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Many of us grew up back East, where hot summer days and many equally hot summer nights brought tomatoes to full ripeness by July. New Jersey — the summer-steamy “Garden State ”— was famous all over the mid-Atlantic region for the earliness and quality of its tomatoes.

Out here along the shores of coastal California, however, it’s a completely different story. Summer days may be sunny and hot, but nights bring blessed relief and temperatures in the high 50s or low 60s as the cold fogs from the ocean rush over the land.

This is great for sleeping and perfect for gently ripening crops of fine wine grapes, but it can take tomatoes seemingly forever to finally ripen in these conditions, as anyone who’s grown tomatoes in the west county can tell you. Even in the warm inland valleys, in places like Kenwood and Glen Ellen, it may be well into August by the time you get your first tomatoes.

But now it’s September. The days are still sunny and hot, and the nights may actually be a bit warmer as the fog is less penetratingly insistent. Now is high tomato season.

Yet it won’t be long before cooler weather starts cat-facing (scarring) those tomatoes and quality starts falling off. By the time winter gets here, we’ll be back to tasteless supermarket or hydroponic tomatoes in the stores.

And as we all know, nothing — absolutely nothing — beats the taste of a vine-ripened tomato, fresh-picked, still warm from its season in the sun. The time to capture summer’s tomatoey goodness is right now.

You’ll find great tomatoes now at markets like Oliver’s, Whole Foods and the Nugget markets in Sonoma and Glen Ellen, at purveyors like Imwalle Gardens in Santa Rosa and at our farmers markets everywhere around the county.

If I’m not growing my own, I buy tomatoes by the flat. And what kind of tomatoes depends on the uses I intend for them later on during the winter and next spring.

For plain tomato sauce, I choose Italian plum varieties like Roma and San Marzano. This sauce can be used as a base for winter-fresh spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce or other tomato-based sauces for Italian dishes like lasagna and manicotti.

And if your culinary traditions are from other Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and North Africa, you’ll find this basic sauce useful, too. Heck, whiz some of this sauce into a smooth puree in a blender with a little cream and heat it to make a tomato soup, then serve it to the kids with a grilled cheese sandwich, and it’s as American as watching the Giants beat the Dodgers (except this year).

If you don’t mind delaying the work of making sauce until later in the year, just place whole ripe tomatoes in freezer bags and freeze them. When you thaw them out in January, the skins will slip off easily and you can proceed from there to use them as you wish.

When preparing tomatoes for canning, I drop them into boiling water for a minute or two, until I see a crack appear in the skin. Then I fish them out into a colander, run cold water over them, cut out the hard bit where the stem is attached, and easily peel off the skins from large round fruits.

With Italian plum tomatoes, after their boiling water bath, the meaty insides slip right out of the stem ends if you squeeze them from the bottom.

I sterilize quart Mason jars, lids and utensils and pack the jars full of the skinned tomatoes and their juices, leaving a half-inch headspace at the top of the jars. The lids rest on top and the rings go on just finger tight, so steam can escape but the lids are held on ever so lightly.

Fill a large pot with a rack in the bottom (if the jars rest on the bottom of the pot, they can crack from the heat) and fill with enough water that the level will reach about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the jars. Put in the filled jars, adjust the water level if necessary so it covers the jars by a generous half inch and turn the heat to high. Cover. When the water is boiling vigorously, note the time. Allow the jars to process in the boiling water for 20 minutes. Then remove them to a towel-covered counter and when cooled enough to handle and the lids have all snapped down and sealed, tighten the rings. When the jars have cooled completely, you can remove the rings and store the jars in a cool, dry, dark place.

Obviously it’s ideal to use organic tomatoes you’ve grown yourself, but with our wildly abundant organic tomatoes now at the markets, it’s no shame to buy them by the flat and get canning. You’ll need a generous pot with a lid. Use this recipe as a basic guide, but be creative. Add what you like. Many people add roasted garlic, steamed and mashed carrots, torn-up basil leave or sautéed mushrooms. You don’t have to add these extras when making the sauce. You can add them when you reheat the sauce just before you use it. Cook meat in the future when you’re making dinner, then add it to marinara or to the finished pasta sauce-grated parmesan-red chili pepper flake dish. Never can the meat in sauce.

Homemade Marinara Sauce

Makes 3 to 4 quarts

10 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes, peeled, with stem-end trimmed

2 cups diced yellow onion

3 cloves peeled and minced garlic

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (secret ingredient)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ cup red wine

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 2 teaspoons fresh, destemmed and chopped)

4 tablespoons fresh chopped Italian parsley leaves

Prepare the tomatoes and cook over low heat all day, stirring occasionally. Turn off stove at night and cover the pot. Uncover and cook more tomorrow, until sauce begins to thicken.

Add the onion, garlic, salt, pepper, cinnamon, olive oil and red wine and cook until sauce reduces by about half from its original uncooked level and becomes thick. Stir often at this stage to prevent burning.

Add the herbs and cook for 10 minutes more. Then can the sauce according to the directions in the text above or the directions given with your canning supplies.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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