..So your tomato plants gave you a good crop and you hate to waste any?
… and what’s worse, the frost is about to kill your basil?
(c) 2014, Davd
Winter’s coming, soon (unless you’re reading this from the tropics, or the Southern Hemisphere.) The maple leaves have turned a range of reds and oranges and over half the birch leaves are yellow. Even one of the bur-oaks on the downhill side of the orchard has mostly yellow leaves on it. The cucumber and bean plants died mid September in a hard frost—a frost 3-4 degrees warmer than the average January daily-high temperature around here. I protected two short rows of tomatoes and picked the rest the day before that killing frost. Those last two rows came in at the end of September, with -4C predicted and the tomato leaves yellowing.
There’s a time lag, of course, between the growing and the eating. With leaf lettuce, sweet corn, and cucumbers, it should be kept to as few minutes as practical; while with apples it can stretch to several months and the fruit will still taste fresh. (Cabbage can be stored very similarly to apples, and last winter, i wrote about how to use one stored cabbage as 2-3 different winter vegetables. Fairly similar storage techniques work with beets, carrots, and potatoes—of which only carrots are eaten raw.) The time lag allows us to eat tomatoes and cucumbers in late September and early October—but not in June, unless we have a
greenhouse, though June is warmer. So September cooking and salad making uses summer vegetables from the garden, and winter comes to the kitchens of Canada in October and November.
Once carried indoors, tomatoes should be used sooner rather than later; and at this time of year good gardeners are likely to have more than they want to eat fresh. They can be frozen in their skins, but that merely postpones the work of cooking them1. It’s more compact to cook those tomatoes into pasta sauce or salsa-picante, and either “can”2 them in jars or freeze them in margarine tubs or some such plastic containers—and if you do it now, you’re more likely to be able to include basil.
I’ve already written about making salsa-picante and chili from canned tomatoes. Use fresh tomatoes and they’ll be as good, or better. (In making chili, a blender does a better job than a “food processor” [motorized chopper], of cutting fresh or frozen tomatoes into a semi-smooth state. For making salsa picante, the motorized chopper is better if you have one, but a blender can be made to work. For making pasta sauce, the blender does the better job—you want it more smooth than chunky—but the chopper can reduce the chunks small enough to work fine. It’s the flavour that matters most.
For Italian tomato dishes, three seasonings are standard: Oregano, onion, and basil. This being Canada rather than Italy, basil can be scarce and expensive; but at this time of year, i usually have a decent supply of “spice basil”—a hardier, less succulent, somewhat stronger-flavoured close relative of the Sweet Basil that is what you usually see in markets and gardening stores. I grow them both: Spice basil outdoors as a companion for tomatoes, and sweet basil in pots on the deck or porch. Spice basil can survive down to freezing [0 Celsius, 32 Fahrenheit] while sweet basil starts to die at +4C [about 39F] and needs to be taken into the porch when spice basil is safe outside. I use the sweet basil leaves in tomato sandwiches and maybe salads, and the spice basil in cooking, for the most part; but sweet basil certainly will serve well for cooking also.
Basil, then, is optional in this sauce—use it if you have it. To give the sauce plenty of flavour with or without basil, i add liveche (Levisticum officinale, a celery-like herb with a richer flavour—so if you don’t have it, substitute celery leaves [fresh or dried], cut-up coarser celery stems, or add “celery seed” which keeps like dry herbs generally) and hot paprika.; and if there’s no basil, i’m almost certain to add garlic. I might use garlic and basil in the same sauce.
The job starts with the tomatoes: Cut them in quarters or eighths and “blend” until it’s not quite as smooth in consistency as you want the final sauce to be. I have my blender jar marked just above the ¾ litre mark, at the level for the volume of a 28-ounce [.796 litre] can—the size can of tomatoes i buy. That way, i can use the seasoning quantities that work with one can of crushed or diced tomatoes. If i have a big harvest to cook up, i can make double, triple, even quadruple batches.
You can put fresh basil (leaves and flower stalks, not stems) into the blender with the tomatoes, and it will chop up the basil fairly well. Unless you live in India, the US Gulf Coast, Northern Australia etc.—somewhere that is sub-tropical or tropical, and wet rather than desert or Mediterranean—basil will be hard work to grow and you’ll be thinking “how much do I need?” rather than “how much can I put in without wasting it?”
Chive, oregano and liveche are hardy enough that most Canadians can use “plenty” and feel comfortable about it. In Climate Zone 4 and warmer zones, all three will winter over with a little mulch for protection. Chive has been known to winter over where the lowest temperatures go below -50C [-55F]. Greek Oregano—a pungent flavourful variety as well as hardy—and liveche [Levisticum officinale] probably aren’t hardy in Zone 3, but in Zone 4 i’ve wintered them both, several years now. Both dry well for winter use. (I hang mine in bunches in the woodshed, which is dry and shaded. If they don’t dry crisp enough for hand crumbling, they might be too damp for jar storage, so i “finish dry” them for a few hours in a sunny porch window.)
I recommend scissoring all three into the cooking pot, rather than try to chop them in a blender3. Chives must be fresh or frozen, not dried. Liveche and oregano can be added dried and crumbled, at the rate of one high-rounded soup spoon per .8 litres of tomatoes. (After you have tried the amounts i suggest here, use your own likings to decide whether to increase them, decrease them, or stay with the suggestions. I haven’t yet cooked a tomato sauce with so much chives that i said to myself “Less chives next time”—but that’s me. You might have different tastes.)
I add one low-rounded teaspoon of hot paprika, and half a teaspoon of salt. I then bring the mixture to a gentle boil, and simmer it for about ten minutes—longer won’t likely hurt, but i enjoy a fresh tomato taste when cooking from my garden.
My late September test batch—to verify the technique for this blog—was made with Scotia tomatoes, fresh chive and spice basil, mostly dried liveche and oregano, and [of course] dried hot paprika. Though the sauce looked to be a relatively small amount for the pasta, the flavour was rich and tangy, fit to serve to a guest and to enjoy several times a week—even without mushrooms.
This sauce is also very good with white rice4—I tried the combination for the sake of this “post”, and was actually surprised how well they go together. Since pasta presently costs a bit less “on sale” than rice, and has a higher protein content; and since rice with salsa picante is also very good, and a good deal better than pasta with salsa picante; i don’t expect to use this sauce with rice in most situations… but if you’ve rice handy, and not pasta, it can substitute well.
For a second “trial”, i added a few sautéed Suillus mushrooms to the sauce (with spaghetti) and wished i’d added even more. Several kinds of edible wild mushrooms are good with pasta and tomato sauce, as are “grocery store mushrooms”… and if the grocery store mushrooms are very expensive, the sauce is good with pasta only.
If you read back over the text, you’ll see several ways you can vary the seasonings in this technique; and the final “arbiter” should be your likings and those of the folks who share your meals. I’ve developed my version to be tangy and savory, with a fresher taste when the sauce is done, than canned tomatoes can produce. Having made chicken cacciatore with both fresh and canned tomatoes, i expect the seasonings and amounts given here, will work with canned crushed or diced tomatoes when i’ve eaten up the home-grown, some time toward the end of the year…
… but the harvest version, i also expect, will be the best. If you like this sauce as much as i do, when you try it; then i suggest you make plenty while the herbs and tomatoes are fresh, and freeze or ‘can’ a few pints for the coming winter.
1. Nobody i know eats a frozen and thawed tomato, “raw”: The texture is not appealing.
2. In the Atlantic provinces, people refer to “bottling” food in sealed jars. To me, a bottle is a container from which the contents must be poured because the neck is too small to accept a spoon; and any glass container from which things can be spooned is a jar—in function, a re-usable can made out of glass. When i refer to bottling, the substance going into the bottles pretty well must be a liquid, such as beer, wine, cider, and the mehu concentrate produced by steam juice extraction, and the bottle is closed by a cork or cap rather than a lid.
3. Blenders will chop chives, basil, fresh oregano, and liveche when making mayonnaise; the oil makes the mixture thick enough that the blender knives can cut through the soft plant material. When making this pasta sauce, only the basil cut really well.
4. Brown rice is more nutritious than white, but it is also about twice as expensive around here—and it will keep only a few months, while white rice will keep a few years—so i usually cook white rice. Ideally, if i had an abundance of free time, i’d get a “pasta machine” and make whole wheat pasta.