Sauce for the Year

Despite always making passata when required, back in 2013 I wrote a post about not being bothered with making my own tomato sauce in bulk. Since then I have seen the error of my ways and have been making a years supply each season. Back in April I blogged about getting prepared in the post entitled Passata Preparation.

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So last weekend with 75 kilograms of ripe red tomatoes on my kitchen table the task of turning them into passata began. The process is as simple as anything can be, as all you need is tomatoes, heat and a pan. Unlike when I make sauce for eating straight away there’s no oil added to the pan for my stored passata, meaning I can use it for many different sauces throughout the year. So after washing I cut the tomatoes into quarters and add them to a saucepan and turn on the heat.

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They’ll steam for a few seconds and then release their liquid. Don’t worry if there’s a slight odour of them catching, just give them a stir and they’ll soon start to break down.

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As I don’t have a traditional passata maker: One of those huge round pans sat above a wood burner, or a modern external gas ring as many people use today I make mine in the kitchen. I use my three largest pans and on a 30 degree Italian summer day it’s like being inside a furnace as they bubble away. Remember to give them an occasional stir as they break down.

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If you only half-fill the saucepan the cooking process takes 25-30 minutes and you’re left with soft tomatoes in their own juice. I then pour them into a bowl and begin the procedure again. I rinse the saucepans between each batch but there’s no need to wash them thoroughly. I continue until I have around six large bowls full of cooked fruits, (this makes around 10 litres). Once they’ve cooled sufficiently it’s time to put them through the passapomodoro machine an it’s at this point that your kitchen can start to resemble a scene from a Shakespearean tragedy.

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As you ladle the cooked tomatoes into the machine and turn the handle they give a satisfying squelch as the sauce is pushed out and the skins, seeds and dry pulp is dropped out of the rear. Now my tip is to pass the discarded pulp through once more and you’ll be surprised how much more liquid will be squeezed from it. It’s always best throughout this process to cover the work surfaces as after an hour or so it can look like Titus Andronicus has run amok in your kitchen.

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I then bottle the passata and store it in the fridge and freeze it in blocks as explained in my April post mentioned above with the hyperlink. This year I made 51 litres of the sauce with the process taking two days of cooking and 5 days of freezing in batches of two person servings. So there’s now 153 blocks in the freezer, plenty for the forthcoming year to make pasta sauces, curries and soups with.

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It may seem a lot of work but the time it saves throughout a year is considerable and when you calculate that it costs as little as €0.15 a litre it’s well worth it. But for me the bonus is knowing that it’s all fresh with no additives and even on the coldest of winter days it’ll still be bursting with the flavours of an Italian summer.

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This Basil wasn’t Fawlty

Last year at this time of the year we were suffering a heat wave, so much so that the orto struggled. My tomatoes were burnt off by blazing sun, the cucumber ran to seed and everything suffered apart from the pumpkins. This year is a much different story, the weather has been kinder, we’ve had oodles of early summer rain and things are flourishing.

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I’ve already picked several courgettes and cucumbers and my tomatoes are putting on some good growth, so there’ll be plenty of passata made this year. Confidence in the harvest can be seen everywhere. Piero at our local restaurant has a sign up advertising his tomatoes for sale; Well he does have over 3,000 plants.

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Once again my pumpkins have got off to a good start with them taking over the orto like something from a 1950’s B movie, they’ve swamped the butternut squash, but I think that’ll do it some good as it doesn’t like it too hot. I’m pleased that I took advice to dig up my Scotch Bonnets and put them in a pot. They’ve over wintered really well and now have lots of small fiery chillies coming. The French beans are doing their thing in a small bed and I’ve a handful of cabbages growing merrily away.

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The thing I’ve been really pleased with is the Italian basil. Over the past few years I’ve tried all sorts of basil and it either takes forever to germinate and grows into spindly little plants or just sits beneath the surface refusing to pop up. I had purple basil a couple of years ago and it was disappointing, as was many other varieties. But this year I bought a packet of Italian basil seeds and hey presto they were poking out of the soil in days and so far I’ve already cropped 4 bags full and am storing it in the freezer.

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I’ll be cropping again today, cutting it back quite harshly, but there’s no need to worry as it’ll send out side shoots and very soon there’ll be more basil for caprese salads and chopping up and adding to passata. Because of the risk of botulism I don’t make infused basil oil and store it in the cupboard, what I do is make it fresh, by heating basil leaves in oil and then letting it go cold and using it that day.

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Freezing is a good way to store basil, chop and wash then pat dry and freeze in a plastic bag, a day or so later crush the contents in the bag and you have flaked basil ready to add frozen to sauces later in the year. Maybe I’ll have a go at turning the next cropping into basil jelly.

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As a extra note having had 2 messages from non UK people thinking I’d spelt ‘Faulty’ incorrect. Fawlty was a UK named hotel owner in a British TV comedy series played by John Cleese.

Free Food

Living in rural Italy is great for anyone who likes getting food for free. The lanes are filled goodies that after a little foraging end up on the dinner plate.

There is no need to buy herbs as rosemary and sage grows in abundance and Italian mint grows around the base of the stake holding our mailbox while a large bay tree shades our neighbours rear garden. At a friends house (that for now we’ll call Felsham Manor), in spring wild garlic permeates the air with it’s pungent aroma, the leaves make a great alternative to basil flavoured pesto and this year I’ve brought some bulbs home in the hope of getting a patch established near our property.

The wild asparagus season has been and gone (technically) but today I saw a man collecting the last of it from the edges of olive groves. I’ve blogged about this previously under the title, the foraging foreigner.

At the moment the fields around us are filled with broad beans, or fave as they’re called here. These beans are not for harvesting and are ploughed back into the land to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil for the production of good grass for animal feed. The beans self seed each year so the pods are quite small and the crop wouldn’t be commercially viable, however it’s worth just picking a few of these that only have 2 or 3 beans inside them for dinner: No farmer would begrudge you these. I came away from Atessa with a bag full of pods and yesterday shelled them. The inner green discs are delicious with mackerel and horseradish sauce, but this bowl of beans are going to be the contorno (side dish) to a loin of pork.

IMG_3337 There’s always plenty of fruit and nuts in abundance in the lanes. Outside our front door is large green fig tree and just up the lane a black fig tree. We have walnut, almond and hazelnut trees and wild peaches and pomegranates within walking distance of our house. Last year we discovered two nespole (loquat) bushes in the overgrown part of our land, these produce small apricot coloured fruits that are quite tart in flavour with large brown seeds in the centre, if you let them start to turn and become over-ripe the flesh becomes sweeter; a mix of citrus and peach is the only way to describe it.

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This month the local population will be out planting out their tomatoes; as will I and there’s many patches of land that have been used in the past where they’ve self seeded. Three years ago on a spare piece of land I grew some of the Gardener’s Delight variety; a favourite with English growers. Now every year I get several plants appearing that crawl across the land and tumble up tree stumps and these provide me with small tasty red tomatoes with no attention from myself, leaving me to tend to my sauce making plants.

There’s more out there for the experienced forager, and last week my neighbour Antonio came over with a basket of fresh porcini mushrooms and told me he’d dug up 3 truffles. I asked him where and he tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger, indicating he’ll share his mushrooms but not the truffle location.

I don’t hunt, not because I’m squeamish but because I don’t have a licence or the experience. But there’s plenty of people around me that do (in season) and occasionally I’ll get given a pigeon or two or a saddle of rabbit or hare and sometimes if I’m very lucky a hunk of cinghiale (wild boar) which is always welcome in my kitchen.

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Then there’s the fruits of the sea, if you go early it’s possible to collect mussels from the rocks along the Costa dei Trabocchi and if you’re an angler there’s the free fish that at the end of the day make for a tasty dinner.

All in all there’s an abundance of free food out there, all you need to do is go out and collect it.

Passata Preparation

In Italy the humble tomato is king.

Almost every home has a plot of land where tomatoes are grown in rows. Even people with no land have pots on balconies where they have a few plants. In the summer it’s not unusual to stumble across great patches of land that host hundreds of plants, all standing proud with fat red fruits hanging from them.

101_0400 With the lighter nights now, the countryside is alive with people getting ready for summer. Tractors, strimmers and all manner of machines buzz, whirr and squeal; the tranquillity of nature is given over to chaos for a few weeks. So thoughts turn to seed sowing.

My tomato seedlings; started in an electric propagator have been doing well and are spending their days outside in the sunshine before being brought back inside in the evening.

This year I have around 125 young plants which will be divided between my orto and friends. I’ll keep around 30-35 plants for myself and although some of the plump red tomatoes will end up in salads over the summer, most will be turned into passata and stored for use throughout the year.

101_0401There’s lots of recipes out there for passata di pomodoro and if you have a passapomodoro machine or  spremipomodoro as they’re sometimes called it’s easy to make.

The Italian way is to make the rich red sauce: a staple of Italian cooking and store it in glass jars, and it’s not unusual for families to be eating sauce made several summer’s before.

I’m not good with trusting my ability to seal the jars sufficiently no matter how long I boil them for once packed, so I freeze my stash. Now, there’s nothing worse than the freezer being so full you can’t find what you want. So we come to the point of this blog post, which is to share with you a handy little tip for storing your passata and using freezer space effectively. (Works well for soups and other liquids).

DSCF7218I start to save empty tetra packs like the milk one pictured around about this time of year. It is best to only use the same carton, the reason will become evident as you read on.

Take a sharp knife or scissors and cut the carton into half .

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With the bottom half, wash it, dry it and store it. Keep cutting and saving until you have around 10 of them at hand, ready to use in late summer when the passata making starts with the tomato glut.

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Once you’ve harvested and made your sauce, line the cartons with clear polythene freezer bags and fill with sauce and tie the tops. Remember to leave space for the liquid to expand a little as it freezes.

Once the liquid is frozen remove the blocks from the cartons and because you only used one type of carton they’re all the same size, meaning you can now stack them to save freezer space.

Wash and retain the cartons and reuse the cartons for your next batch. Once the tomato harvest as finished toss the cartons into the recycling until you repeat the process the following year.

Getting Stuffed: Fun with a Courgette

Okay, so the title today is a bit provocative, but you should know me by now, there’s always a little bit of Carry On… lurking in the background of my psyche.

Today for lunch I was unsure what to make and as I  have spent the last few days writing about Italian food I thought I’d have a go at stuffing something. Italian’s are very good at using up almost everything in their store cupboards, Nothing seems to go to waste, a throwback to days when food was scarce and the cuisine often referred to as cucina povera (poor kitchen). I had two courgettes sitting in the fridge doing nothing so it was time to make them pay their way. So I split them in half lengthways and scooped out the flesh and after a drizzle of olive oil I popped them into a pre-heated oven for 10 minutes.

As the courgettes baked I chopped the scooped out flesh and added a small chopped onion and two cloves of garlic and a pinch of chilli seeds, this mixture was softened in a little olive oil in a  frying pan then set aside to cool as I removed the courgettes from the oven.

I then took a handful of breadcrumbs: I don’t really do correct measurements, I’m a seat of the pants kind of guy and another handful of grated parmesan and mixed this with the mixture and then seasoned with black pepper and salt until mixing in a beaten egg. I then stuffed the baked courgettes and placed them in a shallow ovenproof dish with enough passata to come two-thirds of the way up the courgettes.

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I then baked them for approximately 20 minutes at 200°C and then served them up. The courgette was still firm enough to retain its shape and have some bite and the filling was crispy on the top and was a spicy compliment to the passata and the courgette. 100_8600-crop

I guess there’s many different ways of doing this; maybe for a non veggie option you could crumble in some pre-cooked sausage meat or pancetta. I for one shall be having more fun in the future stuffing things….. Oooer Matron!

Gin and Tonic

I’ve not posted for a few days as I’ve been a little preoccupied with our builder, who turned from a great guy to a lazy arsed so and so. Needless to say, we have now parted company and rather than post about his recent misdemeanours I think I’ll leave it at this.

Yesterday, while in the local supermarket: Eurospin, I was standing at the till waiting my turn when the man behind me, said in perfect English, I like a gin and tonic. I turn and look at the elderly gentleman who is pointing to my shopping on the conveyer belt. I acknowledge him and then compliment him on his excellent English. He goes on to tell me when he was younger he worked in a hotel in London, where he acquired the English language and a love of British spirits. He holds up a bottle of whisky, telling me it’s to see him through the long day ahead.

He tells me about his previous day which was spent bottling peaches, that he tells me are very sweet this year due to the rainfall in early May. Today, I’m bottling my tomatoes. I ask him about making passata and he tells me he has a bumper crop of juicy tomatoes, and yesterday they were all picked and ready for the long day ahead. I ask him if it’s dangerous to be drinking while making his sauce, what about all that boiling water?

My job is skin splitting early on, he tells me, after that the women set to, pulping and cooking and bottling. I’m the supervisor he laughs, so can have a few nips of scotch throughout the day, I’ll need it just to cope with the chatter of women. When the day ends, I shall share a small glass with the other men, and we’ll toast the bottling of summer 2013. By now my bottle of Gin has beeped as the assistant scans it, and I start to pack my shopping away.

Do you live here, he asks me and when I tell him yes, he says I understand why. The air is so pure, the people are nice and it’s a beautiful part of Italy. I’m a bit surprised by this as most locals are bemused when they meet foreigners who choose to live here. Most asking why leave a prosperous country to live in, what they refer to as a poor region of Italy. What my new friend says, proves the point that this area may be cash poor but it’s wealthy in many other ways.

I bid him farewell and start to leave with my shopping, when he says, next time you’re passing through Vicenne, be sure to drop in and try my peaches.

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Photo: Screenshot from Google maps

Passata

As you drive through the villages here, you can see rows of ripe tomatoes growing in the gardens, I drive past my neighbours with his lines of short bushes on which hang swollen red peppers, his French bean plants are laden with a multitude of green fingers and his chillies, like mine are bursting with a riot of red fruits. I sun-dry my chillies and they last me for a year, and I have other veg I’ve grown stored in the freezer. My neighbour was out today picking his tomatoes, he has about sixty plants so you can imagine how many kilo’s of fruit he’s got. “I’m making my passata this weekend,” he tells me. That’ll explain the crates of empty Peroni bottles outside his front door.

I’m surprised how many Italians still bottle their own tomato sauces considering the work involved and the relatively cheap price of passata in the shops. The only explanation must be that it tastes better than the mass produced ones, and I guess there’s that satisfaction of growing and producing something yourself to feed your family, not to mention the memory of summer past as you taste it outweighs the laborious process.

Making the red sauce is a long-winded affair, first the tomatoes are cleaned and dropped into boiling water for a few seconds to split the skins. Once cooled they’re passed through a passapomodoro, basically a sieve that removes the skin and seeds. The pulp is then cooked and if you’re flavouring it with herbs or spices these are added during cooking. The bottles or jars are cleaned and sterilised in advance and kept warm in the oven. The warm sauce is bottled, lids are secured and the sauce is then allowed to cool. The bottles are then placed inside a large container of water: my neighbour uses and old oil-drum, a fire is lit below and the bottled sauce is heated through again, thus creating a vacuum and sealing the lids properly. Once cooled the sauce will remain good for several years, but no self-respecting Italian would use any left over passata once a new batch has been produced.

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Needless to say mine is from the supermarket, I don’t think I could be bothered with the work involved and can I really drink enough Peroni to get the bottles for sixty plants of fruit?

Devilishly Hot

One of the best things about living in Italy is the longer growing season. Back in the UK there was; during a good summer, a sixteen week window for growing tomatoes, chillies and aubergines. These would mostly need to be grown in a greenhouse to maximise crop yield, however the climate here means they can be planted outside, and plots of land with rows of tomatoes growing is as commonplace here as cabbages in Lincolnshire fields.

I have to admit to having never been a very successful grower of chillies back in England, I could never seem to get it right. The plants would start off well, then just either go spindly and die or just flatly refuse to produce anything. Here it’s a different story, one small 99 cent, cayenne plant can be left to do its own thing and as long as it gets a daily drink it’ll produce little fiery pods of heat. I tend to pick the cayenne chilli just before they go red and sun-dry them, preserving that little bit summer for a wintery evening’s dinner.

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I find they don’t retain their heat if they are dried once they have turned red, but do if picked and dried whilst still orange. Obviously the fresh ones when red are as hot as Beelzebub’s bath water, which is very apt, as they crop in mid-July, which according to 16th century belief, is the month that Beelzebub is at his most powerful, and at this time he tempts man to become a glutton. I’m not a great believer of this and assume that mankind is seen to be gluttonous solely because of the amount of fresh food that is cropping around this time of year. I assume people ate while food was plentiful, as the winter months would be lean.

To sun-dry them I put them out on a metal/foil tray and just let them sunbathe. Sometimes as the sun moves around the house I’ll move them so they get maximum exposure, but mostly I just leave them. I do however bring them in at night. One little piece of advice I’ll pass on is, if you do dry them in a foil tray, add a rock to the tray, in 2011 after two weeks of drying on my neighbours terracotta roof, my crop was ready for storing, as I went out to collect them a gust of wind came and blew the tray over and my chillies fell between the cracks in the tiles, never to be seen again.

 

This year I am also growing some of the longer red chillies, not quite so hot but nicely piquant and great if chopped up small and dropped into a salad with some mint, giving an occasional hit of heat amid the cool salad leaves. I purchased this chilli towards the end of the planting season, so was left with a leggy twelve centimetre plant, I watched my neighbour’s chillies closely and his grew to around fifty centimetres before he pinched out the top of the plants, I waited for mine to catch up and did the same. Now it’s filled out, no longer is it a lanky green single stem, it’s a bushy healthy plant with long green chillies hanging from it. I’m hoping these will be ready to harvest in August, which incidentally is Astaroth’s month, another of the Seven Princes of Hell, the demon who bring laziness to mankind. Or could that just be the late summer sun?