Tomatoes are one of those crops that are unlike anything else when grown fresh. Between the flavor, the juiciness and the texture, a home-grown tomato is far superior to anything one can find in a grocery store—no matter how much money you spend on that Artisan Organic Heirloom tomato at Whole Foods. Unfortunately, tomatoes are also a favorite target of birds once they get ripe enough to peck through the skin. Birds aren’t so much fans of tomatoes as they are of water and these are an excellent source.
There are all kinds of ways to deal with this problem that range from the simple to the elaborate (and expensive), but years ago Mrs. Butcher taught me that the best way to do this is also the easiest: just harvest them early and ripen them in the house.
The first thing to determine is when a tomato is ready to get harvested. You don’t want to do it too early because the sugars in the tomato won’t have had enough time to develop and will thus result in a less tasty (if even ripened at all) tomato. Harvesting too late already has the danger of birds eating your crop. So, when is the right time to do this? Essentially, it’s on a bit of a continuum, but the basic rule of thumb is to pick them when they turn color enough to be noticeable.
These tomatoes will eventually be red, but right now they’re a sort of deep yellow and that’s plenty good enough for picking. I use a pair of scissors, to prevent the stem from coming off the core, and cut them from the plant. Then I place the tomatoes in a large paper shopping bag and close it up once the bag is about ⅓ full. I do not put the tomatoes in a bowl on a window sill. In fact, sunlight at this point is a total liability because it will encourage ripening from the outside, leaving the inside unripened. By sealing them in a paper bag and keeping them in a relatively dark, cool, place, the tomatoes will ripen from the inside out, so that once the skins are the right shade, I know the entire tomato is ready to use. This process is fairly quick so it’s important to check the bags of tomatoes every day. Once a tomato gets overripe, it will degrade very quickly and take the rest of the tomatoes along with it. Here’s what they looked like on the day I picked them:
In just one day, there is a marked difference:
After six days, they are ready to go:
As with so many of the crops we grow, once they get started, they come full force and we quickly have more produce than we can reasonably eat fresh. Such is the case with the eleventy-billion jalapeños that have been waiting for the green chiles and tomatoes to ripen. Now that they are all ready, I could get started on the first batch of salsa. I made a double batch, because I had so many tomatoes and jalapeños, but I could have made a quadruple batch and still have tomatoes left over. The basic recipe and process is as follows:
10 Green Chiles (or other large, fairly mild, hot pepper)
10 Jalapeños, seeded and chopped (or other small, fairly hot, pepper)
2 Large Onions, chopped
1 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
5 Cloves Garlic, minced
Spices, to taste:
Red Chile Powder
First, heat a large pot of water to boiling. While the water is heating, wash the tomatoes, cut the cores out, and score an “X” on the bottom of each. Fill your sink with cold water (add some ice cubes if you like to make the water colder). Once the hot water is boiling, place the tomatoes in the pot for about a minute to blanch them, then remove the tomatoes and place them in the cold water bath. This will loosen the skins to make them much easier to remove. Once all your tomatoes have been blanched and shocked, peel the skins, and squeeze out the seeds. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and place them in a colander to drain for about a half hour.
Then, place the tomatoes in a large pot, heat to boiling, then reduce the heat to simmer for about 1.5 hours—or until the tomatoes have thickened—stirring occasionally.
While the tomatoes are cooking, roast your chiles. August is chile season in New Mexico, and all of the grocery stores have these large barrel roasters out front where customers can buy these huge burlap bags full of freshly harvested chiles and have them roasted right there. Glorious. But, chances are you don’t have a barrel roaster, so just use your grill instead. Roast each pepper over medium flame so that the skins char, but don’t blacken all the way through to the flesh of the pepper, turning once on each side.
Once the chiles are done, place them in a large paper bag (we use a ton of paper bags that we save up for just this time of year) and close it up to allow the chiles to steam and further loosen up the skins. You’ll probably want to keep the bag in the sink because it will soak through and start to drip within a few minutes. Once the chiles are cool enough to handle, take them out of the bag and remove the skins. DO NOT RINSE THE CHILES. Doing so will wash much of the flavor away, hence the paper bag method of steaming. The skins will come off quite easily. Once the chiles are skinned, then remove the stems and seeds and coarsely chop and set aside.
A side note for anyone using fresh oregano: picking oregano leaves off the stems is tedious and frustrating. However, I’ve found that by using a pair of wire strippers, I’m able to zip those leaves right off the stems with a minimum of effort, before chopping.
Add all your ingredients to the cooked tomatoes, return the pot to boiling, then simmer, uncovered, for about another 10-15 minutes.
In the meantime, follow your basic canning sterilization process here. Once everything is ready to go, fill your jars, leaving a ½ inch headspace.
Then, using the other side of the headspace measuring tool, slide it down the inside of the jar to release any air bubbles. Wipe the rims and sides of the jars, set the lids with the magnet, screw on the rims until fingertip tight, and place in the boiling water for 15 minutes (start the clock when the water returns to boiling after placing the jars inside). Remove the jars from the water and set on wire racks to cool.
Again, look here to read the part about not touching the jars and allowing them to seal on their own so you don’t kill anyone with your hard work.
If your last jar doesn’t reach the ½ inch mark for headspace, then just close it with a lid and rim, and place in the refrigerator to be eaten within the next few weeks.
This is just the first batch, which made nine jars. There will be more.