I'm not sure if you've ever noticed, but people are notoriously protective of their tomato sauce.
I know I'm writing about something red again, but although tomatoes are round, the similarities stop there. I think I've written enough for this week about things that explode in your mouth.
On the topic of tomato sauce, to pull a Susan Holbrook, you either insist on homemade or you rely exclusively on store-bought. You buy Ragu on the regular, or you buy a case of Classico when it goes on sale for $1.99 a jar. You like mushrooms, or you don't; you believe in basil, or you hate dried basil and stick to oregano; you overload on the garlic or you are an onion kind of girl (not to be confused with a Cornflake Girl); you like your noodles slathered in Arrabiata or you prefer your tomatoes tamed; you are a glass jar only kind of eater or a metal can will do just fine kind of eater; imported San Marzano-style tomatoes or domestic, Unico tomatoes; crushed, diced, or whole; Italian-style or plain. Perhaps you grew up just as I did, eating spaghetti with ground beef and tomato sauce every Thursday night, and hating it, and perhaps, just like my family, yours has an ample supply of Hunt's Three Cheese stored in the basement cellar. I've since come around to spaghetti with ground beef and tomato sauce, but (and no offense to Hunt's) I'm a bit more particular.
On one illuminating night, my dad came home from work and pulled out a jar of tomatoes and a plastic container filled halfway with dried basil, and went about preparing dinner. My father has a fairly remarkable palate and enviable cooking skills, what with his roasting maple salmon on cedar blanks, tossing fresh pasta with sundried tomato pesto, offering up plump and juicy rotisserie chicken, grilling zucchini and bell peppers and thinly sliced red potatoes until they've turned crisp. He got his tomato sauce recipe from an Italian friend of his who insisted he try homemade sauce; and it was, in fact, delicious. Bright-tasting, ruby red, perfectly sweet with a hint of basil. While we eventually returned to canned sauce for one reason or another, I remember that sauce. I knew what the good stuff tasted like, and once introduced, well -- there's no going back.
I've always found storebought sauce to be deeply unsatisfying. Most are too sweet, or overly complicated. I like a simple sauce -- tomatoes, butter, red wine, onion, oregano. Sometimes I add sauteed mushrooms or ground meat for substance, but often I'm perfectly content to slurp up those lightly coated noodles with a generous grating of fresh parmesan. Accompanied by a big glass of red wine and a side salad of mixed greens tossed liberally with a red wine vinaigrette, few things are as comforting. I've come a long way from my spaghetti-despising childhood.
I've made (and eaten) my fair share of sauces over the years, but this recipe always comes out on top. Credit goes to Marcella Hazan, somewhat of an Italian food goddess, whose recipe has both appeared and been written about -- obsessed about -- all over the web; you might've even come across it before yourself. In fact, if you haven't, I'm sorry to say that you've been living in a foodie cave.
First things first: don't fear homemade sauce. This recipe, like many other classic tomato sauce recipes, is very simple, straightforward and inexpensive. Secondly, butter makes for an amazingly rich and voluptuous sauce. I know everyone is all about the olive oil these days, which is beautiful and wonderful in its own right, but seeing as butter has special healing properties, I beg you to give it a chance. After all, my Nan used to go through a pound of butter a week and, now in her eighties, is still alive to tell the tale.
If you need another reason to come around to butter, it's this: it makes everything better.
Adapted from Marcella Hazan
1 tbsp oil (olive, canola, grapeseed -- whatever you have on hand)
1 medium onion, about 1/2 cup, diced*
1 28oz can of tomatoes + juice, preferably San Marzano-style
1/4 cup robust red wine (I used a Cabernet Sauvignon)
1 tsp dried oregano
5 tbsp unsalted butter
Sea salt, to taste
Heat the oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium-high. Toss in the onion, if using diced, and saute until transluscent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, red wine, oregano, and butter, and bring to a strong simmer. Continue simmering for 40-45 minutes. Remove from heat, taste and salt accordingly (or until just before it tastes salty.) Fabulous served over pasta, of course, but also fantastic with polenta, eggs, chicken or eggplant parmesan, on grilled chicken, or as a pizza sauce. Use within five days or freeze for future use. Yields 4 servings.
Tip: It doesn't terribly matter whether you use diced, crushed or whole tomatoes. Because I tend to keep whole tomatoes on hand, I whiz the contents through my food processor prior to adding.
*Hazan's recipe asks that you merely cut the onion in half, allow it to simmer in the sauce, and discard it afterward. This is a lovely option for those of you who are not fond of onions in your tomato sauce, or of onions period. I like onions very much so I choose to dice and include them.