All Aboard the Tomato Gravy Train

By Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.
September 28, 2021 Updated: September 28, 2021

What better way to say goodbye to summer than with a tomato? They’re still around where I live, but barely. Unless they become the victim of an early frost, the red orbs of August should hang on well into October. And I’ll be clinging to those sweet and savory fruits as though they were summer itself.

Clusters of oversized cherry tomatoes in a sunset glaze are a greater sign of wealth than cut stones from the earth, because true wealth means the ability to consume freely, when appropriate. And now is the time to consume tomatoes, freely and with no guilt.

When you’re flush with tomatoes, you begin accumulating those ultra-ripe, super-juicy, very delicate, and extra-perfect specimens that I call heavy tomatoes. Those are the ones so ripe that you can’t even move them—they burst like water balloons when you cut them.

It’s easy to focus on the slices cut from such perfect tomatoes and the BLTs and Caprese salads with basil and mozzarella cheese that you can make with them. But the heavy tomatoes of summer can glorify your table in other ways, too.

A heavy tomato is still superior to an off-season import in a savory gravy, where it gives up its form entirely and surrenders to the saucepan and the garlic, oil, and spices therein.

Marinara is the most famous example of a lush, satisfying tomato sauce. But if you change the seasonings a little bit, the sauce can change character. I’ve even been slipping crushed heavy tomatoes into my Asian stir-fry sauces, where their sweet umami augments the glutamate pleasures of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and fish sauce.

Butter chicken, the popular Indian dish, is another example. Mostly tomato, butter, garlic, and cream, the rich sauce could belong to France, Spain, or any number of Mediterranean cuisines, were it not for the ginger, fenugreek, and garam masala spice powder.

And while the spices may change, as long as you have tomatoes, oil, garlic, and extra-ripe tomatoes, you’ve got the makings of a heavy, heavenly tomato gravy.

Butter Chicken 

This recipe comes from the amazing Indian cookbook, “50 Great Curries of India,” by Camellia Panjabi, the grand goddess of Indian curries. Her recipe is in grams, and I’m not going to mess with her recipe—other than by changing “yoghurt” to “yogurt.” As for the grams, quit whining and go get a food scale. Seriously. You’ll love it. And you’ll feel like a grown-up.

Serves 4

For the Marinade

  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1/2-inch square of ginger
  • 2 cups whole milk yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice

For the Chicken

  • 900 grams (2 pounds) chicken, cut into your favorite pieces
  • 5 tablespoons oil

For the Makhani Sauce

  • 700 grams (1 1/2 pounds) heavy tomatoes
  • 75 grams (about 5 tablespoons) chilled butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garam masala powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves
  • Salt to taste
  • 40 grams (1 1/2 ounce) cream

Prepare the marinade and chicken: Puree the garlic and ginger in a blender. Reserve 1 teaspoon.

Combine the yogurt, ginger and garlic puree, marinade spices, salt, and lime juice and mix well. Cut hash marks into the chicken pieces and add them to the marinade. Let sit, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours, but preferably overnight.

Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the chicken and the marinade. Cover and cook on low heat until done, turning the chicken as necessary.

Make the sauce: Scald the tomatoes in boiling water for 4 minutes, and remove. When they’re cool enough to work with, remove the skins. Place the tomatoes in a pan and turn the heat to medium, crushing them as the pan heats, for about 10 minutes.

Add the chilled butter, chili powder, and reserved 1 teaspoon ginger and garlic puree. After the butter has melted, cook for another minute. Add the fenugreek and garam masala powder and salt to taste. After 30 seconds, add the cream and stir.

Add this delectable sauce to the pot with the chicken and juices. Cook together for 5 minutes on low, and serve.

Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.