‘Cause the canned goods that I buy at the store
Ain’t got the summer in ‘em anymore
Greg Brown, “Canned Goods”
February has now turned to March, and my family now has four jars of tomatoes left in our cupboard. This was my first year of canning tomatoes, and I think I timed it perfectly. Soon we’ll be out of them, and winter can then move into spring.
Last year was the second I’ve grown tomatoes in our garden. They’re undoubtedly the most popular crop for amateur gardeners, and with good reason. Unlike lettuce, another popular one for novices, you can keep harvesting from the same plants all season. The way they grow is a little magical, with fruit that literally take the sunshine the leaves gather and concentrate them into little red balloons. And the yield itself is—along with watermelon, fresh basil, steamed blue crabs, and margaritas—a flashpoint that tells us summer is on.
But like all tastes of summer, the tomato is simultaneously bountiful and fleeting. Typically in Brooklyn, the months of August and September see every bodega, market, and coop stocked with juicy red Romas and Jersey Beefsteaks, with prices all hovering around a dollar a pound. Then sometime in late September, as if a switch were flipped, those juicy, deep red specimens are replaced with mealy, salmon-colored winter “tomatoes” or the serviceable-but-expensive greenhouse vine-ripened varieties.
Last year, the four tomato plants Stringbean and I planted yielded a moderate crop of vari-colored heirlooms, just enough to gobble until there were no leftovers. But as I perused the aisles with Stringbean, seeing all these juicy red tomatoes that would be gone within the month, my mind kept going back to my own childhood, and also, strangely enough, to my first winter in New York City.
I come from a family of canners, though I’m perhaps the first male canner. My maternal grandmother canned everything, from her way-too-big stringbeans to the plentiful tomatoes. My mother has been canning tomatoes since I can remember. She learned not from her own mother, who seems determined to take her canning secrets to the grave, but her mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother, who went to our country seat every year to get updated specifications for proper time, optimal water temperature, and proper equipment. I now get my specs from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving which, along with the Fannie Farmer Cookbook and A Well-Seasoned Appetite, has assumed top-shelf status in my cookbook collection.
In the winter of 2000, learning to can tomatoes was not atop my list of priorities. I was moving to New York City $200 in my wallet and an apartment share in Sunnyside, Queens, but no job, waiting for me. My mom had moved to rural north-central Pennsylvania with my stepdad, her second husband, the year before so I stayed with them over Christmas on the way to the big city. Before I left, she loaded me down with two cartons, 24 quart jars, of tomatoes she’d canned from her garden the previous September. The pasta sauce, ghoulash, and bean soup I made from those tomatoes got me through that first winter.
I still make the sauce for my own family now, with some variations I explain below the recipe. It’s easy enough for a single guy in his twenties with exactly two pots in his kitchen, but filling enough for the family he has in his late thirties.
I should also give the disclaimer here that, while I’m now using tomatoes I canned myself, I’ve made plenty of satisfying versions of each of these recipes with store-bought canned tomatoes, and you shouldn’t feel the slightest remorse for doing the same. If you do, I recommend you get the ones canned in tomato sauce or paste, which makes for a richer, more pliable base.
My own sauce grew in my college years out of my mom’s own recipe and Clemenza’s from The Godfather. And it pains me to say this, but my mom’s original recipe was deeply flawed. In fact, I never much cared for it when I was a kid. For one thing, she put a cup—yes, a cup—of sugar in it. This of course made for a very sweet sauce, and I’ve never been a fan of sweet tomato-based sauces—ketchup, French salad dressing, even Tabasco sauce. She’s told me that she did it to make the sauce less bitter, and I’ve since figured out that the sauce was bitter in the first place because she didn’t remove the seeds from the tomatoes when she boiled them down.
Also, my mom didn’t grow fresh herbs then like she does now and I didn’t even know garlic existed in non-powdered form until I went off to college, so she used garlic salt and the dried “Italian Spice” mix from McCormick’s. And her first husband was an alcoholic so she couldn’t flavor the sauce with even sherry, much less red wine, so she used Worcestershire Sauce instead. And finally, she wasn’t introduced to the gustatory pleasures of olive oil until…
My freshman year of college, I finally watched The Godfather. As great as the movie was, the scene that stuck with me the most was the one with Clemenza in the kitchen teaching Michael Corleone—and me—how to make a good sauce (or gravy, in his terms):
I learned the following from Clemenza:
- The pleasure of cooking with olive oil, which includes tasting a bit from your index finger every now and then while cooking
- How to feed 20 guys at a time, which satisfied my track team pretty well
- The importance of telling a girl I love her, or in his words, “I love you wit alla my heart, if I don’ see you again soon Ima gonna die…”
- Frying fresh garlic as the base
- The importance of “a little bit a’ wine” and “a little bit a’ sugar,” not a cup (I’ve actually cut out the sugar entirely)
I spent my college years experimenting and perfecting the sauce-making skills I learned from my mom and Clemenza, which I now present to you as the general recipe with variations:
- 3-6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 quarts canned tomatoes—I of course recommend freshly canned, but you can use canned whole tomatoes from the store. Or if you’re really in a bind for time you can use crushed tomatoes, or even—god forbid—tomato sauce. Just know that the deepness and freshness of the flavor suffers with each step down.
- Red wine, to taste—If you don’t have any red wine, you can substitute balsamic vinegar—just use much, much less.
Start by prepping the tomatoes. If you’re using whole tomatoes, take each one, cut it in half or quarters, and remove the seeds. You can do this with a small spoon or, like me, your finger. This process does remove quite a bit of the juice the tomatoes are packed in; I solved this problem by putting the seeds in a strainer after I’ve removed them, and adding the strained liquid when I add the tomatoes.
As with many of my recipes, you start by sautéing the garlic and onion in olive oil. Unless you want to wash an extra pan, do this in the big pot you’ll be cooking the sauce in.
Once the onions and garlic are cooked but not brown, add the tomatoes. Let the mixture come to a boil, then turn the heat down low. Let the tomatoes boil down, stirring occasionally, for anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the time you have and if you want the sauce to be more smooth or more chunky. A little trick I use to speed the process is, after a half hour or so, I use a potato masher to break down the tomatoes in the sauce. And like I said in the ingredients list, you can use tomato sauce and not have to go through this, the longest step. It just won’t taste nearly as good.
If you’re feeling ultra-adventurous and they are available, you can use fresh tomatoes. Just remove the skins (it’s very easy—instructions here) and the seeds. This will add a bit of time to the boil-down process, but it truly is the height of flavor and freshness for the sauce.
Besides the onion and garlic, you can add a finely chopped red pepper and/or sliced mushrooms to the olive oil from the start.
You can also add olives, and/or capers for a puttsnesca, which I highly recommend. Stringbean is already somewhat of a connoisseur, so we use chopped kalamata and garlic-stuffed green olives. You can of course just use black olives, which most kids L-O-V-E.
If your family likes it spicy, double the garlic and add chili powder, finely chopped jalapenos, and/or chopped red pepper for a nice Fra Diavolo. This goes really well with fish or shellfish.
And finally, my friend Sophia recently clued me into a subtle but delectable addition from her own family’s recipe—a square of dark chocolate, added when the tomatoes are just starting to boil. It adds just a touch of rich sweetness, and looks beautiful as it melts into the tomatoes:
And finally, if anyone is thinking about growing your own tomatoes now’s the time to start germinating seeds, or you can wait a couple of months to buy transplants, or just wait a couple more and you can buy them in bulk from the store! Just remember, you can get in on the game at any step, whether growing them yourself, or buying them fresh and canning them, or even buying canned tomatoes from the grocery store. The important thing is that you’re establishing family bonds and traditions that your children will remember. Don’t make them learn them from the mafia.
– John Proctor is our resident dad and writes on his experience living and raising his two children in Brooklyn. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2000, and been a father since 2009. Besides keeping company with his wife, two daughters, and chihuahua, he also writes memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, New York Cool, and Gotham Gazette, and he serves as Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. He can be reached at email@example.com and would love to hear from all of you!