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Cooks often follow a tradition unquestionably. Although we learned and no longer cook our vegetables to death as perhaps our grandmothers did, still in some areas we blindly accept certain methods as infallible such as cooking tomato sauces.
There is something about cooking a product for hours that seems to heighten our sense of worth as an accomplished cook. Homemade tomato sauces and purees are but a few examples, however, they really only require from 20 to 45 minutes actual cooking time. Yes, many dishes are improved by slow and long cooking methods such as braising a cut of meat, or a stew, but those exceptions have nothing to do with this article on tomatoes.
In Italian cooking - in Italy at least - few sauces are cooked for long. A true Ragł Bolognese (Bolognese Meat Sauce) as made in Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region is cooked for about one to one and a quarter hours. Yes, I know. This is shocking for those who pride themselves over their simmered-all-day meat sauces for their Spaghetti Bolognese. Few outside of Italy have ever tasted a true Ragł Bolognese. Unforgettable, mouthwatering and made with very little tomato quite unlike the versions of this famous sauce outside of Bologna where using more tomato sauce to meat was an economical solution to stretch the sauce.
Some fans of tomato sauce in all its forms suffer afterwards from an upset (acidic) stomach. Keep the following in mind when making your own tomato sauce or quantities of your own lower acid, low salt, no (or very low) sugar puree - an experience I highly recommend.
There are four factors that contribute to the natural acidity of a tomato sauce. The juice, peel and the seeds. And overcooking.
Traditionally, these purees and sauces were cooked 2 to 3 hours (disputed greatly among Italians themselves). One of the reasons for this was the folk belief that the longer tomatoes cook, the less acidic they became. However, cooks added sugar to counteract this and so to the tongue, it seemed less acidic. But you cannot fool the stomach.
One cannot 'de-acidify' a product by cooking it longer. In fact, long cooking reduces the mass by 'cooking off' the liquid present thus concentrating the acid already present in the product. This results in the same acidity started with but in a mass that is now reduced by most likely a fourth or a third.
Adding sugar or salt - both of which have a natural affinity with tomatoes - should be a personal preference and not to counteract and mask a problem. A little sugar, just to enhance the tomato's natural sweetness yet not enough to be noticed at first taste is all that is needed. The amount will vary from batch to batch.
Another reason for long cooking was to thicken the sauce by allowing the liquid to 'cook away'. If you start with a less watery base, you will not have to cook the sauce so very long in the first place. Save some of the juice you squeeze out and taste it. You will see it is very acidic. It makes a good soup base though or broth for steaming cauliflower or potatoes in!
Making your own puree is time consuming - but very satisfying. However, it only makes sense if you live in a tomato growing region where the summer's peak abundance is economical and the tomatoes are delicious. Though I encourage you to try making a small batch of your own puree at least once I also realize that is where the line is drawn for many food enthusiasts. By the way, always use non-reactive pots for cooking tomatoes, such as stainless steel or enamel.
Unless tomatoes in your area are heavenly, like ours here in Spain, look for Italian puree and pastes which will be made from the Roma or plum tomatoes for using as a base for your sauces and dishes. They will be picked at their peak and are usually processed at the harvest point.
Tip: if you are planning to make and 'can' (preserve) your own low acidity tomato puree, click here for an uncomplicated method without using special canning equipment. Unless you are freezing your puree in useable quantities, safe canning requires that a proper acid balance is present. What works for me without adding additional citric acid or lemon juice as is suggested by some sources, is to cook half the puree (with the juice) until very thick before adding the rest of the drained puree and continuing as in instructions for Tomato Puree. Use ripe but not overripe tomatoes at their peak in summer. Winter tomatoes are flavourless and mealy in comparison.
Pick a lazy day in late July or August and treat yourself to a delicious experience!
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The Epicurean Table www.epicureantable.com © 2003-2006
Patricia Conant, columnist and food writer
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