It was a very good year for tomatoes.

Last weekend, four generations of the Vuotto clan gathered in East Rockaway to process tomatoes and put them into jars in Gerry and Shari Vuotto's backyard.

Nonna - that's Angelina Vuotto, 94, the matriarch of the family - mostly looked on this year, her hands too arthritic now to wash fresh basil from the garden and tear leaves from the stems as she has in years past.

A few sprigs of basil go into each quart jar before brilliant red tomato puree is ladled in. Then the jars are sealed and boiled for an hour over propane gas burners.

The Vuottos have been preserving tomatoes for at least 35 years in this neighborhood, and Gerry and his sister Maria Vuotto Tuosto, have passed down the tradition to their children, who, in turn, plan to teach their own youngsters. One year, recalled Gerry's daughter Jessica, 23, the fire department came because of all the smoke from the fires, which were then stoked with wood.

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R.J. Tinyes, 18 months, the youngest tomato devotee, thoughtfully sampled a raw tomato. He's the son of Angela Tinyes, 30, another Vuotto daughter, who worked tirelessly cleaning the rims of jars and sealing them. Beside her, her husband Richie Tinyes operated the machine that crushes the fruit.

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Maria Tuosto's brother Gerry said that because of tomatoes' acidity, they are best preserved in glass. "A lot of people say, 'You're crazy. Why do you do this?' " he said. "I do it with pleasure ... My mother likes to see it. But the main reason is the quality."

A crate of tomatoes, said Joseph Tuosto, one of Maria's sons, who lives in Lynbrook, will yield 12 to 15 or 16 quarts, depending on the year. This was one of the best years; 13 crates made 198 quarts.

Gerry Vuotto made a fresh tomato sauce fragrant with herbs and served it over pasta. He cracked open bottles of his homemade red wine. As darkness fell, the patio lights switched on, and I could just about see Italy, back where it all began.

RECIPES

 

 

Gerry Vuotto's pasta with sauce for a crowd

 

1 cup olive oil

¼ pound slab bacon, cut into ¼-inch chunks

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5 cherry peppers, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium to large onion, diced

6 sprigs Italian (flat leaf) parsley, minced

Handful fresh thyme, whole

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5 sage leaves, whole

5 pounds fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped

Salt

3 pounds gemelli or fusilli pasta

Generous handful fresh basil leaves, plus some for garnish

4 cups grated Locatelli Romano cheese

1. In a wide, heavy skillet, heat olive oil. Add bacon chunks and peppers and cook until peppers are beginning to soften. Add garlic, onion, parsley, thyme and sage and cook until onion is translucent.

2. Add tomatoes and a light sprinkling of salt. (You will be adding cheese, which will add some salt.) Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 to 20 minutes. While sauce is simmering, boil salted water in a large pot or soup kettle.

3. When water is boiling, add pasta and cook according to pasta directions.

4. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to fish the thyme and sage out of the sauce; discard. Add basil leaves to pasta sauce, remove from heat at once and toss with hot pasta and about 1 cup (or a little more) grated cheese. Garnish with additional basil. Serve with additional grated cheese. Makes about 12 to 16 servings.

Eggplant and tomato gratin

 

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

3 cloves garlic, smashed and minced

1 quart home-jarred tomatoes

1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, divided

3 pounds eggplant

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups buttered bread crumbs (see note)

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in saucepan and saute garlic briefly. Add tomatoes and half the basil and cook down until thickened, about 20 minutes. Preheat broiler.

2. Cut off ends of eggplant, and peel if desired. Cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Coat a jellyroll pan with olive oil and place eggplant slices on it; brush with olive oil. Broil 4 or 5 minutes on 1 side; turn slices and broil another 4 to 5 minutes on the other side. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.

3. Coat a shallow baking dish, about 2 1/2-quart size, with a little olive oil. Spread a thin layer of tomato on the bottom and arrange eggplant slices over the tomato. Sprinkle slices with salt and pepper. Tear some of the remaining basil leaves into small pieces and sprinkle over eggplant. Top with another layer of tomato, then with remaining eggplant, basil and tomato, in about 3 layers. Sprinkle with buttered bread crumbs and cheese. Cover and bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 15 minutes or until top is lightly browned. Remove from oven and let stand about 15 minutes before serving. Makes 6 side-dish servings.

Note: To make buttered bread crumbs, cut up 2 slices of bread, crusts removed, toast, let cool, and whir briefly in processor to make crumbs. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a small saucepan and saute crumbs in butter until golden.

Homemade cream of tomato soup

 

1 quart home-jarred tomatoes

2 tablespoons dry sherry, optional

1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves

Salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 cups heavy cream, or part cream and part whole milk

Additional basil, for garnish

1. In a saucepan, simmer tomatoes, sherry, basil, salt and red pepper for about 20 minutes. Whir in a blender or food processor, in batches, or puree with an immersion blender.

2. Whisk in cream and heat gently. Do not allow the soup to boil. Taste for seasoning and correct. Serve in warmed soup plates, garnished with basil. Makes about 4 to 6 servings.

Breakfast for tomato workers

 

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 or 4 cloves garlic, smashed and minced

1 quart home-jarred tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or to taste

Salt, to taste

8 fresh eggs

Torn basil leaves for garnish, optional

1. In a 12-inch-wide skillet, heat olive oil. Add garlic and saute until softened. Add tomatoes, pepper flakes and a little salt and cook about 12 minutes. Reduce heat to a simmer.

2. Make 8 indentations in tomatoes with the back of a spoon, spaced apart, and carefully break an egg into each indentation. Sprinkle eggs lightly with salt. Cover pan. Steam-simmer on low heat until whites of eggs are set and yolks are the desired doneness. (You may baste a little with tomato juices if desired.)

3. Lift 2 eggs for each serving onto each of 4 warmed plates, using a large spoon and surrounding tomatoes with sauce. Garnish with torn basil leaves. Makes 4 servings. Serve with hunks of toasted Italian bread drizzled with olive oil.

Shaker Tomato Pudding

 

Dana Jacobi, in her new book "Cook & Freeze" (Rodale, $22.99) suggests making this dish with fresh tomatoes and freezing it for later use. Though this is finished in the oven, it is reminiscent of the stovetop breaded tomatoes grandmothers made a few generations ago. It can easily be made with home-jarred tomatoes instead.

5 slices firm white bread, crusts removed, divided

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided (plus a little additional for buttering baking dish)

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 quart home-jarred tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Cube 3 slices of the bread by cutting stacked slices into 1/4-inch strips, rotating the stack 90 degrees and cutting it into 1/4-inch cubes.

2. Coat an 8-inch-by-8-inch shallow baking dish with the additional butter and set aside. In a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add cubed bread and toss to coat with butter. Cover the bottom of the prepared baking dish with the buttered bread cubes and set aside. Do not wash out the skillet.

3. Add 2 more tablespoons butter to the skillet along with the oil and set over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until translucent, 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook until onion is soft, 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickened enough to plop from a spoon, about 15 to 20 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir parsley and sugar into the tomatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon mixture over bread in baking dish, smoothing it with the back of the spoon.

5. Spread 1 tablespoon butter over the remaining 2 bread slices, cut into 1 inch pieces and whir very briefly in food processor to make about 1 1/2 to 2 cups buttered crumbs. Sprinkle crumbs over tomatoes. Cover baking dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover, turn oven to broil and set the dish under the broiler until topping is golden and crisp, 1 to 2 minutes. Let the pudding sit for 5 minutes, cut into 4 pieces, and use a wide spatula to transfer the pieces to individual plates. Makes 4 servings.