We go through a lot of tomatoes here at 2Gourmaniacs. Since the fresh tomato season has long passed us by, and because we take a dim view of the carbon imprint caused by purveying Latin American grown produce, we preserve our own tomatoes in late August-early September. Rosaria’s parents were over for dinner last night and we had fresh made pasta with our tomato sauce. This time I made a puttanesca sauce using whole salted anchovies, cleaned and finely chopped, salted Italian capers (which turn bright green in the sauce and look like peas), chopped black olives, chopped fresh parsley and lots of garlic. As I was making the sauce, I thought a good blog post would be about our preserved tomatoes, especially since Rosaria’s parents are such an important part of the process.
Preserving tomatoes in glass jars is a long tradition in Rosaria’s family stemming back generations in Sicily. Her father, Mario, is an excellent gardener, and although he grows his own tomatoes in his back yard, he goes to local Long Island farms in late August to hand pick bushels of tomatoes. He is exceedingly particular about picking the tomatoes. The first time I picked with him, he kept telling me to look at the tomato carefully before harvesting it – to inspect each one for worm holes, bruises, the right color, what the other tomatoes on the vine look like, etc. It takes him about a half hour to pick a bushel whereas I’m done in ten minutes. The proof is in the washing of the tomatoes back at my house, which is a two-step process: first Mario and I wash them outside with the hose, being careful to thoroughly wash each tomato.
All the tomatoes in Mario’s crates were perfect; in mine, a little less so. He just smiled at me and gave me a knowing look … “you pick’em up those tomatoes too fast, Robert.” The second washing step is inside the kitchen where Rosaria’s mother, Maria, washes each tomato by hand: this is the final quality control before the tomatoes are placed in large stockpots of boiling water. She has an eagle eye for the smallest imperfection.
Once the tomatoes have been in the boiling water until their skins burst, they’re taken outside and placed on pieces of plywood, set up at a slight angle, to drain. The idea is get as much water out of them as possible. In the photograph, you can see that Mario has placed a receptacle to catch the water from the tomatoes. Later, Rosaria will use the tomato water for soups. Also, notice the draining boards are in the shade. This is important, according to Mario, so that the tomatoes won’t dry out in the sun.
Next, the tomatoes are run through a mill which grinds them into a pulp and extracts the liquid which will become the sauce. The pulp is run through the mill, sometimes twice, to extract as much juice as possible. At this point the tomato sauce gets ladled into sterilized glass jars, sealed using new screw-on covers, and placed in large stockpots for boiling. The jars are boiled for twenty-five minutes, removed and allowed to cool. Once they’re cool enough to handle, each lid is checked for a good vacuum seal and tightness.
We store our preserved tomatoes in milk crates in a cool, dark place, like the back of the pantry or a closet. They are good for years, but it is rare that we make it through the following spring-early summer before we’re out of tomatoes.
An alternative to processing the tomatoes through the mill is to take them off the draining board, and put them right into the jars, that way you have whole tomatoes with seeds and skins. We put up several dozen jars like that so as to have a variety during the winter months.
The whole preserving process takes all day, starting early in the morning until almost dark. Traditionally, I always make some fresh pasta, fresh sauce from some of the tomatoes, and grill some of Mario’s eggplants. We eat outside, enjoy a glass of wine with dinner and continually glance admiringly at the stacked up crates of our preserved tomato sauce, pleased with our accomplishment.