Monday, October 28, 2013

Tangled up in gold

Yesterday, I noted that we planted way too much basil this year and need to cut back next year. The same problem applies in spades to our Sun Gold tomatoes. The problem really started back in the spring, when a lot of the tomato seedlings we'd started didn't survive transplanting. We had extra Sun Gold seedlings, so we figured that rather than let those squares sit empty, we'd just plant a couple of additional Sun Golds to put the space to good use. Big mistake. The Sun Golds, which are the hardiest and earliest of all our tomatoes, spread out and took over each trellis where they were planted, practically strangling the other surviving tomatoes as they grabbed for each bit of space they could get their little tendrils on. (Yes, I know you're supposed to prune the plants so they don't do that, but I can never figure out which parts of the vine you're supposed to cut off and which you're supposed to leave on. I do still want to get some tomatoes off each plant, or there's no point in having them.)

Of course, the sheer size of the plants is only part of the problem. A bigger part is that each plant is immensely productive—and instead of producing a few big tomatoes at a time, it produces lots and lots of tiny little tomatoes. That makes it practically impossible to keep up with the task of harvesting them. You have to go out and pick them practically every day, or else they start dropping to the ground of their own accord. If you're lucky, they fall on the path, where it's easy to spot and retrieve them; if you're unlucky, they land in the bed, which is already littered with numerous other tiny tomatoes that have fallen on their own. Every one of these has to be picked up, whether it's edible or not, because if they aren't, you'll end up with a huge crop of tiny tomato seedlings next year that have to be pulled out before they take over the entire bed.

The fact that the plants themselves are so big and thick makes harvesting even harder, since it's difficult to reach in and grab one ripe tomato, or a handful, without knocking several others to the ground. And, to compound the problem, the little Sun Golds have a tendency to split, especially after a heavy rainfall—so a significant percentage of those you pick end up having to be discarded because they might be contaminated. This slows down the gathering process considerably, as every single tomato you pick has to be examined before you can add it to your collection. So as tasty and hardy as these tomatoes are, they can very, very easily turn into too much of a good thing.

So, as with the basil, we've found ourselves with a huge amount of tomatoes to preserve, since there's more of them than we can possibly eat raw. We've tried turning them into salsa and pizza sauce, but these will only keep for a limited time in the fridge, and we don't have space in the freezer for the amount we'd produce from a crop this size. We don't have a canner, so we decided to try a method proposed by Mark Bittman in his massive tome How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: oven-drying. As he explains it, if you just halve cherry tomatoes lengthwise, lay them out on a cookie sheet, and bake them at 225 degrees for 2–3 hours, they'll come out "soft but somewhat shriveled," much like raisins. In this form, they can be used immediately in a recipe that calls for sun-dried tomatoes. If you keep them baking for about 4 hours, they'll be "shriveled and mostly dry," and they can be stored well-wrapped in the fridge or freezer. If you want them to keep for weeks, then you'll need to cook them for 6 or more hours, until they're "dark, shriveled, and dry." Since our goal was shelf-stable tomatoes, we went for the third option.

Brian has tried this method before and found that he actually gets better results by cooking the tomatoes at 225 for just one hour, then turning the heat down to 175. The first picture here shows the tomatoes as they were when they first went into the oven; the second shows them about an hour into the drying process, when he removed them to make room for some enchiladas that needed to bake at a higher temperature. You can see how they've already shrunk in size, but they're still not at the raisin-like stage. When we finally removed the tomatoes from the oven. they were thoroughly dry and crunchy in texture, almost like a potato chip. In this form, they can't really be used in place of sun-dried tomatoes, which normally have a chewier texture, but they can be reconstituted with water for something vaguely approximating a fresh tomato.

The only snag is that even in dried form, the tomatoes we picked yesterday—which don't amount to more than a few days' worth—were more than enough to fill a quart jar. If the Sun Golds continue to produce at the rate they have been until the first hard freeze, we're going to need a lot more jars to store them all, and a lot more pantry space to store them in.

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