Thursday, June 23, 2011

Catsup -- the most underappreciated condiment

Forget the cheap red stuff in the bottles, or the little packets at restaurants that we take too many of and leave behind. Unless it’s from Whataburger…but that’s a different post. We’re not talking about ketchup here, we’re talking about homemade catsup, which is a spicy, tangy, sweet, salty bit of liquid awesomeness. When I make it, several pounds of tomatoes cooks down to just 3 pints…I put them in 1/2 pt jars and I tell everybody NOT to take more than they plan to eat because it takes a lot of work to make! So here we go…the life of a tomato destined to be catsup.

The first part is a 2-person job. You have to blanch the tomatoes…dip them very briefly in boiling water and then into an ice water bath. This makes the skin peel right off. Practice has led me to boiling red ripe tomatoes for no more than 10 seconds before putting them in the ice water. If there’s any softness to the tomato, go for 5 seconds. Anything more makes them mushy. We used a deep-fry basket and did them 5 or 6 at a time, and it worked wonderfully.

So Paul put them in the basket and I boiled, counted, and dumped them in the ice water. Sounds like a 1-person job but you have to take over for each other and keep the ice water full of…ice. It does tend to melt. We went through about 3/4 a bag of ice.

Then it’s time to peel and chop. Also a 2-person job. Takes awhile. But aren’t they pretty!!! I leave the seeds in and strain them out later, and as much of the liquid as possible.

Then they go in a big pot with a chopped onion. I did a medium to large onion.

And the seasonings – which I could have gotten ready the next day – I did before we even started. A cup of vinegar (I use apple cider vinegar) along with 1 t. each celery seed, mustard seed, thyme, and whole cloves. OH, and don’t forget a whole cinnamon stick, broken into pieces. And watch out…I actually cut my thumb a pretty good one breaking the stick. Use a mallet or something. Cinnamon related injuries happen every day…don’t be a statistic. Haha. Okay, now bring vinegar and spices to a boil and then set aside. I ended up setting it in the fridge in a jar overnight because it’s not added for awhile. You simmer your tomatoes until they’re way down in the pot, at least half. This takes hours. We did it for 5 hours, then I let it cool and stuck it in the fridge overnight. Enough is enough.

The next day I rewarmed the mixture and let it cook down a little bit more, and began to press it through a sieve. A food mill is called for, but I don’t have one. The sieve is a PITA but I just do it several times, until I’ve squeezed every bit of life out of the pulp and all that’s left is seeds and a thick chunk of paste.

Last time through the sieve. Pretty huh? After this, I ran it through the blender for additional smoothness. My first batch of catsup a few years ago was very lumpy and tended to separate. This batch doesn’t look the same way.

Add 1 cup of sugar and the vinegar (strained, no chunks of spices please), and 1 T salt (I like to use Kosher salt when cooking). Now back on the stove to boil down. It went down to almost half again, was getting darker but it didn’t get quite as thick as I would like, and I gave up. And put it BACK in the fridge for yet another night. Hey, I have a job! I can’t just stand and stir catsup all night long, too!

I really like my Pampered Chef batter bowl. It’s a giant measuring cup, and it has a lid! Perfect for sticking into the fridge full of tomorrow morning’s pancake batter. Or tomato catsup. Whatever.

About 4 years ago when I started showing an interest in canning, my husband bought me everything I would need…2 huge pressure cookers, and all sorts of awesome tools. And best of all, they were all old stuff. The instruction booklet was from the 1940s. This is when they made stuff to LAST and by golly, it has lasted. I love canning!

Before filling the jars, I had to reheat the catsup. Hot catsup goes into hot jars. First wash and then sterilize in boiling water all the jars, lids, rings, and any other tools you’ll be using, like my handy-dandy jar picker-uppers. Then fill the jars leaving about 1/2 “head room” (space) from the top, put the lids on and tighten the rings loosely (finger-tight, but loose enough for air to escape around them as they seal) around the top, and submerse them into boiling water with at least a couple of inches over the top of them (and there has to be a little tray on the bottom that keeps the jars from touching the bottom, and the boiling water moves all around the jars). This is a “boiling bath” which is sufficient to preserve high-acid fruits like tomatoes.

After your 10 minutes is up, you just pull them suckers out and let them sit. You should hear the tops “pop” and seal themselves within minutes. Mine today did it as soon as I got them out of the water and was moving them to the towel to dry. I had forgotten how satisfying that little “pop” sounds. It’s like, “Mission Accomplished.”

So there you are. Six 1/2 pints of home-grown tomatoes turned into the tastiest thing you’ll ever dip a french fry or an onion ring into. I think I will arrange grilled burgers on Sunday when my son returns, with homemade fries and catsup, which he loves. The south Texas version of the fatted calf.
Next time you grab too many of those little packets at McDonald’s, take them home. If you leave them on the table, they’re just going to throw them away. A tomato died for that ketchup! Granted, it’s not THE best, but it was a journey. And it’s a great way to top off your ketchup bottle in the fridge…just in case.

Nitey nite!
Supermom and catsup maker

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