In the days of yore, my family had a small but adequate garden in our backyard. We only grew summer vegetables, so I, of course, assumed that August was the only time that one could harvest vegetables in New York State. And so I impatiently (ignorantly) awaited our homegrown bounty of each August: peppers, cucumbers, and the most glorious, ugly tomatoes.
To this day, end-of-summer vegetables are my favorite, and especially those tomatoes. You know, the kind that really taste like tomatoes? You’re only fooling yourself with those pinkish things you buy in the grocery store in December. Not to be melodramatic, but your enjoyment of that tomato is banking on your having forgotten what a tomato actually tastes like. (OK, a little melodramatic.)
But here we are in the beginning of September, and while I may no longer have my parents’ backyard garden, the tables at the farmers’ market are just overflowing with misshapen, juicy, sweet-as-candy tomatoes. I couldn’t ask for more. Deciding to cook with tomatoes this week was a no-brainer, but less easy was deciding what to do with them. When they’re truly this fresh, you can eat them straight, like apples (really), or sliced and drizzled with olive oil and sea salt. You can make salsa, bruschetta, Caprese salad… but, always, the simpler the better when it comes to produce this good.
Last weekend, I couldn’t contain my excitement and came home with, uh, 3 pounds of tomatoes. I thought it might behoove me to use up a bunch of them at once, and so, fresh tomato sauce was added to the menu. This is one of those recipes were improvisation is completely welcome. Feel free to use my recipe as a starting point and let your creativity run wild. All you need are some good tomatoes, some good pasta, and some red wine. Perfection.
An aside about cheese, while we’re on the topic of pasta: I recently discovered real, fresh, just-grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and it was life changing (yeah, yeah, bring back the melodrama). The nuttiness, texture, and depth of flavor in that cheese are just light-years beyond any other “Parmesan cheese” I’ve ever tasted. Mine came from Eataly, but I think any high-quality variety you can find that comes in wedge-form (rather than green-can-form), will make all the difference. While this recipe really doesn’t require cheese, if you’re going for it, go big. Yum.
Makes enough for 2 hearty servings of pasta
2 lbs tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup grated carrot
1 teaspoon dried basil (or 1/8 cup fresh chopped basil)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Parmegiano Reggiano (optional)
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, prepare a large bowl of cold water. When the water is boiling, add the tomatoes whole (you may need to do this in shifts), and remove them about 1 minute later. Let the tomatoes cool in the cold water bath, about 2-3 minutes.
2. Once cool enough to handle, peel the skin off the tomatoes. Core them, then slice in half (or in quarters for larger tomatoes). Many people like to remove the seeds at this point, as they can be bitter. I find this step to be optional. If you choose to remove the seeds, scoop them out with your fingers over a strainer, making sure to capture the juices in a bowl.
3. In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. When hot, add the shallots and garlic, and sauté until the shallots are softened. Add the tomatoes to the pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the carrots, basil, oregano, and bay leaf.
4. Let the sauce simmer, partially covered, for at least 30 minutes, and up to an hour. Check on the sauce every 10 minutes or so to stir and break up the tomatoes with a spoon. Taste as you go, and add more salt and pepper as needed. Serve over fresh pasta and sprinkle with Parmegiano Reggiano cheese to taste.
Freya Bellin writes weekly for Mark Bittman’s web site and alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Your New Favorite Brunch, What My Spanish Mom Taught Me, and Rub-a-dub-dub: My Homemade Spice Rub Experiment.