Yes, We Can: Supporting Our Farmers, Preserving the Harvest

Canning tomatoes by Kim O'Donnel

I am a little piggy that goes to market, and I do so dutifully every Sunday (often twice during growing season). I am hip to what grows when, but without soil to call my own, I rely on the agronomical know-how and stewardship of folks who know a whole lot more about growing food than I do.

Usually, I survey the weekly offerings, then hone in on what looks good and inspires me to cook. It goes without saying that I care about where my food comes from and how it’s grown and raised, and that I prefer farmers' market stands to supermarket aisles. But even with my reusable bag chockfull of heirloom this and organic that, by and large my experience is little more than an exchange of money and goods, with some conversational pleasantries thrown in for good measure.

Until now.

Summer in Washington is typically the dry season, but this year was historically parched, creating conditions that fueled explosive wildfires in one of the state’s rich agricultural centers. We city mice watched the flames on the local news in mid-August and our coastal sunsets had grown hazy, even so far away from the scene.

My arms full of melons, I suddenly lost my footing and was unable to utter anything remotely comforting or intelligent in response to Welsch’s crumbling news. He was clearly still in shock, quiet and somber, yet he stood tall in the face of a horrible situation and carried on. I quickly paid for my items and told him I'd see him at market on Sunday. Uttering those few words – See you on Sunday – I know exactly what I can do to help: Keep showing up.

That same week, I set out for one of Seattle’s mid-week farmers' markets and stopped by to see what was on offer at the River Farm Organic Produce stand. As I gathered cucumbers and deliberated over melons, farmer Eric Welsch told me and another customer that his house in Ellensburg, Wash. (about 75 miles east of Seattle) had just been destroyed, a casualty of the wildfires, and that he and his wife, Liz Goronea, had had just 20 minutes to evacuate. Their 50-acre farm, which has been in Goronea’s family since 1976, was untouched, and everyone was safe. But as those who grow and eat seasonally know all too well, the produce doesn’t wait, and here they were at the height of the growing season, which meant rebuilding would have to wait. For now, Eric and Liz, who is pregnant, were sleeping on the floor in their office.

My arms full of their melons, I suddenly lost my footing and was unable to utter anything remotely comforting or intelligent in response to Welsch’s crumbling news. He was clearly still in shock, quiet and somber, yet he stood tall in the face of a horrible situation and carried on.

I quickly paid for my items and told him I'd see him at market on Sunday. Uttering those few words – See you on Sunday – I know exactly what I can do to help: Keep showing up.

Sunday comes and I tell Welsch I'm gearing up to make marinara sauce. Last year, I put up about nine quarts of sauce that proved to be so delicious and gratifying I nearly cried when I opened the last jar in March. With plans to double this year’s pantry allocation, I ask him if they grow Roma tomatoes, which is what I used the previous year. He walks me to the other side of the stand and shows me something called a Stupice. “It’s a Czech heirloom,” Welsch tells me. “And it makes killer sauce.”

I would need 25 pounds, I say.

He smiles.

At that moment, the speed-dating transactions of farmers' markets past made way for a two-way committed relationship. We were in this together.

I spend several hours the next day heating and crushing tomatoes, then passing them through a food mill to remove the skins and the seeds. I divide the nearly translucent crimson puree into two pots, add onion and garlic and simmer for two hours, a slow and steady transformation from the raw to the cooked. There is no checking e-mail or updating my Facebook status. This is a messy, physically demanding endeavor that requires my full attention. The air is heavy with sweet tomato perfume, and the windows are fogged up, like a protective layer of insulation from the outside world. Could this be my new way of a moving meditation?

The sauce has thickened and is now ready to move into jars, where it will live, some of it for months, after a short dip in a monster-size pot of boiling water. To each quart jar, I add lemon juice and salt, then ladle in the sauce. I wipe the rims, place the lids and screw on the rings, then lower the jars into the canning cauldron. Forty-five minutes later, I have nine quarts of Stupice sauce, a delicately sweet, sun-kissed tribute to Welsch and Goronea’s hard work.

Sunday morning comes again, the last one of September, and my husband and I greet Welsch. I spot more of his juicy little tomatoes, packed in 20-pound boxes, Mother Nature’s penultimate love apple shout-out for the year.

The produce doesn’t wait. Make the time.

I'll take a 20-pound box of the tomatoes, I tell him. Plus five.

He nods and calculates the price, and I write a check for 50 bucks for all of our goods. He nods again and says thank you, and I feel his gratitude in my bones.

Once again, I set aside the electronic devices and all other business, don a smock and do-rag and dive into the harvest before me. Six hours later, I've got nine more quarts of sauce. My husband notes we have enough to enjoy two quarts per month until June.

Now it’s my turn to be grateful.

Marinara Sauce and Putting It Up in Jars

Adapted from “Put'em Up!” by Sherri Brooks Vinton, with water bath processing steps from “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations” by Kim O'Donnel

25 pounds plum tomatoes, washed and sliced in half (aka paste tomatoes; or Stupice, the Czech heirloom recommended by farmer Eric Welsch)
1 pound storage onions, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons bottled lemon juice per quart
1 teaspoon Kosher salt or ¾ ; teaspoon fine sea salt per quart

Tools

Food mill, wide-mouth funnel, jar lifter (aka canning tongs), canning rack, a pot deep and wide enough to fit a canning rack and quart jars, with lid on, ladle.

Note: I highly recommend canning with a partner, so that you can share the work load, equipment and cost of ingredients and supplies. For solo voyagers, estimate 6 to 7 hours, from start to finish. As a team of 2 or 3, estimate 4 to 5 hours, particularly if you have two food mills on hand. If you need to brush up on the basics of water bath canning, here’s a cheat sheet.

Method

Place 5 pounds of the tomatoes in a large non-reactive pot. Bring up to a lively simmer over medium heat, crushing and stirring the tomatoes occasionally to release their juices.

Add an additional 5 pounds of tomatoes and repeat, continuing to crush and stir as you go. Repeat with the remaining tomatoes until all are crushed and boiling. (Note: You may need to divide tomatoes among two pots.)

Reduce the heat and simmer for the tomatoes for 15 minutes. Run the tomatoes through a food mill in batches to remove skins and seeds.

Return the tomato puree to the pot(s). Add the onions and garlic and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally until the sauce is thickened, 1 ½ ; to 2 hours. (Note: Avoid tall, deep pots if possible; the sauce cooks more evenly in pots that are wide and more shallow.)

Meanwhile, prepare the jars for processing using the water bath method:

Use quart jars with the two-part lids sold by Kerr and Ball brands. Wash the rings and lids in hot soapy water and rinse well. Set aside.

Use a pot that is deep and wide enough for a canning rack. Make sure the lid of the pot is still able to sit on top with the rack inside. Arrange the quart jars in the canning rack. Add water to the pot until it is at least 1 inch above your jars. Cover and bring the water to a boil. Keep the jars in the boiling water until ready to process.

Remove the hot jars one by one from the boiling water to a kitchen towel-lined “staging” area. Keep the pot covered and the water boiling.

Add the lemon juice and salt to each quart jar. Rest the wide-mouthed funnel on top of a jar and ladle in the sauce, leaving ½ ; inch of headspace. With a nonmetal chopstick or other flat-edged item, release trapped air by running along the inside edge of the filled jar.

With a kitchen towel, wipe clean the rim of each jar. Place the lid on top, then gently screw on the ring (not too tight). Using a jar lifter (aka canning tongs), returned the filled and covered jars to the boiling water.

Cover and process for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and with the jar lifter, transfer the jars, one by one, to the towel-lined area. Listen for the “ping of each jar, a sign that you have a proper seal.

Allow to cool for at least 12 hours. Remove the rings. Check once more for a proper seal by lifting each jar by its lid. Label and date the jars and store in a cool, dark place; the sauce will keep for up to one year.

Makes 7 to 9 quarts.

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