I LOVE A GOOD APRON, and never more than when batch after batch of tomatoes, herbs, and soup ingredients are moving from garden to kitchen to kettle to cupboard. When I saw the hand cut and sewn linen aprons made by my neighbor, Franca Fusco, at her shop called Boxwood Linen, and heard her say that she and her Italian-born mother were going to process some tomatoes, I thought: I need to share their wonderful enthusiasm—and one of Franca’s amazing aprons—with you. Get inspired by their technique, and maybe win the apron Franca and Aida rely on, too.
I got to know Franca this year when she opened an actual shop for Boxwood Linen in the next town, Hillsdale, New York, at the historic Hillsdale General Store, which was recently renovated. Franca grew up on a farm in Ontario, the daughter of parents born in Scanno, Abruzzo, so she is no stranger to the ways of the garden and kitchen.
“We had a cellar, a cantina, at the old farm in Canada,” Franca recalls, “where we’d store not just canned goods but cheese and prosciutto and sausage—but no more!”
Now Aida, Franca’s mother (above), visits her daughter’s Hudson Valley, New York-based home from Toronto each late-summer-into-fall, when the garden is offering up its best and there’s work to be done. Together, Franca and Aida continue the old traditions, but in a new location.
They do hot-packed tomatoes two ways: chunky, and also as a puree. Aida used to use a motorized machine to peel and de-seed the tomatoes, says Franca, “but now we do it the easy way.” The chunky ones are for pizza topping and soups and stews, the puree for making into tomato sauce quickly.
Like most longtime home canners, they break all the rules the USDA wants us to follow on food safety: adding basil to the jars; failing to add extra acid; and processing for a shorter time than recommended. And Franca and Aida even leave the skins on (USDA guidelines don’t).
For chunky sauce, Aida and Franca pre-sterilize their jars, and get the hot-water bath canner going, while they cut ripe paste tomatoes into small chunks.
They put a handful of basil at the bottom of each clean jar, and add a half-teaspoon of canning salt (non-iodized) per jar, too. USDA guidelines recommend adding ½ teaspoon citric acid per quart jar as well, or 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice. Some cooks add a little sugar to offset the lemon juice’s flavor.
The cut-up raw tomatoes are then packed firmly into each jar, leaving a half-inch of headspace, and sealed with a sterilized lid, then lowered into the water bath together once the last jar is packed. (“Mom still calls it the bagno marino,” says Franca.)
Franca and her mother prefer that the chunks of tomato flesh don’t separate from the skins while processing, but that means leaving the jars in the boiling water bath a much shorter time than the 85 minutes per quart jar that the USDA guidelines recommend for halved or whole skinned tomatoes canned in their own juices, with no water or tomato juice added. They also use larger jars, which would mean even longer processing.
Whatever size or timing, once the jars come out of the canner, let them cool gradually. “Mom puts the full jars back in their box, and puts a blanket over it so they cool slowly,” says Franca. Good news: I don’t think the USDA will dispute that last bit of Aida’s TLC.
“When it’s time to make pizza we saute a few cloves of minced garlic in olive oil, throw in the chunky tomatoes cook down a little and the sauce is ready to top the pizza,” says Franca. “A welcome thing on a cold Friday night in the middle of winter.”
The delicious aprons will get another workout then, too.
- about 22 pounds of fresh fruit makes 7 quart jars when no other liquid is added, the USDA says
- current USDA safety guidelines recommend processing quarts of whole or halved raw-pack tomatoes in a boiling water bath for 85 minutes (more at altitudes above 1000 feet)
- the USDA recommends acidifying the tomatoes when packing, by adding ½ teaspoon of citric acid per quart jar, or 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice
- for safest canning, refer to the USDA guide to canning tomatoes and tomato products (a pdf)
tomatoes that franca grows
THE GIANT PASTE TOMATO Aida’s chopping in the photo is what Franca calls ‘Dick’s Italian,’ which she got from garden writer William Woys Weaver years ago. I’ve written to him for more information about it; this oldie is new to me. Her other standards: ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘San Marzano.’
about boxwood linen
FRANCA FOUNDED Boxwood Linen in 1999, doing craft and gift shows, and sells just her aprons online. Besides the aprons, she makes custom linens of all descriptions and in a wide range of colors and patterns: tablecloths, runners, napkins, placemats, dishtowels. This year, she opened the retail location near me, a boutique within the larger and equally tempting Hillsdale General Store, and I have to confess: I immediately bought an apron for my sister in the most wonderful green olive color, like Aida is wearing. All linens can be personalized with monograms or other hand embroidery. Visit the Boxwood Linen site, or better yet, go visit Franca at the shop (maybe the next time you come visit me during an open garden day!).
how to win the apron
Do you wear an apron when you cook, and what do you love about your favorite(s)?
My confession: I actually used to collect aprons, I like them so much. I think they remind me of cooking with my grandmother all those years ago (which made me feel very grown-up. My apron “must-have’s:” big pockets, and a bib top, not just something that covers from the waist down–though my former collection included some festive vintage cocktail aprons.
Feeling shy? Just say, “count me in” and I’ll include your entry, but if you have an apron passion—or an apron story—why not share it?
A winner will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Tuesday, September 25, and notified by email. Good luck to all!
(all photos copyright Franca Fusco, Boxwood Linen; store photo from The Hillsdale General Store)