Turning real tomatoes (spelled with an 'e') into tasty pasta sauce

September 02, 1992|By William Rice | William Rice,Chicago Tribune

No other vegetable is capable of engendering such love and disdain within the same person as the tomato. Surely there are those who hate turnips or Brussels sprouts more than tomatoes, but never will they love them under any circumstance. Feed the tomato-hater of January a perfectly ripe tomato in August, and he or she will purr like a kitten.

As a vegetable (though defined in dictionaries as a fruit), the tomato is the third most popular in America (behind the potato and iceberg lettuce). I have no doubt this statistic is based on sales, not consumption, as even a casual look in a restaurant or cafeteria will reveal how many of those rock-hard, plastic foam-textured tomato wedges that garnish salads and sandwich plates go uneaten.

Growing technique and weather aside, it all has to do with ripeness. To retard spoilage and extend shelf life, tomatoes are picked before they have ripened and treated with ethylene gas to give them a red color. The tomatoes don't spoil, and they look cosmetically correct, but there's a trade-off. What the gas cannot do, it seems, is make them juicy and flavorful.

Scientists have long resented our lack of gratitude for year-round tomatoes and, unabashed by what they have wrought, now promise that gene-splicing will allow them to improve on nature once again.

But since the new tomatoes won't be coming off the assembly line until next year at the earliest and we're at the height of growing season, we should indulge ourselves in the blushing, farm-fresh orbs to provide a frame of taste reference by which to judge the next marvel of technology.

The best way to eat a really ripe tomato is just to eat it -- naked at room temperature, maybe with the addition of a sprinkle of salt. The next best way, to me, is to carve the tomato into thick pieces and layer them between two slices of bread along with lots of mayonnaise. For a formal occasion, add some crisp bacon strips, soft lettuce and several grinds of pepper.

The pasta sauce recipe below was improvised in my kitchen from summer tomatoes purchased at the weekly farmers market and several ingredients I found in the refrigerator.

Tomato-and-onion sauce for pasta

Makes 3 or 4 servings.

3 large, ripe fresh tomatoes

18 to 20 pearl onions or 12 small shallots

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, stuck with a toothpick

salt to taste

pinch of sugar, plus 1/2 teaspoon

1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes or more to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup chopped black imported olives

1/2 pound spaghetti or shells

Seed and chop the tomatoes. Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the onions and cook until just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Plunge onions in cold water, drain and peel. Cut shallots in half. Set aside.

In a medium frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil with the garlic clove. Cook until garlic turns dark gold, then remove clove and discard it.

Add tomatoes and cook, stirring often, until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and turn into a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl. Return tomatoes to pan, add salt, a pinch of sugar, red-pepper flakes and black pepper. (If desired, pour tomato liquid into a saucepan, place over high heat, reduce to 1/4 cup and return to tomato mixture.)

Meanwhile, heat remaining tablespoon olive oil in a small frying pan. Add onions and saute over high heat, dusting with remaining 1/2 teaspoon sugar, until nicely browned. Combine with tomato sauce. Stir in olives. Recipe may be done ahead to this point.

Cook pasta by package directions. Reheat sauce for 5 minutes, or until bubbling. Drain pasta, add sauce and toss. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

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