Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tomato Sauce

These are the tomato days of summer, the season of plenty.  Tomatoes, arranged by picking day and relative ripeness, have taken over the kitchen table.  Bags of recently harvested eggplant, okra, and peppers crowd the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.  The basil is still trying to flower and needs to be trimmed back yet again.  I plan my schedule for the week around watering days, Thursdays and Sundays, and I start every other day with a trip into the garden with the cat (my supervisor), a pair of scissors, and a bowl for harvesting okra, eggplant, and tomatoes.

So why do I have a hard time enjoying this season of plenty?  Granted, watering is a chore in the drought and the daytime temperatures, by the time I get up, given my swing-shift schedule, are downright unpleasant.  But that's just the Texas summer.  The real challenge for me is that I experience the plenty not as abundance but as an extended to-do list: make pesto; eat more tomatoes; make baba ganoush; bake a pesto pizza, a margarita pizza, an eggplant pizza; make fresh salsa; make tomato soup; buy extra pasta, cheese, bread, and crackers; make an eggplant stir fry; figure out what to do with all that okra; make tomato sauce.

I put off making tomato sauce.  Not because it was difficult or less appealing, but because the tomatoes, picked slightly under-ripe to minimize splitting and bird and ant damage, and lined up on the kitchen table, seemed more able to wait than the eggplant and okra sitting in damp bags in the refrigerator.  So I pickled the okra, and baked and fried the eggplant, and made another batch of pesto, and, then, once the refrigerator wasn't so full, decided it was time to make fresh tomato sauce.

I started with several tomatoes, I'm guessing about two pounds.  These were the big tomatoes, as opposed to the grape and Porter tomatoes that I save for eating fresh, a mix fruit from JD's Special C-Tex Early Black, Old German, Sunmaster, and the one that I thought was a Celebrity that is actually making golden tomatoes.  (Note to self, it works better to write down the names at planting time than to rely on the labels staying in the ground.)  I skinned the tomatoes, chopped them, allowing some of the excess water drain away, and cooked them down in a pan where I had already fried onion and garlic in olive oil.  Once the tomato juices were reduced, I added fresh basil, salt, and black pepper.  It was a simple sauce, and the only real work of it was in de-skinning the tomatoes and trimming basil leaves from their stems.

But this simple tomato sauce had nothing to do with what I think of as "tomato sauce".  It wasn't dark red and it didn't have any of the citric acid bite of canned tomatoes.  It wasn't pastey or sugary or overly crowded with dry herbs.  Instead it was sweet and garlicky, minty in the way of fresh basil, and alive tasting.  The concentrate of summer.

Sitting at the table, surrounded by ripening tomatoes, eating fresh tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese over spaghetti, I had a moment of insight into Italian cooking and what tomato sauce originally was, back before it was a canned food.  I imagined an Italian woman, in the heat of summer, faced with basketfuls of ripening tomatoes and a hedge of basil that wouldn't stop flowering, deciding that the only way to deal with all those tomatoes was to cook them down into a sauce.  And that sauce would have been the basis of meals for the season, eaten over pasta, between bread and cheese, or chunky with added vegetables.  What a wonderful tasting season that would have been.  No wonder we try to capture it in a can.

Summer Tomato Sauce

2 pounds fresh, locally-grown tomatoes
2-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped or thinly sliced
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 bunches fresh basil, stems removed, coursely chopped
fresh cracked black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  If you're going to serve the sauce over pasta, this can be the pasta water.  Cut the top (where the stem attaches) out of the tomatoes.  Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water for about 30 seconds, or until the skin begins to peel.  Carefully remove the tomatoes from the boiling water.  Rinse the tomatoes under cold water and remove the skins.  Chop the tomatoes and set aside in a colander so that the excess water can drain from the tomatoes.

In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil.  Cook the onion over medium heat until it begins to brown, about ten minutes.  Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for another couple of minutes, or until the sting of the garlic is mellowed.

Add the chopped tomatoes and salt and stir to combine.  The sauce will be watery at this point, but that is okay because cooking will reduce the sauce, concentrating all that fresh tomato goodness.  Simmer on medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced (but not boiled away) and the tomatoes are cooked down to the desired consistency.  Add the basil, stir well, and cook for another minute.  Season with black pepper to taste.

Serve over pasta or with toasted bread.  Top with Parmesan cheese.

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