Saturday, August 21, 2010

10 Pounds of Tomatoes

I’ve been having so much fun eating fresh, local produce this summer that I jumped at the chance to make it last a longer. A few weeks ago I saw an article in the Two Onion newsletter about paste tomatoes being available for purchase. These tomatoes freeze or can well and as such, the farm was selling them for those who wanted to preserve the summer a little longer.

At first I had visions of buying something like 30 pounds and canning them as my mom had when I was young. These jars, which were retrieved from the basement throughout the winter, were superior to the canned tomatoes bought in the store. Instead of 30 I chose 10 pounds, which turned out to be about a half box.

I remember the canning ritual of late summer by sound and smell. I can still hear the hiss coming from the stove as that little round dial on the pressure cooker twitched back and forth. The air would fill with the faint hint of whatever was being preserved, tomatoes, beans, elderberry jam, and even salmon – which didn’t smell so good – a hot bath of fragrant steam adding to the end of summer humidity.

Though I never saw a one of those glass jars explode into an abstract vegetable watercolor on the ceiling, it seemed as if even walking too close to the oven could cause something to go awry. It was as if at any moment you might have to take cover from flying glass and vegetables as hot as magma. With this in my mind, I decided to pursue other modes of preservation for my tomatoes.

While the flyer I received with my tomatoes insisted I could freeze them whole, that seemed too easy. I wasn’t up to the challenge of canning, but I still wanted to feel as if I had done some work, so I settled on oven drying.

Oven drying gave me the feeling that I had in fact done something, if you count opening the oven door at intervals during the day. I combined a number of recipes which weren’t really recipes at all, but instructions for sealing in the flavor and drawing out a bit of the water.

Basically, I cut the tomatoes in half, drizzled them with some olive oil and baked them in a 250-degree oven for about 9 hours. As they cooked they left a faint scent in the kitchen, different from the one I remembered during canning. I almost reminded me of bread baking.

After a day of cooking, the tomatoes looked redder and had a solid, and slightly wrinkled, composure. I let them cool as they came out of the oven before peeling off the skins and placing them back on the roasting pans to freeze individually before putting them into freezer bags.

I felt a little guilty leaving my oven on all day, but it was at such a low temperature it didn’t seem to make my air conditioner put in too much overtime. I did end up freezing about 10 of the tomatoes whole, so I can see if oven drying is worth the little effort it requires.

As for taste, I’m pretty sure oven drying wins already. I tasted a few of the roasted tomatoes while they were still hot and they were magnificent. Their texture reminded me a bit of canned tomatoes and if I closed my eyes I might imagine I had done a lot more work than I had.

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