Yesterday, I reached into my CSA haul and pulled out a battered, purple tomato. It had split on one side and was bruised on another, and left a puddle of raw tomato sauce on my cutting board when I cut it, but I do not waste early-September tomatoes. So I took out a paring knife and cut around the blemishes, feeding myself irregularly shaped pieces and accumulating tomato juice on my shirt. It was ripe, maybe one-day-past-ripe (which is why it was prone to damage), and it was sweet and savory, meaty and juicy—the complexities you want in every tomato, but almost never find.
You want to drown yourself in tomatoes like these, but they only come around at this time of year, and even then you have to get lucky (the rest of the tomatoes in my haul could not compete). Still, if you do find yourself with a few pounds of peak summer romas, or beefsteaks, or any of the heirlooms, my friends Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer of Canal House have a suggestion: tomato sauce.
Sure, you could fry an egg until it's crispy around the edges. But why settle for that when this technique from Canal House creates 360-degree crunch?
To some people, this will be heresy. Take the best tomatoes of the year and dampen their flavor with garlic and basil? Take tomatoes when they're finally at the perfect texture—like ripe peaches, if we're lucky—and reduce them into a thick, oily marinara with hours of simmering?
But that's not the idea at all. When Hamilton and Hirsheimer were working on this recipe for their new book, Cook Something, they tasted their peak-season tomatoes and, as Hamilton recalls, thought "this is so fresh and delicious, let’s keep it like that." And so the recipe they developed is for a tomato sauce that stays raw.
"We were inspired by the way the Spanish grate their tomatoes," Hirsheimer says, referring to pan con tomate, the famously simple tomato-on-garlic-toast snack. The tomatoes for that dish are grated on a box grater (or, if the tomatoes are perfectly ripe, on the toast itself). "The flesh ends up in the bowl and the skin ends up in your hand," Hamilton says.
To that flesh, Hamilton and Hirsheimer add nothing but a clove or two of raw garlic, some passata di pomodoro (a thick bottled tomato puree—"it gives the sauce a little body," says Hamilton), and a good dose of olive oil. Some salt, some red pepper flakes, and the sauce is ready to be tossed with warm spaghetti or put on a pizza (either before, or after, the pizza comes out of the oven).
The latter option is what I chose earlier this summer when I was grilling pizzas for my family. But it wasn't yet tomato season, so, reasoning that canned tomatoes are picked at peak ripeness, I opened up a few cans. The sauce, which took all of three minutes to make, was perfect (using good olive oil really helped) In fact, it was so perfect that we made another batch for pasta a few nights later. And I may or may not have proclaimed that I'd never make a cooked tomato sauce again.
Of course, using canned tomatoes to make raw sauce also felt a bit like cheating. So when I mentioned this to Hamilton and Hirsheimer, I expected to get scolded. But they had no trouble believing canned tomatoes would work. They don't always use the best tomatoes for pan con tomate, Hamilton said, and they'd tried the sauce with less-than-perfect tomatoes, too. It was something of a revelation. "God," Hirsheimer recalls thinking, "you can use tomatoes that aren’t at their peak." But right now, with summer tomatoes at their dented, fragrant, juiciest best, why would you?