When I was 18, my cousin Rachana and I went to go visit our other cousin Kunali, who had just moved to Paris to do a course at the Cordon Bleu. We were all peers, supposedly, but Rachana and I realized upon dragging our bags up to Kunali’s apartment that we, in fact, were basically toddlers who were largely unable to care of ourselves or decorate a nice apartment or feed ourselves, and Kunali, who was just several years older, was able to do all of those things. Seemingly overnight she had become an adult; Rachana and I were still arguing over who’s dorm posters were better and making poo jokes every time one of us messily ate a pan chocolate.
Kunali took us to the market one day to shop for groceries to make dinner, and it was the first time I had ever truly put together a meal based on what looked best at market. Now that farm-to-table is all the rage, I always overhear trendy people telling their friends how much they loooove planning their meals around what’s in season, and I kind of want to interject and say stuff like, “I like planning my meals around which frozen Mac and Cheese looks freshest” or “I base my menu on whether it’s Hoagiefest at Wawa or not” just to be annoying. But despite the stick up my ass about food trends, it truly is the best way to eat. I still remember the silky chevre we procured, the gorgeous fennel bulb – the first I’d ever seen in my life – and of course, the six or so perfect vine ripe tomatoes.
We got home, and Kunali said she thought we should make tomato soup. We asked her how you make it. “With olive oil and tomatoes,” she said.
“That’s it??” We were incredulous. There were only two things in tomato soup?!
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Salt too.”
That was 14 years ago and I’ve made Kunu’s three ingredient tomato soup every year since. I make it when tomatoes are ripe and plentiful and I put it in the freezer for when I’m sick, or cold, or sad. I make it for dinner parties or just for just myself, and it never fails me. Do you know why? It’s because good tomatoes will never steer you wrong.
After that summer, I moved to a new dorm in Greenwich Village right on Union Square, meaning I had regular access to the Union Square farmer’s market, which I could almost never afford. Vine ripe tomatoes were just beginning to be “a thing” and cost like $8 a pound in New York, but I would go around at the end of the day when everybody was packing up and haggle with the vendors for their unsold tomatoes. That’s how I would get 4 lbs of deliciously juicy, unpretty farm tomatoes for soups and sauces for $5.
It’s Labor Day today and something firmly rooted in my memories, in my cells, in the way my heart tracks the rhythm of time is whispering, back to reality. Something in me is sinking, and I am simultaneously craving and hating stillness. I hear tonight’s silence and it feels loud. Logically, I know that nothing about this upcoming week is going to be different from last week – I’m not a teacher or a student, and I had no summer vacation which is devastatingly coming to a close – but all the memories around “back to school time” have landed me back in my teaching days, when I would mope around on my last day of vacation, depressed and anxious, unable to savor my last few hours of freedom, and unable to skip forward to the new day coming. The feeling has cast a dull sheen on the whole day, one I can’t shake, and I’m reaching for an expression of creativity to pull me out of my funk.
So I’ll make sauce.
You’d think after nearly 15 years since college I would get less cheap, but you’d be wrong. Today I went by a farm stand and asked for the cast offs, scoring 4 pounds of lovely ripe tomatoes for $2. Because I already have the soup in the freezer from my last tomato run, I’ve decided to make a fresh tomato sauce, which is beautifully versatile and can be used for pasta sauce, to serve with a beautiful piece of fish (my personal favorite use), on bruschetta, or to eat alongside mozzarella or burrata or ricotta. You can pass it through a food mill and turn it into an excellent soup. The possibilities are endless. And, best of all, you can freeze it and let it transport you back to the glorious days of summer when you’re in the depths of winter and developing a healthy resentment toward root vegetables and stupid fucking kale.
Did I mention it’s absurdly easy to make and largely idiot-proof, even for you dear reader?
There are really only a few things you need to keep in mind:
- Don’t cook it forever and ever. Some tomato sauces truly benefit from simmering for hours – like 3 or 4. This one does not – you want the tomatoes to taste fresh. You should simmer this for about 40 minutes and really not much longer.
- Don’t use shitty tomatoes. If you don’t have good fresh tomatoes, then just be a good sport and use canned tomatoes. They won’t taste like this sauce, but I’m sure it will be just as good.
- Don’t you dare use heirloom tomatoes. I mean, you can if you want – like if they’re like a little mealy or you got a dud, but you really should be just eating those raw for peak deliciousness.
- Monitor the acidity of the tomatoes. If the sauce is very acidic, add a bit of sugar to balance it, and skip the vinegar. More guidance below.
You ready for this?
4 pounds very ripe tomatoes, chopped (you can peel them too if you’d like. I did not because of laziness, but it’s easy to do)
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and chopped
2 T olive oil
1 T white wine vinegar or white vinegar
- In a very large skillet or a wide bottom dutch oven, heat olive oil on medium-high. When the oil starts to shimmer when you move it around the pan, add the onions.
- Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until translucent about 8 minutes. Add the thyme and garlic and cook, stirring, for one minute.
- Add the tomatoes to the pan and increase the heat. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to simmer. Add 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes.
- After 25 minutes, taste the sauce. If it is very acidic, skip the vinegar and add a tsp of sugar. If not, add in the tablespoon of vinegar. Continue simmering for 10-15 more minutes, or until the sauce is your desired consistency. I like a sauce that is not watery, but also not too thick. For me, the juice from the sauce should neither run right down a spoon, but nor completely coat the spoon.
- Remove from heat, taste the sauce and adjust for salt and pepper.