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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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 .

Discard the top half and toss it into your recycling box.DSCF7219

 

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.

Shy Vegetables

The dogs are outside playing with a tennis ball they’ve shredded playing Tug of War I sit watching as I enjoy a cool iced lemon tea. The iPod shuffles and, Kids in America by Kim Wilde plays as a huge dragonfly skips over the pumpkin flowers that are in bloom. I glance over and spot a swollen fruit amid the orange flowers, I’m sure there was no burgeoning pumpkin there yesterday. One thing about growing vegetables here in Italy, is they seem to appear overnight, especially the courgettes (zucchini). I’m sure the courgette is a shy vegetable, because you spot the flowers and in amongst the huge leaves you see a tiny green fruit and no matter how often you check nothing seems to happen then one morning you just happen to notice a great, green baton sticking out, as if it’s swollen overnight.

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I’m particularly pleased with my tomatoes, I’ve only planted two plants this year; a bush variety that produces the typical long Italian fruit, known in the UK as plum tomatoes. For a while due to the cool spring they didn’t do very much, but now that the weather has been good both bushes are laden with fat fruits, that have only just started to redden. This year I won’t have enough to make passata, but I’ll have steady supply for salads and home-made pasta sauces. I may even combine them with some of my sundried chillies and store some pots of arrabiata sauce in the freezer, for a winter warmer later in the year.

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I have been harvesting basil as it’s been flourishing and have frozen it, although the leaf tends to darken during freezing and once defrosted looks dreadful it still tastes good in sauces. I’ve been very disappointed with the purple basil I’ve sown. It’s been very slow growing and hardly any of them have flourished into productive, bushy plants. The two things I’m looking forward to harvesting are the figs from the huge tree outside and the pomegranates that are swelling upon a bush we have inherited. Once the house is complete we shall begin work on restoring our land from a unproductive tangle of green into a fully functioning orto/allotment that will cater for most of our fruit and vegetable requirements throughout the year. Michele has already given me the benefit of his advice regarding the sowing of fava (broad) beans and I wonder, as cabbages do so well here, will Brussels sprouts hack it in the Italian countryside?

Chieti Baby Boom

Today it seems everywhere I have been there has been a pregnant woman. Yes, pregnant ladies everywhere today. I nipped to the builders merchant this morning and there was the man with a dirty pick-up collecting some bags of plaster. I’ve seen him almost every time I’ve been and his truck is dirtier each time. However today, standing in the yard and leaning against his mud splashed vehicle is a woman, heavily pregnant and smoking a cigarette. Inside the cab is an equally dirty child, its face smeared with what I’m hoping is just the remnants of a chocolate croissant. The man comes back, barks something at the woman. She then flicks the red ember from the end of her cigarette: an act we called ‘nipping’ when I was a teenage smoker. She pops the half smoked fag-end behind her ear and climbs into the pick-up.

On the way back I decided to drop into the supermarket for some mackerel for lunch. As I drive the iPod shuffles and Toyah, sings I Explode, my thoughts bounce back to the heavily pregnant smoker, and I picture her gorged belly exploding and hundreds of tiny smoking babies pouring out onto the ground. Maybe there’s the germ of a story in that thought.

I’m in the supermarket and browsing when I turn a corner into another aisle and there’s a young couple, possibly mid-twenties. He’s holding her hand and with his other hand is stroking her belly, she too is heavily pregnant. This outward show of affection is nice but it’s odd as it’s the girl who is carrying the basket containing their shopping. A woman spots them and she walks over asking when the baby is due. Suddenly she’s stroking the girls belly too. Why is it that when people see a pregnant woman, they feel the need to stroke the bump. I’m not sure how I’d feel if every person I passed in the store wanted to pat my paunch. As I leave the supermarket another woman walks over to the pregnant girl and more bump brushing takes place.

Later in the day I’m waiting for the ATM in Altino to become vacant, there’s a woman standing using it and after withdrawing money from it, lo and behold; sorry for the cliché, she turns around and is also pregnant. As my seedlings took a pelting in the previous days of stormy weather I decide to check out what’s available at the local shop. I’m wondering if I ought to buy some tomato plants now, or wait to see if mine perk up when another pregnant woman approaches me. This one has a baby in the crook of her arm, balanced on her hip, it looks to be around two-years old, she’s pushing a pram containing another younger baby and in her belly she is carrying the unborn addition to the family. The poor woman looks tired; ever likely. Her husband leaves the local store and calls to her, he’s short and round with enough wiry hair bulging out of the top of his shirt to stuff a mattress. He’s balding prematurely, a sure sign of powerful fertility and as I decline the chance to purchase some more tomato plants and wander away thinking about the tired looking woman, I wonder if her husband could be responsible for the recent Chieti baby boom.

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As I don’t have a photo of a pregnant woman, and because it would have been creepy to have taken any of those I saw today, I’ll leave you with a snap of our town. Casoli, CH.

Before posting, a friend just read this and in an Arnie Swarz etc. etc. voice said, “I’ll be back, the sperminator.”