What happens when you preserve 100 lbs of tomatoes?!

Posted on Monday, October 11, 2010 | By 2 |
[caption id="attachment_899" align="alignleft" width="150" caption=" "][/caption] Have you ever wondered what 100 lbs of processed tomatoes looks like?  It’s a big number, fake-sounding almost, like a gross exaggeration – the canner’s equivalent to a fisherman ‘catching the big one’.  And that, my friends, is exactly why I took pictures.   You would just never believe me. That’s right – starting on a random Saturday afternoon and throughout the next three days my friend Terina and I processed 100 lbs of beautiful dry farm tomatoes from Sea Level Farms. [caption id="attachment_853" align="alignright" width="150" caption=" "][/caption] We had waited all summer for those scrumptious dry farm tomatoes to be ready.  Those of you who know me well must understand how difficult it was for me to wait because I’m a born scheduler.  I travel frequently for work and stay very busy so I tend to book my weekends a month or more in advance.  I was worried that the tomatoes would arrive when I was in New York or L.A. or, god forbid, Texas.  Nature and tomatoes care not for my schedule – they show up when they show up.  Terina told me she’d seen the tomatoes come in and that we needed to start thinking about it.  I bought jars and we waited for a free weekend to surface. The day finally came and thanks to my poor timing it was the day after the nearly-thwarted Underground Farmer’s Market in San Jose.  I got home from San Jose at 2am on Friday night and woke up at 7am to see Jared off on a motorcycle trip.  I dressed, cleaned the chicken coop, gave a farm tour to a curious blogger and by the time my guest left, Terina was due to arrive in 30 minutes with the tomatoes.  No nap for me! [caption id="attachment_854" align="alignleft" width="150" caption=" "][/caption] I had meant to pull all the jars from the garage and wash them before she arrived but it wasn’t meant to be.  My morning had been too crazy and it was time to accept that my day was just not going to go as planned.  Once she arrived, we started washing jars and cleaning the kitchen and dining room for the big project.  My kitchen isn’t big so we always have to spread out and use the dining table as a prep and storage surface. [caption id="attachment_855" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Tower of 'Maters - five 20 lb boxes!"][/caption] Even though I knew 100 lbs was a lot of tomatoes, nothing had prepared me for the size of the stack of five 20 lb boxes.  Note that the stack of boxes is taller than my couch! Last year we had processed around 20 lbs and had painstakingly removed all the skins by blanching before processing them in the canner.  This year we thought we would take a shortcut by using Terina’s Kitchen Aid; however, as we began running chopped tomatoes through we realized we were getting beautiful V-8-like tomato juice, but it just wasn’t what we preferred to cook with.  I enjoy making robust chunky tomato sauces during the winter and this juice wasn’t going to cut it.  It seems there’s just no way around removing the skins (the seeds we couldn’t really care less about so we left them in). [caption id="attachment_857" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Tomatoes cooking down in the stock pot"][/caption] We proceeded with one of us washing batches of dirty tomatoes then passing them to the other of us who blanch them in the stockpot full of boiling water then place them in the ice water batch to cool them.  We took turns playing each role and peeling the curled up skins off the tomatoes then we would take turns cubing the tomatoes so that neither of us tired too much of one task.  We then cooked the diced tomatoes down a bit in a large stockpot before adding them to the jars. It was a long day but by 1am (about 12 hours later!) we had peeled, skinned, chopped and cooked down about 75 pounds of tomatoes.  We only had room for a about a third of them in the pressure-cooker (maybe 7 quart-sized jars and 7 pint-sized jars) so I would have to process the remainder the next day....er...next three days? [caption id="attachment_862" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Orangette's Slow Roasted Tomatoes in the Oven"][/caption] We sliced about 10 lbs of the tomatoes in half and slow-roasted in the oven with a bit of sea salt and coriander (YUM!).  By the way, if you haven’t tried preparing tomatoes this way, you simply must.  The dry farm tomatoes come out tasting like candy once most of the moisture is roasted out.  We use the recipe from Molly at Orangette and it's heavenly!  Be sure to use freshly ground coriander which is nothing like the pre-ground stuff.  I’ve put mine on homemade pizza, in pasta sauces, in egg dishes, stir fries, you name it!  According to her book, A Homemade Life, Molly uses them in sandwiches.  They’re indispensable to have on hand. [caption id="attachment_858" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Pizza with sauce made from slow roasted tomatoes"][/caption] The final 15 pounds were still whole in their crate awaiting an uncertain future, but they were in great shape so I knew I had a few days to figure out exactly what to do with them.  This time of year, there’s no shortage of delicious tomato recipes floating around the internet. Terina left and I sank into bed, completely exhausted.  On the bright side, I barely had enough energy to miss Jared, who was staying overnight on his motorcycle trip.  In the morning I woke up early, packed the car and headed to a FARMcurious demo party I had in the city.  The rest of the tomatoes would have to wait until I returned. [caption id="attachment_856" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Lasagna-off! "][/caption] When I got home from the party that evening, the house was already full of people.  Jared and his father had returned from their trip and Jared had spent the afternoon preparing his famous lasagna for our “Great Lasagna-Off”.  Jared, the lasana chef in our house, got to be the first to use a jar of diced tomatoes that night!  We were lucky enough to have gotten several containers of fresh ricotta from our buddy Jordan at Flosa Creamery at the Underground Market so that went in as well. Our friend Keith was already there with his lasagna (including homemade mozzarella from my FARMcurious store's kit!) and our friend Lina was on her way with the night’s side dish – a vegetable lasagna!  Though the oven was full of lasagna in its final melting stages, I rushed to heat jars on the stovetop and fill them with the remaining prepared tomatoes so I could finish processing the batch before dinner began.  By the end of the evening I had added another fourteen or so finished jars of tomatoes to our collection, making 28 total jars.  However, there were still tomatoes left!. [caption id="attachment_860" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="The Slow Roasted Tomatoes in Balsamic are the dark jars in front"][/caption] Though the slow-roasted tomatoes will keep several weeks in the refrigerator, they still have too much moisture left in them to keep much longer and I had January on the brain.  I know from experience that they’re much more appreciated during those rainy winter spells than they are in the close of September when you’ve had your fill of delicious tomatoes all summer.  Terina and I had discussed this issue and hypothesized on ways to preserve the slow-roasted tomatoes longer.  We thought it would make sense that we could cover the shriveled tomatoes with vinegar, an acid, which would help preserve them in jars.  Now, make that balsamic and you’ve got a deal! The day after the lasagna-off I still had 15 pounds of whole tomatoes and about three full quarts of slow-roasted tomatoes.  I took one of the quarts of slow-roasts and added them to 16 oz jars, covering them with balsamic vinegar.  I then water bath processed them for about 15 minutes.  There was a little olive oil residue in tomatoes leftover from roasting, which could compromise the seal and allow it to pop open.  They did seal at least preliminarily so we’ll see if they stay that way. A day later I used ten of the remaining fifteen pounds of tomatoes to make a delicious tomato jam I read about on FoodinJars.com.  It’s so tasty and I’m excited to include it in our “wedding collection” of jams that I’ve been stocking up for our wedding favors next year.  I have over 100 jars preserved and stored, but I want to make sure we have way more than we need since I seem to be giving them away nearly as quickly as I can make them! [caption id="attachment_861" align="alignright" width="150" caption="I clearly need a larger stove!"][/caption] And there were still tomatoes left!  The final 5 pounds we ate fresh in salads and such.  It will be a while before I feel like pulling the pressure canner out of the garage again! You might wonder why an otherwise reasonable person would go through this sort of seeming agony when the grocery store is full of all the brands of tomatoes you could ask for.  After reading way too much this year about food recalls and especially the potential carcinogens that leach into canned food, I knew I had to make a decision.  The only thing we really ever buy that comes in a can anymore is diced tomatoes.  I love using tomatoes as a base in everything.  It goes seamlessly into soups, braises, sauces, omelets and a million other dishes that we eat all winter.  Giving up having tomatoes in the winter is really just more than I could bear so I decided to do what my grandmother used to do and put away all I anticipated needing for the winter. We’ll see if 50 pounds (I split the bounty with Terina, of course) of tomatoes is enough for our little family and all the miscellaneous people we feed throughout the year.  I know it’s a damn good start though and I’m proud to be moving in the right direction.