Tomato update

August 6, 2015

Tomatoes, peeled, cut up, and ready to process. I plunked 'em in the fridge and finished the next day.

Tomatoes, peeled, cut up, and ready to process. I plunked ’em in the fridge and finished the next day.

I have found tomatoes. SOME tomatoes, anyway.

Earlier this year, the Farmers’ Market was awash in tomatoes. I talked to one of the growers about buying “canning tomatoes,” the ones which may have a bad spot, or be split due to overripeness. I didn’t need them right then — no time to “work them up.”

Ahhh. Summer in a jar. Waiting patiently for their brothers and sisters to join them in the pantry.

Ahhh. Summer in a jar. Waiting patiently for their brothers and sisters to join them in the pantry.

Then last weekend, the first time I would have had some time during the week to work up tomatoes — there was barely a tomato to be had in the entire market. Whassupwiddat, I wondered.

Tuesday afternoon, I dropped by the market just to see. Talking to a lady to had a few small tomatoes, I asked her what had happened to the crop.

“It’s the weather,” she said. It was a cool, wet spring, so planting and early stage development was behind. Consequently, tomatoes were at the wrong stage of development when rice farmers sprayed herbicide on their fields, so any tomatoes within drift range of rice fields suffered. In East Arkansas, that’s a lot of tomatoes.

I did find some “half-price tomatoes” at a local produce stand, and bought some 15 pounds, from which I canned five quarts of tomatoes. That’s a start. I’d like to have about 10 times that many on the shelves before tomato season ends.

No, I’m not Italian. But I cook with a tremendous amount of tomatoes through the cooler months. Soups, stews, spaghetti gravy, red beans and rice, Middle Eastern and North African dishes, curries. There’s seldom a week goes by that I don’t open a jar (or, if I’m out, a can or two) of tomatoes.

Canned tomatoes are cheaper. You can catch 15-ounce cans on sale for a buck a can, from time to time. I paid $14 and change for the tomatoes to can these five quarts, which is roughly equivalent to 10 15-ounce cans. So, I’d have saved four bucks or so buying them at Kroger.

But they would not have tasted nearly as good. A home-canned jar of tomatoes has a striking resemblance, flavorwise, to a fresh one, and that carries over into any dish you make with it. It’s particularly noticeable in dishes that don’t take a long, long braise.

I’ve located another source that has canning tomatoes, down near my friend Kate’s house. She’s picking up 40 pounds for me this weekend, so I’ll get some more canned early next week. I’ll can another dozen or so quarts, and a big batch of pints for recipes that don’t call for as many tomatoes. I’m just canning plain tomatoes this year, vs. the marinara sauce and tomato soup and chili base I made last year. And I have a gracious plenty of tomato relish left from last year, so no problem there.

Even if you’re a canning novice, there’s not much easier than canning tomatoes. You’ll need a big pot, one that you can set jars upright in and cover them with water. One of those $7.99 “canning kits” from WalMart is helpful. And you’ll need jars, lids and rings.

Be sure your jars have rims that aren’t chipped, cracked for nicked; if they are, trash ’em. Run them through a cycle in the dishwasher, or hand-wash them in hot, soapy water. Take a big cookie sheet, line it with a dishtowel, soak it down with water, and slide it in the oven. Set your jars on that, and turn the oven on 200.

Put the “flats,” or flat lids, in a saucepan of water on the stove and bring it to a boil. Turn it off, and leave it covered; you’ll heat it up again when you’re ready to can.

Prep your tomatoes. It helps if you have a big pot with a strainer insert. I use my shrimp pot. I fill the basket with tomatoes to the fill line for the pot. Then I fill the pot with water, and take the tomato basket out and set it aside. Bring the water to a boil, and gently lower the tomatoes back into it; put the lid on and let the water come back to a boil. Turn off the heat, and wait about 10 minutes.

Take the basket out, let the water drain a moment, and then dump your tomatoes in the sink. When they’re cool enough to handle, use your hands to pull the skins off. Roughly chop the tomatoes — I go for about eighths or 16ths, depending on the size — and put tomatoes and juice in a big pot.

When you get a pot fairly full, add about 3-4 tablespoons of kosher salt, bring the tomatoes to a boil, and turn them down to a simmer. Now, get another cookie sheet and line it with a towel on your cabinet next to your stove. On it place your funnel (from your canning kit), your jar tongs, and another dishtowel. Turn the heat back on under your flats.

When your tomatoes have cooked about 20 minutes, start filling jars. Using your  jar tongs from your kit, get a hot jar from the oven, set it on the cookie sheet, pop the funnel in it, and ladle tomatoes until they’re about 1/2 inch from the top. Use the little magnet stick thingy from the canning kit to grab a flat from the hot water. Set it on the jar, and leave the stick in place while you lower a ring down over it. Using the third dishtowel as a potholder, tighten the ring just fingertip tight. Set the jar aside, and repeat until all the tomatoes are jarred.

Now, get your biggest pot — I have a water bath canner I bought at WalMart for about $30 — and fill it about half-full of water; convey it to the stove and start it to heating. If you’re using a canner, it will have a jar rack; put your jars in that, lower them into the water, and add enough water to cover them. If you’re using a regular pot, use your canning jar tongs and lower them. When the water boils, process the jars for 20 minutes. Fish them out of the water, set them back on the cookie sheet with the dishtowel, and sit back and wait for the chorus of popping lids which indicates your tomatoes are sealed and ready to go to the pantry shelves.

But I like to keep them where I can look at them for a day or so. Because they’re pretty.

I’d wager y’mama ‘n ’em know how to do this; that’s where I learned, these many years ago. But if you no longer have y’mama ‘n ’em around, as I do not, the above tutorial should get you there. And should you find you’re enamoured of canning, check for the Ball canning books and read up on preserving other stuff as well.

I love it. Makes me feel like Mama ‘n ’em are all in the kitchen with me.



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