Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.

Equipment

Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.

Processing

I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.

 

Time to plant seeds: Choosing Tomatoes

Let the trumpets sound! It is the beginning of the cycle that will end in November (for us)- the sprouting of the nightshades. Yes, some of my favorite vegetables are cousins to the elegant Deadly Nightshade: Atropa Belladonna (Atropos is the third Fate; the crone that snips the thread of life, and Belladonna means pretty lady), one of many bad girls in the Solanaceae family. Tobacco, tomatoes, granadilla, chilies, ashwaghanda, potatoes, petunias- life as we know it would stop without them.

Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants don’t cross-pollinate too easily because they have such short little flowers that self-pollinate right away. At least that’s what it looks like to me, since I have been saving seeds from these plants for years and they seem to come true (replicate their parent).  I file my seeds according to groups, and right now I’m about to take out the tomato file. Therein lie all the little packets of tomato seeds I fill during the summer. Time to choose.

I love trying different types of tomatoes, and I am cheap and believe in sustainability so I sprout my own. It’s easy. I’ll write about that next. But here is a link to an Amazon search that looked fun: tomato seeds. Basically, in choosing  I want early tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, paste tomatoes, -and exotic tomatoes that are just too cool not to grow. And of course I will try at least one new one.  I personally choose indeterminate tomatoes, which means they just go on producing dribs and drabs of fruit until frost kills them, because that suits how I live, but you might want to consider determinate tomatoes, which produce all at once, if you do big batch canning and don’t have time to do smaller batches more frequently. I grow about 65 plants, and sell my extras at the farmer’s market if they are presentable. I have a ton of room. If I could only plant 5 plants I would choose differently.

For early tomatoes: well, Early Girl, the non-hybrid, is a classic. That would be one of my five because she starts early and keeps on producing all season. But lets try a new one. The Early Clear Pink in the link looked nice and only 58 days. Check out Baker Creek Seeds– my favorite bedtime reading! And cherry tomatoes are early. sweet million tomatoI love Sweet Million, pictured here, for its graceful strings of super sweet fruit. That would be one of my five as well.  You can train it up and up. Visitors to my garden need something to snack on, there’s a bowl on the kitchen table, and I split them in the salad. It’s very rangy so give it space. If you really want feral tomatoes, try wild currant tomatoes. They are pearl-sized cute little wild things from Mexico and they volunteer. I have grown them in hanging baskets. Chocolate cherries were a bit if a yawn. Jelly Beans are so fun to dry for snacks. Isis Candy was pretty- a cool little star on each fruit. Sweet 100 is a good producer, but the flavor isn’t as intense as Sweet Million. This picture is from Country Gardens Farm. Everybody has to have one Yellow Pear. My grandmother used to make jam out of them. That is a distinctive looking plant- small, tough foliage.

Beefsteak tomatoes: The big Brandywines are a Pennsylvania Dutch heirloom everybody loves. They are my superstars- later in the season but worth the wait. Yellow Platfoot Strain BW is a monstrous dark green giant. I think that’s a hot contender for one of my five. They say that good-tasting tomatoes have a lower fruit:leaf area ratio, but with these guys, not so much. Lurking under the large, deep green, potato-like leaves (Most Brandywines have the distinctive “potato leaf”) hang the huge, glowing yellow tomatoes. You have to try this. One fully ripe Yellow Brandywine (Southern Exposure picture) can make a salad, and it is deep, sweet. apricot yellow, with a complex, meaty physical structure that you can slice into cubes if you want to.  That with a chiffonade of fresh basil, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, is all I crave. Maybe a sliver of red onion, for color.yellow brandywine

But let me compose myself and continue. The Pink Brandywine is not the fine red color you were thinking of, but it is truly a delicious tomato. There is a Red Brandywine as well, and a very prolific variation without potato leaves. Delicious is the Guinness world record tomato- seven pounds, I understand. I grew it a few times. It is a nice flavored tomato, with good acid, and somewhat pleated in shape. But one you shouldn’t miss is Black Krim, another best pick for me. Krim as in Crimean- it is a Russian tomato. Last year I planted them in a ton of manure right by the water hose, and they outdid themselves. I always thought of them as a medium to large black tomato with a fabulous, complex flavor. Last year they were as big as the Brandywines, and they are more disease resistant. By black, of course, I mean a reddish brown that is darker on top. It has crimson streaks inside it which are very pretty on a sandwich or in a salad. My favorite is to pan sear fat slices with sliced elephant garlic, olive oil, and a garnish of basil. High heat and quick, and then slide it onto the plate, or onto some toast. Slurp.

I also tried something I thought was called Martina last year. It was a big pale yellow with a pink sunburst surprise when you cut it. The sizes varied a lot. I’ll grow it again from the seeds I saved next to one from the packet somebody sent me.

Now, paste, the tomato of pizzas. What you see for sale in the store is a Roma or Roma type, and likely a hybrid. Roma is what you call a determinate tomato, because it fruits prodigiously all at the same time. This makes sense for processing, because you get a ton of fruit, process it, and you’re done. Then you can rip out the plant and go on with your life. I suppose I could put some in between the Brandywines and the cherry tomatoes, and make space for the rambling giants when the determinates are done. Gardening is about experimentation. But no, I don’t do Romas. We can do better. For canning I like Opalka, a huge, dry, oblong red paste tomato, indeterminate, with a pointy tip and a tiny, dry seed cavity. That is one good producer. It starts out looking wimpy, because it has wispy looking foliage, but it keeps on trucking until hard freeze. The foliage gets really thick and you have to dig for the fruit, but it is dry and slow to rot. Definitely feed it well or you will get blossom end rot, which looks like they sat end-down on hot iron. I put Epsom Salts in when I transplanted them and that seemed to work well, one tablespoon worked in when I transplant. There was a little Italian paste I grew last year as well which is supposed to be great for sun-dried tomatoes. But I really didn’t do much with it.

Beauty KingNow for the coolicious category. Tomatoes come in every category of color. Great White is a white beefsteak. It ripens to ivory and tastes very sub acid and sweet. I can’t grow them; Maryland’s critters eat them before I can pick a ripe one. I once saw a picture of spinach fettucine with white tomato sauce. Great idea, but it looked kind of nasty. Green Zebra is a must. It is a nice healthy medium green on green striped tomato which ripens to green stripes on yellow when very ripe. It has a nice citrussy twang and I got a lot of flack last year for making green zebra sorbet. And you can’t beat it in a salad. Brown Boar is a brown, green and red variation, and Beauty King is a yellow and green on red striped tomato that is just so flashy you have to try it. This is a localharvest.org pic that doesn’t really show the green. Lemon Boy is a medium sized, dependable yellow tomato with sweet white flesh that I haven’t grown in a few years. It is pretty but not as zippy as I like. Persimmon is a yummy medium orange similar to Amana Orange, which I grow for my mother, who can’t take the more acid tomatoes. Amana is really a pretty tomato, medium to large and deep orange. Costoluto Genovese is a really neat-looking tomato, distinctively pleated or ruffled and flat. You can get a few horizontal slices out of it which look really nice on a plate or a bruschetta. Black Prince is a tender Russian plum, on a short, bushy but thin stemmed plant, bearing heavily with smoky bronze tomatoes. My father said they looked and tasted rotten, but I thought they had an interesting and delicious flavor, kind of earthy. Tomato Growers Supply,  an excellent supplier with a huge online catalog, sells a variegated tomato. The foliage is actually green and white. It is a small plant and small, square fruits which aren’t very interesting. It’s very decorative though, for edible landscaping.

PeronBut when you get right down to it, you want tomatoes that will produce and taste good. Here’s the final word in tomatoes: Peron. If that was all I could grow, I’d pick this tomato. Dave’s Garden called it the “sprayless” tomato, although his forum gave it mixed reviews. But I’m saying what I have experienced for the past 4 years I’ve grown this and saved seed. It’s a medium sized, smooth, round, red Argentinian tomato that tolerates hot dry gardens, cold greenhouses, and Maryland’s pest and fungus-friendly climate. The bit about the cold greenhouse may be apocryphal, but I think the tomato that lived in my unheated greenhouse through 2 mild winters was a Peron. Seed cavity is average, flavor is definite tomato. As far as I’m concerned, Peron is the Toyota Corolla of tomatoes. Maybe even a Camry. Give it a test drive.