Recipe: Summer Tomato Sauce with Thyme, Parsley, and Butter
This elegant and labor-intensive dress made from tomato skins got me thinking about how amazing the skins of many things are, including our own skins, of course (at least on some people). These bright red skins, used to fashion this adorable cocktail ensemble, made me want to go and blanch a few summer tomatoes, just so I could slip off the skins and feel them with my own hands, marveling at their translucent beauty and delicacy. I did that, and it was damned great. But now I had a bunch of nude tomatoes to deal with, dripping all over my counter and giving off a faint, alluring whiff of the sea (it’s odd how tomatoes can have that aroma, even when they weren’t grown anywhere near the sea). In any case, we all know that one of the best things to do with perfect, just skinned summer tomatoes is make a tomato sauce. This sometimes scares people. And I know why. It’s all the liquid. How are you supposed to get rid of all that liquid?
Well, you can use plum tomatoes. They throw off less water than the round ones, and they have a concentrated flavor that produces a rich, tight sauce that’s a classic in Southern Italian cooking. But many people tell me they have trouble finding fresh plums at their markets, so I’ve devised a technique for using the big juicy round tomatoes, a variety that makes an altogether different sauce, one with lightness, bright red color, and a refreshing pure summer flavor.
Here are a few tricks: First, you’ll want to seed and drain your tomatoes. Then chop them, salt them lightly, and stick them in a colander with a bowl underneath to catch the tomato water (which you actually might need if you’ve drained them too much). When you get to cooking them, chose a wide skillet and high heat. The more surface area you have for spreading out your tomatoes, the quicker you’ll get them heating, which means being able to boil away excess liquid rapidly without their overcooking and turning acidy. High heat and fast cooking also allows the tomatoes to retain their color and clarity of flavor.
I chose to flavor my sauce with thyme, Italian parsley, and a little butter, swirled in at the end. This is a genteel approach, excellent on tagliatelle or a delicate durum wheat pasta shape such as farfalle. I also like to spoon the sauce over stuffed summer vegetables or meatloaf. You might want to go bolder by substituting marjoram or fresh oregano and adding a few anchovies, olives, and capers. Then you’d have a fresh summer puttanesca. I like both approaches.
Summer Tomato Sauce with Thyme, Parsley, and Butter
(Makes about 2 cups of sauce, more than enough for a pound of pasta)
6 medium-size round summer tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
10 thyme sprigs, leaves chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A handful of Italian parsley, leaves lightly 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 notice that their skins are 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 off their beautiful skins (and perhaps save them for a hat).
Cut the tomatoes in half, and squeeze out the seeds. Then chop them into small dice. Place them in a colander over a bowl, and sprinkle them lightly with salt. Let them drain for about an hour. Save the juice, though, just in case you might want it to loosen the sauce.
Choose a wide skillet, and heat it over a medium flame. When its surface is hot, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the shallot. Sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, nutmeg, 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, spreading them out. Cook over a lively bubble, uncovered, for about 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally (not constantly, which could make your sauce watery by lowering the skillet temperature). When the sauce has some body but is still a bright red, it’s done. If it seems too thick, add a bit of the reserved tomato water.
Turn off the heat. Stir in the butter, add the parsley, and give it a few big turns of fresh black pepper. Taste the sauce to see if it needs additional salt. I find a fresh sauce like this is best used right away, before it loses any vibrancy.