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TODAY

Tuesday, October 17

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It's a time of bounty. Bushels of produce overflowing with sweet, ripe vegetables and fruit.

It's a time of "more than you know what to do with." A time when your freezer is full, but the plants keep producing.

It's a time of "that's too good of a deal to pass up." When produce only costs cents per pound instead of dollars per pound the frugal of the world get itchy fingers, wishing to preserve all of these inexpensive items for a future date.

But it takes time and effort and patience. Especially when turning a bushel of tomatoes, five pounds of onions, five heads of garlic, half a bottle of cheap balsamic vinegar and half a cup of olive oil into the best damned tomato sauce I've had since Como Inn shut its doors. Even my partner's Italian grandmother and mother resort to buying cans and bottles of sauce, because it's easier. But is it cheaper? I decided to find out. I already knew it wasn't better.

If you're unlikely to find yourself cooking a bushel of tomatoes anytime soon, no fear. Follow the steps and at the bottom of this column I'll give you the proportions for making a quart of sauce. If you have the desire to can, or room in the freezer, I recommend getting the bushel.

My partner stopped at an Italian grocer near where he works (I would consider moving to a suburb if I was within walking distance of a Caputo's Fresh Market — I love them that much) and picked up one bushel of tomatoes ($14); five pounds of onions, half white and half red ($1.50); five heads of garlic ($2.29); a bottle of balsamic vinegar ($2.70) of which we only used half ($1.35); and a half-gallon can of extra virgin olive oil($18.25), of which we only used a half of a cup ($3.04). This brought our total for ingredients to about $22. Considering we got 13 quarts of tomato sauce out of the venture, that means we spent $1.69 on ingredients per quart. Not too shabby.

However, if tomatoes are the software of cooking, pans and canning supplies are the hardware. We only had an 8-quart cooking pot that was non-reactive and I knew that wasn't going to get us very far. Our neighbors' 20-quart aluminum pot would have been perfect, but aluminum is reactive and we didn't want our tomato sauce to taste like a ball of aluminum foil. And it was very tall and not very wide, which would make stirring somewhat difficult. So we needed a pot. I've been hoping for the All-Clad three-ply cooking pot, but I couldn't justify plunking down the bucks for it right now. So we turned to the "ethnic supplies" aisle at the store and found a 16-quart enameled vaporera for $18. This steamer is designed to hold a gazillion tamales, but the fact that it was enameled meant that it would work great for cooking the acidic tomatoes. And the $18 price tag meant I could handle the pink roses painted on the outside.

We also needed canning jars because my partner had decided he wanted to try his hand at canning. I was thinking maybe some quart-sized plastic zipper bags, but he was adamant. The zipper bags would have set us back about $4, still keeping our cost per quart of sauce at around $3 a quart. Which is about the same price that a cheap jar of tomato sauce chock full of preservatives and "flavor enhancers" would cost us if we bought it on sale. However 12 canning jars (complete with lids and seals), the rubberized lifter, a large mouth funnel, and magnetic stick for removing lids from the hot water bath set us back another $20. (It would have been cheaper if we'd purchased them at a hardware store, but we were lazy.) This brought our total to $40. Which means we spent $4.61 per jar of sauce we got. Still very, very good when compared to other preservative-free store-bought sauces. And now that we have all the necessary tools, all we'll have to buy are more sealer rings, which will only set us back about $3. This means our outlay next year will be about $25 and our cost per jar less than $2.

However none of this cost-analysis has taken into account our time. We started chopping, seeding and stemming at 10am. The sauce was bottled by midnight. Quite a lengthy process. However, only about four hours of that was actual hands-on work. And we could have reduced the amount of time we were standing on our feet prepping tomatoes if we'd read the instructions that came with our food mill and realized we didn't have to do any seeding and stemming.

There are several different types of food mills. There's the stainless steel food mill, which will last you and your children for quite a long time and set you back $70. Then there is the mostly plastic tomato press, which will set you back $29 and work almost as long, it just isn't as versatile as the stainless steel one with its different sized blades and heat-resistant metal construction.

We went with the plastic one. We've used it before and while messy, it's holding up well for us. It's essentially a fine metal perforated plate that curves along the bottom (over a bowl). There's a plastic crank that grabs the tomatoes and squishes them against the plate, squeezing out liquid and spitting out the other bits into a bowl on the other side of the machine. It removes seeds, stems and skins, which is a huge timesaver. And it's kinda fun. We found that a batch of tomato pulp that got spit out into the waste bowl had to go through the mill about three or four times to get all the liquid from the mix as possible. The cool part is that about five pounds of tomatoes becomes about a quart and a half of liquid and about half a cup of skin and seeds. It really appeals to the efficient part of my brain.

Now onto the cooking! You don't have to roast the tomatoes before you run them through the press, but it does change the flavor and makes it seem heartier and a little less bright than the raw tomatoes. Simply take a large non-reactive (glass, ceramic or stainless steel) pan, cut your tomatoes in half and place them skin side down in the pan. Sprinkle a light amount of salt and pepper over the tomatoes, and if you like you can sprinkle them with a healthy amount of balsamic vinegar. Or, if you prefer, you could use wine. This adds flavor, so you can skip it if you want a simple sauce to doctor later on.

Stuff your pan as full as you can get it and roast it for about 30 minutes at 400° F. Once they come out of the oven they can go directly into the food mill if you have the metal one. If you have the plastic tomato press, you're going to need to cool them down in the fridge for about 15 minutes first.

The metal food mill pretty much sits over a bowl and you put your items into the top if it and turn a crank repeatedly until all of the liquid and pulp have been pushed through the metal plate and all you're left with is the inedible bits.

If you don't have a food mill or press and aren't bothered by seeds or skins, you can simply pile everything into your non-reactive pot and cook it on a low simmer without a lid. You might want to cut the tomatoes into smaller pieces or use a potato masher to break down the fibers of the tomatoes to help create the sauce. Later you can use a handheld blender, food processor or blender to smooth the texture of the sauce. I've read that seeds add bitterness to the sauce, but I haven't noticed it in the past. This depends mostly on the type of tomato you buy.

A bushel of tomatoes got us at least 18 quarts of juice and pulp. But since it took us several hours to get everything into the pot, the mixture reduced enough to let us get everything into one large pot. If necessary you can cook in several smaller pots and flavor each one differently if you wish.

If you're hoping to create a marinara that you can just open, warm up and eat, it's a great idea to add flavorings now instead of later. The flavor will only intensify as it sits in either your freezer or the canned jar. Garlic is amazingly sweet after it's been roasted, so if you're roasting at least some of your tomatoes, peel four to five heads of garlic and roast the cloves before adding them whole to the cookpot. You can also caramelize a lot of onions in the bottom of your cookpot before adding in the tomatoes. We chopped up five very large onions that weighed about 1 pound each, sautéed them on high for a few minutes in a half-cup of olive oil, and then turned the heat to low and let it cook for about 20-30 minutes until we started to get a light brown sheen to the onions. Just make sure to stir frequently; the sugar in the onions will encourage them to stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.

By the time the onions were ready, we had a couple of bowls of tomato mixture to add to the pot. So we dumped it in, turned the burner as low as we could get it, and just cooked for hours. As we got another bowl or two of tomatoes (about half of which we roasted) we would add it to the sauce and stir.

Then we just let the sauce simmer and watched the tendrils of steam escape. I estimate that we reduced our volume by about one-third. The longer you let it reduce, the richer and more flavorful your sauce gets. Resist adding more than a handful or two of herbs (fresh or dried) to your sauce until it is almost the thickness you want it to be. It's very easy to add too much salt. If you add salt so that 10 quarts taste right, and then boil until you only have seven quarts, you suddenly have a sauce that is way too salty. If you do find yourself adding too much salt, peel a large whole potato and drop it in your sauce. Let it remain until it is fork-soft and then remove it. The potato should soak up a decent amount of the extra salt.

As you near the end of either your patience or the cooking time, you should be checking to see if there are any major flavors missing. We used Roma tomatoes that tend to be a bit sweeter. So with about an hour of cooking to go, when it seemed almost the right thickness but not quite, I added another quarter-cup of balsamic vinegar to the pot. The vinegar cuts the sweetness, and balsamic in particular adds a rich, hearty note that complements the tomatoes very well. It still was a bit too sweet, so I squeezed the juice from half a lemon into the sauce and stirred before tasting. This seemed about right. But you'll have to determine for yourself based on your tastes and the tomatoes. And non-sweetened vinegar and lemon or lime juice will help counteract the sweetness.

However, if your sauce end up tasting sour, feel free to add some molasses, maple syrup or sugar to the pot. Make sure to add everything in small amounts, stir thoroughly and taste before adding more. No matter what you add to the sauce, I recommend tasting it every hour or so. You'll notice how the flavor changes a little bit each time.

Once the tomatoes have cooked down and you're ready to begin transferring them to jars, you're going to need some tips. If you're going to can the sauce, I recommend following the directions on the box of jars and reading Anne Holub's column on canning. It isn't hard, but it will take you awhile to get everything sanitized and sealed.

If you save all the glass jars from store-bought pasta sauce instead of throwing them away, and if you have cleaned them thoroughly and they don't have any signs of rust on the lids, you can simply pour your sauce into these jars, let them cool for an hour or so and then transfer them to your freezer or fridge. But don't try canning with them — once a jar's seal is broken, it can't be resealed.

However, if you need to maximize freezer space (or were too cheap to buy canning jars) you're going to want to cool the sauce before putting it in the plastic zipper bags. I suggest using quart-sized bags, but the gallon size would also work. If you have enough space in your refrigerator you can put the pot in the fridge and let it sit. But this is doubtful and it will warm up everything else in your fridge. So here is another option.

Fill your sink with several inches of ice cubes. Add water to the sink until it's about half full. If your sink is large enough to put your pot in it, do so. If it isn't, transfer some of the sauce to a smaller pan or bowl and put that into the sink. Stir the sauce every few minutes until the ice cubes have melted and the water is lukewarm. As long as you can put your finger in the sauce and hold it there for a full minute, the sauce is cool enough to put into bags. Be sure to leave an inch or so of space in the bag for expansion, make sure the zipper stays clean so it will seal properly, and place the bags into a pan that will fit in your freezer. Just in case the bag pops open, it will now pop open into a pan instead of all over your frozen pizzas.

If you're opening a jar, or only making one jar of sauce, keep in mind that it won't last much longer than a week or two in your refrigerator. Unlike those store-bought sauces, there aren't any preservatives to make it last. So it's likely to start growing a fuzzy white mold on either the inside of the lid or the top of the sauce about two weeks after you refrigerate it.

If you don't have the time, patience, or storage space for using a bushel of tomato sauce, here are some proportions which should get you about one quart of sauce.

5-6 pounds of tomatoes (get 6 lbs. of round tomatoes or 5 lbs. of Romas, which have less water)
1/2 pound of onions
4-5 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
A couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar

Your mileage may vary but this should be close. The jucier your tomatoes are, the more you'll boil them down and the less sauce you'll get. In my experience, if you attend a farmer's market and tell an owner that you need a lot of tomatoes to make sauce and would like to get tomatoes from them the following week, they just might cut you a deal. If they know that you'll buy (and maybe pay up front for) a bushel of tomatoes then they can better plan their stock and they can afford to give you a bit of a deal. It doesn't hurt to ask. It also helps to create a relationship with the owner, who might be very interested in how your sauce came out. And they just might tell you that the tomatoes will taste better in two weeks instead of one. They're the experts — make them your friends.

Even though my feet hurt from standing, and even though I did a Homer Simpson "Doh!" move when I got the tomato press out of the box and realized I didn't need to do anything but cut the tomatoes in half, and even though my kitchen floor was trashed and required some intense scrubbing to remove dried seeds resulting from my missing the trash can, the flavor of the sauce and the cost savings were truly worth it. Knowing that I have enough marinara to get me through the winter makes me happy. And knowing that anytime I get the urge I can go to our basement and retrieve a jar of tomatoes that taste like the final days of summer, reminds me of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine and gives me hope that I'll be able to return a little spring to my step in January by simply having pasta for dinner.

Next week I'll describe the delights and versatility of frittatas.

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