From Farm to Freezer
It’s almost exactly 100 miles from my house to Mariquita Farm, just outside Hollister CA, and it takes almost exactly 2 hours to get there for the U-pick Tomatoes day. Take 101 through Gilroy and turn left on 25 toward Hollister. Turn left onto Shore Road and left onto San Felipe Road. The farm is on the left; if you cross the creek, you’ve gone too far.
We go almost every year in September and pick enough Early Girl and San Marzano tomatoes to make enough sauce to last a year, two flats. The first year we went, we picked four flats, too much good stuff.
It’s pretty hot in the Central Valley in Septemberâ€”the better to grow tomatoes m’dearâ€”and the ripe, plump, warm San Marzanos hang on the vine, “ready for the picking,” as they say.
When our bags are full, we take them to the scale for a weigh-in and Andy puts them into flats, which hold about 20 pounds of tomatoes. Sixty cents a pound makes it almost worth the trip.
Tomato picking is on Saturday, that makes Sunday a day for processing those sweet babies. First, I take a batch of 15 tomatoes out of the flat and wash them, although they’re pretty clean right off the vine. I cut off the stem end, throw that in a bowl, chop the tomato into 8 pieces and put that in another bowl.
I do the tomatoes in batches of 15 tomatoes each, that’s a nice pot full and it takes 11 minutes to cook them down. The tomatoes go into the pot over medium heat au natural, no water, no seasoning, nothing but the tomatoes. I season the sauce as I use it. The tomatoes release enough liquid as they warm up to keep them from scorching. It helps to have a heavy pot.
When the tomatoes are soft and juicy and making their own sauce in the pot, I put them through the medium sieve of a food mill, that gets rid of the skins and seeds and I’m left with sauce. The residual skins and seeds go into that bowl where I tossed the cut off stem ends. We’ll see what happens to those, later.
The sauce goes into another pot to simmer and reduce while I’m doing the next batches. By the time a flat is done, the sauce is nice and thick. Once going, I fall into a rhythm… wash, chop, cook, mill, repeat. The time it takes for the tomatoes to cook is just about the time it takes to do the other stuff, with enough time left to answer nature’s call, or get a glass of water, or watch a snippet of football.
Once a flat is chopped, cooked, milled and reduced I put the sauce in quart containers, but I don’t fill the containers to the top to allow for expansion when they freeze. So each container is a little more than 3 cups, or about 28 ounces, hey! the same size as a can of tomatoes. I used to put them in quart bags and freeze them flat, but the bagging is a chore and the occasional bag comes open in the freezer, which is a mess. When it comes time to open a bag, it takes about 10 minutes in hot water to get them thawed enough to get slushy sauce out of the bag, and that’s messy. With the plastic containers, it only takes a minute in hot water, or 5 minutes on the counter, and the tomato block slips right out.
Was it worth it?
My two flats of San Marzano U-picks cost $24, plus, say $20 for gas to get to Hollister and back. By the flat at the Farmer’s Market, they cost $44, so I’ll use that number. My two flats produced 18 “cans” of the equivalent of crushed tomatoes. So they cost $2.44 a “can,” not counting my free time or the reusable containers.
S&W Premium Crushed Tomatoes “in Rich Puree” 28 ounce can $3.35
Contains Tomato Puree, Tomatoes, salt, citric acid, calcium chloride
Progresso Crushed Tomatoes “with added Puree” 28 ounce can $2.05
Safeway Brand Crushed Tomatoes “in Puree” 28 ounce can $1.79
Safeway didn’t have any brand of plum tomatoes.
San Marzano Whole Peeled Tomatoes $3.59
San Marzano Crushed Tomatoes $3.49
Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes $2.69
Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted Crushed Tomatoes $2.69
365 Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes $1.49
365 Crushed Tomatoes $1.09
ITALBRAND San Marzano Tomatoes, Italian Peeled Tomatoes $4.49
ITALBRAND Italian Peeled Tomatoes $2.19
Money aside, I know where my tomatoes came from, their condition and when they were picked. They don’t have any citric acid or salt or calcium chloride in them, or tomato puree, whatever that is. I’m supporting a local, organic, sustainable farm, owned and farmed by people that I like and respect. My tomatoes taste better than any tomatoes you’ll ever find in a can. I’d say it’s worth it.
What did I do with the stem ends, peels, seeds and general gunk that I scraped out of the food mill after each use? I put it in the empty pot, covered it with water and simmered for an hour. I never heard of anybody doing that before. What I got was what I’ll call tomato water. It tastes tomatoey. I’ll use it to make soup, I guess. Seems like it would be good in bean soup.
A CAN OF TOMATOES
All this writing about tomatoes got me to wondering why tomatoes come in a 28 ounce can. That’s not a cup measure or even a metric measure (793 grams). And I wondered what kind of tomatoes are in such a can.
So I asked my brother Tom, who was once a Lord High Muckity Muck in the canned foods game at S&W. He quickly responded:
“That is what fits in a standard, industry sized #2.5 can (four of these is a #10, like you see at Costco, or in the back room of restaurants).
“I’m sorry, though…it’s been way too long ago to remember any specific information about the tomatoes themselves. However, I do remember that all of their tomatoes were grown in the Yolo and San Joaquin valleys (Central CA). The constant sun and soil nutrients gave them a sweetness that compares only to Italian tomatoes grown in Italy. California continues to rule the tomato crops, as China and SE Asia just can’t get it right (yet).”