Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ketchup's Secret Ingredient


The Tomato Bee was a rollicking success!

There were naysayers: supermarket checkout women, grumpy old men, and finicky dieters posting on chat boards said that great homemade ketchup couldn’t be done.

“I had to mix it with store-bought ketchup just so the kids would eat it,” one woman told me. Another warned, “It has so much sugar in it!” I smiled patiently, thinking, Must be one of those follow-the-recipe people.

On Saturday morning, my Dad and I loaded up the (hybrid!) SUV with two huge pots, a propane tank and burner, two bushel baskets of tomatoes, one jug of olive oil, a bag full of spices, three large plastic bins, nearly a dozen tools for stirring and mashing, a bottle of soap, a hose, a wad of cheesecloth, a roll of twine, a giant Thermos of tart, homemade lemonade, a half-dozen assortment of rags and towels and a stack of reusable plastic cups (no paper products for us), two digital cameras, two cookbooks, one large umbrella, one folding table, four aprons, an armful of wide-brimmed hats, a bottle of sunscreen, and an industrial-grade sieve borrowed from Chef J. D. Fratzke of Muffuletta.

A note on our source recipes. I may have mentioned that I never follow a recipe to the letter (passed down from Dad, like my big head). No less than four informed our ketchup attempt:
1. The (possibly) very first tomato catsup recipe, published in 1803 in the Sugar House Cookbook, which I found on Wikipedia.
2. An 1871 recipe from Maron Harland’s Common Sense in the Household
3. Kenneth Roberts’ memories of his New England grandmother’s catsup making, first published in 1938 in the Saturday Evening Post (both Roberts’ and Harland’s recipes are collected in American Food Writing.)
4. Mark Bittman’s modern take from How to Cook Everything.

We unloaded our gear at the St. Anthony Park Community Garden and set up in a corner overlooking a local Girl Scout troop’s pumpkin patch. Megan, the garden's coordinator (at right), helped me wash the tomatoes while Dad charred sweet red peppers over the burner (ours would not be ketchup for purists, inspired in part by Bittman's recipe, which includes onions and peppers).

Taking a cue from the Sugar House recipe, we mashed the tomatoes to a pulp with our bare hands. My grandmas Sue and Leonora took to the task like little girls making mud-pies.

Next, we put the tomato mash and red pepper flesh over a hot flame for about 90
minutes, until it was a vivid red stew specked with skin and seeds. Aunt Bracey (at right) was one of the folks to take a turn with the spoon, preventing the tomatoes from burning at the bottom.

Several gardeners showed up to see what was going on (“Is this the ketchup thing?”). One couple had a grocery bag full of what we believed to be tomatoes but was in fact Mason jars, displaying a marked misunderstanding of the share-and-share-alike concept of the Bee.

The sun at its height, we gave ourselves and the tomatoes a good 30 minutes to cool off. As we gazed around this peaceful scene of late-summer abundance, it struck us: where's the beer?! I made a run for a cold 12-pack of St. Paul's own Summit Scandia Ale. Our friend Mary astutely observed that beer may well be the secret ingredient to a successful tomato bee.

Refreshed, we proceeded to the next step. Working in batches, we poured the stew into the sieve and worked a hole-punched stainless steel spoon in a circular motion, forcing the juice and pulp through the sieve (alas, I was not born with the silver spoon that Sugar House recommends). We followed this first sieving with a few turns in a food mill.

While we were mulling (er, milling) all this over, Michelle Hueser, the editor of Edible Twin Cities stopped by, looking for inspiration for her upcoming editor's letter on the "tomato crunch" -- the age-old Minnesota problem of what to do with all them August tomatoes. I'm not sure if we'll get a shout-out in her magazine, but it was great talking food and food writing with her.

By then, it was late afternoon. From at least 100 ripe tomatoes, we had a damp and spiky mass of rosy skins and yellow seeds (bound for the compost pile) and about a gallon or so of liquid puree.

This was the point when we would sweeten, salt, and spice the concoction and leave to boil away to ketchup consistency -- a process that our various sources claimed to take anywhere from one to five hours.

We were a bit loopy from the long hours in the sun and looking forward to supper at Aunt Rose and Uncle John's house (true foodies -- their romance was born in the aisles of an upscale cooking supply store). We decided to declare victory and pack it in to finish the cooking at home. I carried the pot of puree on my lap while Dad drove.

A lot of fun is still to come -- the Preparation of the Seasoning Pouch, the Great Vinegar Taste Test, and, of course, the Labor Day BBQ when my ketchups (yes, plural!) made their debut. Check back soon.

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