How Do Some of My Favorite Chefs Prepare Their Basic Tomato Sauces?
It’s summer time and my vines are full of mouthwatering tomatoes. This year we have beefsteak, heirloom, cherry and plum tomatoes and they are ripening faster than we can pick them.
Of course there are too many of these nightshade delights than we can use in Caprese Salads or Tuscan Bread Salads so it’s time for making homemade tomato sauce like the recipe I have for Basic Tomato Sauce. I also thought I it would be fun to look at how a few of my favorite celebrity chefs make their basic tomato sauces.
I pulled down four fantastic cookbooks from the shelves and researched how Marc Vetri, Patricia Wells, Marcella Hazan and Lidia Matticchio Bastianich prepare homemade tomato sauce from scratch.
I’m talking about a basic sauce without a lot of ingredients. Think of a base sauce that can be used to create other classic tomato based sauces or by itself, all alone on top of a serving of pasta.
Before I started looking at their recipes, I figured they would all be pretty much the same recipe and they were similar but there were many subtle differences as you’ll see below.
One of my favorite Philadelphia chefs! Marc spent time in Bergamo, Italy working and learning how to cook Italian food. Here is his version of a basic tomato sauce from his cookbook, il viaggio di Vetri.
Chef Marc Vetri's Basic Tomato Sauce
- Heat up oil in a saucepan over medium heat and when hot, add the onion and sauté for about 4 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cook for an additional 1 minute.
- Add the tomatoes with any juices and crush them lightly.
- Bring the sauce to a simmer, reduce heat to low and continue simmering for 45 minutes or until the tomatoes fall apart.
Very similar to Chef Vetri’s tomato sauce except in her cookbook, Trattoria, she adds a bouquet garni or a bundle of herbs tied together to enhance the flavor of the sauce and more garlic. I would call this a marinara sauce rather than a tomato sauce.
Patricia Wells Tomato Sauce
- Tie the fresh parsley, bay leaves and celery leaves in a bundle with cotton twine.
- Chef Wells starts in an unheated saucepan and adds the oil, onion, garlic and salt and stirs to coat with oil. Over moderate heat, she cooks these ingredients until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- If using whole canned tomatoes, first puree them using a food mill. If you don’t have a food mill, I guess you could try using a blender or food processor. Same would be true if you are using fresh tomatoes. If using the crushed tomatoes, they can be added directly from the can.
- Add the bundle of herbs, stir and simmer uncovered until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes.
- Remove the herb bundle, taste and adjust seasoning with salt.
In the great Marcella Hazan’s, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I learned some great tips on preparing a simple tomato sauce, but hers’ was the first one I came across for preparing fresh tomatoes for the sauce.
First the Tips
- “Never cook a sauce in a covered pan, or it will emerge with a bland, steamed, weakly formulated taste.” Her reasoning has to do with evaporation, which “concentrates and clearly defines their flavor.” I guess this rules out a lot of crock-pot tomato sauce recipes.
- “Always taste a sauce before tossing the pasta with it. If it seems barely salty enough on its own, it’s not salty enough for the pasta.”
- If fresh, fully ripened plum tomatoes are available use them. If not, “it is better to use canned imported Italian plum tomatoes.”
- Cooking times will vary on the amount of sauce you are making and the size and shape of the pot. A deep, narrow pot will take longer than a broad and shallow pan.
- You’ll know when it’s done by its density. You don’t want it too thick or too watery and “the tomato must lose its raw taste, without losing sweetness or freshness.”
- If a tomato sauce has butter as an ingredient, it’s important to “toss the pasta with an additional tablespoon of fresh butter; if it has olive oil, drizzle with raw olive oil while tossing.”
Preparing Fresh Tomatoes
According to Ms. Hazan, you must first prepare fresh tomatoes before using them to make a sauce. She offers two methods:
- Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for about a minute, drain them and as soon as you can handle them, remove their skins. I’ve learned years ago that if you score the skins with an X, they peel more easily.
- Cut the tomatoes length wise in half and put them into a covered saucepan. Cook them for 10 minutes over medium heat. Using a food mill and the disk with the largest holes, puree the tomatoes and their juices into a bowl.
Marsala Hazan’s simple tomato sauce differs from the first two because she uses butter instead of olive oil and doesn’t use garlic. She also cooks with two halves of an onion, but removes and discards them before tossing with pasta. Hmmm, I can’t wait to give this one a try.
- 2 pounds fresh tomatoes – make sure they are ripe and prepped as described above or 2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juices.
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
Put the tomatoes and their juice in a large saucepan, add the butter, onion and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered slowly for 45 minutes or “until the fat floats free from the tomato.”
Be sure to stir from time to time and crush any large pieces of tomato into small pieces with a spoon.
Taste and adjust seasoning with salt. Remove and discard the onion halves before tossing with pasta.
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
One of my favorite television celebrity chefs, Chef Lidia describes in her book, Lidia Cooks From The Heart OF Italy, the difference between a marinara sauce and a tomato sauce. I always though they were different names for the same thing but I am wrong.
According to Lidia, a marinara is a quick sauce, seasoned with only garlic, pepper and a little basil or oregano if desired. The tomatoes are left in chunks and the texture of the sauce is “fairly loose”.
A tomato sauce is way more complex and starts with pureed tomatoes that are seasoned with onion, carrot, celery and a bay leaf then simmered until thickened to the desire thickness. So let’s look at Lidia’s tomato sauce or salsa di pomodoro.
Lidia’s tomato sauce is similar to Marc Vetris’ and Patricia Wells’ except she substitutes carrot and celery for the garlic, uses bay leaves for flavoring and pepperoncino flakes to spice it up some. I’ve made this sauce many times and it’s one of my favorites.
- 3 pounds ripe, fresh plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded or one 35-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes, seeded and lightly crushed. Reserve liquids.
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- ¼ cup finely shredded peeled carrot
- ¼ cup finely chopped celery, with leaves
- 2 dried bay leaves
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Peperoncino (hot pepper) flakes, to taste.
Using a food mill, but this time fitted with the fine disk, pass the tomatoes and their juices through and into a bowl.
Heat a large “nonreactive” saucepot over medium heat, add oil and when hot, add the onion. Cook, stirring frequently until the onion is “wilted”, about 3 minutes.
Add the carrot and celery and continue cooking for about 10 minutes until the onion is golden brown.
Add the tomato pulp and the juices, the bay leaves and bring to a boil. As soon as the sauce reaches a boil, lower heat to a “lively simmer” and cook until the sauces thickens to desired thickness or about 45 minutes. Be sure to continue stirring throughout the entire process.
Before serving with pasta, remove the bay leaves, taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepperoncino pepper.
That’s It For Now
Which one you choose to try is a matter of personal preferences but I think I’ll try them all and see which one I enjoy the most. I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of variations for these basic tomato sauces depending on where you come from and fresh ingredients available.
I’ll be keeping my eye out for more variations from celebrity chefs and share them with you here or in another article down the road. In the meantime, please tell me your favorite celebrity chef basic tomato sauce recipe so I can check it out.