Processing the tomato glut for the winter

The tomato glut has begun

With four dozen tomato plants, a glut is inevitable, as the larger fruits start to ripen en masse. Unlike some crops, where a glut is rather indicative of poor planning, with tomatoes, that is exactly what we want. Today, CT harvested a trug full of ripe specimens for putting away for winter use. I would, at some point, like to try my hand at bottling, but for now will be doing the same as in the past couple of years – cooking down the tomatoes, packing into 500ml pots, and freezing.

The large paste tomatoes, those with few seeds and a thick flesh, are ideal for cooking down for the freezer. As I confessed in the tomato taste test article, I have the balance of tomato sorts all wrong once again this year, with too many cherry types and too few of the good culinary sorts; something I hope to resolve next year, with some new additions to the range of large tomatoes that we grow. In any event, when it comes to a preserving session we are not so discriminating, harvesting everything that is ripe so that we do not lose too much of the crop.

Each year, some crops do well, whilst others are problematic. For some reason, the glasshouse cucumbers have been very poor indeed; the first time we have had any difficulty with this crop, and we have been relying instead on the good old fashioned ridge cucumbers running wild through the polytunnel. The aubergines are also looking like a complete failure. In contrast, though, this year we have produced perhaps our finest array of tomatoes in terms of fruit quality and yield. Despite a slow start courtesy of the cold spring, the plants have developed, for the most part, vigorous stems and heavy trusses of good quality fruit.

Unlike last year, where we suffered from blight, even under cover, there have been few problems with the tomato crop this year. Some of those growing in the polytunnel had a little whitefly, but this was dealt with using a spray of soft soap, and otherwise ignored without noticeable detriment. The only other problem is a hint of what appears to be greenback – a failure of the fruit to ripen completely, usually showing unripe greenish yellow patches on the shoulders. Some varieties of tomato naturally show such patches even when properly ripened, but in our case, it is the plum tomato Principe Borghese that seems to be suffering from this condition. Greenback is an environmental problem, typically brought on by over exposure to high temperatures and/or excess sunlight. It is not at all surprising to find some signs of it this year, considering the heat wave experienced some weeks ago. Perhaps Principe Borghese is somewhat susceptible, as none of the other sorts appear to be suffering. In any event, it is of little consequence when cooking the tomatoes, as the green shoulders can be sliced away.

Plum tomato Principe Borghese showing signs of greenback
Plum tomato Principe Borghese showing signs of greenback

One could, of course, simply chop and freeze the tomatoes, but it is better to prepare them somewhat beforehand. A roasting tray was filled with an array of large sorts, drizzled with olive oil, and placed in the oven at 185C for 2 hours. One could roast these at a higher temperature, but I did not want to colour them too much. Roasting reduces the moisture content considerably and produces a richer flavour than simmering. The results were tipped into a saucepan and blended until smooth with a stick blender. The remaining tomatoes were chopped roughly and placed in two large heavy bottomed saucepans. Half a cup of water was added to each, to create a little steam to begin the cooking process and prevent scorching. These were simmered gently for about 1 ½ hours, which reduced the volume, perhaps by half, and the resulting sauce blended until quite smooth.

At this point, one might wish to pass the sauces through a sieve to remove any remaining skin and the seeds. On the other hand, life is too short for sieving in such volumes, so we settled for the rustic finish. At some point I would like to invest in a good food mill – they are not expensive – and that would be a good way to finish processing the tomatoes.

Once cooled, we packed the sauces into 500ml pots for the freezer, being a convenient sort of size for later use. I did not add any salt or other seasoning whilst cooking the tomatoes. As with stocks, it is not sensible to season such things, as one then loses control of the level of seasoning in whatever dish is being prepared. If one seasoned the sauces to taste now, they would become overly seasoned if reduced at a later stage. Similarly, I do not tend to add other ingredients, such as herbs, garlic or chilli, although I use them often in dishes where I would cook with tinned or fresh tomatoes. It is a matter of preference, but the unadulterated version is more flexible.

The simmered tomatoes make an ideal substitute for tinned tomatoes, whilst the roasted version is rather richer in flavour; it is not merely more concentrated, the roasting results in a certain caramelisation that changes the flavour considerably. For some dishes this adds a wonderful depth, but for others the simmered sauce is more suitable. Tasting the sauces, they both have good flavour, but there is also quite some acidity. When I use these later in the year I will add a pinch of sugar to balance the acidity, and a generous pinch of salt, and they should be great. In total, a dozen pots of nicely concentrated sauce were produced today, with lots more to come later.

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