Thursday, September 2, 2010

Keeping Tomatoes

Imagine it's January. You've just come inside from cross-country skiing or building a snowman. Imagine reaching into your pantry for a jar of tomatoes that you skinned, crushed, and canned with your own hands last August, at the height of tomato season. Purée those tomatoes, and heat them gently in a saucepan with a bit of thyme and basil, black pepper, and soy, coconut, or cashew cream. Now stir in some cooked rice, beans, or pasta. Wrap your fingers around a steaming mug of homemade cream of tomato soup. It doesn't get any better than this.

I've been turning over ideas for another post about long-term food storage. It's been on my mind lately, as I squirrel away the summer's fruits and vegetables. If what they say about caring for new babies is true, I'll be too busy and too tired come winter to worry about cooking or nutrition. This gives my stockpiling a sense of urgency.

I heard a story on NPR this morning that asked why home canning has suddenly become popular again. Is it the economy? Maybe. At 30 pounds for $35, my tomatoes are significantly cheaper than the organic brand I used to buy at the grocery store. But canning takes a bit of investment up front, in jars and equipment, that may deter those interested solely in thrift.

Is it the local food movement? This probably plays a bigger role. I like knowing my tomatoes were grown just down the road in Pittsfield, Maine, then picked, brought to market, and canned the same day. I trust that the bearded farmer who sold them to me grew them according to his principles, without petroleum-based fertilizers or insecticides. And I like paying the farmer directly; when I buy a can of crushed tomatoes at the grocery store, how many ways is my money split, and how much of it do the growers and pickers actually see?

Taste is certainly a factor. Grocery store tomatoes, picked green and ripened with ethylyne gas, can never compare with tomatoes ripened outdoors on the vine. There is also the satisfaction of doing something by hand, in being able to feed myself the way families did a century ago. (Grocery store? I don't need no stinking grocery store!)

For all these reasons, I've become increasingly addicted to canning. I smiled when the radio reporter mentioned "the sound that every home canner loves to hear—the little thunk that tells you the lid is airtight ... 'the music of the jars,'" (or as one listener wrote in the online comments, "the ping of victory"). Hearing that little pop, and knowing my fruits, vegetables, jams and sauces are safely suspended in time, brings a sense of satisfaction that's hard to beat.

If you find yourself with more tomatoes than you can eat fresh (my favorite lunch of late is hummus and tomato sandwiches), canning or dehydrating them will buy you the most storage time. Freezing sauces and soups is another option. I've got 24 servings of Tomato Rice Soup with Roasted Garlic and White Beans (recipe in Veganomicon) in quart-size freezer bags, waiting for an overtired, overwhelmed new parent to thaw them out some cold evening in December.

Why have I gone crazy for food preservation? It's not about preparing for some apocalyptic scenario. It's about putting comfort foods in the bank, and opening them, like gifts to myself, all winter long.

10 comments:

  1. I love the idea of canning! If I had a garden, I would certainly give it a try.

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  2. Ah, I have become addicted to canning! I can hardly wait to unleash the goodness this winter... in fact, I have already busted into a small can of our green beans :\ Kind of defeats the purpose, but they were soooo good.

    Your maters look wonderful, and I'm sure you will appreciate the convenience once the little one comes. <3

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  3. I shrieked when my eyes first fell upon that picture of snow!!! I've never canned a thing, all of these post all over the net are really making me want to start!

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  4. That picture scared me!!

    My mom used to can, and JUST got rid of all of her equipment a couple months ago!! I am so sad because I am finally starting to want to experiment with canning & I could have put her equipment to good use! Oh, well, I suppose. I'm glad you were able to preserve all those delicious tomatoes for a rainy (or snowy) day.

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  5. oh yeah, I'm with you. I love canning so much, and I love the feeling of opening that jar of tomatoes in the middle of winter. I use tomatoes from my own garden, which adds an extra degree of specialness! Also, I've increasingly heard that canned tomatoes are having a very high level of BPA because the acidity of the tomatoes eats away at the lining in the can. Another good reason to eat tomatoes canned in jars! I usually just do straight up diced tomatoes, but I also do some simple pasta sauce with basil and garlic and olive oil.

    Canning is great. Long live canning!

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  6. WOW! I wish I knew how to can my own produce...I doubt I could even find the equipment here, actually. But someday, for sure! When I grow my own produce I would love to preserve it through the winter, what a beautiful and tasty idea. Your photos are lovely!

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  7. I just canned a bunch of tomatoes a few weeks ago & I can't wait to use them come winter! Canning & I have had our ups and downs, but I think we're on the up side now, just in time for the end of summer veggie blitz!

    Also, I fell in love with Portland on my way to and from Canada this past month. Your Pepperclub review came in handy when I brunched at Good Egg--thanks!

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  8. The tomatoes look beautiful!! I'm about to try the same thing, on a smaller scale. I love food preservation at the end of the summer--it just makes sense. And Lucky Baby!!
    xo
    Eco Mama

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  9. If canning is too difficult, people should know that you can freeze tomatoes, skin and all. Smaller and fleshier varieties (i.e. romas) do best. It will take a little more preparation time once out of the freezer, but what the heck else are you doing through our long, dark winter.

    Despite this, we've still put up over a dozen quarts of tomatoes and our plants still have a long way to go.

    Also, the economic equation works out much better when you grow your own, which is quite easy to do if you ahve a little lawn you're sick of mowing. In our thick clay, fertilizer and excessive watering are not necessary. All you need is a shovel and some seed. Organic seed seems a bit costly at first, but you could grow several hundred plants from one small pack, each bearing numerous fruits. Split it with a friend if need be!

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  10. Beautiful tomatoes, Mary! And I read today, "the symphony of sealing." :)

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