THE FOODIE FILES: Tomato Obsession

By on September 22, 2015

Tasting and preserving some of summer’s best flavors

Cherry tomato confit ready to make its way into the oven (left); tomato powder is a potent pantry staple (middle), and canned jars of crushed tomatoes to last you through the winter. (Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

Cherry tomato confit ready to make its way into the oven (left); tomato powder is a potent pantry staple (middle), and canned jars of crushed tomatoes to last you through the winter. (Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

Just about every weekend in the fall I am faced with a mountain of tomatoes. Although I’ve had some success growing my own tomatoes this summer — thanks to warm nights and lots of rain — most of the objects of my obsession are the irresistible ones I’ve hauled home from the farmers market. Apparently I am unable to walk past a crate of perfectly ripe, in-season, local tomatoes without taking home the whole lot.

What happens next is entirely predictable. All the tomatoes go off at once —fragrant and ripe, splitting at the seams, these tomatoes are begging to be eaten, cooked into something wonderful, or preserved for the long, cold winter ahead. I scramble to get them safely into jars, tucked away in the freezer or incorporated into every morsel my family eats for days on end.

Too many tomatoes: It’s a good problem to have. If you happen to be tomato-obsessive like me, you’ll want to have a few techniques in your back pocket to preserve them ASAP. When I have a box of perfectly ripe field or Roma tomatoes, I like to crush and preserve them using the water bath canning method. Not into canning? Freeze crushed tomatoes in food grade plastic containers instead. Cherry and grape tomatoes can also be frozen whole — place single file on a baking sheet, and transfer to a Ziploc bag when frozen solid. (Check out the links below to learn how to put up crushed tomatoes using a water bath canning method.)

Just this weekend, I happened upon a windfall — 20 pounds worth — of very ripe Sungold cherry tomatoes. A box of ripe tomatoes is an urgent situation. It’s important to clean and sort them immediately. If the tomatoes were picked close to their vine-ripened state, which is what you want, there will definitely be a few who have gone over the edge. These overly ripe tomatoes will make the rest go bad, so it is imperative to meticulously sort and toss as you go. Only the most pristine tomatoes should go into a jar or the freezer. The rest will do wonders for your compost bin.

Five pounds of my Sungolds were used to make a big batch of the most delectable tomato jam, a spicy concoction of tomatoes simmered with cinnamon, ginger, cloves and red chili flakes. If you’ve ever eaten the BKR — a bacon kale ricotta sandwich — at Persephone Bakery Café, you’ll recall it comes with a sweet and spicy tomato jam. Mine is a lot like that, but it’s even spicier because I am heavy handed with the ginger and the chili. Using cherry tomatoes makes it that much more sweet. I made the jam as soon as I had cleaned and picked over the tomatoes — so ripe they were starting to burst — and I’ll preserve the jam in jars later in the week when I have a window of time.

Still left with 15 pounds of tomatoes, I opted to make a big batch of tomato confit. Confit is French for “preserved” and refers to something that has been cooked in oil or sugar syrup. I filled four baking dishes with the darling Sungolds, several cloves of garlic, and sprigs of thyme from my garden. I covered them with olive oil until almost submerged, and roasted them at 300 degrees for 45 minutes. All the garlicky tomato goodness was then cooled to room temperature, transferred to jars and stashed away in the freezer. I reserved one jar for the fridge knowing it would last up to three weeks. Although I would love to can my batch of tomato confit, it would require a pressure canner that I just don’t have. (The olive oil softens the seal of most canning jars leading to explosions and leaks, thus making water based canning an unacceptable method of preservation in this case.)

When my friend Judy’s garden is busting out all over with cherry tomatoes, she preserves them by dehydrating in the oven; a dehydrator works too. Halve tomatoes and place cut side down on a dehydrator rack or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with sea salt and drizzle with olive oil; bake at 150 degrees in the oven or process in the dehydrator until totally dry — this will take several hours. Cool and store in airtight containers. Your cherry tomatoes will be transformed into the sweetest morsels for snacking.

My last tomato trick is the most potent, tomato-y one of all. When making crushed tomatoes from a box of field or plum tomatoes, the first step entails blanching the fruit in hot water then slipping off the skins. These skins are usually discarded, but I’ve started saving them as they are packed with huge tomato flavor and healthful antioxidants. Placed on a sheet pan and baked at 200 degrees for two hours, these paper-thin skins are then pulverized in a blender or spice grinder. The result: a potent tomato powder that keeps nicely in a sealed glass jar, ready to add a hit of tomato to just about anything. Tomato powder will be your most coveted pantry ingredient all winter long.

Sources:

I follow Cathy Barrow’s method for putting up crushed tomatoes to the letter and my canned tomatoes are always perfect. Published in The New York Times in 2013, it can be found in the archives. Barrow’s recent cookbook, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry, Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving,” is my food preservation bible. I use her method of making the tomato powder, too.

I also use the canning method described in “The Preservation Kitchen” by Paul Virant, a great book available at the Teton County Public Library.

For basic instructions about water bath canning, go to Ball’s website at FreshPreserving.com. Be sure to check out the section about canning at high altitude, as cooking times change with each 1,000 feet of elevation.

For the tomato jam recipe, visit FoodInJars.com, another great source for canning instructions and recipes.

Cherry tomato confit recipe

Make as much as you want

Put enough cherry tomatoes to snugly fit single file in a deep baking dish. Cover with good olive oil until almost submerged. Add several sprigs of thyme and two to three cloves of garlic. Bake at 300 degrees for 45 minutes to one hour. Cool and transfer to clean, airtight jars. Keeps in the fridge for three weeks or in the freezer for six months.

What to do with tomato confit? Toss with pasta, use as a simple sauce for fish and chicken and smear onto a grilled cheese sandwich. Spread it on toasted bread for brushcetta. Spoon it onto scrambled eggs, cannellini beans or a salad of bitter greens. Eat by the spoonful whenever summer feels such a long way off — anytime between November and May in Jackson Hole. PJH

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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