Friday, September 9, 2011

When life gives you tomatoes...

You have to draw the line somewhere.  You can only stuff so many cherry tomatoes in your mouth in a day.  And then there are the big ones.  Only so many sandwiches, or wedges drizzled in balsamic vinaigrette or sprinkled with sugar... Why do they seem to ripen ALL at once?  What do you do? 

I developed a tomato sauce routine years ago, when I was averaging 30 plants and had just a garden to take care of - not kids.  Now I am down to a more reasonable 18 (I started with 20).  Two are cherries and the rest are an odd collection of mismatched pairs of either store-bought plants or starts my dad gave me.  I have a new favorite though - German Strawberry.  Oh.  My.  That one is good! 

I begin by doing a massive picking.  I drag out the colanders and pick every red tomato I can find.  This includes the cherries because they have an awesome flavor.  I even pick the ones that have evidence of a bug or two, splits or end rot.  You can always trim that stuff away and use the good side.  A good-sized batch is enough to fill an entire cookie sheet - mounded up in a pile.  That is where I got the name for my routine - the cookie sheet method.

You begin by assembling your stuff....

* A cookie sheet full of a mound of tomatoes. Why a cookie sheet?  Because one cookie sheet (like the one above) will be exactly enough to fill your crock pot - an inch or two from the rim.

* Crock pot, set on high for the first hour.

* slotted spoon for retrieving tomatoes from the boiling water

* A large stock pot filled halfway with water, set to boil

* another cookie sheet

* a cutting board and empty bowl for the stuff you cut away, and for the skins

* a colander in the sink

* an empty plastic bowl in the other sink

* most importantly - a fan!  It's going to get hot standing by the pot of boiling water...

You set up in assembly-line style.  I begin by trimming the tops and cutting away the yucky stuff (if there was any) and then dropping it into the colander in the sink next to me.  Then Rylan (having a helper is great!!) will wash the tomato and put it into the bowl in the next sink.  Rylan is currently suffering from what I call the Cinderella Complex.  She insists on wearing a princess dress while performing menial household tasks.

Take the bowl of washed tomatoes and gently tip them into the boiling water.  The water should be at a full, rolling boil.  Let them stay in the water while you trim up another batch of tomatoes, and rinse them.  That should be ample time for the skin to split on the tomatoes in the boiling water.  The trick is to keep the cycle going continuously.  When you're done washing the next batch, remove the tomatoes from the boiling water and set them on the spare cookie sheet.  Leave them there to cool as you continue the trimming, washing and boiling routine until all of the tomatoes are done. 

At this point. all of the tomatoes should be on the cooling cookie sheet.  If you can, set the tomatoes from back to front as you go, so that you won't inadvertently pick up a hot one and burn yourself.  Pick up a tomato, and squeeze it gently as you hold it over the crock pot.  It should just slip out of its skin.  You might have to give it a little pinch where it attaches on the underside of the tomato.  When you are done, the crock pot should be full.

Add some fresh basil (if you have it) and a good heaping teaspoon of dried oregano, and a teaspoon of salt.  I grew some basil for the first time this year, and it is absolute awesomeness.  It is amazing how it immediately fills the entire kitchen with a heady aroma the second I cut it.  I am lacking in the knife skills department, so I've found a pizza cutter to be a very effective tool for making long cuts like this.  I also use it to cut noodles or wedges for my crescent rolls.

Next step is to take two large serrated knives and work them in opposite directions to cut up the tomatoes until no large chunks are left.  Then cover the crock pot and switch it to low.  Let it go for about 8-10 hours (or even overnight).  Your house will smell amazing as time goes on...  When it is done, the liquid should have reduced by quite a bit and you should see the level in the crock pot drop by a good amount.  Let it cool for a couple of hours.  This time around, I started in the early afternoon.  I got up with Dean around 1 am (he was leaving to hike Long's Peak) and turned off the crock pot.  I let it sit, uncovered, until I got up again at seven, and by then it was cool enough to bag it.

Using a 4 cup liquid measuring cup, ladle out the tomato sauce until you reach 28 oz.  Why 28?  Because that is the usual size of can that is called for in recipes that use diced or crushed tomatoes (like spaghetti, chili, stew and so forth).  Pour it carefully into a quart-sized ziploc, and then seal it - make sure to push all of the air out as you go.  Then lay it flat on a cookie sheet.  Label it and then place it flat in the freezer.  If you don't have the temporary freezer space for a cookie sheet, lay the bag on top of a flat surface, like a pizza box or something.  This way, it will freeze nice and flat.  Then, once it is frozen solid, you can store it upright, or stack several of them together.  To defrost one, I recommend putting it on a plate and leaving it in your fridge over night - or your counter for several hours.   A full crock pot will yield about 6 - 7 of these bags.  This whole process took me about 45 minutes, plus the cooking and cooling time.  The taste is absolutely amazing and well worth it!

I love it best with elbow macaroni.  I just add several ladle-fulls on top of the cooked macaroni in a bowl.  Yum!  Like I said, you can use it whenever a recipe calls for diced, crushed or stewed tomatoes.  Enjoy!

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