Tomato Kvetch-up

I’d like to call back summertime

And have her stay for just another month or so…

Joni Mitchell, “Urge for Going”

And how was your “summer?” Like, for gardening? As in, tomatoes?

Easy for Joni Mitchell to pine for a longer summer – easy when you spend most of your young life in the middle of Saskatchewan where the first frost hits in mid- to late August and the wind turns “traitor-cold” soon after that, sending all the tourists who accidentally stumble into Saskatchewan thinking “aren’t we in New Brunswick yet?” fleeing south for warmth. Midcoast Maine doesn’t have that problem. Our summers are long and leisurely and plenty warm (like last summer), or, like this summer, short and mildish and damp and foggy with chilly “where’s my sweater?” nights, wrapped around a smattering of hottish sunny days that seem alarming for their rarity. Is climate change playing some sick, twisted game with us? No, it’s just coastal Maine.

Big lesson this summer: tomatoes do not grow in fog. Bloody shame. Nor do they flourish at night when you step outside and see your breath coming out in clouds.

Last summer, we had 24 plants of either Celebrities or Better Boys, and could barely keep up with harvesting them. This year we have 18 plants of what I call “Itty Bitty Boys” — still green, as of this Eclipse Day, August 21. Last summer, we had three major pruning assaults on our plants to rid them of leaves that were doing nothing except stealing nutrients from the fruit. This summer, we haven’t pruned at all, not once. Why?

Wretched, pathetic little beasties.

Because they’ve been self-pruning. Sickly little things – despite the watering and fertilizer and fungicide and composting and the usual showerings of love and encouragement, sprinkled with veiled threats of violence if they don’t succeed.

Last year, I canned thirty quarts of pasta sauce. This summer, our harvest might yield us two BLTs and one salad with a sliced tomato buried somewhere in it.

I just checked with Georgene Arbour at Weskeag Farms on Buttermilk Lane in Thomaston, our go-to source for veggies, corn, lamb, and more. They grow many hundreds (maybe thousands) of tomatoes in a very long greenhouse, and she’s happy to report “the tomatoes are just in.” Good thing, because when they start selling them in bulk a few weeks from now, I’ll be there, because I have a primal need to make and can my own pasta sauce.

More just past this Note to my Subscribers…

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To my Subscribers

For many, many months, my WordPress stats page has told me I have about 60 subscribers, give or take. No change for a very long time. I’ve thought, okay, they’re still there, I write for them, whoever they may be. Last week, I looked at a recent post I’d put up, and way at the bottom it told me I have 188 subscribers (now 189). I wrote the BDN’s blogger maven, Sarah Cottrell, and asked, “Huh?” She did some digging, and determined that in fact Journeys Over a Hot Stove does have 189 followers. The WordPress stats page is glitched up.

Yikes. So suddenly there are three times as many of you as I thought. A huge and tumultuous THANK YOU to all of you. I don’t know who you are, but it makes me feel just a wee bit more responsible for giving you a good read, helpful info, good stories.

Please do write me via my contact page. I promise to write back, unless you’re a dimwitted and splenetic troll. I have the time – if you read me, I’ll read you.

I’ve learned not to write about Maine politics, or politics in general, thanks to one reader’s comment a few weeks ago. I’ve sworn off slamming Gov. LePage, scrofulous oozing canker of a sore on the soul of Maine that he is. I’ve sworn off touting Troy Jackson for governor, perfect as he would be for the job. No more of that. If I feel political rage, I will channel it toward my tomato crop.

I’m very glad you’re all here! Thanks again.

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Best pasta sauce you’ll ever make, probably

Okay, this recipe is a repeat, but the sauce has won raves from people we’ve given it to, so It needs to make another appearance. Let’s get started:

First, my pasta sauce ingredients are for 1 quart of sauce (but I usually do 4-5 quarts at a time), so multiply everything by the number of quarts you’re preparing:

  • Tomatoes. Can’t tell you how many, maybe 6-8 decent sized ones. They’re cored and usually cut in half, then steamed over (not in) boiling water for 6-9 minutes, depending on how ripe they are (less time for really ripe ones), then peeled (so much fun!) and put in a stockpot and mashed with a potato masher, then in a food processor for 3-4 pulses and that’s it.
  • Tomato paste from a can. Oh no, cheating! Yes, it hurts my pride, but the paste is a good thickener, and it has citric acid in it, and citric acid (like its cousin acetic acid, or white vinegar) is a good preservative. I use about 4 oz. of paste per quart, sometimes a little more.
  • Better Than Bouillon beef base. More cheating! I can’t give my sauce to vegetarians because of this, which leaves more for my wife and me. I use about a hefty tablespoon of the beefy/salty goo per quart. It provides some salt, some richness to the color of the sauce, and a je ne sais quoi to the flavor. Call it umami.
  • Garlic. As the air we breathe is to our lungs, so is garlic to pasta sauce. 2-3 fat cloves, pressed or minced, per quart. You can saute ahead of time in olive oil, but hey, it’s more work, and not necessary.
  • Red wine. About 1 to 1 1/2 oz. Part of the magic!
  • Balsamic vinegar – more magic! About a tablespoon.
  • Olive oil. About a tablespoon. I use regular olive oil, not the extra virgin, which I think is too heavy and greasy.
  • Brown sugar – about 2 tsps, but only if the sauce isn’t sweet enough.
  • Oregano and basil – about 1 tbsp. each. I use fresh basil from the garden, finely chopped.
  • Cayenne pepper to taste for some extra oomph.
  • Green bell pepper, chopped. About 1/2 a medium-sized pepper. Don’t include the white fleshy membrane stuff – too spoogey. The pepper goes into the mix at the very end.

Get ready to combine all this stuff into a large stockpot. Maybe you’re doing five quarts at once – good, but that’ll max out your stockpot (usually).

Tip 1: When ladling your mashed tomatoes into the food processor, fill it to about 16 oz. with both tomatoes and liquid, but for the next 16 oz. use a slotted spoon to fish out tomato meats without the liquid. This will save lots of time when reducing the sauce on the stove. 3 to 4 quick pulses, and pour into your stockpot. Add everything else (except the chopped pepper), mix well, and get the sauce gently bubbling over low heat.

Tip 2: Most pasta sauce recipes for canning expect you to want a really thick, gooey sauce, which is fine if you want to mimic store-bought pasta sauce, but no, this is your sauce (and mine) and it doesn’t have to be thick and gooey. I suggest reducing the volume of the sauce by one quarter at most. After all, they’re your tomatoes, and who wants to see half of them vanish into steam? But it’s your call: reduce the sauce until it has a texture and thickness that appeals to you. When you’re nearly done, throw in the green peppers.

Tip 3: Some people suggest you add a teaspoon of bottled lemon juice to your quart jar when you’re canning. The lemon juice adds citric acid, which extends shelf life (this may be their lawyers talking), but you’ve already got plenty of acid from the tomatoes themselves, the tomato paste, and the balsamic vinegar. So skip the lemon juice.

Some canning tips..

This is a hot water bath canning process, so fill your canning pot with hot tap water to within about 6 inches from the top (for 5 quart jars). Using a jar lifter, lower in the jars (without the lids), filling them with water, and turn the burner on high. In a separate small saucepot, heat some water and put in 5 lids and bands. You want the jars, lids and bands to heat to about 180 degrees, but not boiling. Important: it’s risky using “last year’s lids” – lids that have already been pried open. They usually won’t seal again because they’ve been crimped. Always use brand new lids.

When they’re all heated up, ladle the sauce into the jars with a funnel, leaving 1/2″ headspace. Keep the rims of the jars clean. Now put on the lids and bands and tighten with your whole hand. Tight, but not super tight. I’ve done “finger-tight” before, with tragic results I’d rather not share.

Put the jars into the canner making sure you have at least 1/2 ” of water over the tops of the jars, and when the water boils, cover, and let it boil gently for 45 minutes. When done, remove the cover and leave the jars alone for five minutes or so before removing. Lids may “pop down” even when they’re still in the hot water, but usually they pop down after you remove them. I place the jars on a dishtowel and wait to hear 5 popping sounds. Success!

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All of the above, of course, is dependent on whether or not you actually have tomatoes.

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There it is, for this week. Please visit my book website, below.

www.nedwhitebooks.com

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.