Thursday, November 10, 2005
Caprese—made with ripe, just-picked tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, garden basil and spendy olive oil—is one of life’s simple, perfect luxuries. But I’m tired of it. I’m tired of thick slices of heirloom tomato on my sandwiches; tired of chunky wedges of tomatoes in my salads. Tomato season is coming to an end, which is OK—I’ve had about enough fresh tomatoes.
Thank goodness, some of my colleagues at work apparently feel the same way. Ordinarily, after Jamie delivers the produce to the office, as she does every couple of weeks, the tomatoes go fast. But today there are still a bunch left in the office kitchen. I’m going to take a big bag home and make sauce.
There is something decadent about making tomato sauce with heirlooms that fetch $3.99 a pound in stores. Maybe that’s why I enjoy making the preparation into a kind of ritual.
This is a sauce I learned from my mother, who makes it with cherry tomatoes that she grows in her garden in San Jose. It is as elegant and simple as caprese, and allows the flavor of the tomatoes to come through in their concentrated sweetness. I have my own variation on the process:
Begin by putting a CD in the stereo. Something Brazilian or Cuban, maybe, or some cool, interesting jazz. Nothing with lyrics, unless it’s brand new. Chamber music might be fine, but not if it’s something you already know by heart.
Next, put a big, deep saucepan or small Dutch oven on a low-medium flame. Pour seven or eight tablespoons of good olive oil into it. Quickly, without hurrying, peel and chop a whole head of garlic.
Now, start slicing tomatoes. I use a big French chef’s knife, a beautiful Warstener that I bought at a yard sale in Virginia for five bucks. I love that knife. I sharpen it on the bottom of a ceramic dinner plate. The knife must be very sharp. If you feel that you have to use a serrated knife, don’t be ashamed.
There is an art to making it so that slicing 50 tomatoes of varying sizes into sauce-sized chunks is not tedious. You will find your own way. Here’s one way to do it:
Slice the tomato in half, then cut one half into three fat slices, and then carefully but quickly turn it and do that again, making six chunks. Then do the same with the other half. Dump the chunks into the garlic and oil. Repeat. And again. Do this 50 times.
What you will be doing, mostly, is listening to music. Caetano Veloso or Joshua Redman or Mozart (I suppose) will sound good as the kitchen fills up with a garlicky and tomatoey aroma.
When you’re about halfway done, before you get bored, take a break: grab a bunch of fresh basil, chop it coarsely, almost carelessly, dump it into the saucepan, and stir. Add some salt and pepper, some hot New Mexican red pepper, and some fresh oregano if you’ve got it. My mom’s secret: fennel.
Now is probably a good time to open a bottle of red wine. Nothing too fancy—a good $7 bottle of Valpolicella will do. After you pour a slug into the sauce, pour yourself a glass. Take a sip. Not bad, right? Now start slicing again.
I like the slicing. It is mindless but not stupid work. It involves a very basic skill. Appreciate the sharpness of the knife and the deftness of your hands.
When there are no more tomatoes, taste the sauce, and then add a bit more wine, salt, pepper, and fennel. Stir. Smell. Taste. Listen. Feel the heat of the tomatoey steam. The sauce is already thickening.
I like to cook it down for at least an hour. It’s fine to cook it down for two hours or more. In this way, it becomes what Tony Soprano calls “gravy.”
It will be so sweet. It will retain the personality and texture of the heirlooms, slightly different with each mouthful.
My two colleagues, Pedro and Nils, each have their own recipes, equally elegant.
PEDRO’S SMOOTH SAUCE:
Put tomatoes, a couple cloves of garlic (more if you like or none if you don’t), salt, pepper and a little sugar (if tomatoes are acidic—if they’re sweet no need for sugar) into a roasting pan or sauté pan (something with a high lip). Place under broiler and roast until skin blackens. Turn and blacken the other sides.
Remove and cool a bit; put in a blender and purée. Pour into a strainer (sieve or chinois), using a spatula to push the sauce through, which removes skin, seeds, garlic chucks, etc.
Pour into jars to freeze or refrigerate (2-3 days). Use to start any recipe that requires tomato sauce.
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MATT'S SUNCHOKE SOUP RECIPE:
Start with two dozen garden-fresh tomatoes—we only use fresh-from-the-farm heirlooms and slicers, the riper the better. Clean and remove core.
Slice horizontally and use fingers to remove seeds, setting them aside to strain later. Dice into 1 inch cubes.
Heat heavy saucepan, add high-quality olive oil—let it heat up and then add one clove garlic—diced—and then two diced sweet onions. Stir until the onions become translucent and then add the tomatoes. Add one-half cup fresh basil, three tablespoons fresh oregano, and two tablespoons fresh parsley—all chopped. Add two teaspoons salt, one teaspoon pepper and one teaspoon sugar.
Strain the juice from the seeds you’ve set aside into the pot too.
Stir and bring to slow boil, then reduce heat and cooked covered for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then cook uncovered for another 15 minutes.
At this point you can choose to scoop into a blender and purée to blend the textures–or not.
Then use as you would any excellent sauce. The sauce is incredibly sweet so try not to add really spicy sausage to it or use it with a recipe that calls for lots of wine because that will mask the simple elegance of the fruit.