It’s mid October, one of the tipping points of the year, when the final haul of tomatoes has taken up residence in the spare room and is under the strictest of instructions to ‘ripen, damn it!’ This is one of those peculiar compromises that you make when growing things in the UK. In the mediterranean, you can use the heat of the sun to bake your tomatoes into a cuttable iron-red paste that’ll keep pretty much indefinitely. The flavour is so concentrated that just a dab of this paste gives any dish a kick up the backside. Meanwhile, in the UK, you have to pre empt the September rot, that is inevitable once dewy mornings start up, and resort to artificial molly-coddling, persuasion and (God forbid) an early burst of central heating to get your over abundance of late summer to ripen. Or you could make green tomato chutney, which will sit, unopened and unwanted on the shelf, waiting to be replaced in three years time, by a younger, fresher, doomed to be forgotten jar of next generation green tomato chutney.
Far better to bite the bullet, and accept that the desk in the spare room will be repurposed for the forseeable, and proceed to carefully lay out your unripe tomatoes, washed and dried, placed on a clean absorbent cloth, bathed with as much light and air as you can muster. Now, take a photo and walk away, closing the door behind you. And there they will sit. Try to ignore them. Try to forget them. Because if you pay them too much attention, you will only convince yourself that nothing is happening. That they are no riper two weeks on than when you first created your harvest festival display. Despair may set in if you are too attentive. But, perhaps allow yourself to just check them once a week, in case you’ve accidentally included a bad apple in the mix. After a month take another photo. Compare and contrast; with luck and fair wind, the majority will now be a lovely, even, deep red; feel smugness at your horticultural know-how. Now you can panic about how on earth you’re going to use up all these perfectly ripe tomatoes.
I read somewhere (I think it was a Hugh F-W article or book) that when growing vegetables and fruit, you should avoid those which are cheap and easily available and go instead for those that are tricky to track down or eye-wateringly dear. Tomatoes, I think, should be the exception to this rule. Even in the height of the season, your average shop-bought tomato is just a balloon of vapidity, probably not ripe and rarely tasting even of tomato. So, yes, you can buy them, and yes, you can buy passata for 59p a carton. But home grown and made will take everything to a new level.
Passata is just a cooked, oomphed-up tomato puree – sealed and pasteurised it keeps for months and means that when it’s grim, wet and iron grey outside – you have the base for a plethora of life-affirming, summer-will-return sauces, stews, soups, posh Blood Marys (I’m working on a recipe for this – watch this space).
All of your spare tomatoes
Enough water to cover the bottom of the pan (about 2 cm)
One small onion (per kilo of tomatoes)
One clove of garlic (per kilo of tomatoes)
A pinch of Bicarbonate of Soda
Put the water into the largest saucepan you have (this stops the tomatoes that touch the otherwise dry base of the pan from burning before they start to break down)
Add the tomatoes, onions and garlic, roughly chopped. You can also add basil, but I prefer to add my herbs to the dish – leaving it out at this stage makes for a more versatile base.
Bring up to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. By this time, the tomatoes will have broken down into a soft lumpen mush of seeds, skin and pulp, and the onions and garlic will be soft and malleable.
Now you have two choices. If you like kitchen gadgets, get yourself a hand-cranked food mill and pass the whole lot through it. They’re very satisfying to use – but a wholly unnecessary, and cupboard space-occupying thing. Or, you can use a sieve and a wooden spoon, bashing the said mixture through in batches. This, admittedly, takes longer, but the passata you end up with is more velvety than that from the mill – which is a bit too rustica for me.
Now discard seeds and skins onto the compost heap, where next year you will inevitably find a tiny forest of tomato seedlings, just after the ones you started on the windowsill have germinated.
Return the tomato mix to the saucepan and simmer again until it’s reduced down to an unctuous double cream thickness. Stir occasionally to prevent it from catching at the bottom. When you’re done – turn off the heat and add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. This is supposed to cut through the acidity within the sauce. I’ve seen people use a teaspoon of sugar for the same effect – but I prefer the fizz of this trick.
Meanwhile, have some sterilised jars/bottles available (they’ll need an airtight lid) and then pour/ladle/funnel in your hot passata. Seal the lids on and pasteurise your work in a water bath (which is a grand way of saying; ‘a big saucepan full of boiling water’), on the cooker, or stick them through a hot wash in the dishwasher (if you have one) – which is by far the easiest way. As a guide for how many jars you’ll need – I’ve just done a batch of 4 kilos of tomatoes, which filled six 370ml jars.
Store and use at will.
If you start to hear a fizzing sound when you pass, it means the jars are not airtight and the passata has started to ferment. All is lost! You may also notice that it has separated out into a thick layer and a more watery top layer. All is not lost. It just means that you didn’t cook enough water off before bottling. When you come to use it, you may want to cook it down a little before adding it to whatever dish you’re creating