How to get the most out of your tomato harvest

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If you garden like me, this is the time of the year that you can start looking back at your harvest and really begin to appreciate the fruits of your labor, literally. And no one can deny the popularity of the tomato…they are tasty and versatile! I’ve been busy with my tomato crop for the past month and today I’d like to offer some tips on how to organize your own harvest. With a little creativity, you can get the most out of all your hard work and hopefully save some time and money in the future.

The possibilities are endless
There’s nothing better than slicing up a tasty vine-ripened tomato at the end of summer. Toss it in your salad, include it in your sandwich, make spaghetti, or just eat it plain. But if you’re like me and go crazy with planting (I grew 16 plants this year), you probably have more than a few fruits to figure out what to do with beyond just the occasional addition to a lettuce salad. And of course that’s exactly why I grow so many tomato plants in the first place: I love the endless possibilities with respect to how you can cook with them right away and store them for later. Below I’d like to outline several of the ways you can creatively manage your tomato surplus so you can get maximum enjoyment out of these delectable fruits.

I want to eat them now
You’ve got a lot of tomatoes and they’re fresh out of the garden. How can you use them right away? I’ve already mentioned the obvious: eat them plain, put them in a salad or in a sandwich, make spaghetti sauce, etc. What else is there?

  • Make soup (or chili). Set aside the Campbell’s for a second and consider the flavor explosion of a homemade soup. It’s a lot more work, yes, but it pays off! You get to enjoy a tasty soup now, plus you have the option of freezing the leftovers for later. My family loves eating homemade soup in the middle of winter and it doesn’t get much more convenient than simply grabbing a tub out the freezer and thawing it. It’s also a special treat for someone who has a cold or the flu. I have two recipes in particular that I make each fall with my tomato surplus—Spicy Tomato Dill Soup and Tomato Basil Soup.
  • Make salsa. Here’s an opportunity to use even more of your garden vegetables in addition to your tomatoes and prepare a salsa you love that you can eat right away or save for later. In addition to being a staple at potlucks or parties, salsa also makes a great gift!
  • Get creative. Step out of the comfort zone of your regular recipes and try some new ones. Prepare slow-roasted tomatoes, tomato dumplings, tomato preserves, or bruschetta. This last one is one of my personal favorites and allows me to use some of my fresh basil too.

I want to save them for later
I love stocking my pantry and freezer with vegetables and fruits I harvest from my garden all summer. That way you can enjoy your garden in one way or another all year round. That’s not to mention the convenience and money savings involved with growing and storing your own tomatoes. Here are a few ways you can prepare your tomatoes now in order to enjoy them later:

  • Can them. My family canned tomatoes every summer when I was growing up and I can still remember watching my dad pulling extremely hot glass jars out of a large pot on the stove. I don’t personally can my tomatoes due to how involved the process is, but if you have the time or desire, canning is one of the best ways to preserve your tomatoes without having to rely on a power source to sustain them…you simply store them on a shelf!
  • Freeze them whole. This is what I do because it is so simple and we have a large freezer. After I get a load of ripe tomatoes, I wash them, dry them, and cut off the tops. I then spread them out evenly on a cookie sheet (so they aren’t touching) and set the sheet in the freezer. After the individual tomatoes freeze solid, I just drop the “rocks” into labeled bags of any size. Whenever I need tomatoes in the future, I just grab as many as I want and seal the bag back up again. Thawing is easy and after a few chops with your knife, they are ready to be added to your favorite sauce or soup. It’s important to note that frozen tomatoes do not slice well…they are best used as stated above because the consistency is fairly mushy under the peeling after some time in the freezer.
  • Dehydrate them. Dehydrating is a unique storage option and if you have the equipment, it can be a real space saver. Simply slice up your fresh ripe tomatoes and stick them in a food dehydrator. After they are fully dehydrated, bag them up. Keep them at room temperature in a cool, dark place or freeze them for longer storage. The benefit of dehydrating is that dried tomatoes are concentrated and take up much less space. As far as cooking with them, they make great additions to sauces, soups, breads, casseroles, pizza, and much more. Finally, if dried enough, the tomatoes can be crushed into flakes or a powder for seasoning.

Green tomatoes and the perils of frost
Last year our first killing frost came on September 14. That’s early…too early. This year I hoped for more time for my garden to progress, so you can imagine my frustration when our weather forecaster called for a frost advisory on August 24! Fortunately, we didn’t get frost that night (it got down to 33 degrees). After several close calls throughout September, our first killing frost finally came on October 3. The point I’m trying to make here with all this temperature data is that sometimes gardeners are forced to harvest tomatoes while they are still green due to the fact that a hard freeze will likely kill any fruits hanging on the vine, covered or not. So to prevent waste, you need to pick them before they are ripe. But what in the world can you do with green tomatoes?

  • Eat them! Everyone’s heard of fried green tomatoes, but there are also other ways to cook with green tomatoes: traditionally these unripe tart fruits can be used in soups, salsas, and even desserts.
  • Ripen them indoors. Not a fan of eating green tomatoes? No problem. With the right conditions, unripe tomatoes can be ripened indoors. Here’s what I do: I grab a cardboard box or a paper bag and set the green tomatoes inside. I then close the box or bag so just a little air and light can enter. I store the box in a room with low humidity (to prevent rotting) and comfortable temperatures (tomatoes need warmth to ripen!). If ripening isn’t evident after several days, I add a few red tomatoes to the bunch because ripe tomatoes give off a gas that encourages other tomatoes to ripen. You can also use a banana or an apple. While the tomatoes start to turn red, I move them to the window sill in the kitchen and let them finish the ripening process there. That way I can keep track of their progress a little better and use them before it’s too late. Keep in mind that tomatoes ripened indoors aren’t quite as flavorful as vine-ripened, but when you have no alternative, you’ll take what you can get!

Reader Reflection
I’m no ‘top expert’ when it comes to tomatoes and I certainly haven’t created an exhaustive list of tomato uses here in these few paragraphs. I’d love to hear what each of you do with your tomato surplus, from storage methods to your favorite recipe!

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