The last of my Christmas cookies have been baked, my gift tins have been shipped off, and Christmas cards are in the mail. I had hoped to stay on my blogging schedule this month, but instead, I’ve been feeling like I have to beat the clock each day with all of my Christmas “to do’s”. After this week, I’ll be taking a break to regroup, re-charge and work on my editorial calendars for the new year. There’s going to be a lot of cookbook and food magazine reading going on with my feet propped up on the coffee table and I can’t wait. Despite the holiday rush, the one thing I’ve been doing consistently is cooking a proper dinner. It’s the daily ritual I look forward to the most as it closes the day with nourishment in the quiet comfort of our home. This week, I made two batches of tomato sauce to re-stock in the freezer and to dress a simple bowl of penne rigate for dinner.
There are as many variations for sugo di pomodoro as there are cooks. Most preparations start with a flavor base of aromatics such as carrot, celery, onion and sometimes garlic, depending on preference. Olive oil is a must and so is salt and pepper, or the spicier peperoncino, my personal favorite. During the summer months, tomato sauce can be made with fresh plum, vine, or heirloom tomatoes, blanched, peeled, chopped and simmered until they cook down. When you want to step away from the stove, summer’s fresh tomatoes can also be diced and seasoned simply with salt, pepper (or fresh chilies), olive oil and fresh basil, in a preparation known as a crudo (raw), and it’s one of the most sublime ways to dress a simple plate of pasta. Good quality canned tomatoes in their natural juices will also make an excellent tomato sauce, and I’m never without them in my pantry. You can buy them whole and peeled, diced, or crushed. Vegetables can be added for a primavera sauce, pancetta (or the more traditional guanciale) for Amatriciana sauce, tuna in olive oil for sugo di tonno, or piquant, red, vinegar-brined peperoncini for an Arrabbiata sauce. The variations are practically endless.
If you’re new to making homemade tomato sauce, this is the recipe I always suggest because it’s a basic and simple preparation, and includes most of the techniques used in making more complex pasta sauces. Regardless of what kind of cooked tomato sauce you are making, there is a simple formula to keep in mind: evaporation = concentration. A successful tomato sauce with balanced flavor will depend on an hour on the stove top over low heat, with the pot partially covered for some of the water to evaporate so the sauce reduces and blends with the ingredients used in the flavor base, known as a soffritto.
A traditional soffritto in Italian cooking is made with finely minced carrot, celery, and onion. I like to add a clove of garlic for extra aromatic flavor, but that’s optional. Several years ago, I learned the correct way to cook the soffritto from one of Lidia Bastianich’s cookbooks and it made a world of difference in the flavor of my tomato sauce. The trick is to sauté the soffritto in the olive oil until most of the oil has been absorbed and the vegetables are completely tender without having browned. This process takes time because it has to be done over moderate to low heat with frequent stirring and all of your attention. Once the tomatoes are added to the soffritto and begin to cook, the finished tomato sauce will have a rich, deep flavor that will shine in your favorite pasta recipes.
Because carrots are firmer in texture than celery and onion, chopping it first gives it a head start in breaking it down. If you were to chop the carrot together with the celery and onion, the celery and onion would become puréed by the time the carrot is finely minced which would result in an unevenly textured soffritto.
1 small carrot, peeled and washed
1 celery rib, peeled and washed
½ medium onion
1 garlic clove
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, divided
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (peperoncino) or ground black pepper
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
¼ cup cold water
To make the soffritto:
Cut the carrot into 1-inch pieces and place them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until the carrot is chopped into pea-size pieces. Cut the celery and onion into 1-inch pieces and add them to the food processor along with the garlic clove. Pulse until all the ingredients are finely minced, scraping down the sides of the work bowl as necessary. You should still be able to see individual pieces of each ingredient and the mixture should not look puréed. Set aside.
To make the tomato sauce:
Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and let it warm for about 15 seconds. Add in the soffritto, ½ teaspoon of salt, and the red pepper flakes, and stir to coat the soffritto in the oil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté the vegetables, stirring often, until they have absorbed most of the olive oil and are tender. Adjust the heat as necessary to ensure the vegetables do not take on any color and/or burn.
Add in the tomatoes, water and the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot partially with the lid. Bring the tomato sauce to a gentle simmer and cook for 1 hour, stirring often.
Serve with pasta or use the sauce as directed in the recipe you are making.
Storage: Cool the sauce to room temperature before transferring to freezer-safe containers. Freeze for up to 3 months.