It’s that time of year again. As summer wanes, farmers’ markets are bursting with end-of-the-season produce and so, too, may be your own garden. If you’re like me, you have more tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers than you can consume, and your neighbors and coworkers have begun to refuse your "gifts." So it seems we have a couple of options. One is to preserve the foods—through age-old methods of canning, salting, drying, and the like—and the other is to prepare recipes and either freeze or give them away. Friends, it seems, will readily accept a prepared food where they may reject the raw product.
Probably the simplest way to get longevity out of your summer’s produce is to freeze it. While this does not entirely preserve the vegetable’s integrity, it sure is nice to pull tomatoes from your freezer in January that you picked in August or September. At the end of the growing season each year I peel, de-seed, and freeze a few dozen tomatoes for use in recipes throughout the winter. I also make a batch of sauce and freeze it in meal-size portions. Another delicious tomato recipe—and one that few people do these days—is homemade ketchup. It’s simple to make and mostly requires just a bit of time. It keeps for long periods in the fridge; much longer if heated in sterilized canning jars. Most people will find this a unique gift, and once you taste a homemade version you’ll realize how it became America’s favorite condiment.
One of the oldest and simplest ways to enjoy tomatoes and peppers year-round is to dry them. While drying tomatoes in the sun isn’t exactly an option in this part of the world, drying them in your oven is. And a string of drying peppers in your kitchen or on your porch produces not only food to eat but a decorative ornament as well. Packed in oil or an airtight container, dried tomatoes will last for months; dried chiles can be crushed or ground and kept in airtight jars for much longer periods.
Some years ago I inherited a small cookbook that was handwritten by my grandmother. The best I can figure, it was written during the first half of the last century. There are only a few dozen recipes and it seems like it was written mostly for herself, maybe to remember her recipes or to pass them on to my mother. She was of German-American ancestry so there are a lot of recipes for cookies and other baked goods, but there are others, too. The one that caught my eye initially is her simple recipe for hot pepper relish. Because of its high concentration of sugar and vinegar it will keep for months in the fridge, and its sweet spicy flavor lends itself to beef, chicken, or seafood.
Whichever method you use, preserving homegrown food is satisfying because you know you did it all yourself. But the biggest benefit, I believe, comes from eating a vegetable on a cold winter’s day in Buffalo and remembering what it felt like to have the sun on your back as you picked it or purchased it at the market months prior.
MYRA’S OLD FASHIONED HOT PEPPER RELISH
Yield: 3 quarts
1 pound Spanish onions
1½ pound ripe tomatoes
4 pounds bell peppers
8 jalapeño peppers
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups sugar
3 cups cider vinegar
1½ tablespoons whole mustard seed
1 tablespoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon whole cloves
Grind the onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeños, and garlic in an old-fashioned hand-crank meat grinder. (If you don’t have one, an electric food processor will do a satisfactory job but it won’t be quite the same.) Place the ground vegetables into a heavy saucepot. Add the salt, sugar, vinegar, mustard seed, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves to the vegetable mixture and mix well. Bring the relish to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, pour into a glass or steel bowl, and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Place a colander in a clean bowl and pour the relish into the colander. Strain for 5 minutes; save the juice for drizzling over chicken or fish. Spoon the relish into glass jars and refrigerate. It will keep this way for 2–3 weeks, and if sealed using proper canning procedures it will last throughout the winter.
SPICY AND SMOKY TOMATO KETCHUP
Yield: 6 cups
5 pounds ripe tomatoes
1 small onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1½ cups white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Remove the cores of the tomatoes and make a small X-shaped incision on the opposite ends. Drop the tomatoes in the water a few at a time and blanch them for about 45 seconds to loosen their skins. Transfer the tomatoes to a bowl of iced water. Peel away their skins, cut them in half, squeeze out their seeds, and dice them. Transfer to a small pot with the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for about an hour or until the mixture becomes quite thick. Transfer to a blender and process until smooth.
You can access more of Chef George's recipes by visiting our database. A few of his preservation recipes include: Pickled Vegetables that don't require canning, Kim chi, and spicy Italian Giardiniera.
Joe George is a longtime professional chef who is dedicated to fresh and local food.