tomatosmallI’m surprised more Buddhists don’t can. Because you have to be in that Zen mindset to survive canning. And Zen was just what I’ve been needing after a nightmarish three months of buying and selling real estate that left me, at certain points, driving around the Bay Area in a Prius with two terriers in crates not certain where I’d stay for the night. I’m not quite sure if I’m up to telling about those adventures just yet. So let’s stick with canning.

First of all, let me note that Sonoma, which is famous as one of those few perfect spots for growing premium wine, seems also to be a magical place for growing tomatoes. Back in late May, I’d popped a few small tomato plants in my garden, then promptly neglected them for the next few months. Finally this weekend, I had a chance to get up to Flying Terrier Farms and survey the disaster that should have been my garden. Not such a disaster. Well, if you go by yield. True, I had a tangle of vegetation not unlike some jungle in Cambodia. But in and among those overgrown plants were loads of tomatoes. Particularly ripe were my little Principe Borghese, those classic Italian sauce tomatoes. When hundreds of them are ripe, there is only one thing to do: pick them and can them.

Gathering only the very ripest ones, I netted a bit more than six pounds. That's a lot of these tiny tomatoes.

Gathering only the very ripest ones, I netted a bit more than six pounds. That’s a lot of these tiny tomatoes.

I’ve warned you in relation to my earlier canning misadventures, that canning isn’t something to be taken on lightly — or toward the end of the day. Since the sun was already low in the sky by this point, I opted to make what I call my Blank Canvas Tomato Sauce. So called because it doesn’t include much but tomatoes, a tiny bit of salt and a few dried Italian spices. Use it as the basis for pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce or any recipe that needs a good tomatoey foundation. Blank Canvas Tomato Sauce also has the advantage of being relatively quick to make — or quick in terms of canning, which still means hours.

Although I’ve written several posts on various jams and jellies and ketchups that I’ve canned, I don’t think I’ve written about tomato sauce. Maybe because it is relatively easy. But there are still some tricks –things that most canning books and recipes will leave you to find out the hard way.

First off, I started with a basic sauce recipe out of the old Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. Yes, I have all the fancy new preserving cookbooks, but I find that good old fashioned pressure canning has gone out of vogue in favor of other, to my mind, less reliable and safe methods.

bigbertha

And since I have Big Bertha, the ultimate behemoth presssure canner, I prefer this method of preserving. The Ball Book assumes you will be using one and gives comprehensive instructions for it.

Here are some of the things most canning books gloss over — although the Ball book is a little better than most.

1. You will need to be scrupulous about picking only the best produce with no spots or splits in the skin. I’ve been trying to remember where I read this, but apparently, the skin of something like a tomato is a barrier to fungus and nasty things like that which you don’t want boiled down into your canned product. So throw away any tomatoes where the skins are split or have spots on them.

2. Assemble all your ingredients before you start. In my experience, each stage of canning can take for-fricken-ever. Then suddenly you need something with no time to peel it or prepare it.

And don't forget wine! Not for the product, for you. I find a Schug Pinot Noir pairs nicely with most recipes.

And don’t forget wine! Not for the product, for you. I find a Schug Pinot Noir pairs nicely with most recipes.

3. Line up a few good Netflix, Amazon or Pay-Per-View movies. You’ll need something to entertain you while you wash, peel, prep or stir. I’m sure there is an art to a good canning movie. I chose a several part PBS Documentary on the 1930s for this foray. It seemed appropriate to be doing old skool food preservation while watching people lose everything in the Stock Market Crash, flee the Dust Bowl and build the national parks with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Sometimes my viewing choices have not been so well-matched as in this escapade with Beet and Orange Relish with a side of chimp.

4. Remember what I said about the tomato skins being a barrier to fungus and other icky things? That’s because they are tough little buggers. That’s why you MUST invest in a food mill. You will get carpal tunnel syndrome as you crank and crank that thing, but it will eventually separate out all the skins and seeds from your tomato base.

Oh, and nearly every canning book will tell you to cook your tomatoes some ridiculously short time -- like 20 minutes -- before putting it through the mill.

Oh, and nearly every canning book will tell you to cook your tomatoes some ridiculously short time — like 20 minutes — before putting it through the mill.

Take it from me, you want to cook those tomatoes down to a soft sludge before you risk your wrists cranking it through the mill.

Take it from me, you want to cook those tomatoes down to a soft sludge before you risk your wrists cranking it through the mill.

Even still, you will crank and crank and crank before you get yourself a nearly dry mixture of seeds and skins while every last precious drop of tomato goodness is back in your pot.

5. Now you have an incredibly thin mixture of tomato juice that you can’t imagine will ever cook down to the consistency of sauce or ketchup. This is where you could lose heart if you don’t have a good movie or two lined up. This is where you will also realize, if you started this whole process too late, that you will be canning until 3AM.

About an hour in and still the consistency of tomato flavored water. Time to crank up another episode.

About an hour in and still the consistency of tomato flavored water. Time to watch another episode.

Finally, after hours, your tomato mixture will be sauce consistency. Now you can put it in jars and crank that pressure canner up to eleven. Actually, ten pounds of pressure is usually enough. By the way, I find that the Ball Book has the most detailed instructions on what pressure is right for each recipe, exactly how long it should be under pressure, and which release method to use. In fact, I cross reference most of my canning recipes with the Ball Book for more exact instructions.

Another thing the Ball Book will be clear about is how little finished product you will get for the amount of vegetables you start with. Or maybe not. Ball promised me a liter of sauce for every five pounds of tomatoes.

I started with six pounds of tomatoes and got about half a liter.

I started with six pounds of tomatoes and got about half a liter.

Remember those Buddhists I referenced at the beginning of this post? Well, the Urban Dictionary defines Zen this way:

One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.

That’s the state of mind you need to bring to canning. There are no set cooking times. The sauce/jam/preserves/whatever are going to take the time they take no matter what the recipe says. There are no guarantees on outcome. You put your pounds of produce in and you’ll get out of it what you’ll get out of it. Be one with the process. Drop your preconceptions.

Be a Buddhist canner. It’s the best approach. Oh, and also the movies and the wine.

 

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