  That might not have been what he was thinking, but I have encountered that sort of perplexed attitude in the young toward foraged food.  But just maybe he’d never actually eaten an apricot before.

We came home with about 40 lbs. of apricots.  I want to share my apricot jam recipe in hopes that others will be inspired to pick and preserve this abundant fruit.  (If you’re not going to make it yourself, I have some for sale to local buyers.  You can see all the varieties of jams and jellies for sale at www.gardenforestfield.com/jeanies-jams.)

This recipe was adapted from one in Lisa Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation, a canning book I highly recommend.

Ingredients:

3 lbs. of fresh apricots

1 ½ cups sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

For a small batch, start with 3 lbs. of fresh apricots.  This will make about 5 half-pints of jam.  If you want to make a larger batch, double everything in the recipe, but make sure you use a larger enough pot to prevent boiling over.  Get your jars washed first and heating in your water bath canner while you work on your apricots.  The jars should be sterilized for 10 minutes in boiling water before you add the jam and process them, and it takes a while to get a big canner full of water to the boil.

I love making jam with apricots because it is one of the easiest of stone fruits to work with.  You don’t have to peel them, and they are freestone, which means the pit doesn’t cling to the flesh but comes away easily when you halve them.  So the first step to making apricot jam is to wash, halve, and pit the fruit.  Also cut off any dark spots from skin or flesh, because this jam is such a pretty color, you don’t want any dark bits to spoil the look of it.  Always cut away any moldy spots from the skin, if there are any.  If you find mold inside the fruit, around the pit, discard that piece of fruit, for it will taint your whole batch.

The next step is to dice the fruit.  You can do this by hand, but my hands don’t work very well anymore, so I do it in a food processor, pulsing until the fruit is chopped.  Don’t puree it.  The apricots cook down a lot, so a few bigger pieces are fine.

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Put the chopped fruit into a large, stainless steel or enamel-coated or porcelain pot and add 1 ½ cups sugar and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  I usually use freshly squeezed lemon juice, but I have used bottled in a pinch, and it doesn’t seem to change anything, so it’s your choice.  Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly, then reduce to medium and continue to cook for about 25 minutes.  Stir frequently to prevent sticking, but you can walk away from this for a few minutes at a time.  As the jam thickens, I start reducing the heat bit by bit so it doesn’t blurp all over me, the wall, the counter, and stove.  It really burns if it blurps on your skin, so wearing clean oven mitts while stirring is a good idea.

The trickiest part of making this jam is how to tell when it has cooked enough.  Apricot skins contain enough pectin to make a soft-set jam, but it won’t set hard like a jelly.  I use the plate in the freezer method to tell if the jam has cooked enough.  At the beginning of the cooking time, I put a small plate or saucer into the freezer to chill.  When the cooking time has expired, I start testing the jam by dropping a small dab from a spoon onto the chilled plate and putting it back in the freezer for one minute.  After that minute, I test the dab of jam by pushing it with my finger.  If it feels thickish and has a bit of wrinkle on the surface when it’s pushed, it’s ready.  But that’s not the only thing I look for.  When jam is ready to jar, it takes on a very glossy look.  It thickens, of course, but the glossy surface is a key for me.  As you watch the jam cook, stirring it frequently, you’ll see this glossiness develop.  The gloss in combination with how it behaves on the plate tells me when jam is ready to go in the jar.  Reduce the heat to low and keep the jam at a simmer while you fill the jars.

Fill the sterilized jars with simmering jam to within ¼” of the rim.  (Do use a canning funnel and a good ladle.  It will make your life so much easier.)  As you fill each jar, wipe the rim with a damp cloth or paper towel, and put the flat and ring on, tightening the ring only hand tight.  Place the filled jar in the boiling water bath and move on to the next jar.  This ensures that your jam doesn’t cool off too much before you start your processing time.  When all the jars are full and capped and in the canner’s rack, lower them completely into the boiling water and put the lid on the canner.  You should always have enough water in the canner to cover the tops of the jars by at least an inch when they are completely submerged. It will probably take a couple of minutes to bring the water back up to boiling.  Don’t start timing until the water is boiling.  At sea level, this jam only needs to process for 5 minutes.  I add processing time because my elevation is over 4000 feet.  Always adjust your processing time for your altitude.  There’s a handy altitude chart at https://www.freshpreserving.com/altitude-adjusting.html.

When the processing time is finished, use jar tongs remove the jars to a towel-covered surface to cool and do not touch them until they are completely cool.  Don’t push on the lids.  You’ll hear pings and pongs as the jars seal, but when they are completely cool, it’s a good idea to remove the rings, wash away any spillage, and test the seal on each jar by prying gently with your fingertips.  If the lid didn’t seal, refrigerate that jar and eat it first.  If you fill the jars to the correct level and clean the rims thoroughly before adding the flat and ring, you shouldn’t have any problems with failure to seal.

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This jam has no commercial pectin or preservatives in it, other than the sugar and lemon juice (both of those are somewhat preservative), so it should be enjoyed within a year or so.  It will be good longer than that, but I’ve noticed that mine tends to darken a bit on the surface of the jam after a year.  It still tastes fine, but just isn’t as pretty in the jar.  I always, always write the date on the top of the jar flat with a Sharpie before I put the jam away.

I hope somebody out there will go pick apricots and make some jam!  As for me, I’m on to making pie filling for the freezer, canning apricot halves in light syrup, and dehydrating some halves for quick snacks.  I do love apricots!

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Beverages, Canning, condiment, Recipes

Vanilla-infused Cranberry-Rhubarb Butter and Syrup: Update

I wanted to make this “happy accident” again to give as Christmas gifts, so here is an updated version of the recipes, which does not include cranberry sauce! Since cranberries and rhubarb are not in season simultaneously, one or the other of them (or both) will most likely be frozen when you make this preserve. I froze cranberries last year at Thanksgiving-time to use in this recipe, and I also always freeze rhubarb for pies throughout the summer. However, I still had rhubarb in the garden last week, so I was able to use fresh stalks this go-round for this recipe. But frozen rhubarb works perfectly well as I discovered last year.

Ingredients:

9 cups cranberries (mine were frozen)

9 cups sliced rhubarb (fresh or frozen)

4 cups water

4 cups sugar + ½ cup sugar, kept separate

2 vanilla beans

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Slit the vanilla beans and scrape the tiny black seeds into the pot. If your beans are fresh, throw the pods in too, just remove them before straining.* Place the all the ingredients except the ½ cup sugar in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until cranberry skins have burst and rhubarb is soft.

Line a colander or strainer with cheesecloth (personally, I prefer nylon tulle—it has smaller holes and is easier to deal with after you’re done—just rinse it out, wash it, and use it again!). Pour cranberry-rhubarb mixture into the strainer and just leave it for an hour or so. You can stir gently, but avoid forcing solids through the cheesecloth or tulle.

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After the dripping has stopped, pour off the syrup you’ve gathered. (If any tiny cranberry seeds have found their way through, you might want to strain through another cloth, but it isn’t necessary.) Pour the fruit syrup into a clean pan and heat until boiling, lowering to simmer for 10 minutes. You should have about 4 cups, or 2 pint jars worth. This can be poured into sterilized, hot jars, capped, and canned in the water bather canner for 15 minutes, adjusting processing time for your altitude. This syrup is delicious in cocktails or non-alcoholic spritzers. You get the tartness of cranberry and rhubarb, the sweetness of sugar, and the floral scent and flavor of the vanilla beans. It is good stuff!

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If you want to use the syrup for pancakes, boil it down a little longer until it is thicker and reduced to the consistency you prefer for pancakes or waffles. If it isn’t sweet enough for you, you can add agave nectar or non-high-fructose corn syrup to the mixture (about a cup per 4 cups of fruit syrup), which will also thicken it more. Bring back to a boil, and can the syrup as directed above.

Now, for the cranberry-rhubarb butter. A word about fruit butters might be in order here. A fruit butter, such as pear butter or apple butter, is a smooth, thick, rich concoction you can spread on toast, or a bagel, or anything else you choose (a cracker with a slice of tart cheese, or a schmear of cream cheese, perhaps). Generally, the fruit is cooked and strained or pureed and cooked down some more until it is concentrated flavor. Oh, my, I do love fruit butters! I make pear butter when I can get pears, and I make apple butter every year from my garden apples. This cranberry-rhubarb butter is just as thick and delicious, but you don’t have to cook it down for very long the way you do pear or apple butter. I am guessing that the abundance of natural pectin in both fruits, and the fact that you’ve strained off some of the juice, have something to do with this.

Now, you could just skip the next step, the second straining, and can this mixture as jam. It would need to be cooked down a little more, until it is thick and glossy, and then it could go right in the sterile jars and be processed for 10 minutes in the water bath canner like any other jam. However, rhubarb can be fibrous, and cranberry skins can be tough even with long cooking, so running the mixture through a strainer is a good idea. And what you end up with is so smooth and delicious, it really is worth the trouble.

So, for cranberry-rhubarb butter, run the mixture through a chinois (also known as a China cap colander) or a Squeezo strainer, or whatever sort of straining device you have. I use a chinois, which I call a cone colander when I’m not being all fancy-like. This gets out all the rhubarb fibers and tough cranberry skins. (I saved this roughage though to eat like cranberry sauce with roast chicken. I don’t really mind the occasional tough skin or rhubarb string.) What you will end up with in the pan or bowl after straining is thick and smooth pulp.

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Put that strained pulp (I got about 5 cups) back in a large pot, add the reserved ½ cup sugar if the mixture is too tart for you (or more, if you prefer a sweeter taste; ½ cup was perfect for me) and heat to boiling. This stuff is really thick, so as soon as it starts to blurp, turn the heat down, and do stir continuously during the heating up process and until the butter reaches a lower heat; otherwise, it will stick and scorch. Cook the butter on a low heat at a constant simmer until it is very glossy. This should only take about 10 or 15 minutes, stirring frequently. The glossiness means that all the sugars have amalgamated, and the pectins have been concentrated, and you will have a nice, thick, rich spread when it comes out of the jar.

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Spoon your cranberry-rhubarb butter into sterilized, hot jars, leaving a ½ headspace, cap, and process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes, adjusting processing time for your altitude.

I got 5 half-pint jars of cranberry-rhubarb butter, most of which I will give for Christmas gifts, but at least one jar will be served with Thanksgiving dinner, because it is perfect for that meal.

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Recipe Notes:

*My vanilla beans weren’t fresh, and I learned something. If the beans smell a bit alcoholic, that’s the pod. Scrape the inside of the bean and use that, but discard the pods. The inside is still perfectly fine. My beans were a year old, but had been kept tightly wrapped in a Ziploc plastic bag and in a jar in the fridge. Obviously, you don’t want to use anything that’s moldy or weeping liquid.

With these amounts of fruit, etc., my yield was 2 pints of cranberry-rhubarb syrup, 5 half-pints of cranberry-rhubarb butter (with a small dish leftover to enjoy NOW!), and a pint-sized tub of roughage to eat like cranberry sauce with roast chicken (pic below).

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I hope you’ll freeze some rhubarb and/or cranberries this year to try this recipe. It really is amazingly good. Happy jamming!

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Beverages, Canning, condiment, Desserts, Recipes

Berry Recipes

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It is berry season for all those berries that grow on canes.  I have raspberries, boysenberries, blackberries, and Loganberries in the garden, and they bear in that order.  The raspberries are almost finished (until fall, when another variety will start to bear), the boysenberries also are nearly done, and the blackberries are just getting started.  Loganberries will start ripening in mid-to-late August.

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I’ve posted berry recipes before, but I’m gathering the links together for you, so you can more easily find what you might be looking for.  In some cases, you might have to scroll down (or read down) to find the recipe at the end of a post.

Blackberry Cordial and Syrup

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I just made a batch of blackberry cordial and a batch of mixed berry cordial (Logan berries, raspberries, boysenberries, and blackberries), and the mixed berry cordial is delicious.  This recipe will work with any berry juice.

Raspberry Cordial, Jam, Vinegar

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And a reason to make blackberry jam or jelly, Blackberry and Wine Poached Pears

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And a recipe to use your berry-infused vinegar in, Berry Vinaigrette Salad Dressing

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And finally, since I just made a different version of blackberry syrup, I’m going to post the recipe here, with a few notes.

Blackberry Syrup

4 cups of blackberry juice

1 cup of sugar

1 cup of agave nectar/syrup

Simmer the blackberry juice and sugar together for 8 minutes, then add the agave nectar and boil for 2 more minutes.  Keep at a low simmer while ladling into hot, sterilized jars (pints, quarts, or half-pints) and add flats and rings.  Process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

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Note:  My old syrup recipe, in the first link above, called for light corn syrup, a cup.  This recipe makes delicious pancake syrup (or it can be used in cocktails or spritzers), but with the concerns about corn syrup today, I went looking for a new recipe.  I found the one above that uses agave nectar, one cup, and it’s really good.  However, when I compared calorie and sugars numbers between corn syrup and agave, I was somewhat surprised.  Light corn syrup contains 5 grams of sugars per tablespoon and 15 grams of carbohydrates.  Agave nectar contains 16 grams of sugars and 16 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon.  Of course, corn syrup is problematic for other reasons, but if you’re just counting calories, it’s a bit of surprise that the syrup made with corn syrup has fewer calories than the one made with agave nectar.

The choice is yours:  both recipes make an excellent syrup for pancakes, cocktails and spritzers, or to drizzle over ice cream sundaes or mix up in a milk shake, or stir into some thick Greek yogurt . . . . What would you put it on?

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Canning, Main dishes, Recipes

Spicy Braised Chicken Thighs with Coconut Milk and Tomato Apple Chutney

Sometimes, I just like to play in the kitchen.  This dish is a result of some play after long abstinence following shoulder surgery.  It turned out so well, I just had to share it.

Spicy Braised Chicken Thighs with Coconut Milk and Tomato Apple Chutney

1 can light coconut milk

6-8 chicken thighs

1 tablespoon refined coconut oil*

Spice Mixture

Blend together the following:

1/8 teaspoon ground coriander

1/8 teaspoon hot smoked paprika

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon curry powder**

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon onion powder

1/8 teaspoon celery salt

1/8 teaspoon African pepper*** (cayenne is fine)

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of refined (so it won’t burn) coconut oil in a Dutch oven. Rinse chicken thighs and pat dry. Sprinkle and rub the spice mixture liberally over both sides of the chicken (you may have some left over). Place chicken skin side down in Dutch oven and brown skin until very crisp, but don’t burn the spices. Turn thighs and brown other side. Quite a bit of fat will render from the skin.

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Remove chicken from pan, pour off fat. (Lower fat version: remove skin from chicken thighs before browning in coconut oil. There should be no need then to pour off fat from pan, since the coconut oil is healthy.) Pour 1 can of light coconut milk into Dutch oven, heat to boiling, stirring up the spices from the bottom of the pan. Place chicken back into pan, cover with lid, and braise in 375 degree oven for 75-90 minutes, or until chicken is tender enough to pull away from the bone with a fork.

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Remove chicken from pan. Stir 1-2 tablespoons of flour (I use brown rice flour) into pan juices. Whisk over medium heat until boiling. Boil and stir one minute to thicken sauce. Serve sauce over chicken thighs.

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As you can see from the pictures, I only had 3 chicken thighs, and there was enough sauce for several more thighs.  I wish I’d had more!  I served this with red quinoa instead of the traditional rice, with a good dollop of the tomato-apple chutney I made last fall on the side.

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We also had kale with Canadian bacon and onion, one of Dennis’s favorite vegetable dishes.  Dennis was over the moon! He’s been getting pretty tired of his own cooking since my shoulder surgery in early December.

Notes: *Use refined coconut oil to brown the chicken because you’ll use a relatively high heat, and unrefined coconut oil burns too easily.  You can of course use vegetable oil, canola oil, olive oil, or any other fat you like.  I just like the health benefits of cooking with coconut oil whenever I can.  **If you have a good curry powder or paste, you probably don’t need all the extra ingredients I added to the spice mix, but boy, it sure was good! I just used an inexpensive, all-purpose curry powder from the supermarket. ***My African pepper was given to me by my Nigerian co-mother-in-law, Theresa. She buys the hot red peppers in the market in Kaduna, cooks them, dries them in the sun, and then grinds them to powder. It is hot, but with great flavor. I love it, and I use it in everything. Cayenne is an acceptable alternative. It adds just a little heat, and of course, you can add more of any flavor you particularly like.

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Canning, Recipes

Italian Red Sauce

I’m working now to process the tomatoes I froze during the summer and the ones I box-ripened after the last fall picking. I’m making Italian Red Sauce. People know this sauce by different names. Italians call it marinara. It’s marketed in jars as pasta and pizza sauce. Many of us who lack Italian heritage just call it spaghetti sauce. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It matters that you make it. Here’s how, although this is more about a technique than a recipe. (Lots of parentheticals in this one.)

Marinara (or as I call it, Italian Red Sauce) is a tomato-based sauce that can indeed be used for all kinds of pasta dishes, pizzas, and dishes like Chicken Parmesan or Eggplant Parmesan. What else you put in your red sauce depends on what part of Italy you or your ancestors were from. Since no part of my heritage is Italian (mine is Irish, English, Dutch, Cherokee, and who knows what else), I am free to use whatever I like in my red sauce. And I like it all.

I use garlic, onions, dried basil and oregano (because I’m always making this in the winter time and don’t have any fresh herbs, except maybe parsley), dried or fresh parsley, red wine, and a little sugar if my box-ripened tomatoes seem to need it. I will sometimes make this sauce entirely of box-ripened tomatoes, or, if I’ve had a good tomato year and have frozen tomatoes as they’ve ripened on the vines, I’ll mix vine-ripened and box-ripened tomatoes. I’m adding a lot of flavor with the other ingredients, so even if I use only box-ripened tomatoes, I still get a good sauce.  These are the last of my box-ripened sauce tomatoes below.

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This sauce takes some time because it has to reduce. Tomatoes are mostly water, even sauce tomatoes (this year I grew Romas and San Marzanos for sauce, but I had so many heirlooms, they ended up in the sauce as well). And because I hate the way a big pot of tomato sauce spits all over the kitchen as it gets thick, I finish reducing my sauce in the oven. This oven-baking technique gives extra flavor to the tomatoes, which is a good thing if they are box-ripened. It’s the same method I use for reducing my apple butter, and it means that I have less clean-up and can walk away from the pot without worrying about scorching when it starts to get thick.

I’m tired by this time of year, and sick of canning, and I’m out of shelf space for full jars (boxes of applesauce, apple butter, green tomato relish, and green tomato marmalade—all the fall canning projects—are reposing under my bed). So I freeze my red sauce in quart freezer bags rather than canning it.  Below is a picture of my no-mess method for filling bags.  I put a quart freezer bag in a quart jar, then insert a canning funnel into the mouth of the jar, which holds the bag open.  This keeps whatever’s going inside the bag from getting all over the zipper closure.

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In the summer, I almost never get enough tomatoes at any one time for sauce-making. And I don’t want to be making sauce when it’s still 90 degrees outside. So I am thankful for my two big freezers. They allow me to freeze foods like blackberries and tomatoes as they ripen in the summer, and then I can deal with them in the fall and winter when it’s cold outside, and I don’t mind heating up the house with big, boiling pots or the oven, and when I don’t have other pressing tasks. In fact, the by-product of heat from preserving in the winter time is a bonus.

Freezing tomatoes whole is as easy as it gets in garden preservation. You just rinse them, let them drain, cut out any bad spots, core them if you wish, but you don’t have to, and pop them into a freezer bag. In a deep freezer, the little bit of moisture left on the tomato skins will ice-glaze them, and they will keep like that for months before you have to do something with them. They don’t stick together when they’re whole, so you can take out and thaw them one at a time to be added to dishes where you want a little tomato flavor, or you can thaw out the bags and process the tomatoes all at once. For me, this means making one big batch of sauce in the late fall or early winter. Then it’s done, and my freezer is less full and ready for the next adventure.

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One side benefit to freezing tomatoes before cooking with them, I’ve discovered, is that when they thaw, the skins slip right off, and you can just pinch out the core with your fingers if you didn’t core them before freezing. If you don’t mind tomato seeds in your sauce, you can put the thawed, skinned, cored tomatoes in a big pot, get them started cooking and breaking down, and puree them with a stick blender. You can also puree them in batches in a counter-top blender. But I’m old-fashioned, and I like to get all the flavor I possibly can out of my tomatoes, so I cook them with the skins on until they are soft, and then run them through a chinois, or cone colander, to create a smooth texture and separate pulp from the skins and (most of) the seeds. If you have a Squeezo Strainer or a strainer attachment for a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, you might find that easier. For me, the chinois is easier to set up, take down, and clean up.

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Don’t throw the skins and seeds away after straining! I save skins and seeds, and either spread them on parchment-lined cookie sheets and dry in the oven on low (170 degrees or lower) until crunchy, or spread them on the fruit leather trays in my dehydrator (set at about 135 degrees) and leave them until they’re very dry, and then grind them to powder in the blender. (More about how to use this flavor-packed powder in these posts: Dried Tomato Skin Rub and Pulled Pork, and Braised and Barbecued Pork Spareribs.) I don’t know about you, but I just don’t want to waste a single bit of those wonderful garden tomatoes.  This powder can also be added to soups and stews for an extra punch of flavor.

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After pureeing or straining, what you will have is thin, watery, tomato juice with what seems like very little pulp. At this point, if you’re a tomato juice lover, you might not want to go any further! You might want to can your tomato juice in pints or quarts or make homemade V-8 juice and can that.

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But if you’re still game for sauce, get your tomato juice into a heavy-bottomed, non-reactive pan and start boiling it to reduce it. It might seem like this stuff will never turn into sauce, but it just takes time and heat. Don’t fill your pot too full; you don’t want it to boil over and lose part of it after all the work thus far. Use more than one pot if you have to so you can boil it on high heat for a while. At first, there is so much liquid in the juice, it won’t stick and can be boiled on high, but keep an eye on it. After a while (and the time depends on how what variety of tomato and its water content as well the level of heat and the kind of pot you used—I like stainless steel), you’ll notice that your juice has reduced and is beginning to thicken into a sauce. I can give you a general guideline and tell you that you will have to reduce your juice in volume by about half to get to this point. And you’re not done yet!

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But persevere, because that juice is about to turn into sauce. And here’s where this technique (I won’t have the gall to call it a recipe!) can be intimidating if you’re the kind of person who has to have specific amounts to add to recipes. But if you are such a person, I say: free yourself from such restraints. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Add ingredients a little at a time, cook and taste, until you achieve something you like, that suits your tastes. You might not be a big fan of garlic, or oregano, like I am. If so, add small amounts of those things, tasting as you go, to get a sauce you like. Your taste buds are your most important tool in the kitchen. When you use them, you will not go wrong.

When the juice has reduced by about half and thickened somewhat, it’s time to add your aromatics and seasonings—the chopped onion, minced garlic, and whatever herbs you choose (oregano, basil, and parsley for me), as well as a little salt and pepper. As a general guideline, I will give you approximate measurements for my most recent batch of red sauce. If you’re good at math, you can cut them down if you wish.

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I started with 7 gallon bags of frozen tomatoes and 1 gallon of box-ripened tomatoes that hadn’t been frozen. That’s 8 gallons of tomatoes. (There’s no point in trying to make sauce with a gallon of tomatoes. You’ll only end up with a quart of sauce. It’s too much work for what you get out of it.)

I cooked those tomatoes down in their own juice (another benefit of using frozen tomatoes—no need to add any water to the pot to keep them from sticking). I had about 18 quarts of juice after straining, maybe a little more. I didn’t measure it, but I can guestimate from the size of my big pans. One is 12 quarts and was almost full. The other one holds 7 quarts and was almost full as well. (I needed three pots to cook down the tomatoes, but I got about two quarts of skins and seeds for the dehydrator after straining.)

To those 18 or so quarts of tomato juice, after it had reduced enough in two pots to transfer it all into the big, 12-quart stockpot so that it was nearly full (probably about 10 quarts of thickened juice/sauce), I added three onions and 1 full head of garlic (all chopped in the food processor), 1 cup of red wine (and not anything expensive either, no matter what they tell you on Food Network!), 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons of crushed dried oregano, 2 tablespoons of crushed dried basil, and 2 tablespoons of crushed dried parsley. (I had fresh parsley in the garden, but it was raining, and I didn’t feel like going out in the rain and then having to wash mud off the parsley.) After cooking a bit longer following these additions to meld the flavors (and by now the sauce is thick enough that the heat must be lowered to medium to keep it from sticking), I added two tablespoons of sugar. I almost always add a bit of sugar to my pasta sauces to mellow out the acidity of the tomatoes, whether I’m making sauce from scratch, making it with home-grown, home-canned tomatoes, or using diced tomatoes or tomato sauce out a can. The red wine also has a sweetening effect, but I like just a bit more sweetness, especially with box-ripened tomatoes.

Remember that as sauces reduce, flavors intensify. I don’t add salt or sugar to my red sauce until it has cooked down quite a bit. And then I add just enough to taste. I can always add salt or sugar as I’m cooking with the sauce, but I can’t take it out after I’ve put it in and reduced it.

When all this is boiling again (and starting to spit and stick to the bottom of the pan), then I put it in the oven, uncovered, at 300 to 325 degrees to reduce. (It was at this point during the sauce session on Saturday that Dennis took a look at it and said, “Oh, that looks like you could put it on spaghetti!” No kidding, honey. All I could do was laugh.)

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It may take several hours to finish reducing, so you can go on about your other business while the sauce cooks in the oven.

(You can finish reducing the sauce on the stovetop, but I did mention the spitting earlier, did I not? The sauce will reduce faster if cooked on medium to low heat on the stovetop, but it has to be stirred very frequently to prevent sticking. There is no way to prevent spitting. It will spit right through a grease screen; I’ve tried one, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. And then you have to clean the walls or backsplash, adjacent countertops, and stovetop of all the spits of red tomato sauce. No, thank you.)

I stir the sauce about once an hour, scraping down the sides of the pan with a silicone spatula. After an hour of cook time in the oven, I taste the sauce. Does it need more herbs? I remind myself that as the sauce continues to reduce, the flavors of salt and pepper, herbs, onion, and garlic will continue to intensify, but if I think it needs more of anything, I add it now. I let it reduce some more and taste again. Does the sauce seem too acidic? If so, I add a little more sugar, and if I think the sauce seems bland, a little more salt and pepper.  (With this batch, I added 1/2 teaspoon more salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and another 1/4 cup of sugar.) I continue reducing until I have a sauce that will stick to pasta. Not as thick as ketchup, but with some body. This may take several hours in the oven, and if it looks like it’s going to go late into the night, I just reduce the heat to 200 and let it sit in the oven all night. At that temperature, a big pot will be fine until morning.

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When the sauce is as thick as I want it (and thick enough for a wooden spoon to stand up in it is a good guideline), I do a final taste and seasoning, if needed, with salt, pepper, or sugar, cook for just a few minutes more to meld the flavors of anything I just added, and take the pot out of the oven to let the sauce cool down. I figure that I’ll end up with roughly a quarter of the volume of juice I started with, so if I started with 18 quarts of juice, I should get about 4 ½ to 5 quarts of sauce. That might not seem like much, but it’ll be the base of about 9 or 10 dishes that will give Dennis and me several meals from each dish.

The Italian Red Sauce doesn’t go in the freezer bags until it has cooled to room temperature. At that point, I usually bag it in two cup measures, put the bags flat on cookie sheets, and put them in the freezer. After they’ve frozen hard, I gather them into one or two gallon-sized storage bags so I can find the sauce in the freezer when I want it.

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This Italian Red Sauce takes some doing, but it is well-worth it if you have the tomatoes. I love having my own, homemade red sauce (or marinara, if you prefer) hanging out in the freezer whenever I want to make an Italian-inspired dish. It can be tossed as is with any kind of cooked pasta for a vegetarian dish, be added to browned meat or meatballs for spaghetti, be reduced and thickened further for pizza, be used in my Gluten-free Eggplant Lasagna (with or without meat), or be added to a soup. It’s versatile and delicious, and it’s a good way to use up box-ripened tomatoes in the fall. When I have an abundance of tomatoes in the fall and have already canned up my Charred Salsa and Tomato-Apple Chutney, and don’t need any Red Hot Sauce, Italian Red Sauce is as good a way as any to use them up.

Postscript:  I got a late start on Saturday getting this sauce underway.  I wrote this post as the sauce was cooking.  By bedtime, the sauce wasn’t as reduced as I wanted it to be, so I turned the oven down to 200 degrees and went to bed.  All night, I dreamed about pizza, and I woke up thinking about pizza in the morning.  It was because of that sauce, perfuming the whole house while I slept.  The sauce had reduced enough by morning, so I set it on the counter to cool before I bagged it.  I had pizza on the brain, so I put most of the sauce in two-cup measures into the bags, but I decided to put some up for pizza too, so that went into sandwich bags in 1 cup measures. They’ll all be gathered into a recycled gallon bag after they’re frozen solid.  I got 6 bags of 2 cups each, and 3 bags of 1 cup each, marked for pizza.

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And I saved a cup to reduce a little further on the stove and made gluten-free pizza for dinner.

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Canning, condiment

Tomato-Apple Chutney

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I found this recipe some years ago in my old Ball Blue Book from 1981. I made it back then and haven’t made it since because it requires having apples and tomatoes at the same time. Yes, I could buy either apples or tomatoes, but I like using what’s in season in my garden. This year, I have lots of both apples and tomatoes at the same time, so I decided to make a batch of this slightly sweet but tangy condiment. I’ve played with the recipe to spice it up a bit, but I’ve been careful to maintain the same ratio of non-acid foods to acid foods and vinegar to maintain a proper balance for water-bath canning.

Tomato-Apple Chutney

2 ½ quarts peeled, cored, chopped, ripe tomatoes (about 15 large)* (see note below about peeling tomatoes)

1 quart cored, peeled, chopped apples (6-8 medium apples—use tart pie apples for more flavor)

2 cups chopped summer squash (tender-skinned yellow squash or zucchini) or cucumber, unpeeled, large seeds removed

1 ½ cups chopped onion

1 ½ cups chopped peppers (*mix of sweet red and hot peppers, see note below)

1 cup seedless raisins

1 clove garlic, crushed and minced

3 cups brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon kosher or pickling salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 cups apple cider vinegar, 5% acidity

Combine all ingredients in large kettle or pot. Bring to boil and cook uncovered, slowly, until thick, about 2 hours (longer if you have very juicy heirloom tomatoes, like I did). Stir frequently to prevent sticking. (Or use my oven cook method, which takes longer but avoids the need to stir as often—bake uncovered at 300 degrees until as thick as salsa; return to boiling on stove top before filling jars.) Pour boiling into hot, sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch head space. Cap and process 10 minutes in boiling water bath, adjusting time if necessary according to altitude chart.

Notes: I really hate dunking tomatoes in boiling water and peeling them. It uses a lot of water, and there is an easier way which nets you more flavor and a nice by-product. I’ve talked about this method before in my post on Charred Salsa. Instead of scalding the tomatoes, cut them in half, cut out the cores, put them on a foil-covered cookie sheet, and stick them under the broiler until the skin blackens and loosens from the fruit.

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It’s easy then to remove the skins and set them aside on a parchment paper-covered cookie sheet. The skins go into the oven at 200 degrees for a couple of hours to dry, and then you can grind them to powder in a blender. The picture below was the first batch of dried tomato skin powder I ever made, a couple of years ago.

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See the following posts for ways to use dried tomato skin powder:  Dried Tomato Skin Rub and Pulled PorkBraised and Barbecued Pork Spareribs, Spicy Sausage and Lentil Soup, Bear and Mushroom Fricassee with Creamy Polenta.  (Don’t let the bear scare you–you can use other meats, and there is a list of possibles on the post.)  Dried tomato skin powder can also be used to punch up the flavor of sauces made with fall’s box-ripened tomatoes.  I’ll be sharing my recipe for red tomato sauce (for Italian dishes) made with box-ripened tomatoes in a future post, so save those tomato skins!

Now, back to the chutney. After the peel has been removed from the tomatoes, you can give them a quick buzz in the food processor to chop them (they pretty much puree, but that’s okay). This method of broiling and processing the tomatoes greatly speeds up the chutney-making.

Peppers: I use a mix of sweet red peppers and hot peppers. I use about 1 ¼ cups of sweet red bell peppers, and ¼ cup of hot peppers. If you want a spicier chutney, reduce the amount of sweet red peppers in proportion to the amount of hot peppers you add.  (For instance, use 1 cup chopped sweet red peppers and 1/2 cup chopped hot peppers.)  DO NOT EXCEED THE TOTAL AMOUNT OF 1 1/2 CUPS OF PEPPERS. If you do, your chutney may not be safe to can in a water-bath canner. If you want your chutney very spicy, use a hotter pepper, like a habanero, rather than a jalapeno. I used several ripe and green jalapenos and two ripe serrano peppers from my garden, chopped to equal ¼ cup. I seeded the peppers because I did not want the seeds in my chutney, but if you want a hotter product, leave in the seeds and membranes of the hot peppers. This is where much of the capsaican is stored in the pepper.  My chutney carries a nice warmth in the mouth, but it’s not going to make anybody spit it out and say, “That’s way too hot for me!”

It is very important not to exceed the amounts of any non-acid food in a recipe intended for water-bath canning. This includes the onions, squash or cucumbers, and garlic, as well as the peppers. I was very tempted to try using fresh ginger instead of dried ground ginger, but I did not want to inadvertently throw off the acid balance. Better safe than sorry. And it is delicious as is.

Tomato-apple chutney is excellent alongside roast pork, roast chicken or grilled chicken breast, or even a grilled steak. Try it as an appetizer, too, topping cream cheese on a cracker or crispy toast round.

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If you make some tomato-apple chutney, be sure to let me know what you pair with it.

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