Summertime …. and the going is easy … and tomato sauce (sugo) is indispensable. Spaghetti ‘al pomodoro’, i.e. spaghetti in a tomato sauce, is probably the most basic of all pasta dishes … and the most beloved by children, not to mention those grown-ups who retain this childish love. Chef Fulvio Pietrangelini who used to run the famed ‘Gambero Rosso’ restaurant claims that it is the hardest of all pasta sauces to make and that he would charge 50.000 lire for spaghetti al pomodoro (which was a lot of money for a plate of pasta in those pre-euro days!), the same amount as another pasta dish on his menu using caviar. I find this a touch excessive but I do share his respect for a good ‘sugo’, a good tomato sauce.
Good, fresh, ripe tomatoes, for a start, are essential and thus can only be enjoyed during the hot part of the year. Plum tomatoes out of a can can be used the rest of the year.
Not all these tomatoes look utterly pretty … but let me assure you that their pulp is utterly what one wants when making sugo!
The tomatoes do need some cleaning up, however. First thing to do is remove the core (the whiteish part). You can use a sharkstooth to remove it, as in this photo, or …
Or else, you can use a paring knife or any small sharp knife.
This is another kind of tomato, this is a san marzano-type, or plum tomato and doesn’t have a core as thick as other tomatoes. So I just chop the very end off one end and make a criss-cross with a sharp knife. The idea is to now put these tomatoes in boiling water for as long as it takes for the skin to start peeling away from the pulp. This can take, depending on the tomato, as little as 1 minute to as much as 3 or 4.
Here are all my cored tomatoes. plopped into a very large pot of boiling water. Switch off the heat once the tomatoes are in … there is no need to boil them. However, when using a very large amount of tomatoes, such as in this case, I do leave the heat on for a little bit because a lower water temperature won’t work.
When done, remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon to a basin containing cold water, to bring down their temperature. They need to be peeled of their skin and you don’t want to scald your fingers!
Here are some peeled tomatoes on the left, their skins on the right. (by the way, you could allow the skins to dry and then fry them at some point … as an accent piece on a dish).
Here are the rest of the tomatoes that need peeling, in a colander. They drip a lot of juice and can make quite a mess.
Finally, the end of this heap of tomatoes is in sight! The peel on the left, the cleaned tomatoes on the right: inside a good-sized casserole or saucepan. Turn the heat on.
Use a potato masher to squash the tomato into a pulp. I sometimes use my hands.
It’s a very thick pulp we are talking about here …. no need to overdo it.
Cook for about 20 minutes on a fairly high heat.
This is a food mill known as ‘passaverdure’ in Italian and, I think, ‘mouli’ in French. A brilliant gadget …’insostituibile’ as they say in Italian, ‘un-substitute-able’. This is what you will need in order to make sugo, nothing else will do. An electric processor will certainly process the pulp but it will ruin it too … ruin its consistency and its colour (it will turn slightly orange). These passaverdure come with at least two sizes of discs. Start by processing the cooked tomatoes using the disc with the larger holes.
First the disc with the larger holes and then process a second time using the disc with the smaller holes.
And this is what you get, the first time around.
Looking lovely already. But it needs to go through the mill a second time.
In this photo you can see the sugo after it went through the mill the first time on the left, and after it went through a second time, on the right. In the middle are the leftovers, including seeds, that get thrown away.
To recap: here is the ‘before’ sugo …
And here is the ‘after’ sugo. Beautiful, do admit!
So, yes, making sugo is a laborious exercise. The tomatoes need to be good, they need to be pitted, their skins have to be peeled off. The remaining pulp needs to be cooked for about 20 to 30 minutes and the this pulp needs to be passed manually through a food mill not once, but twice, using two different discs.
And this is only ‘part 1’ of the whole affair! This is the basic sugo, like a stock. It now needs to be fed ingredients and cooked again, in order to be transformed into a proper ‘sugo al pomodoro’.
The good news is that basic sugo will keep for quite a while, up to a week, if stored in a glass jar.
The next post will be all about bringing flavour to the basic tomato sauce.