Putting By: Tomato Soup

This wasn’t a great tomato year for us, if by great tomato year I take the measure of the years on the CSA and market farm in southeast South Dakota, where 80-100 plants provided plenty for members, market, and for my own canning projects, or even if I look back to the past couple of seasons in Big Stone County, where the smaller but still substantial plantings meant there was plenty to share.

This was more of a getting-by tomato year. The garden at Clinton house was flooded out repeatedly, then drought took hold and weeds took over. Along about midsummer, I started referring to it more honestly as the “weed patch” and not as a garden. The tomatoes I planted there are stunted and spindly and barely producing one fruit every couple of weeks.

The saving grace of that garden weed patch is all of the volunteers that have sprung up from last year–mostly small varieties like Santorini and Old Pink Plum–tough, wild, and plentiful. So, I am getting maybe 5-10 pounds a week out of there–a pittance, really, but enough to discourage me from brush-hogging the whole thing.


Out here on the farm, I put in six heirlooms (Stupice, Speckled Roman, Japanese Black Trifele, Big Rainbow, Louis’ Oxheart and Hungarian Heart) and that is really saving my butt. Yes, we had to buy tomatoes for an earlier sauce project, but now we are harvesting enough throughout the week to do a batch of something on the weekend, and so the jars are filling up. Considering the ongoing remodeling and landscaping projects that’ve been our primary focus this summer, it’s probably a good thing we aren’t pulling in 100lbs of tomatoes every 4-5 days.

Once we had enough of John’s spaghetti sauce put by (three batches–or nearly three cases), I turned to one of my standby recipes: tomato soup. I started making this during a heavy tomato year, when I was casting around for what more to do with the abundance, and it proved to be so delicious, convenient, and popular that I now make it every year.

The basic rule comes from 4th edition of Putting Food By, Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughan’s Bible of canning, freezing, curing, and storing food. I’ve written about this recipe before, but I’ve made some additions to the recipe and fine-tuned the method to fit my schedule, so I’m giving it another post.

I always at least double the recipe–this is one where, if you’re going to invest the time, you might as well really go for it. This is also a recipe that requires a pressure canner–so borrow a neighbor’s or dust yours off if you haven’t been using it.

DSC05840First off, I fill an 18-quart roaster full of tomatoes–all ripe or very close to it. Really small tomatoes can go in whole, and bigger ones with large cores should be cut up and have the cores and any blemishes removed. I set the roaster to 225 and let them cook overnight–stirring once or twice if I get to it.

The next morning I turn the roaster off and let it cool a bit before running the resulting stew through my tomato strainer to remove seeds and skins (I think this works better for getting more of the juice than putting the tomatoes through raw). As the juice comes through, I have a 16 quart kettle set up on the stove to start it simmering.

The last bowl of tomato juice to come through the strainer gets saved back and put in a smaller (8 quart) stockpot, into which go (chopped) 6-8 sweet peppers–green and/or red or whatever you have (if you are using the big bell peppers, you can cut that down to four), 4-6 yellow onions, a couple to a few cloves of garlic, and 4-6 good-sized stalks of celery (leaves and all if you are using home-grown). I also usually add a handful of parsley and basil leaves to the pot.

At this point I add (also cut up) any tomatoes that escaped the roaster on the first round, but have magically got to ripeness overnight. It’s not necessary to add more tomatoes, but at this point of the season, I find myself simply trying to cut down on the amount of produce building up in the kitchen. If you have them, you might as well use them.

Cover the pot of mixed vegetables and tomato juice and bring to a boil, then simmer until soft. Cool (either naturally, or put the pot in an ice bath and stir), then put through the strainer and add the bulk of the veggie “cocktail” juice to the bigger pot of tomato juice you’ve got simmering. Save a cup or so back for the next step.

In a small mixing bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons salt, and 14 tablespoons cornstarch, then add six tablespoons white vinegar and blend into a paste. Using the cooled juice (it MUST be cool) you saved back from the last step, add enough to the paste to make it pourable, then drizzle the cornstarch blend into the big pot of soup, stirring continuously until it is all blended. (If you forget to save juice back–either to simmer the mixed veggies or to blend with the cornstarch–you can use water instead).

Heat the soup to boiling (not forgetting to stir it often to avoid scorching or cornstarch clumping) and ladle into clean quart jars leaving 1 1/4″ headroom (don’t skimp on headroom–it will boil over if you do). Clean rims, affix caps and rings, and pressure process at ten pounds for 35 minutes. The longer processing time (5 more minutes per batch than in the original recipe) is due to the addition of celery, which in my opinion is really central to making this taste like tomato soup instead of a thin, slightly sweetened pasta sauce masquerading as soup.

At this scale, you should end up with about 12 quarts (a case) of soup.


There are other potential variations of method with this recipe–if I have time and don’t have quite a full roaster of tomatoes, I add all the mixed veggies to roast with the tomatoes on the first round. It saves time on the second day of the process, but typically I am washing and throwing the tomatoes in the roaster in a spare moment the night before I plan to can, and I don’t have time to gather, wash, and prep all the other veggies at the same time.

You could also do the tomatoes in the oven, or do the whole darn thing in one day on the stove top, but this requires more time and attention throughout the day than using the overnight roasting technique. In the end, do it the way that best fits into your kitchen and your schedule. Just don’t skimp on headroom and processing time/pressure.

Packing up the Kitchen

Besides the dehydrator (which is full of tomatoes and will later be full of squash) and a knife, cutting board, and roasting pan (for roasting and freezing a few last batches of summer veggies harvested yesterday), I am packing up the kitchen today.

Last ditch harvesting

I’m really glad I saved all the big appliance boxes that I did–the big crockpot went right back in its original packaging and the dehydrator (once it has done its final Vermillion duties) can do the same.  The pressure canner has always lived in its original box–it just needed a little taping to be ready for the journey.

Last ditch processing

So far, most of the baking pans are in a sturdy box–the frying pans, cast iron, smaller sauce pots, and lids are all packed up as well.  Canning jar rings, lids, funnel, and jar lifter are all nestled in the boiling water water canner, whose lid has been bungeed on.

I never did get all those jars filled–along about Saturday, when I was recuperating from Friday night’s going away party and some neck and back pain as well (which I am doing stretches to help), it occurred to me that maybe I could just call it good.

The jars can be filled or not–depending on how many extras I have, maybe I will even donate a case or two to the Civ (without their boxes, which I’ll use to house the canned goods still in the pantry).

Fall allergies and abandonment fears

Not everything will be boxed and ready to go tomorrow morning when I pick up the moving truck, but hopefully clearing out the stuff that is packed will make it easier to account for and pack up what’s left.

I have mostly been relocating all packed boxes to the living room, so they can quickly and easily head out the front door, but it’s starting to get tight in there. Once the TV (which is going back to H) is gone, that will free up more room for more boxes.  If I do have a TV in Minnesota, it’ll have to be one I find there!

The chest freezer is (finally) scheduled for clean-out today as well–there is a waiting freezer at the farm to contain all that pork and maybe a chicken or two as well.  I will probably have to come back for my big package of yet-to-be refined lard–I don’t think it’s going to fit in the combined fridge-freezer in Minnesota.

All the details!  I’ve ground enough coffee to hopefully last us most of the rest of the week, so the bag of beans and the grinder can be packed away without fear of a desperate box-rummaging–though maybe I should grind just a little more to help caffeinate anyone who comes to help tomorrow.

And yes–if you were wondering if I’d like some extra hands to load the truck or pack boxes tomorrow–please feel free to drop by!  Free coffee!  Free bouquets!

End of summer flowers

Chutney-Pickle-Relish Things

I have a pickle forming in my brain.  Not a pickle as in, “I’m in a pickle” (which I could very well be), but as in, what am I gonna do with all these lunker yellow squashes?

Papaya Pear Overload

Add to that the late blight in the gardens, which is fast taking down all the tomato plants, and well, I’ve got to do something to fill those quart jars and save some of those tomatoes and deal with all those squashes–preferably all at the same time.

So, the pickle starts to form in my brain.  Or the chutney.  Or relish.  Or whatever you want to call it.  It started with green tomatoes and yellow squash.  I thought maybe ginger and brown sugar and cider vinegar would be good with those things–that starts sounding like chutney, doesn’t it?

Then I went to Jones’ and I saw they had those little mesh bags of organic lemons at a decent price.  I love lemon slices with the peel intact simmered in a sweet/sour syrup!

And then I thought of some of those onions in my basement.  There are some jalapeños starting to size up again in the gardens–that could add a nice heat element.

What about cinnamon sticks?  Whole allspice?  Can I get away with cumin in all that?  By golly, I think I can!

Of course, the first item on the agenda is to get the half pints of “special sauce” in and out of the canner–just noticed I’m low on small lids, so H offered (OK, I sweet-talked the poor guy) to go back out in the heat to pick some up.

The chutney-pickle-relish will have to wait until tomorrow to take its final shape.  Who knows–I might find something else out in the garden that seems a good addition–bronze fennel seems like it could be interesting….

Special Sauce

Casting about for today’s canning project, I remembered the peach lug full of ripening tomatoes that I’d left sitting for a few days after my last harvest (not yesterday’s, but the one before that).

There were a number that needed discarding–having developed the tell-tale sunken black splotches of late blight, but there were quite a few decent ones as well–mostly Old Pink Plums and Principe Borgheses.

Trimmed up and cooked down with a chopped onion, hot and sweet peppers, garlic, white vinegar, plus a bit of salt and pepper and maybe a pinch of sugar, they make a great spicy sauce for the pantry.

I’ve been making a version of this sauce for a few years now–the base is always the red ripe paste tomatoes with garlic and onions and sweet red peppers–and then the hot peppers vary depending on the year and what’s ready.

I cook all the veggies together until soft, then cool and put them through the strainer and cook down the resulting pulp some more before adding the vinegar and seasoning and canning in half-pints.

The first year it was called “Naughty Taco”–a spicy but not-too-hot taco sauce.  Last year’s was “Hungarian Hot Sauce” because the heat was all from ripe Hungarian Hot Wax peppers, and that one had a bit of parsley minced into the finished product as well.

This year, all my hot peppers are still green, so I am cheating a little and adding heat by simmering the rest of the veggies with Thai Dragon flakes dried from last season’s harvest.  I’m going for a reprise on the parsley because that added such a yummy element.

I don’t try to make the sauce super-hot.  The point is spicy rich flavor because that’s what I like, and unlike many other things I can, this recipe–this concoction–is really for me.

You see, it’s great on eggs and tacos and the like, but as you may know, it takes an awful lot of macs n’ cheese to raise up a little boy.  The only way my protein-preferring system can handle that many carbs and dairy is through a liberal dose of spicy-tomato-y home-canned special sauce on top!

Moving it back a bit

I went up again to NE South Dakota/SW Minnesota in the last couple of days to secure a place to live (at last!) and to meet with my employers.  We decided with so many key people on vacation (or about to take one) and the relative difficulty I’ve had in finding housing that we’d push back my start date to after the Labor Day weekend.

While I’m rarin’ to get up there and start work, there’s so much to do with getting the house down here packed and cleaned, finding a renter, having a market board meeting, and just getting my head (and the rest of me) into the new space (which can’t happen ’til the 1st of September anyway), that I’m breathing a little sigh of relief.

I got back yesterday a little before noon and then headed out to the gardens to harvest.  I was only gone two days, so it wasn’t too bad (some lunkers in the squash and cuke patches, as usual)–not too bad, that is, except for the tomatoes.

Late blight is in full progression in the tomato patch–many fruits are developing those black, sunken patches and the foliage dying off exposes the rest of the fruits to sunburn.  It ain’t pretty.

Last week I got a full 11-gallon tub of good fruit from the patch (had to have H help me load it in the truck); this week it was about half that.  I should at least have enough to make a decent final delivery of tomatoes to the CSA members in the coming week.

Maybe the plants know I’m leaving, but they’re pretty much all going to be dead and gone by the time I make my Vermillion exit.  We’ll have to build a big burn pile and dispose of the carnage that way.  Maybe I’ll pick a few decent-looking green ones first and see if they ripen without rotting.

Not knowing I was leaving, I laid landscape fabric on all those rows before planting, thinking it could be kept in place and used again next year for winter squash or melons–but I think it’s probably wiser to tear it all up and dispose of it rather than risk the blight fungus hanging out in the covered soil.

The cherry tomatoes are in a different spot and are doing well enough.  There’s leaf spot in that patch, but the plants are hanging on.  The peppers are fine.  The eggplant plants themselves look OK, but a lot of the fruits are developing brown patches, so besides flying tomatoes, there’s plenty of flying eggplant.

Winter and summer squash patches are great, though.  There’s a number of spaghetti squash starting to cure in the field and those summer “Papaya Pear” squash just keep pumping out those sunny yellow fruits.  Delicata also look decent.

Cukes have been found by the beetles, but they haven’t done irreparable damage as yet.  I’m still pulling quite a few slicers out of the patch (though nothing like the two dozen a day in the height of their vigor), and the little picklers keep pumping out a respectable number of cukes for the crock.

Of the crops that will be staying in the ground for now, I’ve got a lovely double row of parsnips that can be dug either in the late autumn after the frosts, in in the spring after the thaw (or both). The shell beans, which looked none-too-healthy when they first came up, are starting to form pods, but it’ll be a small harvest.

There’s melons in a couple of spots, and I don’t know that any of them will be ready by the time I go–perhaps there will be enough ready on one of my return visits to bring one or two to each CSA member.  The Peruvian Purple potato plants are still green and lively, so it’ll be later September, I think, before I get a chance to dig them.

Leeks are happily sizing up–two rows of them.  There’s still some badly-munched kale that, if it survives, will put on some much cleaner leaves after frosts kill the cabbage worms.  There’s a few chard plants, too, and a ton of sweet and lemon basil–some of which I’ll harvest for drying and for pureeing and freezing before I go.

Not sure exactly how I’ll be filling those last few cases of canning jars, but I’m hoping to at least get one more batch of tomato soup before the plants go south (and I head north).

After that, it’ll be a matter of whatever falls on my lap–certainly some of those Papaya Pears and green tomatoes can go in a pickle, but the sweet corn season is just about done, so what I’ve got of that is probably what I’ll have. It’d be nice to find some pears or apples…

While the rest of my books are already packed, Putting Food By and the other food preservation guides are still on the shelf, so  I’ll spend a little time between packing and cleaning sessions to peruse those books for jar-filling inspiration.