The Great Tomato Salvage 

A tempest blasted the farmers’ market last Saturday, with
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Attack of the killer tomatoes: nothing tops a pizza like oven-roasted tomato sauce.
wind and rain whipping everything in sight and temperatures dropping 30 degrees. In the aftermath, four vendors remained, happy to have survived. “You need some really ripe tomatoes, Ari?” Wrathful Steve asked me.

“Yes.”

He presented me with two boxes of Roma tomatoes the most scandalous shade of make-love-to-me-red-lipstick a tomato has ever been.

“Someone ordered them last week,” Steve lamented, “and never came back. Now they’re too old. I can’t sell them.”

There I was with this unbelievable gift, the kind of gift you have to drop everything to take care of. Old tomatoes are perfect for sauce, but not for long. How best to maximize this opportunity, I wondered, this responsibility now confusing itself with my destiny?

Pressing circumstances lead to large accomplishments, or something like that, and I knew it was time to go big — which I did. I took my tomatoes to my friend Bob, the pizza-maker from whom I had an open invitation to observe the making of his oven-roasted tomato sauce.

When I arrived, Bob was behind the counter pounding a piece of dough with his fist. Soon the dough was a spinning flying saucer. When he’d spun it into a flat, round disk, he laid the dough on the floured counter and started putting together a pizza.

Of Eastern-European Jewish descent, Bob grew up, gastronomically speaking, in Italy, by virtue of an extreme-Italian-neighborhood upbringing in Livingston, New Jersey. The pizzerias his family patronized — Calabria, Camaratas, Bonvini’s, to name a few — were full-menu Italian restaurants. After school, Bob ate at his friend Anthony Cocca’s house as often as possible.

“We had to walk around the block between courses,” Bob remembers, without a hint of remorse. Cocca’s dad, who drove a bulldozer at the local landfill, made his own wine and sausage, and his mom owned the San Marco pasta shop on Newark’s Bloomfield Avenue.

“The women in Anthony’s family did all the cooking, and the men were shunned from the kitchen. I had to fight my way in. But the women were receptive to me, humored by my curiosity,” Bob remembers.

Bob’s grandmother, (who, like the other grandparents, spoke Yiddish when she didn’t want the kids to understand) visited either Greece or Italy every year. She was known for her Yiddish-Mediterranean fusions, like chicken parmesan with Matzo-meal breading.

The pizza Bob was making when I brought him those tomatoes certainly fit that Yiddish profile — topped as it was with smoked salmon, Sicilian olive-dill cream cheese, and pickled onion-tomato-caper relish on rye dough with caraway seeds. But it was his oven-roasted tomato sauce that I wanted that day, not bagels-and-lox pizza.

I presented Bob with my box of Romas, and his hands went into the fruit, caressing and understanding them with his fingers.

“I love the inconsistency in shape and size. Each one tastes different. So ripe and sweet, obviously not genetically altered, with a few wormholes indicative of being unsprayed,” he said.

Soon, roasted-tomato aioli was drizzled onto fresh-baked olive-tapenade crostini, followed by a salad dressed with oven-roasted-tomato vinaigrette. Finally, a pizza emerged, topped with Italian sausage and marjoram mascarpone cheese on “Pink Vodka tomato sauce.”

This dazzling meal was, to be sure, more Italian than Jewish, but neither was this roasted tomato trinity fully devoid of chutzpah. “You can’t get more Yiddish than vodka,” Bob reflected, folding a piece of pizza in half, New York-style, and chomping.

Here’s how to make Bob’s Roasted Tomato Trinity:

Wash 10 pounds Roma tomatoes and cut out the ends and imperfections. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees until they collapse. Let them cool then pull off the skins, squeezing them to save the juice. Add 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup red-wine vinegar, 1/4 cup roasted garlic, 2 tablespoons sea salt, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 2 tablespoons sugar, and, if possible, a splash or two of red wine. Puree, adjust the seasonings, and simmer until reduced by 25 percent.

From this base you can make a whole spectrum of tomato sauces, including pasta sauce, seafood sauce, or the roasted tomato trinity below.

For the roasted-tomato aioli: Add to a food processor or blender two egg yolks, 3/4 cup roasted tomato base (fully cooled), a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper, 2 tablespoons roasted garlic, and 1 teaspooon Dijon mustard. While processing, slowly add 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil.

For the vinaigrette: puree 1/4 cup red onion, 1 teaspoon Dijon, 2 cups roasted tomato base, 1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon minced Italian parsley, and 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil.

Finally, for the Pink Vodka tomato sauce variation, sauté chopped red onion and garlic in olive oil and deglaze with vodka. Add this to the still-hot red sauce. Pour a little of this hot red sauce into 1 cup heavy cream to temper, then add the tempered cream back to the sauce, which is now pink. Adjust seasonings to taste. Enjoy.

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