We’re in full harvest season in Maine right now. Peppers, tomatoes, summer squashes, corn, and early apples are bursting with summer’s goodness. Except for pumpkins, winter squashes, flint corn and other grains, dried beans, and cold weather crops like spinach, kale, chard, lettuces, carrots, and full-season apples, this is the time for the big push to stock the pantry for the year. Right now in my production schedule, it’s canning, freezing, and drying all things tomato, along with herbs for winter use. Next up will be all things apple, but that will wait for a few weeks, thank God, because the weather has been brutal for canning, with temps in the high 80s and humidity like a wet wool blanket. Still, the tomatoes are ready and won’t wait forever, so the strategy is to get up really early in the morning, start the canner heating while I take my walk, and hope to be done by late morning. (And when inclined to whine, to remember those generations of women who had to do this over woodstoves. I. Can’t. Even.)
Many people who want to preserve their tomato crop, yet avoid the hassle of canning, do so by freezing their blanched tomatoes to use in recipes later. I do some of that, too, but in case the Zombie Apocalypse should be upon us soon or El Nino should throw a hissy fit at New England this winter, I think it’s safer to have most of the harvest in jars. (In 1998, the last time El Nino was this strong, Maine had a disastrous January ice storm which knocked out power to most of the state for weeks. Like many others, I lost an entire season of produce when everything in the freezer was ruined.) Besides, tomatoes constitute the bulk of what I preserve from the garden, so it just makes sense to me to can the tomatoes and save freezer space for other things like diced peppers, zucchini, blueberries, peas, and the odd quart of black raspberry chocolate chip frozen yogurt.
For some reason, the process of canning seems to frighten some people off, but it’s neither difficult nor dangerous providing you’ve got a decent reference book like the ones Ball (the ‘mason’ jar people) puts out, and you follow instructions regarding measurements, ingredients, and processing times carefully. The only things you really need to know are a) you will not poison yourself and your family with botulism if you simply add lemon juice or citric acid to your jars (the bacteria cannot grow in a high-acid environment), and b) if the ‘pimple’ in the canning lid doesn’t get sucked down and turn into a ‘dimple’ as the jar is cooling, the lid hasn’t sealed, so, although the contents are perfectly edible, you’ll need to put that jar in the freezer rather than on your pantry shelf. Easy peasy.
Other people are put off by how long canning takes. Well, it took me four and a half hours this latest round, but I was making spaghetti sauce, remember, which takes a long period of simmering to thicken. Had I been canning diced or crushed tomatoes, the job would have been done in little over an hour.
It used to take a lot longer before I discovered the wonders of a food mill. At some point in recipes for putting up tomatoes, you hit a direction that says something like, “Blanch, peel, core, seed, and chop tomatoes.” Experienced canners know this is code for, THIS PART IS A HELL OF A LOT OF WORK. More than one newbie, I suspect–well, OK, this one newbie–has tried to use the standard implement in one’s kitchen for peeling, which is a potato peeler, right? But all you’re going to do that way is squish the tomato and peel your thumb, so I wouldn’t recommend that method. Instead, first get a pot of boiling water going that’s big enough to be a hot tub for six or seven tomatoes at a time. Next cut a shallow X in the bottom of the tomato. Slip it into the steaming water for 30 seconds or so, until its skin starts to loosen around the cuts you made. Remove from the water and transfer to a sink filled with very cold water (this step both saves burning your fingers as you hand the par-boiled tomatoes, which is always good, and finishes loosening the skin). Then you can (usually) just pull off the skin, cut off the stem end of the tomato, cut it in half or quarter it, and press the pieces through a sieve of some kind that will let the pulp and liquid through while separating out the seeds and core.
The above procedure takes quite awhile. It’s messy, your feet hurt, and your attention tends to wander, which is never a good thing around knives and boiling water. If you put up tomatoes this way, then, by God, you’ve earned those good meals in the dead of winter. Which is a terrifically virtuous feeling, but your feet still hurt.
This is why just before canning season last year I said to Gracie, “You know what? The heck with this. There’s got to be a better way.” The depth of her disinterest was profound. Undeterred, I went back to some articles I had marked on the internet which extolled the virtues of food mills. These gizmos have a hopper on top into which you put halved or quartered tomatoes–without having to blanch, peel, core and seed first OMG! OMG!–and then you turn a crank to press the tomato pieces through a sieve. The good stuff comes down a wide slide into one bowl while the skins and seeds get neatly expelled via a separate chute into another. This sounded like the machine of my dreams with one big caveat: the holes in the sieve were so tiny you’d be left with nothing but tomato juice, as far as I could see. Even the next size up strainer wasn’t much better. I wasn’t interested in making tomato puree. I like my tomato sauce to have bits of identifiable tomato in it, and I don’t mind some seeds, either. Besides, the tomatoes would process down to such a small amount of puree, I couldn’t see how I could get even a jar’s worth of spaghetti sauce out of my relatively small harvest. But, gosh darn, I coveted that gizmo. Then, O happy accident!, I discovered that one can order a salsa sieve which has extra-large holes to yield a chunky salsa. Bingo! I got it, I used it, it conquered. I estimate that over the course of tomato and apple season, the food mill saves me approximately 12 hours of work. Any extra time that I can use for hiking, kayaking or working in the garden in beautiful autumn weather is a grand thing, so I’m right in love with Freddie the Food Mill.
The rest of the tomatoes are ripening right now for my next date with Freddie, which will probably be next week some time. The pantry grows, jar by jar. Happy harvest season, everyone.