make your own “sun-dried” tomatoes

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Drying tomatoes is a Damsel-approved method of preserving tomatoes for eating later. She likes doing it because:

  1. No slaving over hot stoves, as opposed to canning.
  2. No peeling.
  3. Takes up way, way less storage space.
  4. The end product is very versatile.

To dry tomatoes, you need only tomatoes and a heat source. Yes, you can sun-dry tomatoes, and you can do them in the oven. The Damsel used a dehydrator because she has one.

Wash the tomatoes well and then slice. Some people peel them first but the fancy kind you buy in the store aren’t peeled, so why should you?

The Damsel used Romas but any kind will do. If you slice in rounds, they will dry faster.

But, if you want the look of the sun-dried tomatoes you buy at the store, just cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise like so. (Large beefsteak tomatoes need to be cut more than just in half, or you’ll wait a very long time for them to dry.)

Cut a shallow slit on the skin side. Goodness! Be careful!

Arrange the tomatoes on the dehydrator screen (or cookie sheet if you’re doing them in the oven) cut side up, and sprinkle with salt, if you like. The Damsel likes.

Turn the dehydrator on, or set your oven for the lowest temperature and leave the door ajar. The Damsel would NOT like to have her oven on in this manner in the summertime, so she’s glad to have a dehydrator. The Damsel has heard of people drying stuff in cars, and she can believe it because hello, cars can be freakishly hot inside. But this is a problem if you need to actually DRIVE your car anywhere.

And…yes…you could dry them in the sun. But you’ll have to fiddle with some way of covering the trays that doesn’t touch them, like a cheesecloth tent of some kind, because bugs will get on them. And you’ll have to bring them in at night, or the morning dew will be dewy on them. Using the sun is terribly old-school, it’s true.

So, get it set up with your hotness of choice. Walk away. It takes a while. The Damsel hates waiting, but there’s nothing for it. After a couple of DAYS the tomatoes look like this. They are done when they are still pliable, but no moisture remains. If you tear one in half, you should see no beads of moisture along the tear. Check them every few hours…take the smaller pieces out as they dry. The circular cuts may dry in only one day.

The dried tomatoes can be stored in glass, ziplocks, etc.  Just something that will keep them cool and dry.

If you want to make them into those fancy “sun-dried” tomatoes in olive oil, like you buy in stores for $$$$, just put these in a pretty jar, add any herbs you like, (the Damsel likes garlic and fresh basil) and then cover with olive oil. Leave for 24 hours at room temperature before using, then refrigerate. The Damsel has heard it’s best to make this up as you need it rather than keep tomatoes in olive oil for months on end. Also, don’t be alarmed if the oil gets solidified in the refrigerator. Once it comes back to room temperature (or you nuke it) the oil will melt and look normal again. Delicious in pasta and pizza!

Stay tuned for more uses. If you have a favorite way to use dried tomatoes, chime right in.

picking and ripening pears

It’s strange to think we need to be taught how to ripen pears. Don’t plants do this sort of thing on their own, without busybody humans getting into their business?

The thing is, pears are one of the only fruits that don’t ripen on the tree/vine. A tree-ripened pear is mealy and mushy. So pears are best picked green. Many folks have come to believe that pears are picked green in order to truck here and there around the country without bruising them. That’s true for many fruits but not so for pears. You gotta pick them mature but green.

So how can you tell if they are mature? Walk up to a suspect pear and tip it so it’s horizontal. If it’s ready, it should detach from the tree. Those pears on the ground might be perfectly fine to use, too, if they’re still hard.

The pears in this picture are all “green,” even the one on top, which got a “suntan” so it has a rosy spot. Despite this the pears are all pretty darn hard.

Fruit produces a natural ethylene gas, which causes it to ripen. The riper it gets, the more gas it gives off, which will cause the other fruit around it to ripen too. So to ripen pears faster, you should enclose them so this gas will be trapped around the fruit. A paper grocery sack works. (Don’t use plastic.) The Damsel is ashamed to admit there wasn’t a SINGLE PAPER BAG in the cottage so she put them in a basket and put a cloth over the top.

If you want to give it a little nudge in the ripe direction, put a banana in with the pears. Bananas give off a ton of that special gas. Ahem.

So now they’ve been in the gas bag a day or two. How do you tell if they are ripe? After all, they’ll still look pretty much the same as ever. Just gently press with a finger near the stem, on the pear’s “shoulder.” A ripe pear will give a little.

They say the best way to eat a ripe pear is naked in the bathtub, so the juice can drip down your chin with abandon. If you try this, the Damsel would prefer not to hear about it.

pressure canning salsa

The Damsel made her first batch of salsa for the year today. There’ll be more.

The Damsel would like to inform you that canning salsa isn’t tricky. The skill level is similar to boiling water. But it ain’t for sissies, either. It takes a while. There’s a good bit of working on your feet, and there’s the heat.

On the good side . . . (pause while the Damsel tries to think of a good side) . . . she only saw one bug during the entire process, and it was a dead spider in the bottom of an empty canning jar. It could have been much worse. There could have been earwigs. It was a completely earwigless day.

And of course there was another good side . . . yummy salsa was made and put away for a winter’s day.

In order to can salsa safely, you have to follow strict recipes and directions. That’s because salsa contains both acid vegetables (tomatoes) and non-acid vegetables (onions and peppers). The balance of acid has to be high enough for it to be safe to do waterbath canning. But the Damsel can’t be bothered with all that. She wants to make salsa her own way, so it tastes the way she likes. And when you pressure can, you don’t have to worry or measure or any of that tedious stuff. When you pressure can your own custom mixtures, you can be safe by figuring out which vegetable in your mixture requires the longest processing time, and then use that time.

But the Damsel is getting way ahead of herself.

First, get the goods. The Damsel stretched forth her hand to her sprog, who went forth to the cottage garden and brought back Roma tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and a handful of hot peppers.

Here’s how to skin the tomatoes: Heat a large pot of water to boiling. Drop in the washed tomatoes. You can use regular or Roma. “Blanch” them for a minute or two and when their skins split, remove them from the water to cool a bit.  Don’t worry if some tomatoes don’t show a split. If most of the tomatoes in the pot have, the rest are ready as well.

See the split? Now the skins will slip right off. Just nip off the stem with a little knife and poof.

Now the Damsel would like to introduce you to her pet, otherwise known as her grandmother’s grinder. It’s very old school. You put stuff in the top, turn the crank, and perfectly diced things come out. Not like some food processors, that end up pureeing the bottom layer and haphazardly chopping the top layer. Perfect. Perfect. Every time. It can never break, it doesn’t need electricity, and it doesn’t have a million weird little parts to wash. Plus it’s fun to turn the crank. The Damsel has known sprog to fight over the chance.

The Damsel loves her pet, and encourages you to adopt one of your own at your first convenience. As far as she knows, you can only buy them at yard sales.

Dice up your tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers in whatever way seemeth you best if you don’t have a pet. Put it all into a large pot. Add chopped cilantro and garlic, if you know what’s best, plus a lot of salt and pepper. Add some chopped hot peppers, like jalapenos, if you like the heat.

Notice the Damsel hasn’t said how much of anything? She just puts stuff in until it has the balance of red, green, and white that she likes. Taste, taste, taste, and adjust. Taste some more. She guesses the end result if probably 75% tomato, 12% onion, 12% pepper, or something like that.

Oh heaven on a chip.

When it’s just right, ladle into canning jars and assemble the two piece lid/ring, screwing the ring on finger-tight.

The Damsel uses pint jars for salsa. Put 3 or 4 inches of water in the bottom of the pressure canner, along with the rack, and heat to boiling. Put in the jars…as many as will fit. Nine pints fit in the Damsel’s ridiculously big pressure canner. Put on the canner lid tight, and let it start to steam. When a plume of steam is escaping from the vent, set the timer for 10 minutes. Then put on the petcock and pressure will start to build inside the canner. When it reaches 10 lbs. pressure (or whatever pressure you’ve been recommended to use in your area) begin counting processing time. Let the canner cool on its own, then remove the jars and CAREFULLY retighten any jar rings that are very loose.

Here they are, the little beauties. Wait 24 hours and check the seal. If the middle of the lid bops up and down, it didn’t seal, and needs to be refrigerated or reprocessed.

Oh, the delights that now await you! Who can wait for winter?

tea dyeing

In the olden days, folks used all sorts of things to dye fabric . . . plants . . . minerals . . . and even crushed insects, although for bug crushing instructions you’ll have to look elsewhere. The Old School will not be covering that.

For eggshell and tan colors, using tea is simple and quick.

Sprog #1’s wife (sprog-in-law?) wanted to make a slip with antique lace edging, but her lace was eye-blazing white. Tea to the rescue.

What do you want to tea dye? Natural fibers will take the dye best.

Choose a pot big enough to comfortably hold your dyeing project and heat water in it. Add 4 or 5 chamomile tea bags (use black tea such as Earl Grey for a darker end result).

Loose tea is pesky because it can stick to the fabric, so bag that. Let it boil for about 5 minutes for an eggshell/very light color, longer for darker.

Remove the tea bags and add the thing you’re dyeing. Poke it around until it is well submerged and soaked, then walk away.

After 5 minutes, check the color by lifting the object out with tongs.

When it has achieved the color you like (with chamomile, it will probably take 30 minutes or so), remove from the tea, blot with an old towel and let it dry.

Rinse with cold water, and you’re done.

If you’d like a more uneven look, put the steeped tea in a spray bottle and spray the dry object. The Damsel sincerely advises you test this spray method first, on something other than the quilt top you’ve spent hours weeks on.

Bonus: your house will smell delicious and cozy.

sharpening tools

For today’s lesson, we will venture to the Knight in Shining Armor’s workshop, where he loves to hang out when he’s in between dragon slayings.

The Knight says that rusty tools are bad. If not taken care of, they’ll just keep rusting. Rust is more than just nasty looking red stuff. It actually eats away at the metal itself. So he de-rustifies his tools, sharpens them, and then paints them to keep them from rusting again. The following tutorial uses a hoe, but most garden tools can be taken care of in the same way.

A nice sharp hoe is a good thing to have, especially if you are a kid that has been told to hoe five acres of beans. The Damsel shudders to think how daunting that task would be and suddenly understands why fighting dragons seems like no big deal to her Knight.

First, you must remove the rust from the surface of the tool. A kitchen scrub pad will work, or steel wool. Make it wet, and add a little dish soap.

Scrub the metal until the red rusty evilness is gone, and you’re down to bare metal. Rinse.

Next, if you’re the Knight, you sharpen the hoe on your bench grinder, because you have pretty much every power tool known to mankind and you might as well use them. Plus it makes pretty sparkles.

If you don’t have a bench grinder, you do it the old school way, which is to stroke a metal file at an angle across the edge of the hoe. Create a sloping knife edge along the front side of the hoe’s edge, then turn it and file it on the back side too, just a bit.

Here’s how that edge might look after you finish sharpening it:

Now git yourself some nice rust-inhibiting spray paint…choose a color that scares weeds…

and masking tape.

Mask off the hoe where the wood meets the tool’s business end.

Spray the metal in nice, even strokes. When it’s dry, remove the masking tape, and you’re done! The Knight in Shining Armor would like to mention that hoeing weeds is all about cutting the weeds’ tops from their roots, and you don’t have to cultivate the ground. You can if it makes you feel happy, but that’s sort of a different task. Take it from the boy who hoed 5 acres of beans and lived to tell about it.

canning turkey

The Damsel and her sister went completely insane and bought 40 pounds of turkey meat from a farmer. It had been cut off the bone, in great slabs of quivery raw meat.

The Damsel is a tentative carnivore. She eats meat happily, but doesn’t like to think about it too much. She likes it cut and shrinkwrapped on a little styrofoam tray, sort of unrecognizable, so she doesn’t have to think about what it used to be. Her favorite way to look at a piece of meat is on a plate at a restaurant.

Being faced with this great blob of turkey was difficult, but the sister petted and soothed the Damsel until the worst was over. They canned 21 quarts, plus a little for the freezer. And canning meat is pretty darn “old school.”

It’s really not that hard, no harder than regular canning. But to can meat, you MUST have a pressure canner, and you MUST follow the simple directions in order for it to be safe.

Put seven quart mason jars in the dishwasher (along with the breakfast dishes) while you:

. . . cut the meat. It’s up to you if you want it bite size, like the Damsel, or bigger hunks.

When your all finished cutting, perhaps the jars are finished washing. Stuff the meat in to the jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Sprinkle in a teaspoon of chicken bouillon into each jar, if you’d like. The Damsel likes.Here’s our handy headspace picture . . .

Put on the jar lids and rings, screwing the rings on finger-tight. Now it’s ready to process.

Put three inches or so of water in your pressure canner on to heat. Put the rack in the bottom (this keeps the jars from being in direct contact with the bottom of the pot, which can break the jars) and then the jars . . . seven will fit in one batch. Check the water level. It should be about up to the shoulders of the jars . . . where it starts to curve in. The jars shouldn’t be immersed as they are in a water-bath canner. Add or subtract water as necessary. Then put on the canner lid so it’s tight.

Adding a glug or two of vinegar to the water will keep the jars from getting cloudy during processing. Doesn’t affect the meat–just the look of the jars.

There is a gadget called a “petcock” that fits over the pressure canner’s steam valve. This shouldn’t be put on yet. Let the canner continue to heat until a steady plume of steam is coming from the valve. When the stream of steam is steady and plentiful, start counting ten minutes. Let the canner vent in this manner for ten minutes.

Now place the petcock over the steam vent. It should settle into place so that steam no longer escapes, but instead builds up pressure inside the canner. The Damsel admits she was scared when she did this the first time. Just be careful not to burn yourself.

Now it’s time to do a little quick google-fu. You need to find out how long you should process the jars, and at what pressure. This depends on your altitude, and whether you’ve used quarts or pints. There are plenty of charts online with this info, or you can call your local extension service. The Damsel lives at 4500 ft, so she processed for 90 minutes at 13 lbs. pressure.

Now you babysit the canner. Watch the dial carefully, and adjust the temperature on your stove up or down to maintain the correct pressure. Remember it takes time for stoves to react, especially electric ones. It’s better to have a little too high pressure than too low, but don’t let it get too high. Pressure canners can be dangerous if they aren’t watched.

A “cool” idea: the Damsel’s sister has this groovy campstove, so they did the canning outside. This worked out great, especially because it’s VERY HOT in the Damsel’s village at the moment, and a kitchen can become a sauna pretty fast after blowing hot steam for 10 straight minutes, and then 90 more minutes of hot, hot, hot.

When the 90 minutes of babysitting are over, remove the canner from the heat source and let it cool. You aren’t supposed to hasten it . . . just let the temperature drop naturally. It takes a while. The Damsel hates waiting, but there’s nothing for it.

Finally! A glimpse of the finished product. The turkey has formed its own broth. Take the jars from the canner and set in a non-drafty spot to finish cooling. Carefully check the rings. If they are really loose (this sometimes happens with the violence inside the pressure canner) you can retighten them gently, but it’s best to not disturb the lids as they begin forming the seal. After 24 hours, check the lids. If they are depressed, it’s sealed. If the middle bops up and down when you press on it, it isn’t sealed, and needs to be reprocessed or put in the fridge.

Now the hard part is trying to get yourself to open one of these babies and use it, because it’s so precious to you by now.

picking corn and removing silk

How can you tell if corn’s ready to pick?

You peek. Pull the husks back gently and see if the kernels look plump. It won’t hurt the corn if you pull it back a ways, far enough that you aren’t just seeing those little tiny kernels around the top. If they still look small, just smooth the husks back into place. And, before you’ve picked much corn, you’ll get a feel for how the cob feels in your hand when it’s ready.

But keep in mind that people often wait too long, and fresh corn is best when it is young. Plump, yes, but not bulging. It’s better to err on the young side. The corn in the above picture might look good, but it’s actually a few days too old.

The Damsel likes to shuck corn right in the garden, in case there are bugs. Especially the dreaded earwig, which in the Damsel’s opinion could be erased from existence, and the food chain would survive just fine.

Getting the silk off the ears is a pesky problem. If you are careful, you can get nearly all the silk off when you are shucking the corn. Don’t pull off one husk at a time, like you were peeling something. Try to get all the way down to the corn with your fingers, and bring off sections of husk and silk all off at once. Very little silk will remain.

The Damsel has heard various silk-removing methods. There’s the dry paper towel method, in which you rub the cob in a circular motion with a paper towel. The Damsel tried this and thought “meh.” You can rub the cob with your hands under running water, which works about as well as anything. Brushing with a vegetable brush works well too.

You can buy a special corn silk brush but if there was ever a “unitasker,” that is one. A “unitasker” is a tool that does only one thing, and the Damsel doesn’t like them. Granted, a corn silk brush is not as bad as this unitasker:

This behemoth does one thing…make pancakes. And take up your entire kitchen. (As seen on

A soft vegetable brush will probably do just as well. The Damsel likes hers because it even has a peeler on the side, making it more of a “multitasker.”

The Damsel has heard of people meticulously going over their corn with an old toothbrush, getting out every last bit of silk. But for her, this would turn a fun food into a nightmare. She’s learned she has to pick her battles, and there’s a lot more oogie things on the earth than a little corn silk.

Like earwigs.