September 28, 2008

Slow-Cooker Tomato Sauce

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After picking the last of our yellow-pear and Roma tomatoes from the vine and combining them with the week's yield of Early Girls and Red Sun Slicers from our CSA box, I had a pile of about two dozen tomatoes on my kitchen counter. I love a good sliced tomato on a salad or sandwich as much as the next gal, but a haul like this called for one thing only: sauce.

I adore the sweet simple flavor of sauce made from fresh tomatoes, but I hate hate hate to peel them. I know it's theoretically an easy process--score an X in the skin, blanch the tomato, skin reportedly slides off like a silk stocking, etc., etc.--but it's a process I dread for some reason and so whenever I encounter recipes requiring that series of steps, I go to all sorts of lengths to avoid them. Hence, this recipe for Slow Cooker Tomato Sauce that I developed over the course of the summer.

Here, the slow cooker does most of the work for you, not only cooking the ingredients but also doing it so slowly that the flavors of everything in the pot get deeper, almost caramelized, more entwined with the ingredients nestled next to them. You won't break a sweat--not only because you get to avoid the dreaded peeling, but also because the slow cooker allows you to simmer a dish for hours and hours (even while you sleep) without heating up so much as a corner of the kitchen.

Plus, this is my favorite kind of "recipe"--not so much a recipe at all, just a series of recommended ingredients, steps, and methods that can be easily tailored to make the finished result taste countless different ways.

Slow Cooker Tomato Sauce

Some tomatoes (I had about 2 dozen of various type and sizes), cut in half crosswise, major seed pockets squeezed out--but it's OK if a few slip past
Some fresh garlic cloves, sliced in half lengthwise or left whole if small (I used 2-3 medium cloves for 2 dozen tomatoes)
Red pepper flakes (I left these out since I have a young and occasionally picky eater, but you could add a small pinch for a bit of bite or a larger amount for a spicy, arrabiata-style sauce)
Roughly chopped peeled carrot (I used one small carrot--I like the sweetness and richness it lends to the tomatoes)
A few healthy glugs of olive oil
Some chopped fresh basil (I used about 1/4 cup)
A healthy tablespoon of butter (this is a key final flourish for me, but you could easily leave it out to make a vegan sauce)

Toss the cut and seeded tomatoes, garlic, pepper flakes and carrot if using into the slow cooker insert. Pour olive oil over. (I have one of those bar spouts on my olive oil bottle, and I drizzled enough oil over the whole lot so that the tomatoes on top glistened, and some oil pooled in the cavities of the cut tomatoes). Season with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a large pinch of sugar, if desired. Toss lightly to evenly coat the vegetables.

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Cover and turn on the slow cooker. Cook until the tomatoes are cooked down and starting to look saucy and the carrots are quite tender, about 4-5 hours on the high setting or 8-10 hours on low. For this particular batch, I started the slow cooker before I went to bed, and when I got up around 8 hours later, I gave it a good stir and let it continue to simmer as I made and ate breakfast, cleaned up, and dressed my kid and myself.

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Working in batches, puree the tomatoes, carrots, and garlic in a food mill (I used the larger-holed disc on my mini food mill), catching all the puree and juices in a bowl. The tomato skins and any errant seeds will stay in the mill. You can leave some tomatoes un-pureed for a chunky sauce.

Return the sauce to the slow cooker. Add the chopped basil and simmer for a short time to blend the flavors, but not so long that the basil loses its color, about 10 minutes max. Stir in the butter until melted--this gives the sauce a mellow smoothness that makes it ideal on pasta of all kinds, but especially with delicate noodles like cappellini. Adjust the seasonings with salt, pepper, and sugar if needed. Done!

As you can see, two dozen tomatoes cooks down pretty well, yielding enough sauce for only about a pound of pasta. For this reason, I tend to not jar and process the sauce, instead using half now and freezing the other half for pasta or pizza later.

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