Monday, August 6, 2012

San Marzano Tomatoes

Ah! The good life...
I hate to once again go on about all things Italian (at least on the topic of food), but summertime for us means lots of Italia because there are so many pasta dishes that can be made quickly, won’t heat up the kitchen, and taste fantastic. For us, this shifts into high gear when the tomatoes start ripening. We seldom go a day without tomatoes somewhere on the menu. Like our good friend Marilyn Cornwell, we’ve even eaten them for breakfast. We have great tomatoes for such a short time every year, you have to enjoy them while you can!

Due to my wife’s Italian teacher, Sabrina, last year we discovered San Marzano tomatoes. This particular variety is the gold standard for sauce in Italy and we enjoyed several cans while traveling around in that country. Once back home, we discovered San Marzanos are pretty dear in the grocery store. The only solution appeared that we would have to grow our own. Then, lo and behold, bushels of fresh San Marzano tomatoes appeared in August just up the street from us at the recently opened Zito’s Marketplace. Apparently, Angelo’s family owns a market garden and they’d been growing them for years. To say the least, we were very enthusiastic about this turn of events.

We make several dozen litres of tomato sauce and chopped tomatoes every summer, and last year we used San Marzanos for the first time. Instead of half an inch of watery sauce at the top of each jar, we had beautiful, deep red goodness from top to bottom. Interestingly, we also have fewer jars of sauce left in our basement than in recent years. Coincidence? I think not! In fact, we’re currently completely out of chopped tomatoes.

We also planted San Marzanos in our garden this past April. The plants are huge and absolutely loaded with fruit. This past weekend we harvested the first ones to ripen (photo on the left), and of course, we made a simple fresh pasta sauce to feature them, additionally flavored with our own basil. For pasta we used some frozen cheese ravioli we bought from Bologna Pastificio, a fantastic Toronto shop where we buy all our homemade pasta.

I’d like to share our simple recipe with all of you.

Fresh Tomato Sauce with Basil
Serves 2

2 Tbs olive oil
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup of thinly sliced onion
2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
salt and freshly ground pepper
8 oz pasta (10 oz if you’re using fresh)
1 cup of grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
8-10 large basil leaves, sliced thinly

For this sauce, we generally don’t bother to skin the tomatoes before chopping. The idea is to make the preparation as quick and easy as possible. If you do want to skin them, just drop them in a pot of boiling water for 2-3 minutes to loosen the skins (slightly more if they’re a bit underripe). San Marzanos are very meaty and have fewer seeds than other tomatoes so don’t bother seeding them before chopping. If you’re using another variety, you should probably remove the seeds and the pulp surrounding them before chopping your tomatoes.

1. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan to the point of fragrance. Smash the garlic clove with the side of your knife, chop it slightly then add it to the pan along with the sliced onion. Cook over medium heat until both are soft. Don’t let them brown.

2. Lower the heat low/medium, add the tomatoes and pepper flakes and cook the sauce gently while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil and the pasta to cook. Don’t let it get too dry though. If it does, either add a bit of pasta water or maybe a bit of white wine.

3. When the pasta is ready and drained, add salt and pepper to taste to your sauce, then toss it with the pasta and cheese until the cheese melts and is incorporated into the sauce. Lastly, add the basil leaves and toss just long enough to blend.

4. Serve immediately (preferably outdoors) in heated bowls with a little extra cheese on top and maybe a bit more basil, all accompanied by nice bottle of Chianti, Valpolicella or other Italian red wine, and a tossed green salad. I guarantee you’ll experience a little bit of heaven on earth.

Note: If you don’t have fresh basil leaves, do yourself a favor and just leave it out. Dried basil just does not cut it here.


Unknown said...

Rick, I am from Michigan and grow about ten plants of authentic italian seed San Marzano with soil adjustments. Anyway I am dying to get my hands on about three 25lb boxes or acouple of crates lets jsut say around 100lbs to can. can you give me any information on who I can call and buy from and i will pay for shipping here. Thank you

Rick Blechta said...

Nick, for some reason your email got "quarantined" by the software and I've only just seen it.

Hmmm... I don't think I can help you much with your dilemma since getting fresh fruits and vegetables across the border requires all kinds of permits -- especially into the US. Even if you were to drive to Toronto, you wouldn't get them back over the border without resorting to smuggling them, which I don’t recommend!

My best suggestion is to find an area where Italians live and ask them. I’m certain there are farmers in Michigan who grow them. Farmers Markets might be your best bet. Just poke around and ask people at the markets. They always know what's going on in their area.

I did google your request, and I came up with this: "The Berkeley Bowl has been carrying top-notch San Marzanos from Ed George's Peach Farm in Winters. Ed George told me they'd be picking San Marzanos for another few weeks, and that he'd sell me as much as I wanted at the El Cerrito Farmers Market. You can't beat the price: $20 for a box of 20 to 24 pounds. Call him to order at 530-795-0360, or just go to the market on a Tuesday or Saturday."While California is a long way from Michigan, perhaps they'll ship.

Good luck and thanks for writing in!