I’m finally finished with my cookbook project–after nine months and change, I’ve cooked or made at least one thing from every cookbook in our primary collection, all 105 of them. In retrospect it was a really valuable exercise, not only because it gave me a new appreciation for the recipes that I had at my disposal, but also in helping me develop some really helpful techniques. Had I not set out to do this I wouldn’t have tried Massimo Bottura’s method for making pasta completely by hand, or Alton Brown’s shrimp scampi, or Mimi Thorisson’s dry pan-roasted mushrooms. I’ve pushed myself in ways I wasn’t expecting, and because of that I feel like I’ve grown as a cook, and I feel better-equipped to improvise where necessary.
One of the more interesting and unexpected techniques I picked up and have added to my arsenal was a new way to make tomato sauce, and I learned it from Heston Blumenthal of all people. Years ago we tried out his spaghetti Bolognese recipe from In Search of Perfection, and while it was tasty, Michael would be the first to say that it veered into the overwrought and ultimately didn’t blow his mind. (That said, we still use star anise when we make ragus now.) Knowing it was way too warm to make ragu yet, I paged through the rest of the book and settled upon trying out his tomato sauce and topping for margherita pizza since it was late August at the time and therefore the best tomatoes were beginning to make their appearance at the market in earnest.
I’m not going to pretend that this technique isn’t a bit fussy, but more than the Bolognese recipe, it at least makes more sense to me why he does what he does. In essence he basically wants to turn fresh tomatoes into a better version of canned tomatoes using a multi-step process in which you blanch and peel the tomatoes and then toss them with a little salt to help leach out some of their juices. Then both the juice and the tomatoes go into a pressure cooker for 12 minutes, and when that’s done you can reduce the liquid to make a sauce that’s fit to go on a pizza. The biggest pain is easily peeling the tomatoes–mainly because he calls for using cherry tomatoes, so it takes five-ever–but I’ve been experimenting with a few different varieties to see how they taste. Truthfully, the final product does taste like a superior version of a canned tomato, so if I find any decent greenhouse tomatoes as we move into fall and (gulp) winter, I may have to make a few batches to see how my in-laws like them versus their trusty cans of Cento or Tuttarosso tomatoes.
The other element he has you make for the pizza is to reserve about 25 of the cherry tomatoes you’ve painstakingly peeled and toss them with a little olive oil before slicing them in half, seeding them, and slowly baking them in an oven for 2-3 hours with garlic, basil, thyme, and seasoning. They don’t fully dry out, but they do make for intensely-flavored little bursts of tomato, and on the pizza it add just the right amount of complexity and flavor. (The added bonus, of course, is that it makes your house smell pretty fantastic while they reduce.) You could easily throw these into a pasta sauce towards the end of cooking as you could place on top of a pizza, and honestly just writing that makes me want to try that as soon as possible.
I think what I love most about this recipe is that it’s a relatively low-tech one for Blumenthal, as the only special equipment you need is a pressure cooker. We’ve sung the praises of ours before, and I’m so happy to have another application in which to use it. The Baltimore Marathon is coming up in about a week and a half, which means we have to plan to stay indoors for at least during the course of the morning, so it might be the perfect time to try these once again, only to use with pasta.
Superior “canned” tomatoes with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes
Makes enough sauce for at least one pizza using half this dough
Lightly adapted from In Search of Perfection
2.2 pounds tomatoes, ideally a mix of cherry and other small, flavorful tomatoes like Campari. Ideally, at least some of the tomatoes should have the vines still attached–reserve the vine.
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
20 leaves basil
20 sprigs thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 225 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to boil, and also prepare an ice bath. Prepare any larger/less ripe tomatoes for blanching by scoring the skin with an X, and then plunge into the boiling water for at least 10 seconds and no more than 20. Remove with a spider into the ice bath to cool down immediately. Peel the tomatoes, reserving about 25 cherry tomatoes for oven-dried tomatoes if desired.
For the oven-dried tomatoes: put them into a small bowl and toss with a little olive oil, and then slice each in half and scoop out the seeds. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone sheet in a single layer, and place a garlic slice on each one. Season well with salt and pepper, and then tear and scatter the herbs on top. Place in the oven and let cook for about 2-3 hours, or until the tomatoes are soft, but not fully dried. Turn over once to get even drying on both sides. When complete, discard herbs and place into a small container, topping with a little extra olive oil to keep them moist. Store in the fridge until ready to use.
For the “canned” tomatoes: slice the tomatoes into halves and quarters depending on size, and toss with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt into a colander that’s been placed on a bowl. Let the tomatoes sit until at least five tablespoons of water/juice have been collected, and then add both juice and tomatoes to a pressure cooker. Cook on high pressure for 12 minutes.
To make pizza sauce: place tomatoes into a small saucepan and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, which can take 12-15 minutes if not a little more. (If you’re going for pizza sauce, err on the side of a drier sauce to not saturate the dough.) Let cool, and then store until ready to use with the tomato vine to add some extra tomatoey essence.