Recipe: Summer Tomato Sauce with Thyme and Marjoram
Your goal here is to cook up a sauce of summer tomatoes that fully captures their incredible fresh taste. Believe it or not, it’s easy (chef’s always say that—doesn’t it infuriate you?). In this case it’s actually true, but first you should know a few things. You’ll want a wide skillet, and you’ll want to use high heat. The more surface area you’ve got for your tomatoes to spread out over, and the quicker you can get them heating, the sooner you’ll be able to boil away excess liquid. High heat and fast cooking will help the tomatoes retain their bright red color and true tomato flavor. That’s the trick. It’s not a trick exactly, but just something really good to know.
Plum tomatoes are a very good choice for a fresh sauce, since they give off little liquid and have concentrated flavor. That is a true Southern Italian–style sauce. But many people tell me they have trouble finding fresh plums, so I’ve devised a method for using big, juicy round tomatoes. They produce a different kind of sauce, one with lightness, bright red color, and a refreshing pure-summer flavor. You just have to coax some of the liquid out of them before you start cooking.
A blend of thyme and marjoram is my current favorite herb mix for a fresh tomato sauce. Basil, of course, is a classic, and you can go with that if you prefer, but thyme and marjoram have a depth of flavor that makes this sauce better for accompanying things you throw on the grill—eggplant, salmon, chicken, lamb—and since it has that elusive herbal mystery, it even works well with whole wheat pasta.
You can use this sauce as is on pasta or spooned over stuffed summer vegetables (I really love that), but any embellishments you’d like to include, such as capers, anchovies, bits of prosciutto, parsley, pine nuts, or basil, are easy enough. I like adding chopped black olives, fresh hot chili, a few drops of vinegar, and a handful of chopped celery leaves, and serving it cold, alongside grilled mackerel, for instance. I also love it spooned onto a hamburger.
Summer Tomato Sauce with Thyme and Marjoram
(Makes about 2 1/2 cups of sauce)
6 medium-size round summer tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil (the best you’ve got)
1 large shallot, minced
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
10 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
5 marjoram sprigs, the leaves chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Set up a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the tomatoes, and blanch them until you see their skins just starting to crack, about 3 minutes. Lift the tomatoes from the water with a large strainer, and run cold water over them. Now you can easily slip their skins off.
Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds. Chop them into small dice. Place the diced tomatoes in a colander over a bowl, and sprinkle them lightly with salt. Let them drain for about an hour (this is important, since these round tomatoes give off lots of juice that would dilute your sauce). Save the juice, though, just in case you want to loosen the sauce at some point. (It is possible to drain or cook off too much liquid, so a little extra is nice to have, and it’s a good way to add a little bit of purely raw tomato taste back to the sauce.)
Choose a wide skillet. This is important too. You want a lot of surface area so the liquid evaporates quickly, leaving the tomatoes thickened but not overly cooked down. Place the skillet over medium heat, and when the surface is hot add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the shallot, and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and the thyme, and sauté a minute longer, just to release their fragrances (you don’t want the garlic to darken, though). Turn the heat to high, and add the tomatoes, spread them out, and cook over a lively bubble, uncovered, for about 6 or 7 minutes, stirring occasionally (stirring constantly is not necessary and might make your sauce watery by lowering the skillet temperature). When the sauce has some body and is still a bright red, it’s done. Turn off the heat. Add the marjoram, the black pepper, and about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil. Give it a stir. The sauce will be chunky (if you’d like a smoother sauce, pulse it in the food processor a few times). Taste to see if it needs salt.
You can use the sauce right away, or you can refrigerate it and hold it for up to about 4 days. Reheat it quickly, over high heat so it doesn’t lose too much freshness. And if you’re lucky enough to actually grow tomatoes and have them taking over your kitchen, double or triple the recipe and freeze it.