Thursday, August 25, 2016

On Tomatoes - Preserving and Problems


The tomato harvest is in full swing as is the proverbial glut that inevitably occurs.

I remember my first tomato glut summer - it was overwhelming to say the least.  There were tomatoes on every surface of the kitchen and I simply could not keep up.  It was stress overload.

The one thing that I've learned since then is that, for me, there is no single "best" method for putting up the harvest.  What works well for me one week may not work that well the next, depending on the circumstances.  So I like to use a multi-pronged approach and which "prong" I use depends on a number of factors including how many tomatoes I have to deal with, how many jars/containers I want of each preserving method, how much I have already put up and, most importantly, how much time I have.

For this post, I thought I would share the different methods I’m using this season to keep on top of and make the most of the harvest, ordered from most labour intensive to the least.


Tomato Sauce/Puree

First, of course, is the quintessential tomato sauce/puree which involves straining the tomatoes to remove skins/seeds and then cooking down the puree to thicken it up.  In the past, I used my Kitchenaid strainer attachment to remove the skins and seeds, which worked quite well, but I found the process to be somewhat messy and time consuming, especially when it came to cleanup.  So what I would wind up doing was waiting until I had a big chunk of time available and an equally big load of tomatoes to warrant the time & cleanup.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I purchased a new gadget that has made the process much easier:

Oxo Food Mill


This particular food mill is super easy to set up, use and clean.  In addition, the holes on the disk I use (there are 3 sizes) are somewhat larger than on the Kitchenaid strainer, giving the sauce a bit more texture, which I quite like.  The one drawback when using the food mill is that I need to cook the tomatoes for about 10 minutes before passing them through it whereas with the Kitchenaid, I could place them in raw.  Overall, however, the extra 10 minutes isn't a big deal and I end up using the same pot to cook down the resulting puree, so it doesn't cost me any more cleanup either.

So now I can do a batch of tomatoes pretty much any time with minimal fuss.  After cooking it down, the sauce is then either frozen or canned in various sized jars/containers.  I find that using a combination of 1, 2 & 3 cups gives me a good amount of flexibility.

Tomato puree ready for the freezer...

Also, I have found that splitting up the cooking and canning over two days instead of trying to do everything at one time cuts down dramatically on the stress.  On day one I make the sauce & it then goes into the refrigerator.  The next day, I either portion it into freezer containers or I can it.


Salsa

Salsa, although not overly labour intensive in itself, becomes a bit of a task when you want to can it.  Although you don't have to deal with cooking or straining the tomatoes, you do have to skin & seed them.  Also, unlike tomato puree/sauce, salsa needs to be made and canned the same day, so it's more of a "to do", so to speak, as you can't split the tasks between two days.  We don't use a lot of salsa compared to plain pureed tomatoes, so I haven't made any yet this season, but it's on the list, perhaps for next week.


Freezing Chopped Tomatoes

Next is freezing peeled, chopped fresh tomatoes.  I did this last year and found myself reaching for these quite often over the winter as we really enjoy "fresh" tomato sauce.

I remove the skins from the tomatoes using the score & dunk in boiling water method, then chop them up and plop them into a large bowl.  To minimize the amount of work, I only use larger tomatoes for this method - I'm sure Juliet's would make a wonderful fresh sauce, but there's no way I'm peeling those tiny tomatoes!  Once the batch of tomatoes are peeled and chopped, I use a slotted spoon to portion them into the containers as quite a lot of liquid is released since I don't bother to seed them.

Chopped tomatoes ready for the freezer

I freeze these in 1 & 1.5 cup portions.


Oven Roasting

I use this method for both large and cherry tomatoes, although the end result for each is different.

When it comes to the cherry tomatoes, I cut them in half and then roast them for about 2 hours or so at a relatively low heat - 225F/110C - until they are almost dry.  Once cooled, they are loosely packed into containers.  "Loosely" is the key word here as I want to be able to grab as many or few as I need, so I don't want them freezing into a solid mass.

For larger tomatoes, the goal is a roasted tomato sauce, an idea that was inspired by one of Michelle's posts. The tomatoes are quartered, tossed with some onions and garlic, drizzled with olive oil and  slow roasted until slightly charred.

These guys are almost done

Everything is then pureed in a blender and the sauce is frozen.


Freeze Them...Period

And lastly is the “I have a whack of tomatoes on the counter but am too (busy, tired, in a hurry) to deal with them” method of plonking them into a zip lock freezer bag and freezing them whole.  If I have time, I’ll wash them first, but as they are run under warm water to remove the skin when you go to use them, I don’t think this is technically necessary unless they are dirty for some reason.

The interesting thing about this last method is that you can use it even if your end goal is to have a cabinet full of jarred tomato sauce/puree.  I did this last year, as I simply had no time to can during the summer, and several bags of frozen tomatoes were transformed into sauce once the gardening season was over.

There is one other benefit to this last method and that is when you have the opposite of a glut.  If you are having a bad tomato year or if you want to make sauce from a particular variety of tomato but the harvests are just not big enough to warrant making sauce, freeze the tomatoes until you have enough for a sauce making session.

Having a range of options to choose from definitely makes putting up the tomato harvest a lot easier and less stressful.  And that's it.  I'm sure I'll discover some new and different methods to add to my tomato preserving arsenal as time goes on but, at the moment, these are my go-to tomato glut saviors.


Now on to my tomato troubles.  I have 3 beds with tomatoes and 2 of them are sick.  It all started with the Taxi tomatoes - the leaves on top of the tomatoes (sepals) turned black:


Most of the tomatoes were still fine, but some had these brownish marks on them:


A few of the stems also have speckled markings:

Speckled markings on Orange Blossom plant

Now, I've had blight in the past and neither the infected tomato nor the stem lesions looked like blight to me.  This is a photo of blight lesions on a tomato stem a couple of years ago and they look quite different from those I'm seeing this year:

Late blight lesions on infected tomato plant in 2014

This mystery disease has progressed at lightening speed.  The two most affected plants at this stage are Taxi and Orange Blossom.  The plants went from a few dying leaves to this in a couple of weeks:

Taxi tomato plant

Orange Blossom, which is in the bed beside Taxi

What is very odd as well is that the leaves are all dead, but notice that most of the stems look green and relatively healthy.  Only a couple resemble the speckled stem above.

So in short, I have no idea what this disease is.  I've picked all of the ripening tomatoes off the Orange Blossom plants and pulled them.  For the Taxi plants, one was pulled but the 2nd doesn't look that bad, actually.  It has a few large tomatoes on it so I've decided to hold off on that one until those tomatoes start to ripen.  Of course, all of these pulled plants were relegated to the burn pile, not the compost pile.

There is some progress of the disease to a couple of other plants in each of the two beds, but I'm hoping that it will slow down now that I've removed the diseased plants and trimmed out many of the infected leaves on the remaining plants.  Time will tell.

Update:  Most photos of Septoria Leaf Spot, not surprisingly, concentrate on the diseases effect on the leaves, but I came across a photo of a stem infected with Septoria Leaf spot on this site (bottom left, photo S21) - it looks a LOT like the stem photo I have above, so I'm wondering if my initial impression a few weeks ago (based on the leaves), is actually correct...

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” ~~ Robert Brault

18 comments:

  1. Oh, Margaret-I'm so sorry about your mystery disease on the tomatoes. I don't have any answers for you. I'd have thought blight. Are you planting these varieties anymore?
    Loved this post for all the methods of dealing with the glut. A glut is NEVER my problem--we grow 1 brandywine and it barely gives me enough for BLT's before the frosts and the cherry toms are either eaten as snacks or distributed to neighbors. BUT--I'm referring back to this post because now I'm convinced (FINALLY!!!) that darn it-I want homemade sauce!
    Have a terrific week
    I'll be checking back later as I know some of your readers will know what's wrong with your plants.

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    1. Hee, hee...I tell you, Sue, I've not purchased those canned tomatoes from the grocery store going on 2 years now and it feels great! It was quite the learning curve, for sure - my kitchen looked like a tornado had hit it the first time I made sauce :), but as with most things, it gets easier (and a WHOLE lot less messy!) with practice.

      Yes, as soon as I see yellowing leaves on tomatoes, I think blight. But in this case, the leaves were more speckled and looked a LOT like septoria leaf spot, so I thought that it was that. Now, I have no clue as I've never seen the blackening of the leaves on top of the tomatoes which happened to almost all of the tomatoes on one of the Taxi plants seemingly overnight. Oh well, another year, another tomato disease...not altogether surprising, but still disappointing. At least my 3rd tomato bed, which is FAR away from the 1st two, seems to be doing ok.

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  2. Maybe the disease is Early Blight - as opposed to Late Blight (see Google!)? We have a gadget very similar to your "manual food-processor", which is officially called a Mouli-Legumes. Ours only has two disks though. We love it because it is perfect for the job. It only gets used in August and September though!

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    1. I don't think it's early blight, which I've also had before, as the leaf damage appears quite different than what I would expect (i.e. they are much more speckled and the lesions do not seem to develop rings around them). On the other hand, early blight loves hot/humid weather and we've had that in spades this summer. I'm leaning towards bacterial canker - so many of these diseases looks similar and, at the same time, photos on the internet for a particular disease can look very different too.

      I know what you mean about using certain gadgets only during the height of the harvest - I have several shelves in the basement devoted to canning supplies, etc. I think I'll have to find a spot for the food mill in the the kitchen though as I've heard it's great for all kinds of things, including making great mashed potatoes!

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  3. I hope you find out what's wrong with your plants, it's devastating to nurture them over a long period to then lose them. No tomato glut here this year but I'm getting enough for my needs and to share with my parents so that's good enough for me. I must admit that I don't like labour intensive ways of preserving, making a sauce or roasting and then freezing are my preferred methods.

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    1. Canning is labour intensive, for sure, but on the plus side it doesn't take up freezer space. My larger freezer is almost packed to the gills and we aren't even in September yet!

      I love having enough tomatoes to keep us supplied until the next season, but I'm sure there is something to be said for the tranquility of NOT having a kitchen full of food that needs to be washed/trimmed/cooked/frozen :)

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  4. We have something similar happening to some of our tomatoes in thr plot greenhouse. Like you I couldn't decide whether it was blight or not. Dead leaves are removed and we are now hoping for the best. No glut yet. We mainly freeze tomatoes using a few of the methods you use - space depending. I've always been nervous about canning.

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    1. The thing with tomato diseases is that there are just so many of them and their symptoms are very similar. I've read that even the experts have problems telling some of them apart.

      Yes, I was pretty nervous about canning when I first did it, but I think things have come a long way in the last while, especially in terms of safety. When it comes to tomatoes, for instance, I follow the (relatively new as in mid-80's) recommendation to place a tbsp. of bottled lemon juice into each 500ml jar of puree to make sure that the acidity is high enough to safely can using the boiling water bath method.

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  5. That was interesting to read about your different methods of preserving. That food mill sounds like just the thing! Before we moved my tomatoes themselves had a big spot on them? Didn't quite look like blossom end rot I didn't think. Nancy

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    1. Thanks Nancy - I suppose the one good thing about leaving your tomato plants behind is not having to deal with the disease issues!

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  6. Sounds like a good title for a book - The Tomato Glut and How I Deal With It! I made sauce today for the freezer, so I can relate. The disease is no laughing matter though. I have annual problems with septoria leaf spot, but it usually does not kill my plants. The leaves do dry up like yours, if I don't pull them off first. For me it is usually a problem early on, when rain causes splashing of the spores up onto the lower leaves. I rarely have issues later on, after all the lower leaves are gone.

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    1. Ha ha...that would be a good title :)

      When it comes to tomatoes, wet leaves are bad news when it comes to most of their diseases. We are now having a good amount of regular rainfall - at least 2 or 3 times per week for the past couple of weeks it seems. Perhaps that accounts for the rapid progression of the disease, which I'm still back and for on in terms of what it is.

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  7. We don't have enough tomatoes to worry about preserving them. I have pinched off the lower leaves this year and that seems to help quite a bit with disease.

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    1. I have to do another round of leaf removal - it really does seem to slow down the progress of disease. You know you have hit the end of tomato season when your tomato plants are naked - all stem/fruit and no leaves :)

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  8. Not enough tomatoes with the drought so I bought some from a farm stand and plan to do sauce. Dave's high speed blender method is too easy not to use. Just cut into pieces and puree them, skin and seeds included, then cook down to a sauce. No prep work at all. Bought a second bag and I am thinking gazpacho, which also freezes well.

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    1. Oh, I would love to do Dave's high speed blender method...I've reached my new kitchen gadget quota for the year, but maybe next year :) Had never thought to freeze gazpacho - great idea!

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  9. I've used several of the same methods myself, but I've never thought to freeze chopped tomatoes. I'm going to try that this year, because I feel like I'm never going to have enough ripe at one time for canned tomatoes. I have the Good Grips food mill and I love it.

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    1. It's a great mill, isn't it? And easy to clean/store, which is always a big plus when it comes to kitchen gadgets...you can tell they put a lot of thought into how it was designed.

      I often use fresh, peeled, chopped tomatoes when I cook and so I thought - why not freeze them? Once cooked I think you would be hard pressed to tell that they were frozen. In fact, it's actually more convenient then fresh as all the work has already been done.

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