The text came in early one Saturday morning. “The tomatoes have spoken,” it said. “It happens today at 11am.”
It was my friend Victoria, alerting me to the specific time her in-laws would be putting up their tomatoes this year, something they’ve done since they moved to Calgary from Sessano del Molise, a small town just outside Naples, in 1967. When I heard it was an annual thing, generally a major production involving 20 cases of tomatoes, a dozen friends and neighbours, tables set up in the garage and a hot tub-sized pot set over a single burner in the driveway, I begged to tag along.
Putting up tomatoes is largely a lost art, what with the availability of good-quality canned tomatoes just about everywhere food is sold, for a dollar or three. But I love the idea of picking up cases and doing it myself, and of letting the tomatoes determine when they’re ready to go. If you’re going to do this kind of thing, turn your basement or kitchen or garage into some sort of tomato crime scene, it needs to be done when they’re at their absolute peak of ripeness – not under-ready, not squishy. Mike and Pasqualina cover them in blankets and wait until the stem end starts to wrinkle. Then, says Pasqualina, they’re ready.
The beauty of putting up your own tomatoes, besides the shelves of backyard or farmers’ market tomatoes you could potentially wind up with in your pantry, is that you could do one jar, or ten, or fifty, depending on your appetite for such a project and the size of your biggest pot. On this particular Saturday there were buckets and cases of tomatoes, and an enormous plastic colander set over an even more enormous bowl, another of cold water and a stockpot of simmering water. Here’s the process: start with Roma or plum tomatoes, which are meatier with less juice and seeds. Blanch them quickly, for about 20 seconds, so that once plunged into cold water, their skins will slip off in your fingers. Pasqualina would cut out the stem end and any unripe bits, and thickly chop them into the colander to drain any excess juices and some of the seeds. Mike would then grind them in a small hand-cranked food chopper – a blender processes them too much, they said. You could pulse them in a food processor with a gentle hand; you want some chunks, but not too big. The chunkily blended fresh tomatoes would then go into the gigantic pot to be simmered with fresh basil from the garden and some salt, cooked just long enough to go two fingers’ worth down the side before going into jars.
At this point I should tell you to process the jars in a certain amount of water for a certain amount of time, but what Mike and Pasqualina do is wrap them again in blankets – they will stay warm for a few days and continue to sweeten up over that time, they told me, and the lids will pop. (Note: this process may not meet some Canadian food safety standards, but it’s how they’ve always done it.) The finished sauce is ready to go on pizza and to use in soups and stews and as a base for Mike’s pasta sauce, which he simmers with onions, carrots and celery (you have to be careful with the celery, they say, cut it fine because it doesn’t break down), and a whole rack of pork ribs.
This is my interpretation of a recipe given to me verbally, described in detail in the basement and over lunch in the kitchen. Adjust quantities of the meat and veggies to suit your taste. (They also sometimes add sausage and homemade meatballs made with 1 part beef, 2 parts pork, Italian bread soaked in water and then squeezed dry, an egg and grated Parmesan cheese.)