Fifteen dollars buys a hell of a lot of ripe tomatoes in Schoharie County in late August.
In the northern Catskill Mountains, the site of the haunted world of 18th-century Dutch New York as described by Washington Irving, the tomato crop arrives in late August with a vengeance. Suddenly, after tomatoes in the farm stands have been somewhat scarce and relatively expensive since late July, they burst onto the scene with such ferocity that plants are crushed to the ground by weight of the fruit, and half the tomatoes never get picked, falling to the ground and slowly liquefying.
The empty one-quart mason jars stand ready to be filled.
The farm stands put on a game face and try to keep the price high by making little fixed-price displays of perfect fruit, while hiding boxes upon boxes under the counter, with discreet price tags announcing prices that amount to less than 50 cents a pound, often for fruit that is at the peak of ripeness.
Thus it was that a friend and I bought an entire box of tomatoes, numbering more than 60, for the very modest price of $15. Our intention was to can them, Little House on the Prairie-style. There being no cell phone reception in this part of Schoharie County, we relied on the recipe furnished on the back of the box of 12 one-quart mason jars that we bought at the Grand Union in Middleburgh, costing a little more than a dollar apiece.
We began by washing out the jars, then sterilizing them. Next we plunged the tomatoes in rapidly boiling water for a minute, then in cold water for a minute. This loosened the skins, allowing us to easily peel the fruit using the point of a paring knife.
The peeled tomatoes look rather gruesome but are ready to be crammed into the jars. Note the yellow tomato attempting to hide in the upper-right-hand corner.
We next stuffed tomatoes into the jars, cutting the larger specimens in half. We quickly learned why plum tomatoes are the ones most prized by canners — they fit easily into the mouth of the jar. After stuffing the jars nearly full, a couple of fresh basil leaves from the garden were tossed directly into each jar.
Next, we immersed the jars in a large stock pot up to three-quarters of their height in water, resting upon a ovenproof plastic pot holder, and put a lid on the pot, steaming and boiling the open jars for 45 minutes.The volume of liquid in the jars was carefully adjusted as individual tomatoes expelled gas, or sank into themselves like white dwarf stars. After 45 minutes, we affixed the lids onto the jars and steamed an additional 15 minutes.
At this point, we removed the jars and let them cool for 12 hours. And there’s nothing more pleasurable than sitting in the living room and listening as the jars make a pinging sound, indicating that the seal has been successfully perfected, and the center of the lid has sunk in from the partial vacuum.
Now the jars wait to be used in winter for soups, stews, and Italian-American sauces.
The finished product, ready to be used to make sauces and soups.
Tomorrow: We make raspberry jam.