Tomato sauce these days comes in as many varieties as a well-stocked ice cream parlor. From fiery puttanesca to the rustic ragu, from spicy arrabbiata to hearty amatriciana, there is a tomato sauce for every occasion and for every size and shape of pasta.
Want to feel smart?
The next time you're walking down the street, minding your own business, and someone stops you and asks, "What is the most popular ethnic food in America?" you can confidently answer, "Italian."
1 (3 1/2-4 1/2 pound) chuck roast
2 cups onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
7 (28-ounce) cans plum tomatoes
4 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
3-4 small bay leaves OR 2 large, broken in half
3/4 cup parsley, chopped medium coarsely
2 1/2 tablespoons dried sweet basil
1 (1-1 1/2 pound) boneless piece of pork, optional
3 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
Cut fat off chuck roast and render in a 12-quart pot over medium-high heat until a thin layer of melted fat covers bottom. Discard pieces of fat. Brown chuck roast on each side, about 5 minutes per side. Remove roast to a plate. Lower heat to medium low and add onions and garlic. Saute until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Make sure they do not burn.
Cut each tomato into 3-4 pieces and add to pot, along with their juices and the cans of tomato sauce. Stir in bay leaves, parsley, and basil. Return chuck roast to pot and add optional pork. Simmer 2-2 1/2 hours, until chuck roast is cooked through and tender. About 20-30 minutes before you think it will be done, add the cans of tomato paste. Before serving, remove bay leaves and garlic cloves, if you can find them. Season to taste with salt and pepper before serving, if necessary.
This recipe freezes well. It can be cut in half.
Yield: 8 quarts of sauce
Source: Mary Anne Pikrone
Rustic Tomato-Basil Sauce
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 large ripe tomatoes, about 3 pounds, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
In a large, nonreactive saute pan, heat the oil over medium heat until it ripples. Add the tomatoes, garlic, salt, and pepper.
Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes until the tomatoes soften and form a sauce. Stir in the basil and taste for seasoning. Serve immediately or let cool and toss into chilled pasta for a refreshing light supper or picnic dish.
Yield: 4 cups
Source: White Dog Cafe Cookbook, by Judy Wicks and Kevin Von Klause
2(28-ounce) cans imported Italian plum tomatoes with basil, preferably from San Marzano
1/4 cup fine-quality olive oil
2 ounces fatback or salt pork, optional
3 tablespoons minced onion
2 garlic cloves, peeled or minced
Salt to taste
6 leaves fresh basil, torn, optional
Pinch dried oregano
Pepper to taste
Remove tomatoes from the can, reserving the juice in which they are packed. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes, gently remove and discard the hard core from the stem end, and remove and discard any skin and tough membrane. Set aside.
Put oil in a large, nonreactive saucepan over medium-low heat. If using fatback, cut it into small pieces and add to the pan. Saute for about 5 minutes or until all fat has been rendered. Remove and discard fatback.
Add onion. Saute for 3 minutes or until translucent and just beginning to brown. Stir in garlic and saute for 30 seconds or just until softened. Stir in tomatoes, reserved juice, and salt. Raise heat and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for about 1 hour or until flavors have combined and sauce is slightly thickened (if you prefer a thicker sauce, cook for an additional 15 minutes).
Stir in basil, oregano, and pepper, and cook for an additional minute. Remove from heat and serve.
Yield: About 7 cups
Source: Rao's Cookbook, by Frank Pellegrino
Oven-Baked Tomato Sauce
8 large ripe tomatoes, best quality
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
24 pimento-stuffed green olives, chopped
24 leaves fresh basil, torn
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 can anchovy fillets, chopped, OR 1 tablespoon capers
Preheat oven to 450°.
Cut tomatoes in half, remove seeds, (as many as you can) and drain. Place tomato halves cut-side down next to each other on a baking sheet to get an idea of where they will be. Remove tomatoes from sheet and pour olive oil across the area where they will be. In a small bowl, mix together the chopped olives, torn basil, chopped garlic, and chopped anchovies or capers. Return the tomato halves to the oiled baking sheet, and under each one place an equal amount of the olive-basil mixture.
Bake for 1 hour. The tops of the tomatoes should get a little brown, but not completely brown. Remove from oven, place the tomatoes and everything under them into a blender, and process into a coarse puree.
It's true, and why not? For many Americans, Italian food is comfort food: spaghetti, lasagna, pizza. It's what we grow up eating, it's what they serve in the schools, it's what we turn to when we are down -- or we can't think of anything else to eat.
This trend represents something of a cultural upheaval. Not long ago, Italian food was almost exotic. Most towns that weren't actually in or near New Jersey had only one or two Italian restaurants, and even pizza was little known. Back then, as recently as 40 years ago, Parmesan cheese came out of a shiny green canister that did not need refrigeration. People called spaghetti "spaghetti" and not "pasta," and the only kind of pasta they knew was spaghetti.
But that was before the Olive Oil Revolution. That was before gnocchi became part of our culinary lexicon, before we learned about pesto, before anyone could pronounce "zabaglione."
I am speaking here of people who are not of Italian descent. Italians, presumably, were more familiar with Italian food.
Back then, we called tomato sauce "spaghetti sauce," and it all tasted pretty much the same. If it was red and it was bland, it was spaghetti sauce.
But that was then. This is now.
Now tomato sauce comes in as many varieties as a well-stocked ice cream parlor. From fiery puttanesca to the rustic ragu, from spicy arrabbiata to hearty amatriciana, there is a tomato sauce for every occasion and for every size and shape of pasta.
These varieties of sauce, however, are just elaborations on a theme; they are grace notes or riffs. Sometimes simpler is better, sometimes frills are added to distract from flaws in the basic execution of an idea. So for our purposes today we are going to look at the basics: plain tomato sauces. They are so fundamental, some American Italians call the sauces "gravy."
Back in the days when everyone made essentially the same sauce, that sauce was thick and robust, the result of being simmered for hours at a time. It was a hearty sauce, perfect for the cooler months. That is fortunate, because it could easily be made with canned tomatoes. It was a cheaper method than using fresh tomatoes, and had the added benefit of not wasting that great fresh flavor. Sure, you could simmer fresh tomatoes all afternoon if you wanted, but the resulting taste would not be significantly different than if you just opened a can.
Our recipe for this traditional-style sauce is called Mama Picroni's Spaghetti Sauce. It is absolutely authentic, handed down to my wife from her Italian mother. A couple of changes have been made in recent decades (my wife took out the prescribed 1/2 tablespoon of oregano because she decided she did not like oregano in her tomato sauce; feel free to add it if you want), but otherwise the recipe is the same.
The recipe most emphatically does not include added sugar or carrots. My wife, undoubtedly like her late Italian mother, is of the unshakable belief that tomato sauce is sweet enough from the tomatoes and other ingredients and never needs additional sweetening. This recipe receives some sweetness from the pork, but even if you choose not to use pork the acidity of the sauce is still nicely balanced by the tomato paste, which must be added at the end. If the tomato paste is added too soon, it will become bitter through overcooking. No wonder people add sugar.
This recipe makes an immense amount of sauce, about two gallons. But because of its nature as a full-flavored, long-simmered sauce, it freezes well -- and the super-tender meat can be frozen with it. Besides, if two gallons is simply too much sauce the recipe can be cut in half with no trouble.
In contrast to that sauce is a Rustic Tomato-Basil Sauce, which cooks for a mere 10-15 minutes (if you want to go even faster, you can chop up fresh tomatoes, some sweet onion, and a few leaves of basil and throw it uncooked on pasta, but that is more of a salsa than a sauce). This tomato-basil sauce has an unbeatable purity that leaves you really tasting the flavor of the tomatoes, so it is essential that the tomatoes be at their ripest and of the very best quality. It's a good idea to save this recipe for later in the summer, when local tomatoes are at their peak.
One recipe that is perhaps the best of both worlds comes from Rao's, the famous 115-year-old restaurant in New York. They cook their sauce for one hour, which brings out a bright, bold taste in the tomatoes. It's a big flavor that pairs perfectly with the inevitable sprinkle of salty Parmesan cheese.
Rao's also helped introduce San Marzano tomatoes to American food-lovers. The tomatoes, which come from a small area in Italy, are reputed to be the world's finest, and the restaurant uses nothing else. Even when fresh tomatoes are in season, they head for the cans of San Marzano for both their great flavor and their consistency.
We've made the Rao's recipe both ways -- with cans of San Marzanos and with fresh tomatoes -- and when the fresh tomatoes are in season there is little difference in flavor, though the thick-skinned San Marzanos will have a heartier texture. The only problem with the canned tomatoes is that San Marzanos are quite expensive. And in America, the most popular and easiest to find San Marzano tomatoes are not San Marzanos at all; they are grown in America and canned under the brand name San Marzano.
These tomatoes, which have a white label, are now generally priced about the same as real San Marzanos. They are said to have been grown from the same seeds as San Marzanos, and they actually taste quite good. But their price has doubled in the last few years, and they aren't the real thing.
Finally, one of my favorite ways to make tomato sauce is as delicious as it is unconventional. I roast fresh tomatoes in the oven, cutting each one in half and placing each half on top of a scattering of olive oil, garlic, basil, and anchovies. People who don't like anchovies could substitute capers or use nothing at all, but the sauce benefits from that extra burst of richly textured saltiness. As the tomato roasts, it blends with the aromatic flavors of the foods it is soaking up. Meanwhile, the skin is beginning to brown and caramelize, adding another layer to the taste.
When done cooking, I blend it all together into a coarse puree. You don't want anything too refined with this sauce. It isn't dainty. It isn't delicate.
It's just good.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.