Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Italian Tomato Sauce (Part 2)

One of my favorite Italian dishes in the summer is mozzarella and tomato salad. This is especially delicious in the season as the locally-available heirloom tomatoes are at their most flavorful. Any leftover tomatoes get thrown into a skillet and made into simple marinara sauce or tomato sauce. Having eaten a variety of delicious homemade Italian food in friends’ houses, I’ve noticed that the classic tomato sauce is always served on the side. This rich sauce can be paired with pasta and Parmesan cheese for a simple meal or served with meatballs for a more filling meal.

Unlike the plain marinara sauce that combines whole tomatoes and garlic, tomato sauce uses several ingredients that play a part in creating balance. Tomatoes contain both the sour element and natural glutamates required for umami, that savory taste. Garlic, onion, black pepper, and chili pepper provide pungency. Carrot and celery provide texture, adding colors that seem to deepen the bright red of tomatoes, and impart sweet and bitter flavors respectively. The herbs round out the balance giving warmth of peppery and astringent tones.

Tomato sauce is easy to prepare, and the sauce freezes well. The sauce has all the qualities of a perfectly balanced dish combined with color saturation, texture, and a full-bodied taste.

Tomato Sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (or other canned tomato) – 28 oz

Onion – 1, diced

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Carrot – 1, diced

Celery – ½ stalk, diced

Olive oil – ¼ cup

Salt and pepper – ½-1 tsp each

Whole red dried chili – 1

Oregano (fresh or dried) – ½ tsp

Fresh Basil – a handful of leaves

Tomato paste – 1 heaping tbsp. (optional)

Sugar – ¼-1 tsp

Parmesan cheese – 3 tbsp

  • Pour out the tomatoes from the can into a bowl. Using the back of the spoon crush them, until they are broken up into small pieces. (Beware the red juice splattering on your clothes and kitchen counter.)
  • Heat a skillet.
  • Heat oil and add the onion and stir for a minute or more, until they are soft.
  • Add the garlic, carrot and celery to the onions. Sauté until they have softened.
  • Add the crushed tomatoes to the skillet and mix into the onion-celery mixture.
  • Add the red chili and let it simmer on low for 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste (this creates a deeper red sauce and thickness) and oregano and basil.
  • Continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the oil appears to float on the top of the tomato sauce.
  • Add the salt and pepper. Check for balance. If the sauce is sour (from tomatoes), start with a ¼ tsp. salt and sugar, and continue to add incrementally until no one flavor is prominent.
  • Remove the chili pepper before serving.

Serve with spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, meatballs, or zucchini spirals.







Farmer’s Markets – Relationships you can count on

I look forward to Wednesdays in June, as this is when my neighborhood farmer’s market erects its stands. It is a time to renew acquaintances with the familiar faces and discover unfamiliar local produce. My goal for the next three months is to expand my repertoire with untried produce.

Last year, I discovered an unexpected mouthful of Eastern fruit flavors (floral, sweet, and tangy like mangosteen or lychee) in the winter cherry. This small berry, protected in a pod that makes the fruit look like a green lantern, first grew in Europe and China. It appeared in my local farm stand at the end of August, and that brief tryst had me scouring my local grocery store for the rest of the season – unsuccessfully!

The season for the unfamiliar is short-lived, and farmers are eager to showcase their produce to consumers. When you are a regular, they will usually let you sample the unusual – in my case, the farmer handed me a winter cherry and showed me how to pop open the lantern-like cover and slip the fruit directly into my mouth. The flavors were unexpectedly refreshing; I ended up buying the container. Another time, I came across these long curly green stalks, which I would have passed on at a grocery story, not knowing what to do with them. The farmer’s daughter, a young college student who was helping her parents, snipped a small piece so I could smell their garlicky aroma. Since then, I have experimented with garlic scapes whenever they are available ( usually in late spring before the stalk is cut so that the nutrients go to the garlic bulb). I substitute the scapes for garlic, mince and add them to a salad, or simply grill them.

On Wednesday, I picked up spring onions, garlic scapes, and snow peas (mangetout or snap peas) – there were stands with red chard, spinach, radish, and herbs in containers, before my final stop at the meat stand. I asked for goat, but Terry, who owns her farm and runs the stand with a homemade sign that says her chickens, goats, and sheep run free enjoying the sunshine, said that the animal was only 50 lbs and she had to wait for it to become 70lbs!

Over the years, I have been persuaded to try different varieties of tomatoes and eggplants, but the window of experimentation is small for some, such as zucchini blossoms, potent shiso (perilla) greens used in Japanese cuisine or dandelion greens. I hope that you add a few new favorites this season and  make some new friends along the way!