I had been gone too long.
Eight pounds of tomatoes were lovingly scored with an x, boiled, and were letting a bowl of ice cool their skins. I said it would just be a minute, starting the sauce, but there was still the peeling to do, and the scraping out of the seeds, removing the core. Tedious work. I let out a long sigh when my peripheral vision caught the movement of my husband's body leaning in the doorway. Tomato in one hand an pairing knife in the other, I glanced over at him, knocked my head back and said, "I'm still here," laughing.
We had been Roma tomato picking the day before. (Although, in full disclosure, by "picking," I mean we called the farm ahead and ordered a 25 pound box, then picked only three additional pounds ourself just for the sake of it.)
Home we went, with more tomatoes than I'd ever prepared at one time. A batch of them was sent straight to the oven, roasted with red onions, anaheim, and jalapeno peppers for a few pints of spicy salsa. A couple of pounds more were earmarked for later in the week to become a French tomato tart and pico de gallo for black bean burritos, but most of them, and the real reason I wanted to do this at all, was to make several quarts of fresh tomato sauce.
I wait all year for this meal. It's something I long for, dream of, and brings so much happiness that when I caught myself questioning why I had carted home nearly 30 pounds of ruby red tomatoes, questioning why I had made this work for myself during a holiday weekend, I stopped and remembered this:
filled with tomatoes,
through the streets...
...happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
salt, its magnetism;
-from Ode to Tomatoes by Pablo Neruda
Neruda's words reminded me that making tomato sauce, like so much of cooking, is a meditation. The purpose is not to dress the plate and eat, although that moment is the ultimate reward, but to let the cooking work through your body like breath during a challenging pose you think you cannot push through.
I happened to take a yoga class that morning.
It was the kind of class that pushed me to try new poses, but also left me feeling run down. I sank into child's pose more than once. But the teacher reminded me that every movement matters. That today you might be able to do something that tomorrow you will struggle with. The point is the breath, connecting your inhales and exhales with movement, to let everything your body is hanging on to be pushed out through a twist or a lunge.
I walked home energized. That's when I found myself in the same mental space as an hour before. I struggled with half moon pose in class. I couldn't find my balance. In the kitchen, I had peeled almost 100 tomatoes and still had a large bowl full. So I remembered my breathing. Tomato meditation.
Feet firmly planted, I rocked back and forth, distributing my weight evenly through both of my hips. Then the peeling and squeezing began. I looked downward, past the juices running on the cutting board, the way I do in tree pose, fixing my gaze on one place on the floor. Four peels down the tomato's back, slice it open lengthwise, scoop through the base and in one fluid motion remove the heavy core, place the tender flesh into the cast iron pot and the remains in the yellow bowl. Repeat.
It felt like a vertical sequence, like coming into plank from downward dog, then lowering yourself to the ground, pushing up into cobra, separating your shoulders, breathing into downward dog once again. By doing this, your fingertips might start to prune. It gave the impression I had lingered in a hot bath for a few minutes too long, but I was still at the counter, peeling, cutting, squeezing, stirring. Repeating.
I thought about Neruda again, and how his tomatoes were the "star of the earth," how cooking is a marriage between their flesh and the ingredients they form around, like spaghetti, or the buttery grooves of a tart crust, or fiery peppers.
During the 40 minutes while the sauce cooked I came here, red tomato skins still lodged beneath my fingernails, traces of the journey lingered to tell their story to you. How they had been planted many months ago, nurtured on the vine, changed from green to yellow to red, were picked from their stem, placed lovingly in a cardboard box, driven 30 miles away to a warm kitchen where they were transformed over the course of an afternoon into one final salutation to summer. The hottest weekend of the year, surrendering to fall.
There are still a few good weeks left. Bring your tomatoes home and make something worth swooning over. Here are a few of my favorite tomato recipes, plus some new finds from around the web.
Molly's Pomodori al Forno
Nigel Slater's favorite ways with a tomato.
Experimenting with new flours? Try this einkorn pizza pastry.
Scarpetta's Fresh Tomato Sauce. There is absolutely nothing better.
A French tomato tart, complete with a smear of Dijon
One pan farro with tomatoes
Pasta with baked tomato sauce
Tomato casserole for breakfast? Yes please.