Sunday gravy, red sauce, marinara, ragù. These legendary sauces, all based upon the humble canned tomato, have the ability to elevate a box of pasta to the heights of culinary majesty.
Long-cooked sauces - like Sunday gravy, the touchstone of the Italian-American kitchen, or Bolognese ragù, the storied heart of the cooking of Emilia Romagna - require hours of diligent, though not difficult, work.
But tomato sauce does not have to be a big production. With a can of good tomatoes and 15 minutes, you can even make a sauce vastly superior to (and cheaper than) anything you can buy in a jar.
Here are four recipes, including one of many sent in by readers.
SUNDAY GRAVY FROM A READER
This classic Italian-American meat sauce was submitted to Newsday by reader Mickey Wolf (nee Michelina Crispo) of Farmingville, who learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother.
1/2 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 small onion, peeled but intact
1 (4-ounce) can tomato paste
4 ounces red wine
4 leaves fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (Wolf likes Tuttorosso)
2 pounds meatballs or Italian pork sausage, browned in a skillet
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat. Add garlic and onion and cook until golden brown. Remove and discard. Add tomato paste and stir into oil. Fill tomato-paste can with wine, swish it around to get excess paste, and pour into pot. Add basil, salt and pepper, turn heat up and stir until liquid has evaporated, about 2 minutes.
2. Add canned tomatoes to the pot, rinsing out each can with water and adding that water (about 2 cups) to the pot. Adjust heat so sauce simmers slowly, and cook, with the lid askew, stirring occasionally for an hour. Add browned meat and cook until sauce is thick and silky and meat is tender, an hour to 1 1/2 hours longer.
3. Serve sauce with pasta and place the meatballs or sausage on a separate platter. Makes enough sauce for 1 1/2 pounds pasta.
TOMATO SAUCE WITH ONION AND BUTTER
If you have some heavy cream around, this simple sauce, from Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Knopf, $35) can be gilded with a tablespoon or two. Serve the sauce with grated Parmesan.
1 (28-ounce) can peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed, with the juice
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, peeled and cut in half
1. Put all ingredients in a saucepan and cook, uncovered, at a slow but steady simmer, for 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomatoes.
2. Stir from time to time, mashing any large pieces of tomato in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon.
3. Taste and correct for salt.
4. Discard the onion before tossing sauce with pasta. Makes about 2 cups of sauce, enough for 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of pasta.
"Bolognese" has come to mean any tomato sauce with meat, but a true Bolognese - the way they make it in Bologna - is a very distinctive sauce in which chopped vegetables and meat are cooked gently, first in butter and oil, then in milk and then, finally, in tomatoes. Nothing is allowed to brown, and the result is incomparably sweet and rich. The classic use for this sauce is to top tagliatelle (or fettuccine). Make sure you finish the dish with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan.
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 carrots, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 ribs celery, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground chuck
1 pound ground veal (or another pound of beef)
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
2 cups whole milk
1 (28- or 35-ounce) can peeled tomatoes
1. Place butter, oil, carrots, celery, parsley, onion and 1 teaspoon salt in a large, heavy Dutch oven. Cover and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until fat begins to sizzle, then uncover and cook until vegetables soften, become translucent and lose some of their brightness. (Vegetables should not brown; you may have to turn heat down to low.)
2. Still over medium to low heat, add meat, another teaspoon of salt, a good grinding of pepper and nutmeg. With a large spoon, break up meat, smearing it against the bottom of the pot, so it's well integrated with the vegetables. Cook, stirring constantly, until meat loses all of its raw color and begins to look a bit granular, about 10 minutes. Add wine, turn heat up to medium high, and cook, stirring constantly, until wine is evaporated and the bottom of the pot looks almost dry, about 10 minutes.
3. Pour milk into pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly until the milk evaporates, about 45 minutes. Stir frequently - especially toward the end - and make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.
4. Add tomatoes, crushing them with your hands before adding them to the pot. Rinse out the tomato can with about a cup of water and add to pot. Turn down heat to a very low simmer; bubbles should only occasionally break the surface. Cook for 3 hours uncovered. Makes about 2 quarts.Click here for step-by-step photos for making ragu Bolognese
EXTREMELY QUICK TOMATO SAUCE
This is my go-to sauce. It can be completed in the time it takes to bring the pasta water to a boil and cook the pasta. The secret is cooking the sauce in a wide skillet. If desired, serve with grated Parmesan or, even better, pecorino Romano. -- Erica Marcus
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 sprig fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon of either, dried (optional)
1 (28-ounce) can peeled tomatoes
Salt and pepper
1. Film the bottom of a skillet with oil and add garlic and herbs, if using.
2. Turn heat to medium and cook until garlic just starts to color, but doesn't brown. Add tomatoes and a big pinch of salt.
3. Crush the tomatoes with a potato masher. Bring contents of pot to a brisk simmer and cook until thick.
4. Give the sauce a good grinding of pepper and taste for salt. Fish out the garlic and herbs before serving. Makes about 2 cups, enough for 1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta.
TIPS FOR BETTER SAUCE
BUY WHOLE TOMATOES
Even if I am planning to crush or puree them, I always buy whole tomatoes. I'm guessing that the best specimens are selected for the "whole" cans, while factory seconds can end up in the crushed or pureed cans.
Taste the contents of two cans side by side; there can be significant differences. I usually buy imported San Marzano tomatoes from Italy - whatever is on sale at the Italian grocer or pork store. (Uncle Guiseppe's and Fairway always have good selections, too.) I'm partial to La Bella San Marzano, but that's partly because the label is so pretty.
DON'T OVERDO THE GARLIC
Unless I'm trying to ward off vampires, I just saute a few cloves of peeled and halved garlic in oil, add the tomatoes just as they begin to color, then fish out the cloves when the sauce is done. (I also have a thing against using both garlic and onion in the same sauce, but that's just me.)
LONG COOKING IS NOT NECESSARY
If you have meat in your sauce, you will need at least an hour (and maybe longer) to extract its flavor and make it silky, but if it's a meatless sauce, 45 minutes should suffice. There's no reason to add water to a tomato-only sauce. You'll only have to simmer the sauce longer to reduce it. Meanwhile, the fresh taste of the tomatoes will simmer away.
COOK THE PASTA AND SAUCE TOGETHER IN THE POT
Here's the way pasta is finished in Italy (as anyone who has watched "Lidia's Italy" on TV knows): Place the minimum amount of sauce you'll need in a wide skillet (it might be the skillet in which you cooked it), then add the pasta. You can transfer spaghetti directly from the cooking pot with tongs, macaroni with a wire strainer. Over high heat, toss pasta and sauce together, adding a little pasta-cooking water if you need to loosen the sauce. Remove from heat and add grated cheese.