Sunday, September 27, 2009

Canning Crushed Tomatoes

Canning tomatoes is a huge part of the end of the summer season for me and my cooking year round. Canning tomatoes makes me feel smug in the middle of winter as I continue to cook with tomatoes from my garden. Yes you can find canned tomatoes in the supermarkets, however these are better, and local. Part of the appeal is also gazing at the rows of jars lined up in the basement. My last kitchen was huge and I used to leave any canning projects out for several days, just so I could admire them. Now I have to do my gazing in the basement.

My tomatoes did end up with the late blight that has been troubling the North East this summer. However at this point in the season the recommendation is to remove diseased leaves and branches without disposing of the whole plant, so some tomatoes have still been available to harvest. In addition I bought some tomatoes from a local farm. I was just a little worried at not having rows of tomatoes to stare at all winter. After canning tomatoes for home use for the last 2 years I realized that I like the crushed ones the best. They are versatile enough to be used in stews, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce and soup and they have already cooked down slightly so they are more convenient. With 28 jars of crushed tomatoes preserved if I have any more tomatoes to can this year, the rest I will do as tomatoes halved or quartered in their own juice.

As with any canning project there are some important steps to follow to eliminate safety concerns. For example you can not add any other vegetable to the tomatoes because that would lower the acidity of the finished product. Foods that are high in acid prevent the growth of botulism, a deadly toxin that is tasteless and odorless. Tomatoes are borderline acidic so to safely can them you need to add acid. You can add vinegar, lemon juice or citric acid to make tomatoes safe to can. I use citric acid as it does not affect the flavor of the tomatoes. You can find citric acid in the canning section of your grocery store, in the bulk food section of many stores (such as City Market here) and in the kosher food section of stores. It is also marked as "sour salt."

Tomatoes are one of the most common home canned items for people to insist on using the methods their families have always used, insisting that there has not been a problem yet so why change. My feeling on this is there was not a problem in the past because there were no botulism spores present when they canned tomatoes in the past.  If you never get in a car accident it is also perfectly safe to not wear a seat belt.

You may notice in the photo of my canning set up that I do not heat my lids in hot water. This step is not needed for safety, as hot water that is not boiling would not sterilize anything. Instead it is supposed to soften the compound on the lid so it will seal. However if you put the jar in a boiling water bath I have found the lids get plenty hot and seal. Somehow that last pot of boiling water on the stove was the one that made canning seem complicated.

Canning Crushed Tomatoes

Tomatoes, 1 pick your own flat should fill about 3-4 quart sized jars. Two flats is one canner load or 7 jars, but you need a very large stock pot to crush the tomatoes in.
Citric acid or bottled lemon juice (fresh juice has inconsistent acidity) or 5% acidity vinegar

1 canning pot or a large stock pot
1 rack to lift the jars of the bottom of the pot (the rack is necesary to prevent the jars from breaking from the heat, you can also use a round cake rack or Macgyver one from jar rings wired together. I have used a dishtowel in the bottom of the pan and vowed never to do that again. A friend of mine reported on a canning endeavor that ended with green water from the dye in the dishtowel.)
jar lifters (you can make do with tongs but it is awkward and not really worth it)
1 canning funnel
canning jars, lids and rings (I usually use quarts for tomatoes)
1 ladle
1 potato masher (or wooden mallet or spoon or equivalent for crushing the tomatoes)
1/2 tsp measure if using citric acid and quart jars
large stockpot, large enough to fit al the tomatoes you wish to can
clean receiving blanket or dish towel to put on the counter so the jars are cushioned from the counter (I found that receiving blankets are the perfect weight and thickness for this)

Start by peeling the tomatoes by blanching them first and then removing their cores while cutting into quarters. Place the peeled, cored quartered tomatoes in a large stockpot until you have a double layer of tomatoes covering the bottom of the pan

Use a potato masher or a wooden mallet or spoon to crush the tomatoes in the pot. Heat the tomatoes that are already crushed, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, while you continue to peel, core and cut the remaining tomatoes. Add tomatoes to the pot as you go, there is no need to crush them as the heat will break them down. Once the tomatoes are all added boil gently for a minimum of five minutes (longer will give you a more reduced tomato product).

While the tomatoes are heating fill your canning pot with water and wash the canning jars, adding them to the pot. The water in the canning pot should be above the top of the jars. Heat the canning pot of water and jars while you wash the lids and rings and lay them out on the receiving blanket or dish towel.

Use the jar lifters to remove the jars from the hot water and empty water from the jars. Fill the jars with hot crushed tomatoes leaving 1/2 inch of headspace (that means fill the jars all the way to 1/2 inch from the top of the jars). If you want add 1 tsp of salt per quart jar (I never do as I want the flexibility to add salt when I am cooking with them later). Acidify the jars by adding citric acid, bottled lemon juice or vinegar to the jars. Quart jars get 1/2 tsp citric acid, or 2 Tbsp bottled lemon juice or 4 Tbsp 5% acidity vinegar. Pint jars get half that (1/4 tsp citric acid or 1 Tbsp lemon juice or 2 Tbsp vinegar) and 1/2 pint jars half that (1/8 tsp citric acid or 1 1/2 tsp lemon juice or 1 Tbsp vinegar)

Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel before putting on the lid and rings. You also should come up with a method that helps you to keep track of proper acidification of the jars. The method that works for me is filling a whole group of jars with crushed tomatoes, cleaning all the rims and then adding citric acid to all of them before placing on the lids and rings and adding to the canner.

When all the jars are filled and in the canner measure to make sure the water covers the jars by at least 1 1/2 inches. Put the cover on the canner and turn to the heat to high. Bring to a boil and start the timer after the water is at a full boil. For altitudes of 0 - 1,000 ft boil jars for 35 minutes for pints and 45 minutes for quarts. If you are at a higher altitude you can refer to this chart for processing times, the chart also shows times for processing in a pressure canner. You can lower the heat so long as the water is always maintained at a complete boil for the entire processing time.

Keep the canner covered until for the full processing time. Once the jars have boiled for the appropriate length of time turn off the heat, remove the canner lid, and set a timer for 5 minutes. After the five minutes use a jar lifter to remove the jars from the canner to the receiving blanket or dishtowel, leaving at least 1 inch of space between jars.

leave the jars undisturbed while they cool (resist the urge to press on the lids to see if they sealed). Do not tighten the rings while cooling.

After the jars have completely cooled (12 to 24 hours) remove the rings, wash the lids and jars and test the seal, the center of the lid should be down and the lid should not pry off easily with your fingers. If the lid comes off of any of the jars store those in the fridge and use first or add to the next batch of crushed tomatoes you are heating to can.

Store in a cool, dry place out of direct light after you have admired them for an appropriate length of time. Use all year to make sauce, soup, added to braises etc.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Peeling Tomatoes Tutorial

Tomatoes are one of the foods I cannot imagine living without, a feeling I shared with my mother. My mother died over 27 years ago but when I watch one of my boys enjoy a tomato I recognize her genes coming through. Julian has always loved tomatoes, when he was a toddler I would carry him in a hip carrier when we picked up our farm share and I always gave him a tomato to eat. The seeds all over my shirt always made me laugh and remember my mother. Sebastian is just discovering his love for fresh tomatoes this summer.

During the second world war my mother worked picking tomatoes on a farm. She told me when they found a fully ripe one they were supposed to eat them. Within a week she was the only person who still liked tomatoes. As she was picking she would hear, "Roz, over here," and she would be tossed another ripe tomato to eat. We used to eat them together and daydream that maybe I would get to do that one day...

With all her love of tomatoes the most my mother did with them was to cut them up for salads. Every time she did she always took a taste, ostensibly to make sure the tomato was good enough to serve. So my mother would never have made Tomato Basil Butter, or peeled one. Even so I didn't think to post the steps to peeling tomatoes in last weeks recipe, until a friend asked me how to do it. So here are step by step instructions on peeling tomatoes (the same steps can be used to peel peaches).

Peeling Tomatoes Step By Step

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Wash the tomatoes, remove the stem and cut a shallow X on the bottom of each tomato with a knife (I use a serrated knife)

Drop the scored tomatoes into the pot of boiling water and boil for 30 seconds to loosen the skins

Once the skin has loosened remove the tomateos from the boiling water with a slotted spoon or mesh sieve, if you want you can drop them in cold water before placing on a cutting board. When peeling them for canning I don't bother with the cold water bath, if I want to stop the cooking I do use the water bath. See below how the tomatoes skin has moved back from the X cut into the bottom

Once the tomato has cooled enough to handle you can slip the loosened skin off of the tomato.

Remove and discard the peels.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tomato Basil Butter: Summer Taste Year Round

This is the third summer I have grown tomato plants in front of my house. It began by accident one year when my husband and I pulled up the Yew bushes the house came with. We were planting perennial flowers from a friends garden when our neighbor said the space really needed tomatoes, and it just so happens he had 4 starts that he did not know what to do with. Well the tomato plants were so productive in the front of my house that I quickly decided to do it every year. Last year we were able to eat tomatoes year round from those plants. This year my plants are bigger then ever, more like trees then bushes. They are impressive enough that people have stopped their cars to ask me for advice on growing tomatoes. The only thing I can tell them is compost, Gardener's Supply Tomato Fertilizer, and Southern exposure.

I have been fearful of late tomato blight all summer but still optimistic, until this weekend. On Sunday another neighbor warned me that his tomatoes had late tomato blight. The very next day I went to pick tomatoes and found signs of blight. So I had to decide, what is the most important item to make with my tomatoes for the winter. What would leave the largest culinary hole if it was missing?

While I can crushed tomatoes and tomatoes in their own juice for year round consumption, that is less about the flavor impact of using home grown tomatoes and more about using local food as much as I can. However every year I make at least a quadruple batch of Tomato Basil Butter using a recipe by Ruthanna at Garden Web's cooking forum and recipe exchange. Tomato basil butter is a year round staple in my kitchen that can produce gourmet meals easily and quickly. Most often I use this butter when preparing fish. I have however been known to put some on top of rice or vegetables. I am sure that you could prepare tofu or chicken in a similar way to the fish and have wonderful results.

The balance of flavors in this butter is wonderful, the lemon provides a high flavor note while there is the familiar sweetness of the tomatoes, the bite of the garlic and the earthy sweet flavor of the fresh basil. Of course the butter does not hurt either...

Ruthanna's Tomato Basil Butter

1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 1/2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes (about 1 lb. if you must you can substitute canned tomatoes but do not use supermarket fresh tomatoes. Vine ripened summer tomatoes are really the best choice)
2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 cup unsalted butter softened
2 tsp grated lemon zest (I always take the lemon after, squeeze it into a small plastic container and freeze it for the next time I have a recipe that calls for the juice of 1 lemon without the zest)
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup minced fresh basil

Heat the oil in a small skillet (when making a double batch I use my large non stick saute pan). Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook over medium to high heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes form a puree that will mound, about 10 minutes. Let cool before putting the softened butter in a bowl and then adding the tomato puree and all the remaining ingredients. Place the butter on to a sheet of wax paper or parchment and roll into a log. Wrap the log in aluminum foil and refrigerate or freeze (personally I always freeze it, I have been able to store it in the freezer for 1 year or even longer).

Fish with Tomato Basil Butter

4 fish fillets, or 1 for each person (works with salmon, flounder, tilapia, bluefish...)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil (the measurement here is a guesstimate, I add enough to coat the bottom of the pan)
1 cup white wine (use a wine you enjoying drinking with fish, or if you don't drink use stock or water)
1 1/4 inch thick slice tomato basil butter per fish fillet

Season the fish with kosher salt and black pepper on both sides. Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick saute pan. Brown the fish on both sides over high heat, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Add the wine and bring to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Place a piece of tomato basil butter on each fillet and cook the fish for 4 to 5 minutes per side until it flakes easily when you press it with a finger or fork. Serve at once. (alternatively you can put the butter on the fish after turning it.)