Sunday, July 14, 2013

Preserving the Desert

When we were moving, I got rid of most of my canning jars. Who wants to pack crates of glass 1500 miles down the road? Although I will readily admit that seeing them leave brought on a few preemptive homesick tears. As did the concept of selling our lawn mower. I kept all my essential supplies, like the giant water bath pot, the can rack, funnels, magnet wands, and my cute labels (although those are still MIA in the Giant Sea of Garage Boxes). My canning future was very unsure after this pre-move conversation with a friend living in Phoenix:

Me: Do you have cherries in Arizona?
Katie: Well yeah, you can get cherries at the grocery store.
Me: No, but do they have cherry orchards there? And do they sell big bulk boxes at farm stands?
Katie: Ummm... no. I've never seen that here.

No, fruit that's not blooming off a prickly pear cactus is not easy to come by here. I almost fell over when I saw raspberries at the farmer's market today. And they looked much paler and sadder than any I've ever seen before (and probably cost around $10 for half a pint--not great jam-making prices).

 But last weekend, catching a farmer's market a little before closing, we met a guy who had cratefuls of gorgeous red-and-yellow heirloom tomatoes he didn't want to haul back to his farm. These fruity jewels were full of sugar, flavor, and fragrance, and taste like an entire different species of edibles from their grocery store, uh, cousins? Maybe? Unfortunately in Tucson, even the better grocery stores don't have exceptional produce. So when we were offered this incredible bounty for just $1.50 a pound, we scooped up 15.

I already have a good stash of lovely quartered tomatoes in juice from our garden last year, which aren't being used up very fast here. There's only so many hearty stews and braises you can crave when it's over 100 degrees for 39 days straight. But as I quickly learned, the Ball Book of Preserving doesn't stop at jams and jellies. Get to the back of the book and you get recipes for taco sauce, canned clams in saltwater, and cultivated canned mushrooms. Somewhere in the middle of the adventure spectrum are salsas. 

And if you're to find anything around here, it's bell peppers, onions, green chiles (a southern AZ specialty), and cilantro. One fun thing about the salsa recipes is that you get to pick your own peppers. They want "chili peppers" but that can mean anything from the benign poblano peppers up to habaneros with the casing and seeds left in (for when you want to give away really sadistic Christmas presents). Since we're living in the green chile capital, I wanted to show off the local flavors of our new home. I used half Anaheim chiles, a relatively mild and larger chile pepper, and half jalapenos. They grow so giant and beautiful here! Oregon jalapenos tend to look a little suicidal.

Oh no! But I have no jars! Whatever shall we do?

As fortune (or marketing genius) would have it, Ball just released their anniversary blue, antique-style jars this spring. Are they twice as much as clear jars? YES! Are they just blue and no better? YES! But if you don't understand why they're special, you do not understand me or this blog, and you might as well just go find some Susie Sensibility's Frugal Spartan Kitchen musings to try out.

The jar ransom paid, we returned to the cozy tile kitchen to slice and boil up a spicy storm. Even after the cooking process, this home-canned salsa has a surprisingly fresh flavor. Although you could use an immersion blender to get a smoother consistency, I prefer my salsa chunky, showing up the sparse harvest through blue-colored glasses.

Zesty Salsa (from the Ball Book of Preserving)
10 cups chopped, cored and peeled tomatoes (I didn't peel mine because the skins were so very thin. If you can find these kinds of heirloom varieties, it saves you a gigantic hassle)
5 cups chopped, seeded green bell peppers
5 cups chopped onions
2 1/2 cups chopped and seeded peppers. I used jalapenos and Anaheim chiles
1 1/4 cups cider vinegar
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh chopped cilantro
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp hot pepper sauce (Secret Aardvark, obvi!)

Prepare canner, jars, and lids. If you don't know how to do this, watch YouTube videos or take a class. It's the most important part!

In a large, stainless steel saucepan, combine tomatoes, green peppers, onions, chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, cilantro, salt, and hot pepper sauce. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot salsa. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.

Place jars in canner, ensuring that they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process both 8-oz and 1-pint jars for 15 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool, and store.


  1. Will any jars be flying with you to Seattle Wednesday? I sure hope so....

  2. Very soon you'll be in the middle of citrus season. You can walk down alleys and pick fruit from overhanging branches. I have heard that peaches do very well in some parts of AZ as well. Pomegranates grow there too. You might even find some date trees. There is also an ornamental little bush that is planted here and there that produces a tasty little red fruit that looks like a small plum. It's called the Natal Plum. The longer you are down there the more you will find the desert has to offer.