Processing and preserving a staple summertime crop!
One of my favourite early-fall activities is to head to the farmers’ market and pick up a couple of bushels of ripe Roma tomatoes. These will form the base of lots of delicious dishes in the months ahead. While it’s impossible to perfectly preserve the irresistible flavour of the ripe, sun-kissed tomatoes that perk up many a summertime meal in my house, there are ways to store tomatoes without the need for any preservatives so you can enjoy their nutrition and flavour throughout the winter (and not be forced to buy disappointing ones in January). None of my methods are groundbreaking, but they are pretty easy and foolproof. I prefer Roma (also called Plum or Italian Plum) tomatoes, because they have good flavour, are meaty and have fewer seeds than some varieties, making them ideal for cooked tomato-based sauces. While many claim the San Marzano tomato is the best for cooking and canning, these are not widely available in Canada.
I love to freeze at least one bushel of Romas every fall. Simply rinse them off (no need to be too picky as you’ll eventually be peeling them), dry them and pack into large ziplock bags. Put the bags in the freezer and you’re done. The beauty of this method is that it is so fast you can process a lot of tomatoes with minimal effort; later, you can work with manageable amounts of them any way you like (i.e., cooking them up into sauces, etc.). This is way less daunting than trying to process huge batches all at once. Freezing compromises their taste very little, if at all. When you want to work with your frozen Romas, simply take a few out of the freezer and let thaw at room temperature for about an hour. If you’re in a rush, run them under warm water for a minute or two. After they’ve thawed just a bit, it’s easy to slip the tomato skins off with a paring knife and then you can chop them by hand or with a food processor and use in your favourite recipe.
This method produces little tomato flavour bombs. Wash and dry a half-dozen or more Roma tomatoes of a similar size (so they will cook evenly). Cut in half – no need to remove the stem end scar unless it’s really huge. Lay the halves, cut sides up, on parchment or foil lined baking sheets. Drizzle a little olive oil over the tomatoes and use your fingertips to spread it evenly. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and pepper. If you like a little heat, add a pinch of red pepper flakes. Roast in a 300F oven for about 2.5 hours (time will vary depending upon the size of the tomatoes) until they are softened and just beginning to scorch. Enjoy warm, at room temperature or chilled. You can also puree a batch of oven-roasted tomatoes and freeze it in small containers for use as a quick pasta or pizza sauce. To freeze the roasted tomatoes without pureeing, package in airtight containers with wax or parchment paper between the layers.
I make litres of tomato sauce every fall to use in my winter meals. If you have a juicer, you’ll be able to quickly process a big volume of tomatoes. I use the coarse filter on my Omega juicer to increase the pulp yield as I juice halved tomatoes. The resulting pulp can be frozen as is for future processing or cooked down into rich, delicious sauce.
Without a juicer, I recommend peeling the tomatoes and then chopping them (or puree in a food processor). You can leave them unpeeled, but your sauce will not be as smooth. Either way, once you’ve extracted the pulp, cook it in a large saucepan over medium-low heat for about an hour, until the sauce is thickened and reduced by half. 8 cups of tomato pulp will yield about 4 cups of sauce. When making tomato sauce, I don’t add a lot of seasonings as I prefer to add them into the dishes I make later with the sauce. I do use about 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar for every 3 cups of fresh tomato puree and I sometimes add minced garlic although I find its flavour gets a bit lost when the sauce is frozen so again, I think it’s better to add when cooking with the sauce later. You can freeze your cooked sauce in plastic or glass containers; just be sure to leave enough headspace for expansion. I like to refrigerate the filled containers to cool them thoroughly before putting in the freezer.