Once September turns the mid-month corner, nights start to get darned chilly in Maine. By the end of the month, we’ve already come close to a frost, and that means the tomato season is heading to collapse.
Tomatoes? Maine? I can hear your skepticism. But, yes, even in Maine we grow tomatoes, and we love them for the few very short weeks that they flourish. They’ll never be the intensely flavored ones I remember from the Mediterranean or the big fat juicy globes from New Jersey that proliferate in New York City’s Greenmarkets, but, yes, we have tomatoes and we cherish them.
Tomatoes for every season
We appreciate them so much so that we decorate our window sills from mid-September on into October with specimens we hope will “ripen” enough to be sliced into a salad. And those that are already ripe we turn into preserves for the winter — frozen whole tomatoes, tomato sauce put up in Mason jars and tomato relish for winter hamburgers and baked beans. (We’re also favorably inclined to baked beans, but more on that another time.) You can find my directions for preserving tomatoes here.
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But what to do with all that tomato sauce once you’ve got the harvest under control? The easiest thing is to make the simplest pasta sauce in the world — just open a jar of tomato sauce, chop a garlic clove coarsely, simmer it gently in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, add the tomato sauce and, if you have it, some chopped fresh herbs — parsley, basil, rosemary, all are fine — or a half teaspoon of crumbled dried oregano and perhaps a small dried red chili. Let the whole thing simmer together for no more than 5 or 10 minutes, stir in a tablespoon of unsalted butter at the end, add some freshly ground black pepper and serve it over pasta with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese.
This is guaranteed to warm all hearts on the coldest night of autumn when the rain sheets down and threatens to turn to snow.
And for a more elaborate presentation, when there’s a bit more time to cook, make a classic Tuscan pasta al forno. This is simple to prepare, but it cooks in a slow oven for a long time — perfect to start off on a chilly Saturday, then go for a long walk and have the ragu ready for you when you come home.
Pasta al forno
Prep time: About 20 minutes, mostly done during cooking
Cook time: About 3 hours
Total time: About 3 hours
Yield: Makes 8 servings
½ cup diced pancetta or guanciale
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound pork in one piece (boneless loin is fine)
Sea salt and black pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
2 pints preserved tomatoes or tomato sauce
2 cups coarsely grated mixed cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, smoked provola or similar)
½ cup ricotta
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
About 1 pound (500 grams) short, stubby pasta such as rigatoni, lumache, calamari or calamaretti, etc.
About ½ cup unflavored bread crumbs
About ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Combine the pancetta and olive oil in a heavy-duty saucepan, one that can go in the oven. Set over medium heat. Dry the pork thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper, then add to the pan. Brown the pancetta and pork on all sides; the pancetta should become crisp, and the piece of pork should be golden all around. When done, remove the browned pancetta and pork and set aside on separate plates.
2. While the meat is browning, chop together the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley to make a finely chopped mixture. You should have about 1½ to 2 cups of vegetables.
3. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
4. Add the chopped vegetables to the pan, lower the heat to medium-low and cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Then add bay leaves and the tomatoes or tomato sauce. If you’re using whole tomatoes, break them up with the side of a spoon.
5. Nestle the pork into the vegetable mixture and add water to come almost to the top of the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the saucepan and transfer to the oven. Cook very gently for about 2 hours, or until the pork is very tender and the vegetables have almost dissolved into the sauce.
6. When the ragu is ready, remove from the oven and let cool down to warm room temperature. Remove the pork and set aside.
7. Using a hand blender, blend the vegetables to a chunky sauce. (You could also use a food processor, pulsing briefly, to keep the sauce somewhat chunky.)
8. Shred or chop the pork and add to the ragu along with the reserved pancetta.
9. Set the oven to 400 F.
10. Bring 4 quarts to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil, adding a big spoonful of salt.
11. While the water is heating, mix together the grated cheeses with the ricotta.
12. Using a tablespoon of butter, grease the bottom and sides of a rectangular oven dish approximately 10 inches by 12 inches and at least 2 inches deep.
13. Spread a thin layer of ragu on the bottom of the dish. Combine the remaining ragu with the cheese mixture.
14. Add the pasta to the boiling water and stir with a long-handled spoon. Cook the pasta for just 4 to 5 minutes from the moment the water returns to a boil. The pasta will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and immediately combine the pasta with the cheesy ragu. Turn into the prepared oven dish. Top with the bread crumbs and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, then dot with the remaining butter and dribble a tablespoon or two of oil over the top.
15. Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is brown and bubbling. Remove and serve immediately.
Main photo: Jars of tomato sauce ready for the winter pantry. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins