I can’t get over how cheap food is at the grocery store.
A couple weeks ago I canned tomatoes, and ladies and gentlemen, it took me ALL day to produce 8 measly quarts of sauce. By 9 pm, when the popping seals interrupted my inner mantra (never can sauce again, never can sauce again, never can sauce again) all I could think about was the incredible amount of labour and energy invested into the food we eat. I thought of raking last year’s leaves, battling with my pitchfork in the compost, digging holes in my clay soil, filling them with compost, transplanting tomato seedlings, watering, and weeding, weeding, weeding… Well, the last bit isn’t true but it sounds good–and would be true for many of you. (I let my garden defend itself, after July 1. There are too many lakes to swim in, cousins to see, and roads to travel, to be pulling weeds.)
Food is costly. It requires energy to grow, harvest, prepare and preserve. In fact, just when I think the hardest part is over as I survey my garden at its prime, the real work of harvest begins. Unfortunately, this year it coincided with the start of school, music lessons, gymnastics, a new job for me, and birthday parties. Of course, the harvest is at the same time every year, but it always feels unexpected and requires more work than I anticipate. Like a needy house guest who stays a few nights too many. The first few bowls of tomatoes were were all fun and games when they showed up, but now I want them to go preserve themselves… which is what this post is about.
roma tomatoes and thyme, ready to meet their new best friends, lactobacilli bacteria
So far, I’ve used three methods to preserve my tomatoes: conventional canning, fermentation, and drying. Canning results in the taste we are used to and makes nice holiday gifts for people we don’t really know, (only my favourite people get my ferments), but it takes too much work to belong to this post. I highly recommend fermenting your tomato sauce as long as you don’t do what I did:
tomato sauce fermenting on my counter–don’t do it this way–
When I read about making sauce, I decided the part about “stirring your tomatoes everyday while they ferment” seemed cumbersome.* Instead, I poured my sauce into jars and covered it with olive oil on Day 1. Why make unnecessary steps, I’d wondered. I’ll let it ferment in small jars, capped with olive oil, and save myself a dirty dish. Well, by Day 5 my sauce had fermented so beautifully, the extra CO2 (a normal byproduct of the process) pushed the tomatoes out of the olive oil barrier where they met with oxygen, creating the perfect conditions for mold. Fortunately, I realized my mistake and froze all the sauce before it went bad. For my next batch I will:
1. Chop or process any ingredients I want for the sauce (tomatoes, celery, garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, etc). Fermentation is freedom; you don’t have to worry about acidity or ingredient ratios.
2. Add whey–2 or 3 tablespoons per quart (this is optional but it contains lactobacilli and gives the ferment a kick-start)
3. Add salt to taste–make it on the salty side (helps keep sauce good before fermentation takes over)
4. Pour sauce into a wide-mouthed, gallon jar and let sit on my counter for about 5 days, STIRRING EVERY DAY to make sure none of the sauce spends too much time at the surface.
6. Pour sauce into smaller, glass bottles, or jars, and cap with a layer of olive oil (about 3/4 inch thick) to prevent spoilage
7. Store in my basement**
Brown rice pasta with fermented tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. The taste is slightly different than canned tomato sauce–lighter, fresher and a little wine-y, but delicious.
Sun-dried tomatoes are my current craze. They top the charts in ease and taste, although they still require a commitment to get them into the sun.
The other day my principal approached me in the hallway to discuss staff parking.
I interrupted him, “Are you talking about the blue Mazda parked at a weird angle in the parking lot?”
He wasn’t. Then I had to explain why I thought he might be concerned: I had trays of tomatoes drying on my dash and I wanted optimum sunlight exposure for them.
sun-dried tomatoes–this batch is crispier because I sliced the tomatoes a little too thin.
Some of my paste tomatoes are small enough to slice in half or thirds. It’s best to slice them consistently (3/4 to an inch thick) so they dry at the same rate but I never manage to do it.
My mom, putting tomato slices on an old window screen that will hit the roof.
I start my tomatoes on the garage roof for 2 or 3 days (taking them down at night) then finish them up on the dashboard of the car when they’ve shrunk in size.
I always be sure to park in the sun, and if I get hungry while running errands, I have a snack handy. (Once they’ve been on the roof, they only need a day or so in the car.)
Last-minute sushi made with sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese, cucumber and carrots.
How are you preserving your tomatoes? Do you have any suggestions, or fermentation stories, to share with the rest of us?
*There are lots of books available on the art of fermentation. One of my favourites is this one from France.
**Remember the fermented salsa sitting in my basement? It’s still good!