Love and Tomato Paste

Years ago we moved to southern Oregon, bought an old farmhouse on ten acres of wooded land and embarked on a three year adventure of living a 1980′s pioneer lifestyle, reminiscent of a much earlier time.

Grocery bills were low because so many friends had gardens and were glad to load up our car with produce they couldn’t possibly consume. One friend raised a couple of beef a year and we filled our freezer with grass-fed, no steroids steaks, roasts and hamburger. We ate eggs from free-range chickens.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen - learning to become a food processor. I needed to cook, can, freeze and take full advantage of the wondrous bounty of living in the country where things grow almost effortlessly.

My friend Betty called one day, saying she had a couple hundred pounds of tomatoes and asked if we would like to have half of them. Of course.

We decided to get together and spend a day  preparing them for the pantry/freezer. We had the larger kitchen, so she and her husband came to our house early the next morning.

The four of us spent the entire day canning dozens of quarts of tomatoes, making gallons of tomato sauce and slicing tomatoes for the food dryer. Near the end of the day, someone (who shall remain nameless) suggested that for storage space purposes, we cook down the last few batches of sauce into tomato paste. What a great idea!

We put it on simmer and ate dinner. We stirred and played cards. We simmered some more and reflected on our day. We felt like marathon runners who were nearing the finish line and needed just one more big push, on simmer.

But at ten o’clock, with the sauce still sauce and not paste, Betty and I couldn’t hold our eyes open any more and retreated to the living room to nap, leaving the guys in charge.

When the smoke alarm (the brain’s panic button) went off, I ran to the kitchen. “It’s okay,” Roger said, fanning the alarm. “The kitchen is hot from having the stove on all day.” (Old farmhouses don’t have air conditioners and most Oregonians don’t know anything about swamp coolers!) ”We’ll bring the fan in here and move the air around.”

Still no tomato paste, so I went back to the recliner. A few minutes later, there it went again. I plugged my ears and stayed put.

The third time, I was wrapped in sleep like a baby in a blanket. I wasn’t worried about the house burning down, but I was highly annoyed (as in VERY ANGRY) at being awakened by that horrible noise. Two grown men in the kitchen and they couldn’t figure out how to keep the darn thing from going off! What’s wrong with them?

I charged into the kitchen like a bull in a china shop, ready to do battle. The first thing I saw when I got there was a banner hanging on the wall with these words written in large letters:

“No greater love hath any man than to can whilst his wife sleeps.”

What’s a girl to do?  I don’t know about you, but I smiled and went back to bed.


Some Foods Just Don’t Mix

Learning to cook is an ongoing process of discovery. You learn flavor combinations and cooking techniques that work and some that don’t. Unfortunately, sometimes you learn the hard way.

One of my early discoveries came about simply because I don’t like going to the grocery store for one or two items. It’s especially true if I’ve committed to cooking something right now and discover I’m out of, or short on a particular ingredient. The idea of stopping to go to the store just isn’t acceptable if there are any other options.

So I’ve been known to substitute ingredients, or find a recipe for the lacking store bought item and make it from scratch. (This tells you it isn’t just the time factor I object to; it’s the interruption. I’d rather cook than run to the store.)

Most of the time, my substitutions are right out of the book: yogurt for sour cream, diluted canned milk for 2%, white sugar and molasses for brown sugar. But sometimes, circumstances demand creative thinking.

I was up to the challenge that muggy summer day in Oregon when I decided not to heat up the kitchen for dinner. I reached for my trusty Jello cookbook and sure enough, I found a great recipe for a salad made with lime Jello, celery, onion, mayo and diced chicken. It sounded wonderful and exactly what I was looking for.

I went to the pantry – oops, no lime Jello. No lemon, either. Only Strawberry. Well, why wouldn’t that work?

Then to the freezer for the cooked chicken. Oops, out of that, too. I couldn’t skip the meat because I was feeding my husband, teenage son Brett and his buddy Ben.  As luck would have it, I found a pound of cooked ground beef. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was better than going to the store. So I forged on.

The results were less than spectacular. Brown meat in red Jello doesn’t make the grade. They wouldn’t eat it. They didn’t want to taste it.  Shoot, they didn’t even want to look at it! I think they settled for grilled cheese and something.

In my own defense, I will say the flavor wasn’t as bad as they anticipated, but there were consequences. They’ve never forgotten it. None of them. When invited to dinner after that,  Ben always asked, “What’s your mom fixing?” before he said yes. Jello salads became less of a desired food item in our house. I gave away my Jello cookbook. And the worst thing about it was I’d made a double batch!