We're such enthusiastic gardeners in the spring. We plant our tomatoes and zucchini seeds, tend to the beans as they climb the poles, and diligently feed and water our peach and plum trees.

We're rapt as the bounty begins to deluge us in July in what feels like an endless summer. But inevitably there comes that moment of realization in September that summer actually will come to an end and we'd better capture the fruit of our labor before it fades away.

Many of us turn to canning and preserving as a way to retain summer flavors as the days grow shorter and cooler.

One of San Diego's greatest proponents of canning is Karrie Hills, executive chef at The Red Door and The Wellington in Mission Hills.

"I like to preserve the season and make sure nothing goes to waste," she said. "Plus, I love to carry the flavors of one season to the next."

Hills, a self-professed "jammer," said that she's been making jams all her life. That passion accelerated last year with tomato jams, thanks to the profusion of fruit grown in The Red Door's family garden at owner Trish Watlington's home.

"I had to start seriously making tomato jams because I had so much bounty from Trish's garden," she laughed.

Walk into her restaurant pantry and you'll find jar after jar of canned, pickled and otherwise preserved produce. It's inspiring, no less so because it's truly easy to do. Over the summer a group of us gathered at Watlington's home to put up some tomatoes, led by Hills.

Basically, here's how to do it:

Gather tomatoes of similar size and score the tops and bottoms—just enough to break the skin but don't cut into the flesh. Add to a large pot of salted, boiling water for about 30 seconds.

Scoop them out and submerge in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.

Then remove the skins and pack in clean jars. (Keep the skins for adding to smoothies or other dishes.) While the natural juices will come out, you can also add 4 teaspoons of lemon juice per quart. If your tomatoes aren't especially sweet, you can also add a little sugar. And brighten the flavor with a pinch of salt.

Seal the jars with clean lids and place in a simmering hot water bath for 5 minutes. Remove and let cool. The lids should seal with a little pop. Tighten the rings and store in a cool, dark place. You should have tomatoes throughout the winter. Refrigerate after opening.

Red Wine Tomato Jam

Courtesy of Karrie Hills

We made this jam during our preserving session, but you can adapt this recipe to your own favorite flavors. Trish Watlington happened to have an open bottle of Cabernet so in it went, along with some black pepper and orange zest. Hills likes to use the jam with a garden bruschetta and goat cheese, as a dip (mix with a soft cheese like ricotta or Neufchatel), as part of a Bloody Mary mix, as a garnish on soup or chowder or as a sauce—adding beer and apple cider vinegar—with chicken, fish or shrimp.

Yield: 7 (8-ounce) jars

  • 7–8 pounds tomatoes, roughly chopped with skins on
  • 5 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoons orange zest (Tip: Press down firmly while sliding the zester over the orange while pressing down to bring out the oils, which is where the flavor is.)
  • 1½ teaspoons salt or to taste
  • ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Place tomatoes in a large, nonreactive pot. Add sugar, wine and zest. Bring to a boil. Skim the foam and reduce the heat to medium. Cook for about 45 minutes, all the while skimming the foam. Add the salt. Stop the cooking process once the mixture has thickened.

You can test this by dipping a spoon into the tomato jam and either getting a slow drip from the back of the spoon or carefully placing the jam-filled spoon in the freezer for about 8 minutes. If the thickness is to your liking, it's fully cooked.

Once the mixture has thickened, you can use an immersion blender to break it down into a consistent texture or you can leave it chunky. Then skim again. (Note: You may get as much as a cup of impurities from skimming from the time you started with the boil.)

Add the black pepper and lemon juice. Taste and adjust the flavors.

Fill sterilized jars just to the neck and screw on the lids. Process for 5 minutes in a simmering water bath. Remove from the water bath and let cool.
While you can use it immediately, it's better when it's had a chance to rest for a couple of days. Otherwise, store in a dark, cool spot and refrigerate after opening.

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