September 07, 2010

Can-O-Rama: Italian Tomato Sauce

While September may signal back to school for most, for me it’s indelibly linked with something else – the smell of tomato sauce. September meant bushels of tomatoes in the backyard, the back porch spread with even more to further ripen in the sun; huge pots bubbling on the stoves in the kitchen and the basement; jar after gleaming jar filling the tiny kitchen table; and most of all, my parents, working as a tag team, up early and well into the night, conversation sparse, focused on the task at hand.

After trying plum jam with success, it seemed time to honour my parents’ memory by making my own tomato sauce.  And, like my parents, it was a team effort, me and Rich both chopping, stirring, and tasting the afternoon away.  For such a simple thing, there are seemingly a million ways to make the sauce, all sanctioned by legions of Italian nonnas.  I'm looking forward to perfecting our very own tried and tested technique in the years to come.

Italian Tomato Sauce
makes approx 6 litres

This excellent sauce will form the essential basis to any great tomato or meat sauce. It’s deliberately salt and seasoning free, the better to leave a blank canvas upon which you can create your own sauce masterpieces.

Tomato Sauce Ingredients:
1 bushel San Marzano or Roma tomatoes

Citric acid, ½ tsp for each 1 litre jar
1 large bunch fresh basil (optional)

We searched high and low for San Marzano tomatoes - the ultimate plum tomato

Before plunging into sauce making, prep your equipment. You may want to have a jar or two extra on hand in case your tomatoes yield more.  This website provides a great "Canning 101" and will give you lots more information if you're interested.

Here’s what you’ll need:

• 8 1 litre Mason jars
• 8 jar lids and screw bands
• Tongs
• Canning funnel
• A stockpot to cook the sauce. I used a 14 litre capacity pot, and had to make the tomatoes in two batches. Depending on your budget and ambition, you can scale up or down.
• A canner to seal the jars

Tongs, jars and a canning funnel: canning essentials

1. Prep your equipment. Clean and sterilise your jars by washing them in warm soapy water and rinsing thoroughly; putting the through a quick wash cycle in the dishwasher is even easier and ensures sterilization. Set aside on a clean tea towel.

2. Wash and sort tomatoes. Trim, core and cut into quarters.

3. Put two cups of tomato quarters into an oversized stockpot. Bring to a boil. Using a potato masher, crush the tomatoes to release the juices.

4. Add more tomato quarters, two cups at a time, bringing to boil and crushing as before. Continue adding tomatoes until your pot reaches capacity. You may need to cook the tomatoes in two batches. At this point, cook an additional ten minutes until the tomatoes are completely soft. Cool slightly.

5. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill to separate the seeds and the skin from the puree. Put the tomato puree back into the stockpot (be sure to rinse the pot of any stray seeds or skin). Bring to a boil, reduce heat slightly, and continue to cook at a rolling boil until the puree is reduced by a third (about one to one and half hours). For a thicker sauce, continue boiling until reduced by half.

6. While the puree is cooking, finish prepping your canning equipment. Wash the lids and the bands. Keep the lids hot in a small pot of simmering water. Fill your canner with water, add the clean Mason jars, and put on the stove over medium high heat to begin heating the water. The water will eventually need to be brought to a boil.

7. When the sauce is ready, you’re ready to can! Using the tongs, carefully lift a jar out of the canner, emptying the water back into the canner. Set the hot jar on a tea towel and place a sprig of basil in the jar. (Note: my mother always slipped a sprig of basil in each jar, but that strong oils will definitely change the flavour profile of your sauce.  For pure tomato goodness, eliminate the basil).

8. Place the funnel on top of the jar and put a ladleful of hot sauce into the jar. Add ½ tsp citric acid and continue filling the jar, stopping ½ inch from the top.

9. Run a small spatula or skewer around the inside of the jar to release any air bubbles. Wipe the top of the jar to remove any bits of sauce.

10. Carefully remove a hot lid from the pot and place firmly on the jar. Screw a band on until just fingertip tight. Place the jar back in the canner ran proceed with remaining jars.

11. Once the jars are all done, bring the water in the canner to a boil, ensuring the water is at least one inch above the tops of the jars. When the water boils, cover the canner and process the jars for 40 minutes.

12. Take the jars out carefully with tongs and place on a tea towel. Let rest for 24 hours and test to ensure the seal is firm.

Buon appetito!