NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.
Have you looked at the ingredients of canned tomato/spaghetti sauces lately? You’d think they would be very simple, but surprisingly they have some hidden and unnecessary ingredients. Even Trader Joe’s organic marinara sauce has soybean oil in it, as well as parmesan cheese; I don’t find the cheese offensive per se, but does it have to be in there? So, I decided it was time to share an easy, tasty sauce of my own, which you can use as the foundation to any tomato-based sauce.
Although tomatoes arrived in Europe from the New World in the 16th century, tomato-based sauces didn’t start appearing on record until the 1790s. There is a staggering amount of variation to this seemingly simple sauce, with names to boot: In the US, marinara can mean just a tomato-based sauce, but in Italy it often refers to a seafood dish. The term tomato sauce also refers to any tomato-based sauce, except in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, where it refers to ketchup (pasta sauce is the proper term there). Neapolitan is a meatless tomato sauce, linked to southern Italy. A ragù is a tomato sauce with meat (often referred to as bolognese sauce outside of Italy). Finally, call me old-fashioned, but I just like to call it spaghetti sauce.
yields approx. four cups
1 carrot, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
1/2 onion, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp each salt and pepper
1 tsp each fresh chopped oregano, basil, and parsley
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 28oz can diced tomatoes
1 8oz can tomato sauce
1 6oz can tomato paste
1/4 cup full-bodied red wine (cabernet sauvignon preferred)
1 bay leaf
Using a food chopper or processor, mince the carrots, celery, and onion. This is your soffritto, which is the Italian version of mirepoix. The main separation between the two is that soffritto is usually cooked in olive oil, while mirepoix is cooked in butter. Okay, moving on.
In a pan, warm the olive oil on med/low heat, then add the soffitto. Sauté for about five minutes, until softened. You can tell that they’re ready when the carrots start to lose their color and the onions become somewhat translucent.
Next, add the minced garlic, salt and pepper, and herbs (fresh and dried), stirring together. Sauté for another two minutes.
Transfer everything to a pot, returning to the stove on medium heat.
Next, add the rest of the ingredients to the pot, and bring to a simmer. Once it starts bubbling, reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer for at least an hour, two hours being ideal. Stir the pot every 20 minutes or so to make sure that everything is cooking evenly.
Really, that’s it. Remove the bay leaf and serve. If the sauce gets too thick for your liking, you can add more tomato sauce, red wine, or stock to thin it out.
So, there you have it. A simple, foolproof tomato-based sauce that can be put to wide use. Feel free to experiment with some of its flavors, here are some quick ideas:
- Add 1 tsp chopped red chili peppers when adding the garlic and herbs, to make an Arrabbiata sauce.
– Add 1 lb of ground beef, pork, sausage, or a beef/pork mixture to the soffritto (be sure to drain off some of the extra fat before adding the garlic and herbs) to make a Bolognese sauce.
– Add canned clams (juice included) and other seafood when adding the tomatoes to make a more traditional Marinara sauce.
– Add chopped mushrooms and/or zucchini when adding the garlic and herbs for some added texture.
– Add another 1 tbsp fresh chopped basil or oregano a few minutes before serving to make a more distinctly-flavored sauce.
– Add 1/4 cup cream during the last hour of cooking to make a Vodka sauce.
– Stir in 2 tbsp grated parmesan during the last five minutes of cooking for a little added tanginess.
– Gently blend the sauce with an immersion blender near the end of cooking to make a chunk-free sauce (goes great on pizza).
– Add 1/2 tsp lemon juice to raise the sauce’s acidity and can them using a water bath for 45 minutes (here is an old post of mine with more explicit instructions).