You’ve been successful at keeping them watered all summer long. You’ve staked them up, done your fair share of weeding, kept the deer and groundhogs away, picked off any dreaded hornworms, fertilized as needed, pruned them to keep 'em neat and tidy, and prevented any fungus attacks. But now, when those tomatoes you’ve carefully tended to all summer come into abundance, you might feel a bit like . . . well . . . to use a cliche: It’s raining tomatoes.
To the rescue — Kate McCarty, a food preservation program aide at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension!
Knowing your bounty of tomatoes is “just starting to ripen full force,” McCarty shared a few ideas to help you enjoy your hard work.
One of her favorite recipes is peach-apple salsa, which will use about three pounds of tomatoes. The salsa recipe is easy to modify, she said. “If you want to make it hotter, you can add any pepper you want, just as long as the quantity (measurement) stays the same.” For instance, where the recipe calls for 2 cups chopped green bell peppers, you could substitute a portion of that with jalapeno or other hot pepper.
She also mentioned you could consider using fruit other than apples and peaches, such as pineapple, pears or mango — as long as you keep the measurements exactly the same.
Another tip: You can easily change the flavor of your salsa by adding a bit of your favorite jarred spice or some fresh cilantro, without effecting the safety of the recipe.
If you're not into salsa, or want to use up an even larger portion of your harvest, try the Extension’s recipe for basic ketchup, which requires a whopping 24 pounds of fresh, ripe tomatoes. Once cooked and boiled down, the yield will be 6 to 7 pints, enough to hopefully carry you through the winter.
McCarty, who teaches many classes on food preservation, spends much of her instructional time on food safety. When it comes to experimenting, she said, her most important piece of advice is to not “mess with the quantities of each ingredient. It will mess up the PH balance.” Creating the proper PH balance is critical to preventing the survival of or growth of micro-organisms or bacteria.
An important safety tip, she said, for when you are canning whole or crushed tomatoes (using a hot water bath, as opposed to the pressure cooking method) is to add one tablespoon of bottled lemon juice directly to each jar (before adding your tomatoes and prior to processing.) She said this is because researchers have noted much inconsistency in the acidity of tomatoes.
When I asked why she doesn't recommend fresh-squeezed lemon juice, she said the same inconsistency applies to a lemon’s acidity. “Using a bottled lemon juice ensures you get a consistent (and safely preserved) product.”
The UMaine Extension’s website is an excellent reference for all things tomato. For example, with a few simple twists — adding a few chili peppers, dry mustard and mustard seeds — you can have country western ketchup. And by using their recipe for blender ketchup, you can eliminate the need for pressing or sieving by using, as you can guess, an electric blender instead.
Along with recipes for ketchup and salsa, you might also find on the website inspiration to try your hand at spaghetti sauce, canned crushed tomatoes or barbecue sauce.
The National Center for Food Preservation website also features a recipe for tomatillo green salsa, one of McCarty’s favorites. Because you can substitute your green tomatoes for the tomatillos, she said it’s a great recipe to use in the fall if you have to quickly pick the last of your tomato crop just before a frost.
A major benefit of preparing your own products, McCarty said, is that you have control over the ingredients you use. As a member of a family with assorted individual dietary concerns about processed foods (including MSG sensitivity, gluten sensitivity and diabetes), I could definitely understand the appeal of that.
McCarty’s favorite thing to can, she said, “is definitely anything pickled, in particular dilly beans — or as I just heard them called, ‘the Maine olive.’” She said her favorite part about teaching canning classes is the people. “I love spending time with people as they share information about food, gardening and self-sustainability. It’s very uplifting!”
McCarty suggested reading helpful instructions about using boiling water baths at the National Center for Food Preservation website. And if it’s your first time canning, you can prepare yourself by reading their “Principles of Home Canning.”