Saturday, September 1, 2012

53 pounds of tomatoes: sorted

It's been quite a while since I took a few moments to sit down and pound out a blog entry. To be very honest, there are times when writing about food can be tedious. I'm too busy trying to cook food; writing about it can really become a chore. Yet, there is also something to be said about the therapeutic quality of writing. I see it as a kind of rhythm that is sometimes difficult to initiate but then once rolling along, the oscillations tend to self-propagate; like the words are writing themselves. Nevertheless, to write, one needs inspiration, and that inspiration came to me in the form of a tomato.

Or more precisely, 53 pounds of locally grown field tomatoes.

Despite the opening image of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes at the top of this page, my real task was to process about fifty pounds of roma tomatoes. The pretty heirloom tomatoes I picked up at the farmers market have been gracing some terribly good salads these days. Along with the tremendous bush of fresh basil that has been growing like a weed in my front garden, summer supping has been most satisfying.

The real work, however, is in determining the best route for turning fifty pounds of fresh tomatoes into something that can warm the cockles in the dead of winter. I love the idea of a rustic pantry neatly lined with mason jars of preserved tomatoes. However, the canning process, as it is called, is not yet among my ambitions. I have a fairly large freezer that has ample space for some harvest delights. As it stands, my many and varied mason jar collection can better serve me as jaunty, jury-rigged storm lanterns. No, what I'm going for is a robust, roast tomato sauce. My recipe borrows liberally from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls original River Cottage Cookbook published in the UK about ten years ago. Like me, Hugh was not much of an expert in jar sterilizing etc, and suggested creating preserves that freeze well such as tomato sauces and stocks. Now in the event that a major power failure in mid-January results in the defrosting of about 14 litres of tomato sauce, I'll eat my words (or quickly transfer the sauce to the back porch where winter weather should continue to keep them fresh).

The process really couldn't be any simpler. Get two large aluminum trays - as big as can fit in your oven. Preheat the oven to 350F. Then split each tomato in half and get it on the tray. Fill up the tray so that there is just a bit of breathing space between each half. Then toss in some oil (I used local Canola oil), a few glugs will do. Follow that with a few whole garlic cloves per tray(leave the skin on), some onions---I had some beautiful baby red onions with stalks intact from the farmer's market. Make sure you leave the onions skins on as well. This will all be strained later and the skins on the onion and garlic protect them. Then get some herbage on there. I raided the garden for fresh oregano, fresh thyme and fresh bay. Don't use basil at this point - the cooking process will kill their wonderful perfume. Toss everything about in the oil, get a good amount of salt and pepper on there. Then finally, arrange your tomatoes so that the skins are down and the split side is up. This not only prevents stickage, but will reduce any bitterness from over-caramelized crusty bits. Get the trays in the oven and slowly roast the lot for 45 minutes to an hour. After the first 35 minutes or so, go in there and give everything a move around. The bottom tray may be catching a bit from the direct heat of the oven, so it might be prudent to move the lower tray up and the upper tray down. You want the tomatoes broken down but still retaining their shape.

Once the cooking is done, then run the works while still hot through a food mill (if you let it cool too much, it is not as easy to process). If you don't have a food mill (and have strong fore arms), force the tomatoes through a mesh sieve using the back of a ladle or a wooden spoon. For someone who likes to cook a lot, a food mill is an essential. The fancy type from France (called a mouli) are quite expensive. However, you can get plain-jane stainless steel versions in most department stores.

I like to strain the works into my stock pot because it is the most voluminous vessel I own, moreover, the food mill perches quite securely to the top. When all is said and done, get the sauce into some plastic containers along with one or two fresh basil leaves in each. (You'll obviously have to do the roasting in batches - it was about 8 large trays from the bushel meaning four roasting sessions) Let them cool completely before refrigerating or freezing. I read somewhere that hot tomato sauce placed directly into the fridge will make it go sour. I'm not sure how true that is, but I'm not going to test the theory. You can actually use mason jars if you don't fill them to the top and allow them to cool completely before freezing. My mother-in-law freezes everything in mason jars, so if your plastic-phobic, mason jars are still do-able, albeit a bit finicky. I figure plastic is fine as long as you avoid reheating it in the microwave---I've read some pretty compelling science that microwaving plastic can be pernicious to one's health. Why tempt fate? Either way, the beauty of my plastic containers is that you can open the lid, upend it and the flavourful solid sauce-block just slides out like a blessed new born baby. Drop it into a sauce pan and gently bring up to the heat. Feel free to mix with ground meat for a lovely Bolognese. Hell, cook a portion down a bit in a saucepan until it becomes rich and unctuous, pour in some vinegar, sugar and grate some nutmeg and you've got your own homemade ketchup. In the end, this stuff costs about 75 cents a litre. Not bad.  

Further more, every single ingredient in this lovely sauce was grown or procured withing 100 kilometres from my home. That fact alone is enough to pre-emptively warm my cockles.

1 comment:

  1. Don't be scared of canning. I can show you how easy it is. I have it down to a science. I can prep a bushel (50lbs) and have then in sterile jars within 2 hrs. Then I waterbath them 6 jars at a time. I can can an entire bushel in one day if I just keep waterbathing all day....each batch has to boil for 2 1/2 hrs. To get our family through a year with tomatoes and have a few to give away, I need to do at least 3 bushels - this is anywhere between 45-55 jars. Come over and do a bushel with me