I’m feeling very accomplished. This week I made my very first jars of tomato sauce. My own, that is. As a kid I remember warm summer evenings upstate with my mom, grinding tomatoes in the food mill to remove the seeds and skins so that she could make the jars of sauce. My brothers and I would take turns – it was fun, but the repetitive motion got tiresome after awhile. So sure I helped, but it wasn’t mine. This is mine.
Side note: If you’re getting ready to say the g-word, I’m going to stop you right there. Yes, I know your family came from such-and-such a place and they put “gravy” on their pasta, but my grandparents were born and raised in Sicily and they call it sauce, so I’ll be sticking to that, thank you.
We came home from a 3-day weekend away with a paper tote full of beautiful plum tomatoes that I was itching to process. Tuesday afternoon seemed to be the time, so I set out my largest cooking pot and started it on low heat with olive oil and 3 medium sized diced onions. As they began to sizzle and pop, I squeezed 5 cloves of fresh garlic in, giving it the occasional stir. Quickly now, I washed the tote of tomatoes plus 3 giant deep red ones from my grandfather’s garden, removed the stems and quartered them.
I didn’t grind them, carefully holding the food mill onto the top of a bowl, lest I slip and drop the bowl full of precious crushed tomatoes. No, I threw them in the blender, seeds, skin and all. Batch by batch, the full blender yielded about half it’s previous volume of liquid-y crushed tomatoes. And into the pot they’d go. Blend, pour, stir, and onto the next batch, all while Little Miss sat at my feet clumsily stirring her own small melamine bowl filled to the brim with air with the slotted wooden spoon I had provided her.
With all my tomatoes in, I diced up the fresh basil leaves I had picked from my garden half an hour before and tossed them in. Next was some pink sea salt, black pepper, garlic powder (because why not?), and dried basil, oregano and parsley. I let it get nice and hot on a medium heat and then covered it and let it simmer. For several hours.
The house smelled amazing. Like, really incredible. The healthy, low carb vegetarian dinner I had planned held no interest. Who would want green beans and quinoa when the atmosphere was just so…saucy? I didn’t want quinoa. I wanted Strega Nona’s magic pasta pot to overflow, spilling spaghetti through the house and into the street so I could celebrate my tomato sauce.
But nonetheless, I went about my business playing with Little Miss, tidying up the kitchen and doing some work while the sauce simmered away. I’d check on it occasionally, give it a stir, then replace the cover and let it do it’s thing.
Finally it was time for canning. I was nervous, even though I intended to do this the easy way. Technically, canning requires a large pot of boiling water or a pressure cooker, but I’ve been assured that tomato sauce can generally last (and years and years and years of my grandfather making his own sauce shows anecdotal evidence that this is true – a jar here and there may not have sealed properly and may have fermented slightly – fizzy sauce when you open the jar is discarded, of course – but no one has ever gotten botulism from his sauce).
So the easy way, according to my mother, is to wash your quart jars well and have them waiting with hot water while boiling your flat lids and finishing your sauce. Dump the water, fill to the neck with sauce (using the wide mouth funnel to eliminate potential spillage), wipe the top clean, place the flat and screw tops on and close firmly, then turn the jars upside down for a few minutes so the scorchingly hot sauce can coat the previously empty space up top. Then flip them over again (carefully, the jars are hot!) and leave them to cool completely and form a tight seal.
How can you tell if the jar formed a good seal? First off, you might hear a popping sound as the jars cool! Once they’re completely cooled off though, you know when you open a Snapple (breaking the seal), then take the bottle top and make that clicka-clicka-clicka-click sound that makes everyone around you crazy? Well, when you press on the top of your fully cooled jars, it shouldn’t do that. There should be no give to the flat metal lid. Considering this was my first try, I seem to have gotten it more or less right. There was no give in the lids and the sauce came just lovely.
So the half peck of tomatoes (plus 3) with onions, garlic, herbs and spices wound up giving me about 2.5 jars of sauce. The half jar was used the next night, and the rest is waiting for it’s turn. All in all, I’d call this a successful experiment! With my newfound canning confidence, who’s to say what’s next? Apple butter? Jam? Salsa? Only time will tell.