Tomato time challenge: How to preserve the harvest

07/23/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 12:07 PM

Across Sacramento kitchens in midsummer, cooks annually see red. The trigger is an avalanche of homegrown tomatoes – or irresistible bargains brought home from the farmers market.

In the heart of tomato country, this bounty brings palpitations. What to do with all those tomatoes?

It’s a dilemma – or blessing – that Lillian Smith knows well. As a longtime UC master food preserver, the Rio Linda woman fields scores of questions from both newbie tomato canners and experienced cooks.

Each summer, tomato fever hits, and her phone starts ringing.

“The resurgence of interest (in canning) started four, five years ago, but it’s continued,” Smith said. “People are interested in producing their own stuff. It’s about health as much as economics. And (the results) taste better. Even if you don’t grow your own tomatoes, we’re surrounded by farmers markets. You can get some fresh to preserve.”

Nationally, tomatoes are the favorite summer crop for canning.

“By far,” said Jardan Home Brands’ Sarah Page, who develops new recipes for Ball brand, the canning experts. “We get so many requests for tomato recipes. The exciting thing: People are looking for other types of things to do with tomatoes. People are going beyond pasta sauce; they want salsas.”

In particular, consumers are interested in small batch preserving that they can make a jar or two at a time, Page said. “Instead of just putting up a lot of (plain) tomatoes, people want more recipes with new, exciting flavors.”

One of her favorites: dilly tomatoes. “It’s delicious,” Page said. “They’re these little nuggets of flavor you can toss into a salad or serve on a skewer. It’s a wonderful solution to what to do with little tomatoes – especially the yellow low-acid ones.”

When trying to get a handle on your harvest, remember that one pound of fresh tomatoes – usually two or three full-size toms – yields about 21/2 cups chopped tomatoes.

“For canning, the old rule of thumb is a pint a pound,” Smith said, “but I know it takes a little bit more, so I figure 11/2 pounds per pint.”

Smith grows an assortment of tomatoes in her own Rio Linda garden. Her favorites are Early Girl and Celebrity – the consistent size and round shape are just right for canning — and Sun Gold (“I eat them all; there’s none left for canning”).

“I like the paste tomatoes (such as Roma and San Marzano), especially for dehydrating, but also for canning,” she added.

The rising popularity of low-acid yellow or orange tomatoes such as those super-sweet Sun Golds adds another wrinkle to canning.

“Our tongues can’t taste acidity exactly,” Smith said. “We know what we like.”

And that tends to be sweet. Regardless of color, all tomatoes need to be “acidified” to stop the growth of bacteria. It’s that tart lemon juice or citric acid added to the tomatoes that prevents botulism.

“People are sometimes surprised by acidifying and why it’s so important,” Smith said. “Always use bottled lemon juice, not fresh; that way you’re guaranteed the right acidity. Or my personal favorite: Use powdered citric acid. Tomatoes are already so liquid and citric acid is much more available in supermarkets.”

The standard is 1 tablespoon bottled lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon citric acid per pint of tomatoes; 2 tablespoons juice or 1/2 teaspoon citric acid per quart. It’s added to the jars before adding the tomatoes.

Smith regularly shows tomato techniques at the master food preservers’ demonstrations. The final products don’t always look like what came from the supermarket.

“Dehydrated tomatoes in particular,” Smith said. “People expect the (homemade) product to come out just like when they buy them. They’re different; still pliable, but not soft. You need to rehydrate them a little before use.

“When raw packing, people are surprised by the amount of juice in the bottom of the jars,” she noted. “They don’t look like commercially canned tomatoes. But the ones you make are so much better – if you start with good tomatoes to begin with.”

As for peeling, it’s a matter of preference, Smith said. “Most people blanch and peel their tomatoes before packing (the jars), but it’s not mandatory. If they’re raw packed, you can just shove the tomatoes in the jars.”

The easiest method to preserve cherry or other small tomatoes: Freeze them whole. Stem and wash the fruit, pat dry, then spread them in a single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet. Freeze until solid, then transfer the frozen tomatoes to a sealed plastic container for storage. In the freezer, they’ll keep until next summer.

“I have two gallon bags of tomatoes in the freezer,” Smith said. “When I need some for a salad or whatever, I just pop out a few.”

RECIPES

Oven-roasted tomatoes

Makes 24 roasted tomatoes

INGREDIENTS

24 plum tomatoes or other meaty 2-inch tomatoes

6 tablespoons olive oil plus more for storing

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

INSTRUCTIONS

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Half tomatoes (lengthwise if plums) and remove cores and seeds.

Lightly oil a large rimmed cookie sheet (you may need two). Arrange tomato halves cut side up. Drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes or until the tomatoes begin to caramelize.

Note: The roasted tomatoes can be used immediately over pasta or saved for later use. Store covered with olive oil in the refrigerator or freeze. Or puree into a sauce.

Variation: Before roasting, sprinkle the tomatoes with 1 tablespoon fresh chopped Italian herbs such as basil, oregano and/or garlic. Or drizzle with a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar in addition to the olive oil.

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Fresh tomato sauce

Butter or olive oil; that choice gives this sauce two very different (and delicious) personalities while retaining the tomatoes’ fresh sweet-tart taste. Use this sauce immediately, store for up to one week in refrigerator or freeze for up to one year.

Makes about 2 cups sauce

INGREDIENTS

3 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1 1/2 pounds of tomatoes, roughly chopped (peeling optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

INSTRUCTIONS

In a large skillet, melt butter or heat oil or medium heat. Add chopped tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally, as the tomatoes start to break down, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook a little longer – about 5 minutes – until the tomatoes are very soft.

With a rougher (cruda) texture, this sauce is ready to use at this point. For a smoother consistency, purée in a food processor until smooth.

Variation: Add 1/2 cup chopped onion and 1 teaspoon chopped garlic to melted butter or hot oil. Saute until soft. Then, add tomatoes.

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Dried tomatoes

Makes 2 cups dried tomatoes

Dehydrators give the best results.

INGREDIENTS

5 pounds tomatoes, cored and peeled

Dehydrator

INSTRUCTIONS

Prepare tomatoes by type. Roma tomatoes: Cut in half or quarter. Cherry tomatoes: Cut in halve. Large tomatoes: Cut in 1/4-inch slices.

Seed tomatoes, if desired. With a spoon, scrape out seed sacs. Blot excess juice off tomatoes with paper towel.

Spray drying racks or trays lightly with oil. Place tomatoes cut side up on racks, spacing about an inch or 2 apart. Don’t let them touch. Sprinkle with salt, garlic powder or fresh herbs, if desired.

Place trays in dehydrator, leaving about 2 inches between racks for good air flow. Set temperature to 135 to 145 degrees. Let dehydrate for 8 tor 12 hours.

During the process, check the tomatoes for dryness. They should be dry and leathery but not tacky or brittle. Remove tomatoes that are fully dried while returning others to the dehydrator. Rotate racks in the dryer so tomatoes get dried evenly.

Remove tomatoes from dehydrator and let cool before storing. Dried tomatoes may be stored in sealed plastic bags, tightly covered jars or other containers in a cool dark place or frozen. Rehydrate with warm water and a little lemon juice when ready to use.

Variation: Tomatoes may also be oven dried. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Lightly oil cookie sheet, then spread tomatoes in a single layer on sheet, making sure they don’t touch. Place in the oven and let dry, 4 to 6 hours, or until leathery.

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Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm ketchup

Makes 11/2 pints

Using mostly Roma or plum tomatoes will make more ketchup than with large ones, but large works just fine. This is a little spicier than commercial ketchup, but not dramatically; add a dried chili pepper to the spice bag for more of a kick.

Recipe adapted from “Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers” by Sur La Table with Janet Fletcher (Andrews McMeel, $35, 304 pages).

INGREDIENTS

5 pounds ripe red tomatoes, coarsely chopped (no need to peel)

2 cups finely chopped yellow onion

2 cups finely chopped red bell pepper (about 2 large)

1/4 cup minced fresh Italian parsley

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 to 2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt

2 bay leaves

1 whole clove

1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed

1 teaspoon whole allspice

1 teaspoon coriander seed

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

1/4 cup honey (or agave sweetener)

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

INSTRUCTIONS

Put the vegetables, parsley, garlic and salt in a large, deep pot. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally.

Adjust the heat to maintain a brisk simmer and cook until the tomatoes are soft, about 30 minutes. Press the mixture through a food mill fitted with the fine disk (or push it through a fine mesh strainer) and return the purée to the pot.

Put the bay leaves, clove, mustard seed, allspice, coriander seed, peppercorns and cinnamon stick on a square of cheesecloth, then tie with kitchen twine to make a spice bag. Add to the pot along with the honey.

Simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has reduced by half, about 1 hour. Remove the spice bag and add the vinegar. Continue to simmer, stirring as needed to prevent sticking, until the mixture reaches the desired thickness, or about 3 cups.

Fill a canning kettle with enough water to cover 3 half-pint canning jars (or 1 pint and 1 half-pint) resting on the preserving rack. Bring to a boil. Wash the jars with hot, soapy water; rinse well, and keep upside down on a clean dish towel until you are ready to use them. Put 3 new lids in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water.

Using a ladle and a funnel, transfer the ketchup to the jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Wipe the rims clean with a damp paper towel. Top with lids and screw on bands.

Place the jars on the preserving rack and lower it into the canning kettle. (Add more boiling water if necessary.) Cover the canning kettle.

After the water returns to a boil, boil for 15 minutes. With a jar lifter, transfer jars to a rack to cook completely. Don’t touch the jars again until you hear the pops that indicate the jars are sealed. Store the sealed jars in a cool dark place; they will keep for up to a year before opening.

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Oven-dried cherry tomatoes in olive oil

Makes 1 pint

Serves as snacks or appetizers; use in salads, pastas and more – including the oil.

Makes ahead: The tomatoes need to dry in the oven for 2 hours, and they need to marinate in the refriegerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 month.

Note: Be sure the tomatoes stay covered with oil while in the refrigerator.

Adapted by The Washington Post from Michael Friedman, executive chef and co-owner of the Red Hen in Washington, D.C.

INGREDIENTS

1 pound mixed bite-size tomatoes, such as grape or cherry tomatoes

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh oregano

One 3-inch sprig rosemary

6 basil leaves

11/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Rinse the tomatoes in cold water then dry them with paper towels. Use a serrated knife to cut each one in half and place in bowl; toss with the salt until evenly coated.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; spread the tomatoes on it. Dry for 1 hour in the oven, then rotate the baking sheet from front to back and dry for 1 hour. The tomatoes should look slightly dehydrated but still have a bit of moisture; think tomato raisins. Cool completely.

Transfer the oven-dried tomatoes and the herbs to a sterilized pint jar. Fill with the oil, making sure the tomatoes and herbs are submerged. They will be loosely packed.

Seal and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 month.

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Dilly tomatoes

This recipe, developed by Hugh Acheson for Ball brand, makes great use of cherry, grape or pear tomatoes, especially low-acid Sun Golds or other yellow varieties. Multiply the recipe as needed.

Makes 1 pint.

INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 cups small grape, pear or cherry tomatoes

1 shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 bay leaf

4 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

1/2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon citric acid

Pinch of red chile flakes

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup cold water

INSTRUCTIONS

Using a very sharp paring knife, score the tomatoes on the bottom of each one with a shallow X. Place the tomatoes in a bowl and add the shallot, bay leaf, chopped dill and mustard seeds. Toss well and set aside.

Combine salt, citric acid, chile flakes, brown sugar, cider vinegar and water in a small pot and bring to a vigorous boil, then remove from heat.

Pack tomatoes into a pre-warmed clean and sterilized pint jar. The tomatoes should be packed pretty firmly, but make sure to leave ½-inch of headspace at the top of the jar. Pour the hot brine over the tomatoes, still leaving the ½-inch of headspace. Remove air bubbles and wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band until fit is fingertip tight.

Process jars in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lids should not flex up and down when center is pressed.

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Zesty salsa

Makes 3 pints or 6 half-pints.

Recipe courtesy Ball brand.

INGREDIENTS

5 cups chopped cored peeled tomatoes

2 1/2 cups chopped seeded green bell peppers (about 2 large)

2 1/2 cups chopped onions

1 1/4 cups chopped seeded chili peppers, such as hot banana, Hungarian wax, serrano or jalapeño (about 7 medium)

3/4 cup cider vinegar

1 to 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

1-1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, optional

INSTRUCTIONS

Prepare boiling water canner. Heat jars and lids in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.

Combine tomatoes, green peppers, onions, chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, cilantro, salt and hot pepper sauce, if using, in a large stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot salsa. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band until fit is fingertip tight.

Process both pint and half-pint jars in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed.

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