Using canned tomatoes in the dead of summer to make plain tomato sauce? It’s not strange at all. Many valid reasons exist for doing just that. Besides cost, I’ve listed four just off the top of my head that can bring people, very understandably I might add, to grab for the can…
- Being desperate: for a variety of reasons conveniently categorized under “life happens,” you don’t have the time to go food shopping and start raiding the food pantry…yes, even way, WAY in the back. Should you find yourself in this predicament, and have NO canned tomatoes in the pantry, you may catch yourself thinking: “Hmmmm…curried mango chutney…I can work with this.”
- Being harried and suffering from attention-deficit disorder: completely absorbed by the latest project, you neglect your thirsty tomato plants (nay to that satisfying harvest, clearly), and are left with dessicated fossil-like remains. You hang your head in shame, sigh, and head for the pantry.
- Being a victim to the elements: straight weeks of rain upon rain upon hail only to be followed by more rain killed the local tomato crop. Even your coveted backyard plot, if you have one, looks bloated.
- Being pragmatic: when desiring a good, plain red tomato sauce, you want to make it then and there, pronto!, without any additional tasks that delay the task (like…hmmmm, procuring fresh tomatoes), so you use what’s on hand. Within 30 minutes you say “Done!”
And for all these reasons I say: do I have the tomato sauce recipe for you!
Everyone else is welcome to try it too, of course.
Or, you can happily chop your way through 77 pounds of fresh tomatoes destined for the sauce pot or for canning. God speed. I’ve done it myself…just with maybe not that hefty a number of pounds. The goal is just making great sauce.
At its best, plain tomato sauce is…well, plain, and made only with ripe fresh or canned tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and a small grated onion. Really. That’s it. While I love garlic and use it in many, MANY dishes, I don’t include it in this basic tomato sauce because its pungency detracts from the sweetness of the tomatoes.
While I don’t go through gargantuan amounts of tomatoes, I usually do make it in fairly large batches and freeze several containers to keep on hand. They come in handy not just when I’m desperate for a quick-fix meal (who doesn’t love the occasional spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatballs, you know?), but they also serve as the foundation for several yummy pictorial recipes that I’ll share in the following weeks…like my mom’s sinfully delicious eggplant parmigiana as well as broiled chicken breasts with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
All I’d like to say is that if you’ve never had truly plain, 5-ingredient plain, tomato sauce, please give this one a try. Its brightness, freshness and sweetness will make you smile as you taste it.
You’ll find the straight-forward recipe after the following pictorial section.
making tomato sauce
TIP: Grating the onion makes all the difference in this recipe. While many recipes call for finely chopped or minced onion, I prefer grating it for two reasons. Grating breaks down the onion’s cell walls more thoroughly, thus releasing more of its oil and flavoring potency. Also, the resulting pulp and juice contributes nicely to the sauce’s texture. So please, grate an onion if at all possible.
By the way, making this recipe requires a vegetable mill. I know it may seem like an extra step, but I think it’s one that contributes significantly to the ‘freshness’ of a sauce. I’ve tried using crushed tomatoes or pureed tomatoes to make it and have always been left wanting…
Trim the ends off of 1 white or Vidalia onion and remove the skin. The end with the roots should look like this.
Make sure that you can still see the basal plate, or what I refer to as the ‘nub,” of the onion. Now cut the onion in half.
It’s where the roots of an onion come out and is important for our purposes because it keeps the layers of the onion together as you proceed to grate it. Without the nub, all the layers start coming apart and then you’ll have to grate each one individually. Not only is it not fun when that happens because it takes FOREVER, it also makes you cry…a double drag.
Place the grated onion in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot or dutch oven and add 4 tablespoons of regular olive oil, not extra virgin. You are now creating the base for your sauce by ‘sweating,’ or slowly cooking, the grated onion on medium-low heat with a little sea salt for about 20 minutes, just until the onion becomes translucent. Cooking the onion too quickly over too high a heat can create bitterness, so it’s important to cook it SLOWLY.
While the onion is sweating, open up 2 cans of whole peeled tomatoes and pour into a vegetable mill that’s resting on top of a large bowl.
Start turning it. Change directions from time to time, as it will more effectively squeeze out the tomatoes flesh and juice. When pieces of tomatoes become unruly and start to gravitate to the side of the vegetable mill, show them who’s boss and flick them back in the fray.
Keep turning, clockwise some and counter-clockwise some.
You’re done when the tomatoes look absolutely lifeless…like this.
Pour the very liquidy remains of the tomatoes into the now fully sweated onions. What you have now looks like unseasoned bloody mary mix…it will be fairly runny. The sauce will evaporate some as it cooks and will thicken naturally.
In order to make sure this happens, keep the pot lid slightly ajar during the cooking process. It will allow some of the excess liquid to evaporate and the sauce to thicken. Add salt to taste and, if desired, a teaspoon of sugar, which removes some of the acidity of the tomato. Be sure to taste the sauce. Not all salts are equal…some are actually saltier than others. So taste, taste, taste!!
Cook the tomato puree and sweated onion for 30 more minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. Be sure to keep the sauce bubbling peacefully and happily, which means that you don’t hear it bubbling angrily from across the room and you don’t see billowing clouds of steam emanating from the sauce pot. You want to see gentle threads of steam…like you would see coming from a put-put train.
You’re almost there when you can visually see that some of the sauce’s liquid has evaporated (notice the side of the dutch oven). You want this to happen as it is thickening your sauce nicely.
Once thickened, the sauce is done. If you wish, place a few washed leaves of basil on top and close the lid for 5 minutes. Serve with plenty of Parmesan and the pasta shape of your choice.
This recipe makes enough to amply coat 1 1/2 pounds of pasta (spaghetti, penne, rotini, etc.).