If I had the self-discipline of a Zen Master, I could walk out to the garden on a late summer day, pick the most perfect tomato for lunch, then make compost out of all the others too numerous to consume. At heart, I believe in living from moment to moment in the garden, eating only, as Confucius did, what is borne in its season.
But meanwhile, here are all these wonderful tomatoes, and if I had had any self-discipline to begin with, I would never have planted so many of them.
By and large, I do spread my harvesting over the course of the year, by growing many cold-weather crops. I am no longer a slave to the canning-and-freezing routine that marked my early years as a gardener. No more blanching beans at 3 a.m. But tomatoes are just too versatile to restrict to summer alone. I love tomato sauce on pasta and would rather preserve my own than buy it in jars.
I’ve tried a number of methods and am still refining my system.
One simple way to extend the tomato season is to ripen the green ones indoors. In Italy, whole vines are pulled up and hung upside down in a dark place to ripen slowly. You can also just stack them in boxes in a single layer, checking them from time to time to make sure none are rotting. A tomato fruit will ripen off the vine as long as it has reached the “mature green” stage.
Unfortunately, its taste is far inferior to that of one picked vine ripe. According to a study cited in J. Weichmann’s “Postharvest Physiology of Vegetables,” this is probably because “the long-chain carbonylic compounds that were incompletely synthesized in the unripe fruit do not increase during storage.” But you’ve probably learned this from your own taste buds. And as the weather approaches freezing, even the tomatoes ripening outdoors become less flavorful than good canned ones.
Initially, I used to roll up my sleeves and can all my tomatoes at the peak of flavor. This involved plunging them briefly into boiling water, then chilled water, to remove the skins, and simmering a big pot on the stove to make a thick puree. I favored the paste types such as La Rossa, which have denser meat and less water content, so that cooking time is less. But I also love a sauce made with Brandy Boy — a more prolific version of the heirloom Brandywine — because of its great flavor and luscious red color. (Nowadays I make puree by first tossing the fruits, skins and all, into the bowl of a hand-crank strainer that removes both skins and seeds.)
Next, I went through a phase in which I dried a lot of paste tomatoes, using one of those electric dehydrators. Drying them cut in half, with their skins on, took a long time. On the other hand, removing the skins and pulp first was laborious, and much of the reddest, most nutritious flesh still clung to the skin, even after a boiling water plunge. It was hard to dry them uniformly, to tread the line between too sticky and rock hard. The dehydrator used a lot of electricity. One year, we used our wood-fired sauna to dry the tomatoes, along with eggplants and peppers. This worked moderately well, but the heat was hard to control, and for some time thereafter the sauna had an aura of organic minestrone.
I had my big breakthrough one year when I was too busy to either dry or can. I washed all the ripe paste tomatoes (cutting out the little hard core at the stem end), tossed them into sealable plastic bags and put them in the freezer. They were sensational. I discovered that if I held them under hot tap water for a few seconds while they were still frozen, the skins slipped off as if by magic, and with none of the pulp attached. All I had to do was drop some into a soup (the seeds didn’t matter).
To make a thick tomato sauce, I came up with a drip-dry process in which I placed a dozen or more, without skins, in the top part of a colander and just let them thaw undisturbed all day, so that clear juice dripped into the pot below. This left the fruit very concentrated. If I needed to speed up the process, I just simmered water in the bottom of the pot briefly and put a lid on top. The sauce, with a little olive oil, salt and pepper added, had a remarkably fresh, uncooked taste.
I’m guessing that more nutrients are retained with this method than with drying, and less energy consumed, especially with a high-efficiency freezer. Best of all, there is practically no work involved, from sunny garden to hot spaghetti. Laziness, I am sure, is often the mother of invention — a belief that may not bring me any closer to enlightenment, but now at least I know what to do with all these tomatoes.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”