THE TOMATO MARATHON


During the summer, the need to preserve its bounty is less apparent than later in the year. The jams, jellies, and condiments that I make then are luxuries saved up for gifts and the family's small or lavish pleasures during winter. My visceral urge to put food away for later reaches its peak as the day's shortening becomes noticeable. The "bottling" of vegetable sauces, tomatoes, and fruit come, at the end of summer and into fall, from a deeper instinct to ensure sustenance during a less generous time of year.

There is a progression of favorite recipes during the tomato season because each kind of tomato has its best use. First to arrive are the Ace and Early Girl tomatoes, and then the heirloom varieties appear. Later, the paste-type tomatoes will begin to ripen as the heirlooms begin to glut. All of this will be in concert with ripening peppers and eggplant. As each tomato peaks, and later varieties make an appearance, there may be an overabundance of fruit. It is at this juncture that the home-canner becomes a symbiotic part of the equation that allows small growers to be profitable. We allow them to have a market for all of their produce whether perfect or not.

My tomato race begins at a leisurely lope with the first overabundance of the early tomatoes at the farmers market. These are the tomatoes that I like best to make into salsa and other light-bodied sauces where the tomato's flavor should not be too concentrated. Their acid, juiciness, and uncomplicated character make them a better foil for the peppers, garlic, and cilantro that go into the mix. My salsa is thin, unlike the tomato-pasty, starch-enhanced concoctions that are supermarket abundant. I can use it generously as an enhancement rather than a cover-up.

At the height of the tomato season, my cavernous stock pot fills many times: whole Brandywine and paste tomatoes; salsa de chile Colorado; sweet, hot Moroccan jam; mole; Niçoise-style pasta sauce with roasted peppers and olive paste; roasted eggplant sauce with red peppers and shittake mushrooms; basic tomato sauce; tomato purée. With each batch, canning jars are washed, sterilized, filled, and processed. They are then placed in colorful gleaming rows of nourishment on my shelves.

At the beginning of my marathon to fill jars with ripe tomatoes, they seem alluring; bright, fragrant, plump, and juicy. I enjoy the sensual difference in tomato texture as the peel slips from the fruit. Some are velvety with tenacious skins. Other saucy tomatoes are slick and easily disrobed. As my stock pot fills for the ninth time, however, the tomatoes' luscious shapes metamorphose. At first I was in love with them but now, when the pot is again nearly full, they begin to look like a bin of veined and scarlet organs. My hands are stained and withered. My shoulders ache. If I can push myself to the end of this last pile of tomatoes, I will have my reward.

After the race to peel, seed, and chop the monumental quantity of tomatoes that it takes to sustain my family and friends, my engine is still primed. I feel as if I am running without a destination. It is then that I take a few last peppers and tomatoes to make "Jane's Chili Sauce (almost)" in memory of an elder friend and mentor. Her homey-flavored sauce was made from her mother's recipe. My family always got a jar at Christmas. Now my friends look forward to a jar of it to mix with a meat loaf or to top their barbequed burgers. It's not sophisticated. It's just good.

It is winter and the rewards are apparent. First our daughter, Ariel, gave us a tureen of cream of tomato soup made with homemade purée. There were bowls of penne rigate with "Niçoise" sauce on a night that we all had meetings to attend. Then I made my grandmother Schprintze's cabbage rolls in a sweet and tart tomato sauce, and then black bean tostadas, and then . . . and then . . . and then . . .


© Elissa Rubin-Mahon 2003



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