Friday, September 4, 2009

What I've learned about tomatoes.

Well, one area of local eating has become a real adventure this year - tomatoes.

Like many people, I eat a lot of tomato-based foods throughout the year. Spaghetti sauce and chili are my two biggest menu items in that respect. And just try finding canned tomato products locally! Even the locally-manufactured sauce is made from California tomatoes, and none of them have quite the taste I'm looking for.

Thus the Great Tomato Sauce debacle. I made one batch of sauce from scratch to go with some meatballs not too long ago, and it tasted pretty good. I based it off of this recipe here, minus the meat and with fresh basil and tomatoes. (When using fresh herbs, just multiply by three - one teaspoon dry is the equivalent to one tablespoon fresh.) I added extra sugar to make up for the corn syrup that's in all the canned tomatoes, and guess what I learned? They must add that either because they use lesser-quality tomatoes (likely) or they develop a funny taste once canned (thoroughly possible). Fresh tomatoes do not need it.

So I bought some canning tomatoes with an eye towards freezing some of this sauce. I ran them through the food processor and cooked them up on the stove for a few hours. I learned from my friend Maria that I got that backwards - she cooks them in the crockpot for a bit and then chops them, which I later found allowed for draining the excess liquid off of them first. Why is that important? Well, when the sauce was fresh and accompanied by meatballs, it was delicious in its natural state. When it'd been frozen, thawed, and served over pasta? It was extremely watery. Sigh. I bought cans of tomato paste to help fix that the next time I thaw some.

The other problem was one of proportion. I tried to get by with estimates of the quantity of crushed tomatoes I was starting with. I based it on the 6-quart size of the pots and the fact that they were filled to the brim. No dice! I actually had quite a bit less than I thought. I ended the process (after ages of chopping garlic, tomatoes, and green peppers, immensely smelly hands and kitchen equipment, and tomato splatter everywhere) with concentrated sauce that needs dilution with more crushed tomatoes. Next time, I'll be sure to remember that measuring, while a huge pain in the butt, is worth the effort.

So with these lessons learned, I couldn't help stopping today for some more canners. They were more expensive than what I get at the farmer's market, but they were available now. So I bought them anyway. Right now, I've got two crockpots going with them plus the dehydrator. (I squeezed the juice and seeds out before slicing them thickly and putting them in the dehydrator trays.) I read in the manual for the dehydrator that you can crush up the dried tomatoes in a food processor and use them like tomato paste. Which of course I'll need desperately sometime in the future. It'll be nice to have a local source.