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Oh-so-ripe tomatoes make an easy garden sauce

Recipe: Chunky or smooth, it's the fresh flavor of summer

Garden sauce is a perfect summer topping for pasta, gnocchi or grilled polenta. Blend it or leave it chunky, as desired.

Garden sauce is a perfect summer topping for pasta, gnocchi or grilled polenta. Blend it or leave it chunky, as desired. Kathy Morrison

This recipe is not for canning, not even for freezing. It uses those homegrown tomatoes that are ready NOW, ones bursting with juice and flavor, and may already have burst, thanks to the summer heat.

Two dark tomatoes, one cut in half
Some of my Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes.

I'm a longtime tomato grower, and developed this recipe years ago under just those circumstances, with dead-ripe slicing tomatoes that had to be used immediately. Any color tomato works, though I like to use a mix. The one here is a blend of several Pink Berkeley Tie-Dyes and a 1-pound-plus Brandy Boy. 

I remove most of the tomato skin and seeds, but am not obsessive about it. They're not noticeable in the sauce when it's blended, and they become part of the texture if it's left chunky.

The sauce incorporates fresh herbs, too, especially basil. Italian oregano and parsley are good, too; I add some thyme because I have it.

Ladle the sauce on top of freshly cooked pasta, grilled polenta or any quick gnocchi. It's the taste of summer, distilled in one dish.

Kathy's Garden Sauce

Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients:

1 large yellow or white onion, trimmed and skinned

Half of a large red or orange bell pepper, or 2 to 3 small ones, cored and seeded

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 to 5 garlic cloves, minced

1 stalk celery, chopped

3 to 4 cups fresh tomatoes, cored, peeled and seeded, then chopped roughly

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup hearty red wine, such as zinfandel or primitivo, divided

Sauce ingredients being stirred
This ingredient mix reminds me of salsa.

Large handful of fresh basil leaves, a few reserved for garnish

5 or 6 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves stripped off

3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme, optional, leaves stripped

4 or 5 sprigs parsley, flat or curly

Cooked pasta, gnocchi or polenta, for serving

Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Instructions:

Chop the onion and bell pepper; I put them together in my food processor, but a rough hand-chop is fine.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan or skillet. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic and celery, and sauté until the onion is soft but not brown. Stir in the tomatoes, then add a few pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer until it starts to thicken slightly.

Stir in 1/4 cup of the wine, turn the heat back up until the sauce bubbles, then reduce heat and cover the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the herbs together. Remove the pan's cover and stir in the prepared herbs. Add a pinch more salt and pepper, and continue cooking until the flavors blend. (If the sauce gets too thick at any point, stir in the rest of the wine.) Taste and correct seasonings before serving.

Two sauces, one smooth and one chunky
Smooth sauce on left, chunky on right.

If smooth sauce is desired, remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes. Blend it in a bowl using an immersion blender, or place in the container of a standard blender, and then blend. If it seems too thick, adding a bit more wine or some hot water works well. Or, if you're cooking pasta to go with the sauce, 1/4 cup or so of starchy pasta water is an excellent thinning liquid.

Serve sauce with desired accompaniment, garnished with shredded Parmesan and basil sprigs, if desired.

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Garden Checklist for week of April 14

It's still not warm enough to transplant tomatoes directly in the ground, but we’re getting there.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden needs nutrients. Fertilize shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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