by Mimi Hedl
Brandywine, San Marzano, Pineapple and lots of Double Rich tomatoes sit on the table awaiting their destiny. The tomato plants, started from seed in April, have come into their own, bursting at the seams with fruits.
I salivate at the thought of roasted tomatoes for winter. The cook stove has lids that come off. With minimal effort, the stove top becomes an open grill, the perfect spot to roast several dozen tomatoes at a time. The garden can wait. The day has become a celebration of the roasted tomato.
The summer kitchen provides a somewhat comfortable place to light a fire when the temperatures hit the 90’s. The old timers had to depend on breezes to keep them comfortable, I have the luxury of a fan, so when I feel hot and sweaty, I stand in front of the fan for a few moments and then go back to the inferno.
With beautiful tomatoes, perfectly ripe with flavors I’ve come to know, I focus on what treasures they’ll provide for the cold winter months, and gladly suffer the minor inconvenience of the heat. The sweet gum provides full shade, the hot coals roast the tomatoes quickly so that I move from one task to another, not able to think about how sweaty I feel.
When I carry a plate of roasted tomatoes into the house, the temperature difference overwhelms me, a reprieve indeed. The tomatoes sit until they’ve cooled enough to peel. The skins go in another pan, and when all the skins, from 100 tomatoes, have accumulated, the pan goes back on the cook stove to cook a bit more. Then the skins go through the food mill, and all the goodness from them adds flavor and gelatin to the roasted tomatoes, simmering on the stove.
The water in the canner heats. The tomatoes need to reduce a bit more. When you look at a quart of these roasted tomatoes, the jar should say, “essence of tomato,” all the water evaporated. As I wait for this moment, I organize the jars, the lids, and screw tops, my funnel, dish rag, and dipper, ready for the last step in the process, 45 minutes in a boiling water bath. Twelve quarts will mark my day, twelve jars that turn the humble tomato into an intense jewel.
They’ll sit on the counter for a few days, waiting for me to label them and put them in the pantry. A friend will stop by. He’ll admire the tomatoes, wonder if I’d sell any of them. I tell him I have no interest in selling them. He presses me, “But if you did, what would you sell a quart for?” I think about it. I think about the entire process, from saving the seed of the heirloom tomatoes, year after year, to starting the seed inside, to the hours spent on the summer kitchen. “One hundred dollars,” I say. “A hundred bucks!” he exclaims, “That’s outrageous.” I say, “Good. That means no one will buy them. I’d sure hate to go through this process all over again.”
He doesn’t get it. It’s one of those things a gardener understands; or an artist or anyone who values their time and energy, who has a privileged life and doesn’t have to undersell themselves. Maybe he’ll stop over some winter day when I have roasted tomato sauce and fresh pasta. Maybe then he’ll understand. I won’t hold my breath. I will savor the beautiful tomatoes, preserved for the winter.