When I think of tomato sauce, I think of a crimson pool speckled with green, orange and off-white flecks of herbs and aromatics; a savory, slightly acidic—with the insinuated suggestion of sweetness—and hearty yet sophisticated base for an infinite number of soul-pleasing meals.
Of course, tomato is the star of this show—anything added to the pot after or before is merely acting in a supporting role.
The first thing to consider when making tomato sauce then, is what kind of tomato to use. Despite our love of fresh, homegrown tomatoes in salads, heavily seasoned with black pepper and sandwiched between two slices of buttered bread or drowning in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, canned tomatoes are actually the go-to guy for sauce. Canned tomatoes are picked at their ripest, high in sugars and full of tomato flavor. But brand matters. Buy the best quality canned tomato available—I prefer San Marzano tomatoes that were packed in Italy.
For the supporting characters, I start with a full-flavored, buttery extra-virgin olive oil, then add onion and carrot for sweetness, garlic and chilies for a piquant bite, basil and oregano for freshness and oil-packed anchovy for that deep, dark, secret umami. This isn’t an anchovy article, but let’s take a minute to air out the anchovy issue. I’ve been teaching cooking classes and hosting food talks to mixed groups for more than 10 years, and when I mention anchovies an overwhelming number of people curl their faces and stick out their tongues as if the suggestion of eating an anchovy turned them inside out. I’m not suggesting you cover the next delivery pizza with cheap, salty, fishy little swimmers (although when handled properly, anchovies can make an incredible addition to a pie) or toss a few in your cereal. I’m talking about adding a few very high-quality anchovies packed in high-quality olive oil to a dish that sits over the slightest flame and slowly simmers for hours—producing flavors with an indescribable combination and balance. I always add a couple anchovies to braises and ragouts, or to almost any slow, low and long-cooking dish, to impart a deep, rich complexity without adding a fishy or briny smell.
Okay, back to tomato sauce. In the past few years, I’ve tried to focus on the positive and avoid even talking about what not to do. Yet, in this instance, we need to discuss what not to add. Never add sugar to your tomato sauce! If you want a sweeter tomato sauce, use a sweeter onion, more carrots or a better-quality tomato. Don’t use dried onion or garlic powder, as they’ll contribute an acrid flavor and cover up the freshness of the other ingredients. And don’t use dried basil—it’s flavorless and is a waste of money. You can, however, get away with dried oregano.
As far as equipment goes, the most important thing to consider is the cooking pot. Always use nonreactive cookware when preparing dishes heavy in tomato or other high-acid foods. Using aluminum or copper-lined pots will impart a metallic flavor and tarnish the color of acidic foods. I prefer using an enamel-coated Dutch oven, and I always use the same scarred and discolored wooden spoon—I believe it contributes a distinctive and desirable flavor.
Once the sauce is complete, use it to dress boiled pasta, or to sauce grilled fish or chicken—or easily transform it into countless variations by the addition of a few ingredients. Heat two to three cups of Basic Tomato Sauce in a pot, add a handful of chopped and pitted green and black olives, a tablespoon or two of capers, some extra chopped garlic, a seeded and chopped Fresno or serrano chili and a couple of minced anchovies, and you have a quick and easy puttanesca sauce. Or roughly chop a couple slices of pancetta or guanciale, render it in a large pan and add one small sliced onion and two cloves of sliced garlic. Cook the onion until translucent, then add two to three cups of tomato sauce. Bring to a simmer, toss with some cooked penne and top with a generous amount of grated pecorino for penne all’Amatriciana. Or bring two to three cups of tomato sauce to a low simmer in a large pan, crack four to six eggs into the simmering tomato sauce (evenly spaced), season each egg with a little salt and pepper, cover the pan with a lid and allow the eggs to poach to desired doneness. Serve two to three eggs per person with grated Parmesan and some thick slices of heavily toasted bruschetta. Or heat a few cups of tomato sauce in a small pot, puree until smooth, add a little cream and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Make some crispy, grilled cheese sandwiches, and enjoy them with your homemade cream of tomato soup—truly mm, mm good!
BASIC TOMATO SAUCE
½ c. good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely minced
2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 Fresno or other small chili, seeded and finely diced
2 28-oz. cans of tomatoes
12–15 fresh basil leaves
3–4 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves only
1–2 anchovy fillets, mashed to a paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Place a large pot over medium-high heat and add the oil, onion and carrot. Season with a small amount of salt and pepper and allow the mixture to sweat until translucent. Add the garlic and chili and season with a small amount of salt and pepper. Continue cooking for 3 to 5 minutes. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes and add them to the pot. Add the herbs and anchovies and stir to combine. Adjust the heat to a very low simmer and allow the tomato sauce to simmer for 1½ to 2 hours. Adjust the seasoning to taste and serve as desired. Store any unused sauce in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.