If you haven’t already guessed, I am of Italian heritage. On one side of my mother’s family, I am the fifth generation born in America as well as California. All five generation have lived in northern California. My other set of maternal great-grandparents immigrated to America from Sicily to Highland, New York, where they started a tomato packing plant on the banks of the Hudson River in 1918. My great-grandparents began to hear about the tomato growing conditions in California and they decided to move to California with their four young sons. They sold the business in New York and traveled west and settled in the Santa Clara Valley where agriculture was golden. At that time the valley was called, “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” This would be a perfect place to raise their young family and open a new tomato packing plant. The weather was perfect and the valley was rich with farming. My great-grandfather started Contadina Cannery. Years later, after WWII, the eldest son, my grandfather Valentino, along with his three younger brothers John, Peter, and Anthony, started a new tomato packing plant; Gangi Brother’s Tomato Packing.
This photo is of my great grandfather and his four sons taken at Gangi Brothers Packing Plant in Santa Clara, CA (circa late 1940s to 50). From top row LEFT to RIGHT going down the stairs: My great grand father Tony Gangi, unknown, my grand father Valentino Gangi, John Gangi, Peter Gangi, Anthony Gangi.
My first food memory is of tomatoes: vividly red tomatoes and larger than my small hands could hold. They smelled sweet and I ate them fresh with salt. During the summer, my grandparents would come home from the tomato packing plant with wooden lugs filled with tomatoes. In August, when the canneries were working day and night, the hot summer air would be heavily scented with the sweet pungent smell of stewed tomatoes.
My grandmother Lucille and my papa Valentino on my brother’s first birthday. This is one of my favorite photos of all times!
Tomatoes trigger happy childhood memories in me. They especially remind me of my grandparents who passed away a long time ago. My grandparents were impressive people. Born to immigrants, they embodied the American dream and created a successful life from hard work and integrity. They loved their family and showed it in countless ways. The humble tomato embodies what they were to me then and who I have grown to be because of them. I am very grateful for their love and devotion to our family.
My vegetable garden and my dog Tule. I have 48 linear feet of raised beds. I also have fig, lemon, apple, pear, and cherry trees, plus table grapes.
Each spring I get a little crazy buying tomato plants. I just can’t make myself stop picking up more tomato seedlings. I love their names, the variety of choices for color, shape, and taste. I want to see and taste all the varieties. This year I primarily purchased my plants from the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners’ Plant Sale. I planted sixteen plants in my backyard vegetable garden this year. I mean, how many tomatoes can one family of three eat?! I anxiously awaited the picking of my first tomato of the season; it is pure joy wrapped in a red skin! I stagger the planting of my tomatoes from late March into late April. This ensures me early and late harvest tomatoes. I plant a large variety of plants from exotic heirloom beefsteak tomatoes, to classic tomatoes, to the crazy named paste tomatoes, as well as the simple cherry tomato.
(TOP) Big Beef, (BOTTOM) Champion
I use all the tomatoes I grow…it is quite a challenge to make use of that many tomatoes. I primarily make tomato sauce and can it for fall and winter use with my recipes. But there are so many other amazing recipes to cook with my surplus of tomatoes! Yet, eating a thick slice of a beautiful bi-colored heirloom beefsteak tomato with a simple sprinkling of salt, a drizzle of really great olive oil, and a fresh picked basil leaf, just cannot be beat! “Just sayin!”
In this article I am going to focus on my classic and beefsteak heirloom tomatoes. A separate article on my paste tomatoes will follow later in the summer.
According to the Santa Clara Master Gardener’s website tomatoes are categorized into four groups:
The “classic” tomato is generally round & smooth, ranging from
medium-small to medium-large in size. Sometimes called “main crop” or “slicing” tomatoes.
The “beefsteak” tomato is generally large to very large, usually
somewhat irregular in shape, often late to mature. Very juice and best for eating raw.
The “paste” tomato is generally an elongated shapes and often meatier with less seed gel, hence good for processing as sauce and paste.
The “cherry” tomato is small and bite-size. Best for salads.
This year I planted the Big Beef, Champion, and Brandywine tomato plants for early picking. Living in the Santa Clara valley with our warm spring days that quickly turn into hot summer days, ensures that our plants grow quickly. I picked my first Champion tomato this year on June 10th! It was beautiful and delicious!
My first tomato of the season! Champion
I have a system when it comes to the actual picking of a ripe tomato. I don’t let the color of the tomato fool me…sometimes the tomato has not ripen internally and are not ready to be picked. I judge a tomato’s ripeness by the touch. Before I pick a tomato, I give it a little light squeeze with my fingertips to see if there is a bit of a give to the fruit. Like any fruit, such as a peach, apricot, avocado, or tomato, you don’t want to eat it hard. The internal flesh needs to ripen, develop their natural sugars, and achieve the right texture to the flesh. Color is a huge indicator that ripeness is approaching, but touch and finally the sweet smell of the fruit are the final gages to perfect ripeness in my opinion.
I particularly love a bi-or tri-colored tomato and will purchase a plant just based on color, such as the magnificent beefsteak heirloom tomatoes: Big Rainbow, Hawaiian Pineapple, and Cherokee Purple. These are the tomatoes that I have enjoyed simply sliced and eaten with sea salt, basil, and really good olive oil.
(TOP) Cherokee Purple, (BOTTOM) Big Rainbow
This year I selected some new classic tomato plants that are from the “black tomato” family. These tomato plants are: Annas Noire, Black Pear, and Japanese Black Trifele. I love how these tomatoes not only have unusual brown and mahogany colored flesh with a splash of red on the inside, but they also have green colored shoulders. Some of these tomatoes also grow in a unique pear shape. These tomatoes taste delicious! Their flavor is sweet and robust…best fresh in salads with other magnificent produce and herbs. I think these are my favorite this year!
(TOP) Black Pear, (MIDDLE) Annas Noire (Black Pineapple), (BOTTOM) Japanese Black Trifele
This year I also selected a new classic heirloom tomato variety purely based on the fluted out side edges of the fruit. It is called the Costoluto Genovese. It is an old Italian variety that its seeds have been imported to America for our enjoyment. The tomato is quite meaty and it is great for sauce. But as you can see, it is beautiful and gorgeous simply sliced.
I cook like crazy during the summer; it truly is my favorite season for cooking. I really enjoy the fabulous fruits and vegetables that are so abundant in my vegetable garden, at farms, and at farmers’ markets. Cooking is simple in the summer; it is about using combinations of excellent quality produce with good cuts of fresh protein, season it with the proper herbs, spices, and of course fantastic extra virgin olive oil, a hot grill, and then serve.
Fresh tomato, grilled corn, red onion, and basil salad
Tomatoes are included in most of my favorite summer recipes. One of the first dishes I make as soon as I have ripe tomatoes is the simple pasta dish of chopped fresh tomatoes sautéed with fresh olive oil, garlic, and finished with basil at the end to preserve the freshness and green color of the herb. When I harvest my Italian sweet peppers I roast them with tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. I love this dish as a simple appetizer on bread with good cheese. Or, my favorite way to eat the peppers is with my grilled herbed steak. Awesome! I get real creative when it comes to salads. I enjoy tomatoes in salads with blanched string beans with red onion, or fresh grilled corn and basil, or with home grown cucumbers and feta. The combinations are endless. I also make a big batch of savory tomato jam with my friend Martha. The tomato jam makes a delicious appetizer on good cheese with bread or accompanied with grilled herbed chicken. I also love to slow roast tomatoes in the oven with a drizzling of EVOO, a sprinkling of coarse sea salt, a bit of cracked pepper, and fresh thyme. These little morsels burst with flavor and can be used in a litany of ways. I eat them as an appetizer on bread with cheese, add them to soup and stews, puree them with vegetable stock and bread for a hearty cold Tuscan tomato and bread soup, or serve them with scrambled eggs, fresh snipped chives, and a dollop of sour cream. The options are endless….just get creative!
Enjoy this wonderful time of year when your tomatoes are at their absolute best. Don’t waste them…they freeze so easily. May your tomatoes remind you of childhood memories too!
Appetizers topped with savory tomato jam, slow roasted tomatoes, and Petit Basque cheese
Recipes below. Enjoy!
12 small to medium fully ripened tomatoes
coarse sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
6 thyme sprigs
Wash and de-stem the tomatoes. Cut them in half across the middle of the tomato. Line a baking pan with parchment and place the tomatoes cut side up on the pan. Sprinkle tomatoes with the salt, pepper, drizzle with the olive oil, and place the thyme sprigs around and on top of the tomatoes. Roast slowly in a 250 degree oven for 3-4 hours or until desired doneness. Tomatoes can be stored in a glass jar with a little olive oil poured over the tomatoes. Tomatoes can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Serve at room temperature.
Savory Tomato Jam
Makes 10 half pint size jars
9 lbs. of ripe paste tomatoes (such as San Marzano, New Jersey Red Devil, Roma, etc.)
2 medium red onions, finely chopped
6 Fresno chilies, finely chopped
1 cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup apple juice
2 cups sugar
3 Tablespoons fresh Summer Savory, minced
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Clean and wash the tomatoes. In batches, put the tomatoes in the water to have the skins crack open where you may peel them easily. It is easier to core them before the boiling process – easier on the hands. Save about two cups of the boiling water. Starting with one cup of the water, add the onions and chilies sautéing them in the water. Add additional water if necessary if onions need more liquid. Cook onion mixture until soft. Meanwhile, peel the tomatoes and crush them in your hands. Add tomatoes to the onions along with all other ingredients. Simmer on medium heat stirring tomato mixture frequently. After 30 minutes, take a potato masher and mash the tomatoes in the pot. Continue to cook for another 20 minutes +/-. The watery tomato liquid in the jam needs to dissipate and the jam needs to thicken. Cook to desired thickness.
Can be canned since it has no oil and plenty of acid. Refer to canning instructions for jam.