When I was thirteen years old my grandfather showed me how to grow tomatoes in a little patch of soil on the side of my house. Some years later, and with the advice of my grandmother, I learned how to make old-fashioned tomato sauce from scratch. It was such a simple and grounding experience. one which I’ve had the honor to repeat many times since, and one I’d like to share with you. To be sure, this is not a recipe blog, it’s a story of experiences. So sit back, relax and take a gentle scroll through one of the simplest and sublime experiences life has to offer - the making of tomato sauce from scratch.
If one wants to make good sauce, one must use start with good tomatoes. Tomatoes are very easy to grow. The basic ingredients include good soil, lots of sunlight and warmth. Some say the most important ingredient is love. But I disagree. For me, the most important ingredient is a dump-truck sized shovel of Miracle Grow.
I grow my plants in pots on my small back porch. This year my ‘crop’ included Better Boy, Beafsteak, Brandywine, San Marzano, and Large Cherry tomato plants. I included the latter two so as not to seem biased toward tomatoes that started with the letter ‘B’. The tomato plant to the right is a Brandywine, and the beautiful tomatoes on the previous page are Better Boys.
That’s me on the left, talking to my plants. I find that gentle verbal encouragement helps them take root. And if that doesn’t work, I add another mountain-sized heap of Miracle Grow.
After you’ve spent weeks and months diligently growing, tending to, and harvesting your tomatoes, then you’re ready for the next step….
…of cutting them up and throwing them in a salad, because, unless you’re Old Macdonald you’re never going to grow enough tomatoes to make a whole jar of actual sauce. So head to a local farmer’s market (or Costco in the winter) and buy an unholy amount of ripe tomatoes. Note how I chose bilingual tomatoes because I’m culturally sensitive. This step is the only shortcut you’re allowed. For instance, using canned tomatoes is forbidden on this web site.
It is said that the ideal sauce tomatoes are medium size ones like San Marzano, Plum or Roma. That’s because they have less water and more pulp. But I say, use whatever you want, as long as it’s fresh and ripe. For reference, the photo on the bottom right is what the inside of a tomato should look like. I suggest bringing this photo and a small blade to the vegetable stand, cutting each tomato in half to confirm, then discarding those that aren’t to your liking. The produce stand man will appreciate your help in culling the weak from his herd.
Next, drop the tomatoes into boiling water for moment, then move the them to a bowl of cold water and peel off the skin. Place the naked red orbs in a silver bowl and worship them for ten minutes. Next, you must remove the seeds and any little fibrous bits from the tomato. I usually do this by quartering them and then scooping the seeds out with a grapefruit spoon. Strain the juice out from the seeds and save it. Then take out your food mill and set it on another bowl. If you don’t have a food mill, purchase a food mill. Here’s your chance to release pent-up hostility in a healthy manner: Dump the seedless tomato quarters into the food mill and turn, turn, turn with all your might. Turn as violently as you wish, but be aware that knocking the bowl over cancels out an entire day’s worth of good feelings.
The food mill comes with different discs with varying grate holes. For a chunky sauce, use the coarse grate. For a thin sauce, use the the coarse grate and accept the fact that all sauce should be chunky. After the milling is complete, combine any strained juice with the milled tomato pulp. Then set this aside for a moment and gather the other ingredients you’d like to add. Keep it simple with the additional flavors. The flavor of the tomatoes should stand on its own merit.
Start with freshly chopped basil (You are forbidden from using dried basil), olive oil, ground pepper, fresh garlic, onions and hot pepper flakes. Other popular add-ins include red wine and a pinch or two of salt. I have used both with great success, although if your tomatoes are good enough salt shouldn’t be needed. Remember, keep it simple. Sauté the onions. then add everything to a sauce pot and heat them up. Stop before anything burns. Then dump your tomato contents into the pot. Then spend ten minutes cleaning the tomato spatter off of everything within ten feet of the pot. Then bring the pot to a quick boil. Finally, take it down to a simmer and then stir occasionally. The sauce will slowly reduce to a suitable thickness over a certain number of hours. One other thing - don’t put sugar in your sauce. If you do, I will come to your house and punch you in the gut. There are plenty of other ways to sweeten sauce without using sugar. Don’t make me come to your house.
For maximal stirring results, it is important to your grandmother’s old wooden spoon, just like the one I have above. I recommend playing Italian opera music on a record-player in the background while letting the smell of sauce fill the air. If you really want the complete experience, you can make your own pasta from scratch. It take a bit of elbow grease, but it’s worth the challenge. This rolled up fresh pasta noodle below resembled a snail.
As the sauce simmers down to its perfect consistency, and the brindizi from Verdi’s La Traviata wells up in the background, don’t forget the most important step - excessive drinking. Technically you should’ve already started, but if you haven’t, it’s ok. Open up the bottle of wine and begin. I use a wine glass, but to help quicken the inebriation, you should consider pouring the wine directly into your mouth from the bottle, all the while stirring. Lastly, boil up your fresh pasta.
Congratulations, you’ve made a classic and timeless food from scratch. Top your dish with some freshly grated parmesan or similar cheese. Grill up your favorite meat, and eat with pride. Be forewarned, you will never want to return to jarred sauce again, and that’s not a bad thing.
Until the next experience,