This past Saturday, I was invited over to my friend and coworker MaryLynn Haase’s house to experience a day in the life of an Italian kitchen. MaryLynn still has family in Italy, and most of her cooking is pure Italian: eggplant Parmesan, manicotti, and—of course—traditional Italian tomato sauce. It was this last item that I ventured over to MaryLynn’s to see first hand.

MaryLynn has a seasonal goal of 750 pounds of tomatoes. Split up over 7-8 weeks, you can pretty much guarantee where she will be on the weekends between August and October, as long as the tomato crops are coming in.

The day starts with a trip to the farmer’s market in Court House, Arlington. There are a few stops to make before 8 am—she buys from Maple Avenue MarketToigo Orchards, and others—until she has around 100 lbs of whatever tomatoes are on hand that week: slender romas are great for thickening your sauce, but don’t have the flavor of the obese-looking heirlooms, which come later in the year. She also threw in some San Marzanos that were growing in her backyard, as well as some regular juice tomatoes to finish it off:

A run down of the tomatoes used…

Once home–the process begins. MaryLynn has an industrial-sized squeezer that will de-seed, de-skin, and juice the tomatoes. First, the tomatoes must go through the “quality control” that is her husband. His job was to quarter the tomatoes, while seeking out blemishes or cuts that needed to be removed, or tomatoes that were just a little past their prime based on smell. From here, they are poured into the top of this juicer, and the pulp and liquid gets pushed out into one bowl, while the scraps get poured into another. Here’s a nice video of all the action:

Once all 125 lbs. has been juiced–plus running the scraps through again to pick up any liquid that escaped the first time–it’s into the pots to simmer down by HALF. By the end of the morning, we had five pots going at once–all filled to the brim with the most pink, delicious smelling tomatoes ever. Here’s where I left to grab lunch—coming back 3 hours later once the sauce had started to thicken. As the liquid burns off, you can definitely feel the heaviness of the tomato sauce start to form. We combined the pots into two large ones, and went on from there—continuing to boil as we prepped the additions.

MaryLynn’s sauce is made up of onions, garlic, red peppers, and spices. One pot of sauce held about six medium onions, 2 bell peppers, 10 cloves of garlic, and 1 bottle of wine. Cooking the onions and peppers first, I learned a neat trick about when to add int he garlic and wine. Leaving the veggies to saute on their own, when you push aside the onions with a spoon, you should hear a nice sizzle–your cue to add in the wine. .

Here’s a great video of MaryLynn adding the wine, (she’s talking to her daughter in the background–it really was a a family affair):

You want to cook down the wine until it’s almost gone and the veggies just have this purple hue to them. That’s when you add it to the sauce. Be careful here—boiling tomatoes can pack a punch if they splatter toward you:

From here on out–you just want to continue to cook down the sauce until all the flavors merge. A taste test when you first add in the onions will still have the aftertaste of raw tomato, but after a few hours that will go away–along with the liquid halo you will see lining the spoonful of the sauce. Your key that it’s done is when that halo disappears and the sauce becomes thick and wonderful.

I left MaryLynn around 5pm, but the sauce was still brewing. Some basil and oregano were added in while I was there, but she assured me she would keep fiddling with it until it was ‘just right’. MaryLynn told me later that she was up until midnight sterilizing her glass jars and canning the sauce itself–in the end our 125 lbs of tomatoes came to 28 jars of sauce.

A slide-show of the day:


And that’s that! But sadly, I’ve already used up my portion of that making two lasagnas–but it’s totally worth it. Having already sampled one of them, the freshness of the sauce really stands out, even when cooked in with meat and pasta. No one could mistake it for Ragout 😉