The 31st annual French Market Creole Tomato Festival takes place on June 10-11 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with food booths, cooking demonstrations, music and activities for kids. There’s also a tomato eating contest and the various food booths will compete for the tastiest, healthiest and most creative offerings as well as most traditional use of Creole tomatoes.
I love Creole tomatoes; some of my earliest food memories involve eating them with nothing more than a little salt at my grandmother’s table. I grow some Creoles along with a few other varieties, but I also end up buying 10 pounds at a time at various farmer’s markets and groceries to turn into sauce.
I’ve experimented with a lot of different recipes for making sauce over the years, and I still make several different varieties depending on how I’m going to use the end product, but most often I make a very basic sauce in large quantities and freeze it in pint containers. The idea is similar to the way I make stock – I don’t add ingredients like herbs or garlic for the most part. What I want is something that I can use in other recipes, and I can always add additional flavors later.
I invested in a roasting pan at Caire Hotel and Restaurant Supply some years ago. It’s as big as will fit into my oven, and it’s perfect for roasting bones for stock or, during tomato season, for slow-roasting tomatoes that have been cored, seeded and roughly chopped.
For the most basic sauce, I start with very ripe tomatoes. Sometimes you can get large quantities of the fruit for very little money if you’re willing to buy the ones that are a bit past their prime or have blemishes. If you have a food mill, you don’t really need to core and seed the tomatoes, but I do it anyway to remove as much of the juice inside the tomatoes as possible. There are two reasons for doing this; first, removing the liquid allows the tomatoes to actually roast and get a bit of caramelization rather than simply braising. Second, that fresh tomato liquid is a fantastic addition to other recipes, including cocktails.
So I halve the tomatoes then squeeze them over a large sieve set into a big plastic container. I remove the hard, white cores and either chop or tear them into large pieces with my hands before placing them in a roasting pan. I add a splash of white wine, salt them and drizzle over some olive oil, then cook them at a low temperature, usually around 275-300 degrees for an hour or two, checking periodically to see how they’re doing. If they dry out, which is fairly rare, I add a little of the reserved juice. Once they’ve softened completely and taken a little color around the edges, I put them through a food mill with a cutting disk small enough to catch the seeds.
If you cook them for a shorter period of time, the sauce will be more loose; the longer you let them go, the thicker and sweeter it will be. Season with salt again, and perhaps a pinch or two of sugar if you’re so inclined, then transfer to containers to cool before freezing. I suspect the sauce would keep for several months in the freezer, but I’ve never had a batch last more than a couple of weeks, even when I make a half-gallon or more at a time.
If you like, you can add some very finely minced (or grated) vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, etc.) to the tomatoes before roasting them, but don’t be surprised if you find most of the vegetables still in your food mill or strainer after you pass the tomatoes through.
If you’re attending the festival on June 10, and see me, please say hello. And please also share your recipes for Creole tomatoes in the comments below.