Finishing up the season: Tomato Episode

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.

Two flats of romas (paste tomatoes) and 20 pounds of Cherokee Purple heirlooms

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,

Early Girl on the left, Beefsteak on the right. You can see a little more liquid remains in the Beefsteak puree.

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.

Prickly pears Prickly pears in the sauna after despiking.

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.

Cherokee Purples getting ready to pulp, strain and can as puree.

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,

Passatutto Velox Tomato Press — a.k.a. “The Machine”

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.

Who Said April Is The Cruellest Month?

When everything starts ripening and the harvest is in full swing, I’d have to argue from sheer exhaustion that it’s September.  This morning’s haul from the garden: Steel bowl top left, from top left: tarragon, rosemary, golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, silver thyme in the center.

Plastic bowl top right: Purple Ruffles basil, Pasta Perpetuo basil (a real champion performer), a Passionflower, and sweet basil.
Center little bowl: the last of the chamomile flowers, with yarrow aerials tucked underneath.
Bottom white bowl, from top right: rose blossom, Thai Dragon hot peppers, Ace sweet peppers, Barker’s New Mexico Red hot peppers, a single Concho de Toro sweet (most harvested already), and a bunch of poblanos. Hanging over the side is lemon verbena with another rose blossom.
And I haven’t even gotten to the lemongrass, sage, oregano and peppermint yet.

Most of the herbs will be going into the dehydrator, along with the rose blossoms (so nice for teas),  and the peppers prepped and either frozen or canned whole or as puree.  Now that the tomato flats are coming into the farmers’ markets, I don’t think the canner is going to be leaving the stove anytime soon.

Canning, The Beast, And The Mise En Place

It’s cherry and raspberry season here, and it would take a heart of stone (much like a cherry’s, now that I think about it) to resist their wiles.  A few days ago I was waylaid, totally without warning, by a charismatic cherry-seller in my bank’s parking lot, and then I was assaulted by a giant, glowing display of raspberries at my grocery store.  In both cases my wallet was sucked right out of my pocket and I dutifully brought the bags and clamshells home with me. I stuck them in the fridge, thinking I’d come up with something to do with them RSN (real soon now).

This morning I realized I’d better get on with it because they and I weren’t getting any younger. Freezing was the obvious (and quickest) option, but a look at the calendar — I usually have no idea what date it is and only a loose grip on the actual day of the week — told me that the fig and tomato seasons were right around the corner.

One moment, you ask.  What do figs, tomatoes, cherries and raspberries have to do with each other?  The answer’s in this bad boy right here:

(Ominous chords.)

That is The Beast, a Ball waterbath canner, the genuine article, about as unchanged over geologic time as a horseshoe crab and nearly as ugly.  I got it as a Christmas present two years ago.  Now before anybody gets all worked up about lousy Christmas presents (e.g., vacuum cleaners and the like), you should know that I asked for it and I was delighted when the gigantic box appeared under the tree.  I can’t imagine that a medieval alchemist would have been any happier getting a brand-new alembic.

It came with the iconic Blue Book Guide To Preserving. “The Book.” THE 100TH EDITION of “The Book.”

This was like having Robert of Chester’s Book of the Composition of Alchemy (translated from Arabic circa 1144) delivered to your front door.



Over the next year I learned to make and can jams, jellies and syrups with The Beast and The Book, but without a doubt its premiere use for me is to preserve tomato puree.  There is absolutely no comparison between the tomato puree/sauce you get in the grocery stores to the absolute elixir of joy and deliciousness you can produce at home.  You can choose the variety of the tomatoes (I’ve produced several varieties of puree, from the chocolate beefsteaks to purple heirlooms to the classic Romas) and the texture of the sauce.  There’s none of that strange overcooked taste from the commercial cans and even better, none of the bisphenol-A chemical epoxy that lines them. It’s just incredibly fresh puree and glass.

So this morning, with cherries and raspberries ticking like tiny bombs in the fridge, I realized that I had tomato season coming up. To add a little more pressure, our Mission fig tree has had some kind of divine revelation, and is producing more fruit than I have ever seen before or even believed possible. Fig preserves and jam were going to be very much a part of my life.

“I feel Happy!”

It was obvious that The Beast had to come out of the cave where it had been hibernating for months.  Any alchemy relies on technique as well as theory, and technique in turn relies on practice. What better practice than a bag of beautiful ripe cherries and packs of glowing raspberries to start ramping up for the real work this summer?

I decided on a recipe in The Book, the Cherry-Raspberry Conserve (page 31).  It’s pretty simple;  you pit the cherries, push the raspberries through a sieve to remove the seeds, and add sugar.  But I also decided to add two other ingredients.  This year I started growing lemon verbena, an herb with an astonishing citrus blast as well as a grassy note that I thought would cut the sweetness of the conserve.  And then, because I had more cherries than raspberries, I thought I’d add a little Framboise.Framboise is a raspberry wine with some grape spirits added, to give you that delicate smack upside the head you really need sometimes.  It is rich, sensuous, and completely addictive.  I have absolutely no historical evidence for this but I can imagine Roman emporers sipping it during banquets.  I thought I had it all down.

The wisdom of the trial run became apparent pretty quickly.  My pitter had disappeared, which wasn’t that much of a tragedy because it never worked very well anyway.  But it also meant that I had to hand-cut and de-pit a ton of cherries.  And then I had to smash  raspberries through my chinoise strainer to produce pulp.  During all this I forgot to put the lids into a pot to warm up, so there was some running around getting that done, and I had to make sure that the water level in The Beast remained high enough while the jars and rings were sterilizing, and then I had to rig up an infusion-bag for the lemon verbena because my cheesecloth had mysteriously vanished.  I found that none of my tools ever ended up in the right place, that I had to constantly retrace my steps, and that my setups weren’t efficient.  Handling and filling the hot jars felt clumsy.  I’d been a smooth machine last summer, but I felt like I had blinders and oven mitts on this time. It doesn’t take long for technique to decay.

I managed to limp through the process and produce a few jars of Cherry-Raspberry Conserve, infused with lemon verbena and Framboise.

Boom! There it is.

In the end, I was utterly convinced of the truth of Anthony Bourdain’s meditation on the cook’s mise en place from “Kitchen Confidential”: “The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.”  Thanks to the conserve, I’m a little more prepared for the figs and the tomatoes.  Because they’re coming, and I’d better be ready.