A short while ago, it seemed like a brilliant idea to procure 20 pounds of fresh, organic late-summer local tomatoes from my favorite farmer. A stroke of genius, I thought. Fresh tomato sauce (via the freezer) in the dead of winter. What could be better?
And then, on a Wednesday evening, reality set in. It came in a large box that smelled faintly of a rogue tomato gone bad.
"You should probably cook these today or tomorrow," said the farmer. On Wednesday night. In the middle of my workweek. (Sigh.) So, dutifully, Thursday after cooking dinner, began the great tomato massacre. (Insert creepy music here...)
Did I mention that I had never actually made fresh tomato sauce? So, I decided to try two different sauces. Kind of like airline fuel hedging, but for tomatoes (sorry, random MBA reference... sometimes I wonder if I should have just gone to culinary school instead). So, with two sauces, at least one is bound to turn out OK, right? Um... right... (Insert dripping sarcasm)
Fresh Tomato Sauce
For the sauces, I turned to my trusty copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, where I found a recipe for Fresh Tomato Sauce that promised to take about 20 minutes, did not require peeling the tomatoes first, and provided a great way to use my wilting CSA basil. Here's the basic gist:
- 3 pounds ripe tomatoes (I approximately tripled this entire recipe)
- 3 tablespoons chopped basil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Place roughly chopped tomatoes in a heavy pan with basil. Cover and cook over medium-high until the tomatoes break down (about 10 minutes), being careful not to scorch. Then pass tomatoes through a food mill. If you want the final sauce to be thicker, return it to the pot and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until it's as thick as you want. Season with salt and pepper, and stir in the oil.
So after all that, and about a half hour of simmering, I got this: a watery, seedy tomato soup. And the food mill pass-through? I swear I now have tomato seeds on my ceiling, the top of the refrigerator, the back of my retinas, and every other surface within a 10-foot radius. I gave up on this sauce, strained out the seeds and put it in the fridge to become tomato soup. Or possibly a large bloody Mary. (But not too large... it was only about one cup. One cup!) So, I humbly ask you... what did I do wrong? (And I am pretty sure it was my error, since this cookbook has always yielded good results.)
Tomato Sauce Concasse
So, on to sauce two: Tomato Sauce Concasse (which sounds a lot more exotic than what it could be called: sauce with diced tomatoes). This one sounded more like what I was expecting. Cut Xes on the tomatoes, and plunge in boiling water. Remove the skins. (Burn fingers due to impatience.)
Then seed and dice the tomatoes. (Burn fingers some more, and create horror flick storyboard.)
Oh yes, little one... guess what is your fate? Mwah hah hah....
Then heat some olive oil (recipe called for butter) over medium heat, and add 1 small diced onion for every 3 pounds of tomatoes used. Cook onion for about 5 minutes, then add tomatoes and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the watery juices have cooked off. This took about an hour for me, although the recipe said 15-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (Along with the tomatoes, I added some fresh thyme--why not?--and dried oregano.) Here's what it looked like to start:
After about an hour, it was still watery and tasted wimpy. So I called in the cavalry and added an entire can of tomato paste and some salt and pepper. Maybe that was cheating, but it worked, and it was well past my bedtime at this point (which is why I don't have an "after" photo). It turned out OK. (But, sadly, still not as good as sauces I've made from canned tomatoes.) But still, several pounds of tomatoes remained.
Fast forward to the weekend (wouldn't it be great if you could really do that?)... and I took up my knife once again. A bit beat down by sauces, I decided to roast the remainder of these little devils, following Mark Bittman's instructions for Oven-Roasted Plum Tomatoes (yes, I realize I was not using plum tomatoes). I roughly chopped the remaining tomatoes and removed their seeds, then lined them up on a big cookie sheet and doused them in olive oil.
After roasting for about 45 minutes in a 325 oven, they were delightful sprinkled with a little sea salt.
I froze these in small portions to use later this winter (for more sauce, probably).
So what I've learned from this experience: don't be afraid to fail at new things (generally the results are still edible), don't squeeze the food mill with too much vigor, and never, ever take canned tomatoes for granted!
Sneak preview: My next "victim"? Cutest little pumpkin ever. (Commencing evil cackle...)