Tomatoes are the glory of a summer vegetable garden. Or so the books tell us. But where I’m from, whether Maine or Tuscany, it’s really the late, late, almost-autumn garden that bursts with overburdened tomato plants, their tops occasionally still putting out yellow blossoms while the lower branches groan under the weight of hefty fruits.
Heirlooms? You betcha! Although one woman’s heirloom is another woman’s pride of the Burpee catalog. (An heirloom, after all, is something handed down over generations; many so-called heirlooms are recent arrivals on the tomato scene.)
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Be that as it may, now is the time to undertake the happy task of slicing, salting and slurping up fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes. There is no task more humbling before the goodness of god or nature or whatever is responsible for all that is right in the world than the taste of a garden-ripened tomato, its darkly burnished skin still warm from the Indian summer sun. In Catalonia, the national breakfast, which has rapidly taken over the rest of Spain too, consists of one of those tomatoes cut in half and pressed into a rough-textured slice of bread, smooshed so deeply that all the juices penetrate and nothing is left but the skin and a few seeds. With a splash of olive oil and a scraping of garlic, this is a royal treat.
Garden tomatoes perfect for making sauce
When you tire of fresh, raw tomatoes, turn them into a deep red, savory sauce for pasta. Melt a clove of garlic in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and stir in about a pound of tomatoes chunked into wedges. Add a sprinkle of sea salt, a pinch of sugar (always good to bring out the tomato flavor), a couple of herbs (parsley? a bay leaf? a sprig of rosemary? a handful of fresh basil?), and cook until the tomatoes are uniformly soft. (If you want to peel them before cooking, drop each one into boiling water for 10 to 15 seconds, then remove and the skin will lift right off. I confess I don’t find this necessary.) Once the tomatoes are melting in their own juices, take a stick blender and blend everything together right in the pot. If the sauce is thin, put it back on the heat for a few minutes to simmer and thicken. If it’s too thick, add a few tablespoons of boiling water or cream and blend it in.
Variations? Add a chopped yellow onion and a broken red chili pepper right in the beginning with the garlic. Or beat fresh, raw olive oil into the tomatoes at the very end. Mix with the pasta and toss with grated cheese.
Now the days are growing short and nights are growing cool and there’s an intimation of frost in the air, but farmers markets and produce stands still are lavish with tomatoes. It’s time to lay in a supply for winter. By that I mean a supply of bottled and frozen tomatoes and tomato sauce. Few things make a cook’s heart happier than a larder full of jars of summer produce ready to become winter meals. Just when the weather turns bitter cold, the wind howls around the kitchen windows, the wood stove starts to smoke from the down draft, and summer is only a memory, open a jar of tomatoes, throw them in a pot, add some beans and vegetables and a handful of pasta or rice, and there’s a heart-warming bowlful of sunshine ready for supper.
Freezing is an even easier way to deal with a plethora of summer tomatoes. Maine cook Barbara Damrosch taught me this. Wash and dry the tomatoes — it’s best if they don’t have any blemishes — and simply drop them by the half-dozen, or less if they’re large, into gallon-size resealable bags. Into the freezer they go, and come January, pull out a bag, set the tomatoes right in a colander in the sink after breakfast and by suppertime you practically have a tomato sauce all ready to go. A little of that magical garlic and olive oil is about all that’s needed for summer to inhabit your table once more.
(Preserved Tomato Sauce)
Pomarola is what my neighbors call the tomato sauce they put up for the winter larder. Making it is just as easy as making simple pasta sauce and closely follows the same method except in greater quantities. I buy from my farmer 20 pounds of what are called “seconds” — meaning tomatoes that are a little bruised, a little misshapen — and plan to put them up in two, 10-pound batches, just for ease of maneuver. For 10 pounds of tomatoes, you will also need a half-dozen pint-sized (2 cups) glass canning jars (“Mason jars”) with self-sealing tops.
Before you do anything else, rinse the Mason jars, set them on a wooden board or countertop and fill each to the top with boiling water. Do this next to the sink so it will be easy to tip the hot water out when it comes time to do so. (Alternatively, you can put the jars right in the dishwasher and run them through just before you’re ready to use them .) Put the tops in a bowl and pour boiling water over them.
Here are the quantities for making it yourself:
3 or 4 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed or sliced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
10 pounds fresh red ripe tomatoes, rinsed, bruises cut out, cut in wedges or chunks
2 teaspoons sea salt or more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar or more to taste
Optional: 1 or 2 dried red chili peppers, seeds discarded, chopped in pieces; freshly ground black pepper ; 1 small bunch (4 or 5 stems) fresh basil, coarsely chopped; 4 or 5 stems fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley; 2 bay leaves; or other herbs; add a little of any or several of these, then taste and add more if it seems called for.
1. Put the garlic in the bottom of a heavy, 3- or 4-quart saucepan, along with a good glug or two (about ¼ cup) of best-quality extra virgin olive oil.
2. Set over medium-low heat and cook gently, stirring, until the garlic has softened. Then tip in the tomatoes and stir. You should not need to add any additional liquid as there will be sufficient in the tomatoes themselves to keep them from burning on the bottom of the saucepan. Stir them frequently and, as the tomatoes start to cook down, add the salt and sugar and any additional seasonings that you wish. Let cook for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring from time to time, until all the tomatoes are broken down.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool slightly. (Remove bay leaves or whole chilies if you used them.) Then take a stick blender and blend the contents of the pan thoroughly. The advantage of a handheld blender is that you can control the texture of the resulting sauce, making it as rough or as smooth as you wish.
4. If the sauce is too thin, return it to the heat and cook down until it is as thick as you want. If it’s too thick, stir in a little boiling water until it reaches the consistency you’re looking for. If you want to add olive oil, beat it at this point, a little at a time, using the stick blender. Before you finish, taste the sauce and add more salt or sugar if necessary.
5. Have your jars ready, tipping out the hot water if you have used it. Immediately fill the jars with the hot tomato sauce, filling them to within a half-inch of the top. Immediately screw down the lids. Wipe any excess sauce off the jars and set aside to cool. After a half-hour or so, a little ping from each lid will indicate it has sealed. Any jars that don’t seal should be refrigerated and used in the next few weeks, or processed in a boiling water bath (see below).
Directions for a boiling water bath
I don’t usually process plain tomato sauce any further because there is sufficient acid in tomatoes to keep in my unheated pantry throughout the winter without damage. However, if you wish to do so, and you don’t have special canning equipment, it’s easy.
1. Line the bottom of a big stock pot with kitchen towels to keep the jars from banging around.
2. Set the jars upright in the pot, using more kitchen towels if necessary to keep the jars from banging together. Add water to cover the jars; the water should be room temperature or slightly hotter.
3. Set over medium-high heat and bring the water to a simmer. Let the jars simmer in their boiling water bath for about 20 minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
4. As soon as you can handle them, remove the jars and set aside. Once again, you should hear that satisfying ping when the lids seal.
Top photo: Jars of tomato sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins