Four – or more – Tomato Sauces

I sent an e-mail to the kids with a newly made up recipe for quick and easy tomato sauce for spahgetti. (I wrote this in January, so there were no fresh tomatoes around. In season, by all means, use fresh — seeded and peeled.) The e-mail exchange follows:

—–Original Message—–
From: Marcus Rector
Monday, January 24, 2000 3:13 PM

Dear ones —

I told Brian about this on the phone last night and he said, “So what makes it so special?”

“Well… its quick, easy and good… whaddayawant?”

I cooked this really good spaghetti sauce last night, and after eating, Carol said I should write it down.

I worked from my head, using the principles of James Beard’s Lite Spaghetti Sauce and The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook’s Tuscan Sugo, both of which I like very much. But the former has little complexity and the latter is a little too vegetabley.

1 onion, sliced thin, the slices then cut in half. (I find that the thin sliced rings when sauteed get tangled and bunched… so I cut ’em in half.)
1 stalk of celery or less finely chopped
1 small carrot finely chopped
1t or so of chopped garlic (from a jar is ok)
2t or less of pesto (from a jar is ok)
Saute this stuff in olive oil to soften and meld the flavors. Longer rather than hotter.

Some ground meat. (When Carol cooks hamburgers, she always has a small pattie left over, which she wraps in plastic wrap and puts in the freezer. She does likewise with loose sausage.) I used two of these… maybe 1/4 pound.

Push the vegetables off to the side of the skillet and brown and break up the meat in the middle. Then mix everything up and add some vermouth or leftover wine… red or white, about a half cup. Cook down until just moist, almost dry.

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes (or whole or chopped or whatever)

1 14 oz can stewed tomatoes (or whatever again… I used S&W Diced w/Jalapeno)

Add the tomatoes and cook at a simmer until nice & thick.

Meanwhile cook your pasta of choice. I like thin spaghetti.

Just when you turn off the heat, stir in 1 or 2T butter (that’s Beard talkin’) to finish (or good olive oil).

EAT. Save the leftover for whatever… more spaghetti, over an omlet, over a cutlet…

From: “Eric Rector” in Monroe ME

This sounds good (but quite saturated with animal fat?). We will try this though, since Alison thinks we’re going to have trouble eating our way through the canned tomatoes from last summer (70 quarts); I think we’ll run out before the first ripe tomato arrives in our garden.

Our typical sauce (which I think I’ve promoted ad nauseum by now) is olive oil and garlic… heat together in a wide flat pan, add a quart of home canned organic Grandma Mary’s Paste (variety) tomatoes before the garlic browns, add some more garlic to the tomatoes, simmer while you cook your pasta, and it’s so easy and so good.

However, I recently made a batch of Mom’s classic Sicilian tomato sauce, which is exactly the opposite, and it reminded me that tomato molecules fundamentally change after around four to six hours of low simmering heat. I suppose it’s oxidation (Brian?), but that fresh, bright, but sometimes “flat” tomato taste changes into a deep sweet burned tart complex red flavor. Fresh sauces are good, especially when they can be so fast, but I find that the flat tomato flavor can predominate, and occasionally I lose the nuances, which bugs me. This Sicilian sauce (Mom usually made it with pork chops), adds a “yang”-ness to the tomato flavor, pulling back the curtain on the darker side of the Love Apple’s nature.

I’ve misplaced the recipe she wrote down for me when I went to Duke; but it’s so simple, and I’ve done it so much, that it’s like walking up the stairs. (When I lived in a house off-campus at Duke, I think I made this at least once every two weeks, treating my housemates to a free dinner; we normally didn’t share meals.)

I took four big cans of whole canned tomatoes, two regular cans of sauce, and one little can of paste. Cooked the tomatoes with onions and carrots (the carrots add sugar), and added a few of our “country-style” sausages after browning them first.

We ate the sauce with bowls of thick ropy fresh fettuccini, and I froze two quarts of the rest (Alison made a kind of lasagna with the rest). It goes really good with our Baux-Provence house red from Mas Gourgonier.


From: “Dr. Brian Rector” in Tifton GA

Here’s my two cents and it’s not much more than that.

I rarely make pasta sauce b/c I’m tired when I get home, I don’t get to cook as much as I’d like, and I don’t keep pasta around b/c it packs on pounds, especially on us sedentary science types. When I do get the opportunity to really cook (twice a month, max) I usually try something a little more adventurous than pasta sauce.

Nevertheless, I never say “Never,” so I hold out hope that someday I’ll actually use all of the many cookbooks I’ve acquired, including the humbly titled “The Pasta Book” by Fred Plotkin (yes, Plotkin).

Apparently he was a behind the scenes guy at the Met (that’s Opera, not Museum) who was infatuated with all things Italian (certainly all things edible). He gathered his recipes diligently, from tenors and whores (among others), and wrote a pretty decent book which I particularly admire for its cross-referencing. I used it a fair amount back in the day and there’s an extra quick sauce (okay, it’s already way more than two cents and I’m finally to the antecedent) that I used to cook for lunch at Clear Flour.

This one is so quick that you put the water on first, then do the sauce:

Heat 1T butter + 1t olive oil and throw in a crushed clove or two of garlic. Swirl hurriedly over a furious fire. Grind black pepper over the pan with frantic gesticulations, to taste. Splash a jigger of old, dry wine (white) (eyeball if jigger unavailable — don’t get too happy) and simmer about 30 seconds while you put the pasta (angel hair cooks fastest) in the water. Add enough tomato paste to achieve a slightly pasty consistency, or whatever suits you (I was born pasty and I can’t hide from that). Throw in another T of butter in order to deceive the flavors into subconsciously ‘melding’ (the infamous “Vulcan [or other brand of stove] butter meld”). Drain the pasta quickly, with little regard for the mysterious burning power of steam, and toss on the sauce, hoss.

Scarf immediately with a couple quaffs of red wine (if the bosses aren’t around). Belch loudly from the diaphram and get back to work.

This one is handy if you’ve got half an hour for lunch and don’t have any leftovers on hand or you don’t have enough leftovers to make a meal (of course you are at liberty to throw what you do have into the sauce, altho corned beef hash is a questionable choice) (dad). The important thing is that nothing you add is uncooked unless it takes less than a minute to cook (e.g. the garlic and the paste).

That is all.

Eric: I don’t know what tomatoes do under long slow heat; that’s why I got you that particular cookbook for Xmas. My guess would be that they do something more akin to caramelizing, like onions. I think oxidizing is a bad thing that happens to tomatoes when they’re canned and gives them a tinny taste.

gotta go,


3 thoughts on “Four – or more – Tomato Sauces

  1. My red sauce is similar to Eric’s, though I start by sautéing sliced or roughly chopped sweet onions and garlic in olive oil, then ‘frying’ the tomato paste with the veggie combo. This step, according to my Italian pals in Redding, CT, adds that smoky flavor to the final product. I use whole tomatos, either fresh in the summer or canned in the winter, and then crush them by hand, giving the final product some texture. (This step was eschewed by the aforementioned Reddingites – they insisted on a smoother final product.) Then the tomato sauce which adds the necessary thickness. Add a bit of a good ‘big’ red wine for another flavoring layer and cook for a long time with meatballs and/or a mixture of sweet and hot Italian sausage (sorry for adding the animal fat, Eric) and eat over your favorite pasta or use to make lasagna.

    Freeze the leftovers three cups or so to a heavy duty quart-sized Ziploc (I make a lot when I make it). Great for hurry-up meals down the road.


  2. As a former Rector I have enjoyed catching up with what is going on with you on your “foodie” blog. Just as you described there are two schools of thought on the tomato sauce. Mine tends to be similar to Wendell’s although I’ve been know to revise it from time to time. More recently I found this recipe for Sicilian meatballs that is out of this world! I now tweak my sauce to add Marsala when I am ambitious enough to make the meatballs.
    Sicilian Meatballs:

    4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil ?
    1 finely minced onion ?
    1/2 cup dry white wine ?
    ¼ c sweet Marsala wine ?
    1 small bay leaf ?
    1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper ?
    1 teaspoon salt ?
    1 ½ pound ground beef?
    4 pieces of smoky bacon chopped
    1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten ?
    1 cup bread crumbs,
    ¼ pound grated Romano cheese ?
    1 c chopped fresh parsley ?
    ½ c chopped fresh basil ?

    Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in small nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add onions and cook until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add wine, Masala, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Heat to a boil, then simmer until most of liquid evaporates, 9 to 10 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Transfer to a plate and refrigerate until cold. Gently but thoroughly combine ground beef, chilled onion mixture, egg, bread crumbs, cheese, parsley and chopped basil. Form into meatballs. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to several hours. Sauté chopped bacon until fat is rendered and bacon crisp and remove. Sauté meatballs in the bacon fat until cooked through and remove.


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