tomatoesYes, don’t say it. I’ve been woefully neglecting this blog. In fact, I think I’ve gone longer without updating than I have in the last three years. Why? One word: Tomatoes. Yes, we’ve had a lot of wine stuff happening: harvest, crush, fermenting, pressing. But it’s the tomatoes that have been killing me. Even more so than if I were a bad Borscht Belt comedian being pelted by them. See, until this year, I was of the “You Can’t Have Too Many Tomatoes” School. So I overplanted. Then, there were all the wild seeds from last year’s planting that unexpectedly sprouted. I’m still a new enough gardener that I couldn’t bare to weed out anything that volunteered for duty. So I ended up with Tomato Cambodia. By which I mean, I had a veritable impenetrable jungle of tomato plants.

Even stranger was that, due to our unseasonable cool and wet Spring and Summer, we had nary a ripe tomato until well into September. That includes all the Early Girl tomatoes I planted which, around here, typically ripen in June. Just when I despaired of ever having any tomatoes, BAM! Hundreds of tomatoes ripened all at the same time. That led, in the last few weeks, to a frenzied orgy of picking and canning. Just to put it all in perspective, my little Goddaughter, Amelia May, whom some may remember as The World’s Most Beautiful Baby, is now a toddler and weighing in at 32 pounds. In recent weeks, I’ve picked and canned nearly three times her weight in tomatoes. And I still have several toddlers’ worth of produce left on the vine. That, my friends, is a shit-load of tomatoes.

amelia may, the world's most beautiful toddler

The World's Most Beautiful Toddler (my Goddaughter) is 30 lbs. and change. I've processed three of her in tomatoes just in the last two weeks!

So, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been in a frenzy of canning. While in past years, I experimented with many wonderful and diverse recipes for tomato products — everything from Green Tomato Chutney to Tomato Marmalade — this year I’m all about recipes that help me dispose of masses of tomatoes in one marathon canning session. So, I’ve pretty much been churning out more tomato sauce than Paul Newman (God rest his soul!) And in the pursuit of that endeavor, I have developed the perfect recipe.

I realize few of my loyal readers may need to process 30 pounds of tomatoes at a clip. But who knows? You may find yourself flashing too much cash at the local farmers’ market and walking away with a trunkload of tomatoes. If so, here’s the solution. It’s “Blank Canvas Tomato Sauce”, so called because it is meant to be the starting point for any number of recipes. And strategically, it’s meant to appeal to the greatest number of people, eaters, tastes and dietary restrictions. This is key. If you are trying to foist the product of a sixty pound tomato harvest off on your nearest and dearest friends, you better have something no one can refuse on any grounds. That’s why this sauce can withstand the protestations of friends who don’t like spicy or are vegan or want pizza sauce not spaghetti sauce. Hell, I don’t even add corn starch to thicken it, just in case someone plays the gluten-free card. I’m not exactly sure what gluten is and why so many people feel we need to be free of it. But, I’m including no additives just in case. Even with all these precautions, I still had to resort to leaving canned sauce on friends’ doorsteps, ringing the bell and running away. But the task of disposing of canned tomato product could have been worse without this recipe.

canned tomato sauce

All my friends are on a tomato quota. No excuses. No quarter. NONE.

So in the interest of helping all those who have overgrown or overbought tomatoes, here it is. This recipe is adapted from one originally found in the excellent The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest — a wonderful resource for many kinds of food preparation. But I think I’ve improved the recipe — at least as far as countering potential resistance.

Blank Canvas Tomato Sauce

30 pounds farm-ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and quartered

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

6-8 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons dried basil

2 tablespoons dried oregano

2 tablespoons dried parsley flakes

2-3 bay leaves

(The easiest way to peel tomatoes is to plunge them, about a dozen at a time, in boiling water for a few minutes until the peels start to crack. Drain in a colander and run cold water over them. The peels should start flaking off easily.)

1. In a heavy nonreactive saucepan, bring tomatoes to a boil stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for as long as it takes for the tomatoes to break down, then process through a food mill and return to the pan. (From long experience, I’ve found that the longer you cook the tomatoes, the easier that process will be. I’m now routinely cooking the tomatoes down at least 45 minutes before I process them in the food mill. Trust me on this!)

2. Heat oil in a heavy cast iron skillet. Add the onions, celery and garlic. Sauté, stirring often, until soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add to tomatoes.

3. Add sugar and herbs. Simmer uncovered until the sauce is thick. This may take 4-6 hours! Remove bay leaves. (Putting them in a muslin bag before adding them makes this much easier.)

4. Follow good practices for cleaning and sterilizing 10 1-pint jars and canning equipment (funnels, spatulas, etc). Fill clean jars, leaving 1 inch of headspace. Cap and process. With a weighted gauge pressure canner, process at 10 pounds of pressure for 30 minutes (Assuming you are at sea level. Adjust for altitude, if necessary.)

Here’s the deal with this sauce. No salt. Very little sugar. Not too thick. Not too thin. No gluten. Your victims recipients can boil this down for a thicker sauce, add meat and mushrooms, add more spices. Or drink it out of a shot glass, for all you care. Hey, it’s basically tomatoes and a few more vegetables. What’s not to love? And since your goal will be to foist jars off on as many people as possible, there’s nothing short of a tomato allergy that can be used as an excuse not to take a few pints.

And for all my San Francisco friends, if your doorbell rings and you find no one there when you answer it. Look down. There will be tomato products on your stoop. Just shut up and put them in your pantry. Everyone I know is on a tomato quota. No excuses.