- Skill Level: Moderate
- Cost: Inexpensive
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Can be made ahead of time.
This is the most important recipe in the book. If you make only one recipe from Urban Italian, 1 hope it’s this one. Tomato sauce is, of course, the most-used base in Italian cooking—and also the most abused. In Italian–American cooking, the Sauce is near-sacred. But the lore confuses meat-based sauces with the fresh tomato variety. People add all kinds of things to fresh sauce: onions, garlic, piles of herbs … and then they cook it for hours and hours, until it’s the color of dried blood and tastes like winey paste. Call me crazy, but I like my tomato sauce to taste like … tomatoes. The best way to achieve that is to cook the sauce as quickly as possible, to preserve the freshness, and to add any other flavors only at the end, so that they deepen the tomato-y-ness and make it more complex, instead of obscuring it.
Making tomato sauce is a messy operation—you need to get your hands into it, like finger painting, or changing the oil in your car—and you will most likely end up with tomatoes all over you and your kitchen. It’s definitely not the kind of thing you want to start an hour before guests start knocking at your door in their nice clothes. But this is a great make-ahead sauce. It keeps beautifully in the fridge for three days or so, and it freezes really well, so you can make big batches ahead of time and keep them on hand. If you’re cooking a lot from this book, that’s not a bad idea, since there are a number of recipes that work best when made with Basic Tomato Sauce.
I’ve given you a method for peeling the tomatoes here, but peeling is not mandatory. If it’s six o’clock Sunday evening and I want to make some fresh sauce for dinner, I’m not going to get all fancy with the tomatoes–I’ll just core’em and chop’em. If you can’t find great tomatoes (or you’re really short on time), you can use a good Italian variety of canned whole tomatoes.
To peel the tomatoes:
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
2. Wash and core the tomatoes, then cut an X in the bottom of each so the skins loosen as they cook.
3. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water for about 30 seconds. They’re ready to come out when the skins start to shrink split, and wrinkle; don’t leave them in too long, or the tomatoes will start to cook. You’ll probably have to do these in batches to avoid overcooking. Remove the tomatoes with a spider or strainer and immediately plunge them into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.
4. Once the tomatoes have cooled down, pull the skins off with your fingers.
To prepare the sauce:
1. Cut the tomatoes in half widthwise. Squeeze out the seed, and juice and discard. (This step is crucial. The key is to bring the sauce to the right consistency as quickly as possible, to preserve the fresh, bright tomato flavor. The more liquid there is, the longer you have to cook the sauce, and the less fresh and tomato-y it will taste.)
2. Roughly chop each tomato half into about 8 chunks-or if they’re ripe enough, you can just pull the tomato halves apart into chunks with your fingers.
3. Place the chopped tomatoes in a large pot with a wide surface area. (If you’re using the same pot you blanched the tomatoes in, be sure to cool it down–you want to start with a cold pot.) Top the tomatoes with the salt. The salt is absolutely integral to the recipe. It goes in at the beginning of the cooking process to help draw the moisture out of the tomatoes so it can evaporate. If you cut down the amount of salt, the sauce won’t work.
4. Turn the heat to medium and let the tomatoes cook down at a lazy bubble, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. This’ll take 45 minutes to 1¼ hours, depending on season, ripeness, and the general quality of your tomatoes; 30 minutes for canned tomatoes. As the tomatoes cook, use a ladle to remove excess water. (The amount of excess could be anywhere from a cup to a quart, depending on how ripe the tomatoes are, but the sauce should be tomatoes and liquid, not tomatoes floating in liquid.) Smash the tomatoes with a wooden spoon as they cook so that the sauce gradually becomes smoother.
To prepare the flavored oil:
1. Cut the top off the garlic head so that the skin stays on but the tops of the cloves are exposed. Combine the garlic, olive oil, basil leaves, and red pepper flakes in a small pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. As soon as you hear the basil leaves “crack” (the sound is almost exactly like adding milk to Rice Krispies), take the mixture off the heat and reserve.
To finish the sauce:
1. When the sauce is reduced by half to two thirds and is thick but still bright red, strain the oil into the pot and stir to combine.
2. Cook the sauce for about 10 more minutes at a lazy bubble. Stir occasionally to keep it from sticking. When the oil and tomatoes have completely emulsified and the sauce look “whole,” turn off the heat and stir it up a bit in the pot with a masher or a hand blender set on low.
Timing: About 40 minutes if you’re using canned tomatoes; 1 hour to 1½ hours if you’re using fresh tomatoes
Mix this sauce with your pasta while it’s hot (don’t just dump it on top!) or allow the sauce to cool before storing it in the freezer or fridge.
Nutritional information is based on 8 servings.