Swordfish with Tomatoes and Fennel... and Friendship

In my least humble opinion, I rock Swordfish with Tomatoes and Capers. It’s an Ina Garten recipe with a few Linda Malcolm tweaks. First no capers: Bill is allergic to them. Second, I’ve only ever used home-canned tomatoes: first Mom’s well-traveled Midwest pints – 1,600 miles to become not a chili sauce but a swordfish sauce. When I ran out of Mom’s pints two years ago, my friend Kate and I turned the heat up in my kitchen and canned our own pints of tomatoes. Unsure if I would have been brave enough to can on my own, that was a special day: A replica of an Iowa summer day when friends and aunts visit to help can or freeze boatloads of vegetables and fruit. As I see it, unless you have home-canned tomatoes, my swordfish sauce is unduplicatable: Hard to get the same magic from a store bought can whose preparer’s hands you’ve never met. This recipe is perfect for a foodie who loves to cook but still wants to enjoy the company of guests and not be hovering over the stove while guests chat with your back side. First an early morning trip for the fresh swordfish catch...

Then, a few hours before dinner, in a large, high-sided skillet, flavors are coaxed out over time through layers of ingredients – onions and leeks; then garlic; then tomatoes, salt, and pepper; then wine and chicken stock; then basil and butter – while the pot simmers away for a little over a half hour. I cook the sauce through the last 10-minute simmer, after the addition of the wine and chicken stock; then I take it off the heat. Later, when the swordfish goes on the grill, I bring the tomato and fennel magic back to a simmer and finish it off with the basil and butter.

Rather than 28 oz. of drained plum tomatoes that the recipe calls for, I use 2 pints of un-drained home-canned tomatoes. As I pop the lids, my ritualistic sniff confirms the tomatoes are still good – or not. Saturday afternoon, sadly, I had only three remaining jars of tomatoes. I was making dinner for four. I recognized one jar as mine – canned in September of 2013. Its fresh hit to my nose confirmed its goodness. The second lid was unmarked and the tomatoes were a slightly darker red. I popped it open, sniffed, questioned, and sniffed again. Borderline. If I was cooking only for Bill and me, I would’ve used it, but I didn’t want to take the risk of poisoning guests.

I reach to the back of the shelf for jar number three. Oh my – it was one of those edgy jars with the two-digit year written on the lid. I didn’t even open it; instead, I moved ahead with a little extra chicken stock in the pot. Dinner was good, but I could tell it wasn’t two pints deep. It wasn’t as good as the week before when I made swordfish for a party of eight – with four pints of tomatoes.

Why didn’t I open the third pint? It was either from ’90 or ’06. Depending on which way you turned the jar to read the year on the lid.

I envisioned 30 pints of cooled canned tomatoes on Mom’s counter, and her Sharpie quickly swiping the year on each lid. Logically, I think the year was ’06 – they drove out to see me in ’07 with boxes of canned beans and tomatoes in the cargo. Then there is a little part of me that wants to believe it may have been from ’90 – and managed to survive all this time!

(Sidebar: By mistake, I sent the '06 photo to Mom last night. Here's her 10 p.m. reply: "what is the date on that jar??? 06?????" Note the panic in those question marks. I read them as "throw those away!")

The last swordfish supper of the full-tomato version marked the visit of Midwest friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I see them sitting around our dining room table thinking how amazing to have them with us. Sixteen hundred miles they had traveled just a few hours before and here they sat at our table for dinner. Surreal. The last supper of the half-tomato version was for local friends we see more often. Their faces around our table more familiar. The laughter and conversations from time spent with good friends echo over the empty Ball jars on the open shelves in my kitchen.

I return the old tomatoes clear to the back of the shelf. Home organizers suggest if you don’t love it or need it to get rid of it. This jar passes that test on mostly just one account, but I could make a solid argument for “need.” Full of history, I decide to move the old jar of tomatoes to the front of the shelf. Where I can better see the lingering laughter of friends bouncing off the full jar – with less echo than over those empty jars.

I have a tomato canning date planned for September with my canning friend, Kate. Perhaps, Mom, when there is a new batch of bright red tomatoes on my shelves, I can give up the jar from ’06. Or ’90. But right now, it's waxing nostalgia: friendship.

After the breast cancer year, an old friend of 30-some years said to me, “Do you know how lucky you are to have so many friends? But, of course you know. Aren’t friends the best?”