canning logoTim Carman at the Washington City Paper tipped us off to Kim O’Donnel’s “Canning Across America” effort with a write-up over at Young & Hungry yesterday evening, and it put us in a thoughtful mood.  Though we don’t have the equipment to do full-on long-term storage canning, we try our best to prolong the flavors of summer here at Capital Spice.

We can’t get enough of our homemade half sour pickles (and apparently neither can you!).   We’ve even tried our hands at quick-pickling a variety of other vegetables to make our our giardiniera-style snacks.  And we’re very popular around the holidays when handing out jars of bourbon-soaked cherries and peaches.  While we may not be raising our tongs in solidarity with canners across the country this weekend, we definitely support the cause.

As much as we might enjoy making smoky, tangy gazpacho (using both heirloom AND hybrid tomatoes from the farmers’ market…Jane Black would be proud), it can get a bit pricey to go around throwing 5 or 6 pounds of tomatoes into the food processor each week when you’re shelling out $3, $4, even $5 per pound.  Thankfully, there’s a way to make your share of season-stretching recipes without breaking the bank – even if you don’t have your own backyard garden or orchard to pick on.  They’re known as “seconds,” but they’re the first thing I go for at the market.

The joy of “secs” after the jump.

gazpacho2Now I know that I’m working against my own self-interest by sharing this with you, but it’s too good not to.  I even alluded to it when I first wrote about making gazpacho last fall…but I can safely say most of you have never seen that post before today so I’m sharing it again now. 

Come to think of it, I’m not sure if I’m violating some sort of Secret Canners’ Code by telling you this.  I shudder to think of what the penalty for violating the code might be…  If I wind up missing, tell the police to check with all the local craft stores to see if anyone has recently purchased a 200-gallon Ball jar or an industrial-sized pressure canner.

Seconds, as the name implies, are produce that the farmer deems unfit for retail sale.  You see them most often among soft-fleshed fruits like tomatoes and peaches – items that can bruise or even split during transport.  If the damage looks like something that will turn off the average market shopper, the piece of fruit gets pulled from the display and set aside.

Photo Credit: mercedesfromtheeighties via Wikimedia Commons

For some farmers, that’s the end of the story.  They take their damaged items home for their own personal use (up to and including composting).  But we’re coming across an increasing number of vendors who let the market decide just what can be sold and what can’t.  No doubt spurred on by the increased interest in homemade jams, chutneys and other preserves, these farmers offer their bruised beauties at a steep discount to those of us who don’t need to worry about what the fruit looks like on the outside for our preparations.

Prices differ from vendor to vendor and market to market, but you can generally expect to pay less than half what you would pay for first-quality fruit when purchasing seconds.  At the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market on Thursdays, we’ve found seconds for $1.50 a pound at a stand where heirlooms were going for almost $4 a pound.  In Crystal City on Tuesdays, where prices are generally lower to begin with, heirlooms can be had for less than $3 a pound, and seconds can be found for as little as ninety-nine cents a pound.

The first few times I approached vendors about purchasing their seconds, I felt a little bit guilty – as though I were trying to cheat them.  After all, wasn’t I getting that same rich, vibrant flavor?  Since then, I’ve come to see it as a win-win situation in which I get a deal and the farmers get something for fruit that would otherwise have gone unsold.  And it’s a great way to really start to talk with the grower – you’ve already started a conversation by asking if they’d be willing to sell some seconds (assuming there isn’t a sign posted one way or the other).

IMG_9167What do we do with our seconds?  In addition to those weekly batches of gazpacho, this year we found ourselves seeking out white peaches to puree and freeze.  They have such a short growing season around here, you really do have to grab them while you can.  And their lighter, sweeter flavor makes their puree almost sorbet-like without having to add anything else.  Of course, it’s also nice to scoop a little frozen white peach puree into the bottom of a champagne flute and then top it with prosecco – a light, refreshing take on a Bellini that makes for a great way to kick off brunch.

This week I made my biggest seconds score yet: a crate of white peaches for $10 (even more of a deal than their usual ninety-nine cents a pound).  I paid it without a moment’s hesitation, confident that I was getting at least ten pounds of usable peaches in the haul.  As it turns out, the crate weighed in at more than 26 pounds, and I went home with enough white peaches to fill our freezer with containers of the delicious puree.

Next time you find yourself at one of the various farmers’ markets around town, ask about their seconds.  Whether you use them in a soup, a jam or even a slow-simmered tomato sauce, you’ll be able to save some cash without skimping on flavor.