An abundance of tomatoes freshly harvested from the vine or carefully picked from a local farmer’s market is a beautiful thing. Tomatoes are the number one crop grown in American backyards, and anyone who has enjoyed a just-picked tomato, ripened on the vine and still warm from the sun knows why. It’s a food memory that lasts a lifetime. The flavor and texture of an heirloom, organic tomato cannot be matched by any that one might buy in a commercial grocery store.
With the resurgence in popularity of backyard gardening, we are blessed with the availability of a multitude of heirloom varieties…tomatoes that many of us have never had the pleasure of tasting, or seeing for that matter. Did you know that there are over 7500 varieties of tomatoes? They come in a rainbow of colors–red, gold, white, purple, black and striped. And their flavors and textures are equally as varied. If you have a chance, grow some! Or stop at an organic market that carries them (hello, New Leaf Market!) and choose a few for a tomato-tasting.
This year, we are growing Cherokee Purple, Homestead, Floradade, Roma, White Currant, Black Cherry, San Marzano, and the delightful Grappoli D’Inverno–all lovingly raised from seed. I selected these varieties for a few reasons. First of all, they are reputed to handle our hot, humid climate well. Second, they serve different purposes. Some, like Roma and San Marzano, are great for making sauce and ketchup. Others, such as White Currant and Cherokee Purple, are great for salads and sandwiches. Finally, I’m just curious and like to try new things.
Today, I was faced with bowls full of ripe tomatoes, and a craving for pasta. A simple tomato sauce or classic tomato gravy was on my mind. I took the most basic recipe possible and gave it a boost by combining all the different varieties of ripe tomatoes to make a rich, complex sauce. If you are not growing your own tomatoes and want to try this sauce, just pick up a bunch of tomatoes from the farmer’s market, and go for it. Make sure you include some varieties that are meaty and will thicken the sauce. This classic sauce freezes well, and can be used for a myriad of culinary purposes (see a few ideas below).
Heirloom Tomato Sauce
Several pounds of heirloom tomatoes (I just used whatever I had on hand–about 5 pounds)
¼-1/2 cup of good olive oil (don’t skimp…it adds to the texture)
A good handful of garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Sea salt, to taste
Natural sugar, to taste
Several sprigs of fresh thyme, or basil, or oregano
Wash and core the tomatoes, and quarter them. In a deep, heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil and gently cook the garlic until you can smell its fragrance. Add the tomatoes to the pan and let them simmer until the juices are released and the tomatoes cook down, about a half hour. You may use a fork or potato masher to break the tomatoes up if you like. Once the tomatoes are cooked down, add salt and sugar to taste.
I wanted an incredibly smooth, silky tomato sauce, so I ran the sauce through a food mill to remove the skins and seeds. Although it is an extra step, it resulted in exactly the velvety texture I desired. If you don’t have a food mill, smooth the sauce with a blender or food processor or press it through a sieve. Once the sauce is smooth, add the herbs of your choice. I tied up a small bundle of thyme, tossed it in, and let it cook until the leaves fell off the stems, then just pulled out the stems. Gently simmer the sauce to the consistency you desire, about a half hour. I cooked mine down until it was a light sauce–rich, but not too thick. This isn’t a sauce to cook for hours…the key is to highlight the vibrant, alive taste of the tomatoes.
This basic sauce can be dressed up in a hundred different ways. Here are a few ideas:
Bolognese: Brown up some good quality ground beef along with diced onions and more garlic. Add to the sauce, and serve atop pasta with shaved Parmigiano.
Jardin: Roast or sauté a variety of fresh garden vegetables (onions, carrots, squash, eggplant) in olive oil until they are caramelized, soft and sweet. Stir into the sauce and serve over pasta. Or, pile the veggies into a baking dish, top with sauce and smother with mozzarella and provolone and run under the broiler until the cheese is bubby and golden around the edges. Serve with crusty bread.
Mediterranean: To the basic sauce, add a cup or so of your favorite red wine, some sun dried olives packed in oil, and a few anchovies and simmer until the anchovies completely disappear into the sauce. Serve over your favorite pasta, and top with a healthy sprinkle of feta.
Marguerite: Cook the sauce down until it is thickened a bit more. Make or buy a great quality pizza crust, and top with the sauce. Add thin slices of fresh mozzarella (not too much!) and a couple of fresh basil leaves. Grill or bake on very high heat until the crust is slightly charred.
Enjoy the tomato harvest!