Su Lum: Slumming
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
When winter arrives, which it does all too frequently as I advance in years (turn around and it’s Christmas again!), what I miss the most are the fresh, ripe tomatoes from the Farmer’s Market.
My mother used to raise large crops of tomatoes in our garden in New Jersey, and I remember slithering between the rows, feasting on the sweetest and ripest right off the vine. It was a hard act to follow, but Colorado produces some fine tomatoes, too, and between the middle of July and the end of September, we all enjoy a feast followed by an acute famine.
The tomatoes sold in the stores during the famine months resemble real tomatoes only in their color and shape. The old saying that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, you’ve got yourself a duck, does not apply to tomatoes.
In the winter months, it might look like a tomato, feel like a tomato and, with the greenhouse varieties, even sport leaves and stems to add to the verisimilitude, but it’s not a tomato. It’s a tomato facsimile.
Canning tomatoes is a way to ward off the tomato deprivation syndrome, and it is really quite easy if you prepare for the coming dearth with a few pieces of inexpensive equipment, namely a canner and a supply of canning jars, both readily available in local hardware stores.
The jars come in quart and pint sizes – which you choose should depend on the size of your family, but for beginners I would recommend wide-mouth quarts.
I get my tomatoes from the Okagawa stand at the Farmer’s Market, ordering a “box of canners” a week in advance and picking it up the following Saturday. A box of canners contains about 50 tomatoes, enough for twelve quarts (or 24 pints) of canned tomatoes and the entire operation will take only a couple of hours.
You begin by sterilizing the twelve glass quart jars in the large canning pot. Cram them in – they don’t have to be covered – cover the pot and boil them for twelve minutes.
Meanwhile, drop your delicious, ripe tomatoes – five or six at a time – into a different pot of boiling water. Boil for ten seconds or so, remove, and add more tomatoes until they have all been boiled.
If you’re good at multitasking, you can, while one batch is boiling, begin cutting the top core part out and peeling the tomatoes; the skin should peel off quickly with your fingernails. The aim is to end up with all the tomatoes peeled and twelve hot sterilized jars at the ready.
You then cram the whole tomatoes (this is why the wide-mouth jars are easier) into the jars, pushing them down with your fist, until the tomatoes fill the jar within a quarter-inch of the top.
Take a knife and run it around the inside of the jars, releasing any air pockets you can see, give it another shot with your fist, add a tablespoon of salt (you don’t need to stir), place on the lid and screw on the tops.
The lids and the screw tops come with your box of jars. They don’t need to be sterilized, but should be hot. I heat mine in a pot to boiling, then place the box in the sink.
Rubber gloves are handy for protecting your hands from the heat, both in squashing down the hot tomatoes and screwing on the tops.
The hot, sterilizing water is still in the canning pot, which comes with a metal basket that holds seven jars. Place the filled jars in the basket, lower the basket into the canning pot and boil the jars for 45 minutes. Repeat until all jars have been boiled, and you’re set for the winter (actually, they will last for years).
Since a box of canners will produce a dozen quarts, you’ll be finished in two boilings. My daughter Skye processed four boxes one recent Saturday ago, yielding 48 quarts, which would be a bit much for beginners!
Your canned tomatoes are a memory of summer days. Use them as you would any canned tomatoes (but they’re better), and they are even delicious cut up in salads or served whole with salad dressing when you’re feeling desperate in the face of the plastic tomatoes in the grocery stores during the long tomato drought.
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For the past five-plus years I have sat in a big chair in a small office on Hyman Avenue watching life in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley play out in front of me.