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Anna Saint John (My Tomato Paste Inspiration)


As a last gasp of summer tomato love, I recently made tomato paste.

I didn’t start out with that particular obsession. I have plenty of my own, well-established, obsessions. It came on in a brief moment one September morning, when I visited Anna Saint John.

You might know Anna from the Bethesda Central Farm Market, or CHOP or even Kensington market. And it’s very likely you’ve had her food at a catered function. She’s been ‘in the business’ for a few years, after a start as a legal secretary and a computer-fixer. It was no surprise she ended up cooking delicious foods, growing up in a big family where, as she says, “There was always good food, and, with six kids, every night was a party.”

The first three foods she made on her own were chocolate chip cookies, brownies and a scrambled egg. I had to laugh, remembering cooking all three, myself, at a very early age. Anna and I – we’re sisters with different mothers.

Now, Anna caters lunches, dinners, parties big and small, but in my life, she’s the happy face, with partner John, who greets first Louie, then Dennis and me, every Sunday morning. Her offerings range from handmade raviolis, soups, and excellent condiments and sauces (my personal fave, for the name alone, is “What A Jerk” sauce.) Her condiments are intentionally not shelf-stable. Rather, she likes to encourage customers to put the sauce to use, not on the shelf. It’s clear – customers come back for more.

Her ready-to-bake items, like biscuits, are sheer heaven. Her combination of butter and excellent shortening give exquisite lift and rise to these gems.

Anna also is the source for the best BEST cornmeal, corn flour and stone ground corn grits, all from Hoppin’ John.

And Louie’s personal favorite, Dog Bark, a crispy snack filled with good things like sweet potato, oats, corn meal, and more. An earlier version, Dog Balls, were a favorite treat of our Dylan. Anna and John loved little Dylan.

I hope you will visit Anna at the market – there’s a lot of good cooking going on in her kitchen.

And what does this have to do with tomato paste?

The morning I visited Anna in her commercial kitchen, she did just what you would expect. (And exactly what happens when you walk into my kitchen!) She offered tastes of this and tastes of that – spoonful after spoonful. Divine jams.  Little biscuits. Tiny scones. Flaky, warm, inviting. Earl Gray tea at a small bistro table, in the sunny front of her space, surrounded by cookbooks.

The very first spoonful she offered me was tomato paste. She had found true paste tomatoes at the market (the photo looked like a San Marzano, but longer) and experimented with tomato paste.

An easy process with a shockingly small amount of end product.

But the taste – it haunted me. And when I saw Roma tomato seconds at the market, I had to give it a try. Oh, I’m so so glad I did.

A couple of notes. I lined the sheet pans with parchment which was a huge mistake and resulted in hours of scrubbing. Anna made hers on an unlined sheet pan, and stirred regularly. My second attempt (yes, I did this twice) worked perfectly on an unlined pan without terribly difficult clean up.

Use the food mill’s fine disk to keep the seeds out. My first batch was milled with the medium disk and enough seeds got through to make it ever so slightly bitter.

Double concentrated – cooked for hours and hours and hours – is really delicious. If you are lucky enough to have a tomato patch at the end of summer, grab some tomatoes and make paste.

It’s not recommended that you process tomato paste for shelf stability, but you can freeze it, which is what I did, in 4oz jars.

Double Concentrated Tomato Paste

12 lbs. paste tomatoes
1/2 tsp salt

Cut up half of the tomatoes and put them in a large 7 qt. stock pot. Add the salt.
Turn the burner on to medium low and continue to cut up and add tomatoes, stirring lazily.
Cover and cook for 10 minutes at a low simmer.
Remove from the heat and cool slightly.
Press the tomatoes through a food mill fitted with the finest disk.
Pour the puree into two sheet pans.
Place in a 185° oven for as long as six hours, or until the smell drives you crazy.
Stir regularly, especially into the corners of the pan.
Watch for the point at which your spatula leaves a trail in the tomato paste. Taste as you go. Let the color turn deep satisfying red.
Put up in small containers or freezer bags and freeze. I froze 4 oz jars.

22 thoughts on “Anna Saint John (My Tomato Paste Inspiration)”

  1. Now I really believe in omens…I sent spouse on an errand to buy little quarter-pint canning jars that I had seen, found to be adorable but had no use for. Then I realized they were the perfect size to put up red tuna meat for the cats. Spouse was feeling generous and bought two flats and my tuna only filled 8 jars, leaving me with jars but nothing to put in them. Just this week I decided to attempt tomato paste instead of just canning tomatoes just so I can use these cute little jars.

    I checked and found that commercial brands contain only tomatoes as opposed to the copious herbs and spices I’ve found in recipes online – yours calls only for the addition of salt. I think I’ll go your way. I’m even more excited about the paste now.

  2. Great! Now I’m going to have to try this recipe too!

    I love your site. The roasted tomato soup was great last week, and now I have a new recipe to try with this new batch of tomatoes I just picked up at the farmer’s market yesterday. We seem to be on the same wave length… Just read the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle book this summer and am trying to change the way my family eats. The bread just came out of the oven… and they are loving the home made cheese. Keep the great recipes coming.

  3. You must have been reading my mind to post this recipe! I was just thinking that my last tomato need for the season was to make my own paste, but I’ve never done it before.
    I’ve heard recently how bad commercial food in cans is for you, especially highly acidic foods like tomatoes. I’m glad to be able to make my own tomato products stored in glass. Thanks for the recipe.

    1. Thank you! It’s pretty freakin’ fabulous – that’s all I have to say. A tablespoon in soup makes a world of difference.

  4. it never occurred to me to make my own tomato paste and i absolutely love the idea. i’m wondering how likely it would be for me to be able to wrangle up that many in-season tomatoes in october. if i can find them, i can’t wait to make a batch.

    1. I hope you can find some. It’s the last gasp of the season – and such a satisfying way to wrap it up. (Brooke, I think of you all the time – your turkey meatball bahn mi are on my regular rotation.)

  5. I did it. It’s beautiful though somewhat disappointing when you turn a huge bowl full of tomatoes into three quarter-pint jars…but SO pretty. I didn’t notice before , though, your admonishment about processing and “shelf stability”. I water-bathed these little jars for 35 minutes. Will they not survive in the pantry? If it’s nothing but tomatoes and salt, why not? I have two cases of tomatoes from the College of the Redwoods farm that provides my weekly shares (northcoast California) so plan to be cooking down a LOT of tomatoes this week….should I just plan on freezing the paste?

    1. So glad you tried! Amazingly good oven-smell, isn’t it? Re: canning – I only know what I read. And my own insecurities about the acidity of tomatoes and shelf stability. I froze mine. I do think it will last in the fridge for awhile, too.

      1. We canned tomato paste a couple of years ago, with no problems. I don’t know how much salt and/or citric acid we may have used. (Oh, who am I kidding; it was Miss Chef who did it!) Wish we’d known of the sheet-pan method, though; it took forEVER in a pot! Duh. Maybe we’ll try it again.

  6. I did it, I made this paste, I was a bit skeptical when I put the tomatoes through the food mill and seemed to have a bowl of juice, yet 6 hours later, yes the smell drove me crazy, we had dark red, gorgeous paste! I was able to use up all my leftover tomatoes that we hanging around the greenhouse and the result is as tasty as vibrant! THANK YOU!

  7. Just made tomato paste myself. I skinned and deseeded before putting through the food mill to reduce the time it takes to cook down. I also added lemon juice before canning, so that I could water bath process for 40 mins for shelf storage.

  8. two years later: what i now know about making tomato paste.

    tomato paste can be made from the purée of any tomato, but it’s better to start with paste tomatoes. paste tomatoes have thicker walls, fewer seeds in smaller seed sacks, and are often long (like a banana pepper) and/or heart-shaped. i get mine from our friends at buckland farm in clearville, pennsylvania. buckland grows two types of paste tomatoes: gilberti and mrs. houseworth’s (check out the paste tomato section at tomatofest.com). right off the bat, there are two advantages to starting with paste tomatoes (besides their concentrated flavor, which would make three): fewer seeds and lower water content. fewer seeds means you can easily clean out the tomatoes with your hands before coarse-chopping right into your cooking pot, thereby eliminating the need to sort out the seeds later; and that means you can use the medium disc on your food mill which speeds up that phase of prep just a titch. lower water content (read: meatier flesh) reduces the amount of time it takes for the purée to morph into paste from many many hours to just many hours.

    in order to yield about 1.5 quarts of paste, start with a bushel/30# of tomatoes. cleaning, cutting, sautéing and milling that volume takes a long 2 hours. if you start reducing the purée on the stovetop, give it 3+ hours at a slow burble (stir occasionally all the way to the bottom of the pot and periodically turn the pot in case it has a hot spot). oven roasting will then take another 4ish hours at 250°. otherwise, oven roasting the whole way will take at least 8 hours. unless you have two ovens and/or can accommodate 4 half-sheet pans in one oven, i recommend starting the reduction process on the stovetop. either way, remember the rules of pan placement still apply: pans in the upper third of the oven will deepen in color more quickly; pans in the lower third will reduce/thicken more quickly; edges to the rear of the oven will color and thicken more quickly. so don’t forget to rotate the pans front-to-back and top-to-bottom. and, as the volume reduces, you will probably want to combine the pans.

    once the purée/paste starts taking on a darker, brick-like color you’ll know you’re getting close. how far you want to reduce it is up to you. i love mrs. wheelbarrow’s cooking instruction concerning time: until the smell drives you crazy. please note: when oven roasting the purée from a bushel of at-their-peak paste tomatoes, this happens right away! so yes, you must be crazy to do this recipe. but roasted tomato paste is soooo easy to make and if you don’t consider the time it takes, it’s cheap. if you do, it costs at least $8 per tablespoon — depending on your hourly rate — but it’s totally worth it!

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