Worth it: A food mill for tomatoes

Can I just say I love, Love, LOVE my food mill?

We finally got the big batches of Roma tomatoes rolling in a week or so ago, just in time for everything to be killed by a frost.

I spent one afternoon making a batch of tomato sauce. In years past, this involved peeling the tomatoes, cooking them in a pot, pureeing them … and suffering through seeds in the sauce, which give it a bitter flavor.

Then last spring, I found an almost-new food mill for sale on Craigslist. I got the seller to give me the mill and a dehydrator for $50.

I followed L’An’s suggestion to throw the tomatoes into boiling water for a couple minutes to lightly cook them before milling. I figured this would also make the peels come off more easily.

Then I ran the tomatoes through the mill. I think I had about 7 pounds of tomatoes, which filled up the hopper about twice. I kept on cranking until I had those tomatoes all sauced, with the sauce in one bowl …

… and the skins and seeds in another.

I came out with about 4 quarts of tomato sauce, ready to freeze and later turn into pasta sauce or something else delicious, and the whole process only took half an hour or so.

How much easier does a mill make life? A million times? I’ll be using it again soon to polish off the last batch of tomatoes. If only our CSA hadn’t been hit by a hailstorm (eliminating our anticipated bushel of tomatoes), we’d be all set for much of the winter …

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Quick tip: Cleaner compost bin

OK, you are all virtuous and you compost your waste. Bravo! But if you’re like me, you just might be a little bit of a slacker when it comes to thoroughly washing out the bin that sits on your counter or under your sink collecting scraps.

Then one day, when you open that bin, a giant furry mold-creature reaches out and grabs you by the nose.

Ewww!!!

Leah Ingram at the Lean Green Family blog had the brilliant idea of putting a (recycled) paper towel or coffee filter into the bottom of the inside bin. Then, she wrote, when she dumps it out, all the goo goes along — so it’s rinse and you’re on your way again.

I tried her method and it works beautifully. But I am too cheap to use a perfectly good paper towel or coffee filter. Mr. Cheap suggested a little square of newspaper, and that works fantastically well. I rip off a rectangle of newspaper, fold it approximately the right size and drop it into the bottom.

“Now …” (the announcer would say if this were a compost-horror-movie commercial) “… mold and slime have NOWHERE TO HIDE!”

At least not in my kitchen.

Garden update: Harvest rolling in

As I write this post, it is Monday evening, and we have a frost advisory in Denver tonight. Worse, I am enough tired from a weekend away, and jaded from staring at my powdery-mildew and aphid-infested garden, that I have not bothered to go dash sheets over the plants. Wish us all luck, readers.

However, in the meantime, ripe vegetables are finally arriving en masse. Today and this weekend, more than 7 lbs. of tomatoes have come ripe. A few more and we’ll be really ready to break out the new-to-us food mill for some sauce-making.

Our peppers have grown, beets are ready, scarlet runner beans have pods on them, and even the peanut plants are large and healthy beneath their carpet of tomato vines (will there be peanuts underneath the dirt? Stay tuned).

The potato plant hasn’t died back yet, so I’m not sure if there are tubers in there.

We’re having a small fall crop of strawberry plants, and the bushes have spread beautifully in the late summer.

And if the frost doesn’t arrive, one huge pumpkin just might manage to turn orange, three petite cantaloupes might finish their maturation process, and our butternut squash could provide a fall surprise harvest.

The Meyer lemons are turning yellow, and the plant actually has leaves in preparation for its migration south indoors for the winter. (I believe the house wall to which it’s adjacent will shelter it from any chill tonight.)

And best of all, if the aphids don’t finish them off, I believe we will be able to harvest at least a few Brussels sprouts this year.

The sprouts already are big enough to eat. I view this achievement as a major accomplishment, as it has taken us three or four years of trying to grow Brussels sprouts to get them this far! Cross your fingers and suck some aphids off the plant …

How does your garden grow? Have you thrown in the towel? Tried ladybugs this late in the year for the aphid problem? Just starting out Down Under?

Update on a stalled garden

July in Denver was arid and hot; August was cool and wet; and for the garden, September is like the August we never had. In terms of the garden, our plants went on hiatus and are just now getting back into the swing of things.

The Roma tomatoes are big, but just now beginning to turn red. This weekend, I’m hoping to get into the garden to peel away some leaves and expose the fruit to the sun in hopes we’ll get a good crop in before frosts hit in October.

All summer, we’ve had just one cantaloupe growing, and not very big, either. As you can see, these photos are a couple of weeks old, and by now we have that same cantaloupe starting to mature, and TEN more cantaloupes ranging in size from 2 inches to 4 inches. Want to place any bets on how many will ripen?

Somehow, the volunteer cucumbers (from last year’s plants, which I think were hybrids) are making normal cucumber fruit (top), and the seeds I planted and nurtured are making mutants (bottom). Same seeds as last year. I thought hybrids couldn’t grow fruit, but that’s not entirely correct. Nevertheless, last year’s babies made the best babies this year.

Below is our first pumpkin — in late August! Again, this pumpkin is bigger two weeks later … but after the whole summer growing, our vine has just two fruit on it, and they’re not turning orange yet.

Our main garden bed is going completely crazy. Even if you can’t pick out the separate plants, you’re seeing okra, Brussels sprouts, Roma tomato, peanuts and a renegade yellow pear tomato that volunteered, but has not matured a single fruit this year. No wonder we hated those plants last year!

Other plants are stunted, too. The butternut squash that last year yielded 15 enormous fruit? This year, the same number of vines (two) are almost as long as last year, but one fruit fell off while it was immature, two are growing enormous and ripening (but one is cracked, I think from the erratic moisture), and about six more are finally growing … time will tell how big they get before it freezes.

Our average first frost here is something like Oct. 15, so if these plants step on it, we might see some good results yet. On the other hand, for whatever reason, our hearts just haven’t been in the garden this year (could it have been the searing July temperatures that kept me inside all month?), and perhaps the plants are feeling our lack of energy.

How does your garden grow? Business as usual, or funky veggies out there?

Tour our garden

Summer is coming to an end, although the gardening season is just reaching its prime in Colorado. If we are lucky, we’ll have a late frost, and the garden can carry on most of the way through October.

I’ve written so much about our garden here that I thought it might be fun to have a shot of the whole thing. You can glance at the photo here, and if you click on “all sizes” (above the photo), you should be able to see a larger size and more easily read the captions explaining what’s what.

In trying to capture an image, I realized just how scattered our garden is. These shots and notes don’t even touch on the two “extra” strawberry plants tucked into a back bed, the pumpkin and cantaloupe in the front yard, and the barrels out front with two more Roma plants. They don’t show the squash and berries at one side of our yard, or the Roma snuggled up next to the butterfly bush. But you’ll get the general idea.

If you’ve presented a garden tour on your own blog or photostream, add a link below — we’ll have our own garden tour. You bring the lemonade, I’ll bring the floppy hats.

Don’t give up on squash for lack of pollinators

Take a look at your garden. If you’re growing members of the squash family, are the fruit growing? (That link will give you more information about the squash family — but in short, it includes winter squash, summer squash, melons, cucumbers and pumpkins.)

If not, you might need to hand pollinate.

Look closely at the vines. You’ll see flowers, right?

Look again. Some of the flowers grow on a long stem. These are the male flowers. They show up first, chivalrously opening the door to summer growth for the ladies.

A few days or weeks after the fellows arrive, the female flowers start to grow. These are distinguished by a small fruit that grows on the stem between the main vine and the flower. It looks just like what it will become — a butternut, or a cucumber, or a pumpkin — but small and green.

If your female flowers open, wither, and then the fruit turns yellow and falls off, your flowers aren’t being pollinated.

But don’t shrug in despair — you can pollinate the blossoms yourself.

This Web page provides a detailed overview of how to pollinate by hand to ensure the seeds remain pure (for instance, that pumpkin pollen doesn’t get into your butternut flower).

If all you want is for some fruit to grow this year, you can simplify the process.

  • Work early in the morning, before 10 a.m.
  • Choose a male flower with a nice juicy stamen. Pick a fresh flower that isn’t drying up in the middle. If the blossom is yellow and firm, you’re in good shape.
  • Carefully pluck the flower off the stem. Tear away the petals, leaving the center intact.
  • Brush the stamen over the pistil (center part, even more juicy) of a female flower. One male flower will be enough for several female flowers.
  • Toss the flower in the compost and cross your fingers.

The whole process will just take a few moments, and with luck, you’ll assure yourself of a good healthy crop.

If your flowers are falling off the vine but bees are present, it’s possible it’s just too hot or your plants are otherwise stressed.

Hand pollination is critical for plants being grown under row cover, too — insects can’t get to their blooms.

Good luck. Go forth and pollinate.

A furry pest in the garden

I’m starting to think it might not have been the birds that ate our strawberries.

Let’s backtrack.

Perhaps you have heard of our family pet, Schnauzer Cheap.

We’ll call him SC.

SC loves to eat. The highlights of his day are breakfast and dinner. He also loves fruits and vegetables. He happily munches anything we drop on the floor: an occasional almond, a piece of carrot, bell pepper, a bit of apple, onion, cucumber, corn … loves it.

In fact, he gets almost as excited when he smells that we are peeling a carrot as when we are preparing meat. Sometimes we give him carrots for training treats, and he will eagerly perform his repertoire for a bite of veggie.

So, the other night, I was knitting on the couch downstairs. SC came thundering down the stairs. He stopped in front of me and looked at me proudly.

With a mouthful of green beans, freshly plucked out of our garden, dangling from the sides of his muzzle.

It was pretty funny. SC and I can communicate without words, and I’m pretty sure he was saying, “Look, ma — I’m doing my part to eat local! 100-foot diet and all!”

But of course, I was thinking, “My haricots verts! I didn’t even eat any yet!”

So, I took SC up and scolded him, took his beans away, and first thing in the morning we redecorated the garden to keep him out.

Also at that time, Mr. Cheap confessed that he caught SC earlier this year, with part of a pea vine dangling from his furry black lips. Thus, the lack of pea harvest just might be explained. Yeah, right: The “birds” ate the baby pea plants. The birds that SC obsessively chases out of our yard. Inspector Poirot, I’m not.

Some people have elk, we have an omnivorous schnauzer.