One Tomato, Two Tomato, Oh Lord!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Who Put These in my Sink?
And so it begins. It's that daily ritual when the summer garden that you've worked so hard to plant and nurture finally begins to pay off with....More work.

WTF? Who signed me up for this?

It's that time in the summer when every green tomato plant is showing several different shades of summer color. When you start to notice big rigs on the highway loaded down with paste tomatoes headed to the nearest cannery, you know that treasured season has arrived at last. Heirloom tomato season is here.

Oh, Dear Lord...
It announced itself with a proverbial bang this past weekend. Both the wife that is Venus and I knew that we would probably be required to do a bit of early-season canning based upon the ripe tomatoes we could spot growing near the base of each plant.

But when we discovered that those one or two ripened tomatoes held a treasure trove of five to six or ten more? We knew we were in for a job. When just the chore of harvesting leaves you grasping for the nearest bottle of cold water and perhaps a little relief from a fan lined up in front of the air conditioner, you've got a job on your hands.

And what a job it was.

The Lush Queen Tomato
Venus and I had been expecting to can about seven to ten quarts of whole tomatoes when we first surveyed the garden that Saturday morning. We badly underestimated. Twenty quarts wasn't going to hold what we took from the garden that morning -- and the tomatoes just continue to ripen at a rather maddening pace.

So this is what overload means.

Venus and I normally can a variety of heirloom tomato dish options during our home-canning adventures. There's the famous and always-in-demand Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa and the equally scrumptious Herbed Tomato Sauce.

Venus Peels Skins Off Whole Tomatoes
But we had a problem. The tomatoes came a little earlier than normal this year. I'm not sure if it's that spell of 100-degree heat that caused the early ripening, or the pains we took at plant out last April. Whatever it was, it spelled a boatload of tomatoes and the kind of harvest one would expect in mid-August -- not July.

Since the peppers weren't quite ready for large scale harvest just yet -- and salsa depends wide varieties and numbers of peppers -- salsa was out. As for the Herbed Tomato Sauce? We still have a jar or two of that stuff leftover from last year's harvest. Why make more?

Skins Off! Time for Canning!
But whole tomatoes? We use that stuff all the time and ran through the last quart from last year's harvest back in March. And so? The project for this day? Can whole tomatoes for winter. Because there's nothing quite like popping open a can of home-canned, vine-ripened tomatoes from your own garden during the dead of winter. It springs the smell of a summer garden into your kitchen -- which is nice -- because the calendar says December and it's damn cold outside.

Canning whole tomatoes also happens to be one of the easier home canning projects. Simply wash the fruit, remove the cores, peel the skins, stick them in jars, add a tablespoon of bottled lemon juice or two plus a dab of salt and you're day is done after you process the completed haul in a pressure or water-bath canner. Some growers even prefer to leave the skins on. More power to them. That's one less step for us to take.

Whole Tomatoes? Or Monster Brains???
Jars of home-canned tomatoes look positively funky because the water inside the fruit tends to separate during the canning process. No matter how many tomatoes one jam packs into that one-quart jar -- it's going to come out half tomatoes and half water -- tomatoes at the top and tomato liquid at the bottom.

Yes -- you're right -- it does look a little like something out of Frankenstein's monster. But it's one dish that Baron Victor von Frankenstein would approve of.

Even mad scientists gotta eat sometime. Think about it!

The Pride of June

Friday, July 5, 2013

June Pride Peaches: Bird Back 40
Quick Question?

What does a fruit lover do when a certain overloaded peach tree called the June Pride deliver a sudden whopper of ripe peaches? Two weeks earlier than normal?

Answer: A fruit lover finds 101 ways and more to enjoy peaches. From freshly sliced peaches in the morning to peach cobbler at night -- life is all about stripping that tree in the Bird Back 40 and enjoying the gift that Mother Nature has delivered. And this year -- nature delivered a fat harvest -- as in the largest ever.

Fat Harvest City
I'm talking about a harvest that is so large that there's no need to cover the tree in netting this year. Those marauding fruit thieves known as the mockingbirds can have their fill and more. There's plenty underneath the canopy for my needs and the needs of other fruit lovers. Plus -- Bandi can help herself to that fruit on the lower branches. Everyone gets a treat this year.

And what a treat this June Pride season was. And still is. Believe it or not -- some of those peaches still aren't quite soft enough to pull off the tree. I'm one of those "no peach will be picked before its time," kinda people. Picking a peach while it's still as hard as a rock, before it's been given a chance to fully tree ripen, is a criminal act in my book.

June Pride Snacks
Not everyone subscribes to this theory, mind you. But in my humble opinion, there's nothing quite like a peach that's been allowed to ripen on a tree.

Planted during the 2008 bare root season in tandem with the O'Henry Peach variety, the June Pride finally got comfortable with its Bird Back 40 surroundings last year and nearly doubled in size. This is one of the few fruit trees that I don't need to prune much because I gave it a lot of space to grow. And grow it has. Most of last year's growth took place after the main harvest in early July, and I'm hopeful for the same kind of output this year.

Once you've had one whopper harvest? You'll always want another. And another. And another. Because I'm greedy like that. I have a love for summertime peaches fresh off the tree. The seeds of this love were planted by my father and brother many moons ago in Modesto, when my father acquired two peach trees from a grove that would be bulldozed to the ground to make way for new housing.

Peaches Don't Come From a Can
Those mature peach trees would help feed a family of four kids after dad took off in 1967 and eventually died in 1973. Food was a little hard to come by during the lean years so when fresh peach season hit? It was "Game On" for the Bird family. Fresh peach pie, peach cobbler, peaches with cream, peaches with milk and sugar, it was all on the menu. Peaches that fell off the tree were rescued and saved. Even the peaches with worm holes were a welcome treat -- as long as you avoided that worm.

Who knows? I probably consumed a worm or two back in the day. Call it "extra protein." Growing boys need that.

Peach Ice Cream Anyone?
I am reminded of those youthful beginnings every morning and evening when I check for fresh peaches. Every peach gets a squeeze or two until I've harvested more than enough for what I need. For the peach ice cream? Six quarts of this 4th of July creation, a combination of Paula Deen and Ben and Jerry's recipes, would require about four cups of peeled, ripe peaches. A food processor took care of the rest and the end result of that gooey goodness was dumped into the ice cream maker halfway through the churning process?

End result? Lip smacking peach ice cream!

Despite my love affair with all things peaches -- the June Pride peach isn't the best peach on the planet. It's not nearly as sweet nor as scrumptious as the Elberta peach varieties. It wouldn't last long in a taste test against the O'Henry. But, I can tell you this much: The June Pride is one of the best tasting peaches to ripen this early in the season. There was a time when people were forced to wait until late July or even August to satisfy that fresh peach desire.
Peach Cobbler

But thanks to the efforts of modern day horticulture? That wait is over. New peach selections will ripen as early as May or as late as October, extending the peach harvest season.

That's a lot of peach pie. Happy picking!