All About the Tomatoes
I first canned tomatoes in the fall of 1974, when I was living in San Jose, going to San Jose State, the year after I got out of the military. We planted six things in our back yard, one of them being tomatoes, and the tomatoes went ballistic, producing enough fruit for me to can six cases of quart jars, half cold-pack, the other half, hot-pack.
I didn’t know anything about making sauce or puree or ketchup, just the tomatoes. With quarts of tomatoes, I could do anything. We were a vegetarian household, not because of philosophy or religious reasons, but purely from an economical perspective. We could not afford to eat meat.
The only time we ate meat the summer of 1974 was on the Fourth of July, when we walked the couple of miles to the local grocery store and bought steaks for everyone in the household. I’m sure they were sirloin-tipped at best, on our budget, but when barbecued up properly, and served with salad and corn, it was the bomb.
With jars of tomatoes, I knew what I was doing. Somewhere in this time period, I developed and perfected my lifelong ability to cook a mean chicken cacciatore, beginning with the onions, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, seasonings and tomatoes, and then adding it all to the browned chicken, and simmering it on top of the stove until everything was tender. It was all about the tomatoes.
We added tomatoes to our home-made soups, and then started making soups by adding things to the tomatoes. We never got tired of trying new recipes and to do so, we needed lots of tomatoes.
Now I live on a farm where we have planted fields of every variety of tomato imaginable, with emphasis on specific varieties being used for specific purposes. We don’t can the Heirlooms as a rule, because they are for market, and we don’t take the Heinz tomatoes in to town to sell because they are for the ketchup.
Annie takes the little drying tomatoes with her when she is in Willits, to take advantage of the electricity to use her dehydrator. We can do them up on the mountain, but it is a strain on the solar system because it has to go 24/7.
What I spend a lot of time doing with tomatoes these days is washing, coring, cutting up, heating up, and grinding them through the mill to remove all seeds and skins. Then I cook them down to thicken the sauce.
It’s an art, especially if you do not have the large saucepans needed, at least ten-gallon, fifteen being better. The sauce needs to cook at a low heat for at least thirty-six hours, which just means that if you can combine four smaller saucepans into one huge one, it’s just that much more efficient, even if I still need two burners to heat the big dude. It’s better than four burners to keep four smaller pans going.
For puree, or what we call pizza sauce, it’s another twelve hours or so. It’s very thick and works for pizza, meatball sandwiches, and to thicken up regular sauce if it’s too watery. We usually can it in half-pints.
For ketchup it’s three days of cooking down and then you add the spices and whatever you are going to use to sweeten it with. Everyone has different tastes when it comes to ketchup, and everyone has an opinion on what should be used to sweeten it with. You just have to figure out what works best and go with it. All I know is that any recipe we have ever looked at requires way more sweetener than what we end up adding.
So now it is August, my back needs frequent breaks on the recliner, and the root cellar has twenty-five cases of different processed goods, waiting to be sold at market or placed into CSA shares. It is a remarkable development here at Happy Day Farms, and it’s only August. We have two more months of processing to go.