Food is Love, Love is Food.

A blog devoted to the connection between meals, memories and the special moments in our lives.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Tribute to my Grandparents: Roasted Summer Tomatoes

I cannot think of, eat, or even smell tomatoes without thinking of my beloved Grandma and Grandpa.  As I have mentioned before, I was fortunate enough to grow up in the same house as my maternal grandparents.  They were both originally from Italy, emigrating to this country around the time they were married in the early 1930s.  They settled, had four children, raised their family, made friends, were good neighbors, and contributed to their community.  They lived the American Dream at a time when the American Dream did not mean chasing after wealth.  My grandparents, Vincenzo and Vincenzella, wanted only a good life.  They wanted a home of their own, they wanted to watch their family grow; they wanted the riches of a simple life.  My Grandpa and Grandma carried their heritage with them when they came here.  They told many stories of their childhood in the small village in Southern Italy, they cooked the food they grew up with and welcomed many to their home and their table with graciousness and generosity. 

My grandfather had a large garden in our backyard every summer.  He grew squash, eggplant, peppers, string beans, herbs, and plenty of tomatoes.  They were really the main focus of his gardening.  Grandpa would sit out at the garden for hours each day, getting up from time to time to tie a plant to its pole, or pick a tomato that was ripened.  He kept a mason jar with a little water in it out at the picnic table and would circulate through the garden now and then, using the jar to capture beetles that dared to try to munch on his baby tomato plants.  He was protective of these prized goodies.  My sister Betsy  found that out many times, as she would try to sneak into the garden while our grandfather was not looking.  She would always bring the salt shaker with her, so that she could pick, salt, and eat her fill of tomatoes right there, among the tall plants.  There is something about a tomato that is still warm from the sun that is irresistible.  Grandpa would shoo her out of the garden, both of them laughing a little.  But I always wondered why my grandfather would just sit there, watching, looking, contemplating. To me, it looked boring.

 This year, as my garden is growing and maturing, I understand it for the first time. It is a beautiful thing to watch what you have planted grow and bear fruit.  It is slow gratification, but gratifying nonetheless.  

Once the tomatoes were ripe, it was my grandmother's turn.  She canned tomatoes for days on end, through the heat of those late summer days, putting up enough to get the entire extended family through the winter.  She would then make sauce, soups, and countless other delicious things to feed their family.

I think this effort was really symbolic of how my grandparents lived their lives.  Though their marriage was arranged, they built a beautiful life together.  They loved each other in the deepest sense.  They tried to nurture and protect those they loved and do the best they could for their children and grandchildren.  They worked together, not always harmoniously, but in the end, the fruits of their combined labor were even more gratifying to them than those tomatoes were. 

As I do not have the patience or fortitude of my sweet Gram, I take the easy way out when it comes to preserving my tomatoes for the winter.  As I harvest them, I cut a batch of them up into chunks, and stew them with some garlic, olive oil, and of course, basil.  I use 2 large cast iron skillets, and roast them outside on my gas grill, so as not to heat up my house on these hot days. I freeze these stewed tomatoes in plastic freezer bags or containers, and take them out throughout the year to use in making sauces, soups, or anything else that calls for tomatoes.  And with every sweet, soupy bite of those tomatoes, I am reminded of the comfort and love that was always given so readily by my dear grandparents.

Stewed Tomatoes:
As many fresh, ripe, native tomatoes as you can get your hands on (supermarket tomatoes don't count!)
a bunch of fresh basil for every 3 pounds of tomatoes
3-5 cloves of garlic (peeled, no need to chop) per batch
3 tablespoons of good quality olive oil per batch
A pinch or two of salt

Cut the tomatoes up into 1 inch chunks, and add remaining ingredients to the skillet.  Cook either in the oven at 300 degrees, or on the gas grill (with the cover down)  on medium low heat, until the tomatoes have been cooked down and the juices have reduced by about a third.  If the tomatoes are not very juicy, you can add a little low sodium chicken stock, but it is usually not necessary.  Use the tomatoes right away as a sauce (a little fresh mozzarella and Pecorino Romano makes it perfect), or save to use in a tomato sauce or a soup.  Will last in the freezer for several months.  Yum!

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