Monthly Archives: September 2008

Saving some for later: bye bye tomato season…

canned tomatoes

Every year, I eagerly await tomato season. Tomatoes, along with watermelon and corn, are a few things that makes summer (my least favorite season) entirely bearable for me, much like how Christmas sees so many people through the darkest part of winter.

I have a mad crazy love affair with dry farmed early girl tomatoes. I’ll buy pounds of them at the farmers’ market and savor them throughout the week, slicing them and eating them raw (or sometimes, with a sprinkle of sugar, a guilty pleasure)…or making them into soups, or sauteeing them with garlic and olive oil and basil and tossing them with pasta…or eating them with fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar…the list goes on!

pasta with tomatoes and basil from the garden

Some people have their preferred dry farmed early girl tomato vendors–there’s, for instance, a rivalry between Ella Bella and Dirty Girl. Foodies like to debate between these two farms. I’ve done my own taste tests–but find them both so very delectable. I tried them side by side and found Ella Bella tangier, saltier…and Dirty Girl sweeter. I preferred the Ella Bellas that week. But then the next week, the tomato tastes changed again, and I found myself preferring Dirty Girl tomatoes. I presume things like the sun, temperature, soil…all the things that make up “terroir” influence the tomatoes!

dirty girl vs. ella bella

Nevermind, they’re delicious! And I will a dry farmed early girl from most any farm.

And then later on in the season, if I’ve planted early girls (like I did this year) in the garden, I’ll start eating my dry farmed early girls straight off the plant. Mrmmmm. Nothing beats a tomato fresh off the living vine. That burst of umami, the kind that tells you about every ray of sunshine that ever hit that plant and made it happy. THAT taste hits your tastebuds. It makes my toes curl with pleasure.

I had the first black krim heirloom tomato off my plant last week (yes, it’s a late bloomer) and it made me ecstatic too. Next year, along with early girls, I’m definitely planting another black krim…and will plant a momotaro to boot. Dry farmed early girls, black krim, momotaro, and odoriko are my favorite tomatoes.

tomatoes and basil

It’s officially Autumn now, my favorite time of the year. But even my favorite time of year is not without its sadness–for tomato season will soon hit its close. If you’re lucky like I am, you live in an area where that season doesn’t close for at least another month.

But even so, it’s time to think ahead. Yummy stews and crisp apples and cool and refreshing breezes lay ahead of us.

And we’ll miss the tomato. I’ll miss the tomato. Especially dry farmed early girls.

And I’m determined, this year, to not miss it TOO much. So–Connie and I got together and canned some tomatoes today.

We’re novices at canning tomatoes. I figured that even if we made mistakes, we’d make them together and have lots of fun on a balmy Autumn Sunday. We met up at the farmers’ market, where we bought about 10 pounds of tomatoes: San Marzano and dry farmed early girl tomatoes. (We also hit Blue Bottle coffee and fortified beforehand). The tomato vendors got visibly excited when we mentioned we’d be canning–they had some tomatoes in flats hidden in the truck! They could sell them to us at a discount! Then balked when we said we needed only five pounds of San Marzano.

Now WHY, we thought would we want more than 5 pounds of San Marzano tomatoes (we got another 5 pounds of early girls)?! Isn’t that an AWFUL lot of tomatoes to begin with?

canning tomatoes

Ha. We found out later, as we skinned the tomatoes and then began filling the jars. 10 pounds of fresh tomatoes does NOT make many cans of tomatoes (for us: 2 quart jars, 5 pint jars–split between two people). This may be obvious to many of you–I feel your scoffing! But it wasn’t obvious to us, two first time tomato canners. So be warned: if you want to can tomatoes and make it worth your time, you’ll want to can at LEAST 20 pounds of tomatoes.

And get the juiciest, sweetest, saltiest, most flavorful tomatoes you can find.

You’ll also want LOTS of pots of water (including a very deep, large pot for the water bath–larger if you’re using quart sized mason jars as you want the water to be at least 1 inch higher than the jars). You’ll want a huge pot to do the water bath. You’ll want a small pot in which to simmer the lids. You’ll want a medium pot in which to blanch the tomatoes (for easier peeling). You’ll want a smallish/mediumish pot to boil water or tomato juice (for filling the jars). LOTS of pots. LOTS of water.

And you’ll want LOTS of mixing bowls–to hold all the tomatoes, to rinse them, to peel them, to separate out the juices. Wear an apron.

water bath

I don’t think you need a lot of specialized canning accessories–but I do think the jar grabber is a necessity (it helps you grab those jars as you submerge them in the BOILING HOT water bath, and when you retrieve them from the BOILING HOT water bath). Before I got a jar grabber, I used a regular kitchen tong and a silicon mitt, and believe me, it was WAY too precarious a process and the canning gods were smiling upon me that day, as I did not have one mishap.

And the other thing you’ll need is some lemon juice–to bring the acidity up so that you reduce the chance of spoilage, and also to keep that gorgeous red colour. (We used the pickyourown website as a canning guide).

Our canning adventure had a good dose of giggles, as we realized, halfway through, how we really ought to have bought at LEAST twice as many tomatoes. Oops! We looked sheepishly at all the empty, sterilized jars (yes, I discovered the “sanitizing” setting on my dishwasher, and we are fairly certain it did a job similar to an autoclave–whew!)…and were like, oops. We won’t be using THOSE! Ahem. *sheepish grins*…giggle.

Nevermind the costs.  While the jars were in the water bath, we quickly calculated up the costs: approximately $10 for the jars (but we used only half so it was about at $5 investment)…$25 for the tomatoes…about $3 for the lemon juice/lemons…divided by 7…we spent over $5/jar.  Spendy.  Costwise, this project would only make sense if you were canning tomatoes out of your own garden.

I thought I might be sharing some of these canned tomatoes–but methinks that might not be happening, given the tiny yield. 🙂

But there’s something I realized that I’d definitely be doing again, go forward: I’ll be having a friend over to do future canning. My previous adventures in canning preserves have been solitary affairs–more meditative than anything. But I definitely prefer a raucous social mien around the canning! Connie and I had fun snacking during the lulls, eating a Keitt mango by the pool when the jars were safe, boiling in a water bath.

The jars are cooling now, as we keep our fingers crossed that the jars will seal properly and the lids will not budge. And I look forward to that winter day when I open a jar and get a taste of those dry farmed early girl summer tomatoes.

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream.

It’s been hot for the past week and a half or so in the Bay Area.  Really hot.  I’ve hit the pool every day, and   I’ve avoided using the stove, eating salads, bread, cheese and charcuterie for dinner instead.  Last weekend, I was going to make a watermelon, feta and mint salad to bring to a BBQ, but the mint at all the farmers’ markets looked pretty pathetic (I guess the heat got to the mint as well) so I had to ditch that plan.  I decided going to grill some peaches and make a raspberry sauce… hmmm, what else would go with that ? Ice cream!  I hadn’t made a batch of ice cream nearly all summer.  Shameful, right?  Then I remembered my mental bookmark of David Lebovitz’s salted butter caramel ice cream.  I was unsure of making an ice cream involving molten sugar, but since he declared that it was better than Berthillon’s (the best ice cream I have ever had; Birite in San Francisco makes a reasonable facsimile) and it would be some time before I returned to Paris, I decided what the hell.  Besides, the idea of finding parking and enduring the line at Birite (18th and Guerrero!) was more than a little daunting.  

Like all great recipes, this one kept its ingredients simple – just cream, milk, eggs, sugar, salted butter, salt (preferably fleur de sel) and vanilla.  I had all the ingredients on hand, except the butter (I only keep unsalted in the house).   I wanted to try Vermont Butter and Cheese Co.’s but the Kerrygold at Trader Joe’s was the most convenient option.   I also used Strauss milk and cream (I don’t like their butter, though.  Tastes like movie popcorn butter to me), and Marin Sun Farms eggs.  Have you tried Marin Sun Farms eggs?  I will drive out to the SF Ferry Building and brave all the tourists on Saturdays just to buy their eggs.  They’re that good.  The only other eggs that I have had that were better were from a really eccentric and flaky vendor at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market called B&B, but I haven’t seen them there in quite some time.

The recipe comes in two parts.  The first is a basic praline (to stir into the churned ice cream), and the second is the ice cream custard. Since you have to let the custard chill overnight, you don’t have to make the praline until later.  A molten sugar incident that left me with bandages all over my face for the summer and drove me to seek the advice of a plastic surgeon has heightened my sunscreen obsession exponentially and made me hypervigilant about dealing with molten sugar now.  I studied all of the comments and links left on David’s recipe entry including his tips about making caramel, and followed every instruction to a t.  I premeasured out all the ingredients and neatly set up the mise.  I even made an ice bath, a step I had ignored in the past when melting sugar.  

As I began to make the praline, I remembered… I had actually done this many, many times before, when I went through an obsession with preparing tarte tatin.  A few years ago, I made 1-2 tarte tatins a week from the end of summer to the beginning of spring.  After the molten sugar incident, I guess I had blocked it out!  Anyways, caramelizing sugar for a praline is a lot easier (and safer!) than melting sugar to a soft ball stage for italian buttercream. Basically, you heat the sugar in an even layer over moderate heat in a large, heavy duty saucepan.  As the edges begin to melt, you stir the outside melted sugar towards the inside.  As soon as it all dissolves and turns golden, you IMMEDIATELY, without even blinking, sprinkle in some salt and pour it into a silpat lined cookie sheet.  Don’t wait around once it dissolves and turns brown; the sugar contines to cook, caramelize and burn after you turn off the heat and even on the cookie sheet.  Don’t stick your fingers in the sugar until you are certain that it’s cooled, and don’t touch the underside of the cookie sheet.  Once it is cool, break off a little of the praline and taste it to make sure it isn’t burnt.  I had to try three times before I got it right.  Luckily, this is a pretty quick and easy process, and only involves half a cup of sugar.  

Making the custard also involves caramelizing some sugar, but instead of pouring it out, you add the butter and salt to the pot.  This is actually a little easier than making the praline – there’s more of a margin of error since the addition of the butter slows down the cooking process and prevents the sugar from burning.  Once the butter is melted, you add the cream, then half of the milk.  It will definitely seize up.  So much so that the first time, I freaked out a little – “Omigod!  I ruined the recipe!  Aaah!” – and wound up sloshing the cream all over my kitchen.  So, carefully whisk in the cream, and just continue stirring it over the stove.  Make sure you scrape the bottom of the pot.  The newly formed lumps (or gigantic hunk) of caramelized sugar will eventually dissolve.  Then you temper the egg yolks, and pour the custard through a strainer into a bowl containing the rest of the milk set over an ice bath.  The strainer doesn’t just strain out the curdled eggs – remember those seized lumps of sugar?  That’s the point at which you realize, “oh, David is so smart!”.  Cool the custard in the refrigerator overnight before churning.  My pastry chef friend says that this allows the flavors to mingle, deepen and ripen.  

While the ice cream churns, crush the praline into confetti sized pieces.  David says he uses a mortar and pestle, but he suggests using a rolling pin.  I didn’t feel like dirtying any more dishes, so I crushed it with my hands by rolling it up in the silpat and cracking it as small pieces as I could.  Then, I used the butt of an empty wine bottle to bash it up some more.  Add it to the ice cream in the last five minutes of churning.  Because of the salt, this ice cream is pretty loose, so freeze it for a few more hours once it’s done churning.  You might want to crank up the freezer to help it harden.  

The verdict?  Unanimous approval, even from Zack, who doesn’t even like Birite’s salted caramel ice cream.  

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asks as he POLISHES OF THE CONTAINER.

“Like what?”

“Like I’m doing something really awful, and you’re going to kill me!”

Um, sweetie, you are, and I am!