In late September, my husband and I bought 25 pounds of San Marzano tomatoes from the Union Square Greenmarket. The goal: preservation. I did it once before, two years ago. We bought about 5-8 pounds then and I did the work myself. It only yielded about two or three quart-freezer bags. The following February, when sauces and stews had been thick, brown, and earthy for months, and we’d hibernated inside for too long, we defrosted a bag. The explosion of bright, fresh, primary red popped on a bleak winter day. I wanted to cry when I tasted it. Why had we waited this long? When would we get tomatoes again?
I don’t think my mom ever canned tomatoes. But I remember her acts of preservation in Halifax. The peach, blueberry, and strawberry jams, all made from fruits that we picked as a family that summer. I remember apple slices drying on a line strung like twinkle lights throughout the kitchen that became our snacks throughout the winter.
Preservation. The work of preserving the fruits and vegetables of the summer to enjoy for the long winters, when all you can get at the market are the gourds and potatoes, for months and months. These are old traditions that span the gamut of flavors: from adding acidity and/or salt to result in pickles, to cooking down and adding sugar to create jams. Crushed tomatoes are the one canned product that we buy and use on a regular basis, so it made sense to start with those.
For this project, I sought the simplest method, not necessarily in length of time, but using the fewest ingredients. I wanted them to be a crushed tomato base, not make them into sauce right away. The method we used was the following: Score an x into the skin at the bottom of the tomatoes. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Drop the tomatoes in for 20 seconds. Scoop out with slotted spoon and shock in ice water (we ran out of ice, so I ran cold water over them. Peel and seed tomatoes, also removing the tough core. Drop this detritus into one pot, and the tomato meat into another pot. Continue until all tomatoes have been separated.
Bring peels, seeds, and cores to a boil with several pinches of salt and let simmer for 90 minutes. Do the same in a separate pot for the tomato meat. Allow to cool. No additional water will be necessary, as all the flesh, seeds and skins will release their own liquid. Keep an eye on the pots, stirring occasionally.
Strain peels, seeds and cores through fine mesh strainer. My friend Bex, very experienced in the world of canning and DIY (check out her amazing business here: http://www.brooklyndiysupply.com/) said that at this point, we could boil down the liquid to make tomato juice. What we did instead was processed the peels, seeds, and cores in the food processor, to make a thick paste. There are still some peels and seeds that don’t break down here, but we decided we could live with it. We mixed this paste back into the liquid and allowed it to simmer.
We didn’t can them because I haven’t yet made the investment or done the research into the jars, temperatures, lids, canning tongs, best practices and recipes to avoid botulism, mold, etc. Instead, they’re sitting in quart freezer bags in our freezer; yes, they take up a lot of space, so I can see why one would choose to jar/can instead and store in your pantry at room temperature.
In all, we got about 38 cups of tomatoes, which is 9.5 quarts, i.e. 9.5 cans of tomatoes. The food cost is somewhat equivalent to buying the canned tomatoes at the grocery store, which Curtis says sell for about $3.50 each. The box of 25 pounds was $30 at the Greenmarket. The “peels & seeds” crushed tomatoes yielded an earthier version of crushed tomatoes, while the pure tomato meat was clear and bright. While I’m sure I’ll still use the canned crushed tomatoes (my brand of choice is Cento), particularly when the freezer empties and we won’t get tomatoes at the Greenmarket until July, the difference between the ones we processed and commercial crushed tomatoes, in my opinion, is the acidity and metallic quality of the latter. This doesn’t matter so much when you’re making a long-cooked sauce like Michael Symon’s Sunday Sauce http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/michael-symon/yia-yias-sunday-sauce.html, or an 8-hour chili. But for other recipes, like Giada de Laurentiis’s Marinara Sauce (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/marinara-sauce-recipe.html) which only simmers for about 1 hour, our crushed tomatoes will make a difference.
Our roommate and a friend from Florida each asked, “why are you preserving tomatoes?’ They didn’t understand what the difference or benefit would be, especially seeing how much work went into the process. If you haven’t tasted them, you may not understand. If you haven’t tasted them in the middle of a long, lonely winter, you may not understand. We have – and though most years New York Februarys make Curtis long for the beach and we contemplate moving south, this year after we finished putting the tomatoes up, Curtis said, “Can’t wait for winter!”