Tomatoes are at market. Local backyard gardeners have had a summer of too much rain and too many slugs. Not surprisingly it hasnt been the best of seasons for market gardeners either. Prices for sauce tomatoes are up about one third from last year.
Cultivated tomatoes originated in the Andes. Italian herbalists were the first to describe them. The fruit was often called poma amoris (love apple). Some would not eat tomatoes because the plant is related to the nightshade family which includes poisonous belladonna and mandrake. But tomato sauce is not a new dish. One 16th century writer wrote that the tomato is eaten in Italy with oil, salt and pepper. Although any tomato can be used for cooking, the best are the dense, oblong Italian varieties known as San Marzano and Romanella.
They may look like each other but each has different strengths in the kitchen. Romanellas taste better fresh. San Marzanos are less juicy and denser. They are excellent for making sun dried tomatoes. Ideally this could be done outside if we were blessed with a few consistent days of sunny warm weather, but lacking any meteorological guarantees, we prepare them inside. We have used both gas and convection ovens. An electric oven would also work if the temperature can be kept constant to 180 F (about 82 C).
Wash and dry the San Marzanos. Line an oven rack with aluminum foil. Cut the tomatoes in half along their length. Place the tomatoes skin side down on the foil Sprinkle a little salt over them and place them in the oven. Drying can take from five to 20 hours depending upon the tomatoes and the oven. Check occasionally. They are done when they are firm but springy. Spray them with white vinegar when they are cool and store them in jars that have been washed in very hot water and dried. We also store them covered in olive oil. The oil helps keep them from spoiling and the tomato flavoured oil is delightful on salads.
Romanellas are more acidic than San Marzanos and are better for sauces. Although finely chopped onions, garlic, celery and other vegetables can be added as the tomatoes cook, I like making the sauce simply.
Wash the Romanellas and immerse them in boiling water until the skin cracks. Ladle the tomatoes into cold water and remove the skin with your hands. Then heat a little olive oil in a pot, add the tomatoes and mash them into the oil. Cover the pan and let them stew in their juice, just slightly bubbling for a half hour. Stir and mash occasionally. Salt to taste. This sauce is a little chunky. If you prefer it smoother, run the sauce through a blender or food processor before you store it. It will keep in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for several months.
If you want them to keep that fresh taste longer, consider hot packing them. Pack the tomatoes in glass mason jars with clean lids and covers. Leave a little room at the top so that the tomatoes dont bubble out. Make sure that the top of the jars are clean. Screw the lids and covers on the jars but do not over tighten. Immerse the jars in a large pan of boiling water. Let the water return to a slow boil and cook the jars for 15 minutes to 20 minutes. remove the jars. Do not tighten the lids further. As they cool, the lids will pop and depress, creating the vacuum you need for storage. if they dont pop, pour the tomatoes into a new clean jar and reprocess them. When there are problems, it is almost always because the lid was either dirty or there was a small piece of tomato wedged between the jar and the lid. We keep tomatoes for up to a year this way. A bushel and a half of tomatoes (with about 8 per jar) makes about 4 dozen jars.