A Simple Tomato Sauce

There is no such thing as a “real” Italian tomato sauce. Unless you define it as any tomato sauce made in Italy or by Italians, which of course means that I don’t stand a chance in hell. I find all this emphasis on something being “real” mostly a waste of time and space. It is good to understand the origins of a dish, to see how it has evolved over time and distance and how one dish (or sauce) is being translated into many version. (FYI, I ripped the picture of the pasta from the net, as I forgot to take one. Sorry.)

Although I’m not Italian, I have some Italian family and many childhood friends who were first generation Italian immigrants to Luxembourg and I very clearly remember the cooking. My friend’s grandmother, used to making Amatriciana with guanciale, a cured and dried pork cheek for most of her life, discovered the smoked Speck from Luxembourg and from then on much preferred to use that for the smoky flavour it imparted. Who am I to call her change of heart at such a late time in life a departure from reality?

Hotel Restaurant Italia opened 2 years before I was born, has been and still is one of the best Italian restaurants I have ever eaten in.
And I say this after many years of travelling in Italy. Don’t expect fine dining, it still tastes just like when nonna was in the kitchen.

When you travel through Italy, or look at recipes in books, you notice that as you travel south and the country becomes poorer, the tomato sauce becomes ever more basic. Out goes the guanciale, the carrot and celery and what you are left with is the simplest of sauces made with the best possible base ingredients.

My version here is the most basic and my absolute favourite. Eddie and I make up a quick batch and just eat it with pasta or polenta, simply dressed with a touch of virgin olive oil, a few fresh basil leaves and some grated pecorino. I keep small batches in the freezer and also use them as a base for many other sauces and soups. I will do a series of dishes based on this sauce and I will post a few over the next few weeks. It’s perfect if you make filled pasta, as it doesn’t overpower the taste of the filling.

On word of warning: We are starting with 1.2kg canned tomatoes and end up with 600ml of sauce. At 50% the wastage is rather shocking, but there are things you can do to reduce or even completely eliminate the wastage and I will tell you all the tricks as we make the sauce, but honestly, once you taste the result, you won’t mind the wastage at all.

A Simple Tomato Sauce

makes about 600ml when strained

  • 3 x 400g tins of whole tomatoes in tomato juice
  • 100g chopped onion, about 1 small brown onion
  • 50g chopped garlic, about ¾ of a head of garlic
  • 3 Tbsp good olive oil
  • 1 long sprig fresh rosemary (1 tsp dried, f you can’t find fresh, but do try)
  • 1 small handful fresh thyme (or 2 tsp dried)
  • 2 fresh (or dried) bay leaves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Open your tomato tins (don’t throw the tins away), stick a pair of scissors into the tin and cut the tomatoes into pieces. If you want a higher yield of sauce, blend the tomatoes with their juice before you start cooking. Your onions and garlic can be chopped medium and irregular, if you are going to strain, because you will be throwing them away anyway.

If (and this is the easiest way to get a lot more sauce for your buck) you should choose to keep the onions and garlic in the finished sauce, you will need to chop them at least medium, but best fine. Now that this is clear, heat two generous tablespoons of olive oil in a cast iron pot and fry the onions at medium heat for a good five minutes. Add the garlic and fry for another five minutes on medium. If you see that onions or garlic are starting to brown, lower the heat.

Now add your canned tomatoes and stir. Fill one of the cans about ¾ full of water and swirl it around to dissolve whatever tomato was left in there, then pour this into the second tin and repeat, then into the third. You get the idea. Don’t waste any of that precious tomato. One more word about the tomatoes. If you buy crap canned tomatoes, you will end up with crap sauce. This is not to say that the most expensive are the best. I for one give the expensive organic tomatoes in the environmentally conscious dull can a wide berth. All the ones I have tried are better suited for composting.

Stick your herbs into the sauce, add about a teaspoon or two of rough sea salt and a good grind of black pepper and sit back for an hour and a half. Note that you WILL need to stir the sauce every now and again, or it will burn its bottom. Make sure your sauce is simmering. You don’t want it rolling, but you don’t want it “just under a simmer” either! If is doesn’t lightly splash the wall behind your cooker, you’re not doing it right. If it gets too thick, add water, but make sure to simmer it for at least an hour. And a half.

Here’s something that might annoy you slightly. Once the sauce has simmered, you want to add another can of water to it. You don’t have to, but believe me, it will make straining the sauce ever so much easier! Now a word about the strainer; ideally, you want one of those wholey numbers, not one of the meshy ones. They may be a little hard to come by and if you can’t find one, just use a wide mesh one. Here’s the reason: If the mesh is too fine, you will end up with tomato water and all your pulpy goodness will be in the sieve. You want the pulp, but not the onion, or the seeds, or the skins. Easy, right!

Oh and do resist the temptation to “just blend it”. It would be a disastrous mistake, believe me. If you want to make a blended sauce, you need to make it differently. Pour your strained sauce into a new, smaller pot and bring it back to a simmer. You will see the oil rising to the top. That’s a good thing, in fact it is your indicator of whether the sauce is done or not. As the sauce thickens, the oil will emulsify into the sauce and no longer separate, even after you have stirred it. That’s when your sauce is ready!

The biggest mistake you could make would be to skim the oil off the top, because you would be throwing away a lot of flavour. Don’t adjust the seasoning until the very end, after you have finished the sauce. You will most probably find that you don’t need a lot of extra salt or pepper. So there we are! Our sauce is done. It will keep quite happily in the chiller for a week or more, or frozen for a year or more, as long as it is in an airtight container that is filled pretty much to the top.

There are so many variations to this sauce, even in its basic form, I don’t quite know where to start. If I am making it to use as a base for a meat ragù, I rinse out the tomato cans with a whole can of red wine instead of water. For a quick and simple seafood pasta, I boil my pasta and while it is boiling, I toss some prawns, squid and clams in olive oil and garlic, deglaze with white wine, add chopped fresh chervil or marjoram, then chuck in the pasta, plate it and top it with a tablespoonful of my sauce. The complete recipe for that is coming up as soon as I get time to cook.

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