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True signs of fall: chowchow and applesauce

Seeing end-of-season green tomatoes instantly takes me back in time to a steamy autumn kitchen, the air filled with the pungent aroma of onions and peppers. Just entering the room caused stinging eyes, but that didn't stop me. The lure of the metal grinder, firmly mounted to the kitchen table, was too much for my 10-year-old self to resist.

Family tradition called for the unripe remains of a bountiful summer harvest to be turned into a relish with the funny name chowchow.

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Just as her mother did before her, Mom would harvest bushels full of hard, green tomatoes, salvaging them from the first damaging rains of autumn. I'm sure that my mom felt it was just another chore, but harvesting those tomatoes and cranking that handle was, to me, an annual routine to be savored.

Green tomatoes are by nature much sturdier than ripe, red ones, meaning that even my well-meaning but kid-careless harvesting techniques couldn't harm them. So my assistance at this stage was welcomed.

When it came time to run them through the grinder, though, Mom hovered - ever mindful to ensure that my tender young fingers stayed away from the sharp blades crushing the green vegetables.

Spinning the handle around, I'd watch as bell peppers and green tomatoes were pulled into the turning screw, the rhythmic crunching sound reaching my ears over the noise of the squeaky handle turning.

The leftover abundance of the garden was turned into a bright green pulp, as the juice dripped from every point of the old grinder, running down to my elbow and then to the floor, where a large towel was ready to catch the overflow.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century. A 30-something me stands in my own kitchen watching my two boys take turns cranking the handle of a vintage 1900s apple peeler, which was salvaged from an old cannery.

My dad had it returned to working order for me. Now, it is removing peels from ripe, yellow Gravenstein apples.

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As the handle spins rhythmically, my boys watch each apple twirl dizzily around until it is completely stripped of its peel. One final turn of the handle, and the core is removed and the apple unceremoniously dumped into a bucket of similarly naked fruit.

Apple peelings pile up on the table and hold a certain fascination for the boys. They drape the peels around their necks, measure to find the longest one, and munch them, proclaiming that the peels are their favorite part.

As the boys operate the peeler, I do just as my mother did, reminding them of the sharp blade and the need to be careful as they help each fruit on its journey from fresh apple to warm applesauce.

In short order, the air fills with a cinnamon-sweet fragrance, and the volcanic bubbling of the cooking fruit signals that the apples have reached sauce stage. Then we ladle it into jars. We know we'll cherish this bottled taste of summer during icy winter days. The boys, each with peeled and cored apples dangling from their fingers, exclaim over the pleasing "tink" of a successfully sealed lid.

Chowchow comes later in the season, but as times have changed, so, too, have my methods. The metal food grinder of my childhood has been replaced with an electric food processor, which makes quick work of the unripe tomatoes, peppers, and onions.

But until some clever person improves upon my old- fashioned method of peeling apples, my industrial-strength apple peeler will come out year after year, enticing my boys to join me in the kitchen in excited anticipation of cranking that handle. And their excitement will do wonders to make this annual task seem like much less of a chore.

Chowchow

12 pounds green tomatoes
8 large onions
10 green bell peppers
3 tablespoons salt
1 quart cider vinegar
3 tablespoons dry mustard
1-3/4 cups sugar

In a food processor, chop tomatoes, onions, and peppers in batches, using the pulse mechanism. Stir together in a large bowl. Sprinkle with the salt and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, drain off the liquid and stir in vinegar, dry mustard, and sugar. Place in a large stockpot and bring to a slow boil; continue boiling until tender (about 15 minutes). Pack into clean canning jars, leaving headspace of 1/2 to 1 inch.

You may refrigerate a jar or two, if they will be used soon. Otherwise, it's best to process the chowchow in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes.

Wipe the jars' rims with a damp cloth to remove any food. Then place a lid on each jar, centering it so the rubber edge fits right over the rim. Screw the rings onto the jars, but don't overtighten.

Place the jars on the rack in the canner and fill with hot water to cover the jars by 1 to 2 inches.

Put the cover on the canner and bring the water to a full rolling boil. Boil for 20 minutes.

Carefully remove the cover and lift the jars out onto a towel. Let cool several hours or overnight.

Finally, check to see that the lids sealed tightly, and then label and date the jars. Makes about 10 quarts.


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