Sunday, January 29, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: New Jersey I - Come On-A My House, My House, I'm Gonna Make A-You Gravy... or Sauce

Most of us outside of the Garden State tend to think of New Jersey as one long turnpike, and that's about it.  That does a disservice to the state, I think - a state that I have never bothered to get to know better.  I'm not heading that way anytime soon, so the next best thing - no, not watching one of the many reality TV shows based in the state - is getting to know its food.  That's what this project is all about, anyway.

Official Name: State of New Jersey
State Nicknames: The Garden State
Admission to the US: December 18, 1787 (#3)
Capital: Trenton (10th largest)
Other Important Cities: Newark (largest), Jersey City (2nd largest), Paterson (3rd largest)
 Northeast, Mid-Atlantic; Middle Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT NationsClambake
Bordered by: Delaware and Delaware Bay (southwest); Pennsylvania (west); New York (north and northeast); Atlantic Ocean (east)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: honeybee (for the honey, not the bee); brook trout (fish); knobbed whelk (shell)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Italian, Italian, and more Italian; diner foods; pork roll (aka Taylor ham); "ripper" dogs and various preparations thereof; very diverse cuisines (inckluding Italian, Indian, South American, etc) around Philadelphia (southwest) and New York City (northeast); Did I mention Italian?

Flanked by Philadelphia to its southwest and New York City to its northeast, New Jersey is one of the more ethnically diverse states in the Northeastern region of the United States.  As Wikipedia notes, New Jersey has some of the largest percentages of any state of Americans of Italian, Irish, African, German, Polish, Chinese, Jewish, Indian, Costa Rican, Cuban and Middle Eastern descent (among others).  Jersey also has one of the largest percentages of American Muslims and American Jews.  It's just a friggin' diverse place.

Among all ethnic groups in the Giardino State, New Jersey is by far best known for its large Italian-American population.  Sure, when we think of Italians in the Northeast, we think of New Yorkers: the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and so on have given us many of this nation's most famous celebrities of Italian heritage.  But per capita, New Jersey just has more.  And very, very few of them are orange.  Hell, my great-grandparents came right over from Salerno.  They weren't orange!  Sure, they made a beeline right from Ellis Island to Baltimore, but had they stopped in Newark, they certainly would've stayed that same shade of olive that I remember my grandmother's skin looking like.  But I digress.

New Jersey is specifically Southern in nature... Southern Italian, that is.  As noted in PRIMO Magazine.  In Newark, for example, we find many Americans of Sicilian, Campanian and Calabrese heritage.  Italian-Americans in Newark arrived late in the 19th century, as they did to much of America.  At one time, according to the author, Newark's 1st ward - "The North Ward (now the Central Ward) was once 95% or more Italian" [Cristaldi 2001].  It was once a bustling Little Italy in its own right, and even Frank Sinatra had baked goods shipped to him right from this neighborhood [Cristaldi 2001].

Of all the Italian foods that have become a part of the fabric of American food, none is more ubiquitous than tomato sauce.  You need it for most of the other Italian foods that are popular in the US: pizzas, pastas, lasagnas, and so on.  There are many variations on the basic tomato sauce.  For a few years now I have used one I saw Adam "Amateur Gourmet" Roberts make (a la Lidia Bastianich) at the Baltimore Book Festival (Adam was cooking under a tent.  I and my copy of his book got drenched by a severe downpour).  Bastianich's recipe is a good one, but I've never bothered to use it as a base for other sauces.  I will likely do that with the Bastianich sauce I have in the freezer.  But instead I will familiarize myself with another "quick" recipe, this time from Naples (the reason for that will be clear in the next State-by-State post after this one).  And I've been looking for a reason to use my copy of Arthur Schwartz's Naples at Table for a while now.

Schwartz's book, one I have kept on my bookshelf for years, has a whole chapter just on "The Classic Sauces" (or "Gravies" as referred to by some Italian-Americans, though by no means all).  Many of them are made from those wondrous San Marzano tomatoes, which are now pretty easily available in major metro areas.  One tomato sauce that serves as an important base for many heartier tomato sauces is the classic sugo di pomodoro - the smooth tomato sauce.  Schwartz notes that while Neapolitans prefer to use fresh tomatoes, they feel no shame at all in using the preserved stuff.
Bottled tomatoes are definitely preferred over canned, and many households, even those in the center of bustling, urbgan Naples, still go to the trouble of putting up what they consider the world's best tomatoes - their own San Marzano, grown at the foot of Vesuvius as well as in gardens and farms all over the region.  Bottled tomatoes are also sold in the groceries... In theory, they don't have as strong an acid edge (or metallic edge, if you will) as canned tomatoes, but all processed tomatoes, no matter what brand or in which material they are packed, get more acidic, bitter, and mushier with age.  It's best to use canned or jarred tomatoes within six months of their packing. [Schwartz 1998: 50]
I bought myself a big old can of San Marzano tomatoes, which may very well have been packed before those requisite six months ago, for this recipe.  A 35 ounce can will yield four cups of sauce if you keep the liquid in the sauce, instead of reserving it for something else like Schwartz suggests.

The Recipe: Sugo di Pomodoro Pelati (Smooth Neapolitan Tomato Sauce from Canned Tomatoes)

The recipe I used, with exact measurements, can be found on pages 50-51 of Schwartz's Naples at Table book.  I made just a few minor adjustments, but still I didn't need that many ingredients.  And you won't either.

* canned San Marzano tomatoes (note: not just tomatoes, and for the love of God not "Italian flavored tomatoes".  These Campanian beauties are what you need for your homemade tomato sauce.  This extra-large can was about $4 from Pastore's Italian Deli in Towson)
* olive oil (had it)
* onion & garlic (Schwartz actually suggests onion or garlic, but I wanted both.  Neapolitan cuisine does not go all heavy on the garlic. It's a subtle, special flavor that is added in moderation)
* salt and hot pepper flakes (here I ground up a dried Mexican red chile)
* basil (had some in the freezer - frozen but just as flavorful)

Start by sauteing the garlic and onion.  You need to remove the garlic after a few minutes in the oil.  This is more difficult if you chop it up and throw it in.  Trust me.

Note the beautiful tomatoes.  While Schwartz suggests not adding the liquid, I wanted to do just that.  Many recipes for this basic sauce say to add the liquid, while others say not to.  I figured it was a personal decision.

Dump out those maters and squoosh 'em with a food mill (or lacking that, your hands).


Add the tomatoes to the pot, along with the salt and pepper.

Let simmer for about 10 minutes, adding the basil towards the end, for a more intense flavor.

This is a pretty simple recipe, and not too different from others I have seen.  With this, I don't understand why someone would use tomato sauce in a jar.  It's about the same price considering how much you get, plus it has none of that crap in it.  It's just a lovely tomato sauce.  And in the next post, we'll see how this basic sauce becomes (yes) the base for something more complicated.


Accidental Scientist (Exploratorium).  "Saltwater Taffy Recipe".  Date unknown.  © The Exploratorium,, 2011

Cristaldi, Justin R.  "Little Italy Across the Hudson".  PRIMO Magazine, September/October 2001.  Copyright Cristaldi Communications 1999-2001.

Giudice, Teresa, with Heather MacLean.  Skinny Italian: Eat It and Enjoy It - Live La Bella Vita and Look Great, Too!  Hyperion: New York, 2010

Jersey Pork Roll (  "What is pork roll?"  Published 2005.  Copyright JerseyPorkRoll 2011.

Schwartz, Arthur.  Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania.  HarperCollins: New York, 1999.

Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. 500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Boston, 2009.

Virtual New Jersey Shore (  "Salt Water Taffy at the Jersey Shore". Published 1999.  Copyright New Jersey MetroNET, Inc., 1999.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "New Jersey" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "New Jersey".