When I think of my summers growing up in rural Virginia, I remember all the times I would ride with my mother and siblings down hot, dusty back roads looking for the tomato-and-corn man or the peach man; their idea of setting up shop was to load up a pickup truck with their wares and wait for people to drive by. Back home, I watched my mother can tomatoes for the winter or make quarts of her summer tomato sauce. It was light, garlic- and basil-infused, made with the sweetest, largest field-grown tomatoes.
Many years later, settled in Boston with small children of my own, I coerced a colleague into re-creating my mother’s recipe with me. My mother gave me the rough formula, which involved only a handful of ingredients. We took a morning ride to Haymarket, Boston’s historic open-air market, legendary for rock-bottom prices and rough Italian vendors who would scream at you if you so much as touched their produce. We bought more than 60 pounds of tomatoes and countless bunches of basil. After a day (and evening) spent blanching, peeling, grinding, and cooking pots and pots of tomatoes until they reduced down into sauce, we had a counter full of beautiful jars of sauce flecked with basil and chopped garlic. We felt rich and proud. Not to mention how heavenly it was to open up a jar on a dreary February night and conjure up the summer day of our expedition.
Since then, I have continued to make this sauce, but with fewer tomatoes so it would be more manageable, and you can also easily halve the recipe if you want a smaller batch.
This tomato sauce makes great use of an end-of-summer tomato bounty. I like to process about 30 pounds of tomatoes when I make this sauce. These days, for the best results I buy my tomatoes at the farmers’ market, but I envy those who grow their own. In addition to the tomatoes, I gather tomato paste, a dozen garlic cloves, basil, red wine vinegar, and sugar.
While many rustic tomato sauce recipes include the skins, I find them distracting in the final product. To peel (and core) the tomatoes, use a paring knife to remove the stem end and core from each tomato, then cut a small X on the base to give you something to grab onto when peeling.
The prepped tomatoes take a quick bath in a large pot of boiling water until the skins start to wrinkle and peel off on their own (which takes 15 to 45 seconds). Transfer the hot tomatoes to an ice bath to quickly cool before removing the skins with your fingertips.
Before I puree the tomatoes, I like to mince the garlic using the food processor. Twelve cloves is a fair amount of garlic, and since I’ll be using the food processor to puree the tomatoes, it’s easy enough to use it first to quickly mince the garlic. Ten seconds in the food processor is enough to transform the cloves into a pile of (almost) perfectly minced pieces. Once the garlic is done, scrape it into a bowl but don’t bother to wash out the workbowl.
I like to puree my tomatoes before cooking to prevent the inevitable dangerous splatter that goes hand in hand with hot, juicy tomato chunks. Process them in small batches in the food processor until they turn into a chunky puree. Thirty pounds of tomatoes should give you about 14 quarts of puree.
Since the goal is to make enough sauce to put up jars in the pantry, I have to think about food safety. Oil is a no-no in the canning world since it can raise the ph, and anything canned with a ph above 4.6 runs the risk of containing botulism. Any sautéing steps would have to go. Instead, I divvy up the tomato puree and minced garlic among four Dutch ovens or large pots (I could use one single enormous pot but it would take far longer than I’m willing to wait for the sauce to reduce), and then add tomato paste, chopped basil, and salt.
Bring this all to a simmer and then let it bubble away for the better part of two hours, giving it a stir every 15 minutes or so to prevent any sticking. Once the sauce has cooked down to 2 quarts in each pot (8 quarts total), season the sauce with vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper. The amount of vinegar (2 tablespoons per pot) may seem high, but it’s hard to guarantee a safe level of acidity with tomatoes, and this amount of vinegar ensures the sauce’s ph is in the sweet spot under 4.6. The sugar helps balance the flavor out.
Since this is such a large batch of sauce, I think it’s essential to process the jars in a boiling water bath to preserve them for long-term storage. Pour the sauce into quart jars (the perfect amount for saucing a pound of pasta), wipe the rims clean, and place them in boiling water for 20 minutes (quart jars need a relatively long processing time because it takes awhile for all of the contents to sterilize at the proper temperature; see canning instructions here. Now you can have a bright taste of summer even in the cold depths of February.
My favorite way to serve this sauce is simple: I boil 1 pound of spaghetti or linguine in a large pot of salted water. While the pasta cooks, I heat up one jar of sauce in a Dutch oven. Once the pasta is cooked and drained, I toss it right into the pot of sauce, give it a good stir, and shower it with a handful of fluffy grated Parmesan.