Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Preserving Tomatoes: Salsa, Crushed, and Pureed

I feel like it's customary to start out a post about a large preserving project with something like: "I'm crazy," "OMG, what was I thinking?" or something similar. And I must admit, after processing 40 pounds of tomatoes, I was definitely sick of the endeavor. But it wasn't painful, (too) tedious, or otherwise traumatizing, because this year I used a great shortcutting tool. 

The ears of any home canner who has processed a large quantity tomatoes before are surely perked. Peeling tomatoes is one of my least favorite canning activities (peeling peaches is second), and I much prefer freezing tomatoes to canning them, since you can skip the peeling step. 

But with my new KitchenAid food grinder attachment, preparing tomatoes is so much easier. I processed 20 pounds in about 45 minutes and listened to a podcast while doing so. It's simple, mindless work that saves you hours. 


Now, before you go order one yourself, know that it produces a thin, smooth sauce and that might not be what you're after. If you want whole tomatoes or chunky sauce, you're going to have to work on your tomatoes the old fashioned way

But for those looking for a seedless, skinless, smooth sauce this attachment is the way to go. It simply attaches to the PTO of your mixer and pushes tomato quarters through a sieve, in the process separating the seeds, skins, and cores from the flesh. It's like a glorified hands-free food mill. 


I also canned some tomatoes whole in water, so I have the option of adding chunks of tomatoes to a dish down the road. But most of my tomato usage is for sauce and soups, so I'm fine with a smooth puree. I ended up with 25 pints of tomato sauce and 2 quarts and 5 pints of whole tomatoes in water. 

I made a batch of my favorite canned salsa, which yielded 15 pints, and I used yet another shortcut: a food processor. It made chopping onions and peppers a snap. I was a little skeptical, but it really works, as long as you pulse your food processor. Any extended processing is going to turn your vegetables into mush. 

I'm nearing the end of my canning agenda for 2016—aside for some applesauce for the freezer and maybe some pressure canned beets, I'm ready to pack in the canner. The shelves are groaning with cases of jars and the freezer is full of frozen fruit. Many years I feel regret that I didn't manage to do more canning, but not this one. 


Monday, September 19, 2016

Harvest Dinner at Maine Huts & Trails

Fall is my camping season, the time of year when boating season is ending/winding down and there's some time before the dreaded s-word flies. I haven't done much (any?) backpacking in Maine—my camping adventures have lately become more of the car camping and day hiking variety. 

But I've found the perfect compromise between experiencing secluded wilderness spots and the comfort of staying at a campground: the Maine Huts & Trails system. I spent the weekend mountain biking in Western Maine, relaxing in a beautiful lodge, admiring vistas of the Bigelow Preserve, and stuffing myself with a gourmet meal complete with wine pairings. 

Maine Huts & Trails is a system of 4 eco-huts connected by over 80 miles of multiuse trails. That means you can hike, bike, snowshoe, or ski into the woods and there will be beer, a shower, and a heated bunkroom waiting for you. Pretty awesome.

And before you dismiss this experience based on the word "eco-hut," just know that the level of comfort provided while creating a low environmental footprint is impressive. The only indicator that you're "eco"-ing at all is the composting toilets, which fortunately are like regular toilets that flush with special foamy soap instead of water. No smell, no ick factor. There's running water, electricity, and even heat. At Maine Huts & Trails, you can have your hiking and your creature comforts too. 


A. and I spent the night at Stratton Brook hut, the newest hut in the MH&T family. All of the huts are within a few miles of each other in Western Maine, near Sugarloaf ski resort. Stratton Brook is best for mountain bikers and hikers (you can see the hut overview and best activities from each hut in the hut overview). 

Stratton Brook hut is a 3 to 4 mile ride in, depending on which trailhead you leave from, and there are several trails great for mountain biking that are accessible from the hut. A. and I rode in on the Maine Hut Trail, which wasn't the best trail to come in on, apparently, as it's a long, gradual ascent to the hut. It would have been a pleasant hike. The better option would have been to take the Gauge Trail, which parallels a river (thus flatter) and then take a steeper trail with lots of switchbacks up to the hut. 


We arrived at the top of the knoll on which Stratton Brook hut is located mid-afternoon, gasping and sweaty. We sort of staggered into the hut in a post-exertion haze. The staff was very friendly while they checked us in, told us where everything was located, and encouraged us to relax and enjoy ourselves before dinner that evening. We were there for a special event, Harvest at the Hut, an annual celebration of local food prepared by hut staff and guest chefs. 

Above, you can see the lodge on the left, with a dining room, armchairs and a wood stove, the kitchen, and the bathrooms. The huts are on the right, 10 bunkrooms in total, some shared and some private. They consist of platform bunk beds (ours had a double bed on the bottom and a twin up top), with dorm-style mattresses and pillows. The floors are heated and the room is lit with a single overhead light. It's spartan, but certainly all you need for a good night's sleep after a day of biking or hiking. 

When we arrived, there were some guests who had spent the night before and several people stopping by on a hike or a bike. Lunch is served at the huts and some people were making a pit stop on a day trip. 

We spent the afternoon settling in: we took showers, strolled up to the overlook nearby with a spectacular view of the entire Bigelow Preserve, and then read and rested in our room until dinner time. 

Dinner was served in the lodge at 5:30 PM, so we rousted ourselves from our cozy nook and prepared to dive into the more extroverted experience of dinner with 50 people. We ordered a beer from the kitchen to help ease the transition. 

We found available seats at a table with some very nice folks—a couple who comes to the Harvest every year and 4 men from around the country who went to grad school together and now make an annual men's trip in the fall. 


We started to get to know our tablemates while enjoying appetizers like the fall harvest samosas, filled with butternut squash and cranberries, and topped with a blueberry chutney, and lobster nori rolls, served with local horseradish. 

Our menu for the evening had an international flare, but made with Maine ingredients. Our appetizers were even paired with a local wine, the junmai sake from Blue Current Brewery in Kittery. 

Next came a shared board of with rye toast, bread and butter pickles, Crooked Face creamery cheeses, smoked salmon, sliced apples, housemade tater tots, and beet and chevre raviolis. We passed the boards family-style, and enjoyed our next pouring of wine: the Winterport Winery Taxi Cab. 

Courses two and three were a wild-foraged Maine take on pho—Vietnamese noodle soup. The vegetables may not have been traditional (but local instead!) and the broth was what you would expect, rich with anise spice notes. 

The "wild woman" salad was spicy greens with local tomatoes, pickled red onions, and ricotta. We enjoyed a Nuda Pinot Grigio with this course, and I was feeling pretty good about my ability to pace myself—no overstuffed feelings yet. 

My resolve weakened with the entree, a Korean barbecue-inspired beef in lettuce wraps with peppers, onions, and ssamjang. The wheat berry salad and a tangy slaw were great accompaniments. Beef with salad veggies is one of my favorite things, so it was no surprise I loved this course. 


Dessert also wowed with an apple tatin, surrounded by a pool of creme anglaise and served with two slices of Cabot cheddar. The richness of the dessert was cut by the sharp cheese and lightened by the Winterport Winery apple wine topped with Prosecco. 


Everyone was full and a little tipsy by this point, so after a few enthusiastic rounds of applause for the chefs and the staff, we made our way to tuck ourselves into our cabin. I read a bit from a book borrowed from the communal bookshelves and drifted into a dreamless sleep. Others stayed up and enjoyed a fire in the campfire ring. When I woke a few hours later, the trip to the bathroom was far less fear-inducing than the much-dreaded one while camping in the woods! 

The next morning, we woke early to pack our bags to have them ready for the gear shuttle (much recommended when mountain biking) and to enjoy breakfast. The fresh eggs with herbs and tomatoes, blueberry pecan muffins, sausages, and copious cups of coffee fueled us up for another day of biking. 

Because were were up and out so early, we spent the day exploring a longer trail through the Bigelow Preserve, with a great connecting trial built specifically for biking. We then biked over to a beautiful (if not sparse due to the drought) waterfall very close to the Poplar Hut, which has an easier hike in than the Stratton Brook hut. 


Maine Huts & Trails are open year round, and a one-night stay includes dinner, breakfast, and a packed lunch the following day. Check the website for special events like the Harvest at the Hut or Brews & Views, a dinner with craft beer pairings, held in August.

Based on what I experienced, the food at the hut will be delicious, especially after a day of hiking or snowshoeing, and craft beer and wine are always available for purchase. Add a stay at Maine Huts & Trails to your Maine bucket list—I know I'll be back.


Disclosure: I received tickets to this event free of charge, but the opinions and words expressed in this post are my own. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Preserving Peaches: Jam, Canned in Juice, and Frozen

Peaches are easily one of my favorite fruits and certainly symbolic of summer: something that you have to get a lot of while it's available and have a certain amount of anxiety about its end (NOT THAT THAT'S HAPPENING). Ahem. 

I'd heard the peach season was going to be bad in New England—late frost? drought? something—and I didn't want to take any chances of missing my annual preserving haul. So I stocked up on Virginia peaches on my way back from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. (I meant to get Carolina peaches, but we have the hardest time stopping right after we've hit the road for a day's worth of driving, so we missed the large produce stands just north of the Outer Banks). 


To start, I quartered and peeled all of my peaches, using the method details in this post by Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. It involves boiling water and pouring it over quartered peaches, letting them sit for a while, then peeling the skins off. It worked relatively well and was a lot less hassle than the blanching method. Ultimately, I think the biggest key to peeling peaches easily is ensuring that they've fully ripened before you begin. 

I started with low-sugar peach jam using SureJell pectin. I used to exclusively use Pomona's Pectin, but I've come to dislike the hard sets of the jam that often results. SureJell always gives me a nice texture, and if we're being honest, I like the sugary sweetness of it (it's still much less than a full-sugar jam). This recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar for 4-1/2 cups of peaches and yields 5 half-pints of jam. 

Four and a half cups of peaches didn't even dent the amount I had, so I sliced up the rest for freezing, but then realized I could just as easily can a few pints. Again, I consulted Food in Jars about canning using apple juice, since in the past, I've used a light syrup. (Note: syrup or juice is recommended over water when canning fruit to help preserve the sweetness of the fruit). 

I diluted the juice as recommended on the package, in a 3:1 of juice to water. Then I filled some pints and processed them for 20 minutes. One didn't seal (frown), so I used it in a blueberry peach crisp the next day—not all bad. 


I filled six quart freezer bags with the remaining peach slices and juice. I should say I filled the bags about halfway, since I wanted to have small portions of peaches to thaw. I couldn't really see a way to freeze peaches individually, so you can use only a few at a time, rather than thawing the whole bag. 

Peaches: check! Now on to tomatoes...*rolls up sleeves*