Preserve your tomatoes when they’re at their peak of flavor and you’ll get to enjoy them all year long.
By Jordan Champagne
My desire to preserve tomatoes was sparked by a mountain of heirlooms, slightly taller than me and 40-feet wide, that I spotted beside the fields of Happy Boy Farms. This pile of tomatoes would not make it to market—some grew too fast under the summer’s intense sun and their skins burst open under the pressure; others were too scarred to be appreciated. Mostly, the tomatoes were flawless, perfectly ripe and just couldn’t make it to the farmers’ market before spoiling.
For about three weeks in late summer, all of the farms in our area find themselves with way more tomatoes than they can sell. Their vines grow heavy with these jewels of summer, all in the prime of their flavor and texture. This is the best time to preserve your tomatoes. It is also when u-picks happen and prices go down, sim- ply because the supply far exceeds the demand. If you have ever grown a tomato plant yourself, then you understand that they trickle in until that one day in late August when you go out to look and there are 50 pounds of ripe fruit on your vines.
Being a locavore in California is easier than in most locations, but even here, for about six months of the year, local tomatoes disappear from the farmers’ markets. Tomatoes are the one item that can really blow a locavore’s diet: Tomatoes are such an essential ingredient in so many dishes that it’s hard to live without them for even a few months. So you are left with a few choices. You can buy tomatoes at the grocery store that are shipped from afar, expensive and tasteless, not to mention the large size of the carbon footprint they leave behind. Other options are dried or canned tomatoes. There are some good organic canned tomatoes out there, but their flavor leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you are concerned about the health risks of BPA used in can linings. The last alternative you have is to freeze or jar fresh tomatoes yourself.
We think that jarring is the best option. Tomatoes are simple to preserve and provide the most reward. The difference in flavor between a canned tomato and a self-jarred one can be dramatic. The jarred tomatoes really can make a meal.
Which tomato is the best for preserving? It truly depends on what you would like to do with it. San Marzanos and other tomatoes in the Roma family are famous for making tomato sauce due to their great flavor and meatiness. They are also fabulous for oven roasting. We have chosen the richly flavored, sweet, dry-farmed tomatoes for making ketchup, tomato juice and for preserving on their own. Heirloom tomatoes make a fabulous salsa and are delicious preserved.
There are lots of ways to secure delicious local tomatoes at the peak of season. Of course, the best way is to grow and harvest your own. The next-best option is to harvest someone else’s tomatoes at a farm u-pick day. These usually occur August through September, but it is hard for farms to predict u-picks more than a month in advance. So continue to check their newsletters and websites for upcoming dates. Expect to pay $1–2 per pound for u-pick tomatoes, about half of the $2–3 per pound you’ll pay for boxes of tomatoes at the farmers’ markets and through CSA deliveries and other programs.
SUMMER TOMATO U-PICKS AND BULK SALES
Dirty Girl Farm: Amazing dry-farmed tomatoes that you can buy in bulk, 20-pound boxes at farmers’ markets and through the food preservationists. www.dirtygirlproduce.com
Happy Boy Farms: Delicious mixed heirloom tomatoes that can be bought in bulk at farmers’ markets all over the area! www.happyboyfarms.com
Happy Girl Kitchen Co.: We deliver boxes of tomatoes through our food preservationists program at the u-pick price of $1–2 per pound in the peak season. www.happygirlkitchen.com
Farmer Pat’s Labor of Love: Fabulous mixed heirloom tomatoes that can be bought through Pat’s CSA and through Happy Girl Kitchen Co. food preservationists. Check u-pick updates on their Facebook page (Farmer-Pats-Labor-of-Love).
Live Earth Farm: Intensely flavored dry-farmed tomatoes are sold in bulk through its CSA delivery and at farmers’ mar- kets. It also holds u-picks and several farm parties all summer long! www.liveearthfarm.net
Molino Creek Farm: Molino Creek was the pioneer in working out the means of growing tomatoes that are not irri- gated at all. They have amazing dry-farmed tomatoes that can be purchased in bulk at the farmers’ markets on Wednesdays in downtown Santa Cruz. www.molinocreek.com
Serendipity Farms: Delicious and juicy mixed heirloom tomatoes that can be bought through u-picks, CSA deliveries and farmers’ markets. www.serendipity-organic-farm.com
Preserved Crushed Heirloom Tomatoes
Courtesy Jordan Champagne, owner, Happy Girl Kitchen Co.
This is my most-used preserve of the entire year. You are going to want to make a bunch of these to get you through the long winter! You can preserve any tomato this way, including San Marzano, dry- farmed and mixed heirlooms. This is one of my favorite recipes for tomatoes because it is very fast and simple and leaves the tomatoes in their natural state, which makes them more flexible for later use. One trick that I like is to leave on the skins, which really helps jar- ring the tomatoes go a lot faster. You can always slip off the skins later, when you open the jar to use. I often skip this step because the tender heirloom tomato skins are hardly noticed! It can be quite easy to preserve 24 quart jars of tomatoes in an afternoon, and you can have them all winter for soups, stews and casserole dishes.
Firm heirloom tomatoes (never over-ripe or yellow or white varieties)
Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
Wash and drain heirloom tomatoes. Remove stems and dice into large chunks. Collect the tomatoes and their juice in a large bowl. Strain off the juice and put about 1/4 cup of juice into the bottom of each pint-sized jar.
Add 1/8 teaspoon of sea salt to each jar. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (5%) to each pint jar to assure a high acidity if there is any doubt that your tomatoes are not acidic enough on their own. (If using quart-sized jars, double the lemon juice.)
Fill jars with chunks of heirloom tomatoes. Pack them in tightly so that there is no air in between the tomatoes. The tomatoes should be completely covered in their own juices. If they are not, then pack them more tightly until they are. Be sure to wipe off the jar rims before putting on the lids fingertip tight.
Process in a boiling water bath, 25 minutes for pints and 35 min- utes for quarts, at 200° F. If you allow them to come to a boil for the entire cooking time, then your tomato structure will break down and they will float to the top of the jar with juice on the bottom. It doesn’t look as pretty if this happens, but they are completely safe to eat and delicious, too!
Note: As tomatoes potentially can be on the borderline of safe acidity (pH of 4.6) for hot water bath canning, be especially careful following this recipe in order to avoid the risk of botulism. (Using a pressure canner reduces this risk.) Cooking times are for room-temperature tomatoes; to ensure that jars seal properly, increase cooking time if tomatoes have been refrigerated. Never use low-acid tomatoes, such as white or yellow varieties or anything overripe (squishy). When in doubt, add an extra splash of lemon juice or vinegar to kick up the acidity.
Preserved Dry Farmed Tomatoes
Courtesy Jordan Champagne, owner, Happy Girl Kitchen Co.
This recipe keeps the tomatoes whole and suspended in a light vinegar brine. They are marinated with basil, garlic and black peppercorns, so they have a nice strong flavor on their own and look beautiful. My favorite way to use them is whole, right out of the jar on a bruschetta sandwich or as a side dish. The juice is divine for dressings and marinades.
Dry-farmed tomatoes Basil
Black peppercorns Garlic
Wash and remove the stems from the tomatoes. Cut tomatoes that are too large to fit into pint-sized jars.
Prepare the jars with 1/8 teaspoon of peppercorns, 1 clove of garlic and a sprig of basil. These are all optional but add to the beauty and flavor of the final product. Fill the jars with your prepared tomatoes.
Make the brine. In a stockpot, heat the following liquid solu- tion. Each pint jar will need about 1 cup of this solution.
8 quarts filtered water
2 quarts apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup sea salt
All the juice from cutting the tomatoes
Pour hot liquid solution into jars up to the fill line. Wipe off rims and put lids on fingertip tight. Process in a hot water bath, 15 minutes for pints and 20 minutes for quarts.
Note: As tomatoes potentially can be on the borderline of safe acidity (pH of 4.6) for hot water bath canning, be especially careful following this recipe in order to avoid the risk of botu- lism. (Using a pressure canner reduces this risk.) Cooking times are for room-temperature tomatoes; to ensure that jars seal properly, increase cooking time if tomatoes have been refrigerated. Never use low-acid tomatoes, such as white or yellow varieties or anything overripe (squishy). When in doubt, add an extra splash of lemon juice or vinegar to kick up the acidity.