Heirloom tomato sauce


Summer is a time of simplicity.

I’ve been trying to simplify on multiple fronts lately — cutting away unnecessary complications. Somehow, though, every time I trim away one complicating factor in life, at least one other springs forth whence it came. Life is a complex garden to tend.

Food, on the other hand, does genuinely get simpler during the summer months. The bounty of the season serves up a riot of colors and flavors that need only a gentle hand to bring forth their already robust offerings.

I adore the heirloom tomatoes we get here in the Bay Area. I won’t get into the seemingly neverending dialog about whether our tomatoes are better or worse than those back east — like corn, my memories are of richly-flavored vegetables that I have yet to parallel out here — but rather suggest that these are an entirely different creature, worthy in their own way and on their own merits.

While maybe not as burstingly flavorful as New Jersey romas (to say nothing of genuine San Marzanos from the slopes of Vesuvius), they do have a wonderful, bright acidity and, of course, a particularly charming appearance. I love their gnarled, bulbous shapes and pastel colors. especially the ones that seem to bleed from a cheery yellow to dusky sunset pink. Skyblue-pink, my grandmother used to call that color.

They’re perfectly delicious raw, served sliced with fresh mozzarella, plucked basil, coarse salt and very good olive oil in a traditional insalata caprese. Or even cubed with watermelon, feta and mint for a refreshing summer salad. But I really like them in a simple, quick-cooked sauce.

The sauce is simplicity itself, as a summer sauce should be. For two people, use maybe 3-4 small heirlooms, or one of those honking huge ones that I invariably cannot resist picking up. Select heirlooms just at the peak of ripeness, maybe even pushing the far edge of it. Quickly blanch them in simmering water for about 10 seconds. Let cool, and peel away the skins with a paring knife or, if you like (as I do), your fingers. Even though the skins on heirlooms tend to be very thin, they will curl up into unpleasant little twigs and strings in your sauce if you don’t remove them now.

Chop the peeled tomatoes into cubes; you don’t have to be precise, as it will all break down by and by. Use, oh, a LOT of garlic, maybe four or five fat cloves, and crush them well. And keep a nice bush of basil, preferably wonderfully anise-y Napoletano, nearby.

For the love of all that is good and wholesome in the world, do not try to remove the seeds and goo from the tomatoes. For starters, typically with the heirlooms there’s little of it to begin with, and more importantly there is evidence that that’s where all the flavor is. Don’t dispose of flavor. Flavor is good. 

Heat a good drizzle of olive oil in a wide skillet, and add the garlic. Sauté the garlic just until sizzling and fragrant, barely a minute or two, definitely not enough to take on any color. Toss in the tomatoes all at once, and salt well. The salt will help break the tomato flesh down to a lovely, unctuous fond. Grab a few sprigs of your basil and jam the leaf ends right into the sauce, like a paint brush. Crank up the heat and bring the whole kaboodle to the boil, then reduce the heat to a good simmer. Use your basil springs like a mop to stir the sauce around, all the while infusing it with its herby fragrance.

If you’re cooking just for two, you may find you can achieve this sauce in just as much time as it takes to boil the pasta. Larger quantities will give off more liquid, and will take longer to come together, so plan accordingly.

After several minutes, your tomatoes should have broken down almost completely, leaving a thickly consistent sauce; frequent stirring will help integrate the loose (and remember, umami-rich) liquid from the seeds and the thicker material from the flesh.

Just moments before you’re ready to serve, remove the spent sprigs of basil. Season to taste, and drizzle a little more olive oil in. Take several more basil leaves and cut them into a fine chiffonade, and toss them into the sauce. Strain your not-quite-yet-done pasta (I like a nice rigatoni or penne rigate) from the boiling water with a slotted spoon or spider, and toss directly into the sauce. Toss it all together, and cook just a minute or two longer.

Spoon into heated bowls, and garnish with a sprig of basil. Parmigiano is always nice, but wouldn’t you rather try something a little fresher, like a nice pecorino sardo or asiago fresco? Yes, I think you would.

There you have it: Bright, colorful, seasonal, flavorful. Simple.

  • Gosh, with the price of Heirlooms I’ve never thought of doing anything but eating them with balsamic and EVOO.

  • A perfect recipe for those heirloom tomatoes that don’t last too long on the kitchen counter. I’m with Scott — mostly I’ll eat them straight or in salads — but because these varieties have no shelf life (compared to the plastic tomatoes from the supermarket), it’s nice to have a way to enjoy them when they’re just slightly past their prime.

  • Okay, now you’ve done it. Now I want this for breakfast. Is that a bad thing? 😉

  • DAC

    Was just turned on to your site via Tastespotting. Great blog! Keep up the good work.

  • Scott: I didn’t realize you get the same heirlooms in Hawaii. With that heat and volcanic soil, I figured you’d get good romas or San Marzanos, though.
    Lydia: That’s pretty much how this came about. I always end up buying too many heirlooms, and as you note they don’t last long. When they start going a little squidgy, this is the perfect thing to do.
    Jessica: No, not at all. But you’re asking the wrong person. I’ll eat anything in the morning.
    DAC: Thanks!

  • Since I moved here one grower has started growing heirlooms. They’re $4.99 – $6.99 a pound, depending if they’re on sale or not. I’m growing my own “Little Mama” romas in my community garden plot. They’re meaty and pretty tasty even for a salad. I’ll see if I can get San Marzano seeds. The bugs here like certain varieties more than others.

  • Lovely! We’re still just seeing hothouse tomatoes, but I know what I’m making once the fresh heirlooms hit the market.

  • Hey Sean-
    Greta recipe, I made it the other night and (as I mentioned over at it was delicious. I had some extra asparagus and zucchini in the fridge so I sauteed that up right before the garlic and added it in as well.

  • This is about the fourth time I’ve visited this post, because I can just smell the tomatoes.
    Thank you!

  • carl

    Two suggestions: try this dish the traditional way: use smooth pasta (no ridges) and leave off the cheese. Save the ridged penne for meat sauces. Cheese has no business on this kind of sauce. (And if you find yourself at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market on a Saturday, try the dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes from Dirty Girl Farm.)

  • Marcie

    Thanks so much for this great recipe! I couldn’t help myself though…being of Italian origin, I just had to add some fried tomato paste to the sauce. Couldn’t hold back! It came out a little bit darker orange than I think it would have had I left out the paste, but it really added a nice full-bodied flavor to the sauce. Since it’s autumn here on the East coast, adding the paste gave it a slightly more “cold weather food” feeling than just the straight tomatoes. Our local farms are all still carrying heirlooms, and probably will until October. This recipe was SO easy–thanks so much!

  • Yeah, sometimes I add a little tomato paste, especially if the tomatoes are especially watery. It does thicken the sauce and allows it to stick to the pasta better. But, as you note, it also gives it a more cooked-down flavor, so there are minor tradeoffs. Enjoy the remainder of your tomato season!

  • Joe

    Amazing! I work at Whole Foods in Washington and our Heirlooms were 2.99 a pound this week. I wanted to make a special dish, so I used this sauce recipe, added a few things and made an amazing three-cheese baked ziti.

  • John Alita

    I was searching for a recipe and your blog was the first hit. I’m going home right now to make the sauce. Love the graphics of you and Paul. Hope all is well

  • Hey John! Did you see my earlier piece on Sunday sauce, a.k.a. just Sauce? The difference lies in whether you want a quick and fresh sauce, or something that's more stewed and savory. Both are great though. (P.S. When shall we see you again?)