Thursday, July 1, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Tomato Cream Sauce

After meeting a group for dinner at a favorite local restaurant, Bistro de Pinto (intimate atmosphere, exemplary service, delicious and beautifully-presented food) my thoughts lingered on Chef Mike de Pinto's pasta special, which featured a tomato cream sauce. (Mike is a recognized sauce maker extraordinaire.) What a wonderful way to combine so many of the most sensual things in season right now: sweet onions, shallots or leeks, garlic or garlic scapes, fresh basil. With the exception of the signature item, of course: tomatoes.

Sun-ripened earth-grown tomatoes are sadly a one-time-a-year indulgence. But the use of hoop houses, greenhouses and even hydroponics to extend the season is not an unwelcome development. The resulting beat-the-season fruit isn't quite the same, but it is an improvement over bland grocery store produce. Ranch Foods Direct started stocking tomatoes from Vic Mauro Produce of Pueblo in late May, just about the time when no one can stand waiting a day longer to add tomatoes back into their cooking repertoire. There's also probably some sort of food commandment decreeing that where there is fresh basil, there must be tomatoes. (And soft white goat cheese, good vinegar, wine, etc.)

So these thoughts stayed with me. With a little research I found that tomato cream sauce can be made with either chicken broth or wine (the chicken broth route seemed preferable to me) and with juicy chopped up fresh tomatoes, or — in their stead —canned tomatoes or tomato sauce (or some combination of both). Eventually, it all began to remind me of a favorite sauce I make by sauteing mushrooms in butter and then adding chicken broth and heavy cream, enough so that I thought I could do something similar but leave out the mushrooms, go heavier on fresh green onions, garlic and scapes, and add a single chopped tomato ripening on the kitchen counter.

I left the mid-week evening Colorado Farm and Art Market with (among other things) a whole fennel plant and the most beautiful bouquet of yellow, orange and red carrots, pretty as flowers, from garlic growing guru Dan Hobbs (a Ranch Foods Direct supplier and member of the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers) ... I was already planning to make a Copper River Alaskan wild salmon filet and last year (or the one before) I'd stumbled across the wonder of baking salmon with fresh fennel, which fills the kitchen with a beguilingly aromatic fragrance. This is a dish I make in various renditions faithfully, and so I did it again, with my planned modifications to the sauce (inspired by Mike de Pinto), placing the salmon in the casserole dish on a bed of beet greens, pouring on the sauce from the skillet and crowning it with a pile of the tender baby carrots (the first of the season in the Pikes Peak region), wrapping it all in aluminum foil, and letting it bake for about a half-hour. Mike de Pinto's dish came out drenched in a vibrant orange color; with one medium sized tomato chopped into mine, the color infusion wasn't nearly that intense (stirring in some tomato sauce would have done it and been rich in lycopene too, had it been handy). But still, it was a thing of beauty.

I'd worked hard all day (and while there was homegrown rhubarb and tart cherries waiting in the fridge, little time was left for making a dessert) so at the farmers market I picked up a treat: a "bee sting" from Gold Camp Bakery at Cripple Creek. (I'm German on both sides and apparently ripe for getting stung by an almond crusted, cream-filled kuchen.)