Le conserve: c’mon winter, bring it!

few times of year rival this, the dog days — the armpit — of summer, in terms of produce and markets, anyway. and it’s this time of year when i admire the italians for their canniness (no pun intended, i swear): in most of the country, it’s too hot to move, too hot to be anywhere that’s not near sea nor mountain, but there are more than a few households that spend a weekend (or two) putting up tomatoes (and peaches and plums and figs, etc.) to last the winter. (mind you, it’s not all romance over here: plenty of families buy their produce and industrially canned tomatoes at supermercati. but it’s nice to wander into someone’s courtyard and see the neighbors toiling over a 10-gallon pot of tomatoes, surrounded by a legion of jars, all agape.) this year i join the few and the industrious.
this is how you do it:

first, purchase a cassetta of tomatoes at the market. mine weighed approximately 11 kg (about 24 lbs) and cost about €6 (that’s total — or about 31 cents/lb, more or less). it’s best to use san marzano-type tomatoes, the long, ovoid ones that are densely fleshy and not too juicy or seedy.

just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more than one way to put up your tomatoes. i like a chunky preserve, what they call polpa (or pulp or flesh). this requires peeling (scoring, briefly blanching, shocking) a SHITLOAD of tomatoes. (twice this many for the amount i wanted in the end.) it’s best to then core and deseed before cutting them (i find that sixteenths make a good size — about an inch or so, square), but i skipped this step mostly as i was also elbows-deep in:

the passata, which is how most, i would say, prefer to can. both polpa and passata must be brought to a boil before they can be put sotto vuoto (under vacuum) in order to kill our not-so-very-good friend C. botulinum. because of their high acidity, tomatoes fortunately require the least amount of messing with, a minimum of 30 minutes of boiling, so says harold mcgee. the polpa we boiled just once, but for the passata, the tomatoes are cut up into quarters, heated to boiling until they break down and then reduced to remove much of the liquid (of which there is a lot), then passed through a food mill to remove seeds and skins. everything is boiled again and reduced further until you obtain an ideal consistency. it’s all then ladled into immaculately clean jars, lids screwed on tight.

and ecco, the newest additions to my family. how i will enjoy eating you, all winter long.


6 Responses to “Le conserve: c’mon winter, bring it!”

  1. 1 Anonymous August 20, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    you do like eating your family don’t you? 😉

  2. 2 carl August 23, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    I’ve only made pickles with vinegar that you store in the fridge, but I’ve always wanted to preserve something the real way, in a real, steralized jar. But my question has always been: how do you get the glass jars out of the boiling water to cap them?

    Ball sells a very elaborate set of tools for doing this, and something tells me they’re not necessary at all. How did you do it?

  3. 3 daisy August 24, 2005 at 12:05 am

    i’ve got this book from this french lady (christine ferber), and she sterilizes her jars by putting them in the oven for 20 min at 200F (i’ll have to check the book to be sure). no boiling necessary.

    there is, however, a funky set of tongs made for jars. i’ve also seen a big pot with a custom-sized wire rack for holding jars in the pot and thus lifting them easily from the water.

    i like the oven method.

  4. 4 winnie August 24, 2005 at 3:45 am

    well i’ve been reading up on this since making these conserves, and there’s a few schools of thought on it. most american sources will tell you to sterilize before and after. and yeah, there are all these crazy canning implements (some boiling canner thing — that rack that daisy mentions) out there that epicurious and cooks illustrated, for instance, recommend.

    my italian canning buddy (who has done this countless times with her mother in her hometown in tuscany) said that it was enough to just wash the jars and lids beforehand (which i did with scalding water) and these must be totally dry when filled.

    after filling within a half-inch of the top, we screwed the lids on straightaway and after maybe 20 minutes, the little button in the middle would get sucked down. (the italian says that this meant i didn’t have to do the post-processing boil — all one really has to do for that is submerge the jars completely in cool water in a pot and bring it to a boil; boil for 15-20 minutes and then let cool completelyl in the pot.)

    in any case, all the jars sealed themselves (what would be the right verb for this — ‘vacuum-sealed’?) so that you could click that middle button on the lid. i’ll let you know in like 4-5 months whether they’re all still okay when i use them.

    i guess next time what i might do to sterilize beforehand is to either boil them for 15 min or stick them in the oven (as ferber — and patience gray also, i think — suggests). i think with the tomatoes it wasn’t such a big deal because they have such a low pH.

    the tongs are just for handling (really) hot jars. i think a wide-mouth funnel would be useful. some sources also say that you have to sterilize the hell out of everything (funnel, tongs and jars — maybe even yourself. kidding, sort of) before you begin. but i sort of doubt that’s necessary. the people i saw canning hundreds of jars of peaches and tomatoes in their backyard used the cut-off top of a schweppes tonic water bottle as a funnel (which, i think, they washed) and didn’t look THAT concerned about sterlization.

    reusing jars is apparently okay, but you should always buy new lids. i’m going to make fruit preserves in a week or so, and i’ll update then.

  5. 5 winnie August 24, 2005 at 3:46 am

    oh yeah, carl: you get the jars out with tongs. i dunno if i explained that clearly. that’s why it’s probably easier to just sterilize in the oven so you don’t have to deal with such potential and painful disaster.

  6. 6 Anonymous August 25, 2005 at 2:47 pm

    nice job winnie,


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