Monday, August 11, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: August, Week 2

Though August may have the full array of fruits and vegetables to tempt me at the farmers' market, I find that when August rolls around, one overriding thought dominates my food preservation schemes: I have to get as many ripe tomatoes preserved as I can by the time the fall semester starts.

This doesn't mean that all my tomatoes are put up by the end of August. I'll keep canning and saucing and drying those beauties for as long as I pick them up at the market. But August to me means the big push, with all the hard work and sweaty evenings that entails (as I mentioned last year in my first article for the Ethicurean).

So this week, instead of focusing on any one preservation technique, I'm just going to share with you all the myriad ways I keep my tomato longings appeased throughout the winter.

The cherry tomatoes tend to appear first, and those I always dry. In past years, I oven-dried them after coating them with pepper, dried thyme, lots of salt, and a good dousing of olive oil. After they were dry, I packed them in olive oil and stored them in the refrigerator.

Now, though I've never had any problem with storing them this way -– presumably because of all the salt –- I am aware that storing vegetables in oil is not necessarily the safest way to go. And since I had a dehydrator at my disposal for the first round of cherry tomatoes, I dried them on screens in that device without any of the added ingredients –- and they turned out beautifully, with no need to be packed in anything but a clean, dry glass canning jar.

Because of their size, cherry tomatoes can be a little fussy to prepare for drying since you'll need to remove the stems, slice them in half, and scoop out the seeds. The results are well worth the effort, though, because they dry in good time (about 18 to 24 hours in the dehydrator at 135 F, overnight in the oven at 170 F) and don't need to be chopped or soaked before using in recipes. I love their tangy, intense taste and the occasional crisp edge, especially in pasta dishes.

For regular-sized tomatoes, I pull out my giant canner and treat them in one of four ways: canned crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, pizza sauce, or salsa. For each of these methods, you need to know some basic things (outlined so well in a handy guide from the USDA, my source of information):

1. Because many tomato varieties now available have been bred to produce low-acid fruit, you MUST add 1 T lemon juice (I'm told bottled juice is preferred) to each pint of tomatoes to keep the acidity high enough to prevent contamination. For pizza sauce or salsa, you may use recipes without lemon juice if there is adequate vinegar or sugar to preserve the fruit safely, but do not vary those recipes!

2. Though on salsa I sometimes waver, for the most part you will want to skin your tomatoes for a smoother product. This can be done by bringing a large pot of water to boil, dropping in the tomatoes for approximately a minute (until the skin starts to split), and then removing the tomatoes to a bath of very cold or icy water to cool. You can help the process along by cutting a small X into the skin at the bottom of the tomato. Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, the skin will slip easily from the fruit.

3. If you plan to make sauce of any kind from the skinned tomatoes, you'll find that a chinois (conical colander) or a food mill is your best friend. Using one of these, you don't even need to skin the fruit (though it still helps to use the blanching technique to loosen the skins and soften the tomatoes). Either of these tools will help you get the maximum amount of sauce from the tomatoes while keeping out skins and seeds.

4. And as always, make sure your canning jars are free of nicks and cracks, your lids are brand spankin' new, and all your other equipment is lined up as per usual. Safety first!

Crushed tomatoes are a piece of cake (well, metaphorically...). Once you've skinned the tomatoes, trim off any blemished spots and either cut the fruit into quarters or (as I do) crush the tomatoes directly into a large pot with your bare, clean hands. Start with a small amount, mashing the tomatoes a little more if you like and then stirring to prevent burning until the tomatoes boil. Add the rest of the tomatoes, and once all the tomatoes have boiled for five minutes, you're ready to pack your hot sterilized jars.

To each pint of crushed tomatoes, add 1 T lemon juice, and if you like, you can also add 1/2 tsp salt per pint. (For quarts, double the amount.) Fill the jars with tomatoes, using a table knife or a chopstick run around the inside of the jar to allow air bubbles to escape, and allow 1/2" headspace. You may find that it's best to pack the jar as fully as possible with tomato parts, then top off with water, or you'll find a lot of liquid at the bottom of jar once you've finished the process.

Wipe down the jar rims, add lids and rings, and place jars into a boiling water bath. Process pints for 35-50 minutes and quarts for 45-60 minutes, depending on your altitude. Remove jars from the canner, wait for those satisfying pings that tell your jars have sealed, and store the jars in your pantry once they've cooled.

Making tomato sauce requires a little more effort, since you're using the chinois or food mill to strain out the seeds and skins, but I find it's absolutely worth it. I've come to appreciate being able to reach for a jar of already smoothly sauced tomatoes for some of the Indian dishes I love that require a smooth puree of vegetables, and they're handy for making up a small batch of spaghetti sauce, too.

Once you've run the tomatoes through the chinois or the food mill, pour the puree into a large pot and simmer until it reaches the consistency you want. This will take a while, so keep the burner on low to medium-low, stir occasionally, and get something else done in the meantime. When the sauce is thick enough for you, pack and process as you would crushed tomatoes (including using the lemon juice!) –- same jars, same process, same times.

Pizza sauce is a relatively new addition to my canning repertoire, thanks to a recipe I got from a friend last year. I'm not sure where she found it, and I don't know if it would fully pass inspection nowadays, but I had no ill effects from last year's batch. I think the sugar content keeps it safe, and I would also add the usual lemon juice just for an extra measure of safety.

Start with your pureed tomatoes as you would tomato sauce. The only other vegetables added to the pizza sauce are onions (and possibly a hot pepper, though you can use hot sauce instead), and I like to puree those, too, just to keep the sauce smooth. The proportions are as follows:

3 quarts tomato juice/puree
1 large onion, minced or pureed
1/2 tsp hot sauce OR 1 hot pepper, seeded and minced or pureed with onion
1/4 c oil (vegetable or olive)
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 c sugar
2 T salt
1 12-oz can tomato paste
1 T lemon juice per pint

Bring this mixture to a boil, and then simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the sauce has thickened to your liking. Pack into hot sterilized jars, add the 1 T lemon juice per pint, add lids and rings, and process in a boiling water canner (same times as for crushed tomatoes). Makes approximately 5 pints.

My sauce always ends up a little on the thin side, but it works just fine on my weekly pizzas, and I generally get two pizzas out of one jar of sauce. I've put up five pints already, which is what I made last year, so if I can at least double that, there's twenty weeks' worth of pizzas made for lunches –- a pretty good deal!

For salsa, I don't have a set recipe to give you as I'm still finding out what I like. The aforementioned tomato guide has a number of salsa recipes to try, and you're sure to find many others online, so search and sample. It's pretty easy to make (easier if you don't skin the tomatoes), and it's so satisfying to pop open a jar of homemade salsa when you've got the craving!

There are, of course, other things you can do with tomatoes:

--make tomato juice and can it
--make tomato paste and can it (too much work, even for me!)
--make catsup or chili sauce
--make spaghetti sauce (to be frozen or canned in a pressure canner ONLY)

For me, though, I stick with the basic four since those are the products I will use the most.

So when you find yourself faced with a bumper crop of tomatoes this month, take a deep breath -– and can it!

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At 8/12/2008 9:58 PM, Blogger Alyssa said...

What variety of tomatoes are you using?

At 8/13/2008 7:14 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

I'm assuming you mean for the canning, Alyssa, and I pretty much go with whatever "meaty" or paste tomatoes I find during the season. What I've used so far have been Early Girls, Goliaths, and maybe a Rutgers or two from my own garden. When the Amish Paste tomatoes come in, I'll use those, too. Ask the farmers what tomatoes are better for slicing (more juicy) and better for canning (more flesh).

At 8/13/2008 10:28 AM, Anonymous Janet said...

I am *definitely* passing this post on to my sister whose inaugural garden is flooding her with tomatoes. What a great bunch of options, Jennifer. Thanks!

At 8/13/2008 10:37 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

You're very welcome, Janet! I'm sure I'll be making more pizza sauce this weekend, between today's CSA pickup and a gift of homegrown tomatoes from a co-worker. Here we go again...!!!


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