Flash in the Pan 

Carpe tomatum

When tomatoes rain, they pour. For a moment each year they are plentiful, growing soft in bowls on countertops. Whether they come from your own patch or the labors of others, now is the time to carpe tomatum. My two favorite ways of channeling this red flood are making salsa and ketchup. Both processes are simple, require few special tools and lend themselves to putting away large quantities of tomatoes. And both end products are orders of magnitude better than their store-bought counterparts.

My ketchup process loosely follows the recipe in Stocking Up, by Carol Stoner. The salsa process I apprenticed from a used-car salesman who became my friend by selling me a cara rare human being indeed. With these two recipes in my pocket, there's no such thing as being swamped with tomatoes, or out of catsup or salsa. Those states of being no longer exist.

Ketchup

In addition to its traditional uses atop burgers and fries, there are also recipes—like barbecue sauce and meatloaf—in which ketchup acts as an ingredient rather than a condiment. Moreover, I find that strategically applied ketchup can help a surprising amount of ethnic and otherwise non-ketchupy dishes as well. Ketchup's rich concentration of clove-scented tomato umami is mandatory in my Indian saag paneer or New Mexico green chile stew. If I don't have fresh tomatoes, I'll use ketchup in dishes like Ligurian fish soup, or lamb stew, among others. A modest stash of ketchup is a truly crucial component in a well-rounded pantry.

Aside from the usual canning gear, the only special equipment required for ketchup making is a sieve/food mill/baby-food maker/puree filter-type thing, for making soft food into fiber-free puree. My version is basically a conical mortar with holes in it, through which I mash stuff with a wooden pestle; I got it for $10 at a pawn shop in Missoula.

This recipe's proportions are based on five quarts of chopped tomatoes, or about 30 medium-size fruits. Liquefy the chopped tomatoes in a blender, along with two large chopped onions. Simmer this tomato/onion puree for about half an hour in a thick-bottomed pot, then push it through the food mill.

Return the filtered puree to the pot and simmer slowly, stirring often. In a different pot, heat three cups of vinegar. (I like to use vinegar from a jar of pickled peppers, for extra complexity and mojo.) Simmer with a stick of cinnamon, two teaspoons of cloves contained in a tea ball, and a head of minced garlic. After 30 minutes, kill the heat under the vinegar.

click to enlarge Food_Flash-1.jpg

When the tomato-and-onion mixture has almost but not quite reached the consistency of ketchup, remove the cinnamon stick and cloves and pour the vinegar mixture into the puree. Add a teaspoon of paprika, a heavy teaspoon of salt, and a dash, more or less, of cayenne pepper.

The vinegar will dilute the ketchup slightly. Stir it together and continue to simmer until it's thick, but not quite as thick as ketchup. Ladle the red slurry into clean, sterile pint jars. Screw on lids and process for 10 minutes in a water bath.

Salsa

My salsa recipe involves a few more ingredients than ketchup, and it's generally a bigger production. But all those extra ingredients happen to be in season now, too. And if you love salsa, it's worth it. Even if you end up paying for your raw materials, by the time you've turned them into salsa you will defend those jars with your life.

Tomatoes and chile peppers comprise the bulk of canning salsa. (Fresh salsa recipes, on the other hand, tend to go lighter on the chile.) Onions, garlic and carrots round out the recipe. The ratio of tomato to chile pepper should be about one-to-one by uncut volume, or three-to-one by weight. So, for a 40-pound box of tomatoes, you'll want 13 to 15 pounds of peppers, as well as 10 large onions, three pounds of carrots and six heads of garlic.

High-acid, juicy canning tomatoes are ideal; look for big, red, and round normal-looking varieties. No roma-style paste tomatoes or funky heirlooms. As for the peppers, include as many shapes, colors, sizes and flavors as you can. This diversity is what gives particular salsas their individual character. I use whatever I can get my hands on, which is most often jalapeños, bells, Anaheims, wax, peppers from the jar of pickled peppers in my fridge, and red pods pulled from the half-depleted ristra hanging on the kitchen wall.

Salsa lovers with low heat tolerance can assemble a diverse collection of mild, sweet and flavorful pepper varieties, and still get the complexity of a good salsa without blowing your head off. If you're in the hot camp, use gloves and remember to remove them before using the restroom.

The food processor load is the main unit of this recipe, as in: five loads tomatoes, five loads peppers, two loads onions, one load carrots, half a load garlic. Pour these loads of processed veggies into a big, thick-bottomed pot.

Keep adding ingredients at those proportions until the pot is almost full. Then mix the contents, turn on the heat, and gently bring the salsa to a boil, stirring and scraping frequently to prevent scalding. While heating, season with salt and pepper, tasting frequently with corn chips, and treating the capsaicin assault on your senses with very, very cold beer.

When the mix hits a boil, let it roll for 30 seconds, and turn off the heat. Ladle the salsa into hot sterilized jars, and screw on sterilized lids. The hot-packed jars will seal as they cool.

So there you have them, the tools with which you will never again fear a pile of tomatoes, never again run out of ketchup or salsa. The tomatoes will be with you, and not against you.

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