Enjoy Summer Flavor All Year

by Michele Mierwald, '11, chef/owner, Sweet Heat Gourmet.

Michelle Mierwald, a 2011 graduate of culinary arts technology, shared one of her ideas for preserving your garden’s bounty.

After graduation, Mierwald, who lives in State College, started Sweet Heat Gourmet, where she produces hot sauce, barbecue sauce and a variety of other products, all using products from local farmers.

Garden Salsa (yields 6 pints or so)

6 pounds of tomatoes
Skin and seeds removed
9 chili peppers
Depending on how much heat you like. You can add jalapenos, serranos, etc.
3 cups diced red onion
Again, don’t be afraid to play around with this; if you like Vidalias, use those, or white Spanish onions. You can add less or more depending on whether you like or don’t like an “oniony” flavor.
1½ cups chopped cilantro
I add less to my salsa; I’m not a huge fan of cilantro.
15 cloves of garlic
You can also roast the garlic first; the garlic will become sweeter and have a toned-down flavor. Just cut the top off the bulb, rub it in oil, tightly wrap it in foil and roast in an oven until the cloves are soft.
1 tablespoon of salt
¾ teaspoons of chili flakes
Again, add more or less depending on your heat tolerance.
¾ cup red wine vinegar
Important to keep the recipe high-acid.

Other ingredients you can add to this recipe to make it your own: lime juice, black beans, white beans, yellow or green squash – anything you have an abundance of in your garden will probably taste good in a garden salsa. Don’t be afraid to play around with your ingredients!

After you have all your ingredients, put them in a pot and bring it up to a simmer. I simmer mine about 10 minutes, just until I know it is heated through all the way. If you prefer, you can simmer it longer, depending on how you want your salsa to come out.

Heat the water in your canner to a simmer, about 180 degrees. Place the empty jars in the water, to disinfect and cleanse them, for about 10 minutes.

Take them out and add the hot salsa to the hot jars. This is called “hot packing.” Place a knife along the side of the jar and gently push on the salsa to release any air bubbles. Fill the jars and leave about a half-inch of head space.

Place the lids and bands in the hot water to disinfect and heat up, as well. Place the lids and bands on top of the jars.

Place the salsa-filled jars back in the hot water, making sure there is enough water to cover all the jars by at least an inch. Turn the heat up (this is important), and bring to a rolling boil. The water has to be at least 212 degrees and must process at a rolling boil for at least 15 minutes.

Remove the jars. Let them cool on the counter with at least 2 inches of space between them for 12 to 24 hours. Enjoy listening to the “popping” noise the lids make as they cool; this means they were canned properly and have sealed!

After graduation, Mierwald, who lives in State College, started Sweet Heat Gourmet, where she produces hot sauce, barbecue sauce and a variety of other products, all using products from local farmers. Photo by Jennifer A. Cline.I like this recipe because you don’t have to pressure-cook it. You have to pressure-cook foods that are low in acid; since the recipe is high in acid, it’s done in a hot-water bath instead.

You should make sure you have the right equipment. You do need a canner for this recipe, or any canning recipe. It comes with a “shelf” that the jars sit on, so they are not directly sitting on the bottom of the pot, which could be dangerous.

And I’d tell anyone, don’t be intimidated by canning! This is an easy process to learn and a great way to capture summer in a jar. With all the wonderful fruits and produce that come out in the summer, you can save money by canning these for later use, and they just taste wonderful. Nothing like eating farm-fresh corn or tomatoes on a cold and snowy day!

Eat Local, Eat Better

Produce at the Williamsport Grower’s Market, where, during a Penn College class assignment, the inspiration for Sweet Heat Gourmet was born. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.Meet your farmers.

The motto is a perfect fit for Michelle Mierwald's Sweet Heat Gourmet, the young company she began in her home kitchen.

But to her, it's much more than a business slogan.

"It's important to me because I believe so passionately about using local foods," said Mierwald, a 2011 culinary arts technology graduate who buys ingredients for her sauces and salsas at local farmers markets, then returns to the markets to sell her products – with labels listing the farms whose ingredients are used. "Where else can you talk directly to the person you buy your food from? And all of the money goes directly to the person who brings that product to the market."

Visit a farmers market and ask the vendors about their products. Learn how they’re grown or what they’re made from. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.She can go on about the benefits of eating local, "I don't know one farmer who uses chemicals on their plants or uses genetically altered seeds."

How does she know? She takes her motto to heart, getting to know the producers from whom she buys.

"When you go to a farmers market, don't be afraid to ask any of the farmers questions," she said. "They are passionate about what they grow and are more than happy to talk to you about their fruit and produce."

Listing more advantages of buying local, she points out that our carbon footprint decreases when the distance our food travels is lessened.

But one of the biggest benefits of buying local is also the simplest: taste.

"Produce and fruits that have been picked that morning – you just can't beat that flavor. And the farmers do, literally, pick the produce and fruits either that morning, depending on what it is, or within a couple days before," Mierwald said. "And the freshness. Nothing added, nothing sprayed, just produce that is just what it was meant to be, grown and eaten in the way it was intended."

She pinpoints the roots of Sweet Heat Gourmet to a class project while at Penn College. As part of her Catering course, she and a pair of classmates were student managers for the class's annual "Customer Appreciation" event at the Williamsport Growers Market.

Products available at farmers markets include the freshest fruits and vegetables, but also baked goods, organic soaps and lotions, baskets, ice cream, and a wide variety of other handmade goods (including sauces and salsas). Photo by Mark A. Blanchard."We gathered donations from the vendors, developed recipes with the donations and returned and served the public free food," she explained. "It was a wonderful event that both the local vendors and the public enjoyed. I had a blast getting to know the vendors and learning about their products and began thinking of a way I could learn more about local foods in my own area and how I could use this in combination with my culinary degree."

Classically trained by Penn College's chef-instructors, Mierwald once dreamed of opening her own restaurant, but the overhead and capital required were just too great.

"But I also decided to do what I'm doing because of my family," explained the mother of three, who was 40 when she enrolled at Penn College. "I didn't want to spend 70 hours a week in a kitchen furthering someone else's dream. And I wanted to show my daughters that you can really do anything you put your mind to, no matter what age. Having my own line of products frees me up to spend time with my family."

Her products are sold in the State College area and on the Sweet Heat Gourmet website. But Mierwald encourages those living outside central Pennsylvania to make connections in their own back yards.

"I would encourage anyone to check out their local farmers market and meet their farmers," she said. "It's a great experience, and you just learn to eat better."

-- Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue

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