Once in awhile all I want is a shallow bowl of really plain spaghetti with red sauce – like the kind you get in the can, only not as mushy and with more flavour – the sort of thing I imagine would have been served in an Italian neighbourhood eatery in Manhattan in the 1950s. Something I could mop up with crusty, buttery bread and wash down with red wine. Something uninterrupted even by meatballs. (Which isn’t to say a batch of good meatballs wouldn’t do really well here.)
Having been MIA for the past three dinnertimes, and about to leave town for 10 days (yes, the boys will join me for some of it) I simmered a pot of red sauce to somehow maintain my presence when Mike inevitably makes spaghetti for himself and W for the next few dinners or so. I know, they could easily open a jar and be perfectly fine, but simmering a pot of sauce somehow alleviates some of that going-away guilt. And it warms the kitchen when it’s snowy outside.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to make you peel tomatoes and simmer them down. This sauce starts with good canned tomatoes. It’s one of those high reward for minimum effort recipes: for approximately three minutes’ investment, you can have your own pot of red sauce simmering, feeling all like an Italian Nonna who peels her own tomatoes every Sunday afternoon to make sauce to feed her family of twenty or so. The only thing we really have in common are the wiry chin hairs.
I’ve never been able to plate pasta in that swirly beehive Donna Hay-way – mine always just plops unceremoniously into the bowl, no matter what I do with the fork. I kinda like it like that.
My friend Gwendolyn reminded me of this formula last week, when she made a batch on Saturday morning TV – I first made it after seeing it on her blog. Adapted from Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking via several food blogs. San Marzano or San Marzano-style canned tomatoes are packed in tomato puree instead of water and shouldn’t be too tough to find; if you can’t, swap any good jar of tomatoes, plain or fire-roasted. The butter may sound decadent-trust me, it makes all the difference here, elevating the sauce to a silky new level without making it greasy.
All that goes into the pot are tomatoes, a halved onion, and butter. After it does its thing you fish the onion out, although this time I whizzed it right into the pot. I made a double batch, and since I didn’t have any San Marzano tomatoes, I used a can of plum tomatoes and another of tomato puree, and it worked out just fine. You can break the tomatoes up with a spoon as they simmer, or stick a hand-held immersion blender straight in the pot. If you do this, don’t wear your brand-new white down vest from Old Navy.
I’ve made this before, but when I doubled it (here), I didn’t double the butter or the onion, and it was delicious. You don’t need salt. You don’t need pepper. You don’t need fresh basil or a pinch of sugar to balance things out. But you may need some freezer space so you can stash some of this loveliness away for another comfort food craving.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
1-2 cans 28 oz (796 mL) can good-quality whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/3 cup butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
salt, to taste
Put the tomatoes, butter and onion in a pot over medium heat. Once it starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer for about 45 minutes. Put a lid on if you don’t want any red spatters in the vicinity of the pot. Stir occasionally, squishing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with your spoon.
Fish out the onion halves (or leave it in and puree the lot) and if you like, blend until smooth with a hand-held immersion blender. Serve hot, ladled over spaghetti. Serves 6-12.