20 September 2014

Tomato sauce showdown: Victorio strainer vs. immersion blender

Tomato sauce showdown: Victorio strainer vs. immersion blender

When I've canned tomato sauce in the past, I've always gone through the arduous slog of coring and skinning all the tomatoes before cooking them down. This, as you might notice from my tone, is a huge pain in the ass. It takes forever and makes a mess -- and then I end up cooking the tomatoes down into slurry anyway. It's not like I need whole, intact skinned tomatoes! So this time I decided it was time to try a couple different methods.

1. The Victorio strainer.
2. The immersion blender.

The Victorio strainer is essentially a giant food mill. You feed tomatoes into the top while turning a handle. The strainer smashes the tomatoes and separates the skin and seeds from the usable tomato flesh. Then you cook down the tomato to the sauce consistency of your choosing and preserve it as you see fit. I did a basic water-bath canned tomato sauce, but you can always go for the pressure canner or freezer as you see fit. Be careful with food preservation! The USDA guide to home canning is a good resource here.

Anyway. I've had my mom's old strainer in the office closet for a few years, but I hadn't actually broken it out and used it before now. So this was a learning experience.

Tomato sauce showdown: Victorio strainer vs. immersion blender

I got to learn how to put everything together. I got to learn that the clamp that holds the strainer upright was too wide for our dining table but too narrow for our kitchen counters. Eventually I found that it would fit the coffee table, which we then had to move into the kitchen to avoid getting tomato splashes all over the couch.

When we were ready to puree, I fed in the tomatoes and John worked the handle. Then we got to learn that trying to use a strainer set up on a knee-high table is a terrible idea if you have more than a small batch of tomatoes to process. There's nothing like hunching over for a full hour as you shovel chopped tomatoes.

We also got to learn that if you pad out the clamp with a towel, so as not to completely kill your table, the strainer is likely to come off square and start getting loose. We learned that some tomatoes were going to explode and rain juice all over the kitchen, no matter what we did. It was super exciting.

And afterward we got to learn how delightful it was to try to take apart and clean a strainer we'd had to wedge closed as tightly as possible -- while it was covered with all kinds of slippery tomato detritus.

On the other hand, the strainer certainly did make very short work of producing approximately 7.5 quarts of tomato puree -- less than half the time it would have taken to core and skin all the tomatoes. It required only the most minimal of prep work -- we only needed to remove the stems and quarter the larger tomatoes before pureeing.

We could use our grape tomatoes as well as the standard large tomatoes. We could feed the skins and seeds back through the strainer to squeeze out every last bit of tomato flesh. I got to rescue all the waste to make a huge batch of tomato broth, which turned out to be lovely and flavorful and full-bodied due to the pectin in the skins.

Overall, it was a reasonable trade.

Tomato sauce showdown: Victorio strainer vs. immersion blender

The next weekend, I was not really up to mopping the kitchen again. Besides, I was thinking about that tomato broth and the pectin in the tomato skins. And then I remembered that Erica at Northwest Edible Life had written a post on actually making sauce from tomato skins instead of throwing them away. Erica was using the skins from her whole home-canned tomatoes; I was planning to sauce all of mine. Why even bother skinning the tomatoes in the first place, then? Why not just puree everything together at once?

So that's what I did. I washed my batch of tomatoes, chopped them roughly, removed any really seriously woody core pieces, and went at the remaining tomatoes with the immersion blender. Then I cooked the resulting slurry into delicious tomato sauce, ladled it into jars with the requisite lemon juice, and canned it all.

It worked very well indeed.

Since I already know how to puree things with the immersion blender, there wasn't very much to learn here per se. I just made sure to keep the head of the blender submerged, so I didn't accidentally splort random tomato bits all over the kitchen.

I also had to work in batches, so as not to overheat the blender. This is for sure the only time I've ever had to even think about that consideration when using our very nice and heavy-duty immersion blender! If I'd cooked the sauce down for a while and then pureed it, I think the overheating issue would have been less of a problem. But even so, the results were excellent.

This sauce cooked down a whole lot faster than the previous skinless batch. That is a real benefit when it's a minimum of 85F in your kitchen and you want to get past the heat portion of the day as swiftly as possible. You have to love fiber and pectin at work.

Even though this method defaulted to include skin and seeds, I was really happy with the finished sauce.

Tomato sauce showdown results

Victorio strainer:
- no seeds or skins in the sauce
- minimal prep required
- fast pureeing time
- long cooking time: 4-5 hrs
- technically fiddly, with lots of required setup
- equipment will not overheat
- can use grape and cherry tomatoes along with standard
- medium to high cleanup
- bulky equipment
- single-use, at least for the time being (maybe I will make applesauce sometime?)
- peels and seeds provide ingredients for convenient side-effect broth

Immersion blender:
- tiny seed and skin bits in the sauce
- slightly more than minimal prep required, but still not very much
- fast pureeing time
- faster (but still fairly long) cooking time: 2+ hrs
- not fiddly; no setup
- equipment can overheat; breaks are required
- can use grape and cherry tomatoes along with standard
- low cleanup
- more compact equipment
- definitely multi-use
- no secondary products produced

As long as no one cares about teeny tiny seed and skin bits -- and so far, I don't -- the winner is the immersion blender. Of course, if you cared very much about such a thing, it would be possible to strain your sauce after cooking it -- but I am just not going to go to that kind of effort unless I see a real need.

The other real issue is overheating your equipment. No one wants to blow out a blender just to get tomatoes processed into sauce. So if you're making a really huge batch, or don't have the time to take breaks between pureeing batches of tomatoes, the manual strainer is probably the best bet.

The end product is great either way, so choose what works for you.

How do you process your tomatoes before canning? What favorite tools do you use?

18 September 2014

Migas with fresh summer corn

Migas with fresh summer corn

Migas! Migas are the best. Who doesn't love spicy scrambled eggs mixed with crispy corn tortillas? I ask you.

One of the best things about migas is how you can customize them with whatever veg you like. We've been concentrating on the all-powerful tomato, but that's not the only late summer vegetable still at its peak. How about the last of the fresh summer corn? How about an assortment of beautiful peppers? How about lots and lots of beautiful fresh cilantro -- or green onion, for those of you? YES.

I used farmer's market corn, a seriously gorgeous, heavy red bell pepper from our garden, and a shiny poblano and a big handful of cilantro from our CSA box. And what a delightful breakfast they made.

I haven't tried making my migas vegan with crumbled tofu, but that could potentially work very well for those of you who don't do eggs. Tofu scrambles are excellent, and this is essentially a scramble with extras -- so experiment away! I bet the results will be delicious.

Amounts are for two servings, but you can very easily double or triple this if you prefer.

Migas with fresh summer corn

Migas with fresh summer corn

4 small corn tortillas
4 eggs
1/2 small onion
1 jalapeño or other hot pepper - adjust for your spice tolerance
1 poblano pepper
1/2 red bell pepper
1 ear fresh corn
cumin, oregano, salt, pepper
handful of fresh cilantro or green onion
hot sauce, sour cream, carrot pickle, curtido, etc. to serve

Start by cutting your corn tortillas in half and then into strips 1/2 inch wide. Toast them on both sides in a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high heat. Work in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. When your tortilla strips are nice and crunchy and starting to brown, remove them to a plate and set aside.

Crack your eggs into a mixing bowl and mix together with a fork. Dice up your onion, jalapeño, poblano, and bell pepper, and add them to the eggs.

Husk and de-silk your corn before cutting it off the cob. We've talked about how to do this many times; I like to simply put my ear of corn down on the cutting board, slice a slab of kernels off the side, rotate, and repeat until all the kernels are removed. Someday I need to do a photo tutorial of this, but today is not that day.

Add your corn to the egg mixture. Season with a scant few shakes of salt and plenty of pepper, cumin, and oregano. Stir everything together until well amalgamated.

Add a bit more butter or oil to your hot skillet before tipping in the eggs. Scramble over medium heat until the eggs are just a hair underdone for you. Then add in the reserved tortilla strips, stir, and cook for another minute or two, lowering the heat as needed. The eggs should be perfectly cooked and the tortillas should be warm through.

Serve your migas with a big handful of chopped cilantro or green onion on top. Garnish with whatever seems most appropriate to you -- hot sauce is the minimum at our house. Now eat it all in good health and good humor.

How are you eating the last of the summer corn?

13 September 2014

Emergency tuna pasta salad

Emergency tuna pasta salad

Sometimes -- like when you get home with approximately 35 minutes to make and eat lunch before the plumber is supposed to show up to fix your kitchen faucet -- emergency food has to happen. This tuna pasta salad is an excellent example.

This salad is 100% flexible, depending on what vegetables you happen to have kicking around your crisper or ready to eat in your garden. Use as much or as little as you like of practically every ingredient. Then nom it like a boss.

If you are in the no-meat camp, you obviously won't be using tuna here. I would probably go for some roughly mashed chickpeas or a couple diced hard-boiled eggs, but you should clearly feel free to experiment with whatever sounds good to you. And if you are in the no-pasta camp, rice or another grain of your choice would be an excellent substitute.

One standard can of tuna plus half a pound of pasta and as much veg as you like will make approximately two servings.

Emergency tuna pasta salad

Emergency tuna pasta salad

chunky pasta of your choice
a can of tuna
red pepper
green onion
fresh parsley
mesclun mix or other salad greens
olive oil
salt, pepper
dijon mustard

Put a pot of salted water on to boil. Cook your pasta while you're prepping the rest of your ingredients.

Drain your can of tuna and deposit it into a bowl.

Chop up your cucumber, red pepper, green onion, parsley, and salad greens. Add them to the bowl.

Season with olive oil, salt, pepper, and dijon mustard.

Check to see if your pasta is ready. When it's done, drain it and add it to the tuna and veg. Mix well. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Wow! It's done!

Now sit down and have some instant dinner. Or lunch. Or breakfast, if tuna salad for breakfast floats your boat.

What are your emergency back-up lunches?