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Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods: Crafting Tomato Junk

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Look, let’s be honest: Some of us are not ready to get into canning. We might live in Brooklyn, obsess about pickles, and splurge on artisanal cheese, but the prospect of mason jars and hot water baths is just too much, okay? Great. Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about a method of preserving that’s easier than canning.

Garden writer Margaret Roach suggests making tomato junk. Basically, tomato junk involves sauteing up a base of tomatoes with onions and garlic, and then adding any other vegetables that are on their way out. Stick the end result into your freezer, and it’s ready to go as a base for soups, stews, and more.

“It’s very, very easy,” said Roach, author of the book Backyard Parables and the website A Way to Garden. “You take from one teaspoon to one ton of anything edible left in your garden… including herbs.”

Unlike the vegetables used in canning, tomato junk can be comprised of any “last chance” produce that’s weathered, soft in spots, battered or bruised.

“It’s literally the last ditch effort to harvest the garden — even some things that maybe are a little not perfect, maybe you have to cut out a little bit here and there,” Roach said. “[You can make] these wonderful, colorful blocks of frozen goodness that you’re going to be so happy to have in February and March… to pull down and make a minestrone or use to be the base for your vegetarian chili, or you name it.”

(Photo: Margaret Roach/Erica Berger)

Roach hosts a gardening show, which airs Monday and Saturday mornings at 8:30, on the nation’s smallest NPR affiliate, Robin Hood Radio, in Sharon, Conn. She explained that she likes to save the best of her garden for canning purposes, since anything not perfect may deteriorate faster in a self-stable situation.

For tomato junk, Roach just cuts vegetables up into roughly equal sizes and adds them in depending on how long they take to cook. Carrots go in before zucchini or greens, for instance. Almost anything goes. She just advises to take it easy on things like chard, beet greens, or strongly flavored root vegetables like turnips. “Those can have strong flavors that can not work well in certain kinds of recipes, but if you stick to the basics, you’re okay,” Roach said.

Stack blocks of frozen tomato junk in the freezer and use within about three months. “I like to have a batch [of tomato junk] every year that’s sort of the base for minestrone,” Roach said. “So into that, I want to make sure that I have some green beans, plenty of onion and garlic, some summer squash… and some other greens. I love some of the leaf broccolis and kales and so forth.” She also has batches that include chili peppers that she uses to make chili. The trick, of course, is to label them clearly.

Below, find her directions for assembling tomato junk. And, if that seems too involved, here’s some last-minute, end-of-season advice from Roach: “Is even this informal recipe too much to manage, and the last tomatoes coming at you much too fast? Simply freeze whole ones in tightly sealed freezer bags with the air expressed for later use.”

Tomato Junk
by Margaret Roach

Transform the mad-stash last haul from garden or farmer’s market into colorful bricks of frozen goodness. Use them in the off-season as a base for soups (such as minestrone); chili; stews, or in any other recipe that calls for the usual can of tomatoes, assorted vegetables and water. I’ve even made curries and an improvised tikka masala-style dish with Tomato Junk as the starter.

  • olive oil
  • garlic
  • onion
  • 1 teaspoon to 1 ton anything edible left in your garden or at the farmer’s market, including herbs such as parsley and basil
  • tomatoes, equal to at least one-third the total volume of ingredients
  • water
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Especially good vegetable choices include: summer squash such as zucchini; green beans; brassicas such as kale or broccoli; chard.
  • Celery and carrots work well in batches that will become soup. Include spicier peppers in one batch and label its container with a Sharpie as such, for use in Mexican or Indian recipes later.
  • Trickier choices: cabbage, or beet or mustard greens, and other distinctive-tasting vegetables, including roots such as turnip; hot peppers; or eggplant, that might overtake the flavor or texture of the Junk.

Note: As with wine, each vintage is a little different.

In a soup pot, sauté plenty of chopped garlic and onion in olive oil.

When the pieces are soft and the onions clear, dump in cut-up tomatoes, either halved (for average plum types) or in wedges.

Start chopping again while those simmer, covered.

When you have cut everything else you’ve scavenged into bite-sized pieces, and the tomatoes have begun to go moist and bubbly, start adding the vegetables in the order of their cooking requirements — so leafy greens would go last, for instance. Cover. Juice released from the tomatoes should provide moisture to get other things softening.

Add water, between one-third the total volume and just enough to cover the mix. (Remember: If freezer space is at a premium, you can always dilute more later, when defrosting for use, plus some recipes are better with a more concentrated Junk.)

Cool and freeze in containers that are roughly the size of large cans of tomatoes, or about a quart.