Sicilian Tomatoes: How to Make Fresh Tomato Sauce
The summer season in Sicily offers wonderful fruits and vegetables, aubergine, peppers, peaches, melons, etc etc but the absolute king of Sicilian summer vegetables is Its Majesty Il Pomodoro, simply ripe, sweet and juicy tomatoes of all kinds.
This is why July and August are traditionally dedicated to turning these red delights, that are so good for our palate and our health, into culinary treats to enjoy during the winter season too.
Families gather to make "i buttigghi" (literally "the bottles"), tomato sauce prepared with kilos of fresh ripe tomatoes, bottled in empty beer bottles and then sterilised.
This work gives people the chance of having ready good quality homemade tomato sauce during the winter season.
The other two amazing products prepared in the summar heat are sun dried tomatoes and "U strattu", homemade tomato paste/extract.
To make “strattu” people turn tomatoes into a sauce first and then spread it out on shallow trays, either ceramic special plates or wooden trays, and let the sauce dry in the sun for several days. The paste is continuously "amministrata", checked and stirred. The climate has to be hot and dry, the slightest humidity could ruin the whole sauce and make it rancid. In the picture you can see Angelo's grandmother taking care of the strattu and stirring it. You need experience to make good "strattu" and nonna Carmela being over 80 is the most experienced person I know ;)!.
The thick creamy red paste is used in many Sicilian recipes and is actually great just spread on bread with a drop of extra vergin olive oil.
For those of you who have no time to do this or cannot find good quality tomatoes to make it worth the effort, you can now find good quality ready tomato sauce produced in Sicily in shops and on-line. The best I have found so far is the Piano Grillo one, which is prepared just using the best quality sweet cherry tomatoes produced by the farm and has no preservatives or added sugar in it.
But if you are in the mood to make fresh tomato sauce, perhaps just to use within a couple of days, you can try this recipe below.
1.2 kilos of ripe red tomatoes suitable for sauce ( the best kind you can find in your area)
1 or 2 teaspoons of coarse sea salt
About 5 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
A few sprigs of basil
You do need a Passa Verdura or Mouli Legumes, this is the classic stainless steel food mill you usually use when making cranberry sauce. Now you can find electric ones.
Wash tomatoes and cut up roughly, then place them in a pot with very little water in it, sprinkle with sea salt and let them simmer gently until it becomes a mush.
Now choose the finest disc of the mill, place it on a bowl and pass the tomatoes pulp through the food mill little at the time.
Now the resulting liquid, "passata", goes back into a pot with 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and some basil on a low heat. Let it simmer for at least 30 minutes more, I usually leave it on for an hour and stir occasionally. You will know it is ready once it has become thicker and reduced roughly by half.
I also like to add more basil once I turn off the heat. I use this sauce as it is on a simple pasta or ricotta gnocchi, or as a base for other sauces and ragù.
Sometimes, I use mint instead of basil for a fresher, different summer tomatoes sauce, great on a simple pasta or in a fish ragù with swordfish or tuna.
You could use a blender rather than a food mill, but this would not only leave all the seeds and skin of the tomatoes in the mixture, but also incorporate a lot of air in it affecting the taste, colour and consistency.
You could add garlic, onion, chilli, or other herbs to the second cooking phase.