August 31, 2010

ferragosto in the district

Ferragosto is the major Italian summer holiday during which cities empty out for weeks at a time and Italians make their way to the beaches and the mountains a for nice, long break.  Our August didn’t turn out to be quite so relaxing, but it was a lot of fun.  Usually, it’s the month of a family beach vacation, multiple birthdays and anniversaries, and back-to-school.   This year, the family forewent a gulf beach trip.  Brian and I stayed in DC, soaking up the last few weeks of summer here and celebrating special occasions both locally and from a distance.  I took advantage of the gorgeous (if hot and a bit humid) weather to walk around the city instead of taking the metro.  We had leisurely breakfasts and enjoyed the bounty of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania farms.


We joined the recreational DC Bocce League, and played a weekly game with friends old and new.  I took on a few special projects, which kept me in the kitchen even more than usual:

I made cookies for a bachelorette party. (This was actually the last week of July.)


I preserved tomatoes.  


We baked bread and ate like Italians.

I baked and decorated 100 V-shaped cookies for a Villanova new student reception.

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During our anniversary weekend, we took a boat out to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, where we wandered through his fabulous gardens and orchards and had lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn – with vegetables from the estate gardens!

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The following week, I made cookies to send to my sister for her first day of college…twice. IMG_4928 IMG_4934

In celebration of my birthday, we hosted a party and drank like Venetians. IMG_4967DSC_0179

We happy-hour-hopped, discovered Vinoteca’s back bar with bocce court, and listened to jazz at Bohemian Caverns.

I used leftover cupcake batter to make a little (6” and 4”) two-tiered cake to have on the actual day…


…and made my very first buttercream rose.

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…which brings us up to the last week of the month….in which I did little more than eat leftover birthday cake and catch up on blogging…

August 28, 2010

Yes, I can.

I can say that I can do a lot of things in the kitchen.  Until a few weeks ago, I could not say that I can.  Now I can.  Because I've canned.  Tomatoes, that is. 

And what an adventure it was!

My maternal grandmother was an avid canner.  She had a large vegetable garden and canned a multitude of things to help sustain her family of seven through the winter.  Even when most were grown and gone, she continued her practice of food preservation, which included tomatoes, green beans, and juice from locally grown grapes, to mention just a few.  Grandma's unfiltered grape juice is by far the best grape juice I have ever tasted.

When I was younger, my mother occasionally lamented the fact that she had never left us kids at my grandparents’ for a couple of weeks to soak up a bit of their extensive knowledge of farming and food preservation, among other things.   I didn’t think much of it.  Canning was something that grandmothers did and was not of much concern to me for the time being.

As I have become more cognizant of my food and where it comes from and made an effort to eat locally and in season, the notion of canning has  reemerged as an area of great interest.  I was particularly struck by a canning article in a Virginia magazine last summer.  Although the process was still an enigma, for the first time I actually considered it something that I might be able to do.   I let the moment pass, convincing myself that it was impractical for me to start investing in and accumulating a pile of canning supplies in our little one-bedroom apartment—especially given that we had no space in which to actually grow any of our own food.  

This summer, however, I was re-inspired by a sale on sauce tomatoes at Garner’s Produce: $12 for a 25-pound box!  I couldn’t pass up such a great deal, and bought a box without thinking about what I might do with them.  It was only once I got this large box of tomatoes home that I began doing my research.  The fact that we have stopped buying fresh tomatoes when they aren’t in season combined with my heightened concern for BPAs in store-bought canned goods fueled my determination to find a way to preserve a supply of tomatoes that would last a couple of pasta-and-pizza-lovers through the long winter.   I once again faced the internal struggle over whether or not to start investing in canning.   I put the decision off another week by deciding to roast and freeze the first 25 pounds. 

Working in two batches of two half-sheet pans each, I washed, cored, and quartered the tomatoes; drizzled them with olive oil (a couple tablespoons per pan) and sprinkled them with salt; then put them in a 400-degree oven.  After about 45 minutes to an hour, I turned the heat down to 250 and roasted them for another six to eight hours, checking them and rotating the pans occasionally.   


Once roasted to my satisfaction, I let most of the tomatoes cool and packed them into quart-size freezer bags. 


The last pan I left in the oven for a few hours more until they resembled sun-dried tomatoes.  We couldn’t resist eating a few immediately, but we managed to freeze most of them. 


The next Saturday, I found myself home from the farmers’ market with another 25-pound box of Garner’s sauce tomatoes.   I spent the weekend researching, and along the way, I ran into the issue of BPAs in traditional canning-jar lids.   Alternatives I found for BPA-free canning were Weck canning jars with glass lids—beautiful and supposedly expensive (I couldn’t find a price list on their website)—and Tattler reusable lids (plastic lids/rubber rings that pair with traditional metal canning bands, are sold in packages of 3-dozen starting at $20.95, and require the separate purchase of jars with metal bands).  I was hoping to keep my initial investment as low as possible, but I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of canning and still risk exposure to hormone-disrupting and potentially carcinogenic BPAs.  After more digging, I found two sources (a blog post and a retail site) claiming that Bormioli Rocco Quattro Stagioni lids are BPA-free!  Leave it to the Italians.  I found that Amazon sells the Quattro Stagioni jars relatively cheaply.   I bought them in the pint and half-pint sizes.

Although my grandmother always used a pressure canner, I decided to start out with the water bath method  because the equipment would be inexpensive.     Thanks to free 2-day shipping from Amazon, I was fully outfitted by Wednesday evening—or so I thought. 

I got started later than I had intended because, frankly, I was a little daunted by the task that lay ahead of me.  Although I had read quite a bit about canning, including step-by-step instructions, the whole process still seemed a great mystery to me.  There was so much information out there that it was difficult to sift through it all.   I finally discovered the National Center for Home Food Preservation, an extremely useful website with a wealth of information, including an in-depth introduction to canning.   I decided on a couple of recipes and, along with a few tips from a canning article in my August issue of La Cucina Italiana, I went to work. 

I quickly discovered that my 11-quart canner was too small for the the seven pint-sized jars it was supposed to hold.  To be fair, the Bormioli Rocco jars were actually 17-ounce capacity, but they didn’t even come close to fitting in the rack that came with the canner.  I eventually found a solution on a canning forum that recommended lining the the bottom of the canner with a folded tea towel in order to elevate the cans.   Even still, I could only comfortably fit four of the 17-ounce jars in the canner at a time, so I ended up having to boil them in three batches, rather than two, which made the process considerably longer (and pushed my bedtime to the wee hours of the morning). 

[Note: the following is not intended to be a “recipe” for canning.  Only used trusted, tested recipes, like the ones found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.]

IMG_4291I began by washing the jars and lids in hot, soapy water.  After that, they had to be sterilized in pots of boiling water (or in the case of the lids, 180-degree water).






The tomatoes had to be washed, briefly boiled, dunked in ice water, peeled, and quartered.


After that, I packed the tomatoes in the sterilized jars with basil, hot water, salt, and a bit of lemon juice – to raise the acidity level.  Using bottled lemon juice made me feel gross because of all the additives, but because the acidity level of the bottled juice is standardized (unlike that of the fresh variety), it was necessary for safety.  Next time I’m going to look into using citric acid instead.

After the jars were filled and fitted with lids, they had to be boiled in a water bath for about 45 minutes, then rested in the hot water for about 10 minutes, and left to cool under a towel for 12 to 24 hours.


Here, the second batch is resting in hot water while I sterilize a third round of jars and break up tomato pieces for the passata.IMG_4344

Rounds 1 and 2 complete: tomatoes packed in water with basil.  It was fun to hear the lids “popping” sealed as I went about the rest of my evening.IMG_4356

Once the tomatoes had simmered for five minutes, I passed them through the food mill to remove the skin and seeds.  I boiled the resulting passata until it was reduced by about half and then packed it into the prepared jars with basil, lemon juice, and salt.

The sauce jars were then boiled in the water bath for half an hour.IMG_4381


Round 2 complete: passata.









IMG_4396 After letting them cool for a day, I packed the sealed jars away in the pantry until winter!









There were a few hiccups along the way, including several boil-overs of my too-small canner, one of which put out the flame, necessitating a restart of the timer on the boiling process.   That being said, I’m very happy with the experience.  I learned quite a lot.   I am proud to be able to say that I can, and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to test and hone my skills.  (There well may be another 25-pound box of tomatoes in my near future!)