A short course in pasta sauces: Tomatoes and aromatics

It’s easy to coast. I cooked one pasta sauce for seven years. That sauce still makes people happy. But I’ve finally gotten enough cooking under my belt that expanding my pasta sauce range makes sense.

By stu_spivack (bucatini al’ amatriciana) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A series like this has been done many times before, most famously by Julie Powell. This is smaller (and without the emotional baggage). Because I miss Han Dynasty, I’m doing something similar for Sichuan food by cooking through sections of Fuschia Dunlop‘s Land of Plenty, an experience I may write up as well.

Anyway, the idea is to go back to the cookbook from which I originally learned to make sauce: Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I’m going to try at least once every pasta sauce in the book. I’ll report back every once in a while on a set of related recipes. This week’s recipes are about basic tomato sauces and demonstrate the effect of aromatics.

If you like pasta, want to see how a project like this works in practice for a home cook like me, or are just plain curious, there may be something in this series for you.

This post covers

  • Tomato sauce with onion and butter (p. 152),
  • Tomato sauce with olive oil and chopped vegetables (p. 153), and
  • Tomato sauce with sauteed vegetables and olive oil (p. 154).

The page numbers are from the 1992 edition. I’ve adapted the recipes to my taste and time constraints. For the most part, ingredient lists are the same as the book. The main exception is when Hazan often calls for 2 cups tomatoes. Since it’s more common to have 28 ounce cans with more than 2 cups of tomatoes, I use the 28 ounce cans instead. Sometimes it’s necessary to scale up the other ingredients; sometimes it’s not. Please consult the source for the actual recipes. By all means, you should try the recipes word straight out of the book. They are all good. Of course, all errors are mine.

Tomato sauce with onion and butter

This was the first sauce I ever learned. I’ve strayed from and experimented with the recipe in various ways, but I realized that the original recipe is best. Don’t skimp on the butter. Instead, I serve more vegetables — which I should do more in general anyway — and eat smaller portions of pasta.

Ingredients

  • 28 ounce can of tomatoes
  • 5 tbsp butter
  • 1 large onion
  • Salt, to taste
  • Grated Parmagiano-Reggiano, to taste

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in the pan over medium heat. Halve the onion and add both halves to the pan, cut side down.
  2. Add the canned tomatoes to the pan. With a fork, prick each tomato and press the middle of the tomato. Its juices will run out through the holes you made with the fork. Bring the pan to a simmer and adjust the heat to medium-low. This saves both mess and insures against burning the sauce on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Periodically stir the sauce, pressing down every now and then on the intact tomato parts. It takes longest for the stem end of the tomatoes to soften. The stem end, then, is a guide to doneness.
  4. After the stem end is crushed into the sauce, let the sauce concentrate and correct seasoning.

Tomato sauce with olive oil and chopped vegetables

The addition of vegetables and olive oil is informative. Since the sauce is finished with olive oil, this is a good place to test different brands of olive oil against each other. The notes of the olive oil should be prominent, both due to the amount of oil and the residual heat of the sauce. By varying the ratio of vegetables, I’ve learned about what flavors and aromas each contributes. The more I learn about aromatics in playing with this recipes, the better I’m able to use aromatics in all my cooking.

Ingredients

  • 28 ounce can tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 ribs celery
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt, to taste

Procedure

  1. Add the can of tomatoes to a pan over medium heat.
  2. Finely chop the onion, carrots, and celery. The chopped vegetables will be intact in the sauce, so it is worth it to finely chop. Add the vegetables to the sauce. Bring to a simmer and then reduce heat to medium low.
  3. When vegetables have softened, stir in the olive oil, and season to taste.

Tomato sauce with sauteed vegetables and olive oil

This recipe logically follows from the next. It’s interesting to taste how cooking the aromatics before adding them to the tomatoes changes the flavor of the recipe. This recipe is darker and richer than the previous one. Both are delicious.

Ingredients

  • 28 ounce can of tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 ribs celery
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Procedure

  1. Heat a few tablespoons of the oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Finely chop the vegetables and add.
  2. Cook until the onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes.
  3. When the tomatoes have softened, add the olive oil and correct seasoning.
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