Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's Fresh Now: Tomatoes

We are having the most heavenly growing season out here in NYC. Last week I showed up at my CSA pickup and was handed a 20 lb. box of tomatoes, which over the weekend turned into sauce. I then canned this sauce, because there was no way I was going to fit 6 quarts in the freezer.

The tricky part was that I don't have a canner--a big deep pot fitted with a wire rack so that the jars don't jostle and break as they're boiling--so I devised one out of my brew kettle and an old rubber bathmat that I scrubbed with bleach first. I actually wouldn't recommend any of this, because even when I'm not using bootleg equipment I worry about getting sloppy and flirting with death. Anyhow, I've decided to invest in a dedicated canner what with apple season just kicking in.

Th'usband rolled his eyes a little at this news given that this project took the better part of my weekend and saw me verging on a panic attack until he helped me figure out how I was going to get the finished jars out of the canner; if I was doing it to spare the cost of 6 industrially produced quarts of sauce, clearly I had lost my mind.

Fortunately for me, th'usband is himself a re-enactor, and understands that this kind of doing has its own satisfaction, and that even when I'm reaching into the boiling water wearing silicone oven mitts, what I'm really doing is a flawed but earnest impression of my grandmother, or yours, ca. 1940. I'm sure that they never saw a day coming when sewing, knitting, canning and suchlike would amount to costly acts of indulgence rather than necessary acts of thrift.

First I peeled the tomatoes (with an extra set of hands lent by J.) by immersing them in near-boiling water for about a minute, then transferring them into a waiting bowl of ice water. This made the skins crack and slip off like gloves.

Prior to canning, the jars and lids get sterilized in boiling water. I took this photo before turning on the gas so that you could appreciate the bathmat action.

I quartered the peeled tomatoes and used my thumbs (can you tell by looking at my pristine hands?) to open and empty the big pockets of seeds, then chopped them roughly. These were perfectly ripe and red to the core and required very little trimming.

So here's the drill: using sterilized equipment, you ladle the sauce into the jars, leaving about 1/2 inch for expansion. Then you put on the lids, screwing the rings down tight so that the sauce doesn't ooze out when you carefully lower the jars into boiling water. You let them boil for 10 minutes, long enough to get the sauce inside the jars boiling again to kill off any pathogens that might have sneaked in there. Heated stuff expands, so when you pull the jars out of the water at the end of the processing time, they look full to the brim; a few minutes later, though, you'll hear a noise as the contents cool and contract, drawing the lid down to make a tight seal. The rings will seem loose at this point, and you can certainly screw them down--but really, nothing's going in or out of that jar until the day you slide a knife blade or file under that metal lid to release the pressure.

The only problem with canning is that the finished jars are almost too pretty to open.

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