Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tomato sauce - back to the basics


olive oil
1 onion
3-4 cloves garlic
2 cups Italian parsley
2 medium carrots
3 stalks of celery
1 cup white or red wine
3 cans diced tomatoes (without salt)
salt and pepper
fresh basil

The very first dish I ever learned to make was Spaghetti Napoli, or spaghetti with tomato sauce. But what a long journey it has been from the packet sauce that required mixing hot water with some instant powder, to the smooth and fruity Napoli sauce I love so much today!

As a student when I had just moved out from my parents’ house and my mother’s delicious home cooked meals, I was for the first time faced with the challenge of feeding myself. As a farewell present, a well-meaning teacher had equipped me with a book called “simple cooking for students”, and not surprisingly, the book began with introducing spaghetti with tomato sauce, building on the readily available instant sauces and teaching basic pasta boiling skills. Do you think it’s possible to mess that up? Yes, it is - burning pots into charred ruins, turning innocent kitchens into slaughterhouse look-a-likes with spilled sauce everywhere and boiling spaghetti into willingless, limp strands of sadness...

And then, still in my first semester, I met Angelo, whose Italian father brought him containers of frozen home-made tomato sauce whenever he visited. My original reaction was to simply laugh about the absurdity of it, why would you go through all that trouble if a packaged version of the same stuff was readily available in any store next door? Angelo didn’t say anything, he just nodded knowingly, smirking to himself as if he was part to a secret that I had yet to unveil, and heated the sauce. I still remember the explosion of flavor, the sweetness of tomato and onion followed the zing of garlic and herbs, leaving behind an aftertaste of rich fruitiness in my mouth.

Since then, tomato sauce has been one of my kitchen staples, ranging from providing me with comfort in my ultimate feel-good dish, Spaghetti Napoli, accompanying vegetables or fish, to being the base for far more complex sauces. It makes me feel calm to always have a little stock available in my freezer, being ready for deployment wherever and whenever needed, and it is the basis of my food philosophy. If you have tomato sauce in your freezer, instead of pizza delivery or Chinese take out, something home made and whole is going to become you go to dish.

I begin with sauteing onions in oil, allowing them to slowly become translucent for a couple of minutes. Then comes the garlic, more or less directly followed by the Italian parsley. The carrots and celery don’t have to be cut too small because everything is going to be pureed in the end anyways, making life easier. While this mix is sauteing on medium heat, it’s a good idea to open the bottle of wine and pour yourself a glass, and once you have finished your first sip, it’s usually time to add a generous amount to the pot to soften the vegetables. If I make tomato sauce, I prefer using white wine, which gives the sauce a somewhat lighter character; however if used as the basis of meat sauce like a Bolognese, red wine gives it a darker and fuller color and taste.

Now finally comes the grand entrance of the tomatoes which are stirred in and then I let the sauce simmer, the longer the better, but a minimum of 30 minutes, for all the ingredients to fully develop their flavor. Whenever I can’t wait any longer, I puree it all and then finally, toss some of the sauce with spaghetti and decorate with fresh basil, while knowing that the rest is going to get me through the coming weeks and to lighten up some tired and inspired evenings with delicious, home made and really fast food. The possibilities how to deploy tomato sauce in your kitchen are endless.

Life is good!

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