March 09, 2011

What's red and not there?

The soups and stews I’ve made this winter have been especially good. The broth, which is almost always tomato-based because I’m vegan and I use tomatoes the way other people use meat, has tasted about ten times better than it has any other year.

At first I thought that maybe I had, out of the blue and with no warning, become an amazing chef. I figured maybe I’d gotten some kind of cooking super power, and suddenly I was Amazing Crockpot Woman.

The flaw with that thinking is that, when it comes right down to it, I haven't really changed the way I cook. I mostly chop up any vegetables I have, toss everything into a pot, and then add random spices.

Then I figured it out.

It’s not me, it’s the tomatoes.

Other years, I’ve used cans of store-bought tomatoes for the basis of soup or stew. I’ve been known to buy cases of them at the wholesale club.

But last August, when the CSA farm near me had piles of tomatoes that had gotten ripe all at once, I bought extra tomatoes and froze them. It seemed a shame to let all those beautiful tomatoes go to waste, and I liked the idea of eating food that grew within five miles of my house. My freezer was empty, because it had broken in July and I’d had to throw everything out before we finally got it fixed.

On that hot summer night, I stayed up late chopping tomatoes and boiling them down. I did it several weeks in a row, until I had lots of frozen blocks of tomatoes stacked neatly in my freezer. I wondered if it would be worth the effort — after all, canned tomatoes aren’t very expensive — but it felt satisfying to put food away for the winter. I got obsessed with filling the freezer. I felt like Laura Ingalls.

What I didn’t realize was that the tomatoes would taste about ten times better than the store-bought canned ones. I guess I should have thought of that, but it honestly came as a surprise. And it’s such a difference that now I’m spoiled. Just like I won’t buy tomatoes in the store this time of year – because ugh, they taste like nothing – I can’t imagine ever going back to the tasteless store tomatoes.

Remind me of that next August.


Leslee said...

Every year I tell my mother in the summer I want her to teach me to make relish and other homemade goodies that she's made and every year something comes up and we never get around to. But we persevere. I've had lots of people tell me how wonderful my chicken salad is and want to know my secret. Well, the secret is my mother's relish. I pick up a jar everytime I go see her. Fresh, locally grown food is always so much better than you can buy in the store.

Lilian said...


Ever since I started to cook entire meals at around age 13, I've refused to use canned or store bought tomato sauce or canned tomatoes. One of the reasons that I started cooking was that I missed the taste of my grandmother's spaghetti, which was made with from-scratch sauce. Once I began making tomato sauce from scratch, there was no going back.

Every summer of the past 3-4 years (since we first joined a CSA too) I make as much own marinara sauce as I can and freeze it and, if I'm too tired, I puree the tomatoes and freeze.

It's never enough, so whenever I find good tomatoes I make my own sauce again (we have a nice Hispanic store in town and they have good tomatoes from Mexico even now, as does Costco year round -- it's pricey there, though!).

I'm glad you did that and now realized how much better "the real thing" tastes. ;) And just think about all those cans that you're not having to recycle. (well, I use the cheap plastic containers for my sauce, which I reuse until they break -- never heating anything on them -- and then I recycle them too. Maybe I should freeze it in glass jars. What containers do you use?

ChrisinNY said...

I do this most summers. I buy the mottled ones that are huge and don't look pretty but I can get for about $1 per lb. I create what I call soup base, that has garlic, onions and fresh basil cooked down in it, which is then frozen in jars. Can use it in hot or cold soups. My favorite though is just to wash and halve the tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and put face down in a big roasting pan with a few quartered onions and one or two cloves a garlic. Cook very slow, roasting until tomatoes fall apart. Gives such a rich, mellow flavor.

Melissa Sarno said...

Will you remind me of that next August too? We got so many tomatoes for my CSA that I would actually go to my pick up each week and say 'please, no more tomatoes!' Now I lead a tomatoes-less existence and I'm kicking myself. They are so delicious.

fairbetty said...

Brilliant. I'm in! I'm vegetarian, as well... and know too much about the tomato packing industry from working a few years at UC Davis. Now that I live in the Northeast, tomatoes are hard to come by this time of year if you want any that are not canned or from Mexico or Chile...

Thanks for the brilliant idea. I'm going to plant tomatoes galore this growing season. Now to figure out how to keep the squirrels off them.

Magpie said...

This is why my husband cans tomatoes and sauce every September.

Lilian said...

Oh, I LOVE ChrisinNY's idea of just roasting them! If I roasted them facedown in the oven, I could easily remove the skins before freezing. Genius!! (I really don't like the skin and often I peel all my tomatoes, after dipping them in boiling water, before making my sauce). I HAVE to try that! Can't wait for summer and the CSA share, which reminds me I have to email them right away!

jo(e) said...

Oh, now I'm eager to try roasting some tomatoes. I've never done them that way. This whole thread is making me hungry.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

In this short-growing-season desert, any but cherry tomatoes won't grow for me, and the CSAs only provide cherries too. I can get tomatoes from the other side of the mountain but the cost so excessively much, I just can't make myself buy them. One of these days the farms in the Willamette Valley will figure out what a market there is for u-pick tomatoes, but they haven't yet!

That said, last fall the FFA group picked local(ish) apples and sold them at a great price. I spent several weekends making applesauce (just apples! nothing else, not even cinnamon!) and just this week we finished it up. Mmmmmmmm-good.

susan said...

Yes, roasted tomatoes are wonderful! I canned a lot of tomatoes early last fall and we are just about done with them. How did you handle the prep and the freezing?