Harvest Season IS NOT a Celebration!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Heirloom Tomato Harvest: Bird Back 40
Let me get this straight: Harvest Season is WORK! Celebrate all you want -- but when you come home after a week in Santa Cruz and Seattle to find 50-60 lbs. of ripe heirloom tomatoes hanging off the vine -- you don't crack open a 12-pack and crank up the IPOD.

Nope -- you get to WORK son. Because the clock is TICKING! Mother Nature isn't about to wait around until you're good and ready to save that bountiful summer produce. Nope! What's on the kitchen counter right now turns to slop in 24-48 hours -- so you BEST GET WORKING.

With all due respect to my fine gardening friends at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center who hosted the annual Harvest Celebration this past weekend (a fun event that I was sorry to miss) -- celebration my left foot!

Blessed with Heirloom Production
The wonderful wife that is Venus and I took our first tender steps at canning summer produce two seasons ago when we were confronted with a boatload of production from our heirloom tomato plantings. Little did we know that we would progress from those baby steps to perfecting a number of canning-safe recipes that have resulted in numerous quarts of whole heirloom tomatoes, tomato sauce infused with fresh basil and peppers, dill pickles infused with dill (surprise!), creamed garlic, thai basil and other spices and the always famous -- always in demand -- Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa.

The first step in any canning process is to first gather up the produce. We knew -- before we left for eight days of wedding duties and other family gatherings -- that the garden was giving that tell-tale sign of over-production. So, we weren't all that surprised to discover a multitude of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes and aircraft carrier sized squash upon our return.

I know that a number of growers in the Sacramento area are not having the best of years when it comes to tomato production. I don't know why we have been so blessed. It might be micro-climates. It might be the fertilizer cocktails that I've been feeding the garden with through the summer. It just might be dumb luck (probably). Yes, we've been cursed with quite a bit of Blossom End Rot (BER). But it hasn't slowed us down much.

Whole Tomatoes, Skins Removed, Ready for Canning
The multitude of pepper plants that we have planted nearby in the Bird Back 40 are just as loaded as the tomato offerings -- but unlike the tomatoes -- the peppers are still another week or two away from that "ready to harvest" stage that's required for our salsa concoction. So, the tomatoes pictured above were dropped in vats of boiling water to remove skins and saved for whole tomato canning purposes.

The end result? About 18-quarts of whole tomatoes. That's not bad -- but still not quite enough to last through an entire winter (plus -- they make great gifts at Christmas).

The ripe heirloom tomatoes weren't the only item begging to be picked this past Sunday. The cucumber plantings -- while late -- had finally taken off. The wife that is Venus LOVES cucumbers. She can't get enough of them -- in salads or in other dishes. So she manages to plant several pickling and slicing varieties -- which include my favorite: the Armenian Giant.

Pickling and Armenian Giant Cucumbers
Not only does the Armenian Giant go well in salads and other creations -- it also happens to be one of the tougher cucumber customers. And that toughness makes it a perfect candidate for pickling. Not all pickling cucumbers can stand up to the home-canning process. They tend to get soft. Trust me when I tell you that there's nothing worse that a soft pickle. Pickles are destined to be crunchy. And crunchy pickles are what we specialize in at the Bird Home for All Things Canning.

So -- this past Sunday -- while the cucumbers were soaking in a giant vat of ice water -- Venus and I were preparing multitudes of heirloom tomatoes for the whole tomato canning process. We also put a new weapon to work in the kitchen: a pressure canner.

Cucumbers Soaking in an Ice Water Bath
There are plenty of ladies in this world who would prefer shoes, clothing or fine jewelry for Christmas. The wife that is Venus instead requests things like ironing boards, vaccum cleaners and pressure canners. I grew up in a Modesto family where I would have been lined up against a wall and shot repeatedly for the crime of buying my mother or any sister an ironing board for Christmas. It was a lesson that I learned well.

Venus has had to do quite a bit of de-programming. While she enjoys and receives some of the finer things in life -- she also requests items where Bill Bird dare not tread as a child. It wasn't all that long ago -- if you recall -- when Feminism was the rage. If there was a newspaper story about a husband run down by an angry wife for the crime of purchasing her an ironing board for Christmas, the usual response from my mother and sisters was something along the line of: "well, he probably deserved it."

So, when Venus requested a pressure canner for Christmas last year? I was just a tad nervous.

Whole Tomatoes in a Pressure Canner
But, not to worry. If there's one thing I've learned about Venus -- it's that she is the Master of the Garden. Everything she touches, grows. It's not a chore for her. It's not a chore for me either. She loves putting the "V for Venus" gardening boxes through a workout. I love it too. That "love" for everything gardening has transcended into saving the produce that she creates. She watched her grandmother perform this chore. She watched her mother do the same. Although she holds a degree from Berkeley, it doesn't stop her from getting down and dirty.

The pressure canner is indeed a vast improvement over the water-bath canner that we have used for the past two seasons. Not only is it a time-saver in terms of getting the job done quickly -- but it also results in far less mess in the kitchen. Short and sweet? I should have invested in a pressure canner years ago.

Sealing Pickle Quart Jars
Canning in the Bird Household is always a team effort. Although one person can easily perform this task -- it's a lot more fun when four hands are involved. The process of canning summer produce isn't that hard -- it's the prep work leading up to the process that takes the vast amount of time.

You can't just pick and toss tomatoes into canning jars and be done with it. The same rule applies to cucumbers and other goodies from the backyard garden. With a pressure canner at the ready, a gardener can put just about anything into a prepared mason jar and save it for winter use.

There is truly nothing better than sharing a jar or five of Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa with family and friends. There's nothing quite like cracking open a jar of heirloom tomatoes in the dead of winter and breathing in that deep and satisfying scent of summertime produce. A can of tomatoes purchased at a store simply cannot compare to the taste of home-canned heirloom tomatoes. Once you've had that taste there is no going back.

Quarts of Whole Tomatoes and Dill Pickles
But I'm not going to fool you kids -- not for a second. Remember this important fact: Harvest Season isn't for celebrating. Harvest Season is work.

And our work is just beginning. That sweet summer payoff is now underway.