Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Long Post about an Easy Tomato Sauce

A few weeks ago, I read about this simple tomato sauce that Marcella Hazan liked to make. You can find raves about this sauce all over the Web. It is so easy that I've made it four times recently, and always with good results. You don't need many ingredients or any cooking talent, and you don't have to fuss over it, aside from an occasional stir.

You need:
     a 28-ounce can of tomatoes (whole-peeled or crushed, you choose)
     an onion (yellow, medium size)
     5 tablespoons of butter (salted or unsalted, depending on which camp you're in)

You peel the onion, cut it in half, and stick it in a pot with the tomatoes and butter. Simmer slowly uncovered on low heat for 35 to 45 minutes (or more) depending on how thick you like your sauce. I like mine on the thin side. Then add salt to taste. When you see butter floating on top, it's done. You can take out the onion halves and eat them, toss them, or use them for something else.

I told you it was simple. You probably have the ingredients in your kitchen right now.

The only complicated thing about this recipe is buying the tomatoes. You can get San Marzano tomatoes from Italy or the US, and they will be good.. or maybe not so good. They have a sterling reputation but I've had some anemic-looking ones. Or you can get the Muir Glen brand, which is organic and BPA-free. I'll probably use those from now on, since we'll be eating a lot of canned tomatoes going forward. If you can find tomatoes in a glass jar, use those. I've always felt that acidic tomatoes don't belong in metal cans.

Update: An astute reader sent me a comment (below) about whole tomatoes packed in cartons, including the Pomi brand. They're minimally processed and probably our best bet until the bottled ones appear at the farmers' markets months from now.

Some people swear by whole tomatoes, saying they are processed less and therefore taste better than the crushed or diced ones. You can crush them yourself in the can with a knife or scissors, or break them up with your hand, or just see how much they soften and fall apart as you cook them.

Crushed tomatoes are fine for lazy people who don't like to play with food. Often, that's me.

I could have taken a photo of my sauce but it looks, you know, like a pot of tomato sauce. Imagine a beautifully styled photo of a stainless pot full of red sauce, with two onion halves mostly submerged, and a few buttery slicks on top, and there you are. This sauce is about taste, not looks.

Tomato sauce with butter is different from sauces made with olive oil. Its flavor strikes me as satisfyingly rich but also fresh and simple. The tomato flavor is enhanced, not hidden under lots of other flavorings, but the onion is definitely present (although it's very mild) and the butter adds a silky luxury you can taste in each mouthful. I hate raw onions and I'm not a big fan of cooked onions unless they've been caramelized until they are practically a dessert topping. But I love this sauce.

Since I've been making it, the bottled sauces I always used don't taste nearly as good. Bottled sauces are made with things like sugar that I don't want, which is why I tried this sauce in the first place.

The onion and butter add enough flavor so you don't need herbs, garlic, or wine. If you're rebellious, you can add them.

I have used this sauce with: A) spaghetti and meatballs (being lazy, we like the party-sized frozen meatballs from Trader Joe's), B) orrechiette* with turkey-chicken-pesto sausage and cheese, C) ravioli with salami, and D) penne with roasted mushrooms and parmesan. Whatever you decide to do with it, it's good. If there are already strong flavors in your dish, this sauce won't get in the way.

Those of you who've been around here for a while know I like to cook without recipes and that I rarely can stand to follow a recipe strictly. So, the last time I made this sauce, I diced the onion, added it to the melting butter, cooked it until the onion softened, and then added the tomatoes. The sauce tasted about the same, maybe a little more oniony, but still very mild. I may do that again since neither of us minded eating the onions... even though we hate onions. And it beats picking the onion (which falls apart) out of the pot and figuring out what to do with it.

One last thing: You cannot let your cats taste this sauce because of the onions, which are toxic. Cats look adorable with tomato sauce rings around their mouths. (My grandmother fed hers table scraps so I remember.) But this absolutely cannot happen if a sauce contains onions or garlic.

* Orrechiette always sticks together when I cook it. No matter what I do, they seem designed to nest with each other and then the nesting ones don't cook thoroughly. I am over orrechiette. I'll take seashells as a substitute any day.


  1. Wow, that sounds really good. So easy, I don't even need to write anything down. If you haven't, try the crushed tomatoes that come in cartons, like Pomi. They're only tomatoes - no citric acid, which is what ruins canned tomatoes, I think, even the good ones.

    1. Great idea, I'd forgotten all about them. Can't wait to try them! Thanks!

  2. I think I will try this. I am so over Ragu and Prego and others. Like you I like to tweek recipes. So, I may go wild and add some garlic to the sauce!! I do like easy and tasty recipes. Thank you for sharing. I will let you know how it goes.

  3. Well now I have to try this, but I like onion so I am sorely tempted to just chop that onion up and leave it in there.


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