by Cynthia Graber
(first, I should say that this photo is *not* of the ugly tomatoes described below. These tomatoes are beautiful. Those are ugly. But I forgot to take a picture. Plus, they're, well, ugly. With that explanation, read on.)
I'm never going to win any awards as a cookbook writer. Hell, I'm never even going to get a *contract* to write a cookbook in the first place.
I'm fine with that. I know that I'll never be able to provide you with the exact measurements for just what spices will perk up that dish. I'll never be able to list just how many minutes you should saute those onions. I'm simply not that exact when it comes to my own improvised recipes - and those exact measurements are just what people expect in a published recipe.
But here's what I can offer you: the ability to relax. Experiment. Toss things in a pot. Cooking can be crazy easy. In fact, it's so easy that unless you accidentally dump a jar of salt, you're not going to mess up this next dish. You almost can't mess it up. And it will still taste gloriously delicious.
Let me share a tale of tomato sauce.
I went to the farmers market last week, and shockingly, there were some late fall tomatoes. Deep red, soft in spots, bruised in others. Some were a bit hard. But those tomatoes called to me, begging to be cooked down. And then I saw some arugula. Mmmm. Tomatoes. Arugula.
I brought them home. Normally I'd never refrigerate tomatoes, because that can change the texture and the flavor. But those tomatoes were close to the end of their lives, and I didn't want them to succumb to mold. A little cold wouldn't kill them. So into the fridge they went.
A couple of days later, I retrieved them and contemplated sauce. You'll see all kinds of tomato sauce recipes, and they often involve complicated instructions, such as dropping them in boiling water to easily remove the skins, and squeezing them to discard the seeds. Psssst - want to know a secret? You can ignore all that. If you don't mind a rustic feel to your sauce (or if you want to toss it in a blender), all you have to do is chop. Ignore anything fussy.
I cored the tomatoes, maybe seven of them, and chopped them roughly, then dropped them in a sauce pot with a generous amount of olive oil. Then I chopped, who knows, maybe six cloves of garlic and tossed them in. I peered into the fridge and saw a nearly-empty tube of anchovy paste, and a tube of tomato paste. I squeezed out the last of the anchovy paste for some umami depth, and I also squeezed in some tomato paste to intensify the flavor.
Honestly, it would have been also been fine without either one.
I found a chile pepper nearing the end of its life, and I chopped it and threw it in - but you can ignore this, too.
I added salt. The whole mess turned soupy and watery, the water steaming off as it simmered. While it bubbled, I cooked some whole wheat pasta and lifted it out to drain. I also tore the arugula into bite-sized pieces, some of which I dropped briefly into the pasta water to cook, others later I steamed briefly in the microwave.
The sauce was still a little watery, but I was ready to eat. I layered the greens in a bowl, added pasta and tomato sauce. I poured another glug of peppery olive oil, and grated parmesan on top. (Don't ignore the extra oil! It makes everything taste better.)
The dish transported me to Tuscany, reminiscent of a post I wrote last year on ribollita, a Tuscsan stew. But much simpler. After I ate the pasta and greens, I still had some watery tomato soup left. It was warm and lovely.
I'll write up the sauce recipe below. But feel free to do nothing but cook late season, ugly tomatoes with olive oil and salt. I promise, it'll still taste great.
A rough approximation of this week's tomato sauce
- Late fall tomatoes, blemished, bruised, and still full of flavor
- As many garlic cloves as you feel like chopping
- Olive oil
- Anchovy paste - you won't taste it, but it'll add to the flavor (or not)
- Tomato paste (or not)
- Chile pepper or chile flakes (or not)
Core and roughly chop the tomatoes. Toss into a pot. Add olive oil. Add chopped garlic. Bring to a boil, then simmer. Add a pinch of salt. Taste. Add a squeeze or two of anchovy paste, stir to dissolve. Taste. Add a couple squeezes of tomato paste, taste. Add more of whatever you like. Add some hot pepper. Stir the whole thing around.
When the tomatoes break down, it'll look super watery. Let it cook, as long as you have patience. Maybe twenty minutes? If it's watery, once you add it to pasta and greens, it'll be like a stew. If it's more concentrated, it'll look more like sauce. Either way, it works.