If you’ve been following me on Facebook over the past few weeks, you probably know that I’ve been in the throes of making and jarring homemade tomato sauce since I returned from Italy. The other night, I actually dreamt I was stirring a giant cauldron of bubbling tomato sauce and when I paused to rest my arm, the sauce continued to stir itself, as if possessed by some rogue force. I suspect that plowing through 3,500 pounds of tomatoes (yes, that number is correct) over 8 days has made me a bit batty.
Throughout my life, things always felt askew during tomato week. As a child, I resented my parents’ utter preoccupation, the transformation of our basement – my playroom – into a sauce-making factory, and my grandmothers’ constant bickering in Italian over whose method was better (“Signora, put the olive oil in now,” said Nonna Irma. “No, Signora, the sauce will turn black if you add the oil too soon,” responded Nani – it’s significant to note that although good friends and in-laws, my grandmothers addressed each other as “Signora” their entire lives).
Southern Italians take their tomato sauce very seriously. My mother strictly forbade me to ever share my family’s recipe (as if anyone needs a recipe based on 50 pounds of tomatoes – I’ve included a more practical, small batch recipe at the end of this post). For Italian immigrants, the sauce was not only a pantry staple, but a way of preserving their identity in this strange new world. My dad, who immigrated to the United States with his mother, father and younger brother in September 1966, told me that prior to his family’s arrival, his aunt, Zia Assunta, made extra sauce for them since tomatoes would be out of season by the time their ship came in. Two beds, a couch, a small table and chairs, a few pots and pans and 100 jars of tomato sauce – those were the contents of their first American home.
Every August, in Queens, New York, you can spot throngs of Italians crowded in front of their neighborhood garden centers as they anxiously await the arrival of the tomato delivery truck from local New Jersey farms. Many swear it will be their last year of fare i pomodori – it’s too much work, our kids don’t help, our “American” friends expect us to give jars away – BASTA. These are the usual complaints, but lo and behold, these lamenters’ garages fill up with wooden crates of tomatoes the following August. It is said that the world would be populated with only children if mothers remembered every detail of the birth of their firstborn. Well, it’s the same with making tomato sauce – you willingly forget the back-breaking work while you enjoy the fruits of your labor all year long.
When I was a kid, I had a T-shirt that said, “Siamo tutti pazzi…are you pazzo too?” (“We’re all crazy…are you crazy too?”). I have a memory of passing an elderly man standing over blankets covered with tomatoes on a sweltering August day in my mom’s hometown of Caltabellotta, Sicily. He read my shirt, laughed, and pointing to the tomatoes, said, “Si, siamo tutti pazzi…guarda stu’ casino!” – “Yes, we’re all crazy. Look at this madness!”
Last year, a friend who cans tomatoes with her grandmother told me I was crazy when she learned I had ramped up my usual production in order to offer jars to my catering clients. I guess I am a little crazy, as is she – anyone who throws their lives into this back-breaking upheaval is indeed a little crazy during those few days or weeks. However, it’s a matter of legacy and if we don’t preserve it, something immeasurably more precious than jars of tomato sauce will be lost. So to all of you unsung artisans who have continued this crazy/beautiful tradition of fare i pomodori – EVVIVA!!
Here are a few ways in which Italians can tomatoes:
Salsa Pronta – This is what I do. It’s a finished tomato sauce that has been slow-cooked with onions, garlic, sea salt, olive oil and basil. Simply open, heat and dress your pasta. I also use it as a base for quick tomato-based broths, soups and stews and on pizza. Most Italians prepare passata or pelati (see below), but “salsa pronta” has always been a tradition in my mom’s family and as a result, I’ve never (voluntarily) eaten store-bought tomato sauce.
Passata di pomodoro – The most common canned tomato preparation is passata, a quickly cooked tomato puree that is strained of seeds and skins and then jarred for later use. Unlike salsa pronta, passata is typically unseasoned or minimally seasoned with a bit of salt and basil. The onions, garlic or other seasonings are added later, when you prepare a finished sauce using the passata as a base.
Pomodori Pelati – Similar to passata in that the tomatoes are quickly blanched, pomodori pelati are whole, peeled tomatoes that are canned or jarred. This is what you typically find in supermarkets here in the US, the best of which are imported San Marzano tomatoes from the region of Campania. In addition to salsa pronta, my family also jars “pelati” for use in various pasta sauces, soups and stews.
Salsa di Pomodoro Fresco (Small Batch)
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©
- 3 pounds ripe plum tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 8 whole fresh basil leaves
- Sea salt, to taste
Using the point of a paring knife, cut out and discard the stem bases of the tomatoes and then lightly cut X-shapes on the tomatoes’ opposite ends.
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the skins appear to be breaking. With a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to a colander and briefly run cold water over them.
Position a food mill over a large bowl and pass the tomatoes through the food mill to “weed out” the skins and seeds. Reserve the pulp and juices of the tomatoes and discard the skins and seeds. (If you don’t have a food mill, remove the skins and seeds by hand. Crush the tomatoes by hand for a slightly chunkier consistency, or in a food processor for a smoother sauce).
In a nonreactive saucepan, lightly sauté the onion in two tablespoons of the olive oil over medium low heat, stirring often (be careful not to burn them). When the onions are soft and golden, add the minced garlic and sauté for one minute, until almost golden. Add the reserved tomato pulp and juices along with the basil and raise the heat until the tomatoes reach a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and salt to taste and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Adjust the seasonings and serve with your favorite pasta shape. Any unused sauce may be stored in a vacuum-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 7 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.