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.