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Make Your Own Tomato Sauce

Remember all those tomatoes you planted a few months ago?  Well, it’s time to do something with them!  There are actually a lot of options when it comes to what to do with tomatoes, other than just canning or freezing them plain.  My favorite?  Homemade tomato sauce.  Tomato sauce is a staple in our house.  It’s great for Chicken Parmesan, spaghetti, pizza, bread sticks… well, you get the idea.  And homemade is sooooo much better than store bought.  And you know exactly what went into making it (and there aren’t any ingredients you can’t pronounce)!  The best thing is that it isn’t that hard to make – although it is a little time consuming.

First, you need A LOT of tomatoes.  I’ve found that, generally, since the tomatoes have to be boiled down to make the sauce, I get about a half cup of sauce per pound of tomatoes.  I started with about 25 pounds of tomatoes.

So what happens if you didn’t grow that many – or any at all?  No problem!  Find a local farm that sells their produce to the community or visit your local Farmer’s Market.  Don’t know how to find a farm?  Check out http://www.pickyourown.org/.  Not only can you find local farms and orchards for a variety of produce, it also has instructions for canning and recipes!

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Boil water in a big stock pot.  When the water is boiling, put in as many tomatoes as will fit and boil for 4-5 minutes.  This will loosen the skins, making them easy to peel.

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When the 4-5 minutes are up, take the tomatoes out of the pot – you can use tongs or a big, slotted spoon – and put them in an ice bath.  They can stay in the cold water while you work on peeling each tomato.  Repeat these steps for the rest of your tomatoes.

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In between putting tomatoes into boiling water and then into the ice bath, you can start coring and peeling the tomatoes.  After your core and peel a tomato, cut it into quarters, then squeeze the juice out of each quarter (I just use my hands) and put it into a colander to drain more while you core, peel, cut, and squeeze the others.  You can also put a bowl under the colander to catch the juice that comes off of the tomatoes.  You can use this juice in cooking or to drink!

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When you’re done boiling, coring, peeling, cutting and squeezing all of your tomatoes, give them a good press in the colander to squeeze out the rest of the juice, then put them into a stock pot.  On a side note, if you’d rather not make sauce, you can just freeze or can the squeezed tomaotes for use in soups and stews later.  I used two stock pots because I wanted two different flavors of red sauce.  Turn the heat on high until the tomatoes start to boil, then reduce the heat to simmer.  There really isn’t a way to put a definite time on how long  to keep them simmering; just until the tomatoes have a sauce-like consistency.  While you’re waiting for the tomatoes to boil down, cut up whatever spices you want to put in your sauce and add them to the pot!

You can add whatever spices/vegetables you want!  Here are some options:

  • Minced garlic
  • Salt
  • Parsley
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Green Peppers
  • Onion

I made two batches:  One with just oregano and one with Rosemary and Parsley.

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When your sauce starts to look like this:

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it’s done!

Some people like a chunky texture to their tomato sauce.  If that’s your preference, you’re done!  I prefer a smoother texture.  You can put the sauce in a blender and blend until smooth, or you can use an immersion blender (my favorite small kitchen appliance).

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YUM!

Now, you have two options:  Can it or freeze it.  I am not a big fan of canning, and since we have a big deep freezer, I freeze it!  Wait for the sauce to cool, then transfer it to freezer bags (I do so in 1-cup increments).  Put it in your freezer for use this winter!

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Want to try your hand at canning?  Check out Pick Your Own’s canning directions!

Want to make salsa instead?  Check out Pick Your Own’s salsa recipe!

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DIY Tomato Cages

Last year, I grew a lot of tomatoes.  I wanted to make my own tomato sauce and salsa and tomato soup (which were all delicious, by the way, if I do say so myself), so I planted 10 tomato plants.  The only problem was that I did not have 10 tomato cages.  I didn’t want to spend the money on that many cages, so I just planted them, and let them kind of vine along the ground.  It didn’t work well.  The tomatoes that were touching the ground rotted fast and the ones that weren’t rotten were eaten away by roly polies.  While I did salvage some of my harvest, it would have been nice not to have to deal with the problems.

This year, I am once again growing a lot of tomato plants, but I had to come up with a better solution.  So, I took a cue from my Dad and made my own!  It’s so much cheaper than buying bunch of cages, and they work just as well.  Here’s how:

What you’ll need:

  • Wire garden fencing
  • Heavy-duty wire cutters
  • Pliers

You’ll need some garden fencing.  The kind of garden fence you get depends on you.  Choose the height based on your preferences.  A common height is 48 inches, which is a great height for a tomato cage.  I got my fencing from my father-in-law, who had some left over, and it was a little tall (about 5 feet), so I had to trim it down.  How much fencing you get is dependent on how many cages you want to make and how big a diameter you want for your cages.  In my case, I used about 5 1/2 feet of fence per cage.   FYI, 50 ft of 48-inch-high fence will run about $50 at your local hardware store; that’s about 9 cages at $5.55 per tomato cage.  Big tomato cages will run anywhere from $8 to $12 per cage at your local garden center.

First, using wire cutters, cut the length of your cages from the roll (again, I used 5.5 feet per cage), making sure to leave one side with longer, unconnected ends.

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Next, cut the bottom, horizontal strip of wire off, leaving the spoke-like ends that you will push into the ground to keep your cage stable.  I had to cut my fence down because it was so tall, but if you bought fencing at just the right height, just cut off the very bottom wire edge (in the picture, I’ve flipped my cage upside-down, so I’m actually cutting off the top).

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Next,using pliers, wrap the ends you left on one side when you cut the length of fence around the the other side, making the fence into a circle.

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And that is literally all there is to it.  Now, plant your tomatoes, push your new cages into the ground around it, and watch them grow!

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Herb Gardening Part 2 – Annual Herbs

Annual herbs, like their perennial counterparts, are easy to grow and maintain.  They do great in containers or in the ground; they’re tasty; they’re even pretty.  If you’re new to herb gardening, this is where to start.   Here are a few to consider:

 

Basil is my favorite!  It tastes so good with fresh tomatoes, but is so versatile, you can use it in pretty much any dish.  Need a quick meal?  Chop some fresh basil, cook it with ground beef, and add some cooked rice.  It’s so good – and easy.  The basil adds amazing flavor. You can also add a bunch of chopped basil to some olive oil to make your own pesto!  To keep it producing all summer, just use it often.  Cutting it back (make sure to pinch off the flowers when they start to bloom) makes it produce more!

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Dill is another of my favorites.  It is wonderful with cucumbers and with cooked carrots.  Make sure to cut it back when it starts to put on its umbrella-like blooms, or it won’t produce as well.  Also, watch out for caterpillars.  They can strip a dill plant in a few hours.  At the end of the season, let your dill go to seed and dry out, then cut it down and throw the whole plant back in your garden.  It will reseed itself the next season!

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I grow cilantro specifically because I like to use it in my homemade salsa.  Fresh cilantro is also great on taco salads.  Here’s the thing, I have trouble keeping it from going to seed.  It always goes to seed about mid-season, and, unlike other herbs, it becomes unusable and unsalvageable.  If anyone has a tip to keep it going all season, clue me in!

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Fennel is very similar in appearance to dill, but does not taste or behave the same.  It grows to be huge – about 4 ft high!  I have honestly never used fennel in recipes.  I plant it in my butterfly garden (a garden with plants that butterflies and caterpillars are drawn to) because caterpillars – the same ones that eat my dill – love it.  In fact, I often remove the little offender from my dill and transfer it to my fennel.

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Fennel

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Bronze Fennel

Butterfly

These little boogers turn into beautiful Swallowtail Butterflies

 

 Parsley is a unique herb in that it is a biennial herb – it comes back the second year.  Its mild flavor makes it great in salads, red sauce, chicken, etc.  It is easy to grow, but it, too, is susceptible to caterpillars.

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Nasturtium is also unique.  It is an edible flower!  Both the flower and its leaves have a peppery taste and are amazing in salads (it also makes salads really pretty!).  Nasturtium has very pretty flowers and grows easily and rapidly.  It is also very hardy.  Even if you’re not into eating flowers (it freaks my husband out a little), this is a great flower to plant in pots and have on your porch  because it requires so little attention.

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There are so many herbs, and the ways to use them are endless!  But if I had to choose just a few, I would pick oregano, basil, and rosemary – they’re my favorites, and the ones I use the most.  Find your favorites, and start your herb garden.  Now is the perfect time!

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Herb Gardening Part 1 – Perennial Herbs

Herbs are one of the easiest things to grow.  They tolerate drought, most of them prefer full sun, and they even thrive in the heat.  And, since a lot of herbs are perennial, it is a one-time investment that yields years of harvest!

If you’re thinking of planting an herb garden, here are some things to consider.  First, start with things you know you’ll use and are comfortable using.  For example, I love using oregano and basil in cooking.  It adds great flavor to almost any dish, and nothing beats using it fresh (although I dry herbs to use in the winter, too).  Some herbs sound exotic, like Pineapple Sage and Chocolate Mint, but will you use them, or would you be giving up garden space for something that, although it smells good, may not be very practical for you?

Second, think about the space you have.  If you don’t have a lot of garden space to work with, pick herbs that don’t take up a lot of room.  Rosemary, thyme, chives, and tarragon are some of these.  If you have more room, add oregano and sage, both of which grow to take up several square feet.  If you don’t have a garden, don’t worry, herbs do great in container gardening, too!

Here are a few perennial herbs to consider:

 Oregano is a hearty herb that requires little maintenance.  And it tastes amazing in red sauce and pizza crust!  Oregano can grow to be pretty big – mine takes up a space of about two feet in diameter.

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 Sage is another hearty herb that grows in a more bush-like form.  It’s great with chicken and pork, and the purple flowers it puts on bring color to your garden.  Sage is another garden hog – mine is about 18 inches in diameter.

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Chives are amazing in salads and as toppings on baked potatoes.  A word of caution – they really multiply!  But, they’re pretty easy to dig up and thin out.

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Tarragon is another perennial herb, but it is not quite as hearty as others, in my experience.  It is less heat tolerant, and requires a little more water.  It’s wispy branches grow more up than out, so it doesn’t take up a lot of room.   It tastes wonderful in chicken and in cream sauces!

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Thyme is another great perennial addition to your garden.  It tastes wonderful in eggs and chicken, and it’s a great, low maintenance ground cover for any garden!

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Mint – I love mint, but here’s the thing: it would survive a nuclear blast.  Don’t be deceived in thinking it won’t take over.  It will.  I had mint in my garden, then is started to multiply, so I moved it to it’s own five foot section of garden.  In the last 4 years, it has completely filled that spot and crept into the yard (it sends out roots underground and comes up pretty much wherever it wants).  And the place I moved it from still has mint coming up at random places.  But, I love how it smells (so does my husband when he mows the part of our yard that is mint-infested).  I often add mint to bouquets of flowers for added scent, and adding mint to a pitcher of water or brewing it in tea is wonderful!  Bottom line, if you want to grow mint, plant it in a container!

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Lavender is another perennial with a great scent!  Depending on the kind you get, it can get pretty big, but it’s easy to trim back.  It also puts on either white or purple blooms, depending on the type.  Lavender is also great in flower bouquets.  I know you can cook with it, too, but I’ve never done so.

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Catnip is a part of the mint family, but isn’t quite as prolific.  I’m sure there are other ways to use it, but I just grow it to make my cats crazy.

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Rosemary is technically a perennial, however, if your winters get too cold, it won’t come back the next year.   Burpee says rosemary is a perennial in zones 7-10, and since I live in zone 6, I have occasionally had rosemary come back in the Spring, but it’s not a guarantee. Rosemary is amazing when baked in breads and sauces!

Perennial herbs are a great addition to any garden, and their heartiness and beauty can be a great, functional addition to landscaping.  Start small, and slowly add to your garden; and don’t forget to save room for the annual herbs!  Happy gardening!

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