Frost has finished off my home kitchen garden, and that’s OK. I was really tired of tomatoes after a prolific season, but I was still silly enough to collect the green tomatoes that remained after the plants died.
Those green tomatoes, and about two dozen apples from my tree languished in bowls for weeks until this weekend past when I finally got around to making mincemeat. With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, and expecting a small group of college students hailing from around the world, I thought a traditional mincemeat pie would be in order.
Actually, traditional mincemeat pie contains meat and suet (fat). I’ve never liked the stuff, but can tolerate it. Several of our guests this year are vegetarians. They won’t eat the turkey or the stuffing I cook in the turkey, and they most definitely would not eat traditional mincemeat.
Fortunately, green tomato mincemeat actually tastes good. Some recipes suggest that you add suet when you make it, but thank goodness you get an excellent product when you use only tomatoes and other fruits. I made a video that shows how to assemble the mincemeat and to can it. You don’t need to can the mincemeat if you’re going to use it right away; store it in the refrigerator for up to a week, and use about a quart to fill a pie shell.
As I said: I’ve never been a fan of mincemeat. I’m a fan of this stuff. I’ve actually filled a small bowl with it and snacked on it happily at my desk. I’m looking forward to having a slice of pie on Thanksgiving. Prepping the fruits for the mincemeat could take about an hour, and cooking takes another three to three-and-a-half hours. Canning, if you heat the water in the canning pot as your mincemeat finishes cooking, adds another 20 to 30 minutes to the cooking time (process filled jars for 20 minutes).
Here are the ingredients you’ll need to make your own green tomato mincemeat:
The video runs just over 6 ½ minutes. If you make up a batch, please let me know how it comes out:
Zone five denizens probably have rather barren home kitchen garden plots at this point; repeated frost and occasional deeper freezes have shut down all but the hardiest plants. This shouldn’t discourage a kitchen gardener. Fruits of winter squash still abound in local markets. If you can find them in good condition, they may last for months without special treatment; I’ve kept butternut squash on my dining room floor well into spring.
However, there are many easy ways to preserve winter squash so it lasts until next year’s harvest. Perhaps the most complicated of all preservation methods is canning… but canning really isn’t hard to do if you have the right equipment.
You can preserve high-acid and high-sugar foods such as fruits, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves in a boiling water bath canner. To can low-acid foods such as vegetables and meats, you must use a pressure canner. Some microorganisms simply won’t die at the temperature of boiling water. However, when you increase the pressure in the cooking environment, you also increase the temperature. Generally, the increased heat is enough to kill every microorganism so low-acid foods can survive for a year or more without refrigeration.
Squash is a low-acid food. Unless you want to pickle it before canning, you must use a pressure canner to make it safe for long-term storage (alternatively, you can freeze squash or dry it… but we’ll talk about those preservation methods in later posts).
Neck pumpkin is a magnificent squash that’s common in central Pennsylvania. I wrote about neck pumpkin in Your Home Kitchen Garden at the end of October, and I wrote more about it in my other blog under the topic of Exploring Neck Pumpkin at Your Small Kitchen Garden. There, I explained one method of preparing winter squash for cooking—and, perhaps, the most reliable way to prepare it for blanching and canning.
The photos in this post show the steps I took to can my neck pumpkin. I ended up canning all but a pint it. Of that pint, I cooked a small amount to taste, and used the rest to make pumpkin bread.
My neck pumpkin had the same consistency as butternut squash. The flesh was lighter in color and tasted sweeter than butternut. Also, my neck pumpkin’s flavor wasn’t as “squashy” as butternut… it was a little bland. Still, there’s room for slightly bland squash in my larder; most pumpkin breads and cakes have enough seasoning to make up for blandness in the pumpkin itself… I imagine my family will eat a lot of pumpkin bread and cake in the next year.
My home kitchen garden has blessed me with my first home-grown peas of 2009. The pea harvest is, perhaps, my favorite of all harvests through a growing season. So, naturally, as the pods emerge I become, perhaps, overly vigilant: I check my vines each morning and again in the evening, looking for the first ones plump with green pearls.
Today I picked the first full pods. Usually, the first harvest is only a small handful that sits a day or two in the fridge until enough others grow plump to make a side dish or a meal. As you can see from the first photo, today was no different: I harvested only a small handful of pods.
Of course, in my excitement for the first harvest, I sometimes choose a few pods that aren’t quite filled out. Despite having been very selective today, it happened again. But fortunately only three of the pods I picked were a tad underdeveloped.
Now that I’d removed them from their plants, they weren’t going to grow fuller… and I can’t abide using such immature peas in my cooking. Betcha can guess what happened to the peas. Sure, and they tasted swell.
Here’s hoping your home kitchen garden is producing stuff you can eat. By now, many northern hemisphere kitchen gardeners are eating young lettuce, spinach, and other greens from their yards. I recently explained that I plant lettuce close so the plants are very crowded, and that I harvest whole plants through the season as a means of thinning down to the few plants that grow to maturity.
Because of comments from my friend at Inch By Inch, Row By Row, It occurred to me that if you’re new to kitchen gardening, you might never have dealt with fresh-picked produce. While most produce from your home kitchen garden will taste better than any you buy in a store, it will also pose challenges that store-bought produce doesn’t.
Store bought greens are usually free of soil, insects, and dried plant matter. Growers, packagers, and produce associates rinse produce and selectively remove damaged leaves. When you get it home, it’s nearly table-ready, though there may be a few leaves you want to remove… and you probably rinse to reduce your chances of eating pesticides.
It’s hard to avoid dirt when you’re dealing with home-grown produce. Especially growing lettuce the way I do, you’re going to get soil on your plants when you thin/harvest. As well: there are likely to be insects, and possibly slugs and snails, on your lettuce plants. They aren’t necessarily there to eat your plants; insects hang out just about everywhere in your garden.
So, for most gardeners there’s a greater time commitment to serve home-grown lettuce than there is for serving store-bought greens. Here’s how I prepare lettuce from my garden:
Picking—Through most of the season, I thin my lettuce beds by pulling clusters of plants. I immediately snap off the roots of the plants and toss them aside, but not all the soil goes with the roots. I try to brush off any large deposits of soil. And, before I put the leaves in a bowl to take inside, I inspect for slugs and remove any I find.
In the spring, if there are slugs, they’re usually slug babies. These are smaller than pencil erasers, and they especially like my densely-packed lettuce beds; plants pressed together hold in moisture, and I’m pretty sure lettuce tastes good to slug babies.
Cleaning—No, what I do in the garden to freshly-picked lettuce isn’t cleaning. Cleaning happens in my kitchen. There, I fill a large bowl with cold water and I float all the lettuce leaves in it. Leaves float, but soil on them quickly loosens and sinks. As well, pieces of mulch, weed seeds, and other random organic matter I may not want to eat may float free from the lettuce leaves. This isn’t a big deal, because I’m a bit obsessive about eating only clean lettuce.
So, I gently stir the lettuce with my hand and then, one-by-one I remove and inspect the leaves. I look for dirt that didn’t wash off in the bowl, and I look for slugs and eggs. Slugs are easy, but eggs? Depending on who lives in your garden, you may find spots on your lettuce that don’t rinse off easily. Usually, these will wipe off with a swipe of a finger or thumb across the wet leaf. I’m not a biologist, but I guess these spots are eggs (alternatively, I guess they could be bug or slug poop)… and while I’m sure they won’t harm me, I’m a tad squeamish about eating them (I’d lose the “eat something disgusting” challenge on Survivor without even looking at the disgusting thing I was supposed to eat.)
Finally, if something about a leaf strikes me as odd, I’ll tear it off and preserve the part that looks tasty. The thoroughly-inspected lettuce goes into a salad spinner, and once spun, to the table (it stays in the spinner’s basket unless we have guests; then it goes in a wooden salad serving bowl).
As laborious as all this sounds, it’s not that big a job. Once floating in water, the lettuce leaves are easy to pick through. I can walk away repeatedly to work on other aspects of a meal, and the lettuce doesn’t complain. In fact, very tender, floppy lettuce often crisps up while floating in my cleaning bowl.
The awesome flavor and money-savings easily pay for this little extra work. Besides, I’ve already worked the soil, cut a furrow, added compost, planted seeds, watered, and harvested. Obsessively inspecting and cleaning my lettuce is a minor additional bump.
When it comes to preserving produce from my home kitchen garden, I choose canning for fruits (including tomatoes). I especially enjoy making jelly: it’s incredibly easy to do, it usually tastes better than commercial jelly, it costs less than commercial jelly, and for some reason people who receive a gift of homemade jelly act impressed that a human might actually have made it himself.
Does your home kitchen garden produce more fruits and vegetables than you eat in a season? My last post provided an overview of food-preservation strategies you can use to benefit from the excess. Embedded at the end of that post was a YouTube video introducing key concepts about home canning: storing foods in vacuum-sealed jars.
That video was one in a series about home canning. And, though those videos have some of the most stilted narration ever written, they are well-produced and terrifically informative.
So, please continue your exploration of food-preservation by reviewing the next videos in the series. These explain more about the differences in equipment necessary for boiling water bath and pressure-canning methods of canning. The videos define more terms that are helpful to know when you talk about canning, and they demonstrate the steps necessary to process foods—whether with the boiling water bath or the pressure-canning methods:
When you grow fruit in a home kitchen garden, it’s a good idea to learn to make jams and jellies. I pack pint jars for my sandwiches and english muffins, and 8 oz jars as gifts for school teachers, music teaches, riding instructors, and friends.
If you planted a large home kitchen garden this year, then you probably already know how to preserve the fruits, vegetables, and nuts you grew in it. Or… maybe you planted the garden without thought about what you’d do if it produced more food than you could consume during the growing season? For those who are thinking of adding a home kitchen garden to defray food costs in the coming year, learning to preserve food could become of paramount importance.
Food Preservation Methods
There is no single method of preserving fresh garden produce so that it is as satisfying in two or three months as it is on the day you harvest it. Some fruits will keep for many months when stored in the right environment (cold-storage in oxygen-free containers), but their texture deteriorates and they’re never as satisfying as fruits picked fresh from a tree. Certain vegetables–especially root crops and squash–keep surprisingly well and can last through a long winter… but after lengthy storage, they almost beg you to cook them; textures change and they just aren’t as appealing as they were when you first harvested them.
Popular methods of preserving produce include:
Root cellar—Storing potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, squash, and similar vegetables in a root cellar holds the produce in a condition quite similar to fresh; the items you preserve this way are most like fresh produce when you later prepare them in your kitchen. Unfortunately, most types of produce won’t keep in a root cellar any better than they will on your dining room table. Root and squash crops may keep for three to nine months when managed properly in a root cellar.
Freezing—Freezing produce retains a considerable amount of a food’s characteristics, and stands as the preservation method of choice for most green vegetables and fruits. Interestingly, freezing dramatically changes the characteristics of most root crops, making the mushy and unpleasant. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, and chard are also lousy candidates for freezing, unless you plan to eat them cooked; once frozen and thawed, leaves become very mushy and bear little resemblance to the original product. Frozen fruits and vegetables will keep well from six to twelve months.
This two-gallon pot of applesauce is ready to go into canning jars. My kids will eat a quart of applesauce each week which means I could can 13 gallons a year and it wouldn’t be too much… only 11 gallons to go!
Canning—You pretty much cook fruits and vegetables during the canning process. Consequently, they soften up. In the case of vegetables, canning makes them softer than you might intentionally do when cooking from fresh; there’s no cripiness in a canned green bean. Home-canned fruits have exactly the same characteristics of commercially-canned fruits except that their flavor is exponentially better… probably because you can use fully-ripe fruit at home, and commercial canneries tend to use firmer fruits that won’t bruise easily when running machine processes. So, if you’re used to eating canned pears, peaches, applesauce, and the like, it’ll taste much better if you prepare and can it yourself. Canned produce will last from one to two years.
Dehydration—Dehydration may be the least common method of preserving produce from a home kitchen garden. It offers certain advantages over other methods: Dehydrated foods don’t require freezing, refrigeration, or storage in a root cellar. Bags of dehydrated foods are light and easy to store. When cooked, many dryed vegetables and fruits rehydrate convincingly back into something resembling the original product. As well, semi-dehydration can produce new forms of a food that are just as scrumptious as the original. Consider, for example, raisins and prunes. As long as you keep fully-dehydrated foods dry, they will last a year or more.
Pickling—This method of preservation has the greatest impact on the flavor of the food you preserve. To pickle vegetables and fruit, you add acid—usually vinegar—and, in most cases, salt. Different pickling methods involve canning, or open-barrel storage, but the end result is a product soaked with vinegar, salt, and seasonings. Pickled foods have distinctive flavors and usually serve as side dishes or as ingredients in recipes. Canned pickled produce will last for one or two years.
Harvest Time in Your Home Kitchen Garden
At the end of the growing season in Pennsylvania, I’m in the throws of preserving garden produce. Because frost has killed off my vegetable patch, I’m through with tomatoes… and I’ve already done jellies and jams from various fruits when they were in season. A few weeks ago, I made my first pickled vegetables, and I just put up (meaning, “canned”) to gallons of applesauce. I’ll be canning another two gallons of applesauce this weekend, and, perhaps, two more gallons next weekend.
Even when I’m not using my own produce, canning pickles and apple sauce provides a modest financial boost: the cost of pickled vegetables at the local market is $4 per pint. Mine cost just $1.25 per pint. My applesauce, made with commercial apples, costs about a dollar per gallon less than commercially-canned applesauce, and it tastes about $4 a gallon better (if that makes sense). Had I spent $15 to protect my apples from insect damage this summer, my home-grown applesauce would cost about four dollars per gallon less than commercial applesauce.
Here’s a video that introduces home canning. The narration is a bit stilted, but the content is golden. Please enjoy:
Follow this link: for in-depth information about preserving produce with a food dryer.