Sunday, October 4, 2009

Love that Hillbilly Sauce

During each of the past few summers I've made a point of cooking batches of three delicious corn-based soups from recipes in Fields of Greens (a book which I rather admire. CM and I have amassed a very nice collection of cookbooks, ranging from the essential Joy of Cooking to the magnanimous? Gastronimique, from the humble Laurel's Kitchen to the refined French Laundry... Some chefs jot down their recipes carelessly, with (one learns) approximate amounts and inappropriate timing. Some stray too far into the realm of obscure ingredients, while others seem reluctant to take any risks or put in a little extra work. Many cookbooks offer more inspiration than instruction, more pictures than flavors, better combinations of words than foods. And as a reasonably accomplished cook that's usually what I'm looking for--not a recipe, but an idea--but once in a while I want a taste of something just right. What I love about Fields of Greens is its attention to detail, its subtlety. It is approachable and ambitious at the same time, healthful but luxurious. Care is given to the steps involved (salting onions at the right time, in the right amounts, can change everything...) but it's not overly fussy or complicated. I've not delved into all its offerings but those I've tried have been, really, just right. Anyway, that was a long tangent, to get back to the soup) but there will be no delicious varieties of summery soups this year, to brighten the deep of winter... All I've got this year is tomatoes.

On Wednesday Mom brought down about a full beer case of tomatoes, so yesterday afternoon I cooked up some tomato sauce and now have (no room in the freezer for) around nine or ten pints of red sauce made with mixed varieties and a couple pints that came from four or five large Hillbillys. I did the whole boiling-water-bath-to-remove-the-skins thing and then went to the trouble of seeding them over a sieve, using our hefty granite pestle to push through as much flesh and liquid as possible. In retrospect, I'm not sure it's worth the effort to remove the seeds when the tomatoes are intended for sauce or long cooking. (For Bruschetta, okay.) But those hours weren't entirely wasted. Spend enough time fingering a bunch of tomatoes, learning their inner secrets, and you will most certainly find reasons to love and/or hate them... Here are, in my opinion, the standouts:

Italian Heirloom - reliably large without cracking or blemishes, good slicers, meaty with little pith and few seeds, peel easily, great for canning, nicely balanced (sweet/acid) and flavor
Amish Paste - deep red color, few seeds, perfect texture and flavor for sauce (I only had a couple of these in my batch but it was quite easy to see that they would make excellent sauce or paste. Hope to have enough to try that next year.)
Cosmonaut Volkov - nice, medium-sized fruits with no cracking, perfect slicers, sweet rich & complex flavor, great sandwich tomato
Yellow Perfection - prolific bearer of small fruits, juicy with lots of seeds but reliably sweet and bright flavor, makes lovely sauce and salsas
Moonglow - medium-sized fruits of gorgeous orange color, firm but silky texture, well-rounded sweet flavor, great for sandwiches, salsa, salads
Hillbilly Potato Leaf - large, substantial fruits with some cracking on lobes and bottoms, fantastic peach-gold color with veins of bright red, flesh thick and smooth, few seeds, amazingly sweet deep flavor, perfect for salsa, slicing

I should give honorable mention, also, to Hungarian Heart for many fine, large, uncracked fruits of good flavor and texture, even when rather under-ripe; I didn't have a good sample, but I'd gladly give this one another chance to impress me next year. Once again, Peacevine delivered an enormous amount of small (even for cherries) and very tasty fruits, while Chadwick produced some that were ping-pong sized and more or less flavorless. Pink Brandywine still failed to impress me, except with how difficult it is to trim and peel around all those lobes and the almost invariable scars on the bottom. Likewise with the German Pink. The Beefsteaks looked pretty nice and might be good to eat if you were starving. Sadly, I didn't get an opportunity to sample one of Aunt Ruby's German Green in its prime and the Black Krim didn't quite reach maturity, but I've got a couple of these last two in a bowl on the kitchen table, so I may get a taste yet.

Mom canned quite a few quarts of tomatoes this year, some in batches of specific varieties. Should be interesting to compare those, as well.

In terms of cultivation, the fences we built worked quite well, providing adequate support without the hassle of strings or cages, although many of the plants grew up and over the three-foot height of the top rail. We discussed pruning suckers but didn't do so, which turned out to be a mistake in two respects: first, the plants got nice and bushy but didn't put as much energy into flowering; second, all those extra leaves and branches were a perfect invitation to blight, in a damp and cold growing season. All considered, though, the crop did pretty well. This was thanks in no small part to the Agribon tent that Mom and Dad cobbled together out of some scrap wood, extension ladders, pipes and a few large rocks. This makeshift structure was covered by a large single sheet of Agribon 19, giving the tomatoes some extra warmth during the months of September and October. (It might have kept them warm a bit longer, even, if the whole thing hadn't blown loose in a storm two weekends ago. Days after that there was a frost advisory, but high winds prevented replacing the Agribon, so the tomatoes had to be picked. It didn't freeze. Of course.) Next year I think we'll build a more intentional structure, with better features, now that we know it works.

I'd hoped to keep track of our yields in pounds, before processing, but I've realized that's probably an unrealistic goal at this point, since I don't live near the garden and I don't actually harvest even half of the vegetables. Maybe next year I'll get one of those produce scales and hang it on the arbor, with a notebook nearby... Just an idea.

Anyway, that's the season-end report on the tomatoes. Gotta go clean out the freezer.


JB aka JayBee said...

I appreciate your analysis of your tomatoes. JSP and I will do an analysis of our favorite tomatoes of this year when we have some time over on Both of Us.

Thanks for the idea.

fremenine said...

P.S. Tried a Black Krim for breakfast this morning and found it dark, sweet and mellow...beautiful and delicious. Highly recommended.