Archive for Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Roma tomatoes make tasty base for pasta sauce

August 8, 2007

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I can't imagine a summer without Roma tomatoes. Sometimes called plum tomatoes, these fleshy, egg-shaped items are the main ingredient in marinara and other red sauces. Anyone who has popped open a jar of Ragu has experienced the Roma.

Romas are the ideal saucing or canning tomato because they contain fewer seeds and less liquid. What they lack in size they make up for in substance. They can be diced or baked without disintegrating, which gives them a versatility that traditional slicing tomatoes don't offer.

A vine-ripened Roma can be chopped up and added to a salad or tossed into a skillet for the final minute or two of a stir-fry.

Last week I faced a gardener's happiest dilemma; namely, too many tomatoes on hand with more on the way. Making a batch of sauce seemed the easiest - and tastiest - way to clean out the crisper drawer. I had 20 Romas at my disposal and some green peppers from the garden. Add a large onion, four cloves of garlic, sliced mushrooms, and salt and herbs to taste, and you have the ingredient list for a scratch sauce.

The Romas I used for what amounted to about a gallon of sauce were very ripe, which gave them a deeper flavor and a bit more juice. By comparison, the Roma tomatoes available in the supermarket typically are under-ripe. If you don't have access to locally grown Romas, leave the supermarket tomatoes out on the counter a couple of days in a paper sack to ripen them. You will be able to taste the difference.

The first step in making the sauce is to blanch the tomatoes in slowly boiling water to loosen the skin. I do this six or eight tomatoes at a time. When the skins split, which takes just about two minutes, I use a slotted spoon to remove the tomatoes from the water and then set them in a bowl to cool.

While the next batch is boiling, I set to work. When the tomatoes in the bowl have cooled enough to handle, I place each one onto a cutting board, pull up the split skin toward the stem and cut off the top with a paring knife. The core can easily be removed as I cut the tomato into three or four pieces. I repeat this sequence until I have prepared all of the tomatoes for the sauce.

I generally saute onion and garlic in the bottom of a stew pot and add the tomato pieces, along with some diced green pepper and the mushrooms. If it's a meat sauce, that ingredient should be incorporated early on. When all of the major components are accounted for, raise the heat in the pot to a high simmer (just below boiling) for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat.

When you're working with available quantities and not with a recipe, salt and oregano should be added in small increments as the sauce progresses. You might start with a teaspoon of each and build up those flavors as the sauce cooks.

If you want a deeply flavored sauce, plan to simmer it for two or three hours, or even longer. If you want to preserve the fresh flavors, simmer the sauce a shorter amount of time. How it cooks and how it tastes will depend on the ripeness of the tomatoes and the amount of cooking time.

While this sounds more complicated than opening a jar of spaghetti sauce, making sauce from scratch really isn't that much work. The blanching takes less than half an hour, and the simmering can go on while you're doing something else. I find it relaxing on a Sunday afternoon to have a pot of sauce on the stove; each time I stop to stir and taste, the sauce has evolved into something just a bit different.

It's impossible to go through this process without developing a whole new appreciation for the range of flavor packed into a tomato.

Summer doesn't get any better than that.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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