Five months ago, I planted a random vegetable garden, jamming $50 worth of plants into any empty spot I could find. Hoping for a harvest big enough to make a noticeable dent in the grocery bill and create an endless supply of tomatoes, I threatened my family with homemade ketchup. How did it turn out?
Truthfully, the results were mixed. Everything grew, enthusiastically, and my biggest success has been a steady supply of herbs—cilantro, basil, parsley, chives, and thyme, mostly—that has added up to big savings. Compared to the old days, when I used to regularly drop $1.99 per herb bunch at the grocery store, I probably saved $8 a week by growing my own. Over the course of five months, that added up to about $200 in savings and paid for the original investment many times over.
As for the lettuces, well, I got about a dozen dinner salads—delicious ones—out of my crop. However, when I was out of town for two weeks in late July, most of the lettuces bolted and I came home to towering, flowering red leaf bushes. Overall, I probably shaved $30 off my lettuce bills.
And what of the tomatoes, you ask?
Above: Photograph by John Merkl for Gardenista.
My five bushy tomato plants—beefsteak, plum, and cherry (both red and orange) pretty much took over the yard. I was lazy about staking them, and so they behaved like passionflower vines, growing into adjacent plants for extra support. From August on, there were plenty of tomatoes to pick. And plenty more rotting on the vine.
"It's a crime the way you are letting all those tomatoes go to waste," Julie said the other night when she was visiting. The next day she sent her husband back to fill a backpack, with which she managed to make enough tomato soup to serve eight at a dinner party.
"It's a crime the way you are letting Julie take all our tomatoes," my husband complained on the way home from the dinner party.
And so one day last week, I decided to can my remaining tomatoes—ALL of them. I bought a dozen canning jars in preparation, then went into the garden with a bushel basket and picked every ripe or semi-ripe tomato I could find. There were about a million.
As a big pot of water came to a boil on the stove, I felt as virtuous as a pioneer and began fantasizing about all the compliments I would be getting at a winter's worth of dinner parties where I'd be serving tomato soups, sauces, and chili. "Yes, they are delicious, aren't they?" I'd say. "And there seems to be an endless supply."
Little did I know...
Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.
My recipe is a simple one (in addition to tomatoes, I add lemon juice, salt, and basil to each jar; for step-by-step instructions, see below). But with so many tomatoes, it still took me the better part of a morning to sterilize, peel, crush, seed, cook down, fill jars, boil jars...and after all that, I ended up with five jars of canned tomatoes.
Yes, the jars are beautiful and jewel-colored when the light catches them just right. And I am sure that these will be the most delicious canned tomatoes ever. They will make a fantastic sauce, an ambrosia soup, a chili to make men weep. But: five jars?
I have just enough canned tomatoes for one batch of sauce, one pot of soup, and one night of chili. So much for a winter's worth of tomatoes. I figure I saved myself $10 at the grocery store on canned tomatoes, but the canning jars cost me $11.
- Net savings on herbs and lettuces: $180
- Net loss on tomatoes: $1
- Thrill of having a random vegetable garden: Priceless
Still want my canned tomato recipe? See below.
Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.
Canned Garden Tomatoes
- Every tomato you can get your hands on (you can mix plum and beefsteak varieties, no problem; I didn't use cherry tomatoes because after you skin them, what's left?)
- Lemon Juice
While you sterilize pint jars and lids in a 225-degree oven (arranged in a single layer on a cooking sheet to heat for 20 minutes), fill your biggest stockpot halfway with water and bring to a boil.
Cut an "x" in the bottom of every tomato and toss tomatoes a few at a time into the boiling water (you don't want to overcrowd them). Fish them out with a slotted spoon when the skin starts to look loose and flabby.
Let the tomatoes cool in a colander for a few minutes before handling. Peel, core, and cut into quarters, removing tomato seeds and the mushy jelly.
Heat a saute pot and add tomatoes, smashing them with a potato masher to make them into a saucy consistency. Cook for 10 or so minutes on medium until some of the water boils off.
While tomatoes cook, prepare each jar by adding to it a pinch of salt, a sprig of basil, and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Then add tomatoes to fill the jars, leaving a 1/2-inch of breathing room at the top of jar (the tomatoes will expand). Wipe off the jars so there will be a tight seal. Screw the lids on tight but not overly tight—air will need to escape.
Refill your biggest stockpot with fresh water and add the jars. The water level should be an inch above the top of the jars. Bring the water to a boil and simmer the jars for 45 minutes. You can cool the jars in the stockpot to avoid burning yourself.
For more of my adventures as an amateur farmer, see How to Stop Throwing Away Money (and Food).