Fresh Tomato Sauce
Growing up in an Italian family meant that fresh tomato sauce was right up there with “plate” and “fork” on the list of dinner table must-haves. It was ladled onto a mound of steaming rigatoni. Smoothed between layers of noodle and ricotta in a lasagna. Spooned over meatballs on a toasted sub roll. And finally, chased around the plate in swirls by a crust of scali bread.
Doesn’t it look like you’d get some good Italian food at this table…or at least a tasty beverage?
My Great Grammy, Mary Generazzo (back center), knew her sauce. That’s my Great Grandfather, Michael Generazzo, next to her, c. late 1950s in Everett, Massachusetts.
The sauce was the opening act and the grand finale of most meals, and yet, until my late twenties, I never bothered to learn how to make fresh tomato sauce myself. There are a lot of perfectly good jarred sauce options out there, but at the end of the summer, when the tomatoes outnumber my annual explosion of freckles, I know it’s time to get out the stockpot. For sauce lovers it’s foolish not to take advantage, and make a batch (or two, or three) of homemade fresh tomato sauce. Its taste is unparalleled, and the extra effort is worth it when you pull carefully portioned containers of your sauce out of the freezer and enjoy the flavor of summer while a blustery Nor’easter pounds at your windows in February.
The great thing about fresh tomato sauce is that your tomatoes don’t need to be pretty for a perfect, flavorful sauce. Here you can see I took advantage of the “unloved” tomatoes at my local farm stand (on the left). They need a little extra time with the paring knife, but they cost 50% less than their picture-perfect counterparts, and taste just as good.
Because tomatoes have a lot of flavor along with soft flesh that easily breaks down and thickens as it cooks, they are a wonderful base for sauces, both simple and complex.
To start, the tomatoes needed to lose their skins. One method we’ve shared in the past for how to skin a tomato is with the help of a box grater, but I also like the boiling method, where the tomatoes are scored with an “X” and then placed in boiling water for 30 seconds to loosen the skin. After they’ve spent some time cooling in an ice bath, the skins slip right off and you’re ready to get to work on the seeds.
I sliced my peeled tomatoes into quarters, then used a melon baller to remove the seeds. You can keep the seeds in the sauce, but it will take longer (a lot longer) to thicken, and the texture will be…well, seedy. By discarding the seeds in a colander over a bowl, you save the rich tomato juice left behind while the pulpy seed flesh drains. This comes in handy later if you need to add some liquid to your simmering sauce — why use water when you can use fresh tomato juice?
Once doctored up, the unloved tomato varieties lent great color and flavor to my sauce.
For flavor, I chopped up two smallish onions and a large handful of baby portabella mushrooms to simmer along with some minced garlic in the stockpot. I love mushrooms in my tomato sauce, but you can swap them out (or add to them) with peppers, celery, carrots, or even zucchini.
While the mushrooms, onion, and garlic cooked I roughly chopped up my tomatoes.
After adding the tomatoes to the onions and mushrooms, I adjusted the temperature until the sauce was simmering along without boiling. This is a good time to clean up the wreckage from peeling, seeding, and chopping all of those juicy tomatoes.
After about 45 minutes the tomatoes were soft and broken down, but I used a potato masher to help them along, and added some final seasonings to taste. I also decided to use my hand-held immersion blender to further smooth out my sauce, since the mushrooms were still quite chunky. I like some bite, but it’s speedier to use the immersion blender or transfer a few cups at a time to a blender to puree them, then add them back to the pot until you’ve got the texture you want for your sauce.
As you can see, the pureed mushrooms (and generous cup of packed, fresh basil leaves) gave my sauce a meaty look and feel that made it marvelously rich, but unfortunately, dimmed the scarlet red of the tomatoes.
On a bed of whole-wheat spaghetti, a ladle of fresh tomato sauce topped with fresh basil made for one terrific, healthy supper that I think my Great Grammy would have approved of, or at least admit was a start. I’d settle for that.