Saturday, April 12, 2008

Simple Tomato Sauce

A nice bowl of spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce, some good quality fresh grated cheese, and a few slices of crusty, chewy Italian bread. Many meals might equal this one, but when properly made, with quality ingredients, none can top it. Making tomato sauce can be a very personal thing, and anybody who has had any experience with Italian cooking (or Italian grandmothers) knows how subjective the business of sauce making can be. Onions or no onions? Meat or no meat? Fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes? Wine? Sugar? Grated carrot? Oregano? Basil? So many options, and everybody has there own definitive rules. My father never put onions in his sauce, so to me, putting onions in sauce seems like heresy and I feel a little guilty whenever I do it (and my brother Dan would scream at me if he saw me). I grew up eating my father's sauce, which almost always contained both meatballs and Italian sausage. His sauce made such a strong impression on me that I still compare all others to it and I've never had another that tastes exactly like it.

My wife doesn't eat meatballs or Italian sausage, and my dad's sauce without the meat just isn't the same. I had to find something else. Most non-meat sauces that I made were either lacking in flavor, too tomato-y, or too sweet. I'd eat them, but I wasn't satisfied. Eventually I found the cure to my meat sauce malady with this Simple Tomato Sauce recipe from A Hunger Artist. There are a few things I really like about this recipe. First is the short list of ingredients. There's nothing fancy here, just a perfect blend of fruity olive oil, good quality tomatoes, pungent garlic, and fresh, fragrant basil. Second is the quick cooking time, only about 20 minutes from start to finish, although you'd never know it from the taste. But the real special trick about this recipe is that you puree the whole thing either in a blender or with an immersion blender. This emulsifies the sauce, so despite the large amount of olive oil, the sauce never separates and does not have that oil slick floating on top of the tomato that an non-emulsified sauce would have. It also has the added effect of turning the sauce a bright reddish-orange color that's sure to elicit oohs (and possibly ahhs as well). To me (highly subjective comment coming), this is the perfect condiment for a bowl of spaghetti. Save the meat sauce for the rigatoni (or the ziti, penne, cavatelli...).

Start by heating the oil. I add about 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes because I like both the flavor and the little kick that it adds. It's a lot of olive oil, but remember, olive oil is loaded with heart-healthy unsaturated fats, which raise good cholesterol levels. As long as you are not eating this sauce with large amounts of saturated fats (like tons of meat or cheese) you're golden. The overall effect on your cholesterol is even better if the pasta you choose is whole wheat. Okay, I'm off the soapbox now, add the garlic and fry it in the oil for about 2 minutes, until it just begins to lightly brown. If the garlic burns the sauce will be bitter, so be careful here.

Stir in the tomatoes and bring the sauce to a simmer. Simmer it gently for 10 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the salt and basil.

Using either an immersion blender or a blender, puree the sauce until it is smooth. If you're using a blender, you'll have to do it in batches. And be careful not to overfill the blender when pureeing hot liquids or you may have a mess! As far as saucing the pasta, I think that a ratio of 3 to 1 (cups to pounds) works well. So to sauce 1/2 pound of spaghetti, use 1 1/2 cups of sauce. Drain the spaghetti well then add it back to the pot, add 1/2 cup of sauce and stir. The spaghetti should be very lightly coated with sauce. Separate the spaghetti into 2 bowls and top with the remaining sauce (1/2 cup each). Top with fresh grated cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano are excellent choices) and maybe a little fresh ground black pepper.

Now, Mario Batali would almost certainly disagree with the amount of sauce I've recommended, but I like to have a lot left in the bowl for mopping up with some nice Italian bread. When I don't have any bread to go with the pasta, I would decrease the sauce to pasta ratio to 2 cups to 1 pound.


Simple Tomato Sauce (adapted from A Hunger Artist)
About 20 minutes - Makes enough sauce for 2 to 4 lbs of pasta depending on how saucy you like it
  • 2 1/2 cans (28 oz each) of whole plum tomatoes (preferably from San Marzano) or 2 cans if you can find 35 oz cans
  • 6 ounces extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 12 leaves of fresh basil, torn into large pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  1. Heat the oil and the red pepper flakes over medium heat until the oil begins to shimmer, about 4 minutes
  2. Add the garlic and fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant
  3. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer
  4. Simmer for 10 minutes
  5. Remove pot from heat and stir in salt and basil
  6. Puree the sauce until smooth
This makes a large pot of sauce. If you are not cooking 2 to 4 pounds of pasta, it freezes beautifully. Just portion it out into individual containers (I like to freeze it in 1 1/2 cup portions) and freeze. When you're ready to use it, defrost it overnight in the refrigerator and reheat gently in a small saucepan. Just don't let the sauce boil when reheating or it might separate.

Another satisfied customer...

This dish is my first submission to Presto Pasta Nights, a site run by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast. Check out the awesome blog of June 7 - 12 host Kevin, Closet Cooking.


Kevin said...

You are right! It is hard to beat a good simple tomato sauce and this one does look good! I also like to have some extra sauce for soaking up with some crusty bread. Thanks for sharing with Presto Pasta Nights!

Ruth Daniels said...

Lovely dish and gorgeous customer! Thanks for sharing both with Presto Pasta Nights. I do hope to see you back often.