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Learn to preserve the produce you grow in your home kitchen garden. This home canning starter kit includes everything you need to can your first batch using the boiling water bath method for high-acid foods. Find it and other canning supplies at the Home Kitchen Garden Store.

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uncooked mincemeat from my Home Kitchen Garden

A pot of diced green tomatoes and apples with raisins and a chopped orange, spices, brown sugar, and vinegar will thicken into mincemeat as it simmers for about three hours.

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.

Green Tomato Mincemeat

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.

cooked mincemeat from my Home Kitchen Garden

This mincemeat has simmered for three hours and twenty minutes. While hot, it’s a bit runny, but as it cools it will thicken just like jam and preserves. A pie shell will hold about a quart of mincemeat, so I pack it into one-quart mason jars and cook it for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath. If you’re about to make pie, let the mincemeat cool before filling a raw pie shell with it. Add a full top crust, and bake at 400F degrees until the top crust is golden brown – about 30 to 40 minutes.

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.

Mincemeat Worth the Effort

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:

  • 3 ½ lbs green tomatoes
  • 3 ½ lbs apples
  • ½ lb or more of dried blueberries (Optional. I had some I wanted to use up.)
  • 2 lbs raisins
  • 1 seedless orange
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 4 lbs brown sugar
  • 1 cup cider vinegar

The video runs just over 6 ½ minutes. If you make up a batch, please let me know how it comes out:

 

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canned neck pumpkin from a Home Kitchen Garden

Having been processed in a pressure canner, this neck pumpkin could remain edible for two years, though experts recommend that you use canned vegetables in six to twelve months after processing.

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.

Pressure Canning not Optional

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.

Before you blanch the squash, wash your canning jars, fill them with very hot water, and keep them hot. I fill my jars with hot water and set them in my canner. Then I add the prescribed 3 quarts of water to the canner, and set it on the stove on medium heat so it warms slowly. If the water starts to boil, I turn off the burner… the heat will hold. I also rinse the lids and bands and set them in a pot of water on very low heat.

To do the blanching, first pare and cube the winter squash or pumpkin (the steps I followed are on Your Small Kitchen Garden blog). Blanching is simple. First, fill a very large pot with water and get it boiling. If you’re freezing the squash, you need a correspondingly large pot of very cold water. Because you’re canning, the cold water isn’t necessary.

Put all the squash in the boiling water and wait for the water to start boiling again. Let the squash boil for three minutes, and then ladle it out with a strainer, setting it in a bowl or pot to hold it until you pack it into jars. Keep the hot water in which you blanched the squash; you’ll use it in the canning jars. (If you’re freezing the squash, plunge it into cold water when you remove it from the boiling water… you need to cool it down quickly so it doesn’t get mushy.)

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).

Canned Neck Pumpkin

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.

To fill the canning jars, lift one at a time from the canning pot, pour the water out (save the water for other things such as watering plants or flushing toilets), and set the jar on a clean work surface. Use a measuring cup with a handle to scoop cubes of blanched squash from the holding bowl and dump them into the jar.

When the jar is nearly full, lift it and shake it up and down so the squash cubes settle in and fill spaces. Then add squash, shake the jar, and add squash until there is an inch of space between the top of the squash and the rim of the jar. At this point, fill the jar with boiling water left from blanching.

Use a chopstick or other non-metalic probe to release air bubbles trapped by the squash and top up the boiling water to cover the squash… still leave an inch between the water and the rim of the jar. Finally, wipe the rim and threads of the jar to remove any squash particles you might have gotten on them.

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.

Place a heated lid on the jar, then screw a band onto it. Don’t pull a muscle tightening the band, but don’t be gentle either. When the band is tight, place the jar back into the canning pot. Repeat this procedure until all the jars are full or until you run out of squash.

Read the instructions for your pressure canner and follow them. For mine, I lock the lid on and bring the water to boil. When steam is coming out of the vent pipe (to the left of the pressure gauge), I let it cook for ten minutes. Then I set the pressure regulator on the vent pipe (right). I monitor the pressure gauge until it registers 11 pounds of pressure, then I adjust the heat of the stove to keep the pressure at 11 pounds. Once the pressure is up, I turn the heat down surprisingly low to maintain it… with a stove knob that runs from 0 (off) to 9 (hottest), a setting of about 2.5 is enough to maintain 11 pounds of pressure in the canner.

For squash, the pressure must remain at or above 11 pounds for 90 minutes. If, at any point in that 90 minutes the pressure drops below 11 pounds, you need to get it back to 11 pounds and start timing from zero.

After 90 minutes, remove the canner from the heat and leave it alone until the pressure drops to zero; this could take ten or more minutes. My canning pot has a “vent lock” to tell whether it’s under pressure. When there is pressure, a metal disk rises above the lid (right). Once that disk drops back in place (left), it’s time to open the canner’s lid. With any canner, do this cautiously. I wear oven mitts, stand back from the canner, and keep the lid between me and the steam.

Set the lid aside, and lift the jars from the canning pot. Set them on a cooling rack or on a towel on the counter. Let them sit for a day so they cool and seal. As they cool, the lids will pop with a “ping.” After the jars cool, examine the lids to confirm that they form concave surfaces—they should bulge down into the jars. If you remove the band, you should be able to lift the jar by the lid. If a lid hasn’t sealed, refrigerate the jar and use its contents within three days.

 

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My first harvest of peas each spring is always about this overwhelming. I had taken a quart basket to the garden with me to handle the bounty.

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.

My eagerness clouded my judgement. The peas I removed from these pods should have stayed podded for at least another day… and I enjoyed eating them.

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.

 

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I plant lettuce seeds about three-to-five to a square inch. To thin and harvest throughout the season, I pull several plants at at time out by the roots. Then I break off the roots, and inspect the leaves for blemishes, rot, and pests. Click on the images if you wish to see the photos in greater detail.

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.

With plants crowded, the lettuce can prevent water from evaporting and cause leaves to rot.

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.

Pick, Clean, and Eat

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.

A slug baby hides under a rotting leaf near the bottom of a lettuce plant I just pulled from my home kitchen garden. The krinklier the variety of lettuce, the more places there are for these chewy pests to hide.

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.

Another slug on my lettuce, this one unfurled and roaming. I’ve heard that backyard chickens will eat slugs in a kitchen garden. Raises the question: what would I be cleaning off my lettuce leaves if I had chickens?

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.)

A massive thunderstorm splashed soil onto the underside of my lettuce leaves (left), while some critter deposited eggs or poop on the underside of some lettuce leaves. All of this rinses off, though the organic stuff may stick until I rub it underwater with my finger.

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).

Too Much Effort?

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.

While washing this batch of lettuce and spinach, I found a few gross-looking leaves (left), some spinach with organic dirt marks that wiped off easily (center), and sediment in the bowl of rinse water after I finished cleaning the leaves. I’ve already served four salads and lettuce to go on burgers this spring. The greens would have cost more than $10 at the farmers’ market. If I serve salad every day until mid-July, I won’t use all the lettuce and spinach from the garden. We will, however, consume about $50 to $60 of produce. That covers all my expenses for the garden this year, and the harvest has just begun!

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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:

 

 

 

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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:

  • Storing it in a cool, dry environment (typically, a root cellar)
  • Dehydration
  • Canning
  • Freezing
  • Pickling (and canning)

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.

 

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