My Mother was never much of a canner, from where I got the gene that urges me to put things by we have to go back another generation. When I started my first garden she stopped by one day mid-summer to see it. “Yup,” she nodded approvingly, “your tomatoes are on track. Poopsie always said they ought to be in full production the first week of August.” When she was a kid my Grandpa would load all the kids in the car on that first weekend in August and drop them off at the Ox Roast in town, the local festival that still takes place today, and then head back to the farmhouse to put up the garden’s bounty. I don’t know what else he canned, I’m certain there were things other than tomatoes, but I don’t remember specifics. My Mother was among the youngest of twelve children and was twenty-seven by the time I was born so by the time I was old enough to care much about things like gardening and canning and cooking Poopsie was gone.
The first thing I ever put up was Strawberry jam. Michigan strawberries are our state’s best kept secret. They’re nothing at all like the strawberries you find on grocers’ shelves; the berries that come out of California are tasteless in comparison.
Michigan strawberries are quintessential summer–sweet and juicy and popping with fresh, fruity flavor. It has always annoyed me that strawberry jam recipes have the fruit swimming in sugar. Michigan strawberries don’t need sugar, and neither do humans. The first couple years I didn’t know enough about canning to go around tweaking recipes–botulism kills–but eventually, I learned enough to feel comfortable making changes and have since been slowly reducing the amount of sugar I add. This year I tried a small batch of a no-sugar added version for the fridge, and it is delicious.
Sugar serves three purposes in canning recipes. One, is to preserve the color of the fruit. Another, is to allow for quicker gel when making things like jellies and jams–the sugar interacts with the pectin to make the mixture set. And the third, is to bind the water molecules in the fruit mixture, making them unavailable to support microbial growth. If you can live with a sacrifice of the first–a jam that looks a bit darker–the second and third can be accomplished with patience. Simmering the fruit over low heat–uncovered, stirring frequently to prevent it from burning, until it is reduced by a little over half–both removes the water and brings the natural sugars and pectin in the fruit to the right balanced ratio to achieve gel. Using a pH meter to ensure the jam is sufficiently acidic, likewise, helps ensure botulism stays at bay. Just don’t tell the sugar industry I told you.
Not Your Grandma’s Bacon Sammich
One of the perks of living on a pig farm is that we very rarely have a bacon shortage. One of the perks of never having a shortage of bacon is that we get to have some fun experimenting with bacon recipes. These two bacon sandwiches–one with caramelized onion and asparagus, the other with balsamic tomatoes–have become simple favorites this summer. I’d have snapped a better picture, but they don’t last long.
1 lb Thick Cut Bacon
1/2 lb Asparagus, rinsed and woody ends removed
1 Cups Finely Chopped Vidalia Onion
Ground Black Pepper
12 oz Finely Chopped Tomato
2 Sourdough Baguettes
2 oz Sharp White Cheddar, finely shredded
In a medium skillet, cook bacon to your liking. Remove from pan, leaving grease and set aside.
Add asparagus to skillet and cook, over medium heat, until tender, turning frequently. Remove from skillet, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Allow to cool.
Meanwhile, add onions to the skillet, sprinkle with garlic and caramelize, stirring occasionally.
While the onions cook, chop the asparagus into 1/2 inch pieces. Add back to the skillet with the onions for the last few minutes of cooking, stirring all together well. Set mixture aside.
Deglaze skillet with a splash of balsamic vinegar, add tomatoes and sauté over med-low heat until soft and slightly browned.
While tomatoes are cooking cut baguettes lengthwise, spread with mayo and put under the broiler.
When baguettes are slightly golden brown remove from broiler. Top with bacon and sprinkle with grated cheddar cheese and put back under the broiler to finish browning and to melt the cheese.
Remove from oven, top one baguette with asparagus mixture and the other with the tomato mixture. Cut into finger sandwich-sized portions.
I consider farm cats a necessary evil. I am a dog person. I don’t dislike cats, but I don’t like them either. That said, I’ve yet to find better pest control, so we keep them around–even the ones who seem to think they’re destined to be pampered pets. One of our tomcats, an older brother to the one pictured here, has been missing for almost a week. The thing about farm cats for pest control is that you need tomcats in order to keep the workforce fresh, but the thing about tomcats is that they roam. This particular tomcat is at the age–his first full summer as an adult–where they roam most, and stay away longest. Only time will tell if he’ll come back, or if his adventures got too adventurous.
So much of running a small farm flies in the face of conventional wisdom–like farm cats that aren’t all spayed and neutered as kittens, because they need to be intact to keep the workforce stable. I’m often pleasantly surprised how easily our farm visitors who come from city and suburban backgrounds quickly understand and accept that the reality of a farm is not always the ideals our minds are often fed. Consumers should get more credit for that. It is not always such a tiny thing to reconcile.