To talk tomato sauce. I mean, excellent tomato sauce is on offer around every street corner. It is one of those few foods, like frozen peas and dried pasta, that packages really, really well.
Also, homemade sauce is an afternoon's work. A morning and afternoon, if you consider the market run. Morning, afternoon and evening, if you consider the cleaning up.
(Unless, like me, you conveniently finish the sauce, and saunter out of the kitchen, la-di-da!, after dinner, and on to other things, like stories and such. Forgetting, entirely, about the fact that your kitchen looks like Babette's Feast meets The Shining: pots, pans, RED, everywhere. Only to discover, six minutes past midnight, your non-chalance-cum-negligence. Then, it runs morning-to-morning.)
Also, I am not remotely close to Italian. I have nothing authentic, nor authoritative, nor for that matter particularly legitimate to offer on the vast subject of sauce.
(Though if heritage drove my cooking and eating, we'd be talking haggis and lutefisk and mushy peas. Which we won't. Any time soon. Or ever.)
There are three dozen lives I can imagine in which homemade tomato sauce makes no sense at all. I fully expect to live one of them soon, and to not give a wink to September's sauce, and to buy what we need when the need arises, and to not be bothered by this one bit.
But right now, this year, and for the past several, making tomato sauce has made sense. And as long as I've kids who count sauce-making fun—and as long as I've a girl who declares dinner "spuh-giddy!"—I'll continue to dedicate a day, each fall. And if you too find yourself with small children to amuse, or a hunger for summer come January, or an appetite for things deep, rich and red, then maybe, just maybe, sauce makes sense for you, too.
Because sauce is not hard, nor complicated, nor onerous, despite the timeline outlined above. That all-day business is really mere technicality, the beginning and end of a day spent otherwise. It is almost entirely a hands-off affair, and a deeply democratic one, at that. Flexible, open-ended, exquisitely all-ages, tomato sauce is one of the most forgiving of foods. It cannot be flubbed. I love it for that. We all need more things that cannot be flubbed.
Weekend before last, we made our year's stash, turning twenty pounds of pastes into red gold. It had rained all week, and the tomatoes had begun to split, and I knew the moment to make sauce was fleeting. Depending on where you are, and what the weather's been, and where the week's headed, your moment may be ahead, yet. If you've an at-home Saturday and empty freezer and a yen, here is how we go about it:
Get your hands on as many ripe local paste tomatoes as you think you can fit in your two biggest pots. At least ten pounds. Better, fifteen. Better yet, twenty, just trust me on this. You'll think this too many tomatoes for a year. You'll think this too many tomatoes for a lifetime. Until earliest February,when you'll curse your inner Ebenezer.
Wash, de-stem, dry, and quarter, then fill your pots not quite full. Add several halved onions, a garlic head's peeled whole cloves, a clutch of fresh basil, and a fistful of fresh thyme. No need to engage in the dreaded de-stemming; the long simmer ahead will free thyme leaf from twig. If you've no thyme, use oregano, though considerably less as its considerably stronger. Or up the basil. Or drop the herbs, and carry on. It will still be beyond good. See forgiving, above.
Add half a cup of olive oil (no less, maybe more) plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, per seven pounds of tomatoes. (Multiply accordingly). Freshly ground pepper is nice, as is one dried red pepper, one per pot, just for kicks. Place on a medium fire, bring to a boil, then dial it down to a steady blurble.
(Meanwhile, with your extra fruit, because you will have extra fruit, fill a sheet pan with halves, salted and oiled, and set them to roast at the lowest heat for the longest time, until garnet and sweet and crazy intense.
Take the rest, because there will still be "the rest", and dice them into a bowl with salt, and ribbons of basil, and a bit of balsamic. Set them aside for an hour, better, two, and pile them on top of garlic garlic-rubbed toasts. Bruschetta and slow-roasted tomatoes are my kind of by-products. And dinner. Because projects like sauce are never done in time for dinner.)
Simmer forever, or at least three hours, probably four, possibly five. When the volume is reduced by half, turn off the heat, and let cool an hour. Assemble a ladle, and a food mill (we love this one), and a small army of biceps and bowls. Settle in your largest disk, and get cranking. This bit's fun, and surprisingly fast, the only tedium being breaking up the arguments over whose turn is whose. Then—and this is the most important part—put in your medium disc, and run through once more. This captures the seeds, which are bitter and ruinous, and lends your sauce a plush, velvety texture. This is where fairly good becomes grand.
Taste your sauce. Really, taste it. Taste first for texture: it should have body, weight and loft in equal measure. Too often I've stopped short, with sauce too thin and watery, still of two minds, which is no sauce at all. If your sauce is still going its separate ways, solids and liquids, this way and that, just return it to the stove and simmer further, until it is all of one piece. It will concentrate, and emulsify, and come together as one. A spoon will make its mark, and leave a trail. The term "gravy" will suddenly make sense. As will jammy. And plump. Good tomato sauce is plump.
Next, taste for flavor. You will likely need salt. We undersalt at the outset, to allow for all that reducing, then backfill at the end, as needed. Salt not until it is salty, per se, but until sweet and tart and salt are equals. Salt so that the tomato flavor sings, sweet and rich and round and true.
Pinch, stir, taste.
[Does it need anything, apart from salt? Very Possibly. All years, all tomatoes, all batches are different. A pinch of sugar for added sweet, a splish of vinegar if the opposite.]
Pinch, stir, taste.
[Better? A flick of chili? A few more fresh herbs, added the end?]
Pinch, stir, taste.
[Trust your buds. Adjust until tickled. We're after neutral, but gloriously neutral.]
Continue, seasoning and adjusting and slurping, until you cannot stop the last step. Done.
And what do you do with said sauce? Oh HO! Hello, lovely problems to have. Slip it between roasted eggplant steaks, layer after layer, interrupted only by mozzarella, for eggplant parmesan in a trice. Toss it with heaps of cubed, roasted eggplant, plus pecorino and basil, for Pasta alla Norma. Simmer it with meatballs, or sausages, or ground chuck, for a bang-up swoony ragu. Collate it with crumple-edged pasta sheets, plus besciamella or ricotta, and spinach or beef (or both, or neither, entirely your call), for a lickety-split lasagna. Or do as we most often do, and serve it up simply, stirred into spaghetti, blizzard of just-grated parmesan mandatory.
We're only warming up, you know. The saucy list goes on and on (and on...) But we've made only 12 cups, maybe 14, and we've run through half, just in our imaginings. Seems silly we ever questioned the quantity, no? Next year? Twice as many tomatoes.