Comfort food is a simple pleasure that we all enjoy. Eating when you feel sad, stressed or even just happy and cozy can be therapeutic. Comfort food may sound unhealthy but it doesn’t need to be that way, there are healthy things to eat that will brighten your day. A tomato sauce recipe may hit the spot.
Food in Italy is practically a religion. It seems like any conversation that I overhear in Italy is about food. It may start on politics or religion or any topic, but it always ends on food. I have seen tough-looking men at country bars who seem to be on the verge of a fight….who are simply debating cooking techniques.
Today I am making, the ultimate comfort food, tomato sauce recipe from the tomatoes left over from my garden. The garden is pretty sad and brown now, but I picked a big bowl of green ones a week or two ago that are ready to cook. I grow the San Marzano variety of sauce tomato, or maybe I should say that this is the type of tomato that my garden has decided to grow. I planted six big starts of other varieties in April which all quickly died, but were later replaced by volunteers from San Marzano plants of the previous years. It’s all good, my garden’s natural tendency towards the authentic Italian variety makes me feel like the soil has adapted to my mezza-Italiana soul.
Did you know that tomatoes have not always been a part of Italian cooking? They came back from the Americas in the 16th century, possibly even as part of the finds from Christopher Colombus (who was an Italian, by the way). The Italian word is pomodoro, that roughly translates into “apple of gold” which makes some speculate that the first plants to arrive were actually tomatillos. The plants went first to Spain, but were brought to Spanish-controlled Naples where they thrived. Even today, true regional Italian cuisine doesn’t feature lots of tomatoes unless it’s from Naples or south. If you’re interested in the history of the tomato, you can find a good book on it here.
Tomato sauce is a basic comfort food staple in Italian cooking today and every single Italian thinks that they have the best tomato sauce recipe. The best recipe is always their mother’s recipe. And what is in that recipe? A little of this, a handful of that, as much as you wish of these other things. And something else, which they will never reveal to you. It’s absolutely infuriating trying to get a recipe out of an Italian cook. Nothing is ever written down and measurements, well, thats just not how Italy rolls in general. It’s a country of pirates, really, like in Pirates of the Caribbean, they don’t really do rules but rather “guidelines”.
I hate to tell you this, but that’s how I cook now too. I learned to cook from my amazing architecture professor, Astra Zarina. She showed me how to eyeball things and how to use what you have on hand, also how to reinvent things that are left over. My recipes are written to reflect how I’m programmed, that cooking is an art rather than science.
I’ve developed my own recipe, based on the excellent writing of Marcella Hazan, a goddess of Cucina Italiana. Her sauce is outrageously simple, and I’ve simplified it more because I’m really quite lazy. I don’t like peeling and seeding tomatoes, so I just dump the lot into the pot and then use my immersion blender to puree it all together. I justify this horrible act by thinking that the seeds and peel are probably nutritious. Don’t tell the Italians, though. They won’t let me come back if you do.
I also don’t cook the sauce for hours and hours, which some consider against the laws of nature. I like a bright, fresh sauce and learned from an Italian chef that keeping the cooking time short will provide a fresh flavor. It works. Did I mention that I’m also impatient?
I recently took one of my tour groups for a wonderful dinner in Rome where we had the best Amatriciana sauce (tomato and bacon) I’d ever eaten. I ordered the sauce partly because I love it but partly because it is from that town that was recently destroyed in an earthquake, Amatrice. Many restaurants were donating to the victims if your ordered that sauce. The variation I had was a tomato sauce with paprika and slivered bacon on top, rather than cooked in the sauce. That presentation kept it crispy and delicious. I’ve included that deviation in the recipe.
If you have any tomatoes left in the garden, make this now. Extra tomatoes can be stored whole in the freezer to make this sauce later. For those without a garden, canned whole tomatoes will work. The expensive San Marzano ones would be a nice splurge.
Sarah’s Lazy Tomato Sauce Recipe
Based on Marcella Hazan’s classic recipe which can be found here.
Extra virgin olive oil
Large Onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, smashed with the side of a knife
A pot full of fresh sauce tomatoes, such as Roma or San Marzano (more or less 5 cups roughly chopped)
Half a stick of butter
Dump some olive oil in the pot and heat to medium high. Toss in garlic and onions and sautee until fragrant but not brown. Add tomato and butter. Cook on medium-low until tomatoes start to disintegrate, about 45 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Can also be pureed in a blender or Cuisinart, but that’s too much clean-up, IMHO. Add salt to taste. Toss with your favorite pasta shape. Cheese on top is optional but by no means will you use the cheese from the green can, it isn’t cheese.
Add 1 TBSP good quality sweet paprika to the sauce when you add the butter. Sliver 6 pieces of bacon and fry. Mix 1/2 cup grated REAL Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano into the sauce, toss with your favorite pasta shape and top with fried bacon slivers.