Friday, September 26, 2014

Tomato Harvest

Most years we’ve grown an assortment of tomatoes to establish which ones work out best, but this year we planted two kinds: 96 plants of “Bears”, a plum variety for making sauce and a half dozen “Grape” tomatoes, for all-around eating. Last year “Bears” out produced three other plumb tomato finalists and they did not disappoint us this year. Most fruits are perfect, with not one with blossom end rot or splits. Though not their fault, a few (1 – 2%) did get damaged by birds, rodents and tomato hornworms but this was hardly noticeable. We had more than ample rain throughout the summer but unusually cool weather slowed tomato growth so ripening really began in September, two weeks later than the last few years.

Figure 1: Plum Tomato Plants in September Woven Between Stakes
As described in an earlier posting, we grow our tomatoes among rows of aluminum stakes. It takes only a few minutes per row to weave strips of cloth torn from old sheets to interconnect these six foot long poles with the growing tomato plants. This year it took seven sessions of weaving (every week or so starting in June) to bind the ever taller plants so no vines touch the ground (Figure 1) or block paths between rows.
Figure 2: 240 Pounds of "Bears" Plum Tomatoes (and a Tomatillo)
We pick our plum tomatoes once a week and store them for a few days to insure they fully ripen before we give them away or grind them through our 40 year old Squeezo food processor. It took a good part of two days to transform last week’s 240 pounds (Figure 2) into 17 quarts of very thick tomato sauce and seven quarts of tomato soup stock. Turning the handle drives an auger against a screen that separates pulp and juice from peels and seeds (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Straining Tomatoes Through a "Squeezo" Food Processor
 The latter we feed the chickens (Figure 4) and the liquids become soup stock and tomato sauce that is as thick as canned tomato paste. Since we already have more than 120 quarts of soup stock in the pantry, we now only preserve flavorful variations that include spices and other produce. Earlier in the summer we canned spicy sweet corn salsa that also produced many jars of flavorful stock. This year canning clear yellow tomato plasma isn’t worth the work.

Figure 4: A Chicken Trying Tomato Skin/Seed Mixture
Although 240 pounds of tomatoes produces more than 20 gallons of liquids, this becomes only about four gallons of thick sauce. We’ve found that boiling the thin fluid mixture that flows through the Squeezo separation screen for 20 minutes makes the solids stick together and sink while what we call the “plasma” separates and rises. Floating a colander in the mixture (Figure 5) facilitates ladling out the supernatant yellow fluid so that less than half the initial volume remains in the five gallon pot. 
Figure 5: Tomato "Plasma" Collecting in a Colander Floating in Thickening Sauce
The holes in the colander clog with tomato paste and let in only clear liquid. We add two gallons of the thin fluid mixture a few times, boil and then remove more clear yellow liquid until the pot is over half full of very thick sauce. Turning 16 gallons of this liquid into steam to remove it would take much more time and energy.

In a food processor we chop hands-full of garlic, hot peppers, basil and oregano and add this to the now thickened sauce. To meld flavors, we cook this together for a half hour and then ladle the mixture into jars. Though any canning method would work, for this acidic tomato sauce we use a shallow pan that holds about a gallon of water and is topped by an aluminum disk with holes (Figure 6). 
Figure 6: Rear - Canning Operation with 7 Jars Above Water Ready to be Covered with Top
Front - Finished Jars of Tomato Sauce and Soup Stock
Seven quart jars or up to 10 pint jars can fit on top and are covered by a tall aluminum hat. We start timing 20 minutes and turn down the heat when steam shoots out of two small holes in the top. This energy efficient method is quick and simple. My wife scalded her legs using a pressure canner so we now use this method that has worked well for us for over two decades. 

So the boxes of tomatoes in Figure 1 resulted in 17 Jars of tomato sauce and 7 quarts of bright red soup stock shown in Figure 7. More than 20 gallons of clear tomato "plasma" was discarded.
Figure 7: Left - Tomato Stock, Right: Tomato Sauce from 240 Pounds of Plum Tomatoes
To summarize for our location in upstate New York:
1.      Late March: plant tomato seeds in a small flat;
2.      Late April: transplant 2” seedlings to single 8 oz. containers (we reuse old yoghurt cups);
3.      Late May: transplant 8 dozen 8-12” plants into rows between stakes, two feet apart;
4.      June, July and August: weave 1” wide strips of cloth up, then down each row every week to 10 days,       supporting the tomato vines between the stakes;
5.     September: harvest more than 800 pounds of plum tomatoes and process half, and share the rest with neighbors and a food pantry;
6.      Select 100, or so, perfect fruit, save the seeds (described in a future post); and

8.      October +: remove the stakes and roll up the cloth strips, then mulch the vines so they replenish the soil.