My friend Kathy called in mid-September. She was out of town for a few weeks and asked if I could pick rows upon rows of heirloom tomatoes planted in her backyard garden. It was making her physically ill to imagine them rotting away out there, perfect specimens left out for the birds. Pregnant or not, you don’t say no to that sort of request, so I brought along a trusty four-year-old to do the heavy bending and lifting.
He bear-crawled along the ground, plucking the heaviest ones that had independently snapped from the stalks, taut skins bursting at the seams with sweet juice. Up above him, I barely had to twist a full turn between thumb and forefinger to pluck the tomatoes from their stems. We picked ten pounds in a matter of minutes, red and yellow and orange, some the length of my thumb and others the width of two fists, and hauled away two full paper grocery bags.
I’ve never had to figure out what to do with a beautiful tomato. I usually bring one or two of them home from the market and they’re gone by the afternoon, sliced into sandwiches with mayonnaise and bacon or onto a salad. But ten pounds, TEN POUNDS, would fill a year’s worth of BLTs. I had to think like a gardener, on a more industrial scale. So, I consulted Kathy again, this time from her book, Notes From a Maine Kitchen, a charming compilation of anecdotes and recipes from her thirty years in Maine. Her answer? End-of-the-Season Roasted Tomato Sauce.
Nestled into a huge roasting pan with garlic, onions, and fresh herbs, the tomatoes are slow-roasted until they’re broken down into a juicy mass and the sugars on top have begun to caramelize. Over a few hours, ten pounds of tomatoes cook down into a thick and flavorful soup you’ll want to slurp up by the spoonful.
The best part, and the reason I’m sharing this genius recipe now and not smack in the middle of tomato season is because it works just as well with mid-winter, mealy, poor excuses for tomatoes. I’ve made the recipe three times this fall, in varying batch sizes – once with Kathy’s gorgeous tomatoes, once with ugly, bruised end-of-the-season $1 a pound farmers market tomatoes, and once with nasty supermarket tomatoes that probably travelled to China and back and taste as exciting as sliced raw kohlrabi.
The sauce was delicious every time, no matter the quality or type or size of tomato. It’s not choosy, because once you add the onions, garlic, herbs and spices, slowly coax out the flavors, and puree the whole thing, it’s liquid gold. You’ll probably use it immediately, but it can be refrigerated for up to a week, frozen for a month, or canned* for the whole winter.
*This was my first ever attempt at canning, because it seemed like the right way to nest at the time. Who needs a stable car seat for an almost born when you have homemade canned tomato sauce to last the winter?
- 10 pounds tomatoes, cored and quartered or halved, depending on size
- 6 large onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2/3 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Several grinds of black pepper
- 1 cup chopped fresh herbs, like basil, parsley, and/or thyme
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, salt, sugar, and pepper. Transfer the tomato mixture to a large roasting pan and roast for 45 minutes. Stir the mixture, add the herbs, rotate the pan(s) and roast for an additional 45 minutes, stirring the mixture once or twice more, until the tomatoes have broken down and are beginning to brown on top.
- Remove from the oven and let cool. Leave chunky, or transfer to a blender and puree in batches until smooth. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to five days or frozen for up to a month. To can, pour the sauce into clean, sterile jars, and process in boiling water for about 30 minutes.