What’s the deal with the peel? March 27, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
Tags: canning, CSAs, heirloom varieties, preserving, tomatoes
Our friend Ben got an e-mail reminder yesterday that it’s time to pay the second installment of our CSA subscription fee. Now, in case you don’t know, CSA stands for “Consumer-Supported Agriculture,” and a CSA is a farm that grows produce in shares for its members, who pay in advance, which supports the farmers and pays their costs during the growing season, while letting them know in advance how much they should plant based on the number of members. Altogether, it’s a tidy little system: The farmer has guaranteed income, and the members get a wide assortment of local, farm-fresh produce.
Our particular CSA is Quiet Creek Farm, operated by farmers John and Aimee Good on land leased from the Rodale Institute, which is located in beautiful Pennsylvania farm country outside the tiny hamlet of Maxatawny. As you might guess if you know Rodale, Quiet Creek is an organic operation. In addition to supplying a fantastic selection of veggies and melons from June through November, Quiet Creek has a huge pick-your-own plot with an assortment of cutting flowers, herbs (including two our friend Ben can never get enough of, basil and cilantro), paste and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, snap peas, green peas, edamame, and bush beans. And they offer local, organic honey, raw-milk cheese and yogurt (thank God, raw milk is still legal in PA), eggs, meats, handmade soaps, even wild-caught salmon. Talk about a deal!
Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have three vegetable beds, and one of them is given over to perennial crops like asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, and comfrey. Even bringing the in-ground bed in the greenhouse into play once the greenhouse plants go out on the deck for the season, we can never grow all the fresh produce we want. So the CSA is a lifesaver.
But of course, with an abundance of pick-your-own tomatoes at our disposal last summer, as well as organic apples from the Rodale orchards, we felt it was time to drag out the huge water-bath canner and get serious about putting up some food. So our friend Ben and Silence Dogood attended a home food preservation workshop given by one of our farmers, Aimee Good. Then we went home and made several kinds of salsas, chutneys, tomato sauces, and applesauces, as well as pickled hot peppers. We were cookin’! Our friend Ben’s father got us an Excalibur dehydrator for Christmas (along with, bless his heart, an Orvis folding car ramp for our golden retriever, Molly, who’ll turn ten this year and isn’t as spry as she used to be), so we plan to add dehydrating to our food-preservation techniques this season.
All of which brings me finally to the peel-deal issue. Pretty much every cookbook and food preservation guide in the vast Hawk’s Haven cookbook archives insists that you peel tomatoes—and virtually every other fruit and vegetable known to man—before you cook or preserve them. Our friend Ben has long wondered why. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we grow organic, buy organic, and eat organic, so we don’t have to worry about pesticides in the skins of our fruits and veggies. But then, many of our cookbooks and preserving guides were written in the pre-World War II era, when all the world was organic, and that didn’t stop them from insisting that everything be peeled.
We, however, have found that our carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and etc. taste perfectly delicious with their skins left on. (Our friend Ben recently went into label shock after reading instructions on a bunch of asparagus that you should peel the stalks before cooking them. What are they thinking?!) Not to mention the time, trouble, and extra steps saved by not peeling.
Our friend Ben has spent years pondering this burning issue, and finally, I’ve arrived at a hypothesis. I have noted that heirloom varieties as a whole tend to have thicker, tougher skins than modern cultivars. Doubtless a tough skin provided useful protection for the fruit, root, or shoot concerned. This is especially true of tomatoes, where the skins of many heirlooms put up a good fight before succumbing to the knife or teeth. There is also the issue of older beans, which earned the name “string beans” because of a tough, fibrous thread along the side that had to be pulled off before the beans could be snapped (thus, “snap beans”) in half and cooked.
Plant breeders have, over the years, gotten rid of time-consuming impediments like strings and tough skins. But our friend Ben wonders if the directive to peel, peel, peel is a holdover from the days when it was a necessity, and has simply been passed down as gospel, part of the arcana of food preparation and preservation, without being questioned and reevaluated.
What do you think?