Friday, September 14, 2012

Farm Day

We love visiting the farm.  There’s always something new for us to see and do.  We’re fortunate that we get to visit my sister’s farm throughout the year.  Their farm is a grain and seed farm with a few chickens, ducks, guinea hens, pigs, goats, cats and a dog.  There’s also a traditional country garden (in other words it’s HUGE), several flower beds, an orchard and a vineyard.  Of course there’s fruit - she is my sister after all!
These were actually last year's pigs - this year's are pink!
Our visit this past weekend came during a brief gap between harvesting the wheat and oats and harvesting the soybeans and corn.  In other words, all energy was focussed on work around the yard rather than in the fields.   The list of chores for Saturday included picking and juicing grapes, gathering peppers and tomatoes from the garden and moving the goat fence so the goats can roam on greener pastures.  What was just another ordinary day of chores for my sister and her family was a day of adventure for us.
We began by joining other friends and family for the annual grape harvest.  The harvest involves snipping grape clusters off rows upon rows of cold tolerant grape varieties.   My sister’s brother-in-law has an even bigger vineyard just a mile down the road where we picked more grapes.  In total, there’s about half an acre of grape vines to be harvested (about 700-800 plants).  After picking buckets and buckets of grapes they were taken to the processing room where they were pressed into juice and will later be turned into wine.  And no - we did not stomp the grapes with our feet!  For a closer look at the process check out this slideshow from the 2009 grape harvest.

Once the grapes were under control we picked a few bushels of tomatoes.  There was way more tomatoes than my sister or any of us could use - so I brought them to the city and donated them on behalf of my sister and Fruit Share to Agape Table.  They were so excited to get all those boxes of tomatoes for their chili and soup lunches.

We also picked a few red hot peppers.  There were enough to fill two 10 Gallon pails.  That's a lot of heat! My sister shares her garden with some friends who know their way around hot peppers and who love spicy Indian food.  We spent a bit of time lacing up these peppers for me to take home.  These pepper will last us 3 years!

 Finally, we turned our attention to the goats.  These friendly and curious climbers are always a big hit.  In addition to feeding them, we got to experience putting up a fence (my nephews think it’s funny that we actually wanted to help and thought of it as a ”fun experience”).

Usually my sister would do this job on her own - having 7 friends to help and joke around with made it hardly seem like work at all.  The kids loved taking turns driving the quad.

What a day!  A big thank you to my sister and her family for always making us feel welcome and allowing us to explore a little bit of farm life.

If you’d like to visit a farm but don’t have a personal connection like we do, take advantage of Manitoba Agriculture’s Open Farm Day.  On Sunday, September 16 you can explore several farms throughout Manitoba.  You’ll get to meet farmers, see their operations, participate in fun activities, ask questions and enjoy a lovely Sunday drive through our beautiful countryside.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Canning Diced Tomatoes

Yup, another tomato post.  I told you it's been a good tomato year!  This time I decided to can them.

It's easy to can tomatoes - it just takes a long time.  And yes, there are some important safety rules you need to follow.  They're simple - add acid (lemon juice), seal well and heat process jars for the right amount of time.

When you buy canned tomatoes in the store - what kind do you buy?  Do you buy whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes?  I buy diced tomatoes.  So that's what I decided to make - diced canned tomatoes - peeled of course.

Here's how:

1. Wash tomatoes.
2.  Peel tomatoes.  Make a small X on the bottom of the tomato, place it in boiling water for 60 seconds, transfer immediately to an ice water bath and peel.
3. Chop tomatoes and toss into a large pot.
4. Bring chopped tomatoes to boil for 5 minutes.
5. Pack hot tomatoes into clean, hot jars (they need to be hot so the jars won't crack, but they don't need to be sterilized because our hot water bath will be more than 10 minutes).
6. Add lemon juice to each jar.  VERY IMPORTANT to ensure your tomatoes acidity is high enough to discourage the growth of the bacteria that causes botulism.  Remember, the botulism bacteria grows inside well sealed jars - it's not good enough just to have a good seal - add the acid.  It's really no big deal.  Add 2 tbsp lemon juice per 1Litre or 1Quart jar.  Add 1 tbsp to each 500ml or 1Pint jar.
7. Seal with hot sealing lid.
8.  Place in hot water bath.  Boil litre or quart jars for 45 minutes.  Boil 500 ml or pint jars for 35 minutes.  Yes, it's a long time.  But what's the safety of your family worth?

For more safe, tomato canning options check out the National Centre for Home Food Preservation.

Note:  It took me 6 hours to can 10 Litres of diced tomatoes.  If it weren't for the lack of freezer space, I'd probably just stick to freezing.  My husband figures each can of tomatoes is worth at least $20.  What do you think, is it worth it?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pico de Gallo - Fresh Salsa

When I was younger, my favourite salsa came from a jar where you couldn't really tell what all the ingredients were.  Fresh salsa was a little too raw for me and I did not like cilantro at all.
Today, I love fresh salsa or pico de gallo or salsa fresca with all it's colorful, fresh, raw veggies.  And, I have learned to love cilantro.
Now that the tomatoes are coming in fast and furious, fresh salsa is one of our favourite snacks.

Here's our recipe.

6-7 plum* tomatoes, chopped and seeded**
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 green or yellow sweet pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 to 2 cayenne or jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (your preference)
3 tbsp chopped cilantro or parsley
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
2.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
3.  Eat immediately or cover and refrigerate for 15-30 minutes.

Serve with tortilla chips and strawberry margaritas!

* Use whatever tomatoes you have on hand.  Plum tomatoes are great for salsa because they have more flesh compared to other tomatoes.  It's also easier to take the seeds out - if you choose to do that.
** Taking the seeds and the surrounding liquid out of tomatoes helps limit the amount of liquid in your salsa.  But it is totally optional.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Canning Tomato Salsa

Tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes!  It's definitely that time of year.

In addition to BLT's, tomato soup, fresh salsa, and bruschetta, I've used our tomatoes for frozen tomato soup stock (juice), canned diced tomatoes, and frozen tomatoes.  But my favourite tomato preserve is tomato salsa.  Opening one of those jars in the middle of winter is like a little taste of heaven.

I'm not going to lie - canning salsa (or tomatoes for that matter) is time consuming work.  The issue with canning tomatoes is that the level of acid in them varies and often it is too low in order for them to be processed like other fruits which are typically considered high acid foods.  And, with salsa, we often add more low aid veggies like onions, peppers and herbs.  High moisture, low acid, low salt and low oxygen environments are ideal for the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism (read more here). 

As a result, to can tomatoes or salsa safely, we need to ensure that there is enough acid in our canned goods to make conditions unsatisfactory for Clostridium botulinum, that we're vigilant about following safe water bath canning procedures and that we process them for the recommended time.  When canning tomatoes, the recommendation for acid is adding 2 tbsp of lemon juice or vinegar (5% acid) for every litre or quart jar or 1 tbsp for every 500ml or pint sized jar.  When canning salsa follow a recipe that comes from a credible source where the proportions of acid to non-acid foods have been measured and tested.  I turn to the National Centre for Home Food Preservation.

Here's a step by step look at how I made my salsa.
score washed tomatoes with an x on the bottom
place in boiling water for 60 seconds
remove from boiling water and immediately put in ice water for peel to come off easily
peel tomatoes
for thick salsa, remove the seeds and liquid from the tomatoes
chop and mix all ingredients in a large pot
simmer for 30 minutes
fill hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace, seal and process pint (500ml) jars for 15 minutes

Remove from canner and allow to cool on counter for 24 hours.  Check seal.  Enjoy any that did not seal properly right away and tuck the rest away for a delicious winter treat.
Of course, you can always freeze your tomatoes and avoid all this trouble.  But, if you're freezer is full - go for it!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Holy moly, there sure are a lot of tomatoes in my garden!  I'm thrilled but also a little stressed about all the tomato processing that this will mean in the weeks to come.

I was away for a good chunk of the summer; the tomatoes did not get pruned - at all. The result is a tomato jungle.
Do you see the red tomatoes?  Sometimes I don't find them until they are extremely red and ripe.
During planting season, I always seem to forget how big and bushy the plants get and sometimes don't leave enough room.  Here the cabbage is in the tomatoes, or the tomatoes are in the cabbage patch - not sure which!  
And here's a butternut squash seeking a little shade from the tomato plants.
Even though it's a jungle out there - I've never had such an amazing tomato crop.  Could it be that my careful pruning in past years has been a waste of time?  Does the dense foliage keep the soil moist despite the warm, dry summer we've been having?

I suspect I have been over zealous in my pruning efforts in the past.  Sure it makes the plants look nice and the tomatoes are easy to find - but is it worth it?!  I know I have way more tomatoes this year and hunting for tomatoes is kind of fun!

And boy oh boy, when I find them all - we're going to have some amazing salsa!