Also known as: The best meal I’ve ever cooked.
A haphazard, somewhat spontaneous approach to cookery usually garners me mixed results, but following my recent passion for local, fresh produce in San Francisco, the variance in what I can cook has increased massively (and, the overall result has improved.)
This evening I planned to cook lamb steaks, serve them with small potatoes, fresh broccoli and some small amount of a tomato sauce, just to add moisture for the potatoes. Shopping around for my current obsession—heirloom tomatoes—I wanted a slow cooked, ragu-like sauce (sans meat), using some sweeter ingredients (shallots rather than onions, red peppers). It would be simple, thick and a make nice side. Instead, in the course of cooking, I was inspired to completely rework my meal around this sauce. Heirloom tomatoes have a unique, sweet taste, and it became a celebration of them.
The sauce itself
This makes enough for three generous portions, but could extend further depending on the meal
- 5 large heirloom tomatoes (deep red, green variety), diced
- 2 red peppers, diced
- 3 shallots, sliced
- Half a leek, sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 2″ piece of fresh ginger, chopped
- 6 small peperoncini, sliced (with seeds), sliced
- Salt and pepper, ground
The method follows my rudimentary understanding of making a ragu; that is, use a very low heat and cook it slowly. I wanted to bring out the sweetness in the shallots, not flash fry them.
Start the pan on a low heat. I’m convinced an orange, cast iron pot would be ideal for this, but since I don’t own one, a heavy frying pan sufficed. Add a small amount of olive oil, throw in the leek, shallots, garlic and ginger. Stir to coat it all with oil, grind on salt and pepper. Then, leave well alone. Stir every 15 minutes or so to avoid sticking. Let it sweat and cook down.
Real ragu is cooked for hours, so start the sauce as far in advance of your meal as you can; cook it as slow as you can allow.
With the base established, add all of the tomatoes and red peppers. Make sure all the tomato juice goes in; there’s no other liquid to be added. Stir, and again leave it to warm through to a simmer.
As the tomato chunks start to break down and the flesh thickens the sauce, add the peperoncini slices. I actually just let these sit in a pile at the centre of the pan until near the end. They provide a sweet, peppery heat that complements the tomatoes to absolute perfection.
You’ll find that it’s never necessary to turn up the heat; the sauce will be slowly thickening. You should err on the side of caution to ensure that the sauce doesn’t burn off too much liquid. Stir to test the consistency, and cover the pan when it gets thick.
The rest of the meal
The rest of the meal is very simple, and can be cooked in the final 20 minutes. You need:
- Six thick slices of bacon (or 4 if you’re back home and have access to bacon rashers rather than slices)
- Corn flour
- Fresh pasta
Not wanting to make the meal oily, I elected to bake the bacon, rather than fry it. Since the bacon is also the main meat of an otherwise conventional meal, I wanted to maintain some texture and softness to it—in opposition to the common American method of cooking bacon, which is to cook it until it’s crisp and too dry.
Lay out the bacon slices on a tray, and as you do so coat both sides in a generous amount of corn flour (cornmeal). The flour cooks in the bacon fat, making an extra, crispy coating, and also makes the flavour far more savoury than bacon alone. That’s ideal to complement the sweetness of the tomatoes. (This bacon variation comes from about.com’s culinary arts page on baking bacon, by the way.)
Expect to bake the bacon at 200°C (400°F)for about 20 minutes, but check regularly to drain off excess fat, and to allow for variance and your cooking preference.
With 5 minutes to go: Steam the broccoli, and boil the pasta. Avoid doing anything special to either of these. In fact, with the flavours and textures of the sauce and the cornmeal-coated bacon, it’s very important that these are kept simple to balance the meal.
These old variety heritage tomatoes are proving to be a better tasting and surprisingly flexible replacement for the familiar and sometimes bland tomato varieties we default to. Far from just adding a more interesting flavour to a simple sauce, they transformed the dish. It was an inspiring experience, and has been encouraged to seek out alternate varieties of other foods, just to explore.