Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tomato Sauce

I have a fleeting memory from my childhood that taunts me with its vagueness.  Like many beloved memories of those days, it centers around 2 of my favorite things: my grandparents, and food.  This memory is about tomato sauce.  Sweet, perfectly seasoned sauce from ripe, juicy, homegrown tomatoes from my grandparents' garden.  They had a huge yard (at least by St. Louis standards), and across the entire back of the yard was a massive garden with rows and rows of tomato plants.  I know they grew other things as well, but I can't remember what they were.  I only remember the tomatoes because they were transformed into the fabulous sauce coveted by my parents and my aunt and uncle.

But the details are sketchy.  I remember being at their house several times on sauce day--you do NOT forget a smell that wonderful--but I don't remember any of the particulars and it seems no one in the family really does.  The entire operation took place in their basement, from what I remember.  I think they even had a separate stove down there were they cooked it all up.  Then there was some kind of process where the cooked mixture was taken from spent chunks of tomato and onion to a smooth sauce, and it was processed and canned.  It was an Italian-ish sauce that I suspect had, at the very least, basil and oregano, from what I remember about the way it tasted.  But I don't know what else, if anything, was in there.  I so wish I had asked my grandma what was in it.  By the time I was old enough to appreciate it and ask, she was already suffering from dementia and there's no way she would have remembered.  During the later years in her life, my dad would often make her recipes when he would bring my grandparents to our house for dinner.  Then he'd say, "Remember when you used to make this, mom?"  And she would say, "I made that???" in total bewilderment.  As if to say, wow, I was a great cook!  Yes.  Yes you were, grandma. 

When my grandparents stopped making the sauce, my mom and dad basically had to learn how to cook all over again without it.  Suddenly tomato sauce wasn't magically pre-seasoned anymore, and some things really never tasted the same again.  Over the years I've wanted to try and give it back to them.  (And myself!)

So last year Marc and I tried our hand at re-creating it for the first time, and it didn't take us too long to get a good ratio of herbs, sugar, salt, etc. to tomatoes, but the step where it actually became sauce was a little more difficult.  We tried a food mill, which was slow and not very effective.  Next we decided to just take the entire mixture and blend it all up, skins and all.  It tasted great, but Otto and Marguerite's sauce did not have seeds in it, and I wanted to make their sauce.  Talking with my brother about it recently, he said he remembered an attachment that Grandma put on her standing mixer that strained the sauce, expelling all the solids.  Eureka!  I ordered this for my standing mixer and now I think I'm finally on my way to replicating it.  I will admit that even my memories of the taste are vague, though.  So I don't know if I have it just right, but I think my grandparents' version would have been very simple, just like mine is.  Dried basil and oregano, salt, sugar, garlic cloves and onion pretty much covers it.  I would imagine theirs was not any fancier than that. And it still brings back a great food memory, even if that memory is a little fuzzy.

Seasoned Tomato Sauce

If you don't have a standing mixer to buy the attachments for, or you don't want to spend the money on the attachments, feel free to just blend everything up after cooking.  I actually think I like it better with the seeds and skins in it because, while still saucy, it gives it a nice body.  If you go for the straining method as I did, it will be very nice and smooth, but a little thin.  In the end it's yummy either way, so it's really all about your texture preferences. The lemon juice is an added safety measure to keep the sauce acidic enough to ward off bacteria growth.  You don't want to be handing out jars of botulinum toxin.  So don't skip that step.  The sugar in the sauce should take care of whatever sourness the juice adds.

12 lbs tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 head garlic, peel the cloves and just leave them whole
2 Tablespoons salt
1 large onion, cut into chunks 
3 Tablespoons dried basil
1 1/2 Tablespoons dried oregano
about 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
bottled lemon juice

Put all ingredients except the lemon juice in a large stock pot and bring to a simmer.  Simmer uncovered over a low heat until sauce is reduced by at least a third to as much as a half.  This will take quite a few hours.  Chill the sauce overnight and either blend in a food processor or blender, or use the above mentioned standing mixer attachments to strain out the solids.  If you just want to blend it you could also use a stick (immersion) blender and that way you will not need to chill the sauce first.  Bring the sauce back to a simmer and then fill clean, hot mason jars with hot tomato sauce and 1 Tbs. lemon juice per pint, leaving 1/2" of headspace.  Secure the lids and rings on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for at least 35 minutes.  Make sure all jars have sealed once they are cool.  Makes about 8 to 10 pints, depending on how much you cook it down.

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