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September 8, 2008 at 7:30 AM

Yes we can: tomatoes

If you love the idea of canning, but are fearful of the process, relax: Roma can be built in a day:

But first, it’s a good idea to do as I did, and find someone who knows the drill. For my pal Jodi, that someone was her friend Michelina, an Italian nonna who learned to “make jars” — as Michelina refers to the tomato-canning process — in her native country. After several years of studying at Michelina’s elbow, Jodi’s now passing the tradition along to her family and friends.

Boxes of sun-ripened Roma tomatoes, just off the vine from Yakima, were the first thing I saw when I arrived an hour late for the day-long event we call “Tomato Day.” Ready for action for the second year running, I came armed with a cutting board, knife, apron, a couple of enormous stainless steel bowls and two cases of empty canning jars, plus a bottle of wine and a big loaf of homemade bread. Things were already moving along by then, with quart-jars being sterilized and stacked, case after case of tomatoes washed and trimmed of any bruises, and tomatoes cooking in giant pots both indoors and out:

Neighbor Bonnie readied Jodi’s “baby” — an electric OMRA tomato-pressing machine purchased last year in preparation for the annual puree-a-thon (she’d used Michelina’s smaller press before that):

Last year we had problems with overly watery puree (illustrated by my last quart from 2007):

You should have tasted that “tomato water” though. Wow. And the excess water wasn’t really a problem once the puree cooked down. After some trouble-shooting research this year, Jodi learned (courtesy of “some Italian guy in Brooklyn”) that we shouldn’t have been slicing the tomatoes in half before processing them, nor did we need to trim the core-end. Fine with us. That was one less step, and we had plenty of other work to do.

Each sterilized jar got a pinch of kosher salt and a sprig of fresh basil:

And once filled, a careful wipe around the rim before we capped the cans with sterilized lids:

Even the kids got into the act. Here’s Jodi’s daughter, Ornella (who’s a great cook, just like her mom):

And this kid, what’s-his-name (is he wearing the right shirt for the job, or what?):

Unlike Jersey Boy — whose clothes went straight into the “Biz bag” when we got home — Janet, seen below, managed to wear a white blouse all day without getting any tomato stains on it:

There’s truth to the old adage, “Many hands make light work”:

Of course, that’s easy for me to say, since I wasn’t the one carrying quarts from the boiling canning pots to the table where we stacked and cooled the finished product:

Mid-day, we stopped to take a rest:

By then, we were all parched and ready for a “bite”:

Jodi threw together some penne, but not before shouting, “Hey! Anybody have any tomato sauce?”:

Romeo was not as impressed with the sauce as we were. He was holding out for a piece of salumi from the antipasti platter, and begged for a piece of herb-roasted chicken:

As day turned into evening, Nate started giving me the look: the one that said, “There’s only so much `making jars’ and hanging out with grownups a boy can handle.” So we bid Romeo and our tomato-buddies goodbye and headed home. Soon after, the other participants followed, and Jodi — who turned me on to Martha Stewart’s cookbooks when I met her 20 years ago — spent much of the next day making marinara and ketchup, and processing many of the many quarts we’d left behind. The finally tally? We turned 800 pounds of tomatoes into 200 quarts of puree. I stopped by a few days later to pick up my two cases, and couldn’t wait to get home and put those colorful jars on display:

As if inviting me to join her for Tomato Day 2008 wasn’t enough, my pal sent me home with a pint of her fabulous homemade ketchup:

She flavors it with cloves, cinnamon and celery seed, using a recipe from “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving” — a good place to start if you’ve got a mind to do some canning of your own.

For more information on home-canning, check out this helpful web site from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. And this Seattle Times Cooking School “class” focusing on preserving stone-fruits. Got any tips or stories to tell about canning foods? I’d sure love to hear them.

Comments | More in Cooking | Topics: Produce/Farmers Markets


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