Archive for the ‘Preserving’ Category

Putting Up Tomatoes


Jars of Tomato Sauce

One of my favorite late summer chores is filling the pantry and freezer with menu basics made from summer’s fabulous produce. Every year, I make and freeze pesto, roasted gypsy peppers and chicken stock made from all of the summer’s chickens roasted on my Weber grill. In addition, I buy a case of my favorite San Marzano tomatoes from one of our farmers’ market vendors, turning them into row after row of gleaming jars of deep red tomato sauce. This tradition was passed on to me via my mother and her mother before her, allowing the most fleeting taste of summer, fresh tomatoes, to season many a winter meal.

I begin by rinsing and sorting the tomatoes; then chunk them up into walnut sized pieces, trimming away any soft or green spots. This year, they fill two stockpots almost to the top. I toss in some chopped onion, celery and a grated carrot, plus salt, herbs, and two bay leaves in each pot. Set over medium heat, the tomatoes begin to render their juices, hissing and popping with wisps of steam rising up into the vent hood. While I wait for them to boil, I take down and rinse the bright red plastic tomato mill, purchased in Italy. This labor saving device allows me to cook down the tomatoes, skins, seeds and all, extracting every bit of flavor before straining out the unwanted portions.
Tomato Mill
After the tomatoes have cooked down and thickened, and the seasonings melted into the pots, I pull then off the heat and allow them to cool slightly before setting up the mill. I also turn the oven on at 300F, as I am planning on reducing some of the finished sauce to paste, called estratto (extract) in Sicily, or doppio (doubled) in Tuscany.
The tomatoes are run through the mill once, producing a ruby red puree. I run the seeds, skins and remaining pulp through one more time, to extract the last bit from the inedible remainder. This fibrous paste is added to the compost bin, eventually returning to the soil from which it came. I reheat the puree and taste for salt while sterilizing the quart and pint mason jars in the dishwasher, using the sanitizer cycle. A new box of lids is opened, and the lids and rings are set to simmer in water on a back burner. The teapot sings merrily as water is boiled and tipped into the hot jars, which are arrayed on a sheet pan opposite the stove. I generously coat another sheet pan with our own olive oil, and carefully ladle about three cups of puree into it, tapping the pan on the counter to evenly spread the sauce. This is popped into the oven to begin its long reduction and caramelization process.
Finished Sauce
When the sauce is simmering briskly, I take the ladle, and in turn, tip the hot water out of the jars and into the canning kettle, filling each jar with sauce as I go. The hot lids are set carefully down over the mouth of each jar and the rings are screwed on gently to hold them in place. The rest of the boiling water is poured in over the jars to the depth of several inches over the tops of the tallest ones. The kettle is then place over high heat, and timed fifteen minutes from a full boil. When finished, the hot jars are lifted out and place on a towel to cool, the lids sealing with a musical ping. When completely cooled, the rings are screwed tight and the jars are wiped down.
Jars Processing
Meanwhile, I have removed the pan of puree from the oven several times, stirring gently to ensure even cooking. After several hours, the oven is turned down to its lowest setting, and the thick paste is left to slowly dry.
Paste Reducing
In the morning, I stir the paste and taste it, the sweet fruitiness is backed by a slight undertone of bitterness. It is a deep brick red and sticky as I spoon it into a half pint jar and top it with a layer of our olive oil to keep out the air. Rather than processing, it will be stored in the refrigerator, a new layer of oil added after each use. The essence of tomatoes to be added, a spoonful at a time, to future soups and sauces, without a hint of the metallic flavor that characterizes commercial canned tomato paste.
This is hot work, often performed in the heat of our Indian summer, but this year, a lingering and cool fog whose cool breezes seep in through the screen door to the kitchen. The entire house smells of tomatoes, and the full jars seem to smile at me from their shelf. The mill is put away for another year, and we bid summer a fond farewell.
Post by Julia Conway on September 26th, 2009

The Seasons as a Muse


It is my favorite time of the year again. The huckleberries hang heavy on the bushes that surround the redwood groves here on the first ridge above the ocean, and the wild blackberries tempt me from their thickets as I drive up and down my road. There is a particularly large patch that runs along the fence of the rodeo arena, belonging to no one in particular, but harvested by many. The berries are so plentiful; I can pick a quart in less than twenty minutes without even wading into the maze of brambles. Our Gravenstein apple trees have yielded up their bounty, at least those apples we have managed to save from the predatory teeth of the little dog; which has learned to stand on his hind legs to reach up and grab the unwary fruit.  Each afternoon I steal an hour or two of time to harvest the seasonal abundance. In the coming days, I will begin the process of preserving what I pick. Applesauce will simmer away on the back of the stove, and quart bags of berries will multiply in the chest freezer. Soon the rains will come, bringing the first flush of chanterelles and the elusive Gamboni (roughly translated, “legs”), the wild porcini mushrooms of the north coast. I found my first porcini last year, Boletus edulis, growing alongside the logging road that borders the southwest side of our land. It is said that once you develop the “mushroom eye” and are able to spot the treasures of the woods beneath the leaves of the low-hanging plants, you will forever be drawn to them. I found this to be true, as on the trip out along the very same road, I saw no mushrooms to speak of. However, in a quiet clearing in the misty woods, I came upon my first bolete. After that experience, as I walked back up the road, they appeared out of seemingly nowhere, everywhere I cast my eye.
The days grow shorter, and it is dark and starry outside at five when I first awaken. Even with the morning sun, the temperature remains in the high forties until sometime around eleven. Then it is warm enough to throw open the doors of the house to absorb every ray of that Indian summer sunlight. The shadows close in again around four, and the breeze turns cool once more. The garden is pumping out tomatoes and beans as if it knows that our time together is growing short. I pull up the arugula, which has bolted and gone to seed, and cut the last large head of red leaf lettuce. The Italian salad greens can continue to be cut as needed, and will sustain us through to the damp winter days where the ground will be too wet to support even their courageous perseverance. Tall spikes of artichokes and artichoke blossoms punctuate the far southern edge of the garden, more noticeable now that the fennel forest has folded its seed spires for the season. Next spring’s onions wave their deep green tendrils in the evening breeze. The chard begins to slow its inexorable production of crisp leaves and the pumpkin vines show blowsy blossoms that hint of fall treats to come.
I too begin a season of gathering in. Most of my big events of the summer and early fall are completed, and I start looking to the slower winter season ahead. I force my pulse to slow, and find that, without the ever-replicating to-do lists; I have time on my hand and can turn to pursuits of the home. There is this underlying urge to take the production kitchen apart at the seams and clean every nook and cranny. I hold off for the moment, however, as there are jams and cordials to me made, tomatoes to simmer into sauce, and a rainbow of Gypsy peppers to roast and freeze for the days when the colors of summer’s produce are absent. My sanity in the winter months is directly related to the hoard of summer produce that lines the shelves of my pantry and the depths of my freezer. No matter how much I love the sweet caramel of a roasted winter squash, the peppers and tomatoes of summer beckon with their sweet and sour nuances of sunshine past. I also begin to stock the freezer with braising cuts from my local meat producers; short ribs, pork shoulder, and the whole beef leg bones which will yield beef stock of incredible richness to baste an entire seasons’ meals. I have already made gallons of chicken stock from the multitude of carcasses saved from summers’ grill roasted birds. One of the last items that will go down into the freezer’s depths will be pesto. When my local farmer pulls up the last of the frost-kissed basil plants, I will puree them with pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and our own olive oil, freezing stacks of half-pint containers of the bright green paste.
Last year, in a fit of anger after a large and ostentatious wedding left me with cases of figs and champagne grapes, I made over ten pounds each of fig preserves and grape chutney. The chutney, called mostardo d’uva in the Piedmont region of Italy, graces cheese plates even today. I am down to my last scrapings of the decadent fig preserves, and hoping to be able to purchase another case of figs this year. Prices are high, but I am hoping for an early frost that will drive the farmers to pick everything at once. The fact that the fruits are misshapen, bruised or frost-kissed makes no difference in the kettle. The recipe is surprisingly simple; cut the fruit into halves, and toss with an equal weight of sugar. When the juices exuded reach the top of the fruit, the entire bowl is dumped into the largest kettle, and a cup of fresh lemon juice is added. The mixture simmers away for up to five hours, or until it is thickened to the consistency of jam. With sterilized jars waiting, I spoon the painfully hot fruit into the jars, seal their rings, and hot process for twenty minutes. The final color is amazing, deep brown and yet golden, with small flecks of seeds. The taste is pure summer, and serves to encourage us through the cold and dark months ahead, with the promise of another summer to come.
Post by Julia Conway on September 24th, 2008