• Posted by Jacquie Bellon on September 26th, 2008, 4:27 PM

    Mountain Bounty Farm, my local CSA, has an abundance of tomatoes this year; more fruit than can be included in the weekly distribution, sold at the Saturday’s Farmer’s Market, or to individuals focused on canning sauces and salsas.

    With the threat of global economic collapse on the front burner, my partner Steve and I have decided to invest in tomato futures by freezing, drying, canning, and gorging daily on this sublime fruit.

    Today is mostly cloudy and cool, a break from the blistering temperatures of summer. It’s a good thing that I’ve already dried 150 pounds of tomatoes in the last three weeks, when daytime temperatures stayed in the 90s with little humidity.

    The project starts with Steve harvesting and schlepping 30-pound boxes of dead ripe tomatoes from the field  up to his house where I pick them up and haul them to my house two miles away.  There, on the lawn, in the shade of the clematis, I set myself up with a table, a cutting board, and my good Japanese knife sharpened to a razor’s edge.

    One at a time, I slice each perfect, unblemished, juicy tomato into half-inch slices and lay them out on clean window screens.  When a screen is covered with red circles I move it to the deck where it straddles the railing.  There, it basks in the hot sun while a steady Sierra breeze fans it, keeping fruit flies away and allowing the slices to develop a thin, dry film that seals the surface.

    Before nightfall, I move the screens into the house where they span chairs and couches, safe from marauding bands of skunks, raccoons, foxes, deer, and the local bears. Two years ago, a gourmand and gourmet bear opened my French doors, found the chocolate stash in the pantry, took it outside below the deck and carefully unwrapped each morsel before eating it, whereupon it relieved itself next to the pile of wrappers, leaving no doubt as to its identity.

    But I digress. At sunrise the next day, when it’s already hot, I carefully pry each slice of tomato from the screen, to which it sticks a little, and flip them to dry on the other side, tasting along the way to make sure they are as delicious as I think they should be. Now the tomatoes are ready to go back on the deck for another lazy day of sunbathing.

    By nightfall on the second day, the slices are dry to the consistency of leather and burnished to a rich, sunburned alizarin crimson. In the morning they are ready for the transfer to ziplock bags and a 24-hour sojourn in the freezer to kill the eggs of any winged insect so bold as to burrow there. Now I am ready for the next 30-pound box.

    Days later we have enough dried tomatoes, nine or ten pounds, to see us through the winter and share with friends. For gifts, I clean the small, unusually shaped glass jars I’ve been saving all year, fill them with dried tomato slices, a bay leaf, a garlic clove, a basil leaf, and top them off with a fragrant olive oil. Our share is stored in tightly packed glass gallon jars in Steve’s pantry, to be added to hummus, whirled with cream cheese for a spread, or savored slowly, steadily, one slice at a time, hand to mouth.

    Jacquie Bellon, an artist, has lived and worked on the San Juan Ridge for the last 39 years. She presently teaches the practice of the illustrated journal (a process involving writing, collage, drawing, painting) to cancer patients, their families and caregivers. Her other discipline involves looking out at the view of the South Yuba canyon from her house, which she built from scratch with her ex-husband.

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