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Monday, December 5, 2011

ijj's Famous Tomato Sauce

So, like many of my culinary exploits, this favoured sauce is not really French, nor wholly Italian... but sort of in the middle. I suppose there are other influences in there as well, but regardless, none of that truly matters.

What does matter, and I say this with as much humility as I can manage, is that this sauce is positively beloved by all who taste it.

It was the first thing I ever cooked for my wife, after we'd only been dating a few weeks, and I'm fairly certain it was this that won her heart.

Since as far back as I can remember, it has been my go-to basic tomato sauce for pasta. Oh, sure there are tweaks here, substitutions there, and additions often, but the basic template has won me many an accolade entertaining. I try to remember to make a simple version of it for my wife at least once every couple of weeks.

At it's simplest, it is garlic, onion, green onion, tomato paste, olive oil, water and salt. From this, I generally choose one green "European" herb to dominate the palate, and with which render all of the other, subtler, tastes complementary. Some of my favourites for this are oregano, parsley, fennel, or basil. These work quite well with the base, however some of the more unique concoctions which have also yielded success are rosemary, cilantro, or even cinnamon. Remember that we're talking here about dominant flavours, so that which will take on the strongest role; there are vast numbers of other flavours one could add in the subtle mix of complementary spices. So vast in fact, that after almost 15 years of making this sauce two or three times a month, I am still coming up with novel creations.

Today, in this particular version, I'm using some fresh oregano. See this previous post to learn just how much I adore this fragrant herb. I'm sure some, if not many, will say that this is a rather common, even trashy, herb. I prefer to think of it instead as humble and immodest. It is my favourite herb, and in my experience offers up the best success in making this tomato sauce.

If you're looking to be impressed by this sauce, I must insist you use fresh oregano. It is fairly easy to grow yourself if you've got an herb garden, but also decently cheap at most grocers.

I'll share a trick I learned somewhere – I'm not even sure where I picked this up: fresh green herbs last longest, and stay freshest, in a cool, dark place, and you can get them to keep quite well by immediately washing them and then wrapping them whole in a slightly damp paper towel. Place this in a ziploc bag and then in your fridge's crisper. It sounds weird, and actually kind of counter-intuitive (can't you grow things... unwanted things... in moist paper towels?) but it works. I've had fresh green herbs last for almost 4 weeks this way! Because I like to keep fresh herbs of various sorts in the fridge, I actually have some plastic containers within which to place the ziploc bags, and which keep the herbs all neat and organized in my crisper.

So... back to the sauce.

These are the ingredients for this particular iteration, and (roughly) in order of concentration: tomato, garlic, white onion, scallions, oregano, fennel seeds, bay leaves, olive oil, black peppercorns, and some nice sel gris (french grey salt).

Chop finely the white onion, and start that simmering in a large splash (I'd say two or three tablespoons) of olive oil on medium low (gas mark 3 tops).

You can see here I'm using a frying pan, but you can use a saucepan if you prefer; especially if you don't have a lid for your frying pans, as a lid is going to be necessary later. So, while the white onion blips softly, chop your green onion almost as finely (can be a little coarser), and when finished add that to the pan. Next, mince the garlic. You'll note this is a lot of garlic (well, for most people... people not me). Once minced well, scrape that into your sautee mix and then spend a minute or three scraping and stirring with a whisk.

You'll note that we didn't add all three of these ingredients at the same time. This is done intentionally in order to give proper order to the softening of these vegetables. The white onion needs the most softening, and the garlic the least, so everyone benefits from this chronology.

After this base has started to get nicely soft, but BEFORE anything starts to turn golden or brown, spoon a small can of tomato paste in and whisk it all together.

Of course fresh tomatoes are better than canned, but really, and as I've said before, tomato paste isn't really all that bad. Just look at the ingredients on the side of the label: Tomatoes. Pretty good and simple. If you can do the organic, so much the better. But in any case, tomatoes are plentiful in the autumn here in Ontario, and it's nice having a few jars of preserved tomatoes in the cupboard, but in a pinch there's nothing wrong with tomato paste. It's extremely concentrated (in order to get the same amount of tomato-ey-ness you'd need like a dozen fresh tomatoes) and super cheap (usually only between 50 and 80 cents!). No need to get brand name tomato paste when the label reads the exact same thing as the no-name. My cupboard is always well stocked with tomato paste.

A realization I'm ashamed to admit it took me a while to come to, is that tomato sauce is really just tomato paste diluted with water (and maybe with a small amount of salt and spices). So, you know how in the grocery store you'll see the cans of paste immediately next to the cans of sauce?  Don't even ever concern yourself with the latter. Just add your own thinning agent (water, oil, cream/milk, wine, broth, etc.) later when you're making your sauce. I won't even go into the commercial, heavily-produced, jars of tomato sauce. The 'ready-mades' I call them. I am proud to say that I have never bought any... ever. These manufacturers make a killing mixing together a dollar's worth of vegetables and then charging sometimes over $10 for the jar!!! Unbelievable!

Anyway, sorry for the rant, back to the sauce again.

Whisk the tomato paste into the oil well, you'll know it's mixed well when they are no longer separated, but fully incorporated...

Next, pour in a generous amount of thinning agent; I'll regularly use just water, and NOT to the detriment of the overall sauce, although red wine is best. Cream or milk if you're going for a rose sauce... beef broth for a meaty rich flavour... alcohol for a kick... there are many options to choose from, but this stage does dictate your outcome so it is a relatively important, and decisive, time.

Myself, I used a decent, but cheap, Argentinian Malbec. Any rich, dry, red would work, however.

Pour this liquid (whatever you choose) into the empty(ish) can of tomato paste, and feel free to make it a 1:1 ratio with the paste. Give it a good whisking in the can, to try and get any bits of tomato still clinging vainly to the sides of the can. Then whisk this into the mix.

Try to keep stirring fairly often at this stage, and whisk in your chopped oregano:

and freshly-ground (using your mortar and pestle) fennel and peppercorns:

and just a small teaspoon of salt (regular table salt is fine, but if you haven't gotten into the flavoured salts of the world, I recommend you do... and with all salt, a little really does go a long way!):

Now here's a special addition which isn't crucial, but can really make a difference. A very small amount of truffle butter, can make a huge impact.

This stuff is awesome. Expensive, sure, but it does last a long time. It is always a welcome pantry item to keep stocked. If used in sufficient quantity this can easily be a dominant flavour. Some cream with a bit of garlic, onion, and a couple spoonfuls of truffle butter is at once delicious and simple. In today's sauce, we're adding only a small spoonful... a teaspoon. And it's going to be freaking awesome!

So, with all of that whisked WELL into the sauce, add the bay leaves (count how many you add, so you can remove them all later) – I used 4 here – and then just gently push them around a little bit until they are evenly spread out and somewhat submerged. Don't whisk em in cause they can break up pretty easily. Once that is done, put on your lid, turn the heat down to LOW (mark 1), and let this bitch simmer for a while.

I'd say simmer for at LEAST 20 minutes, but I'd prefer to do about double that, so 40 minutes, and I must say I've even had this simmer for several hours and be absolutely delicious.

This sauce simmered for about 45 minutes.

Which is good, because it gives you time to start your pasta cooking, and even clean up, do some dishes, and set the table.  And sip at the red wine you've just opened!  :)

The pasta pairing this evening was an unassuming whole-wheat farfalle. Seemed like a good choice to me.

Once the pasta is done, pour off some of the pasta water into the tomato sauce. Why? Because the wine would have evaporated by now, and the sauce has thickened substantially.

So, pour off as little or as much (I'd say between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup probably) of the pasta water as you want, in order to bring the sauce to your desired consistency. I did 1/2 cup roughly. At this point you can also add a quick splash of wine, if you want.

Whisk again, take out your bay leaves, dish out some pasta, and pour on some sauce. This sauce is very rich, so you don't really need much. Grate some fresh parmigiano-reggiano on top, and garnish with a small sprig of fresh oregano. Serve with more of the dry red wine you used in the sauce.

If you're serving this up for company, or a larger group, you could accompany it with a nice simple salad or some mixed greens in a light vinaigrette, and maybe some fresh, hearty, and piping-hot bread. However, it is not necessary, as this is really a meal in and of itself. A good balance of high-fibre carbs, and a very healthy dose of nutrient-rich vegetables, this meal is low in sodium, low in fat, and very rich and hearty. If you elect to use egg-free pasta noodles, it's also entirely vegan until you put the cheese on top of course.

Whenever I make this dish for us, my wife remembers why she loves me, and after eating, we both feel... well... good.

If any of you read this, I sincerely hope you try this recipe out for yourselves; I expect you'll thoroughly enjoy it!