It’s Sunday evening, and still over 30 degrees after dinnertime. Looking at the weather forecast, it’s probably the last day we’ll get like this before autumn gets real. That solid warmth hangs low and thick with the late sun, gentler than Summer days in spite of what the thermometer says.
It’s perfect weather for sustaining a late-season burst of produce: still plenty of tomatoes and basil, maybe a few last cucumbers, and zucchinis sneakily bolting into marrows the second you look away.
If you want solid proof that home-grown veggies are worth the effort, late tomatoes are it. Their off-the-vine freshness, ripeness and sweetness can’t even be compared to shop-bought. (The other gardener in our house would argue that sweetcorn is the ultimate convincer for the home gardener, but a still-warm heirloom variety tomato, juicy and rich, can’t really be beaten.)
I’m a tomato grower in recovery. At our last home, tomato cultivation had devolved into a thoroughly depressing battle with harlequin beetles. Those sap-sucking little terrorists had destroyed so many crops that I’d given up on anything other than cherry-style tomato breeds which seemed a bit hardier. When we arrived at our new place, just as this tomato season started, we found the previous owners had left us some healthy tomato bushes and no bugs. A tomatoey clean slate. (Actually I’m now fighting an invading rat for the last of the crop, but a change is as good as a holiday.)
I’m not sure of their variety – something fairly hardy and versatile. My parents are long-time tomato growers of a hybrid called ‘health kick’, a paste-style bred specifically for its high levels of the antioxidant lycopene. This year my dad also picked up some mystery tomato seedlings for 25 cents each at a fete. He’s already had enough of a crop to make these an absolute bargain. I think they’re probably ‘Mortgage Lifters‘, a variety that dates back to Depression-era America.
There are a couple of stories about how Mortgage Lifters came to be, but both versions involve a bloke from West Virginia creating a hybrid which was a prolific enough cropper to make a dent in the mortgage. I don’t think the idea was that growing them would knock off your mortgage, but they obviously made a bit of money for their inventor.
Mortgage Lifter seeds were available in Australia by the late 1930s, and in 1941 a Weekly Times article recommended it as an ideal variety for backyard gardens. These tomatoes start quite pink before they fully ripen. Soft and sweet, but not overly seedy or juicy, they’re best suited to fresh eating. A top sandwich tomato.
Tomatoes have been a backyard Australian staple from colonial times, and one of their real beauties is that the surplus can be transformed to serve year-round. In the earliest newspapers you find recipes for tomato sauce, ketchup (I’m not clear what the difference was), jam, pickles, green tomato preserves and chutney.
I’m not much of a bottler or sauce maker, but this pasta sauce is my favourite way of using up surplus tomato crops, and if you freeze it you’ve got it for the winter.
Roast tomato and garlic pasta sauce
This is more a method than a recipe, in the spirit of the ‘recipes’ you find in old newspapers and cookbooks that trust you , the cook, to make sensible judgements. Use as many tomatoes as you have, choose the right size tray for the number of tomatoes, and cook until they’re done. That’s it.
Use any variety of tomato you like, but firmer roma styles work particularly well. The riper the tomato, the tastier the sauce. Less ripe, shop-bought tomatoes will still make a decent sauce, but it will be more acid and maybe a bit insipid. Adding some roast piquillo peppers from a jar or a tablespoon of tomato paste at the blending can give you a richer and sweeter result.
Halve or quarter tomatoes and remove cores. Place them in a tray or shallow casserole dish in a single layer. You want them to fit snugly, so I select my dish according to how many tomatoes I have. Tuck a few (4-5) unpeeled garlic cloves in among the tomato pieces. 4-5 cloves of garlic may sound like a lot, but garlic cooked in its skin is much milder and sweeter, so don’t be afraid. And you can add them to your taste into the final sauce, so you’re not committed at roasting time.
Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes, grind a good amount of black pepper over, and sprinkle on a little salt if you like. If you have some thyme or oregano you can strew some of that around.
Bake in a moderate oven for at least 45 mins, until they’re soft and a little caramelised. How long this takes depends a lot on the type and ripeness of the tomato. It could take over an hour.
When the tomatoes are done, remove the tray from the oven. Take the garlic cloves out and squeeze them out of their skins. Blend the tomatoes, peeled garlic (to taste) and any juices from the pan until smooth. Make sure you scrape down and add all the caramelised bits from the pan. Check seasoning. You can add a bit of fresh basil at this stage if you like.
Serve with your favourite pasta, or freeze for later.