Got Mediocre Tomatoes?

Got mealy, lackluster, mediocre tomatoes? Turns out, that’s a GOOD thing! At least that’s what professional chef and cookbook author, Ashley Christensen, says. She has all sorts of ideas on how to cook like a pro, and when it comes to a disappointing tomato, she says “When life gives you mediocre tomatoes, make grated tomato sauce!”

Her philosophy is the result of some happy, serendipitous experience. One day this Raleigh, North Carolina chef found herself with a produce delivery of very sad tomatoes and wondered what to do with them. “They looked a lot better than they tasted,” she remembers.

So true to chef form, she put on her creative hat and started experimenting. Here’s what she did, and it’s what we can do as well (heaven knows we’ve all ended up with mediocre tomatoes from time to time).

First, pull out your box grater and grate them to a pulp. Then sauté this pulpy mess in extra virgin olive oil. Add chiffonades of fresh basil, minced garlic cloves, fresh oregano, and even finely diced onion. You’ll create a sauce that tastes unmistakably of summer. It’s about falling in love with that middle ground between raw and cooked tomatoes.

After sautéing, scoop the sauce onto a warmed plate. And from there create all sorts of main courses:

  • Top this sauce with cooked pasta of choice and add pre-cooked shrimp or chicken strips for a quick pasta pomodoro

  • Use this sauce to top meatloaf slices

  • Use this sauce as a base for Italian sausage soup

  • Or Use this sauce as a base for fresh tomato and basil soup

  • Use this sauce in building a lasagna

  • Use this sauce to coat a pizza crust

  • Add this sauce to all sorts of calzone fillings

  • Cook brown rice in this sauce

The list can go on, but you can see that you’ve basically created a fresh tomato or marinara sauce. You’re limited only by your imagination on how to use this stuff. And one thing’s for sure: this approach to mediocre tomatoes is one you don’t want to forget, since most of the year mediocre is as good as a store-bought tomato gets.

We’ve been trying this technique lately and really like the results. We’ve found grating and sautéing ho-hum tomatoes with added ingredients brings out the best of the tomato while creating a healthier tomato sauce that tastes great with lots of dishes.

And when I say “healthier tomato sauce,” I’m referring to the enzymes and lycopene that are available in a fresh tomato (mediocre or not). Lightly sautéing fresh tomatoes protects their enzymes while releasing the lycopene. The enzymes in fresh food aid digestion, and lycopene possess incredible antioxidant capabilities. Tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, but it’s unavailable to the body unless the tomato is slightly cooked. Christensen’s maneuver ensures we get both the enzymes and the lycopene from our mediocre tomato.

So I’ll close with her recipe for this fresh sauce. Since fresh garden tomato season is still a ways away for us, let’s try this and see if it’ll hold us until we can bite into something that’s not so mediocre!

GRATED TOMATO SAUCE (yield: 3 cups)

3 pounds fresh tomatoes

1 ½ teaspoons salt

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonaded

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  1. Thinly slice off bottoms of tomatoes.

  2. Grate flesh on the largest holes of a grater down to the skin and stem.

  3. Season with salt.

  4. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

  5. Add basil, garlic, and rosemary, stirring occasionally until garlic is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Watch carefully; there’s no rescuing burnt garlic (and burnt garlic will ruin the entire dish).

  6. Reduce heat to medium-low and add tomatoes.

  7. Simmer, stirring often, until slightly thickened, 5-10 minutes.

  8. Remove from heat and stir in unsalted butter.

  9. Taste and add more salt, if needed.

NOTE: Sauce can be made 3 days ahead. Let cool, cover and chill.

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    Alice Osborne
    DVO Newsletter Contributor since 2006
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