Sunday, 19 September 2010

On Sod and his law, and tomato gluts

Wouldn't you just know it? After yesterday's weather rant, today the sun shone in a cloudless sky, unpredicted by Metéo France. I, however, was indoors on glut management duties: Something Had To Be Done with the five kilos of tomatoes that had been sitting in their bowls looking accusing for several days. These are Agora tomatoes, from just two plants; I reckon we've eaten a good three kilos already, and there's still, assuming the blight doesn't get them, a good three kilos to ripen: that makes around 11 kilos of fruit from two 60 centime plantlets. Bargain. This is (and I'm frantically touching every wooden object I can find while crossing all my fingers and toes - not an elegant sight) the first year we've not had late blight; we've harvested well from our two cherry tomato plants too, though quite not so well, sadly, from the Cornue des Andes that were so productive last year.

And so I have quite literally been slaving over a hot stove. First I made a large batch of tomato sauce. Everyone has their own recipe for tomato sauce: this is mine.

Rich tomato sauce

3 kilos of ripe tomatoes, chopped
6 large onions, chopped
4 cloves of garlic
a rind of Parmesan (the hard bit that usually gets thrown away. Or in our case given to the dog)
a medium size tin of tomato purée
red wine
balsamic vinegar
one red chili pepper, deseeded and chopped finely
a handful of fresh herbs - I used rosemary, thyme, marjoram and basil, finely chopped or ripped

Fry the onions slowly in some olive oil, over a medium to low heat, until they're translucent (don't let them colour). When they're there, add the garlic and continue cooking for another 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, and stir them around, then let them break down slightly in the warm oil. When they're starting to release their juices, stir in the tomato purée, a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, the chili pepper and the herbs; add the Parmesan rind, bring the pan to a fast simmer and then add a slug of red wine - half a good glass at least. Keep up the fast simmer for 30 seconds or so to 'cook' the wine, then turn the heat down so that the pan is simmering much more slowly.

And then wait. The sauce needs to reduce to about half its starting volume, by which time it will be thick and intensely flavoured: this can take up to three hours, or even more, depending on the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, and as the mixture gets thicker stir more often and keep a wary eye on it - it can catch, and there'll be tears and tantrums (or maybe that's just me. You're probably much more controlled).

When it's ready, season the sauce to your taste. Then you can do any number of things with it: it's obviously a great pasta sauce in its own right, and because it's thick and rich it makes a good sauce to use for pizza too, or just to serve with meat or fish, or to bake crêpes in. Or we'll often add things to it: black olives and capers and maybe a few anchovy fillets, or bacon, or chorizo, or more chili peppers, or ... If you're more refined than I am you can put the whole lot through a mouli (sieve) to make passata (or indeed you might have skinned the tomatoes first. I don't. Life's too short). Then eat/freeze/bottle/whatever.

While the sauce was reducing, I  made some chili-tomato jam, one of my all-time favourite relishes.

Tomato-chili jam

2 kilos of tomatoes, chopped
6 hot red chili peppers - I use Cayenne - deseeded and finely chopped
12 cloves of garlic, chopped
a large piece - 8 cm or so - of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 kilo demarara sugar
250ml red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Blend (as in - in a blender or food processor ...) half the tomatoes with the chili, ginger and garlic and put the resulting purée into a large pan with the rest of the tomatoes and all the other ingredients. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the mixture is reduced to half its volume - anything between an hour and three hours. Stir regularly, and as it gets more jam like, hover over it like a hawk. Burnt chili jam is not nice. And after a while check to see whether you've got the balance of sweet and sour to your liking - if not, adjust it as needed.

When you think it might be ready, spoon out a little onto a cold plate, as you would for a regular jam; you should be able to draw the tip of a knife through it without leaving a wet vinegar-y liquid behind. Then ladle into hot, sterilised jars. Great with - well, almost anything, really. Make more than you (think you) want, because trust me, it's addictive.

Glut management continues this week, in between staircase varnishing and balustrade painting (yuk), with figs and crab apples and quinces. That means - and who needs Metéo France? - that it will without a doubt be warm and sunny. You read it here first.

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