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It's the season to celebrate tomatoes and to enjoy this wholesome, fruit-used-as-a-vegetable as often as possible. Israelis, like other Mediterranean cooks, know plenty about using tomatoes. When I was growing up in the US, tomato sauce came mainly with meatballs in it and was spooned over spaghetti. Upon moving to Israel, I discovered that tomato sauce is good with... just about everything! From grilled fish to baked eggs to stewed chicken, all sorts of delightful foods in red sauce arrived on my plate. I was intrigued by the vegetables stewed in tomato sauce, notably green beans and zucchini, which I found a delicious change from the usual steamed veggies.
A lot of people take shortcuts and use canned tomato paste, but nothing comes close to homemade tomato sauce made from fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes. The sauce will be at its most flavorful during the next few weeks, when tomatoes are at their peak.
The best tomatoes for sauce-making are those that are very ripe and deep red. If they are a bit too soft for salad, they are perfect for sauce. Meaty textured ones like plum tomatoes produce a richer sauce than tomatoes that are very juicy, but you can use any good, aromatic tomatoes.
Think of tomato sauce, and fresh basil comes to mind. This fragrant Italian favorite is now loved throughout the Western world; yet in Middle Eastern cooking, you don't often find fresh basil in the tomato sauce pots. Instead, tomato sauce might be accented with cumin, turmeric or both, and often fresh or dried hot peppers as well.
Cooks everywhere agree that onion family members are great flavorings for tomato sauce. A modest amount of sauteed onion is a standard addition in many European kitchens, but garlic may be the most popular of all, loved in tomato sauces from France to India. Italian, French and Indian sauces often contain onions and garlic, but a Moroccan acquaintance told me that in his family's sauces it's one or the other.
An American friend who is an excellent cook told that me she simmers her tomato sauces for three days. I told her that at cooking school in Paris I had learned that freshness and brief cooking are the keys to fine tomato sauces. Our chef-instructors demonstrated to us that a luscious tomato sauce requires only 10 or 15 minutes of simmering. When cooked a short time, the tomatoes retain their natural taste and bright color.
You can even make uncooked tomato sauce. Fresh tomato vinaigrette - made of grated tomatoes blended with olive oil, wine vinegar and fresh herbs - is a popular French accompaniment for cold fish and vegetable terrines. Yemenites share this predilection for uncooked tomato sauce. My mother-in-law made hers from grated fresh tomatoes with a little salt and a spoonful of s'hug (garlic-hot pepper relish). She served it to accompany jahnun and brown hard-boiled eggs for Shabbat breakfast, but I also like it with grilled eggplant or sauteed zucchini.
Among classic sauces, tomato sauce is probably the most healthful, so enjoy it with all sorts of foods. Try tomato sauce accented with fresh coriander as a complement to broiled chicken or cooked cauliflower. Bake eggs in cumin-spiced tomato sauce for a tasty brunch or supper. Cook fish in tomato sauce with sliced green olives.
To keep some of the tomatoes' glorious flavor for later in the year, freeze some homemade tomato sauce in small containers. It keeps a long time and reheats beautifully, bringing back an aromatic reminder of the delights of summer.
BASIC FRESH TOMATO SAUCE
In France, tomato sauce is cooked over fairly high heat in a skillet or saute pan rather than a saucepan. In a shallow pan with a wide surface, the sauce thickens in a short time, and the flavor remains fresh. Of course, the larger the quantity you make at one time, the longer the sauce takes to cook because there is more liquid to evaporate. Yet I've found that even four kilograms of tomatoes need only about 45 minutes of simmering.
Depending on how finely the tomatoes are chopped, the sauce will be quite smooth or fairly chunky. Chefs peel and seed the tomatoes so the skin and seeds won't interfere with the sauce's texture. However, cooks in a hurry who know their families and friends don't mind the skins can skip this step and simply puree the whole tomatoes in a food processor. If you want a more intense color or a slightly thicker sauce, a spoonful or two of tomato paste does the trick. Stir in leafy herbs such as thyme, oregano, basil or fresh coriander at the last minute so they keep their flavor.
4 900 gr. ripe tomatoes
4 2 or 3 Tbsp.
extra virgin olive oil, vegetable oil or butter
4 1â„2 medium onion, chopped
4 1 or 2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 1â„2 tsp. dried leaf thyme or oregano
4 1 bay leaf
4 Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 2 tsp. tomato paste (optional)
4 3 Tbsp. chopped basil, tarragon or
parsley or 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh
To peel and seed tomatoes: Cut cores from tomatoes, turn tomatoes over and slit skin in an X-shaped cut. Put tomatoes in a pan of boiling water and boil 15 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of cold water. After a few seconds, remove them and pull off skins with a paring knife. Cut each tomato in half. Hold it cut side down over a bowl and squeeze to remove seeds. Chop tomatoes finely.
Heat oil in a large skillet and add onion. Saute over medium heat until softened but not brown. Stir in garlic, then add tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cook uncovered over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes or until tomatoes are soft and sauce is thick. Discard bay leaf. Add tomato paste and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sauce can be kept two days in refrigerator, or it can be frozen. Stir in any fresh herbs after reheating.
Makes about 2 cups.
SAFFRON TOMATO SAUCE
A Moroccan friend in Paris cooked fish balls in a saffron tomato sauce like this one, and the result was wonderful. I also love the saffron sauce with fish fillets. You can poach them directly in the sauce and serve them hot or cold. You can also use the sauce for stewing chicken pieces.
4 1â„8 tsp. saffron threads
4 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
4 1 medium onion, chopped
4 1â„2 cup diced sweet red pepper
4 700 to 900 gr. ripe tomatoes,
peeled, seeded and pureed
4 Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped basil or parsley
Slightly crush saffron with your fingers and soak in the oil in a small cup for 20 minutes. Transfer to a large saute pan or skillet. Add onion and sweet pepper and saute over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes or until onion begins to turn golden. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 8 to 10 minutes or until thick. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Just before serving, stir basil gently into sauce.
Makes enough for 4 servings.
ZUCCHINI IN ISRAELI TOMATO SAUCE
Israelis often have a multicultural approach to tomato sauce. They take cumin, turmeric and plenty of garlic - favorite flavors in Middle Eastern tomato sauces - and match them with those loved by Ashkenazi Jews - dill and a pinch of sugar. The result is a wonderful sauce that turns a common vegetable into a rich-tasting side dish. The zucchini is a good accompaniment for roasted or grilled chicken.
The sauce is also good with other vegetables, such as peas, cauliflower and eggplant. You can also simmer chicken pieces or meatballs in the sauce instead of or in addition to the vegetables. These zucchini are cooked until very tender. If you prefer them crisp-tender or al dente, simmer them only a few minutes in the sauce.
4 4 to 5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
or vegetable oil
4 1 medium onion, minced
4 3 large garlic cloves, minced
4 1 1â„2 tsp. ground cumin
4 3â„4 tsp. paprika
4 1â„4 tsp. turmeric
4 900 grams ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded
4 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
4 Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 1â„4 tsp. sugar, or to taste
4 Pinch of cayenne pepper
4 500 to 700 grams pale green summer
squash (kishuim) or zucchini, halved
and cut in 1 cm. slices
4 2 Tbsp. snipped dill
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium-low heat about 7 minutes or until soft and light brown. Add garlic, cumin, paprika and turmeric and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, salt and pepper and stir well. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, 20 to 30 minutes or until tomatoes become a thick, chunky sauce. Add sugar and cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy skillet. Add zucchini, salt and pepper. Saute over medium heat, stirring often, about 3 minutes or until nearly tender. Add sauce and simmer 5 to 10 minutes or until the zucchini is done to your taste. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in dill. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy's latest book is Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.
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