In a family with Italian roots, a good tomato sauce is essential to your reputation and self-respect. Another make-a-giant-batch-and-use-it-for-everything kind of recipe, our family recipe for “Red Sauce” is cheap, easy, versatile and so good you could eat it as a soup (which I have done….just add some sautéed onion and garlic and puree in the blender with salt, pepper, dried chili flakes and a little heavy cream, garnish with chopped basil….best cream of tomato soup you will ever have)
The key to this sauce is the process, not necessarily the ingredients – though it helps if they are good quality. I buy whatever my local bulk foods store happens to stock, but that’s just me. I use one each of the giant cans of tomato puree and diced or crushed tomatoes. My dad will argue that it is best to buy whole peeled tomatoes and cut them up yourself for the exact right consistency, but it just adds too much time in my opinion. If I want a chunkier sauce, I’ll used diced, smoother – crushed. I do agree that the diced tomato chunks are a little too big when using diced, but I’ll live, and with the advent of the immersion blender, you can always make it smoother.
3 cans tomato paste
1 can tomato puree (not tomato sauce)
1 can diced or crushed tomatoes
5-8 cloves garlic, peeled
Plenty of olive oil
Extras: red wine, parmesan or romano cheese
Coat a cast iron pan (if you have one….as vegetarians, we cooked a lot in cast iron to get that bit of extra iron in our diets) with olive oil. Place over medium heat and add all the tomato puree. Add some more olive oil and stir to begin to incorporate it. Notice the bright red color of the paste, this is key. Add all the whole, peeled cloves of garlic. You will need to cook the paste, adding olive oil when needed, until it is a dark red color and has a sweet – not acidic – taste. I find that a large wooden spoon works well for this task, as the paste is quite stiff. I smooth the paste out onto the bottom of the pan, to get the most surface area touching the heat source, let it sit for a minute and then give it a good mix. This is the only labor intensive part of the process.
The importance of this is in breaking down the acid in the tomatoes to give the sauce a rich, sweet taste. Many commercial brands of tomato sauce just add sugar to mask the acidity of the tomatoes, instead of doing things the “right way.”
You will see the edges of the paste begin to turn that dark red before the bulk of it does, but that will give you a good idea of what it is supposed to look like. Once the paste is all a nice dark red, you can scrape it into a large stock pot or crock pot. I usually fish out the garlic at this point and eat as a reward for cooking the paste down for so long – it is amazing, sweet and nutty.
Add the can of puree and the can of diced/crushed tomatoes. Stir to incorporate the paste and bring the whole thing up to a simmer. A crock pot makes easy work of keeping a low consistent temperature, and you don’t have to stir as much, but if you are using a pot on the stove, the best thing to do is to move it to a 350 oven, place a splatter screen over it, and leave it for a few hours, stirring occasionally. We used to leave it over night in a low oven and then all day the next day as well. You can eat it the first day, though it will still be more acidic – this is called “green” sauce, since it is not quite to perfection yet.
Once you have cooked the sauce for at least a day, add some salt, oregano, basil, and any other seasonings you like (an “Italian” mix is ok). I don’t like to add too many herbs since I don’t know what I’ll be using the sauce for and if I’ll want to season it differently later.
The “secret” to this sauce, aside from the process, are these last two additions – red wine, about a cup, helps to release flavors from the tomatoes. Apparently, some flavors in tomatoes are only soluble in alcohol (thanks Alton Brown!). A cup or two, depending on taste, of finely grated parmesan or romano cheese (freshly grated of course) will add a richness and tang to your sauce. You will want to add the cheese before the salt though, since it is quite salty itself, and then add salt to taste.
Now you are ready for pasta, pizza, soup, pasta e fagioli, or anything else you can imagine – just a warm piece of bread! My mom used to put cauliflower florets into the sauce and serve it with angel hair pasta – something about the cauliflower works really well with the tomato sauce – of course homemade meatballs do too!
I always freeze a bunch, either in ziplocks, labeled, dated, and laid flat to freeze, or in Tupperware.
One of my favorite incarnations of this red sauce is as a puttanesca sauce, which has many variations, but the basic goes:
• 4 cups red sauce
• 2 tblspns red wine vinegar
• 2-3 anchovy filets, minced
• 2-3 tspns red chili flakes
• 4-5 tblspns capers, coarsely chopped
• ½ cup each green and kalamata olives, chopped
Add it all together and heat to let flavors blend, adjust for your taste preference – I like it spicier. It is so addicting, I have to keep myself and my partner from eating it all right out of the pan!