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Relishing the Bounty of Tomatoes

July 18, 1996|MARILYN KLUGER | Kluger of Newburgh, Ind., is the author of four cookbooks, including "The Wild Flavor."

By this time of year, we are always up to our ears in tomatoes. Every visit to the garden yields still another basket of bounty. Fresh, ripe, meaty, juicy, flavorful red tomatoes--and cherry tomatoes, and yellow tomatoes, and Italian plum tomatoes--more than we can ever use on the table in one day for slicing or in favorite recipes using a lot of fresh tomatoes.

So, after gazpacho and old-fashioned breaded tomatoes and tomato pudding and stuffed tomatoes and ratatouille and cream of tomato soup and marinara sauce, what does one do with too many tomatoes?

On busy days or when coping with only a few extra tomatoes at a time, I rinse and stem perfect whole tomatoes and pop them, with peels left on, into large freezer food bags and freeze them. I have a large chest-type freezer, so space is not a problem--for a while.

These tomatoes, intended for only shorter-term storage in the freezer, can be used in vegetable soup or for tomato sauce. Simply drop them into boiling soup broth and lift out the skins later. For sauce, heat slowly over low heat while stirring and mashing, without adding extra liquid, until the tomatoes can stew in their own juice, then lift out skins and proceed with your recipe.

When the freezer begins to fill up and the peak of the tomato season arrives, it is time to get out the canning jars and boiling water bath. I have quit canning whole tomatoes and juice and instead prepare canned tomato specialties that cannot be bought at the market. This year's canning efforts to date will include chili sauce and cherry tomato preserves. While waiting for a break in the hot weather, I also make "sun-dried" tomatoes and refrigerator tomato relish.

Canning tomatoes means some long days in a hot kitchen, elbow deep in big kettles of water, surrounded by overflowing colanders and bowls full of ripe tomatoes. But at the end of those days, my shelves will be lined with sparkling, colorful jars of my family's favorite home-canned tomato relishes and preserves, and my freezer will be comfortingly full of useful tomato juice and sauces. Summer's bounty will be preserved for winter's dearth.

Preserving tomatoes now occupies only a small part of my summer, compared with the way it used to be when I was growing up on a Southern Indiana farm. Back then, part of nearly every summer day was devoted to tomatoes, in one way or the other.

Canning season was a bona fide time of the year in our 1930s-'40s farmhouse kitchen. Tomato-scented fragrances wafted from kitchen kettles from mid-July, when the prolific tomato rows gave forth their best, until October, when the last green tomatoes were salvaged from doomed vines.

All told, my mother canned more than 100 jars of whole tomatoes and tomato juice in those days. No other garden vegetable was so useful in her wintertime menus. We never let any of them go to waste.

At the end of the season, we could also have 50 jars or so of chili sauce, catsup and relishes that Mother canned to relieve the monotony of canning plain tomatoes.

Here are her recipe for chili sauce and some other recipes for tomatoes that I have never tired of.

LINDA'S PICANTE SAUCE

1 gallon tomatoes

6 red or green bell peppers, chopped

2 to 3 onions, chopped

2 to 3 jalapen~o chiles

1/2 cup sugar

2 to 3 teaspoons chili powder

1 cup vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon salt

Last summer, my neighbor Linda Beall gave us a jar of her delicious picante sauce made with tomatoes from her garden. Her family likes it for a dip with tortilla chips; she also likes to combine a pint of it with stir-fried chicken to make a sauce for couscous.

With sharp knife, cut shallow X in base of each tomato, then place in large pot of rapidly boiling water just until skin begins to loosen. Rinse under cold water and slip off skins and finish peeling and stemming with knife, as necessary. Chop coarsely.

Cook tomatoes, peppers, onions, chiles, sugar, chili powder, vinegar, ginger, pepper and salt in large pan, stirring to keep from sticking, until mixture thickens. Remove chiles.

Ladle hot mixture into hot sterilized jars. Put on lids and process in boiling water bath 10 minutes or process in pressure canner at 5 pounds pressure 5 minutes.

Makes about 5 pints.

Each 1/4-cup serving contains:

31 calories; 185 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.57 gram fiber.

CHILI SAUCE

4 quarts chopped tomatoes

1 1/2 cups chopped onions

2 green bell peppers, chopped

2 red bell peppers, chopped

1 1/2 cups chopped celery

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups cider vinegar

1 stick cinnamon

1 tablespoon whole cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds

With sharp knife, cut shallow X in base of each tomato, then place in large pot of rapidly boiling water just until skin begins to loosen. Rinse under cold water and slip off skins and finish peeling and stemming with knife, as necessary. Chop coarsely.

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