The most important part of making tomato sauce is picking the tomatoes.Most of those in supermarkets are picked green, shipped long distances and ripened off the vine. They tend to have a mushy texture and indifferent taste. Tomatoes ripened on the vine make a huge difference in flavor and texture, and fresh organic are by far the best.
Tomatoes are thought to be beneficial to our health. The active ingredient is Lycopene. When absorbed from the stomach, lycopene is transported in the blood and accumulates in the liver, adrenal glands, and testes. Some research has shown that consumption of tomatoes correlate with low levels of cancer, particularly prostate cancer. But the Food and Drug Administration says there is not enough evidence to prove the connection.
There are 7,500 different varieties of tomatoes, lots of choices. Only a few are available at your supermarket or local farmer, however. The choices usually come down to the following.
Cherry and grape Tomatoes, which are typically small and round and can range in color from light yellow to dark red. They are frequently eaten uncooked and whole, although some wonderful fresh sauces can be make with halved or quartered cherry tomatoes.
Slicing or Globe tomatoes, which are round and grown in various sizes. These are the most common the United States. Some globe tomatoes are picked in small groups with part of the vine attached. They may have a better texture, but they are not much more flavorful in my experience.
Beefsteak Tomatoes are the largest, as much as 4 inches across, and are popular for sandwiches.
Heirloom Tomatoes are relative newcomers to the American table. Advocates claim their genetic makeup creates a superior taste, but according to research by Roger Cheltelat of the Tomato Genetics Research Center at the University of California, Davis, heirlooms are neither more diverse nor more “natural” than regular tomatoes. He attributes their superior flavor to the way they grow, typically only a few tomatoes on each vine (sometimes as few as two), which, Cheltelat says, “is bound to produce juicier, sweeter and more flavorful fruit than varieties that set 100, as commercial types do.” Plus, heirlooms are typically vine ripened. The article is called How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes, is by Brendan Borrell, writing in the March 30th, 2009 issue of Scientific American.
Tomatoes are best kept at room temperatures, at least until they are very ripe. Tomatoes stored in the refrigerator will still be edible but tend to lose flavor.
I just looked up dozens of recipes for Lasagna on various Internet sites, and they all called for canned tomatoes and canned tomato sauce. In this day and age, when fresh tomatoes are available all year around, I can’t see any reason to use canned tomato sauce.
Simplest possible tomato sauce (this will cook in about 30 minutes, after fifteen minutes of prep).
- 3 lbs tomatoes (any variety will do, but plumb tomatoes (sometimes called Roma) are best for their low water content and small seeds.
- 2 large onions.
- 4 to 6 cloves of garlic,
- 1/8th cup or less olive oil
- 1 tsp thyme (or oregano or basil or a combination of them)
- 1 too 2 bay leaves
- ½ tsp fish sauce
- Salt and pepper to taste
Saute the garlic and onions in the olive oil in a cast iron frying pan for about ten minutes over a moderate heat. The onions will turn almost transparent. Meantime, cut the tomatoes into pieces about ½ to ¾ inches across.
When the onions and garlic are ready add the tomatoes, herbs, fish sauce and salt and pepper. Simmer for thirty minutes. You may have to add water during the cooking process. (You can do the cooking in a saucepan with a cover, but make sure it’s enamel or stainless steel and expect it take a bit longer). At this point you can serve the sauce as is or puree it. It can also be used as the base for fantastic tomato soups.
For a richer sauce, cook the garlic and onions until they have almost become marmalade. You may have to add small amounts of water to keep the onions and garlic from drying out. Then add the tomatoes and cook long and slowly until the sauce is almost pureed by the cooking. This gives a deep flavored sauces that is great for pizza.
For a more robust sauce or soup. If you don’t want to spend the time on long, slow cooking, I find it much easier to roast the tomatoes first, and then proceed as above. Simply cut the tomatoes in half, put them face down in a shallow pan coated with olive oil, and cook in a 425 oven until the bottoms turn brown.
For a more elegant sauce or soup. Peel the tomatoes by dipping them one at a time briefly in boiling water (20 seconds or so), then plunge them under cold water. The skins should slip right off. Cut them in quarters and remove the seeds. Put the seeds in a strainer to preserve the juice. Cook the garlic and onions a bit longer and add tomatoes and the tomato juice.
The tomatoes I get during the summer’s farmers markets are unsurpassed and make a delicious sauce. They are ripe off the vine, meaty, with few seeds and little excess water, and they produce an intense tomato flavor.
Raw Tomato Sauce. Organic, freshly picked tomatoes are good enough to eat raw. For the most elegant raw sauce, peel and seed the tomatoes as explained above. Add a little finely chopped red onion, garlic and fresh basil and serve over pasta or as a summer salad.