Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fresh Heirloom Tomato Sauce, and More Ways to Use Ricotta

I guess until summer ends I'll still be in my Italian phase.  I just can't resist those fabulous heirloom tomatoes and wonderful fresh herbs.  Here is my fresh tomato sauce served over stuffed shells (with my homemade ricotta, but a good packaged ricotta works fine, too), but I also also love it spooned over angel hair or other pasta.    At the end of the recipes, I'll also have some more ideas for using homemade (or not) ricotta and tomatoes.

When I say fresh tomato sauce, I'm not talking about spaghetti sauce - you know the long-cooked type that you find in a jar.  No, this is a barely cooked sauce that tastes like fresh tomatoes.  To start, I use heirloom tomatoes (the big purply ones) that I buy from the Specialty Farmer at Cedar Walk Farmer's Market.  If you've been reading my blog, you know that I love their produce and buy from them all the time.

My friend thought they looked "dicey" - all purply and cracked.  Yup.  They do.  It's because the Specialty Farmer leaves them on the vine until they're practically bursting,  and picks them just before coming to market.  Do not be fooled by the looks.  This results in the most flavorful tomatoes that I've ever eaten in this country.  Head over there if you live in Charlotte!  It's open on Tuesdays from 4-7.

Fresh Tomato Sauce
Serves 4
The first time I made this sauce, I cooked the tomatoes for 10 minutes, as I had seen in so many recipes.  But heirloom tomatoes, especially these cherokee purples should not be cooked that long, unless you want a very mushy, watery sauce.  By grating half of the tomatoes, and leaving half diced and not cooked, you end up with the most flavorful and best textured fresh sauce.

3 pounds heirloom tomatoes (preferably cherokee purples)
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon olive oil, or more to taste
garlic or diced shallots, optional
2 tablespoons white wine
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (your choice - oregano, thyme, sage, lavender)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Cut off a slice from the bottom of half of the tomatoes.  Use your fingers to pull out the seeds from the little pockets in the tomato.

Using a box grater on the coarse side, gently grate the tomatoes into a colander, set over a bowl.  Grate until you get to the cracked upper part of the tomato, and then discard the rest.

 The remaining tomatoes need to be skinned.   If the tomatoes are not very ripe, you'll want to make an X- cut in the bottom of the tomato.  Very ripe and cracked ones don't need to be cut.

Boil a pot of water and immerse a few tomatoes at a time for 10-15 seconds.  Immediately dip them in cold water to stop the cooking.  The skins will now peel off easily.

Cut off the craggy top of the tomato, remove the seeds and cut out any hard core, and then dice the tomatoes into 1/4-inch dice.  Add the chopped tomatoes to the grated ones in the colander.  If there are any hardish bits of tomato,  add these to the juice in the pot under the colander.  Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon salt over the chopped tomatoes and let them drain for 15 minutes.  You'll now have a potful of chopped tomatoes and a rather large quantity of tomato juice.

If you like garlic or onions in your sauce, add the olive oil to a pot and saute the onions until soft, or the garlic for a minute (I never use either in this sauce).  If not using the garlic and onions, pour the juice and hard bits of tomato into the pot along with the olive oil, wine, vinegar and chopped mixed herbs.  Heat the juice on medium-high heat until simmering.  Cook until the juice is reduced and thickened to a puree-type thickness (a matter of taste as to how thick it should be, but when you add the chopped tomatoes the sauce is going to get thinner as the tomatoes lose some of their liquid), about 10-15 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and add the chopped tomatoes.  Stir in sugar and remaining salt.  Taste, and adjust the sugar, salt and vinegar to get the taste you like.  Stir in the chopped basil (or you can add the chopped basil directly to the pasta).  Use immediately over pasta.

For Stuffed Shells
Makes 16 shells

16 large pasta shells
2 cups homemade or Polly-o Full-Fat Ricotta
2 cups shredded mozzarella, divided
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, or a mixture of Parmesan, Asiago and Romano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs
1 large egg
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Line a baking dish with heavy-duty foil, and then place a sheet of nonstick foil in the bottom (NO Cleanup!).

Put a very large pot of water up to boil, mixing in 1 teaspoon of salt.
Add the pasta shells and cook for 1-2 minutes less than the box calls for.  Immediately rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking.  Sprinkle on a little oil to keep them from sticking.

While the shells are cooking, combine all of the filling, except for 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, in a bowl, and stir to mix well.

Spoon 1 well-rounded tablespoonful of filling into each shell.

When all of the shells have been filled, spoon on the sauce, and top with the remaining mozzarella.

You can leave the shells uncovered, or cover with foil and bake for 15-20 minutes, just until the filling is hot.  If the shells were covered, you might want to low-broil them briefly to slightly brown the cheese.  Watch carefully, however.  If you don't like any part of the pasta crusty, don't broil at all.

Fresh herbs are really hard to cut when they're wet.  I like to chop them first, then put them in a small strainer, wash them and then dump them onto a paper towel to dry thoroughly before adding to my dish.

Heirloom Tomato Sauce with Spaghetti and Mixed Italian Cheeses

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