Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tomato Sauce

I don't think I could ever get tired of eating spaghetti with tomato sauce. Whenever my culinary inventiveness has spent itself and I just want something easy and tasty, I stir up some of this sauce, sauté a few vegetables, throw it onto my spaghetti and voila - dinner!

There are a lot of different variations of this out there - some have you add carrots and celery, others a pinch of sugar, some require that you peel and seed your tomatoes, others that you just peel them, others don't require either of these steps, and so on and so on. My own way of making tomato sauce is pretty simple - just tomatoes, olive oil, onion, and maybe a little salt, but of course if you want to add carrots, celery, or anything else, go right ahead!

Though my ingredient list is pretty sparse, I do like to peel and seed my tomatoes. While this is a bit more time-consuming and messier than just chopping them up and throwing them in the pot, I prefer the smoother, pulpier consistency this gives the sauce. I have also heard that the seeds make the sauce more acidic, although I haven't done any in-depth testing to discover whether this is true or not. One tip I received for making tomato sauces less acidic is to add a pinch of sugar and then a pinch of salt, so if you do decide to leave the seeds in, you could try that and see if it helps.

But anyways, for the sauce...
You will need:
Lots of tomatoes (I use about 5 medium San Marzano tomatoes per serving of pasta)
1 yellow onion
Olive oil
A pinch of salt (and sometimes sugar too), if necessary

After much experimenting with different types of tomatoes, I have come to the conclusion that San Marzano tomatoes are far and away the best tomatoes for all sauce-making endeavors. Oddly, this is exactly what everyone else had already concluded ages ago, but of course I had to do my own tests just to be sure! And yes, San Marzanos (San Marzani?) are the best; they are wonderfully pulpy and easy to deal with and they give the sauce a great flavor.

San Marzano tomatoes

I do realize that they may not be readily available in all places - I couldn't find them in any of my local supermarkets and only one of the three or four tomato vendors at my farmer's market sells them - but please please try to find some if at all possible. If there are absolutely no San Marzano tomatoes within 100 miles of your kitchen, my second-favorite type for sauces is Cuore di Bue (literally Oxheart), but these are also difficult to find in the States. I bought some heirloom tomatoes that resembled Cuore di Bue tomatoes and they worked pretty well, so you could try that, or if you really can't find any of those types, at least use cherry tomatoes. Whatever you do, do not use regular round tomatoes. Good for salads, bad for sauces.

But back to sauce-making:
In a large pot, bring some water to a boil. While you're waiting for the water to come to a boil, chop up an onion and set it aside. When the water starts to boil, throw the tomatoes in, and leave them there for a very short time (30 seconds or so) to make them easy to peel. Slicing a small 'x' into the peel at the bottom end of the tomato before you boil it makes the peel come off even more easily - just be sure not too slice too deeply or you'll also take off some of the pulp!

After 30 seconds, I pour the tomatoes into my colander and run some cold water over them. Although I suppose this method does waste some water and time as I have to refill and reheat my pot for cooking the spaghetti, it's easier than trying to fish out the tomatoes one by one, and I like to use the time when I'm reheating water for pasta to chop up the vegetables that I add to the tomato sauce at the end. If you're less wasteful than I am, or simply in a hurry to eat, you can go with the tomato-fishing method and then use the same water to cook your pasta, assuming you are making pasta.

Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and seed them. To seed them, I use what is known in technical terms as the 'skwuntching-out' method: I take a tomato, hold it over the sink, rip it open and skwuntch out all the juice and seeds. I then take whatever pulp there is (minus any bits of core naturally) and set it on one part of my cutting board. Repeat with all tomatoes until you have a lovely pile of pulp and a lovely red mess in your sink. One day I plan to find/invent a recipe that requires only the juice and seeds of the tomato so that I can actually use everything instead of having to waste so much, but I haven't quite gotten around to that yet...

Once the pulp is ready, heat up some olive oil in a small saucepan, and when it is hot, add your chopped-up onion. While the onion is sautéing, chop up the tomato pulp into smaller bits. Once the onion is soft and translucent, add the tomatoes, a bit of salt if you want (and sugar if you're afraid your tomatoes will be too acidic), cover the pot, and turn the heat to low. While your tomato sauce cooks, prepare your spaghetti, or whatever other pasta you want to use*, and then add the finished sauce along with some nice flakes of oregano, or grated parmesan, or both! While I usually sauté some peppers and zucchini and throw them in too, that's completely optional.

*A note about pairing pastas with different sauces/toppings:
I used to go about my life blithely unaware that it mattered at all which pasta went with which sauce. Months of living in Italy taught me just how backwards and wrong of me this was. Of course it matters which pasta goes with which sauce, just like it matters which belt goes with which shoes, and which pastry you eat on which holiday, and many many other things to which we non-Italians are completely ignorant. After poring over a fascinating book on the subject (700 pages all about pasta, how could I resist?) I discovered that, while the specific type of pasta is not too important, there is a very important difference between the more general type of pasta, that is, between long types of pasta (such as spaghetti, capellini, and linguine) and short types (fusilli, penne, farfalle, etc.). Basically, long types tend to absorb a lot of sauce, so they work best with lighter sauces like tomato sauce and no-sauce toppings like vegetables with a bit of olive oil, or clams. Shorter pastas are better for creamier or spicier sauces, hence the omnipresent penne all'arrabbiata and creamy dishes like farfalle con panna e piselli (i.e., peas and cream). Thus, you can happily substitute sedanini for rigatoni and you probably won't run into too many problems, but try it with tagliatelle and you're just asking for trouble.

I think there was also something about shell-pastas, but unfortunately, I don't remember what it said. Ah well, you can experiment and come up with your own pasta-pairing rules and then let me know!

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