Adventures in Tomatoes: Spaghetti Sauce

Tomatoes are the perfect canning ingredient. They make excellent additions to a wide variety of recipes and they can beautifully. But they’re also a ton of work and require some specialized knowledge to get right, so here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Ingredients, from the Presto Pressure Canner Manual, FDA-tested:

  • 30 pounds ripe tomatoes
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 5 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 cup chopped celery OR green pepper
  • 1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (I omitted this)
  • 4 tablespoons minced parsley (I forgot to buy this)
  • 2 tablespoons oregano (I used fresh instead of dried and more than this)
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • My addition: half a cup chopped fresh basil

The recipe says not to increase the proportion of onions, peppers, or mushrooms. I take that to mean you can play with the spices and herbs a little bit with impunity.

 

Selecting Tomatoes

The first tomatoes to come on a good sale in most stores around here are big field tomatoes. Don’t use them for canning. They’re mostly water and they’re picked underripe, so they’ll be super-acidic and you’ll have to cook them forever to get a good consistency. The Italian grandmother in the grocery store talked me out of those. The key, according to that lovely granny, was that they should smell sweet and flavourful.

Tomatoes for sauce
This was my mix of orange and red tomatoes for sauce. The sauce turned out a little bit more orange than most spaghetti sauces, but the flavour is perfect.

If you are too impatient to wait for the big boxes of Roma tomatoes that the Italian grannies use, the next best thing is the cluster tomatoes still on the vine. They have to be ripe enough to fall off the vine with almost no pressure. That’s what I bought, and the ones that were on the best sale were orange.

I used a mix of types for this recipe: about half were orange and the rest were cluster red tomatoes and a few Romas I found.

If you wait about a week longer than I did, you can buy a case of Roma tomatoes for about a third of what I paid. I did that too, and canned them for other recipes. But that’s a different story.

Prepping Tomatoes

The first job, and the most labour-intensive one, is to skin the tomatoes. You do this by starting a small pot of boiling water, letting a few tomatoes boil for a minute or two, transferring them to ice water, and then to a cutting board. Wait until they’re cool enough to handle and then the skins should come off pretty easily. Sometimes the skins will crack while they’re in the boiling water, but sometimes they won’t and you can still peel them.

Orange tomatoes
This is what well-behaved tomatoes look like after being boiled for a couple of minutes and then dipped in ice water. I barely had to touch them to get the peels to slip off.

First Cooking

Yes, the cooking is done in two stages. The first stage is to get the tomatoes to release their juices. This takes about half an hour for a full pot (I had a very full pot.) I cut out the cores, chopped them in half, and put them on to cook. After a while, when there was more juice than there had been, I took a potato masher to them. When they were pretty thoroughly crushed and offering no further resistance, I transferred them to my food processor to blend into a smooth purée.

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The Roma tomato portion of the project, beginning the first cook. I did this part in three batches of about ten pounds of tomatoes each.

You’re going to have to process the first cooking of the tomatoes in a few batches, probably, and then find a way to set them aside until you’ve got them all ready to go in the same pot. I found I had too much to go in the same pot until halfway through the second cooking phase.

Is it sauce yet?

Now that you’ve got all your tomatoes puréed and hopefully down to only one or two pots (I had three) you get to put it all on the heat for the second cooking. This is the stage where you simmer it until the bulk of the water evaporates. You’re going to diminish the volume of this sauce by a third to a half, and it takes a couple of hours, depending on the juiciness of your tomatoes.

After you get the tomatoes started on their second cooking, grab a frying pan and your olive oil, onion, garlic, green pepper/celery, and mushrooms. Cook it all in the frying pan until it’s soft, then add it to your biggest pot (hopefully your only pot) of cooking tomatoes. This is also where you add your green herbs or dried ones if that’s what you’re using. (Seriously, splurge on the fresh stuff. I’ll show you what to do with the leftover fresh herbs, but even if they go bad in the fridge, it’s worth using them in this recipe.)

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This is the biggest pot with about half the tomatoes simmering in it. I’ve added the stuff I fried up but not the herbs yet.

Now you sit and watch your sauce simmer down until there’s a whole lot less of it.  Stir it pretty often. If you’ve got things in several pots, you want to gradually reduce down to just one pot. During this time, prepare your jars. The recipe says it made nine pints; I got double that, so I guess I didn’t cook it down as much as they were expecting.

If you want to water-bath can this recipe, it’s safe to do so IF you add extra acid, probably in the form of lemon juice or vinegar. We have acid reflux dogging our recipe choices in this household so I didn’t want to increase the acidity, and I can get more jars in my pressure canner than in my water-bath canner anyway.

Go through the jarring and pressure-canning process, 20 minutes for 500mL jars and 25 for 1L jars, at 11 pounds of pressure, then enjoy your sauce for as long as it takes you to eat it all.

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Aren’t they pretty?

 

The Story of Rhubarb

Or at least, MY story of rhubarb.

Dial back the rotary phone of your memory to the year 1982. The long Winnipeg winter was finally over. The six solid weeks of being bundled up literally to my eyebrows in the -20C temps had given way to the reluctant, cool spring of that part of the country. The ice rink my dad had made in the backyard had melted. And over the back fence, our left-hand neighbour was turning over the earth.

The Schusters were an elderly couple with an accent six-year-old Velvet had to work to understand. With my grandparents all in far-away Ontario, I cheerfully and unthinkingly adopted them as an extra set. He was friendly and kind to my brother and me, and my mom gently encouraged us to spend time there. When I asked her why, she told me they were holocaust survivors. I doubt she told me very much then about what that meant. In any case, adopting Mr. Schuster meant exploring the wonders of Mr. Schuster’s Garden.

He grew vegetables I’d never heard of and have only recently tried for the first time, like kohlrabi. He grew corn. The middle of each of his beds had tall poles for beans and peas. But most importantly to this story, he grew rhubarb.

I’ve since learned that rhubarb is basically a weed of a vegetable. It will grow almost anywhere and especially likes the spots no other plant will have much to do with. But at the time, those tart red stalks were a revelation. He showed us where his rhubarb had jumped the fence and started to grow in our unkempt, recently-dried-out ice rink lawn, and from that day on I was hooked.

Mom would give us a little Tupperware tumbler with an inch of sugar in the bottom. We’d lick the stalk, puckering up with the sourness of it, and then dip it in the sugar. I suspect my love of sour candy stems from those early experiences eating raw rhubarb from Mr. Schuster’s garden.

Dial forward now, past touch-tone and cordless all the way to smart phones, to the rhubarb that grows in my ex-husband’s front yard. I planted it there years ago, culled from the excellent plant that was spreading too much at my mother’s house, and it’s been happily tussling with the bindweed ever since. This year, there was a bumper crop. My ex’s partner is allergic to rhubarb, so I harvest it and cook with it and get my kids involved in all things rhubarb, partly for its own sake and partly so I can tell them about Mr. Schuster, kicking back at the darkness by planting a wonderful vegetable garden and grandparenting two lonely little kids far from their own family.

sdrThis is about a quarter of what I got this year. Some of the stalks were two inches around.

So, the first step in using this lovely vegetable is to find a supply. My preference is the forgotten corners of friends’ yards, but the grocery store will supply you in a pinch. It’s ripe when the stalks are tall, thick, and red. If you’re harvesting, take a paring knife and a big reusable bag. Chop off the stalk at the base, chop off the leaf at its base, drop the stalk in your bag, and compost the leaf.

When you return to your kitchen with your bounty, wash it all, chop it into one-inch pieces, and stew it in just a tiny bit of water until it mashes up easily under the spoon. Some people suggest adding sugar, but I never do because I want to be able to control the sugar in the finished recipe, and it’s hard to do that if I’ve added some at this stage.

Rhubarb comes ripe before any other fruit – it’s an early-spring vegetable though I’ve been known to get second and third crops out of it well into the summer – so I usually don’t cook with it immediately. This year, I got smart. Most jam recipes call for either two or four cups of rhubarb, so I decided to freeze it in paper cups from the dollar store that held one cup. I let the mushy rhubarb cool in the pot, then ladled it into my paper cups and covered it with cling wrap. I put them in the freezer in a single layer until they were solid, then stacked them. From that first batch, I got eight cups; the second harvest a few weeks later netted me another two. The three below are all that remain.

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Recipes so far include the obligatory strawberry-rhubarb jam that I did a second time because it was so delicious, and a wonderful blubarb that I had the foresight to double.

We moved back to Ontario the following winter so I only ever spent that one spring and summer with Mr. Schuster. Being only seven at the time, I didn’t do a good job of keeping track of people in Winnipeg when I left, and I don’t know the rest of Mr. Schuster’s story beyond where it intersected briefly with mine. I like to think that maybe I gave him some gifts to balance the many he gave me.

Thank you, Mr. Schuster.