Italian cuisine, widely considered the best in the world, doesn’t rely on esoteric spices or complex cooking processes to produce the best flavors. Instead, it’s all about simple ingredients and basic techniques that result in a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The downside to this, if there is one, is that the quality of those ingredients becomes absolutely paramount. Take a Pizza Margherita for example. Three ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. If any one of those things doesn’t have good flavor, you have bland, boring pizza. God forbid you actually have bad flavor, well there’s nothing to hide it under.
Do you understand you have to use the best ingredients? OK.
Now, with that in mind we can continue to the best most basic but simple, quick, and delicious tomato sauce.
There are some recipes in Italian cooking, let’s say pasta carbonara for example, that are graven in stone and not to be messed with. Tomato sauce is not one of them.
Everyone does it a little differently, and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it wrong, or screw up a simple thing of course. Also, people make all sorts of theatrics about making sauce once a year in a 50 gallon pot. Nonsense. You can make this on a weeknight in 15 minutes.
For this sauce you’re going to need a standard seasoning mix. I suggest making a big jar of this and keeping it in your spice cabinet, because it will be useful for many recipes. I’ll even give you a simple bonus recipe at the end you can use it in.
You can make as much or as little as you like, just keep the ratio the same:
1 cup dried parsley
¼ cup red pepper flakes
⅓ cup dried basil
On to the sauce.
Generally speaking I make this sauce with canned whole peeled tomatoes. I’ve experimented with all the brands I can get locally and found what I think is best, your mileage may vary. One thing to note, San Marzano tomatoes really are that much better and they really are worth your money – which means that there are plenty of imposter brands that try to pretend they are San Marzano when really they’re not. Look for things like “SM” logos and other chicanery. Beyond that, yes, glass is probably better. One last point, never ever buy the “roasted”, basil added, or any other kind of flavor. They are universally atrocious.
Ultimately though, trust your taste buds. You want tomatoes that taste good, and aren’t acidic or bitter. Remember if the primary ingredient doesn’t taste good the end result won’t either.
1 large can (28oz) high quality tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp seasoning mix (dried parsley, red pepper flakes, dried basil)
- Finely dice garlic.
- Heat olive oil over moderate heat and add garlic. Sauté until fragrant, and don’t let the garlic turn brown.
- When the garlic starts to become translucent, add the seasoning mix.
- Saute for a minute or two while you grind the tomatoes.
- Pour off most of the liquid from the canned tomatoes retaining the whole tomatoes. Add them to a blender or Magic Bullet, and pulse quickly so that it’s mostly pureed, a few chunks are totally fine.
- Add the tomatoes to the oil in the pan. It may sizzle and pop at this point, so turn the heat down and/or put a lid on it.
- Add salt and ground black pepper to taste.
- Simmer until it reduces to a thickness you like, for 20-30 minutes, or until your pasta is done if you’re in a rush.
You have a delicious sauce that is fantastic all by itself at this point. Drain your pasta, put it back in the empty pot, add the sauce, toss it a bit to coat, and serve. No one in Italy pours their sauce over the pasta in the plate, that is wrong and terrible, so don’t do it.
Add some Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or Pecorino on the plate and you’re winning.
Now, if you’re really chasing those gains you can make my Italian Bodybuilder pasta by simply adding a can or two of tuna (depending on how many people this is for) to the sauce and you have a super high protein and high carb meal.
Another small change is to add a little bit of cream, right at the end, and stir it in well. Now you have a tomato cream sauce. Add some sliced Italian sausage (it better have fennel) and you have one of my favorite pastas.
Finally, remember how I said I’d give you a bonus use for the seasoning mix I had you make? You can use it often in Italian cooking, but here’s a good one for you. Start with the same olive oil, garlic, and seasoning process as this sauce except I want you to add a mixture of sliced mushrooms. After you sautee them in the oil mix for a few minutes, add some white wine and simmer adding wine as needed to keep things simmering. Cook them for about 20 or 30 minutes until they’re cooked through, and then let almost all of the liquid evaporate out. Don’t let the pan go completely dry, just get it to the point where it’s not soupy liquid. Now toast some good bread, brush the bread with fresh garlic, add a little olive oil, and top with the mushroom mix.
Between the bruschetta for an appetizer, and your pasta sauce you could even have a dinner party.
Send me an invite.