Tomato Crazy

Tomato Crazy


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.


Farm-fresh New Jersey plum tomatoes

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).


The Ferrari of “passa pomodoro” machines

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.

Cases of Jars

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.

Tomato Crate

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!”


The machine is like a gargantuan, motorized food mill that separates the tomatoes’ pulp and juices from their skins and seeds.

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 pomodoriEVVIVA!!

So far, I’ve made 800 jars of this ready-to-use Salsa di Pomodoro Fresco this year which I’m currently labeling and getting ready to deliver/ship (and of course, stocking my pantry).

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.

Buon appetito!

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24 Responses to Tomato Crazy

  1. Ciao Chow Linda September 2, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    Oh, I think this is just a delightful post in many ways. I love that you are preserving your heritage and a tradition that few want to engage in. Whenever you write about your relatives, your writing voice just sings. Those stories are precious. I have a request to make – save a half dozen jars for me. I will buy them from you next time I see you.

    • Majella Home Cooking September 2, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words, Linda. I recently found an old law school textbook that had little notes with family anecdotes scrawled on the back cover. Guess I knew even back then that I’d somehow find my way back. The tomato sauce tradition is one that I both love and loathe – SO much work but well worth the effort. And I’ll happily put a few jars aside for you!

  2. Adri September 2, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    Well you’ve been busy with those tomatoes. I remember doing it one year by myself. This is surely a job to be shared with friends and loved ones. I began work at 9:00 AM, and at midnight I said, what else, Basta!, followed by lots of expletives. However I was on a roll, and there was no way I was stopping.

    It was so rewarding though, to open my pantry in the dead of winter, or as dead as winter ever got in Santa Monica, and see the jewels of my late summer travails. The gleaming jars full of the glorious red of summer garden made me forget all the work. I can laugh about that solo excursion now, but my kitchen was as steamy as could be. Even the next day it humid in there.

    Congratulations on a lovingly written post and some darn fine tomato sauce.


    • Majella Home Cooking September 2, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

      Thanks, Adri. I can totally relate and also have a solo tomato sauce adventure that I lived to tell about. Four years ago, I had quite possibly the most chaotic summer of my life. My three boys were all under 4 years old and my parents abandoned me 😉 and went to Italy for a month. I was sleep-deprived and ragged and desperately felt the need to accomplish something for myself. Somehow I came up with the brilliant idea to purchase a bushel of tomatoes and tackle tomato sauce with three babies toddling around me. I kept calling my parents over Skype to ask them what to do next, but I got it done and felt a great sense of accomplishment.

      I agree…there is nothing like opening up a jar of fresh tomato sauce on a wintry night. And the fact that the recipe and tradition is that of my grandmother and her mother makes the sauce even sweeter. Thanks for your kind words! A presto, Michelle

  3. Louisa @ My Family & Abruzzo September 3, 2013 at 2:48 am #

    I should think it is kind of maddening and I can well imagine you would be stirring in your sleep, but how utterly wonderful too!

    • Majella Home Cooking September 3, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

      So wonderful, Louisa, and all the more so when it’s over and done with! 😉

  4. Helen September 3, 2013 at 7:39 am #

    I got a little choked up reading this post. I shared this with my brother who farms. He recalled selling his roma tomatoes to Mrs. Ferelli each August at the asking price of $5 a bushel. She always talked him down to $2. He also was sad this morning because he made a lousy sauce yesterday and my sisters gave him grief. There is no particular point here.
    I salute you for carrying on the crazy.

  5. Helen Free September 3, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    I got a little choked up reading this. I shared it with my brother who farms. He recalled a Mrs. Ferrelli who every mid August bought a bushel of romas. His price was $5 a bushel, but she always talked him down to $2.
    I salute your crazy.

    • Majella Home Cooking September 3, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

      Thanks, Helen. I’m sure Mrs. Ferrelli drove a hard bargain. She sounds like my grandmother who is suffering from Parkinson’s and pretty much bedridden. The greatest gratification for me was her seal of approval for the tomato sauce last week. Worth the crazy.

  6. mltucker September 3, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    Wonderful! I look forward to more ricette con sugo di pomodoro!

    Reading this put me in mind of the opening scenes of the movie “Looking for Alibrandi”, a coming of age story about an Aussie – Sicilian girl. Let’s just say she has to learn to embrace her culture. A little sentimental but I enjoyed it.

    • Majella Home Cooking September 3, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

      Lou, this movie looks like so much fun! I hope I can find it here. Grazie mille! Un abbraccio forte.

      • mltucker September 3, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

        Actually, it looked like the whole thing was on YouTube. You get to hear Anthony LaPaglia with his true Aussie accent!

  7. Anna Lannutti Kristman-Serpe September 3, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Michelle, thank you for sharing these wonderful tips!!!! WE are so lucky to have this tradition and the best part we get to enjoy the finished product. Ciao, Ciao

  8. Phyllis @ Oracibo September 3, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

    Not being of Italian heritage, I don’t have the tradition to make the sauce…however…I may just take it on, especially if I had “the machine”! Today is green tomato relish day in our house along with a large batch of tomato fresh sage sauce to stash in the freezer. I am tomato crazy to none of what your are doing seems crazy to me! OK maybe the quantities! Whenever I am doing canning of any kind I always remember my parents and all the stuff the “put up” for winter, including canned tomatoes. Ahh the memories…here’s a link to a blog I did about some of my childhood food memories.
    Thanks for helping me to remember!

  9. Bruno September 3, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    I m a son of Italian immigrants her in Montreal. Glad to know that my parents are not the only one who curse and bitch that its the last year they do tomato sauce. They have been saying it for the last 25 years!

    • Majella Home Cooking September 3, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

      Welcome, Bruno! I can assure you that they are not the only ones. It seems to be as integral to the tradition as the stirring of the sauce!

  10. Domenica Marchetti September 3, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    This made me laugh so much Michelle. I don’t know how you survived 3,500 POUNDS of tomatoes. Oddly, my family never did this crazy ritual. I think it’s because my mom grew up in Chieti, right in the city, though the family had a farm ‘in campagna.’ At any rater, it’s all I can do to put up four pounds without wilting. I just love how your two grandmothers referred to each other as ‘Signora’ throughout their lives. Looking forward to seeing you soon. Un abbraccio.

    • Majella Home Cooking September 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

      Grazie, Domenica. It was an enormous undertaking for sure and quite a rude awakening after a nearly 6-week vacation in Abruzzo! I laugh when I think of my grandmothers. They both lost their husbands when they were in their early 60s so they spent quite a bit of time together, bickering and otherwise! I really need to write more about them. Looking forward to seeing you as well. Un abbraccio, M.

  11. MidLifeMum (@MidLifeMumme) September 4, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    Wow, I am guessing you have lots of windows or a really great air conditioning system? Superb post Michelle, I am sure NY City will be flocking to buy it

  12. frankieandgiuseppe September 10, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Hi there. I admire your dedication 😉 Last year I did the tomato bottling season for the first time after years of living in Italy, and it was surprisingly hard work. The heat, the flies and red dried-out hands were definitely not part of my romantic previous image! Un saluto, Francesca

    • Majella Home Cooking September 17, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

      Benvenuta, Francesca. It is indeed backbreaking work, but absolutely worth the effort. A presto! Michelle

  13. ssilvestori October 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    Remarkably similar process. Here is how we do it here in Italy.

    • Majella Home Cooking October 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

      I can’t begin to tell you how much this video made me smile. Grazie mille! I hope to visit you in Lecce someday. I’ve been to Puglia a few times but never farther south than Ostuni. I’ve wanted to visit the Salento for a long time.

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