Tomato Canning

It’s September and that means one thing – yes, the start of school and the return to an insane schedule of shuttling between activities but more importantly, it’s tomato-canning time!

For the past few years we have spent an entire Saturday from sun-up to well past sundown, making the most delicious tomato sauce that will last for the entire year.

From veal cutlets to pasta and grilled cheese to pizza, this basic sauce is the perfect pairing for just about anything and really, what tastes better than a bit of summertime in the bleak days of winter?

Finding tomatoes is easy peasy.  Most farmers markets and Italian grocers stock bushels of tomatoes in addition to peppers, beans and cucumbers.  If you’re lucky a few Nonas will share their secrets to jarring while standing in the (inevitably) long line-up.  This year we decided to double our usual supply and went for 4 bushels.

IMG_3964

I like to pre-wash the tomatoes.  This gets rid of the sand but also acts as a quality control step.  Any badly bruised or rotting tomatoes are discarded.  The boys like to get in on this step and it does help speed up the process.  Once they are washed, cut them length-wise in half.

IMG_3971

Then boil them on the stove for about 20 minutes.   Some people choose to skip this step and others insist that it’s necessary in order to get the most juice from the fruit.  It’s up to you, but apparently we’re suckers for extra work.

IMG_3968

When the tomatoes are finished boiling, scoop them out with a sieve and push them through an electric tomato-squeezing machine like this one.  In the past, we have done this by using a large food processor.  The downside of the food processor method is that your sauce will end up with seeds and it takes time. It’s tedious.  Very tedious.  The electric machine allows you to push the halved tomatoes through at a much faster pace discarding the skin, seeds and cores while pureeing the fleshy pulp into a juice.  The machine is an investment so if your unsure this is for you, I would suggest renting one first.

IMG_3973

Four bushels of tomatoes yields a lot of tomato juice.  I use every large container I can find in the house – including a toy storage bin!  I’m just going to say it – be sure to wash all containers thoroughly.  No one wants surprises in their sauce.

IMG_3975

While one person (or if you’re smart, you’ll have a team) will continue with the tomatoes, someone else can get started on the garlic.  Many people choose to jar just the tomato juice.  We take it a step further (I told you that we love extra work) and make a nice garlic sauce.  It adds hours to the process, but when it’s 5:30 pm on a Tuesday in February and the three boys are melting down with hunger and fatigue and I have a raging fever with a sore throat that feels like knives every time I swallow, I can rest assured that I have a dinner!  Boil pasta, add the sauce and bingo-bango, everyone is happy and I can resume dying on the couch.

Back to the garlic.

We used 24 heads of garlic.  They were small in size, but we do like our garlic around here.  I spent about an hour peeling and chopping before my brother stopped over and told me his garlic trick.  Slice the top and bottom off the head of the garlic and pop it in the microwave for about 40 seconds.  The cloves slide right out of the “paper”!  Needless to say, the process went much quicker after his visit.

IMG_3974

All burners will be a go now.  Get some pots on the stove (the bigger, the better) and sauté some of that garlic in olive oil along with chili peppers and/or onions (if taste buds agree).  Pour in the freshly pureed tomato juice, add some salt and cook on high heat.  Stir constantly.  When the sauce starts boiling, turn the stove down to medium.  Allow the sauce to cook until it turns a nice orangey-red.  See the difference (note: the picture doesn’t show it as well as I had hoped)?  The red one is not done yet . . . it will take time, and lots of taste tests to ensure it’s perfect.  This is where a fresh baguette comes in handy.

Not quite ready. It's still too red.

Not quite ready. It’s still too red.

IMG_3978

See the nice orangey-red colour of the sauce and the rim around the pot? It’s ready!

While the sauce is bubbling away, sterilize your jars in the dishwasher.  The lids need to be done on the stove in a pot of boiling water (See?  More pots and more burners being used).

IMG_3982 IMG_3981

Once they are sterilized, pour 2 tbsp of lemon juice into each jar.  Some people add salt.  Some use citric acid.  Those Nonas at the grocery store will all tell you something different but when in doubt check with Google.

IMG_3983

When the sauce is ready, ladle it into the jars, filling to an inch within the top.  Add the snap-lid and ring.

Place the sealed bottles into a pot of boiling water (we’re are using the burner that is attached to our BBQ) for about 15 minutes.  The pot we have can only take seven jars at a time.  Perhaps we should look into renting a second burner and larger pot for next year.

IMG_3984

Remove the jars from the pot and after the jars have cooled check the snap-lid.  If the centre of the lid is clicking it’s not sealed.

Store your stockpile of sauce like a mad-couponer who just scored a deal on toilet paper.

IMG_3985

We made 68 bottles of sauce this year.  I guess we do have traditions after all.

Surviving 6 p.m.

Dinner time.

These two words strike fear in the heart of working parents everywhere. I’m sure someone out there has mastered the art of getting a nutritious, inexpensive and quick dinner (that everyone in the family will eat!) on the table every night, but it sure isn’t us. Given our schedule and after-school activities, dinner needs to be more or less prepared by the time we get home; or at the very least, ready within 20 or 30 minutes. The more we can do in advance to prepare, the better.

Here are some of ways to maximize your time with a little bit of planning:

  • if you buy big club packs of meat for the freezer, package your chicken breasts or pork chops in meal-sized portions and add your favourite marinade to the bag (bottled will do)before you freeze it. The meat marinates as it defrosts;
  • whenever possible, cook extra, especially when cooking on the weekend. It takes as long to make two chickens as one, and then you’ve got chicken for the week.
  • use a menu-planning service. We’ve just started using Six O’Clock Scramble.  Having someone else do the shopping list is a lovely perk;
  • as Nathalie suggests, breakfast for dinner is your friend.  Peter makes a big batch of waffles every weekend and freezes them — a couple of those with some sausage and sliced fruit make a perfectly decent dinner.
I’m also always on the lookout for ways to maximize the nutritional punch of anything we cook. Here’s a recipe for a sauce that I made this weekend that does just that.  It’s nothing fancy — just a standard tomato sauce that you can rely on for any number of meals: pasta, chicken parm, or meatball subs.  I feel a bit guilty suggesting that you use canned tomatoes when the stores are full of bushels of beautiful Roma tomatoes just begging to be made into sauce, but such is life. Unlike those homemade tomato sauces, this one can be on the table in just over half an hour.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m guessing it can also be easily doubled or tripled; the proportions should be about right for everything except the oregano. No one needs that much oregano!

Sneaky tomato sauce

1 onion, finely diced

1 clove garlic, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup dry red wine (Technically optional. Skip as your conscience dictates).

3 carrots, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

2-3 Roma tomatoes (optional — when in season)

1 398 ml can low salt tomato sauce

1/2 can tomato paste

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped, or marjoram if you prefer. You could also use basil, but I despise dried basil, so I don’t)

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onions are soft and start to take on colour — about 8-10 minutes. You want them on the verge of caramelization, not scorching, so turn down the heat if they go too fast. When the onions are browned and softened, add the wine (if using; if not, skip to next step) and stir until the wine is reduced by half.

Stir in carrots, celery and tomatoes if using.  Reduce heat and cook covered, stirring occasionally until the carrots are softened.  At this point, add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, sugar, and salt and pepper, cover, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until the carrots are completely softened.  Remove from heat and let cool for five minutes.

Here’s the sneaky part: at this point, carefully transfer the sauce to your blender, or use an immersion blender to process the sauce until smooth. Once blended, season to taste. The carrots and celery lend a nice sweetness and thicken the sauce so that you don’t have to cook it for hours.  Serve as you would any other tomato sauce.