Seeing Red

This time every year I order lots of Blue Beech tomatoes for making purée and sauce to get us through until the beginning of the next tomato season. Blue Beech are a variety of paste tomato that can be cooked with skins and seeds and still remain wonderfully sweet, so processing them is dead easy: I trim the stem end, halve them , and throw them in the pot to cook down and disintegrate. Then I stick-blend the whole thing and run it in batches through the food mill to catch the skin fragments and seeds. It saves a lot of time, especially when dealing with a hundred pounds of them at a time as I did recently.

Most of what I make them into is an unseasoned purée, since it allows for maximum flexibility come cooking time. But I also make sauce, salsa, ketchup, and paste. Since the season isn’t over yet I may yet have another big tomato day ahead of me this week.

The salsa is smoked. I started making this a couple of years ago, and this time around I made a lot—16 pints—so I wouldn’t run out like I did last year. It’s so very good on so many things. I halve the tomatoes and put them in the smoker for an hour or so to get some good color and flavor on them, but not so long that they start to lose structural integrity.

Then I throw them all in the big pot along with jalapeños, onion, garlic, coriander, salt, and vinegar (all save the salt is homegrown/made) and cook it down until everything is totally soft. Then, as with the purée, a vigorous stick-blending and a trip through the food mill, followed by a seasoning check and then into jars for canning. It’s hot, smoky, sweet, and sour. I have already enjoyed the first jar on both last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast.

Update: I forgot to mention that I also made a big bottle of hot sauce. It’s a happy technique I stumbled upon last year, I think: I put the food mill over a different bowl than the one I want the salsa to end up in when I ladle the blended mixture into it, then let it sit there for 30 seconds or so before moving it over to the salsa bowl. This drains out a lot of the liquid, making for a nice thick salsa and yielding a good amount of potent liquid ripe for doctoring. I added a couple whole chopped cayenne peppers plus more garlic, coriander, vinegar and salt (and then later a little of the salsa that remained after canning the last nine jars) and re-blended and milled it into a medium thick, brick red sauce of compelling heat and flavor.

Also, After posting this, I saw this piece about an extra-frugal technique for getting every drop of juice from tomatoes. I endorse the efficiency, but the cook/blend/food mill method gets it all without the extra step. Obviously my preference for Blue Beech helps, since they really don’t seem to have any appreciable bitterness in the skins or seeds. The food mill catches all the seeds, and any skin bits that make it through the holes are too small to notice. What matters is that you find a method that works for you and the food you want to make, and which uses all the produce without making it too onerous for you to bother in the first place.

The ketchup is sort of like a grown-up version of the standard: instantly recognizable as ketchup, but with extra depth, a little smoke, and some heat. Sara Kate kindly linked to me in her recent recipe, which is a good one, and it’s not too far from mine except I add a few more things. In this batch, those things were smoked Jimmy Nardello peppers, blackcurrant and sherry vinegar, maple syrup, clove, and saffron. Saffron is a wonderful flavor enhancer, working almost like salt does to amplify taste, and I thought it might give a slightly Iberian cant to the result. Making your own condiments like this is always a good thing; it makes you realize how everything we think of as fixed is actually mutable, subject to our own tastes and preferences and the ingredients we have on hand. People pay serious money for clothes that are tailor made, but you can get bespoke food for next to nothing.

Jimmy Nardellos are super-sweet frying peppers that do well in our garden and make the best roasted peppers I have ever made. Smoking them takes that to another level; the wrinkled skins slip off like tissue paper and the interiors are like shiny crimson tongues that call out for capers, good olive oil, and garlicky toast. They added a lovely richness to the ketchup.

Here’s a shot of the heat of battle: on the left are tomatoes cooking down, on the right is ketchup thickening, and in back is the processed purée reducing a bit before going in jars.

Lots of jars, in fact; 100 pounds of fruit yielded almost exactly 50 pints of canned goodness. I like to reduce any leftover purée down to a much thicker paste and can it in half pint jars so nothing is wasted.

It’s a satisfying thing to have a cupboard full of jars. It’s also gratifying to not have to stand in clouds of steam all damn day more than a few times each year in order to bank these bountiful stores of summer sunshine against the harsh austerity that lurks around the corner.

6 comments to Seeing Red

  • If you have time and tomatoes, canning tomato juice is also a wonderful activity – winter mornings are special with a bright red glass of juice. I used to make that for my first huz and he LOVEd it.

  • Andrew

    One time I canned salsa, but it was in truth a misadventure involving my ill-conceived addition of green peppers to what I hoped would be tomato sauce. But upon opening the jars, it smelled more like salsa than something you’d want on pasta. Easy enough to doctor up on the stove to correct that, but since then I just make passato (puree) like you, which is easy to make into sauce or use for stews, soups, braises, etc. We did 130 lbs of tomatoes this year, and for the past two years have found the Weston Roma Electric Tomato Strainer to be extremely helpful. After cooking down the stemmed and halved or quartered tomatoes on the stove for a half hour, you put them in the machine and it crushes them and removes all the skins and seeds. It’s faster and easier than the stick blender/food mill method, and if this is something you plan on doing year after year, it’s a good investment. You can also use the included attachments to grind meat and stuff sausages.

  • John

    My mother was seated next to a plain person (probably mennonite) at a wedding in Pennsylvania and was asked if she’d done her cannin’ yet. She was embarrassed when she had to say no. — I make lacto-fermented ketchup all the time. Love it. Also lacto-fermented salsa from raw chopped ingredients is great.

  • [...] They were soft, fragrant, and highly addictive. The condiments were lacto-fermented carrot slices, homemade ketchup that I added a bunch of harissa to, arugula leaves, and a preserved lemon-roasted garlic aïoli. [...]

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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