Perhaps the only thing more frightening to the tomato-loving gardener than a failed crop is an overabundant one. One becomes terrified that all these jewels will go to waste, standing as a depressing and frustrating reminder of spring exuberance and drawing fruit flies on the compost heap. Well, take heart, gentle reaper; there is plenty that can be done with all that red, green, and gold bounty.
After you have eaten and shared all you can, it’s time for the “puttin’ up.” There are three main ways to preserve tomatoes, each requiring varying levels of time, expertise, and equipment. The most enjoyable way to go about any or all of them is to invite a few of your fellow gardeners over for a Saturday afternoon of canning, freezing, and drying. If everybody brings their own excess and then works together on all the preparation, the time goes much faster and more pleasurably. In addition, you will have included the most important ingredient: love.
When canning, one rule prevails: sanitation. Everything must be scrupulously clean and sterile. Also, accomplishing the correct acid balance will help protect the tomatoes’ flavor as well as preserving them. Use 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid per quart of canned tomatoes. Always follow the instructions that come with your canning equipment, or turn to the old standby, The Joy of Cooking, for information on how to can safely. Do it right—botulism can be tough.
Putting the Sun to Work
Sun-dried tomatoes are a staple in my kitchens both at home and at the restaurant. While they do take a lot of time, very little of that time is spent with your attention being paid. It does require a few pieces of equipment and a safe, sunny spot away from critters like dogs or coons.
Most people choose roma tomatoes for drying, but any tomato will do. Core the tomatoes using a tomato shark, a handy gadget that is like a scoop with teeth and is available at any kitchen store. Split the tomatoes in half lengthwise, gently squeeze out the seeds and water, and lay the tomatoes on a framed screen. An old window screen will do, as long as it is clean.
Lightly salt the tomatoes, and then add some chopped fresh herb like rosemary, oregano, or basil, and sugar if desired. Cover with cheesecloth or another screen, being careful that the top one does not come into contact with the tomatoes. Set them out in a sunny but protected spot; often a deck or a rooftop works well. They may take anywhere from four days to two weeks, but they are worth it. Remember to bring them inside each night so that the dew does not spoil them.
Oven Dried Works, Too
Okay, looking for the shortcut? Tomatoes can be dried in your oven overnight on the lowest setting or just with the pilot light burning. Core and cut them as before and lay them on a parchment-covered sheet pan. Add salt and herbs and place in the oven on very low overnight. These dried tomatoes do not have quite the same character as their more traditional sun-dried siblings, but they are quite good nonetheless.
Freezing Tomato Sauce
Another great way to use a multitude of tomatoes is to make and freeze a big batch of traditional tomato sauce. To begin, you must peel all your tomatoes. This is done by coring them with the aforementioned shark, then plunging them, a few at a time, into boiling salted water for 30 to 45 seconds. Remove and “shock” the tomatoes by immediately plunging them into ice water until they are cold enough to handle. The skin will loosen and be easy to remove with your hands or a paring knife. Crush these skinned tomatoes into a bowl by squeezing them with your hands. This whole process can be messy, but it is fun if you work together with a group of friends. Once you have your tomatoes ready, then prepare (for every gallon of tomatoes):
2 red onions, minced
8 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh chopped thyme
1 carrot, grated
Sauté these in olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepot until tender, being careful not to brown the vegetables. Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and stir frequently over medium-low heat for at least an hour, or until the consistency is like loose oatmeal. Cool completely, then freeze in well-labeled Ziploc bags.
Note the lack of salt: you don’t want to add salt until you are ready to use it. The salt may taste great at that moment, but once you thaw, heat, and reduce this sauce to use in your favorite recipe, it will be too salty.
If, after all this, you still have tomatoes left, bring them to me. I can never get enough.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and serves on the Slow Food USA Board of Governors. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.