I write to you from the library with a sweater on and my empty canvas tote bag wrapped around my sandal-clad feet. We are in that funny New England seasonal change: one day fall and the next day summer – then back to fall. But I’m not quite ready for the pumpkins, squash, and gourds stage of fall. Particularly since summer’s last push landed on my counter last Friday. All 40 pounds of it.
Fortunately, my friend who helped me can my first batch of tomatoes last year (or the year before?) was free for the morning. Karen cans more often than I do. If I were to fly solo this day, I would have consulted Google and youtube. Karen is much more fun and shares knowledge better than either of those sources.
In preparation for the day, I dug out my canner from the back corner of a dark basement closet and bought new wide mouth jars. The black enamel pot made me giggle: in New England it is a lobster pot, not a canner. Before taking the boys to school, I loaded up the jars for a quick, wet, steamy bath.
Back at home, I turned the oven on to 250 and smiled remembering the first time around, when Karen told me to get the oven fired up: I told her that my mom never used the oven to can tomatoes but rather just put them in the jars raw.
With a slight pause, she explained that the jars would lay on their sides in the oven right until we filled them. This was Karen’s mom’s trick in keeping the jars sterile to avoid botulism. We agreed that with dishwashers today, it’s probably not as necessary to keep them in the oven, but in the days when jars were washed by hand, that warm-up in the oven was another level of insurance against botched tomatoes. (Whoa! Do you think “botched” originated from “botulism”?? …No, not according to a quick Internet search. Just coincidence.)
I waited at loose ends for Karen to arrive. Then it hit me: I needed to boil water. Lots of water in different pans. I felt like that stereotypical “dad character” getting ready for his wife to have a baby and being told to “go boil some water.” I knew not what else to do, so I put one shallow pan on for the lids; one Dutch oven full for the 30-second blanch to get the skins off; and the big canner for processing after the pint jars were filled.
Karen arrived with her canning pot and was happy to see that I had boiled water. “Do you have lemon juice?” I had forgotten that, but I always have one of those yellow bottles in the fridge. A tablespoon of lemon juice helps with prevention of botulism by balancing acid and ph levels, I think. I pulled out a half-full small squeezy bottle – dated August 2014. Confidently, I said, “This should work.” Karen shook her head. Not enough and too old. I returned the bottle to the fridge door and started pulling fresh lemons out of the fruit drawer. “I’ll just squeeze these!” Again, Karen shook her head. “I’ll run to the store and grab a bottle,” I suggested. She nodded at my suggestion,“I’ll start blanching and peeling." Then, noting that I had put the squeezy bottle back in the fridge, she added, "I see that bottle isn't old enough to throw away!" Perhaps not.
While I’m happy to have 36 pints of tomatoes, I’m delighted that Karen and I got to spend the morning together. When do we make time to chat with a friend for four hours? Across the most beautiful mess of a kitchen counter...
we did just that.
A special twinge of glee lay in the fact that we were also intertwining cultures of canning that we grew up with. Although I nearly dropped the first jar of tomatoes that was going into the canner when Karen yelled, “Stop!” I was going to put it into boiling water with my bare hands. She suggested that I use a jar lifter to put it in. Again, I laughed and explained, “I think my mom would’ve done that bare-handed!” (Mom agrees; it sounded like something she would do!)
With two inches of water over the jars, we let the canners come to a simmer and set the timer to give the tomatoes a 40-minute hot water bath. Then, we turned the heat off, let them set for five minutes, and removed them with the jar lifter.
About eight hours later, all 36 pints were nestled on my counter. And, 36 little “pops” of the lids hit my ears like music. They were sealed. With a final swish of permanent marker, Swordfish with Tomatoes and Fennel will be back on the menu for another year.
I cleaned out the bathroom sink drain the following morning. A 15-minute production. Not nearly as rewarding as canning tomatoes; only you and God will ever know that my sink drains quicker. On occasion, at the end of the day, sights like this give me a boost. A visual product of the day's work.
After a last glance to the counter, there is a lightness in my step as I head up to bed.
Good Night, Tomatoes.