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Monday, September 24, 2012

Canning Fall's Tomatoes

By Weston Eaton

As the harvest continues to unfold, I want to share with you one of my favorite rites of seasonal passage: canning tomatoes. The point I want to stress overall is the simplicity of canning. Not only is canning an inexpensive practice, but the actual process takes minimal time, effort, energy and resources. In essence, I am making an argument against the way you likely have come to understand or form an opinion of canning—as a technical and painstaking practice that demands specialized knowledge in order to avoid the pitfalls of contamination, spoilage, poisoning, or, moreover, as a time-consuming and ultimately nostalgic and unnecessary “hobby” that went out of fashion with electric stove tops. While canning certainly could be (and has been) looked at from those perspectives, I offer something different: canning, tomatoes especially, is a simple activity—or better, practice—that ultimately nourishes not only your body, but your spirit. Furthermore, I point this out because I feel many people choose not to can because they assume they are not up to the challenge of learning a new craft, or investing the time or resources into the equipment. I will spend the rest of this short article explaining my canning practice in order to demonstrate an alternative possibility.

First, to can, one needs canning equipment. The essential list consists of a canning pot (most hold up to 7 quarts jars at a time), canning jars, lids and bands, a jar funnel for packing jars and keeping the rim clean, and a tong style jar lifter. I also really like my serrated tomato knife. You can certainly buy all this new—it is not expensive. Or you can simply ask family members or seek out supplies at garage sales. Remember, the popularity of canning right now is at a cross-over: while many folks have canned in the past and now discontinue the practice, a new generation, interested in preserving and making food at home—possibly for very different sets of reasons—is picking up and extending the practice. For instance, at last Fall’s “TomatoFest” in Little Rock California, their survey found a surge in folks seeking canning tomatoes, indicating that more first time canners are getting into canning. My point then is lots of canning equipment—especially jars—are out there, possibly right under your nose.

Second, I take up the issue of tomatoes. I am certainly no expert here. In fact, during nearly every trip to the farm market I discover something new I had previously overlooked or ignored. For instance, for years I have been canning traditional “paste” varieties of tomatoes, like Roma and Rome. Recently, however, the guys at Turtle Creek turned me on to Super Fantastic, Mountain Spring and Mountain Fresh. While there are volumes that could be written about these (new to me) varieties, in general they are medium to large, globe shaped, red with yellow hues, and delicious, meaty tomatoes. If you are a Celebrity, Early Girl, or Brandywine fan, I highly recommend trying something new from the market or in your garden. Most importantly, these are great tomatoes for canning as they are firm enough to retain their shape when transporting and when slipping into canning jars. Timing is also important in regards to selecting tomatoes. Right now, for instance, we have a glut of tomatoes, meaning farmers are looking to sell at good prices. I always check or ask to pick through seconds, as when canning, it’s simple enough to remove bruised or blemished sections. This will greatly reduce already nominal costs.

Now I want to get to the root of this article, which is about the process, and the philosophy that underlies my particular canning process. Notice that I am not going to talk in detail about the chemical transformation that takes place when one cans. It is enough to know that canning sanitizes food in such a way that the food is preserved for years. Let me start then with Charlie Papazian, the father of modern home brewing. Throughout his influential book The Joy of Home Brewing, Papazian tells us, “relax, have a home brew.” As an once avid home brewer, I can tell you this is good advice. Making beer indeed can be a complex process, but it can also be a relaxing and simple practice. With his motto, Papazian reminds us that we have a hand in constructing the experience, as in the experience is not alone determined by the technical, material nature of the process. The exciting news is that canning tomatoes is far simpler, by all accounts, than brewing beer. While I of course recommend looking into more detailed sources before putting your Fantastics under the lid, here’s the exact way I approach the process.

First, don’t make canning such a big deal. Don’t, for instance, buy four bushels and twenty boxes of new jars for your first go around. Instead, try a dozen heirlooms and a couple quarts of some paste tomatoes—just enough to fill the canner for one go around. Start by getting your gear in place. Wash your quart jars in soapy water and have them clean and ready. Fill your canner no more than a third of the way to the top, bring the water to a boil, and, if you like, heat more water in your stock pot in case you need to bring the water up higher once the jars are in place. In a small sauce pan, heat your lids. Have your jar tongs and rims in place.

Now that the gear is all set, we can turn to the fruit and canning process. I prefer to blanch, core, and halve my tomatoes before packing into jars. This is a simple process involving a pot of boiling water and a bowl of ice water. The idea is that by dunking your fruit into boiling water for 15 seconds and then removing them to the ice bath, their skin will simply fall off. To do this I first make a small, cone shaped incision at the stem to remove the top of the core (not the middle of the core like an apple). At the bottom, blossom end of the fruit, I make a small “X” with my tomato knife to help the skin come free in the bath. After a few seconds in the ice bath, remove the skin with your hands, halve the fruit, and pack into your jar using the jar funnel. Continue until your jar is filled to within 1/2 inch of the top, pressing down to remove excess air. No need to add anything else. Wipe the jar lip clean to ensure a good seal, place on the lid and loosely seal with the band, and set aside until the rest of your jars are filled. When all jars are ready, use the tongs to lower each jar and secure in the canner. Bring the water back to a gentle boil, and be sure to adjust the water level to just below the bands. Boil for ten minutes, and, using your tongs, remove to a towel covered counter clear of cool fall breezes. As you turn off the kitchen light and retreat to your study, take delight in each “pop” indicating a properly sealed jar and preserved future meal.

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