August 24, 2012

Tomato Day

canning tomatoes

The market was full of color and corn and peppers and even apples. The aisles between the tables and trucks were crowded and not wanting to move with the slow current of people, I slipped in and around the other shoppers looking to my left and right to take in each table laden with produce. Watermelons bigger than jack o'lanterns, gleaming raspberries, and shiny apples. I had everything I needed, just wanted to grab a box of tomatoes on my way out. I was surprised that so many farmer's were selling boxes, baskets and bags of tomatoes for so little. Twenty-five pounds for twelve dollars seemed like a crazy bargain, but reminded me that canning them definitely made financial sense.

I stopped at a table where all of the signs for produce were labeled chemical free and asked for a box of canning tomatoes. The woman selling vegetables nodded to the rows of boxes behind her and as I handed her my cash she told me to go back and pick the one I wanted. I pointed to the first box I saw and she shook it to show me that even the tomatoes underneath were ripe and in good condition. I didn't remark on the fact that her vigorous shaking had probably bruised them, but covered the box with its lid and carried them away.

I like to space out my tomato canning, one box at a time. Canning whole tomatoes requires a significant amount of time in the boiling water bath. It might be more efficient to do multiple batches while the water is hot, but I find I can fit it in better if I only have one batch to do. I anticipated tedium as I rinsed the muddy tomatoes, washed jars and started boiling water. My seasons of farm work have acclimated me to repetitive tasks. When I am out in the fields I have only the landscape around me, the sounds of birds and airplanes and sometimes co-workers to watch, listen, and talk to. It could be called mindless work but I believe it takes a unique mentality to avoid boredom and fatigue and keep your mind occupied constructively. Kitchen tasks are much the same, though I often listen to the radio or a podcast while I work inside.

Instead of getting bored, I settled into the rhythm of coring the tomatoes, dropping them in a pot of boiling water, grasping them with tongs, dropping them into a bowl of cold water, slipping off their skins and squeezing out the seeds. As long as I covered the skinned tomato with both hands and squeezed gently it was satisfying to feel the seedy gel squirt out of the middle and into the bowl. When I was less controlled, the seeds spewed wildly in a stream of red, hitting the wall, the counter and decorating my apron.

tomatoes in jars

I removed eight quart sized jars from the enormous silver pot that was boiling on the stove, lining them up on the counter. Lemon juice and salt went in first and then I packed in the tomatoes, crimson, fleshy and crumpled through the clear glass. After I filled them with hot water, removed air bubbles and carefully screwed on their lids, I lifted them gently back into the pot. With care and precision normally reserved for delicate china and newborn babies I placed each one in its spot. Last year I broke two jars canning tomatoes and did not want to repeat the annoying and messy shock that happens when a jar cracks open in the hot water.

While the jars resumed their boil I wiped off the counter, making sure I found every wayward tomato seed. I put the rest of the skinned and seeded tomatoes in the blender. The puree went in the oven to slowly bake into a thick tomato paste.

The kitchen is getting steamy after 40 minutes of water bath boiling. I'm lucky that the weather feels much more like early fall than summer. The jars, bright with tomatoes, cool on the counter holding the promise of summer for months to come.

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