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August, 2012

  1. How to Can Tomatoes Without a Pressure Canner

    August 24, 2012 by 25hoursadaymom

    Perhaps you’ve gone all self-sufficient and put in a garden. Since growing tomatoes is fairly idiot-proof, perhaps you now have tomatoes out the wazoo. You reflect back to your grandmother’s basement and recall shelves filled with home-canned tomatoes in Mason jars. Being a member of the iPod and www. generation, however, you haven’t a bloomin’ clue how one achieves shelves filled with home-canned tomatoes. Grandma also may have had a pressure-canner and you’re pretty sure you’d be out of your game operating one of those, if you even had one to begin with. (This isn’t true of course; you can easily learn to use a pressure canner, but I’m going to let you off the hook for tomatoes, because it isn’t necessary.) Home-canning tomatoes is easy, albeit time-consuming. If you want to preserve all your beautiful tomatoes, but you don’t want to mess with the pressure canner, here’s how to do it:

    1. Pick a bunch of your tomatoes. They do not have to be totally flawless, but don’t use any that are actually rotting. If they have cracks at the top or a little place where a bug sampled, no biggie; you can just cut that part off.

    2. Prepare the area where you want to can. You will need: Quart-sized Mason Jars, Lids that fit those jars, a wide-mouth funnel, at least one large stockpot, another pot for boiling the jars, slotted spoon, non-slotted spoon, tongs for lifting the lids, potholders, towels, knives, salt, pepper and several free hours. An apron is handy, too.

    3. Clean and/or sterilize jars and lids; clean the tomatoes and line them up near your stove.

    4. Bring one or two stockpots of water to a boil. This is to split the skin of the tomatoes. I use a clean sink to put the tomatoes in as they split.

    5. Once the water is boiling, use a slotted spoon to lower 3-5 tomatoes into each boiling pot of water. Within a minute or two, the skin of the tomato will split. Remove the split tomato to the sink or a large bin. They should look like this:


    6. Once all the tomato skins have been split, I empty my stockpots, clean them and begin chopping the tomatoes. I peel off the skin and cut away the core and any bad spots. I fill the now-clean stockpot with my chopped tomatoes. Occasionally, I sweep the juice and pulp off the cutting board and throw that into the pot as well. (I usually use a couple of large bowls in addition to the stockpot, because I am processing a lot at once.) I have heard that you can skip this step and just puree the tomatoes, but I aim for chopped tomatoes, not crushed.

    7. I bring my full stockpot of tomatoes to a boil on the stove. Simultaneously, I bring some water to boil in a skillet and boil 3 jars and their lids. The lids, jars and tomatoes all need to be boiling hot in order to kill bacteria and create the vacuum seal. This is what we’re doing instead of pressure-canning all the jars, so make sure you get everything very hot! My set-up at this point looks like this:

    8. Once everything is hot and boiling, I use a pot-holder to quickly remove a jar, set it on the counter next to my tomato pot, fit it with the wide-mouthed funnel, and add the tomatoes with a large spoon. This is messy as heck and I’ve never figured out how to do this without dripping and splashing juice all over kingdom come. I keep towels on the counter and the floor, but just know that even an OCD neat-freak cannot figure out how to do this without making a colossal mess, so you may not be able to, either.

    9. Fill the jar to within an inch of the top. Put in a half teaspoon of salt and pepper, if that’s your thing, then quickly use tongs to retrieve a lid from the boiling skillet. Use a towel to screw down the lid without burning yourself; move the jar to another counter.

    10. As the counter fills with tomato jars, you should hear the “PLINK!” as the lids vacuum seal from their own heat. You can also observe the lid; there is a small “button” in the center of the lid. Once the lid seals, this “button” sucks inward. If it still has give to it, it is not sealed.  My jars usually seal within probably five minutes of placing the lid on them.

    Now – here is my General Disclaimer: I learned to can tomatoes this way from my mother-in-law, who has canned tomatoes for 60-some years. Rarely, the seal fails and the tomatoes rot. I have read in recent years that the Ball-Mason company no longer considers this a valid method of canning, because you cannot be certain the temperature was high enough for long enough to kill bacteria. So, if you are sub-mental and cannot tell that a brown jar of tomatoes has gone south and should not be eaten, perhaps this is not a good method for you. If you contract Botulism, don’t come cryin’ to me.

    When I have canned tomatoes, I leave them on the counter overnight. In the morning, I take off the outer rings and attempt to pry off the lid with my fingers. If it is vacuum-sealed, this will not work. If the lid comes off, obviously, it failed to seal. I also usually leave the jars on my counter for a week or so, because if any did not seal, it will be apparent within a few days and I’d rather discover that on the kitchen counter than after it’s in my pantry. This has happened to me, so it is possible that they will not seal using this method. You must make sure the jars, lids and tomatoes have all boiled very hot for at least a few minutes. Common sense also dictates that you observe them for a little while to be sure they do not look like they are going bad.

    At the end of this process, you will also have a sink full of skins, cores and other refuse. Compost! If you compost, this is a perfect addition. Then next year, your garden will be nourished by this year’s garden. Isn’t that poetic?

    So, the question I’ve been asked before: Is this worth it? I mean, come on! I can go to Costco today and by dozens of canned tomatoes without batting an eye! Why do this?

    1. These tomatoes are organically raised in my very own backyard. No fuel was burned shipping them all over the country (or countries) to get them to me. They have not been sprayed with pesticides, fungicides or ripening sprays.

    2. Some of my jars have been reused for 40 years, as they were my mother-in-law’s. This is the most environmentally-friendly way to preserve food. It is superior to recycling the Costco can, and definitely superior to throwing a can in a landfill.

    3. My children witness the connection between the food they eat and where it comes from.

    4. This is my MAIN reason: It is the epitome of self-sufficiency. Raising food yourself, preserving it yourself and then using it to cook your own meals is very fulfilling. It is comforting to know you’re not a sitting duck who would be lost without your Costco card and American Express.

    I’m well aware that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes I do wonder why I bother. But in the end, I simply cannot bear to watch a bounty of tomatoes sitting to rot, knowing I have the tools and ability to preserve them for later. I will use them in my Chili recipe and my Sloppy Joe recipe throughout the winter.  Each time I pull a jar out in January, it makes me smile that I have that there, a loving little symbol of ingenuity.



  2. Homeschooling: Fantasy vs. Reality

    August 7, 2012 by 25hoursadaymom

    I have the good fortune of having a “bonus” room in my house, which I currently use for our homeschooling “schoolroom.” (Though you need to lose any idea that we pledge the flag at the back of the room and line up to use the water fountain.) This time of year, I am getting my new curriculum for the upcoming year and organizing it and cleaning up the schoolroom.  In my fantasy, it looks pretty much like this:

    Homeschool Room Fantasy Homeschool Room FantasyHomeschool Room Fantasy

    It does look like that today, but I bloody well know how reality goes. Want to see what it looked like before I started cleaning and organizing it for this fall?

    Homeschool Reality Homeschool RealityHomeschool Reality

    I’d like to say I staged some of the messy room photos, but I didn’t; it really was just like that when I took the pictures. The reality of homeschooling is that rooms don’t stay terribly neat when there are kids using them several hours a day. (Several hours a day is another point I’m going to get to in a minute.)

    For practical advice, I’ll tell you a little bit about what makes the difference in these pictures. What did I do to make the messy room turn into the fantasy room?

    1. I gave away or sold some of the books and materials that were sitting unused and cluttering up the place.

    2. I set up new binders for the coming year. I placed any summer work they’ve done in the binders.

    3. I put all the new curriculum for this year into their desk drawers or on the bookcases.

    4. I put away anything that was sitting out in the middle of nowhere, like the vacuum cleaner and a dress in a bag. I folded up the craft table and put away all the crafters stuff.  I threw away some old projects, like a large poster board display of Ancient Rome. I had my husband chuck the broken drawer that goes to the crappy toy cabinet. (I would not be sad to burn the whole cabinet, but I’m settling for throwing away the one broken drawer for the time being.)

    5. I took down all the piles of stuff sitting on top of the bookcases and cabinets. I now only have NOEO science boxes on top of one cabinet.

    6. I vacuumed and dusted. In a perfect world, I would buy and hang curtains that would go on the door at the far end. Currently there is a white sheet hanging on them, by thumbtacks. Redneck design ideas for the do-it-yourselfer. I hung the sheet because there are two hamster cages sitting there and I did not want them to fry from the afternoon sun. So I rigged it up. I recognize this is not going to make it into Better Homes and Garden magazine.

    Okay. So – the room you homeschool in can look better, but it’s probably not going to look spotless all the time. If you require that, homeschooling is not your friend. While I’m on a roll, let me just dispatch a few more homeschooling rumors you might have heard. Newbie homeschoolers almost always think these are true. I did.

    1. Homeschooling is so fast and easy, you’ll be done in two hours a day.

    This is a complete myth, except for perhaps Kindergarten and First Grade with one child. Or perhaps if you have one teenaged homeschooler who works well independently. Or if your main aspirations are that your girls learn to sew and make a good meal, which I hope is not the case, but I’ve heard of it, so I’m allowing for the possibility.

    If you have high standards on what you want your kids to learn and you plan to do it through active teaching (i.e., not unschooling), expect to spend several hours a day working directly with your kids. Part of this will depend how well your children work independently, but even if they do, you can’t just hand them a DVD and consider your part done.

    2. The children will be geniuses, simply because they are homeschooled. (AKA: All homeschooled kids are better off than any schooled kid, by virtue of merely being homeschooled.) 

    This is not true, either, and it partly goes with the “work two hours” myth. There are plenty of homeschooled children who are stone cold average and *gasp* some who are below average. Sometimes, there are organic reasons why the children struggle.  Sometimes, the reason is the parents have not taught them. Some parents don’t teach them on purpose, feeling it is better for the children to learn “naturally.” Whatev. I don’t concur. High standards are one reason I homeschool in the first place. If I can’t be bothered, they are better off in school.

    I do think that higher-IQ parents are more likely to homeschool than lower-IQ parents and they are more likely to have bright children genetically. So, that is one factor that explains the brainy homeschooler image. Also, someone who is sacrificing a lot to teach the kids at home usually values academic excellence. This also explains the preponderance of bright homeschooled children. BUT – they are not going to be super-bright simply because they are learning at home instead of school. Sorry. You don’t get something from nothing.

    3. Homeschooled children are always good friends with their siblings.

    Okay, this is not a total myth. I do think being home together, rather than separated in different school classes all day gives kids more opportunity to be close to their siblings. BUT – just like the bright kids thing, this is not an automatically guaranteed outcome. Some children just clash with their siblings. Some parents don’t manage the children well and it surfaces in sibling tension. The bottom line is, it will be work just like any other positive outcome you hope to have.

    So there you go. Three fantasies many new homeschoolers think are true that veteran homeschoolers think are laughable. Four, if you count the fantasy schoolroom. Don’t get me wrong – I love homeschooling and I think it’s a great way of life. But go in with your eyes open. Sooner or later, reality comes to roost.



  3. Running Do-Over

    August 3, 2012 by 25hoursadaymom

    This is an update since my whiny running post, when I thought I would die running ten steps in the heat. I’ve continued running, had my best run yet on Wednesday, (4 miles) and am signing up for a 5K today. I altered a bunch of things, so I want to outline them.

    First, I learned more about eating high protein, lower carb first thing in the morning. I have always been a serious skeptic of all things low-carb, but since something was apparently not working for me in my current diet, I gave that skeptical view more consideration. I truly thought there was not a chance I could eat several hundred calories for breakfast and not watch my weight go up, up, up. Especially because we eat for real dinners, later than you’ve ever heard of unless you hail from Europe.  But I had read a bunch of gobbledegook about the glycemic index and spiking blood sugar and the need for “slow burn” and protein repairing muscles and other jargon and I figured I had nothing to lose; bring on the eggs.

    Turns out eggs (sometimes bacon) early in the morning does appear to produce long-burning energy. At least, in my study of one, I found that since eating my high-protein breakfasts, I have not had another pooped-out, dying-for-a-break run like the one I posted about last.  Not only am I not gaining weight, I am down to my driver’s license weight again, which is pretty much the Holy Grail for me. I’m paying a lot of attention to glycemic index on the whole and my weight is not doing that crazy up-two-pounds, down-one, back-up-three insanity of a couple months ago.

    Second, I’ve been dabbling with running barefoot. Most of my runs have included a portion where I take off my shoes and run around the baseball fields, through the grass and the sand at home plate. I’m playing Kenya runner, I guess. My thoughts on running barefoot is that it is incredibly better than running shod. There’s a technique to it; you don’t just kick off your shoes and beat your heels on the concrete. There’s a type of stride that goes with it, a very joint-friendly, natural gait that is energizing and tactile, especially in the grass and/or sand.

    A lot of people now are running in minimalist shoes or five-fingered shoes to get barefoot-ish runs without the “stepping on sharp stuff” fear.  The jury is out for me on those. I did order a pair of Merrill barefoots from Zappos, but they are not five-fingers and, while I expect I will just plain like them as shoes, I have no idea if they will give me enough of what I love about barefoot running if I do try to wear them for that. We’ll see. For the 5K, I’m planning to run with my regular shoes and socks.

    Third, my dear brother told me about the phone app Map My Run.  This is perfect. Exactly what I needed. There is a huge psychological benefit in getting stats on your run.  Not having any idea if I was making it a mile or two or four or what and with what pacing was very discouraging. The only issue with this right now is that I need an armband for my phone; carrying it in my hand is awkward.

    So, the only thing I’m looking for right now is more variation on what I could eat for breakfast that is high protein and low carb besides eggs. (Also not dairy; I cannot eat dairy.) I did just discover Quinoa and, while I do love my Quinoa with Black Beans, that still is (maybe?) not as much protein as a few eggs/egg whites are. I don’t want to resort to protein shakes or manufactured stuff; I’m looking for straight-up food that is easy to prepare at 7:00 am. I’m open to suggestions.