Based on past experience, it looks like our dryness will get worse before it gets better. The signs are everywhere. Fruit trees are confused, with many sporting the buds they usually put out in the spring. Our population has increased significantly since the last prolonged drought, which means there is more pressure on our groundwater tables, wells and water supply systems.
But there are silver linings. One appears to be an extension of summer crops, particularly tomatoes, peppers and chillies, zucchini, eggplant and some melons.
Triple T Farms in east Santa Rosa has a huge selection of peppers, many of which are high on the Scoville scale, which measures how hot a pepper is. They also have shishitos, similar to Padrons.
Armstrong Valley Farm, near Guerneville, also offers shishitos. Hector’s Honey in Fulton has lots of peppers, and when I last visited the Farmer’s Market they had tomatoes too.
The Patch has hybrid and heirloom tomatoes, which should be available until Thanksgiving. The Sonoma Valley Farm also has plenty of zucchini, peppers, eggplant, and melons. Their fall harvests overlap with the lingering bounty of summer; broccoli and cauliflower are coming in strong and have mellow due to our low night and early morning temperatures.
The Patch gets its name from a tiny microclimate just east of Sonoma’s town square. This small plot of land has temperatures that allow the farm to be both the first and the last local farm with tomatoes.
In North Petaluma, GreenString Farm Store (3571 Old Adobe Road) still has tomatoes, as well as four varieties of peppers, from hot serranos to mild Jimmy Nardellos.
If you have the time, it may be a good idea to can or freeze the tomatoes, as we are heading towards a canning shortage. Expect the price to rise significantly over the next few weeks and months.
California is the largest tomato producer in the United States, but exports have declined and farmers have responded by downsizing their plantings.
There are many ways to store tomatoes to use until the next harvest begins in June 2023. You can ferment them, freeze them, can them, or dry them. As for peppers and chilies, I recommend searing the skins, peeling them, then canning them or putting them in the freezer, where they will be good for about 6 months, after which they will be soggy.
To freeze tomatoes, sear the skins over high heat, peel them, and put them in freezer bags. I’m not a fan of dropping a tomato into boiling water to loosen the skin; the process cooks about a quarter inch of the tomato flesh. Frozen tomatoes are not good for salads but are great for soups and stews.
When it comes to canning tomatoes, there are many variations of a fairly simple process. Some home canners add garlic cloves or fresh basil sprigs, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. Garlic can take on an unpleasantly strong flavor and basil will limit your options. If you must, puree some fresh basil with olive oil and a little salt, freeze it in ice cube trays, and pack the frozen cubes in freezer bags.
This is the basic method for canning tomatoes. It’s simple and straightforward, giving you flexibility when you’re ready to use them.
Canned tomatoes, Raw Pack, with a variation for Hot Pack
Makes about 6 quarts or 12 quarts
15 pounds of ripe tomatoes
3 cups or so freshly prepared tomato juice (recipe follows)
½ cup fresh lemon juice, plus more for pints
Prepare a large canning kettle, half full of water and over medium-high heat.
Peel the tomatoes and prick them, one at a time, on the tines of a dinner fork. Rotate the tomato while holding it in a high gas flame or near an electric burner set to high. After grabbing all of the tomatoes, use your fingers to peel back and discard the skin.
Cut out the cores from the stems.
Scald six 1-quart jars (or 12 1-quart jars) with boiling water. Put the lids and rings in a metal bowl and cover with boiling water.
Pack the tomatoes, whole or in quarters, into the jars. Add tomato juice to fill any spaces; some tomatoes will be juicy enough that you don’t have to add extra juice. The tomatoes should be covered up to ½ inch below the rim of the jar. Add 4 teaspoons of lemon juice to each liter or 2 teaspoons to each pint.
Put the lids and rings on but don’t overtighten the rings; they should be secure but not too tight. Treat in a hot water bath according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Lay a few tea towels on a work surface and carefully transfer the tomatoes from the boiling bain-marie to the tea towels. As they cool, you should hear the lids pop off, a sign that they’re sealed tight. Any jars that do not seal tightly should be stored in the refrigerator and used within 1-2 weeks.
Variation: Prepare the boiling water bath and jars as described. After peeling and coring the tomatoes, cut each in half along its equator and remove the seeds by squeezing or coaxing them with your finger.
Cut each half into 4 wedges. Put the tomatoes in a large, deep pot over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the tomatoes come to a boil. Remove from heat and put in jars. Top up with tomato juice if needed and continue as described in the main recipe.
Why make your own tomato juice? Because you have a lot of tomatoes or because you prefer its taste to commercial options. You can also use it in soups, sauces, stews and braises.
Makes about 3 pints
10 pounds ripe tomatoes, seared, peeled and cored
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Cut the tomatoes in half by their equators. Hold them one at a time over a colander placed atop a bowl and squeeze out or squeeze out the seeds and gel.
Mix the seeds, gel and juices together and discard the seeds.
Put the seeds and collected juices in a large pot over low heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until tomatoes begin to simmer. Cover and simmer very gently for 20 minutes; Remove from heat and let cool.
Run the tomatoes through a vegetable mill and put them back on the heat. Stir in lemon juice and salt.
This should make about 12 cups. Enjoy immediately or pour into scalded glass jars as described in previous recipe and process according to jar manufacturer’s instructions.
Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes”. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.