I haven’t bought canned or bottled pasta sauce in years.
Wait, that’s a lie. I am my mother’s daughter, and I buy anything on sale that is useful in my kitchen. Tomatoes are such a staple for making curries and since canned/bottled pasta sauce is just preserved, seasoned tomatoes, my mother will buy them if cheaper than the regular canned tomatoes. I’ve learned to do the same. The basil and other seasonings do flavour the curry, but ever so mildly since Indian spices tend to be quite strong and overpowering. No one really notices unless you tell them. Anyway, let me begin again.
I haven’t bought canned or bottled pasta sauce with the plan of using it for the purpose it was intended in years. I find them either oversalted or bland, and sometimes too sweet or too acidic. I’ve learned to make my own, and not only is it cheaper than than buying the pre-made stuff (especially if you stock up on canned tomatoes when they go on sale), but it tastes better and you know exactly what you are putting in your mouth.
Aside: I can’t wait to grow my own tomatoes, and then can bottles and bottles of them- whole, chopped, and in salsa or sauce form- for the winter and spring months. Can’t. Wait. Every year my mother tries to grow her own tomatoes. She is not altogether unsuccessful but sadly there is hardly a lick of sunlight that consistently hits her backplot, so it is always a struggle. However, when tomato season does hit, and the farmers markets are overflowing with them, she buys and then freezes them whole or chopped. Same with…well, basically anything she can get her hands on during seasons of affluence. She never learned how to can- such a foreign concept to her- and that’s okay. She did her best, and it was pretty great. I’ve learned a lot from her.
Back to the sauce.
In my kitchen, I have no hard and fast rules when making tomato sauce for pasta. The Italians among us may disagree with my techniques and use of ingredients, but I never claim to be making an authentic Italian pasta sauce. Anyway, given how bastardized the “curries” many of us are cooking, I don’t think the authenticity of a pasta sauce is where we should be splitting hairs.
In the late summer months, when tomatoes are so plump and local and delicious, I like to make a very light, barely cooked sauce using the fresh bounty. I will not be posting about that type of sauce. Not because I don’t love it (I do!), but because such a post would be more appropriate in August. When you don’t have to buy tasteless, imported tomatoes. Also, December weather (despite this year’s lack of snow so far!) does not make me crave light, delicate, fresh-tasting foods. Instead, I want flavours and textures that are hearty, satisfying, and warming. Something canned (and frozen) tomatoes easily lend themselves to.
So to begin, you need some tomatoes. I’m going to suggest canned tomatoes, but if you happen to have a pile of tomatoes you wish to use up, by all means go for it (although you’ll be surprised by how many tomatoes you need to make a good quantity of hearty sauce, which is why I suggest a lightly cooked sauce with fresh tomatoes). Just make sure you remove their skins before chopping them up, or else your sauce will have bits of unpleasant texture (drop whole tomato in boiling water for 30 seconds, and then transfer into a cold water bath. The skin will crack and loosen, and be quite easy to peel off). I like to use cans of diced or whole tomatoes, because I like the texture of a chunky pasta sauce. If you hate chunks, use tomato puree. For 2-4 people I would use one can.
You will also need:
- Onion. Quantity and type are up to you. I usually just use what I have on hand, but I really like the sweetness of red onions. For 2-4 people I would use at least one very large onion, chopped.
- Garlic. As much as you like. The more the merrier (and smellier!) I say. Minced.
- Olive oil (or other cooking oil if you don’t have olive, but olive is very strongly suggested here).
- Black pepper and/or crushed red chillies
- Butter: particularly flavourful if you are making a very simple sauce
- Red wine- white works, but red is far better
- Vegetable stock (in lieu of wine)
- Tomato paste, to thicken your sauce if you are short on time. If you are using tomato puree, you don’t need additional paste
- Balsamic vinegar- a tiny amount goes a long way
- Vegetables such as mushrooms and/or peppers and/or celery and/or carrots and/or zucchini. 2 cups in total should be enough for 2-4 people
- Olives- sliced, chopped, or whole; green or brown.
- Dried or fresh herbs- I like to use basil and fennel, but oregano, rosemary, and thyme are great options too.
In a heavy bottomed sauce pan heat several tbsps olive oil with a couple tbsps butter (if using) over medium heat. Add the onion with a tsp of salt, and cook several minutes until soft and translucent. Do not brown (well, you can if you want to, I suppose. But, if you are going to brown them, then you may as well take the time to caramelize them over a very low heat for a very richly flavoured sauce). Add half your garlic and your tomatoes. Cook over medium heat, covered, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. There will be a great deal of evaporation, and you will end up with a very thick sauce with small tomato chunks (hopefully you used whole or diced tomatoes). This is good. At this point you can add the remaining garlic, drizzle with a couple tablespoons olive oil, season with lots of black pepper or crushed red chillies, and be done. OR, you can make this a grown-up sauce and add about a cup of wine (or vegetable stock, if you’re cooking a flavourful sauce for less adult tastebuds), and let the sauce simmer uncovered another 10 minutes or so before adding the remaining garlic, seasonings, and olive oil. Toss with cooked spaghetti. Done!
So, that’s the simple, rich version. It’s my favourite version, and it’s so flavourful you only need a small amount.
If you want a chunkier sauce with vegetables:
Add chopped or sliced vegetables like carrots, celery, and peppers with the onions and salt and cook about 10 minutes. Add sliced mushrooms and/or grated zucchini when you add the canned tomato and garlic. If you are using diced tomatoes instead of pureed tomatoes, add a tbsp of tomato paste to thicken the sauce. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add olives (if using), balsamic vinegar (if needed), remaining garlic, and the fresh or dried herbs (a little goes a long way with dried). Done! Don’t bother with using wine in this version- it’s unnecessary and will get lost with all the other flavours.
Don’t be shy about using oil here, especially if it is olive. Olive oil tastes fantastic and is full of heart healthy fats. Furthermore, tomatoes are high in the antioxidant lycopene and as lycopene is fat-soluble, the added oil helps it be properly absorbed by the body. So go ahead- drizzle some extra olive oil into the sauce at the end. But don’t bother if you’re not using olive oil.
And there you have it. My guidelines for delicious, rich, homemade pasta sauce. Play around with this as much as you want to make it your own. I’ve done things like cook finely chopped celery with the onion when making the rich tomato sauce, and have caramelized onions and mushrooms before proceeding with the the rest of this sauce. You can go C-R-A-Z-Y and add a couple tbsp cream cheese instead of wine/stock when making this first version (skip the olive oil at the end), before tossing with your pasta. Okay, maybe that’s not so crazy, but it’s definitely delicious. I’ve also made the vegetable version of the tomato sauce, and instead of adding tomato paste to thicken it I’ve added undercooked pasta and let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce, absorbing the excess liquid and flavour.
Anyway, have fun. As Chef Michael Smith says:
“A recipe is merely words on paper; a guideline, a starting point from which to improvise. It cannot pretend to replace the practiced hand and telling glance of a watchful cook. For that reason feel free to stir your own ideas into this dish. When you cook it once, it becomes yours, so personalize it a bit. Add more of an ingredient you like or less of something you don’t like. Try substituting one ingredient for another. Remember words have no flavour, you have to add your own!”