The tomatoes here in New Jersey are better than they’ve been in years. I’m getting 5 pounds of firm and beautiful organic beefsteaks this year with my CSA share instead of the measly ½ pound like last year. I guess the lack of rain and abundance of sun (which has left my front yard a burnt out mess,) has actually helped the farmers with this year’s growing season. At any rate, this summer our tomato sauce-making traditions are in full swing and better than ever.
I had the pleasure of visiting my friend Lou Saturday morning, during his sauce-making extravaganza. I thought the 20 quarts that Debbie and I usually cranked out together was a lot until I saw Lou in action, topping off more than 80 quarts. Lou usually has his good friend along to help him out, but this year he was fishing in Alaska so Lou set up shop with his lovely wife, Susan, and I luckily managed an invite. (BTW — his “shop” is quite an efficient makeshift arrangement in his garage.)
Susan told me that this sauce-making tradition began years ago when their kids were little. They used to use a hand held press (like the one I use) and made it a family affair, with the kids getting messy and taking turns with the crank, just like Debbie and I do today with our kids. But over the years, Lou got more serious, acquired a professional series press with a motor and turned his sauce-making into an art form.
I had fully intended to show up Saturday morning anyway, but when a text showed up at 10:00 am on my phone with a snapshot of several quarts of sauce garnished with basil, I knew I had to hurry! Even though my husband and I were in the midst of a romantic staycation, sans the kids, he understood I couldn’t miss a food opportunity like this. When food calls (or rather when Lou calls), I tend to run, regardless of what I’m doing.
His garage was an expertly organized assembly line. I was greeted by dozens of still-ripening plum tomatoes laid out on a blanket, waiting for their turn through the press. I learned that Lou travels a few hours upstate to purchase 150 pounds of perfect tomatoes for 50 cents a pound. Just to compare, they’re $1.99 a pound at one of our local farm stands.
Inside the garage, Lou had several tables lined up, with a station at each. There was a long table to cut the plum tomatoes (a must have step to get rid of any excess liquid for a thick sauce) with a nice sharp knife and a cardboard box to place them in; a large gas powered steamer (the kind used for lobster) positioned next to the table, where the tomatoes would take a fifteen minute steam bath. Next to that was an industrial sized stainless steel tray, to drain and cool the cooked tomatoes; and finally there was a motorized pulverizer, which discarded the skins and seeds, while emptying a beautiful thick sauce into a pristine garbage can (which I was assured had never been used for garbage). Across the way was the packing up station, with quart sized containers and a wash bin of basil.
It was an impressive set up. And as Susan took a break to water the garden, I got to help Lou and experience first-hand how seamless and efficient his sauce-making system really is. I have to admit, even though I have my own tradition, I was a bit jealous that I didn’t have my own tomatoes. And as usual, when I’m with Lou I am both inspired and humbled by his proficiency. I always learn something too. This time, as I filled the containers with sauce and placed the lids, Lou taught me how to “burp” his sauce to remove any air, just as one would a baby. He pointed out that if the lid swells upward, you need to lift an edge, to give it a gentle burp to remove the air.
There is tremendous power in moments like these. I’ll never again be able to fill my containers with sauce without burping and will always think of Lou. My hour in Lou’s garage was a tease, as was the souvenir quart I got to take home. Next year I want in for sure! I just hope his friend will take another trip to Alaska.