Fermented Sauce and Sundried Tomatoes

I can’t get over how cheap food is at the grocery store.

A couple weeks ago I canned tomatoes, and ladies and gentlemen, it took me ALL day to produce 8 measly quarts of sauce. By 9 pm, when the popping seals interrupted my inner mantra (never can sauce again, never can sauce again, never can sauce again) all I could think about was the incredible amount of labour and energy invested into the food we eat. I thought of raking last year’s leaves, battling with my pitchfork in the compost, digging holes in my clay soil, filling them with compost, transplanting tomato seedlings,  watering, and weeding, weeding, weeding… Well, the last bit isn’t true but it sounds good–and would be true for many of you. (I let my garden defend itself, after July 1. There are too many lakes to swim in, cousins to see, and roads to travel, to be pulling weeds.)

Food is costly. It requires energy to grow, harvest, prepare and preserve. In fact, just when I think the hardest part is over as I survey my garden at its prime, the real work of harvest begins. Unfortunately, this year it coincided with the start of school, music lessons, gymnastics, a new job for me, and birthday parties. Of course, the harvest is at the same time every year, but it always feels unexpected and requires more work than I anticipate. Like a needy house guest who stays a few nights too many. The first few bowls of tomatoes were were all fun and games when they showed up, but now I want them to go preserve themselves… which is what this post is about.

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roma tomatoes and thyme, ready to meet their new best friends, lactobacilli bacteria

So far, I’ve used three methods to preserve my tomatoes: conventional canning, fermentation, and drying. Canning results in the taste we are used to and makes nice holiday gifts for people we don’t really know, (only my favourite people get my ferments), but it takes too much work to belong to this post. I highly recommend fermenting your tomato sauce as long as you don’t do what I did:

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tomato sauce fermenting on my counter–don’t do it this way–

When I read about making sauce, I decided the part about “stirring your tomatoes everyday while they ferment” seemed cumbersome.*  Instead, I poured my sauce into jars and covered it with olive oil on Day 1. Why make unnecessary steps, I’d wondered. I’ll let it ferment in small jars, capped with olive oil, and save myself a dirty dish. Well, by Day 5 my sauce had fermented so beautifully, the extra CO2 (a normal byproduct of the process) pushed the tomatoes out of the olive oil barrier where they met with oxygen, creating the perfect conditions for mold. Fortunately, I realized my mistake and froze all the sauce before it went bad. For my next batch I will:

1. Chop or process any ingredients I want for the sauce (tomatoes, celery, garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, etc). Fermentation is freedom; you don’t have to worry about acidity or ingredient ratios.

2. Add whey–2 or 3 tablespoons per quart (this is optional but it contains lactobacilli and gives the ferment a kick-start)

3. Add salt to taste–make it on the salty side (helps keep sauce good before fermentation takes over)

4. Pour sauce into a wide-mouthed, gallon jar and let sit on my counter for about 5 days, STIRRING EVERY DAY to make sure none of the sauce spends too much time at the surface.

6. Pour sauce into smaller, glass bottles, or jars, and cap with a layer of olive oil (about 3/4 inch thick) to prevent spoilage

7. Store in my basement**

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Brown rice pasta with fermented tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. The taste is slightly different than canned tomato sauce–lighter, fresher and a little wine-y, but delicious.

Sun-dried tomatoes are my current craze. They top the charts in ease and taste, although they still require a commitment to get them into the sun.

The other day my principal approached me in the hallway to discuss staff parking.

I interrupted him, “Are you talking about the blue Mazda parked at a weird angle in the parking lot?”

He wasn’t. Then I had to explain why I thought he might be concerned: I had trays of tomatoes drying on my dash and I wanted optimum sunlight exposure for them.

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sun-dried tomatoes–this batch is crispier because I sliced the tomatoes a little too thin.

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Some of my paste tomatoes are small enough to slice in half or thirds. It’s best to slice them consistently  (3/4 to an inch thick) so they dry at the same rate but I never manage to do it.

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My mom, putting tomato slices on an old window screen that will hit the roof.

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I start my tomatoes on the garage roof for 2 or 3 days (taking them down at night) then finish them up on the dashboard of the car when they’ve shrunk in size.

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I always be sure to park in the sun, and if I get hungry while running errands, I have a snack handy. (Once they’ve been on the roof, they only need a day or so in the car.)

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Last-minute sushi made with sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese, cucumber and carrots.

How are you preserving your tomatoes? Do you have any suggestions, or fermentation stories, to share with the rest of us?

Happy Wednesday,

Tricia

*There are lots of books available on the art of fermentation. One of my favourites is this one from France.

**Remember the fermented salsa sitting in my basement? It’s still good!

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Power-trip cure, ferments, and chive blossom vinegar

Know anyone who’s on a power trip? Someone who needs to be taken down a notch?

There’s a remedy for the power-hungry and those with an inflated ego. It’s called subbing in a grade nine classroom. I am convinced even CEOs of multi-million dollar companies would tremble before a class of belligerent 15-year-olds, given the opportunity. I like to think my people skills are up to snuff, but last week they were put to the test. After spending an afternoon with hormonal, hyperactive young men and woman my perspective on life, and who I was, warped. Think of plastic in hot oven.

Later, a friend called to confirm the details of a fermentation workshop I was leading at her permaculture institute. She reassured me about the presentation and told me not to get too nervous. “I’m not worried,” I told her, my recent teaching experience fresh in my mind. “Talking to a room full of adults keen on cultivating bacteria sounds dreamy…”

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Kefir, flavoured with orange juice concentrate, ready to be bottled for its second ferment.

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Susanna, and her friend Kirsi, enjoying some “orange crush” kefir. My kids are very skeptical when I promise something will “taste good”. This time they agreed with me and were asking for more.

Besides sharing some homemade kefir at the workshop, I talked about fermenting salsa. Remember the stuff I made over two months ago? It had so much garlic and cilantro, I wasn’t sure it would ever be edible. Now it’s mellowed considerably and I wouldn’t think of composting it. (Something I had considered with all thirteen jars.)

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Mellowed salsa… this one took a lot longer to ferment than other batches (because of the garlic/cilantro), but you can see the air pockets indicating carbon dioxide–a by product of lactobacillus bacteria.

Long Keeper tomatoes: these were harvested last summer and kept perfectly in my neighbours basement until now.

Long Keeper tomatoes: these were harvested last summer and kept perfectly in my neighbour’s basement until now.

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Fresh tomatoes (Longkeepers and store-bought) with 1/2 cup of fermented salsa–a gateway food to the world of ferments.

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Make-shift salsa tasting station

And lastly, because some of you will soon be able to harvest chive blossoms, here’s a picture of some vinegar I infused last year. It’s easy to make–just throw blossoms in white vinegar (I add a few sprigs of thyme) and wait until the vinegar turns a brilliant pink. I infuse my vinegars for about 2-4 weeks. Strain, cap, keep, and share!

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I took this pic last summer: chive blossoms infusing in vinegar on the left (with a jar of olive oil behind them); finished blossom vinegar on the right. You can leave a few blossoms in for aesthetics–but the vinegar will last longer if you strain them.

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Our first local salad (from a greenhouse) of the season, with chive blossom vinegar, olive oil and salt. I don’t even bother mixing up the dressing before hand, it just dirties another dish.

Have a springy week!

Saluting all substitute teachers, everywhere,

Tricia

PS. I didn’t tell the whole subbing story. After I came home from school I talked with mom, and my mother-in-law. Both of them said they would pray for me the next day. I was grateful for their concern but not terribly confident anything would change. The next day, the class that had given me so much trouble previously was practically comatose. I was so so confused/amazed/thankful I actually asked the principal (I had to find out who he was first) if he had talked to the students about their behaviour. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. End of story. 🙂

Fermented Salsa

I named this blog experimentingaswegrow for good reason.

My first trial jar of fermented salsa, with the accompanying mess in the back ground.

My first trial jar of fermented salsa, with accompanying mess in the background.

When I told Stan I was planning to make fermented salsa with last season’s tomato crop (waiting patiently in my neighbour’s basement freezer) he raised his eyebrows. “What’s wrong with good ol’ fashioned canned salsa?” he asked. It’s a fair question, but my answer has more to do with why I’m interested in the fermented variety:

  • Fermenting preserves food with less energy and labour than canning, or refrigeration
  • Fermented food is alive; canned food is boiled to death. When healthy bacteria is allowed to grow it produces lactic acid–a natural preservative that improves digestibility and vitamin absorption. Almost every traditional culture around the globe incorporates fermented food into their diet (kimchi, chicha, sauerkraut,etc.)
  • Fermented salsa tastes like fresh salsa

The fourth bullet point, which deserves its own paragraph, is creativity. I find it outright impossible to follow a recipe. I’ve made an earnest effort to heed exact measurements and ingredients on numerous occasions, but I always end up slipping in an extra teaspoon of spice, a little more butter, a little less sugar…  Despite inconsistent results and longer prep times (tasting, adding, re-tasting, and adjusting, takes way more time than simply following instructions) I am hopelessly incurable. I call it Recipe Defiance Disorder.

In that sense, fermented salsa is right up my alley; it doesn’t require exact measurements (unlike canning). You simply make up a fresh salsa, throw it into jars, let it ferment, and then store in a cool spot. It sounds so simple, it’s hard to believe I spent hours reading books and researching online until I was confident enough to give it a try.

There are many different recipes online so I won’t add more to the cloud, except for outlining the basics:

  1. Chop up fresh salsa ingredients (I used frozen tomatoes. They are easy to peel if left in a bowl of hot water for a few moments)
  2. Add salt – the salt keeps unwanted bacteria from proliferating before the lactobacilli culture kicks in.
  3. Add whey – You can make your own whey by straining some natural, full-fat yogurt.
  4. Pour salsa into clean jars and let it sit at room temp. for a few days. Store salsa in a cool place.

Here are some pictures from the process:

Yogurt draining to make cheese and whey

Yogurt draining to make cheese and whey

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Yogurt cheese–what’s left of the yogurt after the whey drains.

The yogurt cheese (top right) put to good use!

The yogurt cheese (top right) put to good use!

Raw ingredients from first batch of salsa

Raw ingredients from first batch of salsa

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I put way more cilantro, garlic, and jalapenos in my second batch. The flavour is intense now, but I am hoping it mellows with the fermentation.

Freshly made salsa, ready to ferment.

Freshly made salsa, on third day of ferment. I will let them sit on my counter for a day or two more until I can taste a bit of a tang and see more bubbles coming to the surface. Then I will transfer the jars to cold storage.

… I wondered (for a moment) if I should wait to post this until I open a perfectly aged jar of salsa… but I’m too impatient. Ahh, so much for writing with the voice of authority. Check back in two months for an update!

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Speaking of updates, if any of you are lying awake at night wondering how my cowl turned out, you can now rest peacefully:

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Are others of you preoccupied with Susanna’s herbal ear oil and lymphatic massage? We continue to faithfully administer both to her, every night. Her hearing still isn’t perfect, but she has not suffered another ear infection (it must be the garlic and oregano!) and her ears are finally starting to pop, indicating movement and drainage (it must be the calendula and massage!)

Experimentally yours,

Tricia