No other food is more synonymous with Italy than of course….. – The Tomato!! Believe it or not, the tomato does not originate from Italy, not even Europe. In fact, it is quite a newcomer to Italian food as far as history goes. The tomato, pomodoro, didn’t take off in Italy until the late 19th century which is when it experienced a large uptake throughout the country. Up until then, Italian dishes would have used olive oils, herbs, olives, anchovies and cheeses for dressings. Enter the pomodoro however, and I think it’s fair to say that once adopted into their cuisine, Italians mastered the tomato sauce!
Canning tomatoes starts with beautiful red, ripe tomatoes! There are thousands of types of tomato varieties out there and I’m sure you can make a great sauce with them but talk to any Italian and the tomato of choice, tried, tested and true, is the roma tomato. There are different types of romas as well but stay within this variety and you’ll be ok:)
We are going to cover a few ways that Anna and I and our families make tomato preserves here. As you travel through Italy, heck sometimes just between towns, ways of doing things change- sometimes just slightly and sometimes completely different. We’ll start with the way I was taught, well cause it’s the right way! Hahaha! Just kidding. That is what every Italian will tell you so I had to say it:) Any of these ways will do, it comes down to preference I guess.
It always starts out the same. Buy or pick your tomatoes and then if possible lay them out in a single layer (on clean cardboard or wood, on a garage or basement floor) for a few days to make sure they are nice and ripe. If you don’t have floor space, just leave them in the bushels for a couple days. When they are ready to process, you need to prepare your jars making sure they and the lids and are clean and properly sterilized. Wash your tomatoes very well – this is very important! Large containers make the job easier. Not just a rinse, give them a good primary wash and then transfer them to another container for a final wash.
Now here is where we go in different directions.
Cut off any bad spots and then cut the tomatoes in half. Bring a large pot (size depends on how many tomatoes you are processing) with a couple inches of water to a boil and add your cut tomatoes to fill the pot 3/4 way. Bring to a slow boil then continue to simmer for 15 minutes until the skin is nice and tender, stirring often. Transfer to a wicker basket covered with a clean tablecloth to strain for another 10-15 minutes. From here, they go into the tomato grinder, manual or automatic. And yes, we used to do this all with a hand crank grinder! It’s fine if you’re doing small batches but if you plan on doing many bushels each year – trust me – it’s worth the investment in a good electric tomato grinder! Once grinding is done, put the skins extracted by the grinder through one time to extract the remaining sauce (the seeds will get extracted by the grinder). Place lids in boiling water following proper sterilization technique and prepare empty sterilized jars for filling. Place 3-4 washed basil leaves in the bottom of each jar and fill with the tomato puree (leave 1/2 inch at the top). Put sterilized lids on the jars, tighten well and place filled jars in a large processing pot/barrel. Fill with water so jars are submerged and bring to a boil for 20 minutes. Remove jars when water cools a bit and store for future use. Check that the seals have taken before storing.
Cut off the tops of the tomatoes and any bad spots. Cut them in half and remove the seeds with your fingers. Put raw tomato pieces through meat grinder, skins and all. Transfer tomato puree to a large pot, bring to a boil and continue for another 60 minutes. Place 3-4 basil leaves in the the bottom of sterilized jars then fill with the hot puree (leave about 1/2 inch at the top). Put sterilized lids on and carefully transfer to a container for cooling process. Cover with blankets as they cool and check that the seal has taken before storing away. If you have lots of tomatoes to preserve, some extra hands make lighter work and good company:)
‘Pezzi’ and ‘Pelato’ (pieces and peeled) aren’t a pureed sauce but are another very common tomato preserve used in a variety of dishes. You can also preserve the tomatoes this way and puree them in a blender later for sauce if you like. For pezzi, or pieces, simply cut the tops off of the cleaned tomatoes and cut length wise into four pieces. Stuff them tightly into clean and sterilized jars, seal with sterilized lids and process in a canning bath for 20 minutes.
For pelato, bring a large pot of water to a boil and place a small amount of tomatoes in at a time for about a minute or just long enough that the skins come off easily. Peel, cut off tops and cut into 4 pieces lengthwise. Stuff into clean and sterilized jars, seal with sterilized lids and process in a canning bath for 20 minutes.
Tomatoes preserved this way are excellent when making pizza or adding to meat dishes.