Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Eve Dinner

I was pretty much raised Italian (even though technically I'm only half) and that meant no meat on Friday's during Lent and fish on Christmas Eve. We never got too fancy with it, maybe we'd have lobster or stuffed clams along with a nice linguine and shrimp dish that my mother had perfected over the years. Three years ago I volunteered to host Christmas Eve at my house so my mother would have a little less to do around the holidays. I knew I wanted to keep the fish tradition going, and had heard quite a bit about the "Feast of the Seven Fishes" that some Italian families partake in, so I decided to give it a go.

A little research revealed that nobody is quite sure why seven fishes is the number, and in some parts of Italy, it's actually nine or eleven or thirteen. The common theme though is fish, and one type that I kept reading about was salt cod, or baccala, although the other six types seemed to vary quite a bit. I love fish, especially in sushi form, but for a number of reasons I don't buy it and cook it very often. Consequently, I'm not super confident when it comes to preparing fish. Not wanting to jump in over my head, I started out three years ago with four fish dishes and upped it to five last year. This year I felt I was ready for seven.

I planned out my menu, which would include seven fishes (scallops, cod, tuna, pollock, sole, shrimp, and crab) spread out through an appetizer and five subsequent courses. I planned on starting appetizers at 7:30, serving the first course at 8:00 and another course every 25 minutes after, finishing around 10. I prepped everything that I could in advance (with a substantial amount of help from my father), and made a timeline that ran from 7:30 to 10:00 so I would know when to preheat ovens, start warming soup, boil water for pasta, start a sauce, etc. The dinner was quite a success, and all the dishes were pretty good to great.

Here's how it went...

The appetizer course was scallop and cod ceviche served with sliced avocado and tortilla. I didn't really want to do shrimp cocktail again because I'd already done it the previous two years and I find it to be a little boring. I had seen ceviche many times on various cooking shows, and decided to give it a try. Ceviche is small pieces of fish marinated in lemon or lime juice. The acid in the juice denatures the proteins in the fish, essentially cooking them without heat. I chose this recipe from the Simply Recipes blog and was quite impressed with the results.

The first course was sesame seared tuna, which my mother and brother really love (as well as myself). The preparation is very simple, as the tuna is rubbed with a little oil, salt, and pepper, then pressed into some toasted sesame seeds. It is placed in a hot pan and cooked for about 2 minutes, then flipped and cooked for about 2 more minutes. The resulting fish nicely seared on the outside, and still cool on the inside. Delicious. High quality tuna is a must for this dish, and I used a recipe from America's Test Kitchen.

The second course was a salt cod cake. This year I went non-traditional and actually used salted pollock instead of cod, and there was no noticeable difference in the result. The recipe comes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, and combines the fish with mashed potato, egg, and bread crumb and formed into little cakes. The recipe has you pan fry the cakes in a oil, butter, or bacon grease, but this year I deep fried them in canola oil which resulted in a much nicer and more uniform golden brown crust. I actually fried these up in the early afternoon, and reheated them just before serving. The real key to this dish was a delicious condiment called remoulade - I used an excellent recipe from Emeril.

The third course was a simple fish stew which was really easy to make and very very good. This is another recipe that came from the Simply Recipes blog. I used cod and sole for the fish. I made the stew in the early afternoon and let it sit all day for the flavors to blend, then reheated it before serving.

The fourth course was penne all vodka with shrimp. This is a slightly modified version of a recipe from the Sopranos Family Cookbook. This is a can't miss recipe. The sauce takes as long to cook as it does to cook the penne, and then you just toss it together and serve. Everybody loves this dish. My slight changes are no prosciutto (wife doesn't do pork), and the addition of a half a pound of shrimp sliced in half lenghtwise (so they curl up), which I add along with the vodka. If you're not much of a cook, but your having somebody over for dinner, make this.

The fifth course was a seafood gratin from Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa). The past 2 years I had made a modified version of Jamie Oliver's Prawn and Pea Risotto with Basil and Mint for the final course, last year even perfecting a method of partially pre-cooking the risotto so I wouldn't have to make the whole thing in between courses. This year I wanted to do something different (and less filling) for my final course. While randomly flipping through the channels a few weeks ago, I landed on the Food Network and Ina was already well into this recipe. I saw her pour a creamy, golden sauce over some combination of seafood and top that with sauteed leeks and carrots, then seasoned, buttered panko crumbs. Then she baked the whole thing. I'd found my final course. The recipe was a bit complex, as you need to make the sauce, cook the fish in it, remove the fish, reduce the sauce, sautee the veggies, put it all together and bake it. This recipe is not a cheap one to make either, as the golden color of the sauce comes from saffron, the world's most expensive spice, and aforementioned "combination of seafood" turned out to be shrimp, lobster, and halibut (I used shrimp, cod, and lump crab meat). I was able to put this dish together in the afternoon, and all I had to do was top it with the breadcrumbs and bake it about a half and hour before serving. Despite the effort and cost, the result was worth it - a sumptuously rich combination of flavors and textures, and a delicious final course.

And for dessert a delicous cookie tray put together by my mother, who makes some of the best cookies (pies, cakes, etc...) that I have ever tasted. All in all, a perfect Christmas Eve dinner.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Even though things have been a little slow here at The Teacher Learns to Cook, I'd be remiss if I did not acknowledge the most foodie-centric holiday of them all, Thanksgiving. Suffice to say, I love Thanksgiving. It is far and away my favorite holiday and I look forward to it all year. The Thanksgiving leftover sandwich...now that's what I'm talking about.

So if you're cooking today, good luck with everything. I'm still heading to my mom's because she is an amazing cook and an even better baker (I think there's a pumpkin cheesecake on tap along with the mandatory apple and pumpkin pie). My contribution will be some delicious multigrain dinner rolls courtesy of Cook's Illustrated. If you're feeling stressed, at least you're not cooking for 5,000 like The Band decided to do 32 years ago today for their farewell concert "The Last Waltz."

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Portobello "Steak" and Cheese Sandwiches

A few weeks ago a friend of mine was coming over for dinner. When I asked him what he would like, he thought that some type of sandwich would be good. I am up for sandwiches anytime, so I immediately liked the idea. Possibilities began flying through my mind and I began to crave steak and cheese with sauteed peppers and onions (commonly called a "cheesesteak"). The only problem here is that my wife doesn't eat beef, so I would either have to make some chicken as well or convince her to settle for a pepper and onion sandwich. I also remembered that this particular friend is trying to cut down his red meat consumption, so he might not want steak and cheese. As I mentioned these things to him, he reminded me about a portobello mushroom sandwich I had made one time in the past, which was basically a grilled portobello cap with some balsamic vinegar and mozzarella cheese on a nice roll, and the wheels started to turn in my mind. I figured I could replace the steak with thick slices of sauteed portobello mushroom, keep everything else the same, and make everybody happy (except possibly myself). The sandwich would be healthier for certain, and eventhough I was a little skeptical that it would satisfy my craving, I enthusiastically went forward.

I had recently made an Italian bread recipe that was absolutely incredible, and I figured it would make equally incredible sub rolls. Luckily I had the day off from school in observance of Yom Kippur, which gave me some extra time for a little baking (okay, a lot of baking, some sourdough loaves, multigrain bread, and a quadruple batch of brownies in addition to my sub rolls, which are across the bottom of the rack in the picture).

So basically all I did was slice up a few peppers and onions, then saute them in a little oil over pretty high heat until the onions were soft and browned a little bit. Then I sauteed the sliced portobellos until they were tender. I put the veggies in a baking dish and covered it with foil until I was ready to make the sandwiches. In the meantime, I made some oven fries. When I was ready to make the sandwiches, I just heated a nonstick pan, put down some mushrooms, covered them with a generous portion of peppers and onions, and topped that with some provolone cheese. When the cheese melted, I slid the pile of veggies onto a roll, spread a little mayo on the top, and that was it.

The result? An incredibly good veggie version of a steak and cheese sandwich. I was extremely satisfied. The melted cheese mixes with the mayo and juices from the vegetables which begin to soak into the bread creating one of those whole is greater than the sum of the parts experiences. I honestly did not miss the steak at all. I will definitely be making these sandwiches again.

Portobello "Steak" and Cheese Sandwiches
About 30 minutes - Serves 4

It's my belief that your sandwich is only as good as the bread you put it on, so don't skimp on the rolls. If you're not into baking your own, make sure you get some rolls from a bakery or a good deli that makes their own.

Saute the mushrooms, peppers, and onions in advance and you can then put these sandwiches together in about 5 minutes whenever you're ready to eat.

I love mayo and provolone, but if you don't like one or either of these, of course feel free to substitute cheeses and condiments as you like.
  • 24 ounces of portobello musroom caps (about 10 caps), sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 onions, sliced thin
  • 2 green peppers, cored, seeded and sliced into thin strips
  • 8 slices of provolone cheese
  • Mayonaise
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 sub rolls
  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until the oil starts to shimmer
  2. Saute the onions and peppers, tossing occasionally, until they have softened considerably and the onions start to brown, approximately 6 to 10 minutes, remove them from the pan to a dish and cover
  3. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan, add the mushrooms and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then saute the mushroom slices, tossing occasionally until they become tender, about 5 minutes, remove them from the pan to the dish with the onions and peppers and cover until you are ready to make the sandwiches
  4. When you're ready to make the sandwiches, slice your rolls and spread mayonaise on both sides (as little or as much as you like) and heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat
  5. Place 1/4 of the portobellas in the pan, top with 1/4 of the peppers and onions, salt and pepper to taste, and top all the veggies with 2 slices of provolone cheese
  6. When the cheese melts, use a large spatula to transfer everything to a roll
  7. Repeat with the rest of the ingredients to make 3 more sandwiches

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chick Pea and Artichoke Heart Stew

Since school started my weekday cooking time has been severely cut down. To compensate, I've been making a double recipe of a different soup or stew every weekend since the beginning of September. The soup gets better and better as the week goes on, and I don't have to worry about cooking dinner when I get home from cross country practice. A nice bowl of soup with a few slices of bread makes a perfect weeknight meal with very little clean up, which is key when the kids need baths, stories, etc...

Chick Pea and Artichoke Heart Stew is one of my (and my wife's) favorites. This is another one of those recipes that was passed my way by my friend John, who got it from the Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home cookbook. Brimming with chick peas, chunks of potato, and artichoke hearts, this is definitely hearty enough to make a meal. Turmeric gives it a wonderful golden color, and combined with sweet paprika, a deep, earthy taste. A sprig of fresh rosemary and some fresh sage round out the aroma of this stew quite nicely. It's actually quick enough to make on a weeknight, as it only takes about 30 minutes from start to finish, but as with most soups and stews, if you take the time to make it ahead, the flavors have time to meld so the soup tastes even better when reheated. I suggest doubling the recipe so you have plenty of leftovers.

The recipe calls for water or stock, but I prefer the extra flavor you get when you start with stock. I'll still use store bought stock in a pinch, but when I have the time, I like to make my own. There are many advantages to doing this. Here's three: First, it's cheaper than buying ready made, second, you can control the amount of salt (since most prepared stock is absolutely loaded with sodium, even the low sodium varieties), and third, it tastes significantly better. What else do you want? I've included a recipe for a quick vegetable stock that is a slightly modified version of a stock recipe from Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson, creator of the excellent food blog 101 Cookbooks.

Vegetable stock can be complex or relatively simple. Basically all you need is some aromatic vegetables, some fresh herbs, and some water. This stock is at the very simple end of the spectrum. The only required ingredients are onion, garlic, celery, thyme, water, and salt. In this version I've added some fresh parsley and carrot, but they are by no means required. Start by chopping the vegetables into large chunks and heating a small amount of olive oil in a large pot.

Dump all the vegetables in the pot and stir them around. Let them sit for a minute or two and stir them again, keep doing this until the vegetables look like they are starting to soften.

Once the vegetables are starting to soften, let them sit in the pan without stirring them for about 5 minutes or so. The goal here is to develop some brown bits (kind of faux vegetable fond) on the bottom of the pan that you can scrape up when you add the water. These caramelized bits will give the stock a deeper flavor in addition to a darker color. Once you have some nice brown bits, add the water and salt.

Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and simmer for one hour.

Strain the stock, pressing down on the vegetables to extract as much fluid as possible. Since this is a meatless stock the only fat is from the olive oil, so you don't have to do any skimming or other type of fat removal. The stock can be used immediately, stored in the fridge for up to a week, or frozen.


The making of this stew goes quick, so prepping all the ingredients in advance is a good idea. One of the ingredients is pureed squash, and the recipe suggests using a jar of squash baby food which is what I have done every time I have made this recipe. It seems easier to me than cooking and pureeing just 1/2 cup of squash or sweet potato. When you're ready to start, heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until it shimmers, add the onion and garlic and saute until soft.

While the onions and garlic are cooking, bring the water or stock to a simmer. Add the turmeric and paprika to the softened onions.

Add the potatoes, rosemary, sage and then the simmering water or stock.

Bring the stew to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft, about 12 minutes or so. At this point you remove the rosemary sprig, add all the rest of the ingredients (pureed squash, chick peas, artichoke hearts), taste, and season with salt and pepper. Return the soup to a simmer and allow the flavors to mingle for a few minutes and you're done.


Vegetable Stock (adapted from Super Natural Cooking)
About 1 hour and 30 minutes - makes approximately 8 cups
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 large onions, cut into eighths
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 2 ribs of celery, chopped into large pieces
  • 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 8 cups of water
  • 2 teaspoons of table salt (can be reduced or increased to taste)
  • 2 large carrots, chopped into large pieces (optional)
  • a handful of fresh parsley (optional)
  1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat until it shimmers
  2. Add all the vegetables and herbs to the pot and stir
  3. Stir every minute or so until the vegetables start to soften, about 6 minutes total
  4. Let the vegetables sit without stirring until brown bits begin to form on the bottom of the pot, about 5 minutes
  5. Add the water and salt, stir and scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen any brown bits
  6. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer for one hour
  7. Strain the stock pressing down on the vegetables in order to remove as much liquid as possible

Chick Pea and Artichoke Heart Stew (from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home)
About 30 minutes - serves 4 to 6
  • 4 cups water or vegetable stock
  • 2 medium onions, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 4 medium waxy skinned potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 5 leaves fresh sage, minced
  • 4.5 ounce jar pureed squash baby food or 1/2 cup pureed winter squash or sweet potato
  • 3 cups drained cooked chick peas (two 15 ounce cans)
  • 1 1/2 cups drained quartered artichoke hearts (one 14 ounce can)
  • Salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • lemon wedges (optional)
  • grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese (optional)
  1. Bring the water or vegetable stock to a simmer
  2. Saute the onions and garlic in the oil until soft, about 6 to 8 minutes
  3. Stir in the turmeric and paprika, saute for 1 minute
  4. Add the potatoes, rosemary, sage, and water/stock
  5. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender, about 12 minutes
  6. Stir in the pureed squash, add the chick peas and artichoke hearts, remove the rosemary
  7. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  8. Return the stew to a simmer for a few minutes to allow the flavors to meld
  9. Serve with lemon wedges and top with grated cheese if you wish

Saturday, September 6, 2008

100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread

I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch pretty much every day (which I believe I've mentioned before). I prefer the kind of peanut butter with nothing but peanuts on the ingredient list. You know, the stuff that you have to stir the oil back into it when you first open it, which I admit is annoying, but well worth it to me. I also prefer strawberry jelly, but will settle for basically anything except goopy grape, as long as it tastes like fruit rather than sugar. My peanut butter and jelly is pretty much the anti-stereotypical soggy grape jelly white bread version that I saw so many of my peers eating on a daily basis all throughout elementary school. Of course the key to this sandwich, as with any sandwich, is the bread.

I want a bread that is substantial enough to maintain its integrity when peanut butter is spread upon it and won't be a soggy mess if I make it at 5:30 am and eat it at lunch time. I want it to be 100% whole wheat, but I don't want it to be dense and dry like so many whole wheat breads. Lastly, I want to make it myself because I like to know what's going into my food, it's cheaper than buying bread and tastes better, and I just like baking bread.

So after trying a few different recipes, most of which were very good, I've settled on the one on the back of the King Arthur Traditional Whole Wheat Flour bag. It's relatively easy to make, stays nice and fresh all week long, freezes well, and meets all of my other requirements listed above. For the past 5 or so months I've been making 2 loaves of this bread a week and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Oh, and it makes the house smell absolutely incredible while it bakes.

And of course, I just could not resist doing this:


I always double this recipe to make sure I won't run out of bread midweek and have to bake more. Since it freezes so well, I don't have to worry about one loaf going bad. Start by mixing flour, yeast, salt, and non-fat dry milk (which apparently adds vitamins and nutrients, imparts flavor, tenderizes the bread, helps color the crust, AND increases the keeping quality of the bread - wow).

Add honey, vegetable oil (I use canola), and water. Stir until all the flour is hydrated. If you don't feel like stirring, you can have a helper do it for you.

Knead the dough by hand for about 10 minutes until you have a smooth, slightly tacky ball of dough. Or, if you're lazy like me, knead with the dough hook of your mixer for about 5 minutes. You might need to add additional flour at this point if the dough is sticking to the sides/bottom of the bowl. Add just enough so that the flour clears the sides and bottom.

Place the dough into a container that has been lightly sprayed with oil.

Allow the dough to double, which takes about 1 hour.

Dump the dough out onto a cutting board and knead it lightly to degas it. Form the dough into a ball and divide it into two equal pieces.

Spray two 8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch loaf pans lightly with spray oil. Take one of the dough balls and flatten it out into a rectangle.

Form the dough into a loaf by rolling it up, pushing down on the seam with the side of your hand as you go. Fold the ends under the roll, and pinch all the seams closed. The roll in this picture is actually kind of lopsided, it should look much more even.

Place the roll of dough into the pan and lightly press down (it will spring back a bit). Cover the dough with plastic wrap. I've actually been placing the pans in a large plastic bag lately instead of covering them with plastic wrap, and the results have been better for me. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Allow the dough to rise for approximately one hour, or until the dough crests about 1 inch above the top of the pan. Slash the loaves - I like to them with a long straight slash right down the middle. Bake the loaves for 20 minutes, turn them, and bake another 20 minutes. When the loaves are done, remove them from the pans and allow them to cool completely on a rack. If you're not going to use them right away, wrap them well in plastic wrap and freeze them immediately. When you want to use a loaf, just take it out of the freezer a few hours before you want it.


100% Whole Wheat Bread (adapted from King Arthur Traditional Whole Wheat Flour bag)
About 3 hours - makes 2 loaves
  • 8 cups of King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1/2 cup of non-fat dry milk
  • 5 teaspoons of instant yeast
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 2/3 cups of room temperature water
  1. Mix the flour, dry milk, instant yeast, and salt in the work bowl of a standing mixer (or a regular mixing bowl)
  2. Add the oil, honey, and water and stir until all the flour is hydrated
  3. Knead with the dough hook on low speed for 5 minutes (or knead by hand for 10 minutes) until a smooth, slightly tacky ball forms. The dough should clear the sides and bottom of the bowl, add flour to achieve this if necessary.
  4. Place the dough in a bowl sprayed lightly with oil, cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise until doubled, approximately 1 hour
  5. Dump the dough onto a counter and gently knead a few times to degas
  6. Work the dough into a ball and divide it into 2 equal pieces
  7. Spray two 8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch loaf pans with spray oil
  8. Form each dough ball into a loaf and place into pans
  9. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  10. Cover pans with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise until it crests 1 inch above the top of the pan, approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour
  11. Slash the loaves down the middle
  12. Bake on the middle rack for 20 minutes, turn the loaves, and bake another 20 minutes
  13. Remove the loaves from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Caprese Sandwich

I've been waiting all year for fresh local tomatoes so I could enjoy what has become my absolute, number one favorite sandwich, the caprese. Based on the insalata caprese from the Campania region of Italy, the caprese sandwich is the ultimate example of how a few high quality ingredients can be combined simply to make something truly fantastic. All you need to make this amazing sandwich is a good loaf of crusty, chewy Italian style bread, some tomatoes, fresh mozzarella (preferably mozzarella di bufala), fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, and some salt and fresh ground pepper.

The key to this sandwich is making sure that you use the best possible ingredients, and that means waiting all year long until the end of summer when you can get the freshest, most delicious tomatoes at the peak of their season. Don't even think about trying to make this with bland, mealy, refrigerated supermarket tomatoes in the middle of winter, you'll regret it. Plus, that extra long wait makes the sandwich that much more special when you finally do have one, and the good thing is, we are in the peak of the tomato season right now! As soon as you're done reading this, I suggest you go get yourself some. Pair the sandwich with a simple salad and a glass of wine and you've got an amazingly light, refreshing, and incredibly tasty summer meal.

Start with a good loaf of crusty bread, like rustic bread, and cut it in half lengthwise. Ciabatta also works nicely for this sandwich. You don't want to use a narrow loaf here, like a baguette, choose something that is at least 4 to 5 inches wide.

Wash and slice the tomatoes into 1/4 inch thick slices. Slice the mozzarella as well.

Pick some fresh basil leaves off of their stems, rinse and dry them. Get out your best extra virgin olive oil.

Generously drizzle the olive oil over both halves of the bread. Layer the mozzarella slightly overlapping and completely covering one half of the loaf.

Layer the tomatoes over the mozzarella, and sprinkle generously with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Top the tomatoes with a layer of basil leaves.

Top the sandwich with the other half of the bread, slice carefully into pieces, and enjoy!


Caprese Sandwich
15 minutes - Serves 2 to 4 as a meal depending on appetite
  • One large loaf of crusty bread (not baguette, something wider)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • about 4 medium size balls of fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/8 to 1/4 inch slices
  • 2 large, ripe tomatoes (whichever variety you prefer), rinsed and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
  • 10 to 20 leaves of fresh basil, stemmed, rinsed and dried
  • kosher salt (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon)
  • fresh ground black pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)
  1. Slice the bread in half lengthwise
  2. Generously drizzle olive oil over both halves of the bread
  3. Layer one side of the bread with the mozzarella slices, slightly overlapping and completely covering the bread
  4. Layer the tomatoes over the mozzarella
  5. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the tomatoes, add more or less to taste
  6. Top the tomatoes with a layer of basil
  7. Place the other half of the bread on top, press down slightly and carefully slice the sandwich into as few as 2 or as many as 8 slices (and smaller and it's hard to slice/eat without the sandwich falling apart)

Friday, August 22, 2008

"The Sauce"

A little over a year ago, my good friend Sal, whom I jokingly refer to as "the most Italian person I know," fondly described to me a yearly activity in which his family used to partake. Every year at the end of the summer, the family would gather together for a weekend, and while the children ran around and played till exhaustion in the August heat, the adults would take perfectly ripe red plum tomatoes and turn them into enough tomato sauce to last the whole year. Throughout the year, whenever his mother wanted to make pasta, Sal was instructed to go to the basement and get a jar of sauce. He lamented that following the death of his paternal grandfather, the yearly tradition of making "the sauce" fell by the wayside.

This story appealed to me for many reasons. I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with tradition. I don't like to do things just because that's the way it has always been done, but on the other hand, I realized that sometimes there is both great wisdom and great satisfaction to be found in "the way it has always been done." In this case, the latter definitely applies. Traditions such as this one go back to a time before highly processed foods, industrial farming, and grocery stores, when it was impossible to have tomatoes in the winter unless you canned them in the summer. I also loved the idea of gathering together and enjoying the company of family and friends centered not around a birthday or holiday, but an activity that directly contributes to the physical sustenance of all involved. We decided to renew this tradition and keep it alive a bit longer. So last August, Sal and I made our first batch of sauce, under the watchful eye of Sal's grandmother. In broken English and perfect Italian, she passed on her years of sauce making wisdom to us (and stopped to make us a huge spaghetti lunch, with bread and salad and everything).

This year we struck out on our own, and despite a few rookie mistakes, turned out a wonderful batch of sauce. I love the idea of starting with whole, fresh ingredients in the peak of their season and turning them into something that can be enjoyed all year long. I enjoy supporting local farms, and knowing that the furthest my tomatoes had to travel was a few miles. Then there is the confidence of knowing exactly what is going into the food as it is processed (whatever I want to be in there). I take pride in the hard day's work and the product we have to show for it. Lastly, and most important to me, is the idea of family and community that is reinforced by an activity such as this one. It is a tradition worth keeping in a time when it seems like all traditions of any worth are quickly being lost, or worse, replaced with cheap, quick, and soulless imitations all for the sake of saving time. Now every time I make a nice tomato sauce this winter, I will think of my friend, the beautiful Saturday we enjoyed, the good conversation we had and the mess we made! And I will dream of the day when our children are reminiscing about the August weekends they enjoyed running around together as their crazy old dads made sauce in the garage. Who knows? Maybe they'll want to learn how to make a few jars for themselves.

The two stars of this show are mason jars and red plum tomatoes. The jars you can get at most grocery stores, and we picked up the tomatoes at a local farm a few days before making the sauce.

Our equipment consisted of many large pots, a few large plastic buckets, some paring knives, a wooden spoon, a propane tank and burner, and a food mill that Sal's dad had hooked up to an electric motor. We set up everything in my garage and got started around 9 in the morning.

The first step was to wash the tomatoes and cut them into quarters. As we did this we would cut out any rotten spots and tossed any tomatoes that were too far gone.

We put the quartered tomatoes into our pots and plastic containers as we cut them. It took us about 3 hours to quarter our 10 cases (200 pounds) of tomatoes. When we cut them all up, we filled a pot about 3/4 full with tomatoes and then covered them with water. We set the pot on the propane burner to begin stewing the tomatoes.

After about 15 minutes, and a good amount of stirring, the pot came to a boil. At this point we would boil the tomatoes until we determined they were cooked and soft enough to mill.

We took the tomatoes out of the pot with a large strainer basket and placed them in a bowl. We'd let them sit for a few minutes and then pour off some of the excess liquid in order to ensure that our sauce would not be too watery. In the meantime, we'd throw another batch of raw tomatoes into the boiling water. We then used a slotted spoon to feed tomatoes into the hopper of the food mill, straining out even more water.

As the tomatoes passed through the mill, the watery pulp of the tomatoes was pressed into sauce which emptied into another pot. The seeds and peels came out of the end of the augur and we collected those in a bucket.

We then strained the seeds and peels and passed it through the mill three more times to extract the maximum amount of sauce from the tomatoes.

After all the tomatoes were stewed and milled, we had about 12 gallons of sauce in 3 large pots. We added 1/2 cup of salt to each pot and then set one onto the burner, and brought it to a boil. While the sauce was coming to a boil, we set out a bunch of mason jars on a table with some basil which my extremely busy wife so graciously washed. We also finally allowed ourselves a beer at this point.

Into each mason jar we placed about a few leaves of the basil.

Once the sauce came to a boil, we let it boil for 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes to make sure it wouldn't stick and burn on the bottom of the pot.

The boiling sauce was ladled into the jars, which were filled as high as possible, and the tops were screwed on tightly.

We then placed the hot jars into cloth lined boxes to cool, and that was that! We finished around 7 that evening, so the whole process took about 10 hours from start to finish. The sauce (which is really nothing more at this point than crushed tomatoes) is amazingly fresh tasting and bursting with tomato flavor.

It tastes great as is, makes a delicious quick sauce with garlic and oil, works wonderfully in my favorite spaghetti sauce recipe, and is perfect on pizza (see the picture below for a sample of my first use of this year's batch). I use it in any recipe I make that calls for crushed tomatoes, which I don't need to buy in the grocery store anymore.

When it comes down to it, I really enjoy making the sauce as much as eating it. Like making bread, another process I've come to love, I get a profound sense of accomplishment throughout the experience, and feel a deeper connection to, and appreciation for, whole ingredients and how they become the foods and tastes that I love so much.