Tomato catsup should taste like tomatoes and spice, mellowed and blended like a fine wine. Traditionally, catsups were added to other sauces and dishes to season and finish them, not served as the sauce itself. The Carolina Housewife of 1847 includes recipes for catsups made from walnuts and mushrooms as well as tomato, wisely recommending that the cook add “the best port wine” to each bottle of tomato catsup. Port adds an intriguing roundness of flavor that the commercial brands try, unsuccessfully, to achieve with sugar. Be sure to let the catsup age for at least a month before using.

The traditional way of making catsup on top of the stove is tricky business, because you must stir the pot constantly to prevent the thickening sauce from burning; the slightest bit of burn will flavor the whole pot. It can take as much as an hour; I’m not that patient. I finish the sauce in a slow oven, stirring occasionally. You could also use a slow cooker for this last stage. This recipe takes longer, but the cooking is mostly unattended.

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Ingredients

  • 1 peck (8 quarts) ripe, meaty tomatoes
  • a handful of fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, and marjoram
  • 1 large celery rib
  • 1 large onion, peeled and quartered; each quarter stuck with a clove
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon whole allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 2 cups white wine vinegar
  • 3 cups port (despite Sarah, don’t use “the best”)

Method

Wash the tomatoes and quarter them, and, without stirring, simmer them in a large, heavy-bottomed pot on top of the stove until the water separates out to the top of the pot (about 45 minutes). Preheat the oven to 350°. Carefully pour off this liquid (save for use in a soup or to cook rice). Pour the pulp into a large roasting pan and add the remaining ingredients except the port, stirring well to mix it all together. Cover and bake until all the flavors have mingled (about 1 hour). Pour through a large sieve, pressing all the last bits of juice and flavor through. Puree, if necessary, the sauce for an even consistency. Lower the oven to 300° and return the sauce to the roasting pan. Cook, uncovered, until very thick, stirring occasionally. It will take anywhere from one to several hours, depending on how watery the mixture is.

In the meantime, sterilize 7 pint jars and lids. When the catsup is very, very thick, remove from the oven. Add the port and stir in well, then ladle the catsup into the clean jars, leaving ½ inch headroom. Wipe the rims clean, add the lids and screw bands, and process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes.

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