Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tomatoes To Die For

These days, it's hard to believe that tomatoes were once thought to be poisonous, feared to cause appendicitis and stomach cancer. Even in 1519, when Cortez brought tomato seeds back from Mexico (where they are native) to Europe, they were only grown as an ornamental curiosity. Not surprisingly, Italy was the first country to embrace and cultivate tomatoes in Europe. However, in America, we have to thank Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey for bringing the tomato to America from abroad in 1808. In September of 1820, Colonel Johnson set out to prove that tomatoes were not poisonous once and for all! With a horrified crowd of over 2,000 people, believing he was committing public suicide, complete with a band playing mournful tunes, Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem county courthouse and consumed an entire basket of tomatoes! Guess what happened? He didn't die or have any ill effects! News spread and America's love affair with tomatoes began!

One of the best things about summer are home-grown tomatoes. These sweet, juicy, and sometimes deformed looking varieties are a real treat and their flavor cannot be duplicated any other time of year. Luckily, tomatoes are prolific performers in the garden, so why not capture their flavor in a home-made, from scratch, "Fresh Tomato Marinara!" This is my favorite version, which I make a lot during the summer, package in quart-size freezer bags in 1 1/2 cup sizes (enough for 1/2 pound of pasta), to enjoy during the dreary winter months! Remember to label them, remove any excess air, and lay them flat in the freezer so they don't take up much space. It tastes so fresh, you may never buy store-bought again!

Fresh Tomato Marinara

Makes about 3 cups (enough for 1 pound of pasta)

3 pounds home or local-grown fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled (see Techniques) and cut into 3-4 chunks each (Don't use cherry tomatoes because the tomatoes have to be peeled! Save them for "Provencale Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce.")
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced (see Techniques)
1/2 cup water or tomato water from blanching
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh basil (See Got Tomatoes to see what I consider a sprig of fresh basil!)
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste

In a soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. When you smell the garlic, add the tomatoes, bay leaf, sprig of basil, the oregano, and 1/2 cup tomato or plain water. Stir and bring to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer, partially cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, add the remaining seasonings (salt, pepper, sugar) and continue to simmer another 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and basil and whiz up with an immersion blender (see Gadgets) or leave chunky, if you prefer.

*Notes: If your tomatoes just don't have enough flavor, you can add a little tomato paste. If you like, you can add 1 teaspoon of vinegar (like balsamic) to the finished sauce. I prefer it without. This sauce is also great on pizza!

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