Friday, April 1, 2011

The Basics: Tomato Sauce

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of "basic" recipes. So much good food is based on the simplest of recipes, such as a good tomato sauce. I promise not to insult you by teaching you how to boil water or peel a potato. Let's get to it!

My grandmother, Edith Nero, passed away last year. She was 84, had a small portion of a functioning lung left (she had tuberculosis as a child) and was an awesome lady. She watched a lot of soaps during the day and, if you had the chance to sit with her she'd tell you all of their stories, using phrases like "the girl with the boobs" to describe the characters. She was a funny lady and is certainly very missed.

Some years ago when she first moved in with my parents I had her show me how she made her sauce and meatballs. (Yes, I call it sauce. Let's just let the whole sauce vs. gravy thing go for now, or you can read more on it here and make your own decision.) My older sister, from Ms. Fancy Pants Tris blog (for you running folk) learned how to make her pizzelles, something that my family still makes every Christmas. I was more interested in the meat ... and the sauce, of course.

For the sauce:
  • 1 can of tomatoes (see below)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • grated cheese
  • olive oil
  • garlic
  • spices (salt, pepper, oregano, parsley, etc.)
I use a lot of dried spices for this. Because of the time it takes to cook you're better off tossing in the dried spices and just letting them go. If you want to use fresh herbs, go ahead and use them closer to the end or just before serving. For the grated cheese, I'm a huge fan of Locatelli. It's a pecorino romano cheese that has a great flavor and was something that was a staple in our house growing up. Most grocery stores sell it grated in a small tub for a pretty reasonable price.

For the tomatoes, you have some options. I prefer to use crushed tomatoes, like my grandmother. You can, if you want a thinner sauce, use just a can of tomato sauce. You can also use a can of whole tomatoes run through a blender. I find the crushed tomatoes to work great. I don't use tomato paste; it's a good thickener, but if you're able to cook your sauce long enough you won't need it.

My grandmother, for some reason, liked to saute the garlic until was almost burnt. I found it works a little better if you heat some oil (a tablespoon or so) and saute the onions first until they are soft. Add in as much garlic as you like and saute until fragrant.

Pour in the can of crushed tomatoes, dry herbs, some salt and pepper and stir to distribute everything.

Bring it to a boil, then set it on a very low simmer.

Not many people like tomato sauce on their ceiling. I'm one of those people. I like a thick sauce, so I prefer to cook with the lid off. Since an open pot usually means ceiling sauce, you can put the lid on crooked with some space open for moisture to escape. As the water cooks off, the sauce will thicken, and the pot lid will keep your ceiling from looking like a Jackson Pollock painting. If you want a thinner sauce, keep the lid on but be prepared to watch it closely: a lidded pot boils a lot harder than one with the steam escaping, which leads to ...

STIR YOUR SAUCE OFTEN. (Is all caps, bold, italics, and underline too much?) More often than I'd like to admit I've had sauce burn. It starts at the bottom of the pot and you might not notice it right away. Stirring is a good way to get a feel for what's going on. Check the consistency. Taste it. Smell it. Does it feel like something is sticking to the bottom? Then turn the heat down. Did it go for too long and get too thick? Add some water. (Yes, water. It'll be fine.)

Good cooking uses all senses: if you blindly follow a recipe without using your other senses you'll end up with some mediocre food.

I think this is a great base recipe. Add whatever you like, remove whatever you don't. It's great for pasta and fantastic with pizza. It freezes well so you can portion it into small zip-top bags and use them as you need them.

If you want a more flavorful sauce, add meat to this recipe (of course). I grew up with pasta sauce having chunks of pork neck bones, or whole pieces of sausage, or pieces of chicken mixed in. They all bring a different flavor to the party in the pot. Pork bones can be thrown in at the same time you add the canned tomatoes. I like to brown sausage a little bit in a pan, just to help it holds it's shape, before putting it in; towards the end of the cooking process you can go in and cut them in half or into pieces, or leave them whole. Leftover chicken seems to work best: just remove the skins, unless you feel like fishing out gooey lumps. Just make sure that whatever meat you put in there has some time to cook thoroughly, and then some.

My only suggestion is to avoid adding sugar. I feel that adding sugar is a means of cheating by cutting out the sweetening process that happens as the sugars in the tomatoes work themselves out. I suppose if you're cut for time you can do this, but letting it happen on its own seems to create a natural balance of sweetness and acidity. A lot of people may disagree with this, but when sugar's added I can always taste it ... and not in a good way.


  1. Agree on the sugar. Grandmom's is the best! I have been making it since college when she taught me and all the dorm rooms could smell it. I have over time improvised on Grandmom's recipe - I added the tomato paste after the garlic and onions were soft, then added some vino (basic chianti) and the dried spices...then added the crushed. Great post - the pork bones are KEY!!

  2. Anthony - I just wanted to thank you for this post. I do not cook period. Tim says I am the worst cook ever :) I used your sauce recipe tonight and Tim said he liked it so much I can make it again. Success! Keep the recipes coming and I will attempt them. Thanks Robin

  3. I feel special that this is almost the exact same recipe that I use to make tomato sauce.

  4. my moms recipe is similar, as i think most italians would be :) i never tought of cracking or keeping the lid off, no wonder it never came out thick! since im not a huge fan of onions, instead of chopping it up, ill drop the whole onion in, it still gives it flavor, but i dont have to pick out the pieces late! ill make a huge pot, and seperate and freeze it, perfect for when i dont feel like actually cooking!

  5. I like the idea of dropping the whole onion in. I know some folks who don't like the texture and will put them in a food processor until they're completely obliterated, then dump them in the sauce. It's there, but no sizable chunks of onions to eat.