Sunday, September 27, 2009

Canning Tomatoes

Oh boy. What was I thinking when I bought a 25 pound basket of plum tomatoes to can or “put up”, to use canning lingo? I’ll tell you what -- I was thinking I would become an overnight tomato canning extraordinaire -- that’s what. There was one small problem, though. I was chicken. Canning is something I’ve been contemplating trying for a couple of years and despite purchasing books and reading up on the process, I’ve never gone through with it. It’s the botulism thing that gets me every time. Everything I’ve read talks about how easy and rewarding canning is in one breath and with the next goes into a dissertation about how if you don’t do this, this, or this, you could get sick -- or worse. Enzymes, bacteria, mold, and yeasts are the sinister underbelly of this seemingly otherwise wholesome activity.

But still. I find it enchanting, the idea of reaching into my pantry (okay, it’s really a converted coat closet) on a cold winter’s day for a glass jar of beautiful, red tomatoes put up over the summer. I’m not a novice in the kitchen so I know behind the word enchanting lies a lot of hard work and time. There is a reason our grandmothers canned and most of our mothers don’t! But I’ve got some Martha Stewart in me and buying canned tomatoes from the grocery store seems so average, so unauthentic, so lazy.

Despite all this, another year of inaction probably would have passed if I hadn’t recently been lying in bed, listening to NPR’s The Takeaway. It was a Wednesday, the day they run a food segment and this particular morning it was on canning. The host was interviewing Kathy Gunst, co-author of Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations. She was so enthusiastic and made canning sound so intuitive and unintimidating I said to myself “I can do this!” The timing was perfect. I was going to NJ for the weekend anyway, where I would have more kitchen space and access to an array of pots and pans to begin my experiment -- I mean canning.

Rather than pick me up at the Far Hills train station, I met my dad one stop earlier in Bernardsville where on Saturday they have a small but decent farmers market.

It was as if the farmers knew I was coming. There ahead of me, off to the side and looking a little lonely were several large baskets filled with 25 pounds of plum tomatoes, the preferred canning tomato because of its high ratio of meat to pulp. My dad saw me stop and stare at them; with the eyes in the back of my head I could see him shaking his head, undoubtedly thinking “She’s nuts - she’ll never get through all those tomatoes in one weekend.” But being the wise man he is, Dad kept quiet. He knows by now it’s pointless to reason with me when I latch onto an idea and best to just step back and cross his fingers.

I lugged the tomato basket to the car, went to the hardware store and picked up two dozen pint-size canning jars, a jar lifter and wide-mouthed funnel. Our next-door neighbor, Tom, grew up canning and was kind enough to loan me a large stock pot, complete with a homemade, custom-fit rack for the bottom (I learned the rack is important because it allows the water to circulate on all sides of the jars while they are “processing”. More on processing later).

For my weekend trip I had brought the recipe for Gunst’s Roasted Tomato Sauce as well as a newly purchased book, Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone, which I hadn’t had a chance to look at yet, Originally my plan was to start out small, make the Roasted Tomato Sauce, can it, and call it a day, but the recipe only used 8 pounds of tomatoes. That meant I still had 17 pounds left and no plan for them. Luckily the book had a basic recipe for canned tomatoes. This winter my dream of reaching into my pantry for a glistening jar of home canned tomatoes would be realized. In a couple of months these tomatoes would reappear in my Bolognese sauce and stews.

By the time I got home from buying the tomatoes, canning supplies, onions, garlic, herbs and assorted other things needed for the recipes it was Saturday afternoon. Time to get started.

Or, maybe not. Shouldn't I take pictures for the blog post? Yes, before I began using up the tomatoes I had to document the beautiful, full basket…..

You should see how many pictures I took of that darn basket. There were pictures on the patio, by the fence, in the front hall, out in the garage. ANYTHING to stall the inevitable. I had to start canning. Botulism, here I come.

My date with botulism began bright and early Sunday morning when I woke up optimistic but still a little daunted by the task ahead. I started with the Roasted Tomato Sauce. The author explains in the recipe introduction that one year, faced with an excess of tomatoes, she developed a shortcut for making sauce. Rather than core, peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes, she only cored and quartered them.

Instead of simmering and stirring the sauce on the stove top for hours, she roasted all the ingredients in a high oven, which “gives the tomatoes a rich, slightly smoky flavor, and the onions and garlic become sweet as they caramelize.” She recommends using the sauce on chicken, fish or pasta.

I just had one problem with her recipe. In the recipe intro she says “The sauce can also be placed in sterilized Mason jars and processed (15 minutes in a boiling water bath should do it).” She may as well have been speaking a foreign language! “Processed”? What’s that? To a novice “15 minutes….should do it” sounds far too vague for comfort. I needed specifics. Thank goodness for the book!

In Well-Preserved, Eugenia Bone talks you through the process of canning like you’re standing in her kitchen, cooking along side her. She gives logical, specific explanations for why each step is necessary which, as a result, makes the information easy to absorb and remember. Her reassuring voice helped alleviate any anxiety I had about what I was doing simply because it made sense.

The author lives in Manhattan, cooks in a small apartment kitchen and writes recipes for small batches of food. Maybe that’s why I enjoy her book so much -- I can relate to her. She also makes food preservation feel modern rather than antiquated. Her recipes, such as Risotto with Fava Bean Cream, Strawberry Balsamic Panna Cotta, and Sole with Zucchini Flower Sauce are fun and hip; I can imagine serving them to friends.

Clearly I’m not an expert on canning and not qualified to paraphrase the science behind it, which is a foundation anyone who wants to can should have. In Bone’s book there are six short, easy-reading pages explaining all aspects of water canning. That’s it. Below is my overview of the steps involved, devoid of specifics that are necessary and important so please do not go by what I say only:

- Prepare the food you want to put up. If you’re a beginner like me, be sure to use a recipe written for water bath canning. The pH of the food is critical to whether it may safely be canned and will determine whether or not you end up with evil doers lurking in your jar.

- Sterilize or scald the jars and bands. Sterilizing jars, with or without food in them, takes 10 minutes in boiling water. If a recipe calls for a processing time of more than 10 minutes, the jars do not need to be sterilized, only scalded. Scalding requires nothing more than dipping empty jars in boiling water right before packing them with food.

- Simmer the lids. This softens the rubber flange and creates a better seal.

- Pack the jars with food. Leave up to 1-inch of space from the jar opening to the top of the food (this is called headspace). There are various technical reasons for leaving headspace but as long as you give your jars the amount called for in the recipe, you’ll be fine. Wipe the rim of the jars with a damp paper towel, top with lids, and screw on bands. A wide-mouthed funnel makes this step much neater.

- Process the jars. Take the jars packed with food and submerge them onto a rack in a pot of boiling water for the amount of time specified in your recipe. This step will get rid of any nasty microorganisms in the jar that could potentially make you ill and helps create the seal of the lid, which will keep new microorganisms from checking in.

- Allow the jars to cool. When processing is complete, remove the jars from water (I don’t know how I would have done this without a jar lifter), set on a dish towel, and allow to cool for 8 hours. After 8 hours, unscrew the band and try to lift the jar by the lid only. If you can, you’ve got a tight seal. Success!

There are different methods of preserving food covered in Well-Preserved besides water bath canning: pickling, pressure canning, freezing, preserving in oil, curing and smoking. I’m already eyeing her recipe for canned tuna. How delicious would it be to preserve fresh tuna caught off Long Island in September? I have one hesitation -- the recipe must be pressure canned. Here we go again with frightening-sounding procedures! But never fear; Eugenia comes to the rescue with this insight:

"Lots of people are terrified of pressure canning. And it’s true: If you put a steam pressure canner on your stove, crank up the heat, and go to the movies, yes, you will have a problem. If you stay with task at hand, keeping your eye on the canner during the hour or so it is active, and moderating the heat to the extent necessary, you will end up with beautifully preserved foods."

See what I mean? She’s so cool, so calm; there is no need for scary thoughts. No dates with botulism. Eugenia is your canning friend and she’s got your back.

I’m happy to report my first foray into canning was a success. Yes, it was a full day spent on my feet in the kitchen and I was pretty tired by the end of it. I suspect a fair amount of my weariness was because I was a beginner, learning the ropes. But all in all, it was a positive experience; no broken seals, no cracked jars. I’m off to a good start and yes, it is a start. I’ll be back for more. Canning IS rewarding and fun and, honestly, easy. All the things promised by a cheery cookbook author on an early morning radio talk show.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Harvest


About 8 pounds ripe tomatoes, any variety, cored and quartered
10 medium onions, peeled and quartered
10 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, and/or chives)
About 1/3 cup olive oil
¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
Generous grinding of black pepper
A few tablespoons sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a large roasting pan, gently toss together the tomatoes, onions, whole and chopped garlic, herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for 25 minutes. Gently stir the vegetables. Roast for another 25 minutes and gently toss. Add any of the optional ingredients listed below and roast for another 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes are softened and somewhat broken down into a sauce, with a golden brown crust on top. Remove and taste for seasoning. If the sauce tastes bitter, add a few tablespoons of sugar.

Place in clean, sterile jars and refrigerate, freeze, or can (15 minutes of processing will do).

Makes about 10 cups


Add any of the following ingredients to the sauce after it has roasted for about 50 minutes:

- ¼ cup drained capers
- ½ cup pitted black and/or green olives
- 1 cup sautéed or raw mushrooms
- About 1 cup of any chopped raw or cooked vegetables, 3 anchovy filets, minced, or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste
- A good dash of red chile flakes or hot pepper sauce. If you like a smoother sauce, place the finished sauce in a blender or food processor and blend until it reaches the desired consistency.

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