ReLocavore: Redefining "local"

A locavore moves from Wisconsin to New Hampshire and rediscovers what "local" means.


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This Week in Veg: A lot of Leeks

What’s the term for a group of vegetables? We have a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, a murder of crows… but what do you call a bunch of vegetables? A bunch? 

Either way, we got a lot of leeks this week in the CSA. I tried to chop and freeze them a few years ago, but I just didn’t get back to using them and they got freezer burn. I think I will put them into a quiche. Sound good. Maybe with bacon? 

That's a lot of leeks. A bunch of leeks? A bramble of leeks?

That’s a lot of leeks. A bunch of leeks? A bramble of leeks?

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My heart breaks a little

Part of putting food by is that I feel responsible for my larder. I want to cook the best food from the ingredients I have preserved. I also want everything to last as long as it can. I cried the first time I broke a canning jar, and don’t even ask why I hate rutabagas. I have had nightmares about opening my pantry and hundreds of rats streaming out, leaving nothing behind but some crumbs.

My heart broke today when I found mold in my dried tomatoes. I hadn’t kept up with their curing, and there must have been some pockets of moisture left. Plus it’s been humid here, so that doesn’t help.

I went through all of my tomatoes and checked for mold. Then I went through the dried apricots-all were okay.

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Drying Tomatoes

20130908-201638.jpgOn top of all of the canning, salsa-ing, and saucing, I also dry tomatoes. Home-dried tomatoes aren’t much like the store-bought variety. Production driers are much more efficient than home models and mass-produced dried tomatoes typically go through a handful of steps to reach their final state – salting to soften the flesh of unripe tomatoes, juicing to remove the seeds and jelly, flash-cooking to kill off any microbes, and then finally, drying in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. I’m sure somewhere there’s a farmer laying halved tomatoes on muslin in the Mediterranean sunshine, but I certainly can’t afford his product…

A note on the types of tomatoes to dry… I tried to dry slicing tomatoes, cut into slices or wedges, but neither came out good. I typically dry roma tomatoes that are shaped like pears and 3-5″ long. The insides of these tomatoes have more flesh than jelly, and few inner compartments to hold the jelly and seeds.

Putting Food By has, by far, the best method for drying tomatoes. My tomatoes come out pliable and flavorful and keep their red color. Their method has four steps:

  1. Wash the tomatoes. Cut in half and remove the seeds and jelly. Tear out any pith or rib, resulting in a uniformly-thick tomato “cup.”
  2. Lay the tomatoes on a cutting board, cut-side-up, and sprinkle with 1 tsp salt per 1 lb tomato. Weight with another cutting board. Let rest for an hour.
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  4. After resting, boil 1″ of water in a deep stock pot. Place the tomatoes cut-side up in a single layer in a metal drop-in steamer basket or a Chinese bamboo steamer. Tip out an juices that accumulated in the center of the tomato. Steam for 3-4 minutes until the flesh is hot and softened. The tomatoes have been over-steamed if the tomato falls apart into mush. The steam blanch locks in the reds color, kills off surface microbes and pre-heats the flesh so the total drying time is less than 6 hours.
  5. Preheat your dryer to 120-135F. Transfer the tomatoes, cut side down, to the drying racks. Dry until the tomatoes are leathery but pliable. Rotate the trays every hour by moving the tomatoes closest to the heating element away from the heat. Once the tomato edges are dry, flip the tomatoes over so the cut side is on top. No dryer is perfect, and the tomatoes are all different sizes and thicknesses, so all of the tomatoes don’t come to dry at the same time. Keep an eye on the dryer, checking every hour, and pull out the tomatoes that get dry first. Rotate the tomatoes that are thicker or are taking more time to dry to the warm spots in the dryer nearest to the heating element.

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To help explain the texture of a well-dried tomato, I’ve made this short video on YouTube that illustrates a well-dried tomato and tomatoes that are over- and under-dry. Hope this helps!

Once the tomatoes are dry, they need to be cured for a few days. Put them in a big container with lots of room for them to move. Shake the container twice a day and check for any mold. The curing step does two things. First, the tomatoes aren’t evenly dry and this step helps even out the overall moisture – the over-dry edges get a bit more moisture and the moist middles dry out a little more. Second, if mold is going to develop, it will develop in these first few days, so you can pull out the moldy tomatoes before the mold spreads to the whole batch.

After a week, pack the tomatoes into zipper bags or a recycled canning jar. Keep out of direct sun.


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Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Part 2

Photo from Adventures with Dan

This weekend was another 55 lbs of tomatoes into jars. I was expecting to can 40lbs, but I got an extra “surprise” 15 lbs in my CSA box this week. I canned and dried tomatoes all weekend. Cost was $50, plus the extra 15 lbs built-into our weekly CSA cost. I ended up with 21 quarts of tomatoes. I’ll love it come February, when my Superbowl Chili is made with home-canned tomatoes… Until then, I’m getting a bit sick of ’em.

Next weekend is salsa – a less-involved process, since I don’t have to skin or seed the tomatoes.

Do you know about La Tomatina? In the center of Buñol, a town in Spain, the town erects a gigantic pole, ties a ham to the top, and covers the pole with lard. This is the Phallic Imagery part of the festival. People congregate and form a human tower in order for one person to get to the top of the slippery pole and cut down the ham. Once the ham is down, the Yonic (opposite of Phallic) Imagery portion of the celebration begins. Huge truckloads of tomatoes are emptied into the streets and people throw tomatoes at each other. Tomatina means tomato-throw. Chaos and hooliganism follows.

At about this time in the canning season, I feel like I’m in the streets of Buñol, and being pelted with tomatoes from all sides.


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Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Part 1

I make boring tomato sauce. By “boring” I mean “plain.” I don’t jazz it up with too many spices, or add chunks of tomato, mushroom, red pepper… It’s basically reduced tomato puree with some minimal seasoning. There’s a reason for making boring sauce. Interesting tomato sauce – with mushrooms, meat, vodka, roasted red peppers, fresh basil, etc… is only useful as tomato sauce… you put it on pasta. You make lasagna! Voila! But boring tomato sauce is infinitely versatile. I can add cumin, oregano, vinegar and sriracha and turn out a decent enchilada sauce. Add stock and it becomes a tomato soup base. Reduced with vinegar, ketchup, and mustard and it becomes barbecue sauce. Tonight, we combined the sauce remaining after filling the jars with sausage, shrimp and rice and had jambalaya. I can still add mushrooms or roasted red peppers and dump it on pasta… Boring tomato sauce is like the pluripotent stem cell of the tomato world. (Well, technically the tomato is the pluripotent stem cell of the tomato world, but… the metaphor isn’t great… so sue me.)

Step 1: Puree Tomatoes.

20130901-185124.jpg Pureeing tomatoes is a fun process with the food mill attachment to the Kitchenaid Stand Mixer. I estimate that I pureed 20 lbs of tomatoes into about 14 to 15 quarts of tomato puree.

Step 2: Add onions, garlic, spices.

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Clockwise from the top is 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil, 3 onions chopped and 5 cloves of garlic through the press and sautéed until soft, and 1/4 cup dried oregano. Not shown is brown sugar, salt and pepper.

Step 2: Cook and reduce.

We started the sauce about 8pm on Saturday, and cooked it overnight in the oven. Then, in the morning, it went back on the stovetop to cook through until about 3pm. Typically, we would have cooked the sauce overnight and seen a reduction of about 50% and canned it first thing in the morning. However, it’s REALLY damn humid here, so there was no place for the moisture to go… It took a really long time to reduce.

Step 3: Can.

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I had enough tomatoes to make 7 quarts of tomato sauce, along with another 11 quarts of quartered tomatoes in their own juice. Those little jars are the onion jam that I’ll describe in a later post.