Tomato Sauce

Yield: 24 servings
Prep and cooking time: 20 minutes
Difficulty: Beginner

Tomato sauce is one of the most versatile items in the kitchen.  Unfortunately, there are more varieties than any cook can hope to master.  There are Italian, French, and Spanish ones; there is marinara, Bolognese, puttanesca, Diavolo, arrabbiata, picante, amatriciana, primavera, and alla checca to name but a few; there are various ragoûts, seafood sauces, meat sauces, vegetable sauces, pasta sauces, and pizza sauces; there are ones made with diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes, puréed tomatoes, raw tomatoes, dried tomatoes, or roasted tomatoes; there are ones containing meats, fish, herbs, olives, cheeses, spices, cream, stocks and broths, various wines, and even vodka.

Fortunately, it’s easy to reduce this confusing mass of options to a single, general-purpose tomato sauce that’s delicious on its own, yet able to accommodate any special application you have in mind.  The chief tricks are to make a large batch and portion it, keeping it handy in the freezer, and never to add strong flavorings such as meats, herbs, spices, extra-virgin olive oil, stocks and broths, wines, spirits, cheeses, seafood, or garlic.  We will use tinned tomatoes from Italy because they’re economical, available year-round, and usually of excellent quality, whereas American market tomatoes are usually dismal in quality and quite expensive.  However, if you can get good tomatoes in season, by all means use them, although you’ll need to cook them at a strong simmer for about fifteen minutes.  Canned tomatoes, as called for, don’t require cooking; they’re cooked already.

With this sauce, you will make a batch every few weeks, freeze it in portions of two or three cups, then add whatever particular ingredients and flavorings you want à la minute, as you cook with it.  This is how it’s done in a good restaurant, except that the basic sauce wouldn’t be frozen; it’s used quickly and made in large batches every few days.  But the basic practice is the same at home and on the job: no professional cook keeps an array of fifteen different tomato sauces at his station, even if there should be fifteen sauces on the menu; he uses a good basic sauce and adds the characteristic ingredients and flavorings on the spot as he prepares each dish.

This method is fast, very convenient, and easily adaptable to home cooking.  The advantages are several: first, it enables home cooks to prepare tomato sauce every few weeks instead of every few days, saving considerable time when weekday meals are prepared; and second, this recipe preserves the fresh flavor of the tomatoes, which is lost in extended cooking.  (Contrary to popular mythology, tomato sauce should always be cooked very briefly, except in a ragoût.)  This is a rare instance where convenience and quality naturally converge.

There are only four ingredients in this recipe, all of which taste good in every situation where tomato sauce is appropriate.  If you want it more “Italian,” you can add garlic, basil, extra-virgin olive oil, and the like.  If you want it more “Mexican,” add some cumin, coriander, garlic, and chili peppers.  If you want it more “French,” add white stock, white wine or dry vermouth, and tarragon or herbes de provence.

This recipe will produce about a gallon of excellent sauce which can be portioned in zip-top bags and frozen, then defrosted quickly and used as needed.

1/4 lb whole unsalted butter
1/2 lb roughly chopped shallots
1-1/2 tsp fine table salt, or 2 tsp coarse salt
4 35-oz cans of Roma tomatoes

1. Heat the butter in a large stock pot until the foam subsides but without coloring it, then add the shallots and salt.

2. Sweat (do not brown or caramelize) the shallots over moderate heat.

3. When the shallots become soft and translucent, turn off the heat, add the tinned Romas, stir the pot, crush them with your hand, bring the mixture to a bare simmer, and cook it very gently for five minutes only.

4. After five minutes’ simmering, purée it with a stick blender, taking care not to create a whirlpool, or purée it in batches in a food processor. Never use a bench blender; it will incorporate too much air, making the sauce frothy and giving it an unfortunate pink color.

5. Correct the seasoning, portion it in zip top bags, and freeze. Count on a half-cup of sauce per adult serving. Rather than labeling each bag, you can keep them in a labeled plastic container which can be stacked conveniently among others containing frozen liquid ingredients such as stocks and broths.

Tip: Purging air from the bags is easy. Submerge each in a large vessel of water, zipper up, with one corner above the water’s surface. Open the bag at that corner, then quickly re-seal it: the water will force out the air.

Here’s part 2 of the companion video (recipe continues below).

You can add diced tomatoes, roasted tomatoes, vegetables, dried herbs, spices, garlic, black pepper, red pepper, wines, extra-virgin olive oil, broths, meats, seafood, whatever you like, on the spot whenever you use it. For a marinara, add a little diced raw tomato, some dried savory and marjoram, and a little extra butter, then garnish the dish with fresh basil chiffonade and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. For a Bolognese, brown some ground beef lightly, add milk, wine, and whatever flavorings you prefer, simmer it uncovered until it’s nearly dry, add the sauce, warm it through, and correct the seasoning. For a puttanesca (illustrated in the companion video), sauté chopped garlic, anchovies, capers, red pepper flakes, and chopped olives in a skillet with extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat briefly until fragrant, then add the sauce and heat it through. For a spectacular ragoût, brown three or four beef short ribs very well in a heavy sauté pan, remove the excess grease, add the sauce thinned with water or brown stock, and simmer gently, bones down and covered, for 90 minutes or so, adding water or brown stock occasionally as needed.

It also makes a fine pizza sauce, with the addition of some garlic and fresh basil. Or you can use it instead of tomato paste or fresh tomatoes in any light sauce for seafood or white meats. You can even caramelize a portion of it in the oven and use it in brown sauces or barbecue sauce, or as a base for homemade ketchup. Indeed, this sauce will go in any culinary direction you please, save you time, and reduce the inevitable cleanup.  It is literally the only tomato sauce you need to master: everything else is secondary to it, a mere matter of style and flavoring.


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