Saturday, October 25, 2008

What to do with a Load of Tomatoes, Part 1: Spaghetti Sauce

The tomato harvest was late here in the Northwest, but when it came, it really came! As I mentioned in my last couple of posts, I'm inundated with tomatoes. So, let's take a look at things you can do with too many tomatoes, besides throw them at people you don't like.

Last weekend's project here at Camp Crum was spaghetti sauce--a big vat of it. I use my mother's recipe, or the closest approximation I can find. My mother, like so many old-time cooks, didn't really follow recipes for things she made frequently, and the dishes evolved as she experimented. A few years ago, after she gave up cooking from scratch, I asked her to write the recipe down so I could carry on the family tradition. Here's what she gave me:

1 cup chopped onion
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
32 oz. tomatoes, fresh or canned. If using fresh, peel them according to the instructions in my previous post. No need to chop them - just drop 'em in whole.
16 oz. tomato sauce
8 oz. tomato paste
2 tbsp fresh basil (snipped) or 2 tsp dried basil
1 tbsp fresh oregano (snipped) or 1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
12 oz. sliced fresh mushrooms
1 lb. ground beef

Brown the ground beef, then add all ingredients to a big stock pot and simmer for at least a couple of hours.

I usually triple the recipe (which makes about 8 quarts), then can or freeze the extra. Even though it's more work, I prefer to can, because then I can make dinner super-quickly. It takes quite awhile to thaw a quart of frozen spaghetti sauce, even in a microwave.

How to Peel Fresh Tomatoes for Cooking

Keeping with the tomato theme, since I still have tons of the silly things, let's talk about how to prepare fresh tomatoes for use in recipes. First, put a large pot of water on to boil. While the water is heating, rinse your tomatoes and remove the stems. If you're going to use your tomatoes in something that will be cooked for awhile, that's all you need to do till the water is ready. If you're going to use them in a fresh sauce (i.e. you don't want them to taste cooked), cut an "X" on the bottom of each one. Cutting the "X" will make the skins separate with about 15 seconds of blanching rather than 30 or more.

Once the water is boiling, drop the tomatoes in, a few at a time. Blanch them till the skins start to separate, then fish them out with a slotted spoon and set them aside to cool. Once all tomatoes are blanched and cool enough to handle, slip off the skins and use them according to your recipe's instructions.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

How to Store and Use Fresh Tomatoes

These days most people who cook with tomatoes used canned ones from the grocery store, but since this is a gardening blog, let's talk about using fresh ones instead. First, what do you do with a zillion fresh tomatoes? Soon I'll post some recipes for spaghetti sauce and tomato soup, but for now let's consider storing tomatoes till you have time to do something with them. If you'll be able to use your tomatoes within a few days, just store them on your kitchen counter, covered with a cloth or in a paper bag to avoid attracting fruit flies and hasten ripening. Do NOT store them in the refrigerator! Refrigeration destroys much of the home-grown taste, leaving you with something little better than those abominations they sell in the supermarket.

The biggest annoyance with fresh tomatoes is peeling them. Blanch them in boiling water for about 30 seconds, and the skins should slip off easily. Or, you can score a shallow "X" in the bottom of each tomato, then blanch them in boiling water for about 15 seconds.

If you have more tomatoes than you can use before they'll rot, you have two options:

  1. Freeze them. Freezing is the quickest, easiest way to deal with a tomato invasion, though you'll need quite a bit of freezer space. Just rinse the tomatoes, pat them dry, put them in freezer bags, and freeze them. When you're ready to use them, thaw them partially and squeeze them out of their skins. That's the most fun part--kind of like popping a giant red zit (er, sorry... I have a gross sense of humor). Then use them as you would canned tomatoes. If you're like me and forget to thaw them till you're ready to use them, just drop them in boiling water till their skins start to peel (about 5-10 seconds), then squeeze them out of their skins.

  2. Can them. Canned homegrown tomatoes are better than the canned tomatoes in the grocery store, and they'll keep indefinitely. Also, tomatoes can be canned in a boiling water bath, so you don't need a pressure canner (though processing times are much shorter with a pressure canner, so if you have one, you'll probably want to use it). There are lots of web sites with instructions for canning tomatoes, but to be safe, choose one from an extension service, so you get current, USDA-approved methods. You want to avoid botulism unless you have a large life insurance policy with me as the beneficiary. Here are a few reliable sites:

With these techniques, you can enjoy your tomato harvest well into winter. Have fun!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

No, I'm not dead. I've just been a lazy slob all summer and dealing with some family issues that drew my attention away from both gardening and this blog. But I'm getting back into the swing of things, just in time for the end of the tomato harvest.

Even if I lived in a tiny apartment with nothing but a balcony for gardening, I'd grow tomatoes. Those perfectly round, red impostors in the supermarket are unworthy to be called tomatoes--picked green, gassed with ethylene, and shipped in cold storage. Yuck. Why bother? I tend to go overboard with the tomatoes (I have about 25 plants this year), so by this time of year my kitchen resembles a scene from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I swear they multiply and are plotting the overthrow of the neighborhood. In future posts I'll talk about what to do with mass quantities of tomatoes, but tonight I'll give you a quick rundown on how some varieties performed in my garden.

It was a weird year here on the rainy side of the Pacific Northwest. We didn't really get warm weather till late summer, and it didn't last long. I usually have ripe tomatoes by early August, but I didn't get my first ones this year till almost September. I don't know how these varieties would have performed in a more normal summer, so don't read too much into this report. I grew about 10 or 12 different varieties of tomatoes, but some of the labels faded, so I can't identify all of them. Here's the scoop on the ones I can identify. Note: All links go to either Territorial Seed or Totally Tomatoes unless otherwise noted. With the exception of the Brandywine, I don't say much about taste, because to me all home-grown tomatoes taste great.

Willamette: Determinate variety bred for early ripening in the Northwest. For me, it produced a modest amount of medium-sized tomatoes, some of which split in the rain. They didn't last long on the vine, rotting quickly if not picked, and some had odd blemishes. Even though Willamette is a determinate variety, the vines were too heavy for standard tomato cages.

Roma: Determinate, great tomato for sauces. My Romas did really well this year! They were my heaviest producers, the fruits last well on the vine, and I had almost no trouble with blossom end rot.

Oregon Spring: Another determinate variety bred for early ripening in the Northwest. Mine produced moderately, kept well on the vine, and produced nice medium-sized fruits with good shape and color and few blemishes.

Early Girl: Well-known indeterminate hybrid. Mine produced modestly, kept well on the vine, with good shape and color and few blemishes.

Black Plum: Indeterminate. Mine produced fairly well and kept fairly well on the vine, though some had blemishes.

Brandywine: An heirloom variety famous for its taste, Brandywines are a staple of my tomato garden every year. They're huge, heavy, take forever to ripen, rot quickly, bruise easily... and are still well worth the effort for their flavor. Mine did fairly well this year considering our cool summer, but they've done much better in past years.

Taxi: Yellow determinate salad tomato. Mine produced poorly this year, but I'm not sure if the problem was the weather or the soil. Mine was planted in an area where other things didn't do well either, so I think I need to amend the soil and try again.

Juliet: Hybrid grape tomato (well... really it's bigger than a grape tomato, shaped like a Roma but smaller) on indeterminate vine. Mine produced prolifically despite minimal care, with no blossom end rot, no cracking, and no blemishes. They also kept well on the vine.

So... How did your tomatoes do?