Ready for the dehydrator

Spaghetti, butter chicken, tacos, tomato soup, salsa, meatloaf, chicken paprikash, mulligatawny, hamburgers, curry, chili, beef stew. It makes sense for us to grow tomatoes, because we use them in so many dishes. Resident Gardener starts them from seed, usually saved or traded, in January each year. This means they are easy on the budget too. 

Since the sixteen century when the Spanish brought tomatoes home to Europe from South America, their use has spread around the world like…well, like an indeterminate tomato plant. You know…the ones that just grow, and grow, and grow.

Our gold nugget cherry tomatoes always ripen first, in July usually, and by late August we are buried in tomatoes of all colours, shapes and sizes.

Heavenly. There is nothing better, in my view, than a still-warm-from-the-sun Italian Stallion tomato, sprinkled with pepper and eaten out of hand…buttery, umami, nirvana. 

By the time September rolls around I’m preserving tomatoes like crazy. RG picks them a couple times a week, taking everything from fully ripe to just starting to pink up. I finish the half ripe ones in the house. Tomato harvesting is a race against the weather in our damp climate, and in this way we maximize our harvest. Once picked and brought in, which can be done as soon as they “break” (10-30% of the surface turns pink) I set them along the window ledges so I can easily see when they turn red. 

In another month or so, when we pull the plants, hopefully just ahead of the blight that shows up each fall, I’ll fill paper grocery bags with mature green unblemished fruit and then check for pink ones every few days as they ripen slowly in the bag. Some years we are eating homegrown tomatoes almost until Christmas. I know some folks make green tomato salsa, and pie, and chutney, and I admire their innovation, but I like them red. Or golden or black or chocolate…depending on the variety.

I process our ripe tomatoes in various ways, with my goal being to enjoy them in all the dishes mentioned above, all winter long. I used up my last bag of frozen 2019 tomatoes in June this year. Perfect timing.

Prettiest tomato award for 2020 goes to this beauty.

Every year I roast tomatoes with olive oil and garlic, bag and freeze. The flavour is incredible, but sometimes I forget they are in the oven which never ends well. Or I make ketchup and can it. The easiest method is to simply de-stem, rinse, bag, and freeze. This has been my preference for years; it’s so simple. I add them straight out of the freezer to whatever I’m cooking that needs tomatoes. On the rare occasion when I want to get all fancy and remove the skins, I hold them still frozen under warm running water, squeeze slightly, and the skins slide right off. The single drawback to freezing tomatoes is that they take up a lot of room. And freezer space is hard to come by around here in the fall, even with our big upright freezer, RG’s small chest freezer, and three fridges going.

A couple weeks ago I saw a discussion about drying tomatoes on one of my preserving groups. Some people dry just the skins, left over from canning tomatoes. Others dry the whole fruit. “Oooooh boy”, I started thinking, “if I could get the tomatoes out of the freezer, maybe I will have room for some local lamb!”

A tomato mosiac

I had several pounds of ripe ones in the fridge, so I sliced them a quarter inch thick, the cherry toms into halves or thirds, then onto trays and into the dehydrator they went, for about eighteen hours at 135 F. I suppose you could do them in your oven. But my friend says tomatoes don’t go well in her little Nesco dryer…so be warned.

The gold nugget cherry toms shrunk the least.

Once they snapped when I bent them, I unplugged the dryer, piled them all into the blender together and zipped them into powder in about thirty seconds flat. 25 cups of tomatoes, eight 15×15 inch trays full, almost fourteen square feet of tomato slices, dried down into about 600 ml of super concentrated tomato powder.

So far, I have mixed my tomato powder with water (two tablespoons) to make an almost-too-rich tomato paste for spaghetti sauce and sprinkled it sparingly (two teaspoons!) into homemade veggie barley soup where it both added a tomatoey tang and reddened the broth. The flavour is intense. I can already tell I will need to be careful to not use too much. Best of all, it stores in glass jars in a dark cupboard where it takes up very little space. I added a silicone crystal sachet to the jar too, to keep it from clumping.

I will still roast, and freeze, a few tomatoes. But most of them are going in the dehydrator this year. And now to find me a nice box of lamb…