August and September. It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. On the one hand, all of my work as an urban farmer during the spring and summer is paying off in the form of incredible bounty and homemade food. Every where you look in the garden, there’s something to bring to the table. Fruits and vegetables are ripe and the time to eat them or put them up is now.
On the other hand, my life as a school teacher is the craziest it is all year during the months of August and September. August is go-time in the life of a teacher. These days I find myself coming home from an eight or nine-hour day of training or meetings with my colleagues and going straight to the kitchen to preserve some harvest that needs tending to. Life as an urban farmer and teacher is the craziest during these late summer months.
So, when you find yourself with a million tasks at hand and only so many hours in the day to do them, you need to strategize and be as efficient with your time as possible. This strategy for putting up tomatoes is one of my most trusted strategies. It’s one of the ways I’m getting it done.
I’ve decided that besides eating them fresh and also oven-roasting and then freezing a couple of trays of tomatoes, this will be the only thing I will do in the way of preserving my substantial tomato harvest. It is that good. My busy girl’s advice for preserving tomatoes is this: make tomato paste “ice” cubes.
I made a tray of tomato paste cubes last year at the end of the season and wished in vain that I would have discovered this method earlier. These gems are packed full of sweet tomato goodness and add an amazing depth of flavor to anything you’re cooking. Here’s how I used the cubes from last season:
- Thaw and use in any recipe that calls for tomato paste
- Add a cube to lentil soup (Where have you been all my life, tomato paste lentil soup?)
- Add a cube to any soup or stew
- Thaw a cube or two and slather on homemade pizza dough as a pizza sauce
- Add a cube or two with chili-making ingredients for a delicious, slow-cooker chili
- Add a cube or two to a pot of garbanzo beans to create a make-shift chana masala meal
- Soak and drain cashews and blend in a high-powered blender with a thawed cube or two. Then heat to make a simple “cream” sauce for pasta
- Thaw and use as a spread on homemade veggie burgers
What you need
At least 1 pound of tomatoes (3 1/2 lbs. yielded about a tray and a half of cubes)
About 1 clove of garlic per pound of tomatoes (honestly, I often add more), finely chopped
Olive oil, to coat the bottom of the pan
What to do
Put your widest enamel dutch oven on the stove over medium heat. Add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan and sauté the garlic until just light golden brown. The goal is to toast the garlic a bit and add flavor to the oil.
Puree the tomatoes until smooth and carefully add them to the warm garlicky oil in the dutch oven. Continue until you’ve finished pureeing and adding all of the tomatoes.
Add a few generous pinches of salt, stir and let simmer. This is a long process, but really the tomatoes just need some time to reduce and cook down. This part is a multi-tasker’s dream – I use this time to complete other things on my to-do list, while occasionally (every 15-20 minutes or so, especially when it really starts reducing) stirring and scraping the sides to incorporate all of the yummy tomato goodness into the mix. Like this:
This mixture will reduce by more than half, to about 1/3 of the tomato liquid you started with. Once it starts getting to be a rich, red color, you’re getting close. This year, I’ve been calling it done when the mixture is a really thick sauce, but not quite a paste. If what you want is tomato paste, continue cooking until the oil sort of starts to separate from the tomato mixture. You will be able to move around the mixture almost like a dough, like in one mass, when it’s really paste-like.
When you reach the consistency you prefer, remove from the heat and let cool. Then, fill up an ice cube tray with the paste and freeze. Once the cubes are frozen, pop out of the tray and into a plastic freezer bag. I’ve already filled an entire gallon-size bag and I can’t wait to fill up some more.
Do you have any strategies for putting up fruits or vegetables in a hurry? What are your busy girl (or guy) strategies? Share in the comments below. I can use all the strategies I can get!