my tomatoes for ketchupThere is actually probably no connection between ketchup and wine. Although I’m sure you could find a glass of wine that would pair nicely with a meal that featured copious amounts of ketchup. In my case, I’m just combining the two because we had a massive double harvest yesterday. In this crazy growing season we’ve had, ALL the grape varietals came ripe at the same time, which never happens, so we had crews harvesting the entire vineyard in one go. At the same time, I’m declaring that this year’s semi-disasterous and certainly disappointing tomato harvest is very over. So I grabbed bins and an ATV and set out for Flying Terrier Farms to harvest every possible tomato that showed any semblance of ripeness. I didn’t come away with every single tomato. There are still so many that seem stuck at the point of “almost but not quite ripe”. I’m not sure how long I’ll let those hang around in the hopes that they will eventually do something. But I did come away with enough tomatoes to mix up a big batch of ketchup. So this post will be more about ketchup than it is about wine. But we’ll take a quick look at that harvest before we turn to ketchup:

cabernet harvest, two terrier vineyards

Here we are on our way to our eventual harvest of 2.5 tons of Cabernet grapes. Sifting through the grapes are the excellent Isaac (in hat) of Madrone Vineyard Management who manages our vines. At left is Steve McCrostie who is an actual professional winemaker who is helping us this year. More on him in another post.

the last bin picked for Harvest of 2012

And here goes the last bin of the Harvest of 2012. Well, not quite the last bin. We still have a tiny bit of underripe Cinsault in the field that we’ll pick ourselves and crush with Cousin John.

Now back to ketchup. Anyone who has been hanging around this blog for the past two years may remember this post where I first attempted homemade tomato ketchup. I’ve been following that recipe and technique for two years now, so I won’t repeat it here. But I have learned a lot and made refinements in the dozens of ketchup batches I’ve made since then, so those I will pass on.

1.Do as I say, not as I do. First look at the picture that heads this post. See all those fat, big tomatoes? Those aren’t the ones to use. Try to use little sauce tomatoes like Roma or Principe Borghese. But if all you have are the big ones, go ahead and use them. It won’t ruin anything. But I will warn you that the small ones have less water content and therefore thicken more quickly. As we shall see, “quickly” is not something that happens at any stage of this recipe. So whatever you can do to save an hour or two is the difference between sanity and insanity. Secondly, see that fire in the woodstove? Don’t do that. You will be boiling down tomatoes for hours. It’s going to get plenty hot. So turn down the thermostat.

 2. Take care when using British recipes. The ketchup recipe I use is from Thane Prince’s excellent Jellies, Jams & Chutneys. It’s a proper British cookbook and, as such, should come with a warning label. Be aware that British cookbook authors will NOT lead you by the hand. They will expect, much as the British do in other circumstances, that you will know “the done thing” and proper protocol. So they will leave so much unsaid. They will also, much as the British do in other circumstances, practice massive understatement. Case in point: all the cooking times. Thane will tell you things like “simmer for 20 minutes until the mixture thickens.” In my particular experience, this ketchup never reaches thickening stage before a couple of hours. Which brings me to my next suggestion:

3. Find yourself a long, multipart BBC drama on DVD or instant download. You will need it. The time between when the tomato mixture is thin tomato juice and when it’s ketchup will be long enough for the folks at Downton Abbey to weather a few crises or for Dame Peggy Ashcroft to be thoroughly crushed in the former British Raj. I’m referring, of course, to The Jewel in the Crown, and I recommend British dramas that take place in far flung parts of the former Empire. After all, ketchup was something that the British modified from a Malaysian fermented fish paste back when they were lording it over the Malaysians. Somehow they lost the fish part and substituted a vegetable from another former colony. But you can do that when you have an Empire.

4. The food processor is your friend. Thane will tell you to throw all the vegetable ingredients into the pot and “Cook gently over medium heat for about 15 minutes until all the ingredients are very soft.” Feel free to laugh in her general direction. Your tomatoes, onions, garlic, bell pepper and celery will NOT be soft in 15 minutes. Probably not even in an hour and a half. But I’ve discovered that, if you puree or finely chop everything in the food processor before you put it in the pot, it will get soft fairly quickly. There is probably some very ingrained reason why you shouldn’t chop the vegetables to speed the softening. If there is, Thane’s not telling. I’ve been doing this for awhile now and I see no downside.

mortar and pestle and spices

Grind your own spices. If you’ve ever tasted fresh ground versus pre-ground spices, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This, I’m convinced, is the secret to the recipe. It will take for-frickin-ever. Don’t worry. You have that time. Turn up the volume on the TV and get to grinding.

5. If you don’t believe me on Number 4, you will when you get to the food mill. Once the vegetables have softened, which probably will take up to at least the second meeting of Elizabeth and Darcy, you will need to run it all through a food mill to strain out the seeds and skins. If you didn’t take my advice above, you’ll have carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists as you crank and crank to get that sludge turned into puree. If you have taken my advice, you won’t have to crank much beyond Elizabeth and Darcy’s first fight before you’ve completed this task.

tomatoes in food mill

Food mills are amazing! Can you believe this is all that’s left of 6.6 lbs of tomatoes and several more pounds of onions, garlic, bell pepper and celery? The rest is a smooth puree in the pot below.

6. Settle in with Darcy, Harold Kumar or Lady Grantham. It’s going to be long while now. Here’s where Thane tells you to simmer the mixture for 20 minutes until it thickens. Again, feel free to laugh in her general direction. Sure, you’ve added some sugar at this point, but only 8 ounces and that’s not enough to create any jelling action. (And speaking of sugar, take Thane’s option to use dark muscovado sugar. It really deepens the flavor.) Besides, this is ketchup, not jam. You’ll just need to crank up that BBC miniseries and wait for the hours it will take for this to simmer down to the consistency of ketchup.

7. Don’t start making this at night. Believe me, I’ve done that and found myself stirring tomato mixture at 3AM. Get up early and expect to make a day of it. You also want to avoid the temptation to pour yourself a glass of wine while making this. Because you’ll find you’ve killed a bottle before the celery softens. Trust me on this. In fact, this may be the ultimate connection between wine and ketchup I was straining for at the beginning of the post. This recipe could very easily drive you to drink.

Okay, so we’ve established that homemade ketchup is a hell of a lot of work. Is it worth it? I think so. I know I have friends who would forgive me anything if I were offering a jar of it as a peace offering. And maybe the work is a good thing. Only when boiling this concoction through all its stages do you really understand how much corn starch, thickening agents, xanthum gum or whatever must go into commercial ketchup. Because when ketchup is pure vegetables and spices — which this recipe is –getting all the extra water out of it the natural way takes forever. But the results, again, are well worth it.

Remember the big outcry when Congress, in relation to the school lunch program, declared ketchup a vegetable? Well, mine is. Mine certainly is.