Tomato Time


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July is when the garden really hits its stride, I've been cutting basil for a few weeks now and picked a few squash and okra, but the tomatoes in particular are coming in strong.  

I usually do a lot of tomatoes, and more every year.  Last year I believe I had 38 plants, and this year I was at least 10 cages short so I had closer to 50 - although most of those were cherry tomato plants.  I prefer to have lots of big ones and paste-types, with a few cherries, but this year I had trouble finding bigger varieties to buy at planting time, so I filled out the garden with my own volunteers, which ended up being almost entirely Matt's Wild, a vigorous tiny cherry variety.  By vigorous, I mean they are (uncaged) already sprawled at least 8' from the center, and will be more like 12 or 15' by season's end.  It's a nightmare to pick them, but it's what I've got this year, so I'll make the best of it, and all those hours spent scrabbling around in the jungle will strengthen my resolve to start my own seedlings in the hoophouse next spring!

I have evolved my food preservation over the years, from growing and canning/drying a bit of everything each summer, to trying to plan what I need to make, and growing enough for several years-worth of that, and rotating the focus each year.  For example, with tomatoes, I need sundried tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, tomato soup, BBQ sauce, and steak sauce.  Ideally, I will each year decide what my storage stock is lowest in, and chooses tomato varieties accordingly.  If I need smooth sauce like BBQ (and dried every year, there's no such thing as too many sundried tomatoes), I mainly grow paste tomatoes - Romas and the like, meaty with less juice.  If I need soup, I select varieties of big, heirloom slicers like Cherokee Purple (or my personal favorite, just like CP but earlier, Black Krim) or a Brandywine that has lots of flavor.  I grow some of each every year - I always need huge, juicy delicious tomatoes for sandwiches, I had a tomato sandwich for lunch every single day last summer!  I always need some cherries for munching, and since I figured out that they make fantastic soup just cooked down until they pop, then pureed, I can put away a lot of them.  I always like the pastes for drying - I used to dry cherries, but they have the highest skin-to-cut flesh ratio, so actually dry the slowest.  Sliced romas or thinly-wedged grape-type tomatoes (golf-ball-size) are best for drying.  

For the smooth sauce, I have a wonderful food mill, great for saucing anything.  It does apples and tomatoes with the same screen, and has a finer screen for berries so I can easily make seedless blackberry jam!  For tomatoes, I just have to cut them in quarters or so, and make sure the stems are off.  The screw and screen press out the pulp and strain our the skins, seeds, green cores, and anything else - no cooking or anything else needed.  The resulting sauce is much thinner than I like, though, so I either have to cook it down to about half the volume, or if it's watery enough I can put it in a tall container, ideally one of those gallon drink jugs with teh bottom spigot, and it will separate into a pulpy layer and one of clear yellow juice that, with the spigot, I can just drain off, and then cook the thicker sauce for a much shorter time.  

My other refinement came last summer, when I found the solution to the problem that my preferred juicy, flavorful heirloom tomatoes have so much liquid, they take hours to cook down to a thick sauce or soup.  I tried - and loved - just cutting them in half, laying them facedown on baking sheets, and roasting them until soft and wrinkly-skinned.  I just pull the skins off, push them around a bit in a sieve to drain off the watery juice, and puree the remaining flesh.  I can that as-is, for either soup or spaghetti sauce, I can season/spice as desired when I use it, and then I don't end up having 20 jars of soup when I need pasta sauce, or vice versa.  I do the same thing with the cherries, although I don't even have to strain them, cooking them until they've all popped usually boils off enough liquid that they puree pretty thick just like that.  Both the cherry tomatoes' natural sweetness and the roasting of the heirloom slicers makes both versions nicely sweet and tomatoey (I often blend them together anyway, to get a full 7-qt batch for canning), just what I'm looking for on a cold winter day paired with a nice grilled cheese :) I also can up the strained-off juice, it's great for cooking rice or beans, substituting for soup stock, anything that usually uses water and goes well with a tangy tomato flavor.   

This year, I'm just drying the few Roma and grape-sized tomatoes I have, and canning the rest as puree for pasta sauce/soup.  I've got enough steak sauce for a while, and though I'm out of BBQ sauce, I need the soup/sauce base more!  I think this is going to be a poor tomato year - it started with so much rain that I lost a lot of fruit to blossom end rot, then the hornworms moved in and stripped much of the leaves, and now the plants are either dying from no leaves, or I have blight - that I'm going to assume the worst, and just stock up on the most necessary version of preserved tomatoes.  I'll do some BBQ sauce next year.

If any of ya'll have tomato-preserving innovations I don't know about (or any others), let me know - I'm always looking for better - and especially more efficient - ways to do things!


progress on writing your book

Amy, posts like this are nearly written chapters in your book I hope you'll write someday (in your free time!) You pack so much hard-earned experience, wisdom and common sense into each post..

My Free Time, or...?

Hey, what about you edit my book in your free time? :) I've already done the writing, you can clean it up and go from there!


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