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posted: 8/28/2011 12:12 AM

Art in the garden: Preserving the summer's tomatoes

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By Fran Thompson
The Planter’s Palette

Here we go again. Tomato vines hanging full of beautiful tomatoes waiting to ripen. Once they start turning red there are going to be too many to consume and the thought of cooking tomato sauce with heat indices in the hundreds doesn't sound terribly appealing. So what to do about all the tomatoes?

Before we start with preserving tomatoes, here are a few hints about ripening tomatoes. What does "vine-ripened" mean? Not ripened on the vine until a beautiful lush red. Vine ripened (at the store) means that they started to turn a blush at the bottom of the tomato when picked versus totally green. If they were completely ripened they wouldn't ship well. When paying extra for "vine-ripened," it's something to consider.

To ripen tomatoes at home whether from the store, a farmstand, or your yard (I pick mine a little green to try and beat the chipmunks to them), place them on a sheet of newspaper in your kitchen.

They will continue to ripen into a beautiful tomato. Putting them in the refrigerator immediately stops the ripening process. Once that first frost hits, tomatoes are gone. The last day before a frost, pick what you can and ripen indoors unless you want to use them green. There are some good recipes using green tomatoes other than fried.

Although I love homemade tomato sauce in the winter, it's a lot of work in this heat and I don't always want spaghetti sauce. Many times there are recipes that taste so much better with that fresh tomato flavor.

The easiest way to preserve tomatoes to use later is to wash ripe tomatoes, remove the stem end and put them in a plastic freezer bag. Date and freeze. These should easily last 6 months.

When you need tomatoes, just remove what you need from the bag. Run under warm water and the skins rub right off. Allow them to thaw and use as needed. What could be easier? You will need to dedicate a fair amount of freezer space to tomatoes, but it's well worth it.

If freezer space is an issue, dehyrdrating tomatoes and then freezing them is a really good solution.

There are several good dehydrators on the market and some are relatively inexpensive. You can purchase everything from round to square, plastic to commercial grade stainless steel. I think dehydrators that have the air blowing from the back versus the bottom tend to give more even drying. Timers are nice but you can usually purchase a separate kitchen timer for a lot less than the added expense to the unit.

Slice and place tomatoes on racks. Dehydrate at 140 degrees for 6 to 18 hours depending on the moisture content of the tomato. This can also be done in an oven using the same temperature and time. When finished, the slices should be the texture of fruit leathers and not brittle. Place them in plastic bags in the refrigerator or freezer.

Freezing is generally considered to be safer than home canning due to the acidity content of tomatoes. Lemon juice usually needs to be added.

For those of you who want to preserve your tomatoes in a recipe, here are some you may not have tried and are well worth the effort.

Tomato Juice

Wash, peel and core ripe tomatoes. Cut into small pieces.

Put through a fine sieve, food mill or juicer to remove seeds.

Heat to simmering point.

Add about 1 teaspoon salt per quart of tomato juice.

Pour into freezer containers allowing 1 to 1˝ inches of space at the top.

Cool and freeze.

Chili Sauce

Yield: About 2˝ pints

Great sauce to serve with meats, especially beef roast.

2˝ quarts diced, peeled ripe tomatoes

˝ cup finely chopped green pepper

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1˝ cup apple cider vinegar

˝ cup sugar

2 tablespoons salt

1-2 hot chili peppers, chopped

2 teaspoons ground cloves

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoon ground allspice

2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Combine all the ingredients in a heavy Dutch oven.

Gradually heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (Using a heat diffuser will help to keep it from scorching).

Pour into hot jars; adjust lids and process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes.

Remove from canner and allow to cool.

Green Tomato Conserve

Yield: 7 pints

2 lemons

1˝ cups water

16 green tomatoes, stem ends removed, parboiled for 5 minutes then coarsely chopped

1 stick cinnamon

˝ teaspoon whole cloves

1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices

2 cups diced, peeled tart apples

3 cups sugar

Peel lemons lengthwise and cut peel into slivers. Cook peel in water for 30 minutes.

Tie spices in cheesecloth.

Add apples, tomatoes, sugar and spices to cooked lemon peel.

Bring to full boil and boil for 20 minutes. Stir often to prevent scorching.

Remove spices. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 20 minutes.

Thinly slice lemons, remove seeds and add to tomato mixture. Cook an additional 20 minutes stirring often.

Pour into hot jars. Adjust lids and process in hot water bath for 5 minutes.

•Fran Thompson is a horticulturist and a home economist at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040 or visit planterspalette.com.

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