Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bottled Tomatoes

Yet another post about bottling! Preserving is clearly on my mind, and this is the time, in early autumn, when tomatoes are cheap and plentiful. But why would a busy girl bottle?

All eating, in fact all decisions, are a question of values. We all have lots of values jostling for primacy; our decisions bear out which values are foremost. And with food, the value equation is sometimes very difficult to calculate. Organic? Not organic? Local? Imported? Cheap? Expensive? Fair trade? Sustainable? Delicious? – well, duh!

For me, deciding which type of canned tomato to use requires lots of value juggling. My preference would be for cheap, local, organic, sustainable canned tomatoes delivered to my door. In an ideal world, they’d be bottled in glass, which I would then return to the distributor for re-use. But this does not exist, at least not in my neighbourhood.

Mostly, then, we have bought Italian organic canned tomatoes. I cringe at the air miles, but I also cringe at Australian canned tomatoes: the open irrigation channels that water tomato crops in the desert; the sprays used; and the flavour. So often Australian canned tomatoes are watery and tasteless, and an unappetising pink. People, ripe Roma tomatoes are deep red! So I’ve used Italian organic tomatoes. Then an Italian friend came over, glanced at a can, and muttered something about the Albanians. ‘What?’ I asked. She told me all about the illegal immigrants who work in the Italian tomato fields in slave-like conditions and said she’d never buy tomatoes from Italy. She is a wise and gentle woman and I trust her. But sheesh!

I looked at other options. In years past I’ve bottled organic Victorian tomatoes, but now I’m feeding a family of five plus lots of guests the cost is prohibitive. $15 a kilo for organic tomatoes which then need to be processed vs $3 a kilo for Italian imported canned tomatoes that require no further work?! I’m not doing that anymore.

I decided ‘organic’ had to go. I bought Victorian grown conventional tomatoes from my Italian greengrocer. At $12 per ruby-red 15 kilo box, they satisfy my values of local, cheap and delicious. Then my daughters and I canned them, which satisfied a whole bunch of other values: educational, as I teach my kids how to do useful stuff; familial, as we work together to produce something nourishing for the family; and aesthetic, as a dark cupboard glinting with row upon row of bottled tomatoes is a sight to behold. My neighbours walked in and admired, with the result that I’ll make a batch for them – so now a communal value is also being satisfied.

The last value is perhaps the simplest: a busy girl might preserve because she enjoys it. There is nothing quite like the deep satisfaction that comes from doing good work. We live in such an age of leisure that it’s taken me a long time to recognise that working at something I love, especially when it’s easy and productive and repetitious, is much more fun than being idle. When I’ve finished a batch of preserves or jam, I float on air. I gloat, wandering in and out of the kitchen to look and look again. I leave things on my tiny bench for an extra day just so anyone who walks in the house notices; then I am casually off-hand about preserving – but inside, a little child is jigging about singing ‘Look what I can do!’. It’s satisfying in a way almost nothing else is.

So those are all the reasons why I bottle; maybe one or two of those reasons might inspire you to bottle, too! So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. In the past, I used Fowlers Vacola’s suggested method, which is to can whole tomatoes in water. They were okay but not great. This year I’ve followed the suggestion of Food in Jars: to place whole peeled tomatoes in the jars with some serious squishing action, which results in tomatoes canned in their own juice. Beautiful to behold, they are also absolutely delicious. So all kudos to Food in Jars for the method. I provide instructions below for Australians using Fowlers Vacola jars; if you use Mason jars or want to see descriptive photos, click here.

For the most part, I use a Fowlers Vacola #20 jar for tomatoes. I can’t tell you how many individual tomatoes per jar because the tomatoes in the boxes I get vary enormously in size and weight, but it’s about 600g of tomatoes. Eight #20 jars fit in the Simple Natural Preserving Kit; so five kilos of tomatoes makes eight jars plus a few over for lunch or the next round. I buy 15 kilo boxes, then fill and process 24 jars over two days (ie three runs through the kit); the remaining two or so kilos of tomatoes I turn into a slow cooked tomato sauce.

Bottled Tomatoes

- ripe Roma tomatoes, red inside and out. Roma, because they have an excellent flesh to juice ratio. Note that preserving them will not make them ripe. You do need to source properly ripened tomatoes.
- commercially made lemon juice (you need lemon juice to acidify the tomatoes, thus rendering them safe; use a commercial product to ensure the acidity is consistent, unlike the acidity of backyard lemons)

Soak the rubber rings in hot water for 15 minutes. Wash the jars and lids in hot soapy water. Fit the rings onto the wet jars, being careful that there are no bends or kinks in the rings.

Place 2 tsp lemon juice into each #20 jar; 1 tbs lemon juice into each #31 jar; check the Fowlers Vacola instruction book for all other jar sizes.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Ready a bowl of cold water beside the stove. Using the tip of a small paring knife, core the tomatoes in one deft twist of the knife. Slice a cross in the base of each tomato. Drop five or six tomatoes at a time into the boiling water and leave for one to two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drop into the cold water.

Get a four-year-old to fish out the wet tomatoes and slide the skin off in one easy motion. She can also pack the jars. Drop tomatoes into the jars, jiggling a little to get a firm pack. You may need to use either your four-year-old’s little hand or a wooden spoon to pack the tomatoes firmly. Squish them a bit as you pack so that the juices ooze out. Keep packing and squishing until you have a jar full of tomatoes and juice. Ease out any air bubbles with a packing stick.

Leave a 12mm headspace. Wipe the rim free of any pulp or juice, place the lid on the jar and fit the clip. When eight jars are ready, load up your preserving kit and process for an hour.

My preserving kit comes to the boil quite early. I turn it off at the forty minute mark for ten minutes, then turn it on again until the time is up. The water stays stinking hot during that time, and that way you get an hour at the correct temperature without it boiling away.

As soon as the hour is up, remove the jars and place them on a wooden board or a pile of old newspapers. Leave them to cool for eighteen hours. Remove the clips. Label each jar clearly with the date and batch number, and hide away in the hall cupboard or somewhere else cool and dark. They will keep for several years, but are best eaten within twelve months.

These tomatoes are terrific in stews and casseroles, or cooked down into pasta sauce. Yum!

(Victoria: tomatoes. No idea (‘local and imported ingredients’, sigh): lemon juice.)

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