Tomatoes Are the Most Useful Food to Preserve

©. K Martinko – Home-canned tomatoes

Come September, I try to fill as many jars as I can.

I spent all of last Sunday canning tomatoes. It's a mid-September ritual that, every year, I think I'm going to skip because it's so much work, but then the season rolls around and I can't imagine not doing it.

It's partly self-imposed pressure to continue a tradition that I grew up watching my mother, aunt, and grandmother do every fall. But mostly I do it because I love having a well-stocked pantry. I feel satisfied seeing those jars of beautiful tomatoes, every single one of which I've handled, knowing that my family has a food supply that cannot be affected by power outages. I like knowing that those tomatoes are locally grown, that they haven't been shipped from a drought-ridden part of the world, that there's no BPA in the lining, that I can reuse the same jars, year after year.

A few friends quizzed me on why I can tomatoes, of all things. Pickles and jams seem to be more popular items, but I do tomatoes because I use them the most. They're by far the most versatile item in my pantry, the building blocks of countless recipes. With a jar of tomatoes, I'm halfway to a great pasta sauce. I can blend it up for instant pizza sauce, turn it into a summery tomato soup on a cold winter day, or thicken up a dal or curry.

So, I tackled my four huge bags of Roma tomatoes, purchased from a local food co-op, first thing in the morning on Sunday. It was supposed to be 40 pounds, but when I measured out half of one bag, it was 10 pounds, so really, I think I got more like 80 pounds of tomatoes. All I know is, it was a lot and it took me five hours to finish.

It takes a while to get the assembly line up and running. There's a pot of boiling water for scalding the tomatoes, a cutting board to peel them, a colander set over a bowl to collect the skins, seeds, and cores. More bowls fill with prepared tomato halves, while I heat a canner on the stove with empty jars in it. Another small pot softens the new snap lids. Tea towels are spread on the counters to receive the just-boiled jars. But once everything gets going, I move steadily toward the end goal.

The key is not to stop. I have learned over the years to reserve a large chunk of time for this project, rather than chip away at it over a few days. I tell my family to clear out and stay away, unless they want to help. And then, once I feel like I can't peel another tomato, I do another dozen.