Growing up, my mom did nearly all of the cooking, but once in a while we'd get treated to a meal made by Dad. (Who should really cook more often, because he's pretty good at it.) Through some kind of magical Dad-in-the-kitchen osmosis, I have learned to make excellent burgers, meatloaf, and anything even remotely Italian. [It should be noted that as far as I know, there is no Italian blood in our family whatsoever.] If you ask, my Dad will tell you that he just memorized the recipes from The Joy of Cooking, but I am certain he added his own little twists. As do I, in my grown-up kitchen. Anyway, on these special days, I'd watch him put this and that into a big pot and then smell it simmering for hours and hours, at the end of which was a tasty pan of lasagna or dish of spaghetti and meatballs. (We'll talk about meatballs, meatloaf, and burgers some other time.)
Friends, it's time to let you in on the secret to great pasta/pizza sauce. Are you ready? Here it is:
Taste, taste, and then taste some more.
Your taste buds are the single most important tool you have, and you will need them to make great sauce. I'll tell you how I make mine in a minute, but first I'll say this: next time you pick up a jar of your favorite pasta sauce at the grocery store, turn it over and read the ingredients. Minus the things you can't pronounce and nasty things like high fructose corn syrup, this is what you're gonna want to put in your home made sauce. I can't give you anything more than approximate amounts because I never measure anything when I make sauce. I just keep checking until it smells right, and then I taste it to make sure. That said, here's my basic recipe.
What You Need:
big can of crushed tomatoes (I use the large, 28.something size)
1 or 2 actual tomatoes, your favorite variety, garden fresh if you can get 'em
a few cloves of garlic
generous handful of fresh parsley
small handfuls of basil, oregano, and thyme
a small onion or half of a large one (I like the big yellow Spanish onions, or use a Vidalia if you prefer a sweeter sauce)
salt and pepper to taste
a healthy pinch of sugar
How to Make It:
1. Put everything into a large sauce pot over medium-high heat until it starts bubbling and spurting. Turn the heat down a little so it's not making a Pollack masterpiece on your stove top, and let it cook for a few minutes. Taste and add whatever additional spice it needs. [Or revel in the perfection of correctly-guessed amounts.] Reduce heat to low and simmer for as long as you like. Continue tasting and adjusting until you like the flavor.
Really, it's that simple.
Here are some extra tips:
- I have been known to cook up the whole sauce, including a very, very short simmer time while making the pasta it's going over. The longer simmer really gets the herb flavors into the tomatoes, but if you're in a hurry, a quick and chunky sauce can be done in about 20 minutes and still tastes better than the jar.
- To quickly peel garlic, smash the cloves with the flat side of your knife. The peels will split and you can pull them off really fast without getting too much garlic under your fingernails. If you smash with extra force, you will also mush the garlic itself, which make the mincing easier. Your choice of traditional mincing with a knife or putting them through a garlic press. I'm a knife girl myself, largely because I never owned a garlic press until I met Julia, and because I hate cleaning them!
- The longer you simmer, the more your tomatoes will break down. I usually do about a 1/2" dice, which turns them to sauce pretty fast. For me, it's not about the sauce texture so much as it's about having the flavor of fresh tomatoes in with the canned. If you want to be super-authentic about it, you can skip the canned altogether and increase the amount of tomatoes. Just remember the volume will be reduced as it cooks, so you need more than you think.
- Put all the herbs in one big pile on your cutting board and chop them all at the same time. A bigger pile of leafy greens is easier for the knife to go through, at least in my experience. I like to start at one end of the board and chop my way to the other, which flattens out the pile as I go. Then I use the edge of the knife to re-pile it, and go at it again from a different direction. (Rotate the cutting board if, like I do, you have trouble cutting from more than one direction.)
- Unless you enjoy eating big chunks of onion, dice yours pretty small (1/4" is how I like them). They will not shrink or dissolve as they cook.
- The technical measurement for a pinch is generally agreed to be 1/8 teaspoon, but I really do stick my hand in the sugar jar and pinch. Like in the olden days, when we churned our own butter.
- My Dad always added ground beef to his sauce for a meaty marinara. You could do that, or you could add mushrooms, peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, or whatever you like into your sauce. Don't be afraid to experiment - cooking is an adventure*!
*Not to be confused with baking, which is a hard science.