Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Last of the Red Hot Tomatoes

The End of Another Season!
Okay, pardon my riff on Neil Simon's play, "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers", but since it's such a blah Saturday afternoon here in Toronto, I decided to check the garden, gather any remaining ripe tomatoes and prepare to can them.  Normally, I would start in the morning and do it all in one day, but since I was busy with chores earlier, I thought I would split it up and do the prep work today and the actual canning tomorrow.  Plus, I am documenting the process for the first time in order to post it here and until I get a routine established, I want to allow enough time to do things as best I can.

So, to start, I went out and gathered any fully ripe tomatoes as well as whatever ones wanted to come back in the house with me.  Some green ones and partially ripe ones just about jumped into my colander, while some of the fully ripe ones put up a struggle before I could get them off the vine.  Anyhoo, I ended up with a colander-full, which from previous experience tells me I have approximately 2 pounds of tomatoes.

Fresh from the garden, dirt and all!

So, into the sink for a good scrubbing.

These nylon bristle brushes from Lee Valley are great for gently cleaning tomatoes.

Scrubbed clean, calyxes removed and ready for sorting.

Since even the determinate Oroma tomatoes don't all ripen at the same time, any given day's picking will produce a variety of ripeness.  So, a quick sort beforehand goes a long way to streamlining the canning process.  I usually sort into 3 groups: perfectly ripe; ripe, but with blemishes; and unripe and/or semi-ripe.  The perfectly ripe tomatoes are collected in a large bowl that I keep in the fridge to slow down further ripening and hopefully prevent spoilage while I collect more.  The ripe, but blemished tomatoes are kept separately in the fridge as well.  And the unripe/semi-ripe tomatoes are put on windowsills or left on the counter to finish ripening.  Usually within a few days they're ready to add to the bowl of ripe tomatoes in the fridge.  I keep collecting ripe tomatoes until I have a minimum of 5 pounds before starting a canning project, but at the height of frenzy a few weeks back I was up to 10 pounds every second day, so I was a lean, mean cannin' machine there for a few days!

Above, clockwise from the upper left:  unripe/semi-ripe, ripe but blemished, perfectly ripe and a surprise this year: a cherry version of my Black Brandywines!  I'm not quite sure how it happened and I only have the one plant, but they are perfect, cherry tomatoes with the Black Brandywine colouring and (luckily!) taste.  Apparently, the Brandywine strain is particularly susceptible to cross-pollination and should really be planted away from other tomatoes.  Well, I have never planted them away from the Romas and Opalkas.  Not this year nor the previous two years and this is the first time something like this has happened.  Don't get me wrong -- I'm thrilled, especially since the mini tomatoes have the same luscious Brandywine tomato taste as the full-sized versions -- I just don't understand why or how it happened.  Okay, maybe I should just accept this gift and not waste time trying to figure it out.  I am definitely saving some seeds (more on that in a future post!) and I'll be curious to see if I can get them to grow again next year.

Anyway, back to canning prepwork!  Please bear in mind that I am most definitely NOT a canning expert or some sort of food preservation oracle.  I am just sharing with you what I have learned from reading both books and the Internet and what I have found that works for me during my canning escapades over the last couple of years.  That said, what works for me may not work for you and all along the way, I will provide you with links to my sources and more so you can do further research.

So, to begin, here's the basic equipment we'll need to do boiling water bath canning.  As the name suggests, filled preserving jars fitted with two-piece lids are submerged in a large pot of boiling water for a prescribed length of time.  The Bernardin website has a great explanation of the science behind all this and I encourage you to read it here.

First, we need a large pot to act as our canner.  This needs to hold enough boiling water to cover the number of jars we will be preserving by about 1 inch.

My Boiling Water Canner
Actual canners have an actual rack inside them that holds the jars upright off the bottom of the pot and has handles so you can lift the whole shebang out of the pot in one fell swoop.  I got this one second-hand at a garage sale and it was missing its rack so...

... I just use a cake cooling rack.  It doesn't keep the jars nicely upright, but it does keep them off the bottom of the pot, which is all that really matters.  I think I've seen the racks for sale on their own at Canadian Tire, so one of these days I will get one!  Other essentials are:

Clockwise from top left:  small saucepan for hot water to soften the sealing gum on the lids, Mason jars of various sizes depending on what you are canning (I'll be canning diced tomatoes so I will be using jars like the tall one in the back -- more on this later), a ladle, a wide-mouth funnel, a magnetic-tipped wand for picking up lids (not exactly essential, but really handy!), a good paring knife, jar-lifting tongs, and finally snap lids and their rings.

The funnel, magnetic wand and the tongs are available as part of a tool kit, available on both the Bernardin and Ball websites as well as at Canadian Tire.

Tomorrow, I will walk through the actual canning process and you can see how it all comes together.

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