Sunday, September 5, 2010

Playing Ketchup

For the past several years, we've switched our diet from junk food and eating out to home-cooked food. Initially, this meant a return to the grocery stores - starting back with the regular chains (Giant and Safeway being the locals), then to the organic markets and places like Whole Paycheck Foods. Eventually, we started going to local farmers' markets.

Going to the farmers' markets, we started to eat locally and seasonally. However, eating locally/seasonally meant that there were just certain foods that we couldn't eat "all year". So, Donna, decided to try her hand at canning. She found that she liked the activity - or at least the results of it - enough to make a yearly ritual of it.

During fruit seasons, she buys bulk fruit and cans it so we have fillings for pies, toppings for deserts and general meal brighteners. We're probably stocked for jellies and pie fillings for at least the next coming year or two.

We like tomato products, a lot: pizza sauce, ketchup, tomato paste, etc. In general, we like things tarter and/or spicier than what you get in the stores. The store-bought stuff tends to just be too sweet. So, it made sense to see what could be made at home. We're now in our second year of this (we is charitable as my contribution is rather much smaller than hers - but, hey, "it's my blog").

The Tuesday before Labor Day Weekend, Donna picks up a couple of boxes of roma tomatoes from Threeway Farms (of Warsaw, VA - sorry, no link: Google produced no hits). She then spends the weekend turning those boxes of tomatoes into ketchup, tomato paste, pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce and whole-crushed canned tomatoes. What follows is a photographic chronicling of the process of creating ketchup...

First, start with a box of roma tomatoes. The farmers sell other tomatoes that they call "canning" tomatoes. They are much cheaper, by the pound, than romas, but have a much higher seed content and less desirable flavor profile than the romas. You can go the "canning tomatoes" route, but, your output reflects your input. ;)

The box pictured below contains 25lbs of roma tomatoes (about a half-bushel). We get 2-3 boxes of these each season:
½ bushel box
Donna then takes about a third to a half of one of these boxes and blanches them to loosen the skins. She takes the blanched tomatoes and removes the skins, by hand (cut an 'X' in one end and then peel from the cuts). Once skinned, take a hand-coring tool and core out the main seed pocket to remove the bulk of the tomato seeds.:
Skinned and cored tomatoes
My primary involvement is usually in the coring step, sometimes helping with skinning. Oh... And "documenting".

Then, she slices up the cored, skinned tomatoes for chopping. The tomatoes are chopped up to about the following size/consistency:
Chopped tomatoes

As I noted previously, we like ketchup with a bit more flavor and zest. So, red bell peppers help to punch things up a bit...
Red bell peppers

The "punch-up" also requires some onions, vinegar, celery see, mustard seed, black pepper and a few other things (staged below)
Some "punch-ups"

The real fun part is the milling step. The food mill is a hand-cranked device that forces the ingredients through a set of screens. The sizes of the openings in the screens help determine the consistency of the resulting ketchup. Remaining skin, seeds and other unwanted bits are left behind in the top part and the tomato pulp drops through to the pot, below:

These are just some of the jars that get used in a canning season. We use "Ball" jars. Dunno that anyone else still makes canning jars, but, that's what's available in our area. It's always an adventure trying to find the right number and sizes. It's gotten easier as canning comes back into vogue, but, still have to find them. Harris Teeter's frequently a good source. So is Amazon.

"Ball" jars: ask for them by name

The jars are prepped by being dropped into a bath of water and heated. This helps protect against cracking/breaking from the thermal shock of putting fresh-from-the-cooking-pot ketchup in them.
Also acts as a lobster pot...

A slightly smaller pot is used to cook the ketchup. I was late in my documentation efforts, so, the pot's already nearly empty, at this point...
Cooking pot

Donna takes the warmed jars, fills them with the ketchup, puts the lids on and then carefully dumps them in the hot-water bath (those are canning tongs she's using: good for careful placement without risk of burning oneself)
Placing in the bath

After they're heated for a while, they are left to sit on the counter, over night, to cool. The cooling process reduces the air density in the jars, creating a seal. Before screwing the rings on, a quick seal test is done (basically, verify that the lids are slightly concave and well-seated).
3pts of ketchup

So, a little less than a quarter bushel of roma tomatoes produces about three pint-jars of some of the best-tasting ketchup.

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