Thursday, September 15, 2011

Canning My Way Into Food Nirvana

One of my friends is a farmer (you can check out her farm stand here).  Due to an unseasonably cold summer in Lompoc, her tomatoes didn't come in until now...and they came in all at once.  When she showed up in SF on Tuesday, the bed of her pickup was filled with tomatoes, plus smaller (though certainly not negligible) amounts of pears, kale, apples, eggs, dahlias, quinces, beef, peaches, and peppers.  When she opened the camper shell, a delicious, sweet perfume of pears and tomatoes (some of which had started to split) wafted out.  What did this mean?  Canning, of course.

Wednesday and part of Thursday were dedicated to this task.  Another friend was nice enough to donate her apartment/kitchen in The Mission, which ended up covered in tomato juice.  We estimated that we processed about fifty pounds of tomatoes, which came out to just under fifty jars of quarts, pints, and half-pints of tomatoes and tomato-japaleño jam, all-told.  This was not, by the way, all of the tomatoes.  There were three or four boxes remaining, which we split amongst ourselves.  My friend also took one box down to Tartine Bakery, in appreciation of their ridiculously, insanely delicious desserts, sandwiches, and bread.  Oh, the bread.  I'm working my way through a round of walnut bread right now.  Blistered in all the right ways, it has wide striations of flour on either side of the split ridge of crust on top.  The loaf's so heavy, it feels like I could use it as a blunt bludgeoning object, and you have to really muscle a serrated blade to get through the crust.  When you do finally cut into it, a tangy, yeast-enhanced smell--like the way bread should smell--almost bursts forth.  The soft walnut pieces studding the interior crackle a bit in the toaster oven.  That deep, almost syrupy taste you get with a perfectly browned crust.  A nice, thick slice toasted and topped with cream cheese is pretty close to nirvana.  It would fulfill the Vietnamese idea of năm giác quan, which means that it appeals to all five senses.  And I won't get started on Tartine's chocolate pudding, lemon tarts, croissants, or coconut cake.  This is one of those places that's absolutely worth the money.  To be honest, when I first heard of Tartine, I was skeptical--there was no way it was worth the hype or the ridiculously long lines.  But it was.  It so, so was.  Go immediately.  Buy bread.  Bathe in pudding.  No judgments.

Our process started with cutting the tomatoes and prepping them for a quick blanching, to loosen the skins.  Then, we peeled off the skins and cut or pulled the tomatoes into large chunks and cooked them down to a nice pulp with some lemon juice for acidity.  Once the jars were sterilized and the water hot, we jarred them and processed them in boiling water (I'm being vague on purpose).  Jars were removed and cooled, and we checked their seals.  Rinse, then repeat with the next round.  Jarring/canning requires some amount of knowledge (yay, botulism!) and special tools.  Make sure you have a buddy with you, maybe to just shout directions at you from a recipe as you wrangle jar lifters, sterilize lids, and pour near-boiling fruit goop from one thing into another.  It goes without saying that I required close supervision.  Fire, boiling water, and knives were involved, after all.

We were working with a variety of heirloom tomatoes, including yellow pears (they're tiny and went whole into a jam concoction with sugar, lemon juice, jalapeños, and basil), green zebras, purple cherokees, amaras, pineapples, and brandywines. 

There's something very satisfying about taking a whole product--especially one that's close to being unusable--and turning it into a long-lasting something else.  For instance, making an iPod case out of a (clean and not ratty) sock with a hole in it, which is pretty much my only DIY skill and isn't going to get me any attention on Etsy just yet.  Or, in this case, taking on-the-cusp-of-composting tomatoes, beautiful shouldn't-be-wasted heirlooms, and sealing them up for use in soups, pasta sauces, and so on, for a year (or more) to come.  The tomatoes were gorgeous before we cut them up, and they continued to be as we processed them.  

We took a break to re-fuel at Tartine and Bi-Rite Market (we did Bi-Rite Creamery on Tuesday night: Basil and Crème Fraîche double scoop).  Bi-Rite is a bit amazing.  Apart from its absolute ridiculousness--I once saw $10 blackberries there, I am not joking--the market has an impressive selection of food-porn-worthy goods.  Frozen rendered duck fat.  Dry spaghetti with that perfect rough texture in violet tissue paper.  At least twenty varieties of gourmet chocolate bars wrapped in beautiful papers, single-origin, organic, hand crafted, nibbed, or fair trade.  A dried bean gallery to die for.  For any foodie, further nirvana awaits.  We cleared out the last copies of the first issue of Lucky Peach, which has a delicious 3-part haiku recipe for miso corn and a conversation among David Chang, Anthony Bourdain (my current obsession is "No Reservations"), and Wylie Dufresne on authenticity.  Did I mention the magazine is devoted almost entirely to ramen?  

As the experts talked shop with the butchers/meat cutters on types of cuts--cowboy steak, a novel London broil, etc.--I learned a few things about beef.  Of course, if you've read Michael Pollan's The Ominvore's Dilemma (or remain in limbo, never quite finishing it...I'm not describing myself), you know that corn is the devil.  I think that's what he was getting at; it might be a bit more complicated.  100% pasture raised means that the cows are eating grass before they go off to a feed lot or are otherwise finished.  "Grass finished" means that just before the steers are killed, they're still eating grass (no hay).  "Grain finished" means that they get some kind of grain, which is occasionally specified.  When a steer is grain or hay finished, it tends to have a better marble on it, which means more delicious fat.  When that finishing grain is corn, that can be a problem for steer's health, as well as yours.  You can read Mr. Pollan's book for more on that.  Something good to know: Santa Barbara County has outlawed feed lots.  Those are the tiny, poop-filled enclosures where steers are contained to fatten them up prior to slaughtering.  So, if you can source your beef from SB, you're probably in better shape, and the bovine specimen you're eating was in better shape before reaching your table. 

After our break, we finished up most of the jarring (apart from the yellow pear tomato and jalapeño jam, which was...a bit fraught), ending around 9pm.  After we chowed down on some Vietnamese noodles, we called it a night and did the final bits on Thursday.  Which brings us to our final product.  A summer's bounty for a winter of lycopene.  


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