Friday

How to Make Spicy Tomato Jam

It's the time of year when cooling temps make me think of turning my energies indoors. Canning is one activity I look forward to every year. I don't expect everyone to share my enthusiasm, though. For some folks, canning seems pretty intimidating. For others, it promises a lot of product with too few opportunities to us it. After all, it can be hard to come up with enough ways to use or share 20 jars of apple butter.


Why on Earth Would You Want to Can Your Own Food?


I actually came to canning pretty honestly. I wanted to explore long term storage solutions for garden herbs, vegetables, fruits and my growing store of spices. I discovered something interesting: Canning isn't anywhere near as scary as it appears. If you observe a few important rules, you can make hundreds of different recipes, give them away as gifts, and turn to them to make winter food prep more entertaining and delicious.

Once you start to explore the options, the offerings at the market will begin to seem paltry, too. After you taste the homemade stuff, mass market jams, pickles and chutneys will taste bland. Home canning is addictive. Don't forget homemade canned recipes can also be a healthy alternative. They typically contain wholesome ingredients and few if any of those pesky multisyllabic additives and preservatives. If stored properly, most home canned goods will remain shelf stable for 12 months or so.

Don't these canning projects sound amazing:
Five Pounds of Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes

  • Dandelion jelly
  • Peach and lavender jam
  • Lemon balm jelly
  • Lime marmalade
  • Strawberry kiwi jam

 

Spicy Tomato Jam


Tomato jam is an excellent example of an appealing canning recipe. It has the distinct taste of tomato, but with sweet, hot notes that makes it a wonderful base for a marinade, a barbecue sauce or  substitute for ketchup. It's a nice relish all by itself. Tomato jam is also delicious mixed into a block of cream cheese (my  favorite). In fact, Harry and David (a mail order outlet) offers a line of products along this vein that sell for a pretty penny. Tomato jam is a specialty food you may or may not find in the gourmet section of your local market, so it has an extra bit of cachet that makes it an appealing gift basket item for the foodie in your life -- or a guilty pleasure of your very own.

Simmered to perfection
This recipe calls for lots of tomatoes that cook down to a thick, dark, sweet, rich goo. If you've ever been baffled by what to do with a late season tomato harvest, this is one way to use up those less that lovely end-of-season ruby globes. My latest version of choice includes plenty of lime juice and spices like cinnamon, cloves and ginger.

Preparing it yesterday was a treat: Leaving it to simmering on the back burner all afternoon infused the house with fall aromas -- and the welcome ghost of holidays yet to come. I have included photos of this year's tomato jam extravaganza throughout the post. Two batches (10 lbs., or about 28 tomatoes worth), yielded 9 half pint (8 oz.) jars.

You can find the recipe at the very informative Food in Jars website. It contains all the information you'll need to prepare and can tomato jam and many other recipes. This particular jam contains: ripe tomatoes (I used primarily slicing tomatoes because that's what I had left this late in the season), lime juice, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, salt, and red chili flakes. The directions call for leaving the tomato skins and seeds in as they lend the final jam some needed texture. I was doubtful, but that's exactly what happened. The seeds soften up, and the skins becomes tender.

I really like the Food in Jars recipe, but it took me a lot longer to reduce the mixture using slicing tomatoes, about five hours in a heavy duty, enamel Dutch oven on low (a light simmer) -- just an FYI. I like it thick, though.
Prepared, canned, processed and sampled -- delicious!


In canning, you can easily cut a recipe in half (doubling is a no-no unless you do it in batches). I was thinking: Half the published recipe would make enough to try as a refrigerator jam, saving the whole canning thing for another time. If you're too busy or not yet a convert, it might be worth considering.

Also, I used 8 ounce jars for this project, but 4 ounce jars are another option, especially for gift giving. That's enough for a pot of tasty red relish or more than a generous, spicy dollop with cream cheese.


Mixed with Cream Cheese on a Cracker

After this project, I'm left with a smattering of green tomatoes in the garden and plan on making a pickled green tomato relish with mustard seed next. See how a little canning prowess can make herb and vegetable gardening more productive?

Thursday

How to Dry Tomatoes with Herbs

The tomato is my favorite vegetable -- uh, fruit. This usually translates to a garden full of tomato goodness -- usually in September -- that far exceeds my ability to eat, can, freeze, dry or otherwise preserve the bounty.  This doesn't make me sad, though.  The challenge is in finding lots of delicious and entertaining ways to put my tomato crop to good use.  Whatever is left over, I give away or donate.

I can tomato jam and tomato salsa, make batches of green tomato relish and dry tomatoes to eat as snacks or use in cooking.  Dried tomatoes are actually pretty handy. With a little minced rosemary, they can be delicious in rustic homemade bread. Dried tomatoes also make a satisfying snack.  This last is my recommendation for the day.

How to Dry Tomato Snacks


I have some end-of-season grape tomatoes that aren't nearly as sweet as they would have been had they ripened a month ago.  Rather than let them rot on the vine, I like to slice them (or small cherry tomatoes) in half lengthwise and dry them using a dehydrator.  This takes 24 hours or so, and the equipment does most of the work.  The result is tart, savory and salty. There is even a little more sweetness in evidence than in the ripe, fresh fruit. These small dried tomatoes can be noshed right out of a baggie, minced into sauce or ground up and added to soup (see photo). To make them tastier, I usually add an herb or two.  The sample in the picture above is topped with chives, salt and pepper.  I use basil, parsley or rosemary on occasion as well. It just depends on what's at hand.

I've also performed this process with standard sized, never-to-be ripe slicing tomatoes, the kind that tend to stay orange forever:  Just slice them thin (a 1/4 inch thick should do it) and dry them widely

spaced on trays.

The dehydrator in the photo is the smallest I own. This style has no fan and is one of the most economical on the market.  It works well if you remember to give the trays a quarter turn every few hours and rotate them bottom to top a couple of times a day.

I don't have a recipe for dried tomatoes because the procedure is so darned simple.  Add what you like, or leave the tomatoes plain.  For variety, I've dipped them in soy sauce, added a little brown sugar and sprinkled them with sweetened rice vinegar (or lime juice). Just watch for scorching and flip the tomatoes once through the process to help keep sticking to a minimum. (The herbs stay on top pretty well, fastening to the tomato meat as it dries.) Once dried, tomatoes will feel firm and have a somewhat leathery texture when flexed. 


Dried and powdered tomatoes
Store dried tomatoes in a plastic bag out of direct light. If you live in a humid environment, add a handful of dried rice to the bag to reduce the risk of mold growth over time.

Special note:  If tomatoes appear dry on the surface but still look plump from moisture inside, prick them with the tip of a knife and place them cut side down on the lowest rack of the dehydrator for a few hours. That'll do the trick.

Sunday

How to Repot an Aloe Vera Plant



Healthy Aloe Vera Transplants
It's easy to repot an aloe vera plant. If I could only make one herb related recommendation to a gardening newbie, it would be to keep an aloe vera or two around -- and give this useful herb away to share the wealth after a repotting session.  The aloes are easy to care for, nearly indestructible, and surprisingly effective at treating the discomfort of minor burns and bug bites. In many cases, a little dab of gel cools a burn better than an over the counter preparation.

I maintain a number of commuter aloe vera plants that spend winters indoors and summers outside. The only established aloe vera plant I ever lost was one I accidentally left out during the first hard frost of the season.  Even with that specimen, I believe the protected, central offshoots were salvageable.

I've kept these plants for nearly two decades in one form or another, and every year in spring and fall, I repot at least one, producing six, ten, twenty or more smaller plants in the process. Thank heavens for neighbors and friends, or I'd be overrun with spiny succulents.  Although the requirements below produce optimum repotting results, aloe vera is very forgiving. Repotting this wonderful herb isn't the chore it appears to be.  You'll see. Grab a trowel and follow me to the next section.

Rootbound aloe vera

How to Repot an Aloe Vera Herb Plant


What you'll need:

  • Garden gloves
  • Hand trowel
  • Knife
  • Small and medium sized pots
    Mature "pup"
  • Potting soil
  • Garden sand or perlite


Directions

Remove the plant from the pot and inspect its root system. Don't panic. You'll probably be able to see where smaller plants are attached to the mother plant through a matted network of fleshy roots.  The idea here is to cut the roots to separate individual plants for repotting while leaving a portion of the root attached to each transplant. Losing some root is unavoidable, but most plants should survive just fine.

Shake off as much dirt as possible, and start excavating plants from the central mass.  If an established plant is very root bound, don't be afraid to tackle it with a sharp knife and extreme prejudice.  I wedge and wiggle a hand trowel into the spot where I want to begin separating offshoots.  Once I've created an opening, I pull the two sides apart to increase the gap and start cutting.  The process isn't pretty and can look alarming, but it all works out in the end.


Mass of tangled aloe vera roots
Some transplants will be tiny (pups), while others will be larger. Once freed, remove any dead foliage from around healthy stems. This may release some liquid (gel), but that's okay.

Eventually, you'll be left with the central "mother" plant, which can also be replanted or replaced in the same pot. This will likely be the largest transplant specimen.

Place the mother plant as well as liberated smaller transplants on their sides in a warm, shaded location overnight.  There may be quite a few, but smaller plants can be placed together in four inch and larger pots, if necessary. Keep these in-process plants away from water and curious critters, including the family cats and dogs.

The next day (this task can actually wait up to a week), start filling pots with a combination of potting soil and sand or perlite.  I like to use equal parts soil to sand. This provides enough nutrition for a season as well as good drainage. Fill the pots two thirds full at first.

Add plants to the prepared pots, centering or spacing them evenly. Add and firm soil up to the crown using your hand or the back of a hand trowel to remove air pockets.
Separated offshoots


Once planted, place pots in bright to dappled light either indoors or out. Don't water plants for the first 72 hours or so, and then water sparingly.

I admit I haven't always been diligent in my aloe vera repotting strategies.  I've repotted pups (baby plants) into unadorned garden earth and soil with pool filter sand mixed in (a no-no) as well as into soil with all the fixings.  My plants have done well regardless. Actually, great soil with lots of compost and moisture retentive additives tends to be too rich and wet for aloe vera anyway, so less is usually more.

Potting Aloe Vera Leaves


Aloe leaves are unyielding, and a repotting session usually results in some casualties. These broken leaves can be replanted, too. Here's how: Create a small trench in a pot of prepared soil and place the broken leaf inside. Although you can bury the leaf completely, you'll have better success if you leave it partially exposed. Water the leaf lightly after 24 hours and place it in a bright but not hot location. It should start showing new growth in two to three weeks. (Note: Use a 50/50 soil mixture as you would for a pup transplant.)

Special Notes on Repotting and Maintaining Aloe Vera


Replanted "Mother"
  • It's a very good idea to wear garden gloves when repotting aloe vera. The spines on these plants aren't just decorative.
  • Any gel released through a wound can mix with dirt and create a gooey mess, so this is a task best performed outdoors.
  • Some aloe starts may be tall but shallow rooted. In this case, a wooden support may be necessary for the first couple of months. I often use crossed chop sticks from local restaurants to support medium sized offshoots.
  • For very large plants, I've been known to place stones in the bottom of the pot for better weight distribution.
  • With aloe vera, water sparingly. 
  • Any broken leaves or dislodged pups should be hardened off for at least 24 hours before replanting.
  • Although aloe can be maintained in the same pot for years, it's a good idea to repot annually or semi-annually.


References

Display Photo - By Bhaskaranaidu (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlovira_plant.JPG http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/28/Alovira_plant.JPG

Repotting photos  - S.A.Elliott