Attracted by the zesty aromas from the kitchen vent, the orange tabby cat approaches with amble strides, as he often does when he sees me in the kitchen, sometimes to keep me company, but mostly to whine and beg for whatever leftovers the charitable chef could spare.
Squeezed on the narrow marble ledge between the kitchen glass window and the wrought iron grapevine bars covering it, Tabby stares at me with his sparkly, curious, emerald green eyes. He meows.
I can’t hear him. Chopin nocturnes play on YouTube.
With the glorious mess in the kitchen, Tabby has to wait, especially after his latest attempts to force his little body into the house whenever I opened the window to sneak him food behind the dog’s back.
On the stove, the first batch of tomato sauce pops and splutters in the pot, like a surface of lava boiling inside a volcano. As it boils and bubbles, and with no lid on, it splatters on the stove, leaving freckle-looking stains on its white surface. I stir it with the wooden spoon occasionally so it doesn’t burn and wait for it to thicken.
I add more buckets of organically grown tomatoes, harvested from our garden pile, around the kitchen floor and counters. Planted by my husband and tended to with love and care, they await their destiny to end up in jars on the freezer shelf.
Making tomato sauce is my annual culinary extravaganza, because nothing beats homemade salsa. This extravaganza starts when our vegetable garden produces more tomatoes than we could possibly eat or give away. Our friends and neighbors have an abundant supply of tomatoes from their gardens as well. It takes a few days of laborious work until the last tomato sauce jar joins its pals on the freezer shelf.
Chopin nocturnes end, and I wipe my hands on my apron that already looks like a canvas of a reddish fluid abstract painting. I touch the screen with my pruned finger to play a new music list. Beethoven’s timeless “Moonlight Sonata” plays. Classical music is my cooking companion. It adds charm to the experience.
Cooking is relaxing—therapeutic, as a matter of fact. Preparing vegetables is a form a meditation, a spiritual journey when prepared with love, whether you peel, slice, shred, dice, chop, stir, or stir fry them. While mentally stimulating, cooking soothes me. It lifts my spirits and gives me time to ponder. It helps me sort and organize the thoughts crammed in my mind. I find cooking both a journey and a destination.
Another pot of water boils on the stove. With a sharp knife, I slash the letter “x” at the bottom of a new batch of rinsed tomatoes, and add them slowly to the boiling water for half a minute. When the cuts start to peel and the skin opens, I remove them with a slotted spoon and leave them to drain in a colander in the sink. I run water over them to cool them off, and add more bottom-slashed tomatoes to the boiling water.
Tabby, who had barely left kitten-hood behind, meows louder—inexperienced, young, and clueless that his meowing attracts the dog. Tabby is not ours, neither is the dog. They both adopted us, among other wildlife creatures—foxes, turtles, hares, and others. With food and water available on the go, they find refuge in our yard. And with our gate always open, one never knows who would show up next. Quite common to find a lost sheep wandering around in our yard, literally.
Most of the traffic on the mountain slope are shepherds herding their sheep. The bells around the sheep’s necks chime at sunrise and sunset when they pass by our house on their way to the grazing grounds, or back to their sheds on the other side of the mountain. There is often this one bell that keeps chiming when the others have faded away up the mountain. The bell around the neck of the sheep that had slipped through our gate.
The narrow marble kitchen ledge became Tabby’s safe haven, away from the dog’s sight and reach. Tabby stands on his hind legs, reaches his paws to touch the wrought iron above his head, and sways his body, as if dancing to Beethoven’s music. We make eye contact. He stops dancing and looks at the tomato simmering in the pot with curiosity. He’s quite handsome, I have to admit.
Now, since he caught my attention, his meows are even louder. I explain the disadvantages of meowing, but he ignores my advice.
The tomato sauce on the stove thickens. I remove the pot and let it settle on the countertop. The new batch in the colander awaits its inevitable destiny. I peel the skin at the cut. It peels easily. Many prefer to remove the seeds, too. I don’t.
I blend the peeled tomatoes in the food processor and add the juice in another large pot. I turn the heat high, sprinkle salt and sugar to my taste, but just enough sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, not to change its flavor to ketchup or tomato jam. The tomato juice boils; small bubbles form on the surface like a little volcano. I drop the temperature to medium heat and let it simmer. I stir it occasionally so it doesn’t burn. The water starts to evaporate, and the pink color darkens.
When Tabby loses hope to be fed, he tucks his paws beneath him and dozes off. With the sun reflecting on his golden coat, he looks like a giant apricot. Since the dog showed up in our lives and claimed us his owners, he has been terrorizing the cats and chasing them away, with pride. When Tabby is out of sight, he’s usually hiding inside the firewood logs stacked against the wall in the yard, or on the roof watching the dog barking at him, with an I dare you look written all over his handsome face.
Before the tomato sauce on the counter cools off, I remove the glass jars from the oven. Already washed and dried, and now sterilized and hot, they are ready to house the sauce on its new journey. Sterilizing the jars adds longevity to the sauce, to preserves in general. It is important to pour the hot sauce while the jar is also hot. Vast difference in temperatures one way or the other will shatter the glass jars.
I line them on the counter next to the pot. Like soldiers on the line of duty, they wait.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” gives in to Ernesto Cortazar’s “Beethoven’s Silence“—sweet, soothing, dreamy. I stir the tomato sauce with a ladle and pour it in one jar at a time. The scarlet sauce flows inside the jars with perfect consistency. Since the sauce expands in the freezer, I only fill the jars a little more than halfway.
The transcending piano playing invigorates my senses.
It’s a moment in life when you want to freeze time, to savor it. You feel perfection actually exists. Even Tabby stopped fussing and surrenders to it. He stretches his body and goes into deep sleep, moving his paws as if dreaming.
I want to stop thinking. I don’t want my thoughts to disturb the moment. I wonder if perfection really exists.
The dog thunders down the hill, chasing Tabby’s mother and sibling. My question is answered before I have the chance to contemplate deeper on its meaning. Perfection is a myth, after all.
Not matched in size to the sprinting cats, the dog dodges its way on the patio, knocking the furniture down, growling and snarling at the screeching cat he has trapped between the wall and a flower urn. The sibling has fled the scene. His mother’s piercing screeching wakes Tabby up. Alarmed by the spectacle outdoors, he arches his back, but doesn’t utter a meow. Wise decision.
The perfect moment dies, unsalvageable. The chaos outside disperses as abruptly as it had started. Tabby makes his move and strides away from the kitchen window—a wise decision, to stay out of the dog’s sight. I cheer for him, imagine him an adult hunter, not like those spoiled city cats waiting to be fed. I don’t hold my breath, though. He’ll be back before dinnertime.
I stir the tomato juice on the stove while I wait for the sauce in the jars to cool off. Some people add spices, herbs, or garlic to the juice while it is cooking, but I prefer to keep it plain and add them when I am using the sauce later, to diversify the flavors. But you see, to each their own.
There is no right or wrong in cooking. Whatever the recipe is, when I cook, I follow my heart.
Fresh Tomato Sauce from Scratch
Any tomatoes that taste good can be used for this recipe. However, if you are using smaller tomatoes, you will end up using more, and that will require more work. Also, the bigger and fleshier tomatoes are better.
Note that if the tomatoes are not tasty to start with, they won’t produce tasty sauce.
Preparing the tomatoes is the most time-consuming. It’s important to organize the process.
For a quart (a little bit more than a liter) of sauce, you will need five to six pounds (2.5 to 3 kilograms) of fresh tomatoes.
1. Rinse the tomatoes and make an “X” at their bottoms with a sharp knife.
2. Boil water and toss the tomatoes for 30 to 45 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon into a colander and run water over them to cool them off. They will peel easily with your fingers or a small knife if needed.
3. Blend the tomatoes in a food processor or blender. The thickness depends on how you like the sauce. If you like it chunky, you don’t need to smooth it all the way, or you can skip blending it altogether.
4. Add the tomatoes (chuck or juice) in a pot over high heat. Add salt and sugar to your taste. The sugar is added to cut its acidity, so just a small amount is needed so it doesn’t end up tasting like ketchup or tomato jam.
5. When the tomatoes boil, drop the temperature and let it simmer. As the tomatoes boil, water will evaporate and the sauce will thicken. Cook it for 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the consistency and flavor you like.
6. Just like cooking any sauce, stir the tomato sauce occasionally while it’s cooking so it doesn’t burn. You can also add fresh garlic or herbs while it’s cooking—oregano, basil, or rosemary. I prefer to keep it plain and add them when I am cooking it.
7. When it reaches the consistency you like, remove it off the heat and let the sauce cool off before transferring it to clean glass jars.
8. Add olive oil on the surface of the sauce and, when it settles (oil stays on top), seal the jars with their lids and freeze. The oil protects the tomatoes from freezer burn so you can store it for more than three months in the freezer.
The tomato sauce can freeze for up to six months—even more. It is perfect for pizza, pasta sauces, or as a substitute for tomato paste in recipes. With no preservatives, the flavor is fresh and zesty.
The smiles on my friends’ faces when I gift them wrapped jars of organic homemade tomato sauce make me feel like a Le Cordon Bleu chef. That’s worth the long laborious hours it takes to prepare and the clean up after the mess.
I like to spread a layer of sauce over feta cheese and olive oil, sprinkle it with oregano, and serve it with hot bread. Or just add the sauce to olive oil and balsamic vinegar and also serve it with warm bread.
See, there are really no rules to either cooking or eating. Let your imagination and taste buds guide you, just like Tabby’s guide him to my kitchen window every mealtime.