Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Plain and Fancy - Sweet and Saucy!

The Latin botanical name for tomato is Lycopersicon esculentum, which literally translates to "wolfpeach" -- peach because it was round and luscious and wolf because it was erroneously considered poisonous.  Tomatoes are a member of the deadly nightshade family and the leaves are indeed poisonous.  Brought back from South and Central America by Cortez, tomato plants were kept in European gardens as mere curiosities and they thought them to be deadly because they were suspicious of their bright, shiny fruit.

Most likely the first variety to reach Europe was yellow in color, since in Spain and Italy they were known as pomi d'oro, meaning yellow apples.

When I was a child, my mother made a big pot spaghetti with meat sauce ONCE a year. Now that I’m all grown up and on my own, pasta with tomato sauce is a staple in my home.  It’s satisfying, comforting  . . . a real feel good food.

Now that my garden is now putting forth heaps of tomatoes I took opportunity to do something I’ve never done before.  I made tomato sauce from the ground up (literally) and it was amazing!

Making the sauce from fresh tomatoes is a little labor intensive but entirely worth the effort.  While the sauce is cooking the aroma will drive you wild! If you can’t wait . . . dip a slice of smooshy white bread in the sauce . . . NOM-dilly-icious!

Here’s how I did it . . . tomato sauce from scratch. 

The Tomatoes
I chose red and yellow tomatoes for my sauce . . . mainly because that’s what was ripe and available.  You can use whatever tomatoes you have . . . the fresher the better!
Prepping the tomatoes
Removing the skins is important – the skins don’t break down as the sauce is cooking so if you skip this step you’ll have tough bits in the sauce.   Removing the skins is actually very easy . . .  place a few tomatoes at a time in boiling water for about 30-45 seconds – the skin starts to look a little wrinkly. Remove them and immediately plunge them into ice water.  This skin comes right off the tomatoes!
Next, remove the seeds and water. You don’t have to get every single seed but remove as many as you can so that you end up with a nice smooth sauce.  Cut each tomato in half and scoop the seeds out with your fingers.  Then drain the tomatoes.  You can reserve the juice to make bloody mary’s or for cooking in another recipe.  Removing the liquid reduces cooking time because there’s less to cook off. 
Chop the tomatoes and place them in a large pot. Begin to cook them down over low heat.

The Meat
For me . . . besides the tomatoes, meat makes the sauce.  Meat enhances the flavor of the sauce and it’s a must have . . . meatballs and Italian sausage and sometimes pork ribs. 

I learned to make meatballs from a wonderful Italian lady who made the best sauce and meatballs . . . she made the best of everything, actually.  She was an incredible cook.  This is how Gramma Campo taught me how to make meatballs.  .  . mix fresh ground beef with ground sausage meat.  Add an egg, a handful of breadcrumbs, a handful of grated Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, garlic powder and enough water to make the meat moist (but not wet).  Form them into balls, brown and drop into a pot of sauce.  Note the obvious lack of measuring.

If you are adding meat, brown it in a bit of olive oil and remove from the heat and drain, saving the oil for step five.
Use what you like . . . but, less is more.  You don’t need a lot of spices to make a rich, flavorful sauce.  However, the staples I use in sauce are:

  • Chopped Onion
  • Garlic . . . lots and lots of garlic
  • Basil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Grated Parmesan Cheese – a couple tablespoonfuls
  • Tomato Paste
  • Sugar – just a pinch or two to get rid of any bitterness
Other options are red wine, oregano, mushrooms, celery, black olives, hot pepper flakes, and green pepper.   Whatever you want, really.    But, I like to keep it simple.

Putting it all together
Take four tablespoons of the oil from the meat and in a large skillet add onion and garlic and heat. Stir until the onion gets soft and the garlic turns a golden brown. 
Add whatever other vegetables you’re using and tomato paste to the pot with the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes to soften the produce. Sprinkle in Parmesan cheese and red wine. Add cooked onion and garlic and the spices and stir. Add the browned meat last. You shouldn’t have to add more liquid because the tomatoes already have a lot of water in them. Once all the sauce ingredients have been added to the pot, bring to a boil, cover and then simmer.  You can cook it for as little as an hour but the longer you cook it the better it will be.  I let mine cook all day!

 That’s it . . . serve with your favorite pasta, crusty bread and fresh grated cheese. 


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