Friday, September 18, 2009

Sauce for a sad tomato season

As anyone who lives on the east coast knows, this has been a sad season for tomatoes. We had a rainy June, and a not-sunny-enough July, and the Late Blight set in. I planted 20 tomato plants this year, all bought either from an organic stand at the farmers market or from a local greenhouse. I planted seventeen at the community garden and three at home. My three plants at home were fine--just as the potato bug has not yet realized that there are potatoes in my garden, the blight did not find its way to my garden either. (Because I have woods on two sides and my neighbors are a small distance away, there's no other garden in the immediate vicinity.) The community garden, alas, was another story.

First the Beefsteaks went, then the Brandywines and the Jet Stars, then the large plum tomatoes I planted especially for sauce. Interestingly, the only ones that seemed to survive were the small plum tomatoes, the name of which I'm not sure. I can't even remember where I got them. I just know that even earlier this week when I was at the garden, I could rummage amidst the weeds and dead tomato vines and pick several pounds of the little ones. I have no idea why this is--perhaps they have some kind of survival instinct the larger ones don't. (I think maybe because they ripen more quickly, it's easier to pick them before they start rotting. But who knows.)

The reason I planted so many tomatoes is that last year, I didn't have as many, and I didn't make my usual vat of sauce to put in the freezer, and I missed it. But this year, blight or not, I was determined to make sauce for the freezer, whether it was from my own garden tomatoes or not. (At the farmers market, there are fewer organic and heirloom tomatoes, and the ones that are there are more expensive, but there are plenty of non-organic and non-heirloom kinds. For the most part, I decided that local, rather than local and organic, was going to have to suffice for this year.)

Anyway, I decided to go as local as possible and drove down my street, where condo developments have replaced too much of the farmland. But there are still several working farms, and from the stand at one of them, I purchased a 25 lb. box of "canning" tomatoes for $12. The tomatoes were mostly clean and intact, but I didn't want to take any chances of inviting excessive numbers of fruit flies to my kitchen, so I took them home and started chopping them up immediately.

Enough about the tomatoes. Every year, I always make some plain sauce, the long-simmered kind with onion and garlic and basil and bay leaves. But I also always make a large quantity of roasted sauce as well. My favorite recipe is from Chez Panisse Vegetables, a lovely book I found so intimidating because of its beauty that I hardly used it for the first few years I owned it. And then I discovered this sauce. It has depth to it, because of the roasted tomatoes but also because of the other vegetables in it, not just onion and garlic but also leeks and carrots and a lot of basil. The roasting brings out the flavor in the tomatoes, so even less than ideal tomatoes will make good sauce. It also doesn't take quite as much time to cook as the long-simmering kind.

I hardly ever make just one batch of this, since it's so easy to make and freezes so well. For my most recent batch, I used 10 lbs of tomatoes (5 x the recipe) and ended up with about 3 1/2 quarts of sauce. (2 1/2 quarts of that are in the freezer, and the remaining quart was used for an amazingly delicious eggplant Parmesan that I'm going to write about next.)

I've made just a few changes to the recipe. In all these years, I've never figured out what Alice Waters intended you to do with the garlic--she says to split a whole garlic bulb in half but doesn't say what to do with it. I've chosen to mince it and add it to the other vegetables. Another alternative would be to roast it with the tomatoes. I tend to roast the tomatoes longer than the recipe suggests, though this is a judgment call and also depends on whether you're ready to proceed with the sauce or not. Tomatoes that are more roasted are not a problem. The recipe also says to put the sauce through a food mill at the end. I find that this makes for a very thin sauce, and I prefer mine thicker, so I just puree the whole thing with an immersion blender at the end. (It may be tomato sacrilege, but for the most part, I don't worry about peeling and seeding the tomatoes. I've never found tiny bits of tomato skin to be a detriment to the sauce being delicious.)

I was too busy getting the sauce ready for the freezer to take a photo of it (next batch, I will), but here are some tomatoes in their sticky roasted glory.

In New England, at least, there is a nip in the air. (The annual battle of the window closings has begun in my house--I am in favor and the cats against. My fat cat, Chaya, races around the house as I close windows, wedging his rotund body underneath as if to prevent any thought of window closure. He makes a compelling case, but I usually still win eventually.) Especially if some of your windows are open because you're placating your spoiled cats, it's not a bad time to have something roasting in the oven and a pot of lovely tomato sauce--even if the tomatoes are not from your own blighted garden--simmering on the stove.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables

2 lbs. ripe tomatoes (I've used both plum tomatoes and regular tomatoes for this.)
1/4 cup olive oil (I cut down on this somewhat.)
1 large yellow onion
1 medium leek
1 small carrot
several cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1 small bunch basil (about 1/4 lb.)
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350F
Cut out a cone at the stem end of the tomatoes to remove the core, and cut the tomatoes into quarters. Toss with half the olive oil. Put the tomatoes in a baking dish and roast them, uncovered, for 30-60 minutes, stirring a couple of times to encourage even cooking. The tomatoes are cooked when the flesh is very soft and the skin separates easily from the flesh.

Peel and slice the onion. Trim, wash and dice the leek. Peel and dice the carrot. Mince the garlic.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a stainless steel or other nonreactive (not aluminum) pan. Add the vegetables and the garlic and cook over medium heat until completely soft--about 10 minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes and the herbs. Simmer, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until the flavors come together, for 30-45 minutes. Pass through food mill (if you want very thin sauce) or puree in blender ( my preference) and season with salt and pepper.

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