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UC Davis 'Tomato Lab' Transforms Local Bounty Into DIY Skills

Julia Mitric / Capital Public Radio

Left to right: Sonia Fernandez, Janeth Naranjo and Conchita Naranjo stand at the test kitchen in a UC Davis food lab

Julia Mitric / Capital Public Radio

It's the last gasp of tomato season, when backyard gardeners ask "What in the world should I cook with all these tomatoes?"

A local non-profit called Family Hui Mainland brought that same question to food insecure families it works with in Yolo County. That led to a day of canning and recipe testing at a UC Davis food lab.

Inside the lab on a hot day in late summer, Janeth Naranjo is standing by the stove, keeping her eye on a simmering pot of rice. Her mother Conchita Naranjo watches nearby.

They're wearing matching aprons and hair nets that look like little, white shower caps. "We're making Mexican rice," Janeth explains. "With tomato, garlic, onion and chicken broth."

A few minutes later Conchita says the rice is done.  With a laugh, she points out in Spanish that she has no need for a kitchen timer - she's been cooking her whole life.

This version of Sopa de Arroz Mexicano is a dish they make at home all the time. But today the mother-daughter duo are cooking at a kitchen island in a UC Davis food lab.

Earlier in the day, the Naranjos and a dozen other women learned tomato pickling and canning techniques so they can make the most of local produce coming their way. Whether that's backyard tomatoes or a food bank donation from local Yolo County growers.

Tomato _lab _De Moura Bell _092916PUC Davis Food Science Professor Juliana De Moura Bell stands by jars of pickled tomatoes in a campus food lab. Julia Mitric / Capital Public Radio 

UC Davis food science professor Juliana De Moura Bell invited the women to the lab.

"These are the pickled tomatoes," she says, pointing to cases of cherry tomatoes in neat jars lining a metal prep table nearby. "And these are the dry ones with some Italian spices, so they're very delicious."

The "tomato lab" is the fruit of a collaborative effort between Yolo Food Bank, the non-profit Family Hui Mainland and the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health.

Family Hui works closely with Yolo County families, most of whom face food insecurity in their daily lives. A previous survey found tomatoes to be a top food preference within the community.

The next step involved staff from Yolo Food Bank. They prepared batches of canned, pickled and dried tomatoes (from local growers) to send out to the home cooks as base ingredients. Participants were invited to develop nutritious, tomato-based recipes their families would enjoy eating. Four recipes were chosen to be tested in the lab.

Professor De Moura Bell says the project looks at ways in which abundant, local produce can be used to make shelf-stable foods to feed communities in need. Down the road, De Moura Bell says the model could be replicated in other communities in the U.S. and abroad that don't have regular access to healthy food.

"The (women) are learning how to can tomatoes and pickle tomatoes so if they have an excess, a surplus, they can just preserve them and use them at a later time," she says.

So, starting with family favorites like Mexican rice, minestrone and spicy jambalaya, the home cooks tested recipes that could come in handy if somebody handed them a case of tomatoes.

Once the test dishes are done, the cooks will taste them and vote for their top pick.

Linda Zablotny-Hurst is director of development for Yolo Food Bank.

She says there's a bigger picture to this tomato lab project. Zablotny-Hurst says it's about food banks changing how they meet the needs of clients facing chronic food insecurity.

Yolo Food Bank works with a web of growers, manufacturers and grocers to get greater quantities of fresh, local produce into the hands of their clients. Zablotny-Hurst sees that shift happening at food banks across California.

But she points out how that bounty can lead to a dilemma of its own.

"If we're going to be getting a lot more fresh produce and we're developing programs to do that, what are we going to do with it all?" she asks.

"Some of it we're going to be able to hand out in a ready, timely fashion. Others we're going to have excess quantity of. Some of it may be just a little bit past its prime and more suitable for processing."

Processing wasn't new for several cooks in the tomato lab. Several women say they've worked in commercial canneries.

But after seeing how pickled tomatoes worked into their recipes, several of them said they'd try DIY preservation back at home.

After the taste test votes were tallied Sopa de Arroz Mexicano was the winning recipe.

As for Conchita Naranjo and her daughter Janeth, they voted for the dish they prepared in the test kitchen.

It's a classic.