All year, I wait with anticipation for the August tomato – firm and sweet, and slightly acidic, with juice that drips down your chin with the first bite. The varieties of heirlooms available at a “commercial” level are astonishing – satisfying every palate and culinary need. For the sandwiches, there’s Brandywine or Pruden’s purple, for salads, Cherokee or cherry tomatoes. If you prefer an acidic tomato there’s black krim and a sweet tomato, gold turtle egg.
After that first bite, I swear I will never eat a mealy, bland, rock-hard winter tomato again. Of course, come winter, I’m craving a rich osso buco to take the chill off winter. My favorite recipe calls for… you guessed it… tomatoes. It’s a vicious cycle.
The only solution is to preserve the peak summer tomatoes and then store them for winter. It’s a win-win situation – the tomatoes are the most flavorful and cheapest in August. And as a bonus, I can sneak in a visit to Even’ Star Organic Farm in Southern Maryland, where farmer Brett grows an abundance of heirloom, organic, truly vine-ripe tomatoes.
There are two basic options for preserving: freezing or canning. Freezing has one obvious (and big) advantage: it’s a hassle-free process. The primary disadvantage is that you need excess freezer space. And if there’s a power outage, you risk losing your entire stash.
Canning has an obvious disadvantage in that it’s a hot, laborious, time-consuming process. But in the end, you don’t need to worry about storage space – the jars can be buried in the basement or in the back of a closet. Climate control is unimportant.
Either way, you need to first process the tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are the classic stewing tomatoes because they have a drier, firmer texture. Alas, their flavor doesn’t compete with other varieties such as Brandywine or Pineapple. Optimally, you can use a 50-50 mix of the two to get the right balance of flavor and texture.
When I can tomatoes for the winter, I usually process 50 pounds or more. For this reason, I take short-cuts on skinning and seeding the tomatoes. I would rather remove the skins as I use the tomatoes (one jar at a time) if at all.
This can be as basic or complex as you like. Either way, start with cleaned tomatoes. Take out the core, cut out any bruises or blemishes and cut into chunks. If you’d like, sauté onions and garlic in olive oil. When the onions are soft, add the tomatoes and cook for about 10 minutes. You can also add basil sprigs, and season with salt and pepper. When the tomatoes are cooked you can freeze them in one pint containers or can them (see below).
This is a personal favorite. A little smoked tomato adds an unexpected depth to almost any recipe. You don’t need a smoker – a regular ole charcoal grill works fine. Wood chips are available at Whole Foods or at a hardware store.
For a Charcoal Grill:
You will need 2 cups wood chips (hickory or apple is great, mesquite is okay) soaked in 4 cups of water or cheap white wine. Drain just before smoking. And, of course, plenty of San Marzano Plum tomatoes, cut in half.
Prepare a fire as you normally would. When the fire is on its last legs (there are still some red embers) get ready to move quickly. Toss the wood chips on the fire. Put the grate on top, and place the tomatoes on the grate, ideally skin side down (should the skins burn, you can remove them, if the flesh burns…). Cover the grill with the lid, open the vents only ½ way.
Let the tomatoes smoke for 1 hour.
Puree them for a sauce for lamb or steak, or add them to your favorite recipe for a little zip.
For a gas grill:
Follow the directions as above. Except: Put the drained wood chips in a disposable aluminum tray, and place it directly on top of the gas flame.
The one thing to remember when canning tomatoes is that you need to boil everything. Boil the jars, boil the tomatoes, boil the tomatoes in the jar. The first two boil are necessary to sterilize the jars and the tomatoes, the third boil is to create a vacuum seal in the jar.
So to be clear, the process goes like this:
1. Purchase canning jars. I prefer the wide mouth because they are easier to fill. Consider buying a variety of sizes. Even if you are only canning one kind of sauce, the variety will enable you to maximize your tomatoes – if a recipe calls for a small amount of tomato, you open a small jar, instead of opening a large jar that may not be completely used. Also, buy a pair of “canning tongs”. These tongs are specially designed to lift the jars out of the water.
2. Wash the jars. Put the lids in one pot and the jars in another pot. The pot for the jars should be deep enough that the jars can be covered by at least on inch of water.
3. Cover the lids completely with water and put them on the stove. Bring to a boil, and turn off the heat. Let them sit in the water until you’re ready to use them.
4. Cover the jars completely with water and bring htem to a boil. Continue boiling them for 10 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, bring the tomatoes to a boil, and continue cooking them for at least 10 minutes. Even if you smoked the tomatoes, you still need to boil them.
6. Remove the jars from the water, draining the water out. Fill each jar with tomatoes, leaving about ½ inch at the top. With a clean towel, wipe the lip of each jar clean.
7. Drain the water from the lids and cover each jar. Seal with the metal band.
8. Return the jars to the boiling water and let boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the water and let stand for 20 minutes. Remove the band and test the lids – if it comes off easily, then the seal did not work and you must repeat the process. If the lid is tight, then you are all set!
This year, I canned 12 pints of stewed tomatoes and 12 pints of smoked tomatoes. Alas, I processed more tomatoes than I had jars. I bought more jars and made ketchup with the remaining tomatoes.
8 cups stewed tomatoes
½ cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
Puree onions and tomato. Combine in a stainless steel pot. Cook over medium heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally to keep tomatoes from sticking to the bottom.
This will keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator or you can jar the tomatoes.