Tomatopalooza Begins

I love canning tomatoes.

I am an obsessed woman.

Thanks to the heat and the humidity, preserving tomatoes will become my obsession for the next few weeks. My sweet little veggie patch can’t produce enough tomatoes to preserve. Last year, I planted 16 plants that included four specifically-selected, organic, and heirloom varieties. I babied them. I watered only from the roots. I worked their dirt, keeping it loose and well fertilized. I talked to them, I sang to them, I tied their vines every other day. They were the prettiest plants I’d ever seen! They bloomed themselves silly – only to drop their beautiful blooms and produce very little fruit. For all my work and all their beauty, we probably harvested a dozen ripe tomatoes. I referred to them as my Garden Divas because they were all show, no substance.

This year, I decided to do things differently. In all, I planted 21 tomato plants. I planted three Roma plants in containers beside our backdoor. I planted six plants in the veggie patch, hoping they might produce enough for us to eat fresh. Then a dear friend gave me nine Big Boys that he started from seed. The fifteen planted in the veggie patch are sharing a raised bed with watermelon and kale. I can’t claim that they are companion plants, but everybody seems rather happy. So I’ll take it.

From the beginning, I resisted my urge to baby them. I didn’t set their irrigation lines. I’ve stuck to watering once a week. I tied the plants, but mostly, I’ve let them run wild. The result? My plants are loaded with green tomatoes. I’ve started harvesting one or two perfect ripe globes at a time, which is perfect for us. Heaven help me if they all ripen at once because I am a weekend preservation warrior. It’s too difficult and too messy for me to come home from work and start canning after dinner. But if all those tomatoes ripen on a Tuesday, I’ll drag out the canner and skip Deadliest Catch.

Because I am a weekend preservation warrior, I prefer to buy a bushel basket or two each week from the Farmers Market. It’s just easier to buy heirloom, organic tomatoes from Hillyard Field Organics and support their farming efforts rather than depend upon my veggie patch to produce enough. During Tomatopalooza, my pantry gets stocked for the year in just three or four weekends. My tomato repertoire includes five standard tomato canning recipes: Diced Tomatoes, Tomato Juice, Herb Roma Tomatoes, Garlic Tomato Basil Soup, and Salsa.  There are many, many more I’d like to try.  But usually I either run out of steam or I run out of tomatoes before I get around to playing with new recipes.

I’m kicking off this year’s Tomatopalooza with 40 lbs of heirloom tomatoes. Just past perfection, they’ll make great tomato juice. I was so excited to get started that I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept reading recipes. I considered the pros and cons of food processor versus juicer. I tossed, I turned, and then I read more recipes.

Canning tomatoes is easy and it’s complicated.

Here is the easy part: tomatoes are acidic enough that that they can be processed in a water bath. Beginners easily manage any recipe. With just a teaspoon of salt and two tablespoons of lemon juice per quart jar, a novice canner can rest assured that her tomatoes will come out perfect. There are literally millions of YouTube videos and step-by-step instructions on how to blanch, peel, and can tomatoes. So I’ll spare you the details.

A tray helps to contain the mess when working with tomatoes.

Here is the complicated part: tomatoes are messy. To me, that’s part of the fun. No matter how you process them, juice is going to get everywhere and all over you. I cut, core, and slice tomatoes on an old tray in an attempt to contain the juice. Thank goodness for my island because I usually end up with several bowls of tomatoes in various stages of preparation. Tomatoes also require a multi-step preparation method – no matter the recipe. Even if you’re canning whole tomatoes, you have to scald them to peel their skins.

So put on your tackiest outfit, tie up your hair, crank up some tunes, and start canning those tomatoes. Come winter, you’ll be thrilled that you went through the effort when you pull out a beautiful jar of summer freshness.

Check out my Tomatopalooza Diary!

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