Tag Archive | "Tomato Sauce"

(Great) Grandparents, Crab Pasta, and The Guy Who Used to Sell Seafood from an Ice Cream Truck

(Great) Grandparents, Crab Pasta, and The Guy Who Used to Sell Seafood from an Ice Cream Truck


My grandparents bring a certain magic with them wherever they go. It’s the kind of magic that comes with 85 years of living, an impeccable memory, and so many stories to tell that they jump at you before they can even walk through the door. One minute you’re talking about traffic on the Verrazano bridge, the next they’re telling you about the year it was completed, how they were still living uptown across the street from the Knickerbocker Brewery, my grandmother practicing English with her upstairs neighbor so she could help my dad with his homework. Lately, I just want to sit with them and soak up everything. They have so much in them—stories, skills, recipes, everything—that I often panic at the thought of letting that all slip away, undocumented and one day gone. And I don’t care how many times they tell the same story, because a new detail is revealed with each telling.

Such is the case with pasta and crabs. We’ve heard my grandmother tell a story about bringing blue crabs home one night and leaving them in the kitchen to cook the next day. The story goes that they woke up the next morning, and the crabs were all over the kitchen, climbing the walls, on top of the refrigerator, in the bathroom. My grandfather spent the morning chasing them down with gloves and tongs, everyone laughing and screaming and forgetting what they were going to do with them in the first place.

That’s the most we’d heard of the crab story, until last weekend. By an unexpected twist of fate, our whole family was in NJ for the day. Husband Joe (Joe S.) and Brother Joe (Joe G.) were scheming a crab bisque recipe first thing Sunday morning when our grandparents appeared on the front porch for a surprise visit.

After much excitement and cuddling between Nonna and my niece Sofia (they’re overwhelmed with joy at being great-grandparents), Joe S. and Joe G. unveiled the crab bisque plans. Never mind the fact that they don’t know what a bisque is. Talk of crab immediately evoked the “runaway crabs in the kitchen” story. Only this time, we got two new, crucial details:

When Nonno finally pulled the crabs off the walls, they made a pasta sauce with them.


They got the crabs from the guy who drove around Brooklyn selling local seafood from a truck. Like the ice cream man, only with crabs, clams, oysters, and other Godly creations. Can you imagine? Talk about a Brooklyn that is no more…

With the story in full force, we had to make the crab pasta sauce. Bisque Schmisque. We had Nonna right here, eager to revive a dish she hadn’t made in decades. Bisque who? And what perfect timing—we got to use our homemade sauce! Here’s the recipe, straight from Nonna, with a little help from the Joes. I stood back and discussed the philosophy of life with Sofia, who, at three months old, is quite wise. I did break for photo ops, of course.

Spaghetti with Crab Tomato Sauce
1 dozen blue crabs
¼ cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large white onion, sliced into moons
salt and pepper to taste
1 32-ounce jar tomato puree
dried or fresh oregano to taste
dried or fresh basil to taste
1 pound spaghetti

First, wash the crabs. If they’re still alive and kicking, submerge them in ice water. The ice will sedate them so you can handle them without losing a finger. Leave the crabs whole and scrub off any visible dirt. A few rounds of rinsing will get rid of any hidden gunk.

While the crabs are soaking, prepare your sauce.Coat the bottom of a very large pot (big enough to hold the crabs) with olive oil. Add chopped garlic and sliced onions. Season with salt and pepper.  When the onions begin to soften, stir in the tomato puree. Season with oregano, basil and more salt and pepper to taste. Leave everything to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the flavors start to combine.

Once the crabs are calm and clean, plop them into the sauce. Be careful! Use tongs to avoid getting splashed with boiling hot sauce. At this point, Joe G. covered the pot and shook it to coat the crabs in sauce. You can do that, or just mix them with a giant wooden spoon.

Now just leave the pot to boil so the crab flavor blends with the sauce, about 30 minutes, on low to medium heat. When the sauce is about done, cook the spaghetti. I’ll spare you these steps if you already know how. If you’re still working on your pasta-cooking skills, try these great instructions. Remove the crabs from the pot and toss the spaghetti with half of the sauce. Use the remaining sauce to top each plate of pasta before serving. We ate the crabs separately, which was fun for about five minutes. In truth, eating whole crabs covered in tomato sauce is messy and annoying. I’m sure kids would love the opportunity to coat themselves in sauce, but we boring adults gave up pretty quickly. The rest of the dish was worth every trouble, though. Especially when eaten in a houseful of family.

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Bigger than Christmas: The Lost Art of Jarring Tomato Sauce

Bigger than Christmas: The Lost Art of Jarring Tomato Sauce

This is it, guys. Arguably the biggest day of the year in our family (or at least, it used to be). It’s Saturday in late August. Earlier in the week, Dad packed the station wagon with bushels of plum tomatoes from Brooklyn. Blankets were outstretched on the basement floor. The bushels were let loose and every walkable space was covered in red in anticipation of the weekend. On Saturday, no one rests. We kids start sorting through the tomato stash in the early morning, picking out the bad ones. Our parents prep the giant food mill, making sure everything is clean and ready. Mom and Dad are eager to get started so we’re not stuck working into the night. My brothers and I (or maybe just me) are fidgety, wondering how soon we can escape upstairs into the air conditioning. Breakfast is fast, conversation is tense, and moods are unpredictable.

That was the start of our typical sauce-making days growing up. As I’ve mentioned, my feelings for this epic family event have been mixed over the years. I’ve been thrilled, embarrassed, lazy, resentful, and regretful, depending on my stage in life. But I’ve finally taken the time to get it right.

I spent last weekend in New Jersey making sauce with my mom. It’s the first time I willfully participated in the ritual. I actually requested we do it. It’s one of those traditions I’m scared will slip away if I don’t take the time to learn. My parents already stopped once we kids moved out. I never truly understood how to do it. So guess what? If I don’t pay attention, learn, and remember, that will be it. Done with me.

My family gets bushels of plum tomatoes from our Brooklyn grocer available between mid August and early September. Depending on where you are, the availability window may shift by a few weeks. Call your local farm, grocer, or supermarket to find out when bushels are available in your area.

Before you commit, understand this: It’s hard work. You will inevitably look at the ocean of red sprawled out before you and wonder why the %#$! you signed up for this. Don’t worry. Power through. It will be worth it. We only made three bushels this year and they still felt infinite. Growing up, we made 10 to 15 bushels at a time.

Once you’ve mentally prepared for back-breaking work, get to it. Get your bushels a few days in advance so they can ripen if needed. Unless you have organic, plant-ripened tomatoes, they’ll need time to fully ripen. We lay them on a sheet on the floor and leave them for about three days. When the big day comes, get on the floor and start picking out the bad guys. Start early in the morning and move fast. Set aside any tomatoes with mold spots, bruises, or green patches. You can still use them, but you’ll have to cut off the bad areas before you do.

Working in manageable batches, wash the tomatoes.

Prepare your mason jars by sterilizing them in a dishwasher. If you don’t have a dishwasher, try this method of stove top sterilizing.

The next stage is where the disagreements will set in (if they haven’t already). Different families, generations, and know-it-alls will argue over the best approach at this point. We’ve done it two ways:

1. Boil batches of whole tomatoes until they split open. Once split, remove them from the heat and run them through your food strainer.


2. First quarter each tomato, removing dark seeds, green spots, or anything that doesn’t look great. Boil the cut tomatoes until they’re soft, then run through the food strainer. This extra step takes hours, and some people (like my grandfather) argue that it’s unnecessary. But some people (like my mother) insist it’s necessary if your bushels had a lot of bad tomatoes. Any bad spots, mold, etc., can turn the sauce sour, so she advises taking extra care to remove unwanted spots.

Whatever method you use, if you want a thicker sauce, use a slotted spoon to transfer tomatoes to the strainer to remove excess water. You can even bypass the straining altogether and jar the tomatoes whole. Just boil and put them in jars. Chop or strain them in a little food mill when you’re ready to use them.

Straining is the only stage during which we really had a problem. In the past, we’d always used a heavy-duty mill, like this one. This year, we realized too late that it was broken. Being the resourceful ladies that we are, we didn’t let that stop us. We just used the next best thing: a hand-held food mill. It was fine. Just, er, a little slow.

But hey, we got through it. Once you finish your straining stage, drop a few fresh basil leaves in each sterilized jar and fill them with sauce (or whole tomatoes, if you skipped the straining). Be careful! The jar’s rim needs to be completely clean to get a good seal; be sure to wipe away any sauce splashes. Cover and screw on the lids.

Using a canning rack and a giant pot, place the jars in water and bring to a boil. Let boil for about 20 minutes to seal the lids. Be careful again! Let the jars cool in the pot until they’re comfortable to touch. This means you’ll need more than one pot to keep the process moving quickly.

Store the jars in a cool, dry place. Be sure to mortify your adolescent children by lining your cupboards with tomato jars. They’ll last a good year, and probably more.

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Tomato Time Machine

Tomato Time Machine


We grew up on a lot of tomato sauce. Our basement cupboards housed rows and rows of jars that we canned every August to last for the year. My feelings toward the annual sauce-making weekend have taken a few turns throughout my life. The spectrum ranges from ecstatic to bored, embarrassed to hopeful. I’m teetering on hopeful now—that is, hopeful my parents will do it this year so I can pay attention for once.

I was around 3 years old the first time I helped. We lived in Brooklyn and I found my mom in the basement surrounded by bushels of plum tomatoes. It looked like mountains of red surrounding my little four-foot-ten mama—so many tomatoes that she actually agreed to let me help. She set me on the floor with a butter knife and a bowl, and I spent the day (or maybe 10 minutes—time moves so slowly when you’re 3) cutting tomatoes in half for the strainer. I remember it being hard work and envying the knife my older brother was using. I swore I could get more done with a real knife…and well, I had a point. But the thrill of being given an honest-to-God job was enough to keep me going.

I spent a few years ignoring the whole production, staying upstairs in the air conditioning while my parents sweated through the year’s batch. When adolescence hit I was mortified by the ordeal. I couldn’t believe my parents could be so old-fashioned, so out of touch with the fact that you could actually buy the stuff already made. Already seasoned, even! I remember cringing when a friend opened the cupboard looking for a water glass and discovered the stash.

Now I’m making up for lost time. My parents haven’t made sauce in a few years since they’re no longer feeding a houseful of kids. I have no idea how to do it. I’m starting to panic. I let the tradition pass me by without a care and now I have to convince them to bring it back. But we’ve set aside a weekend in August to make a few jars so I’m hopeful.

In anticipation of the comeback, I’ve been remembering my favorite sauce dishes growing up. We made the usual classics: pastas, pots of meatballs, stews, etc. One dish in particular, though, only emerged at my grandmother’s house: Tomato sauce with eggs. It was a weekday lunch more than anything—something you threw together for one or two people with a stale hunk of bread. This was a staple for my mom and her family in Sicily since they had easy access to tomatoes and eggs on the farm. And it’s one of the first things I learned to cook once I mastered the fine art of cracking an egg.

I hadn’t eaten sauce and eggs in a good 19 years—since my grandmother passed away—so I revived it for dinner this weekend. It’s amazing how smells and flavors can bring you back, even more than a song. I’d forgotten what it was like to sit at my Nonna Rosalia’s kitchen table until I made this. It got me thinking about the Last Supper painting that hung on the wall above her table; how she owned a tiny frying pan small enough for one egg; the way she always rubbed her hands together; the house coats she wore with the little blue flowers; that dish of Sicilian hard candies she kept in the closet; the can of concentrated lemonade in her freezer I never once saw her use.

I wasn’t expecting such a rush; I hadn’t realized how much I’d forgotten and how many memories were buried, just waiting for a reason to resurface. And so, this tomato-egg comeback is back in the rotation, with all its welcomed ghosts.

This dish is so easy, you’ll never need to consult a recipe after making it once:

Coat a frying pay with olive oil. Throw in some chopped garlic and onions.

Pour in a can or jar of crushed tomatoes (however much you want) once the onions and garlic begin to soften.

Season the tomatoes with basil, oregano, salt, and pepper to taste. You can add more olive oil if you’re so inclined.

When you get the sauce to your liking, crack an egg or two into the pan and immediately stir to break the yolk. You have to act fast to keep the egg from cooking into clumps rather than blending into the sauce.

Serve it with a plain loaf of Semolina bread or a baguette. We ate it with garlic bread but decided it’s better without any other flavors competing for attention. It’s also good straight-up, with a spoon.

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