Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Crimson Tide

"Where the HELL have you been??!!"

You have every right to demand to know, but if you'd just take a peek at your calendar--or take a walk through your vegetable garden--I think you'd be able to make a pretty good guess at where I've been, what I've been doing, and why I've been MIA on this blog for more than a week and a half! That's right, dear friends, it's that glorious, crazy, exhausting, delicious time of year at long last. The peak moment that we could only dream of back in February as we started our humble flats of seeds under grow lights in the deep, darkness of winter. It's TOMATO TIME! If you don't believe me, observe. I picked one row on Sunday (and mind you, there are five rows), and this was what I got (picture below). And if you can even conceive of it, I have also been buying tomatoes by the half-bushel. You see, in a weak moment, I offered to teach some canning classes through my college's continuing education program. This Saturday will be my first one, featuring tomatoes and salsa.

So, I've been practicing. I started with whole tomatoes. Surprisingly, I'd never done them before, as I always figured they would be more trouble than they're worth. And guess what? I was RIGHT! By the time I washed, blanched, peeled, deseeded, and halved or quartered the tomatoes, then packed the jars, covered them with hot tomato juice, and processed them in two batches for a total of THREE HOURS, an entire day was gone. And for what? Eight ugly jars that all but exploded in the canner, leaving two inches of unsightly head space and an inch of clear liquid at the bottom. And when you finally get around to using these tomatoes, they are probably going to cook down to practically nothing. If you're making chili or stew or something, you'll no doubt need two jars, or 25% of your yield! Stupid. Totally not worth it. Spend two dollars for a large can of imported Italian San Marzanos at the store and get on with your life!

So my next brilliant idea was to buy one of those tomato press/food mill thingies that old Italian grandmothers use so that I didn't have to peel or seed the tomatoes. I bought another half bushel and went to work. I still needed to wash them, and upon the recommendation of one knowledgeable fellow on the Harvest Forum, after cutting the tomatoes, I gave each one a squeeze to get the excess liquid out so I wouldn't have to cook the sauce down as long. Basically, I was still deseeding them! The press worked pretty well and was easy to use, yielding a beautiful, seedless puree. And the work probably took a couple of hours of active time, then three hours of passive time to cook it down and reduce the puree by half. I got six gorgeous red pints, but a yield which, again, seems pitiful. However, it's concentrated, so one pint will do for a recipe. Still, plain tomato sauce just doesn't do much for me. I want to be able to open a jar, heat it up, pour it over pasta, and chow down. I don't want to have to cook something for three hours initially, then add other things and cook it again before I use it.

So here's the conclusion I've come to, taking me full circle back around to where I started. Canning plain tomatoes is pointless and just not worth the work and expense when commercial products are just as good, or dare I say, superior. However, when the garden tomatoes are exploding and you just can't eat them all fresh, it is a fine idea to put up some tomato sauce. But I much prefer to make a pasta sauce involving other veggies--onions, peppers, squash, herbs, or all of the above. You end up with a better yield, great flavor, and a product that can be used immediately upon opening without further fuss. You are also preserving other things from your garden that will be very welcome in the dead of winter when they are scarce and/or expensive. And best of all, you can have a batch done from unwashed tomatoes to jars cooling on the counter in about two hours. This is possible if you abandon blanching and peeling, which I do happily and with no remorse. If I want a chunky sauce, I just tolerate the little pieces of peel in the sauce, calling it "rustic." But if they offend me, I can always whiz the sauce through the food processor or the blender for 30 seconds and that will take care of the problem. Or the best solution of all, in my opinion, is to take the stick blender to your stock pot of sauce after it's finished cooking. You'll get a smooth sauce, of course, but the bits of peel and any seeds will be dealt with quite effectively.

I tried a different sauce this year, a recipe from my beloved Harvest Forum called Chunky Basil Pasta Sauce, which involved a good bit of red wine and a lot of fresh herbs, among other tasty things. When it finished cooking and I sampled it, I found it pretty acidic (it also calls for red wine vinegar in addition to the red wine), even though I added some extra sugar to counterbalance the flavors. It was late, so I chucked the cooked sauce in the fridge to be jarred and processed the next day. The following day, I liked it much better, and I suspect that it will mellow more in the jars. In fact, I have decided that it would make a terrific pizza sauce, especially if I had cooked it down a little further until it was super-thick. However, I think I prefer the basic Ball Blue Book Seasoned Tomato Sauce that I made last year. That's the one that we'll make in my canning class this weekend, along with Annie's Salsa, of course.

By reading this lengthy post, you have saved yourself three hours and 25 bucks by not having to take my class. And I'll even give you one more bonus gift for free. As I have been up to in red sauce lately, I haven't had much time for any other cooking that didn't involve tomatoes. Plus, school is back in full swing, so I'm working my usual long hours. And my roommate is still in Minneapolis for work, so cooking for one sometimes seems like too much effort. Hence, I have been eating a lot of sandwiches lately. What a sad but typical picture--me, hunched over the kitchen island, eating a sammy while a cauldron of tomato sauce bubbles behind me. Rather, it would be sad, if I hadn't recently invented what may be among the world's greatest sandwiches! I will call it The Fire and Ice Wrap. Here's what you do: you take a sandwich wrap (preferably a red one, like tomato-basil), spread this with a little garlic mayo (mayo with a smashed garlic clove mixed in) and a tablespoon of Wickles' fiery hoagie and sub relish (available in the pickle section of your megamart), then top with thinly-sliced buffalo-style chicken from the deli, slices of smoked provolone, slivers of zesty red onion, and finally--to cool the fire--slices of ripe avocado. Roll, cut in half, plate, and enjoy. This fabulous sandwich will give you the energy and will to make it through even the most tedious of canning projects.

Chunky Basil Pasta Sauce
(Source: posted on
GardenWeb's Harvest Forum)

8 cups coarsely chopped peeled tomatoes , about 9-12 tomatoes or 4 lbs (I washed but did not peel mine)
1 cup chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
2/3 cup red wine
1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 5% strength
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon pickling salt (I used about 1 1/2 tablespoons!)
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar (I used about 1/4 cup)
16 oz. can tomato paste

Combine tomatoes, onion, garlic, pepper flakes, wine, vinegar, basil, parsley, salt, sugar and tomato paste in a very large non-reactive pan. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 40 minutes or until mixture reaches desired consistency, stirring frequently.

Remove hot jars from canner and ladle sauce into jars to within 1/2 inch of rim (head space). Process 35 minutes for pints jars and 40 minutes for quarts in a boiling water bath. Yield: 8 cups

1 comment:

Randi said...

I learned( or is it learnt?) my lesson w/ tomatoes the first summer I knew Robin. I have some pics I'll have to dig out. We did bushels of tomatoes with her cousin and ended up with about 7 jars. I didnt like them either. The recipe we followed called for some lemon juice too. Oh and I think in your post last year you said you werent going to do tomatoes until you had an electric press. Did you get that?

Robin is going out of town next week and I think I'll be eating lean cuisines for dinner all week.