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Tomatoes for the Winter

Every year, I make sure I get enough high-summer, dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes processed, to last me through the winter. There is nothing better than a pot of tomato soup that tastes like summer. There's nothing better than making a sauce, and using my tomatoes in it. Compared to the kind you get in a can, these are worth the effort. I buy 100 lbs. of 'seconds' from Dirty Girl Farm, ordered in advance of the Tuesday Berkeley farmers market, and pick them up. I have compared tomatoes from all the farms, and these are (in my opinion) the very best. The nice thing about the seconds, is that they are really good! Yes, they are often smaller than the best quality and there are maybe a few soft ones. You can't leave them for too long, you have to be ready to process when you get them. I did so the very next day (and do NOT refrigerate the raw tomatoes, they lose a great deal of flavor!). The other good thing is, 100 lbs. cost me $150. Retail (at the farmers market) these are $3 or $3.50 a pound if not more (the price fluctuates). I made 45 quarts of purée from my 100 lbs., so if you do the math, that's $3.33 per quart. Not a bad price, if you don't factor in the labor (considerable) which I find quite worth it. 

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Why Early Girls? Because they have the best, most balanced flavor of all the tomatoes grown locally, to my taste. They also have very thick skins, not too many seeds, and very dense flesh. Why not blanch and can the peeled tomatoes? Because I believe that SO much of the flavor resides in the skins. I love cooking these tomatoes whole, and then putting them through the food mill. You get astounding flavor. The other thing I will do soon, is order one more case — this one of top quality, larger fruit, and throw them into gallon zip bags, as they come (without washing!) and freeze these too. All I need do if I need a tomato or two for a recipe, is pull them from the bag, run under warm water to peel, and chop them up. Very handy. 

I have a walk-in freezer. The directions for making tomatoes to store for the winter, therefore, are based on my not canning but freezing them. However, the tomatoes could be canned just as easily if that's your preference. Just follow classic canning precautions, and make sure your jars all seal. If I didn't have my freezer, this is what I'd do.

Here's what you need:

  • For each 9 quarts of tomato puree:
  • 1 case (20 lbs.) dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes
  • 1 pot (stainless, not aluminum which will react badly with the acid in the tomatoes!) that holds at least 3 gallons
  • Food mill, and receptacle to rest it on conveniently
  • 9 clean quart containers with lids

Start by washing the tomatoes. I fill a big prep sink with water, dump in a case. Pick them out and pluck off the stems. Use a serrated knife to slash each tomato and throw it in the pot. 

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Put the pot on the stove, and use something — a potato masher, for instance — to squish some juice out of the slashed fruit. Turn on the flame, and cook until the tomatoes are all just broken down. You don't want to cook them too much, but you do want them to boil for a few minutes, so all the fruit softens completely. Then, let them cool a bit and ladle into a pan to cool further. I use a big hotel pan, spreading them out so they lose their heat faster. You could put them trough the mill hot, but then you risk splattering yourself with hot tomato, and I dont like burns. Once cool (and for me, as they cool the second batch is cooking) put through the food mill. You'll end up with about 9 quarts of puree, plus a quart of seeds and peels. I use a 5-gallon bucket to seat my large food mill on, so I can do several batches before filling quarts. 

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When you fill your quart containers, be sure to leave 3/4 inch at the top for expansion. Remember, liquids expand when they freeze. Tightly close, label with the date and what is inside, and freeze. The easiest way to use the frozen tomatoes is to either run the upside-down plastic container under hot water until the block of tomato releases, and put it in a pot to thaw, or simply sit the sealed quart in a bowl of hot water for a while. All depends on how fast you need the tomatoes. They will keep until next summer, if you don't use them all up faster! 

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