Fear and loathing and tomato puree

There is little tradition of canning in my family. My mother barely knew how to cook as a young married–she lived at home with my grandparents, and traded housecleaning chores for my grandmother’s cooking. It was only when seventies hippie do-it-yourselfism infected our middle-class suburban household that my father began to dabble, producing unappealing projects such as pickles, pickalilli, and homemade wine, which he fermented in crocks in the basement. The jars of pickalilli relish, as far as I know, are still sitting on shelves in the basement of 86 Ralph Chapman Road. We certainly didn’t want to eat them. This phase, like so many others, went the way of extra-long sideburns and dashikis, never to return.

Canning, you may have noticed, is trendy again, and I have been fascinated by the idea of preserving for some years. Till now I have always had some excuse not to take the plunge. Time is a big one; botulism is another. My garden is not exactly overflowing with cucumbers. The best I can muster in the gardening department is benign neglect. If the plants are stubborn enough to persevere without basic comforts like fertilizer or water, more power to them. Luckily, I have a great source for produce, Four Town Farm.

In order to conquer my lingering fear of anaerobic toxins, I needed to read up on the subject. There are a number of great blogs (Punk Domestics, Well-Preserved) that simultaneously insist that canning is a cinch and present such off-putting recipes as lavender fig preserves and salmon confit. I purchased a more accessible book called Tart and Sweet: 101 Canning and Pickling Recipes for the Modern Kitchen by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler. After reading the instructions 12 times, and with the book within reach on the countertop, I was ready to make my first attempt.

Tomato puree. I probably go through gallons of this stuff every year and, with the just-picked tomatoes from Four Town Farm, my puree should be spectacular and save me tons of money in the process. According to Geary and Knadler, six pounds of tomatoes was supposed to yield a gallon of puree. Six pounds did not appear as if it would produce a gallon, but who was I do judge? They have way more experience than I do. Right?

This is three pounds of tomatoes….

After cooking the quartered tomatoes for 15 minutes, I reread the recipe for the 13th time and discovered that I had neglected to buy bottled lemon juice. This ingredient is crucial to achieve the appropriate acidity in canned tomatoes that will prevent the growth of killer organisms. Great. I’d have to punt. Since my cooked tomatoes had not multiplied like the loaves and fishes anyway, I decided to just freeze the stuff. I put the tomatoes through the food mill to remove seeds and skins, and scooped them into a freezer bag.

One freezer bag. Six pounds of tomatoes had yielded not one gallon, but a little more than one quart of puree.

At $2.75 a pound, that’s $16.50 for a quart of puree.

It had better taste good.

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