Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 7: finally, putting it on ice!

Now that's what you call a glut!

In the end, there’s always the freezer…

At the end of October, I had the last few bowls of tomatoes I hadn’t managed to preserve, eat, or give away, and we were on our way to Cornwall for a week. They weren’t going to survive until our return, so it was time for desperate measures.

Freezing is a great food preservation technique – maintaining all the freshness and nutritional value of your home-grown fruit and vegetables. This comes at some cost to texture, undoubtedly, but usually in ways that are irrelevant if you’re going to cook the veggies anyway. Preparation is generally quick and straightforward – certainly compared to preserving, bottling or pickling. Of course the limiting factor is always the space available in the freezer, which for me, despite the obvious advantages, tends to make freezing my preserving technique of last resort.

Wash & trim tomatoesI needed to get these tomatoes stored with as little faff as possible – I had a holiday to get started! – so I chose the simplest of all solutions.

Wash your tomatoes and discard any which are spoiled, trimming any minor damage. Remove their little green hats. Then, a batch at a time, just pulse them very quickly in a food processor enough to break them up.

Chop in food processorYou’re not trying to reduce them to pulp, just roughly chop to release enough juice that they will freeze as a solid ‘brick’ of tomato flesh and juice.

This leaves the skins and seeds in, which I know some will disapprove of. Personally I struggle to be offended by tomato skins – really, life’s too short to be peeling tomatoes! You will hear that chopping tomatoes in a food processor will break up the seeds and release a bitter flavour – while this may be the case if you’re trying to blend to a smooth texture, I’m pretty sure hardly any of seeds are damaged with such a short chop.

Pint measureDecide on your freezing volume – I chose to freeze these a pint at a time, in retrospect that was too much for us, since I’m usually just cooking for me and Hubby, and when I do this again in future I will probably freeze at least some in half-pint volumes for greater convenience.

Bag up your tomatoes, excluding all the air when you seal the bag, label the bags and tuck away in the deep freeze until you need them.

Ready for freezing

You can use these for more or less anything, to be honest. Allow them to thaw out, and use them in place of fresh tomatoes, for example in the recipe for roasted tomatoes with chicken and pasta. Passed through a mouli, you have a batch of fresh passata ready to go straight away – and thus remove the skins and seeds, if they offend your delicate sensibilities! You can also use them directly as a substitute for chopped tinned tomatoes in chillies and pasta sauces – I used some in the puttanesca sauce I made recently, and they were excellent. I can’t however recommend trying to eat them raw – the texture is altered by freezing and while the flavour is lovely and fresh, it would be a bit like putting tinned tomatoes in your salad!

Serve!

Well, folks, that’s it for last year’s tomato glut (I know, I know…)! It’s taken me a while to finish writing these posts up – hopefully they’ll be of use to my Southern hemisphere readers pretty soon, at least! But I still have jars and bottles of passata, tomato and chilli chutney, and green tomato chutney in the larder, ‘sun dried’ tomatoes in a jar in the kitchen, and a couple more bags of frozen tomatoes in the freezer. Even in the depths of winter, I can enjoy my summer’s produce, a genuine taste of bottled sunshine, and that makes it all utterly worthwhile!

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 6: Grandma’s green tomato chutney

I remember my grandmother making her green tomato chutney, towards the end of the summer holidays, when it was clear that the best of the ripening days for the tomatoes she lovingly grew outdoors, on the patio, were over. After her death, my mother transcribed some of her hand-written recipes for my sister and I – including the green tomato chutney recipe.

Now that's what you call a glut!

Back at the end of last summer, I had rather a lot of green tomatoes.  So I went and had a dig around the darker, dustier recesses of my laptop hard disk, and retrieved the text files containing Grandma’s recipes, and hidden among them, sure enough, was this –

GREEN TOMATO CHUTNEY

3lb green tomatoes, 2lb cooking apples, 3/4lb sultanas. 1oz ground black pepper, 4 tbs salt, 1 quart malt vinegar, 1lb Demerara sugar, 1/2 oz mustard seeds, pinch cayenne pepper

Peel and slice tomatoes. Cut up apples. Chop sultanas. Put in enamelled saucepan with remaining ingredients. Boil gently for 2 hours, stirring constantly until chutney gets dark and tomatoes and apples are well cooked. Bottle when cool.

The main thing that struck me about this recipe was the lack of any onions – honestly, I can’t remember whether Grandma used them or not, but I expect onions in a chutney recipe! I made a couple of other, more minor modifications, too (Sorry, Grandma!), and scaled the recipe up to use as many of the green tomatoes as possible.

This, it turns out, was a mistake – the quantity I made was totally impractical, took forever to cook down, and almost ended in disaster, more of which later. Really, I can’t recommend making more than half this batch size. Even if, like me, you have a really big stock pot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

For my chutney, I used –

  • Cooking apples3 kg green tomatoes
  • 2 kg cooking apples
  • 1 kg onions
  • 1 kg Demerara sugar
  • 2 l malt vinegar
  • 750g dried vine fruits (I used a mix of raisins & sultanas)
  • 2 tbsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tbsp sea salt
  • 1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper

Life is too short to peel tomatoes (especially 3kg of them!) and I was cooking on a work night, so it was too short to lovingly chop them by hand, too! Out with the food processor, and rough-chop all the tomatoes, onions, and apples, before putting them in the stock pot with the rest of the wet and dry ingredients.

Chopped green tomatoes  Chopped onions  Ingredients mixed at start of cooking

And now, just simmer it, slowly, for what – with a batch of this size! – will be a very very long time! I had to give up and go to bed, fitting a tight lid to the pan, and finished cooking the chutney the following evening. This is one very good reason not to make such a giant batch at once.

The other, of course, is that you will require an enormous quantity of jars (with plastic lined lids, or they’ll corrode from the vinegar – mind you, I can’t remember the last time I was an un-lined jar lid!). While I was sorting these out, I took my eye off the pot, and the inevitable  happened – the chutney caught on the bottom of the pan, and started to burn.

Finished chutneyDisaster! I panicked a bit, and then with Hubby’s help, decanted most of the chutney into any available container, leaving the burned stuff on the bottom of the pan. After a damn good scrub, we were back in business, though I remained convinced for the rest of the cooking time that I could taste the burnt flavour in the chutney. This paranoia wasn’t helped by the highly visible flecks of black pepper in the mix, which my brain kept insisting on seeing as burnt bits.

I very nearly threw the whole lot in the bin, but a bit of gentle encouragement that I’d done all the work now anyway convinced me to bottle it anyway and hope for the best. I deviated from Grandma’s instructions again here and bottled hot, into hot oven-sterilised jars, as I usually do. Now all that was left to do was to leave the chutney to mature for a couple of months.

Served-up

This (and wanting to make sure this tale had a happy ending!) is the reason for the delay in writing up this recipe. I’m really pleased with the result – after maturing I’m pretty sure it doesn’t taste burnt, and is a lovely gentle fruity chutney, with a lovely black pepper warmth, which goes brilliantly with cheese, ham, and even curries!

So this year, at the end of the home-grown tomato season, why not make a batch? But, promise me, make it a smaller one?

As for me, I’m still really curious about the outcome of making the recipe as written – so perhaps this year I’ll make a test batch of the onion-free version. Who knows, it may be a revelation?

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 5: roasted tomato sauce

With apologies now, to all but my antipodean readers – the tomato glut, and the long hot days of summer, seem a long way behind us, but there were a couple of recipes that fell through the cracks, for one reason or another. Hopefully they’ll be of use to you later this year!

Lay out on baking trayThis is a great little recipe for using up those slightly over-ripe tomatoes that inevitably start to pile up once the harvest really gets going.

You will need –

  • Home grown tomatoes (about 1kg here)
  • Three garlic cloves
  • Two or three bay leaves
  • Sea salt, mixed dried italian-type herbs

Trim out any obvious damage and discard any that are really ‘over’, cut the tomatoes into even pieces, and lay the tomatoes out in a single layer on a baking sheet.

After roastingTuck the cloves of garlic in amongst them, and snuggle the bay leaves underneath, sprinkle over a little sea salt and a few mixed herbs, and roast in the oven at 180 C for 30 to 40 minutes until you’re starting to see some browning to the skins.

Pass through a mouliDiscard the bay leaves and put the rest through a mouli with the fine filter fitted (or push through a sieve with the back of a spoon, if you don’t mind the labour!). This will hold back the skins and seeds and allow just the beautiful smooth sweet tomato pulp through.

Done! How simple is that?

I started with around 1kg of lovely ripe home-grown tomatoes, and ended up with about 350ml of sauce, which may not seem like much but all the flavour and sweetness is concentrated right down into that sauce. I asked Hubby to taste a spoonful and he thought it tasted like tomato soup – and certainly you could let it down with a little bit of vegetable stock, maybe add a sprinkle of fresh basil, and enjoy it just as it is! I made lasagne with it, and it was perfectly wonderful.

Finished sauce

If you wanted to make a big batch, for keeping into the winter, you could bottle and pasteurise for storage just like the fresh passata. I wish I had, now! I could just do with some roasted bottled sunshine!

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Copper-Bottomed – natural cleaning with lemon and salt

For Christmas, Hubby gave me a gorgeous old copper pan we found in a second hand shop in Bideford a few weeks ago. Not everyone’s fantasy Christmas gift, I grant you, but very much to my taste, I’ve been looking for something like it for some time, but every one I’ve seen has been exorbitantly expensive.

Not so this one – a real bargain, as it happened! – but of course there’s always a catch, and the pan was in, well, shall we say ‘rustic’ condition? Well used, well worn, and yes, very stained and tarnished, both inside and out. Despite his best efforts with several rounds of ‘Brasso’ to try and make it presentable for its debut under the Christmas tree, it’s fair to say that still looked like a pan which had had rather a hard life!

I took some advice, and after considering the various cleaning options, ordered some ‘Barkeeper’s Friend’, which of course has yet to make its way through the Christmas post. I’d also come across some advice that lemon juice and salt might do a useful job of getting tarnish and stains off copper surfaces.  This morning I noticed a rather wizened half-lemon left over in the fridge, and thought, ‘hey, why not give it a go?’.

All I can say is ‘Wow!’.

Cleaning in progress

It works startlingly well, even on the dark burned stains. I used a quarter of lemon at a time, working gently in circles with a bit of table salt. You can just see the colour changing in front of your eyes. I was genuinely stunned by how quickly and easily this worked – so unexpected was it I didn’t think to take ‘before’ photos! Better still, the segments of lemon come along with their own natural gentle scrubbing pad.

Finished pan - inside

It’s not a perfect finish, by any means, but it’s a really decent clean that I would be more than happy to cook with, something I really couldn’t have said before! I think I’ll probably still try the Barkeeper’s Friend when that arrives, to see if I can get a slightly finer finish – but if I hadn’t ordered it already I don’t think I’d be bothering.

Finished pan - outside

I love the patination on the outside of the pan, so I’ve left that alone. Isn’t it gorgeous? I just can’t wait to cook in it now!

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Very Berry – elderberry vinegar

This foraged hedgerow vinegar is just fabulous. Hubby was unconvinced when I first made it last year, but very quickly the simple vinaigrette I made from it, with just the addition of olive oil and a little spoon of wholegrain mustard, was such a favourite he started calling it ‘my dressing’. Success!

It’s a sweet, fruity, unctuous vinegar, and makes a perfect substitute for even the very best balsamic vinegar, at a fraction of the cost – I’ve yet to find an occasion I can’t make the substitution, and find I prefer the elderberry vinegar pretty much universally, which is quite a result given how attached I’ve been to balsamic vinegar in my cooking and salads for many many years now!

ElderberriesThe elderberries are finished now, sadly, so unless like me you had a cache stashed in the deep freeze from earlier in the year, it’s probably too late to make any wonderful elderberry vinegar this year.  That said, I saw dried elderberries the last time I was in my favourite home-brew supplies shop – I have no idea how using dried berries would work out, but it might well be worth a try, at a push!

I pick my elderberries when I get the chance, strip the berries from their stems, wash them, and then freeze them in ziplock bags (I get about 700g per bag). Then, stashed in the freezer, they’re ready for when I eventually get around to using them.  If you happened to pick too many for your elderberry wine or preserve-making plans, then this is a great way to use up any leftovers!

The original recipe and inspiration, incidentally, come from Mark Williams’ Galloway Wild Foods blog, which I can heartily recommend to you!

To make this year’s batch of elderberry vinegar – which I cannot now imagine living without in my store cupboard – I used:

  • A 2l Kilner jar
  • A large stainless steel saucepan
  • 700g of frozen elderberries. If you’ve just picked these fresh, you’ll need to remove them from the stems. I find using a fork to ‘comb’ through the umbels is the easiest approach, but it can be a messy process!
  • 1.4l of white wine vinegar
  • 1.5kg of golden caster sugar

Elderberry vinegar infusingPut the elderberries in the jar and top up to the brim with white wine vinegar.  Keep the vinegar bottles you’ve just emptied – you’ll want them to store the finished vinegar later! Give the jar a good shake and set aside for 5 – 7 days. You can give it a bit of a shake when you think about it during this time. You’ll notice the vinegar almost immediately start to turn the most amazing dark purple colour.

Strain the vinegarAfter about a week, pour the vinegar into a large saucepan, retaining the elderberries using a reasonably fine sieve. Give the elderberries a good squeeze to get as much juice out of them as you can, and then discard the remains.

Roughly measure out the liquid – it will be a bit more than the volume of vinegar than you started with.  Mine was a little over 1.5l (I’ll admit I didn’t try to measure it accurately!).

I’m happy with a vinegar sweetened with about 1kg of sugar per litre of vinegar, but your tastes may be different to mine – perhaps try this the first year and adjust in the future if it turns out too sweet or too tart for your tastes!

Bring to the boilIn a large pan, mix the vinegar and sugar, and slowly bring up to boiling point, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Be aware, this stuff *stains*. My wooden spoon is still purple!

Safely bottledOnce at the boil, turn the heat down and simmer for about 10 minutes. Then, while still piping hot, use a funnel to fill your bottles and seal tightly. My quantities gave a final volume of  about two and a half litres, and filled seven 350ml vinegar bottles (luckily I had extras left over from the pickled chillies I’d made earlier in the day!).

Store in a cool dry place. It will keep for at least year, if you manage to save any that long!

And as if all the cooking substitutions you can think of aren’t exciting enough, you can also enjoy it as a fruity sweet warm cordial, diluted with hot water. Elderberries are even said to be good for seeing off the winter season’s cold and ‘flu bugs, not that you need the excuse when something tastes so very very good!

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Pick a Peck of Pickled Peppers – home-grown pickled chillies

The blog has been a bit neglected the past month! There’s been a lot going on just recently – most of it good, but which I can’t really talk about at the moment (The mystery! The suspense!).

two-candlesA few weeks ago, the blog’s second birthday passed entirely un-marked, a fact which will come as no surprise at all to my close friends and family, who are all well used to their birthdays and significant anniversaries passing equally without notice! Anyway, a huge thank you to all of you who read and comment, thank you for taking the time and bearing with us though this quiet interlude!

Right oh, back to the hot and spicy business at hand!

Last weekend, we admitted the arrival of the colder weather and stripped the greenhouse chilli plants of all their fruit.  The result was almost exactly 1 kg of mixed home-grown chillies, mostly ‘Vampire’, a mild flavoured mid-sized dark purple to red variety with beautiful purple-green foliage and purple flowers, and ‘twilight’, a fiendishly-hot small chilli which ripens from purple to red via white & yellow on a small-leafed plant.

The home-grown chilli harvest!

Aren’t they gorgeous? Even I can’t eat that many fresh chillies before they go off, though.  I considered making chilli sauce, but in the end settled on pickled chillies as more versatile to use down the line. And with all these gorgeous colours and varieties, it would have seemed a bit of a crime to put them in a food processor!

This recipe is based on one attributed to Michael Symon, from Michael Ruhlman’s blog, with a few modifications to suit the ingredients I had available. It’s really straightforward, and the results *look* stunningly pretty – it’s too early to say how they taste yet!

Pack chillies in jarsWash your chillies carefully, inspect them and set aside any which are damaged or imperfect (you can always cook with these fresh, or process them and freeze in small batches) and then pack them into cold sterilised jars. Then fill each jar full of water, before tipping the water back out into a bowl or jug. Measure this volume – this will give you a good accurate estimate of the volume of pickling liquid required. In my case, using eight small jars and one large one, the volume was a bit over a litre.

For the brine, I combined –

  • 700ml white wine vinegar
  • 500ml water
  • 2 1/2 tbsp sea salt
  • 2 1/2 tbsp golden caster sugar (any sugar will do)

Obviously these volumes can be adjusted depending on how much pickling liquid you need! Mix these in a saucepan and start to warm, dissolving the sugar and salt, then add the following herbs and spices and bring to a good rolling boil –

  • Herbs and spicesTwo bay leaves – you can leave these whole if only making one or two jars, but I broke them up into smaller pieces
  • Three cloves of garlic, sliced up likewise
  • 2 tbsp whole coriander seed
  • 2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp whole cumin seed
  • 1 tsp dried oregano

Boiling brineOnce the brine is boiling, turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes.

Then, if you’re making a single large kilner-type jar of pickled chillies, you could just pour the whole volume of brine, spices and herbs over the top and seal up the jar.

I wanted to make sure the spices were evenly distributed between my eight small and one large jar, so I first strained the solids out and returned the brine to the saucepan to keep simmering.

Strained-out spices Share spices between jars Fill to the brim with boiling liquor

This made it easy go share the spices and garlic out evenly between the jars with a spoon. Then just ladle the boiling hot brine into the jars, filling them all the way to the brim before sealing tightly with plastic-lined lids.

Filled jars of pickled chillies

Once cool, refrigerate until use, or at this time of year in Northern climes you should be fine to store them in an unheated outbuilding, garage or shed. They’re ready to eat within a day or two but a few weeks in the pickle will only help develop the flavours. When you’re ready to use them, just slice or mince the chillies and use in cooking as you would fresh – obviously only in dishes that will tolerate a little bit of added acidity from the vinegar, most will – but beware, these are going to be an unpredictable bunch, and the little ones bite!

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 4: fresh tomato passata

Passata is a great, versatile store-cupboard ingredient. In bottles or cartons, stashed at the back of the shelf, it comes out to save the day in soups, sauces, anywhere you want lovely fresh tomato flavour but without the texture of seeds and flesh that accompanies tinned tomatoes.  Until this year, I’d never made any of my own. And then, along came the tomato glut…

This is a really really simple passata process, but does require a couple of slightly unusual bits of kitchen equipment. If you haven’t got them, though, you can work around without them – they will just save you quite a lot of time and trouble.

To make this fresh tomato passata, you will require –

  • Fresh, ripe, home-grown tomatoesA quantity of perfectly ripe tomatoes (this batch was about 2kg)
  • A few fresh basil leaves
  • A saucepan, a colander, and a slotted spoon
  • A mouli* (hand-cranked mincer / puree mill) with the fine puree plate installed, and a bowl to go under
  • Beer bottles, cleaned & dried, a crown capping tool and enough new crown caps to seal all your bottles**. (To give you a sense of the storage capacity you’ll need, 2kg of tomatoes produced about 1.7l of passata. I bottled 1.5l and used the extra fresh.)
  • A large stock-pot, big enough to contain your bottles or jars.

* If you haven’t got a mouli, you can get the skin and seeds out by pushing it through a fine-ish metal sieve, by hand. You can easily make enough for one meal, but it’s not a useful technique if you’re making in any quantity, unless you have helpful kitchen-slaves to hand!

** If you’re not a home-brewer like me and haven’t got bottles, crown caps and a capping device, you can always store your passata in jam jars. As with the bottles, no need to sterilise, just make sure they’re clean and dry, and the lids are in perfect condition. When you come to process them later (we’ll get to that bit), keep them upright in the water.

Simmer tomatoes to split skinsWash your tomatoes carefully. Now, in the saucepan, get a couple of inches of water simmering gently. A handful at a time, add your tomatoes into the simmering pan. Watch them carefully – as soon as the skins split, fish them out again straight away, into your colander. This will probably take between 30s and a minute, but will depend on your tomatoes. Watch carefully – you’re not trying to cook them!

With skins split, drainingAllow them a couple of minutes resting in the colander to drain away any excess water. Now put them into the mouli, a few at a time, and process them through. The seeds (most of them, anyway!) will be retained on the top-side of the puree plate, along with the skins, while the beautiful fresh tomato pulp passes through into the bowl below.

Pass through the mouliI should say, I *adore* my mouli. It’s a new kitchen gadget for me this year, bought with our home-grown veggies in mind, and I already can’t imagine how I did without it. I’d love to say it was my Grandma’s (in fact, I don’t remember her having one), but it’s exactly the same design as much older ones I’ve seen – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, eh?

Rinse and repeat until you’ve processed all of your tomatoes through this very simple two-step chain. You may find you need to disassemble your mouli every so often to wash off the plate if it gets clogged with tomato skin – you could of course peel your tomatoes by hand before you start, to avoid this problem, but really, life’s too short. Just be careful, when you’re doing this, that you don’t waste any beautiful puree or drop skins or seeds into the bowl underneath.

Passata produced, along with 'waste'By the end of the process, you’ll have a surprisingly good yield, as you can see from this picture, the total ‘waste’ in seeds and skins amounted to about half a pint, with the rest of the tomatoes processed very efficiently into gorgeous fresh tomato passata. It’s orangey in colour, compared to what you might expect from a commercial tomato product, but that’s because it hasn’t been cooked down at all, or coloured artificially! Taste some, it’s beautiful, fresh, fragrant tomato nectar. You could drink this stuff.

Fill your bottlesSo now you have some lovely fresh passata you could certainly use to make bolognese or lasagne this evening. The final step is bottling & pasteurisation to allow it to be stored for a considerable time in a cool dark place. Using a funnel and ladle – or a jug, or whatever suits you really! – transfer your passata into your beer bottles, leaving about 5cm airspace in the bottle necks. Into each bottle, also add a single, carefully washed fresh basil leaf.

Seal the bottles carefully with your crown caps, using a capping tool. If you’re using jam jars, ensure they’re in perfect condition with no cracks, chips, or faults in the lids (consider buying new lids, if necessary) and seal them carefully.

Seal bottles with crown caps

Fill your big saucepan or stock pot half to two-thirds full of cold tap water. Place a tea towel in the bottom, and then put in your bottles, in layers, lying on their sides. If you’re using jars, they can sit ‘upright’.

Bottles in the stock potMake sure the water completely covers the bottles or jars. Now get some heat under the pot, and slowly it to a gentle boil, bottles / jars and all, and keep it boiling for 30 minutes before turning off the heat. Leave the bottles in the pot until everything has cooled back down to room temperature. This boiling process essentially sterilises the contents of the sealed bottle or jar, rendering it shelf-stable. Once cool, you can fish out your bottles, dry, label them, and stash them in your pantry until needed.

[I based my passata process, in great part, on this lovely blog about traditional family passata-making by Italian-Australian cooks – it’s well worth a read!]

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 3: ‘sun’ dried tomatoes

Today we decided to call ‘time’ on the tomato growing season, and clear out the greenhouse. As a result, I have a kitchen quite literally overflowing with tomatoes. Don’t believe me? Here they are!

Now that's what you call a glut!

But, sun-dried tomatoes? In the UK? In *October*? Some kind of witchcraft, surely?

A couple of weeks ago, I finally caved in and bought a dehydrator.  Some of those little beauties you can see there will be making their way into it very soon. I’ve made two batches already, and I’m extremely pleased with the results. The process is a little time-consuming, and slightly faffy in the preparation, but the final product is amazing, and hugely rewarding.

To make these ‘sun’ dried beauties, you will require –

  • Some lovely ripe tomatoesA glut of home-grown tomatoes, perfectly ripe but not over-ripe and going soft. I used cherry-sized tomatoes and above, since they’ll shrink anyway.
  • Sea salt
  • Mixed dried Italian herbs
  • Citric acid
  • A large bowl, colander, slotted spoon, measuring jug, and a sharp paring knife
  • A dehydrator. I selected mine on the basis of extensive background research. Erm,  hang on, no, that’s not right. I bought the cheapest one on Amazon.

Halved tomatoesWash all your tomatoes carefully and remove their little ‘top-hats’. Now, get a really sharp little paring knife, and slice the tomatoes in half. Honestly, this is my single important top tip here, if you’re slicing tomatoes, you want a really really sharp knife. Otherwise it’s all nasty hard work, and if you’re unlucky the knife will slip on the tomato skin and you’ll lose a finger. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Tomatoes soaking in acidulated waterIn your large bowl, put a litre of fresh cold tap water and add a teaspoon measure of citric acid, and dissolve by stirring energetically. The citric acid improves the preservation of the tomatoes, and enhances their colour retention as they dry. If you don’t have any, you can sometimes get it from pharmacies, and always from home-brew suppliers.

Acidulated tomatoes, dryingPlace your halved tomatoes in this acidulated water and leave them for ten minutes (you can get on with chopping the next lot meanwhile) and then remove them with the slotted spoon and place them in the colander to drip for a bit.

Arrange halved tomatoes on traysOnce you’re happy they’ve stopped dripping, arrange them on the dehydrator tray, with the skin sides down. Just touching is fine but don’t overcrowd them or let them overlap.  This takes a bit of time first time and is really fiddly, but once you’ve done it a few times you’ll find a technique which makes it a lot faster. Carry on until all your dehydrator trays are filled. Mine seems to take about 2-3kg of fresh tomatoes.

Sprinkle with salt & herb mixBefore ‘firing her up’, sprinkle a mix of sea salt and dried herbs sparingly over the cut surfaces of your tomatoes. I used a half-and-half mix, and just an ordinary dried herb mix from the shops, but if you have gorgeous fresh herbs then by all means chop those up finely and use them! Sprinkle over sparingly, but do try to make sure each piece of tomato has at least a flake of salt and a piece of herb on it.

Stacked up in dehydratorNow stack the trays up in the dehydrator, set your temperature if your dehydrator has a thermostat – I used 55C, but consult any instructions that come with your machine. While the dehydrator is running, rotate the position of the trays every few hours so that they dry evenly (the bottom of my machine, where the warm air comes out, was about 20C hotter than the top, when I checked it with a temperature probe, so this is a real factor).

As they dry, the house will fill with a beautiful sweet tomato smell. (Hubby dislikes this because he says it makes him think of pizza. Takes all sorts!) You’ll notice the tomato pieces shrinking, wrinkling, and darkening in colour.

At the end of the drying processMy tomatoes were dry after about 36 hours, but this will vary hugely depending on the temperature you use, the characteristics of your machine, size of your tomatoes… You get the idea!  Aim for the smaller pieces being really, plasticky-dry, the larger pieces will still have a bit of flex in the flesh but shouldn’t have any wetness (check for this in the middle, under the seeds).

Now remove your greatly-shrunken tomatoes and put them in a large Kilner jar, or something similar. Whether you’re planning to keep your tomatoes as they are, freeze them for longer storage, or store them in oil, you’ll still want to put them in a jar for a few days, as this helps them ‘condition’ – effectively, it allows the less-dry pieces to donate their excess moisture to the more dried out ones, so that the humidity of the dried tomatoes evens out.  Give the jar a shake a few times a day for three or four days. Of course, you’re not going to be able to resist having a taste, so dig in.  They’re amazing, sweet, little flavour-bombs. I’ve been munching on them like sweeties!

Finished 'sun' dried tomatoes

 

From a glut-busting point of view, you’ve transformed a massive bowl of fresh tomatoes 2 – 3 kg in weight, into less than a litre volume of dried tomatoes, *and*  they’re going to keep. Really, what’s not to like?

That’s it, simple, no? Of course, there’s so much else you can do with the dehydrator, too..!

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 2: tomato and chilli chutney

The home-grown tomato glut continues apace, and after yesterday’s harvest, I had over 1.5kg (about 3lb) of lovely ripe tomatoes in bowls on my kitchen counter. Obviously even the most energetic eater of fried tomatoes couldn’t make much of a dent in that with their full English breakfast (though, believe me, I tried!). I wasn’t planning to do any preserving today, but the idea of them going to waste was more than I could bear – so I decided to whip up a batch of tomato chutney, with chillies, since I have a few of those from the greenhouse, too!

This is a bit of a chutney of opportunity / necessity, made out of what I had in the fridge and cupboard, loosely based on this recipe for ‘sweet chilli and tomato chutney‘ from the Pink Whisk blog.

To make this chutney, you’ll need to get together:

  • Fresh ingredients1.5kg of fresh, ripe (home-grown) tomatoes – all shapes and sizes are fine
  • 5 onions (varying sizes)
  • 2 red peppers
  • 4 cloves of garlic (I used half smoked, half fresh)
  • 1 rather over-grown courgette (optional – I had one that had ‘got away’ a bit in the vegetable garden)
  • A few fresh chillies. I chose four large mild red ones (variety ‘Vampire’) and two small-but-fiesty ones (variety ‘Twilight’) which I’ve been growing this year. If you’re in doubt about the properties of a particular chilli, for goodness sake slice off a very small piece and taste it before cooking with them!
  • 800ml of malt vinegar (I used what I had in the cupboard, which was about 400ml dark malt vinegar, 200ml of white malt vinegar and 200ml of spiced preserving vinegar left-over from pickling beetroot – use whatever you have / fancy. Wine or cider vinegar would also be fine, but probably a bit of a waste of money.)
  • Variety of sugars600g of dark sugar (again, this was a cupboard-clearing effort, I used a mixture of demerera, soft dark sugar and golden caster sugar)
  • 4 tsp of whole yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • A chopping board, good sharp knife, large stainless steel cooking pot and enough jars to contain your chutney. Also helpful, a ladle and a bottling funnel.

Now, there are a few strongly held beliefs that I try to live by, and not least of these, I’m afraid, is the view that life is far to short to spend it peeling tomatoes – particularly when there’s 1.5kg of them, and many of them are tiny, sub-cherry size. I looked up my grandmother’s green tomato chutney recipe this afternoon, just to check (more on which later, with a little luck!), and it turns out she didn’t peel her tomatoes either. Well, if it was good enough for Grandma, it’s good enough for me! Of course, if you find the idea of tomato skin in your chutney offensive, do feel free to blanch and peel them before you start.

Wash your tomatoes and chop them into roughly even pieces (halves, quarters, or smaller portions depending on the size of the tomato). I left the tiniest toms – those smaller than 1cm – whole. Chuck these into the pan, then chop your onions and peppers (deseeded, and with the white pith removed) into smallish pieces and add them, too.

Peel the courgette and slice it up as finely as you can – I chopped mine pretty roughly, expecting that it would break down to a nice soft pulp during cooking, but it didn’t – probably because the sugar and vinegar in the mix firmed it up nicely! – and I ended up fishing the bigger bits back out to chop them up more finely towards the end of cooking, which is a task I’m sure you can all live without!

Chillies and spicesChop up your fresh chillies very finely (you may want to remove the pith and seeds, where some of the heat is hiding!) and remember to wash your hands very carefully afterwards, including under your fingernails!

Add your chopped chillies to the pan with the sugar, vinegar, crushed garlic and dry spices. Get some heat under it and bring it to a good rolling boil before turning it down a little. Leave it simmering gently, uncovered, and stir occasionally.

Chutney at start of cookingNow, you have time to sort out your jam jars and lids. Wash them carefully in hot soapy water, dry them, then lay them out in a cold oven and set it to 150 degrees C. Make sure that the lids you’re planning to use are plastic-coated, as the vinegar in the chutney will corrode exposed metal. I tend to turn the oven off once it’s been up to temperature for about 20 minutes, and just leave the door closed until I need the jars.

It will take about an hour and a half to cook the chutney – mine took a bit longer than that, so follow your judgement. It’s ready when you can catch a glimpse of the shiny bottom of the pan when you stir the mixture. It will have lost a fair bit of volume (perhaps up to half) and darkened to a rich dark red colour, with no watery liquid left. Once you’re happy it’s done, bottle directly into your hot sterilised jars. These quantities made a little under 2 litres for me, but this will vary depending on your precise ingredients – how watery your tomatoes are and so on. And please, don’t be too hung-up on the details of the recipe – be creative and use what you have, or vary it to your own taste!

My quantities filled whole jars just perfectly (six small ones, and three larger ones), so I haven’t got any ‘left overs’ to enjoy in the next few days from the fridge – a bit of a shame, as I was looking forward to some with a nice cheese sandwich! But this will just heighten the anticipation as the flavours develop over the next month or so. The sneaky tastes I took during cooking (quality control, right?) certainly promise very good things – a lovely sweet-sour background with a gentle chilli heat.

Lovely jars of chutney

Chutney will keep in a cool dark place for ages (I’ve opened – and eaten, and lived to tell the tale – jars of home-made chutney with dates that would make some people’s eyes come out on stalks!). It’s probably best, though, to aim to let it mature it for a month, and then eat it at it’s best within a year. As with all home-made preserves, it’s best to keep it in the fridge after opening. And of course, like any home-made jam or preserve, they will make great gifts!

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In A Flap – flip-flop denim fabric strap upcycle

The flip-flops.Summer is here (or so they say!). And whether you call them thongs or flip-flops, the three-point strap sandal is a mainstay of hot weather footwear. While I was getting a few bits and bobs in town the other day, I saw these fun flip-flops on a sale rack. I really want to like flip-flops, but I’m afraid they don’t like me! I can’t walk 100 yards in flip-flops with rubber or plastic toe posts without getting the most awful blisters between my toes. Ouchie!

Chop off the strapsSo those straps were going to have to go. There’s always something faintly satisfying about a spot of wanton destruction, isn’t there? Push the straps through the sole and chop them off with a pair of stout scissors. Congratulations, you’ve taken a pair of perfectly good, new flip flops and rendered them completely useless. Time to get mending!

I was planning to make fabric straps for these flip-flops out of some recycled cotton jersey, but I couldn’t find anything in my old-clothes stash in an appropriate colour. What I did find was a pair of Hubby’s old jeans. On reflection, denim seemed like a rather great idea, and the colour was a good match for the psychedelic print on the soles, too.

Of course denim poses some problems that cotton jersey doesn’t, not least in it’s tendency to fray extensively.  It’s also not famous for its stretchy characteristics, which means sizing will need to be more accurate, but I was pretty sure these were things that could be overcome.

Rough cutFirst up, I rough cut a broad and a narrow strap for a ‘test fit’. The narrow strap is tied in a reef knot around the wide strap and acts as the toe post. Push the straps gently through the holes and support them temporarily with safety pins while you offer up the sizing.  I tried the sandal on at this stage and showed it to Hubby to see what he thought. His verdict, ‘they’re quite, erm, rustic…’ felt a little bit short of an unqualified recommendation!

The principle seemed sound, though this mock-up stage proved one thing, which was that the narrow toe straps were literally going to fray away to nothing, and really quite quickly, too. Some reinforcement was going to be needed to avoid the whole thing coming apart!

Now, my sewing machine is a really very basic beast, more or less does straight stitch, zig-zag, not much else. But it has a rather neglected set of ‘special stitches’, one of which I admit I’ve never used in anger before today – it’s a sort of faintly-decorative compound zig-zag, which looked like it might do dual purpose for fray control while not being entirely unattractive! Well, it was worth a shot. A trial run on a narrow strap confirmed that I could run a length of the stitching, and then pull away the stray threads before trimming quite tight to the stitch line. The result seemed quite stable and robust. Excellent!

Rectangle of denimI chopped a rough rectangle of denim out of the leg of hubby’s discarded jeans. They were very well worn by the time they reached the end of their working life, so the denim is gorgeous and soft.

Cut the wide strapsUsing a ruler and cutting wheel, I sliced two wide straps 3cm wide, and two narrow straps about 1cm in width. If you don’t have a cutting wheel, mark the back and cut carefully, especially for the narrow straps.

I decided to go with a contrasting colour for the stitching to make a decorative detail out of it, and loaded up the machine with some bright yellow cotton.

With stitching completeEach wide strap takes two rows of stitches, as close as possible to the edges. The narrow straps get one row of stitches straight up the middle. If your machine doesn’t do a stitch like this, then a sensible width zig-zag is probably a good compromise.

Pull away your the threadsOnce the stitching is done, tease away at the threads outside the sewing, and gently pull it away until it ‘sticks’ in the stitching. Then, using a really sharp pair of scissors, trim the loose threads to within about 1mm of the edge of the stitching. This is all a little bit time consuming, but worth it in the end!

Now, all your straps are made, and ready to be assembled.

Straps complete before assembly

Fit the straps to the sandalTie the narrow straps in a reef knot around the approximate mid-point of the wide strap, and then feed all the ends through the appropriate holes. My denim isn’t an even colour because of the wear on it, so I used the darker end for the outside hole on both sandals, and the lighter end on the inside.

Straps on sole-sideThis is the experimental trying-on bit of the process. Adjust the straps until they’re all the right length and the fit is comfortable, using safety pins on the underside if necessary. Once you’ve know how long your straps need to be, it’s time to work out how to retain them. I’d considered the ‘tie a knot in it’ approach, and that seemed likely to work ok with the narrow toe strap, but didn’t seem as plausible for the thick straps.

Instead, I had a dig about in my button box and found six small stout little white buttons, just the right size for the recessed gaps in the bottom of the sandals.

For the toe strap, join both halves together with a horizontal row of stitches, before fixing the button between them, then trim the ends with about a cm spare and fold the straps over, securing the ends down again as firmly as you can.

Fixing toe strap (1)  Fixing toe strap (2)  Fixing toe strap (3)

For the broad straps, start by identifying the attachment point you need, secure your thread firmly and then sew the button into the centre of the strap. Trim the strap and then sew the corners down over the button, before securing the strap below the button into a round shank, wrapping a few times with the thread to help you hold the shape.

Fixing wide strap (1)  Fixing wide strap (2)  Fixing wide strap (3)

In essence, that’s it. Make the second sandal the same way, trying to get the strap lengths to match.

Finished straps

If you were just going to wear them indoors, you could probably leave it at that. I had in mind using a blob of hot glue both beneath and finally on top of the strap and button assembly to secure and stabilise the lot, and add some waterproofing and abrasion resistance to stop the first rough floor surface wearing the thread away and letting all the hard work come apart again. But then I remembered that I’ve finally got my hands on some Sugru, so I think I’m going to use a blob of that over the top (and possibly a cuff underneath) as the rubber texture seems likely to be nicely compatible with the rest of the sole. I’ll post final photos once I’ve done this (in the next few days, all being well!).

Finished sandals with home-made denim straps

I can think of some possible variations (and having done this ‘make’, some I wish I’d thought of before I started!). Satin or grosgrain ribbon would make great straps (you’d want a matching pair in 25mm and 6mm widths, I would guess, and a metre of each will be plenty) – and might even be quite ‘dressy’, with the right choice colour and plain dark-coloured sandals.  I suspect – though I haven’t tried this, so if you do, please let me know! – that you could just tie knots in the ends of the ribbons, embed the knots in a little ball of  Sugru, and just sort of ‘squidge’ it into the recesses in the sole, reducing the whole make to a five or ten minute job.  Hot glue would probably work pretty much the same, too (but don’t burn your fingers)! Next time I see a set of dirt cheap flip-flops in a pound shop or market, I’m definitely giving this variation a try!

I’m really thrilled with this, actually. These sandals are *comfortable*, and they look pretty cool too, though I say so myself. I’m definitely planning to take them on holiday, and I shan’t be one bit embarrassed by them by the pool – the finished effect is certainly more ‘handcrafted’ than ‘homemade’. So do give this a try, and please, let me know how you get on?

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