The art of oven-roasted tomato sauce
Vail CO, Colorado
At the end of a recent farmers market, a friend called out to me from his table. “You want a box of extra-ripe tomatoes?” he said.
“Yes, of course” I replied.
He presented me with a box of Roma tomatoes that were colored in the most scandalous shade of make-love-to-me-red a tomato could possibly be.
“Someone ordered them last week,” lamented the farmer, “and he never showed up. Now the market’s over, these tomatoes won’t last until next week, and I don’t really want to compost them.”
This is the kind of gift that requires work, the kind of work you have to drop everything and do. Old tomatoes are perfect for sauce, but not for long. Rotten tomatoes aren’t good for much.
I decided it was time to cash in on a standing invitation extended to my by my friend Bob, a pizza maker. For years he’s been telling me about his technique for oven-roasted tomato sauce, and offering to show me the ways. We set up an appointment for that evening.
When I arrived, Bob was in his kitchen pounding a piece of dough with his fist. Soon the dough was a spinning flying saucer. When he’d spun it into a flat, round disk, he laid the dough on the floured counter and started putting together a pizza.
Of Eastern European Jewish descent, Bob’s gastrointestinal system came of age in Italy, by virtue of the Italian neighborhood he grew up in, in Livingston, N.J. There, the pizzerias his family patronized ” Calabria, Camaratas and Bonvini’s, to name a few ” were full-menu Italian restaurants where Italian was spoken more than English.
After school, Bob ate at his friend Anthony Cocca’s house as often as possible. “We had to walk around the block between courses,” he remembers, without a hint of remorse.
Cocca’s dad, who drove a bulldozer at the local landfill, made his own wine and sausage, and his mom owned the San Marco Pasta Shop on Newark’s Bloomfield Avenue.
“The women in Anthony’s family did all the cooking, and the men were shunned from the kitchen,” Bob explains. “I had to fight my way in. But the women were receptive to me, humored by my curiosity.”
Bob’s grandmother, meanwhile, who still spoke Yiddish with the other grandparents when they didn’t want the kids to understand, visited Italy every year. She was known for her Jewish/Italian fusions, like Chicken Parmesan with Matzo meal breading. The pizza Bob was making when I brought him those tomatoes certainly fit that Yiddish profile, topped, as it was, with smoked salmon and Sicilian olive dill cream cheese and pickled onion tomato caper relish on rye dough with caraway seeds.
And while I happily tried a piece, and it was good, it was his oven-roasted tomato sauce I wanted that day, not bagels and lox pizza.
I presented Bob with my box of Romas, and his hands went into them, caressing them, absorbing information them with his fingers.
“I love the inconsistency in shape and size. Each one tastes different. So ripe and sweet, obviously non-genetically altered, with a few worm holes indicative of being unsprayed,” he said, almost mumbling, as if in a trance.
After a few more minutes of bonding with these tomatoes, Bob got to work. He cut off the ends and imperfections from 10 pounds of tomatoes, and roasted them in the oven at 400 degrees until they collapsed. He let them cool, then pulled off the skins, squeezing out every last drop of juice before tossing them. Then he added 11/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup roasted garlic, 2 tablespoons sea salt, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 2 tablespoons sugar and, a splash or two of red wine. Finally, he pureed the mix, adjusted the seasonings, and simmered until the sauce reduced by 25 percent.
From this base, you can make a whole spectrum of tomato sauces, such as marinara, or the following trinity of roasted tomato goodness ” aioli, vinaigrette, and pink vodka tomato sauce ” which we made the next day.
For the roasted tomato aioli, combine two egg yolks, 3/4 cup roasted tomato base (fully cooled), a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper, 2 tablespoons roasted garlic and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard in a food processor. While processing, slowly add 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
For the vinaigrette: puree 1/4 cup red onion, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 2 cups roasted tomato base, 1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon minced Italian parsley and 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
Finally, for the Pink Vodka Tomato Sauce, saute chopped red onion and garlic in olive oil and deglaze with vodka. Add this to the still-hot red sauce. Pour a little of this hot red sauce into 1 cup heavy cream to temper, then add the tempered cream back to the sauce, which will now be pink. Adjust seasonings to taste.
Soon, roasted tomato aioli was drizzled onto fresh-baked olive tapenade crostini, followed by a salad dressed with oven-roasted tomato vinaigrette. Finally, a pizza emerged topped with Italian sausage and marjoram mascarpone cheese on “pink vodka tomato sauce.”
This dazzling meal was, to be sure, more Italian than Jewish, but neither was this roasted tomato trinity fully devoid of chutzpah. “You can’t get more Yiddish than vodka,” Bob reflected, folding a piece of pizza in half, New York-style, and chomping.
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