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IN THE KITCHEN : The Trouble With Tomatoes

September 23, 1993|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

My tomatoes got a late start this year, and with the cool and cloudy July weather that extended through August and into September, they ripened even later. But here they are now, a couple bushes of Romas, a cherry that I believe was supposed to be a red currant, a beautiful deeply ribbed Costoluto Genovese and another slicer that I can't for the life of me remember planting.

It's been a long summer of buying tomatoes; even tomatoes from the farmers market can't touch the splendor of those from your back yard.

So, when they finally ripened, I was not in the mood to waste them. In good summers, abundance quickly turns home-grown tomatoes from coveted gems to costume jewelry. Not this year. I get the feeling this crop is going to be so spare that I will squeeze every tomato till it bleeds, to coin a phrase.

Naturally, then, I became interested in the best way to present these jewels. The big slicing tomatoes are easy--nothing comes close to the bistecca Fiorentina treatment: Slice them thick, sprinkle them with salt, a bit of the best extra-virgin olive oil and a good dusting of coarsely ground pepper. This is truly what becomes a beefsteak most.

You can hardly think of tomatoes without thinking of pasta sauces. But which pasta sauce? In times of plenty, any old ragu will do. If you don't like this one, the next will be better. But lean days call for discrimination. And so I set out to discover which pasta sauce best showed off the flavor of my tomatoes.

First I set some ground rules. Since this sauce was to be about tomatoes, I would stay away from meat-based recipes, or recipes that seemed so overcrowded with ingredients that the tomatoes would get lost (it turns out, it doesn't take much to do that). And I wanted a fresh tomato taste, not the caramelized concentrated sweetness of a long-cooked sauce; I wanted something cooked just briefly.

Intrigued, I began going through cookbooks, trying to find the definitive sauce. For such an essentially simple dish, there are more variations than you might think.

The first one I tried was from Marcella Hazan. It called for chopping a couple pounds of peeled and seeded tomatoes, then melting the pulp with a half-stick of butter and an onion cut in half. "I have known people to skip the pasta and eat the sauce directly out of the pot with a spoon," she says of it and, in truth, she is right. The problem is that it was far better in the spoon than on spaghetti. When I dressed a bunch of noodles with the sauce, the flavor was just too delicate to carry. I might use it again with a filled pasta--where the sauce is more an accent than a featured player.

Giuliano Bugialli says tomato sauces should be made only in earthenware containers, but when I tested one made that way against the same recipe made in a stainless-steel saucepan, I didn't really see the point. He also has another sauce, which he makes by layering sliced Roma tomatoes in a dish with chopped anchovies and baking it briefly. It was interesting but tasted more like an anchovy sauce than a tomato sauce.

No, it seemed that the path to true tomato nirvana must be even simpler. So I decided to strip the sauce down to its most basic elements. One evening, I made three sauces: one with just a teaspoon of garlic; one with a teaspoon of garlic and two tablespoons of onions; and one with a teaspoon of garlic, two tablespoons of onions, two tablespoons of carrots and one tablespoon of celery. Each took two tablespoons of olive oil and eight ounces of tomato puree (produced from three pounds of back-yard tomatoes by a technique nicked from Bugialli: Slice unpeeled tomatoes in half lengthwise, saute briefly, then pass through a food mill). Each was cooked no more than 20 minutes.

The results were interesting. The sauce made with garlic alone was the tartest and simplest. With onions added, the tomatoes were a little sweeter but had the same whiff of garlic. Tasted on pasta, the two were almost identical.

The third--with the addition of just a bit of carrots and celery, mind you--was an almost wholly different sauce. Having been run through the food mill a second time, the sauce's texture was silky. And the vegetables added a real complexity. So much so, in fact, that the addition of some fresh basil--which really sparkled in the first two sauces--was too much. (It was wonderful with some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, though, and would be my first choice to use with homemade pasta.)

Still, none of them were what I had in mind as my ideal tomato sauce. The flavors just weren't vivid enough; there was no excitement. It occurred to me that the fault might not lie in the recipes but in their stars. I tasted one of the Roma tomatoes and . . . nothing. (That's what I get for buying the plants at a hardware store, but that's another story.)

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