Freezing Tomatoes, Pesto & Chutney to Enjoy in Winter Dishes

by Cyndy Crist

Platter of fresh heirloom tomatoes (by Cyndy Crist)
Platter of fresh heirloom tomatoes (by Cyndy Crist)

Despite the super-hot summer we’ve had and the fact that we’re only in mid-August, just a few cool nights and chilly mornings have already sparked thoughts about preserving the bounty of the summer garden for the long, cold days of winter ahead.   Even though I’m certain Mother Nature has some more hot days in store for us this year out our way in Minnesota, it still makes sense to take advantage of the wealth of tomatoes, basil, and other fruits, vegetables, and herbs at Farmers’ Markets and in one’s own garden right now.

I have four favorite things to do with tomatoes and herbs that involve freezing, my preferred way to “put up” much of the garden’s bounty (and a recent project involving water bath canning reminded me why that’s the case!).  One involves a maximum of five minutes of work.  The others are also easy, if slightly more complicated.  Let’s start with the easiest and move on from there.

Freezing Whole Tomatoes:

2011 Frozen Smoked Whole Tomatoes
2011 Frozen Smoked Whole Tomatoes

For simplicity, there’s nothing quite like freezing whole tomatoes.  All I do is wash and dry the tomatoes, pop them into Ziplock bags, squeeze out as much air as possible, and throw them in the freezer.  I’ve read suggestions to peel them first, but I find that the skins pull off easily as they thaw and/or cook, and with the peel on, they are more easily separated when removed from the freezer.  I primarily freeze Roma tomatoes since I tend to use them in pasta sauces, chili, and other dishes in which their proportionally meatier nature is a plus, but this year I plan to freeze some other varieties as well.  There’s nothing quite like being able to use unprocessed whole tomatoes of superior quality in winter-time cooking.

Freezer Pesto:

Fresh Basil Plant (by Cyndy Crist)
Fresh Basil Plant (by Cyndy Crist)

Only slightly more work to make is freezer pesto.  I love pesto, and since large bunches of basil at summer and fall Farmers’ Markets are so much cheaper, fresher, and better than those purchased in the winter, this is the time to make it, especially since it freezes so well.  I follow Marcella Hazan’s directions to mix the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in a food processor until smooth and creamy and add the cheese (she recommends both parmesan and Romano cheese, though I often use only parmesan) only after the lovely green sludge is thawed and ready to use.  If you sometimes use pesto in small quantities, you can freeze it in ice cube trays, popping the frozen cubes into a plastic bag to maintain the flavor during storage.  Otherwise, any size or shape of freezer-safe container will do.

Hazan’s proportions are:

  • Frozen Pesto (by Cyndy Crist)
    Frozen Pesto (by Cyndy Crist)
    • ½ cup of olive oil
    • 3 tablespoons of pine nuts
    •  2 garlic cloves
    • per 2 cups of tightly packed basil leaves
    • salt to taste
    • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan and
    • 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Romano added before serving.

This is the time to use your very best extra virgin olive oil, and please don’t even think of using the “parmesan” from that green canister. The recipe also calls for adding 3 tablespoons of softened butter at this point.  While I suspect this would make it rich and delicious and as much as I love butter, this has never seemed necessary to me.  In fact, I don’t always add cheese. I’m not being lazy; sometimes I just want to savor the nutty, garlicky, herbal flavor of the sauce sans dairy products.  In any case, a spoonful of pesto on pasta or a crostini is like a bite of summer at any time of the year, and it’s wonderful stirred into many soups (think pistou).

Freezer Tomato Sauce:

Gathering Ingredients for Tomato Sauce (by Cyndy Crist)
Gathering Ingredients for Tomato Sauce (by Cyndy Crist)

Another great thing to freeze is tomato sauce, something that can be as simple as cooking tomatoes, onions, and garlic with olive oil, salt, and pepper (which also offers maximum flexibility for its later use) or that can be given a more complex flavor with the addition of other vegetables and/or herbs.  One of the recipes I’m going to try was published in the August 13 “Dining” section of the New York Times as part of their remembrance of Julia Child on the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday.  It is a slight simplification of a recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1, and it sounds both versatile and delicious.

The adaptation offered by Julia Moskin primarily differs from Julia Child’s recipe in that Moskin doesn’t peel and seed the tomatoes. I think I’m going to split the difference between the two versions, seeding but not peeling them. I’m also wondering about how much difference it would make to use fresh rather than dried orange peel and will likely find out, since I don’t have dried peel on hand (I could probably find it at Penzeys, but how often would I actually use it?).  Here’s the recipe as printed in the New York Times:

Coulis de Tomates a la Provencale

(Tomato Sauce with Mediterranean Flavors)

Adapted by Julia Moskin from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child


  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2/3 cup minced yellow onions
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
  • 5-6 pounds ripe tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/8 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press
  • Herb bouquet: 8 sprigs parsley, 1 bay leaf and 4 sprigs thyme tied in cheesecloth
  • ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
  • ½ teaspoon dried basil, oregano, marjoram or savory
  • Large pinch saffron threads
  • 12 coriander seeds, lightly crushed
  • 2-inch piece dried orange peel (or ½ teaspoon granules)
  • 2-3 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)

1. In a large heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-low heat.  Add onions, sprinkle with salt and cook slowly for about 10 minutes, until tender but not browned.  Sprinkle on flour and cook slowly for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally; do not brown.

2. Meanwhile, fit a food processor with the coarse grating blade. Working in batches, push tomatoes through feed tube to make a coarse puree.

3. Stir tomatoes, sugar, garlic, herb bouquet, fennel, basil, saffron, coriander, orange peel and 1 teaspoon salt into pot. Cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes, so the tomatoes will render their juice. Uncover and simmer for about an hour, until thick. The sauce is done when it tastes cooked and is thick enough to form a mass in the spoon. Remove herb bouquet and taste. Season with salt, pepper, sugar and tomato paste, and simmer two minutes more. Sauce may be used immediately, refrigerated or frozen for up to 6 months. Yields about 1 quart.

Putting up Tomato Chutney:

Finally, I’m a great lover of chutneys, and one of my favorites to make is Hot Tomato Chutney, a recipe from The Herbal Pantry by Emilie Tolley and Chris Mead.  They suggest this chutney as a good accompaniment to cold meats and chicken.  I love to spread it on sandwiches (turkey and chicken are favorites but it’s also great with ham) and to spoon it on scrambled eggs or over cream cheese and served with crackers as an hors d’oeuvres.  It’s also wonderful as part of a cheese course, working equally well, I think, with creamy goat cheeses and aged cheddars.

Hot Tomato Chutney (by Cyndy Crist)
Hot Tomato Chutney (by Cyndy Crist)

I love making chutneys, which fill the house with their spicy, fruity, sweet/sour scent.  I generally follow this recipe exactly as written, although I sometimes use only one jalapeno or substitute a slightly milder pepper.  You’ll note that this one can be processed in a hot-water bath if that’s your preference.  But I’ll stick with freezing – call me lazy, but I find that so much less fuss and the end results are great.

Hot Tomato Chutney
From The Herbal Pantry by Emilie Tolley and Chris Mead

3 pounds ripe tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 large red pepper, chopped
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
½ cup raisins
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup chopped cilantro

Place all the ingredients except the cilantro in a large non-aluminum saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved.  Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 30 minutes. Stir in the cilantro for the last few minutes of cooking. Pack in sterilized jars and seal. Freeze or process in a hot-water bath for 15 minutes.

Addendum from Dorothy on more ways to preserve tomatoes for winter:

How-to Dry your Heirloom Tomatoes
How-to Dry your Heirloom Tomatoes

Drying (or Dehydrating) Tomatoes:

For another great way to preserve those heirloom tomatoes for winter, you can visit this link.  It is an earlier post on drying tomatoes, in particular the Principe Borghese heirloom tomato.



Purchased Chutneys:

One of HeathGlen's Chutneys
One of HeathGlen’s Chutneys

Of course, if you want to turn the preserving over to someone else, you can always purchase a chutney from HeathGlen’s website .  The Cranberry-Port Wine-Sage Chutney that will be available from HeathGlen in mid-October will be in the feature article of SAVEUR’s November 2012 issue, and a blueberry chutney or stone fruit chutney usually makes appearance in the store in October.