Loving Local Tomatoes for Mass Farmer’s Market Blogathon: Pasta-less Lasagna

*This post is in support of the Mass Farmer’s Market Blogathon, sponsored by In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens. In support of the local food we love, please consider donating to Mass Farmers Markets.

This has been the summer of the tomato. Ripened early because of the weather, we have been enjoying caprese (my favorite summer meal – or perhaps favorite meal of all time) often, and this year it was often served with my homemade mozz. The beautiful red and yellow tomatoes I bought at last week’s market made for some gorgeous jars of preserves that will be certain to cheer me up come January. But what else to do with the tomatoes? Especially now the cooler weather has made firing up the oven a bit less of a chore?

Last Saturday’s haul from the Union Square Farmer’s Market was an inadvertent inspiration. I had bought a bunch of eggplant and zucchini (in addition to the tomatoes) to grill for what was going to be a fabulous BBQ blow-out on Sunday afternoon when the weather intervened. Thus to use up an even larger-than-usual store of produce I decided to concoct a pasta-less lasagna.

First I needed to make the sauce, and using up the tomatoes that were too bruised to can (and were starting to attract fruit flies) was an easy decision. I simply saute-ed some chopped garlic in olive oil, added chopped tomatoes a few minutes later and then let it simmer to thicken up, eventually adding chopped fresh basil, salt, pepper and a dash of balsamic.

In the mean time I sliced my eggplant, zucchini, beets (which I parboiled) and tomato very thin (1/2 inch or so), aiming for long pieces, rather than rounds, when possible.

Next I assembled like a lasagna: a splash of sauce on the bottom of a square baking dish, layers of veg, then fresh mozz, then ricotta or marscapone, browned ground sausage (if you’d like – I did), more sauce, then repeat. I ended my dish with a final layer of mozzarella and then cooked in it a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until  the harder veggies were cooked through.

Served with a glass of wine and some crusty bread to soak up the liquid (and because the tomatoes are fresh off the vine, they produce a thinner and juicier sauce than one you’d get from an industrial can or jar) I didn’t even miss the pasta.

I Love Tomatoes! Canning Whole and Diced Tomatoes

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…. I love thee in a caprese. I love thee in a marinara with garlic and fresh basil. I love thee straight from the vine. I love thee with fresh mozz atop a pizza. I love thee so much that I cannot imagine the long, cold winter months without a taste of your summer sweetness. Thus: I spent yesterday afternoon preserving thee in jars for those chilly days that would come all too soon.

I didn’t think I’d be devoting my afternoon to this endeavor, but 1/2 bushels of tomatoes were only $18 at the local farmer’s market so I readjusted my plans. I would so much rather have my own tomatoes to use for sauces and stews in the winter than buy cans from the grocery store – the flavor was so much better and I knew exactly what I was ingesting. Plus, I tend to use tomatoes as a base for many of my deep winter slow-cooking braises and soups that I never seem to have enough on hand, so I figured I could spend a beautiful summer’s afternoon indoors.

Once home I dug out my quart jars, washed them with soap and water and got my large canning pot filled with water and heating on the stove. The sterilizing and then sealing of the jars in the boiling water are by far the most time consuming steps in the canning process. I put the jars I was going to use (today’s batch would be 7 quart jars, which will use only about 2/3 of my half bushel, but my canning pot can only hold that many jars at one time and I didn’t feel like standing over a hot stove deep into the evening) into the water bath to sterilize for ten minutes once the water started to boil. I also put the lids that I would need into a pan on the stove and covered them with water. Once they boiled for a few minutes I put the pan aside for later use.

Next I washed and de-stemmed the tomatoes while boiling a second sauce pan (more wide than deep) half-full of water on another burner. I also prepped a large mixing bowl half filled with ice and water. Once the water on the stove top started to boil, I placed my tomatoes into the pan for about 30 second each, next moving them to the ice water for 1 – 2 minutes, and then finally to a colander to drain and finish cooling. At this point my kitchen had water and tomato juice covering most surfaces.

I was dreading the skinning step, but it was even easier than I remembered from the last time I canned: once the tomatoes were cool, the skins really did slip right off, with only a few so stubborn that I needed my paring knife to fishing them off. I was trying to come up with a creative use for them, but helping out in  the compost was the best that I could summon.

Next, I placed about half of the tomatoes back into the (cleaned) sauce pan with just enough water to cover them and turned the heat on medium high, waiting for them to boil. Luckily I realized in time that some of the tomatoes would be too large to fit into the jars whole, so I halved and quartered the bigger fruits.

By now the jars had been sterilized so I carefully, only burning myself slightly, pulled them from the water and got them ready for the tomatoes. In each jar I put 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid (lemon juice can also be used) and a teaspoon of salt. The former is to balance the ph for storage, the latter is for flavor.

Once the tomatoes and water had boiled for two minutes I filled the quart jars, leaving about a half inch headspace. I used a plastic knife to release any air bubbles, cleaned the rim of the jars and then put on the lids, only screwing on the rings loosely. These jars all went back into the canning pot and boiled for 45 minutes to finish sealing.

Sure my kitchen floor was damp and my towels were stained with red juice. But I knew when I pulled those jars from the cupboard months later, when there might be snow on the ground and no leaves on the trees, that I would remember this day, the sweat dripping from my brow (more from the humidity than the exertion), and the satisfying pops I heard as the jars sealed in the taste of summer.

Whitefly, Don’t Bother Me!

Maybe it was wishful thinking that had me ignoring the numerous white flies that buzzed around my backyard tomato plants whenever I brushed past their leaves. Until my neighbor noted, matter-of-factly, “You have whitefly.” Aphids and blight I was schooled in, but whitefly? Never heard of it. Upon further inspection I found an entire stalk to be diseased-looking (with tumor-like bumps and dying leaves). I could ignore the white flies (and the whitefly) no longer.

Turns out whitefly can be dealt with in similar ways as aphids. Beneficial insects are the best route – ladybugs are a favorite and can be ordered online or bought at many gardening centers. However, because these are in pots in my backyard (my community garden tomato plants are, thankfully, unaffected) I decided to go with a topic solution. Safer Soap is a spray I picked up at the hardware store – and is certified for organic gardening! I gave a spray the other evening and found only a few remaining buzzing white flies the next morning. I feel confident that I will save all but that one diseased stalk (which I am cutting off at the base) with one more spray and some vigilance.

Upside Down Tomatoes

I love tomatoes. Fresh off the vine, they might be my favorite food in the entire world. Unfortunately the ones purchased from the grocery store so rarely (if ever) have the same trancendental flavor. Thus I must get my yearly fix in the few short weeks that they are available locally during the harvest season – perhaps late July (at the earliest) through September. I have a good deal of plants at the community garden, a half-dozen varieties ready to be staked up to old trellises one they are big enough. And to maximize my harvest, I have a perhaps another dozen lined up in large pots in the sunniest sliver of my backyard.

This year, however, I devised a plan to use the last few square feet that might get enough sun to support life: I made four upside down (inspired by the “seen on tv” infomercial for the topsy turvy garden’s friend) tomato planters to hang along my small back porch.

The construction was simple and, at about $20 for all materials including the plants and dirt, cheap. First I bought 4 white buckets about a foot high and maybe ten inches in diameter. I cut a hole in the bottom (using a drywall saw was relatively easy) about 3 inches wide. Next I devised plant holders: one could hang them from screw hooks secured along the edge of a back patio, but I chose to have a 2 x 4 cut into four 18″ long segments and screwed them to the floor of my small porch so that they hung over the edge, about 5 feet from the ground. They key is that the location gets good sun, and the plants can grow about five feet from the planter.

Next I carefully threaded the seedlings through the hole, broke up the roots a bit, and watered them before adding dirt to fill the bucket. On top of the bucket I planted herbs. I hung them up and watered them again. Ta da!

Compost and Tomatoes

I’ve been tending to my rotting baby since the first of the year – I received a compost bin for Christmas and have been feeding it small bits of vegetable ends and the compost microbe sawdust that is supposed to speed the process along for those of us in a small, non-rural space. Miraculously, every time I think I am about to fill the three gallon or so sized bin, it shrinks in size, releasing its delicious and fecund compost tea from a spigot in the bottom.

But really, I have been stressing lately. Yes, it was composting rather quickly (the contents smelled suitably rancid and it was starting to look like a dirty version of the vegetable ends that I had been feeding the bin). But still, it wasn’t DIRT. And I really was going to fill the bin rather soon. I pondered this dilemma as a walked the eight blocks or so to  the local greenhouse for tomato seedlings, a half dozen of which would end up in the sunniest sliver of my back yard. A memory of my fifth grade history lesson drifted through my head: the native americans would plant a dead fish beneath their crops and allowed it to compost itself right into the ground. Why couldn’t I add my almost-compost to the bottom of my tomato pots?

Thus, an hour later, while swatting flies with a wave of my trowel, I added about six inches of my rotting baby to the bottom of my pots, filling them the rest of the way with garden soil. I loosened the roots at the bottom of the seedlings and planted them snugly in the pots, pressing the dirt around their thick stems. Them I watered them at the roots, letting them drink until the water pooled on the surface for a few minutes.

My compost bin is empty now – just in time to be filled with the stems of the local spinach we have draining in the sink and the root ends of the radishes I bought from Sherman’s the other day. With seedlings in the ground just starting to flower, I’m sure it won’t be long until I find ways to fill it once again.

Pick-Your-Own at the Farm

I am lucky enough to have generous pick-your-own limits at the farm from which we get our weekly CSA. The farm is about 90 miles from Boston, so we only get out there once or twice a year, generally if we are coming or going someplace close by. Today we stopped in and spent an hour or so picking raspberries, shell beans, green and wax beans, hot peppers, tomatillos, basil, cherry tomatoes and cut flowers (including up to 3 sunflowers!). We brought it all home, and immediately froze some raspberries, dehydrated some cherry tomatoes and hot peppers (just inherited a dehydrator!), and cooked some fresh pasta sauce with tomatoes and basil. In the coming days I plan on preserving and cooking the rest of our goodies – keep posted!

Freezing Raspberries

Wash and allow to dry completely. Then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet until frozen (2 hours). Transfer to freezer bag.

 

Dehydrated Tomatoes

Slice to 1/4 inch, place on dehydrator racks. Dehydrate at 140 degrees for at least 10 hours, or until dry to the touch and unable to be dented. I plan to transfer these to a jar and cover with olive oil for my own “sun dried tomatoes”. Or you can seal in a jar or freeze. These won’t be as dry as the peppers, so use somewhat quickly or risk mold.

Dehydrated Hot Pepper

Slice and remove ribs and seeds (as desired – seeds make it hot!) and place on dehydrator racks. Set machine at 135 or so and allow to dry for at least 8 hours – depending on water content and thickness of veg. Make sure completely dry! I will grind some of these into powder to use as seasoning and keep some of them whole – sealing it all in spice jars.

Homemade Chevre

As a locavore in the city I sometimes forget the fabulous bounty available once I drive towards where the suburbs melt into rural farmland. Today my husband and I had an errand that took us about 90 miles outside of the city. Since the weather was quite hot we mapped a lake stop, which took us down a lovely leafy rural route. However, once I spotted the sign below, I knew I had to make a quick u-turn.

Inside the fridge was a price list (feta and hard cheese available by request!) and one lonely 8 oz tub of homemade garlic and marjoram goat cheese. I put my money in the indicated “honor” basket (taking my $2 change in quarters), my beach snack secured. Luckily there was a co-op just up the street (imagine that! what kind of locavore heaven did I find in rural central Massachusetts?) and bought two local heirloom tomatoes to complete my impromptu salad. Local lake-side deliciousness.