Saturday, August 23, 2008

Attack of the Expensive Tomatoes or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Buy Cheap Tomatoes

Today marked one of the best attended farmer’s markets all year: the tomato tasting. Besides the usual booths a large tent was set up where you could sample about 30 varieties of tomatoes from local farmers. They even provided a handy sheet to make notes on.

Besides our old favorites: Persimmon, Cosmonaut Volkov and Paul Robeson we discovered two new cherry tomatoes we loved: Juliet and Sungold.

The tomato tasting just happened to coincide with our plans to can tomatoes. Although I would have loved to have bought our tomatoes from a local organic farmer, at $4 a pound for heirlooms they would have been very expensive canned tomatoes.

Instead we opted for the supposedly local plum tomatoes at the grocery stores. At $1 per lb they made for theoretically affordable canned tomatoes.

So with our 21 pound case (I know it says 25, it lies) at home this morning we began the numerous steps. First we had to wash them and cut an “X” in the end to aid with removing the skins. Then we dunked them all into boiling water for about a minute in small batches which were then plunged into ice water.

(This is what 21 pounds of tomatoes which are ready to have their skins removed looks like. Please ignore the mess of assorted vinegars and oils in the background which never seem to make it back to the cabinets they supposedly belong in.

Once all the tomatoes had endured this treatment we slipped all the skins off. Then, working in small batches we cored and quartered them and put them in a pan on medium high. According to the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (from which almost all of our canning recipes come) you only need to squish the first few cups or so and the rest will break down on their own as they simmer and get stirred.

And it is here I am sad to say we made our first real canning error of the season. I guess we were too inattentive in our stirring because some of the tomatoes burned and stuck to the bottom of the pot. We realized our mistake when charred black bits began floating to the top. We tasted them and decided that since they didn’t particularly taste bad (like caramelized tomato) it wasn’t a total disaster so we picked out the pieces we could and forged ahead.

Once the tomatoes were satisfactorily disintegrated we took our sanitized jars out of their hot water bath. The first thing to go into them was bottled lemon juice (2 tablespoons for quarts, 1 for pints and bottled because it has a reliable level of acidity). According to our book this is necessary because tomatoes are just on the cusp of the level of acidity needed for safe canning.

Once the jars had been given their dose of lemon juice we added the tomatoes, wiped the rims and sealed the jars. They then enjoyed a 45 minute boiling water bath (that timing is for quarts, 35 for pints).

Our total yield ended up being 7 quarts, 7 pints and an extra quart which we didn’t bother canning and stuck in the fridge for tomorrow’s dinner.

What surprised us about this yield was that it exceeded what the book told us we should get. They claim that you need 2 ¾ lbs tomatoes per quart. So with 21 lbs we should have ended up with about 7 1/2 quarts. We ended up with 11 ½. I honestly cannot figure out why.

We’re exhausted. And I’m sure someone out there is thinking why go through all this when they have perfectly decent canned tomatoes at the grocery store? I don’t have a sane answer for you. And would you believe we’re planning to do more tomatoes this year?

(Check back in a day or so for an update on the success or failure of peach canning.)

P.S. Even our cats are frugal. Zoe adopted the box from the tomatoes as a new bed.

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