On the Fourth of July, we celebrate America’s birthday. It’s the day we celebrate our independence. It’s the day I choose to avoid large crowds and forego the organized fireworks displays in lieu of watching my drunk neighbors blow stuff up in their driveway. And, if you live in one of those states that has outlawed everything except sparklers and those fountain-y things that ejaculate sparks all over your driveway for 15 seconds, then you can only hope that one of your neighbors has made a fun-run to a neighboring, less-regulate-y state for stuff with a better “wow factor.” You know, the explosives that “take off” and explode far above the ground raining ashes on all of you that should NOT be standing so close to the action. Because what would your July Fourth celebration be if you weren’t half terrified of an explosive misfire removing fingers? You’d be far too relaxed if you didn’t have your fingers poised to dial 911 on your cell phone the second one of them lands on your roof. You’d be far less patriotic if you didn’t constantly ask your neighbor “Shouldn’t you be letting the person with health insurance light that one?” Yay America!
However, before it gets dark enough to fully appreciate the blowy-upy things, you have to fill your day (and your belly) with something. Maybe you made patriotic cupcakes? Maybe you made an all-American meal of barbecue and potato salad? Maybe you slaved over a grill making burgers for the family? Maybe you drank copious amounts of beer and bitched about how hot it is? I hope you filled your belly with something delicious because I certainly did not.
I decided to celebrate America by ruining some Italian food. I didn’t set out to ruin it. I set out to make a beautiful and delicious tomato sauce for pasta. I was going to point out how patriotic I was by making red food on the day when everything is red, white, and blue. But once I realized it was ruined and not salvage-able, I decided to turn it into a patriotic sacrifice. How better to honor America than by ruining a dish that is closely identified with another country? Essentially, I turned the tables by trying to make a flaming failure into a patriotic endeavour. Happy birthday America. You’re welcome.
You see, I found a recipe for a tomato sauce that intrigued me. There are no canned tomatoes in the recipe which appealed to me. I like cooking with whole foods. I like cutting back on food that’s processed. And to further intrigue me, the recipe called for all the tomatoes to be roasted. Now, if you read my pizza blog, you know that I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes. You’ll never catch me eating a raw tomato. However, I do love tomato-based pasta sauces. My only requirement is that I don’t like it chunky. Tomatoes are only acceptable to me once they’re pulverized into submission. I won’t even eat salsa that has big chunks of tomato in it. Tomatoes pieces can never be too small. And I know that roasting brings out the natural sweetness in vegetables. It’s probably my favorite way to prepare most veggies. So, starting a sauce with roasted tomatoes sounded like a winner to me! And making it myself means that I can turn those babies into as fine of a mush as I like.
Like most projects I’ve undertaken lately, I ran into problems early in the process. I went to the grocery store to buy the prescribed 20 Roma tomatoes and my store did not have any Roma tomatoes. They had heirlooms and beefsteak and cherry but no romas. So, I settled for these tomatoes marketed as “tomato on the vine.” I have no idea what variety of tomatoes these are and a Google search was unhelpful. Since I’m not a tomato fan, I’m not really sure how these compare to Roma tomatoes. I know romas are more oblong than these are. However, when I read the recipe reviews, several people had substituted different types of tomatoes and still enjoyed the results so I crossed my fingers and settled for these mystery tomatoes. If you know what variety of tomatoes these are, please leave a comment.
The recipe calls for cutting to tomatoes in half and removing the seeds. Then you drizzle them with olive oil, salt, pepper, minced garlic, diced onions, and chopped thyme and oregano (fresh) and bake them in the oven for 2.5 hours. I read the reviews and several people noted that the garlic or onions or even the herbs burned during the roasting process. I considered covering the dish but I finally decided that I would roast the tomatoes with just oil and salt on them. Then I’d caramelize an onion in a saute pan to bring out the same sweetness you’d get roasting it and add it when I pureed the tomatoes. I also cut the top off a head of garlic, covered it in olive oil, wrapped it in foil and threw it in the oven for the last 40 minutes of roasting time to roast it on its own. I planned to add a few of the roasted cloves to the puree. This way, all the flavors would be there and I wouldn’t have to babysit the oven to watch for burning.
Everything was going just fine. I caramelized my onion in a pan. My tomatoes were roasted. My garlic was roasted. I threw everything into the food processor and blitzed it up and put it into a sauce pan. And this is where I made a fatal mistake. The next step called for the addition of white wine. Now I usually use red wine in my tomato sauces. I’d never used white wine in a tomato sauce but based on the positive recipe reviews I had faith that it would be delicious. I had bought a new bottle of Pinot Grigio that wasn’t a kind I’d bought (or even tasted) before. And I added it to the pureed tomato/onion/garlic mixture without tasting it first. WHAT WAS I THINKING? Had I tasted it, I’d have realized 2 things. 1. It’s drier than the pinot grigio I typically buy. and 2. That I hated it. The first rule of cooking with wine is that you should only cook with wine you’d actually drink. When you cook with wine, it reduces and intensifies the flavor so if you don’t like the wine, you’re certainly not going to like the concentrated taste of it in whatever food you’re making. After I added it, I pulled out a spoon and tasted the sauce and my heart sank. It was terrible. It was a shocking revelation. Wine apparently doesn’t make *everything* better. Shocking. It was like realizing you’ve been singing the wrong words to your favorite song the entire time.
Since the consistency of the sauce was still more “paste” than “sauce” I hoped that I could use some stock to thin it out and dull the bitter flavor the wine had imparted. No luck. Since many tomato sauce recipes call for the addition of sugar, I pulled out the sugar dish hopeful I could counter the bitterness enough to at least make it edible. The problem was that even though I was able to get a sweet initial taste in the sauce, I wasn’t able to undo that bitter undertone and it still left a terrible aftertaste.
I was afraid to add more sugar so I poured the sauce into a bowl and covered it and put it in the refrigerator hoping that if it sat the flavors would mingle and maybe the sugar would win over the wine and the aftertaste would be dulled. But when I went back later that night and tasted, it had actually had the opposite effect and it was even worse. I was very disappointed.
So, while I’ve discovered how NOT to make tomato sauce, I think this recipe actually is salvageable (even if my first attempt at it isn’t).
First of all, next time I will roast the tomatoes with only oil and salt again to prevent the herbs and pepper from burning during the roasting process. Burned garlic is not delicious.
I will also roast garlic by itself and add the cloves to the puree to taste.
I will not caramelize the onions next time. While caramelized onions are sweet, I was really looking for that little bit of an onion-y flavor in the sauce. I think with the roasted tomatoes and the roasted garlic, caramelizing the onion was too much sweetness. Next time I will just saute an onion and add it when I puree the tomatoes. Plus this will be faster. It takes upwards of 30 minutes to fully caramelize an onion. No need to spend that kind of time babysitting a pan on the stove.
I’m not going to add white wine next time. While I do have another pinot grigio that I really do like, I think that I have a better option for thinning out the sauce. You see, when I seeded the tomatoes, I ended up with a giant bowl of tomato pulp and tomato juice. I offered it to the neighbors for bloody marys but they prefer to use the thicker commercially prepared vegetable juices and I can’t blame them. Real fresh tomato juice is pretty watery. But it is packed full of fresh tomato flavor and brightness. So, next time, I will take this pulp and strain it to remove the seeds squeezing out all the juice and use that to thin the sauce. I think it’ll add a note of brightness to the kind of heavy roasted tomato flavor. Plus, tossing all that tomato juice and pulp made me feel very wasteful so this will be a good way to use it so that it doesn’t go to waste.
In addition, one of my FAVORITE tomato sauces is a vodka cream sauce. So, I MIGHT consider turning this into a vodka and cream tomato sauce. Vodkas and cream go surprisingly well with tomatoes.
I still think that adding the herbs to the sauce towards the end of cooking was wise. I could taste the freshness of the herbs and I really liked that so I will add oregano and thyme to the sauce towards the end of cooking.
While I do plan to make this again and let you know how it goes, we may have to wait for fall. I realized that having my oven going for nearly 3 hours on a 100 degree day in Georgia is kind of sadistic. I sweated as much as I do during a hard-core workout. And since the thermostat is relatively close to the kitchen, the AC was going full blast so you could hang meat up in the bedroom where the oven wasn’t warming up the room. In the mean time we may need to find some recipes for some cold and room temperature pasta sauces more appropriate for a Georgia summer. Pesto anyone?
Finally, before I sign off, I am happy to report that my neighbors and I are all in possession of all our digits and everyone’s house is still standing despite our “wow factor” (illegal) fireworks display.