Saturday, August 29, 2009

What to Do With Overflowing Tomatoes? Can Them or Make Salsa for a Cold Winter Day!

Last year I taught myself to can tomatoes. I was a little intimidated because – as my Aunt Libby was only too happy to tell me at a cousin’s wedding in June – botulism is a painful way to die. However, I am happy to report that I have lived to tell the tale to the rest of you. Also, my friend Mary from Louisville told me about her aunt who last year bought her first can of tomatoes in 44 years of marriage. Seeing as how I am a task and goal oriented kinda girl, a dream of not buying another can of tomatoes for 50 years has become my latest obsession. Trust me, this will reduce my salt intake considerably since I use at least one can each week to make pasta sauce or as a base to soup.

I tried to find the bible of food preservation: Ball’s Blue Book of preserving, but, alas, last year it could not be found. I had to order it directly from the company and it took six weeks (or more) for delivery. (I had the same experience when I bought a copy for Mary at Christmas). In the interim, I bought The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food by Janet Chadwick via This is a very good book, but it only covers freezing and hot water canning (which covers tomatoes, jams and fruits). There are no directions for using a pressure cooker (which is necessary to can non-acidic foods, like green beans and soup stocks). Happily for all of you readers, Kroger’s now carries Ball’s Blue Book on East Main Street in the seasonal aisle for a whopping $6.50. There are also lots of good websites.

Anyway, last year I canned tomatoes, pickled peppers (via directions from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UC Davis and from the Maryland Cooperative Extension), green beans (via directions I obtained on the internet from Kansas State University) and peaches as well as making strawberry preserves and fuzzy-navel marmalade (via the UGA recipe at For that matter, a good website for this sort of information is the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia at, which also sells its own book on the subject. Finally, I froze a lot of green beans and zucchini via directions from The Ohio State University Extension office on Human Nutrition at This OSU site has great information for freezing all sorts of food, from asparagus to potatoes, to tomatoes. See

On Wednesday, Mary asked me how many pints of tomatoes I had “put up” this year in 2009. I finally counted last night: 33 pints of tomatoes, plus 1 pint of pasta sauce and 6 pints of salsa (plus at least a dozen pints of green beans, a dozen pints of peaches, plus lots of fuzzy-naval marmalade, raspberry jam, blueberry jam and strawberry preserves). I still have at least a month of tomato harvests to go this seasonJ

You should get detailed instructions from a book, but to give you an idea of what is involved with “cold packing” tomatoes, you will need to sterilize the mason jars in a large pot of boiling water. (Do not sterilize the lids in boiling water or you could jeopardize the integrity of the wax seals. Merely soak the lids in seriously hot water until you need them). I use the same pot to sterilize and heat the jars that I will ultimately use to process the filled mason jars. You will need another, smaller, pot of boiling water to drop tomatoes into for about 1-2 minutes (depending on the size and ripeness of the tomatoes). Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes from the boiling water to a large bowl of ice water. Then, you will remove the core and rub the skins off the tomatoes (which is very easy if the skins have already split).

You have two options now. I usually chop them up, but it is faster to can them whole or in quarters. Then put the tomatoes in a fine wire colander (over a nice bowl) and smash them a bit to separate the flesh from some of the juice. Take your slotted spoon and scoop the tomatoes into the hot mason jar. (In the meantime, collect the tomato juice and make yourself a Bloody Mary cocktail with vodka, Worchester sauce and tobasco while you complete the rest of the process so you won’t resent the rest of your family for hanging out in cooler parts of the house watching television. Save the rest of the juice for tomorrow’s breakfast or freeze it for later use).

Before the jars and tomatoes cool down, fill the mason jars and smash them down a bit to remove air bubbles. Depending on the amount of natural juice you left with the tomatoes, you may need to fill the jar (to no more than 1/2 inch from the top) with boiling water from your tea kettle. You will also need to add at least 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each pint (and 2 tablespoons to a quart) in order to increase the acidity of the jar. Make sure that the lip of the jar is squeaky clean and not specked with tomato juice or parts. Put on the two piece lids (i.e., the top and then the screw on-part). Once you have exhausted your supply of tomatoes or mason jars, you will then put the filled jars into the large pot of boiling water. Make sure that the water covers the jars by at least two inches. You will boil the water and jars for 45-90 minutes depending on how you filled the mason jars (i.e., with boiling water or natural tomato juice). Be sure to have a grate in the bottom of your pot to keep the jars from breaking or exploding. You may also need to turn down the heat a bit if the boiling water gets a little crazy and starts popping the lid off the pot.

Note: I recommend keeping lids on the pots of boiling water to cut down on the steam in the kitchin. Also, while the jars are processing in the boiling water, this is a good time to make that cocktail I mentioned, clean up the giant mess in your kitchin and run all of those tomato skins to your compost bin.

After the requisite time has passed, turn off the heat and remove the jars from the boiling water. This can be tricky if you don’t have a special jar lifter. If you drop any of the jars before they cool, you will have damaged the seal and may need to reprocess. Let them sit there for at least 12 hours before moving them. Remove the screw on part of the lid and put the jars in a dark, cool place until you’re ready to cook.

I prefer canned food (in glass mason jars) to frozen because I don’t have to plan too far in advance (i.e., to thaw out the food). Some people add a little citric acid or salt to each jar in order to preserve color, etc., but I do not. Some people also remove as many of the seeds as possible, but I do not because I like the flavor they add. (Although this is a great time to harvest seeds from your favorite tomatoes so that you can plant them next year. I put them aside in little jars and then rinse them in the fine mesh collandar when I'm done canning or even the next morning. (If you don't rinse them, you risk mold). When the seeds have dried out, I put them in little coin envelopes and label them).

When you’ve harvested as many tomatoes as I have (with close to 50 tomato plants in my three gardens), you have to get creative. I have also made my favorite pasta sauces and then canned any excess (which keeps perfectly until I need it again a year later). This year I also learned to make and can salsa. It turned out so much better than expected that I will share the recipe with you. I’ve already started opening mason jars of salsa because I found the salsa to be addictive.

Spicy Salsa

Onions: Take a medium sized onion or lots of small onions (preferably from your garden), chop them and then throw them into a medium sauce pot. Do not turn on the heat yet. Red onions are recommended, as are scallions, but any will do in a pinch.

Lime Juice: I pour ¼ cup over the onions to marinate while I process the rest of the ingredients. I prefer more lime juice than vinegar, but you can decide how much of each you want.

Cumin: Sprinke to taste over the onions.

Tomatoes: I process the tomatoes like I’m going to can them and then throw them whole or in quarters into my blender until the blender is filled to the top. I then coarsely chop them and pour them into the fine wire mesh colander (which, of course, is set over a bowl in order to collect tomato juice for cocktails and breakfast).

Jalapeno and other peppers: I canned a lot of peppers last year. This was lucky for me because I somehow forgot to grow any jalapenos this year. When you pickle a variety of different peppers in the same jar (which I did last year), they all become a little spicy. I puree the peppers in the blender after processing the tomatoes. For the first batch of salsa, I used about 5 jalapeno peppers, but last night I used a pint of a variety of picked peppers from the same jar (including bell, banana and jalapeno). Yum Yum. You can decide how spicy you want your salsa. Note: bell peppers have a lot more vitamin C then other peppers.

One handful of corn kernels.

One handful of black beans.

¼ cup of fresh chopped cilantro (or as much as you really like).

¼ cup of cider or red wine vinegar.

2 cloves of chopped garlic.

Sprinkle on red pepper flakes to taste.

Bring your salsa mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and then simmer for 10 minutes. Fill your mason jars, leaving at least ¼ inch headspace. Process in a boiling hot water bath for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the jars and let them sit for at least 12 hours before you put them in a cool, dark place.
Makes 2-1/2 pints

Editor's Note: FYI. Kroger's is now liquidating its supply of mason jars. As of Labor Day weekend, a dozen wide-mouth pint jars were only $3.00. I can't turn down a bargain like that.

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