Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tomato Juice - the next generation

(This guest post is written by Frank Wright.)

It is tomato season and time to haul out the old Victorio food strainer. Time to honor Virgil Ludington and share his passion with another generation. Virgil, a Michigan organic farmer, introduced me to the joys of summer tomatoes as well as navy beans, strawberries and apple cider during a five year period ending in 1978. In addition to farming, Virgil was a seedsman and dealer of Ashley wood stoves and Victorio food mills. He sold me the one pictured here in 1974.

The bowl of washed and cut tomatoes are a mix of Golden Jubilee, Early Goliath, various Brandywines and Amish Paste tomatoes from my garden. A mix like this is perfect for making a full flavored tomato juice. The Amish Paste give it a little more body than store bought juice. My tomato juice helpers are Peggy and my grandchildren. Sam (5) is loading tomatoes and Wes (3) is cranking them through the mill. They alternated these tasks at about 15 second intervals until the job was done.

The Victorio does a fabulous job of pushing all the skins and seeds out the end and the tomato juice and pulp through the screen and into the bowl. Here is what 5 minutes at most of easy cranking yields: 3 quarts of liquid sun and a nice little pile of tomato seeds and skins for the compost heap. The fresh juice will keep for a couple of days under refrigeration.

Wonderful as the juice is fresh, I prefer it just brought to a low simmer, cooled and refrigerated where it will now keep for a week or two. This is hypothetical since I've never had a jar, even the 1/2 gallon pictured above, last through a week. I like it best chilled and spiked with a generous splash of Chipotle pepper sauce. This juice can be canned by bringing to a boil and processing in a hot water bath for 15 minutes with 1/2 tsp kosher salt per quart jar. Simmer a little longer or use more Amish paste tomatoes and you can refrigerate or can the beginnings of tomato soup. Keep simmering with or without garlic, basil, oregano, etc and you are in tomato sauce country. Thick or thin, you decide. Why stop now? There is homemade catsup and the gold standard of home tomato processing: tomato paste without a hint of bitterness from overcooking.

Speaking of tomato catsup brings me full circle back to Virgil Ludington. We had spent the morning pitching a wagon load of Michigan navy beans through his beaner, a long, noisy contraption that shakes the beans out of the pods and blows all the bean straw and debris and bugs into a huge stack. It was powered by a long belt driven by a flywheel on the side of a tractor. You can still see beaners around, mostly abandoned in the "waste land" corner of a farm field but occasionally at old time steam tractor events in the fall. After cleaning beans we sat down for dinner with Virgil's wife, Mildred and his daughter and son-in -law, Lena and Chester. Dinner basically was a big pot of stewy navy beans with onions and salt pork and a huge platter of sliced tomatoes. Virgil would load up his plate with beans and tomato slices and pour, literally pour Hunts tomato catsup and spoonfuls of sugar on his tomatoes. I had this meal many times with them. I don't recall ever getting through one of these meals without Virgil exclaiming at some point, sometimes after a spoonful of beans, sometimes after a slice of catsup and sugar drenched tomato "Now that's good eating!"

I don't put catsup or sugar on my tomatoes but I always repeat Virgil's mantra with the first tomatoes and glass of juice of the season.

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