Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by the unexpected explosion of taste from a humble, even strange looking ingredient? That’s what happened to me about ten years ago in the northern Italian city of Bra. Bra is the hometown of the Slow Food Movement, and every two years they host a festival simply called Cheese.
I was taking a break from the onslaught of rich crumbly, salty and creamy goodness just wandering through the streets, when I stopped in front of a Fruttivendolo (an old fashioned fruit and vegetable store). The ugliest tomato I had ever seen was nestled in a basket and displayed with pride in the front window. I remember thinking to myself, “I’ll bet that tomato tastes incredible if they’re giving it that much attention.” So I went into the store, bought one, asked them to wash it for me, went outside and leaned over the sidewalk into the street and took a bite.
A red lightening bolt went through me. Tomato. It was what you think tomatoes taste like in your mind but almost never get to experience. Then I really looked at the ragged half eaten thing in my hand. It was juicy yes, but also fleshy. It was the perfect sauce tomato. I wiped my hands off on my jeans, walked back into the store and proceeded to interrogate the owner on the provenance of the tomato.He knew the variety. Costoluto Canestrini Genovese, a lobed variety from Genoa.
In Italy seeds are sold in flower shops, supermarkets and Home Depot-like stores. For the rest of the trip I became obsessed, like a pointer dog honing in on my prey. Finally a week later, I hit pay dirt in Lucca, the ultimate walled Tuscan town. I found a garden shop near the wall.
I bought ten packages and brought them to MaryAnn Carpenter. The Carpenters, Paul, MaryAnn and Mark farmed under the name Coastal Organics at that time. They trusted me about the tomato’s quality and did a small first planting. They gave the tomato my name to make it easier to sell. That’s why you see Evan’s tomato at their stand at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market.
This is Summertime fresh tomato sauce we used at Angeli. Using a food mill to puree the sauce saves you the time of peeling and seeding the tomatoes and results in a deeper tasting sauce due to the contact the sauce has with the more acidic skins and seeds while cooking. During the height of summer we reduced every conceivable variety of tomato to sauce using this recipe. Cherokee Purples or other “black” tomatoes made a particularly vivid red sauce that can be used to sauce fish or chicken, as well as pasta, or in risotto. You can even use this sauce cold on pasta for a simple pasta salad with the addition of chopped arugula and fresh mozzarella. Do not skimp on the olive oil either in quality or quantity. The cooking of the oil together with the tomatoes is what creates a marvelously textured and flavored sauce. Leave it out and you just have salsa.
The entire cooking process shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. Use a wide pan to encourage quick evaporation. You want fresh sweetness, not long cooked depth.
1 lb. heavy dense ripe tomatoes
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or grated on microplane
Pinch of red chile pepper flakes
5-6 fragrant basil leaves or a sprig of fresh rosemary (optional)
Salt to taste
1. Remove the stem end of the tomatoes and cut them in quarters or smaller if the tomatoes are huge. Heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add the garlic and red chile flakes. As soon as the garlic gives off its aroma and becomes opaque, add the tomatoes. Add salt to taste.
2. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat until the tomatoes begin to break down and give off their juice. Remove the cover and use a wooden spoon or a potato masher to stir and help break up the tomato pulp. Cook over moderately high heat stirring frequently until the tomatoes begin to thicken. Add the basil if you are using it, either whole or roughly chopped, and additional salt if necessary.
3. Continue cooking until the sauce thickens enough to coat pasta. You know you have enough olive oil in the sauce when the color turns from red to red-orange. When the sauce is done, remove it from the heat and put it through a food mill using the medium or coarse disk. This will remove the skins and seeds and create a rough puree without adding air. You can also remove a lot of the skins by lifting them out with a whisk.