Warm September days and cooler nights bring perfect conditions for ripening plum tomatoes. August was for boating, swimming, beach walks and pottering in the garden. Now is the time for processing and preserving the last of the summer as the heat slowly fades.
If you want enough preserved fruit to last the winter, canning is the method for you. The internet is crowded with new-wave homesteaders who pickle and peel and bake and weave. They will not be caught short in the depths of winter without a hundred containers or so of dill cucumbers, preserved tomatoes, and pickled eggs. Two dozen gleaming Ball jars (new seals needed), live in my basement, but the thought of sterilizing and simmering and waiting for the perfect seal no longer appeals.
Ignoring all the fine how-to videos online, I take the easy route and embrace the slow roast. There’s no need to hover and fuss, as the tomatoes take care of themselves in the oven. A long and low cook in olive oil renders a deliciously sweet and juicy result. The finished product will be popped into resealable bags, placed in the freezer, and doled out sparingly in the winter months. Not all are destined for the freezer. Back here in September, they are starring in a spicy ragu, rich with hot Italian sausage and copious amounts of olive oil and fresh garlic. By the way, if you have a spare jar or two to gift from your winter tomato stores, I will not say no. After all, I have very limited space in my freezer.
If you decide to freeze your tomatoes, blend them to a coarse puree for easy storage, place in resealable bags and freeze flat. You can stack them like tiles on top of each other to save space. Ripe organic tomatoes are best, but the slow cook also will bring out the best in underripe late season fruit. I do not spend time carefully removing each core, although you can if you feel so inclined. I simply cut a ½ inch slice off the top of each fruit and that takes care of most of it.
3 lbs. ripe plum tomatoes
4 Tbsp. olive oil
Fine sea salt
Spread a heavy 18 x 13 sheet pan with 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Slice about ½ inch off the top of the tomatoes to remove the core, halve lengthwise and place, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with fine sea salt and drizzle with remaining olive oil. Place in a 200-degree oven and cook for 2 hours. Cool slightly and slip off the skins. Remove any remaining core and as many of the seeds as you can. Reserve the tomato halves in a container and push the residue of seeds, skins and juices through a fine mesh sieve (this slurry is liquid gold) into a bowl. Discard the solids and add the strained juices to the tomato pieces. Freeze, or store for up to five days in the fridge.
Spicy Sausage and Roasted Tomato Ragu with Penne
There are just a few simple ingredients, but they must be of the finest quality. As well as the roasted tomatoes, use a good fatty Italian sausage. I like the Mecox Bay Dairy spicy Italian sausage, available at Sang Lee Farms. Good extra virgin olive oil, fresh local garlic and organic basil round out the list.
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups roasted plum tomatoes (pureed in blender)
4 to 5 large hot Italian sausages (about ¾ lb.)
2 stems of basil with leaves
Fine sea salt
Fresh black pepper
3 cups (about 10 oz.) dried penne pasta
Remove the meat from the sausage skins and crumble it into small pieces. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy skillet, add the sausage and brown on all sides. Remove to a plate (leaving behind all the spicy juices for flavor) and add another tablespoon of olive oil to pan. Add the minced garlic and cook gently until translucent. Keep moving around the pan to prevent browning, before adding the tomatoes, basil, and a half teaspoon of fine sea salt. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring from time to time. When the sauce starts to thicken, return the sausage to the pan together with an additional tablespoon of olive oil. Simmer gently (stirring frequently) for a further 15 minutes, check for seasoning and add a couple of twists of fresh black pepper. When the sauce is ready it should be thick and glossy and not too liquid.
While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the penne until al dente (about 10-12 minutes). Drain, reserving a couple tablespoons of the pasta water.
Two tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Parmigiano Reggiano for grating
Fresh basil leaves
Fine sea salt and fresh black pepper
Add the cooked pasta to the pan containing the sausage ragu. Heat together gently for a couple of minutes. Stir in a tablespoon or two of pasta water and an additional tablespoon of olive oil. Add a little more salt if needed and a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper. Serve the pasta in preheated bowls. Top with fresh basil leaves, a drizzle of olive oil and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. This recipe makes four generous servings.