Friday, October 28, 2011

The Road Home - A Book Giveaway

Rudy over at Preparing Your Family is hosting a giveaway of a signed copy of the new book, The Road Home by Andrew Baze. It sounds like an interesting read. Head over and sign up for the giveaway, and if you've never browsed Rudy's site, be sure to spend some time looking around. Preparing Your Family was one of the first preparedness blogs I came across and it's packed with good information.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Canning Tomatoes

So I tried my hand at canning this weekend. My mom got me a water bath canner and some canning jars for my last birthday, and she came over yesterday to help me can some tomatoes.

I did some research online about various tomato-based recipes such as salsa and spaghetti sauce, but in the end I decided to stick with the basics: tomato sauce and whole (skinned) tomatoes. This way, I can add spices or other ingredients at the time of cooking, which makes the canned tomatoes and sauce more versatile. Also, the addition of different ingredients can change the canning process, because the acidity of the food changes. So while I'm able to can tomatoes with a water bath canner, I'd have to be careful about adding peppers, onions and spices for a salsa, because if the acidity changes too much then I'd need to use a pressure canner.

The resource I used the most was the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning. This online guide covers everything a beginning canner needs to know for putting up fruits, veggies, meats, pickled products, jams and jellies. There is a whole chapter devoted to tomatoes and tomato products, including some salsa and spaghetti recipes that are acceptable for water bath canning, but I still decided to stick with basic tomatoes for my first attempt.

This is a little over half of the tomatoes I started with.
I had hoped to be able to can some tomatoes from my own garden this year, even if it were just a couple of quarts. But the heat wave stunted production and I'm only now seeing a lot of tomatoes on the vines (and worrying that they won't begin to ripen before the cold sets in). So I had to buy tomatoes. The guide I mentioned gives an approximate weight of tomatoes needed for 7 quarts (a canner load) of tomato sauce and 7 quarts of whole tomatoes, so I made my tomato purchase based on those weights. I planned to put up 5 quarts of tomato sauce and 7 quarts of whole tomatoes (I only had 12 quart jars on hand), so I bought 45 pounds of tomatoes.

First, all the tomatoes had to be washed. I used a small amount of dish detergent in water when washing them, to remove any pesticides. I then rinsed them especially well to remove any residue from the detergent.

Next, the tomatoes were placed in a pot of almost-boiling water for about a minute, until the skins began to split.

We then took them out of the hot water and put them immediately into cold tap water. This makes the tomatoes easy to peel.

When making the tomato sauce, the directions in the guide book said to cook the tomatoes in a pot while mashing them. We tried this at first, but it was unnecessarily labor-intensive. So we began putting the tomatoes in the blender, and then transferring them to the pot for heating.

At the same time, we had another pot on the stove with boiling water in it. Once the tomatoes were ready, we would place a canning jar in the boiling water to heat for a few minutes, then remove it, add two tablespoons of lemon juice (for added acidity), and then fill the jar with tomatoes, leaving a quarter-inch of headspace as the guide directed.

The lids and rings were also soaking in warm (not boiling) water, to warm up the seals on the lids which helps them seal better. Once a jar was filled, we used a bubble remover to release any trapped air, then wiped off the rim and threads of the jar, placed the lid squarely on top, and then finger-tightened the ring over the lid.

The whole tomatoes were handled similarly, just omitting the blender step, and leaving a half-inch of headspace as directed by the guide. 

This is similar to what we used.
I have a ceramic-top stove which, for reasons discussed here, is not acceptable to use for canning. So we used a propane burner outdoors instead. The burner we have is part of a set sold for deep-frying turkeys. (We've never actually used it for that, but it's great for crab boils!) This thing burns like a jet engine, and heated the water in the canner to boiling in minutes. The only disadvantage is that it has a built-in safety feature--a timer that will turn the unit off after 20 minutes. We handled this by keeping a separate timer set for 18 minutes (just in case the timer on the burner wasn't accurate), and reset the burner's timer whenever our timer went off.

Tomato sauce cooling.
The tomatoes I bought filled more jars than the guide said they would. I wound up filling 7 quarts with tomato sauce. These were processed in the canner for 45 minutes. The whole tomatoes processed for 90 minutes. I don't know why the difference in processing times is so large; seems like they would be closer, since it's the exact same food, except one is blended and the other isn't. The whole tomatoes which were supposed to fill only 7 quarts, wound up filling the 5 quarts I had left plus 9 more pints! I double-checked my numbers against the guide, and I did what it said. For whatever reason, I wound up with a lot more jars than the guide said I would. I'm glad I had the pint jars on hand.

Once all the jars were finished, it was difficult to tell the difference between the whole tomatoes and the tomato sauce by just looking at them. So after they cooled down, I dated them and wrote on the lids what the contents were. Then before storing them, I removed the rings so I would have them for the next canning session.

Overall it was a good experience. I'm glad my mom was there to help me, because she's done it before. I got a little stressy a couple of times, but mostly I enjoyed the process. It took us most of the day to put up 12 quarts and 9 pints, but almost 4 hours was spent waiting for stuff to process in the canner. Maybe someone with more experience could do it more quickly, but I'm still proud of us.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of those classics that’s been on my reading list for a while. I finally read it, and currently the book is about two weeks overdue at the library because I’m only now finding time to write my review. C’est la vie

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell tells the story of Winston Smith, a sheeple in a futuristic totalitarian society. The government in this society is known simply as “The Party,” whose moniker is Big Brother, and posters bearing a stern, mustached face with the words “Big Brother is watching you” are omnipresent. Winston, at first by himself and later with Julia, a second protagonist, attempt to join a resistance movement rumored to exist. I will refrain from describing how events unfold in case you haven’t yet read it for yourself. 

The Party has gained such control over its subjects that they are afraid of their thoughts being found out: indeed, there is an entity called the Thought Police, whose job it is to persecute those who have disagreeable feelings about The Party. 

So in control is The Party that they have a whole government division dedicated to rewriting history to conform to the present as they wish it to be. It is no problem for The Party to change the outcome of a war or write an individual right out of history, as if they never existed. Winston is employed in this “ministry,” as it is called, and spends his days “bringing up to date” past newspaper articles as instructed by unseen supervisors.

Edmond O'Brien as Winston Smith in the movie.
The Party’s goal appears to be total and complete domination of its subjects, including mental control. Personal relationships among citizens are discouraged; marriages must be approved by The Party and are only necessary to propagate children so that The Party may continue to have subjects. Children are schooled in a way that brings to mind the Nazi Youth, and are encouraged to tattle on their parents (or anyone else) whom they observe saying or doing anything anti-Party.

Love is not acceptable, except when one expresses love for The Party. Accordingly, hate is encouraged toward the enemies of The Party. Something called “Two Minutes Hate” is employed, whereby all citizens are to stop what they are doing and come together near a “telescreen,” where they are subjected to images of the enemy and other disturbing phenomena, and are expected to work themselves into a frenzy of anger and hatred for two minutes. 

A slogan of The Party.
Most disturbing to me (because it seems totally plausible) was the plan to dumb down the language. A new language called newspeak is gradually being implemented. This impoverished language reduces ideas to simple contrasts, minimizing the ability to express complicated thoughts or feelings. Negative words are eliminated under the guise of being “redundant.” Thus, “bad” becomes “ungood,” etc. Similarly, superlative words are erased and replaced with prefixes or suffixes attached to root words, so that “great” becomes “plusgood,” and “excellent” becomes “doubleplusgood.” Words and ideas are abbreviated into simplified one- or two-syllable new words, such as “upsub” (to get approval from a superior) and “oldspeak” (standard English). By limiting the number of words available, and keeping the available words as simple as possible, the ability and desire to express thoughts or ideas other than what is spoonfed to the sheeple by The Party would depreciate with each new generation. The ultimate goal of newspeak appears to be to reduce all thoughts to an assenting of some sort, training the citizens into obedience.  

Scary stuff. 

About his own work, Orwell says, “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily WILL arrive, but I believe…that something resembling it COULD arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four was written during the Cold War, when anti-communism was at its height. But even if communism was Orwell’s muse, so to speak, the concepts depicted can be applied to much of what is commonplace in today’s societies. For example, excessive power has been handed to governments and to the main stream media, and both entities are using said power to attempt to control the masses to their benefit. Nineteen Eighty-Four should serve as a warning to us all about the ability of power to corrupt, and how impossible it can be to take back that power once corruption has gained control.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011