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Other people worry about time management. Me? I worry about tomato management. As you're reading this, I'm probably knee-deep in tomatoes. Marc and I grow and can what seems like tons of 'em -- as sauce, puree, juice, and salsa. We dry some, too. This year, Y2K is inspiring me to "put by" even more.
I start canning in September, and I'm often still at it come Thanksgiving. Although our killing frost usually occurs in early October, most of the green tomatoes we've picked by then ripen up just fine over the intervening weeks. Some of our long keeper tomatoes last until February!
After our winter hiatus, it's time to plant the 15+ heirloom varieties we save seed from and grow every year. Fortunately, our lifestyle allows us to invest the time to raise the hundred or so tomato plants we tend every year, and then to harvest and process the gazillion tomatoes they produce.
Sure, it'd be easier, quicker, and possibly even cheaper to buy any one of the perfectly fine tomato sauces that are for sale at the local supermarket, No thanks.
"I'd rather do it myself!" is our attitude in general. But we're certainly not purists -- except when it comes to tomatoes! Marc and I became rather militant on the subject over a decade ago, when we were wandering around the southern tip of Florida during one of our prolonged winter jaunts ... another great benefit of our lifestyle.
Anyway, there was this huge 18 wheeler, filled to the brim with green tomatoes. Talk about synthetic! I kept thinking that the ones on the very bottom might be on their way to frost-covered upstate New York, where we live.
Could they possibly be good to eat or good for us? I don't think so. Whoever bred those seeds certainly didn't have taste as their primary concern. They wanted the fruit to: ripen after harvest, travel incredibly well (even with a ton of tomatoes on top of it), and look pretty in a store display. I'll take the care and feeding of 100 heirloom tomato plants grown organically ... and purely for taste ... over that anytime!
Get Ready, Get Set, Get Sauced
I wait to make the first batch of sauce until Marc and I have collected A LOT of ripe tomates -- because of this key tomato time management premise: It doesn't take that much longer to cook down three or four pots of tomatoes than it does to cook one. (The number of pots I use is a function of how many burners we have working on our stove at the time. Usually, it's three.)
I'd much rather clean up the mess I'm going to make in the kitchen once, rather than three or four times (another top tomato management tenet). And when I'm going to use the big boiling-water bath canner, I wait until I have enough to fill 7 quarts ... about two big potfuls ... of sauce or juice.
1. More than you think. The USDA estimates about 22 pounds(!) of tomatoes for 7 quarts. Here, it comes out to be two sinkfuls. I use both paste and beefsteak types, but skip it on cherry tomatoes or any of the less acidic yellow varieties. (Who wants to worry, "Is the sauce acidic enough to can safely?")
You'll also want a bunch or two of basil, and the USDA now recommends that bottled lemon juice or citric acid be added to canned tomatoes as well.
2. Clean 'em up. Rinse the tomatoes in the sink and let them dry off. I pile mine up in the drainborad. Most tomato sauce recipes have you then spend a lot of time scalding and skinning the tomatoes, and ditching their seeds. I prefer a much easier and quicker method, which I'll explain below.
3. It's time for the squeeze play. Start with about a dozen of your juiciest-looking beefsteak tomatoes. Core, remove any questionable spots, cut 'em in half, and give each half a good squeeze into a big pot that has a nice, thick bottom. Then toss the piece of tomato in. (My favorite is a Farberware two gallon stainless steel pot. Its lid is really a sight to see -- one of Marc's best fix-it jobs. He replaced the broken knob with the sawed off top of our broom handle!)
4. Core, cut, squeeze, and toss ... continued. Once you have at least a couple of inches worth of juicy beefsteaks in the bottom of the pot, you can start adding paste tomatoes. Core, cut, squeeze, and toss them just like the beefsteaks.
5. What's the rush? Once the pot is about three quarters full, add in a bunch of basil leaves, cover the pot, and put it on the stove, over low to low-medium heat. Nothing higher than that. Tomatoes burn pretty easily, and one burnt tomato can ruin a whole potful, which is very frustrating. (Trust me! I've been there. So make sure you cook them real slow, and stir the pot every now and then.
6. Watched or not, the pot will eventually boil. Let it gently roll along for 5 or 10 minutes. A little longer is ok too. Then it's time to separate the super-soft stewed tomatoes from the juice. Here's how: Put a big pot in the sink with a colander in it. Carefully pour the tomatoes into the colander. You'll need two potholders, very steady hands, and depending on the size of your pot(s), you may need another colander.
7. Don't put those potholders down, yet! Carefully lift the colander full of the tomatoes, and quick sit it in the pot you used to stew the tomatoes. You'll collect more juice without getting another pot dirty.
8. Cool it! I leave the juice in the sink to cool. Once it has, I pour it into gallon jars that we're always on the lookout for at delis, supermarkets, the recycling center, etc.
9. "Again!" as our grandkids say again and again and again. Repeat the last three steps for each pot of tomatoes you have cooking.
10. On juice and gravity. Once the juice has cooled off, put it in the refrigerator, where the water will rise to the top. The next day, pour it off. If you'll be cooking soup or rice, the water will be great for that. (I once tried it on house plants. Don't. Mine didn't appreciate it at all!)
So as not to pour tomato juice down the drain, siphon off the last of the water with a turkey baster. All it takes is a few minutes, and you'll have plenty of yummy juice!
We drink a lot of it during the tomato processing season, and we bottle up some, too, especially when I don't have enough puree to fill the canner. I pour the concentrated juice into a large pot or two, and slowly bring it to a boil. Since the processing time is similar, I "mix and match" in the boiling-water-bath cooker, say, half puree and half juice.
Then I have to make a key management decision ... how to tell them apart. I usually do the puree in wide mouth jars and the juice in ones with the narrower necks.
11. Saving time and mess. Marc and I don't mind having little bits of skin and seeds in our sauce, which saves me a lot of time, and a lot of mess. But if you don't relish the skins and seeds, put some of the puree into a food processor and spin it around a little. Then using a hand-held Foley food mill (over a pot), separate the seeds and skin from the sauce. You'll end up with an incredibly delicious sauce that's so thick, you may want to add water when you cook with it.
12. Ready to can? Slowly bring the sauce or the drained tomatoes back to a boil, stirring occasionally. After the pot's bubbled for 5 or 10 minutes, fill up quart jars, and using the boiling-water-bath method, boil the jars for 45 minutes.
Never canned? It'd be great to work along with someone who knows how. But it's really not necessary -- at least for the water-bath method that you'd use for tomatoes. If it's any consolation, I was afraid of canning for along time. It's really no big deal. You can can! See Do the Can-Can.
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