Thursday, September 10, 2009

You are a better cook than Paul Newman, I promise

Homemade tomato sauce is a big source of drama and mystique for many people. As my beloved Marcella Hazan says, somewhere in Marcella's Italian Kitchen--but I can't find the exact quote so I'll have to paraphrase--"there is nothing so false as the image of the old Italian matriarch, stooped over her hot oven for hours, stirring a simmering pot of tomato sauce." While there are some slow-cooking and complicated sauces, a tasty and basic tomato sauce can be made with little fuss. There are even delicious uncooked tomato sauces.

However, my method should not be mistaken for a Great Italian Masterpiece, either. One thing I have learned about Italians in my years working on a cooking magazine (and being half Italian, and visiting the country several times) is that they are very opinionated about food, to put it really mildly. But at the end of the day, we're all just people trying to turn vegetables into something healthy and tasty with a minimum of fuss. I believe my sauces accomplish that, and that you can make good sauce too.

To begin: the most important thing, and any Italian would agree with me, is quality ingredients. There are a lot of different kinds of tomatoes, and where they grow and how ripe they are really determines their flavor. The store can be overwhelming--which ones will be tasty? which ones are going to be mealy and flavorless?

Sometimes I luck out and sometimes I fail. I can't really guide you towards the best varieties because I just don't know. My only advice would be to not think a tomato will taste good just because it looks great--some of the scary looking heirloom ones are the best (but some are gross)-- and buy something locally grown, which will mean totally different kinds for different regions. Local tomatoes will be fresher, and it's nice to support your community. (Eating local is a big subject that deserves more attention but...later...and anyway, it's pretty well covered in the food press right now.) And, maybe your local tomato actually won't be that great, but hey--at least it didn't have to fly all the way from Holland just to suck.

(We are not going to discuss San Marzanos or other canned tomatoes here, but I can tell you more about them if you are interested.)

Whatever tomatos I buy, I like to let them sit around for a few days--at room temperature. NEVER refrigerate your tomatoes. Don't do it. And don't buy tomatoes that are in the refrigerated section. It totally messes them up and makes them spongy and bland. Let them sit around on the counter for a few days. If they get wrinkly, no problem. I've actually seen recipes that call for wrinkled tomatoes. This is one that I got at the Triangle farmer's market after it sat for a couple of days.

One more thing. Before I started my sauce, I tasted the tomatoes. These were really acidic. Good, but wow. Tongue searing. Good to know, as I would add some sugar to the sauce later. So, taste.

Along with tomatoes, a sauce can have just garlic, basil, and olive oil, and/or onions, and/or celery...whatever you want. Of course you can read and try different recipes, but at the end of the day, it's your choice.

I've learned that I really like my sauce with onion, garlic, celery and carrot. Not too much carrot, just one small one or less. It also gives a nice bright color. But if I don't have carrot or celery, that's OK. But I HAVE to have garlic and onion. That is the bare minimum. So chop your stuff up...(I used half this carrot) (garlic not pictured for some reason) (I was out of celery):

And put it in a pot with some olive oil.

Some recipes will say that onions and garlic should go first, then carrots, or whatever but--I just put it all in together. You know the other night while I was making this sauce I was also making a turkey meatloaf for Scott's lunches, and granola for the week. I have to be efficient.

Cook all your stuff up in olive oil over medium heat until it's soft. Stir often so it doesn't stick and brown. Maybe about 15 mins depending on if you have carrots or not (they are slow). And..oh...olive oil. Another ingredient where you need to consider quality. Sorry, no room to talk about it here. Just make sure you like the flavor of the olive oil you are using. "Lite" olive oil really has no flavor (that's what is "lite" about it) and I do not recommend it.

(Side note: of course onions, carrots and garlic all should be chosen carefully and taste good too, but as they aren't the star ingredients, it's not so important to spend time on them here.)

When the onions etc are soft, add your chopped tomatoes. For this amount of stuff I did...I don't know maybe a pound and a half of tomatoes. Some recipes say to seed and skin the tomatoes, but I don't do this, surprise surprise.

Let it all cook up for awhile. Lower the heat so it's not bubbling out of control. Add salt and pepper, and sugar if you think your tomatoes need it. Don't go hog wild with adding all kinds of spices from the spice rack. Choose a fresh herb or two and add that toward the end. If you don't have a fresh herb, well, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe you can use dried spices to come up with some combo that makes it really "your" sauce, and that is fun.

Lately I have been really into using rosemary, which I used to only do in the winter but am now doing all the time (until I get sick of it). I had some basil plants all summer, but I recently let them die. They really struggled in the heat, I had to water them constantly, and after awhile they just didn't taste that great. So instead I just sneak down to my neighbor's apartment and snip a length of rosemary while the tomatoes cook. It grows everywhere in Austin, which I found truly magical when I moved here (but, I think it is common like, everywhere but New England where I grew up).

Of course, I pushed it all the way in, this is just so you can see it.

If you are using basil, don't add it till the very end. Rosemary I think needs a longer simmer. But the flavors of basil really pop if not cooked too long. Throw in some chopped or whole leaves right at the end.

Let the whole thing simmer about half an hour. When the sauce is done (which I determine somewhat arbitrarily and by it smelling really good) you can fridge it, as I did, or use it right away, or put it in the blender to make it really smooth (which I did the next day before reheating) (take out the rosemary if blending or before serving, too!). You can also stir in a little tomato paste, which is kind of a cheat to the no packaging experiment, and I didn't do it but...I do have a jar in the fridge. It's like a shot of tomato essence and can be a nice touch. This rosemary sauce also is nice with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, per Marcella. I didn't do it this time though.

So that's it for sauce, for now. There really is so much to say, and there are books written on it and everyone makes a big fuss about having"the best" sauce, and having grandmas secret recipe for "gravy" and blah, blah, blah. All that stuff is fun, but it shouldn't put you off making your own. All you have to do is love and respect your ingredients and enjoy your time in the kitchen and you'll do just fine.

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