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A Jersey Girl & Her Jersey Tomatoes

In New Jersey, we’re serious about our tomatoes. And if you live in the northern half of the great Garden State with a last name like Giannetti, Marangi, or in my family’s case, DiAgostino, the red partner to your plate of rigatoni during Sunday afternoon dinners isn’t called tomato sauce.  We’ve only ever called it red gravy – and my family has been jarring our own special recipe with ripe Jersey tomatoes for over 75 years. 

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Hello there! I’m Aimee, your 22-year-old guest writer, cook-in-training, and DIY extraordinaire from New Jersey! During my senior year of college, I had the great pleasure of working for and learning from Willi Galloway and the editors at Organic Gardening as their editorial intern!  Willi helped me earn my very first national magazine byline, so when she called me to see if I wanted to share my Italian family’s garden fresh recipes, current work experience at an inspiring and unconventional garden center in Philadelphia, and traditions from growing up as the granddaughter of a landscaper I was so excited! I couldn’t think of a better post that would help introduce myself to the DigginFood community, and a post that I hope will help you get excited for your own tomato crop this season than sharing my family’s yearly September “Tomato Fest” tradition.

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Everyone, no matter how old or young you are, gets assigned an important tomato job. (See photo above, 1999: My grandfather, Sonny DiAgostino, shows my brother, Justin and cousin, Jack how to stir the pot. The boys were 8 years old in that picture.  Now they’re both 17!)

This truly is an all day extravaganza. We start at my uncle’s house at 6:30 AM, and after 12 hours of slicing bushels of tomatoes, stirring extra-large pots, processing the tomatoes through the electric passer, and filling over 250 mason jars we all sit down to savor the new year’s batch of red gravy.  To an onlooker, this barebones meal of fresh cut pasta and homemade gravy may seem like nothing extraordinary, but it really is unlike any other dinner we share.  This meal marks the start to another year. Like our parents and grandparents, my cousins and I plan to teach our own children all about our Italian heritage and the DiAgostino red gravy tradition. We even promised each other not to lose our patience when our future kids want “more exciting” jobs than picking the basil leaves off of the stems, or washing the tomatoes! (The responsibilities we thought we were too grown up for). 

I realize that having a pickup truck of Jersey tomatoes delivered to your door (Especially those of you in Seattle) is unrealistic! So instead, I had my mom Patti (a truly masterful Italian cook), help translate our important tradition to the convenience of your kitchen!  I hope this red gravy recipe gives you a new exciting reason to talk to your tomato crops this summer!

If you have any questions for me (or the executive chef) please don’t hesitate to contact me! I’d love to hear how it all works out! Until next time, Mangia!

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DiAgostino’s Red Gravy (Stovetop edition)
Serves 4, Pour over 1lb of fresh cut pasta

You’ll need
12 plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons of olive oil (Preferably first pressed olive oil)
1 medium onion (Diced)
5-8 garlic cloves (Chopped)
½ cup fresh basil (Whole leaves)
Salt to taste
Fresh Italian parsley to sprinkle over pasta before serving

To make our red gravy, first bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 12 plum tomatoes. Let tomatoes cook for 2 minutes or until the skin visibly starts to peel off.  Next, drain the hot tomatoes in a strainer, and use your hands to peel off all tomato skins. Put these tomatoes into a blender, and run on “high” for about 20 seconds.  In a separate deep pot, heat oil on medium heat and cook onions until they become clear.  Add the chopped garlic to the pot, and sauté for about 2 or 3 minutes more. Pour the puree tomatoes from the blender into the pot.  Add salt (to your own taste) to gravy mix.  Cook covered for 2 hours on low, or until smooth and thick.  Add whole basil leaves (from your own garden if you have it in stock!) to the simmering gravy during the last ½ hour.  Adding the basil at the end will ensure the fresh flavor of the herb doesn’t get cooked out. That’s it! Pour gravy over 1 lb of freshly cut pasta. Garnish with parsley and sprinkle with grated cheese. Serve and enjoy!

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29 Responses to “A Jersey Girl & Her Jersey Tomatoes”

  1. 1
    Anna Says:

    Hey…not everyone who reads Diggin’ Food is on the west coast! I’m your neighbor in Glenside and I would like to know what to do when the pick up truck of Jersey tomatoes arrives. In the meantime I’ll try your mom’s version. Loved your post!

  2. 2
    Carol Says:

    Great post! It brought back so many memories of “growing up Italian”. With today’s economy, so many families are going back to basics and looking for ways to spend quality time together without the big ticket vacations…this is a perfect example of bringing the family together and building lasting memories. Thanks for the reminder that the simple things in life are still the best! Your grandfather would be very proud of you!

  3. 3
    Bob Blesse Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. This kind of story about families sharing and making food is part of the essence of life. I’m looking forward to trying your recipe when my plum tomatoes are ripe.

  4. 4
    Connie Says:

    Love this post! I can’t wait for my tomatoes to ripen. Thanks for sharing!

  5. 5
    Lisa Says:

    Hey Aimee, great article coming from a fellow Italian Jersey girl! I look forward to more of your helpful insight into organic growing and eating!

  6. 6
    Liz M. Says:

    Love the Marangi reference!! I can’t wait to try the recipe!!

  7. 7
    Chic Says:

    Hey Aimee:

    Great, brought back a lot of memories of Aunt Jeanette and my mom making their own sauce. Wonderful picture.

  8. 8
    Victoria Says:

    Hello all the way from Brisbane, Australia!

    I was just wondering how long the gravy lasts after its been bottled? Would love to make up a big batch ready to go when you need it.

  9. 9
    Carol Egidio-Murray Says:

    Amiee,

    I am from California (now) and since I’m your cousin, I’m a former “Jersey Girl” and have to tell you that this is a pretty traditional receipe. There are two secrets that many don’t know about, however that “we” put in our gravy that makes it so special. The first one, of course is (and oh how I miss them!) the REAL JERSEY TOMATOES. A smart gourmet knows that Jersey tomatoes are the best. Your grandpa gave me a tee shirt that says so. The second is the family love. There is no subsitute for that. Your great-great grandma (we called her Nanny) taught me how to make those fresh cut noodles by hand you were talking about when I was just a little girl. (Nanny called it maccaroni…pasta is a contemporary word.) Then, you didn’t have pasta makers so you kneaded the dough and developed quite a bust.

    This was a beautiful article and a tribute to your heritage. I look forward to hearing more. You are quite right, about your mom being a great cook. She was taught by the best…her mom. That’s how the system works. I’ll bet you’re pretty awesome in the kitchen yourself. Come to the Napa Valley and cook for me anytime!

  10. 10
    Terry Curtola Says:

    Amiee…….I was the first Italian-American Mayor of Vallejo, California in the 1980′s and also was in the restaurant business for over 30 years, so I really enjoyed reading your delicious article and recipes. You show such a love for descibing your food preparation, the ingrediants and of course the italian connection, that I decided to make a couple gallons of sauce, using your recipe. My oldest son, who also loves to cook, has a small tomato and herb garden that he loves to experience with, so I will borrow a couple Green Valley tomatoes from him. Keep up the good work. In closing I was one of the fortunate ones to meet your grand-father, Sonny, many years ago. He left a very fond impression on me.

  11. 11
    Harry Diavatis Says:

    Amiee, your recipe has motivated me to make tomato sauce this year since I’m going to have lots of tomatoes and also home grown basil. I think I’m going to add one more ingredient so it will become “Greek” sauce… and that ingredient is Greek Oregano, of course. LOL. I live right down the road from your cousin Carol.

  12. 12
    Casey Havre Says:

    Aimee! What a great story! Our family came from a little town in Liguria for the California Gold Rush and we too have always made gravy in the summer. I don’t think I could get through winter without a stash of quart jars full of the past summers’ harvest. We always plant our basil seeds on Good Friday and, until a few years ago, never put our tomato plants in the ground until after the Calaveras Jumping Frog contest (last weekend in May).
    Thanks so much for your story!

  13. 13
    Carmela Piccolo-Coakley Says:

    Aimee~~~Your cousin Carol is a good friend of mine and “sister comare”. I owned Italian restaurants for years and we always made our sauce, for home, just like you “Jersey Girls”. (Mama said it was her recipe)! Being first generation American, I learned nothing tastes better than fresh! My Mama passed her “hand measured recipes” down to us kids and a Sunday never past without the aroma of sauce in the kitchen. We got our hands smacked with a wooden spoon when we tried to dip the Italian bread in the pot of sauce! Mama would say, “Get your hands outta there! Get a dish!”
    Thanks for passing on the fact that tradition lives on!

  14. 14
    JoJo Says:

    Aimee – loved this post! As a fellow Italian-amerian I can certainly relate to the sentiments expressed…It’s so true, nothing will every taste as good as that meal of fresh-cut pasta and ‘new’ gravy! We worked all day, from 7 Am until it was done…12-15 bushels of tomatoes…we had quite the assembly line going. It all started the night befoer – someone had to cut up the pounds and pounds of onions, garlic and sweet fryers….I remember my kitchen smelling like onions and/or garlic for weeks after we did them. And my garagee smelled like cooked tomatoes for months!

    To VIctoria – when you jar the tomatoes, they need to be put into clean, sterilized jars. They should be BOILING hot when ou pour them in, then you use soecial canning tops that will seal a vacuum on the jar. you can looking up canning process online to get the tips.

  15. 15
    Aimee Says:

    Hi Everyone! Thank you for the great responses, conversation, and feedback! Here are all of your answers that will help make our delicious gravy in your own kitchen!

    1. Anna: When the tomato truck arrives (besides being really excited to start our morning!) We get all of “the men” to unload the crates of tomatoes, and wash every tomato in big buckets of water. Then from the washing station, we quarter (cut) all of the tomatoes, and then send them to the big pot to start cooking them down.

    2. Victoria: Ciao from Australia! Once jarred (and sealed) the gravy lasts about two years on the shelf. However, we’ve never had a batch gone beyond a year on the shelf (that’s how frequently we use our gravy! It’s that delicious!)

    All Best ~Aimee

  16. 16
    Urban Agriculture in Cuba | DigginFood Says:

    [...] Also, I have to mention that my trip would not have been possible without the incredible ideas and work my guest bloggers offered all of you in my absence. I want to thank my wonderful friends John Hurd, Justine Dell’Aringa, Betsy Gardner, Dinah Dimalanta, and Aimee Theriault for taking such fabulous care of DigginFood while I was away. Coming home and discovering such a wonderful collection of guest posts was so fun. I can’t wait to make fruit infused vodka, basil ice cream, and authentic New Jersey red gravy! [...]

  17. 17
    Sustainable Eats Says:

    I made this the other day for dinner and it was awesome! I don’t understand how something that cooks for 2 hours can taste so fresh. I’m making a huge batch tonight with about 20 pounds of fresh from the garden “saucey” tomatoes and canning it. Thanks for the recipe!

  18. 18
    Canning Tomato Sauce Says:

    [...] Have you ever seen Willi’s gardening blog? [...]

  19. 19
    Jenny Says:

    Would like to know if I am canning this recipe do I use a pressure cooker or a hot bath?

  20. 20
    Aimee Says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I reccomend using a hot bath (That’s how we do it!) Let me know how it turns out!!!

    All the best,
    Aimee

  21. 21
    Stacie Says:

    Yum! I just made this for dinner and will be canning the extra – my first experience canning. We don’t have plum tomatoes, but I picked every ripe tomato and cherry tomato we had, and threw them in a Vitamix (peels and all).

    I am wondering how many pounds your typical 12 plum tomatoes come out to be.

  22. 22
    Aimee Says:

    Hi Stacie: You will have to forgive my delay as I was away on vacation! We always go by the buschel (We’re gearing up for our big tomato fest 2009 next weekend!!!) However, my best guess would be with 12 plum tomatoes, you would yield about 3 pounds! Let me know how it all turns out!!! Mangia! ~Aimee

  23. 23
    Elisa Says:

    I do not fully agree with your recipe – when cooking past with fresh tomatoes, the marinara is best. That means the tomatoes should be chopped not pureed.
    Now when making manicotti or stuffed shells, then I would use the pureed version.
    .-= Elisa´s last blog ..Yes- We CAN! =-.

  24. 24
    Annie Says:

    Any suggestions on the best place in New Jersey to buy really good tomatoes by the bushel?

  25. 25
    Talking Tomatoes Says:

    [...] Tomato gravy which I made last year. [...]

  26. 26
    Tomatoes: Canned Sauce Says:

    [...] even tomato sauce on the menu as I was growing up…. So google to the rescue.  I found this recipe for DiAgostino’s Red Gravy. It met all my criteria of being easy, me having all the ingredients on hand, and it seems like it [...]

  27. 27
    Eat Local, Eat Well — Green Mom Blog Says:

    [...] in February. At my house in Seattle, we grew enough tomatoes to can pasta sauce for a year using this fantastic recipe. Not bad, but nothing compares to fresh caprese salad. So, you can imagine the glee I felt at my [...]

  28. 28
    April Gardening Challenge Round 3 | Sustainable Eats & the Dancing Goat Gardens Communal Project Says:

    [...] I’ve been reading it for years now and always find something inspiring to try. In fact, this article was inspirational to me when I began the produce bulk buys. Of course I didn’t have a large [...]

  29. 29
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