Roasted tomato sauce For the Win

img_9063Nature made tomatoes delicious but She also drenched them in unappealing wateriness. All tomato sauces are based on rescuing the flavor out of the swamp. It is simply a matter of technique.

Some insist that the skin and seeds must be removed. Some put great stock in canned tomatoes as opposed to fresh; others swear by long cooking. These are all fine techniques; but the one that works in my kitchen is one that I haven’t seen other recipe writers talk about much. This is surprising, because there is literally no way to describe how deep and dark is the flavor that results.

It is more of a technique than a single recipe, though I will give you a couple of variations that I often make. It involves long-roasting in the oven instead of long-cooking on the stove-top: four hours is ideal, but three hours can work too, at a slightly higher temperature.

Since it takes no fussing over, you can set it in the oven and leave the house, or putter about your other household duties. Long-cooking is no strain if your appliances do all the work. Yes, it does take a bit of planning and it does take about 5-8 nice plump medium tomatoes.

The basics

As to why this technique results in flavor so much deeper than the traditional method of cooking in a pot, I can offer some educated guesses.

One of the components of the flavor is the deep caramelization of the cut surfaces of the tomatoes as they are exposed to the dry heat of the oven. The juiciness ensures that they do not burn, but you can see the chocolaty color on the edges in the pictures below. This color shows that the Maillard reaction has occurred, imparting a welcome depth.

Nor does the the tomato liquid dry out evenly, as it would on the stove-top. I have often tried long-cooking simply chopped-up fresh tomatoes in a pot; and while the flavor certainly intensifies, the waxiness of the peel and the bitterness of the seeds stand out, diminishing the flavor. Of course one could peel and seed the tomatoes, but if one is to remove all the fiber from a thing, why even bother?

The great advantage of the long-roasted sauce is that the peel and seeds all go in, impart a caramelized edge, and yet, deep pockets of juiciness are left behind; as the oven has not dried out the fruit indiscriminately. The residue one is left with is approximately like a hybrid of sundried tomatoes on the cut-surfaces, and deep juice bombs inside.

The basic steps are these. Cut up the tomatoes either in halves, quarters or eighths. Place them cut-side-up, salted, drenched in olive oil in the oven, in a single layer, at a low temperature for up to 4 hours. At the end, a simple dressing of fresh olive oil, vinegar, garlic or herbs are necessary. Mashing them roughly with the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher produces a sauce that will cover long pasta like linguini or spaghetti.

Variation with red wine vinegar and garlic

Roast tomato sauce with garlic and red wine vinegar

Ingredients:
  • 6 medium tomatoes
  • 1 fat clove garlic
  • Few tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • A splash of red wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Spread a bit of oil in a flat ceramic dish and start the oven at 250ºF  (if you have 4 hours) or 300ºF (if you have 3). Meanwhile halve the tomatoes and remove the stem. Place them cut side up in the dish, as crowded as you can, so they hold each other up. Sprinkle with salt and squirt more oil on the surface. Place them in the oven and set the time for either 4 hours (if set to the lower temperature) or 3 hours (if set to the higher).

Meanwhile crush the garlic and mix in some salt. This will liquefy and cook it, which will take about half hour.

At the end of the roasting time, mash the tomatoes a bit with the back of a wooden spoon. Stir in the garlic and the splash of red wine vinegar.

Cook and drain spaghetti or other long pasta; stir to combine thoroughly with the sauce.

Variation with fresh basil and olive oil

Roast tomato sauce with fresh basil and olive oil

Ingredients:
  • 6 Kumato or other tomatoes
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • about a dozen leaves of fresh basil
Method:

Spread some oil on a flat ceramic dish. Quarter the Kumato tomatoes and halve the cherries. Spread them tightly crowded on the dish, tucking the cherry halves into the gaps between the others. Sprinkle with salt and more olive oil. Reserve about 3 tablespoons of olive oil for later.

Roast at 250ºF  (if you have 4 hours) or 300ºF (if you have 3).

Slice the basil leaves into ribbons.

Once the tomatoes are done, take out of the oven, mash and taste for salt. Add the reserved olive oil and the basil. Toss with pasta.

Variation with infused oregano and black pepper

Roasted tomato sauce with oregano and black pepper

Ingredients:
  • 7 or so medium tomatoes
  • quarter cup of olive oil
  • a few sprigs of fresh oregano
  • several twists of black pepper
  • salt to taste
Method:

Prepare the roasting dish with some olive oil spread on the base.

This time cut the tomatoes into eighths. Spread them tightly in the dish, cut sides up. Since the pieces are smaller, use the higher oven setting (300º F) and the shorter time (3 hours). Cover with salt to taste and olive oil. The sprigs of oregano are to be tucked into the dish and black pepper sprinkled onto the tomatoes. As the roasting proceeds, a savory aroma will filter through the kitchen.

When done, remove the oregano sprigs. Mash gently, add more olive oil and toss with freshly cooked long pasta.


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End-of-the-week pasta

End-of-the-week pasta

End-of-the-week pasta

Friday night and the fridge is empty. Dinner needs to be made. The kid is hanging around the kitchen wanting to ‘help’, while the husband wants something simple and non-fussy. But good, of course — it has to be good. What to do? What to do?

Tucked away in a corner of the fridge, there is that radicchio left over from that salad I made, and some green garlic I picked up for a forgotten project. And of course there are some indestructibles hidden in the pantry, the dried mushrooms, the sundried tomatoes. The recipe invents itself! It’s time for the: ‘End-of-the-week Pasta’! Otherwise known as the: ‘Kitchen-sink Pasta’, or perhaps the ‘What-is-that?-throw-it-in Pasta’. Or maybe I want to call it the ‘Fresh Linguini with Radicchio and Slivered Almonds in a Porcini and Green Garlic Sauce’. What do you think?

Fresh Linguini with Radicchio and Slivered Almonds in a Porcini and Green Garlic Sauce

Curtain of linguini

Curtain of linguini

This recipe does not demand fresh homemade pasta, but it does politely ask for it. The delicacy of fresh pasta allows you to individually taste the many — um, disparate ingredients. My daughter loves helping with cranking the pasta machine, and loves the curtain of pasta strands that get extruded, so that’s a plus (no homework on Friday evenings, need to keep her busy). For the fresh pasta look here — It’s nice to be kneaded.

I also used cheddar cubes to finish, which formed nice gooey cheesiness around the strands.

A note about salt. I didn’t add any except to the pasta water, because I had the anchovies. If you leave those out, please do add salt to taste.

Here are some pictures to show the process.

Radicchio gets sliced

Radicchio gets sliced

Porcini reconstituting

Porcini reconstituting

Green garlic sliced

Green garlic sliced

Stuff cooking

Stuff cooking

Stuff cooked

Stuff cooked

Radicchio wilting

Radicchio wilting

Cheddar enters

Cheddar enters

Rapidly disappearing

Rapidly disappearing

Linguini with Radicchio and Slivered Almonds in a Porcini and Green Garlic Sauce

Ingredients:
  • Pasta strands from half a portion of pasta dough from this recipe
  • About a third of a bulb of radicchio
  • Big pinch of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in hot water, or fistful of fresh
  • 3 green garlic stems, green and white parts (substitute with few cloves of garlic)
  • 2 – 3 anchovies
  • Big pinch of sundried tomatoes
  • Big pinch of slivered almonds
  • 2 inch block of great cheddar cheese, cubed
  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
Method:

Slice the radicchio, the mushrooms, and the green garlic. Set salted water to boil for cooking the pasta (about 1/2 gallon). While the water is coming to a boil, prepare the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a wide pan on medium. Put in the green garlic and anchovies. The anchovies can be left whole because they will simply merge into the surroundings. When they start to sizzle, put in the sliced porcini, the slivered almonds, and the sundried tomatoes. After a few minutes of cooking these, the radicchio can go in, just to wilt, it doesn’t need to cook long. Cover to keep warm and turn it off to wait for the pasta.

Meanwhile the water will have come to a boil. The pasta will take only a few minutes if you used the fresh ones, otherwise follow directions on the box. Fish the pasta out and put into the prepared sauce with the addition of a few ladles of pasta water. Toss to combine. Put the cubes of cheddar on top and stir that in to melt incompletely. Yes, incompletely.

 

The Packet Protocol

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Butternut squash ravioli in sage butter sauce

I apologize for the sinister, Ludlumesque title. Really all I’m talking about is butternut squash ravioli — those pillow-soft — umm, pillows — made of pasta and filled with fillings.

Stuffing things into dough is something that every culture seems to get up to eventually. In India we have parathas and samosas, in China they do the won tons, in Nepal and Tibet they have momos, in Latin America they have the pupusa, and of course we get the ravioli from Italy (just one of their many filled pastas).

Butternut squash ravioli has been my husband’s favorite for years. He would always order it at Italian restaurants if it was available on the menu; that didn’t happen often enough, so we found a source of made raviolis at Rainbow Grocery and farmers markets. That source was not consistent either, so he coaxed me into getting out my pasta machine out from storage to attempt making it at home. The dough of course, is the same for any pasta shapes you might want to make; the recipe for the filling and the procedure follows.

One thing to note is that this is a vegan filling, which is somewhat unusual. We have always sought out vegan fillings (not because we don’t eat dairy, we do) but because most fillings seem to be so full of cheese and creaminess that one can hardly taste the actual flavor of the stuff. This one is chock full of butternut squash flavor.

Butternut squash ravioli with sage butter sauce: Ingredients:

Half a recipe of pasta dough from “It’s nice to be kneaded“, made into sheets

Half a regular-sized butternut squash

A teaspoon of olive oil

Salt to tast

Two tablespoons butter

Some slivered almonds

5-6 leaves of sage, chopped

Butternut squash ravioli with sage butter sauce: method:

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preparing the squash

Cut the squash into halves lengthwise. Place it face-down on a plate, with a few tablespoons of water, and stick it in the microwave for 8 minutes or until done. Test it with a knife — it should as soft as butter. When it cools a little, it should be easy to scoop out the seeds to discard, and the flesh to save in a bowl.

Mix in some salt and the olive oil, and whisk them in, which should have the effect of making the filling more luscious. Filling is done.

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Now we construct the ravioli. Find two sheets of pasta that are roughly even in size. Lay out one (after dusting the surface with flour). Then place the filling in dots along the sheet, a teaspoon each, while leaving a lot of space around to stitch up the pillow seams, so to speak.  Using some water to dip your finger in, carefully moisten the gaps in between the filling rounds.

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The other sheet of pasta gets laid carefully over to cover. Press down gently but firmly to stick to its brother sheet on the bottom, along the channels that you dampened with water. Try to squeeze out any air from the pocket. Now, using a pizza cutter if you have one, or a butter knife if you don’t, cut the ravioli into squares along the pillow seams. Keep dusting with flour as you remove the prepared squares to a plate.

If you have some weird shapes left, don’t throw them away, I at any rate wrap filling into the scraps and fold over like a won ton, or find a few misshapen scraps to combine into a plausible ravioli.

These are ready, now to cook them and the sauce. Set a big pot of water to boil with a teaspoon of salt. While that is coming to a boil, prepare the very simple sauce in a wide pan. Heat up the butter; in it, gently saute the sage leaves and the slivered almonds. Let it simmer very gently.

sage butter sauce

sage butter sauce

Once the water comes to a rolling boil, put in the raviolis (do not toss them in, or the hot water will toss back at you). They only need to cook for a few minutes, and you will know when they are done when they float up to the top. Remove them with a slotted spoon into the sauce, and add a few ladles of the pasta cooking water to make the sauce flowing. Stir, simmer additionally for a few minutes with the cover on, and they are ready.

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ravioli in sage butter sauce

It’s nice to be kneaded

There are a lot of kids who will eat nothing but pasta. Imagine if they helped you manufacture the pasta themselves, watched the strands appear, then saw those same strands on their plates for dinner? Wouldn’t they feel special, knowing that their own little hands created their dinner? Wouldn’t they feel — I don’t know — needed?

Well pasta dough relishes some kneading too. So let’s get to it.

You might have heard of semolina flour. It is yellower than the flour used for bread, and coarser. This is the official flour used for making pasta. What is so special about it that makes it suitable for pasta, where the regular bread wheat is not?

Durum Wheat Grain crop 041

Durum wheat image from Purcell Mountain farms

Semolina is made out of durum wheat, a different species than bread wheat. This one has a somewhat different gluten. It is very strong (stronger than bread wheat) but not as elastic. When I first heard that it was a revelation to me. One can see that in the substance of pasta itself. It can definitely hold its shape, but doesn’t expand — can you imagine a spongy spaghetti filled with air bubbles? I can’t. There’s your durum. Strong gluten, but not elastic.

Much as I would love it if it were so, semolina is not whole grain. In fact the word ‘semolina’ describes a certain kind of grind of wheat:

– it is coarse,

– it doesn’t include the bran (the fibrous outer covering, think egg shell)

– it doesn’t include the germ (the new baby wheat plant in utero, think egg yolk)

– it is entirely composed of endosperm, which in any seed is the starchy part that would form the food of the new plant, if it were to germinate (think egg white).

pasta machine 002

pasta machine

Although you could make pasta with a simple rolling pin, it is so much easier, if you are in the mood to splurge, to go buy a hand-cranked pasta machine. Plus that means a kid can crank the handle, feed the dough in, choose shapes, and have a great time. My kid certainly did and she doesn’t even like pasta.

Homemade pasta — the dough:

Put in a bowl: one and three-quarters cup semolina flour for four dinner portions; half a teaspoon salt, and stir with a fork. Make a well in the center and break three eggs into it.

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Semolina with eggs

Stir the eggs to break the yolks, and gradually start pulling in the dry semolina. When the middle part of the semolina is more or less moistened, and quite wet, it is time to use your fingers and upper body strength. You might want to put the dough out onto the counter as well.

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This dough comes together relatively easily. Could it be the strong gluten? Keep pushing the dry bits into the center of the dough to integrate them; if you need to add a few drops of olive oil to add moisture, you can; or add a spoon or two of extra dry flour if too sticky. The dough should be integrated, smooth, and only a little tacky.

Leave it aside for about half an hour, covered.

Homemade pasta — the sheets or shapes:

Divide up the dough into even sized pieces. Flatten each piece and send it through the pasta machine while cranking it. You will start with size 1 (where the rollers are at their widest). What comes out will be a thick sheet approximately rectangular in shape. Send it through again with the next size up: 2.

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Sometimes you will see that the sheet comes out with a few rips in it. My guess is that the gluten wasn’t developed enough. Perhaps not enough kneading, or not enough waiting after kneading. This happened to me, but I solved it by folding over one of the rectangles two or three times, and then sending it through, thus kneading again, by means of the pasta machine.

Get it as thin as you like, I went up to size 5 and thought that was enough. Most machines come with some shapes too for you to experiment with. I did plain rectangular sheets to make raviolis with below:

ravioli goan masala 015

pasta sheets for ravioli

Oh — and dust with dry flour once in a while, so the sheets or noodles don’t stick together!

Stemming the tide of mustard greens

When we first brought our mustard seedlings home, they were petite and unassuming. Planted them in the ground, and given San Francisco’s freakishly warm weather, we soon had curly monsters threatening to swamp the house. Naturally we set about consuming them as fast as we could.

fennel 015

Mustards after a lot of rampaging

Harvested an entire meal’s amount to make Punjab’s famous ‘sarson ka saag’, which means ‘greenish pulpy thing made out of mustard’. It was good, but made not a whit of difference in the amount of curly monsters in the garden.

Soon we were eating sarson ka rice, sarson ka pasta, sarson ka…everything.

On the way, I learnt an important lesson about cooking mustard greens that the Punjabi chefs learnt thousands of years ago. Unless you cook and puree the mustards, the curls in the leaves — which are quite tough, by the way — will interlock and will not separate, and you either get a mouthful of mustards all clumped together, or you get none at all. Pureeing after cooking makes them luscious and even. So here is the basic technique for the Punjabi sarson ka saag, and then my other variations.

Sarson ka saag

Step 1: is the most important:boil and puree.

synthesis pancakes and welcome home salad 004

Mustard greens washed and chopped

Rinse, roughly chop a bunch of mustard greens. Put them in a pot with a quarter cup water, salt, half an onion, roughly chopped, two green chilies, roughly chopped, and a quarter cup chopped cilantro. Bring to a boil, cover, simmer and cook for about fifteen minutes, or until the mustards are no longer bright green. Cool for a few minutes and puree in a blender, although there is no need to make it completely smooth.

Step 2: Seasoning

I couldn’t tell you if every villager in Punjab uses this set of seasonings, but this is what I used, and it was good. I heated two tablespoons of ghee in a small thick bottomed pan on medium-high. Then put in a teaspoon of cumin seeds and 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced. Also half a teaspoon or more of red chili powder. Once they sizzle and the garlic looks cooked (not browned), put in two tablespoons of besan (chickpea flour) and stir. I think the more typical ingredient here is cornmeal so if you have that, use a quarter cup of that instead. Allow the besan (or cornmeal) to roast in the oil for a few minutes. Then empty the seasoning into the mustard puree and stir.

sarson ka saag - mustard greens puree

sarson ka saag

Step 3: Simmer a little longer

Check for salt and add more if needed. Simmer a little longer to meld the flavors and fully cook the besan. Sprinkle some lemon juice over the top (inauthentic ingredient alert). Serve with roti/chapati.

Sarson ka pasta…bucatini with mustard greens

Step 1: boil and puree

Here I boiled the greens with just a quarter onion and some salt. After about fifteen minutes of simmering, I roughly pureed them in a blender. Keep it aside.

Step 2: Seasonings

For the oil, I used about four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Heat it in a large pan on medium. Without waiting for it to heat, put in four large cloves of garlic, minced; three anchovies from a jar; and a few sprinkles of cracked red pepper. The anchovies, as they cook, will melt into the sauce, and add a delicious umami, proteiny flavor. Wait till they sizzle; break up the anchovies with a wooden spoon; then empty the pureed greens into it. Simmer gently, stirring, for a few minutes

Step 3: Pasta

Meanwhile, get a big pot of salted water to boil; once it boils, put in half a pound of bucatini (this is enough for a dinner for two). Wait till it is almost done to al dente, then fish out the pasta with a pasta spoon and put it into the greens along with a few good sized ladles of the pasta water. Use your judgment here — if the greens aren’t saucy enough, add a little more pasta water. Stir nicely to break up the clumps of mustards to combine with the pasta water and turn it into a sauce. Remember the sauce has to coat the pasta, not remain in clumps at the bottom. Stir to cover the pasta with the greens, cover the pot and simmer for just a minute or two. Turn off heat; pour some fresh XVOO on the top, and parmesan shavings if you like, and serve.

This makes a wonderfully light green sauce for the pasta that looks as nutritious as it, in reality, is.