Friday, 28 December 2007

So Many Tomatoes, So Little Time

Those fresh garden tomatoes so longed for in the dead of winter may now present a challenge in producing more than you can use. Secretly many may be happy to see fall come and the tomato vines dry up. There are just so many tomatoes you want to can and so much salsa you want to make. But there are other alternatives for those extra tomatoes.

Many recipes today call for sun-dried tomatoes. This is one way to preserve many tomatoes in a little space. Tomatoes can be dried outside in the sun, in a very slow oven (at 200 degrees), or in a food dehydrator. Drying outside in the sun will take several days and has problems with bugs and animals. It will take at least six hours to dry tomatoes in a food dehydrator, a gadget that many do not own. They will dry overnight (12 hours) in a 200 degree oven — and most everyone has an oven.

Small tomatoes such as cherry, grape or the meaty romas dry best, however, you can use whatever kind of tomatoes you have in excess in the garden. The town house dweller who has a cherry tomato plant on the balcony can dry the extra tomatoes in the oven. Once dried they make great little tomato cups to stuff with cheese, or use as a scoop for dip, use as a chip snack, or drizzle with cheese spread and heat for crispy tomato nachos.

Drying Tomatoes

Preparation for drying: Wash tomatoes well and dry. It’s optional to remove skins; most leave the skins on. Cut tomatoes in half (quarters if tomatoes are large). Remove seeds and the white part, but leave red pulp. A quarter teaspoon measuring spoon works well to remove seeds.

Drying in the oven: Place the tomatoes skin-side down on a cooling rack placed over a baking pan to catch any drips. Sprinkle lightly with salt and dried Italian herbs. Place in 200-degree oven. Check on tomatoes the first hour to assure everything is going well. (After three hours, some cooks like to take enough tomatoes out for supper. Slow-baked tomatoes sprinkled with shredded mozzarella are a real treat.) Check again in 10 hours. It will probably take 12 hours to dry completely. Avoid over drying. Even at 200 degrees the tomatoes can burn if left in the oven too long. At this stage, I like to allow the oven to cool, return the tomatoes to the oven on a baking sheet, turn the oven light on for just a minimum of heat, close the oven door and let the tomatoes have one final hour of drying before storing them.

Storing the dried tomatoes: Place the tomatoes in an air-tight container such as a jar with tight-fitting lid or a plastic bag, being sure to push out all the air. Freezing the dried tomatoes is an option. This seems to preserve the deep red colour. A short 24 hour stay in the freezer is recommended to eliminate bug infestation that so commonly develops in dried foods.

Some recipes call for adding fresh herbs, fresh garlic and oil when storing the dried tomatoes. The FDA has advised that storing fresh herbs and fresh garlic in oil is a dangerous practice. They have advised commercial packers to treat fresh herbs and fresh garlic with vinegar (acid) and to note on the container that the oil should be refrigerated after opening. The same precautions should be taken at home when adding fresh herbs and fresh garlic to oil.

Storing home dried tomatoes in oil is not recommended. Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow in this atmosphere where no air is present. The bacteria can come into your kitchen on fresh herbs and fresh garlic. Heating to high temperatures cannot assure that the botulinum spores nor the toxin they give off are destroyed. It is a better practice to add oil and herbs to the tomatoes at the time they are to be used. Even with this method, the tomatoes must be refrigerated and should be used within two to three days.

Once you have dried tomatoes in your pantry, here are some ways you can use them. Most often the tomatoes are rehydrated before using in recipes. This can be done by covering the dried tomatoes with warm water and soaking for 30 minutes. Broth or wine are also suitable for rehydrating the tomatoes. Drain and pat dry before adding to a recipe. Chop and add the rehydrated tomatoes to cornbread batter, meat loaf, beef stew, soup (especially vegetable and tomato), dried beans, chili, quiche, macaroni and cheese, Welsh rarebit and stir fry.

Sometimes the crunch of the dried tomato is desirable in dips when soaking them is neither necessary nor desirable. The first taste of your first batch of dried tomatoes will suggest that herb seasoned dried tomatoes make crunchy chip snacks. They also lend themselves well to a quick hors d’oeuvre by stuffing them with a small piece of feta cheese, topped with a large caper or a slice of olive.

Drying tomatoes is easy and can be part of your multi-tasking as you go about your evening routine. Take a few extra tomatoes, put them in the cooling oven (200 degrees) when the supper casserole has come out, take a look at them when you go to bed, and take them out in the morning. It will be a good feeling to find there are a few less tomatoes sitting on the kitchen counter when you come home in the evening. You will enjoy those tomatoes so much more in the first pot of vegetable soup you make this fall.

By Dorothy Rowe

Friday, 14 December 2007

Where there’s muck: a guide to composting

Turning your waste into compost is easy, and your plants will thank you for it

If you have not discovered the joys of making compost, now is the time to try – not least to avoid unpleasant smells emanating from your wheelie bin in hot weather, especially if the council is cutting back refuse collections to once a fortnight. Not only will you be taking a significant eco-friendly measure, you will be doing your garden a great favour. Compost isn’t called “gardener’s gold” for nothing: digging it in improves the texture of the soil, while adding a layer on top and using it as a mulch (aim for a couple of inches) helps fend off weeds. It also boosts the level of friendly bacteria, making for healthier plants.

Do not be put off by earlier composting failures. If they resulted in a slimy, foul-smelling mess, you were probably using one of the Dalek-shaped plastic compost bins that local councils offer for less than a tenner. Lured into buying them by the promise of “no turning necessary”, novices fill them with grass cuttings and kitchen waste, but the result is often a sticky sludge with a pong.

Making compost isn’t difficult, however, if you understand some of the science involved in its creation. Most of what we are likely to throw into a compost heap – peelings from fruit and vegetables, grass clippings and weeds – is “green” waste, which has a high water content and is rich in nitrogen. Used alone, particularly in one of those Dalek containers, it sticks together and doesn’t allow air, which is crucial for decomposition, to enter the pile.

To stop a heap from putrefying, you must layer the “green” material with dryer “brown” material, which is high in carbon. “Browns” include dried leaves, egg boxes, scrunched-up newspaper and the cardboard core of loo rolls. Think of the compost heap as a cake and alternate layers of green and brown, each between 2in and 4in thick. Fill your Dalek composter like this and it will work fine.

Admittedly, vermin, including rats, and even wasps, will be drawn to a compost pile – but, given the benefits, this is no reason not to have one. Make it less attractive to pests by turning and tending the pile regularly, and by keeping it covered and hot so they won’t be able to nest in it. And never add meat scraps.

The low-maintenance pile: if you are happy to make compost slowly, in return for not bothering too much with it, sit the container directly on the earth, so earthworms can rise and break down the pile of waste. Start with some twiggy material at the bottom, which will aerate it, then add alternate layers of “brown” and “green” material, building them up as you go along. Sprinkle soil over the layers (two or three handfuls is enough) to introduce extra bacteria and help the matter to decompose. Or, if you have a friend with an existing pile, ask them to donate a bucket of compost to start you off.

A good alternative is to get a garden-centre bag of manure and throw a few handfuls on every so often. If the pile is dry, sprinkle it with water when you’ve finished adding a layer. Some people like to use a compost accelerator such as Garotta (available from garden centres); others keep a box of lime handy, to stop the pile from becoming too acidic and smelly. But neither is strictly necessary. A pile like this can be made in a plastic compost bin, covered and left to do its own thing. The rate of decomposition will vary, but you should end up with usable compost within a year.

The fast stuff: if you generate lots of kitchen and garden waste, or want to make compost quickly, then you will need two compost bins. Build up a pile in one as explained above, let it settle for a week or two, then turn it into the second bin. Turning the pile regularly and introducing more air causes matter to heat up and break down more quickly, decomposing in four months or less. (Don’t regard turning compost as a chore, either; it can be surprisingly therapeutic and add a bit of calm to your life.) Warmth is as important as air to the process, so keep the pile covered.

Wormeries: this is a good solution for a small household that doesn’t generate much waste. With your wormery comes a set of live worms and bedding for them to start out in. Place small amounts of cut-up, uncooked kitchen waste on top of this – the amount of food is increased as the colony grows. The worms eat their way up through the first layer of food and into the next, leaving the compost behind. The amount created is small, but it produces a rich liquid called leachate, which can be tapped off at the bottom, then diluted and used as a plant food.

Bokashi buckets: bokashi is the Japanese word for fermented organic matter, and this system is unusual because it involves both cooked and uncooked kitchen waste. Read the instructions carefully to see what you can and can’t add. It requires two buckets made with a special plastic impregnated with effective micro-organisms – friendly bacteria, essentially. These start the breakdown process and work to eliminate odour.

Put a layer of food a couple of inches thick in the bucket, then sprinkle on a layer of special bran, again impregnated with those micro-organisms, followed by another layer of food. Continue alternating the layers until the bucket is full, then leave it for 10-14 days while you start a new one. The first bucket can be drained periodically of liquid, which is used to neutralise bacteria in drains or as a plant food.

Once the bokashi has been made, it can be added to your standard compost heap. You can also bury it in the garden and plant over it; it is ideal for hungry crops such as runner beans or even dahlias. The kit isn’t cheap (about £80 for two 18-litre buckets, the biggest available), but the system is extremely useful for reducing the smelly element of a kitchen bin. Larger families may need to buy another bucket to take all the waste generated.

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Make the World's Best Compost!