Monday, November 3, 2014

Tomato Harvest - Two Easy Sauces

We think of autumn as a time to harvest pumpkins, but around here, it’s bonanza time for tomatoes, as well. Our tomatoes don’t get going until midsummer because the night time temperatures are still too low. The plants just sit in the ground and shiver. Long about October, they are in full swing and we’re wondering what we were thinking to have planted so many. A bowl of cherry tomatoes sits on the kitchen counter, ready to grab for snacks, and every dinner is accompanied by a salad that’s mostly fresh tomatoes. What to do with the rest? Make pasta sauce, of course!

The usual instructions call for dipping tomatoes in a bath of simmering water, then peeling the skins, and either scooping out the seeds or running the cooked pulp through a food mill, ricer, or sieve. I’ve tried the water bath technique, and find the prospect of standing over a steaming pot, getting my fingers burned, and sweltering in late summer heat less than appealing. So I’ve devised or adapted a couple of simpler, less painful approaches.

Method 1: One Pot, Food Mill.

Wash your tomatoes (this goes without saying, but is even more import if you, like we, let our tomato plants just sprawl all over the place, of particular merit when growing ginormous varieties like Mortgage Lifter; as the fruits ripen, place a plastic lid of appropriate size to shield them from ground moisture) and chop them into big pieces. Fill up a big pot. Do not add water.
tomatoes fill the pot
Heat up the pot, stirring to avoid burning as the tomatoes release their juices and to mix up the more- and less-cooked chunks. Once everything is more or less juicy, reduce the heat and simmer on low for hours. And hours. Really. Open the windows and bask in a cool place, stirring every half hour or so. It will thicken as it reduces down to a fraction of its former size. When it’s however thick you like it, let cool a bit.

tomatoes cook in pot

Working in batches, put the cooked tomatoes through a food mill. Actually, you can do this as soon as they’re soft, or whenever a volunteer is handy. A food mill is a gadget that has a perforated bottom like a sieve and a curved metal scraper blade. You turn the handle like a crank and the blade squishes the contents through the tiny holes.

Seeds and skins remain behind. Ta-ta!

tomato skins and seeds
Continue cooking, as needed. At this point you can either finish preparing whatever sauce you like (adding garlic and herbs and the like) or preserve it. The two bet ways are canning and freezing. Freezing is by far simpler, especially if you have adequate freezer space (we do). You can freeze in wide-mouthed glass jars or ziplock bags or squarish plastic freezing containers. I use masking tape and a Sharpie to label mine, including a notation about whether or not I have added salt. Canning is supposed to be done in a boiling water bath (in a piece of equipment called, aptly, a canner). The USDA says it’s not safe to just put it in sterile jars and screw on the lids and rings. So I won’t suggest you do such a thing. I will remind you that it’s 90 degrees outside and 120 in the kitchen and are you nuts for proposing to stand over a steaming kettle for 20 minutes?

Method 2. Roasting.

Roasting intensifies the flavor of tomatoes in a magical way, but you don’t want to do it on a really hot day, although the oven temperature is pretty low. It works best with paste tomatoes that have relatively thick walls and less juice.

Line cookie sheets with foil or parchment paper and mist with pan release spray. I use the pans formerly called jelly roll pans because the lip helps in case of wandering fluids. Cut the tomatoes lengthwise, clip off the stem ends if needed, and use a grapefruit or other narrow spoon to scoop out as much of the juice and seeds as you can. Sometimes I’ll give the tomato half a gentle squeeze, too.

tomatoes on cutting board
Place cut side up on the foil lined pans. You can crowd them quite a bit as they will shrink as they cook. Spray or drizzle with pan spray or olive oil, as you like.

Roast at 250 degrees F for about 4 hours or until they start to look a bit withered. They should not be leathery like sun-dried tomatoes. The exact time depends on the thickness and juiciness of the tomatoes, so check after 2 hours and thereafter every ½ hour.

roasted tomatoes

At this point, you can freeze them in zip lock bags or turn them into sauce. The sauce is easy – just buzz them in a blender. If you haven’t overcooked them, you’ll have a thick, intensely flavored sauce that you can then enjoy or freeze.

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