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.

cof
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.)

cof
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.

cof
Aren’t they pretty?

 

Beef Stew in a Jar

One of my goals for my canning this summer is to reduce my fast-food intake during the school year. For me, there are two situations that lead to fast food. The first is the evening rush when teenagers have somewhere to be at 7 and my wife doesn’t get home until 6:30. The second is first thing on a weekday morning when I realize I’m running late, or there are no good leftovers/salad fixings in the fridge, so I stop at a grocery store and grab a sandwich and a yogurt with fruit.

For the first scenario, soup and sandwiches is the perfect solution. Everyone makes their own sandwich, and there’s a pot of soup keeping warm on the stove for the moment when each individual is ready to eat it. But the second situation calls for a completely different approach.

Enter Meals in a Jar.

I’ve frequently used a can of soup from the grocery store to tide over in this instance, but that has some downsides. For one thing, I often don’t love the flavours or textures of canned soup; for another, the cans are often a little too big and can’t be closed to bring them home or store them in the fridge at work.

On Friday, I made a delicious chili that will do this job. Today, I’m making Beef Stew in a Jar. The concept is simple: stewing beef, freshly-made beef broth, garlic and onion, some Montreal Steak Spice Mix, and whatever vegetables I feel like throwing in to each jar.

For a significant nutrition boost, I’m also adding some red lentils, which are the only part of this recipe that poses any type of canning difficulty. More on that in a moment.

For this recipe, I’m using a cold-pack method. That means I’m not blanching or pre-cooking anything except the broth itself. It greatly reduces the amount of work required and does not increase the danger, because you’re going to be boiling the fuck out of it all in the pressure canner for a total of nearly two hours (75 minutes at pressure, plus time it takes to come up to and down from that pressure.)

Step 1: Make your broth. I got some beef bone pieces from my local grocery store, and then followed my recipe for broth. A couple of carrots, the remains of some celery and onions I had around, and a bag of peels from the sweet potatoes I made two weeks ago, and the broth is simmering away happily.

Step 2: When the broth is done, set it aside off the heat to cool for a little while. While that’s happening, deploy your teenagers to peel and chop your selection of vegetables. Today, we’re using turnips, carrots, onions, celery, and green beans. I’m cheating on the carrots and using peeled baby carrots, I’ve left the green beans pretty long, and I chopped the turnip by hand. Everything else is getting run through the slicer on the food processor. Have I mentioned that I love my food processor?

Step 3: Prepare your canner. For a cold-pack recipe, I like to put the water in the bottom and then turn the heat on low so that the water stays warm. I don’t want it boiling, but I want it warmer than room temperature when I start putting jars in it, so I do this first.

Step 4: Line up your jars. I’m cheating on this today; I washed them but didn’t sterilize them beyond that. This is also when you prep your rims and seals so they’re ready to go. I’m using 500mL (pint) jars because that’s the serving size I want.

Step 5: Assemble your stews. This is the fun part, because each jar can be a little different. First, a few cubes of stewing beef, enough to cover the bottom of the jar; then a crushed clove of garlic and some onion; a little bit of Montreal steak spice or some other spice combo that you like with beef; and now you get to have fun.

If you’re using lentils, you’ll need to pay attention to how full you pack the jars. Assume that the volume of lentils you put in is going to at least double during cooking. That means that if you put in two tablespoons of lentils, you need two tablespoons more liquid than you would otherwise have, which means two tablespoons less vegetable. If you don’t do this, some combination of the following dire consequences will ensue:

  • The cooking process will push food out under the seal of the jar, which will prevent them from sealing (this is the most likely result.)
  • The lentils will not have enough liquid so they won’t cook properly
  • You may even explode a glass jar or two inside the canner, ruining the entire batch and quite possibly the canner itself, if not your kitchen

I find a tablespoon of liquid equals about a centimetre of headspace, and I’d rather err on the side of caution in this, so I’m stopping packing my vegetables about an inch lower in the jar than I normally would, and filling up with broth to the one-inch headspace level that I need. Since I’m not using potatoes (my wife doesn’t like them) lentils are a key ingredient for texture; they’ll dissolve and thicken the broth. It’s worth having less of everything else to make sure they cook right.

When you’ve packed the jars with meat, lentils, and veggies, add broth up to the one-inch headspace mark. Apply rims and seals and place in the canner.

Step 6: Bring the temperature in the canner up slower than you normally would. Don’t move it right to high as soon as you put the lid on. You want the food to heat up a little slower than that this time, since we’re starting from a cold pack. A newbie mistake I’ve been making is to heat the food too fast, which forces food out under the seals and prevents sealing. Take it slow. After all, you set aside your entire afternoon to watch this pot boil anyway, right? RIGHT? Well, you should have.

Step 7: Process at 11 pounds of pressure for 75 minutes, then remove from heat and let the pressure come down to standard before opening the canner. The processing time is based on the time needed for the longest ingredient, which is the meat. If you’re using 1L (1 quart) jars, the processing time is 90 minutes.

If you have leftover broth, you can put it in the fridge to use soon, put it in the freezer to use later, or put it in jars to process after the stew is done. It only needs to process for 20 minutes.

An Overabundance of Sweet Potatoes

The other home canning blog lied to me.

cof

I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate. If my kids had cubed the sweet potato small enough and if I’d been using 1L jars instead of 500mL (quart instead of pint) the suggestion of one kilogram of orange tuber to 1 litre of canned yumminess might have been more accurate. But they didn’t, and I wasn’t, so I find myself with 17 perfect 500mL jars of sweet potato, a large mixing bowl full of peeled, chopped, raw sweet potato, and four more sweet potatoes that I realized in time should be left whole.

Today’s life lesson for my kids was that the job isn’t done until the mess is cleaned up. Other times, I’ve let them leave after the job I actually asked of them was done. Peels might be all over floor and table, a couple of cubes might be on the floor covered in pet hair of three colours, and all the cutting boards might still be orange and sticky with sharp knives still out on top of them, but if the sweet potato was peeled and chopped, they were done.

Well, not today. Today the cutting boards are washed, one bag of peel is in the freezer for the next time I make broth, the table has been wiped and the floor swept, all before the dulcet tones of Steven Universe filled my house again.

The basic recipe for pressure-canned sweet potato is super easy. You peel and chop – if you want to be fancy about it, you can steam the peels loose, but if you’re not up for the extra time investment of that, you can just peel them like regular potatoes. Ideal size is about a one-inch cube. My kids didn’t manage that, but they got them small enough to fill the jars pretty well so I was happy.

Then you fill hot jars with the cold sweet potato, fill up to the one-inch-head-space line with boiling water from the kettle, affix seals and rims, fill your canner, and process at 11 pounds pressure for 65 minutes for 500mL jars, 90 minutes for 1L jars.

That second number is the reason I used 500mL jars and not 1L.

It takes at least half an hour for the canner to build its head of steam and then build to 11 pounds of pressure. It takes a further thirty minutes or more to come back down to regular pressure once you take it off the heat. Until that process is complete, you can’t open the canner. So processing for 65 minutes actually means watching a pot boil for about two hours, only the last half-hour of which you can wander away. I finished all my dishes, corralled my kids into finishing their part of things, ate some leftovers for lunch, caught up on my Twitter mentions, perused recipes for using already-cooked sweet potato and butternut squash, and knit two inches of a sock in that time.

So, all that leftover uncooked sweet potato? I think I’m going to run my pressure canner again tomorrow, with the last four untouched taters and the chopped ones. I don’t have it in me to watch a pot boil for four whole hours in a single day. I suspect the canner will be about half full, leaving me with around 25 jars of sweet potato. For future reference, that’s about 50% more than I anticipated.

Edit: I ran the pressure canner again and got 13 more jars. That’s a total of 32 jars. I ran out of seals. I NEVER run out of seals. And I have enough sweet potato canned to eat it once a week until the middle of April.

Lessons learned:

  • One kilogram of sweet potato is about four 500mL jars. Not two. Four.
  • Teenagers absolutely can learn to clean up after themselves in the kitchen.

My own version of Mirepoix

IMG_20171001_192941997 (1)

Mirepoix is the French word for a simple veggie broth, but this is not that.

Last summer, I had a bunch of butternut squash from my garden and I wanted to make soup with it. Canned veggies are perfect for soup because most of the cooking is already done, so it’s basically heat, blend, and serve. But there was a problem: all the recipes called for some onion, carrots, celery, and chicken broth, and I didn’t have any of that in a jar.

So I made some. I used the longest processing time for the veggies I added and then added five minutes to be safe, because you really can’t overcook something that’s going in a blended soup and botulism is to be avoided at all costs.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs each carrots, onions, and celery; some of the carrots I used were heritage colours
  • Water, about six litres
  • Around 1 tbsp salt per six litres of water
  • Herbs to taste: I used thyme and sage

Put it all in a stock pot. Boil until just soft. DO NOT STRAIN. Ladle into sterilized, hot jars, leaving 1 inch head space, and process for 45 minutes at 11 pounds of pressure. See here (link forthcoming) for more on pressure canning.

Option 2: Instead of boiling it all in water, boil it in freshly-made chicken broth.

My standard winter weekday Random Orange Vegetable Soup includes one jar of mirepoix, one jar of straight chicken or veggie broth, and one or two jars of orange vegetables. My preference is one jar butternut squash and one jar sweet potato. I strain the liquid from the orange vegetables before adding them. Stick-blend and heat through, set out sandwich fixings for your teens to make their own, and dinner’s ready in ten minutes flat. It works even on Girl Guides night!

Start with the Basics: Chicken Broth

IMG_20171203_091550

Hello and welcome to the first post in this blog!

This is my go-to chicken broth recipe. It’s more of a formula than a recipe, and it tastes slightly different every time I make it. I’ve made it with turkey carcasses, and I’ve made a veggie version with a whole lot of odds and ends from the CSA that I didn’t know what to do with. It’s a household staple.

I don’t just make this in the summer. During the winter, if I find myself grabbing a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store on the way home from work, I may drag out the pressure canner that weekend and turn its carcass into broth. We go through this stuff pretty fast so it’s worthwhile always having some on hand.

The basic recipe:

  • 1 or more chicken carcasses, most of the meat picked off already, but leave on some of the skin and fat if you can
  • 6 litres of water per carcass if it’s meaty/fatty, less if it’s not
  • 1/2 – 1 cup per carcass of each of the following:
    • Carrot ends
    • Celery ends
    • Onion skins and ends
  • About 1 tbsp of salt per 6 litres of water
  • Herbs to taste: I use some combination of thyme, rosemary, and sage

A little word about the veggies: don’t use the nice ones. When you’re making carrots for the family, take the ends you cut off and throw them in a baggie in the freezer. Do the same with onion skins and celery ends, especially the leaves. Got a slightly-squishy carrot forgotten at the bottom of the crisper? Cut out the black parts and throw it in the pot. Onions starting to sprout? In they go. Nobody ate the celery sticks that came with the wings last week? Save them for broth. Thrift is your friend, here. Don’t feel limited to these ones. Parsnips, carrot greens, leeks, wrinkly sweet potatoes or freezer-burned turnip – throw it all in there. I usually cut everything in half and then into the pot it goes.

The plan is to throw all this stuff into a big stock pot, cover with water, and boil the f*ck out of it. Keep it on a low simmer for at least four hours. Eight or twelve does not go amiss.

When it’s done cooking, you need to strain out the liquid and throw away the solids. I use a plastic colander placed in a big mixing bowl. If you want a clearer broth, use a wire-mesh strainer. You don’t have to do all the straining at once; you can fill the bowl, then fill some jars, then come back and strain more broth.

Now you’re ready to preserve or use your broth! For pressure canning basics, see here (link forthcoming.) This recipe isn’t safe for water-bath canning. To freeze, ladle it into clean containers and freeze with the lid off until it’s solid, then put a lid on; you may want to add a layer of plastic wrap to keep freezer burn at bay. If you just put it in the fridge, it should be good for a week or more.

Use this broth in pretty much anything where you might otherwise use water and would like a little bit of chicken flavour instead: rice, stir-fry, gravies, and as a base for soups.