My Day-After-Thanksgiving Tradition

Scrolling through my inbox this morning, the impression is that I, and everyone in the world, absolutely must go shopping today. Better yet, we all should have been in line somewhere at midnight to buy an outrageously huge electronic device at a once-in-a-lifetime price. But here I am, at home, having just deleted 187 of those Black Friday emails. And I'm not even sorry.

Dad's smoked turkey staying warm in the electric roaster.

Dad's smoked turkey staying warm in the electric roaster.

Is there something wrong with me? Did this momma finally crack under the pressure and forget that she has 5 kids that will be disappointed without the best. gift. EVER? Nah, I'm okay. Really, I am. It's just that I have something far more important to do today than to feed the corporate money munching machine. I am not teaching my kids that we need more, I am showing them how to be content with what we have. I am giving them a lesson in using the things we have been given to their fullest, and not being wasteful. How is this being accomplished? By the homely act of making turkey broth.

If you have never made your own broth or stock, you are missing out! It is simple to do, costs next to nothing, and is far superior to what you will find at the grocery store. The cost is minimal because you start with something that many folks would consider trash - the turkey carcass. Please, for the love of all that is delicious, don't put those leftover bones, and skin, and inedible bits of turkey into the garbage! I pick off as much meat as I can, and save it for making casseroles and sandwiches and pot pies. Everything else goes into my big electric roaster.

I like to use the electric roaster for several reasons. First, I already own it. I wouldn't run out and buy one just to make broth, but it does make things easier. So if you have one, use it. Second, it is HUGE. I can put the carcass into the roaster completely intact. If you don't have one, you will need to use the largest pot you own and break the turkey up so that it fits into the pot. Third, I feel pretty comfortable leaving the roaster plugged in and turned on even if I'm not there to keep and eye on it. Not so if I'm using a pot on the stove, but feel free to use your stovetop if you'll be able to hang around for a few hours. 

Once the carcass is in your cooking implement of choice, the only thing that you absolutely must add is water. Enough to cover the turkey. If your pot isn't big enough to completely cover the bird without spilling, that's okay. Just use as much as you can. As the turkey cooks down, it will break apart and won't stand so tall in the pan. If your turkey had aromatics in the cavity (onions, garlic, carrots, etc) then go ahead and include those. If not, add those now. This year, my turkey had apples and onions. But my go-to combination for making broth is carrots, onions, and celery. If you are adding them, go ahead and scrub the carrot, but there is no need to peel them or the onions. Your celery can include the leaves. It will all be strained at the end, so you don't have to be particular about preparing them. Just whack the onion into quarters, and cut the carrots and celery in half and toss them all in your pot. Add some herbs, fresh if you are able, and a bit of garlic if you are so inclined. It could be roasted garlic if you are feeling extra industrious. Then turn on the heat to medium-low and let it cook.

I actually put my turkey into the roaster yesterday evening and let it cook all night. As I said, I feel comfortable leaving the big roaster unattended. But you may want to start cooking your broth in the morning and let it go until afternoon so you can keep an eye on it. After several hours at a very low simmer, the bones will completely separate from each other. The fat will be rendered completely, and even the toughest bits of meat that you weren't able to pick off before will be tender at this point. The broth should be golden in color, and should have a nice aroma. I don't usually taste it at this point, because the fat will be floating on top and there will be a lot of it. We will take care of that later. For now, we need to separate the liquid stock from the solids.

The simplest way to strain your stock is to place a large colander on top of a large pot, and pour or ladle your stewed goodies into it. The stock will run through into the pot below, and the solids will be caught in the colander above. If you want a clear broth, you could line the colander with a piece of cheesecloth, but I personally don't mind the smaller bits of meat and herbs that end up in my broth. I think of them as magic flavor bits. Now you could just defat your stock, and throw the solids out. But... It's amazing to me, every single time I do this, just how much meat ends up in that strainer even though I had picked the bird clean before starting the process. There is no need to be wasteful - pick through the colander and remove as much of that meat as you can before throwing out the skin, bones (keep and eye out for the wishbone!), herb stems, and vegetable scraps. The meat that I saved will be going into turkey soup with rosemary dumplings tonight. (I just skip the first paragraph of instructions, and substitute the homemade stock and saved turkey for the chicken, water, and broth.) So now that you have your solids handled, it's time to defat the broth.

Turkey meat, bones, and herbs left in the strainer after pouring the broth through.

Turkey meat, bones, and herbs left in the strainer after pouring the broth through.

If you have a specially designed cup for separating fat from broth, now is the time to bust that out of the cabinet and use it! But if not, there are other methods. Let the broth cool down, then add a few large handfuls of ice cubes. After a few minutes, the fat will have solidified and stuck to the ice floating on the surface. Just scoop it out into the strainer that you already got dirty when you strained the solids. Place it in the sink and let the ice melt out before throwing the fat away. Or you can refrigerate the stock and wait for the fat to float to the top. It may not harden completely, but it will thicken up enough that it can be spooned off the top and discarded. 

Now that the broth has been defatted, give it a taste. Add a bit of salt if needed, but if your bird was well seasoned you may not find it necessary. Now you can refrigerate your stock and use it all week long, pour it into freezer containers to store for up to 6 months, or pressure can it in quart or pint jars and save it for a year or more. My kids and I will be making soup to eat after the big Apple Cup game today (go Cougs!), keeping some for risotto tomorrow, and canning the rest.

My shelves full of home canned foods. Much of the turkey broth will end up here.

My shelves full of home canned foods. Much of the turkey broth will end up here.

We might not have made the purchase of a lifetime at 4am. Or pushed our way through crowds  toward a 50% off mega-splash-dyno-tastic toy. But that's okay. I'll shop on Small Business Saturday and feel good about that. But today my wallet and I won't be going anywhere. We're just going to spend one more day being grateful that we have far more than we need.

Tomatoes: Past & Present


I started vegetable gardening as a hobby in 2008. It had became very important to me to grow tomatoes -- the sweet, fat, juicy tomatoes that I remembered from my childhood. And I knew, that in order to grow tomatoes that were different from the ones I had been buying, that I should talk to an expert. So I went to my Uncle Mike. I talked to him about my seeds, watering, and which fertilizers were the best. I listened to every word he said, because his garden was a magical place and he was, therefore, a tomato wizard.

Metal monster lurking at Uncle Mike's place


My family would visit Mike's garden at least once every summer. Sometimes we would watch him catch a swarm of bees. Other times we would just pick vegetables for home canning. And if you could eat it, it grew there. If the grocery store carried 100 vegetables, then Mike grew 1000. The green bean plants were so tall that you needed a ladder to even get close to the tops. Onions were the size of grapefruit. Rhubarb leaves were 6 feet across. Sweet, crispy corn on the cob grew in row upon row upon row. There were cucumbers of all sizes. I hated cucumbers, but I sure did like the pickles Dad would make from them. Carrots, potatoes, garlic, cabbage, beets... And tomatoes. Those were the tomatoes that I wanted to grow.

I didn't know why Mike's tomatoes were better than the ones I had been buying, but I knew they were better. The skins weren't tough. They had more flavor. Was it the variety that he was growing? Was it the fertilizer?

It only took a single gardening season for me to realize that tomatoes grown at home were better, even if they came from a first time grower like me. But it took me seven more years to really understand why. Part of it is in the satisfaction you get from knowing that you are, quite literally, eating the fruits of your labor.

Homegrown 1.5 pound tomato

But there are two other major factors to consider, and it applies not just to tomatoes.

The first is the variety, the specific breed. When I look at a catalog before buying my seeds, I am choosing based on the description of that tomato. I am looking for one with robust flavor. High nutrient content. Natural disease resistance. One with meaty pulp for making sauce. Or one that grows colorful cherry tomatoes for snacking. Maybe I am looking for one that matures even if the summer is cool and rainy. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, and I can pick exactly what I want. My garden is personalized for my tastes. Compare this to what you get at the grocery store. In general, you will see three different displays of tomatoes. There is usually one pile of big slicing tomatoes, one Roma type, and usually one cherry tomato as well. So instead of hundreds of choices, you have three. If you're talking about something like zucchini or celery, you may only have one choice. That's not really "choosing" at all. Rather, it is the grower that made the decision for you. And that decision is based on what is important to the grower, not what is important to you or I. Varieties shipped to grocery stores are typically chosen because they are cost effective, they look attractive to the buyer, they are of a uniform size to make packaging easier, they can withstand the bumps and bruises of transportation over long distances, and, somewhere in there, taste also comes into play. Odds are, the grower and I will not be choosing the same variety to plant this year.

Second, is the method of ripening. the vast majority of tomatoes purchased in a typical grocery store were picked while they were still green. They are brought to warehouses where they are exposed to ethylene gas. This is the same gas that is naturally emitted during field ripening, and the tomatoes, recognizing nature's signal, ripen right on cue. (1) Again, this aids the grower -- not the buyer. Green tomatoes don't spoil, and because they are still hard when green they can get tossed around without damaging the product. As a home gardener, we would never pick a tomato green unless a hard frost was about to destroy our crop - along with our caprese salad hopes and dreams.

Caprese salad with handmade mozzarella

We've all heard that vine-ripened tomatoes taste better, and that they are better for you. Is that true? Or is that just a myth being propagated by critics of the food industry? According to a paper (2) published in the Journal of Food Science in the year 2000, there was a both a nutritional and a perceived difference. The paper combined information from past studies (from the 1920's through the 1990's) with a new study that was designed to eliminate factors that could cause skewed results. What they found was pretty clear. The tomatoes that were allowed to ripen naturally on the plants had higher nutritional value than their gas-ripened counterparts. Their lycopene content was 32.51% higher. Lycopene is a free-radical anti-oxidant, which can help protect against cancer. (3) Their beta carotene content was 32.66% higher. Beta carotene is converted to Vitamin A, and may help prevent certain cancers and slow down the progress of age-related macular degeneration. (4) The vine-ripened tomatoes had better color, they were firmer when ripe, and taste-testers liked them better.

This doesn't sound like haters bashing The Food Industry, you won't find me spreading conspiracy theories and nutritional propoganda. This is just science, backed up by studies and the National Institute of Health. I feel very confident when I say that tomatoes that are allowed to ripen naturally, like those grown at home, or the ones you'll find at a Farmer's Market, really are better. Plant a few this year, I'll show you Mike's way. Start choosing real food, healthy food, the way it was meant to be.





New Year, New Garden

For the last week my social media feed has been filled with friends' New Year's resolutions, jump-start diet plans, and tips on finally getting organized. But I can't seem to focus on any of that because it has arrived. The first seed catalog for 2016 has arrived in my mailbox, and I can't put it down.

Territorial Seed Company catalog

Territorial Seed Company catalog

I've been poring over all of last year's notes. Did we start enough pepper seeds? Did we use up the last of our home-canned peaches? I've also been drawing design layouts. More rows for tomatoes? Where can I sneak in a few more herbs? But mostly, I've been thinking about how much I love the whole process, and the closeness it brings to my family. My kids are great helpers, and it brings me so much joy to see them take an interest in where our food really comes from. My sweet little Rachael, 3 years old at the time, planted 186 onions by herself last year!

Rachael drying fresh onions

Rachael drying fresh onions

Ellie and Martin have both been spotted eating peas and tomatoes straight off the plants more than once. All of the kids help pull weeds, pick vegetables, and haul buckets of scraps over to the compost pile. It makes my heart sing. But what really makes me happy is getting to start another garden with my husband. He and I struggle to work together at times -- I tend to plan things to death, whereas he just jumps in and gets things done. In other words, I'm a procrastinator and he does everything wrong because it isn't my way. The poor guy rarely catches a break. But when it comes to the garden, we're always perfectly in sync. I start planning the second the catalog arrives. For two whole months I draw, label, order, sort, and analyze every little detail -- on paper. And then, when that first week of February comes around, he jumps into action. In just one day, our seed starting trays are all filled, planted, labeled, watered, and on temperature controlled heat mats with lights hanging precisely over the top. Without him, this garden of ours would likely never get off paper and into the ground. But with his help, things just get done. And we grow a lot. We grow nutritious food for our family. We grow hundreds of plants for our community. We grow our marriage.