Mediterranean pantry sauces

In French cooking school, lesson No. 1 is the importance of basic sauces, including coulis de tomates.

Tomatos 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tomatos 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In French cooking school, lesson No. 1 is the importance of basic sauces.
Some of these sauces started as pantry preparations designed to preserve the harvest. They became an integral part of the culinary repertoire of cooks in different regions and give their cuisine its character.
A sauce that has long been popular in Provence and was adopted by cooks throughout France is a simple tomato sauce called coulis de tomates, or tomate concassee cuite. It is made of peeled, chopped ripe tomatoes cooked with sauteed onions and garlic until they form a thick sauce. Some chefs use high heat to obtain a sauce of a fairly chunky consistency with the fresh flavor of briefly cooked tomatoes, while others cook it longer over low heat so the tomatoes fall apart and become a puree. A bouquet garni, or herb bundle, of thyme, parsley sprigs and bay leaves is the classic flavoring of this sauce.
When our vegetable garden produced an abundance of tomatoes, this concentrated tomato sauce became a staple in our kitchen.
We made many batches, froze them and enjoyed the fresh flavor of sauce made with garden- ripe tomatoes throughout the year.
Tomatoes, onions, peppers and garlic form the basis of Spanish Romesco tomato sauce, which is made with a method that is very different from Provençal tomato sauce. Aglaia Kremezi, author of The Mediterranean Pantry, makes the sauce by roasting the vegetables at high temperature with olive oil and pureeing them in a food mill. She then bakes the pureed sauce in the oven at a low temperature for two hours until it is very thick and stores it in jars in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Chefs use sauces such as these as the foundations for more elaborate sauces. For example, Provençal pebronata is made from French tomato coulis. To prepare this traditional dish, cooks sauté sweet red pepper strips in olive oil, sprinkle them with a little flour to thicken the sauce and stir in red wine. They then simmer the sauce with tomato coulis and use it to finish veal stews.
These kinds of vegetable sauces are useful to have on hand for everyday cooking. Use them to top rice pilaf, fried or baked eggplant slices, steamed vegetables or hot cooked pasta tossed with olive oil; or serve them with chicken schnitzel, grilled fish or eggs prepared any way you like. They dress up simple ingredients and make it easy to turn them into tasty entrees, appetizers and side dishes.

Faye Levy is the author of
Classic Cooking Techniques.
Although olive oil is the choice of cooks in southern France, some people make this sauce with vegetable oil or butter. In addition to the traditional flavorings of thyme and bay leaves, you can add other herbs such as fresh basil, tarragon, oregano or cilantro.
If the color of the sauce is not deep enough, add a tablespoon of tomato paste. When you taste the sauce for seasoning, add a little sugar if necessary, depending on the sweetness of the tomatoes.
Makes about 1 1⁄2 cups sauce or 6 servings
Sprig of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
5 parsley stems
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄2 onion, chopped
1 to 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 to 1.2 kg. (21⁄2 pounds) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
If you like, tie the thyme, bay leaf and parsley sprigs together with kitchen twine to make them easier to remove.
Heat oil in a medium-sized heavy frying pan over low heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for 1⁄2 minute.
Add tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until tomatoes are soft and mixture is thick and smooth, about 20 minutes. Discard thyme sprig, bay leaf and parsley stems. Taste; add salt and pepper if needed.
Serve hot.
This recipe is from The Mediterranean Pantry. Author Aglaia Kremezi writes, “Baked tomatoes, onions, peppers and garlic are the base for the classic Spanish Romesco sauce in which all of the ingredients are baked in the oven instead of being cooked on top of the stove. After I saw the chef and owner of the elegant restaurant Flora in Barcelona prepare this incredibly rich sauce for the first time, I immediately changed the way I make tomato sauce.”
Kremezi emphasizes that you don’t need to prepare a special ethnic dish to make use of Romesco sauce. She adds it to soups, tosses it with cooked pasta and even recommends using it on pizzas.
Makes about 2 cups
1 large onion, unpeeled and halved
Olive oil, to coat the vegetables
1 whole garlic head
2 green bell peppers
1 fresh hot pepper, or more to taste
5 or 6 large red tomatoes (about 1.4 kg or 3 pounds)
Preheat the oven to 230ºC (450ºF). Rub the onion halves with olive oil, place in a pan and bake for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut off the top of the garlic and drizzle with a little olive oil. Wash and dry all of the other vegetables and coat them with olive oil. Place in the pan with the half-baked onion and bake for 45 minutes or until the onion, garlic, peppers and tomatoes are soft. Remove peel from onion.
Press the garlic to extract the baked cloves. Pass all of the vegetables through a food mill fitted with the medium disk.
Add the roasted garlic to the mill and pass it through with the rest.
Place the pulp in a deep 30- x 23-cm (12- x 9-inch) baking pan, lower the oven temperature to 150ºC (300ºF) and bake the sauce for about 2 hours, stirring twice, until it gets very thick.
Let the sauce cool, then pack in jars, pressing well to avoid air pockets. Top with a thin film of olive oil and store in the refrigerator. It will keep for 3 to 4 weeks.
When you have French tomato sauce on hand, you can quickly turn sauteed chicken breasts into a savory entree.
Serve the chicken with sauteed quartered mushrooms or boiled broccoli or green beans, and with rice or pasta.
Boneless chicken breasts are often pounded so that they can be sauteed quickly and remain moist. Use a flat-surfaced meat pounder, and not one with ridges or pointed edges, which may tear the meat. Many butchers will pound the meat for you.
Makes 4 servings
4 boneless chicken breast halves, skinned (170 to 200 gr. or 6 to 7 ounces each)
1⁄4 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 to 4 Tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil
1⁄3 cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried oregano
French Tomato Sauce (see recipe above)
Pinch of sugar (optional)
Trim chicken breast halves of fat, cartilage and tendons. Pound them one by one between two pieces of plastic wrap or waxed paper to a thickness of 6 mm (1⁄4 inch), using a flat meat pounder or rolling pin. Do not pound too forcefully or the meat may tear. Carefully peel off the wrap or paper.
Spread flour on a plate. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Lightly coat 2 chicken breasts with flour on both sides. Tap them to remove excess flour and arrange them side by side on a plate.
Heat oil in a heavy large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add coated chicken breasts. Saute until browned on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Using two wide spatulas, turn chicken over carefully. Saute second side until it is browned and chicken is tender when pierced with a small sharp knife, about 2 more minutes. Transfer chicken to an ovenproof platter, arrange pieces side by side and keep them warm in a low oven.
Repeat flouring and sauteing with remaining chicken. If fat in pan turns brown during sauteing, reduce heat to medium-low.
Discard fat from frying pan. Pour wine into pan, add oregano and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping to dissolve any brown bits in the pan.
Add tomato sauce to pan and simmer, stirring, until tomato sauce absorbs the wine, about 2 minutes. Taste; add salt and pepper if needed. If sauce is too acidic, add a pinch of sugar.
To serve, spoon a little sauce on each of 4 plates and spread it to coat bottom of plate. Set chicken breasts on top, letting sauce show.
Serve immediately; serve remaining sauce separately.