I get a little restless this time of year. Winter has me longing for things I can’t have or do, such as: spending warm, late nights outdoors sipping iced tea while the kids play ball; leaving the house with my hair wet without freezing half to death; having a backyard full of herbs and tomatoes at my disposal. *Sigh.* That last one is the one that always gets me.
Maybe it is because I grew up in a NYC apartment that I am so in awe of things that grow. It is a wondrous thing for me to be able to open my backdoor and pluck good things to eat. It is nothing short of a miracle that the simple combo of soil-seed-water-sun can produce, well, produce.
Don’t get me wrong—I love winter. It is one of my four favorite seasons. But there are things that I long for that make me stare wistfully out the back window, knowing it will be a while before anything green appears.
The grocery store tomato is in a sad state these last few months—mealy, green, and tasteless, despite its rosy red hue, probably genetically engineered to trick the buyer. But I am not fooled.
This last week I did three television segments on local news shows involving tomato products. Oh, how I wished it was summer so I could proudly use fresh tomatoes but instead I shamelessly used canned in my demo. Why? Because there is no dishonor in using canned tomatoes, especially in the winter. They are picked, processed and canned in their height of ripeness; preserved with all of their summery goodness, their flavored locked in. If I had any desire to can I would have done it myself months ago, but I am not so much of a country girl.
Instead, the freezer is my idea of a cold pantry, already filled with pesto, strawberry jam, and curry sauce, made with things so glorious in their season that I wished to hold on to the moment for as long as possible. The mason jars line my freezer shelf like a small army. Filled with my favorite pesto—made with basil I’ve grown and picked, spoonfuls of lovely green-tinged extra- virgin olive oil, toasted pistachio nuts, sheep’s milk Italian cheese, fresh garlic, and mounds and mounds of sweet young basil leaves, all taken for a whirl in my Cuisinart, and encapsulated in jars in the freezer. Strawberries–picked by my little ones in the summer heat, mashed, sweetened, and thickened with pectin, held in jars, ruby red and gleaming, also nestled in the depths of the freezer. And a large batch of bright yellow curry sauce with vegetables, sunny-hued, and sprinkled with Penzey’s Sweet Curry, given a few hours notice to defrost, waiting to be poured into a pan with sliced chicken and served over fluffy basmati rice.
But recently, I longed for tomato sauce, rich, and deep, and flavorful. There is no jarred sauce on the shelf at the store that could live up to my craving. At first I made a smaller batch using organic canned tomatoes and it was heavenly. But then it was gone.
So I greedily purchased restaurant sized tins of tomatoes, both whole and crushed, and went to town. I lugged my giant All-Clad pot up from the basement. The pot, which I save for special occasions such as soup or chili or pasta for a crowd, is always a happy sight waiting on the stove. And then I went to work.
I poured in the luscious olive oil, sautéed the onion, the garlic, the dried herbs, the crushed red pepper, just a touch, and added a generous sprinkle of kosher salt. I poured in the juicy crushed tomatoes, the bright red whole tomatoes and their juices, the tomato paste, and brought it all to a lively bubble. The transformational moment however, was when I poured in some leftover Cabernet Sauvignon, and within minutes my house smelled like my favorite Italian restaurant in Queens and I realized I discovered their sauce’s secret–wine!
I happily let the concoction simmer away for an hour and a half while my windows became steamy and fog-coated, shutting out the grey day outside, and for a while, it was just me and the sauce. Stirring occasionally I began to see a change—the whole tomatoes melted into the voluptuous rosiness , the molten liquid thickened, even the sound of the bubbling changed. I started to see the world differently as a place where time travel is possible, to go back to summer, or to launch ahead, but unnecessarily so, as the present was a mighty fine place to be in too.
Letting the sauce cool and ladling it into seven quart-sized mason jars felt like I’d won the grand prize. Admiring my efforts, bright and cheery, awarding me with simple joy, jars sitting on the counter waiting for their marching orders.
Well, six, into the freezer they went, and the seventh stayed behind to be devoured that very night for dinner by the five of us spaghetti-slurpers. The rest will have to patiently wait their turn for their moment of glory at my table.
The recipe below will make a nice sized batch of sauce, but to prolong your happiness, triple the recipe and store in the freezer for long winter days to come.
Homemade Winter Tomato Sauce
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 6 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
- · 1 teaspoon each: dried oregano, basil, and marjoram
- · 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- · 1-28 ounce can whole plum tomatoes packed in juice
- · 1-28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
- · 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- · ½ cup red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
- · 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
1. In a large saucepan heat the olive oil on medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until tender and translucent but don’t let it brown (lower the heat if it begins to brown). Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes stirring often. Add the oregano, basil, majoram, and crushed red pepper, stirring to combine.
2. Add all of the tomato products: the whole tomatoes, the crushed tomatoes, and the tomato paste. Stir combine. Add the wine and stir again.
3. Bring the sauce to a lively simmer and keep it there on medium-low heat, stirring often to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. (If you have a mesh splatter guard put it on top of the pot. If you don’t have one, just wipe up any tomato splatter later.)
4. Cook for about an hour and a half or until all of the whole tomatoes have broken down and the sauce starts to look thick and smooth. Puree with an immersion blender.
5. Pack into two quart-sized jars and let cool. Eat some, freeze some, awesome, sauce-some!