The farmers markets are jam packed with tons of fresh Maryland tomatoes these days, so it's a great time to start thinking about how to capture that summer goodness for future use. Chef Jerry Pellegrino says that whipping up a big batch of tomato sauce is an excellent idea.
It occurred to me that there are probably as many recipes for tomato sauce as there are little Italian grandmothers, bless their hearts. So I decided to go on-line and look into all the variations I could think of. And believe me there were a lot.
The first thing I noticed was that quite a few recipes skipped using fresh tomatoes and went straight to the canned variety. Admittedly, good canned tomatoes are one of the best products out there, but still!
A lot of good recipes have you first prepare the Italian version of mirepoix which is called "soffrito". This is chopped carrots, celery and onions cooked in olive oil. Variation number one comes with adding sliced garlic cloves late in the cooking process. But this is the basis for many classic recipes.
If you are going to use fresh tomatoes, you'll need between 2-3 pounds. Few recipes specify any particular variety, although one did totally disparage the Roma tomato, presumably for its lack of juice. I often wonder what would happen if you used all yellow tomatoes.
Opinions vary on how to handle the tomatoes. Some require you to peel and de-seed them, others maintain that the skin and seeds add flavor. The latter usually suggest that you pass your nearly-finished sauce through a food mill to smooth it out. Still other recipes want you to squish the tomatoes with your hands in a big old bowl.
Herbs and spices figure heavily. Salt, of course, and then basil, oregano, bay leaves, and parsley all make appearances. One thing you'll notice is that many encourage you to use fresh leaves, not dried powders.
Tomato paste is almost universally called for, and this makes sense.
One very interesting idea that I approve of, is to add just a small amount of sugar to the sauce. This won't sweeten it, but it will amplify the tomato flavor. The same can be said for a dollop of red wine or my favorite trick, a shot of balsamic vinegar. (What I'm going for is a deep, rich, dark sauce.)
One interesting point was the choice of cooking vessel. Some cooks were using skillets. Others were using deep sauce pans. The point is that a skillet will enable a fairly quick reduction, while the sauce pan, by virtue of the proportions of its size, will slow that down.
That being said, I was astonished at the number of recipes that seemed to race through the process. One had you sweating the onions for only thirty seconds, then doing a rapid 30 minute reduction. Another promised a great sauce in only 5 minutes. Baloney! Come on, people, slow it down! I guess if you want a very light sauce you could do it that way, but it just seems out of synch with the entire idea of long slow cooking... perfected in Italy.
Here are some other little tricks I saw. Try using a big chunk of butter rather than olive oil for your initial sauté. (A northern Italian idea.) Toss in a few flakes of hot red pepper for a fiery kick. Throw in some anchovies for a salty note. Give the soffrito a twist by adding sweet bell peppers.
One thing that I am 100% sure of is that each and every little Italian grandmother out there has her own little secret that makes all the difference; a secret she won't pass on to her daughter until she is contentedly certain there will be no more dinners in her future.