It is necessary, I think, to begin with a word on this most fundamental element. Of course, there is no getting around the fact that the best tomato sauce is made by your nonna. Sauce made by nonnas (or by assorted friends and relations under the direct supervision of nonnas) is sweet and fresh, full flavoured and satisfying yet relatively runny. The trick is the tomatoes.
“Tomato Day” occurs in late summer as vine ripened tomatoes are at their juiciest and most flavoursome; even uncooked they have a natural sweetness that is almost impossible to find in commercial products. To ensure maximum flavour, after completing her yearly pilgrimage to the glasshouses of Murray Bridge, my own Nanna would even set the crates of tomatoes outside in the warmth to ripen further.
The problem is, not everybody has a nonna but everybody deserves good tomato sauce and no tomato-based dish, regardless of how well cooked, can possibly hope to fully recover from the use of inferior tomatoes. So, here is my guide to tomato sauce, both how to make your own and which commercial products are the most satisfying.
Making Your Own ‘Casalinga’ Tomato Sauce
Here I refer to the napoletana -style sauce that you would use either on its own with pasta, or as the base for pasta sauces like bolognese, ragus and casseroles, or pizza sauce. I give no specific quantities for ingredients, just use your common sense on how much sauce you would like to end up with (as a guide, a small quantity of sauce for 2 servings of pasta would need about 500-600g tomatoes). I make my own casalinga sauce in the height of summer when beautiful ripe tomatoes are cheap and plentiful. You can still make it at other times of the year by using vine ripened or truss tomatoes, but these can be quite pricey out of season. In winter, or when pressed for time and/or energy, I usually replace the fresh tomatoes with good quality tinned crushed tomatoes.
Vine ripened tomatoes (whatever kind), ripe to the point of overripe
A few cloves of garlic, halved
Sugar (optional- use if dubious about the sweetness of your tomatoes)
If, when you buy your tomatoes, they feel a little firm or are too pale, leave them out of the fridge for a few days until they are the desired ripeness. To peel the tomatoes, cut an ‘x’ on both ends of each tomato and plunge into boiling water for a minute, then remove to a bowl of cold water. When cool enough to handle, peel the skin away. Cut each tomato in half and scoop out the seeds. Chop roughly.
In a saucepan heat a generous glug of olive oil on low-medium heat then add the tomatoes, a sprinkle of sugar, garlic, basil leaves and a conservative amount of salt. Simmer until tomatoes have turned to a relatively uniform pulp and have reached the consistency you want (runny if you are going to cook it further as part of a meat sauce or ragu, loose but not watery if you plan to use it straightaway on pasta, or quite thick for use on pizza). Fish out the garlic pieces, taste for salt and add more if necessary.
My theory is that the longer you cook sauce, the more mellow it is, so I always simmer my sauce for as long as I can be bothered with, adding water from time to time to keep it runny until I am satisfied with the flavour, then I let it reduce down.
A sugo is still a basic tomato sauce, but it contains a few extra ingredients, making it more flavoursome as a stand alone sauce for pasta (although there’s nothing to say it couldn’t be the base for further culinary elaboration). The ingredients and method are the same as for the Napolitana Sauce but with some additions. The quantities given are approximately what I would use for 500-600g tomatoes.
Ingredients from Casalinga Sauce
1 small carrot, diced
1 small stick celery, diced
1 small onion, diced
Prepare the tomatoes as described above. Heat the olive oil on a low-medium heat and slowly fry the carrot, celery and onion. Instead of halving it, crush or finely chop the garlic and add to vegetables once they are soft. Add a few pinches of dried oregano and the rest of the Napolitana ingredients. Continue as instructed above.
Tinned tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, pulp and passata
As mentioned above, when good fresh tomatoes are scarce, expensive or too much hard work, I use tinned tomatoes. Also, you need plenty of quality tinned tomato products on hand to add to whatever soups, stews, casseroles or other concoctions you have going on.
For general tomato needs, I usually use crushed tomatoes (aka chopped or pulp) as they most closely mimic fresh tomatoes. My favourite brand is Mutti ‘polpa’. The tin claims ‘you’ve never seen pulp like this’ and while this may be slightly hyperbolic, it is a good product. Val Verde ‘Gourmet Italian Tomatoes’are also a good alternative.
When in need of a thicker, already reduced sauce, go for a passata (aka tomato puree). I use passata when I want a richer sauce, or where there is already a lot of liquid involved in the dish and I don’t want to add more watery tomatoes (for example, if I am making a stew and have already included stock, a passata will add some thickness and richness). Don Antonio, Star and Mutti brands make my favourite passatas.
It would be inaccurate to say that I only use store bought sauce when too busy to make my own. To be honest, there are some excellent ready made sauces that I love to use, either on their own, or to make other dishes with. I, of course, am not referring to the generic, widely available supermarket brands like those advertised by cultural stereotype puppets. You know the ones. Instead, let me draw your attention to some delicious alternatives.
Many gourmet Italian stores will stock their own range of sauces; Sfera’s and Lucia’s are good examples, and Mercato makes its own casalinga sauce. In addition, the two Foodland stores that I frequent (Pasadena and Romeo’s at Mitcham) now have ‘gourmet’ sections and the latter in particular has a good variety of sauces. I have sampled and enjoyed Giuseppe’s, La Conserve della Nonna, Cassina Rosso and Simon Johnson. Of all the brands I’ve tried, however, my favourite is far and away Don Antonio’s. Not only do the paper and red twine topped bottles look pretty as a picture lined up in your pantry, but the product itself is everything I look for in a sauce: sweet and rich and full flavoured. It even reminds me a little of Nonna. At $5 a bottle (slightly less for the plain passata) they are a bit expensive, but well worth it, at the very least for special occasions.
Make a Commitment to Sauce
For more great recipes, reviews and ramblings, visit Jessica’s site, My Southern Cucina.