Growing up, we always spent one full weekend making gravy (pasta sauce) to last us for the year. My parents and 5 siblings would go to the farm and pick tomatoes, then to our shore house in New Jersey to clean and prep them for cooking and canning.
We cooked the tomatoes on an outdoor brick and metal stove made by my father, which was fueled by wood. We then used a hand cranked tomato machine (like the Roma Food Strainer and Sauce Maker) to puree them into a sauce. It was long and exhausting to process the 10 bushels using a manual machine, as well as keep the fire going on the wood burning stove. It would be late into the night before all the jars were done.
It wasn’t until my high school year, working here at Fante’s, when we purchased our first outdoor propane burner to cook on, and motorized the hand crank machine. Later, as I and my two sisters married, and the quantity of gravy we made tripled, did we invest in a large electric tomato machine. It’s almost 20 years old and has made the process much easier – and faster as well! However, it may be time to purchase a second burner and pot, as our families continue to grow.
This year was the largest amount we’ve made yet, as my newly married brother Larry and his wife, Heather, joined the event this year, which brought our total number of bushels to 30 (6 bushels per family x 5 families). Luckily, we don’t have to pick the tomatoes ourselves, as most of the farms no longer permit it; we just need to pre-order a few days ahead.
How long would you say it takes to process that many tomatoes? In years past, we would start at 6 am, and finish late into the night over a two day weekend. As we now all have busy schedules with vacations and kids’ activities, we spread this year’s process out over 4 days. Each family takes turns doing the work over more reasonable hours. We now start at about 9 am and finish by 6 pm, under the shade of our parents’ porch.
Making The Gravy
Pre-order the bushels of tomatoes from your farm of choice. This usually takes a few days before they’re ready for pickup. The farm we get ours’ from is the Martin J. Catalano Farm, 440 Auburn Road, Pilesgrove, NJ 08098.
Pick up bushels of tomatoes. Here’s where your pick up truck comes in handy!
Wash tomatoes in a tub of water to remove any dirt and stems. We usually do this the day before we start cooking.
Cut with a knife and squeeze some of the seeds out. This will keep them from exploding during cooking.
Add water to the pot and bring to a boil
Add tomatoes and cook until soft, about 20-30 minutes. Our pot holds about 3 bushels. Relax in the shade with a beverage while they cook.
Once soft, scoop out tomatoes with a large saucepan into colanders to drain. Or if you’re working with a big batch like us, you can make your own draining container by drilling holes into the side of a large plastic container and tilt on an angle to drain (careful, it’s hot!).
While these are draining, continue to cook another batch of tomatoes (we do another 3 bushels).
Process cooked tomatoes through a tomato machine, passing the skins through a couple times to get every last bit of flesh out.
Once the tomatoes are processed, mix batches of sauce for a more even consistency. Add salt and stir.
Place a couple fresh basil leaves in the bottom of each jar, fill with sauce and top with another basil leaf.
Wipe any sauce from the rims of jars, place lid on top and screw on bands. Place the jars in a pot of water, bring to a boil, and let them process for 30 minutes.
Remove jars from the pot after 30 minutes, place on a blanket and cover.
Continue processing the remaining jars in the same manner. I yielded 44 quart size jars and 1 pint with my 6 bushels of tomatoes – enough to last our family until next summer’s 6 bushels!