Today's post is from MaryLynn Haase who is the Assistant to the President's Office at Wolf Trap, and a long-time lawn picnicker at The Filene Center.
I am a picnic voyeur. As I walk through the Wolf Trap lawn before any given concert, my eyes dart furiously back and forth – spying for the perfect picnic. This odd trait has been genetically passed down, mostly due to the fact that food, and al fresco dining in particular, is a sacred trust in my family.
Every summer at the Bellosguardo picnic in Washington PA, the descendants of a tiny mountain town in southern Italy gather to catch up on the latest gossip, laugh, cry and most importantly…eat. My paternal grandparents, Generoso and Maria Grazia Valitutti, were among the throngs of immigrants in the early 20th century that began a picnic tradition which carries on to this day. It was at this yearly event that we learned as children to run from table to table and report back on the vast cornucopia of flavors and smells. If you were really lucky, you would get a taste from the Croce table…Gino owned a restaurant in Pittsburgh!
Fast forward many years to my summer home – the lawn of Wolf Trap. So much about WT is the same as that yearly Italian feast …there’s a sense of community and friendship among those sharing a meal in the shadow of the Filene Center. And each picnic is as unique as the concertgoer who carries a basket and drops a blanket on the lawn. So what does this Italian-American have in her picnic that makes it so special? Besides the sausage and peppers, the focaccia, the fresh mozzarella di bufala and tortellini with pesto…I have homemade tomato sauce. That’s right…the real stuff… made from hundreds of pounds of fresh, red, ripe summer tomatoes!
And because the production of my sauce is one of the only activities important enough to keep me off my beloved Wolf Trap lawn, I include here a condensed version of the family recipe. Or it would be the family recipe if I could comprehend what my Zia told me to do…she could only speak Italian!
Disclaimer: I make 75-100 pounds of tomatoes with each batch. I’ve cut back the proportions to make it more user friendly.
Start with 10-12 pounds of good tasting, ripe tomatoes, Wash and score the tomatoes with an X, taking care to only cut through the skin and not the meat of the tomato. Boil water in a medium saucepan, and drop 3 to 4 tomatoes into the water for approximately 10 seconds. When the skin begins to curl, use a slotted spoon and remove from the water. Peel, cut in half, and squeeze and discard the seeds.
You may either process the tomatoes at this point for smooth sauce, or leave them chunky for a more rustic texture. In my kitchen, I use an industrial Italian tomato squeezer (spremipomidoro) that will process up to 100 pounds within 60 minutes. Some cooking stores sell food mills made specifically to process tomatoes for sauce or juice. The more watery tomato puree that comes from these machines must be reduced until thickened.
In another large pot, heat 4-6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. (It should cover the bottom.)
• 1 large yellow onion, diced fine (about 1 cup)
• ½ cup celery, chopped
• ½ red pepper, chopped the same size as the celery
Salt and pepper this vegetable mixture as it browns – you may also use ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes for a bolder taste.
When this mixture has turned golden brown, add 5 cloves of chopped garlic and stir for 60 seconds. Now comes the fun part…Add 1 -2 cups of red wine to this slurry and continue to cook until most of the liquid is reduced. It should be very thick!
Add the reserved tomato puree and cook on medium until it begins to bubble. Turn the heat to low, and begin the serious cooking process. It’s time to babysit the sauce. Every 20 minutes, stir thoroughly to keep it from burning on the bottom. Begin tasting for seasoning…I use kosher salt, pepper, approximately 1 tsp of dried oregano and basil and ½ cup of fresh chopped flat leaf parsley as a starting point. Each batch has its own taste characteristics that is original to the tomatoes, so all seasoning mentioned here is approximated to allow for individual flavor preferences.
Look for me…I’ll see you there, in my favorite spot!