Friday, September 7, 2007

Accidental Pasta Sauce

When I planted our tomatoes this year it was a very ambitious project, first starting the seeds in flats, tending the seedlings, then carefully transplanting them into the garden with lots of compost to munch on, then surrounding them with big, heavy wire cages to grow in.

I had exactly three different varieties of tomatoes--Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and a hybrid yellow cherry tomato--and was perfectly content to wait for the fruits to follow. But one of the great joys of gardening and growing your own food is you never know when something completely unexpected might happen. In this case, one of the tomato plants I knew for a fact to be a Brandywine or a Cherokee Purple turned out to be some kind of plum tomato, perhaps even the coveted Marzano variety.

I can only speculate on how this might have occurred. Since this particular plant was grown in a flat and transplanted, it could not have been one of the many volunteers that pop up in the garden from time to time. And since all of the plants in my flats were grown from seeds that I purchased in seeds packets, it must have come from one of those seed packets. Which leads me to conclude that somehow at the seed company a seed from a plum tomato somehow made its way into a packet intended for Brandywine or Cherokee Purple seeds only.

Now that I think about it, I kind of enjoy the idea that seeds from different tomato varieties are intermingling at the seed company, perhaps not in great quantity, perhaps just one-in-a-thousand, but just enough accidentally to cause some totally unexpected results and delightful surprises on the consumer end. The lesson: tomato seeds are indomitable and Nature always wins out.

Anyway, it was my luck to have this accidental plum tomato growing in one of my cages and what a plant it has been--bigger and bushier than any of my other tomatoes, far exceeding the five-foot height of its cage. The first tomato to ripen unfortunately was not used simply because one tomato does not a sauce make, and I have plenty of other tomatoes for slicing. But recently I began monitoring a veritable crop of plum tomatoes growing larger and larger and ripening in perfect unison.

Yesterday I picked them all intent on making a sauce. Some of these plums were extremely large and most of them were cracked and gnarly the way home-grown tomatoes are, unlike those perfect specimens you see in the grocery.

The first thing to do to make a sauce is put a large pot of water to boil and remove the tomato skins. When the water is boiling, reduce the heat a little and lower the tomatoes into the water one-at-a-time each for 30 seconds only. This will loosen the skins so they can be easily peeled away. Remove the tomatoes from the water with a slotted spoon and place them in a colander in the kitchen sink to cool.

While the tomatoes are cooling, start a medium onion, diced small, to cooking gently in some extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy pot. Season with salt to draw the moisture out. While the onion is cooking, peel the tomatoes, then cut them in half and squeeze out the seeds. Place the tomatoes in a large bowl for the most fun part, which is squeezing and smushing the tomatoes with your hands until they are just a rough pulp.

After the onions have been cooking five minutes or so, toss in two finely-chopped cloves are garlic. Continue cooking until the onions are tender, about eight minutes total. Now add the tomato pulp and season with course salt, freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I also added a tablespoon of chopped oregano from the garden. But I hasten to say that I think oregano is one of those herbs more flavorful and more useful dried. It's up to you. (You could just as easily cook the sauce however you are used to at this point. You don't have to follow my directions.)

I also poured a bit of red wine into the pot, as the flavor compounds in tomatoes are soluble in alcohol.

The uncooked sauce is a good deal soupier than what I normally see when using canned plum tomatoes. And I suppose that's simply because the fresh tomatoes contain much more juice that those that have been cooked ahead and preserved in a can. So just bring the sauce up to a boil, reduce the heat and let it bubble away until it is reduced to your liking. Be prepared for this to take 45 minutes.

I started with six large plum tomatoes and in the end had a little less than two cups of sauce. But what a sauce. I don't think words adequately convey the difference between a fresh tomato sauce made with home-grown plum tomatoes and anything you can buy in a store. The flavors are incredibly clear and bright and intense--an entirely different class of tomato sauce and a great reward for all the effort that went into growing the tomatoes, even if they were accidental.

I mixed our sauce with some whole-wheat penne pastta topped with some torn basil leaves and a really healthy dusting of Parmigan cheese. Do enjoy this with some of the red wine you opened to make the sauce.


Pam said...

I only grow cherry tomatoes, since I only have room for about 3 plants, but I think I might try plums, yours look lovely!

Diva said...

does pollination have anything to do with creating other tomatoes?

I don't garden much, living in the countryside, I benefit from my neighbors garden.

WashingtonGardener said...

Yes, cross-pollination could be the culprit.

Ed Bruske said...

Pam, we've got tons of cherry tomatoes, too. You can grow a regular tomato plant in a bucket.

Diva & Kathy, I don't know where the cross-pollination would have occured. As I said, my tomato plants were grown from seeds in flats, then transplanted to the garden. There are no other plum tomato plants in sight. My theory is that a plum tomato seed snuck into a packet of Brandywine or Chreokee Purple seeds on the merchant end.