Making tomato sauce … the italian way!

There are several things that scream “Italian Heritage” loud and clear. One of those things is “Tomato Sauce Day”.

For the un-initiated, this is essentially the act of turning many kilos of glorious, sun ripened summer tomatoes into a paste, bottling them then preserving them.

This is normally a family affair, and most families do this at the peak of the tomato season. It takes a full day and becomes a crazy day of story telling, kids running rampant and more food than you can eat. Our last “Sauce Day” was a low key affair with just myself, my parents and my mother-in-law. We churned through around 350kg of tomatoes in one day. It was epic!

Anyone can do this at home, but you will need a few things. Most of these will be things you already have in the kitchen. Here is a short rundown of equipment…

  • Tomatoes (see the section below about “Choosing your tomatoes”
  • a large pot (or two)
  • a large sieve/colander
  • bottles and bottle tops (see the section below about “Collecting bottles”
  • a bottle capping machine
  • olive oil
  • rags (to protect the bottles while preserving)
  • basil or parsley (optional)
  • a mouille/vegetable grinder
  • funnel
  • bottle brush, cleaning sponge, detergent and nail brush (optional)

Any family who does their version of “Sauce Day” does so no more than once per year. Some families share equipment, ensuring that they do not plan on doing things on the same weekend, and other families store their equipment in the back of their garage or shed until needed. Either way, they equipment need not be expensive in the least. Start small if you want to try this. Each year, we only pay for bottle tops, a few extra boxes of tomatoes and gas for the gas burner. Everything else is our time (and experience of course).

When we get a large crop of tomatoes in our “pantry” garden, then we do a small, single pot of sauce. Here is a pic of all the ingredients for that .. the colours are a real symbol of Summer for us.

Choosing your tomatoes for “Sauce Day”

There is an art to choosing tomatoes for sauce. They key factors are time of year, fruit type and fruit quality.

You want to use a fruit that is at its peak of sweetness, has lots of flavour but not much in the way of seed pulp. The classic Roma or egg shaped tomato is perfect. Many of your round tomatoes have a very high seed to flesh ratio. You want to make sure that the tomato you use is as close to being seed free as possible. We use the Apollo variety of egg tomato. It is a commercially grown variety that resembles the classic Roma (which is its parent actually) but is larger and matures quicker.

The flavour of tomatoes changes throughout the season. Tomatoes that you get in store always taste the same because they are probably grown in a poly tunnel (plastic green house). Poly tunnels are great for reducing pest infestation and controlling the climate for seasonal crops. But  find that the flavour of a sun ripened fruit is superior to one grown in a poly tunnel. The best tomatoes used for sauce are those that are at the top of the plant (nearing the end of the season) and grown outside of a poly tunnel. This is because the plant is well established and the fruit is exposed to sunlight through it’s entire growing period. Tomatoes grown in this way are amazing in flavour … sometimes a little sun burnt (especially during hot summers when >40 degrees C is reached on consecutive days) … but the flavour of the flesh is unaffected.

If you have a grower near by, you can approach them and ask if they grow Roma style tomatoes and ask them when they think the top crop will be ready. This is usually around the end of January in Sydney regions. This is perfect because you can turn your Australia Day celebration break into a “Sauce Day” family gathering! 😉

Most growers are happy to sell direct to the public because that way they don’t have to take their produce to market. Some growers though do have existing clients and quotas to fill, but they will be able to let you know how much they will have available and at what times. For reference, a large box of tomatoes is around 15kg.

Collecting bottles

Making sure that you have enough bottles for preserving your tomato sauce is necessary to ensure that your hard work does not go to waste. You can use any preserving bottles or even good old beer bottles (750mL bottles have a long narrow neck where as 500mL have a short narrow neck, making it easier to get the preserved sauce out).

If you don’t regularly collect bottles, you can approach your local pub or club. Talk to one of the bar managers and ask them to collect any 500mL bottles for you. It is best that bottles with a pop-top cap are collected rather than twist top caps. Most bars are happy to collect them as they won’t need to pay for disposal of the glass. Win-win!

If you have organised for a collection, make sure you pick them up promptly, otherwise other staff members may not realise that they are for you and send them off for recycling.

Prep work for “Sauce Day”

There are several tasks that need to be done before starting. The most time consuming is cleaning your bottles.

Ensure that, at the latest, you have all your bottles washed and dried the day before. Good hygiene is paramount when it comes to preserving your own produce. Regardless of how our bottles have been stored during the year, we always wash ours the day before. In the two decades or so that we have been preserving our own tomato sauce, we have not had to throw away contaminated bottles of sauce. Some bottles have been in storage for 4 years, with no degradation. So when you get it right, it feels fantastic and lasts for years.

Another task is ensuring that your tomatoes are clean and sorted. This can be done in the early morning beforehand or the night before. The fruit needs to be rinsed in water. We also add around a cup of vinegar to each tub of water. Vinegar is perfect for killing fungus which thrives on moist fruit, like tomatoes. When you clean your tomatoes, some will be a bit squashed or their skin split. Avoid using these ones as they will not taste right.

If you intend to do all your work outdoors … because it is a messy job … then make sure you have a place to cook the tomatoes. We have a large gas burner for this purpose. It is a good idea to check that you have enough gas so you don’t run out!

Making tomato sauce

There are a few steps in making tomato sauce. In summary, they are:

Step 1: Boil the tomatoes whole

Some families don’t do this step. We like to as we feel it kills off bacteria before bottling and also reduces the time taken to bring the Preserving step to the boil.

Essentially, you fill a large pot with whole tomatoes then fill it with water. If you are using a large pot, it is best to place the pot on the burner, then fill it with tomatoes and water in situ. That way you don’t have to lift the heavy pot and hurt your back.

Bring the pot to the boil and leave to boil for 5 minutes.

Step 2: Drain the cooked tomatoes

Once the tomatoes have cooked for a few minutes, you will need to drain them of as much water as possible. You want to ensure that there is only pulp left. Pour the cooked tomatoes into a large colander and using a spatula or spoon, gently fold the tomatoes around in the colander to remove excess liquid.

When the bulk of the water has been removed, leave it to stand for about 10 minutes before folding the tomatoes again and removing even more liquid. Any liquid from the second fold is seriously tomato flavoured. If you are frugal (like we are), this is the perfect time to capture some tomato flavoured water to start a risotto or some pasta cooking for lunch!

Step 3: Mince the cooked tomatoes

The drained tomatoes now need to be minced. There are some pretty serious mincing machines out there. The one pictured above is driven by an electric motor, but you can also use a mouille (see below).

When we mince our tomatoes, we also add at this point a few handfuls of herbs; mainly basil and/or parsley. When added during the mincing process, the flavour is infused throughout the entire sauce and you don’t need to add any herbs when cooking. Some families also add salt at this point but we tend not to as the amount of salt you use in a dish when cooking is variable.

Step 4: Bottle the cooked tomatoes

Once enough tomatoes have been pureed into a paste, it is time for bottling.

Using a funnel in the top of a bottle, scoop in the paste. Ensure that the funnel does not have a seal around the bottle lip as this will stop the sauce from flowing in smoothly. You may need to encourage the sauce in if it is very thick. A skewer or the handle of some cutlery usually does the trick.

Once the bottle is filled to around 4cm from the top, add a round 1-2cm of olive oil to the top of the bottle. This will help preserve the sauce in storage by preventing oxygen from reacting with the sauce.

Next, you will need to cap the bottles. There are many different ways to do this and simple machines you can use also. The cap needs to seal the bottle completely.

Step 5: Preserve the bottled tomatoes

Now comes the fun part … boiling the bottled sauce. You will need to boil your bottles in a large pot for around 2-3 hours. The base of the pot needs to be lined with old rags before you pack your bottles in, this will ensure that the heat from the cooking element will not heat the bottles at the bottom too much. We wrap our bottles in old socks (sexy I know!) to stop them from rattling against each other when being boiled. Also, we wedge other rags between bottles for the same reason.

Once all the bottles of sauce have been cooked, store them in a dark and cool place. They should be provide you with some awesome sauce in the years to come!

Hope you have fun at your next “Sauce Day”.

 

What is corn really?

Summer is synonymous with fresh corn. There are literally hundreds of different corn varieties out there, but most green grocers only stock one variety. Nothing new there.

We have been experimenting with a huge variety of different corns over the last few years and have discovered some amazing facts that we would like to share with you. Our favourite corn so far is the Sweet Anasazi Corn. It is beautiful to look at and very tasty too. Here is a pic of some our our last harvest.

Here are some corn facts for you…

Corn is a grass!?!?

Yep, corn is a grass, much like Sugar Cane. It only germinates when the soil is warm enough but does not need a lot of water to grow like most veggies. It does best when there is sufficient moisture to keep the soil friable (easily broken up).

Growing Corn

Corn seeds germinate very quickly under the right conditions. Usually within 7 days there are two little leaves emerging from the soil.

When you plant corn into the garden, don’t plant it in rows but rather as a close set group. This is because corn is wind pollinated and the closer together the plants are, the better the pollination is.

When the tassels first emerge from the top of the corn stalks, this is the time to ensure that the corn plants get extra water, right up to harvest time. The tassels at the top of the plant are the pollen … essentially the male reproductive part of the corn. Along the stem of the corn plant is where the silk will emerge, these are the female parts of the corn. The pollen needs to reach each of the silk strands. Each strand is essentially connected to a single corn kernel.

Different types of corn

Most people only know of sweet corn and popcorn, but there are many other different kinds of corn; Maize, Super Sweet Corn, Sweet Corn, Popcorn, Dent and Flint Corn.

Maize is the parent name of all edible corn types. It’s like saying “Citrus” if we were talking about lemons and oranges.

Super sweet corn is a hybrid corn produced specifically for the fresh food market. This is the corn you find in stores today. They are an F1 hybrid, meaning that the seeds produced from these varieties will not grow to be like the parent. Large seeds corporations do this on purpose so that farmers cannot save seed from their crop each year and are forced to buy seed every year to regrown their crops.

Sweet corn is not as sweet as super sweet corn but has much more flavour and is more filling to boot. These are the corns that your grandparents would have been used to and there are hundreds of types. Our favourites are the Sweet Anasazi Corn (multicoloured) and the Balinese Bantam (yellow)

Popcorn is exactly what it sounds like … popcorn grows on a cob like normal corn but it can come in blue, black, pink red, yellow and white kernels. When popped though, it still results in a white fluffy cloud of goodness though.

Dent and Flint corn are types of corn used to make flour. Dent corn has a hard outer coating where as Dent has an indentation at the top of the kernel.

Pests and Diseases

Like most grasses, they thrive in warm and humid environments and luckily don’t have too many pests and diseases. A few caterpillars here and there are the most annoying. So a regular sprinkling of Derris Dust or similar is necessary to ensure you get plenty of corn to eat at harvest … I personally don’t like sharing much of my hard work with insects.

🙂

 

If you want to try to grow some Sweet Anasazi corn, we have plenty of seeds left over from last season. Here is a link to them… https://littlefieldmice.com.au/products/sweet-anasazi-corn-seeds

 

Growing tomatoes in Sydney … why is it so hard at home?

Tomatoes are one of those plants that is part of pretty much every culture. As a byproduct of this, there are literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes.

What?!?! I hear you say. Hundreds?!?!

Yep. But your probably only familiar with what you find in your local store … red cherry tomatoes, yellow pear tomato, oval tomatoes, large smooth red tomatoes and nice round truss tomatoes. But that’s not all…. there are yellow stripped tomatoes, green tomatoes, purple ones, pulpy ones, pink ones, tomatoes with few seeds and juicy tomatoes with lots of seeds. Not to mention that most have a preferred climate too.

The tomatoes you see in store are generally of only a few varieties. You might see some labelled “heirloom”, which simply means they are not commercially grown in the region.

This year, we experimented with some very old fashioned bush tomatoes. These little guys essentially only grow to about 50cm … but don’t let their stature fool you! They produced a huge number of fruit very quickly. Infact, we normally don’t expect to have tomatoes at Christmas … and these little ones have almost finished their fruiting cycle in mid December.

Here is a pic of one of the bush cherry tomatoes that we grew this year. There is a small spinach (rainbow chard) plant on the right for reference.

As you can see, we were a little optimistic with the garden stake. It didn’t need one! We’ve collected a huge number of seeds from these guys as they have been brilliant and would suit planting in the following places…

  • pots
  • patios
  • low light situations
  • as a companion plant
  • a veggie hedge
  • accessible veggie patch

These bush cherry tomatoes were planted under one of our older mandarin trees and have grown wonderfully. With such an early harvest, it also means that our longer to harvest varieties (such as Apollo pear and Grosse Lisse) are almost ready to pick as we pull these guys out.

Here is a pic of our almost mature Grosse Lisse patch. You can see some nice sized fruit at the bottom. These should be ready in about 2 weeks time. Just in time for Christmas!

One of the biggest problems with growing tomatoes in Sydney is that they need LOTS of water, LOTS of manure, need to be protected from fruit fly (netting or spray), need protection from birds and possums, take at least 4 months to produce fruit (for the large varieties) and cannot be grown outdoors until September at the earliest (due to it being too cold). Not to mention the numerous fungus that are waiting to take advantage of a sick plant too! A fussy plant really.

Unlike some veggies, tomatoes need some work on your part to grow well. You can’t just stick them in the ground and give them water. Here is a short list of what we do with our plants to get the best out of them….

August

  • Dig the soil nice and deep, mixing in  some awesome rotted manure
  • Mulch the surface of the soil to ensure it doesn’t dry out
  • Water the soil weekly if it doesn’t rain
  • Plant the seeds in seedling trays and put them in a nice area to germinate (on top of the hot water system is perfect

September

  • Dig a little hole for each tomato plant in the prepared soil about 40cm apart. We make sure that we plant ours in rows two wide.
  • Plant one or two plants in each hole
  • Make sure that the plant has a shoot growing out the top. Some won’t and will not perform as well.
  • Water each hole regularly (a little bit of water every day for the first week, then move to every second day in the second week)
  • Source stakes for your tomatoes to be tied to along with twine (biodegradable stuff is best)

October

  • Remove any plants that are not performing well. This is an indication that they will be prone to diseases and won’t produce good quality fruit. Compost them.
  • For every 4 plants, dig a well between them that they can share. Fill this with straw or similar to reduce evaporation and start using this for watering (check out the pick below of our capsicums in the foreground and the tomatoes behind them. Most have 4 plants per hole except the last one which has six))
  • Put your stakes in next to each plant (again, see the pic below)
  • Once fruit is starting to show, you will need to net them or apply a pesticide for fruit fly. If you don’t, all your fruit will be inedible and full of squiggling larvae. Blech!
  • Dusting with “Tomato Dust” or “Derris Dust” will help control caterpillars and white fly too. Healthy plants need a helping hand to stay healthy.

November

As your tomato plants grow, they will start throwing off side shoots. When planting your tomatoes in rows like we do, you need to prune off these shoots to ensure that the plant grows nice and straight and produced fruit from the bottom up. This will allow you to have a controlled harvest as the plant will put its strength into fewer fruit, thus creating a better flavoured product. November is all about controlling the growth of the plant, tying them gently to the stakes and watering …. always watering.

From mid November, we start applying more manures into the holes that have the straw in them. As you water into the holes, the manure breaks down slowly and feeds the plants.

If you have cherry tomatoes planted, you will be able to start picking these little guys for your salads by mid November.

December

More watering. More pruning. Rotted compost is applied in mid December … tomatoes are very hungry plants!!!

Harvest starts mid to late December. If you have nice ripe tomatoes for Christmas, you have having an excellent year!

January, February, March, April

Once you start harvesting, you need to keep watering and feeding your tomatoes. Remember to regularly apply the fruit fly pesticide and dust your tomatoes to stop most caterpillar attacks.

As the plants grow up the stakes you have put in, and you have harvested the bottom tomatoes, you can start sliding the tomato plant down the stakes … yes, they will happily keep growing upwards given enough food and water but you want to be able to reach the fruit right? As the stalks from the tomato come in contact with the ground, you’ll notice that they start to grow roots. This is excellent because … you guessed it … nice strong root growth means more awesome tomatoes!!!

Once the weather starts to cool off in April, your tomato plants will start to look “tired” and straggly. After you have harvested the last of your crop, pull them up and compost them, roots and all.

 

Remember not to plant tomatoes in the same place next year as pests and diseases in the soil from this crop will still be there after Winter. Wait at least one year, two is best, before planting tomatoes there again. This is true for ANY vegetable or plant.