I realize that pretty much everyone has cooked a quick Italian tomato sauce. But would you have been proud to use it for a classic pasta al pomodoro, garnished only with grated cheese?
I’m not talking about a sauce made with fresh tomatoes at their seasonal peak, but with the canned plum tomatoes we use most of the year. Good ones can be transformed into a quickly made sauce that sets off a serving of pasta or gnocchi to perfection.
Of course, tomato sauce is a workhorse of the Italian kitchen, used as an ingredient in many preparations. But, served more or less naked, it’s worthy of a little more attention.
Here’s what I think is important in making a quick, perfectly balanced tomato sauce.
First, choose delicious canned tomatoes. Easier said than done.
They should be whole tomatoes in puree. Tomato puree, diced tomatoes and crushed tomatoes are almost certainly lower quality or they wouldn’t have been subjected to those treatments. They are tomatoes trying to get by on their color.
“Organic” is a word that augurs well and “San Marzano” on the label provides a clue. It refers to a zone around Naples known for superlative plum tomatoes. They are protected by a European DOP designation, although how well it is enforced is questionable.
Confusingly, the term “San Marzano” also refers to the variety of tomato, which might be grown elsewhere, such as in California.
I favor tomatoes grown in Italy but am open to any tomatoes grown and canned with care. Cento, Anna, La Regina and Vantia are brands I’ve used and liked.
The tomatoes should squish easily between your fingers, with no hard whitish parts near the stem end. And they should break down, when cooked, in the 7 to 8 minutes allotted in my recipe.
It starts with coarsely chopped garlic, sizzled briefly in olive oil. Once the tomatoes are added, they are seasoned with a little salt and cooked just until they soften and collapse.
At this point, you add butter or more olive oil along with ground red pepper and parsley. Not as much butter as in Marcella Hazan’s famous butter-and-onion tomato sauce, but enough to add a rich dimension.
Then the sauce is pureed to a pleasantly uniform, coarse texture. I’m a fan of the food mill but realize many cooks don’t own them. (Why is that? They cost $15 and can strain out seeds in addition to pureeing the sauce.) That said, a blender or food processor will also work fine.
Finally, take time to fine-tune the seasoning. Does the sauce hit some flavor targets? Deeply savory? Peppery or spicy, depending on your goal? Bright tasting?
Too acidic? Tone it down with a Southern Italian trick, a touch of sugar.
Hard-neck garlic, usually found in a farmer’s market, makes a flavor difference. In Tuscany a favorite cold-weather pasta dish is “all’ aglione,“ made with an enormous kind of garlic. It’s mild but distinctively flavored and you can use a lot of it. Shallots or leeks would tilt the sauce in a slightly different direction.
This sauce is sufficient for 12 to 16 ounces of pasta. It’s made to shine when there are few additional ingredients but, of course, you could use it as an ingredient in other Italian dishes: soups and stews, ragus and lasagne, to name a few.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 can best-quality canned tomatoes in puree*
- Sea salt or kosher salt to taste
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 dashes ground red pepper or several grindings black pepper
- Up to ½ teaspoon sugar optional
Put olive oil and garlic in a wide-bottomed deep skillet or saucepan. Heat over medium heat until garlic sizzles and color changes to golden; take care not to burn it.
Add tomatoes to pan, breaking them up with a wooden spoon as they begin to sizzle. Season with 1 teaspoon salt.
Reduce heat and simmer tomatoes, partially covered, for 7 to 8 minutes, until they have softened and collapsed. Stir in parsley, butter and red pepper until butter melts.
Turn off heat and let tomatoes cool to warm.
Put tomato mixture through a food mill fitted with the coarse blade. Alternatively, pulse in a food blender until the tomato sauce is a uniformly coarse consistency.
Taste sauce and add more salt or pepper as needed. If the sauce tastes too acidic, add a little sugar.
• San Marzano refers to a zone around Naples known for its superlative plum tomatoes. But the term also refers to the variety of tomato, which might be grown elsewhere, such as in California. I favor tomatoes grown in Italy but am open to any tomatoes grown and canned with care. Cento, Anna, La Regina and Vantia are brands I’ve used and liked.
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- 12 to 16 ounces penne or other short pasta shape
- Italian Tomato Sauce see recipe
- 1 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other aged Italian cheese
Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with cold water and bring to a boil. Add a small handful of salt. Add pasta and stir well. Cook until al dente, 7 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving a cup of the cooking water, and return to pan.
Stir two-thirds of sauce into pasta. Cook for a few minutes, adding a little cooking water if needed for a saucy consistency. Stir in half of the cheese.
Spoon pasta into shallow bowls. Top with remaining sauce and sprinkle with remaining cheese.