Tomatoes for Inspiration
Growing your own tomatoes to make fresh sauce can be rewarding and well worth the effort, but it does require just a little patience as you wait for your tomato seedlings to produce fruit.
In the couple of months it will take for your backyard — or container — garden to yield your tomato-sauce ingredients, be sure to water your plants well, stake them and pluck off any dead leaves. Also, be sure to pick off the tomato plants’ suckers. These are little shoots that branch off in the fork of two other branches. You pull them off because they sap strength from the tomato plant.
In about 60 days you will begin to harvest your first tomatoes. At the 70-day mark you will be able to harvest enough tomatoes to begin making sauce.
Harvest the tomatoes when they are bright red. They will fall off into your hands. If they don’t, gently tug on them and they’ll come off. If you have to pull harder than that, leave them on the plant to grow more. This is what they mean by vine-ripened.
Store the tomatoes on a platter in your kitchen while you continue to harvest over the next few days. Never put tomatoes in the refrigerator: It kills the taste.
An eight-pound harvest of tomatoes will be enough to make into sauce. Wash the tomatoes and pull out the stems. If any tomatoes are cut, have blemishes or rotted spots, discard or use for another purpose.
A basic tomato sauce
After you have washed the tomatoes, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and, when the water is boiling furiously, drop in the tomatoes all at once and drain after about a minute. This process will loosen their peels for removal. Pinch the skin off or make a small incision with a knife and peel the tomatoes. With your fingers, pull out as many seeds as possible. This will reduce the acidity of the sauce. Now, chop the tomatoes.
In a large pot, heat about one cup of extra virgin olive oil along with eight lightly crushed large garlic cloves. When the garlic just begins to turn light brown, remove and discard them.
At this point, you can make two kinds of tomato sauce: With or without onions. I prefer without onions. If you are using onions, put four chopped medium onions into the pot and cook until the onions turn translucent, in about 15 minutes, while stirring occasionally.
Add the chopped tomatoes along with one tablespoon salt, one teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and 20 large leaves of fresh basil. Increase the heat to high and cook until the sauce is quite thick, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat if it’s splattering too much.
This basic sauce is perfect on its own and can be eaten fresh over a bowl of spaghetti with some Parmesan cheese, or simmered a second time with some fried or grilled eggplant and fresh basil.
Southern Italian ragout
You also can preserve the sauce for later in the year, or you can use this fresh sauce as a starting point for more adventurous tomato dishes. You can pull out this little bit of magic and make your own ragu alla Napoletana, the classic southern Italian ragout. I’ve been making this ragout for 40 years, and my mother and her father before her made it too. They called it ragu and, as children, my sister and I would dip bread into it while it simmered and my mother shooed us away.
Ragu alla Napoletana
- Place the chopped pancetta, pork lard and olive oil in a medium-size flameproof casserole.
- Turn the heat to medium and place the beef rump into the casserole so it fits snugly. Brown the beef on both sides then add the water and cook until it evaporates in about 30 minutes.
- Dissolve a ½ cup of your tomato sauce in the red wine and pour over the beef with the basil leaves.
- Reduce the heat to very low, cover and simmer until tender, 4 hours.
- Remove the beef to be served as a second course. Season with salt and pepper. Cool the ragout in the refrigerator, then remove the layer of fat.
- Stir in 2½ cups of your tomato sauce, and now you have ragu alla Napoletana for spaghetti.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Tomato salad made with Early Girl tomatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright