I was full of ideas, lots of them, about how I would use the pounds and pounds of extra tomatoes I was sure to have. The Dave's Garden recipe for roasted tomato sauce comes to mind, as well as the green tomato pie Laura Ingalls Wilder makes in The First Four Years, and hamburgers and BLTs with fresh tomatoes. But the one curious idea I had stuck in my head was that I wanted to make homemade ketchup.
I searched the web and old cookbooks for a suitable recipe for ketchup or catsup (both spellings are acceptable according to dictionary.com). Many recipes involve steeping spices and herbs in cider vinegar, real herbs and spices, like a stick of cinnamon, whole cloves, grated fresh ginger root. I was impatient. I wanted to make ketchup now, with what I had on hand! Well, nature is often cruel to impatient gardeners, and so she was to me.
At first, in August, we had some tomatoes, although the weather this year was frightful. This photo is from August 5, 2009. Then we had a few more, enough to try my hand at such tomato-hungry recipes as tabbouleh, salsa, and fresh tomato sauce. Every few days I would inspect the plants for signs of Late Blight, the dreaded fungal pathogen that had wiped out the tomato crops of so many friends and neighbors. I bought a spray bottle of Neem just in case.
One day we found little black spots. I was beside myself. I had seen fellow gardeners go into a deep funk upon learning that they had lost their entire crop. It didn't look like the photos I'd studied of Late Blight, but what if it was Early Blight, or something else nasty altogether? I sprayed assiduously with Neem twice a week, until I used up the bottle.
See my plants full of green tomatoes? The big ones ripened, but then, it seemed, my troubles really started. I became convinced that the Neem had wiped out some natural circle-of-life type balance and now it was all coming undone. Tomatoes were rotting before they ripened, or whole branches would come off in my hand. Still, a steady supply of ripe tomatoes were finding their way into the kitchen. Never so many all at once to be wildly extravagant and make ketchup, though.
Then, after all my worrying about Late Blight, a more mundane villain got me in the end. I went away for Labor Day weekend without checking the plants, and it seems the Tomato Hornworms moved in and made themselves right at home! Ugh! They were every bit as nasty as I had been led to believe. "Just pinch them in half with your fingernail" got me a handful of slimy green Vulcan guts! "Snip them with your pruning shears" was a little tidier, but how to clean the shears and dispose of the immense corpse? In the end it was just two huge hungry hornworms that demolished my tiny tomato jungle. The saddest part was pruning off the dead and dying vines that would, maybe, have kept producing for another month or two.
And I still wanted to make ketchup! Well, maybe you'll think this is cheating and maybe you won't, but I bought two cans of peeled, no-salt-added canned-in-tomato-juice tomatoes. I figure if I'd had my own tomatoes, I could have gotten them peeled easily enough. This was still almost making it from scratch. I didn't use anything else I didn't already have. If you have to buy anything, I think cider vinegar would have been even more flavorful than the white vinegar I used.
Ketchup is one of those timeless foods that artlessly combines the sweet, sour and salty to perfectly play up the fried or greasy. Think sweet and sour anything, think General Tsao's Chicken, think tempura, and you'll have the right flavors in mind. Not surprisingly, every recipe from any source has a hefty proportion of sugar and vinegar. However, The Joy of Cooking uses only 3/4 cup brown sugar to 2 cups vinegar; surely a healthier proprtion than the 1 part sugar to 1 part vinegar I ended up with! But in the midst of my experiment, my husband walked into the kitchen and said "wow, it smells like a ketchup factory in here."
I ended up not pureéing mine, I like lumpy textures (the onions and peppers) and the last time I used my blender, I made a horrible mess. But I have since learned that part of what makes ketchup be ketchup is that it be pureéd. I think it tasted perfect, even if it was just a spicy-sweet tomato-based condiment. I only wish I had made more!
I didn't do this to save money, although you might save money as well as be able to control factors like sodium or sugar content and acidity. I did it because I like to know where things come from, because I hate to think of myself as being as dependent on supermarkets as I actually am, and because I expected to have more tomatoes than I knew what to do with. Ahhh, there's always next year.
This is what I used because it's what I had on hand! I'm sure you can add more or less or tweak it as you see fit. For instance, many recipes use bay leaf, celery seed, ginger, etc. To exactly replicate what I did here, you must age the chili powder and not know what type of pepper you are using!
2 14.5 ounce cans of whole, peeled tomatoes in juice, no added salt
1 small fresh pepper, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup vinegar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
Cook all ingredients in deep heavy saucepan for 20 to 30 minutes, mashing and stirring the tomatoes as you cook, until all the liquid has boiled off and the tomatoes are a mushy mass. Refrigerate until serving.
For smooth, factory-style ketchup, put the seeded pepper and the onion in a blender with the vinegar before you cook them. I happen to enjoy the chunky texture of the onion. If I had had some spicier pepper or chili or tabasco sauce, I might have added it.