Tomato Sauce: A Religious Experience

*FYI: This post takes a circuitous route to a wonderfully simple recipe for tomato sauce.  Visit Beth Fish Reads, host of this challenge, for more Weekend Cooking fun!*

For many people, making tomato sauce for pasta is as effortless as twisting the lid off of a jar of Prego.  Not where I come from.  My mother’s family is Italian, more specifically, Sicilian, and when she (and my aunts and uncles) make sauce, it becomes an almost religious experience that takes whole days and requires invoking the names of the saints, muttering novenas under one’s breath, and making the sign of the cross at regular intervals.

My aunts and uncles learned everything they know from the matriarch of our family, my Nanny, who ruled with a wooden spoon.  Nanny was the quintessential Italian nonna, with her floral print house dresses and snowy white hair.  Nanny’s been gone for 21 years, but her sauce lives on through her children.

I’ll never forget the first time I realized that not everyone made tomato sauce like Nanny.  In third grade, a classmate invited me over after school and I stayed on for dinner.  I was excited because her mom was making pasta, something that my family only made on holidays because it was so labor intensive.  We sat down at the table and I was immediately struck by the fact that there was a tall, sweating glass of milk in front of my plate.  Milk and pasta, an ominous harbinger of things to come.  Suffice to say that my friend’s mom made a great effort, but I just wasn’t acclimated to tomato sauce that featured giant, oily hunks of poached sausage floating atop it.

In the late 1990s, my cousin married a wonderful guy who hails from Ohio and isn’t Italian.  She relayed a story to me about how her mother-in-law wanted to make her feel at home on Christmas Eve and so she made a pan of lasagna.  Again, another person with her heart in the right place, but using cottage cheese and provolone in place of ricotta and mozzarella borders on sacrilege to us.

So believe me when I tell you that I’m extremely skeptical of any recipe for tomato sauce that doesn’t involve an armload of fresh ingredients and/or hours of my time.  For 35 years, I’ve  bought into the myth (perpetuated by every Italian I know) that good sauce can’t be achieved without lots of aggravation.  And then I spied a recipe on Smitten Kitchen that promised delicious, flavorful tomato sauce with only three (!!) ingredients and 45 minutes of your time.

Initially, I scoffed at the mere notion that this could be true.  I called my sister and we shared a good laugh over the recipe–a can of tomatoes, one onion, and 5 tablespoons of unsalted butter.  But I’d made other Smitten Kitchen recipes in the past and Deb has never steered me wrong.  The first tentacles of doubt began to creep into my brain… maybe tomato sauce doesn’t really have to be difficult.

Later in the week, I visited my sister and brought up the sauce again.  “Maybe we should try it just to prove her wrong,” I kidded.  To my surprise, my sister agreed, which is how we found ourselves, an hour later, devouring pasta covered in one of the best tomato sauces we’d ever eaten.

Two nights later, I made the recipe again for my Italian husband, who shook his head dubiously when I showed him the ingredients.  (His family is from Naples and they call sauce gravy, but that’s a whole other story!)  An hour later, he too was a believer.  Will you be next?

Tomato Sauce with Onions and Butter
(adapted from Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking via Smitten Kitchen)

28 ounces (800 grams) whole peeled tomatoes from a can (San Marzano, if you can find them)
5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
Salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion and butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Bring the sauce to a simmer then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon.  As the sauce cooked, I picked out the little pieces of tomato stem and any stringy pieces I spied.  Remove from heat, discard the onion, add salt to taste.  This recipe makes enough sauce to lightly coat one pound of pasta.

*Note: I made this sauce twice–once with short rotelli and once with long fusilli.  We preferred the short pasta because the long fusilli holds water even after draining it and made the sauce watery (you can see it in the photo).  So, if you opt for the long fusilli, make sure to drain it thoroughly.

Buon Appetito!


  • At 2010.02.06 12:51, Heather said:

    never heard of butter being added, sounds terrific
    .-= Heather´s last blog ..Knit a cosy for a bridge =-.

    • At 2010.02.06 13:54, Beth F said:

      This sounds awesome. I make a fresh tomato sauce in a similar manner, adding garlic and fresh oregano and basil That’s our late summer sauce. I’m going to be trying this one soon!
      .-= Beth F´s last blog ..From Biologist to Author: A Visit with Sneed B. Collard III =-.

      • At 2010.02.06 13:54, Kim said:

        Okay–I must say, I am a doubter! But since you were also, and are not anymore, I am thinking I may give this a try tonight! Of course I will have to have sweet sausage links on the side for my meat loving husband.
        Very intriguing–I will let you know if I am won over!
        .-= Kim´s last blog .. =-.

        • At 2010.02.06 14:30, caite@a lovely shore breeze said:

          I don’t know about this…lol

          I remember a friend from school. the first time I went to her house, there was her grandmother stirring a huge pot of sauce..gravy…I had never seen or tasted anything like it.

          • At 2010.02.06 14:53, Natalie said:

            Well, I’m going to have to qualify: This sauce is easy, quick, delicious with a great tomato flavor, but no one can outcook my Nanny! 🙂

            • At 2010.02.06 15:59, Lenore said:

              Sounds great. I am definitely going to try this. (Even though I love lasagna with cottage cheese in it!)
              .-= Lenore´s last blog ..Book Review: The Maze Runner by James Dashner =-.

              • At 2010.02.06 17:12, Literate Housewife said:

                Oh, I am so hungry right now. It looks and sounds delicious. If NJ wasn’t so far from VA and we weren’t in a snow storm and it wouldn’t all be gone by the time I got there and I was actually invited, I would so be there. LOL!
                .-= Literate Housewife´s last blog ..Have You Been to a Bookstore Like This? =-.

                • At 2010.02.06 17:37, Steph said:

                  I made a pasta sauce last week that I thought tasted pretty good, and didn’t take much longer than 45 minutes either! But I gussied mine up, putting in various chopped veggies and the like because I really enjoy “chunky” sauces.

                  I could see being skeptical about this sauce, but I admit I’m intrigued! I might try it out the next time I’m planning to do a batch of spaghetti and meatballs – this seems like a great base for that!
                  .-= Steph´s last blog ..And now I am 27 =-.

                  • At 2010.02.06 17:48, Southern Cousin said:

                    As the cousin that married the native from Ohio, I can vouch that dear Natalie is telling the truth. The round slices of provolone that graced the top of that Christmas Eve lasagna have forever been burned into my memory.

                    Nat, I am skeptical of the sauce made with a cut onion and butter. Really?? Dear Nan labored over her big steaming pot of sauce for hours. . . made with tomatoes canned from her own garden. Perhaps I will try your recipe and serve it to my Midwestern family, whose palates are not nearly as discriminating as those of us that hail from Jersey. Will let you know.

                    • At 2010.02.06 18:09, Natalie said:

                      Would I lead you astray? The sauce is really good–a robust tomato flavor without being overpowered by onion–and Jess, Ant, and I give it our seal of approval. Of course, it’s not Nan’s, but it’s tasty.

                    • At 2010.02.06 19:43, jill said:

                      Oh, I’m too intrigued not to try this! It’s going on my list for this week…thanks for sharing!

                      • At 2010.02.06 20:25, Kathy R (Bermudaonion) said:

                        I have to admit that I was a skeptic as I read this, but since it has your husband’s seal of approval, it must be good. I’ve heard they call sauce “gravy” in Philadelphia too.
                        .-= Kathy R (Bermudaonion)´s last blog ..Our Life in France – banking, money and numbers =-.

                        • At 2010.02.06 23:23, Kathy said:

                          I grew up with *gravy* too. I never learned how to make it myself, so I am going to try this see what my family thinks. Thank you

                          • At 2010.02.07 00:38, Florinda said:

                            I also come from Sicilian and Neapolitan stock on my mom’s side (we called sauce “gravy” too), and putting butter into tomato sauce would never have occurred to me. Tomato and onion, fine – but what, no garlic? How can that BE?

                            I may have to give this a try, but I think I’d have to season it up just a bit more.
                            .-= Florinda´s last blog ..Week-End Review: Travels across the blogiverse this week =-.

                            • At 2010.02.07 01:24, Alyce said:

                              See I’m thinking the same thing as Florinda – what is tomato sauce (especially for pasta) without garlic? We also always add a lot of spices like basil and oregano. I’d be worried about it being too bland. Maybe I’ll test this out sometime for a lunch when my husband is at work just to see if I like it first. My husband is a meat-eater too, so I’d have to find a way to work some meat into it (maybe a sausage on the side or something).

                              Thanks for sharing the recipe!
                              .-= Alyce´s last blog ..Friday Finds – February 5 =-.

                              • At 2010.02.07 09:31, Christie said:

                                I’m not Italian, but I could eat pasta 7 nights a week. I will definitely give this recipe a try. Thanks for sharing!

                                • At 2010.02.07 11:24, bybee said:

                                  I see it, but I don’t believe it. Must try it for myself!
                                  .-= bybee´s last blog ..January: Reading & Reviewing Part 2 =-.

                                  • At 2010.02.07 12:35, Hayden Tompkins said:

                                    That’s because butter makes everything more delicious!

                                    Meanwhile, I still need to try your turkey chili recipe!

                                    • At 2010.02.07 14:14, nat @book, line, and sinker said:

                                      Speaking of, I just made it yesterday–perfect food for the blizzard we got hammered by! love that chili–it really is great.

                                    • At 2010.02.07 22:22, Lisa said:

                                      Going to be making this this week! I’m not Italian and I will use the jarred stuff but I definitely prefer homemade and I hate needing all day to do it.
                                      .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Sunday Salon – February 7 =-.

                                      • At 2010.02.08 10:01, Care said:

                                        Fun post and I can’t wait to try the recipe. Smitten Kitchen is AWESOME tho I don’t read it often.

                                        • At 2010.02.08 13:53, stephanierose said:

                                          Oh my goodness I just made this Sunday night using the Smitten Kitchen recipe (the best food blog ever by the way!) It turned out fantastic and my boyfriend and Ioved it! So simple and yummy 🙂

                                          • At 2010.02.08 15:29, Bonnie said:

                                            I am definitely going to try this…it sounds very good. I may add some extra spices also. Thanks for sharing the recipe and your story.
                                            .-= Bonnie´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday~ February 8, 2010 =-.

                                            • At 2010.02.08 19:53, Ti said:

                                              Haha!! My mother is italian and her mother made the best sauce! I always made it her way…hours in the kitchen…some wine for me, some wine for the pot. You know. But I figured this tomato/butter/onion thing out when I was in college! It was easy, cheap and good.

                                              I am sort of going the vegan route and have even made it with vegan butter. I thought it would taste like a bar of wax mixed with tomato sauce but it was also good. Not as good as butter but good.
                                              .-= Ti´s last blog ..Moby Dick Monday: February 8, 2010 (Week 13) =-.

                                              • At 2010.02.08 22:21, jill said:

                                                I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read your post on Saturday…I made it tonight, and it totally lived up to the hype!! YUM!!!

                                                • At 2010.02.08 22:26, nat @book, line, and sinker said:

                                                  I’m so happy! Now people don’t only have to take my word for it! And, 300+ Smitten Kitchen comments can’t be wrong either. 🙂

                                                • At 2010.02.09 19:17, Southern Cousin said:

                                                  Tried the sauce tonight. Easy and delish – very fresh tasting with those imported tomatoes. The little princess had two helpings. Question: Have you (or anyone) ever tried putting the whole tomatoes into the blender to crush them before cooking? I hate smashing them with a spoon against the side of the pot (and Aunt Claire once suggested the blender.)

                                                  • At 2010.02.10 14:42, nat @book, line, and sinker said:

                                                    so glad you guys enjoyed it! easy-peasy, right? as for crushing the tomatoes, i either use my hands (after washing, of course!), or the kitchen tool of choice in our family–the wooden spoon. it’s not that much effort. lol. i don’t remember my mom ever using a blender on the tomatoes in her sauce, but then again you know i don’t hang out in the kitchen too much.

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