Time Is Ripe

One can also feel crushed by the weight of all the responsibility end-of-summer tomatoes embody. Avoid rotting and make them into sauce.

When tomatoes rain, they pour. One day you’re wondering if any of your tomatoes will ripen, the next day you’re wondering what to do with them all.

Whether they come from a flush garden, friendly neighbors, a farmers market or a food bank, if you don’t have tomatoes to deal with yet, you will soon. So here are three ways of handling the red monsoon of August. You will never again fear a pile of tomatoes.

Simple Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce

This sauce is the ultimate way of putting away tomatoes quickly and efficiently while leaving the widest array of options. Other than a little bit of salt and some vinegar to raise the acid level, I kick that jar down the road, knowing that when the time comes I can decide how to season it. I leave the sauce uncommitted, and add whatever spices or veggies I care to at the time of cooking.

Remove the stem scab and any imperfections. Lay whole tomatoes flat on a cookie sheet(s), and roast them at 400 degrees until the tomatoes collapse into round, wrinkled piles. Remove the tray from the oven. When the tomatoes are cool, lift off the skins, squeezing their pale juice back onto the tray.

Many people blanch their tomatoes in boiling water and remove the skins that way. But since learning the oven-roasted tomato attack, I never looked back.

Dump the remaining juicy pulp into a thick-bottomed pot and simmer on low heat for an hour or two, until it reaches your desired thickness. Season with salt.

Assemble your sterilized jars. Add a tablespoon of vinegar to each quart, or half a tablespoon to each pint. Then ladle the sauce into the jars, and process for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath. This sauce can also be frozen in freezer bags, after first letting it cool.

Ma Ma’s Chunky Spicy Ketchup

This sauce, courtesy of my friend Allen Broach’s grandma, comes from plantation country. I’ve only been making it for a year, but it’s already developed a following among my circle of canning enthusiasts. I like to use a combination of roma and slicing tomatoes. Juicier specimens might take longer to cook down sufficiently.


  • 4 quarts canned (drained) or fresh tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1 rounded tablespoon whole mixed pickling spices, tied in 5x5-inch square of cheesecloth, and crushed with a mallet
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp black peppercorns (Broach admits to using a lot more)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¾ cup dark vinegar (I used cider)
  • 5 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 or 2 pods hot pepper (optional)


Add everything to a thick-bottomed pot and cook on low/medium heat for two to three hours, stirring often. Occasionally mash the bag of spices to release flavors.

“Don’t hurry with this sauce,” Broach cautions. “Ma Ma was a very patient person.” Pour into sterilized jars, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

High-Octane Salsa

I learned this technique from the rarest of individuals: a used car salesman with whom one actually wants to be friends.

Roy Sasser got into spicy foods as part of a successful effort to get off drugs, as the endorphins created by spicy heat are similar to those of opioids, he says.

Along the way, Sasser became quite the salsa master. But he stayed humble. “Ah don’ know what ah’m doin’,” he confesses in a southern drawl. “Ah jus throw a bunch a shit together.”

His self-deprecating assessment is basically true, but his method is tested. Not only is it delicious, this is the kind of salsa that’s built to last. I once stumbled upon some five-year-old jars of Sasser’s salsa, and didn’t hesitate. They were still in top form.

Tomatoes and chili peppers comprise the bulk of this salsa, with garlic and carrots rounding it out. The ratio of tomato to chili pepper should be about 1 to 1 by uncut volume, or 3 to 1 by weight. So, for a 40-pound box of tomatoes, you’ll want 13 to 15 pounds of peppers, as well as 10 large onions, 3 pounds of carrots, and six heads of garlic.

High-acid, juicy, canning tomatoes are ideal; look for big, red and round normal-looking varieties. No roma-style paste tomatoes or funky heirlooms. As for the peppers, include as many shapes, colors, sizes and flavors as you can. This diversity is what gives particular salsas their individual character. I use whatever I can get my hands on, which is most often jalapeños, bells, Anaheims and waxes.

Sasser fills his pots with salsa ingredients by the food processor load, as in: five loads tomatoes, five loads peppers, two loads onions, one load carrots, half a load garlic.

Keep adding ingredients at those proportions until the pot is almost full. Then mix the contents, turn on the heat, and gently bring the salsa to a boil, stirring and scraping frequently to prevent scalding. While heating, season with salt and pepper, tasting frequently with corn chips and beer.

When the mix hits a boil, let it roll for 30 seconds, and turn off the heat. Ladle the salsa into hot sterilized jars, add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per jar, to keep the acid up, then screw on sterilized lids. The hot-packed jars will seal as they cool.

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