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Start With The Perfect Tomato

Image: "Organic" by SSegal
Contributor: Ron Fenolio, Veedercrest Estates

Building a Tomato Sauce

The tomato, and tomato sauce, are gifts to Italians and to the world from the Aztecs and South America. Tomato history is traced to the region surrounding the Andes–Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. The earliest recorded use of tomatoes in cooking dates to the period of 500-1000 AD in Mexico. Tomatoes were brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, and originally were considered poisonous. Only in the 16th century did they come into common use in European cooking. But what a run it has had since then! Pastas, pizzas, braises and stews–we cannot contemplate fine cuisine today without this fruit.

Tomato sauces are built layer upon layer, starting from the simplest and building to the complex, and are full of flavor and nuance. A great tomato sauce starts with a great vine-ripe tomato. A flavorless inferior tomato cannot possibly make a great sauce. Either grow your own tomatoes or buy them in season at a farmers’ market. If it is off-season, use a good quality canned San Marzano tomato to make your sauce. If you are lucky enough to have the perfect vine-ripe tomato, the first decision will be whether to skin the tomato or not. Some find the tomato skin to be “tough” and prefer to remove it. If you are one of those, mark an “x” at the bottom of the tomato with the point of a knife, dunk it in boiling water for no more than one minute, and then plunge it into a bath of ice water, take it out immediately, and the skin should just slip off. Alternatively try the microwave oven for no more than 30 seconds. If you are skilled with a peeler or paring knife and the tomatoes are still “firm” use the peeler or knife but you will lose a little more flesh. If you don’t find the skin objectionable and you don’t mind a little “texture” to your sauce, leave the skin on, especially if the tomatoes are very ripe (soft). Next you must deal with the seeds. It is easiest to cut a tomato in half and squeeze the seeds out with the “water” in the tomato center.

Uncooked Tomato Sauces
Why do so many recipes call for cooking the tomato slowly for several hours? Tomatoes are primarily water. The slow simmering is used to evaporate the water, concentrating the tomato flavor. But it is not necessary. The simplest sauce tomato sauce is just a blender away. Put the pulp into a blender. Purée until smooth. Add a little salt, some olive oil and lemon juice, and for a little more flavor some fresh basil julienned (cut into narrow strips), and call it a day. Toss with pasta, top with some more basil leaves and parmesan cheese and enjoy. No cooking necessary.

If you love bruschetta or Panzanella salad, you might find “Pasta alla Panzanella” will become your all time summer favorite pasta. Finely dice red onion and garlic and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Combine in a bowl with a fair amount of salt, and cover with olive oil. It should taste salty. Chill in the refrigerator for several hours. To serve, arrange a thick bed of fresh basil on the bottom of a wide pasta bowl (or use basil and arugula). Cook spaghetti or penne until al dente, pour the hot pasta on top of the fresh basil, and then add the cold refrigerated sauce and toss like a salad. The flavors will just explode. No parmesan, just twists of fresh ground pepper. You can use the same sauce to put as a topping on toasted ciabatta bread for a wonderful crostini or bruschetta. (NB: the difference between crostini and bruschetta has to do with the bread. Bruschetta are typically made from whole, wide slices of rustic bread. Crostini are smaller pieces, made by slicing a finer-textured baguette, for example.)

Cooked Tomato Sauces
Cooked tomato sauces come in so many variations it would take a large volume all by itself to describe them all. The similarities, though, are the most significant; the differences are a matter of taste. Start with the simplest of cooked tomato sauces and add ingredients and complexities to come up with different sauces with different flavors.

Sometimes the simplest of presentations makes one of the most impressive sauces. For the novice chef, a recipe with too many ingredients and or too many steps in the cooking process can yield poor results. The time-challenged chef (such as the working parent) may want a simple recipe. This then would be a starting point for making a basic tomato sauce: cut two pounds of tomatoes in half and cook them in a sauce pan for ten minutes. Passing them through a food mill at this point will remove the skins and seeds and you will get a nice purée. Or just start by blending two pounds of tomatoes. Remove the outer layer of skin from an onion and cut it in half. Put the onion and the tomato purée in the sauce pan with a quarter pound (one cube) of butter, a little salt, and a quarter teaspoon of sugar. Gently simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the onion and serve over pasta. You can add parmesan and/or julienned basil for additional flavor. If you don’t have good quality fresh tomatoes start this sauce with a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes, and blend with the juices. Yes you could use olive oil instead of butter but will end up with a different flavor, creaminess and richness will be reduced. Also, whenever we say “salt,” “sugar,” “pepper,” “red pepper flakes,” or “garlic” in these or any recipes, the final amount is up to the individual tastes of the chef and the dinner guests. Stated quantities are only a guide.

Want to take a step up in the complexity of flavor? Make a marinara. Start with a soffritto* (diced garlic, onions, carrots and celery sauteed in olive oil, (you could also add fennel, bell peppers and/or shallots, each yielding a slightly different flavor). Add the tomato purée, salt and sugar, and simmer gently until finished. *[See the article on “Odori” in this series].

Marinara Based Sauces

Arrabbiata Add chili flakes–makes the sauce hotter. The purists will not use a full soffritto but only sautéed garlic.

Pasta alla Norma A “Norma” is a marinara sauce used to dress a pasta that is combined with fried or roasted eggplant cut similarly to short French fries and placed over the top of the pasta before saucing.

Amatriciana Start with guanciale (cured pork cheek). Dice it and brown it in a pan, remove the guanciale and sauté garlic in the remaining fat (you an also use pancetta or bacon, but again, with slightly different flavor results). Add back the meat plus the tomato purée, salt and sugar, and simmer until the desired consistency is reached (at least 20 minutes).

Meat Sauces
Start the sauce with browned Italian sausages, browned ground beef, pork or lamb, crumbled browned bacon, or any combination thereof, (each different base meat or combination yielding a slightly different flavor), add the soffritto and tomato purée and finish the sauce. Finishing requires simmering until the desired consistency or the desired tenderness of meats and vegetables is reached. A smaller dice of vegetables and meats requires less time to tenderize than chunks. Tougher cuts of meat take longer to tenderize. So the timing of “finishing” you will learn by experience.

Ragu Napolitano (Sunday gravy)
The Cadillac of meat sauces. It starts with browning whole Italian sausages, pork spare ribs, beef short ribs, lamb shoulder, or meatballs. Then, adding the various ingredients for your version of tomato sauce, and slowly simmering until the meats are fork-tender, probably at least two hours, if not more, depending upon the cut of meat and size of cubes. The gravy is served over pasta as a first course, and the meats are served separately as the main course of the meal.

Seafood-Based Sauces
Of course you can prepare your marinara sauce and add clams, shrimp, mussels and crab, or any of them, and/or firm-fleshed white fish, and voila: Cioppino! Or, for more variations, include more broth for “brodetto” (Italian fish stew). Add fennel, saffron and cumin, use all fish and no shellfish, and you have “bouillabaisse” (fish stew originally from Provence)!

This version is based more on meats (ground beef, ground pork, ground lamb, skinned sausage, and even ground chicken liver) cooked slowly for several hours with cream, white wine, and tomato paste, but not with marinara. Bolognese takes the focus away from tomatoes and focuses the sauce on the richness of the meats. Short cuts can be used to shorten cooking time. Tomato paste can be used to intensify the tomato flavor and also can be used as a thickener. The required simmering time is then reduced. One great way to intensify the flavor of a tomato sauce is to add an acid. A great sauce is a balance between sweet and acid. Tomatoes are sweet, as they are a fruit, and carrots and onions have a lot of sweetness, too. Tomatoes are also acidic, but so are wines, vermouths, Marsala, citrus juices, vinegars—there are many flavors and products you can add to get to the right balance. (My favorite acids are wine, brandy, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar and lemon zest.) To achieve the balance you can add any of these acids and temper with sugar, if necessary.

Last, a note on tomato paste
Tomato paste can intensify flavors and act as a thickener, which incidentally slow-simmering also does. But try a little magic. Blend one can of 28-ounce whole plum tomatoes in their juice with one-half of a 28-oz jar of sun-dried tomatoes in their oil, with a half teaspoon of salt and two tablespoons of water. Then slowly simmer until you have a jam consistency. This will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week, and for several weeks if you float a thin layer of olive oil on top (keeps out the airborne bacteria). It also helps if you reheat it gently once per week to kill any bacteria or mold. Use in place of tomato paste.

What can be seen from the above “progression” of sauces all based upon the wonderful tomato, is that building the sauce is highly personal. Everyone will have a favorite. The point is, play with your sauce recipe. There is no “secret” list of ingredients for the perfect tomato sauce (except of course excellent tomatoes). Every “Nonna” in Italy will have her own version. One of my favorite sayings is, “There are three million Michelin-starred chefs in Italy, and each one has a name that starts with ‘Nonna’!”

So build you own versions of tomato sauce and enjoy!

By Ronald L. Fenolio
CEO/Proprietor – Veedercrest Estates LLC
Chair – Family Winemakers of California
© 2021 Ronald L. Fenolio

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