That Kind of Fall

I suppose it’s strange to be talking about tomatoes in late October, right? But then again, it’s strange to still be seeing tomatoes in late October. And not, mind you, the ones usually airlifted to Virginia in December from exotic lands, but rather the locally-grown kind, laid out in neat rows on farmers’ market tables. It’s just been that kind of summer, bleeding into that kind of fall: where the warmth doesn’t want to stop hanging in the air at night, and every coat-appropriate day is countered with a sunny, borderline humid one.

And that’s okay by me. That means more blissful trips to Shenandoah National Park, drifting among the fiery leaves without the burden of gloves or a scarf. It means more Sunday nights in October dedicated to after-dinner strolls, some of which lead you to the swinging screen doors of hipster-run pie shops in newly-gentrified parts of your city. And, of course, it means fresh tomato sauce for a whole entire month longer than you’d reckoned to be blessed with.

The magic of this particular sauce lies in its flexibility. If you’re still seeing fresh tomatoes at the market, well, by all means thank your lucky stars and use them. If not? Good canned tomatoes are what this recipe originally called for, anyway; an unexpected hit of lemon zest will make sure you’ve got “fresh” covered. You can add a glug of cream, like I did with this batch, and use it to cradle tiny pillows of gnocchi, or layer it unadorned with lasagna noodles. Whatever you do, though, make sure to get outside after dinner and marvel at this warm October, with all the leaf-peeping and coat-scorning that entails.

(Before you head out, though, can we take one more look at that first photo? As good as late-season tomatoes are for sauce purposes, I feel a deep sense of nostalgia for those mid-summer ones from my CSA—probably the first fantastic ones I’d ever tasted—which were clothed in yellow dresses but hid red lingerie underneath.)
Here’s to you, seasonal confusion.

EASY TOMATO SAUCE
Serves 4
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

Ingredients
– 1/4 cup good olive oil
– tomatoes—either a single 28-ounce can of plain crushed ones, or ten medium fresh ones
– 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
– 1/2 tsp. sea salt
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– zest of one lemon

Preparation
1) If using fresh tomatoes, slice each in half. Scoop out, then discard, seeds; dice the remaining tomato flesh. If using canned ones, well, just open the can.
2) In a medium saucepan, combine olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt and garlic. Turn on the heat and stir mixture as it cooks gently, adding the tomatoes just before the garlic begins to brown. Bring everything to a simmer.
3) If using canned tomatoes, the sauce will be ready in just 5 minutes; at that point, add lemon zest and extra salt, if needed. With fresh tomatoes, wait until the sauce cooks down to your desired consistency as you gently break up the diced bits of tomato, then stir in zest. Enjoy!

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