For almost a year, I’ve considered writing some reflections here about tomato sauce, how to make it, and how to use it to make lots of other yummy things. I’ve dithered and delayed and thought to myself — this is too long and involved to write today. And now, after my experience eating in Greece this summer, I’m really glad I did delay. Because while I was in Greece, I discovered that my usual red sauce — rich, filled with wine and spices, cooked slowly in a Dutch oven over low heat on the stove — is only the tip of the iceberg of tomato possibilities. I discovered that red sauces can be light, fresh tasting, lemony, almost effervescent. I discovered that they can be an accent — a thing that brings out other flavors — rather than a primary flavor in and of themselves.
So rather than writing about one red sauce here, I’m going to write about two — a Jekyll and Hyde, a Janus the two-faced god of what, exactly, tomato-ness means.
The first red sauce, like I said, is my old standard. It is lots of liquid, cooked in a Dutch oven for several hours, reduced in volume to make it thick, rich, almost creamy (though there isn’t a bit of dairy in it). This one is red sauce as the main event. It is the kind of marinara that you would put over pasta, cook with meatballs, use in lasagna, or even better, use in a timpano — that beautiful, browned, crusty, pasta, meat, and vegetable pie that is the centerpiece of Stanley Tucci’s film, Big Night. It’s the kind of big bold flavor that causes other flavors to have to stand up and yell just to be heard.
The second sauce is new hotness. Or it is to me, anyway. I learned this one in Greece. It is lighter than the first, made simply with olive oil, lemon, and oregano, and not cooked very long at all. The result is something that is crisp, clean-tasting. Something that can be the main flavor in a dish, but hardly has to. You could use this one to sauce roasted vegetables, or boiled beans, or even a robust fish, and have the flavors of those main ingredients come through. I’ve used this as a brazing liquid for eggplants and for lamb. I’ve used it as a sauce for grilled pizza where the flavor that I really want to emphasize is the bread. And I’ve used it, more generally, wherever I want something to taste … well … Greek.
To me, the first red sauce is dark and the second is light. The first is a winter night, and the second a summer’s day.
Which brings me to the main question at the center of every red sauce: fresh tomatoes? Or canned? My answer, almost uniformly, is the latter. But it really is a winter-summer thing. If you are making tomato sauce in July or August or early September — if you are cooking at the heart of tomato season, and you have lots of Roma or San Marzano tomatoes growing locally, or growing outside in your back yard — then the answer is obvious. You should skin and seed those tomatoes, and use them to make a nice fresh sauce. But if you are making a red sauce at any other time of year — in November or May or any other month when tomatoes aren’t supposed to grow — even if you can find Roma tomatoes imported from Mexico or Chile in the grocery, go with the canned. Those offseason tomatoes, grown elsewhere or grown in a hothouse, are going to be bland and watery and mealy and altogether a big pile of yuck. But if you’re careful about your canned tomatoes — if you buy the San Marzano kind imported from Italy, or the organic brands from California, you are much more likely to get something flavorful and good, because those tomatoes were picked and canned in the summer, when tomatoes are supposed to be growing. And so they taste like tomatoes should taste. It is odd for me to advise you all thus, because I’m usually against canned anything on principle. But trust me. For all but two and a half months of the year, canned is the way to go.
Now that that’s settled, lets make some tomato sauce.
A Winter’s Night — Classic Marinara:
2 cans of good diced tomatoes (or whole tomatoes, if you want to dice them yourself. I prefer the kind labelled low sodium, because the less non-tomato content they have, the better off you’ll be.)
1 jar of passata (or can of tomato sauce + a couple of tablespoons of water, if you can’t find this)
6-ish tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 bottle red wine. (I prefer an Italian wine, or alternately, a Spanish wine like a Rioja. Generally, you want something that is a little bit aged, and not too bright or fruity. And as always, remember the rule: if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t eat it either.)
4-6 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 large chopped yellow onion
1 medium-sized carrot, diced into small cubes
8-10 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped.
1 to 2 tsp of each of the following herbs: fennel seeds, tarragon, chili flakes, and oregano
2-4 tbsp of chopped parsley leaves, preferably fresh.
1 tbsp ground black pepper.
salt to taste (this will take a considerable amount of salt).
Heat a Dutch oven or other deep saucepan over medium heat. Add about 2 tbsp of olive oil along with your chopped onion and carrot, and allow to cook until the onion begins to turn translucent. Add garlic, fennel seeds, and chili flakes, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to brown and the garlic is just starting to look golden. Then, add your diced tomatoes, passata, red wine, balsamic vinegar, and the rest of the olive oil, stir well, and allow to cook until the mixture bubbles. When that happens, add your tarragon, oregano, and some salt, and stir well. Turn the heat down to low, cover your sauce, and allow to cook for about an hour.
After an hour uncover your sauce. Allow to cook for another one to two, stirring occasionally. You will know that the sauce is done when it has reduced by a fourth to a third. It should taste smooth, almost creamy. When it is at that point, add more salt to taste, then take it off the heat and stir in your parsley.
Two to three cups of this should be enough for a box of pasta. And any leftovers you have freeze very well. I would recommend ladling 2-3 cups into a ziplock baggy, flattening the baggy, and freezing it that way.
1 Jar of passata (you really need the passata here).
The juice of 1 to 1 1/2 lemons.
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped relatively fine.
A generous 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4-6 cloves of garlic.
1-2 tbsp oregano.
1-2 tsp fresh ground pepper.
Salt to taste
Heat a saucepan or saute pan over medium heat. Add about 2 tbsp of olive oil, and your yellow onion. Cook until the onion has started to turn translucent, then add your garlic. Continue to cook until the onions have started to brown, and the garlic has started to turn golden, then add your passata, oregano, and pepper, stir, and cook for 5-10 minutes. After that time, add your lemon juice, salt to taste, and the rest of the olive oil, and cook for 5-10 minutes longer. The result should be relatively light in color, with a strong taste of lemon and oregano.
You can immediately see how different these sauces are. One is long-cooking. One is not. One uses wine and vinegar for acidity. One uses lemon. One uses a blend of different herbs. One relies pretty much on oregano.
What they have in common is that they both require relatively little work overall. The first sauce cooks for about three hours. But most of that time, it does not need to be attended. While the second sauce only cooks for 20 minutes, making it a 30 minute sauce all in all.
I would recommend experimenting with, and varying, these sauces. Depending on what you plan to make, you might want to add browned tomato paste to the first one. Or sausage (though if you wanted a ‘meat sauce,’ I would do something very different). Or you might want to add some halved cherry tomatoes to the second one to create a little bit more texture. Tomato sauce is one of those things that is easy to put together and easy to change. But the two that I have here, I think at least, give you some bases from which to start.