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Master in training: Making the most of every tomato

September 21, 2010 |  6:36 am

Tomatoes Last time I blogged about the insanity of planting 60 tomato vines at home. I’ve got my seeds saved for next year, but in the meantime, I have to do something with all these tomatoes. After dashing out to buy a food mill -- the tool of choice in so many fresh tomato soup recipes -- I began processing fruit, 12 cups at a time. That worked for a while, and I was able to freeze some and give away batches by the quart.

But then as the wave of ripening fruit continued to build, "Sorcerer’s Apprentice"-style, I gave up and enlisted some expert help: Erik Knutzen, a neighbor and co-author of “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.” He brought over his canning equipment, and for three hours we blanched and skinned about 20 pounds of tomatoes, stuffing them into sterilized Ball jars, which then went into the water bath.

The UC Cooperative Extension Common Ground Garden Program, which runs the master gardener program I blogged about, also has a master food preserver program. It suggests freezing: Put cleaned tomatoes on a tray and freeze them. Once they’re hard, slip them into a freezer bag. They don’t need to be skinned or cored; the skin will slip off when they defrost. But they should be used within a few months for best flavor.

Another suggestion is to make tomato juice: Simmer ripe, trimmed tomatoes for 10 minutes, and then push the softened fruit through a sieve or fine mesh. The liquid can be seasoned with lemon, lime, Worcestershire sauce, celery or garlic salt, if desired, and then poured into a freezer-proof container, leaving a half-inch of space for the liquid to expand. (Or use ice cube trays for mixed drinks.)

No matter what preservation method you’re using for ripe fruit and vegetables, follow the basic rules for harvest: Avoid bruised, cracked or soft fruit. Avoid fallen fruit. Wash and dry your harvest thoroughly. You can add a tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of wash water; at that concentration, the bleach is very diluted and you're not soaking -- simply dipping and rinsing. The beach supposedly extends the life of your fruit by killing bacteria.

Green tomatoes will continue to ripen if left in a brown paper bag for a few days. Don't leave tomatoes in the sun to ripen, and remember: Once they go in the refrigerator, the flavor deteriorates rapidly. 

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo credit: Jeff Spurrier