When Life Gives You Tomatoes: Making Catsup

It's still harvest season here. Summer came late but blessedly stayed late and my tomatoes ripened. For over fourteen years I've been growing black plum tomatoes, an heirloom variety. I dry and save my own seeds every year. Each plant can produce more than one hundred Roma-style tomatoes. These are flavorful tomatoes. Normally, as they ripen, I slow roast them and eat them on top of pesto-plastered pasta, dotted with smoked salmon or grilled chicken breast. But when I come to the end of the crop and there is a pile of these dark mahogany beauties, I make catsup.

My friends think I'm crazy to make this ubiquitous condiment. Leave it to Heinz and Hunts. However I love to get to the root of things. Even the history of ketchup, catsup, catchup, whatever you want to call it, is fascinating to me. I also love to know just exactly "what" is in my food. And... I like to keep busy while waiting to hear back about my book submissions. The benefit of all that nervous energy is a pantry full of canned and dried goods that we grew, foraged, and preserved for future feasts.

Now this isn't a food blog. I have friends like Shauna James Ahern and Tara Austen Weaver. They are experts in that arena. I do, however, love to share my experiences - so I'm going to share this one with you in a sort of recipe/photo essay. Let me also warn you: once you try homemade catsup- you will never want to eat store bought again. By the way, I created this recipe by reading a half-dozen different versions online, and then I combined ingredients and techniques that worked best.

Nina's RED CAT (that's what I call my catsup)

Note: These ingredients are not exact- feel free to play. I also cut the recipe in half easily since I only had 4.4 lbs of tomatoes this time and the recipe works beautifully. This is the whole recipe here.)

About 8 lbs home grown tomatoes, cut into pieces
1 red pepper, cleaned, seeded and stemmed, and cut into small pieces
2 large onions, chopped
4-6 TBLSP light brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp whole allspice
1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
1 1/2 tsp whole mace (this is the hull that wraps around nutmeg)
1 1/2 tsp celery seeds
1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 tsp dry mustard
short stick of cinnamon
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic, quartered
1 fresh bay leaf (use dried if you don't have a bay laurel tree)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
salt to taste

In a small saucepan, combine vinegar and all spices. (No salt.) Bring to boiling, then remove from heat and let sit.

Wash tomatoes and cut in pieces. Chop onion and red pepper. Place in large heavy-bottomed stockpot or Dutch oven and bring to a boil.

Cook, uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring often until all ingredients are soft.

Press tomato mixture through a food mill (I love my Cuisipro food mill- I'm using the finest screen here.) into a medium-sized saucepan - or use a bowl and return pureed mixture to your cleaned stockpot.

Discard the skins and seeds- I put them in my compost bucket.

Add the brown sugar to your pureed mixture and stir well. Heat to boiling, reduce heat.

Gently boil, uncovered for 1-2 hours, or until reduced by half, stirring occasionally.

Now strain your vinegar mixture into the tomato mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Discard/compost the spices. Add salt to taste. Simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until desired consistency, stirring often.

Ladle catsup into hot, clean half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/8" headspace. Wipe jar rims; adjust lids. If you want shelf-stable catsup that doesn't need to be refrigerated until opened, you will need to process the jars.

Process the jars in a boiling-water canner for 15 minutes. Make sure the water covers the lids. Remove the jars from canner and cool completely.

You just made 6-8 half-pints of catsup! (If you made the full recipe.) Label it and enjoy! Now get back to working on new book projects and keep the faith that your other ones will sell. 

With Love, (and catsup on top)


On Genre On Jackson On Austin and Itching

I just returned from a trip to Mississippi and Texas. All sorts of things collided in my brain on that trip and I'll attempt to elaborate on them here.

Knowing that I would have many hours on planes and in airports, I was eagerly anticipating all of that reading time. I had just started "Great House" by Nicole Krauss. I loved her previous book, "The History of Love." But a small voice in my head said, "you can read "Great House" when you get home. Trips are time for adventure. Read something "different." So I told my editor to send me some new YA books- and she overnighted a package. (Thank you, Ms. C!)

I must admit I am not a genre person. I have never fit into a clique or genre myself. I am my own living version of literary fiction or faction- my term for facts turned into fiction. I have never been into fantasy or vampires. I've dabbled in science fiction- I do love Ray Bradbury, I even wrote a song based on one of his short stories when I was in junior high. I'm more of a Michael Chabon and T.C. Boyle (and Tom Robbins) girl. (and I can't wait for the new Jeffrey Eugenides novel, too.)

But when my editor sent me this: 
(and wrote "awesome" on a post-it note on the jacket) I said, "okay, my mind is open and my suitcase is packed," and off I went. 

I went to Jackson, Mississippi, where I paid tribute to dear Eudora Welty.
Coincidentally I had been to Jackson before, and not only did they put me in the same hotel, but last time I walked to Eudora's house. She was alive then, but I was too nervous to go knock on her door. I wish I had...

I was in Jackson to speak in the brand new, gorgeous Mississippi Children's Museum.
I wish I had one of these when I was a kid. I think I would have liked to have lived in it. They even have an amazing exhibit of traveling author/illustrator quilts right now, and I "said hello" to many of my friends' painted and illustrated squares.

This is just one shot of the interior.

And I wish I had thought of a bench like this:
I met and made friends with many wonderful people in Jackson. I ate at the fabulous Walker's Drive-In with museum volunteers Stephanie (who is the Jackson TV anchor), husband Mark, and volunteer, Kathy. We talked about books, Eudora and the San Juan islands. I also must thank Chavanne, Kelsey and the museum staff for making me feel completely at home and feeding me strawberry cake.

Then I took off for Austin.

My nephew was getting hitched on Sunday on Lake Travis, but I was there to see my dear, dear art school friend Sharon, and get a dose of what makes Austin weird.
Sharon and her boyfriend Scott- who is a singer-songwriter-arborist-tall-handsome-Texas born and bred-generous soul (he spent his birthday with us...) showed us Austin and environs in tasty snippets.
 I saw diseases of the tongue, taxidermy squirrel bands, and great folk art at Uncommon Objects and Yard Dog gallery.
We ate barbecue at Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX, and had incredible burgers at Hopdoddy in Austin.We went for rancheros and migas at Cisco's. We wanted to swim at Barton Springs, but it seems that we ended the drought by bringing two inches of rain with us from Seattle. You don't want to swim in the springs after serious run-off of who-knows-what. We loved Sharon's house and the cool commune-like area she lives in, Sunset Valley. Austin charmed us. Mostly it was the people. You can get more natural beauty in the Northwest, but I would put Austin much higher on the friendliness chart. And I must admit I'm a sucker for boots and guitars.

Then there was the wedding.
Our nephew, David Buckley married gorgeous Cat Chu. They are both computer geniuses. The groom's cake was shaped like a game piece. I can't remember the name of the game.

But what I couldn't forget was the book. I read "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor in and out of DFW three times. Six flights. One night in a hotel room. I finished it on the last leg on the way home. I was practically itching to finish it. Now there are no vampires in this novel, but there are angels and chimaera, seraphim, a world with two moons, a girl of seventeen named Karou... a warlock of sorts named Brimstone. Yes, it is fantasy, but it is also beautifully written, layered, voiced, laced with complex characters, filled with rich setting, and full of tension and conflict. I don't want to give anything away. No spoilers here. You'll just have to read it yourself.

What I will say is that when a book is good, that good, the genre doesn't matter. At least not to me. What it does do is leave me itching to write like this myself. To build a world between the covers that is believable, fascinating and not like anything else you've read before. There are no formulas. There is only you, and you become who you are from all of the adventures that life throws at you.

So on genre, on Jackson, on Austin and itching, I leave you, processing all of this past weekend, hoping it will filter into the next book I write. After all, NaNoWriMo is coming soon. 

What will inspire your next book/poem/song/painting/dance...?

With Love,