Jars of tomato sauce begin to pop as they complete their seal in Bob Neal’s New Sharon home. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

NEW SHARON — A pot of freshly strained vegetables bubbles on Bob Neal’s stovetop.

He will reduce it for six or seven hours before jarring it. When he’s done, he will have about seven quarts of vegetable juice. This is one batch among dozens.

He’s been gardening since 1972, when he grew six tomato plants in his backyard in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I was so thrilled to be picking my own tomatoes,” he said. “That excited me.”

He has had large gardens every year since moving to Maine in 1980.

“I learned that the more you do it, the better you get at it,” he said. “You have better-tasting food in the winter and you have to spend less money at the grocery store.”

He said one key to nutritious, flavorful preserved food is to begin with the freshest produce available.

“Process as fresh as you can, as soon after picking as you can,” he said. “Get the process going quickly.”

Bob watches the vacuum sealer as he seals beet greens in his kitchen. The beets themselves cool on his cutting board. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

FRESH VEGETABLE JUICE

All but one of the ingredients (he didn’t plant celery) in his juice were picked within a few days. He cut everything but the tomatoes — carrots, beets, green pepper, onion, parsley, celery and beet greens — into one-inch pieces and put them went into the food processor until they were chopped fine. He cut the tomatoes into pieces and put them through his strainer to remove the seeds and skins. After each load of tomatoes, he strained a cup or so of the processed veggies.

“The juices will all mix together as you process,” he said.

Then he put the juices into a large soup pot over low heat and cooked it until the mixture was reduced by a least a third, to a consistency he liked.

Neal said if you want to make seven quarts of vegetable juice, you will need 21 pounds of tomatoes and 3 pounds of other vegetables. You can add lemon juice or Worcestershire sauce (one-half teaspoon per quart). He adds salt when he has his morning glass full.

If you want to make less or more than seven quarts, make sure to keep the ratio of tomatoes to other vegetables at 7:1.

“So, to make three quarts, use 12 pounds of tomatoes and 1 2/3 pounds of vegetables,” he said. “You can use any amount of each vegetable you like, just make sure the total is not more than one-eighth of the total weight.”

Once the juice is done cooking and you’re ready to put it in jars, you can use either a boiling water canner or a pressure cooker. Neal uses a pressure canner.

“The modern tomato is lower in acid than some of the heirlooms and might not always be safe to can with a boiling water bath method,” he said. “That’s why I pressure can.”

The key to making canned food safe to eat is “hot, hot, hot,” Neal said.

“Sometimes the jars are so hot they burn my hands,” he said. He washes them with hot water and soap and rinses them immediately before filling them.

Last year he canned 55 quarts of juice and 61 quarts of tomato sauce. He used all but five quarts of juice, drinking an 8-ounce glass most every morning, and all but 12 quarts of sauce, he said.

Bob Neal cuts freshly picked tomatos in his New Sharon kitchen. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

TOMATOES, VEGETABLES, HERBS FOR A TASTY FUTURE

To make his tomato sauce, he squeezes the tomatoes in his strainer, which removes the skin and seeds. He puts the tomato puree on extremely low heat and reduces it by at least half before pressure canning.

To get the nine pints he canned Sept. 20, he started with about 20 pints of fresh-strained tomatoes, he said.

He uses the tomato sauce he canned as a base ingredient throughout the winter for ratatouille, pasta sauce and eggplant parmigiana. (See recipes.)

He said he will process fewer jars this year because he has leftovers still on the shelves.

He also will freeze, dry and ferment bushels of vegetables from his 55-by-45-foot garden. His kitchen is well-equipped for this: food processor, hand-cranked strainer, pressure cooker, five-level electric dryer, vacuum sealer, assorted cutting boards, knives and peelers.

He uses two drying processes. One is to string up herbs such as basil and parsley and let them air dry. You know they’re ready to bag when the leaves start to come off the twigs or they are dry to the touch, he said.

He picks off the leaves, seals them in plastic bags and stores them in a spice drawer. Easy.

The second method is the electric dryer, which can also be used for herbs and for eggplant, which he peels and dices before drying. He fills the trays and rotates them, so each level gets time near the motor on the bottom where it’s warmer.

THE EASE OF THE FREEZE

Bob removes the cover of the pressure cooker he uses for canning. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Neal is processing most of his vegetables this year by freezing them.

“You can freeze almost anything,” he said.

Some things (such as beets and winter squash) need to be fully cooked before freezing. Other things can be blanched and sealed. Neal uses a vacuum sealer to suck all the air out before freezing. If you don’t have a sealer, you can use a straw.

To prepare squash, he roasts it, mashes it up in a food processor or just chunks it, lets it cool and then vacuum packs or jars it.

One quality difference between canning and freezing is that heat kills pathogens that could make you sick. Cold simply puts them in suspended animation, he said.

“You need to be mindful of the number of hours frozen food can be at room temperature,” he said.

As of Sept. 14, Neal’s 14-cubic-foot freezer was two-thirds full: 17 packs of corn (no blanching necessary, just peel off the husks and freeze), 51 packs of carrots, 28 bags of greens, 4 packs of broccoli, 64 of green beans, 12 of beets.

Most vegetables have to be cooked or blanched before freezing. The exceptions are corn on the cob, sweet and hot peppers, ginger root, onions, raw tomatoes and many fresh herbs, according to healwithfood.org.

Blanching inhibits enzymes that cause vegetables to lose flavor, color and nutrients.

You need a pot of boiling water and a bowl or sink full of ice water. Trim, rinse and cut the vegetables. Most take 2 to 5 minutes to blanch. For example, snap beans take 2-4 minutes, carrots take 2 and broccoli takes 3. Greens take 1-3 minutes.

When the blanching time is up, drain in a colander, then plunge into the cold water. Let the vegetables chill for the same length of time they were boiled. Drain thoroughly, then seal in bags or jars and freeze.

If you like smoothies, you can freeze kale without blanching. When you’re ready to use it, crunch it into a blender with your favorite smoothie ingredients.

FERMENTED FLAVOR

Bob Neal loads beets into a bag for freezing. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Fermenting and pickling are other ways to keep veggies fresh through the winter.

Sauerkraut is an easy way to keep cabbage. On a recent afternoon, Neal whipped up a batch of canning jar kraut. All it took was a medium cabbage (about 3 pounds), one and a half tablespoons of salt and 1 tablespoon of caraway seeds (optional). You can spice it up with turmeric powder for extra nutrients, or chopped onion or garlic for flavor.

Once you’ve chopped the cabbage, mix it with the salt, which will slowly draw out the liquid from the cabbage. Pack it into jars and weigh it down. You can use a clean smaller jelly jar filled with marbles or small stones for the weight.

Let the cabbage ferment unrefrigerated for 3 to 10 days, pressing down on the weights every few hours for the first day. Bubbles or scum might develop in the liquid that slowly fills the jar, but you can skim it off. No harm. It’s part of the lacto-fermentation process, which inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

Keep the jars from direct sunlight while fermenting. Once fermented, it will keep for at least two months, longer if refrigerated.

Refrigerator pickles are also easy to make. All you need are cucumbers, an onion, apple cider vinegar, water, honey or sugar and pickling spice (see recipe).

Neal said he puts in 500 or 600 hours each year processing vegetables from his garden. The work saves him about $1,000 in grocery bills, he said.

It’s also worthwhile because it’s satisfying, he said.

“There is tremendous satisfaction in starting something and seeing it through to the end,” he said. “The rhythm of the season is the same, but the events are different.”

Basil and dill hang in the kitchen as Bob Neal works on packaging beets to freeze. “The trick with the dill is to strip it before it begins to rain seeds on the counter.” Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.