When I think about making tomato sauce, I think about the dead of winter and the warm comfort of a huge plate of spinach lasagna or how not guilty I feel about eating a Stromboli with arguably too much cheese.
I don’t think about 80-degree September weather.
But now is the time. Canning is in full swing. Think of the story of the ant and the grasshopper. Be the ant. Be prepared (Wait, isn’t that Scouts?). Make sure you have enough (delicious, locally sourced) food to get you through a hard winter.
For me, winter is much more tolerable if I can still taste fresh tomatoes in at least some of my dishes.
I have this theory that, if you’re trying to get back in touch with the seasons, trying to buy and eat local, you know you’re there if you eat foods until you’re sick of them and then move onto something else. It happens to me every year, every season. The first asparagus and strawberries in spring come in and I’m thrilled like I’ve never tasted them before. By the time they’re on their way out, I’m fine with it because I’ve eaten them near-daily for two months, and I’m ready for zucchini and peaches.
There are only three things I never, ever, tire of, and am always sad to see go: Vidalia onions, Honeycrisp apples and, you guessed it, tomatoes.
I don’t can my own tomatoes. I should, but I don’t. Perhaps someday. (If you can, check out the most recent issue of Smart Magazine for a story on canning and preserving summer’s harvest.) What I do, though, is make large batches of tomato sauce and freeze it. I plan to start that project this weekend.
For sauce, I like Roma or Big Boy tomatoes. Brandywines would work well, too. I know some people blanch the tomatoes to easily remove the skins before pureeing, but I don’t even do that. A few more pulses in the food processor, plus the long cooking time, will break the skin down.
I mentioned the warm September weather as not being the optimal time to make sauce because, to me, the secret to the perfect tomato sauce is how long you let it simmer.
Assembling the ingredients for sauce and getting it started on the stove takes 15 minutes. But the magic happens in the simmer. The onions break down and release their sugar, which balances the acidity of the tomatoes. The herbs infuse every molecule. And the mushrooms become engorged with all the intermingling flavors.
This is part 3 of my tomatophile confessions, and it’s also the third time I got too hungry not to take a snack break before actually posting the recipe—which is basic but, in my humble opinion, delectable.
My tomato sauce
- 1 quart of fresh tomato puree, or your already-canned tomato puree (I don’t know how many tomatoes make a quart of puree. Doesn’t everyone buy tomatoes by the four-dozens?)
- 1 large portabella mushroom cap, whole
- 1 medium-sized red onion, diced
- 2 tablespoons of fresh grated Parmesan cheese (Yes. In the sauce. Not on top of the pasta. In the very sauce.)
- 3-5 cloves of garlic, minced (If you’re like me, you’ll hem and haw and eventually put more in.)
- Lots of chopped fresh basil (I know “lots” is relative, but it’s tomato sauce and you can’t mess it up with too much fresh basil. Use lots.)
- Optional: Fresh or dried oregano, rosemary, thyme and/or marjoram. If you have to pick just one, use oregano. A dried Italian seasoning mix in addition to the fresh basil will work just fine.
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Warm olive oil in a deep sauce pan and fry the onion and garlic for a few minutes, stirring often. When the onions start to become translucent, add the tomato puree, then all the ingredients except for the mushroom cap. Stir everything together, adding a drizzle of olive oil for flavor and richness. Then add the mushroom cap. Reduce heat to simmer and cover, but come back often to stir and sample with butter bread.
Note: The sauce will not taste remotely how it’s going to taste for at least an hour. The onion alchemy needs time. Stir and trust.
About that mushroom cap: Once upon a time, a “friend” who didn’t like mushrooms (pfft) was coming to dinner. I was making lasagna. I refused to eliminate mushrooms from the recipe because of the earthy flavor. “Friend” agreed to a compromise I proposed—a whole mushroom cap simmering in the sauce for three hours and imparting its flavor, and me swooping in to remove the offending (pfft) shroom from the final product. I tucked it into a Tupperware container and, the next day, heated it, sliced it up and ate it on a hoagie roll with Provolone cheese and a bit more sauce. I’ve done it this way ever since.
Storing: Cool this sauce completely before refrigerating or freezing. It will keep up to a week (probably longer, but I’ve never had that problem) in the fridge, and months in the freezer.