Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More Tomatoes--Processing the Harvest

This picture shows one of several large piles of tomatoes harvested from our garden over the past month.   I should have kept record of how many pounds or pecks or something but really just lost track as I was so focused on keeping up with picking the ripe ones, and then processing them.  Although its a little overdue to be helpful to you this year, I thought I might write a few things about what to do with all those tomatoes, from blanching to canning and more.

After removing the stems and washing the tomatoes in cool water (I even rub them lightly with a clean kitchen sponge to get all the stuck on soil off), the tomatoes should be blanched.  If you remember from any of my past posts, blanching is very important in halting the enzyme process and therefore preserving some of the quality in texture and  flavor of the item.

In the case of tomatoes, blanching serves another helpful job as well--it makes removing the skins super easy!   First bring of pot of water to a good rolling boil, and then using tongs carefully drop 3 or 4 tomatoes at a time into the water.  I found that it usually only takes about 30 seconds and you will want to check your tomatoes.

Gently pick up a tomato with the tongs, and see if the skin has split as shown in the picture on the left. If they haven't split on their own in the pot by this time, take a fork and just prick the skin slightly. The tomato skin should split wide with little effort, (if they do not then return to the water for a little longer.)  Once the skin is split then simply set the tomato aside and continue on until all your tomatoes have been blanched and cooled enough so they can be handled.

Now, the skin of the tomato will simply slip right off as shown in this picture.  The tomatoes will be perfectly bare and ready for further processing-- which can take several different paths at this point.

One thing that I did with my skinless tomatoes was to remove the seeds (most of them as possible in a quick manner) and can the tomatoes.  Using a paring knife I made a couple of cuts in the sections and flipped the seeds out with my thumb. After de-seeding, I canned the crushed tomatoes in quart jars.  (Remember tips for successful canning: sterilize jars, fill with tomatoes, set hot lid and ring upon clean jar rim, process full quarts in water bath canner 45 minutes, check seal after jars are completely cool.)

Sometimes you will find this scene when you remove the lid from your canner full of jars--Nothing in particular was done differently, it just happens. Once in a while a jar just breaks! It is very disheartening though, and you must clean the canner to dispose of all glass fragments and tomato pulp that is floating around.
This year I canned 19 quarts of crushed tomatoes which we will use for various recipes like a nice hot pot of chili on a cold winters day!

straining tomato juice

tomato juice cubes
There was quite a lot of juice left in the container after I picked the tomato flesh out to put in the jars for canning. It was very watery and didn't taste that great as it was, however I couldn't justify pouring it down the drain.  I first strained out any seeds that happen to be left in it, then decided to cook it down, concentrating the flavor, then I poured it into extra ice cube trays and froze it.  After the cubes were solid, I transferred them to a plastic freezer bag. Those juice cubes are great when we want just a little red and flavor to add to gravy or soup, etc.

If you don't think you would find crushed tomatoes particularly useful in your kitchen, you could make sauce and can or freeze that instead.

This extraterrestrial-looking contraption is an antique tool I acquired...errr...uh...I mean borrowed (for an extended period of time..hint hint...) from my grandmother.  I didn't know what its actual name is, and I didn't think it would be very good to keep referring to it as the strainer sieve thingy, so I did a little researching.  At first I thought it was a "chinois" (French: shin-wah) which would have been rather a cool term to be able to use, however then I read further and the construction of it is different and therefore the tool I have is called a "China cap" (doesn't sound as glamorous does it?)  The chinois is a finer mesh style, where as this is a single piece of perforated metal (with holes larger than its counterpart) made into a conical sieve, which sits in a set of legs.  It is accompanied by a wooden cone/handle, a sort of pestle, and purpose is like that of a food mill--removing seeds and other coarse material from soft food/liquid.  In this situation, it smashes up the blanched tomatoes skins, seeds, and all.

This is the first time I have used our antique kitchen aid, and I was pleased with the process and outcome.  I simply took the tomatoes that had been blanched as described above, and cut them in half (because I had to be sure no yukky stuff would be inside and accidentally mash a bug or worm into my sauce! Gross!) I filled the sieve with the halves of tomatoes and then used the wooden pestle to go around and around, pressing the tomatoes into the sides of the cone, resulting in liquid and fine pulp flowing through the sieve and into the pan below, while the skins and seeds are kept separate in the cone.  I think the use of this tool really gets the absolute most out of the tomatoes, while keeping tough skin and bitter seeds out of the future pasta sauce!

I poured the juicy product of my straining efforts into heavy stock pots and started cooking it slowly over medium heat--stirring OFTEN!   It literally cooked all day, until it was reduced to almost half and had quite a bit thicker consistency. Oh yes, and it must be stirred often.  You could leave it as plain tomato sauce, however as it is cooking I like to add salt, pepper, garlic powder, and some Italian seasoning.  This gives a great aroma throughout the house as it simmers, and a good flavor that is not too over powering so it can be seasoned more according to use at a later date.

And did I mention--you must stay close and stir the sauce often, paying special attention to the bottom of the pot--oh that's right I did tell you; I just don't want you to forget or go too far away from the stove. I made that mistake with my first batch and all of a sudden I could smell burnt sauce! It had started to stick and scorch in the bottom of the pan, and that made the whole batch taste sort of burnt. ( I canned it anyways and we'll use it, and it will be a reminder never to do that again!!)

Again the normal rules of canning apply--hot jars, hot sauce, hot lids, process 40 min, check seal when completely cool.

 Final product: 25 quarts of homegrown-homemade tomato sauce, plus a few dinners worth that we used right away with out canning! Very satisfying!

So, I am sorry I didn't get that info out soon enough for your use this year, but maybe you will want to give it a try with your own garden tomatoes next year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


After a long summer of watching, weeding, watering, and waiting, tying up and trimming, the tomatoes finally started to ripen...and now they won't stop!!

If you remember WAY back in the spring, I started 5 different varieties of tomato, some with seeds I saved from last year, 1 from a family member, and 1 from a seed catalog, totaling 139 tomato plants for our garden, after giving away a whole bunch.

The grape tomatoes were among those saved from last year, and they have grown superbly and produced literally buckets full of sweet, oblong, grape-sized tomatoes.  These are the best for eating straight out of the garden, perfect for any child-sized helping hands as they are so easy to pick, and have huge yields from each plant so they are definitely going to be a repeat in next years garden plan.


Roma tomatoes are what I usually grow for canning crushed tomatoes and making/canning sauce.  I also started these with last years seeds that I saved from plants I purchased.  This year they grew kind of on the small side, but I like them really well for their ease in skinning and de-seeding.

Amish Paste
I purchased seed for Amish Paste Tomatoes from a catalog.  They are supposed to be great big plants with meaty tomatoes, and they did grow to a pretty good size, however, most have not ripened nicely and have big cracks in the top stem end. In addition, they seem to be more attractive to bugs (probably because of the cracking) and have a lot of seeds.  Overall I am disappointed with this variety, but since it may be the rainy weather affecting its ripening...I have not completely disqualified it yet.  I have saved some seed for now, at least until next year's planning requires a decision.

Family Heirloom
My family heirloom tomatoes have done about the same as the above Amish tomatoes, in that the vines grew very big, had promising-looking big green tomatoes, but then the ripening was less than desirable.  The blossom ends of the fruits have been turning nice red, but the upper half of the tomato (toward the stem) is staying green and hard and cracking.  Again it may be related to weather this year, and since they ARE family heirloom seeds I have set seeds aside and hope for better results next year.   For now I am just cutting off the unripened parts and using the remainder, which has good flavor, in sauce.

Salsa Tomatoes
Now, to talk about my favorite variety, which I simply call my Salsa Tomatoes--Last year my dad started tons of plants and gave me all of the ones he could not fit into his garden (which ended up being most of them--lucky for me, and that was the beginning of our garden expansion!!) One packet of seeds he used was called "cocktail" tomatoes, and those happened to be what I chose to use in my homemade salsa. Perfect choice! I think will make this our own family heirloom veggie starting now!!
Salsa Tomatoes, easy to remove seeds

This variety produces small to medium sized, round, flavorful tomatoes.  For 2 years now they have had very few blemishes, or other issues.  Beside that, the most important qualities for me are that these tomatoes have really firm, thick flesh that holds up great for canning salsa, and they are super easy work with.  The skins peel off of the firm flesh very easily and their seeds are withheld in 2 major cavities and can be removed quickly with a flick of a paring knife and a flip of the thumb.

Needless to say, for the last 3 weeks I have had a refrigerator full of tomatoes. Even when I get a bunch put up in a recipe, then there's a whole lot more to pick and bring inside from the garden!  I have been meaning to sit down and share some of my ideas/tips/mistakes/etc on processing all these tomatoes, but I have been spending all my time DOING that instead of WRITING about it...maybe between filing the next batches of jars I will write some more on that!  Talk to you again soon....

Monday, September 5, 2011


Hi folks, sorry its been quite a long time since you've heard from GetawayGarden.  So many things to update you on. But where to begin!

I think first I should talk a little bit about the Summer Squash because if you had some growing in your garden, then you have probably eating your fill, given tons away, and still have more squash! So, you may need some tips on what to do with it.

My family loves zucchini bread, but baking a bunch of loaves to use up the fresh zucchini takes a lot of time, makes a lot more heat in the kitchen, and the loaves take up a lot of freezer space.  The next best option is to grate the squash now, and freeze it in small bags, and bake with it at a later time.  It's quick and easy and doesn't tie up the kitchen time/space which you probably desperately need now for canning/preserving the rest of your harvest.

Here's what to do:

Wash the zucchini, no need to peel.  Cut it length-wise, and remove the seeds.  Using a box grater to shred the squash as shown in this picture.  Measure out portions, per your recipe, and put into freezer bags.  Put the portions into the freezer, then when you're ready to bake with them, simply allow to defrost at room temperature.  I have even mixed in yellow summer squash with the zucchini before and it works out pretty well.

Note: you might read elsewhere that you should blanch the shredded veggie  before you freeze it, and certainly you may by putting it in a mesh strainer and lowering it into the boiling water, then into an ice bath, and finally draining it very well. However, I skipped this, and have had really great results. This past week I baked zucchini bread cookies with a couple of portions from last year and the squash had kept well for a year--the flesh was nice and light colored and the flecks of peel were a lovely bright green color, and the texture was perfect.

Another option for preserving your bounty of summer squash is to freeze slices or chunks, to be used later in soups, pasta dishes, or stirfry.  Simply wash, and cut the squash into slices, about a half inch thick. Blanch for 3 minutes in boiling water, then cool 5 minutes in ice bath, lay out on towel to air dry, or blot with paper towels. Flash freeze the pieces on waxed paper on a cookie sheet and bag after frozen.  Note: I think the squash is pretty mushy after being frozen but if it is added to a dish such as soup or spaghetti sauce at the last minute, then it is quite edible.

There you have some easy ways to store all that squash you have picked from your garden so it doesn't go to waste.  Your summer squash plants should be just about finished producing now as mine are, but I am sure you have plenty of other crops that still need your attention!   A post on tomatoes coming soon...