If you have a free afternoon and a pile of ripe tomatoes, consider making your own ketchup.
I did that recently and it changed my worldview. I became firmly entrenched in the pro-condiment camp. The homemade ketchup was so good and the yield was so substantial that for the next few weeks, ketchup became a constant companion.
It transformed run-of-the-mill Monday night meatloaf into a fight-for--the-last bite entree. It cozied up to its natural partner, the hamburger, and gave it new life. It provided a fruity lift to a barbecue sauce that, in turn, brightened slabs of barbecued ribs and some chicken thighs.
It may or may not have assisted in a fish dish. My wife and I cannot remember. But we do know that for the last few weeks, a suggested treatment for almost every dish that showed up on our supper table has been, "Put some ketchup on it."
Making ketchup took longer than I thought it would. It swallowed the better part of an afternoon. It did not require a lot of skill but did require endurance. It helped that I had a televised college football game, a couple of them, to keep me entertained as I toiled in the kitchen. What better way to spend an autumn afternoon, I thought, than watching football and squashing tomatoes?
The list of spices needed for this process seemed longer than the roster of a college football team. Moreover, instead of merely dumping ingredients into a pot, the preferred guy style of cooking, these instructions called for wrapping the spices in a sachet, a small cloth bag that functioned like a potpourri, then retrieving it. I don't do potpourri, at least not easily.
I almost punted when I faced the potpourri part, but I lowered my shoulder and kept going, figuring a solution would come to me.
One prod that kept me going was that I had a bunch of tomatoes that were about to go south. This time of year, tomatoes are making their final, substantial push. They might not be pretty, but they still are showing up at farmers' markets.
One reason for growing your own tomatoes, as I do, is pride. Another equally powerful stimulant in the process is guilt. Once you have nurtured tomatoes through a summer, you feel a compunction to use all of them in the fall, even when you are tired of looking at them. So on a Saturday afternoon as I looked at my pile of almost-moldering tomatoes, I picked up a cookbook that contained a recipe for making ketchup. I said to myself, "How hard could it be?"
Harder than you imagined, Grasshopper, was the answer.
First, there was the tomato treatment: quartering 5 pounds of fruit and feeding it through a hand-operated food mill. A few years ago, I spent what I then regarded as too much money on a Williams-Sonoma food mill, with three attachments. Since then, however, the device has earned its keep, separating seeds and skin of tomatoes destined to become sauce, and now ketchup.
Then there was the fetching of ingredients, 18 of them if you count the tomatoes. Fortunately, I had them all in the house.
Finally, it was sachet decision time. What was I going to use to wrap up those spices? The recipe suggested using a piece of cheesecloth. Where, I wondered, do we keep our cheesecloth? Nowhere was the answer. I considered using a clean sock and not telling anyone, but I lost my nerve. Eventually, I cut a corner off a clean kitchen towel, tied the spices up in it with a piece of string and flipped the bag in the pot for a long swim.
By the time I got everything in the pot, the first football game was at halftime. The mixture cooked until the end of the second game, when it looked like thick tomato soup.
It did not taste like soup. Instead, it was much richer, zestier and vibrant than the squirtable, store--bought ketchup.
One dollop would not do me. I wanted more, much more of this stuff. I had plenty; the recipe produced almost 4 cups. Instead of putting it in sterilized jars, as the recipe suggested, I kept my ketchup in the fridge in a covered plastic tub. I used it daily; the last of it disappeared, during another meatloaf frenzy, about three weeks after its inception.
Making ketchup is not something I will do often. But once a year, at the end of tomato season and the start of football season, I will make a batch, watch a game and enjoy.
Fresh Tomato Ketchup
Makes about 4 cups
5 pounds ripe red tomatoes, quartered
3 medium red onions, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored and seeded
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon allspice berries
2 teaspoons whole cloves
2 teaspoons celery seeds
1 thin slice fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
large pinch of cayenne