Making salsa

Salsa is one of the most satisfying things for gardeners to make, because you can use so many things from your garden: tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, cilantro, peppers, and herbs.  Although you need to follow canning recipes closely in terms of ingredient proportions, you can often use whichever varieties of tomatoes and bell peppers you have on hand.  A mixture of different types of each will produce salsas that are both colourful and flavourful.

Here are a couple of recipes I’ve made recently that have been added to my favourites:

 

 

Fresh tomato sauce made easy

Back in the day, it used to be a bit of a chore to remove the skins and seeds from tomatoes before making sauce (seeds make the sauce bitter; skins make it lumpy).

With a tomato press, you can make tomato sauce much more quickly:

  1. Select and rinse some ripe tomatoes.  Roma-type tomatoes work best, but any kind will do.
  2. Immerse them in boiling water just long enough to loosen their skins, then let them cool.DSCN1311
  3. Put the cool tomatoes in the hopper of the tomato press, and crank the handle (pressing lightly on the tomatoes), until they are all through.
    The sauce will flow out one side, and the seeds and skins out the other.DSCN1313.jpg
  4. Press the seed mixture through a second time to get all of the juice out.
  5. Cook the juice until it reaches your desired consistency.
  6. Use fresh, or, if canning sauce:
    • Add citric acid or lemon juice to each bottle.  For pints, add 1 tbsp. lemon juice or 1/4 tsp. citric acid; for quarts, add 2 tbsp. of lemon juice or 1/2 tsp. of citric acid.
      Follow a recipe if adding herbs or spices.  It is dangerous to experiment with canning recipes.
    • Process the bottles in a conventional water-bath canner for 35 minutes.
    • When using your canned sauce, add some natural sweetener to counter-effect the bitterness of the lemon juice.

Supporting tomatoes

Most tomatoes need some kind of support to keep their fruit off the ground.  Left to their own devices, most tomato plants will sprawl in every direction except up, and produce a lot of fruit–much of which will be spoiled or damaged by pests.

Before you decide on what kind of supports you need, consider what kind of tomatoes you’ve planted or are planning to grow:

  • Determinate (bush) varieties do not exceed a specified height.  They can get by shorter supports, like tomato cages.
  • Indeterminate (vine) varieties continue growing until killed by frost.  They need tall supports.
  • Dwarf plants, especially those that produce cherry or grape tomatoes, may get by with little or minimal support.

Equally important is the size of the tomato that you’re growing.  I one made the mistake of placing a plant that produces 1 – 2lb tomatoes in a conventional tomato cage, then had to tie the cage to a fence when it fell over.  Save the flimsy cages for plants that produce smaller fruits.

Here are a few ways to support tomatoes:

  • Ladder trellises are good for tall, vining tomato plants.  Weave the plant through the rungs as it grows, and prune its side shoots to keep it on an upward trajectory.
  • Conventional tomato cages are good for indeterminate varieties that do not bear too heavy of fruit.  Unpruned, the plants will grow a lot of foliage, which protects the fruit from sunscald, but means it takes longer to mature.  Cages take more space than other supports, and unless you buy or make heavy duty ones, tend to get bent and misshapen with time.
  • If you are growing tomatoes in rows, you can employ the Florida weave technique using stakes and string.
  • Tomato spirals, such as the one photographed above, are ideal for plants that need a lot of support because you can wind the plant around it as it grows, thereby reinforcing it rather than just giving it something to lean on.
  • You can make your own stakes from any sturdy materials you may have, then loosely attach the stem of the plant using foam ties, special plant ties, or old cotton t-shirts or stockings.  Staked plants take less room than caged plants, but may need pruning to keep them growing upward.  Their fruits are more susceptible to sunscald; however, they are easier to locate, and they ripen more quickly.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with what you have on hand–you can build supports out of wire, wood, or metal pieces that you have lying around.  There are plenty of ideas on the internet that you can use to recycle your scraps rather than purchasing ready-made supports.

Sweetening tomato sauce naturally

Many recipes for canned tomato sauce call for two ingredients: tomatoes and lemon juice.  The latter is added to “acidify” the tomatoes; insufficient acidity could possibly (though very rarely) cause botulism.  A side-effect of adding lemon juice is that your sauce may be a tad bitter.  You may be tempted to add sugar to it when you use it, to make it taste more like commercial tomato sauces, which contain sugar.

There is much healthier way to add sweetness to your tomato sauce: zucchini!  Zucchini is full of nutrients and though it doesn’t have a lot of flavour, it does have a mild sweetness that really comes out when you add it (grated and frozen) to your sauce.  It breaks down so easily that the fussiest eaters don’t even notice the secret ingredient.  🙂

Homemade tomato sauce base

(for lasagne, chili, pasta dishes, etc.)

Ingredients:

  • Vegetable oil
  • Garlic cloves, chopped
  • Onions, peeled and diced
  • Homemade canned tomato sauce
  • Frozen, grated zucchini
  • Frozen tomatoes

To prepare:

  • In a saucepan, heat the oil, then add the garlic and onions and cook them until they are translucent.
  • Run the frozen tomatoes under warm water, or place them in a bowl of warm water.  Rub the skins, and they’ll easily peel off.
  • Add frozen zucchini.
  • Cook with the lid on until the tomatoes and zucchini have thawed and the sauce is hot, then add the other ingredients needed to complete your dish.

What’s the secret ingredient in your tomato sauce?

 

Stages of plant growth

One of the difficulties that new gardeners may face is distinguishing vegetable plants from weeds.  When your seedlings are small, most of them look no different than weeds.  So, how do you know what to pull and what to let grow?

The first set of leaves (primary leaves) on many plants are very similar.  Consider the tomato and pepper seedlings below.  When they first sprouted, they each produced two primary leaves, which were very similar.

leaves.jpg
Tomato (left) and pepper (right)

The primary leaves of both plants are similar shapes and sizes.  In fact, the primary leaves of many seedlings look just like this, only bigger or smaller.  Baby carrots, for example, though much smaller, are notorious for resembling grass.  So the first rule of thumb is:

If in doubt, wait for the secondary leaves to grow before you pull.

Here is a better view of the secondary leaves of each plant.

20170418_211235.jpg
Tomato (left) and pepper (right)

Here you can see that the secondary leaves are quite different.

We’re introducing a new series which will present visual histories, if you will, of many common vegetable plants as they grow so that you know what to expect during each stage.  We’ll address a few other hints that you can use to distinguish vegetable plants from weeds, such as smell (useful for herbs, tomatoes, and other plants with strong odours), texture, and more.  For the tomato and pepper plants pictured above, since they were started indoors in potting soil, you shouldn’t need to worry about weeds, but they are possible.  On rare occasions, potting soil will harbour seeds that grow into weeds or even vegetable plants.  I call these bonus plants rogue vegetables.  You may find that your garden produces rogue tomatoes from the previous year’s rotten tomatoes.  🙂

More to come in future posts.

Growing vegetables in hot, dry conditions

Following are some tips on how to encourage a productive garden during a hot, dry summer:

  • Choose varieties that mature quickly and produce smaller fruit.
  • Lay your garden out so that plants that need similar amounts of water are grouped together.  Raised beds retain more water than open beds.
  • Plant in groupings or hexagonal offset patterns rather than rows so that the leaves can provide shade.  Space plants 1.5 to 2 times further apart than usually recommended to provide plants with access to a larger area from which to draw moisture.
  • Sow tall plants, such as corn and tomatoes, on the south side of heat-intolerant plants such as leafy greens, to provide them with shade and lower the temperature.
  • Add large amounts of organic compost to the soil; this helps trap moisture and encourages deep roots.
  • Apply a thick layer of mulch to the soil to prevent moisture loss and keep the soil cooler.  This will also help prevent the growth of weeds, which compete with your plants for water.  You can use natural materials such as grass clippings, straw, dried leaves, pine needles, or shredded bark.
  • Water plants heavily when they are very young, and producing blossoms or fruit.  During other times, they can do with less water. Use drip hoses, which direct water into the soil, rather than spraying the plants from overhead where it is wasted on the leaves.  Water in late evening and early morning.
  • You can place shade cloth over the south sides of eggplant, pepper, and tomato plants.  This will reduce the temperature by 5-15 degrees and may prevent sunscald.  Plants like peppers and eggplants may produce less during a drought, but they will still produce.

Avoid planting these vegetables

Vegetables like peas, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.), and leafy greens like cold weather, so they won’t do well in the heat of summer.  You can try planting them in the early spring or late fall, when the heat is less extreme.

Do try these drought-tolerant vegetables

  • Amaranth
  • Artichokes – Jerusalem and globe
  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Chard
  • Chickpeas (I made the mistake of overwatering these and they started to germinate in the shell!)
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cowpeas
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Melons
  • Mustard greens
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Oregano
  • Peppers
  • Rhubarb
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Savory
  • Squash
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon, especially the sugar baby variety

Plant of the week: Tomatoes

Tomatoes originated in South and Central America, where they were likely small and yellow–ancient versions of today’s cherry tomatoes.  After they were brought to Europe, they were grown as ornamentals before finally being adopted as a food staple.

Tomatoes are fruits, by definition, though they have a much lower sugar content than other fruits.  They are excellent producers, as many varieties grow quite tall and can produce a few pounds of fruit per plant.  The German pink tomato variety, for example, often produces tomatoes that weigh 1-2lb each!

German pink tomato

Ideal growing conditions

Tomatoes like sun, and they prefer a rich soil.

Start them indoors six to eight weeks before the final frost.  When you transplant them outside, plant them deep into the soil, burying most or all of the stem.  The stem will develop roots that will help stabilize the plant.  Pinch off the last row of leaves, either at transplant time (if there are many leaves) or later, as more branches are added.  The plant will then concentrate its effort in producing fruit, and it will not grow too densely at the base where it is most liable to break.

Most tomatoes, aside from dwarf varieties, require some sort of support, whether it be stakes, cages, or other structures.

Preserving tomatoes

To freeze tomatoes, core them, then throw them in freezer bags.  To remove the skin later, simply run the frozen tomato under hot water, and it will peel off.

Tomatoes can be canned as is, as a sauce, or in many variety of salsas and chutneys.

If you are left with a multitude of green tomatoes at the end of the season, try green tomato mincemeat, salsa verde, or chow chow.  You can layer green tomatoes in newspaper and keep them in a cold, dark place, and many of them will ripen.

If you have a food dehydrator, you can make your own “sun-dried” tomatoes.

Types

There are two types of tomato plants:

  • Determinate (bush) tomatoes grow to a set height, usually around four feet.  As soon as the top bud starts to produce a fruit, the plant stops growing.  All fruits ripen over the same interval of a couple of weeks, then the plant dies.  Determinate plants are ideal if you want to cook batches of sauce or other dishes in which you must have a lot of tomatoes ready at one time.
  • Indeterminate (vine) tomatoes grow all summer, to heights from six feet and onward.  Blossoms and fruits are produced all summer long until the frost kills the plant.

The type of tomato will vary as well, from densely fleshed varieties suitable for sauce (such as roma tomatoes) to juicier types suitable for eating raw and fresh (such as beefsteak tomatoes).

Tomatoes also come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colours.

Friends

  • Basil
  • Beans
  • Chives
  • Cucumbers
  • Garlic
  • Lettuce
  • Onion
  • Parsley

Foes

  • Black acorn trees
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Corn
  • Dill
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Cooked tomatoes are better for you than raw ones.  Cooking release more of their beneficial chemicals.
  • During the annual La Tomatina festival in Bunol, Spain, participants throw an estimated 150,000 tomatoes at each other over the course of one week.