Monday, August 27, 2012

Tomato Sauce - The Yearly Ritual

The yearly ritual of making tomato sauce has been a part of my life since, well, since before I was even born. Its in my blood, literally, and I look forward to this time of year like a kid in the candy store. I can remember sitting across from my grandma and pouring ladle after ladle of freshly juiced tomatoes into jars. I remember watching my grandfather wrestle with that machine of his - a large metal funnel with a grinder and pulp filter attached to a nine volt battery, operated by a rubber belt and a large wooden club, pushing tomatoes through and watching the liquid pour out into 10 gallon buckets. I remember my mom and my aunts cutting through box after box of tomatoes passing them down the table to my grandpa, and I remember my father washing every tomato in 2 large metal drums, one box at a time. After everything was jarred, my grandpa would fire up two large propane burners with 5 ft tall metal drums filled with water and all of the jars we filled that day, letting the water boil the jars shut, thus allowing the sauce to be preserved for the whole year. This was like a family holiday every year, sure it was hard work, but it served as lunch and dinner for the whole family multiple times a week. It served as the base for all of my favorite childhood meals, from baked ziti, sicilian pizza, lasagna, meat balls, sausage and peppers, and the ubiquitous rigatoni with meat sauce. I may live a thousand miles away from any close members of my family, but the tradition lives on in my house, and I will hopefully be able to continue it my children. For now, I only have the time and back muscle to work with a box at a time, but after a couple of efforts I can have enough for the whole year for my house. I like to use it for pizza, salsa, chana masala, taco meats, and of course marinara sauce. I just went through my first box of the year and I would like to post some pictures for posterity. I visit my local farmer's markets weekly and watch the tomato stock come to life as the summer passes, and just the summer heat waves break and most people start to cycle off their air conditioners, I buy tomatoes. I bought two boxes (25 lbs each) for $15 a pop, and spent half the day on Saturday cleaning, cooking, milling, and jarring the tomatoes. I have adapted the process to fit my kitchen and my own needs, instead of cutting each tomato and pushing through a machine, I cook them down a bit to soften them up and use my hand-grinder (food mill). I then continue to cook them down to get as much of the water out as my bedtime will allow, then jar it hot so that the jars will seal by themselves. Here are some photos of the first effort this year:
I washed these in my sink and immediately threw them into the largest pot I had, which just barely fit the entire box. I also added a little water to keep the bottom from burning since I could not reach all the way down and turn the tomatoes until they were cooked a bit.
This is what they look like after they have cooked down a bit, maybe 1 hour later.
Before you know it, the tomatoes have broken down and then its just a matter of letting them cook a bit longer to get the water out. I estimate about half of the original volume is cooked out during the process.
I got this food mill from my mom as a birthday gift a few years ago, it works wonders. It has an interchangeable screen so that I can puree something more or less coarse, this helps keep the seeds and skin out of the final product. I transfer the milled sauce into another pot where I add some salt and let it cook down a bit further.
About the time when my wife and I can no longer handle staying awake, we start the jarring process, which wraps up quite quickly and leaves me with enough sauce for about 15 meals. This makes me so very happy, hitting the bed that night is a wonderful feeling. At this point is when I realize I do not ever want to work as a restaurant cook, a standing on my feet all day, sweating, and working hard for something that I will not be able to enjoy immediately hits me like a ton of bricks. But it is oh so worth it, and as long as there is still enough time left in the summer to get cheap boxes of tomatoes, I will be keeping my saturdays busy with sauce.