wooden spoon

wooden spoon

I love my neighbors, especially this time of year.

I’m fortunate to have industrious ones with gardens, and they are generous with their largesse.

Right now, it’s tomatoes and cucumbers. Last month it was peaches, nectarines and apricots — all favorites and all delicious.

I’m particularly fond of garden tomatoes. We’re lucky with our sunny days and less-than-humid air, the Valley is perfect for growing them.

When I was growing up, my mother always had tomato plants. She canned what we didn’t eat and made the best-ever tomato juice.

She grew tomatoes when my girls were growing up. They would earn pocket money by ridding her plants of tomato worms. She’d pay them a nickel for each worm they found but deduct one for any she discovered when they were through. Let’s say her technique worked — they would spend half a day turning over each and every leaf so as not to be docked for any missed, and they stayed out of our hair. 

A little local agriculture history, close your eyes and picture this: Where today there’s vineyards and homes only a few decades ago were tomato fields. During harvest, you could drive out Alamo Pintado Road or Baseline Avenue and the air was filled with the tang of vine-ripened tomatoes.

Large tomato-picking machines inched their way along the rows, and Hunt’s or Del Monte trucks lined up to collect the bounty.

Harvest offered a time to earn a little extra cash. Many of my homemaker friends would hire on for two or three weeks to add to their “pin money” stash.

Pickers would sit on either side of the long trailer-like machine, and plants were uprooted and passed between them on a conveyer. Workers sorted through vines and, with a good eye and quick hands, placed tomatoes in crates. At the row's end, filled crates would be transferred to waiting trucks and off to market or the cannery they would go.

Needless to say, while not particularly easy work, these gals would make it fun. Sitting under a shade canopy, they passed the time talking, sharing recipes, singing and, of course, sharing any recent gossip.

Money earned was most often used for Christmas or, in the case of my friends, squirreled away for our annual Las Vegas trip the next spring.

Right now, it’s the right time to share a tomato favorite from the past.

Nothing dresses up pasta like fresh tomato sauce. Quick and easy, it’s ready by the time your pasta (in my case, angel hair) is cooked and drained.

If you are fortunate to have some tomato plants or perhaps a friend or two with a green thumb, try one of these.

The downside, you may never go back to canned.

Always use juicy, sweet tomatoes for this, and you can get creative with the sauce. It’s equally good over fish, other garden veggies, on pizza, etc.

By the way, a squeeze of lemon juice with anything tomato takes the flavor up several notches.

FRESH TOMATO SAUCE

1/4 cup butter or olive oil

1 1/2 to 2 pounds ripe tomatoes

1 or 2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, optional

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup fresh basil, torn or roughly chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

fresh angel hair or vermicelli pasta

olive oil

fresh grated parmesan

Wash tomatoes well, core and chop finely, reserving juices.

Melt butter or heat olive oil in large skillet. Add tomatoes, juices and garlic. Cook until heated through and garlic is tender. Add oregano and cook briefly. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. When sauce is hot and bubbling, add lemon juice, basil and pasta, toss to coat evenly.

Plate, adding a splash of olive oil, and pass the parmesan so guests can help themselves to a sprinkling or two … three or more.

Longtime Valley resident Elaine Revelle can be reached at thewoodenspoon@juno.com.

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