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TheLastJar It’s July and we are down to our last jar of tomatoes. Woo hoo! That we have made it this far without running out is a sign that it’s been a good year. There are times when I don’t have the time or money to get more than a couple of batches finished. When that happens, every trip to my parents’ house ends with me lugging a box of quarts home from my Mom’s overflowing pantry.

 I vividly remember many days sitting across from Mom while she shook the water out of a jar of tomatoes before adding them to a pan of spaghetti sauce or goulash. Draining tomatoes in the jar is an art form; you have to simultaneously block the tomatoes from falling out and keep them from trapping the water inside. She would place one hand over the mouth, one hand on the bottom, and shake it into the kitchen sink, staring in concentration out the picture window that overlooks the farm.  It’s a constant memory of my childhood.

 Now that I’m on my own I stick to the basics that Mom taught me: blanch ripe tomatoes and slip off the skin, pack them tight, and use the end of a rubber spatula to get out the air pockets (the plastic doesn’t tend to pierce the tomatoes).  

But since those early days I’ve learned from other women along my way. Sue told me about putting a little diced onion, garlic, and bell pepper in each jar for an even easier way of cooking, and now I do almost all of mine this way. Meg taught me to zip them in the food processor for a smooth kid-friendly sauce. 

And my repertoire has expanded beyond spaghetti and goulash. Coconut chicken curry, eggplant parmesan, pizza sauce, and a multitude of soups-- canned tomatoes are the most versatile thing in my pantry.  It’s funny the things that you can learn, how a solid foundation can lead into so many good things.

So with this last jar waiting to be enjoyed and tomato harvest only a month away, I feel like I’ve made it, at least this year. When Mom asks if I need any of hers to take home, I can stand on my own two feet and say “Thanks Mom. I have plenty.”

Following is an excerpt from Lucie's Kitchen, a collection of stories and recipes from Lucie Olmstead's life coming out soon.

Clyde was home on leave from the Navy. He wasn't sure when he would be home again, so he and Helen planned their wedding on a Friday, August 12, 1955. Her sister Alice's wedding was the next day, but that was OK. Helen's wedding was a happy party, a casual gathering of friends and family glad to see the young couple get their start. Nothing extravagant.

Helen and Clyde would go on to live and raise four children in their hometown, together for close to 60 years-- and counting.

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Newlyweds Helen & Clyde Jenkins (center), with matron of honor Sally McDermid and best man, friend of Clyde.

When asked for a favorite recipe from Aunt Helen's daughter Tricia, this main dish was her pick. But like Edna's Scalloped Corn and Lucie's pies, Helen's Beef Tips and Noodles weren't tied to a hard and fast recipe. "Oh, I just use some leftover roast beef, add some gravy, and boil some noodles." reported Helen. "Homemade noodles though." she added. That's the key: her kids loved this dish, but the noodles are essential. "They're just egg and flour," Helen said "but the kids ate those first."

That's the truth, isn't it? Sometimes the most practical, uncomplicated things are what we crave the most.

Beef Tips and Noodles

by Helen Jenkins

Ingredients
Cooked roast beef
Gravy
Noodles

Cut the roast beef into chunks and brown over medium heat in a heavy skillet. Make gravy separately and add to the pan. Stir in cooked noodles.

Noodles

by Lucie Olmstead

Ingredients
1 egg
salt
1 T cream, milk, or water (or 1 tsp butter)
Flour

Mix the egg, salt, and cream together in a bowl. Add enough flour to form a soft ball.

Roll on a well-floured area to the desired thickness. From one end, roll the sheet up into a log. Cut the rolled dough into 1" wide sliced, then uncurl each noodle. Allow to dry for 1-2 hours. Drop noodles one at a time into boiling water or soup (after everything else in the soup is cooked). Cook in boiling water for 5-7 minutes.

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What I wouldn’t give for a greenhouse right now.

The warm, humid smell of green things growing is enough to make me happy for a week during midwinter’s freeze. 

I have been known to make friends for the express purpose of visiting their hoop houses in winter, oohing and ahhing over tomatoes in March while breathing deeply the moist earthy air.

In winter, I dream of growing again.

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My favorite seed catalog, hands down. Seriously, get this.

Seed companies know this. Delicious catalogs bring hope to my mailbox in January and February, and while the cold winds blow, far away from tedious weeding and watering in summer's sauna, while last year's worries about insects and mildew and blights are a distant memory, I imagine possibilities.

And I buy three years’ worth of seeds.

But in all of my planning and dreaming, I have to watch it. Because right now it's Winter, and it has its purpose too. If I spend too much time looking forward, I’ll wish the time away.

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The apple tree on my parents' farm. We've harvested from it for as long as I can remember.

 

Apple trees know this. In fact, they welcome winter.

Why?

Apple trees, like many fruit trees, need a minimum number of cold winter days before they are able to fruit in the summer. If they don’t get it, their system doesn’t reboot and can’t gear up for the major task of fruiting in summer.

Sure, Becky, you say, I know all about taking a Sabbath day.

But I’m not talking about a day off. I’m talking WINTER: hibernation, Moses in the wilderness, Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. A long isolation from growth and a slowing down, spending only what’s necessary with your reserves. Deep rest.

The apple tree doesn't fight winter. Instead, it prepares for it by moving energy reserves to its roots, dropping leaves, and hardening its wood against the cold. If it pretended that winter wasn't coming, stayed supple and tried to keep growing leaves, it would break and die. So it hunkers down in acceptance.

And it knows that spring will come again.

Winter comes in many forms in our lives. Maybe your finances need a reset, or your health is washed out. Maybe it’s time for a career change or a re-evaluation of relationships. But whatever your winter, don’t waste it.

You'll need it, come spring.

What's your winter these days?

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Hard FoughtOne day in November, the final canning session for the season was over. Ten quarts of applesauce would have to do, stretching themselves through the winter months for our family of 5. It’s not what I’d hoped for, but it was the best I could do given the circumstances.

The jars watched me from their perch on the kitchen racks, waiting for me to finish the last chore: carrying them down to the basement pantry. I finally relented to their stares, grabbing a random armful of jars on my trips to the laundry room.

As I opened the old slatwood cupboard doors that shield the pantry shelves, I expected to see an empty space. With the start of a full time job this year followed by a midsummer move, this wasn’t my most productive canning season. I had, in fact, been hosting a bit of a pity party about everything I didn’t accomplish this year: jam, tomatoes, pickles (thankfully I was a little overzealous with my Picklepalooza last year), let alone time for trips to the beach and the zoo with my kids, knitting, gardening, my plans for sheep…. sometimes I wonder if my “want to” list will ever live up to my expectations.

But as I reached up to place the jars on the top shelf, I was surprised to see that the cupboard was almost full. Relish, salsa verde, and a surprising amount of peaches. When did that happen?

I scanned the shelves in front of me and the answer came: every jar was hard fought this year.

There were no lazy days meandering the farmers market or afternoons driving to u-pick berry farms on a whim. Rather, I power shopped at the farmers market on my half-hour lunch and hogged the work refrigerator until it was time to go home.

It wasn’t easy. Canning this year made me yearn for the slower days when I had lots of time and little money, when I savored every bite of my day. This year I straddled the fence between the fast lane and the homemaker, gripping tight to the handful of hours in-between to preserve my ideal. Sometimes I thought it would be better to give in, to just buy the damn food and stop trying so hard.

But then what?

But then I would have missed the joy: the memory of pecking our way around the back roads to find the peach farm on our way home from a weekend up north, and later, the warmth of my husband and kids pitching in to help can the fuzzy orbs in the evenings.

Absent would be the pride at the dinner table whenever a jar of jam or salsa was popped open, or the relief on those days when I hadn’t made it to the grocery store yet and could send applesauce to school.

I would have missed out, too, on meeting new farm friends at the farmer’s market, and entertaining co-workers with my armfuls of produce. “What did you buy today, Becky?” was something I looked forward to every Wednesday, as well as passing out the spare cucumber or apple.

I didn’t get to everything on my list this year, but it was more than nothing.

This year was hard. Not bad, just a whole lot of work that hasn’t produced fruit yet. It will, I’m confident, but sometimes when you are in the middle of pursuing a dream, when it’s all work and little reward, it’s easy to lose sight of joy. It pays to take a step back, scan your progress so far, and recognize your progress instead of your missed goals.

You might be surprised at what you see.

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