Monday, August 14, 2017

Homemade Tomato Sauce

I love making amazing dishes from stuff I grow myself.  Nothing tastes as good as fresh veggies straight from the hot summer sunshine, veggies that you nurtured from small plants. That's the way to eat - the less time and distance between you and your ingredients, the better the food. The sense of satisfaction I get from cooking from my own garden is immeasurable.

I am having an amazing year for tomatoes. I planted golden teardrops, which were the first to harvest and they were sweet and delicious. There was a local variety developed by a nearby farm called Janoski's. That was a firm and fleshy tomato with a bright tartness that was great on sandwiches. I also planted beefsteak tomatoes, which are gigantic and are just starting to ripen. Finally, I grew San Marzano's, the wonderful Italian plum variety so prized for its sweet flesh, low moisture and low seed count - which is the perfect variety for sauce. From a single plant I harvested no less than 50 tomatoes! I also had a head of garlic I'd harvested earlier in the season and lots of fresh herbs.  Hot damn, this is the moment I wait for all summer long! It's time to make the sauce. 


20-25 large, ripe Roma, San Marzano or plum tomatoes
1 large yellow onion 
3 large cloves of garlic
1 cup of white wine
A splash of balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of dried mushrooms, preferably Porcini
4 stems of fresh basil
Handful of fresh parsley
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp. salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

You can make your own tomato sauce with just about any kind of tomato, but certain varieties are better than others. The best tomatoes for sauce are paste tomatoes, which have low water content and fewer seeds. You won't have to cook them as long for the sauce to thicken. Save the juicy tomatoes for salads and sandwiches, they taste much better fresh than they do cooked.  Find yourself some plum tomatoes for the best sauce. 

The tomatoes need to be peeled before you can cook with them. The best way to do this is to blanch them in hot water until the skin loosens, then put them in ice water and they peel quite easily. I had a lot of tomatoes to process, so I set up a staging area with my swinging bowl of garden tomatoes, a pot of water over medium low heat, a bowl of ice water and another bowl to hold my peeled tomatoes. I put a small slit in the bottom of each tomato, just to see when the skin begins to peel away from the tomato. I put three or four tomatoes into the pot at a time, allowing them to sit until the skin started to roll back from the flesh, then scooped them out and dropped them to the ice water. While they were cooling, I put the next batch into the pot. By the time I had peeled the first batch, the next one was done blanching. Once I started, the whole operation went pretty quickly and in 30 minutes, I had processed about 25 ripe San Marzano tomatoes. 

Peeled tomatoes
With the tomatoes standing by, it was time to get the sauce started. First, I put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and covered them with hot water to rehydrate. I diced the onion and threw it into a deep saucepan over medium high heat with some olive oil. I like to add my spices at the beginning to cooking so they have a chance to bloom in the oil, so in went the salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and dried oregano. I let that cook for about 10 minutes until the onions softened and just started to turn golden brown. Now, when it comes to adding the garlic, there are a few different ways you can go. If you crush your garlic, it releases more of its essential oils and you get a very pronounced garlic flavor. You can just smash your garlic cloves a bit, leaving large pieces that will impart mild flavor but that you can fish out later. You can cut your garlic into large chunks, which basically has the same effect as leaving it whole. I like to slice my garlic for sauce. You end up with beautifully soft and sweet garlic slices that impart their flavor without being overpowering. Given that my garlic was really fresh and came out of my own garden about a month earlier, it was pretty assertive to begin with. I thinly sliced three medium cloves of garlic and added them to the onions. If you add the garlic too early, it burns and tastes a little bit like gasoline, so wait until your onions are cooked before you toss that garlic in. 

I let that go for a few minutes, allowing the garlic to release its flavor into the olive oil and letting the onions brown a little bit more.  All these steps help to build additional depth of flavor. Allowing the onions to caramelize and the garlic to cook and the spices to bloom adds nuance to your sauce. When everything was a little brown around the edges, I added the white wine, which sizzled and boiled when it hit the hot saucepan. This step of deglazing with wine or stock washes the caramelized food off the bottom of the pot, adding more flavor to the sauce. Wine tends to be acidic and needs to cook down to burn off the alcohol and concentrate its flavor, so I let this reduce over medium high heat until there was very little liquid left, at which point I added a splash of the water from the mushrooms and a splash of balsamic vinegar. I don't normally measure stuff like this, so a splash might be about 2 tablespoons, but you can let your own taste buds be your guide. I let that reduce down as well until there was almost no liquid left. 

Sauce before and after cooking and blending
Now that everything had cooked and simmered and reduced down, it was time to add the tomatoes. I crushed them with my hands so they were all broken up before adding them to the pot. I removed the hydrated mushrooms out of the water, which was now barely warm, then chopped them finely and added them to the pot. I made a small bundle of the basil and parsley, tied it up with kitchen string, dropped it into the pot and gave it one final stir before turning the heat to low. I wanted the sauce to reduce and thicken, which happens when you leave the pot uncovered and allow the excess liquid to cook off, but I didn't want my entire kitchen to be splattered with tomatoes, so I made a cover out of aluminum foil and draped it loosely over the top, leaving plenty of gaps for the steam to escape. 

I came back a couple times and stirred the sauce, just to see how it was coming along. After an hour, I fished out the fresh herb bundle, whipped out my immersion blender and blitzed that sauce until it was almost smooth but still had a slightly chunky texture. I tasted and WOW, it had intense sweet and zingy tomato flavor. It was delicious as it was, but I let it cook down for another 30 minutes just to thicken up a bit and voila, the sauce was done!

Most sauces, especially tomato sauce, taste better the next day when it has time for the flavors to meld and marry into an amazing symphony of deliciousness. I left mine sitting on the counter to cool off before putting it in jars and putting it in the fridge. My yield was about two quarts of homemade sauce and I had plans for it the following day, which included rolls of roasted eggplant and zucchini stuffed with cheese and pesto, meatballs and gnocchi. It was all scrumptious and I'm saving the rest of the sauce to serve over my own homemade pasta. So there it is - how to make your own tomato sauce that will blow the lid off any jarred product you can buy at the supermarket. If you don't have a garden, I highly suggest you go to your local farmers market while the tomatoes are in season, stock up on the right variety and give this recipe a try.