Best Ever Tomato Sauce
“I remember Marcella Hazan’s books in the kitchen at home: The Classic Italian Cookbook, The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating. That changed everything. Tomato pasta became a staple diet. It’s never been off my menu since.”
-Fergus Henderson, in The Daily Telegraph
I make A LOT of tomato sauce – aside from the obvious pasta sauce it goes with a whole host of other things – it’s curiously good, for example, with cabbage and obviously good, for example, with a meatloaf. So I have developed this method over the years until it has finally achieved the high standards of my son, whose favourite food this is.
The Chief Taster, who, having lived for years in Greece with rich, flavoursome tomatoes, taught me to add sugar to anything less than the pinnacle of tomato perfection, in order to bring out more flavour.
A slight variation on this is to add red peppers – a very good way of ringing the changes. If you do this, you effectively turn a tomato sauce into a romesco sauce.
For how to make a romesco sauce, follow this link.
- If I have any sundried tomato paste languishing in the fridge I would add that.
- If it is summer and I’m in a Mediterranean country I might add, Locatelli-style, some chopped up real tomatoes (yes, with their skins, but if you want to know how to quickly peel them go to ‘best and quickest way to peel tomatoes’).
- Also, if it’s spring or summer I would substitute the dried herbes de Provence for fresh herbs, in particular LOTS of parsley, or basil.
- Give the sauce a middle eastern twang by adding 80g/⅓ cup of light tahini and a couple of teaspoons of dry-fried and crushed (again, your kitchen will smell heavenly) coriander seeds.
Recipe for best ever tomato sauce
Serves 4-6 with pasta
- 2 tins good quality tinned tomatoes
- 5 fat cloves of garlic
- smoked salt, Indonesian long black pepper
- two stalks of celery
- one onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 heaped tsp Spanish sweet smoked paprika
- couple of tablespoons of olive oil for frying
- good slosh (two tablespoons) red martini
- 1 tbsp herbes de Provence
- 1 tsp soft brown sugar
- 1 tsp thick, good quality balsamic vinegar
- optional – 3 red peppers, finely chopped
- Fry the onion gently in the olive oil in a smallish saucepan over low heat.
- Wash and destring the celery and chop it quite small. Add to the onion.
- Crush the garlic with the smoked salt and, when the onion is just turning translucent (after about ten minutes) add it to the pan, together with the paprika – frying the paprika will bring out the flavour and make your kitchen smell divine.
- add the chopped red peppers if using.
- Chop the tomatoes if you are using whole ones, and add, together with the juice they’re in, to the saucepan.
- Add all the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
A little history
You may consider tomato sauce to be quintessentially Italian. And, indeed, the first record of it was written down by Antonio Latini, an Italian chef, in his helpful tome, Lo Scalco alla Moderna [The Modern Steward] written in Naples 1692-4. However Latini was steward to Don Stefano Carillo Salcedo, first minister to the Spanish viceroy of Naples, a Spaniard. And one of his tomato sauce recipes is even described as alla spagnuola, so there is a good chance, bearing in mind also that tomatoes came to Europe via the Spanish conquistadors, that originally tomato sauce is actually Spanish. Latini instructs, that, having roasted six or so tomatoes and chopped them fine you should also add:
“onions, chopped very finely to taste, chilli also very finely chopped and a small quantity of (wild) thyme. Mix everything together, and dress it with a little salt, oil and vinegar, which will make a very tasty sauce for boiled meat and other things.”
However, the ‘other things’ were not pasta… or pizza…. that was still to come.
“Then I came across a recipe that I would go on to cook a thousand times. It was through following this simplest of recipes — for tomato sauce — that I learnt the poetry of cooking, how small variations and attentiveness to the ingredients would allow a clarity of expression that had previously eluded me. The power my hands might have if I paid attention to how I was using them. Through making tomato sauce, I realised that if I am really present with the thing I am cooking, it will reveal itself to me. The recipe is by the late American-Italian food writer Marcella Hazan. It is deceptive: two cloves of garlic, six tablespoons of olive oil, a tin of tomatoes and a packet of spaghetti. The first few times I made it, I was reverent towards the miraculous transformation in which I was an awed participant. But a recipe invites repetition and then, as life continues, variation.”Rebecca May Johnson writing in The Financial Times, September 2022