The most difficult thing about having a kitchen filled with tomatoes is deciding what to do with them. There are so many choices! The cherry and grape tomatoes usually head right for the salad and the large slicing tomatoes frequently end up in sandwiches, but the plum tomatoes and many of the mid-sized round tomatoes are usually “put up” for the coming year. Most of them are processed in mason jars which then line my pantry throughout the coming winter when fresh ripe tomatoes are just memories. I think my favorite way to prepare tomatoes, however, has to be the baked tomato sauce that I make every year.
Baking the tomatoes gives the sauce a rich depth of flavor you can’t get from just cooking them on a stovetop. It’s easy to do: just core and halve as many tomatoes as will fit in your largest baking dish (I use my 9 x 13 lasagna dish) and arrange them cut-side up with some chopped onion and garlic and a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake in a 300-degree oven until they are soft and begin to brown slightly. (They will smell amazing.) I then take them out of the oven and set them aside to cool a bit.
Then, it’s decision time: do I want a smooth or chunky sauce? I usually alternate, making a few batches of both. For the chunky variety, I simply slip off the tomato skins, coarsely chop the baked tomatoes, and transfer them to a saucepan. I then add some dried basil and oregano, and salt and pepper to taste and simmer for about 20 minutes to thicken and blend the flavors. Sometimes I add ground fennel seed and hot red pepper flakes. Often, I’ll add some capers and pitted sliced olives.
For this latest batch, I decided to go with a smooth sauce. For that, I enlisted the Foley food mill which enables you to mill the tomatoes, skin and all, and as you turn the crank, just the tomato sauce and juice comes out, leaving the skin and seeds in the mill. Since the resulting sauce is too thin for a pasta sauce, I simmer it in a saucepan with some tomato paste until it is the right consistency, seasoning it to taste with the usual suspects: oregano, basil, a little sugar, salt, and pepper.
I think baked tomato sauce has to be the richest-tasting most flavorful tomato sauce there is. When I make this sauce, I usually get enough for two meals: one to enjoy now and the other to put up for another time.