September Tomatoes

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, my immigrant grandmother went to work in a tomato cannery in Sacramento, California, where the family had settled. She supported her five children that way throughout the Depression and beyond. But, there weren’t just brought-home-from-work canned tomatoes in her kitchen. Her garden and those of my Armenian relatives in Sacramento always had tomatoes growing in summer. So did the gardens of my parents. We were a military family and moved frequently, but wherever there was a small space with a spot of sun, my father would plant tomatoes in early May. Doing that was his way, rooted in an ancient call, to grow food where you live.

Dry farmed tomato on the vine. You can tell it's dry-farmed by the browned leaves at the bottom of the photo. Withholding water results in the plant putting its energy into ripening the fruit so it can continue life rather than into the leaves, which always want more to drink but don't produce progeny.

I have no idea if any of those tomatoes were heirlooms; we called them beefsteaks. And, they were truly delicious, big, fat, red, juicy, sweet tomatoes, which we delighted in picking and eating out of hand, warm off the vine. For me, tomatoes were and are the best of the best summer fruits.

Then came September, a poignant, bittersweet time for tomatoes. As the fresh ones diminished, we turned to modern means of preserving as many as would fit in the freezer and refrigerator. This activity was symbolically blessed by Grandmother, who had a hand in it, after all; she always “put by” jars of her own garden tomatoes at this time of year. Interestingly, we didn’t have tomato discussions about which was preferable. They were just two different ways with the produce of the same beneficent plant: fresh ones in summer, preserved ones in winter, and depending on which season, used differently.

For those who simply can’t live without tomatoes as a cooking staple year round, here are two easy ways to segue them from summer to winter, no canning paraphernalia required.

Rick having fun with the tomato shoot

Freezing:

Freezing is the very simplest way to preserve tomatoes. The disadvantage is, freezer space is more limited than pantry space where you can store many jars of preserves. But, with a freezer, you can preserve tomatoes just by setting them on the freezer shelves. When frozen, place them in freezer bags and tuck the bags around and about the freezer nooks and crannies. Then make another round and so on until there are no more nooks and crannies. Freezer-preserved tomatoes will keep for up to 6 months or so.

Drying:

This method results in an equally satisfactory, though different, form of preserved tomatoes. And it’s splendidly easy using a microwave rather than a regular oven or an outside drying rack. The drawbacks are: drying tomatoes takes more preparation than freezing does; with microwave-drying, you must attend the process a few times during the cooking; and you can’t do very many at a time. On the other hand, it’s not much work to get a batch of red gold. Here’s how:

Microwave-Dried Tomatoes

10 small or 5 medium fully ripe tomatoes, halved, seeds scooped out, and juices squeezed out

1. On a large microwave plate, place as many tomato halves, cut sides down, as will fit without touching.

2. Microwave on high until collapsed and the juices are released, about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool until no longer steaming hot.

3. Gently turn over the tomatoes with a metal spatula, placing them cut sides up. Spoon the pulp that has fallen away back into the centers. Microwave until the tomatoes are shrunken and almost dried but still supple, not charred, 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside until completely cool and firm. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month, or freeze until next tomato season.

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