08/20/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Classic Heirloom Tomato Sauce


Having good friends who are farmers is certainly very inspiring when you spend most of your time behind a stove! But it was never as inspiring as when my dear friend Nevia, owner of Bodhi Tree Farm, called out of the blue and asked if I could take some heirloom tomatoes that were simply too ripe to sell. She specializes in growing heirloom vegetables, especially tomatoes. My answer was: Yes, I'll take them!

What I didn't expect, though, was that 120 lbs of tomatoes would soon show up at my door! My initial excitement began to turn to apprehension. Even if I managed to cook all of them before they rotted in their boxes, how was I going to preserve so much sauce?

I had bought a small canning pressure cooker a few months ago. Although I had very good intentions, with my usual busy schedule I never even took it out of its box. Now I had no choice... Only one problem: I had never canned anything in my life and had to figure out how to do it properly. It took a little investigating, but I ended up finding all the information I needed on the USDA website. Now I just had to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

It took me two 16-hour days to prep, cook and can my tomatoes and I ended up with only about 40 pints worth of the precious sauce -- most of which I ended up giving away! However exhausting the experience was, I found it profoundly satisfying and humbling. I felt connected to my ancestors in a way I never had before... My great-grandmother must have been doing this her whole life!

Although I made several different kinds of sauces that weekend, the classic tomato sauce with basil remains my favorite. You can make it either with red or yellow heirloom tomatoes. It is perfect with pasta and some parmesan shavings. It also makes the most delicious topping for a pizza margherita; I even like to poach eggs in it, which I serve with a slice of crusty sourdough.

Buon Appetito!


Classic Heirloom Tomato Sauce with Fresh Basil

makes approximately 2 cups
active time: 30 min

3 lbs (1.4 kg) very ripe red or yellow meaty heirloom tomatoes - peeled and seeded (seeds strained and juices reserved, about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (see cook's note 2)
6 large garlic cloves - skinned and finely sliced
1 small bunch basil (3 oz) (85 g) - leaves removed from stems and torn in 1" pieces
3/4 to 1 teaspoon sea salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon aged balsamic vinegar (preferably 20 to 25 years old)

Step 1: Place the tomatoes in a food processor and process until coarsely chopped.

Step 2: Heat a large heavy-bottomed soup pot at medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and garlic and sauté for 1 minute only. Add the tomatoes and reserved tomato juice and bring to a boil. As soon as the sauce reaches boiling point, reduce heat to medium to medium-low and simmer uncovered for 40 minutes to 1 hour (depending on how watery your heirlooms are) until the sauce has thickened and the tomatoes separate from the olive oil, stirring from time to time. Add the basil, salt, pepper and balsamic. Continue to simmer for 2 to 3 minutes until basil has wilted. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl to cool, or proceed with your recipe of choice.

Cook's note 1: Refrigerate up to 3 days or freeze up to 2 months.

Cook's note 2: If making several batches of the recipe, decrease the olive oil by half and increase the cooking time to about 30 minutes for each additional portion.
Example: If you multiply the recipe 3 times, use 9 lbs tomatoes, 3/4 cup oil and simmer the sauce for 1 hour and 40 minutes to 2 hours. All other ingredients in the recipe can be multiplied exactly 3 times. Last but not least, you'll need to increase the heat as it'll take more heat to keep a good simmer going with this much sauce.