margaret on wnyc radio: making 'tomato junk,' a 'last chance food'

pail of vegetables, just pickedI CALL IT ‘TOMATO JUNK,’ and it’s my last-dash, mad-stash remedy for everything that’s still edible in the garden when frost threatens, or when I’m just too tired to keep at it, and ready to pull it all. I talked about Tomato Junk today with Amy Eddings of NPR’s New York City affiliate, WNYC (listen in now!)–about how to transform the final, precious hauls from garden or farmer’s market into colorful bricks of frozen goodness. Use it in the offseason 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. Like this:

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LISTEN IN to my chat with WNYC’s Amy Eddings, on their “Last Chance Foods” segment that aired today. Their whole season of “Last Chance Foods,” part of WNYC’s version of “All Things Considered,” is archived here.

tomato junk recipe


  • 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
  • salt and pepper to taste

Especially good vegetable choices include: summer squash such as zucchini; green beans; brassicas such as kale or broccoli; chard.

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.

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.


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.

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

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.


      1. Jan McKinnon says:

        I look forward to reading this every Sunday and never fail to find something I had never known or something I just can’t wait to try. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us! BTW I made several batches of roasted cherry tomatoes this summer to freeze and I almost couldn’t stop eating them to put them in bags!

  1. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Yes, this is exactly what I’m trying to do: to use every possible bit of my garden in a thrifty, creative way! Including broccoli and cauliflower leaves and herb bits and blossoms. Actually, next year I plan to keep this mind-set throughout the growing/ harvesting season, starting to save for the Winter right from the start. BTW, High Mowing Seeds linked to a very interesting article barBara Damrosch in ‘Mother Earth News’ about tips from folks in different time zones for how to keep growing/ harvesting during the cold months. I’d love to have you write a summary of your ideas on this topic. Though you may be ready to take a break from the active, hard work involved in food gardening. I appreciate your knowledge on food security. One question I haven’t been able to get answered is how the lesser light in a hoop house or greenhouse situation affects the nitrate levels in food plants–whether they’re safe to eat?

  2. Shery says:

    Thanks for the idea. I’ve been scrabbling trying to get the very last of the garden taken care of. All I have left is some lettuce, cherry tomatoes, two zucchinis, onions, and shallots. This should make a good batch of “junk” along with some of my fresh herbs.

  3. I’ve been making Tomato Junk for years – just didn’t know it had a name! Good tip on freezing the tomatoes whole, too – our property is a former apple orchard, and we had a bumper crop this year, so we’ve been freezing them whole. They thaw fine for use in pies, crockpot oatmeal and apple-walnut stuffing!

    1. margaret says:

      Very cute, Lisa. See, I should have TRADEMARKED it! :) Never froze apples. Thanks for that thought — oh, wait, I think my freezers are all overstuffed!

  4. Nancy says:

    If I have a bumper crop of eggplant along with tomatoes, I make a ton of caponata. It’s great hot, cold, appetizer, lunch and freezes very well.

  5. Bette says:

    Could or would you please divulge the number of tomato plants that you personally grow, on average, in your garden. I have eight plants this season and am finding that even with the tomatoes that have suffered slug damage, and are composted, I probably need to cut back. Thanks for all the timely info that you supply.

    1. John says:

      Hi, Margaret. I agree that this is a great idea. I have been doing it for years. Due to a lack of freezer space, I can my Tomato Junk. It require a pressure canner (not water bath) and the use of citric acid or bottled lemon juice. There are a number of tested recipes out there that are similar and work as long as the tomato/other vegetable mix is in proportion. The advantage of freezing is that the proportions do not matter.

      By the way, my Rodale “Stocking Up 111” dated 1986 has a freezing recipe for Tomato Junk. I don’t know if it is in a more recent edition.

  6. Katie C. says:

    I make a version of this that I call Kitchen Sink Soup…as in everything but the kitchen sink. I make it when I need to do a fridge/freezer cleanout but it comes out like yours. I start with a can or jar of tomatoes and throw in whatever I’ve got on hand in the veggie drawer or the ends of some frozen veg bags. You can even add frozen hash browns or regular potatoes cut in chunks. I also use a lot of different spices including chili powder and hot sauce – adds a little zing.

  7. Joan S. says:

    HELP! I’m fairly sure that I found and made a caponata recipe off of this website a few weeks ago. It had tomato/oregano sauce and a tsp of bakers chocolate in it and was delicious! Can’t find anything else that sounds as good. Does anyone remember or have this? Having never made it before, I had no idea how much I’d like it or how well it would freeze. If anyone can point me in the right direction I’d be very grateful…

  8. Jenn says:

    Just to clarify, can green tomatoes or partially ripened tomatoes work for this? We pulled our plants and have a bunch of tomatoes trying to ripen on the windowsill but getting soft…

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jenn. I don’t think green ones would provide the toamto-ey base flavor; you could get away with some partly ripened if you had a good number of ripe ones to dominate I guess. How to ripen a tomato indoors is covered here. Often you can get he ones with a little color already to get ripe enough for the Junk use.

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