Italian Sauces I: Salsa Cruda

 Angel Hair with Salsa Cruda and Fresh Mozzarella.

Angel Hair with Salsa Cruda and Fresh Mozzarella.

Hello all.  This is the first in a series of posts on Italian sauces.  Every good amateur cook needs to master Italian food, as far as I'm concerned because it is cheap, simple, and does not require you to be a particularly skilled chef.  If you've ever been to Italy yourself, you'll know that the food is not showy or about concocting.  It is about finding beautiful ingredients, and doing as little as possible to them to not screw them up. 

For our first sauce, I've selected the salsa cruda, or "raw sauce".  It is perhaps the simplest of the simple, with essentially only four ingredients: Roma tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil.

I also wanted to share this one first because time is of the essence.  Yes, that's right.  This sauce is extremely time-dependent, and its deliciousness does, like a weird juicy comet, come round only once a year.  That is because tomatoes are supremely seasonal, and if you choose to make the dish in the dead of winter, it will not be as sublime as it is on a July day.  You have been warned.

Away we go...

SALSA CRUDA

  • One pound tomatoes (Roma preferred, assorted if you please)
  • Four or five cloves of garlic
  • Three tablespoons Olive Oil
  • One tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Pepper and oregano to taste.

You're going to start with a pound of Roma tomatoes.  I don't particularly like the Beefsteak tomatoes because they have a certain greenhouse muskiness about them that, frankly, I find icky.  You can also use Cherry tomatoes, but be aware that they are, in general, sweeter than their larger counterparts, and lack the same meatiness.  If you'd like to be whimsical, you can use heirlooms or create your own medley.

Cut each Roma in half and squeeze that goo out.  It's too wet and slimy.  It will ruin the sauce.  Then, dice the Romas up and throw them in a big bowl.  Ingredient one respected.

Now, garlic.  Mince about four cloves.  If you aren't confident in your knife skills, use a garlic press.  No shame in that.  In fact, the small particles that come from the press will allow garlicky essence to get all up in the tomatoes.  Place your minced/pressed garlic on your tomatoes.  Ingredient two treated.

Conclude with about five leaves of basil.  You can chiffonade them, or you can tear them up.  Totally your call.  Depends if you want to impress by your skillz, or by your rustic hospitality.

The hard part has ended.  Now, you just need to pour and mix.  First, put about 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on the tomatoes, which is two or three turns of the bowl with your bottle of oil.  Then put one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar into the bowl: DO NOT USE TOO MUCH.   IT IS TOO DOMINANT A FLAVOR AND YOU WILL REGRET IT.  And finally, add the most important ingredient: sprinkle about three heavy pinches of salt into the bowl.  Add a couple pinches of pepper, and a sprinkle of oregano.  It will look like this:

 This one is rustic...

This one is rustic...

In concept, you could eat it now.  But you'd be a bad person.  You have to let it sit for at least an hour on your countertop.  The time has to pass to allow the tomatoes to macerate.  While you wait, here's a primer as to what's going on.  You added salt.  This not only makes the sauce taste good, but it acts to pull water out of the tomatoes.  By the magical laws of chemistry, water will flow through membranes (in this case, your tomato flesh) in order to equalize salt concentration on both sides.  And we're using that to generate a delicious little tomatoey broth in our bowl:

 That's a tomatoey broth right there.

That's a tomatoey broth right there.

The vinegar also has a chemical purpose, in addition to tasting good.  The acid will break down the flesh of the tomato, basil, and garlic as it sits, giving them a tender texture and drawing tasty compounds out.  And finally, the oil serves an important function as well.  While some tasty chemicals will have dissolved in our acidic water-based brine, others are only soluble in fat.  Hence the oil.  That way, we can catch every last drop of flavor.  And don't refrigerate this mash.  Cold will make the whole thing go slowly, as all the molecules will be sluggishly vibrating, and we don't want to wait.

Okay.  You've read the chemistry lesson.  If an hour or more has passed, you are free to eat.  Or, you can reread the passage a couple more times, because the sauce will only get better as it sits.

So that's the sauce.  It's kind of an Italian version of pico de gallo.  You can put it on toasted baguette and make bruschetta, a dish whose picture graces the head of this blog.  You can put it on grilled meats.  You can spoon it over fresh mozzarella and make a Caprese salad.  You can cook up a batch of angel hair pasta and toss the sauce through those noodles.  The sauce is extremely versatile, and it's delicious for its simplicity.  Use every drop of that delicious broth.  You worked hard for it.

And hey, this technique works with a variety of vegetation.  Swap sugar for salt, and strawberries or watermelon for tomatoes, and you'll get an awesome, elegant dessert topper that is astonishingly good on cheesecake.

Enjoy this first sauce while you still can, before tomatoes get creepy.  I'll be back next week with another easy Italian sauce.