Season’s Eatings: Tomatoes

Summer may be winding down, but that’s no reason to lament the dwindling supply of the season’s best produce. You can take the taste of summer with you through the rest of the year by preserving the freshest, tastiest late-season farmer’s market tomatoes.

© Knife & Fork Project

Heirloom tomatoes at the Mountain View Farmer's Market

Why, specifically, should you look for “farmer’s market tomatoes”? Tomatoes, though they are a fruit, contain enough glutamic acid to create a savory flavor that resembles a vegetable. The problem is that tomatoes are still a fruit, and are one of the most difficult to transport in a properly ripened state. Grocery stores can’t really afford to provide the tastiest vine-ripened tomatoes that you’ve ever had–they would have to ship them in every day, and they would become crushed in transit. You want your crushed tomatoes to come from inside a can, not from the insides of a truck. Tomatoes are often shipped from a considerable distance, and can only be transported safely if they are not ripe.

Though tomatoes can ripen off of the vine, it is more common that green tomatoes are ripened in storage by exposing them to ethylene gas, which occurs in nature as the molecular indicator that it is time for the fruit to ripen. This is also why you’ll see recommendations to store your underripe fruit in a paper bag, which concentrates the ethylene gas already being given off. If you pay attention to your tomato, you can tell if this has been its fate–when you eat it, the tomato will be pinkish and have a starchy texture. Not a very satisfying tomato experience, if you ask me.

What’s great about farmer’s markets is that the produce is picked within a day of arriving at the market. Though they do lose some produce on the way, farmers are not traveling the lengthy distance that stores often ship their produce, there is less handling involved, the farmers themselves transport the food, and they have a reputation for the highest quality to uphold. Because of this, farmers can supply you directly with the freshest vine-ripened tomatoes possible. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating a perfectly ripe farmer’s market tomato that threatens to burst on the way home, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Tomatoes just don’t get better than that unless you grow your own.

It is important to note that fruit always costs more than vegetables because of their fragility, and it is no different at a grocery store or a farmer’s market. In addition, you could end up paying more at the farmers market because they don’t have as much economy of scale, though buying the food directly from the farmer puts significantly more of those dollars in the farmer’s pocket than involving a distributor, which we think is worth a little extra money. If you take fruit preservation into your own hands, you’ll save money in the long run when you don’t need to buy canned or frozen goods throughout the winter.

There are many forms of preservation: It depends on what you’re preserving, how you intend to use the preserved good, and personal taste as to which methods are best. Here are some of the ways we’ve decided to ensure tasty tomatoes for the rest of the year.

Canning is a great way to store tomatoes. We like canning with Weck jars, which, in addition to making your canned goods look quite attractive, are structured in a way so that only glass comes into contact with your food, making sure that your flavors stay pure. Canning tomato products is easy: lest you be leery of contamination issues, most tomatoes have a relatively high acidity, which inhibits the growth of nasty bacteria like botulism – a feature you don’t get in non-acidic vegetables. Because of this, tomatoes do not require as rigorous of a canning method as many other products. It should be noted that there are some varieties of tomato that don’t contain enough acidity to drop their pH below 4.6, the recommended level for safely canning without a pressure canner; we’ve never had any problems with our tomatoes, but as a precaution, adding some acid like vinegar or citrus juice can drop the pH to safe levels.

We like to heat the glass in the oven at 250 degrees while we’re cooking the tomatoes to sanitize them and prepare them for the hot salsa, carefully fill them while they are still hot, and return them to the oven with their lids on (but not tightened) until you can see the liquid just start to boil inside. Then, we remove them from the oven and tighten the lids. If you’re using metal canning lids, you may hear a popping sound as they cool and become depressurized. If you’re using Weck jars, you can test to see if they have been properly canned by removing the metal clamps and carefully lifting the jar by the lid only – after they have cooled, of course. If you can lift the whole jar, it’s got a vacuum inside – it’s canned! It is important to note that even if your canning effort fails, all is not lost. You can still store your cans in the refrigerator, or even freeze it. We have very limited freezer space, so we like to keep as many things shelf-stable as possible.

We recommend trying out a few salsa recipes to find your favorite; there’s lots of room for trying out different flavor combinations. Our favorite right now is our Roasted Tomato & Poblano salsa. You can have excellent salsa year round, or, if you’re like us, for a month or so – it never lasts long in our house.

I also experimented with dehydrating tomatoes. I sliced a variety of tomatoes about 1/4 inch thick, laid them out on a cooling rack placed on top of a baking sheet and let them dehydrate away for about 6 hours at the oven’s lowest setting (in this case 150°F). I recommend checking on them after 3 hours and then each hour afterward to remove any smaller slices that may be finished before the rest. They will be flexible but not sticky when they are ready to come out of the oven. What is great about this method is that the flavor gets concentrated, and as the moisture evaporates, the tomatoes become significantly smaller, which is works well if you have limited storage space. It is recommended that you store them in an airtight container in the freezer after they’ve cooled. I am looking forward to adding them to soups, curries and roasts in the coming months. Or maybe just eating straight up as a snack.

© Knife & Fork Project

Tomato basil ice cream, featured as part of a layered dessert

You can certainly blanch, remove the skins, seed and remove excess liquid to prepare tomatoes for freezing, but like most watery vegetables, it is difficult to freeze and thaw a tomato in such a way that it retains its texture. Instead, I decided to make an ice cream. That still counts has eating your fruits and vegetables, right?

For this project, I roasted tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to concentrate their flavor and added it to a basil-steeped milk base. It may not sound like an obvious ice cream flavor choice, but it has a lovely sweet and savory effect, perfect for evoking the essence of summer by the spoonful.

The one way not to store tomatoes is in the refrigerator. Tomatoes are South American natives and prefer a warmer (room temperature) climate, which enables them to continue their flavor-producing enzyme activity. Once they are refrigerated, the activity is halted and their cell membranes become damaged, resulting in a soft, mealy, and flavorless tomato. If you’re regretting your decision to refrigerate your tomatoes at this very moment, fret not! You may be able to restore the enzyme activity by hanging out at room temperature a day or two before eating. But don’t do it again, mmkay?

So get canning, freezing, dehydrating and fermenting while the pickings are still good! Squirrel away tomatoes, hoard peaches, stockpile blueberries! Whatever your preferred method, preserving summer produce is a great way to relive afternoon picnics and long evening shadows – what better way to warm your soul on a cold winter’s night?

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