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Cooking Off the Cuff: For Great Summer Tomato Sauce, Grate Great Summer Tomatoes

It is a real seasonal treat to use fresh tomatoes, either raw or cooked. But be sure to save one or two for slicing onto a tuna fish sandwich or a hamburger.
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For last week's Swiss chard and tomato risotto, I employed a snappy technique to make a chunky near-puree of tomatoes: Using palm and fingers to rub halved (raw) tomatoes through the coarse or medium holes of a box grater, leaving the skin (mine and the tomatoes') behind on the surface of the grater.

Here are three other dishes in which I've since used this excellent way to process ripe summer tomatoes. Note: Do not use a super-sharp box grater like those made by Microplane, because it will cut right through the tomato skins and your hand.

The first is the simplest: grate a few tomatoes into a pasta-serving bowl, enrich with a tablespoon or two of good olive oil, season with salt (not, I think, pepper), add hot spaghetti or other long pasta, straight out of the boiling water, and use tongs or a pair of spoons to mix. You can sprinkle with grated parmesan and can add chopped or torn herbs - the usual basil, for instance, or parsley or mint. If you eat prudently, there will be tomato pulp and juice remaining at the bottom of the bowl; you can soak this up with torn-up bread, preferably either grilled or toasted or, best of all, crisped into croutons in a frying pan, making a bowl of pasta and tomatoes into a two-course meal.

Next, a memory of Puglia, which we visited nine years ago: Polpettine di pane - bread "meatballs." Break up a third or half a loaf of bread, discarding the crust - a few days old, ideally (if you have only fresh bread, let it dry out for an hour after tearing it into pieces. Soak it briefly in milk, water or a mixture of the two, then squeeze it dry and mash it into a pulp; I use a food processor. Still in the food processor, add a couple of eggs, plenty of fresh mint (or parsley or both), quite a lot of grated pecorino (or parmesan), pepper and a little more salt than you think is needed (keep tasting). The cheese helps firm up the mixture, which will become even firmer in the refrigerator, where you should leave it for a few hours or a couple of days. Form generous tablespoonsful of the mixture into little spheres, then fry them in oil to cover at the moderate temperature of about 330º F (165º C) until golden or golden brown. Set them aside until dinner time if you've made them in advance. You can serve them as a snack, by the way, just as they are.

To turn these into proper food - typically a "pasta" course, but we eat them as a main dish - grate your perfect tomatoes directly into a sauce pan or deep skillet, bring them to the simmer, season as you wish, then add the fried bread balls and heat them through in the tomatoes. Even though the bread balls are already full of cheese, you may want to offer some more at the table.

Finally, the easiest cooked tomato sauce - and, in tomato season, the best: Start by grating tomatoes directly into the saucepan. Use whichever varieties have the best flavor and aroma; you might join me in trying San Marzano style plum tomatoes if your farmers' market has any, though here in the New York area there are so many other excellent options, including deep-colored varieties such as Black Prince. Add one or two peeled cloves of garlic, whole (chopping them would add too much non-tomato flavor), a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, salt and a fresh herb such as thyme sprigs or sage leaves (or basil of course), and simmer for 20 minutes or so - gently: you don't want this to reduce to a paste, but rather to remain fluid and fresh-tasting. When it's done, fish out the garlic and herbs. The garlic will be soft, and you can smear it on bread if you like; I generally throw it away. Like most tomato sauces, this one freezes well.

In all three of these dishes, as in last week's risotto, it is a real seasonal treat to use fresh tomatoes, either raw or cooked. But be sure to save one or two for slicing onto a tuna fish sandwich or a hamburger.

Puglia-style bread "meatballs," fried and waiting for their tomatoes
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Including deep-colored varieties such as Black Prince adds beauty
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Bread "meatballs" simmered in grated tomatoes
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Grating a San-Marzano-style tomato: its skin (and mine) remained intact
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The classic color of grated San-Marzano-style tomatoes
Photograph by Edward Schneider.