It’s coming down to the seasonal wire for good tomatoes, and as I have only 12 quarts of puree packed at the moment — enough, at our usage rate, to get us through December maybe — I had to get on the ball. A bout of bronchitis that began at the end of August has finally loosened its literal stranglehold, and I was able to get myself to the farmer’s market today.
I’ve found that without a doubt, plum- or pear-type tomatoes, also known as “paste” tomatoes (various romas and San Marzano variants) make the thickest, most reliable puree to can yourself. There’s a lot of meat on these guys and not too much juice. Why is the latter important? Some time ago, I ran across a webpost from a lady who regularly cans all her own puree, and she pointed out that the flavor of the tomato isn’t primarily in the juice. As a matter of fact, to get the best puree, you want to get as much of the juice out as possible.
How you do this is a matter of technique. You can cut and core the fresh tomato and squeeze out the juice, then warm them to release the rest of it and drain. This technique has the added advantage of loosening the skins. Alternatively, you can skin the tomato (a quick dump in very hot water and then a dunk in ice water will slip the skin right off), puree it with your preferred technique, and then simmer it down. (You might have to do the latter anyway. I like to keep the simmering to a minimum, because I like the freshest-tasting puree possible.)
Whatever technique seems right, the question remains — why use any other varietal but plum tomatoes, if what you’re after is puree? Pure alchemical experimentation! This year I’ve prepared several varietals separately, canned them, and labeled them so we can experiment with how each responds when cooked into sauce. So far we’ve got Early Girls and beefsteaks,
and now I’ll have Cherokee Purples as well as the standard romas. I haven’t seen the Robeson in the market at all this year. It’s a chocolate-colored varietal that, in my experience, has made the deepest, richest-tasting puree of all — but you need a lot of them and a lot of patience. Like the Cherokee Purple, it’s very fragile and needs to be handled almost immediately after buying.
So this afternoon got pretty busy — a trip to the market for the tomatoes and then the frenzied cleaning and assembling of the mise for everything that had to get done. My waterbath canner was full of prickly pears from the Hive Queen (don’t ask), so those had to get handled first.
Once those were out and in the sauna pot, I could clean out and sanitize the waterbath canner. But I needed yet another pot — the big stockpot full of the “24-Hour Chicken Stock” I’d made with the remains of a rotisserie chicken dinner. That had sat overnight in the fridge so the fat would solidify and I could easily skim it out. Skim, filter through coffee filters, and into freezer containers 2 cups at a time. That freed up my other stockpot for cleaning and sanitizing, so I could get to the Cherokees, which were looking increasingly peaked even as I whirled around doing everything else.
Eventually it all got set up and on the stove. For the Cherokees, I chose the cut and slow heat method to get as much of the juice out of them as possible. I heated them gently, squished them only a bit (as opposed to the sledgehammer treatment the prickly pears get) and then turned off the heat.
There won’t be a lot of this puree; the big heirlooms, designed as cutting tomatoes, usually don’t make much of it per batch. But I’ve found that they can produce a depth of flavor that sometimes doesn’t come through a batch of the “standard” paste tomato purees. Once I’m happy that these guys are pretty much done sweating out the juice, I’ll drain it carefully through a Chinoise strainer, possible lined with cheesecloth,
and then run it through The Machine.
Now, there might be some of you out there who can handle a food mill with skill and ease. I’m not one of them. Things come apart and fly around and stuff gets everywhere except where I want it to. Now I’m not blaming the technology, as bloody ancient as it is (you’d think I’d appreciate that). All I know is that The Machine makes short work of a lot of tomatoes, especially prepped as I do now, and this puppy is easy to use, break down, and clean after I’m done.
I’ll take a look at the puree once it’s finished and determine if a little simmering is still necessary; that seems to be standard operating procedure when you’re working with the big, juicy, flavorful beefsteak varietals. From there we’ll move on to the classic Ball waterbath canning recipe — and I’ll have another few (or even a couple) clean, fresh, organic and BPA-free jars of puree in the cabinet, ready for winter pastas and lasagnas.
Tomorrow, though, two flats of Romas await — as well as the prickly pears, a McGuffin full of herbs still drying, and a valerian that needs Attention. Ah, harvest season.