Editor’s Note: Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Edible Jersey has been sharing first person stories to help document the moment. This is the latest in our on-going series of personal perspectives on our local food community.
How do you cook your family’s favorite dishes with no sense of smell or taste?
That’s the challenge I faced late this past summer when, despite being fully vaccinated, I came down with Covid.

The good news was I could chop a mountain of onions without shedding a tear. The bad news was I couldn’t tell if they needed a dash of salt—or even if they were burning when I dared step away from the stove. 

Loath to plate anything less than ideal, I realized I had to rely more than ever on my eyes—watch that char!—ears—hear that sizzle!—and touch—feel that give! More than ever, I appreciated the importance of working with only the highest quality ingredients. Fortunately, Covid 19 had no impact on the tomatoes and basil I tended in a modest vegetable patch just outside my kitchen window. This Jersey girl knows you can’t get any Jersey fresher than that.
Conjuring comforting culinary memories, I made a big pot of tomato sauce the way my mother, using my father’s homegrown tomatoes, taught me.

Conjuring comforting culinary memories, I made a big pot of tomato sauce the way my mother, using my father’s homegrown tomatoes, taught me. After boiling the tomatoes till softened and letting them cool a bit (there’s that sense of touch again), I transferred them to my old-school, two-piece, stainless-steel Italian passapomodoro. Consisting of a perforated pan that sits atop a receptacle, it enables me to extract more essential pulp from my tomatoes than any food mill I’ve ever tried. Crushing the warm red orbs by hand let me release my tensions along with the tomatoes’ luxurious flesh and juice. Next, I grated an onion with abandon—look ma, no tears!— and sautéed the translucent flecks in olive oil, carefully attending to their color and crackle as they cooked. Then in went the tomato, some salt and pepper, and a generous handful of basil to simmer.           

My husband said the sauce tasted delicious. I had to take his word for it.
Backyard Tomato Sauce
Makes about 5 to 6 cups of sauce
9 pounds fresh tomatoes, rinsed (about 40 tomatoes of varying sizes)*
Olive oil
1 large onion
Salt and pepper to taste
A handful of fresh basil (about 10 leaves) 
Slit the top of each tomato and place them in a large pot, with the largest tomatoes at bottom. Add about 3 cups of water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, undisturbed, until the tomatoes collapse, about 1 hour. Tomatoes will sweat as they cook. If the water level rises too high, gently ladle excess water out without squashing the tomatoes, and set aside. 
Let the cooked tomatoes rest in the pot for about 10 minutes, off heat. Carefully pour the hot tomatoes into a large colander set over a large bowl. Let the tomatoes drain for about 15 minutes. Transfer the tomatoes to the passapomodoro (tomato strainer). Drain a bit more, and remove excess water in the receptacle.
Begin crushing the tomatoes in the passapomodoro.*
In a large clean pot, grate 1 large onion. Generously cover with olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until golden.
Add the tomatoes that have been crushed so far; continue crushing the rest until only skins and seeds remain on the top tier of the passapomodoro. Make sure to scrape the underside of the passapomodoro to get all the pulp.
Add remaining crushed tomato to the pot. If the sauce seems too thick, add a bit of the reserved tomato water. Season with salt and pepper to taste; add basil. Stir, bring to a boil, and simmer for about 30 minutes or until sauce reaches desired thickness.
*Note: When high-quality fresh tomatoes are not available, substitute two 28-oz. cans of whole plum tomatoes for the fresh tomatoes, and start the recipe at “Begin crushing the tomatoes in the passapomodoro”. Cook with about 1 can of water.
Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco is a writer and editor based in Leonia. Contrary to what some may say, her senses have (mostly) returned. Her website is macfusco.com. [Photos: courtesy of the author.]
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