“Everything she fixes is ten times better than anything else,” says Joe Cochran of the food prepared by his wife Melissa Cochran.
“You should be here on Saturday when she makes biscuits and we get into this stuff,” says Joe, as he points to the stacked jars of jams and preserves on the kitchen table. There are some of the goods that Melissa has put up in the last couple of weeks that have not yet made their way to the Cochran’s well-stocked pantry.
Not one to grab a jar of marinara at the store, Melissa Cochran starts in the spring, plants tomatoes after the last frost, nurses them through the summer and when the tomatoes ripen, she cooks up big batches of spaghetti sauce with her homegrown tomatoes in her log kitchen and then cans the sauce to use all year long.
That’s what she does when she’s not busy making salsa or tomato preserves or pickles or jams or jellies or any number of other things that moves food from her garden to her favorite room in the house, her pantry. Her attention to detail and willingness to commit to the long haul pay off in food so delicious no storebought substitute can compare.
Her project du jour this past Friday was canning homemade spaghetti sauce. At the Cochran’s cabin in Ararat, Virginia, where they have their garden, she is well into the project by mid-afternoon with a big pot of sauce simmering on the electric range alongside a canner full of sterilized jars. Tomatoes waiting to be peeled are in the sink, a food separator is clamped to the kitchen counter beside bowls of other ingredients prepped and ready, and yet more bowls of tomatoes wait on top of the wood cook stove that only gets fired up in cold weather but is today serving as additional counter space in the spacious kitchen.
Melissa first washes the tomatoes and then puts them in a pot of boiling water for just a couple of minutes. “Then the peels slip right off,” she says as she slips the peel off a large German pink tomato with a flick of her wrist. “I’m using what I have,” she says of her choice of tomato. “Romas are good too if you have them.” She then cuts off any bad spots along with the core and tosses the tomato into a bowl, ready for the next step.
This is the process Melissa has always followed but recently she has acquired a new toy, a food separator, which she says is a great time-saver. With the separator, she can toss the blanched tomatoes into the hopper, turn a hand crank while pushing the tomatoes through the separator with a plastic pusher rod and the juice and pulp comes out of one opening and the tomato skins and seeds go out the back into a separate container. It peels and crushes all in one step.
She still peels and chops by hand when she wants a chunkier, more rustic sauce but likes the time-savings afforded by the separator when she wants a more refined, smoother sauce.
The addition of other ingredients and the simmering of the sauce is much the same as making any homemade sauce that you don’t plan to can with the exception of a few guidelines Melissa follows to guarantee food safety.
If you want to thicken your sauce, you have to reduce it by simmering it down, she says. Don’t add any flour or cornstarch to thicken it.
She says it’s important to use a recipe that has been tested for canning. The National Center for Home Food Preservation website has some that she likes. Canning a tomato sauce is a little bit trickier than canning tomatoes alone. The acidity of the sauce is reduced by the addition of other ingredients like onions and peppers. As the acid level is important to preserve the sauce, Melissa recommends using a recipe that has been tested for this use. She also adds two tablespoons of lemon juice to the top of each jar of sauce before putting the lid on to boost its acidity. She says vinegar or citric acid can also be used.
Tomato sauce can be canned in a regular canner but if you put any meat in the sauce, you MUST use a pressure canner. The presence of meat in the sauce requires a processing temperature of 250°F. and since water boils at 212°F., it will not reach the necessary temperature without the addition of pressure.
Melissa’s spaghetti sauce uses a hot pack procedure — you’re putting hot food in a jar. She fills sterilized jars leaving a 1/2 inch of headspace, adds two tablespoons of lemon juice to each and puts the lid on. When all of her jars are full, she fills the canner so that water covers the jars by one inch. She brings it to a rolling boil and processes for 40 minutes.
She cautions that if you’re using a pressure canner, you don’t want to walk away from the process though her Mother always leaves the room when she fires up her pressure cooker. “I don’t know what that says about her feelings for me,” she laughs. Also, if you have an electric cook stove with a smooth surface, you need to check your manufacturer’s instructions to see if you can can on it. “Some you can, some you can’t,” she says.
When her sauce has finished processing, she removes the jars from the water and places them on a towel, not directly on the cold countertop to avoid thermal shock. It would be heartbreaking to break one, she says. She is adamant that the tops should not be touched for 24 hours though sometimes she has trouble keeping her husband Joe from messing with them while waiting for them to seal. “He’s very bad,” she says. Joe is unapologetic about his excitement.
“As they seal, they make a ‘plop’. It’s the best sound in the world. You don’t want to mess that up,” she says as she smiles at Joe.
Following are two recipes used by Melissa Cochran for her homemade spaghetti sauce. Both have been tested for canning. If this is your first time canning, it is advisable to read the USDA’s guide “Principles of Home Canning.” It is available on The National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website. There is also a publication “Using Pressure Canners” with further information for safe pressure canning.
Melissa Cochran’s Spaghetti Sauce
25 pounds tomatoes
4 large green peppers, seeded
4 large onions
4 cans (6 oz. each) tomato paste
1 cup canola oil
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup salt
8 garlic cloves, minced
4 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried parsley flakes
2 tsp. dried basil
2 tsp. crushed rep pepper flakes
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 bay leaves
Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Simmer a couple of hours or as many as four or five if you want a thicker sauce. Discard bay leaves Add 2 tbsp. lemon juice per quart. Process 40 minutes.
Spaghetti Sauce without Meat
The recipe Melissa Cochran uses for spaghetti sauce with mushrooms. She got it from the National Center for Home Food Preservation website which she recommends for additional information on home canning.
30 lbs. tomatoes
1 cup chopped onions
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped celery or green pepper
1 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
4-1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. oregano
4 tbsp. minced parsley
2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Yield: About 9 pints
(Caution: Do not increase the proportion of onions, peppers, or mushrooms.)
Wash tomatoes and dip in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds or until skins split. Dip in cold water and slip off skins. Remove cores and quarter tomatoes. Boil 20 minutes, uncovered, in large saucepan. Put through food mill or sieve. Saute onions, garlic, celery or peppers, and mushrooms (if desired) in vegetable oil until tender. Combine sauteed vegetables and tomatoes and add remainder of spices, salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered, until thick enough for serving. At this time the initial volume will have been reduced by nearly one-half. Stir frequently to avoid burning. Fill jars, leaving 1-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process according to the recommendations, depending on the method of canning used.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.