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The Sauces of Mexico - Cooked Tomato Sauce

A cooked tomato sauce is one of the most important building blocks of Mexican cuisine. Not only does it have a role to play in its own right, but it is also a starting point for countless other dishes like soups, bean stews, vegetable casseroles, chilli sauces, moles, pipianes, chilaquiles, picadillo – behind many great classical Mexican culinary creations stands the "mother sauce": “salsa de tomate cocida”.

The traditional first step for a Mexican cook is to sear the tomatoes – and probably chillies, garlic and onions as well - on a hot, dry griddle, turning them until the skin is blistered and black and some of their moisture has evaporated. However, I prefer to grill or roast them: it is easier and less hassle, and it produces a better sauce, as not all tomatoes have quite the flavour of Mexican ones and grilling or roasting them concentrates whatever flavour they have - roasting will turn even the dullest tomato into a bold, strong sauce. A lesser quantity of tomatoes is required for a grilled tomato sauce, as they do not dehydrate quite as much under a grill as during a prolonged session in the oven, but on the other hand, dehydration not only strengthens the flavour but also produces a wonderfully velvety texture. It boils down in the end to a question of time, so I roast if I can, grill when I cannot.

I often promise myself to make my tomato sauces more authentically, searing the tomatoes and then grinding them by hand rather than puréeing them mechanically – and I often think of my experience at Los Colorines restaurant in Tepoztlán, which nestles under the great rocky crags high above the valley of Cuernavaca, and serves outstanding, authentic, uncompromising Mexican food; I say uncompromising because the village attracts a lot of tourists, many of them New Age, but the restaurant menu is as un-touristy as you can get. While we were waiting for our lunch to be served, I wandered through a back courtyard and came across a cook preparing tomatoes for a sauce. She was kneeling in front of a huge slab of lava rock, a "metate", and grinding a mountain of tomatoes down with a stone rolling pin, pushing them over the edge of the metate into a plastic bucket when she had achieved the right texture. As I quietly watched her, I realised that Mexican tomato sauces had been made in this way for hundreds if not thousands of years. In amazement, I commented to her that this was a labour intensive way of working, but she just smiled and calmly replied “en México, así se hace”, this is how it is done in Mexico.



Metate © Philip Hood


GRILLED TOMATO SAUCE

500 g/18 oz tomatoes, halved
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
45 ml/3 tbsp olive oil
250 g/9 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the grill to high. Line the grill pan with foil and arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, and garlic cloves on it. Grill 10 cm/4 in from the heat for about 20 minutes, until lightly charred, turning the garlic cloves over half way through. Cool, then peel the garlic cloves and place them in a food processor with the tomatoes and any juices. Process to a chunky purée.

While the tomatoes are grilling, heat the olive oil in a frying pan and cook the onions until soft and golden. Add the tomato purée and some seasoning, and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring often, until nice and thick.

ROASTED TOMATO SAUCE

This is my preferred way of making a Mexican tomato sauce. It requires less attention than the grilling method, but it does take longer. However, the addition of honey in this case enhances the tomato flavour very considerably – and you can’t add honey in the grilled recipe as it tends to burn before the tomatoes have softened. You also need more tomatoes to make the same amount of sauce, as they lose most of their moisture.

1 kg/2 1/4 lb tomatoes, halved
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
10 ml/2 tsp runny honey
45 ml/3 tbsp olive oil
250 g/9 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 200oC/400oF/gas 6/fan oven 180oC.

Put the tomatoes cut side up in a roasting tray lined with foil and push the garlic slivers into the seedy bits. Drizzle first with honey and then 2 tbsp of olive oil. Season well and cook for one hour, until soft and slightly blackened. Cool for 10 minutes then place in a food processor and process to a chunky purée.

While the tomatoes are roasting, heat the remaining 15 ml/1 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan and cook the onions until soft and golden. Add the tomato purée and some seasoning, and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring often, until nice and thick.

ROASTED TOMATOES

The recipe for the roasted tomato sauce above does not work with all chillies, because each chilli has its own unique degree of sweetness and fire and different levels of flavour. These roasted tomatoes are therefore a building block for chilli and tomato sauces – apart from the fact that they are delicious on their own, on toast, in pasta or in a salad!

1 kg/2 1/4 lb tomatoes, halved
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
10 ml/2 tsp runny honey
30 ml/2 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 200oC/400oF/gas 6/fan oven 180oC.

Put the tomatoes cut side up in a roasting tray lined with foil and push the garlic slivers into the seedy bits. Drizzle first with honey and then olive oil. Season well and cook for one hour, until soft and slightly blackened.

Buén provecho!

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