Cooking with my nonna – fresh tomato sauce

28 Jul

Nonna cooking

My grandmother in 87 years old. Cooking with her is an experience.

Trying to get quantities when writing down nonna’s recipes is like trying to get a bank to waiver its account keeping fees.

“First, I put the tomatoes in the pot,” she demonstrates.

“How many?”I ask.

“2, 6, 8….you decide, how many you like.”

“And then the carrots, the onions.”

“Ok, how many carrots then, and onions?

“1,2,3… you decide, how many you like.”

I bet you can guess how the rest of the conversation went…

Tomatoes and other vegetables

I am told to cut the vegetables. I stupidly ask how she would like them. Diced? Quartered? The answer, you can probably guess, is however I like.

I start to brunoise the onion, the way I had been taught at cooking school.

Nonna looks over.

“What are you doing?”

“Chopping the onions like the chef taught me at school, nonna”

She stops what she’s doing to watch .

At that moment the nearly blunt knife doesn’t make a clean cut and the slippery onion falls from my fingers to the floor.

“Hmph,” says nonna. “I never went to school”

Ingredients for sauce

“What’s the sauce called Nonna?”

“Salsa Siciliana.”

“But it’s not very Siciliana.”

“Of course it is. I used to make it in Sicily so it’s Siciliana. But you can call it what you like…. salsa Abruzzese, salsa Napoletana, salsa Toscana….”

“What about salsa Australiana”

“Si, call it salsa Australiana, I like it.”

Nonna cutting tomatoes

Next to the eggplants preserved in oil and under a bottle of Magnesia San Pellegrino, I spy a jar of  Vegemite in nonna’s cupboard. I am shocked. I know of no Italian-born individual who can stomach the stuff. I decide to investigate.

“Nonna, do you eat Vegemite?”

“Yeah.”

“Really?”

“Oh no. It’s for (my second cousin) Tony. He ate it on toast every day for a year  but then he stopped. He doesn’t come much anymore,” she sighs.

“Do you want it? Take it, take it, ” she urges.

“No, no, so you’ve never, ever tasted it?”

“No,” she says resolutely.

A few minutes pass and we chop in silence.

She pauses for a minute.

“Is it good?”

“The Vegemite?”

“Yes”

“No not really”

“Oh, ok, it’s good I don’t eat it then huh?”

Vegemite in an Italian cupboard

Zio Sam,  nonna’s brother, comes home. Noticing the tomatoes we are cooking, he tells me at the grocer where he works they cost $5 a kilo. Hydroponics $10.

“Is that cheap or expensive, “ I ask ignorantly.

“Expensive! $2.99 or $3.65 not $5. They musta been scare, very scare.”

I guess he means scarce but the price is sort of scary, when you think about it.

Nonna cutting tomatoes

Nonna takes a break from cooking to check on her faithful companion, Fifi the dog.

“Why haven’t you eaten your pasta Fifi? Whatsamatter? Do you think we’re Americans here? Is that what you think?”

Fifi drops her head and continues to ignore Nonna.

“No respect,” says nonna exasperated “But what can you do?”

Nonna’s fresh tomato sauce

Serves about 15 people

  • 18 ripe tomatoes
  • 1 stalk of celery, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 small carrots,  peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small white onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • A few basil leaves
  • Pinch of bicarbonate of soda
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  1. Wash the tomatoes and cut out the core. Score them with a deep cross. Place in a large saucepan.
  2. Over the tomatoes pour a generous amount of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.
  3. Add celery, carrots, onions, garlic, basil and bicab. Turn the heat to medium-low and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have completely broken down.
  4. Pass through a mouli and discard the solids. Serve immediately with pasta or bottle to put in the freezer.
Tomatoes with other ingredients in the pot
Tomatoes cooking
Tomato sauce cooking
mouli
Nonna with mouli and finished sauce
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5 Responses to “Cooking with my nonna – fresh tomato sauce”

  1. Kristen July 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    Ha ha , we loved it, Pepi said shes a beautiful lady and can remember eating quite a bit of her food many years ago ! xx

  2. Liz February 5, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    What does the bicarbonate do? Very curious because I’ve never heard of it being added to sauce before. Teach me!

    • lamingtonsandlasagna February 5, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      Well, according to my nonna, it removes “the acido” – any acidity in the tomatoes. Although i made it yesterday and didn’t use the bicarb and it was fine (it was also orange instead of red but this was because i put in too many carrots).

  3. Angelique February 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    Thanks for the great tips! I wish had asked my Nonna more about her cooking before she died. Quick question, how long roughly does the tomatoes take to break down? I’m just wondering if the onion and carrot etc have enough time to cook/soften etc?
    Thanks a mil!

    • lamingtonsandlasagna February 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      Hi Angelique,
      Thanks for your comment – by the time the tomato breaks down the onion and carrot will be soft – from memory it’s about 20 minutes.
      Ciao,
      Tania

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