"GOOD LORD, nide. It's Frank from up the street. He's got more tomatoes." We're in the midst of the Great Tomato Frenzy, an annual ritual of overabundance, and from now until the beginning of October -- longer if Frank can protect his plants from the frost -- you can expect the tomatoes to keep rolling in. And as they do, the perennial what-will-we-do-with-them-now question begins to assume a note of desperation.
"More tomatoes! How marvelous, Frank. And how nice of you to share them with us . . ." Whoa. There must be a better way. How about canning the hypocrisy by freezing the tomatoes?
After all, if they're properly prepared, tomatoes will freeze well, and they're one of the great "starter" foods -- those that can make the nucleus for all sorts of meals, generally with a minimum of fussing. Willing to assume all accents, tomatoes are the eclectic's own fruit. (The courts have declared them a vegetable, but what did lawyers ever know about the rudiments of biology?) You can prepare a tomato "starter sauce," freeze it in individual containers, then bring them out, one or two at a time, to produce satisfying dinners from now until Christmas -- and generally in less than half an hour. Everything from soups to spaghetti sauces, from stews to superlative bloody marys.
So consider yourself fortunate to be on Frank's list, and make an effort to cultivate his favor as he cultivates his plants. If there's no Frank in your life, find one. Or find a roadside stand that sells real vine-ripened tomatoes (not so easy these days).
A word of warning about the raw materials: You can probably trust Frank's tomatoes. You know he means it when he tells you they're "vine ripened." But beware of the tomatoes from the supermarket; a good proportion of them, even at the height of the season, are either as hard as baseballs or taste of terminal rot. No, not rot, exactly. There's a certain quality of disintegration-masked-by-technology that's endemic to American markets. In milk and cream, you can smell it. In bread you can feel it. In tomatoes you have to taste it. Every tomato you prepare should be tasted, since one "off" specimen can ruin the batch. Sometimes you can pick up the odor when you slice open the tomato, but often not. One sliver on the end of your knife will tell you whether the tomato passes muster.
We've discovered that even some of our favorite roadside vendors have been infected with the virus of high commerce. This year we've noticed bushel baskets of bright green tomatoes sitting behind one of our old reliable (until now) vegetable stands. "The red ones rot," the proprietor explains patiently, as though this were a new breakthrough in horticulture that might be too complex for a layman to understand. So he sets the green ones on a table out back to soften and calls them "vine ripened." The end of innocence.
What if you have neither Frank nor a reliable roadside stand? Better than using unripe tomatoes, try canned ones, the plum-style in particular. You'll find them surprisingly good.
When preparing fresh tomatoes, bear in mind that tomato seeds can be slightly bitter, and some skins tend to get stringy and stick to your teeth. It's best to remove both. If the tomatoes are canned, they'll be skinned already, and the few remaining seeds aren't objectionable. Just drain, and reserve the juice for soup, if you like. For fresh tomatoes, boil some water. Put a tomato on a large slotted spoon and lower into the boiling water for 10 seconds or so, depending on the thickness of the skin.
Now you're ready for the paring. First remove the core with a twist of the knife. Then, with thumb and knife, remove skin, starting at the stem end. Slice crosswise, as you would a grapefruit you were going to serve in halves, and gently squeeze with one hand while poking out the seeds with the other. (The index finger is the tool of choice here.)
THE STARTER SAUCE (Makes about 10 to 12 pints)
The secret of the starter sauce, this infinitely expandable nucleus, is to let the good, sweet tomato essence mingle with the herbs long enough to acquire the lovely full-summer flavor that no canned sauce can give. You'll notice there's no salt. Two reasons: The herbs and spices go a long way as a salt substitute, we think; also, some of the recipes call for salty ingredients. Anyway, try it this way. You can always add salt later.
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped green pepper
10 cloves garlic, minced
15 pounds tomatoes (about 24 large ones)
1 cup chopped fresh basil
1 1/2 teaspoons thyme
Dash of nutmeg
Dash of hot pepper sauce
A few grinds of fresh black pepper
Pour olive oil into a heavy, enamel-lined pot and, over medium heat, saute' the onions until they turn limp and yellow. Stir from time to time to prevent browning. Add green peppers and allow them to cook down a little. Now add the garlic. Ten cloves may seem excessive, but -- once they are cooked properly -- we find the amount about right. (We tend to agree with the French chef Louis Diat, who called garlic "the Fifth Element, as important to our existence as earth, air, fire and water." Exactly. This sauce stands on its garlic.)
After 5 or 10 minutes, add the tomatoes. You can turn up the heat to move things along more quickly, but keep stirring if you do, and, most important, never let the sauce boil, a sure way to kill the herbs and spices. Even the garlic will give up the ghost if you allow boiling, and we think something happens to the tomatoes as well.
When the sauce is hot, crush the tomatoes with a potato masher, stir, and allow the whole to simmer softly -- no more than a whisper -- for an hour or so. (We like our sauce chunky rather than pulverized, and we find a potato masher, pressed from time to time into the simmering tomatoes, produces the desired consistency. If you're partial to smooth sauces, you can put the sauce through a blender when it's cool.)
About 20 minutes before the hour is up, add the basil, thyme, nutmeg, hot pepper sauce and pepper. (The basil and thyme are fragile; if you boil now, you're finished. The whole secret of this sauce is gentle cooking. The garlic should cook slowly and long, the basil and thyme slowly and briefly.)
Allow the sauce to cool in the pot, then sample and, if you like, add more seasoning to taste. The sauce acquires more flavor as it sits while warm -- this is why you want it to cool naturally. When cool, spoon into pint or half-pint plastic containers and freeze. The whole process -- preparing the tomatoes and cooking the sauce -- takes about two hours, but you've really done most of the work for several meals to come.
The starter sauce is good simply heated and served over pasta, of course. Cold, it makes a lovely accompaniment for hamburgers or cold meat. But also -- and this is the chief advantage -- you now have several different meals-in-waiting. Just remember to thaw what you need in advance. (A container full will thaw on the lower shelf of the refrigerator overnight.)
Here are a few ways to put your starter sauce to work.
V-4 COCKTAIL (2 servings)
1/2 cup starter sauce
1 cup chilled water
Squirt of lemon juice
Dash of worcestershire sauce
Drop of hot pepper sauce
Salt to taste
Blend for 1 minute and enjoy. Or add vodka for an especially wholesome and nutritious bloody mary.
GAZPACHO (2 small servings)
"Gazpacho" is Arabic for "soaked bread" -- which may not seem much of an advertisement for this lovely cold Spanish soup. But you'd be surprised what delights can come out of a little mashed bread when it's helped along by your starter sauce. Incidentally, be prepared for a gazpacho that's paler than you may be accustomed to, because the tomato color is modified by the colors of the other vegetables. We think this is a better version than the bright red, tomato-dominated ones you get in most restaurants.
1 medium cucumber, seeded and chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
1 cup starter sauce
1 loaf good French or Italian bread
1 small onion
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar
2 cups cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Reserve half the chopped cucumber and all the green pepper for garnishes. Put the rest of the cucumber, a couple pieces of the bread with the crusts cut off, and the remaining ingredients into a blender and blend at high speed until reduced to a smooth pure'e. You may want to add more chilled water if you like a thin soup; we like it thick. Pour into chilled soup bowls and serve with the rest of the bread, and side dishes of chopped cucumber and chopped green pepper, letting people garnish the soup as they like. We've gone easy on the salt; you may prefer more. You might put hot pepper sauce on the table, too. Some like it hot.
From Spain to Italy, the glories of tomato sauces for pasta seem to have dimmed lately. Maybe it's because people are discovering the rich array of non-tomato sauces; and maybe it's because they've turned off to the brownish, acid sludge that so many restaurants pass off as tomato sauce. Whatever the reason, it's a pity, for a good tomato sauce is a joy forever. Here are a couple of good ones you can create from the starter sauce.
TUNA-ANCHOVY SAUCE (4 servings)
This is a sauce that can go two ways. Hot, it's wonderful on pasta. Cooked down and chilled, it's a dynamite sandwich filling. (Try it with a thin slice of onion on dark bread.)
1 tablespoon butter
1 can white tuna, drained and crushed
5 anchovy filets, chopped
2 or 3 cloves fresh garlic
1 1/2 cups starter sauce
1/4 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds
In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter and gently saute' the tuna, anchovies, and garlic for about 5 minutes. (For a stronger anchovy taste, let a few drops of the oil in the can drip into the sauce.) Add the starter sauce, heat through -- a little slow simmering brings out the flavors -- and serve on pasta, cooked al dente. Add the pine nuts or almonds at tableside for a lovely, crunchy texture. (Now you can see why you didn't want to add salt when making the starter sauce: This dish would have been overly salty.)
TOMATO SAUCE AND MEATBALLS (4 servings)
If you've had enough spaghetti-and-meatball swill in cafeterias and third-rate restaurants, you may be tempted to skip this one. Don't. When an honest, well-meaning meatball meets a beautiful young tomato sauce, the result may be a wonderful relationship.
1 or 2 pieces of good white bread, crust removed
Milk for moistening
1 small onion, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 teaspoon oregano
Dash of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 slice deli ham, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups starter sauce
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 cup dry red wine
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
In a good-size mixing bowl combine the bread with enough milk to moisten. Throw in the egg, chopped onion, ground beef, oregano, nutmeg, half the salt, and the ham, and mix thoroughly. Form into meatballs. Don't pack them too tightly. They should be quite moist, loose, just shaped enough to hold together.
Bring the starter sauce to a simmer in a saucepan, and while it's warming, bring a few quarts of water to a boil for the spaghetti. While this is going on, drop the meatballs, one at a time, into about a teaspoon of hot olive oil and brown on all sides. When the meatballs are brown, drain the excess fat, add a few drops of water for moisture, cover and turn down the heat to barely warm. Now ease the pasta into the boiling water. While the pasta is cooking, add the wine and the remaining salt and olive oil to the starter sauce; continue to heat gently, long enough for the alcohol to steam off. Don't let the sauce boil -- the herbs will escape with the steam.
That's it. Serve in individual heated bowls with fresh grated cheese on the side. We like this dish tiered -- pasta, a spoonful of sauce, meatballs. That way the meatballs and sauce can get to know each other on equal terms, each retaining some identity.
One could go on and on. What can't you do with a good starter sauce? Imagine a hot tomato soup, with ham balls, thin slices of saute'ed cabbage, a dash of vinegar. Or a little ground beef and red beans, gently bubbling in company with starter sauce and hot peppers to make a stouthearted chili. The call is for you to innovate. The very odor of the sauce as you cook it should call up some possibilities. Here's one more we like, a sort of East Indian dish this time, believe it or not. Highly adapted, we should add, to quick cooking. In this sauce, the tomatoes reveal one of their greatest charms: the ability to tenderize meat.
CHICKEN AND TOMATOES, PUNJAB-STYLE (freely adapted) (4 to 6 servings)
2 or 3 whole chicken breasts, deboned and sliced in large pieces
2 tablespoons light cooking oil
2 cups onion, sliced very fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ginger root, minced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cups starter sauce
1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped basil (optional)
Actually, the other parts of the chicken are even better in this dish, or at least just as good. But the preparation -- the trimming, cutting away from bone, etc. -- will take you longer. The whole dish can be cooked in half an hour, but you should allow another 30 minutes for the "brewing" phase. The cooking is best done in a heavy pot to hold the heat.
Brown the chicken pieces in hot oil, turning to brown all sides. Remove the chicken and set aside. Turn the heat down somewhat and brown the onions, stirring to keep from burning. Add garlic and ginger, and cook a few minutes longer. Then add turmeric and cinnamon and cook just a few seconds more. Add the starter sauce, vinegar and salt and mix well. Return the chicken. Cover and cook gently for about 5 minutes. Don't allow the mixture to boil; this can ruin the texture of the meat. Set the dish aside for half an hour or so to "brew" -- this is a good time for drinks or a salad. Serve on rice, topped with the chopped coriander or basil. If neither is available, try chopped scallions.
The secret of this dish is timing. That half-hour waiting period allows the tomato juices to permeate the meat, flavoring and tenderizing it in the process. The dish is even better if you make it a day in advance and allow it to sit in the refrigerator overnight.